Amid the bustle of Lisbon’s dusk, I lined up with a group of Portuguese conscript soldiers for my yellow fever jab. It was 1974, revolution was in the air, colonies were being liberated, and I was off to Africa. The soldiers were going to Angola and Mozambique: I was heading to Portuguese Guinea. It would become independent in two days time. It was the sort of exotic assignment I had dreamed of when I first became a foreign correspondent.
I had to make sure I got back for my child’s birth in England, due in a week or so. Also, it was not quite clear where independence would be celebrated – somewhere up in the jungle apparently. Sitting alone in the plane taking me out there, all this did not prey much on my mind; I would find my way.
When I stepped out of the plane, a wave of damp heat enveloped me, and I thought I would not make it to the hut on the edge of the airfield. My gung-ho enthusiasm sagged. But after a night in a dingy bungalow, I was off on a Portuguese military transport, accompanied by distinguished African guests and French press photographers.
First stop was a military airstrip the Portuguese had built themselves in the bush. But the ceremony was not there. We piled into Volvo trucks purchased with kind donations from Swedish ladies opposed to Portugal’s colonialism. Bumping and splashing through puddles on a red earth track, I vaguely wondered about mines. We met nobody.
Several hours later, we came upon searchlights and a tall barbed wire fence. It was a fortified village. The Portuguese military had built these elaborate defences to ward off guerrillas. They had learned the strategy from the Americans, who had done the same in Vietnam. It proved as useless to the Portuguese as it had been for the Americans. I was witnessing the collapse of an empire. The fence no longer kept anybody out, there was nobody left to shine lights on intruders, and the village was deserted. From one day to the next, they had become meaningless structures, gently rotting in the jungle.
Liberation movement guerrillas circled us as we descended from the truck. A tall commander with a black beard looking like Fidel Castro informed us we could go no further. I was impressed by his fluent American English, until the penny dropped, and I realized he was a Cuban “proxy” soldier helping the Soviet Union consolidate Marxist rule across Africa.
The French photographers launched into decidedly un-Marxist invective. Machine guns were cocked. Were we going to fight our way to the ceremony? Then the tension collapsed. We had failed. The birth of this new nation was not for us. We were left standing in the middle of nowhere. A wooden sign inscribed by a homesick Portuguese soldier read “Lisbon, 10,000 kms.” A Portuguese air force pilot with a pencil-thin moustache later took us back to the capital in his helicopter. He flew directly at every tree in the jungle before popping over the top, none too confident he would not be shot at.
Later that evening, on the verandah of the seedy bungalow, a Gambian ambassador back from the interior described the ceremony to me. Educated at Oxford University, he expressed polite regret that the new Marxist regime of Guinea-Bissau did not subscribe to democratic principles as much as one would have wished.
I wrote a dispatch and, as the hotel had neither telephone nor telex, made my way down to the post office – which was shut for Independence Day. The next day, post office workers told me they were not allowed to transmit anything unless it was officially authorized. After an hour or so, I convinced them that anything being sent to Reuters news agency was ipso facto authorized. Twenty-four hours later, it reached Lisbon. The story was published several days after the event. What a fiasco.
A couple of weeks later, however, the talented blonde correspondent of the Financial Times greeted me with the words “You bastard! (we were friends, and spoke to each other like that). How did you manage to get your story back from the jungle?” She had been the only western journalist at the ceremony, but was trapped in the bush afterwards for lack of transport. So I had a scoop after all. Sort of.
Then I discovered that the next flight back to Lisbon was in a week’s time. Misery flowed over me. I felt alone, stranded in Africa, about to miss the birth of my child. The Africa which others found so moving and beautiful was for me totally alien. I desolately gathered material for feature stories. The outgoing Portuguese Governor in his pink baroque palace was rude and uncommunicative, emitting a few monosyllables as he scratched a huge mosquito bite on his leg. The new education minister told me to get lost while he scraped around for books in a deserted school. Mosquitoes ate me alive at night; when I woke in the morning the sheet was spotted with the blood they had sucked from me. It was all unfriendly, miserable, dirty, obscure.
I penned grimly eloquent lines about green mould creeping up the empty swimming pool of the abandoned Portuguese officers’ mess. In their heyday, the Portuguese commanders launched raids into neighbouring countries without bothering to inform Lisbon in advance. Now a new series of rulers were calling the shots, but what they were up to escaped me. Africa withheld its mysteries.
When I stepped off the plane in Lisbon a week later, my child was still not born. Africa was behind me, but fatherhood had to wait. A crisis was in full spate. My Portuguese assistant was hopping up and down with excitement. “It’s very bad, Marcus. The communists have barricades all around the city.” He had a glint in his eye. He liked a good crisis, and for the next 48 hours we were in our element, racing around the city in pursuit of mayhem. The Portuguese government led by a colonial general was on the verge of collapse.
Finally, the Portuguese staff gathered around a television in my office for an address by the general. They rose to their feet and yelled: “He’s done it!”
“Done what? Tell me what he said,” I shouted to my interpreter.
“Shall I start at the beginning?”
“No, just tell the most important things he said.”
“Everything he said was important.”
He had resigned as President. The next day, as a new government settled into place, I took a plane to England. I was ready, but my child apparently not. Overdue, her mother reported to an industrial-style maternity unit to be induced. The midwives worked office hours, more or less, so around ten past five in the afternoon they looked at their watches and announced they were going home.
A couple of doctors began loudly discussing the possibility of forceps, and at that point, my daughter surrendered and was born naturally. That evening, as I looked at her among the other babies born that day, she gave me a sweet look.
It was her Independence Day. And I was there.