For three and a half years, I shared (if that is the right word) my life with a man whose country was at war – one of those post-colonial conflicts in which the cold war was played out on African soil. We lived above a shop in Chapel Market in Islington and every morning at five the traders’ barrows rattled over the tarmac. A man stood under our window selling T-shirts and yelling ‘small, medium, large and extra-large!’ all day every day, but Monday. When the barrows rolled away in the evenings the street was filled with market debris. We had mice.
We met when we were both working at the BBC World Service. João was a senior producer making radio programmes in Portuguese for Africa. I was a minion. One day I cut my wrist on the serrated edge of a Sellotape dispenser while I was closing a stiff lever arch file. He was the only other person in the department. I said, in Portuguese: ‘I wounded myself,’ which he found endearing and sweet. When I got back from being stitched up in A & E there was a note in my pigeonhole inviting me to dinner. I was flattered. The other journalists in the department all seemed a little in awe of him; women fluttered around his desk. He was beautiful: very tall, long slender limbs, perfect posture, enormous warm eyes. He laughed a lot, flicking his wrist to slap his long forefinger against his middle finger with a loud crack when he found something really amusing.
João’s war – the Angolan civil war – was, as Angolans kept telling me, ‘the most sophisticated war in Africa,’ which meant that the oil on the one side and the diamonds and the elephant ivory on the other had purchased for all parties some impressive military hardware. They were proud of that. When I met João the war had been going on for fifteen years. Before the war, João’s family had been Afro-Portuguese aristocracy. His father had received petitioners in the study of their big house – far distant relatives asking for help with school fees or the settlement of minor disputes. I imagined a Marlon Brando sitting behind his desk, accepting oaths of fealty. One of these petitioners was Agostinho Neto who, years later, would become President of Angola and under whose presidency João’s brother, José, would be arrested, tortured, murdered and buried where no one would find him. This interview was part of the family lore. What the actual request was had been long-since forgotten. Neto, at the time a nobody, small and socially insecure, a so-called poet, had sat in João’s father’s study and accepted his favour, which made what later happened to José a direct and personal betrayal.
In the years leading up to independence, it was still a game for the teenage João, playing at freedom fighting and hiding guns for his older, politically active, guerrilla brother. When independence was achieved, José was given a place in the highest echelons of the governing People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola, the MPLA, and, when the post-independence administration splintered, he was made chief of staff of the army. Mainly though, José was young – in his early twenties and correspondingly idealistic. That was his weakness. As for João, the second son, who had not been raised for heavy responsibility, he was given some quasi-diplomatic military role and sent to allied Cuba, where he partied with Che Guevara’s daughter and dined with Fidel.
He was, in personal matters at least, a casual liar. He didn’t know he was doing it half the time. He told me he was thirty-six. ‘João’s not thirty-six,’ said his sister. ‘He’s thirty-eight! João! Why did you tell Julia you were thirty-six?’ He didn’t know, really. I think it was simply that ten years struck him as a better, rounder, age gap than twelve. It seemed absurd and funny at the time. He was pathologically late, always. The first time he called to say he was on his way home and then didn’t appear for four hours I had started phoning round the hospitals. He thought it sweet that I was so concerned and so angry. It was cultural: the English were burdened by an over-developed sense of time. In Angola, apparently, if you asked a man how old he was he would point to a tree outside his hut and say: ‘As old as this tree.’ He always phoned home before leaving work to check that I was in. Then he would be able to relax, knowing that his home wasn’t cold and empty, and would go out and enjoy himself. Mostly, he went to Ronnie Scott’s, or to soothe a distressed female colleague. He was extremely empathetic and seemed to do an enormous amount of soothing. He was softly spoken, partly because when he was released from prison he had been profoundly deaf, and even after surgery could only hear in one ear. His voice was high for a man and very gentle. Not a good voice for radio, really. He was a print journalist. His writing was always a little too flowery for broadcast. To this day, whenever his name is mentioned in my family, they all sigh, ‘A-ah! João!’ Because he emanated sympathy, understanding and consolation, and it was genuine. He repeatedly said, ‘I should have been a priest.’ He was right. People sought his benediction.
In 1977, there was an ideological split within the Marxist MPLA. The way João told it, José was disillusioned by a government of old men, who had sat comfortably in Brazzaville during the fight for independence, and who now sat comfortably in Luanda while in the south of the country the people did what people do in war, butchering and raping, enslaving and mutilating. José became part of a pro-Soviet group within the army who organized what João and his family always called a public insurrection against Neto, and what most others called a coup attempt. But the expected Soviet support never materialized and Cuban tanks came to Neto’s aid. During the purge that followed, José and his wife, Sita, disappeared. João’s parents took José and Sita’s six-month-old son and fled to Portugal, leaving everything. The house. The beautiful carpets. One of their daughters, swept up in the backlash, pregnant and in jail. They had no choice. The government was arresting and murdering the ‘factionalists’ in their thousands and taking their children into orphanages to be ‘re-educated’.
João was arrested in Cuba and sent back in the hold of a ship to be imprisoned in Angola. Once or twice, stupidly, I asked him what had happened in jail. The answer was always, ‘They gave me tea and cake.’ But it wasn’t hard to work out. For a start it destroyed his hearing. Occasionally, when I spontaneously reached out my hand to touch his head or his face, his arms flew up and wrapped around his head and he collapsed, cowering, into himself. A couple of times he kicked me out of bed – I woke up to a storm of flailing limbs, slapping palms, kicking feet. On one of these occasions, when I had calmed him down, he said, half-awake, the words emerging, quiet and utterly despairing, from the darkest recesses of nightmares beyond my experience: ‘They killed my brother.’
For a long time, he believed that Amnesty International had kept him safe in jail during that time, when his cell-mates were being led out one by one and shot in the yard. Many years after his release, he discovered that it had, in fact, been a friend of his father who had kept his name off the death lists. It had been good old-fashioned grace and favour after all. He had not made it into the ‘prisoner of conscience’ category. (When, later, I started to work for Amnesty International, I discovered that the definition of a ‘prisoner of conscience’ was narrow. It led to ironies: Mugabe had qualified. Mandela had not.)
After his release, he went to Lisbon to join his family and they reassembled him. It took a long time. He loved his family, and in the presence of his mother, his sisters, his nephews and nieces, there was a profound physical transformation, as though he were illuminated by them. In Lisbon, he began to make his name as a journalist. Someone from the US embassy took him out for a drink and tried to recruit him for the CIA. He liked that story, declaiming his disgust with flourishes of his long arms, asserting his moral superiority over an imperialist America which backed Jonas Savimbi and his Africanist National Union for the Total Independence of Angola, UNITA. The MPLA had killed João’s brother, but they were still his people. UNITA was something quite different: animistic, primaevally violent. ‘The way that Savimbi thinks,’ João would lecture, ‘is that you must tear a tree out by its roots.’ He would make an abrupt wrenching gesture. ‘When he kills someone he roots out the whole family, down to the last baby.’
João took seriously his role as a civilized African; educated, erudite. He was entitled to a Portuguese passport, but insisted on travelling as an Angolan. As he explained, the Angolan passport was carried by so many men corruptly clothed in oil-moneyed suits, that it was his duty to confer some dignity upon it. When we travelled, I would go through immigration, look for a seat and wait for an hour or two. Eventually João would emerge, haughty, elegantly unhurried – always the aristocrat. Once, returning from Lisbon, Air Portugal was photocopying the passports of all its black passengers – some edict to do with asylum seekers disembarking in London on different passports. João declared himself perfectly content for them to copy his, as long as they photocopied those of all the white passengers as well. They refused. João refused. He was not permitted to board. Then he went back into Lisbon, called all his media contacts and spent the next few days on the front pages and the television chat shows, until he received a public apology from the airline. He was in his element. That was his kind of battle.
He was unable to return to Angola for ten years. Every 27 May, the anniversary of the insurrection, he and his family wrote to the President of Angola asking for him to reveal the whereabouts of the remains of José and his wife and to issue death certificates for them. I began to understand what it means to have someone ‘disappear’. It had practical consequences: João’s nephew, now fourteen, was not technically an orphan because his parents were not technically dead. João and his sister wished formally to adopt him. Without parental permission, they could not do so. Without parental permission their nephew could not travel across borders. It took months to arrange for the papers that allowed him to visit us in London, and then only by exerting a lot of influence in Portuguese legal circles. But the greater consequence of ‘disappearance’ is the attrition brought about by uncertainty. For the first time I understood the phrase ‘laying the dead to rest’. Human beings need to take leave of their loved ones. They are haunted if they do not.
João felt lonely in any room with fewer than six people in it, and when he finally meandered home he would often bring people with him – people he’d charmed on the way and invited over for a drink and some African music. He was a fantastic cook – everything he made melted tantalizingly into caramalized garlic and chilli to be mopped up by mounds of white bread. In Angola, the UN was brokering a peace process. There were ceasefires, eventually they began to hold. The political situation became more fluid. We received visitors. An Angolan general, some distant cousin, came for a London city break from the war. A recently demoted finance minister picked his way over the market rubbish to have dinner with us and talked of briefcases packed with cash dollars handed over to the President. Before long, João felt safe enough to go home as a visiting journalist. He brought back African sculpture. We displayed it against the white walls. As the peace held we drafted elaborate applications for funding from the EU for journalist-training programmes in Luanda.
But also: he was so late that a restaurant kitchen would be closed by the time he made it to my birthday dinner. He was so superstitious that he would be furious with me if I told someone, for example, that I was applying for a job: it risked envy, he lectured, which attracts the Evil Eye. He would sulk for whole days over things I had done in his dreams. He never took the same route twice. When we had rows, he would impute offensive nuances to my Portuguese to which I could not possibly have aspired in a foreign language. He threw nothing out – kept every single Post-it note that was ever stuck to his computer screen. When I filled two bin liners with plastic bags and put them out on the landing to dispose of, I later found him going through them to rescue the aesthetically pleasing ones.
It was cultural, we assured each other – or, perhaps it wasn’t. I like company, but not constant company; and I love solitude, but not when someone is making me wait. And, although João always found me so, I really am not sweet. It wasn’t cultural; we were incompatible. And it wasn’t my war, my exile, my beloved Angola.
Earlier this year a friend came across a raft of obituaries on the Internet and phoned, cautiously, in case I hadn’t heard: João had died in February. By then he had been living in Angola a while and the last time I saw him in London he seemed happy, proud of his daughter, who illuminated him more than anyone, and settled at last with his Brazilian girlfriend. It was cancer. He was fifty-nine. My first reaction – grief aside – was to feel irrationally angry that no one had let me know. I wished I could have said goodbye. I wished I could have attended the funeral. I wished I could have had my leave-taking.