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Bay of Tigers: An African Odyssey

Bay of Tigers: An African Odyssey

by Pedro Rosa Mendes

In 1997, Pedro Rosa Mendes traveled across Africa—6,000 miles from the west to the east coast, from Angola to Mozambique—on trains with no windows, no doors, no seats, on wrecks of trucks and buses, on boats and motorcycles.
In war-torn Angola, a country where land mines outnumber people, Mendes found long lines of villagers waiting for shock


In 1997, Pedro Rosa Mendes traveled across Africa—6,000 miles from the west to the east coast, from Angola to Mozambique—on trains with no windows, no doors, no seats, on wrecks of trucks and buses, on boats and motorcycles.
In war-torn Angola, a country where land mines outnumber people, Mendes found long lines of villagers waiting for shock treatment to neutralize the phantom pain in amputated limbs, an apothecary's tent purveying boiled mucumbi bark to combat scurvy lesions in the mouth, and trains crowded with people eating salted fish and drinking beer, swapping tales of local sorcerers who can turn into snakes. He interviewed international relief workers and corrupt local officials, widows and orphans, soldiers and survivors, piecing together a rich portrait no history or travel book can match.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"A fascinating, lively, rich work of literature, and I read it with great interest. Pedro Rosa Mendes is truly an inspired author, and not only because he is capable of the most perceptive observations. He has that most important quality—an extraordinarily powerful imagination."—Ryszard Kapuscinski

The Los Angeles Times
The narrative deliberately zigzags across time and place, moving seemingly at random from Angola, to Mozambique, Zambia and even Cambodia. Although Mendes is a journalist and has a keen eye for detail and fact, the style is impressionistic — catching a moment, a landscape or a face — with the past constantly intruding upon the present. — Paul Hare
Publishers Weekly
Four decades of civil war have left Angola a shattered country, an unpublicized catastrophe where land mines outnumber people and children play with surface-to-air missiles. Mendes went there in 1997, a Portuguese journalist investigating his nation's former colony. This extraordinary, difficult book is a record of the horrors he found: an infant without a face, a young beggar who resembles a little five-year-old man, amputees lining up for electroshock therapy. The book's structure is as chaotic as the country. Mendes forgoes any kind of conventional approach, lurching backward and forward through time, switching points of view, quickly introducing then discarding characters. It would be frustrating if it weren't done with such evident purpose: the fractured, phantasmagoric depiction of a world gone mad. Mendes has a gift for wry observation (a colonel blissfully sleeping the sleep of his rank) and surreal imagery (a plush animal dangles crucified from the wire), both of which well suit his subject. Equally valuable is Mendes's evident compassion for those he encounters. His description of a blind musician patching a guitar with chewing gum, for instance, tells much about the musician, but also reveals Mendes's superb observational skills. The book's principal drawback is that it doesn't supply the context of postcolonial African history. Those who don't have that i.e., most people will find the book tough going. (A glossary offers some help, but it's not enough.) Still, Mendes has crafted a unique, frightening book. Composed equally of journalism, oral history and even magic realism, it shows how people can endure and even prevail despite their government's best efforts to keep them down. (May) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Portuguese journalist Mendes's book is filled with disturbing images, confusing acronyms, and the astonishing cruelties that took place in war-torn Angola in 1997. Many readers will need a history lesson to understand the nightmare he describes. One way to start is to read the glossary, which offers a tenuous but useful outline of the evolution of present-day Angola. An African nation where land mines still outnumber the population, Angola is no place for the casual visitor or, for that matter, the purposeful one. In fact, as Mendes points out, Angola may represent the dark continent at its darkest. Mendes's journey is not a straight line, and his writing is often as circuitous as his route. Sometimes the interviews become first-person narratives completely outside the author's voice. Three-quarters through the book, references to Cambodia-another land of horror that the author visited-come out of nowhere, like a glass of water to the face, and fade just as rapidly. For academic libraries and those with large collections on African nations.-Janet Ross, formerly with Sparks Branch Lib., NV Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
. . . and Mozambique, and Congo, and points between: an eye-opening journey across the killing fields of southern Africa, where innocents "die in installments." "No one escapes his destiny," an Angolan policeman remarks to Portuguese journalist Mendes toward the end of that 1997 odyssey. The remark, which could have come from the notebooks of Jean-Paul Sartre, is perfectly in keeping with Mendes’s gloomy view of humankind and its murderous tendencies, tempered by an earlier sojourn in Cambodia. Sometimes that destiny is mundane if terribly depressing: "Eat cornmeal or eat nothing. . . . Fantasize about fresh water. Salivate salt. . . . Defecate in front of others. Bathe in the river, swim during the crocodiles’ siesta, keep away from snakes, dry your body with your hands, extract the shudders from your bones, cover your skin with filthy clothes." Sometimes it is more exquisitely awful: a slow death from AIDS, an incremental one from starvation, a piece-by-piece one from inadvertently walking over a landmine. Mendes doesn’t fancy himself a particularly intrepid traveler, but he manages to talk his way into (and out of) some unlikely and highly lethal venues, including a guerrilla stronghold where he is "penned up like some rare specimen in a zoo" and, unlikelier still, a nest of Italian Red Brigades members on the lam, whose jungle collective, "a Dadaist hurricane," also numbers "a fugitive activist for Indian rights in Brazil (which role he still plays today) and a German architect (he now lives in Luanda)." The overall effect of all these strange places and actors, coupled with Mendes’s somber tone, is a sort of fever dream--or perhaps a scene out of Mad Max, a vision that Mendes invokeswhile watching a brushfire along a withered river. "Know why the plants have all become dwarfs," he asks? "They drink from the rivers. This soil is made of gunpowder." Sartresque indeed, pensive, arch, and diffuse. Readers aren’t likely to envy Mendes his journey, which has yielded a memorable tale.

Product Details

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date:
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0.88(w) x 9.00(h) x 6.00(d)

Read an Excerpt

In every inch of this ground is the last moment of my life. I can contemplate my last moment as far as the eye can see. It's the reason they transport me only at night. They're preserving me. I don't mind. Right now it is night, and there is much of it. It is always at night that I find myself restless. I have stopped feeling fear, because fear has deserted me, becoming an external territory. An enormous lack of stability: I have nothing to cling to, and that can be fatal. The ground, the road, the savanna, the country: fear is a map and the obligation it imposes. I don't know how many days' wide it is. We are crossing it at night. Crossing fear through the night is the only thing I have.

I can also tell you that I'm sleepy, cold, and possessed of absolute calm. Later I'll speak of a small crate of wine waiting to be drunk, tea leaves, and salt. There is also a precious cassette of Marilyn Monroe, with Billie Holiday waiting her turn before the end of the show.

In Menongue, the head of the CARE mine-clearing project in the Cuando Cubango Province showed me a map in very small scale that occupied an entire wall. A mosaic of military charts glued side by side, it was infested with red pins. There were also hand-drawn rectangles of red. And small blue flags, almost all of them around Menongue and along one bank of the Cuebe River, some inches to the southeast.

"The red ones are minefields. Not all of them are here, there's lots more. These are the ones we've identified. The rectangles are strategic locations that were surrounded by mines, such as barracks, powder magazines, and the airport. The blue ones are the areas that have been cleared of mines. Since June we've removed 24,000 from that zone. We store them in an old barracks that belonged to the Cuban logistical team, behind the Catholic mission. Then we destroy them, the way we're doing now: 3,000 on Friday, 860 on Saturday. And then there's the insanity of explosives in private homes. A few days back, a person came to see us because he was remodeling his house, and when the masons started digging in the yard, they discovered eighty-two mortars. You never know when they'll be needed..."

A single blue line leads to Menongue, starting at Bié. There are two more small lines with no outlet, toward the south as far as Caiundo, as far east as Cuíto Cuanavale. That is the extent of land communications, in a territory larger than Portugal.

"What about this blue rectangle along the riverbank?"

"It's the beach on the right side of the dam. The UNAVEM soldiers swim there.* The other side is still mined. They swim only halfway across."

"Where's the road south of Caiundo, on the way to Jamba?"

"There isn't one."

"In Luanda they told me there might be one."

"There's no road, and what there is is completely mined. We've managed to clear the road as far as Caiundo, nothing else. You still can't walk on the shoulder. Some time back, there was an accident with a truck that tried to back up. People died in the back of the truck, which is the way they travel here. South of Caiundo the minefields haven't even been located. UNITA and the government haven't given us the maps. No one takes that road, not even UNAVEM armored transports."

"How do the NGOs there get around?"

"There are no NGOs down there. There is nobody! Most of the province was never recognized by the Mission. Do I make myself clear?"

"But my plan is to get to Zambia through there. By way of Jamba. There's no other road."

"I'm telling you there isn't any road! No one is authorized to leave from Caiundo. Go back and catch a plane to Luanda and from there to Zambia, if it's so important to you."

At the office entrance, the CARE personnel had bamboo shelves with a display of some of the types of mines and explosives found in the city. There are Russian mines, Cuban, South African, and Chinese mines. Some carry instructions engraved by the manufacturer to ensure proper placement: "This side toward the enemy." The most dangerous are the Chinese plastic mines.

"I'm going to Caiundo. To try to get through."

"In three days you'll be back here telling me I was right. And if you're not, believe me, it'll be because you're dead. In three days you'll be back on the plane to Luanda. Retrace your steps and don't cause problems for us."

I didn't see him again. At the top of the street is the train station that no longer has any trains; they used to arrive from Namibe and Lubango, in the war years, loaded with ammunition and massacres. At the bottom is the river, and before that, the End of the World, a discotheque. It's closed, either because of its redundant name or because it's bankrupt. I left, heading down.

The last instant, therefore. Through the night. There is no scenery, no villages, no people around fires, or elephants silhouetted against the sky. I could speak of such things, I was hoping to, but it would be a lie. There is no horizon, nothing that stands out in relief, no time, no direction. Everything is compressed into the two frames of the windshield. We advance upon a tribe of ghosts illuminated by the headlights. They return to darkness when we run them over, to the deafening sound of the engine. Bushes, rabbits, faces, bats, lullabies, a zoo full of memories.

Our conveyance is a Kamaz. Soviet manufacture.

They used to make some colossal vehicles: a keel with four-wheel drive (each tire the height of a man) to cut through the stubborn sand, the currents of savannas, Cuando Cubango's unbridged rivers.

The right door has no glass. It needs it. The Kamaz charges forth into the cold and the vegetation like a blinded buffalo, with sudden lunges and jolts of fury. We struggle for hours in a network of giant thistles. The trees are of medium size but solid. They block our way, lashing against the truck with brutal power, the rhythm of waves in a storm. The thorns are tough, unbreakable. When the bumpers fracture their spine to the root and we leave them behind, they rain blows on us from every side, scratching against the metal of the chassis like fingernails. In the cab, my feet are burning from them. Little by little, the thorns tear at the arm of my coat before they fall to the ground (I see them in a sliver of the mirror). They have already pierced my skin and caught an ear in the process: my neck bristles with that knifelike flora. I don't dare remove my hood.

The lieutenant colonel is in the middle seat, sleeping the sleep of his rank. I envy him and elbow him aside because he is pushing me toward the thorns. I defend myself by reflex, no longer able to feel my body.

Three days ago, or two, maybe four, it doesn't matter, we had to take apart the jeep's engine. We were in the middle of a mined stretch between Caiundo and Cuangar. The jeep in the middle of the sand, the parts in the middle of the sand, two guerrilla fighters lying down with oil on their arms and sand in the oil. An entire day to clean the engine. The colonel, smoking, told me about the day he stepped on a mine. He felt the click on the sole of his foot and instantly froze. He cried at the top of his lungs. Get me out of here. It was an old Portuguese mine. With them, one second separates the click from the explosion. The click activates the mine. The explosion occurs when the pressure from above is released. Desperation and survival have only that one second to act. The colonel asked for a stick, which they tossed to him. Weeping and sweating, he inserted it beneath the toe of his boot and applied pressure so he could remove his foot without setting off the mine. Then he leaped forward onto the ground. The mine went off behind him. He was in a state of shock for several days. Nothing else. The two of us looked at his feet: intact. Hungry, we gathered twigs, carefully treading on the parallel tracks of the jeep, and boiled a pot of tea. I passed around the small white bag they'd given me in Menongue, and we sweetened it. The colonel took a sip and spat. The bag was table salt.

Every twenty minutes someone is killed or maimed in this world by an antipersonnel mine. There are more than one hundred million mines buried in seventy countries, close to a tenth of them in Angola. In Cuando Cubango, where it is believed 45 percent of Angola's mines are located, mines outnumber people. There were not a lot of people to begin with, and in recent years many have died.

Above our ears and above the dolorous noise, a guerrilla with his Bedouin head wrapped in a rag acts as copilot, shouting through the rear window of the Kamaz, which has no glass.

"To the left at that tree...At that one, to the left. Then to the right...To the right at the bramble bush...To the right, through the sand...To the right, the right! Back, go back! Now that way, straight ahead."

We hope that the copilot knows the terrain well. That his mask of youth conceals the face of a seasoned veteran of war. That he knows the minefields because he helped plant them.


We hope that this is not the first time he has crossed this field in the only way possible, by slashing through the undergrowth.


And we hope that he has done this at night.


And we especially hope that he has no desire to commit suicide. Not a speck of such desire, in this night that never ends.

"We're there! Wake up."

I have no words. My eyelids are heavy with sleep, and the northern lights are exploding in my brain.

"I couldn't sleep. Did you notice that we were being watched?"

Everywhere, a roaring that doesn't seem to come from the engine. "This side toward the enemy."

Dirico is the name the map gives this place, but where have we arrived at? The coordinates are ephemeral. My birthday was yesterday, therefore today must still be yesterday. I get out of the Kamaz with bruised hands and bump into two mirages: a house in ruins and a river in the depths of the savanna. It is the sight of water that I dream about now, there on the cold cement, grabbing the dream in my hands: my two feet like stone but intact.

"Marilyn." Those fearful, fantastic aerial bombs that a Portuguese captain showed me; they are waiting to be destroyed. Six-foot cylinders that have not exploded, rusting in the grasses of Menongue, with graffiti in French: JE T'AIME, BRIGITTE!

© 1999, Pedro Rosa Mendes e Publicacoes Dom Quixote.
English translation copyright © 2003 by Clifford Landers

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system,
without permission in writing from the publisher.

Requests for permission to make copies of any part of the work should be mailed to the following address: Permissions Department,
Harcourt Inc., 6277 Sea Harbor Drive, Orlando, Florida 32887-6777.

Meet the Author

Pedro Rosa Mendes is a Portuguese journalist and writer. His dispatches from Zaire, Angola, Rwanda, and Afghanistan have earned him widespread renown in Europe. Bay of Tigers is his first book.

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