Trip to Dondi and farewell

****This is a long post since I haven’t had access to wireless for many days. This is Doug’s and my last day in Angola. Very early tomorrow we fly on Air26, a small plane to Luanda, and then catch a flight to Windhoek, Namibia. So bear with me and this lengthy post. In Namibia we will do a trip into San (Bushman) country and then an animal safari to Etosha National Park. I may not get to another post for several days. I promise I will put up more Angola and other photos as I get a chance. Our kids will fly out on Saturday for home.

Monday the 16th we started a 3-day trip to Huambo and Dondi. It took us a few days to settle upon how we would get there. The wild driving had made us happy to have a driver from Luanda to Lobito. But the same driver couldn’t take us on Monday. In the meantime, we checked out car rentals. Having acclimated a bit to the driving habits here, we decided to do it ourselves, for a rather steep price ($1300).

We left late morning, having picked up a very comfortable Hyundai and stopped for picnic supplies at the Shoprite, a South African chain. Food is available, but it is also very expensive. The picnic was to cost us $52. We drove through Canata up into the hills above Lobito and within 45 minutes we were deep into the country. Everyone assured us that the trip to Huambo would take 4 or 5 hours on a good fast road, unlike the overnight train ride we used to take. Soon we entered a hilly and rocky landscape, first with baobabs and cactuses and then gradually as we climbed it got greener. The river beds actually flowed with water, papayas and bananas grew in groves, and small villages of adobe houses were scattered every few kilometers.

It is the dry season with much dust in the air. It is also spring and people are burning the land to clear it for planting. The combination of dust and smoke made it hazy, unfortunate because the mountains in the distance would have been gorgeous in a clearer season. We continued climbing until we came to the more gentle hills of the planalto, a mile-high plateau.

Suddenly the wonderful asphalt road, which I’d been driving at 90 to 110 kph, came to an abrupt end. For almost 2 hours we drove very slowly over washboard or badly rutted red dirt roads. Sometimes the best route was not on our side of the road. Luckily the traffic was minimal and easily seen from a distance. They were mostly candongueiros, motorbikes, or pedestrians, walking miles and miles, with very few trucks or other private vehicles. Once back on the good road, we made good time and arrived in Huambo

While unloading the car, another group of Americans also arrived. They were a medical group from Seattle and UC San Francisco, plus a couple of Spaniards. One of our good friends is high in the administration of the UCSF nursing school, and works on international programs, which naturally prompted me to ask if he knew her. In fact, he did. What a small world! They are funded by several programs of the US government, including Bush’s HIV program, CDC, AID, and the defense department, which is working with the Angolan military in controlling AIDS. Reports from their first day were that they were feeling pretty positive about the program at the Central Hospital. It was rebuilt by the Chinese and staffed by an international group of docs from Cuba, Vietnam, Russia and others, and the Angolan person in charge seems highly competent.

The next morning our group headed for the former mission of Dondi, where I attended the small school for MKs for 3 years from age 9 to 11. My brother went to school there and also our parents worked there for a couple of years. Though I was prepared for the desolate scene from reports and photos taken by other returning MKs and missionaries, seeing it in person is another story. Only a handful of the dozens of houses and buildings currently have roofs and are in use. The others are in ruins. My former dorm has been rehabbed and will be a girls’ training school in the next school year. Another school is functioning next to the former church. We stopped in to say hi to a couple of classes studying English. They were in more or less 5th and 6th grades, but the students were teenagers and some were nursing mothers. Between the 2 schools are numerous crumbling and destroyed houses, surely a dispiriting place to be. The local pastor lives in the half of my parent’s house that wasn’t bombed.

During the war, the MPLA army occupied Dondi and quite deliberately carried out a scorched earth policy, dismembering what had been an impressive enterprise of hospital with operating room, nurses training, orphanage, and lab, a printing press, large boys and girls schools that included both academic studies and practical and technical instruction, a seminary, and the MKs school. Why? Because UNITA, the opposition, was centered in the highlands and many of their leaders were from this area. We noticed as we were driving inland that many villages were flying flags, some of MPLA, some of UNITA, and in a couple of instances the two flags in the same village. As an Angolan friend said, there has been little reconciliation between the sides. The victors have the power and the defeated are unable to share in it. I had a strong sense of it in Dondi.

A Portuguese road building company promised to reconstruct the hospital, but in return was given permission to reduce the wonderful rocks in the center of the mission to gravel. While exploiting the rocks, the company higher-ups are being housed in the hospital. The operation will end in October, the company will move on, and the use of the hospital will return to the mission. The head of the local synod is negotiating with an Angolan doctor to come work at the hospital. The church is extremely poor. I don’t know how the medical work will be supported since the American and Canadian mission boards no longer have the funds or appetite to devote to it. I just felt very sad being in Dondi. What used to be there can never be rebuilt in the current world economy, but the local people want it so badly.

One bright note in the day was finding what I refer to as sunrise rocks because the mission held sunrise services up there. We had picnics up there and below them we explored the river and caves. It is also the rock I was standing on, on my book cover, with the road to Means School visible in the background, but now most of the landscape is bare, all the trees gone. The bridge we’d have to cross to go up the hill was not strong enough to support the car, so we didn’t check it out. In any case nothing is left to see.

Before returning to Huambo, we stopped in Katchiungo, the new name for Bela Vista, the little town just a couple of kilometers from Dondi. As kids, we used to ride our bikes into town on Saturdays to buy gum and candy, and it was there that we caught the train to go home to Lobito on holidays. The train station is an empty shell now. The train line is being reconstructed by the Chinese. Currently only freight trains operate.

While in Angola, I have had conflicting desires. On the one hand I want to honor my parents’ work and the people they knew or who knew of them. Since they were missionaries inevitably that means participating in religious services and meeting with church people, despite my lack of faith. On the other hand, having brought along my husband and kids, I want the focus to be a family journey, to give them a sense of what my childhood was. Once I left Africa, I found it difficult to convey it to anyone, being somewhat shell shocked at losing an important part of myself. I was happy when my son Noel told me that he has been discovering parts of his history and himself that he didn’t even know were missing.

To comply with mission responsibilities and to respect the strong connection many older Angolans still feel with our parents’ work, we stopped in at the seminary in Katchiungo that used to operate in Dondi. I was unprepared for the strength of my emotional reaction to the 3 strong women who run it, especially to Rev. Adelaide Catanya who had been a good friend of my mother’s, though considerably younger. She had made a trip to the US back in the ’80’s and visited my parents in Florida. I don’t think that I had ever met her, yet we were both overcome with feeling. My tears were constantly very close to the surface in Huambo/Dondi.

My brother David stayed in Huambo to explore. He had spent more of his older years there and wanted to “matar saudades.” The rest of us drove back to Lobito. By mistake we took a different southern route that followed the railroad. The gorgeous huge piles of rocks that are burned in my memory turn out to be on this route. Wow! The promised “asphalt all the way” involved a slightly shorter detour than going up! Oh well, people tell you what they think you want to hear. We made it back in time to turn in our car.

It’s been a rich, exciting, sad, dismaying, unforgettable trip. Since I have a 2-year visa, maybe I’ll come back before August 2012.


About nancyhj

Missionary kid/ global nomad, writer, retired librarian, returning to my childhood home after 50 years.
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9 Responses to Trip to Dondi and farewell

  1. Frank Collins says:

    Am enjoying following you on your trip. Is the pile of rocks you evoke, on the way from Katchiungo to Huambo, dominated by a tall, split monolith? If so it was and still is called “pedra alemã” because at the end of World War I a German settler was so distraught at the German surrender that he climbed up and hurled himself off, to die on the rocks below.

    Will there be access to more pictures? I have lots of relatively recent pictures from cities, and poor, ravaged Dondi, but I’d love to see more of the countryside that I roamed all over by bike and later motorbike.

    Etosha will be wonderful. I’m jealous. Have a safe trip home. As they say in Umbundu, “Vonjila mu yele”. May your path be clear (literally – may it be clean on your path – no obstacles, easy travelling). Frank

    • nancyhj says:

      I want to post more photos b/c they are evocative and descriptive, but I am finding WordPress, my blog site, to be less than easy to use with the iPad. WP needs to rework their program to make photo posting easier. If all fails on the trip, I will post many when back home.

      Thanks for everyone’s comments!

  2. Susan Greenberg says:

    I can imagine how deep and complex your feelings must have been. This sort of thing can be hard to pin down on the page; thanks for capturing some fragments.

  3. Judy Kincaid says:

    Loved the 55-year-later photo.
    Can’t imagine how overflowing with feeling you must be.

  4. Chris Cullen says:

    I just stumbled across this blog entry and thought you might be interested in knowing about our project to raise funds to rebuild the Lutamo School at Dondi. Of particular interest might be our 24 hour Dondi Drumathon taking place across Canada October 1-2, 2010. Check out for details.

  5. David K. Gilchrist says:

    Hi Nancy, You won’t know me, as I left Angola at 11 yrs old in 1939; but I think you knew my younger Gilchrist siblings – Betty, Ken, Ian and Rae (whom I have heard talk about a ‘Nancy”); and also the Wilsons – Alice, Laura (whom I saw last month) and Arthur. I don’t know much about blogging; but someone sent this to me this morning, and I was deeply moved to read it. The United Church of Canada Men are trying to raise $1M to restore the infrastructure of Dondi, beginning with the Lutamo School; and we are having a “Drumathon” from 7pm Angola time (starting there) to 7pm BC time, ending there, at a 100 locations. One is my Church here, and I am animating it. Please e-mail me so I can have your e-mail address. There is more I’d like to say.David

  6. Pingback: I love the sound of deadlines whooshing by my ear | Drummingfordondi's Blog

  7. Enjoyed yuor comments, Nancy. Please continue to send them along. I am Animating at the Drum-A-Thon in Brandon MB Canada and was feeling a little overwhelmed by the lack of interest. Your news and the fact that the people want the school rebuilt has given me more of an incentive to ‘Give it a Good Try’ and raise the money even if I don’t raise many drummers to help me. God bless you in your travels.

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