In Cape Town, all of the stores have roll-down grates, bars on windows, signs that proclaim “ARMED RESPONSE TEAM” with images of snapping Dobermans. At night the streets are empty, and more than once I was asked by concerned festival goers where I was staying and advised to “Walk safe.” The apartment was on the eleventh floor; there was a doorman downstairs. The front door had an extra iron grate that I was advised to keep locked at all times, even when I was home. The interior bedroom had another door, with a deadbolt. And in the bedroom, an ageing electronics panel that signalled that it was once an extra layer of security.
I used to live in this little yellow apartment in a little yellow apartment block just off Cross Street. The wooden floors creaked, the way wooden floors do.
I was once the target of a threat against my life.
In Afghanistan, there were guards. Three for each guesthouse; they split their time pacing inside the perimeter of nine-foot-tall walls or listening to the radio in the guard shack. A third was present nights, but would sleep rough on the floor of the guard shack. The Durawalls were topped with concertina wire. The streets around the guesthouses were left deeply pocked with craters and potholes and speedbumps and t-barriers forbidding straight-shots. Every window had bars, every bedroom additional locks. The guesthouses had panic rooms, and a designated building warden with a radio to the main security room on campus. A colleague remembered her own experience in a previous stint in A-stan, when she had to hole up in a basement for a full day, going stircrazy from jangled nerves and invented rumors. She had been glad to bring rubber exercise ropes to yank and stretch and exorcise.
Our security manager flagged me on campus one day. I was standing by the old greenhouse, behind my office block. “Are you enjoying your cigarette?”
“Yeah, I am,” I responded with a cocked eyebrow.
“And at the guest house, where do you smoke?”
“Ehhh, on the second floor balcony. More often, the roof. Sometimes, the garden.”
“Look, we’re going to have to move you.”
I was staying in the oldest guesthouse, but the one closest to campus; it was convenient; it meant that the university shuttle picked us up just before the final stop on campus, and it meant that we were usually the first people dropped off at the end of the evening, on the shuttle home.
“The guards were told that if the neighbours saw you on the balcony again, they would shoot you.”
My breath caught. “Seriously? When were the guards told this?”
“Apparently they were told this a week ago, and forgot to tell me.”
“Jesus. But doesn’t that mean they weren’t serious? I was out there last night, a week after they made the threat.”
“Yeah, but why chance it? Apparently they’re connected to a government family, and think that you’re spying on them.” (I am not a spy, but I am not gonna lie that looking out over the neighbourhood was a big draw to the balcony and roof.) “It’s just best that we move you.”
I took the day off from work, peeled down the postcards I had tacked up only two months previous. I shoved clothing into suitcases, and boxed books up. I waited for university transport to come and help me schlep a few blocks away to another guest house, which on the surface seemed a lot less safe, being on a busier street and near a minor embassy.
The office block I was housed in was, a few years later, the point of entry for a team of terrorists who swept into campus, past the students’ entry, past the ineffective guards. They riddled the office block with bullets, shattering blinds and glass, hitting flesh before storming the main classroom building, where they left more death behind them before the hours-long ordeal finally came to a close, several students and staff dead.
In the security briefing at the embassy in Harare, I was given a breathtaking slideshow on all of the procedures, the layers and layers of security built into every American residence. Any and every thing you can imagine. There’s no question that no chances are being taken, and there’s no question that these homes and lives are nearly impregnable. I raised my hand, wondering –what do I do? Will my home have any of these protections? All of these protections? None of them?
I thought, at least these guys could live in houses; in Kabul, the Embassy staff were housed on site and in nearby fortified camps, were not allowed to travel through town without an extraordinary entourage and many advanced permissions. At the university, we had comparative freedom, envied by some in the protected sectors of the Western shadow government. We relished it, but still played as safe as we could, going to restaurants that were vetted in advance by security, haunted places that had layers of guards and a good reputation. We cultivated relationships with local taxi drivers, like my Taj, who we could trust to drive us around discreetly. We notified security every time we left an enclave. It was mostly enough, but would also never be enough.
“Outside, the trees were swaying menacingly in the wind and the moon was covered by low-hanging clouds. The black wall of the forest seemed closer than Mr Adams remembered, as he peered from his window, but otherwise everything was quiet.
The curtains in my temporary room here keep falling down.
They had been jerry-rigged a half dozen times, dropping from a wire wrapped around a nail; the heavy fabric muted the cold that crept in on the tail end of winter. I also like to think they discouraged mosquitoes who may be daunted by the folds of faded flower print. They were utterly dysfunctional, and then, I suppose, even less so when they fell for the last time.
I keep leaving my door open in the guest house as I pad around to charge my phone, fix a Mazoe, find another perch to read from. Margaret walked by the room, peered in, gasped.
“Doctor! The curtains are finally broken. You must leave.”
I laughed. “My apartment is almost ready, so soon enough.”
“No, you must leave right no-owwwwww,” she intoned.
“Now? Why? It’s 7pm. All of my things are unpacked here.”
“Preciiiisely, doctor. A t’ief could look into the window, see you here. They will see all of your things. They will come in and murder you and take your laptop.”
“Well, my laptop was already stolen. This is the university’s, so I guess that’ll teach them to invest in better drapes.”
“They will kill you for the laptop, though. You must move rooms.”
“So these...thieves. They’ll be bold enough to break into a room they can see me sleeping in, but will be deterred if the room is suddenly empty. They won’t suspect that I’ve simply moved to another room? Is the guard extra sleepy tonight? Do you know something I don’t know?”
“If they are watching they will think you have moved out.” She plunked herself down in my desk chair, staging stubbornness.
“So I am to move to another room.” I’m irritated; I’ll be that much farther from the weak wifi.
“It is a nice room, though,” she wheedled.
“And you’ll help me move, all these loose things.”
“Yes, dokh-tah. We must do it now.”
The Theory of Oblivion, by the Angolan novelist José Eduardo Agualusa, is about a woman scarred by her previous experience of violence. She moves with her sister from Portugal to Angola, into an eleven-story apartment building. There is a second story with a wrought iron spiral staircase; there is a terrace on which they plant fruit trees – pomegranate, banana, citrus. When the Angolan war for independence finally encroaches chaotically on Luanda, from the edges of the country, full of soldiers fighting under different banners for different causes – Cubans in favour of a communist redistribution of property; South Africans and Rhodesians to preserve a white state; American mercenaries seeking thrills and cash after tours in Vietnam rendered them unfit for official service; black Angolans desperately seeking freedom from under an oppressive colonial regime that impressed them into service for white Portuguese under the ridiculously false pretenses of invented debts.
“Turbulent days passed. Demonstrations, strikes, rallies. Ludo closed the windows to prevent the apartment from being filled with the laughter of the people on the streets, which burst into the air like fireworks.”
Ludo, who would prefer not to leave the apartment at all, anyway, initially finds comfort in their vantage, and lives surrounded by books and in the company of an albino German shepherd, Phantom. Her sister and brother-in-law seem poised to stay while the other white Portuguese fled.
Margaret came knocking on my door just now. “Dokh-tah,” she called softly.
“Are you a thief?” I shrilled jokingly.
“No-ooo,” she said as she entered, holding high a plug converter. “You can use this to charge your phone.”
I charge my cheap Zimbabwean phone on a singed power strip in the living room, where she often draped herself to be nearest the Wifi, and where the gardener sat while he charged his own phone, and watched European soccer games.
“You cannot just be walking back and forth in the house,” she chided. I rolled my eyes and padded barefoot behind her to the living room, where I have spent, would like to spend, a good deal of time, reading and writing and fussing on my lowest-end tablet, whose screen I’ve already cracked.
As she plodded ahead of me, she raised a finger in the air, declaiming: “PREVENTION! It is so much better than the cure, which is murder.”
“The first gunshots signalled the start of the big farewell parties. Young people were dying in the streets, waving flags, and meanwhile the settlers danced. Rita, their neighbour in the apartment next door, traded Luanda for Rio de Janeiro. On her last night, she invited two hundred friends round for a dinner that went on till daybreak. ‘Whatever we can’t drink we’ll leave for you,’ she said to Orlando, pointing at the pantry stacked high with cases of the finest Portuguese wines.”
Ludo has always “sheltered in place,” the kind of well-meaning advice given to those in the path of disaster.
I can smoke in my new room, which is something.
“In the first few months [in the Luanda apartment,] she did not even dare to approach the windows. ‘The African sky is much bigger than ours,’ she explained to her sister. ‘It crushes us.’”
Ludo doesn’t concern herself with the rationale for the Angolans’ revolution. And she doesn’t even necessarily fear them, in particular. She is instead haunted by a violence that she cannot set down, that she carries with her every day. It’s a personal fear, a personal violence, a personal history.
When her sister and brother-in-law disappear one night, and ersatz robbers come to the door of the apartment seeking rumoured wealth, her life catalyzes. She walls her apartment off from the rest of the building, locks her doors. She lives the next decades off of her wits, and gardening, and pigeons.
“One night, Ludo dreamed that beneath the streets of the city, under the respectable mansions in the lower town, there stretched an endless network of tunnels. The roots of the trees wound their way, unimpeded, down through the vaults. There were thousands of people living underground, sunk deep in mud and darkness, feeding themselves on whatever the bourgeoisie tossed into the sewers. Ludo was walking amid the throng. The men were waving machetes. They were striking their blades against one another and the noise echoed down the tunnels. One of them approached, brought his dirty face right up close to the Portuguese woman’s face and smiled. He whispered in her ear, in a voice that was deep and sweet: ‘Our sky is your floor.’”
These things happen.
In Agualusa’s Foreword to this remarkable novel, he explains
“Ludovica Fernandez Mano died in Luanda, at the Sagrada Esperanca clinic, in the early hours of 5 October 2010. She was eighty-five years old. [I was given] copies of ten notebooks in which Ludo had been writing her diary, dating from the first years of the twenty-eight during which she had shut herself away. I also had access to the diaries that followed her release, as well as to a huge collection of photographs taken by the visual artist Sacramento Neto (Sakro) of Ludo’s texts and the charcoal pictures on the walls of her apartment. Ludo’s diaries, poems and reflections helped me to reconstruct the tragedies she lived through. They helped me, I believe, to understand her. In the pages that follow, I have made use of much of her first-hand accounts. What you will read is, however, fiction. Pure fiction.”
These things happen.
Fulbright Core Teaching/Research Fellowship to Zimbabwe, 2017-2018. Will teach at the National University of Science and Technology in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, and conduct research on the city's literary history, its cultural infrastructure, and its outlets for creative writing.