A Trip Into My Past

Mathieu Cain

© Copyright 2001 by Mathieu Cain

Drawing of an African Woman by the author.  (c) Copyright 2001 by the author.
A trip back fifteen long years, away from home.

I took a trip. Not a trip to London, as that has already been done. I took to the paths clothed in dust, the misty paths of remembrance. A return home it was; a return to my birth, a return to my youth.

Mother and son retraced their steps through a world of beginnings and through one of continuation. We left our new house behind us, and with it the status we had achieved since then. Down the back roads, back, back, back, back to our second house, and beyond. We emerged from the maze of protective streets and middle class life onto the road that I knew so well. The great ditch overgrown with lush green swamp weeds and plants still lay where it had always lain, with the road running along side of it. In turn on the road's other side still stood the old dilapidated industrial warehouses, a mark of colonial ruin, not yet affected by the new western craze that swept the city. Crossing the ditch we parked the landrover in the empty parking lot opposite the church. I had been in the church once or twice, when I was younger, but its inside held no memory of mine. The school across from the church might once have offered a possible education, had the Alliance Française not opened its doors to me and its world of the French. It stood in my mind as a landmark for a road not taken.

Being a late Sunday afternoon, the area was relatively deserted as we turned away from the church and its now silent bells still chiming within my head. Retracing our steps after a false entrance into an enclosed parking lot, an open dirt field I had so often crossed at the end of a day, we circumnavigated the fresh cement grey walls to finally stand before my Creche gates. Kiessie harboured many well-placed memories of mouth-watering rice pudding, ramps and green broken glass inlayed walls, teeth marks left on limbs by well meaning friends and Christmas parties with cake, juice and presents courtesy of the Madres that ran it. My baby sister crying in a crib... me brought in to calm her, now crawling underneath them... the Angolan women speaking to one another in Kimbundu... memories drifting through space and time. From the gate all looked smaller though, as though time had shrunk my experiences.

We journeyed on, past the church and the Creche, down through the "bairros" ingrown with "musseques" or squatter areas. As we walked, squeaky swings welcomed us before the light blue and pink day schools came into sight with their scenes of Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck of old. Even a mural of Che Guevara still stood on a wall belonging to what was once known as "the Cuban Compound", now nearly lost between the ever-new houses, continual efforts to meet the needs of the expanding city. Occasionally we would catch a glimpse of a little garden or banana plantation amongst the crowded habitations; here once stood a log of a tree, now a tree stump for roadside vendors; there a puddle, spreading wide its jaws for the unsuspecting motor vehicle, deceptively filled in with moss or the occasional bush. At the end of our old street once stood such a chasm. It would regularly get filled in with the odd monstrous army truck that inadvertently thought to brave the murky open waters of the puddle.

Finally, our street. It was the same as it had always been, with its low-rise buildings on the left flank and a line of houses on the right, little had changed. The houses were still there, though the really tall papaya tree in that yard over there had gone. The buildings were still as I had remembered them; a little more crowded together than I had left them, but not unrecognisable. When my parents first arrived, and I graced the world with my birth, there were only the buildings. Theft was prominent. If you couldn't sleep and had nothing better to do in the deep hours of the night, you could always go out onto your back balcony and shout "gatuno!", "thief!" and watch the shadows slither away like spiders from the lattice of surrounding buildings. My diapers, hung out to dry, would slowly diminish in number. My dad ran outside one day and took a shirt from a guy's back. There was no mistaking it for another. Then, then rose the fences, and with them the cold steel supports that I'd climb to get that tingly feeling as I slid back down them again. Now those fences are being gobbled up as further private enclosures barricade the outside world from the within.

Still, the tin gate stands welcoming to my building. When the rains came it would beat time with the thunder, lightning and wind, banging recklessly against its hinges, amidst the ever-rising water with swirling cockroaches and debris from the choking drainpipes.

Half way up the staircase to the second floor, our floor, iron bars would offer me a chance to squeeze through and scramble up to a loft, overhanging the main entrance. From there I could survey my surroundings and keep fort all in one fell swoop.

We walked on down memory lane, past buildings where various friends had once lived, past where a huge pup named Astro once played, and down to the corner at the end of our street where outliving them all, still stood a house made of tin sheets and cardboard.

Across the street from that, I remember playing with another good friend now perhaps in the States, if not, like most of my old friends at least out of the country, avoiding the draft and getting a better education. Further still, rose an obscure library, whose memory is but cobwebs in my mind. Cutting across an apartment bloc, we emerged on the next street over amidst chickens and roosters clawing and pecking their way up and down the dusty road. We followed the sewage trench along to the main road.

The main road had always been quite rucked up with ponds of water seeping through to the surface from the old, deteriorating water pipes. The rainy seasons did nothing to contribute in its restoration. When we emerged onto that main road, we found not a street but a swimming pool of black-green sludge. Aaaahhh, the ripe clean (and green) smells of home. Sure beats the poisonous toxic fumes one would otherwise get on a developed country's main causeway.

A market lay at the other end of the street. Carefully, waiting our turn, we edged our way down one side of the street (the other side looked impassable) hopping from one stone to another, from one tire to another, from one small patch of somewhat bare earth to one dirty piece of cardboard. Though the street was only about four blocks long, the two ways of pedestrian traffic sharing the same lane, meant longer going. We reached the end in time to hear a "Goooooooaaaaaaaaaaalo" (goal) from the little radio a soldier had pressed up against his ear.

The market still stood as we had left it all those years ago. Little old ladies with whom my mother had traded an old shirt or some soap for a bunch of bananas in the old days, were surprisingly still sitting there behind their stalls as of old, though now their ware was much reduced to a small mound of dried up chilli peppers and a bit of manioc. The younger lads had begun to take over the stalls inside the market grounds selling their medicines and knick-knacks. Some of the older tenants kept on for what seemed but for pride's sake, whilst others adapted, changing their displays to spoons or traditional remedies. Those who could not afford to rent a stall inside the market grounds, or who could not due to the overcrowded space, lay their produce out outside. We passed through a babble of voices, crisscrossing before us, calling us to buy their meats, chicken or vegetables before they closed up for the day.

As we completed our round trip back towards the car, we passed down an alleyway, where floated yet another window of Angolan life. Loud music came from someone's back yard and smoke, carrying smells of Sunday barbecued chicken, drifting out to meet us; probably a family gathering.

The square we had left the car in, a few hours earlier, had suddenly become a hubbub of excited voices as people streamed towards us, away from the soccer stadium.

Mum and I had taken not only a tour through our past but also a tour and reminder of what life is really all about for a lot of Angolans.
Canadian by parentage, my life as it stands has been an African setting  with wide multicultural experience. I was born in Angola on September 12th 1981, in a country emerging from the brutality of Portuguese colonialism. My parents were involved in diplomatic and international development work. Education took me from a ten year hall at the “Ecole Française de Luanda” to four wonderful years at a boarding school in the kingdom of Swaziland, the heart of the Zulu homelands, eventually finding me in Engineering here at the University of Waterloo in Canada. International travel is far from unfamiliar to me, having glob trotted a  fair deal in my relatively short life. So far I have pocketed four languages, learning Portuguese, French and Spanish from an early age.
Photo of Mathieu on the beach.

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