Dedicated to: Claudia’s grandmother, who recently passed away
There was always something interesting about Claudia. I perfectly remember the first time I spoke with her. It was Sunday afternoon in June, I was drinking tea at a café near the cinema, and she called to ask for directions to get to the office the following day (her first day of work on our project). She definitely didn’t sound happy to start the job, and I immediately imagined the following day would be very difficult.
When she got to the office, she didn’t seem able to smile. I am somebody who likes smiles and, on that day, I wondered how I’d be able to work so close to someone who never seemed to smile, and I prepared myself for a difficult first meeting… That was the first time (of many!) that Claudia surprised me: in that meeting, she showed that she was more than willing to start her work, to read all the necessary documents and participate in all the meetings.
During the following year, I learnt a lot about her. That smile, that seemed so unattainable at first, is, actually, one of the most beautiful smiles I’ve ever seen, and perhaps that is precisely because it’s reserved only to the most important people in her life. The tone of her voice that, during our first call, had made me think she didn’t want to work, was actually nothing more than shyness. In reality, Claudia was always ready to work, even when we had to leave Benguela at 5 am to attend a community meeting.
At work she learnt very quickly and, in our personal life, she slowly opened up with me and with our colleagues. Soon, we had all found a new precious and extremely special friend.
Claudia’s origins are inter-twined with two different countries: Angola and São Tomé. Her paternal grandmother (to whom this story is dedicated) arrived in Benguela in 1940 and saw the city grow and change around her during the following decades. Her father was from Luanda, but had spent years in São Tomé for work, before being transferred to Benguela with his family.
Claudia’s paternal grandfather was from São Tomé, but the two met and got married in Benguela, where he had also gone for work. They always kept a connection with the relatively big community of people from São Tomé in Benguela, but neither Claudia nor her father ever got a chance to visit the island.
Despite her mixed origins, which means she doesn’t have a name in a national language, Claudia considers herself a true “Benguelense”. She was born in 1986 and grew up with her parents and her paternal grandmother, who went to live with them after her husband died. When I ask her how growing up with her grandmother in the house was, Claudia gives me one of her beautiful smiles and answers that it meant receiving affection not only from her parents, but also from her grandmother… in other words, it was awesome.
Claudia is the second of 7 children. After Claudia’s mother had given birth to 3 children in a very short time, her sisters-in-law told her she shouldn’t have any other kids for at least 10 years, for her body’s sake. Despite some reticence, she followed the advice and waited 10 years to start having children again, which means that – in Claudia’s family – there are two groups of kids, with a 10 year age difference. For this reason, Claudia often had to take care of her younger siblings.
Claudia and Henrique have been together since 2004. When she tells me about their relationship, she seems extremely proud. She recalls that, when they started going out, she was negatively influenced by her family, in that she wasn’t happy with the situation at home but she didn’t feel the strength to change anything. Henrique helped her find a way to say “no” when needed and he was a big support for her in general. When she decided to move to Huambo by herself (to get out of the family home), he supported her fully and visited her regularly. Claudia always tells me that, between the two of them, Henrique is the romantic one, but – to be honest – when we talk about their relationship, she always seems very romantic.
When telling me about her experience in Huambo (which lasted a couple of years), Claudia explains that it was an extremely positive experience, because it allowed her to learn a lot about life. She went to stay with a cousin and found a job as shop-keeper. Thanks to that experience, she managed to get back to Benguela with a clearer mind. She went back to live with her parents, but didn’t allow their problems to affect her too much, and she finished school.
However, Claudia felt like she had to travel some more before settling down completely, so she moved to Sumbe (in the province of Kwanza Sul), where she found a job as project assistant working on women in the work market. Just like the first time, Henrique was very supportive of this second experience outside of Benguela. By that time, they already had a daughter as well, but this didn’t stop Claudia from chasing her dreams.
When the project ended, she decided it was time to go back to Benguela and settle down with Henrique, with whom she had another child. However, the two don’t live together yet as Claudia didn’t feel ready for it at first (she still wanted to feel that freedom that she felt when she moved outside of Benguela). It is only recently that they built their own house, because they have decided it would be easier to educate their kids if they were living together. The house is painted in yellow, which Claudia links to the sun, which in turn means life.
Claudia laughs while telling me one of the funniest moments of her relationship: once, during whale season, the couple decided to go fishing with Henrique’s boat, and he really wanted to take good pictures of the whales. Claudia was a bit worried, so she asked if the whales weren’t gonna get aggressive when the boat would come close to them, but Henrique confidently responded that “no, whales are not aggressive”.
However, when the boat got close to a whale and Henrique was snapping his picture, the whale started swimming quickly in their direction. Claudia remained calm, reassured by the words of her partner, but he started panicking and shouting at the sailor to move away fast. Claudia was confused at first, but then realised what happened and found it very funny. Anyway, Henrique managed to bring home a picture that he is very proud of.
When I asked Claudia to review the story, she asked me to add one thing: next year, she wants to go to University and do a course to become a children educator, which has always been her dream. She explained to me that, through the women’s rights project we worked together on, she discovered that we should never give up on our dreams.
On that note, I honestly wish Claudia and all of you, readers, to be able to achieve all your dreams!
Written by: Caterina Manzi