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Inge Brinkman, ed. Singing in the Bush: MPLA Songs during the War for Independence in South-East Angola (1966-1975). History, Cultural Traditions and Innovations in Southern Africa Series, vol. 16. Cologne: Rudiger Koppe Verlag, 2001. 111 pp. Photographs, bibliography. EUR 19.43 (paper), ISBN 3-89645-355-6.

Inge Brinkman and Axel Fleisch, eds. Grandmother's Footsteps: Oral Tradition and South-East Angolan Narratives on the Colonial Encounter. History, Cultural Traditions and Innovations in Southern Africa Series, vol. 7. Cologne: Rudiger Koppe Verlag, 1999. 255 pp. Tables, maps, photographs, bibliography. EUR 34.77 (paper), ISBN 3-89645-056-5.

Reviewed by Elaine Windrich, Stanford University.
Published by H-Luso-Africa (July, 2003)

Narratives and Songs from Angola at War

Grandmother's Footsteps consists of some nine narratives related by Angolans residing across the border in Namibia after having fled from the ravages of Angola's thirty-year war. Most of those interviewed came from the south-eastern provinces of Angola (Cuando Cubango and Moxico) and had settled near the former South African military (SADF) base at Rundu in the Kavango region of northern Namibia. On the Angolan side, the whole area was known to the Portuguese as "the end of the world" or "the end of the earth" because of its harsh and barren landscape, although this feature was not mentioned by any of the local people interviewed. Nor was there any mention of "Jamba," the former headquarters of Jonas Savimbi's UNITA movement, which was established in the south-east corner of Angola in the aftermath of UNITA's defeat by the MPLA (Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola) in 1976. Protected by the SADF across the border and financed and armed by the United States during the Reagan and Bush administrations, "Jamba" survived as UNITA headquarters into the 1990s.

Two introductory chapters by the editors explain the purpose of the study and the research methods applied in the fieldwork. Brinkman has written an introduction on the relevance of history for the people of the area and Fleisch has provided a linguist's account of "the intersection of language and history." As Brinkman relates, the choice of "the colonial encounter" as the theme for the book was suggested by "the informants' insistence on its relevance": all of the narratives related here have the arrival of the Portuguese and colonialism in Angola as their subject (pp. 15, 29). Most of the narratives begin in the fifteenth century, with the arrival of Diogo Cao at the Angolan coast, continue with the imposition of Portuguese colonial rule and conclude with the revolt of the Angolan people (led by the MPLA's Agostinho Neto) to achieve independence for their country. The links between early colonial encounters and MPLA resistance is a feature of all these narratives. Thus, "the past is moulded into a linear process: from Portuguese treachery to exploitation during colonialism and subsequently from political consciousness to national liberation" (p. 41).

In his chapter on language and history, Fleisch points out that, although one of the languages spoken in the south-east (Mbunda, later Ngangela) was officially declared one of the six "national languages" of Angola after independence, and an Institute for National Languages in Luanda developed an orthography for the language and published a grammatical sketch and a small wordlist, the efforts never actually benefited the region. The intention to use the six languages in primary education was never implemented and, with UNITA's control of much of the south-east, "the missing research possibilities were a major obstacle to the development of material in Ngangela" (p. 58). External influences also affected language use in the region. As Fleisch relates, "the socio-linguistic situation is complicated by the fact that three different languages are being used in formal communications, especially in education and working situations" (p. 59). For those with some schooling in Angola, Portuguese would have been the only language of instruction. But for others, brought up in Zambia or Namibia, the second language would have been English or (in Namibia before independence) Afrikaans. For the people of this area, however, language skills were valued not only to facilitate communication but also to provide "access to power." Some of the informants believed that "powerful politicians speak all the languages," and one woman said that Savimbi was "able to speak all the languages that exist" (p. 64).

The narratives related by the Angolans were recorded by the editors, with a local research assistant and interpreter, during l996-97 and 1999. Although the stories are all concerned with "the colonial encounter," they differ on matters of detail and emphasis, depending upon the background, education, and experience of the narrator, as the following titles (agreed by the speaker and the editors) reveal: "Chief Diogo Cao: The One Who Brought Slavery and Colonialism," "Hearken to the Suffering the Portuguese Inflicted on You," "How the Angolan People Acquired Wisdom," "The History of Angola," "Alleluia Angola," "We Stayed with Lady Njinga" (an early resistance leader), "Grandfather and his Pigeons," "Then They Came with Priests and Guns," and "They Did This to Strengthen Us." Since many of the narrators had heard these stories at MPLA meetings and others had read them in Angolan schoolbooks, there was a tendency to view the struggle against Portuguese rule, organized by the MPLA, as a continuation of the resistance against Portuguese conquest led by Queen Njinga and other Mbundu leaders or "ngolas" of previous centuries. Despite the differences in detail and emphasis as well as the variations in language, repetition was inevitable when such similar stories were reproduced over 165 pages, with the vernacular on one side and English on the other.

Singing in the Bush contains a collection of songs sung by the MPLA during the war of liberation which have not been published before. The recordings were made in the same area of northern Namibia, during the same period and under the same circumstances as the narratives published in Grandmother's Footsteps. From the 90 people interviewed for the study, some 177 songs were collected, most of them sung in one of the dialects of Ngangela.

Among the Angolans interviewed, there was a saying that "before Neto there were no songs," meaning that the people were so afraid to express criticism of Portuguese rule that they refrained from singing in public or used metaphors to disguise their meaning. By the 1960s, however, with the outbreak of the anti-colonial war in the north, the independence of neighboring African countries, and the resistance of folk heroes such as Lumumba in the Congo and Kaunda in Zambia, the songs took on an explicitly political tone reflecting these developments. Typical songs had lines such as "Burn the Portuguese," "Drive Out the Portuguese" and "Let Lumumba Stay" (p. 44). The MPLA anthem, which was performed on all solemn occasions, remembrances, and celebrations, contained a similar call to arms, with lines expressing the certainty of victory--e.g., "Our voice for Angola echoes / And drives away the tyranny," "MPLA, victory or death / For all the people will attack," "The heroes break the handcuffs / To defeat colonialism / And create a new Angola" (p. 50). Also included in the songs were historical memories similar to those told by the narrators in Grandmother's Footsteps. These too spoke of the arrival of the Portuguese, the magical defense used by Angola's leaders, the tricks of the colonialists, the subsequent colonial epoch, and the resistance led by Neto with Russian military assistance.

Most of the songs included here originated at the Centres of Revolutionary Instruction (CIRs), with input from the guerrillas in the camps. Although the instruction was almost entirely by male cadre, children of both sexes attended the classes and women leaders of the OMA (Organization of Angolan Women) were taught to convey the songs to other female members. Eventually, women took over most of the singing at MPLA meetings, leaving the men to dominate the narration. While the songs mostly glorify the MPLA and its struggle against the Portuguese, as the editor points out, this was also the case with the songs sung by their African nationalist rivals, with UNITA surpassing the other political movements in the cult of personality conferred upon its "infallible" leader.

Although the editor concluded that "very little is known" about the history of south-east Angola and its languages (p. 13)--partly because it was marginalized by the Portuguese but also because it was closed off by UNITA--with the end of Savimbi, and thus the end of the war, in 2002, the area should become accessible for the research and fieldwork necessary to redress the loss of the past.

Document compiled by Dr S D Stein
Last update 24/02/04 12:23:57
S D Stein

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