The tribal heart of Angola

NIC_5834.jpg

I had been cycling for almost two months of pure adrenaline, pedaling along the remotest roads of Namibia. I had been enjoying the beautiful solitude of a sublime scenery while dodging potentially dangerous encounters with wild beasts on a daily basis and coping with the scarcity of resources. When one gets accustomed to living with such an overdose of adrenaline, the problem is that it is very difficult to go back to the normal levels. You always want more. That is why I decided to continue my journey north, avoiding the comfort (and boredom) of the sealed road that passes through the Oshikango border post, opting instead for the total absence of roads and entering the heart of the Angolan bush crossing the Cunene river at Ruacaná. The adventure continued.

 The return to Africa

 When I reach the end of the road at this remote corner of Kaokoland on the banks of the Cunene River, I find it hard to believe that there is an actual border post somewhere. Everything I see around me is nothing but dry and colorless bush; the Himba take refuge from the raging sun under scaly trees and sculpt their exquisite decoration, while their children crawl on the ground bathed in dust. Here everything seems to have been stopped in time and I quickly realise that for these immigration officers to have been assigned here is more of a punishment than a job. In this type of border crossings, I am always struck by the fact that you are the one has to have the will to go through the relevant formalities, otherwise you could very well pass inadvertently from one country to another without anyone noticing it.

NIC_5689.jpg

With the departure of Namibia, I finally leave behind the comforts of southern Africa. It is true that the comforts of some of those countries are certainly not to be found along the roads that I have chosen and thus the extreme adventure that it has turned into. However, it just takes to reach a city, no matter small, to have full access to the kind of infrastructure and availability of stuff that separates this region from the rest of the continent, namely, good quality food, great variety of products and availability of the kind of things that put it simply, make life easier.

 When I arrive at the Angolan border post, the guard exclaims affectionately in Portuguese as he opens the gate - Bom dia senhor! Como está? Bemvindo a nosso pais! - ("Good morning sir! How are you? Welcome to our country!")  Listenting again to the sweet melody of the Portuguese language triggers an instant smile immediately. The relative apathy of the Namibians in general had made me forget what it was like to feel welcome, and just as when I arrived in Mozambique, I now felt at home again. While chatting gently with me in the little control booth, he grabs an entry log book, stirs up the chaos of the drawers, and as he extends an ink-thirsty ballpen, he asks me: "Sabe escrever?" (do you know how to write?). Obviously, I'm back in Africa, I think to myself, while I smile and fill out my details. Already inside the confusingly modern border post built by the Chinese, in this god-forsaken land of oblivion where nobody passes, the border officers are just as kind as equally bored. They offer me water and food, I exchange the last Namibian dollars for kwanzas and they indicate a way that does not exist to start my route towards Lubango.

NIC_5973.jpg

In Angola comfort is gone but affection comes back and I have no doubt that I prefer more love than comfort. As soon as I leave the office, I am in the middle of nowhere in the Angolan bush, there are no roads, no signs, no boards indicating distances, no one to ask; I am only guided by the confusing indications the guards had given me. They consisted of following something they refer to as "a road", and at some point, I should find a tree in which to turn left on a foot trail that would eventually lead me to the first village where I could ask how to continue. But only after a few meters of pedaling I need to redefine my concept of "road" because unless I am at the wrong place, this is more like a river bed to me. Without maps or compass, I can only trust blindly what they said to me. A few kilometers later, I run into a handsome Himba teenager, who, using sign language explains that I must follow a foot trail that will take me to the next tribe. I continue trusting blindly in what he told me, hoping for the best, across that narrow groove of sand and stones among dry shrubs, hoping that he understood where I wanted to go in the first place.

himba.jpg

I do not know where I'm going or if I'm headed in the right direction, but the fascination with these wild trails captivates me instantly. It is that beautiful internal sting that generates uncertainty that moves me forward venturing through the unknown. It is no time to fear, it is time to choose a path and follow it with determination, because in situations like this, indecision is the only thing that leads nowhere. Every so often I meet one or two lonely men, mainly muhimbas, with whom I try to corroborate my course, but communication is very difficult because they do not speak English or Portuguese. I have to continue until I reach the first village where I get to know a new tribe: the Mundimba. The sova (village chief) welcomes me, he is the only one who speaks some Portuguese words with which he confirms that I am going in the right direction. I am the first white person he sees here by bicycle, he is as fascinated as all of the people of his village who come to greet me with great curiosity.

NIC_5773-Edit.jpg

The Mundimba are one of the dozens of different tribes that inhabit this forgotten corner of Angola. The most remarkable difference I perceive when I meet them is that on this side of the border, the tribes, including the Muhimbas, are not commercialised as in Namibia, and absolutely no one asks me for money or presents if I want to photograph them. It is beautiful to return to real Africa, selfless Africa. For it's like a huge weight has been taken off my shoulders because I choose to travel the world to maintain genuine exchanges of this kind. I want to share my life with the people I meet without thinking that it will only be possible because they are expecting something material from me in return. I begin to appreciate that the great obstacles that the Angolan government places to grant visas, indirectly benefits the preservation of people like this from the clutches of mass tourism.

NIC_5786-Edit.jpg

When I leave the village after spending some time with them, I follow the instructions of the affectionate sova, which only consist of signs with his hands pointing at several points on the horizon. But I trust, as in Mongolia, that here people know their land deeply and I will be on the right track. As I walk away with the bike, I turn back to see that the whole village gathered to say farewell with broad smiles and waving their hands until I disappear once again in the bush. From there on, the trails become a hell of stones, sand and thorny bushes. Those damn miniature flies that fucked my life in the Namib desert, come back unscrupulously and if I were not wearing my burqa, they'd get into my eyes, my ears and I'd swallow them when I inhale.

I have to make a huge physical effort to move forward, but the absolute solitude of this region is stimulating and it is what makes my mind at peace, absorbing every moment that I live. I still do not really know where I am going, I return to the most essential resource of all which is to look at the position of the sun. The trails split so many times that the instructions of the sova diluted very quickly in the immensity of this uniform landscape. I know the direction I have to go is the northwest then turn north. I count with the benefit that the climate is the same as in Namibia, even though I already miss desperately the clouds which I have not seen for 3 months already. However, if the skye was not this immaculate and the sun would hiding, I most certainly would not know where to go .

NIC_5837.jpg

Every few hours I come across more people from the tribes who stop to observe me with the same enormous curiosity with which I observe them. For them, to see a white on a bicycle is like for me to see a semi-nude woman full of colorful necklaces carrying things on her head. Children play, women carry out the daily tasks with their babies on their backs, carrying huge buckets over their heads with dishes and clothes and what not, while men, as it's almost always the case in Africa, chat under the trees.

NIC_5809.jpg

Finding people in places so remote and solitary is one of the things I enjoy most when pedaling around the world. Speaking and/or trying to communicate with people who seem so different from me, who are born, grow up and live in contexts that have no point of comparison with where I have grown up, is what brings me closer to them. It is in these dialogues, in those human exchanges where the colors of the skin, the clothes, the beliefs, the languages vanish to reveal that underneath all these superficial differences, we are all identical. Living this life, going through these situations, allows me to see these people not from their differences with me but through our similarities, and with them I spend my days, my time, enjoying that we are more similar than different.

11202859_372459692943661_3701369928586553675_n.jpg

Once the hardest days are behind, I start to find small towns where the simple houses made of clay bricks and traditional huts, alternate with the old constructions of the colonial era that have been left in ruin after 30 continuous years of civil war. Some have been devoured by the bush, and others have been transformed into schools by the people. The government of Eduardo dos Santos cares only about enriching itself obscenely through the massive profits made from the petrol that abounds in the north of the country, leaving the arid and poor south in the oblivion. The teachers and doctors do not want to come to work here, but some still do, along with local volunteer. In Angola, I take off my hat in admiration when from the road I see an improvised school in the bush, where the children and the teacher of each class are gathered around a blackboard hanging from a tree. There are no constructions available that serve as schools, and children must bring their own chair to the classroom formed around the trees, but none of that will stop their will to educate themselves. It is an image that moves me deeply and I stop only for a few minutes because my presence there inevitably distracts them.

NIC_5898.jpg

Between each of these encounters with people, I continue crossing the bush in absolute solitude without understanding very well how it is that I do to keep me in the right direction, but everything seems to confirm that I do, every time I meet someone and using sign language I corroborate it. The bush, which at first seems just as monotonous as the bush of the rest of Africa, is remarkably richer in color, and the more I move northward, the dryness of the desert from which I come becomes increasingly populated by different shrubs, textures and new colors, adding richness to a landscape that is becoming more and more interesting. But it is the appearance of a tree in particular that dazzles me. Once again baobabs show up on my way, but they are no longer those of Tanzania nor those of Zimbabwe, but the biggest baobabs that I have seen in all Africa. It is under them, on these extraordinary nights in the silent solitude of the bush, where I choose to camp at the end of each day and sleep under their shadow, looking at the billions of stars in the sky through their massive branches.

NIC_5887.jpg