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Mayombe: a classic of war literature



It may not be possible to talk about the literature of the armed war of liberation in Africa without mentioning that Angolan novel called Mayombe. It comes alongside other iconic novels of the war of liberation, like Harvest of Thorns and Echoing Silences. Mayombe is a novel which was written by one of the major Angolan writers of fiction, Pepetela, between 1970 and 1971 but published only in 1980. Pepetela fought with the MPLA’s guerrillas, becoming a crucial eyewitness of the difficulties which these guerrillas were facing. These difficulties include various tensions and conflicts in the liberation movement because the movement itself had people from all ethnic groups of Angola. They were united in fighting against the Portuguese but ethnic and ideological differences among the combatants caused many setbacks. This novel is still relevant across Africa today because virtually all Africa continues to experience sharp ethnic and ideological differences which push people from fighting for the common good of their nations. Like Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, Mayombe anticipated even the challenges of independent Africa. This novel is set in the Mayombe forest of Angola’s enclave province of Cabinda, among a group of guerilla fighters for the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) in the early 1970’s, and at Dolisie in the neighbouring Congo Republic, where the MPLA had a rear base and school. The MPLA had launched the armed struggle for national liberation after an unsuccessful attack, at dawn of 4 February 1961, on the prisons in Luanda, where nationalists were held by the International Police for the Defence of the State (PIDE) of colonial Portugal. The pivot to this novel is the quest to find the individual views of each of the key guerillas and find out how they feed into the collective struggle. The novel suggests that in all what we do in big groups, we tend to be driven by certain situations from our individual life. The baggages from the past either push us on or down. Our character comes from how we deal with these things. Although there are over a dozen guerillas who speak to us directly and indirectly in this novel, a selection of a few key characters will help us understand the thrust of this novel. Mayombe is one of those novels which are best understood through close characterisation. The characters in Mayombe show us unity and diversity during the struggle. Why does each fighter join the struggle? What ideas of the self and history does each fighter hold? What type of Angola does each fighter wants to bring along? What is the value of each fighter as the war goes on? What do the characters want? What does it mean to be Angolan? Comrade Theory is a guerilla of mixed blood. He has an African mother and a Portuguese father. In his life, he wants the medium line, what he calls the “Maybe” to be recognised. He says that when he was a child, he wanted to be white so that the whites would not call him black. Now, a grown man he wants to be black so that the blacks would not hate him. Theory adds, “My life is the task of showing to all and sundry that there is always room for maybe.” Clearly that is the real reason why he insists that he has to join the other guerillas on the coming contact even when he is injured. To agree to be asked to return to the rear, as far as he is concerned, would confirm to the other black guerillas that the men of mixed race, the Maybes, are weak! Theory thinks that in the struggle to liberate Angola, he is representing the race that is in between black and white. Theory joins the struggle on the MPLA, leaving behind his very beautiful wife, Manuela in Gabela. Although Theory has lots of formal education and has become a teacher at the Base, he volunteers to do guard duties like the rest, even when his position exempts him from the menial task. He sometimes volunteers for missions even against the Command’s wish. Comrade Fearless, the commander of the group of guerillas is referred to by Theory as “a veteran of war and of men.” He represents objective flexible and intelligent leadership. The guerillas called him Fearless because he had single handedly resisted an enemy unit, attacking a forward position and allowed time for the Base to be evacuated without casualties. Fearless understands that the war time ideas and promises that the movement is making to the people are just like church promises of heaven in that they are merely idealistic and romantic. Fearless constantly remembers how he had confronted the pretentious life of seminarians when he was a boy. He then got to the heart of his fears and found them empty when he had sex with a girl right there in the church annexe! Fearless gives crucial advice to Theory; control and overcome your fears and do not attach importance to what people say about you as an individual. Where the Commissar would advocate for the disciplinary law that says that Ungrateful’s crime of theft deserves death by shooting, Fearless asks for calm consideration. He argues that there have been worse crimes in the movement before for which none has been shot. His second point is there is currently a lot of indiscipline within the organization which has gone unpunished and that has caused indiscipline everywhere. His third point is Ungrateful is an experienced guerilla who has put a lot into the struggle so far. Fearless argues beyond the stiff rules and regulations of the movement. When the Commissar asks Fearless to help with his love affair with Ondine, Fearless thinks to himself that he would only understand the problem between the lovers if he were to sleep with Ondine! He thinks that some people can only be understood from inside during intimacy and that includes Ondine. Fearless thinks that a woman must be won constantly and that there must not be routine in matters of love and sex. Fearless predicts that independent Angola will have its challenges and that freeing Angola is not going to be an event. He thinks that liberation is going to be a process and that many would betray Angola after the war. Comrade Miracle’s narrations show that that he is stiff and extremely conscious of tribe. He represents leadership that is narrow-minded and selfish. That he is a Kimbundu, is something that comes first for him. Fellow Kimbundu guerillas like the Commissar and the Operations Chief always come first. In his view, Kimbundus cannot be wrong. They can only make little faults here and there. Ironically, he dislikes Struggle for what seems to be Struggle’s bias towards fellow Cabindas. Miracle thinks that his tribe should lead because they are the most advanced. He thinks that he has suffered more severely than all the other guerillas in the group because he has had first hand of 1961 when the tractor bulldozers of the Portuguese lopped off the heads of his people. The subsequent anger is his fuel and he develops an inherent dislike for bulldozers and tractors. As a result, Miracle is prepared to overlook his home boy, Ungrateful Tuga’s crime of theft. He makes a startling definition of tribalism when he says: “Intellectuals have an obsession that it is we, the peasants, who are tribalist. But they are as well. The problem is that there is tribalism and tribalism. There is legitimate tribalism when the tribe is defended as it deserves. It is what Lenin meant, when he spoke about just and unjust wars. One must always distinguish between just and unjust tribalism, and not speak haphazardly.” Comrade Struggle is best understood by the words: “But I don’t have a lot of politics in my head, I’m just a guerilla…I do not want to be much….” Struggle represents those in the war who do not have leading and academic ambitions. His current contribution to this struggle as a fighter is his sole aim. He says that and after the war, he wishes to become an ordinary man and even come back to Mayombe to hunt for game. He laughs at those who want to continue studying. His ambitions are pastoral. But to Comrade New World, study is crucial as it prepares people for a better life and for the good of the people. He thinks that guerillas must be selfless but should prepare to lead. New World has an ideal; those who fight must pursue the war up to independence-total war up to independence. But New World thinks that he is unselfish because he has read Marxist-Leninism that has shown him the limitations of individuals and egotists and that only the masses make history. He says he is a good example because he left a job that pays in Europe to join the struggle. He thinks that workers and peasants are unselfish and selfishness is the character of the bourgeoisie. He observes that intellectuals believe in selfishness because they are bourgeois. New World thinks that Fearless is dangerous to the struggle because he is bourgeois, anarchist and sadistic. Fearless however, tells New World that his belief in the unselfishness of men is merely an ideal because the facts of life show the opposite. Fearless says that there should be selfish purposes in whatever we do and that is human. Comrade Commissar represents dogmatic leadership, those who follow the rules to the letter. To the Commissar, the war comes first. For instance, his girl friend, Ondine, is not the first person he rushes to see when he gets to the rear at Dolisie. When the Commissar eventually gets to see Ondine, he cannot relax and give himself to her. In between the sex with Ondine, the Commissar continues to think about the war. He is not properly schooled in matters of love and sex. He is used to prostitutes and to sex without love. It is Ondine who provokes the Commissar to sex when they have it for the first time. He is inherently scared of intimacy. Since he is unskilled at sex and is used to suppressing his own passions, Ondine is not satisfied with his performance. When she is with him, she actually has nostalgia for her older sex experience with other men who used to give her sexual pleasure. Fearless thinks he sees separate people whenever the Commissar and Ondine are together. When Fearless tells him that a woman must be won sexually, the Commissar actually asks for a formula! But Fearless tells the Commissar that formula, like Marxism or Maoism, is a rough guide that needs some flesh. To that, the Commissar says, “very complicated!” When the Commissar learns that Ondine was cheating him with Andre, he becomes wild. He rapes Ondine out of desperation. In the process, he is shouting to her, “I am going to show you that you care for me!” Comrade Muatianvua represents universalism and broad minded leadership skills that are accrued from wide travel and experience. He says, “I was born in the midst of diamonds without seeing them… “I sailed the sea for years, from North to South, to Namibia, where the desert joins the sand on the beach, as far as Gabon and Ghana, and to Senegal…in every port I had a wife, in every port I had a row…where I was born there were men of all tongues…now they want me to be tribalist! From what tribe, if I am all tribes, not only of Angola, but of Africa too? Do I not speak Swahili, did I not learn Hausa like a Nigerian? What is my language, I, who do not say a sentence without using words from different languages?” he is detribalized and dreams of a united Angola in which all people live together. Mayombe was first published in African Writers Series in 1983 and was translated from the Portuguese by Michael Wolfers. Pepetela, whose real name is Artur Carlos Maurício Pestana dos Santos, was born in 1941 in a Portuguese Angolan family. His other novel is called Yaka. Memory Chirere

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