Barely a few pages into Bay of Tigers, Pedro Rosa Mendes’ chronicle of travels in Angola in 1997, we learn “there are more than one hundred million mines buried in seventy countries, close to a tenth of them in Angola”. It is a depressing start, but in ways that may not be immediately apparent. Mendes is wrong: the people removing the mines from the ground in Angola commonly cite estimates of between 300,000 and 1 million mines. And in any case, statistics are the bane of understanding, the foil of insight. 1 million? 10 million? Either way, we are immediately straightjacketed into the conventional responses to the conventional African news: shock, and pity.

It is thus particularly gratifying that Mendes’ chronicle turns out to have precisely the opposite effect: unconventional, sensitive, incisive and disarmingly intimate, Bay of Tigers draws the reader into the heart, not of darkness, but of a surrealist landscape peopled by characters both tragic and comic, and above all, of great humanity.

Angola spent four decades at war with itself, ending the millennium exhausted and destroyed, but for the “petro-dollar” economy that allowed a small political elite to thrive on corrupted multinational oil money. A small collection of existing publications documents the nuances of the conflict, the oil economy and the humanitarian crisis during this period. Invariably, the people of Angola emerge from these works a mass of helpless, stricken fodder for rival armies and, ultimately, for aid organisations.
Like the landmines statistics, those for corruption ($1 billion of oil money embezzled in 2001, according to a leaked IMF report), or for population displacement (upwards of three million people by 2002, according to UN reports) may serve their purpose in advocacy and comparative political analysis, but they do little to facilitate understanding of the human dimension.

Mendes’ great feat is to subvert this, to go to Angola more or less as a tourist – one with a journalist’s sensibilities, admittedly – and to write what he finds as he wanders.

His chronicle is peopled with cattle thieves, fishermen, immigration officials, foreign workers, a radio director, intellectuals and ghostly figures from  the colonial and pre-colonial era. Yet it is his encounters with the warriors and the war-wounded that most incisively capture the country.

A former soldier, Zeca, tells him of his time fighting in defence of the patria. “It was territorial integrity… But instead of defending, I was offended. Yesterday all I had to eat was a piece of bread…” It is the story of Angola itself – the imperative of post-colonial independence becomes the prerogative of defence against the internal enemy; 25 years of defence gradually corrupts and exhausts, leaving a country ravished, offended.

In the province of Cuando Cubango, Mendes encounters a French charity, “Pain Without Borders”, doing extraordinary work with amputees. An electrical machine transmits pulses to the amputee’s stump in order to help ease the “phantom pains” that amputees suffer in their missing limb. He writes
Jubilation in a mutilated country: the phantom pains disappear; it just takes a machine, which comes from outside and needs only batteries to operate.

Again, read that for subtext, for the national metaphor: a country mutilated (from the Portuguese word used to describe amputees, mutilado) in a war sponsored chiefly by Cold War paymasters; a machine “from outside” grants miraculous pain relief.

In Bonga, he meets the amputees themselves, and he sees the tragedy of the land that underlies each individual story he is told. “They fought for their land, hard and a long time, until they made of it a land of guerrillas and no other crop.” The truth in this is prescient.

Throughout 2001, a renewed offensive by the government deliberately reduced large swathes of the Angolan interior to precisely that “land of guerrillas and no other crop”: pursuing a “razed earth” strategy known by the Angolan leadership as limpeza, or cleansing, the government’s forces displaced the rural population in areas suspected of harbouring the UNITA rebels, and burned, stole or poisoned what was left of their crops. Thousands of civilians died and tens of thousands were reduced to dependence on emergency food and medical aid. The limpeza worked. The war ended when UNITA leader Jonas Savimbi was shot in an ambush on his column in the bush, but his closest comrades were already dying from malnutrition.

The story of Angola’s war today is already very different – and more hopeful – to when Mendes wrote in 1997. In the jargon of aid, Angola is today a “post-conflict” country; Mendes describes instead a country where “wars come like the days”. Yet because this is an account primarily of people – people who are still “mutilated”, still poor, still remote from anything approximating modernity or “development”, Bay of Tigers tells a truth beyond the jargon, independent of what Angolans call the prevailing “politico-military situation”.

Ironically, Bay of Tigers draws to a close with a fresh batch of statistics. But by then you understand something of the people behind them, something of the extraordinary sacrifices they make trying to defeat the iron grip of those statistics, of the humanity gained and lost in that struggle. He cites a report on one particular Angolan town: “66 percent of the children of Kuito had seen people dying or being killed, which left them a legacy of psychosocial trauma.” Those children are fast becoming adolescents and adults, in a country which will struggle yet with the imposition of democracy and the rebuilding of society. Mendes may not deal with such macro-level socio-political questions, but he paints an unforgettable picture of the micro-level context in which they will be answered.

Bay of Tigers: A Journey Through War-Torn Angola
By Pedro Rosa Mendes, translated from the Portuguese by Clifford Landers
Granta, 321pp, £12.99

Published in the Irish Times.