I knew a bit about Neto and his role in the decolonisation of Africa. He was quite an exceptional leader in many ways. Not only did he become the first president of Angola in 1975, but he was also a medical doctor who specialised in gynaecology.
I only discovered it a few years ago that he was an acclaimed and published poet after stumbling on one of his few translated poems in the anthology The Heritage of African Poetry: An Anthology of Oral and Written Poetry edited by Isidore Okpewho.
It is no ordinary anthology because it features some household names and the greatest African poets to grace the African continent. This includes heavyweights like Wole Soyinka, Kofi Awoonor, Christopher Okgibo, Leopold Sedar Senghor to mention a few.
To be published among such names speaks volumes about the nature of one’s work and the quality of it. You don’t get published among legends like that unless you are made of the same stuff.
It is probably little known that Neto was a poet because his work was not so easily accessible to those of us who cannot read or write Portuguese. But it is also not so well known that Neto, to this day, is one of Angola’s most acclaimed poet and writer. That is no easy feat.
Agostinho Neto was born in 1922 at Icola e Bengo in Angola. He studied medicine in Lisbon and Coimbra in Portugal and returned to practice in Angola.
He joined a movement for the discovery of indigenous Angolan culture. In 1960, was elected president of the MPLA [Movimento Popular da Libertação de Angola – People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola] which was a militant anti-colonial organisation. That year he was arrested and taken to jail in Portugal but escaped two years later.
After a protracted guerrilla struggle, he helped to establish the independence of Angola. He became it’s first president but died in 1980.
He published poetry in several Portuguese and Angolan publications and a volume entitled A Sagrada Esperanca (Sacred Hope).
There was little in Neto’s earlier life that indicated the direction of his later life. He was born in a Methodist family. His father was a Methodist pastor. We can interpret through the trajectories of what is known about him that his conception of serving his people was strongly influenced by his father and his exposure to the teachings of Christianity.
It was only when he was in Lisbon [Portugal] that his political activism became marked. He became friends with other future political and iconic figures such as Amilcar Cabral who I have written about and would leave a lasting legacy in Guinea Bissau and Cape Verde. This also included Marcelino dos Santos from Mozambique.
Dos Santos and Neto seemed to have more than politics in common. Dos Santos was also a poet and a revolutionary. After Neto was arrested and his friend Eduardo Mondlane also from Mozambique and a fellow comrade from FRELIMO moved to the United States, dos Santos moved to Paris where lived with other artists and writers and became associated with the literary magazine Présence Africaine.
Their friendship seemed to be destiny because they had so much in common and as leading intellectuals of their time, it was inevitable. What we don’t know is what role they had in each other’s poetry and if they read and critiqued each other’s work.
Somehow, Neto managed to juggle both his academic life and covert political activities. However, he was soon to learn that mixing politics and medicine had its consequences.
That came in 1960 when he was arrested for campaigning against the colonial administration of Portugal in Angola. When his family, friends, patients, supporters and empathisers and others marched to protest his arrest, the police fired at them. Consequently, thirty people were killed and about two hundred others were injured.
He was later exiled to Cape Verde where he wrote his second poetry publication. It is not clear if he was able to link up with the likes of Cabral in Cape Verde. It is always a possibility and it is also possible that he learned firsthand about their struggle and used it to forward his own political development.
Like Lumumba and Cabral, he sought assistance from the Americans but as usual, the Americans let him down and he enlisted the help of the Soviet Union and Cuba.
Unfortunately, Neto’s rule was not marked by peace. It was riddled by a civil war that was sponsored by foreign agents that were sponsoring sectarian violence and trying to destabilise the country.
His country was flanked by hostile territories. On one side was the FNLA supported by the dictator, Belgian and American puppet Mobutu Sese Seko who got into power through assassinating Patrice Lumumba and given free reign to terrorise his own people.
On the other side was Jonas Savimbi and his UNITA movement which was supported by the racist Apartheid government of South Africa that had no wish in seeing a thriving majority ruled African country because this would make the Africans at home want the same.
One of Neto’s lasting legacies to Angola was his invitation to westerners to invest in the oil industry. To this day, it happens to be one of Angola’s largest export and brings in the largest revenues. However, as in most African countries, the proceeds or these great repositories of wealth rarely filter to the people. They are monopolised by the leadership who enjoy the wealth and treat it as their own.
I guess you can do more research and fill the holes in the life of this remarkable leader. I set out to share this little bit of knowledge about him and his accomplishments.
I will leave you with a poem he wrote in 1954 and entitled Bamako. You can interpret it for yourself, not that it needs it.
Bamako! Where the truth dropping on the leaf’s sheen unites with the freshness of men like strong roots under the warm surface of the soil and where grow love and future fertilised in the generosity of the Niger shaded by the immensity of the Congo to the shim of the African breeze of hearts
Bamako! there life is born and grows and develops in us important fires of goodness
Bamako! there are our arms there sound our voices there the shining hope in our eyes transformed into an irreproachable force of friendship dry the tears shed over the centuries in the slave Africa of other days vivified the nourishing juice of fruit the aroma of the earth of which the sun discovers gigantic kilimanjaros under the blue sky of peace.
Bamako! living fruit of the Africa of the future germinating in the living arteries of Africa There hope has become tree and river and beast and land there hope wins friendship in the elegance of the palm and the black skin of men
Bamalko! there we vanquish death and the future grows – grows in us in the irresistible force of nature and life with us alive in Bamako.