Stoney Angolan Hearts

Manuel Baptista Chivonde Nito Alves, 19, has just started serving a six month sentence for contempt of court at Viana prison outside the Angolan capital, Luanda. Nito Alves, as he is commonly known, was under house arrest, having earlier spent fifty one days in prison after being charged, along with fifteen other activists, of plotting acts against the Angolan government.  It was during the trial for this original charge that Nito Alves cried out, saying, “I do not fear for my life; this trial is a farce.” The young activist felt the court was trying to humiliate his father, who was being interrogated at the time. The authorities took him away, tried him summarily, and slapped a six month sentence on him. Sadly, some have come to accept this lack of compassion on the part of the Angolan authorities as being normal.

Nito Alves and I have much in common: we were both born in the same locality, Katchiungo, a small town sixty kilometers east of Huambo, in the central Angolan highlands.  I was born fifty years ago; Nito Alves was born 19 years ago. He could have been my son.  In fact, he is almost the same age as my first-born daughter who, having been born and raised in the United States, is baffled that anyone could be punished for the things Nito Alves is alleged to have done.  Nito Alves is not a criminal.

I still have memories of Angola under Portuguese colonialism; at independence, in 1975, I was nine years old.  I lived in exile in Zambia (for two years, from 1984 to 1986) and witnessed the civil war that was to engulf my native country, Angola. In 2002, with the death of Jonas Savimbi, the UNITA leader, there was a widespread sentiment that we would have a decent, viable democracy which would respect the rule of law – and, of course, human rights. Many of us hoped that there would soon be a generation of young Angolans who would delight in belonging to a nation blessed with immense natural resources.  We imagined them at university campuses, learning, discussing, and getting ready to help build the country.  We never imagined them being treated like dogs, beaten, humiliated, put into solitary cells. These young activists are certainly not criminals.

The way the Angolan state had been treating Manuel Chivonde Nito Alves and other activists disaffirmed the theory that ours was becoming a decent, democratic society. In 2013, then aged seventeen, Nito Alves went to a printing shop and asked for a number of t-shirts to be printed with inscriptions that were critical of the Angolan president, José Eduardo dos Santos. The printer reported him to the police and the teenager soon found himself in solitary confinement in one of Luanda’s main prisons. A seventeen year old in solitary confinement just for asking to have some t-shirts printed. At the time, several notable figures in Angola called for his immediate release.  The young activist came out of prison after two months.  He was certainly not a criminal; but he was also not well.

In subsequent interviews, Nito Alves’s mother insisted that the prison experiences had altered her son.  His father, Baptista Chivonde, said the same thing.  The persistent clashes that the authorities had with Nito Alves had also taken their toll on the family. Adelia Chivonde complained in several interviews that she did not understand why the authorities were treating her son like a criminal; she insisted that her son was merely trying to exercise his constitutional right to protest.  We saw Nito Alves grow into a bitter young man. Looking at him, I was often reminded of the line by the Irish poet Yeats, “Too long a sacrifice makes a stone of the heart.” There were, indeed, some young Angolan hearts that were being turned into stone.

There is a glaring difference between what the Angolan authorities profess in public and the reality on the ground.  True, Angolans have the right to protest – but, on the whole, only demonstrations in favor of the regime have the blessing of the state. Any protest that does not fit the format laid out by the authorities is met with water cannons, dogs, heavily-armed police, and even plain clothes operatives who beat up anyone perceived to be opposed to the regime. A number of young Angolans, like Nito Alves, are simply not prepared to accept this inconsistency.  Their hearts have slowly been turning into stone – and so have those of the authorities.

The other event that truly shocked me was the 2014 beating of Laurinda Gouveia, a close friend of Nito Alves, at the hands of the police. This young philosophy student, from a humble background, supported her studies by selling roasted chickens. She was also quite active in the youth movement that tried to hold protests against the government. One evening, the police got hold of her and beat her mercilessly.  She named her assailants who took turns hitting her with metal rods.  No one was charged for this gross violation of the young woman’s rights.

In a later interview, Laurinda Gouveia said she had taken to activism because she felt that it was the only way that young could make their concerns heard. She lamented the lack of opportunities for young people from underprivileged backgrounds – and the corruption within the educational system. Her demands, like those of her fellow activists, are very reasonable; yet, the authorities often view these demands as posing a serious threat to their power. Laurinda Gouveia is certainly not a criminal.

The Angolan authorities are truly failing this post civil war generation. Unlike me, these young people do not remember the colonial days. These are young people who can’t stand being told that they have been blessed by being born in one of the wealthiest countries on the African continent while enduring real poverty and lack of opportunities.  These are young people are very aware of the unequal distribution of wealth in Angola.  They are not criminals.

Last year, in detention, one of Nito Alves’s colleagues, Sedrick de Carvalho, wanted to do away with his life as he was tired of being held in jail unfairly. Many people asked Sedrick to think twice and give up the hunger strike he was on. In the midst of all that, almost unnoticed, his young wife said she had written him a twenty-five page letter about their love. I was struck by the purity and innocence coming from the young woman. In a world of so much cynicism and scheming, there was a voice highlighting the importance of love.  All Angolans need to rediscover love in its true sense.

Nito Alves came up with the outburst that upset the judge because he felt his father was being humiliated.  His colleagues thought this would have earned him a mere reprimand from the judge. The judge should have thought of the intense pressure Nito Alves and his family have been under. The authorities presiding over the trial are a typical representation of what is wrong with Angola.  The prosecutor, for instance, has throughout the trial being wearing a wig and dark glasses which cover her eyes.  Many people are not sure who exactly she is. At one point, the judge told one of the accused, a law student, to stop talking and to continue expressing his views on legal issues in jail where he belonged.  This, coming from a judge! It is very likely that this judge will be duly promoted at the end of this trial.  However, history and the Angolan people will pass judgment on him.  He will not come out fine.

Nito Alves went to prison saying he did not fear for his life. When young people lose hope, and begin to see little value in being alive, then adults have truly failed them.  That is exactly what the Angolan government is doing to these young people.  We have another young stony heart at Viana prison. Nito Alves is not a criminal.