In the land of wreckage that Angola's Popular Movement government inherited when the Portuguese fled, only 2 per cent of the people know how to read and write Portuguese, and a very high proportion - especially among women in the interior - could not even speak it.
There were 200,000 cases of tuberculosis, 600,000 of malaria and 20,000 of leprosy, nearly all of them left to their own devices. There was also a murderous rate of poliomyelitis and of dysentery, and an incurable strain of venereal disease.
Polygamy, which so intrigues us outsiders, really seems to be a social defense against what such statistics represent: It is based on the constant need for births to replace the dead.
But in Angola the struggle was unequal: of every 1,000 born, 300 died in their first year. After centuries of life there, the country has some 6 million inhabitants, nearly all of them pure blakcs, in a land 13 times the size of Portugal.
The truth is that the colonialists did not give the natives any better chance than they gave the rhinos. They delibrately fostered tribalism to prevent formation of a unifying national spirit. The 11 ethnic groups they found there in 1575 do not contunue intact, they are much divided now by artificial antagonisms.
Natives of the diamond regions were forbidden to plant crops, so 25,000 farmworkers could be put to work in the mines. The people of the south, who were pastoral and had to pay a special tax to keep a dog, were taken an masse to the north, and vice versa, to prevent permanent settlements and disorient the cultural and political forces that could unify the nation.
The result of centuries of this perversity is that very few Angolans outside the small leadership group know how to do anything and the cost of this is greater than most people realize.
In reality, the few with skills constitute a retarding and very corrupt intellectual aristocracy, which strives at all costs to block social reforms that might threaten their privileges. They can do it, too, at least for now, because they are embedded in the bureaucracy and, as ones who know its intricate secrets, are untouchable.
Meanwhile, many young peasants who are seeing electric light for the first time have had to take charge of the cities. A friendly youth working in my hotel did not know how to change a light bulb, a long-distance operator asked me what country New York was in, and letters pile up in the post office while new mailmen are being trained to read addresses.
These intensive courses in practical life are going on at the same time as a literacy campaign with three aims: to teach Portuguese to those who do not speak it, to teach reading and writing, and to use the training material to instill the basic doctrines of socialism.
The first task is to train those who will be the teachers, but who are still illiterate themselves. The entire nation is primary school.
Nonetheless, the Angolans do not seem perturbed by the immensity of their problems. They have a different sense of time, and they are modedst, patient, thrifty and sensitive - all combined with a terrible realism.
The only visible sign of their resentment at 400 years of colonialism is that they tore down the statues of the Portuguese heroes and put war trophies on the pedestals: tanks, cannons and an armored car with a bench sticking out of it, the result of a traffic accident.
It is said that they have a great resistance to suffering and an enormous strength in keeping secrets, and live in long, indecipherable silences. Anything can be done, but in its proper moment and with Angola's own rhythm. Other solutions bewilder them. A high official to whom I mentioned the possibility of immediately sending many volunteer physicians made a gesture to calm my Latin impulses: "That is fine," he said "but they should come two by tow."
A Cabinet minister had invited me to dinner, taking care to reserve a table the day before. When we arrived at the restaurant, on time, no one knew anything about the reservation. The minister did not get excited or even mention his title. We were told we would have to wait in the next room half an hour, and he waited two hours without looking at his watch, calm, sucking at his unlit pipe in front of the television.
But President Agostinho Neto warned me that these virtues of his people are not infinite: "An Angolan who has been pushed to his limits," he said, "can be terrible."
Creating a new, free country against such obstacles could be the work of centuries, so it is amazing to see so many unmistakable signs of progress in the first year of peace.
Many factories are working, there has been a harvest in four sugar areas, 80,000 tons of coffee has been gathered, foreign trade and the fishing industry are being organized . . . The infant-mortality rate has been cut to 10 per cent through free medical care and the use of preventive medicine, and the training of technicians has been accelerated.
All of this, it must be said, has been done with the aid of many friendly countries, among them Cuba.
The greatest and most difficult task, it seems, has been rebuilding the transportation system. In effect, if there were no matches the other week in Luanda - where there is a factory capable of producing 90 million boxes of matches a year - it was because the wood needed to make matches was in Cabinda, more than 350 miles to the north, and there were not enough ships to bring it down.
The same is true of the lack of food in Luanda: WHile people formed lines for three days without finding anything to buy, in Huambo and Lubango food was abundant and easily available, so there was little problem with speculation.
In the next few months 3,000 new trucks are to arrive, but the government is aware that something essential will still be lacking - drivers. In all of Angola, there are only 32 of them.
So far, only the businesses abandoned by the Portuguese have been expropriated, and banking was nationalized to arrange the credit for national reconstruction. With other foreign companies, arrangements are being made in accordance with the country's possibilities - as in petroleum.
In December 1975 Gulf OIl, which exploited the deposits in Cabinda, suspended its operations there because of U.S. government intrigues. Angola lost royalties amounting $1.5 million a day for more than a year, but it did not take over the operations. Now production has begun again.
[The Gulf Oil operations in Angola were actually suspended less than a year, roughly during the period from January to May 1976.]
"This means," Agostinho Neto has said with exemplary realism, "that Gulf Oil will continue to grow fat on the sweat of our workers and the exploitation of our riches, because we are in no position to change this situation - which has disagreeable consequences for the people of Angola - without exposing ourselves to even worse consequences."
The Angolan armed forces are even protecting the installations and the lives of the Yankee exploiters of Cabinda.
The diamond mines, among the richest in the world and exploited by a consortium of Belgians, Americans and Portuguese, have been handled with equal realism. Angola has created its own petroleum company for the future, and has associated itself, wihtout false political prejudices, with the diamond consortium. But, without making much noise about it, it is alos training its own technicians.
In all of this the Cuban civilian advisory mission, the oldest and largest such group here, has been especially useful, keeping Angola from repeating the homeric errors that Cuba made in the infancy of its revolution.
"Thanks to this," an Angolan official told me, "we have done in one year many things it took the Cubans a decade to do." For their part, the Cubans recognize that they have learned much about patience and a sense of reality from the Angolians.
One way in which Angola is rich, in the midst of so many kinds of poverty, is in the fact that its leadership group has an amazing intellectual education and a very high level of political and moral formation, forged in 15 years of war and the rigors of jail and exile.
Agostinho Neto, with surprising historical foresight, took the most intelligent and enlightened of his fighters out of the trenches and sent them out of the country to study. Others got their education in prison.
Neto himself, who managed to end his medical career at the University of Lisbon, and who was Amnesty International's "political prisoner" of 1957, spent seven years in prison.
Prime Minister Lobo do Nascimento was a prisoner six years; the secretary of the National Council of Culture, Antonio Jacinto, was in jail 14 years; Minister of Justice Diogenes Boavida . . . spent 13 years, as did Labor Minister Noe da Silva Saude.
The case of Labor Minister Manuel Pacavira is singular.
Arrested in 1960, when he was only 17 and virtually illiterate, he was a prisoner 14 years - almost until independence. In prison he came to know Antonio Jacinto, who is a noted writer, a skilled politician and a special human being. Jacinto taught him reading, writing, Marxism and literature. Now, only 34, Pacavira is also an admirable writer and a hypnotic racontcur of his country's history.
The mixture of political writers and old warriors and prisoners seems natural to Angola: A poet, Fernandos Costa Andrade, edits the Jornal de Angola: Henrique Abranches directs the museums and a novelist, Luandino Vieira, runs the [TEXT OMITTED FROM SOURCE]
Still, they are few for so many demands. Speaking of this, President Neto explained good-humoredly to me why Angola has no diplomatic service: "If we named ambassadors," he said, "we'd wind up without any ministers."
So they must do everything, including some things they do not know how to do, and do it by working emergency hours . . .
[Neto] received me for a brief good-bye in the ancient palace of the Portuguese governor, where the president's office is now.
It is a plain, white, three-story building, whose windows command a view of the entire city and of the sea to the horizon. Outside, where there is a casual guard, it looks like a charity hospital. But inside a fragrant Roman garden stretched beneath the dusk sky, and at the foot of the garden is an immense library.
That afternoon, French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing had announced his decision to send aid to the government of Zaire. President Neto seemed very disgusted at Giscard's decision, which he saw as the prelude to an imperialist maneuver against Angola, but he never lost his proverbial calm or his fine sense of irony.
Soon he changed the subject, as if afraid to bore a visitor with a personal matter. Perhaps his modesty kept him from being aware that the world awaited his reaction to France's attitude, while he discussed poetry with a passing poet in an almost surreal library, with soft chairs and shelves of natural wood full of huge books and innumerable yellow leather folders . . .
It seemed to me that his greatest virtue was the ability to see both sides of a problem. He appeared to me to be an integrated man, incarnating his principles, always optimistic and with a rather old-fashioned dignity.
At times one could see the weariness of so many years in jail, of so many years of war and of so many hours of the long, hard journey of a government that was still many leagues from its destination. But this was leavened by a quiet, very personal sense of humor, and there was no sign of self pity.
In prison, when they had forbidden him to write, he had made his poems in tiny letters on small scraps of paper and hidden them rolled up inside a cigarette. Sometimes he could get no more than two verses inside one cigarette.
When his wife, Maria Eugenia, came to visit him he would offer her a cigarette, and she would carry it our without lighting it because she knew it held his verses. In seven years in prison he wrote "Sacred Hope," his book of 49 poems.
I do not think President Neto recounted this to me as a parable, but he told it with certain delight, down to minor details, and at the end he said to me, with a rather sad smile: "That's how we do things."
In reality, the only thing that surprised me about him, for I could not have imagined it, is the will of steel that hides behind his modesty and sweetness.