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A New Angle on Angola

Picture the scene.

Benguela, Angola on a stiflingly hot Saturday morning in October. It’s 10 o’clock and Josera and I are tramping through the dusty, sun-bleached streets with a detectable sense of purpose. Past the crowds of students spilling loudly into the ramshackle school, past the pigs sifting hopefully through huge piles of rotting garbage, past the buyers and the sellers from the townships that sit or stand by the roadside shouting out their ever-changing prices to half-interested passers-by.

The shops have just opened – a small cluster of Creole-run stores that sell the same limited selection of goods for the same ridiculous prices – whilst outside the police headquarters a bored-looking guard in a faded blue uniform sits down and begins to nonchantly clean his gun. He’s been sweating heavily in the morning sun – a ferocious, equatorial sun, that hits you like heat escaping from the open door of an oven. It can drive people mad, they say – like the dogs, who keep up a constant chorus of barking all day long. I glance up and down the fly-blown street. It is full of idlers shuffling slowly about their business. Nobody’s going anywhere in particular. Probably because there is nowhere to go. Drive thirty kilometers out of this city in any direction and you’re effectively in bandit country.

I can’t remember who came up with the idea to go in the first place – to get the train from Benguela to Lobito for what, we guiltily hoped, would be a short respite from the prison-like stress of living in a war zone. Under normal conditions I would have shunned such notorious risks, but in Angola and without any other viable forms of transport it seemed to be the most appealing option. Further north the fighting was going through one of its brief and periodic lulls. The coast was apparently clear. We determined to take our chances and ride our luck. Not that “luck” is an oft-used word in Angola.

The locals were quite supportive in the circumstances. Lobito, they informed us, was good for two reasons. Firstly it has a pristine, white sandy beach untouched by any tourist since the 1970s. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, the one and a half hour train journey that one must make to get there is – legend has it – like something out of an Indiana Jones movie. It all starts with the mad rush for tickets. The doors of the station office open early and a mixed assortment of desperate locals clambour for the ticket counter inside where a man in a bare cubicle writes out their destination illegibly onto small individual stubs of paper. We get swept half-willingly inside by the crush. The atmosphere in the place is far from orderly. Rather, buying a ticket seems to be a more like a matter of life or death for these people. Elbows brush against my face and bad smells linger over the mass of unwashed human bodies. Quite quickly I realise that I am not really equipped to cope with this. I exchange a couple of empathetic glances with Josera and hastily we wedge our bodies painfully over towards the door. In my less than rudimentary Portuguese I chat briefly to a station guard and we chance our luck with a ten kwanza bribe. As if by magic, the door opens.

We’re travelling in old cattle trucks. Big hollow things with no seating and large open doors. I settle down on the floor with my legs hanging out over the side harbouring the expectant notion that something cinematic is just about to happen. The train isn’t particularly crowded at first. It’s only when it starts moving that scores of street kids appear running out of nowhere and try to jump onto the moving carriage. These children are ubiquitous in Angola. They walk around with bare feet, dress mainly in rags and, although not obviously malnourished, carry an instinctive look of hunger etched upon their faces. Boisterously the children jockey for position outside and make increasingly death-defying leaps to get on board. It is clearly some kind of life-risking weekend entertainment and, as the train picks up speed, Josera and I have to literally haul half of them inside. I get one by the arm of his shirt. It’s an English replica football top. In some former life it probably belonged to a little Arsenal fanatic in North London, but it’s barely recognisable now. Another child is dressed in a black bin-liner with holes for the arms and knots to tie it together at the front. Like a number of the more enterprising kids he’s carrying a rough shoe-shining kit under his arm in the hope of rustling up some spontaneous polishing business. Others try to sell you boiled sweets or boxes of matches. Still more just smile and hold out their grubby hands hopefully.

After about ten minutes we leave the town behind and start to pass through a thin coastal strip of palm groves and fertile fields which enliven the harsh, stony desert that characterises Angola’s western hinterland. The wreck of an aeroplane lies abandoned in a field nearby and the Atlantic ocean sparkles like a huge piece of crumpled-up tin-foil in the distance. The kids – once the thrill of the carriage-jumping has subsided – settle down to play a game of cards. They participate with the skill and dexterity of wisened old men. It’s a maturity that stands them in good stead. At the next station three soldiers enter the truck where we’re all now sitting crammed in like sardines. They’re kitted out with long knives, truncheons and AK47s which they wear slung diagonally across their chests. Mean and unsmiling, the soldiers walk around arrogantly checking tickets. Most of the fare-jumping kids haven’t got the two kwanzas fee necessary to pay. Before we know what’s happening the soldiers are lining them up inside the carriages and beating them. Four times each across the palm of the hand with the truncheon. They’re not pulling any punches either. Some of the kids bite their lips and try to look tough, others start crying pitifully. We stare open-mouthed and don’t know what to do. Never intervene – the security regulations have told us. It’s brutal!

The train chuggs slowly on from station to station and the carriages continue to get ever more crowded. A man with a withered leg, a girl with some strange skin disease, chickens, goats, women carrying heavy baskets full of maize on top of their heads. And gradually as we get nearer Lobito the boys all line up once again by the door ready to do their ludicrous train-jumping routine in reverse whilst the soldiers aren’t looking. It’s only now that I realise the true motive for their journey. Self-made entertainment in a war zone, travelling purely for the sake of it, hitting the trains with the sole purpose of performing stunts that even Indiana Jones would have been proud of. The older ones jump first and the the smaller ones predictably follow suit, until finally we’re down to the last brave little volunteer who can’t be much more than five years old. I observe him cautiously as he makes his last flying leap into thin air, falls awkwardly, keels over and rolls painfully down the embankment. It’s heart-wrenching to watch. Last thing I remember is his wide-eyed and surprised little face looking back up at me and breaking into a relieved and victorious grin before he ran off. “Boa sorte”, (Good luck) I shout as he disappears.

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