Mayombe and Angola’s multiculturalism struggle

Apr 18, 2017
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By Gracious Madondo

“Mayombe” is regarded as one of Africa’s most compelling war narratives.

The chain of events captured in this book realistically epitomizes Angola’s liberation war struggle from the point of view of a direct participant of the war waged by People’s Movement for the liberation of Angola, (MPLA).

This is a text that was to depict guerilla fighters as thinking combatants and not “killing machines” as was depicted by colonial propaganda.

“Mayombe” lays bare all the vicissitudes of war from prejudices, suspicions, racism, hatred and jealous resulting from ethnicity, tribalism and ideological differences among the freedom fighters that threatened to dispirit their resolve in fighting against Portuguese domination and oppression.

The Angolan writer, whose full name is Artur Carlos Mauricio Pestana dos Santos, wrote the novel “Mayombe” between 1970 and 1971 under colonial Portuguese. The book was published five years after the country’s independence because of political reasons.

The book’s publication was delayed because it called for unity and the setting aside of tribal differences, a philosophy that posed a direct threat to the colonial government.

The then President of the newly independent Angola, Antonio Augustinho Neto, agreed that the novel, Mayombe, should be published because “. . . Pepetela puts into action the reality that he himself lived . . . (The novel) it contributes to the demystification of the (Angolan) struggle”, making “Mayombe” an ideologically and historically significant literary work of art.

One can argue that given his background as a naturalized white Angolan, Artur Carlos Mauricio Pestana’s candidness stems from an inner yearning for acceptance and a sense of awareness of the odds that confront the post-liberation struggle.

Mayombe captures the most relevant episodes of the Angolan liberation struggle paying close attention to Africa’s most common and shared experience, the struggle for independence, a struggle that called for unity and selflessness, sympathising with the concerns of the people, one that the Zimbabwean poet Thomas Bvuma (2002) calls; “Not a private paradise /Nor an individual inferno” but one that calls for collective commitment.

Pepetela strongly attacks individualism and tribalism and calls for what Bundo (2009) calls multiculturalism; a philosophy that advocates for the respect and recognition of cultures. The most predominant individualistic tenets Pepetela attacks are tribalism. The tribes conflicting are namely the Kikongo tribe, the Kibundu tribe and the Kiyote tribe. On one occasion the guerrillas refuse to rescue Muatianvua because he is from different tribe.

Fearless comes to the rescue of Mutianvua and as symbolised by his name, showing no fear and terror in the face of tribal wars as he displays bravery as he complains; “No one wanted to volunteer. Were Muatianvua Kikongo or Kibundu four or five would have come forward. Is this how we are going to win the war” (pg34)

Such tribal differences are so strong that they hinder the collective resistance against oppression and exploitation. Fearless shows that because of the loyalties based on the tribal allegiances the Angolan war for independence against the Portuguese was to definitely lose its momentum, hence the need to consider multiculturalism as a way of life.

Through, Joao, a Kibundu and Fearless, a Kikongo, Pepetela tries to eliminate forces of division among the guerillas with a new multicultural base in the culture of resistance. Joao and Fearless offer parallel comparisons of race, ideology and even motivation for joining the struggle making them the architects of the multicultural culture of resistance so that a person will no longer act as Kibundu and Kikongo but as Angolan. Fearless’ testifies; “I do not care if anyone is Kikongo or Kibundu (but Angolan)” (pg41)

At this juncture, Pepetela seems to have taken a nationalistic stance, particularly devotion toward an Angolan nation which does not pay attention to tribal differences more than socialism itself. His main concerns in terms of tribes seem to be focused on being profound of Angolan first. It is working together towards the same goal that binds people together and even to get their tribal differences and as in Cabral’s terms (people) raise above tribalism.

As reflected by the Fearless a Kikongo who sacrifices his life down for a Kibundu soldier who is also considered a traitor. Fearless can be considered to be Pepetela’s archetypal citizen of the newly independent Angola, one who is selfless. Fearless’s death can also be regarded as an embodiment of his name, being “fearless’’ in the face of death.

“Mayombe” depicts racism as a force of division. The two races depicted in the text to being in conflict are the Blacks and the “coloureds” also known as Mulattos, the products of the black women of Angola and the white Portuguese farmers or traders. The Mulattos are sidelined and they feel belittled and emasculated by the Black majority, they feel as though they do not belong and feel compelled to work extra hard in order to gain acceptance.

Considering that Pepetela himself is white and fought in the war alongside the Blacks, the portrayal of racial based conflicts becomes more autobiographical.

Theory is a Mulatto and he finds it very difficult to fit in as he views himself as a half-white caught between two worlds and neither fully belongs to both. Pepetela narrates Theory’s biological background with such emotion:

“I was born in Gabella, in coffee country. The land I received the dark color of coffee, from my mother’s side, mixed with off white from my father, a Portuguese trader . . . As a man I wanted to be black so that the blacks would not hate me” (pg1-5)

As portrayed in various war narratives, the motives for joining the war though different all have a common goal – liberating the nation. Such minute differences become a more personal struggle as portrayed through the character Struggle, as symbolized by his name. Struggle becomes his life both at the battlefront and spiritually as he fights the perceived treacherous character from his tribes. The different motives to joining the war were vast and different but the common aim act as the unifying force amongst the guerrillas.

“Mayombe” goes an extra-mile, and appreciates those who sacrificed their lives to join the war. Attending to personal needs without feeling the need to sacrifice for another becomes an anthem to nationalism.

Pepetela portrays this through the character, New World, a Euro educated Marxist who gave up his luxurious life in Europe returning to Angola to fight for freedom and equality. As symbolised by his name a “new world” of freedom and equality is only possible through sacrifice and selflessness.

Through Fearless’ speech one can almost hear the authorial voice of Pepetela advocating for selflessness and sacrifice, “doing away with the old habits and nature nationalistic sacrifices . . .” to deny (one’s self) in order to be reborn in a different form, or better still, to give a rise to another so that instead of making one’s side absolute truth should pass through regenerative cycle of “death” and “rebirth”.

In “Mayombe”, Pepetela presents one-of-a-kind type of a guerrilla in all of African war narratives , ones who display a sense of rationalism in the way they relate with each other as well as the way they intellectually apply theories such as Socialism, Marxism and Nationalism in the fighting the war.

What makes Mayombe a masterpiece is how Pepetela, realistically depicts the dividing forces that hindered the momentum of Angola’s liberation struggle as well as the delay in publication due to political reasons. Most significantly, not particular to Angola, Pepetela is calling for multiculturalism, a unification of all ethnical groups in order to achieve a common goal, a habit that should transcend into the independence era to insure a fulfilling and satisfying independence.

As illustrated by F-K Omoregie who is at the University of Botswana’s English Department, historical events of the 1970’s revealed even more clearly the transition from colonialism to neo-colonialism that had begun during the 1960’s.

Writers like Ngugi with his “The Devil on the Cross”, Pepetela’s “Mayombe” and Sahle Sellasie’s “Firebrands” portray conflict in term of class conflict and from the perspective of the oppressed-the workers and the peasants

What make’s Pepetela’s “Mayombe” an enduring text is its insistence in treating the struggle as a process and not an event. Prophetically, what befell Angola soon after independence when it plunged into a bloody civil war is exactly what Pepetela

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