Over the years of our friendship, I’ve had the pleasure of hearing Marinella Garuti recount many of the extraordinary incidents that comprise the tableau of her life.
This extract from her memoir-in-progress begins as prose and then dissolves into a poem.
Reading it now, I hear her voice, strong and informative, putting in place the dynamic behind a few simple threads of beads. Her tone deepens slightly, as the rhythm alters and the poem takes over from the prose, with its beautiful first line – a line innocent yet portent, full of warning.
From: Missanga tem feitiço – An Angolan Memoir
Close to the Posto Experimental de Caraculo, at the foot of the Chela mountain range, on the plains of the province of Namibe in the south of Angola, we farmed karakul sheep and cattle. The farm, 24 000 hectares of arid semi-desert with thorn trees and mulolas, was called Chibiba. It was owned by the rich Banco de Espirito Santo brothers, Antonio & Manuel Espirito Santo. The only town in the region, Mossamedes on the Atlantic coast, was a good eighty kilometres away.
The drought of 1971 was severe. For almost a year no rain had fallen in the region below the Chela mountains. The rain clouds would form up on the mountains, bringing the temperatures on the low plains of the Munhino district to forty-five degrees. Rain would fall upon the Chela plateau, but none on the lands below.
It was so dry that when a few drops fell, it woke the termites which, without any other food, ate all the grass seeds that had fallen to the ground. When rains fell a year later, no grass grew because all the seed was gone. Cattle and sheep died daily of hunger and thirst. The river banks dried, the trees and shrubs shrank and died.
Miguel and I went one morning for a walk with Nambalo, the Kuvale shepherd who looked after our cattle and sheep. At a certain bend of the dry river bed we discovered some abandoned straw and mud huts, which we had not noticed before. Curious, we looked inside. The fireplace on the ground in the middle of one hut still had the old half-burnt logs from a cooking fire. Clay pots lay half-broken on the dusty mud floor. Grass and straw, spider-webs and traces of where the river water had flooded in the past were visible.
The two huts had been abandoned long ago, according to Nambalo. He said a very important woman had lived there once, a tyimbanda. She had left in a great hurry. No one knew why. I entered the second hut where, Nambalo told us, the woman had slept. He warned me not to enter it. It would bring bad luck. In this hut I found missangas – beads – strung with natural fibres. The termites had eaten the fibres and this left termite tunnels with the glass beads in between.
The beads were hand-made matt milky-turquoise green-blue tubular.
I was mesmerised by them.
Many strands littered the floor of the hut.
I gathered them up, filling my pockets.
Nambalo, very disturbed, stood outside shaking his head.
He warned me not to touch them, not to take them,
that they would bring bad luck to all of us.
‘It is a bad omen’ he said.
Yet I ignored him and took the beads.
And then violent change arrived.
The civil war started.
It would rage for the next twenty-five years.
We had to flee.
I packed bags and bikuatas.
I said good-bye to Nambalo,
good-bye to everyone on the farm,
good-bye to Chibiba, my dogs and cats and life there.
Nambalo was devastated and could not accept
that I should abandon him and Chibiba.
He said this was another bad omen – another woman
hastily leaving behind a house and her belongings.
What would become of him and the other shepherds?
He wanted to know this – our lives were so entwined.
I took the stolen beads with me to Cape Town.
A large oval mirror spontaneously shattered in our bedroom.
I never returned to Angola, the country of my birth,
and where I truly belonged.
I threw the beads away.
The effect of the war still resonates …
Marinella Garuti (1944- ) was born and grew up in Angola to Italian parents. She studied graphic design at Michaelis School of Fine Arts in Cape Town and then returned to Angola where she farmed from 1967 until the outbreak of civil war in 1975. She fled to South Africa where she first farmed then worked as a tour guide and ceramicist. She lives in Clovelly, Cape Town, with her husband, Andy Dawes.
From: Missanga tem feitiço – An Angolan Memoir by Marinella Garuti is one of the poems included in Africa! My Africa! an anthology soon to be printed in a limited, numbered edition of 5 000 copies to raise funds for Seed Readers.
Seed Readers is a project that will produce story books based on principles of peace, non-violence, non-racism and care of the earth. They will seed an understanding of our true role as custodians of the earth and oceans. They will inspire children to live ethically and in a sustainable manner.
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