Every mother delights to wake pre-dawn to the sound of her child throwing up copiously in their bed. I was across the truck thrusting a saucepan across the sleeping bag before I was even properly awake. We had to get Ruby in the shower to pick the lumps out of her hair. Lovely start to the day. When the diarrhoea started we realised she had food poisoning. Seems the vetkoek-type doughnut she bought from her friends on the beach yesterday lacked a little hygiene in the making. A good lesson to learn early in the trip – greed doesn’t pay. Our Portuguese phrasebook revealed that what she had done phonetically was ‘vomitango’; seemed appropriate for her spectacular display.
Apart from that minor hiccup, this place has been full of blessings. We have been welcomed into this intimate community with a warmth that has been humbling. I shall call the village Blessings because the surfer’s code says you must only reveal the location of a new surf spot to those you are sure will respect the locals and the environment. Joy’s Gift has proved to be a mighty wave worthy of many future surf missions from SA, and although it is wonderful to imagine that surfing could bring some economic benefit to the community, the reality is that if we publicise the name of the place irresponsibly, too many surfers will overrun it and destroy its peace and charm.
Blessings has given us everything we really needed this week. Sampson needed to get in the sea and surf his brains out until his soul was soothed. The kids needed some company that wasn’t crying all the time, and I needed some stillness. Time to just breathe, just be.
Ruby is never happier than when socialising and here she made a true friend. Nzenge lives in the wooden hut right next to where we happened to pull up. A family of six kids live in the hut, though she and her younger brothers sleep in a tiny tent outside. Their mother lives across the way, their father is a fisherman we never saw, and their grandfather sits outside for half the day. The eldest daughter, aged 14, cooked for all six of them. Nzenge was shy at first, but sharp as a button, and full of fun. She and Ruby communicated mainly through laughing.
At the end of our first full day here, when they’d played a matching card game in the truck, and then Ruby went back to Nzenge’s place, which was completely empty except for a plastic table, two chairs and some small piles of clothes, Ruby said ‘I know you’ve always said how lucky we are, but I’ve never really felt it till now.’
On the second day, I walked to the river about a kilometre away where the women go to do washing and collect water. I realised the main village was there, with about 15 painted buildings amidst lush fields of tilled crops. There were four settlements of up to 10 houses each radiating away from this hub, each with its own flag – either an MPLA star or the UNITA stripes. In the afternoon, we walked in the opposite direction, towards the fishing boats. I was able to help a woman carry her washing, which made me feel able to ask to take photos. A couple of the small babies were terrified of me, a white fright with a camera – they’d never seen either, and it was horrible to feel I probably look like some monster their mums have told them scary stories about!
On day three, Sunday, the local Keystone Cops duo decided to swing by on a motorbike and make a desultory attempt at a bribe. “Do you want a fishing permit? No? You use those boards?? Oh!… Got any beer? No? Oh… Any money? No? Oh… OK.” Cheery Bom Dias all round and off they went.
I took the children to the river and we walked further along to where the cattle were grazing. Unlike in the drought-burdened south, here they are fat and happy. When I explained to herder Raoul, 40, that we were from ‘Africa du Sol’ he responded ‘Ah, our father, Nelson Mandela’ and we clasped hands. It was a moment. It’s a shame it’s been too clouded over for photos to show how beautiful it is here; there’s been quite a wintry hazy mist around most of the time.
Meanwhile, Sampson was regretting having wished for the swell to come through more strongly so he could see what Joy’s Gift could do – for four out of the six days we were here, the wave was too big for him to surf it! He did some paddling around just for the exercise and the experience, and managed to avoid getting too many heaving slabs on the head… Out of the water, he passed the time entertaining passersby with language-free skills learned in Covent Garden times before he became a stand-up comedian.
Strangely, his best-loved stunt wasn’t a magic trick or juggling but a made-up game called ‘Monkey madness’. As he pulled baboon-type poses and chased a horde of kids shrieking in mixed delight and terror around the truck for hours on end, I remembered why I love him.
My doing Tai Qi was also causing consternation. I’m sure they think we’re completely nuts. Otherwise, I continued my little woman act: washing clothes and finally getting round to the sewing repairs which been sat in a bag for months previous to our leaving. I have also invented a new dish called Pap Cakes, which are a fabulous way to use leftover corn meal mash, fried to crispy with tuna, cheese or jam filling. We’re thinking of franchising them as fast food across SA!
On day three, Ruby was thrilled to be invited to carry a bowl on her head to the river to do the washing up. Zola and the other young boys played on the beach while the girls washed – we were proud that she stripped off and got in the river to wash as they did, and they lent her a wrap. She came back so pleased with herself, having won over Nzenge’s older sister Ana when they exchanged looks about the Cool Girls at the river. You get the feeling that the people in the centre of Blessings, in the brick and the wattle-and daub mud houses, look down on the people from the ‘praia’, the beach dwellers, in their huts of branches and plastic.
Zola takes longer to make friends but after three days was happily running around with Maurice and August.
It was wonderful to have time to get to know the characters of the area: Paula the exhibitionist who would burst into dance whenever I got the camera out; Manuel who wears Arsenal gloves without knowing what Arsenal is, and a selection of pink jackets. He drives a moped and longs for a camera, which cost a frightening amount in Angola. He seems extremely bright but was unable to confirm the spelling of his own surname. Excepting the odd drunk, people of Blessings have been very lovely and willing to chat, waiting patiently while I thumb through the phrasebook dictionary.
On Monday the surf was still too big and we were on a mission to get cell reception – we drove to the next town, only to find no reception here either, but a kind lady called Elsa directed us to an angel called Djara, who was disguised as a bank manager. When Sampson went in to explain that he needed to send the eulogy for his Mum to his brother ahead of the funeral on Wednesday, she told him she had lost her mother just 2 months before and insisted we use her dongle, on another server that did cover this area. Thanks to her, we were able to send his audio recording and pictures of Joy’s Gift from this village to Sampson’s in Cornwall. We celebrated by buying a bread roll for everyone in Blessings and went home, through five ‘Desvio’s. While handing out the pao, we were shocked to discover that the man in the most desolate plastic hut nearest the sea was completely blind. How on earth does he survive here?
On day five, the wave was huge like Hawaii, and I got very cold trying to film Sampson trying to survive paddling over it. The crowd outside Nzenge’s hut watching with me were dancing unselfconsciously to music on the radio. In between sets, I took pictures of all the kids – check out the Africa Clockwise Facebook page for more.
After we’d done our lessons, the kids and I went to school with Nzenge as she only starts at 12 o’clock. I don’t know whether that’s to give kids time to do chores in the morning or because there’s so few teachers, they teach in shifts – her elder brother Joao only went at 3pm. We were impressed to see a solid new building and plenty of desks and chairs. The Director Senor Domingues took a pic of us on his iPad! The children’s uniform consists of a white smock that they tie over their clothes. We watched them have assembly outside under the Angolan flag and sing the national anthem lustily.
Since we set off I have been reading Just William books aloud to my kids as bedtime stories, and children here remind me of those fictional 1950’s kids – active and mischievous, exploring and inventive. They are all fit and supple, from constantly playing running and chasing games. At school there was a very complex game of hopscotch underway and Nzenge and her friends threw a homemade ball of grain tied in a cloth at each other while attempting to turn over a load of bottle tops in the sand. We have seen loads of kids running with hoops and sticks, boys with catapults and girls up to teens playing skipping rope games. It’s a more innocent childhood and it’s beautiful to see.
We walked the long way home weaving through fertile fields of tomatoes, potatoes, cabagges, manioc, and bananas between palms. One old guy in an MPLA cap exchanged pleasantries with me and signed off with a “Sharp sharp!” I wished I knew enough Portuguese to ask him about border war times.
That last evening, we did an excerpt from our Parafina fire-swinging show to say thank you. The next surf tourists better have a good show to put on or they’re going to let the side down.
Written on 6th August