IN THE SHADOW OF ZION
13-14 July 2011
The first president of independent Angola was a Marxist poet, Augostinho Neto. The country pays lip service to its socialist roots and is now a petrodollar-fueled kleptocracy. The capital city, Luanda, is a post-apocalyptic nightmare of a modern city. It makes Nairobi look like Toronto. If you paid the right people off—assuming you could afford to bribe anyone in this dazzlingly expensive city—you could get away with anything; some people probably do. Westerners can’t safely go out at night and some neighborhoods are off-limits even in the day. Rapper 50 Cent was robbed of his gold chains here . . . while performing on-stage! Traffic is impossible. Pollution clouds the air. The roads are terrible. Tricked-out Land Cruisers and Porsches grind through the clogged streets. Dozens of skyscraper construction cranes jut against the skyline. Cargo ships and oil tankers wait at sea. A glass of Coke can cost $8.00 at a trendy beach spot. A room at a modest pension costs upwards of $200 a night.
If the signs of prosperity are everywhere, so too are the signs of poverty. Young men sniff glue in the streets. Slums reeking of sewage stretch for miles on the city’s outskirts. On the corner of Comandante Che Guevera Street and Lenin Avenue, a man collects discarded cans. Elsewhere I see residents selling used shoes, a medicine cabinet, belts, bootleg CDs, and even a fully inflated inflatable mattress.
As you can imagine, the Angolan National Archives are not a governmental priority. It’s amazing that anything survived the decades of brutal civil war at all. Materials are rarely organized or indexed, so I’m forced to randomly order boxes of materials relating to the region sought for Jewish colonization: Benguela. Some file boxes arrive with their contents charred or damaged by water. After nearly two days in the archives, I’ve come up with virtually nothing. Then Mike suggests I order Box 3992. Why? It was his college mailbox number. And there I find a list of workers who toiled to build the Benguela Railway, which featured prominently in proposals to create a “Portuguese Palestine” in Angola. A century ago the Jewish Territorial Organization’s expedition traveled along the railway, which Box 3992 taught me was built by men whose colonial overlords referred to them by such paternalistic names as Ruffian, Sea Breeze I and Sea Breeze II, Half-Dollar, Lost Boy, Cash Money, King George, Bottle Beer, Scissors, Frypan, and, simply, Black.
19 July 2011
The view along the Plateau is otherworldly. Baobabs rise from brown fields. Rocky escarpments soar upwards. Conical granite tors protrude from the plains in the distance like some kind of landscape imagined by Dr. Seuss. But reality is never far away. On the side of the road, red-and-black stripes painted on tree branches signal the presence of land mines. Burned-out hulls of armored vehicles and twisted field artillery testify to the cruel battles fought along this route.
We first spot the tracks of the Benguela Railway near Cubal, a town that sits not far from a marshy valley. Its streets are mostly deserted in the midday sun. Many of the houses are pockmarked with bullet holes. Wire and odd boards patch concrete walls that have fallen to rubble. The Cubal railway yard itself is strewn with trash and abandoned rail carriages. An old handcar—perhaps 100 years old—leans against what was once the terminal. The hand-painted, tiled floor of the waiting room gives some sign of Cubal’s lost colonial opulence. Mike shakes his head as we take in the scene. “Well,” he says, “it’s not Geneva.”
We follow the railway track in our 4x4 and several hours later reach Lépi, a collection of huts at the foot of massive granite outcroppings. Perched at the highest point of the railway, over 5,000 feet above sea level, Lépi affords a vantage over a valley that widens as it reaches north towards Huambo, our destination. The vast fields we cross on the way north are straw dry and the air is hazy from the smoke of wood fires. Still, the land looks to be fertile judging from the obvious signs of agriculture. Charcoal is sold on the side of the road. Cabbage grows in a few irrigated fields.
Huambo offers little sense of the pastoral, however. The city was the gateway to the most promising territory explored for Jewish settlement. But it’s also the gateway to the eastern plateau lands of Angola, what the Portuguese call cu de Judas—Judas’ asshole—the proverbial back-of-beyond. Huambo saw fierce house-to-house fighting in the 1990s and it has yet to recover. The roads are shattered by war. Concrete block slums are scarred by mortars. One apartment building lacks several stories of its corner tower. The apartments above are occupied though they tilt and threaten to collapse. Open sewers stink under the strong sun. I spot a few cripples, their legs likely lost to mines, hobbling through the streets on crutches. A full tapestry of horrors.
Bailundo & Waku-Kungo
20 July 2011
North-northeast of Huambo lies the stretch of land scientist J.W. Gregory recommended for colonization. Today it remains one of Angola’s most productive agricultural regions. Bananas and pineapples, which fetch $20 a piece in Luanda, are offered for sale. The locals practice slash-and-burn agriculture and now, in the dry season, flames flare up intermittently along the roadside to crackle and waft heat through the open windows of our dusty Land Rover.
We arrive in Bailundo where we are promptly called pula—“whitey”—when we ask for directions. Mike and I follow a dirt-track into an area of mud-brick homes. The road dead ends at a eucalyptus grove that houses an old Catholic mission, the same mission that Gregory visited in 1912. A teacher conducts class for his charges while leaning against his mud-splattered motorcycle. Two men and a boy drive four boney oxen in crude yokes onward with switches nearby. The teacher gestures and raises his voice, desperate not to let his students become distracted by the excitement of the oxen and the two pula at the edge of their open-air classroom. There’s not much to see even in the center of town except for a massive statue of King Ekuikui II, a nineteenth century warrior-king who resisted Portuguese colonial power and helped unite the tribes under his rule.
From Bailundo and the fertile lands that lie northeast of Huambo we detour to the northwest to search for an Israeli business venture we’ve heard about in the town of Waku-Kungo. There I meet Amir, a young Israeli who serves as a medic for Aldeia Nova—“New Village.” The joint Angolan-Israeli project aims to set up an agro-industrial community where locals will raise a variety of crops, chickens for egg production, and pigs. Amir explains that the Israelis are essentially setting up a moshav. When I tell him Waku-Kungo abutted the region proposed for a Jewish state, he wistfully tells me in Hebrew: “We [Israelis] often talk about how fertile this land is. I hope you’ll forgive the expression, but if you eat some corn here in the afternoon, shit it out at night, the next day you’ll return to find a stalk growing.”