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Letter From Luanda: Lost In Translation

Angola skyline with construction cranes that are rebuilding the city since the war PIC: THALEFANG CHARLES
LUANDA, ANGOLA: I have never been more confused by Jesus Christ until this day. We arrived late afternoon at the Museu Nacional da Escravatura I had no idea what this means, but I trusted my guide that it is the National Museum of Slavery I am looking for. The only problem is that my guide Jose, could not speak English.

Jose was sent to pick me from the hotel by Sirgio Costa who was my principal host in Luanda to take me to the National Museum of Slavery. Costa, although his English had a heavy Portuguese accent, was a great guide.

He had earlier showed me around central Luanda on his big Grand Cherokee. And talking about big cars, when I first visited this city in 2016, the SUVs were everywhere. Fuel was still affordable back then and Luandans had no qualms with fuel guzzlers of big cars. So these days there are lots of smaller vehicles on the roads because of the escalated fuel prices. Angola has become even more expensive now.

Costa took me to the Fortress of São Miguel (Fortaleza de São Miguel), which stands imposing next to a lagoon and has an oversize flag of Angola. Built in 1576 by Paulo Dias de Novais, the fortress became the administrative centre of the colony in 1627 and was a major outlet for slave traffic to Brazil but today, it hosts the Museum of the Armed Forces. From the elevation of the fortress at night, one can see the beautiful Luanda skyline with its many construction cranes. The cranes tell a story of the booming city that is on an escalated rebuilding from its dark days of civil war.

The Fortaleza is one of the Portuguese legacy monuments that remain in Luanda. There are also old beautiful Portuguese structures around it from as far back as the 1500.

But the most interesting Portuguese legacy that I discovered in Luanda was the shoe-shiners on the street corners. They call them engraxador and can be found at convenient corners around the city.

Costa said it is their way of life to not polish their shoes at home as they leave that job to the engraxador. Scenes of the men and women queuing at street corners getting their shoes polished were a sight to behold. Costa told me that they could polish any shoes as they have polish for any kind of shoe material available.

Costa also took me to the biggest flea market I

have ever seen in central Luanda. “You can buy anything here,” Costa said as we drove slowly through the bustling maze of stalls and thousands of people – buyers and sellers.

At the end of the tour, I had picked somewhere through my readings that there is slavery museum in Luanda. I got really interested to find out how the Angolans have curated such a museum and asked Costa to take me to the museum. I was told that it was far out of town and more time  was needed to get there. Costa promised that when I returned from the inland trip, he would arrange for a tour.

And that is how I found myself with Jose on the small entrance of a white edifice emblazoned with ‘Museu Nacional da Escravatura’. My phone had no data, I could have Google Translated it. My guide could not speak English. No one could speak English.

On the ocean view exit, door of no-return - I was starring straight at the sculpture of Jesus Christ on the cross. Initially I thought, this must be a mistake; we are probably at some church museum. “What is ‘J’ doing here?” I wondered. This can’t be a slave museum because Jesus Christ gospel is against slavery, I kept wondering.

The museum had three rooms and it was still under renovation when we got there. The men doing the renovations could not speak English. No one could explain to me as what is “J” doing here.

I returned confused but when Jose asked whether I was okay, he said something like “tudu bem”, I responded with my own “tudu bem!” even though I was not all right. There was no need to say anything because we would be lost in translation again.

So immediately when I arrived back at the hotel I searched for the museum and was blown off as I read what happened at the small white house with Jesus Christ.

Apparently, this is where slaves were baptised before being put on slave ships for transport to the Americas. Wow! Was  it all in Jesus Christ name?


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