In 2003, I was among the hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, who marched through London to demonstrate against the war in Iraq. I thought a lot about Angola that day. I felt very sad that there had never been a big march against the war there – even though, by then, it had already ended. In the public eye, some wars matter more than others. In Trafalgar Square, I tried really hard to squeeze back my tears when Adrian Mitchell read a twenty-first-century remix of his poem, To Whom It May Concern (Tell Me Lies About Vietnam).
On a Saturday or a Sunday afternoon, my mother would do the ironing and my sister would fold up in an armchair in the front room and they’d watch romantic black-and-white films together and they’d cry. I was wholly perplexed by their response.
I tear up easily these days. Outside Blackhorse Road tube station, three Romanian men were sitting on the pavement playing the accordion, the violin and the clarinet. Their music reminded me of the Cape Verdeans on Luanda’s ilha. Was this a Romanian morna obeying the cycle of fifths? I gave them a pound and something within me juddered. Inside the station, the acoustics were perfect, like a cathedral, and as I descended on the escalator, I felt myself being swallowed by the sounds from the street.
When I started out as a journalist, I thought I understood the meaning of objectivity. But within a few months of reporting from Angola, I lost that faith and ceased to believe in objectivity even as a possibility. Yes, you can give a voice to as many sides as possible – but that’s not objectivity. Today I don’t even believe that objectivity is a useful goal. It’s false and it’s a lie and it doesn’t help people to mentally engage in events taking place around the world.
I was astounded when I realized how television reporting actually worked. A BBC team was visiting Angola. They’d gone to a hospital to do a story about landmine injuries. Their piece showed the British reporter conversing earnestly with a patient lying in bed. In fact, the reporter was nodding and pretending to talk: the real conversation took place between the patient and an Angolan freelance interpreter, who was never shown on camera. The idea of the foreign reporter as an omniscient multilingual hero is a trick. I hate the way the news plasters over the rough edges of truth.
I was in my forties when a woman from Malaysia called Su taught me how to put on eyeliner. But at your age, she said, all you really need is a bit of mascara. Not long before I met Su, my mother had told me that I’d reached the age when I could no longer get away without makeup. Whenever I tell people this they laugh.
Apparently, I love Africa. I’ve been told this by people who hardly know me. I’ve been introduced in pubs, on demonstrations, in emails and on public transport as someone who really knows Africa and who is dying to go back to Africa. But I’m not sure I know what Africa means any more. I went through a phase of thinking that the word itself should be banned. Perhaps then people might be forced into thinking more carefully about what they’re saying.
Not so long ago, an Angolan woman got quite cross with me. What is it with you? she asked. What is it that you’ve got with our country? With my country? Why are you so interested in us? We’d spent the afternoon at an art gallery in London, walking and talking and looking at huge pieces of work, and just as we were about to part, her distrust of me came tumbling out. It felt like a loathing. If she’d had a little more courage, I think she would have spat on me.
The trouble is, I couldn’t answer her question. I tried. But nothing I said was quite what I meant. So I’ve carried on asking myself: What is it I’ve got with their country, with that country?
The only answer I’ve been able to come up with is that I was there during a war. It was an incredibly intense experience, one that influenced me radically. For a long time, I tried to work out how I could retrieve it. I wanted a repeat, like that absurd sensation you get when you first take certain class-A drugs. I was sitting in Shoreditch Town Hall. Duncan was holding my hand. I was thinking that my head was going to shoot off like a rocket launching from my neck. Get up! Dance! he said. You’ll be OK if you dance.
Angola was a bit like that, but it went on for weeks and weeks and months and months – and I miss it.
Despite being forty-eight, I still haven’t fully come to terms with being British and being white. A lot of people think I’m posh too. It’s in my voice, my face, my whole manner. Even with my mouth shut, you can see the privilege. It’s etched into me.
There’s a primary school at the bottom of my street. In summer, when my windows are open, I can hear the children playing games outside. I imagine them standing in circles, clapping hands and taking turns to skip and jump.
One afternoon I was walking past the school gates with a friend. In the middle of a conversation about his new dog, he hesitated. Then he looked at me with an expression that reminded me of the first time we’d met. Have you ever noticed those gates? he asked. I stepped forward: I wanted to show him I was giving them my full attention. Then I said that yes, I had, perfectly, yes, noticed. But it was only in that moment, my Jewish friend at my side, that I understood what he meant. Standing at about three meters high, they form an arch at the side of the school. Each gate consists of a row of vertical iron rods, set just far enough apart to push a man’s fist through. To either side of the lock that holds the gates together is a circle of metal the size of a small satellite dish. Inside each circle, a letter: M on the left, G on the right. At dusk, all you can make out is the top of the gates and the bare concrete wall running behind the back of the school.
When we lived in Bamako, J used to allow us extra time to walk anywhere because, he used to say, You can’t go down the street without talking to every single person we pass even though you don’t speak Bambara. We did try to learn Bambara, both of us. We took classes. J was a much better student than I. But in the end, we left Mali after just a few months because I was pregnant and had begun to bleed. I remember sitting in the doctor’s office, half-listening to him advising me to go home and half-reading the notice on his desk discouraging female genital mutilation. He said he couldn’t guarantee a clean blood transfusion should I need one. So I flew home, bleeding all the way, but having to pretend I was fine because you aren’t allowed on a plane if you’re bleeding – especially as much as I was. And perhaps I didn’t really like Bamako very much anyway. I spent a lot of the time wishing I was still in Luanda. I still do. Moments when I get desperate pangs for the place.
*This is an excerpt from Lara Pawson’s new book This is The Place to Be, which can be purchased here.