Elisa’s Story

A woman seen from the back, with a gas bottle on her head.
Elisa carrying a bottle of gas

I met Elisa for the first time in June 2016. She worked at “my” office as a maid. She didn’t talk much and was always very shameful in her ways of doing, turning to me with the terms “padroa” or “chefe” (=”boss”). It took me at least 3 months before I could convince her to call me simply Maria, but in the end I succeeded and we started talking a lot, so here is her story.

Her parents were farmers, both of them poor and without education. Fernando, originally from Bailundo, was a silent, quiet man and he was very fond of his family. He earned to read only in adulthood. He lived during times of colonialism and of the hope for freedom propagandized by the independence.

Eugenia was born in Alto Hama, she was illiterate, but a good wife and a good mother. She gave birth to 5 children, but the first two were too weak and died at birth. Eugenia was destroyed after the loss of her second child and dedicated herself to the work in the fields without stopping. Stopping would have meant thinking and thinking would have hurt too much. During the suffering of the war, Eugenia finally gave birth to two healthy and strong boys, to the joy of her husband. Finally, soon after the signing of the Alvor agreement, Elisa arrived. It was July 24, 1975, and a few days later Angola would see the begin of one of the longest civil wars in the history of the African continent.

Elisa was born in Bailundo, a municipality located in the province of Huambo, one of the 18 provinces of the country. Huambo had been renamed by the Portuguese settlers Nova Lisboa (New Lisbon), a clear statement of the economic and strategic importance the city held. When I asked her what she remembered about her childhood, Elisa replied: «The confusion, Maria. Confusion and hunger”. In her first years, the brothers took care of Elisa when her mother and father went in search of food.

The money had now finished and the fields were destroyed. Fernando understood that they could no longer stay in Bailundo. Eugenia had a sister who lived with her family in the nearby province: they would join them. After the cold, came hunger, but it was soon reached by tiredness. The family took four days to reach the bairro Lupupa, in the province of Cuanza Sul. When they arrived, their feet were sore and the group was starving. That night, after a long time, they had a deep sleep, both for the infinite tiredness, but also for the awareness of having arrived there. Of having made it. Of being alive. Of being all together.

Life resumed and continued in Lupupa and, when Elisa turned 15, her parents had already organized her marriage. The young couple didn’t know each other: the only thing they knew about each other was that the parents were friends since childhood. The couple met for the first time only in May 1990, inside the small Catholic church of the bairro Canjombe, about 20 km from Lupupa. The boy turned out to be a good husband and the two began to know and love each other day after day.

As time passed, Elisa’s husband was given the role of Director at Canjombe’s school and, two years after the marriage, at the age of 17, Elisa gave birth to her first daughter. Meanwhile, Elisa’s brothers had been enrolled in the MPLA army and had left Lupupa. Shortly before the birth of the second daughter, Elisa received news that her mother had died from a mine explosion in the fields. A few years later, her father died too.

In the meantime, Elisa had given birth to two more girls, and her husband had found a job in the police department of the city, where he had moved with the whole family. While working in the police, he put aside money to open a pharmacy near the old bairro of Canjombe, where he planned to return with Elisa. Finally, Elisa gave birth to a boy – to the happiness of the whole family – and, a year after the birth of the fifth child, the father opened his pharmacy.

A woman seen from the back carrying a bottle of gas on her head.
Elisa carrying a bottle of gas to her home.

Elisa dreamed of returning to Canjombe and soon managed to do so. Meanwhile, the husband worked at the police department during the day and went to close the pharmacy in the evening. To manage the pharmacy,  he had hired a boy. At the birth of the sixth son (another male) Elisa asked her husband to move to the old bairro and the family prepared to return to Canjombe.

A few days after the end of the school, Elisa received the news that her husband had been taken to the city hospital because he was shot while closing the pharmacy. A few days later, her husband died among Elisa’s tears, who suddenly found herself alone, with six children and no money. “I often think of my husband, Maria. Even today, sometimes I feel like crying. But I have no more tears, Maria. I haven’t cried since the day he died.”

For a year, she was able to feed her children thanks to a job offered by a colleague of her husband in the MPLA electoral department. At the end of the year, the contract expired and Elisa was unemployed again.

«Life is suffering, Maria. Life is suffering.». How can I contradict her? How can I give her hope, after all that she has been through? Despite this, she is strong for her children. She keeps smiling and every little gift received is an immense treasure for her. I hope that her strength, her determination, her love and her violent smile, may be contagious; surely they are inspiring to me.

Linda is the portrait of happiness. When I look at her, I get a natural and sincere smile. Those two big eyes are lively and attentive, those cheeks are always smiling. She is the seventh and last daughter of Elisa. The father is a friend who has recognized his daughter, but has never contributed to her livelihood. Once I asked her to tell me about her dream, and her first answer was: “Maria, I don’t know. I never thought about it”.

Then she thought about it a bit more, and she confessed that she would like to return to Lupupa, where she had moved with her family 36 years ago. Her older brother, still enrolled in the army, lives there with his family. In the months we spent together I taught her how to make fruit jams that Linda and her brothers love, so Elisa began making and selling mango jam.

In the afternoon, when she does not have to do the cleaning, she goes to the market, carrying 2 or 3 jars of jam with her, and she settles next to a friend who makes bread. Selling the jam spoon by spoon, she always manages to finish her jars, obtaining about 750Akz from each one. And so Elisa goes on, without forgetting her plan, her dream. She sells small spoons of sweetness, offering her smiles for free.

Written by: Maria Vittoria Moretti