Don's diary

August 29, 1997


The flights to Africa do not leave until midnight so I use a free day to explore Lisbon, capital of the old empire, before visiting the empire itself. Check with my publisher that the Portuguese translation of my History of Portugal is progressing, only to find that it has ground to a halt. Readers, it seems, may balk at the impertinence of my claim that the great dictator, Doctor Salazar, obtained his university lectureship as a temporary war-time measure before completing his doctorate. Is this the tip of a publisher's iceberg of self-imposed censorship? The question is one of the type that will dominate my week in Angola, where we are going to discuss whether a government has the right to "own" its national history.


Luanda at dawn, mirrored in a palm-fringed bay, crowned by a citadel built in 1576 by the grandson of Bartholomew Dias; the most elegant city in Africa, said Mary Kingsley with true Victorian appreciation. Can this be the city wracked by 36 years of civil war? Perhaps, but this week everyone is going semi-purposefully about their business in relaxed style. From the roof terrace one canidentify all the old landmarks: the ornately prefabricated cast iron trading factory, the bishop's chapel and palace just up the cobbled high street from the British consulate, the pink dome of the old colonial bank of 1930, the first skyscraper of the oil boom of the 1960s.


Our conference, titled "Constructing Angola's History", is due to be held in the parliament building, formerly the Imperial cinema but now nicely refurbished to serve as the home of the Angolanparliament elected in 1992 during the "Pax of Margarida" - the peace that folklore attributes to Margaret Anstee. Working in the parliament building has its surprises. Yesterday the budget debate was concluded and so I am given Mr Speaker d'Almeida's seat from which to chair the first paper, a very scholarly German one. Today the grand committee room is occupied by Mr President Kabila from neighbouring Congo. Tomorrow, Matre Alioune Beye of the United Nations will be briefing the diplomatic corps on his version of peace, the "Pax of Alioune" as they say down in the slums.


Shy students approach me diffidently to ask if I would be willing to autograph a copy of my paper for them. You would hardly expect an academic conference paper entitled A Taxonomy of the Ecclesiastical Archives of Angola to be on the bestseller list. And certainly not in a country where there have been four serious attempts tooutlaw the church. But the churches are very hot property in Angola, possibly too hot for a local historian to handle in front of the cameras. It is clear that in a country frequently at war the search for security leads to the growth of very dynamic neighbourhood churches and an ever-changing tension between church and state.


The pace hots up. Our French speaker suggests that the stories relating to Angola's heroic National Day, February 4 1961, are pieces of "invented tradition" that mature scholarship should now re-examine. The state, she says, has no right to appropriate history for its own ends. Two hundred Angolans, academics, politicians, students, archivists, administrators and former guerrilla fighters debate historical methodology and political ideology at the highest level of intensive participation. The next day the prime minister comes along to tell us that scholars must only disseminate "the truth". Clearly the worrying word has reached him that there are a lot of different truths and that historians are trained to collect them all.


Must remember to tell the Association of University Teachers woman that in Angola the director of the archives is a woman, the curator of the national library is a woman, and the vice chancellor of the university is a woman. Perhaps men are too busy making money from Angola's significant oil and diamond fields. Guestlecturers drop like flies and I extravagantly and shame-facedly drink only imported water that costs as much as whisky.


Our Angolan hosts arrange for us to have a picnic to end on a note of celebration. We should like to go to Mbanza Kongo, capital of the most famous mediaeval kingdom of this part of Africa. Two 40-seater planes are chartered but then, mysteriously, things change shape. The plane carrying the politicians and journalists goes to Mbanza Kongo and a visit to the graves of the old kings isdecorously orchestrated with brass bands and dance troupes. But the plane carrying the academics flies directly to the picnic site. Apologies about fuel shortages, security risks, time constraints, and the weather carry little conviction. Perhaps the power of history is too great to permit foreigners to approach. The lesson was salutary. In Angola history is dynamite, whether contemporary political history, or colonial church history, or even medieval cultural history. We thought we were beginning to understand, but in reality we were like Alice through the looking-glass. But it was a very good picnic.

David Birmingham is professor of modern history at the University of Kent at Canterbury.

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