08 December 2008

O homem mais antigo

A couple of weekends ago while we were at a mini-market around the corner we mentioned to a couple of guys having a beer that we were looking for an apartment but having a hard time finding one. One of them volunteered that he knew a few people that might know some people and that he'd ask around for us. This Sunday afternoon two men came to the door and offered to show us a house near here. We hadn't told anyone where we're staying, but the two men had no trouble finding us; they simply walked down the main road and asked where the people with the white baby that rides in the stroller stays.

I agreed to see the house and was soon meeting Beto in front of the loja where we had first met his friend. We walked around the corner to see the house. It is big and has had a fair bit of work done on it recently. There is a big yard and driveway and it has a well in the back. If we could negotiate it down to about 10% of the asking price we'd take it in a heartbeat.

On the walk back to the loja, Beto and I talked about how much Huambo has changed and how quickly. One year ago houses repaired like the one we had just seen rented for $300-400 per month instead of the $2500 such places are getting today. Now, many of the houses in town have come under repair with new facades and fresh plaster over the hundreds of bullet holes peppering the outer surfaces of each one. Even a year ago the work had yet to begin in earnest; the provincial roads hadn't yet been repaired and it was difficult to get building supplies here from the port in Luanda.

I asked Beto where he was born and where he spent the war. He told me he'd been born not far away in Bíe province and had come to Huambo as a child in 1968, that he'd stayed in Huambo through the war, and that he still lived in the same apartment in the building directly across from the loja. When we got back to his front door he pointed up the street to the left and said that the UNITA troops had a reinforced position about 15 meters away. He pointed right and said that the MPLA position was about 50 meters up the road.

I was astounded that he lived, literally, on the front line. He laughed as told me about how he used to wait for a lull in the fire to run across the street so that they could go to the river at the bottom of the hill to catch fish. He was proud as he told me that there had been 80 to 100 people stuffed shoulder-to-shoulder in his small house as people were looking for a “safe” place to bunker down and had learned it was one of the few, if not only, still occupied house in the neighborhood. And, he shook his head in amusement as told me that when the MPLA soldiers discovered a loja storeroom in a local house that the UNITA soldiers left them to eat and drink for a few hours before taking it over so that the MPLA soldiers would return the favor and they could all relax in peace for a while.

Beto told me that he had one or two neighbors that braved it out with him, but that he was "o homem mais antigo da rua" (the longest tenured resident on the street). It struck me as strange that this lively man, maybe 50 years old, had been here the longest. The Ovimbundu have been here since at least the 15th century (though they weren't the first) and the Portuguese officially founded a city here, one of their key economic engines, in 1912. The fact that Beto has, at this point, been here longer than anyone else is a striking testament to the impact of the independence and civil wars. That such a lush, rich, and desirable place was completely deserted is frightening and astounding. That Beto, however, has remained an engaging, funny, and joyful man despite all that he's seen gives me hope that Huambo, too, will, eventually, come through its tribulations.