Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Óscar Ribas collects urban legends

Angolan writer Óscar Ribas was born in Luanda in 1909 and passed away in 2004. His father was Portuguese and his mother was Angolan. At the age of 14 his eyesight started deteriorating and he spent many decades of his life blind. In his work he carried out an ethnological project to study and preserve the oral folklore, native languages and traditional customs of Angola. He wrote novellas, novels, poetry and non-fiction. He’s considered one of the doyens of Angolan literature. The book I read is called Ecos da Minha Terra and was first published in 1952. It was the first time I read him and I was quite lucky in finding the book. In the book’s introduction, the author calls the texts ‘dramas,’ not products of the imagination but urban legends, folklore and stories that he and his helpers obtained interviewing Angolans.

Several themes reoccur in the book. First of all, the relationships between settlers and black Angolans, always on a basis of subjection. Secondly, the punishment of black Africans for their cooperation with Europeans. And also sorcery. Sorcery features many times in African literature: the belief in it, its practice to improve one’s luck or success in business, the creatures it conjures, and the fear and awe it inspires in others. These themes are found in the writings of Mia Couto, Uanhenga Xitu, Conceição Lima and Paulina Chiziane. It seems witchcraft is still an important part of daily life and much believed. Although that doesn’t mean the sorcerers can transgress all laws. In Ribas’ story, the male witches, or bruxos, are portrayed in an unsympathetic light, depicted as eating corpses and communing with dark spirits. When a young man sneaks out to witness the witches’ meeting and inadvertently outs several respectable men, the community metes out to them a brutal punishment. Violence is another recurrent theme. In Chiziane’s O Sétimo Juramento we’ll see another take on witchcraft.

Besides condemning the servile way the natives serve the Europeans, these stories also expose discrimination between black Angolans. A frequent target is the African who is happy to be considered a “real person” by his white master, which puts tension in his relationship with other Angolans. One such story is called “Maria Damba,” which is also the name of a character. Maria Damba is a proud maid who tragically discovers that her white master doesn’t love her as much as she thinks he does. “Used to the whip since puberty, she had for her master a canine submission.”  She exists only to please him and enjoys some degree of mobility her countrymen don’t. “Her servitude notwithstanding, Maria did not refrain from ascending the first step of Progress: living with him, the loin-cloth was replaced by clothes, and hygiene filled a gap in her obligations.”

One day Maria receives a visit from a black man while the master is out. This Angolan is a hunter, a man of possessions, somewhat well-off. As such he expects to be treated with some deference. But Maria has gotten used to sneer at other Angolans. When the hunter asks her for water, she refuses to serve him in a glass, since it’s the master’s glass, the glass he uses to drink. Instead she pours the water into his hat so he can lap it from there. Irate, the hunter goes away scheming to have his revenge. One day he returns with an offer to buy Maria Damba. She immediately senses danger and guesses the reason. As for the white master, he sells her without much consideration, his remorse of selling her quickly gone, because “the Nigger was born to be a slave! It’s the fate of his race! Nothing to be done!” And he quickly forgets the woman who served him, perhaps never even knowing that she was bought to be killed, or perhaps not caring if he did. The hunter takes her home and as soon as they arrive he shoots her dead cold-bloodedly. Many of these ‘dramas’ are told as legends the author and his assistants heard and collected, and may not be true, instead  I presume they form a sort of oral literature of resistance and also morality tales. And like children’s fables, the moral is simple and vicious: don’t be arrogant, or else. In fact, humiliating vain people is a common denouement in the book. Another story, “Hebu” has a similar finale and is also about a woman who spites a man, only to be humbled at the end.

Cruelty, injustice, and revenge are also present in “Mbangu a Musungu.” Mbangu a Musungu is a despotic chief. “He was great, great in everything: in ostentation, in cruelty. His might radiated fame: everybody talked about him, mouths opened up in horror.” He has absolute power over life and death, he sacrifices people at his will, his subjects exist only to serve him. He treats his slaves without humanity and kills men every day since “the stock is never finished.” He’s also their spiritual leader and can commune with the spirits and magical forces.

One day Mbangu a Musungu has a revelation. “The spirits of his ancestors - Mbangu a Musungu said – had revealed to him extraordinary things: an unknown world – the underworld, the world where those who died on earth continue to live. High above – no one ignored it – there was the world ruled by God. But what nobody knew, as he did not either, is that, underneath the earth, there was another world. Let no one doubt that, the spirits had told him. And the proof was that the dead did not return, not even to settle scores. And why? Because they felt fine, they had found what they hadn’t found here. And that world’s ruler would be he, Mbangu a Musungu.” In his megalomania he orders his subjects to create an underground dwelling for him to rule the underworld. And once finished he shuts himself up there. After a while, though, he becomes disappointed, it’s not how the vision promised, he holds no power down there, and he decides to return to the surface world. Through an opening he informs his subjects that he intends to come back up. But the people have discovered happiness living without him, so they prefer to let him die of starvation.

And finally it’s a book about the European settlers, who go to Africa “where getting rich is easier.” In fact it wasn’t, and few Portuguese were willing to go to Africa. Most emigrated to Brazil, a booming economy with all the pleasures of the modern world. Portuguese emigration was always an economic matter, because the metropolis didn’t provide many chances. Leaving to Africa was to make a commitment with hardships with few prospects of getting rich. But of course I understand the author’s perception, obviously the Portuguese were better off. Speaking of perceptions, some surprises were in store for the settlers. “I thought the Niggers still ate people…” a newcomer says, astonished they don’t anymore. Once in Angola, whites created their own communities with their own values. White men and black women sleeping together is not condoned. Newcomers have a hard time from the veterans there, ridiculed for their ignorance, and they awaken in them longing for the old country. Everybody longs to return to Portugal, to receive a letter from it. There’s also the civilizing side of the colonial project. “If Angola owes us its spiritual progress, we owe it our material progress.” I recommend re-reading the Amílcar Cabral to remember why this is so ironic. “The settler, made judge by his mental elevation, ordinarily decided conflicts according to the law.” Of course, as I’ve tried to show, this collides with the Angolans’ ways of settling matters, which tend to demand blood more often than not.

Óscar Ribas is not as popular as Pepetela or Mia Couto here in Portugal, and discovering him was quite serendipitous. I’m not sure what the odds are of reading him again, but this was a particularly curious collection of stories.

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