Ondjaki, Angola

Let’s Share the Dream: Stories for Children in Angola

“(…) children’s literature was born and put about in Angola in the Journal de Angola supplement and by Rádio-Piô – at that time, and for many more years, the most lauded informational and educational channel for children. (…) An interesting phenomenon was that a part of our listeners, a great part of those who wrote to us and who wanted to collaborate sending us stories, traditional tales and riddles, were actually youngsters serving time in the army (...)”

Dario de Melo, Angolan writer

1. Introduction

Angola was a country colonized for 500 years. The Portuguese arrived in Congo in 1482 in an expedition led by Diogo Cão.

The political, religious and cultural impositions resulted in successive inhibitions and even prohibitions of local forms of expression. Centuries later, and even after the abolition of slavery, Angolans, blacks and mulattos alike, suffered from continuous social discrimination. Even some white people born in Angola were called “second class whites”.

The resistance made an impact on me from very early on in my life. Isolated to the southern and eastern parts of the country the revolt – created and nurtured by the very people that had already been victims of revolt themselves – was militarily controlled by the Portuguese colonial regime. Yet, an Angolan nation came into being, with the continuous presence of people that had come from across the ocean, the people they had met and the people that were to be born out of this cultural mix. The near shore areas were inhabited by the most powerful people, politically or financially. Thus, along the years, the Angolan interior was “conquered”.

Eventually, these organized resistances also reached the urban centres. Cities like Benguela, Lubango, Huambo and Luanda all became centres for ideological organizations fighting colonial occupation. At the beginning of the 20th century, some journalists and intellectuals even ventured to publish texts expressing favourability towards Angolan independence and autonomy.

However, being constantly more satisfied with the great riches obtained in Angola and other African colonies, the Portuguese regime insisted that these territories were only “provinces of Portugal”. The awareness among some intellectuals and individuals from the political and cultural circles gave birth to several independence movements.

2. The writers and the war(s)

One of the most well-known Angolan writers, Pepetela, besides being guerrilla and a commander at the northern front, began discovering his vocation during the guerrilla years. “Ngungas adventures”, one of the most widely read books in Angola both before and after independence, was written for Angolan children meant as a manual to the Portuguese language and cultural references.  

Originally, Ngunga wasn’t meant to be a novel. I was in the East making a census of MPLA bases. For the first time, the number of bases, the number of men and the number of guns were going to be known. I went from base camp to base camp – and at the same time I attended the school classes, helping the teachers (…). I started to realize that the kids had only the school’s books when learning Portuguese and I concluded that it was necessary to work out auxiliary texts, and thus Ngunga started to take shape.  

Written and published in 1973, in stencil, by the MPLA’s cultural services, As adventuras de Ngunga is an educational story about a young boy with a very determined and honest nature, who chooses the same path as other “pioneers” joining the MPLA guerrillas, consequently growing into a man and learning to think independently. MPLA stands for the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola.

Another big name in Angolan literature is Luandino Vieira . He joined MPLA very early on, having been imprisoned for conspiring against the Portuguese colonial regime. But even in prison, sentenced to 14 years imprisonment, he continued writing.

Even a guerrilla fighter like Agostinho Neto, a medical doctor and poet who in 1975 became the first president of the Republic of Angola, divided his time between political and literary activities for a long time. It was as if the foundation and the destiny of the country were always tightly connected to books.

During the colonial war, until 1975, and even during the times of the subsequent civil wars, literary production never ceased despite these somewhat difficult circumstances.

At the beginning of the 20th century, prose and chronicles were the two great arts of the nation’s writers. After the 50s, and until today, Angola has been the birthplace of a great number of poets coming from all corners of the country.

However, like in all other struggles around the world, the civil war generated other urgencies and priorities, just as the Angolan cultural sector also suffered many privations.

3. The 80s

During the 80s, Angolan literature went through a very fertile period within the poetry genre.

With the social and economic strains becoming ever more accentuated, particularly in the interior of the country where the war was the most intense, the cities became the destination for thousands of people arriving mainly from the southern and eastern parts of Angola. The capital city of Luanda, residence of the political and financial elite and the main urban and cultural centre of the country, received and accumulated the ethnical, cultural and social tendencies from almost any part of what is the territory of Angola.

This reality is clearly echoed in the national literature. Luanda and its urban characte-ristics became the predominant literary matter.

The poetry allowed itself to travel beyond Luanda. Names like Ruy Duarte de Carvalho and, later on, Ana Paula Tavares or João Maimona, emerged on the poetic scene with more modern and abstract voices, though still dealing with aspects of Angolan traditions. In their poetry, the city and the countryside were either in conflict or living in harmony.

So what about children’s literature? Was there any place for this genre in the hardship days of the 80s?

Actually, in the 80s, children’s literature saw its most prolific years. Works by Dario de Melo, Gabriela Antunes and Cremilda Lima were published.  

Tightly connected to aesthetic issues, however, a preoccupation with putting about a literature that evolved around aspects firmly establishing Angolan culture also manifested itself. At the same time, though, honouring and respecting children’s literature as a literary genre.

“Children’s literature is, first and foremost, literature. It presupposes art, beauty and delight, and does not reject the word children’s.”  

In the specific case of Angola that had adopted Portuguese as its official language, another question arose, namely the role of the so-called national languages (umbundu, kimbundu, kikongo, tchokwe etc.):

The book A caixa, by Manuel Rui, can be considered the first post-independence children’s book. In 1977, Maria Eugénia Neto, wife of the first Angolan president, published E nas florestas os bichos falaram that was awarded the Honorary Prize by UNESCO’s Cultural Committee.

During these years, the Angolan Writers Association also contributed to the publication of various works.

4. The 90s

Luanda remained the cultural and political centre for a long time. The concentration of cultural powers, of actors and of the very artistic dynamics was in Luanda – save the rare exceptions, organized by the government, in other cities that the war inhabited.

After the 1992 elections, and even the subsequent fresh outbreak of war, the change of the political system made an immediate impact at all levels. Despite the war, financial life changed substantially. Editors re-emerged and new ones saw the light of the day. And they all gave room for prose, poetry and children’s literature. However, few were the ones who were writing.

Even though Dário de Melo was still publishing books at the end of the 90s, the most prolific writers were Celestina Fernandes and Cremilda Lima. In 1992, Maria João, coming from Lubango, published “The school and Miss Milk-Can”, an interesting reflection on the milk cans used in schools due to the lack of desks. Over many years, especially right after our independence, kids used to bring empty milk cans from their homes, as a substitute for desks or chairs. In this way children were able to sit and teaching was not interrupted due to the lack of material. When I was in the fifth grade, even in my classroom in Luanda, there were only a few desks every morning. They used to be moved to other classrooms during the afternoon or night shifts. So we used this huge bookshelf laid horizontally, to replace the desks. Others would use part of the window sill to write down their notes.

From 2000 and onwards, new writers enter the scene of children’s literature: Yola Castro, John Bela, and myself with “Ynari: the girl with the five braids”.

5. A personal note: the books and experiences of Ondjaki

Geographically Angola is divided into 18 provinces, but the capital city of Luanda has almost always manifested itself as a country apart from the rest of the nation. Due to social and political matters already touched upon here, and also parallel to what happens in all other countries in the world, the capital city becomes the principal centre of all kinds of power and influences.

I grew up in this city, during the 80s, reading some of the books mentioned above. Socialism, both the political and even civilian system back then, constituted the essence of my educational system. Angola underwent the political transition to democracy in 1991.

The children that I could read about in Angolan literature, or even Mozambican literature, handed out in school, were real children accompanying me in my everyday life. With the exception of stories that depicted the time prior to independence, many of the stories, for example the ones by Manuel Rui, and above all his book Quem me dera ser onda, depicted concrete aspects of the reality I lived in, thus making them very tangible. Furthermore, it was my generation who lived through what the literature about the 80s was to describe later on.

The linguistic aspects (references to music, and the estigas ) and the social aspects (demeanour associated with the 80s, political speeches and the reproduction, by children, of the socialist system, ways of dressing, social rules, etc.) that appeared in literary works were immediately indentified by us as being very real. This was the beauty of literature: what was written, even though a result of the artist’s fantasy, was at the same time the reality of our daily lives.

The “street” and the “school” always made up the sacred spaces of our childhood. The famous phrase that we read in our school books and reference books, “the pen is the pioneer’s weapon”, became our rule of conduct in life. The truth was that revolution was carried out through books, through the pen, through reading materials and through texts. Some among us, and I include myself in this group, believed in the power of the pen and the power of the book.  

The story “We killed the mangy dog” by the Mozambican writer Luis Bernardo Honwana that we read in school influenced a whole generation. The same for the incredible tale “Wish I was a wave”.

In the first case, this “mangy dog” was an old and sick dog, in the surrounding areas of Maputo, that is supposed to be killed by one boy, with an air-pressure gun. A group of boys is authorized by a Portuguese white man to kill the dog, because it was disturbing the neighborhood. Only one girl, Isaura, tries to defend the animal until the end. One of the boys, a black boy among the others who are white, does not want to kill the mangy dog anymore. But the circumstances and the group pressure lead him to the easiest choice.

In “Wish I Was a Wave”, Manuel Rui tells another story with children: To their eight-floor building, their father brings home a pig, to be killed a few months later. But the kids love the pig right away, so they will do everything to save him.

In both stories, the political contents was not explicit for us, as kids, but the rhythm and the language used were very powerful. Some of that African way of writing, that really has to do with our way of being with the world and with the languages, has remained in me.

In 2000, one week before the end of the Angolan civil war, I felt a very strong urge to write a story for children. I only knew that I wanted to write about a girl, with five braids, who made immense sacrifices trying to bring an end to the war that was all around her. This girl, and this is the story of my book “Ynari: a menina das cinco tranças”, loses her braids one by one in the five villages at war. The war between these five villages breaks out because the people in each village have lost one sense or the other: the ability to hear, to taste, to see, etc. At the end of the story, Ynari, after having resolved all the wars, goes looking for “a very old elderly person who destroys words” and asks her to destroy the word “war”. I believe that any person of my generation, living through those interminable years of war, would have liked to meet that elderly woman.

The main reference point in Ynari: a menina das cinco tranças is the open space of the countryside, my own diligent search for something I did not know all that well. Being born and raised in Luanda, the interior of Angola, due to the successive wars, was for the people of Luanda a mystical and inaccessible space. The book Ynari, then, serves as a search for a lesson of my own. For the powers of the land and the magic of what cannot be explained: it must be lived.

What I had indeed lived and knew well were the streets and the schools of Luanda.

In my most recent children’s book, once again the children, with their magic powers and their serious decisions, appear. When the houses in a certain neighbourhood are all threatened by the presence of a big construction (the famous construction of the Mausoleum that was to become the resting place for the embalmed body of comrade President Agostinho Neto), the children react and make secret decisions: they will have to knock down the enormous concrete construction before “the adults” decide to knock down their neighbourhood. Wrongly interpreted as an attack on the first Angolan president, in my opinion, the intention of the book is merely to draw attention to the powerful effects of children’s universe: they defend the parts that make up the roots of their hearts and of their world. And a house, or a neighbourhood, can make up that world. To a child, under the power of purity, everything, including magic and fears, gains a bigger meaning.

Another one of my children’s books, unpublished, is called A bicicleta que tinha bigodes. It is a simple homage to the Angolan writer Manuel Rui. In the story, presumably taking place in the street where the writer lives, a group of kids are trying to create a written story so they can win the bicycle that Rádio Nacional is offering as a prize for the best children’s story of Luanda. Knowing that “uncle Rui” is a writer, a rumour spreads in the street that his beard contains letters, accents and magical phrases that are put in a box, every Thursday, when his wife “sweeps” his beard with a miniature broom. The group of friends hatches up a plan to steel the box, but eventually, because of his friendship with the writer, the protagonist does not commit the crime. They send only a sincere letter to Rádio Nacional, clumsy, written in Portuguese, but full of grammatical errors, and addressed to the comrade president stating that he should offer a bicycle to all Angolan children.

I have given you these last two examples wanting to tell you that Angolan children’s literature is being reborn. And this is especially due to the economic boom experienced in the country, as well as the way the peace process has facilitated creativity and, finally, the rise of the phenomenon that I believe will be the so-called “urban orality”. This will be, if it isn’t already here, the outcome of these social mixtures of a generation born in Luanda, with origins in other parts of the country. But also by the well-to-do generations of Luanda who had the opportunity to travel and study abroad, and who are now returning influenced by other stories and echoes of other realities.

From a personal point of view, I am content with the “literary signs” that point towards new productions of national literature, and new tendencies that embrace urban orality phenomena like “estigas”, anecdotes and the theatrical style of Luanda life, and the incorporation, in music, in theatre and in literature, of the most prominent social questions of our everyday life.

It is thus that you enrich literature, regenerating life. Because life – with all its civilian agents, nurturing creativity and tenderness – is what we call “culture”.


Ondjaki, 31st IBBY Congress, Copenhagen, Denmark

September 2008