THE LITERARY WORK
A novel set in Angola from 1890 to 1975; published in Portuguese in 1984, in English in 1996.
Through the influence of a mysterious African statue, the son of Portuguese settlers in Angola develops character over the course of his life, as he comes to understand Africa.
Pepetela is the word for “eyelash” in the Umbundu language, and it is a literal translation from the Portuguese of the surname of Artur Carlos Mauricio Pestana, author of Yaka. Originally Pepetela adopted this name while fighting in the MPLA, or Movimento Popular para a Libertaç o de Angola (People’s Liberation Movement of Angola). A Marxist-Leninist guerrilla group, the MPLA was formed in the 1950s to gain Angola’s independence from Portugal. When Angola achieved independence in 1975, the fledgling nation’s poet-president Antonió Augustino Neto called upon patriotic writers to establish a national literature. Pepetela was one of many who responded to this call. Like the protagonist of Yaka, Pepetela was born to parents of Portuguese descent in the Angolan port city of Benguela. He was educated in Angola, Portugal, France, and Algeria, eventually getting his degree in sociology. In adopting an Umbundu translation of his Portuguese name, the author creates for himself an identity that melds European and African elements in a way that is uniquely Angolan. Indeed, Pepetela is known—perhaps most ambitiously in Yaka—for tackling the theme of Angolanidade, the concept of what it means to be Angolan, in his literary work. Yaka, Pepetela’s fourth novel, won the Angolan national prize for literature in 1985.
Angola is a tropical nation below the equator on the southwestern coast of Africa. Roughly 14 times the size of Portugal, Angola extends from the Congo River basin in the north to the edges of the Kalahari Desert in the south. Angola’s coastal lowlands in the west give way to an ascending series of plateaus, rising eastward to the nation’s inland borders. While the coast is hot and humid with poor soil, the interior plateaus offer fertile soil and a healthy climate. Benguela, where much of the novel takes place, is a port city midway down the Angolan coast. The area surrounding Benguela is watered by numerous small streams and rivers, and is homeland to the Ovimbundu people, who constitute the largest ethnic group in Angola and speak Umbundu. There are seven other major indigenous groups in Angola. Of these, two are represented in the novel. The Cuvales, a subgroup of the Herero of southwest Angola, are herders who place high cultural value on cattle. The Yaka, or Jaga, live near the northern border of Angola, where they migrated sometime in the sixteenth century. None of these ethnic groups were united before Portugal began its colonizing efforts in the fifteenth century; at the time of contact with Europeans in the eighteenth century, the Ovimbundu consisted of some 22 subgroups.
Contact with the Portuguese
Portuguese explorer Diogo Cāo landed in Angola in 1482 and struck up friendships with kings in the area of the Congo River basin. These kings welcomed Portuguese traders and missionaries in their lands. In fact. King Affonso I of the Kongo, a subgroup of the Bakongo people who inhabited the northern part of Angola as well as modern Congo, even exchanged ambassadors with King Joāo III of Portugal. Relations between the two nations soured, however, when Portuguese traders, finding no precious metals in the region, turned to the slave trade for profits. African peoples would war against one another to gain prisoners, who would be sold as slaves to the Portuguese, and then shipped, for the most part, to Brazil and the Spanish colonies in the New World. Despite protests from the Portuguese and Kongo kings, the slave trade flourished, with both Portuguese and, to some extent, Africans profiting. Later the Portuguese were joined in the slaving enterprise by England, France, Spain, and Holland, with the trade in human beings continuing well into the nineteenth century. Altogether some 4 million Angolans were taken as slaves while the trade persisted.
In the sixteenth century Portugal attempted a military conquest of the regions south of Kongo lands, in search of a climate healthier than that of the malaria-ridden Congo River basin. The poverty of Portugal limited the ability of Portuguese traders in Angola to purchase slaves, the mainstay of their trade. This was one reason to prefer military conquest—by which slaves could be abducted—to peaceful trade relations—by which slaves had to be purchased. The various African kingdoms managed to resist the Portuguese successfully for a long time, however; as late as the seventeenth century, Portuguese influence in Angola was restricted to Benguela and to a handful of forts in the area around Luanda, a coastal city about 200 miles north of Benguela. Portugal, always on the verge of bankruptcy, desperately sought to exploit Africa and the Americas, but lack of resources made its efforts largely unsuccessful.
Settlement and trade
Relatively few European settlers came to Angola, and those that did were of two types: the degredados (exiled convicts) and the poorest of the Portuguese poor. Sometime in the seventeenth century, Portugal began to use Angola as a penal colony where it sent degredados, some of whom were banished from Portugal for political crimes. Portugal’s poor left their homeland in large numbers seeking better opportunities overseas, but those who could afford the more expensive passage opted to go to the Americas rather than immigrate to Angola, which was perceived as a dangerous land of degredados, black Africans, and wild animals. Those who did come to Angola were thus the poorest of the poor, and Portugal offered them little or no help in terms of infrastructure.
The Portuguese were mainly interested in trade, which offered the quickest means to make money. These traders proved, for the most part, to be unscrupulous fortune-hunters, who planned to make their money as quickly as possible and return to Portugal with the profits. Likewise, Portuguese settlers in Angola, who were mainly of an urban background, largely avoided agriculture and went into some form of trade, many of them entertaining dreams of someday returning to Europe with wealth earned in Africa.
In the area around Benguela, where the novel is set, the Portuguese entered into trade agreements with Ovimbundu kings, or sobas, who would help the Portuguese procure goods from the interior. As in the novel, a few traders would bring caravans from the interior loaded with items such as slaves, ivory, beeswax, hides, and rubber, to the merchants who conducted trade at the port cities. The traders would then exchange the goods from the Angolan interior for European goods brought in ships by Portuguese traders—items of European manufacture such as guns, cloth, tools, and liquor, which were desired by the Ovimbundu. Until the Portuguese abolition of slavery in 1836, Angolan trade was essentially slave trade. In fact, long after slavery was officially proscribed, slaves continued to be shipped out of Angola under the guise of “contract laborers.” Eventually slaves were replaced by rubber as the main item of Angolan trade. Angola enjoyed a rubber boom in the 1890s that ended abruptly when cheaper rubber became available from India. Agricultural items such as cotton and coffee soon formed the bulk of Angolan exports, then, in the twentieth century, were superseded by petroleum.
Race in Angola
Angolan society was rigidly stratified according to race over the period in which the novel takes place. At the top of the society were brancos (whites), those of European ancestry. Whites born in Europe were termed “first-class whites,” while those born in Africa were “second-class whites.” Next came pardos or mestizos, those of mixed African and European ancestry. Soon after the Portuguese established a presence in Angola, they gave rise to a mestiço population. Few Portuguese women would immigrate to Angola before the mid-nineteenth century, so male Portuguese settlers formed relationships with indigenous women, whom many still regarded as inferior beings. Later, as more white women arrived, the mestiço population dwindled and saw a concomitant decline in its rights and status, which was nonetheless significantly above that of pretos (blacks), those of purely indigenous ancestry, who were at the bottom of the social hierarchy. Most of the indigenous population were classified as “natives.” They might be conscripted into the army or forced labor at any moment, and were not allowed to acquire education beyond two or three years in a village school. In the early 1900s, under Portuguese prime minister António de Oliverira Salazar (governed 1932-68), assimilation became official policy. Those indigenous people who could fluently speak, write, and read Portuguese, who could support themselves and their families, and who had clean police records were eligible to apply to the district governor for status as an assimilado. Assimilados gained the right to work at low-status jobs in the government or mission service and, in theory at least, gained freedom from forced labor and conscription. In reality, few indigenous people were given the opportunity to become assimilados, and those that did could lose their status on the merest whim of a colonial official.
The poverty and low status of most Portuguese immigrants to Angola may account in part for the degree of racism in the colony’s history. Those who had been at the bottom of Portugal’s social hierarchy suddenly found themselves at the top when they came to Angola, simply by virtue of race. With the allure of this sudden promotion came the temptation to do unto others as had been done unto oneself. Also, European notions of race at the time conceived of Africans as at best uncivilized and at worst subhuman. Portugal and the white population of Angola justified the exploitation of the indigenous population of Angola through the then-popular ideology that a European presence in Africa would civilize that continent. According to this view, the forced labor of black Africans was really a humanitarian undertaking, for in working for whites, blacks were helping themselves become more civilized. Likewise, blacks were expected to contribute toward their own “civilization,” and were thus exorbitantly taxed on the basis of how many houses or how many children they had. Failure to pay taxes sometimes led to confiscation of black Africans’ lands, which could then be used by immigrant farmers.
Threats to Portuguese control of Angola
Railroads began to crisscross Angola in the late nineteenth century. Three main lines, largely funded with foreign capital, connected the major port cities along the coast and opened up the Angolan interior to Portuguese settlement. In the late 1880s Portugal attempted to claim a vast inland area including Angola, Rhodesia, Malawi, Zambia, and a portion of southern Congo. The Portuguese met with opposition from the British, who were building a railway at the time extending inland from Benguela and wanted the territory for themselves. Eventually Portugal had to settle for the territory of present-day Angola, dissuaded from further expansion by British threats of naval attack. This failure was a blow to Portuguese pride, aggravating the resentment and mistrust of the British that flourished in the Portuguese-Angolan community.
From 1880 to 1915, German explorers and settlers made inroads into southwestern Angola. Germany, which at this time controlled South West Africa (now called Namibia), a colony bordering Angola to the south, wanted access to a port in south Angola that would be convenient for German copper mines near the border. The boundary between South West Africa and Angola was thus hotly disputed by Germany and Portugal. With the advent of World War I in 1914, German-Portuguese hostilities increased, and Germany began to attack southern Angola. In 1915 German troops surrendered to a combination of Portuguese and South African forces.
Meanwhile, Protestant missionaries of various denominations had also made inroads in Angola. Arriving in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, they discovered that the Catholic missionaries, who preceded them by some three centuries, had made little impact on the indigenous population. While Catholic missionaries remained in the major coastal urban centers, Protestant missionaries penetrated deep into the interior. The Portuguese, who were generally Catholics, regarded the Protestants with mistrust, viewing them as a possibly subversive force among Africans. Indeed, Protestant missionaries sometimes supported Africans in their struggles against Portuguese injustice, and when in the early twentieth century African peoples rose up against Portuguese rule, Protestant missionaries were implicated. In 1902 the Bailundo, a subgroup of the Ovimbundu, conducted one of the greatest of these revolts, the so-called Bailundo Rebellion.
By about 1930, the Portuguese had gained a firmer control over the interior, and rebellions by the indigenous population were no longer a threat, but it was also around this time that Angolans of various racial identities began to develop a consciousness of themselves as Angolans, and as having interests often opposed to the interests of the colonial power, Portugal.
Throughout the twentieth century, various political associations were formed in opposition to the colonial status quo in Angola. Associations with goals of obtaining full rights for indigenous people and assimilados included the Liga Angolana formed in 1913 and Associação Regional dos Naturais de Angola (ANANGOLA) formed in 1929. Restrictions on political activity within Angola were severe; anyone suspected of “subversive” political activity would be arrested and exiled (or worse) by the Portuguese secret political and security police. Because of this, several political associations operated underground or outside the colony, often in Europe. The Angolan Communist Party was one such group to form in exile in 1956. Later that year, the Movimento Popular de Libertaçāo de Angola (MPLA) was formed in exile. Both the leadership and membership of the MPLA consisted mainly of mestiços and Mbundu, the second largest ethnic group in Angola. The MPLA, which had a Marxist-Leninist orientation, received backing from the Soviet Union and Cuba. In 1957 the Bakongo formed the nationalist party Uni o das Populaçoes do Norte de Angola (UPNA), which later renamed itself Uni o das Populaçoes de Angola (UPA), opening membership to all Angolans.
The bloody year
In February 1961, MPLA forces (numbering 100 to 200) launched an allout attack against the bases of power in Angola’s largest city, Luanda. In small bands, they attacked a police station, a prison, a government office, and a radio station. All the rebels were killed or captured, and seven police officers died in the battle. The hopeless uprising seems to have been intended to draw international attention to the unjust conditions in Angola, which it succeeded in doing. White European settlers felt that the hostilities instigated by a group composed mainly of black Africans constituted a racial attack. Racial hostilities exploded, and the next day a gang of armed European settlers swept through the streets of Luanda killing black Africans indiscriminately. Two months later, the UPA launched an attack on government offices and oppressive cotton plantations in northern Angola. European settlers, including women and children, were massacred, and reports of these atrocities were exaggerated a hundredfold. This led to more massive and indiscriminate reprisals against the indigenous population and marked the beginning of what would be a 14-year armed struggle for Angolan liberation that sometimes took the unfortunate form of a bloody race war. The first few years of this armed struggle saw the formation and reformation of many revolutionary political groups.
Timeline: Angolan Revolutionary Party Politics
1962: UPA (Uniāo das Populaçoes de Angola) joins with PDA (Partido Democratico Angolano) to form FNLA (Frente Nacional de Labertaçao de Angola), a largely Bakongo organization with a somewhat narrow ethnic focus.
1962: In Leopoldville in the Congo, the FNLA establishes the Revolutionary Government of Angola in Exile, or GRAE.
1963: GRAE is recognized by the government of Congo-Kinshasa (today’s Zaire); the MPLA, a Marxist-Leninist liberation group, mainly of Mbundu and mestiços, denounces GRAE.
1966: Jonas Savimbi helps form the União Nacional Para a Independencia Total de Angola (UNITA), composed of yet another ethnic group, the Ovimbundu. UNITA drifts towards socialism but stays to the right of MPLA and so receives Portuguese and U.S. backing.
On April 25, 1974, the Portuguese Armed Forces Movement (AFM) overthrew the Portuguese dictatorship of Marcelo Caetano, and Angolan liberation movements redoubled their efforts, demanding immediate independence. They perceived the weakness of the unstable Portuguese government; the new regime in Portugal lacked the resources to maintain control over its overseas territories. Amid the atmosphere of unrest, right-wing European settlers banded together and conducted new attacks on blacks. Their forces were later augmented by white South African mercenaries who crossed the Namibian border. Africans retaliated with attacks on European settlers.
In the face of such chaos, on July 29, 1974, Portuguese president General Antonio de Spinola made the landmark statement that Portugal recognized the right of her overseas territories to independence. Soon thereafter, the Portuguese government called for a cease-fire in Angola and for an interim government made up of representatives from all the different liberation movements. Independence would come once a popularly elected assembly had framed a constitution for Angola and elections had been held for a new government. The Portuguese army began to withdraw from Angola, and in January 1975 the interim government, with representatives from the MPLA, UNITA, FNLA, and Portugal, was sworn in.
On March 23, 1975, FNLA units attacked MPLA installations in Luanda; a few days later, FNLA troops killed 51 young MPLA recruits in the city. FNLA fighters together with troops from Zaire began to infiltrate the Angolan countryside. On March 28, MPLA, FNLA, and UNITA signed a peace agreement. On July 6, the Angolan constitution was published, but a few days later infighting resumed, and now for the first time the three movements divided Angola into spheres of influence. Some 300,000 terrified white settlers were airlifted out of the country, while thousands more streamed across the borders to Zaire, Zambia, and Namibia, taking what they could and destroying in bitterness what they had to leave behind. November 11, 1975, was the day fixed for Angolan independence, and the departure of the last Portuguese troops. Most white settlers wanted to be out of Angola by then.
Meanwhile, the South African government had started to dispatch troops into Angola in late August 1975, claiming the right to protect the hydroelectric dam that South Africa had built on the Cunene River. Supported by Portugal, South Africa had been training UNITA recruits in camps outside Angolan borders. On October 21, South Africa invaded Angola through Namibia. The MPLA troops were ill equipped to battle a regular army, and by November 11, Benguela and three other major cities had fallen to South African forces. South Africa also sent troops to the north to help the FNLA take Luanda from the MPLA. Unable to resist unaided, the MPLA called on Cuban leader Fidel Castro for help. Castro responded with troops in the thousands, and by the end of March 1976, South African troops had retreated beyond the Namibian border.
On November 11, 1975, Angola had become independent, but there was no new government in place to take over power from the old government. The MPLA set up what they claimed was the rightful government of Angola in Luanda, with MPLA leader Dr. Antonio Agostinho Neto as president. Meanwhile, the FNLA and UNITA together set up their own government for Angola in Ambriz, a coastal town just north of Luanda. Full-scale civil war ensued, from which the MPLA, supported by Cuban troops and Soviet aid, emerged victorious in March 1976.
The MPLA was still in power in Angola in 1984, the year Yaka was published. In the period since independence, the MPLA nationalized education and healthcare and launched an aggressive literacy program in a nation where 95 percent of the population remained illiterate. The United Nations issued a resolution calling for an end to South African attacks on Angola, and for South Africa to pay reparations to Angola for damages inflicted in the invasion of 1975-76. South Africa, however, refused to comply, and MPLA-governed Angola suffered continued attacks by South Africa, UNITA, and FNLA. On December 1, 1976, Angola became the 146th member of the United Nations, despite opposition from the United States on the grounds that there were Cuban troops in Angola.
Yaka spans the lifetime (1890-1975) of its central character, Alexandre Semedo, and treats five generations of his family, from his parents to his great-grandchildren. Alexandre Semedo is the main narrator of his life story, which he frequently addresses to a statue, Yaka, imploring it to supply details or offer explanations. Yaka occasionally makes brief, poetic, riddling intrusions on the narration, which are not heard by Alexandre. Sometimes the novel takes the voice of an omniscient third-person narrator who may or may not be the statue Yaka, which “seemed to see everything” (Pepetela, Yaka, p. 16). A few brief passages are narrated by various relatives of Alexandre. The narrative voice often shifts in the midst of a chapter, or even a paragraph. What follows is an account of the basic plot.
Alexandre Semedo is born beneath a tree in the wild Angolan countryside. His father is Oscar Semedo, a law student banished to Angola from Portugal for ax-murdering his former wife, though he claims to be innocent, insisting that he is actually being punished for his republican politics. Alexandre’s mother is Esmerelda Semedo, a so-called “second-class white,” a white woman born in Angola to Portuguese settler parents. The couple is traveling by oxen-drawn wagon from Capangombe in the Angolan interior to Benguela on the coast to make a new life for themselves. Among their possessions is a statue won by Oscar in a game of cards, a statue made by the Yaka people. En route, Alexandre is born, and his mother’s nurse accidentally drops him on the ground where the child’s mouth bites the dirt. “Did it bite or kiss it?” the Yaka statue asks (Yaka, p. 9).
In Benguela, Oscar Semedo takes the only job available, as assistant in a shop that trades goods brought by Africans from the interior for goods brought in ships from Europe. Oscar’s wages are meager, yet he dreams of opening his own shop and earning enough to some day send Alexandre to the university. Senhor Queirós, the owner of the shop where Oscar works, having no children of his own, makes Alexandre his godson.
The slave trade has just been abolished, and Angolan traders no longer ship human chattel overseas, though slavery still exists on the plantations, where the slaves are referred to as “servants” or “boys.” As a replacement, Angola’s traders have switched to rubber, but now the European purchasers prefer Indian rubber, which can be had at a cheaper price. To compensate for the lower prices at which they must now sell rubber to Europe, the white Angolan traders greatly and disproportionately reduce the rate at which they pay for rubber from the interior. Angered by the obvious underhandedness, the interior traders compensate by focusing their attention on the demand for “servants,” for which the market is stable. This leads to unrest among the indigenous population, whose children are being abducted for sale. As anxiety increases, rumors of black uprisings and raids on white settlements spread. The white traders determine that something must be done to quell the blacks, and Oscar Semedo, overcome by fear, agrees to be the white traders’ mouthpiece. He writes a letter to the governor demanding complete occupation of the interior and domination of the black population.
Meanwhile, Mutu-ya-Kevela, a Bailundo leader, attempts to organize the other sobas near Benguela to rise together against their white oppressors. Mutu-ya-Kevela is a great leader, and many rally to his cause. Rumors fly through the white populace that a massacre is imminent. Portugal soon responds to the concerns of Benguela traders by sending in troops, but the effort proves unnecessary. Mutu-ya-Kevela is already dead, betrayed by some Catholic priests whose lives he spared. Eventually the truth comes out, and it belies all the wild rumors about the Bailundo leader—no massacre had been planned.
Alexandre, who is now a pimply adolescent, reenacts with his friends the defeat of Mutu-ya-Kevela. Their one black friend, Tuca, is cajoled into playing the part of the Bailundo leader. One game in which Tuca will not participate is the reenactment of an incident in which white men are said to have avenged the rape of white women by raping black women. The boys take turns raping a 13-year-old black girl, but Tuca does not, because the girl “didn’t want it”; the other boys insist that “she enjoyed it just like any black girl” and unlike any white girl, with whom it would be a sin to do such things (Yaka, p. 41).
HOW YAKA IMPRESSES CHARACTERS IN THE NOVEL
“My father won this Yaka statue at gambling. He already IVI had it in Capangombe when he got married. My mother always thought it horrible with its transparent resin eyes and three parallel stripes, white, black and red. You know, it’s nearly a metre tall and has a man’s body, but the face is strange, looking sometimes human and sometimes like an animaL The bulbous nose looks like a drunkard’s and gives a mocking look to the whole.... It seemed to see everything,”
(The character Alexandre Semedo in Yaka, p. 16)
“It looks like a clown at a fair, or some pig-headed creature. I’ve never understood why you like it so much, Senhor Semedo.”
(The character Bartoiomeu Espinha in Yaka, p. 123)
“It was crude, violent, beautiful. A man or a divinity? … If a divinity it was nonetheless treated with irony,”
(The character Alexandre Semedo in Yaka, p. 123)
Senhor Queirós dies suddenly, leaving his shop to Alexandre, with Oscar as manager until the boy comes of age. Lacking the funds to send Alexandre to school, Oscar has the boy work with him in the shop, where, to make ends meet, the two must scrape and even cheat the customers. They find a way to pass the long, tedious days; Oscar teaches Alexandre about the Greeks, and Alexandre develops a lifelong passion for Greek tragedy.
The novel jumps ahead to 1917. Oscar and Esmerelda Semedo have died of disease, and Alexandre has married Donana de Aragao, a servant from Portugal. To satisfy his mother’s hopes for him, Alexandre had written to his father’s family in Portugal and they had sent one of their servants, for “[w]hat else could the son of an exconvict born in a land of blacks hope for?” (Yaka, p. 68) The couple hate each other but have four children, whom Alexandre names after characters from Greek tragedy: Achilles, Socrates, Orestes, and Euridice. Alexandre has a mestiço daughter too, from a union with a black servant. He gave the mother, Joana, a little money and she and the child moved to another town.
In the local bar around which the social life of Benguela men centers, a white trader brings news from Amboim that a serious rebellion has begun in that region of rich coffee-growing land. There are even rumors that the Germans and Protestants are behind it all. The barber Acácio mocks the bearer of this news, Sô Agripino, making light of the grave reports. Sô Agripino threatens Acacio, and the next morning the barber is found beaten to death in his home. Although Alexandre and many others in the town heard the threats the night before, they say nothing to the authorities, who judge the crime to be a simple burglary.
The news of uprisings in Amboim is confirmed by other reports, and fear spreads among Benguela’s inhabitants. People barricade themselves in their houses and go out only if fully armed. The constant fear wears on Alexandre, who decides that the only way to end it is to exterminate all black Africans: “We’ve got to finish them off.... So long as there are blacks we’ll live in fear” (Yaka, p. 96).
A trader arrives with reports that the nearby town of Catumbela has been taken by rebels who are heading toward Benguela. The governor organizes an army of volunteers, among them Alexandre, who go to Catumbela only to find that the reports are entirely false; there has been no uprising there. Meanwhile, reports continue to arrive from Amboim that whites are being massacred and their estates burned. Alexandre’s childhood friend, Tuca, is recruited into the army to go to Amboim to put down the rebellion. The rebellion is quelled, but when Tuca returns, he tells Alexandre a discomfiting story: in Amboim, the orders were to kill everyone in the rebellious villages, even women, children, and the elderly. Why had the villages rebelled? All the fertile land had been seized by white coffee growers, while the blacks had been pushed onto the least desirable land. Then the coffee growers had abducted blacks and turned them into slaves, whipping or even crucifying them if they failed to work hard enough. There had been cases of whites falsely accusing blacks of being rebels just to have them killed and take over their land. Tuca’s story appears to be turning Alexandre’s earlier longing for the death of all blacks into a reality, which makes Alexandre so uncomfortable that he quickly puts the story out of his mind.
The novel skips forward to 1940. Alexandre’s children are adults with families of their own. Achilles Semedo, Alexandre’s eldest son, is a muscular brute of a man, who cares only for soccer and for bullying. He works as an overseer of black laborers, a job in which his bullying skills stand him in good stead. He is married to Gloria and they have three children. Orestes is “peaceful, no good for anything but counting bank notes in the bank of Angola” where he works (Yaka, p. 125). Socrates, the so-called intellectual of the family, goes to study law in Lisbon, where he remains (Yaka, p. 125). Euridice has recently married Bartolomeu Espinha, a shrewd businessman from Portugal with “no scruples and no education” (Yaka, pp. 123-24). Alexandre has purchased a sapalalo, a two-story wooden house, in which most of these members of the Semedo family live together.
Achilles, who is always spoiling for a fight, gets caught up in rumors about unrest among blacks in the countryside. Deciding to do something about it, he and some friends undertake a “hunting” expedition into the interior, the real purpose of which is to kill blacks. They see a young black man in the wilderness and open fire on him. Achilles kills the black, Tyenda, the eldest son of a peaceful Cuvale family living nearby. Tyenda’s father witnesses the shooting and manages to kill Achilles with a spear, while Achilles’s hunting companions flee to the nearest white settlement. They claim that the Cuvales attacked their party for no reason, and demand that the authorities organize a raid to punish the “savages” and avenge Achilles’ death (Yaka, p. 170).
Meanwhile, Bartolomeu has convinced Alexandre to mortgage the sapalalo and invest the money in a cotton-growing scheme, with Bartolomeu in charge. Now, desperate for additional funds that Alexandre will not give him, Bartolomeu sees an opportunity: he asks to go on the raid against Achilles’ Cuvale “killers,” knowing that Cuvales are cattle-herders. Bartolomeu bribes the authorities to let him claim the large cattleherd as compensation for Achilles’s death. The authorities conduct an air raid against Tyenda’s family, bombing people whose only weapons are spears and arrows. The people are killed, their houses burned, and their cattle stolen by Bartolomeu, who uses the proceeds to expand his cotton plantations.
The novel action moves forward to 1961. Donana is dead and, curiously, Alexandre misses her. They have eight grandchildren, all but one in their late teens and twenties. Twenty-year-old Hector is Alexandre’s favorite because he chose to study classics in school, and the two can discuss Greek tragedy at length. Ofelia, Alexandre’s illicit mestiço daughter by his lover Joana, has a 20-year-old son named Chico. None of the grandchildren is interested in politics.
Bartolomeu has slowly become head of the family, usurping that role from Alexandre and then from Alexandre’s sons. Alexandre no longer works in the shop as he can now afford to hire employees; he will not allow any of his children or grandchildren to work there either, believing it to be a “mediocre and castrating life” (Yaka, p. 206). By this point, though, his authority has waned. Having been forced by the family to move all his African artifacts, including the Yaka statue, upstairs into his own room, he now spends most of his time there. Alexandre has begun to write his memoirs “in the form of conversations with the Yaka statue”; they change the way he thinks and feels about things, allowing him to step back and become critical (Yaka, p. 209). The changes are evidenced when Tuca, exhausted from years of hard labor, comes back to Benguela to die. Alexandre makes critical, sarcastic remarks about the treatment of blacks in Angolan colonial society—remarks he never would have made 20 years earlier.
At the cotton plantation, Bartolomeu conceives a scheme to cheat Moma, a neighboring Ovimbundu soba, of his rich land. A rumor is going around that a Protestant catechist is mobilizing local blacks to rise up and massacre the whites, but the catechist cannot be found. Bartolomeu denounces Moma for harboring the catechist, though he knows the soba is innocent. Various family members join in the raid on Moma’s settlement in which Moma is killed and his family evicted from their lands.
Chico, Alexandre’s illicit grandson, comes to visit Benguela, and Alexandre invites him to move into the sapalalo. Most of the family treats Chico coldly, angered that Alexandre would bring shame upon them by acknowledging this product of his own indiscretion. On the night of Bartolomeu’s raid, a cousin is found in Chico’s bed. Chico is driven from the sapalalo and the cousin is shamed.
The novel jumps ahead to 1975. Alexandre has given up on his family and spends most of his time in his room alone. He has heart problems and feigns deafness so as not to have to interact with his family. Only Gloria—Achilles’s widow—and her son, Xandinho, with his wife and children still live with Alexandre in the sapalalo. Nationalist guerrillas from “the Movement,” Pepetela’s euphemism for the MPLA, fly into Benguela and are greeted by a jubilant crowd. Alexandre’s great-grandson Joel, an avid supporter of the Movement, has witnessed the guerrillas’ arrival. He ecstatically tells the family, who are gathered in the sapalalo, how one guerrilla came out of the airplane face first to kiss the ground of Angola. Alexandre observes Joel’s enthusiasm and develops an interest in the boy that he has not felt for any other member of the family. Alexandre’s granddaughter Olivia—formerly a fanatic self-flagellant nun, now a devotee of Karl Marx, whose picture hangs in her bedroom—criticizes the Movement for being doctrinally “impure” (Yaka, p. 257). She and Joel engage in heated political discussions.
Chico is invited back to the sapalalo. Xandinho in particular makes a point of cultivating the mestigo’s friendship. He worries that an inquiry will be conducted into what happened with Moma, and Chico, as the carrier of black blood in the family, is his shield against approbation. Faced with upcoming elections, Xandinho has attempted to join all three political parties: MPLA, FNLA, and UNITA. None would accept him. A former colonial official, Xandinho is convinced that if the MPLA wins, they will massacre all the whites. He eventually has a nervous breakdown.
With independence imminent Bartolomeu fears seizure of his property and wealth, and so determines to move the family to South Africa. Joel does not understand his family’s cowardice and lack of faith in the MPLA. He will remain and fight for his country. Alexandre also decides to stay; he has grown to like and respect Joel and is ready to die, except that he wants first to know what the Yaka statue has been trying to communicate to him all his life. “What sense,” Alexandre asks of the statue, “would there be in this eighty year dialogue if I die before understanding you?” (Yaka, p. 283). South Africa attacks the MPLA to prevent independence. As the troops invade Benguela and approach his twostory wood house, Alexandre takes the Yaka statue out into the yard. He has a heart attack, and as he dies, Alexandre implores the statue one last time to speak. Instead, the Yaka statue shows him an image of the future, of Joel, and then finally does speak to him, telling him that his great-grandson Joel will be a hero, will be adopted by Cuvales, and will win the battle against the South Africans. Angola will be free. As Alexandre dies, he falls to the ground and his mouth bites the Angolan earth once more, as it did the day he was born, and “the earth Alexandre Semedo’s mouth bites tastes good to him” (Yaka, p. 302).
Connecting with Africa: Yaka, Yaka, and Angolanidade
When Alexandre Semedo tastes the African soil at the end of Yaka, the circle of his life is complete. Tasting the earth in this novel serves as a metaphor for connecting with the land on other levels. At his birth, Alexandre tastes the earth of Angola, his homeland, unconsciously. He, of course, has no memory of the event, but Yaka, who was tied to the top of the ox-cart, recalls it. On a metaphoric level, Alexandre is connected to Africa simply by virtue of being born there. Yaka knows this, but Alexandre is unable, through most of the novel, to feel this connectedness. He fails, until the very end, to understand Africa. It is only at his death, aided by the Yaka statue, that Alexandre finally makes a conscious connection with his homeland and, as he bites the Angolan soil this time, “the earth ... tastes good to him” (Yaka, p. 302).
This theme of making a connection with Angola, and hence of Angolanidade (what it means to be Angolan), runs through much of Pepetela’s writings. The Yaka statue, which is the primary symbol for Angolanidade in the novel, is, according to Pepetela, “pure fiction,” yet actual Yaka statuary is a highly developed art form that is peculiarly suited to serving as a symbolic emblem for Angolanidade (Yaka, p. ix).
The Yaka (or Jaga) were a warlike people who invaded Angola from lands to the east in the 1560s. They have a fierce reputation. Andrew Battell, an English sailor who became their prisoner near the beginning of the seventeenth century, gave a sensationalist account of their practices, stating that the Yaka were cannibals who increased their number only through abduction from other groups since they killed all their own children. In Yaka, Pepetela criticizes Battell’s description, scorning this “ingratitude of the Englishman, since they let him live to tell the tale” (Yaka, p. ix). Yet perhaps by using the Yaka statue as a symbol of Africanness, an Africanness that is eventually transmitted to the son of European settlers, Pepetela was playing on the practice of the Yaka people of augmenting their own group with children from other groups. This form of incorporation is even more vividly illustrated when Yaka and Alexandre look into the future and see that Joel will be adopted by a family of Cuvales.
Certain Yaka statues known as mbwoolo are particularly relevant to the theme of Angolanidade as it is treated in Yaka. Mbwoolo are statues that have powers to curse, protect, and heal. They are frequently set to guard property, the theft of which will result in a curse against the thief through the agency of the mbwoolo. Such curses are hereditary, taking the form of a sickness passed down from one generation to the next of the thief s family until someone in the family gives back the stolen goods or, if this is impossible, undergoes a special ceremony to appease and honor the mbwoolo. When this is done, the mbwoolo cures the sickness and even empowers the formerly cursed family, as the mbwoolo can now be used by them to protect their own property. In the novel, the Yaka statue could be seen as a sort of mbwoolo; in retaliation for their “theft” of African land and resources, it curses the Semedo family with the sickness of fear and alienation that comes from bad conscience.
Each section of the novel is given the name of a part of the body: the mouth, the eyes, the heart, the genitals, and the legs. At the novel’s beginning, when Alexandre Semedo is born, Yaka waits “for the unique shower, perhaps without water, that would join mouth to eyes and legs to genitals, still separate in mistrust” (Yaka, p. 8). This separation is at once the alienation of the different peoples of Angola from one another, and the falseness of the individual colonist whose actions belie his words, whose religious beliefs are at odds with his cruelty, and whose sexual desire is not linked to his emotions. It seems the thing that will join the divided parts is the one element unnamed by Yaka in this passage: the heart. The central episode in the central section of the novel, entitled “The Heart,” is the slaying of Tyenda and the subsequent death of Alexan-dre’s son, Achilles. What is needed to heal Alexandre and his family, and the colonial whites of which they are emblematic, is true compassion, the realization that in killing an African son, one kills one’s own son. What is needed to heal Angola is a connection between all the different elements, all the different peoples who make up that nation, through a sense of Angolanidade.
Sources and literary context
Angolan literature has its roots in the spirit of anticolonialism, and, ironically, in the language of the colonial power in Angola, Portuguese. In the second half of the twentieth century, a new national consciousness began to grow in Angola as more and more colonies began to demand and achieve independence in Africa and elsewhere. Journals emerged that combined a progressive nationalist politics with literature that dealt largely with themes of national identity and racial unity. Once Angola achieved independence in 1975, literary fervor increased as the nation’s first president, Antonio Agostinho Neto, himself an esteemed poet, called upon writers to become a crucial force in the Revolution, and Pepetela heeded the call. Pepetela cites American authors John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway, and John Dos Passos as influences, as well as Brazilian writers in the Portuguese language, José Lins do Rego, Graciliano Ramos, and Joāo Guimarāes Rosa. Yaka has been judged to contain elements of magic realism, a style that brings supernatural elements—such as the conscious, speaking Yaka statue—into a modern/historical setting.
Continuing uncertainty and fear
Although the MPLA succeeded in establishing itself as the governing party of newly independent Angola, the struggle between the rival political parties was not over. UNITA and FNLA moved their bases into neighboring countries from which they conducted guerrilla attacks against the MPLA. FNLA managed to maintain a base in Zaire, but FNLA members were few and their impact was negligible in comparison to that of UNITA. UNITA moved its base across the border into South African-controlled Namibia, and from there carried out guerrilla attacks against southern Angola. South Africa, in retaliation for Angola’s open support of South West Africa People’s Organization (SWAPO), which was fighting to free Namibia from South African control, lent aid to UNITA, and even attacked Angola with its own troops. Fighting continued into the mid-1980s, when Yaka was written, and beyond.
Threatened by such forces, Angola’s MPLA government retained 18,000 Cuban troops and accepted aid from the Soviet Union. Angola insisted on a policy of non-alliance, however, not allowing any foreign military bases in its territory and expressing a willingness to cooperate with any nation. Despite this policy, the Western powers did not lend their support; in fact, the United States gave considerable aid to UNITA.
The MPLA also suffered from internal fighting. In May 1977 an internal coup attempt resulted in the deaths of several highly placed party members. Issues of race were a factor; many of those attacked were white or mestiço, and were believed therefore not to have the best interests of the African peoples of Angola at heart.
Constant warfare took its toll on the economy of Angola. In the mid-1980s, nearly half of Angola’s budget went into the military. The threat of UNITA attacks in the countryside and the widespread laying of landmines caused the nation’s agricultural production to drop. Many skilled and educated Angolans left the country to escape the constant danger and lack of opportunity caused by warfare. Yaka, which has been criticized for its sometimes didactic and pamphleteering tone, can perhaps be better understood in light of the danger and uncertainty that continued to be characteristic of Angola at the time the work was written.
Yaka has met with praise and criticism in fairly equal measure. Reviewers have praised it, in the main, for its wide scope and “richly detailed recounting of Angolan history” (Publishers Weekly, p. 74). Literary scholar Hanna Betina Götz declared Yaka to be an “important narrative” because “it reenacts the complex historical process of colonization” (Götz, p. 75). On the other hand, Pepetela has been widely criticized for heavy-handedness in his simplistic portrayal of the political situation in Angola. As one reviewer put it, “Yaka begins to sound increasingly like a manifesto for the MPLA’s beliefs and ideals for the new nation” (Simoes Da Silva, p. 511). Opinions about other elements of the novel have varied as well. Some reviewers simply hated Yaka:“The novel promises but never delivers—the pace is slow; the characters creepy and largely unsympathetic, the transitions from first to second person are confusing, and the literary device of Alexandre’s Yaka warrior statue as knowing observer throughout the epic is poorly woven into the narrative” (Publishers Weekly, p. 74). Others, though maintaining reservations about a certain doctrinaire quality to parts of the novel, praised the satirical representation of Marxism-Leninism in the character of the Marx-worshipping Olivia, and the use of the Yaka statue as a symbol of Angolanidade.
Battell, Andrew. The Strange Adventures of Andrew Battell of Leigh, in Angola and the Adjoining Regions. London: The Hakluyt Society, 1901.
Bourgeois, Arthur P. “Mbwoolo Sculpture of the Yaka.” African Arts 12, no. 3 (May 1979): 58-61.
Götz, Hanna Betina. “Five Generations of Angola’s Colonial Erosion and National Birth.” Luso-Brazilian Review 34, no. 1 (summer 1997): 67-76.
Kaplan, Irving, ed. Angola: A Country Study. Washington D.C.: The American University, 1979.
Pepetela. Yaka. Trans. Marga Holness. Oxford: Heinemann, 1996.
Review of Yaka, by Pepetela. Publishers Weekly 243, no. 19 (May 6, 1996): 74.
Simoes Da Silva, Tony. “Pepetela.” In Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century. Vol. 3. Farmington Hills, Mich.: St. James Press, 1999.
Somerville, Keith. Angola: Politics, Economics & Society. London: F. Pinter, 1986.
Wheeler, Douglas L., and Rene Pelissier. Angola. New York: Praeger, 1971.