African Library: The Train of Salt and Sugar by Licínio de Azevedo

Licínio de Azevedo: The Train of Salt and Sugar

Licínio de Azevedo, the author of The Train of Salt and Sugar, is Brazilian by birth; he worked in Brazil as a journalist critical of the military dictatorship in that country and came to Mozambique in 1977, invited there by a fellow Brazilian filmmaker who had moved to Africa and helped set up the Mozambican film institute. De Azevedo’s s initial assignment was to gather stories and testimonies from the local people concerning their experiences of the anti-colonial war; his first book was a collection of short stories whose title he translates as Reports of Armed People – an allusion to the fact that the stories were based on the anecdotes of the liberation war veterans as well as peasants whom he had interviewed in the northern regions of Mozambique. Though sympathetic to the anti-colonial cause, De Azevedo is by no means uncritical of attempts by the post-colonial government to “re-educate” a sector of the society – a process he addressed both in one of his early documentaries (The Last Prostitute) and in his first and prize-winning feature film, Virgin Margarida, about a young woman who is unjustly consigned to a “re-education centre” in a case of mistaken identity. A prolific filmmaker and recipient of several awards, De Azevedo published the novel which is the topic of this column in Portuguese in 1997, while the English translation by Mugamo Matolo profiled here was published in South Africa in 2007.

Like another great African “railway novel”, Ousmane Sembène’s God’s Bits of Wood [Les bouts de bois de Dieu], the narrative of the text derives from an actual scenario, but here set in the south-east rather than the west of Africa. The journey described in the text is not very long in distance (“only” 341 km separate Nampula, which is nearer to the Mozambican coast, from Cuamba, fairly close to the border with Malawi, where several passengers on the train are headed), but the ordeals of this dangerous trip make its narrative as nail-bitingly tense as any detective novel.

The opening of the third paragraph of the novel informs us that “[m]any people have been sleeping at the station [in Nampula] or in its surroundings, anxious not to lose their places, which they have been vigilantly guarding ever since the departure of the last train almost three months ago” (9). Even though the time frame of the novel is the later ‘80s, more than a decade after the independence of Mozambique was achieved, the country is in the middle of the civil war that lasted from 1976 to 1992, and in addition to attacks from RENAMO (which opposed the FRELIMO government), trains in the volatile north were subject to violent bandit raids – hence a temporary suspension of the service has ensued. Because a resumed train journey under these circumstances is a terribly risky undertaking, the trip is supposedly secret, but hundreds of people by means of word of mouth put two and two together when the military consignment in the town bought in stocks of maize meal, dried fish and oil for cooking – the staples for a journey. The three trains that will be leaving in convoy, each with a large armed escort, have no passenger compartments, though there are “irons” – numerous open wagons carrying sleepers and “spare” rails for repairing damaged sections of the track. The non-paying civilian travellers (apart from the railways personnel, which include a conductor for each train) undertake the journey at their own risk, and are under temporary military command, as they will need to swell the workforce when sabotaged parts of the track require mending. Most of them want to go to Malawi for trading purposes, like the matron Mariamu (breadwinner for four children) whose husband, kidnapped four years earlier, is a missing person and who is taking bags of salt to sell in order to buy sugar – still affordable in Malawi – to bring back with her and sell for profit in Mozambique. Hence the title of the novel.

A chilling detail slipped in almost cursorily is that “during the last journey […] almost all the occupants of the train were killed or kidnapped” (10). A lesser risk for the civilian passengers is that their goods may be raided or stolen on the way – even, as happens at some point, by the escorting soldiers supposedly guarding the trains and their contents.

Having or obtaining adequate food and water along the way is another real difficulty faced by the travellers – for the journey, which under peaceful conditions would be over within a few days, is likely to take weeks this time. Despite the difficulties and dangers, most of those on the three trains are courageously or fatalistically resigned to cope with or face them, or even to meet their deaths if fate so decrees, but of course all travellers (including the military men) experience fear and anxiety at some level.

From here on the community of the “irons” substitutes the family, the community and the city. Within seconds, a known world disappears to be replaced by another, always unknown – the world of fear. It governs the insecurity of those travelling alone, the anguish of those who are more than alone, the ferocious comradeship of the soldiers and the superstitious conviction of the railwaymen that one never travels with one’s relatives, since this brings bad luck. […] train driver Adiano Gil sometimes feels that he is not piloting a train of cargo and people but a funeral train … to an enormous, collective funeral. (20)

Together, the three trains are a kilometre long – a hugely exposed stretch and highly vulnerable to surprise attacks from either side, despite the soldiers, guns and anti-aircraft weapons on each train (the latter, one per train, for use as substitute small cannons rather than against air raids, as these do not occur in this region at this time).

The commander of the military, and therefore of everyone undertaking the train trip, is the enigmatic, strangely named and solitary officer Seven Ways. Seven Ways, ordinarily “polite” while “ruthless with the enemy”, always equipped with the tail of a wildebeest and a small axe he carries in his belt along with a Makharov pistol, has “a pact with the spirits” and believes he has a “magical relationship with the universe” from which he receives his information. Makonde traditional healers inducted him so that he is “protected” in battle. He is a brilliant commander, shrewd and courageous, but when battle is on he will shoot any slacker or fleeing deserter; during combat his only order is simply: “no-one flees!” (15). His vigilance and special qualities are reassuring to all who have worked with or heard of him. Whenever the train stops, Seven Ways goes off on a solitary reconnaissance and brings back valuable information about enemy presence or absence as well as the condition of the track ahead. In this way he prevents a possible derailing of the train by warning of a sabotaged section ahead of them. “Eight kilometres are covered by one thousand [tree] trunks, each trunk needing the effort of ten people to remove it. It is three o’clock in the morning when the last trunk is finally shifted out the way” (31), but now the train can steam on well beyond the section that was blockaded where the enemy or bandits no doubt intended to ambush them. It is midday as they arrive in Namina, 77 km from their departure point. Here many more civilians embark in order to escape the likely impending siege and destruction of their town.

The author depicts the tensions between the military and civilian travellers by showing how the soldiers, when stopped from raiding civilians’ supplies by the conductor, threaten to shoot him; he also depicts the “bad egg” among the three leading officers, the nasty bully Second Lieutenant Salomão attempting to force a good-looking youngish woman into his cabin – supposedly to cook for him. Her resistance is (fortunately for her) aided by one of the only two men with the authority to stop the second lieutenant, Lieutenant Taiar, the second-in-command and therefore the former’s superior. Taiar drily asks Salomão whether he needs help, but then orders him to let her go. Greatly relieved, she runs after Taiar, but at this stage he more or less dismisses the event from his mind. When (that evening) he gets invited to join the young woman and Mariamu (with whom she has made friends) to share in their supper, he accepts, and starts feeling strongly attracted to the lovely young woman, Rosa, a nurse by profession. She returns his interest, and the ensuing relationship between them provides a strong thread in the unfolding narrative of the further journey. As they chat, Taiar tells Rosa that he had wanted to be an agronomist or a veterinarian, but that military call-up had intervened; he had fought at first “during the war with the Rhodesians” (41) and was then sent to a military academy in Kiev for further training. Rosa, on the other hand, had always wanted to be a nurse. In contrast with this conviviality, Salomão has simply appropriated the wife from a couple he found sleeping on the ground, claiming her as “his” by right, no doubt for a night’s brutal “entertainment”.

When the train moves on the next morning, an order to stop the leading engine comes over the radio in the voice of Seven Ways. Bewildered at its suddenness, Adriano is a little slow in obeying the order, bringing the train to a stop a mere metre from where the track has been torn up. Those driving are immediately fired on by a sniper in a tree, but Taiar gets the anti-aircraft gunner to aim at and shoot this lethal threat to smithereens as other attackers unleash volleys of gunfire on the trains and their occupants. This time only one person is wounded, a young woman whom Rosa treats, and the enemy is dispersed without any casualties on the defenders’ side, due partly to the fact that Seven Ways personally advances on the enemy and Taiar leads a disciplined and well-organised defence by the soldiers. However, although Seven Ways confidently assures them that the attackers will not return that day, they have two or three days’ work ahead of them – “some seven hundred metres of the track have been torn up,” he says, with the rails piled up in the bush and even landmines planted around them (50). The risky task of deactivating the landmines and taking up forward positions in the bush fall to the soldiers (while Salomão is disporting himself with yet another “confiscated” wife); the simpler but back-breaking labours of carrying back the rails and mending the track will fall to the civilians. Considerable work gets done, but Seven Ways warns them early the next morning, just after work is resumed at dawn, that the second wave of attack is upon them. Civilians are ordered to take shelter as best they can under or near the train while the soldiers are mustered in defence. There is one civilian casualty, a rail worker, and three people are wounded. Another and yet another attack follows. There are four more dead and many wounded among the civilians; rumours claim that some soldiers, too, were killed, but their corpses are spirited away to maintain the military mystique – it is a standard claim that “soldiers do not die” (62). When the attackers are finally repulsed, work continues, resuming at dawn on the third day and completed at eight in the morning, by when they can move on to the next station. Here they find an eerily deserted town – the local garrison and the people who had lived there had fled or been killed or kidnapped. Patrolling soldiers find one man whom Seven Ways, secretly observed by the train driver, briefly questions and then kills with a chop to the head of his small axe. Adriano is sickened, but when he later tells his colleagues they suggest that Seven Ways established that the man was a deserter or a spy. Later, they find a well in the village – but it is polluted with the corpses of the villagers, and another with seemingly potable water turns out to have been poisoned, causing the death of one of the soldiers.

Tension mounts between Taiar and Salomão – Rosa insists Taiar do something about the husband of the most recently commandeered wife who was brutally beaten on the order of the second lieutenant when he came to demand his wife back, and Taiar had stopped Salomão’s men from further looting in the deserted village when he spotted what was transpiring. In the slightly older but lesser ranked officer’s view, Taiar is a “desk soldier” unlike himself, who had acquired all the skills required on the battlefield by personal experience.

The trains advance and reach the town of Iapala, but not without having to brave another near fatal attack, saved from the brink of disaster by Seven Ways coming to assist and lead the defence.

At Iapala the over-friendly station commander is (as the reader knows from earlier information supplied by the authorial narrator) a traitor who is cousin to the bandit leader who is the main threat to the trains and their occupants. Since the successes and problems at every stage of the journey are radioed to all station-masters along the line, the Iapala station-master is in a perfect position to be an informer to the enemy. While they pause at Iapala, a civilian passenger reports that seventeen bags of salt were looted from him by soldiers. When Seven Ways sends his orderly to assist the man in recovering his property (a portion of which is retrieved), Taiar uses the opportunity to report Salomão’s appropriation of the beaten man’s wife and the beating itself. But when the victimised man is summoned, along with the offending officer, he refuses to lodge a complaint, as he is content merely to have his wife returned to him. This accords Salomão further reason to sneer at and feel that he has triumphed over Taiar, even as it intensifies animosity between them. The relationship between Taiar and Rosa increases in intimacy, but she will not make love with him until she has been able to have a bath and a wash, she insists.

As they leave Iapala, a terrifying threat meets the advancing, leading locomotive: a decapitated head mounted on a bamboo stick between the rails, identifiable as that of a linesman the train personnel had spoken to at the station. Below it, marked by drops of fresh blood, is a note with the words “Beirut 2 begins here!”, signed “Commander Baboon”. Soon afterwards they spot an actual baboon crossing the line and the rumour goes around that Seven Ways will now be up against a counter-force to his own Maponde magic. Not far beyond the grisly find of the severed head they find a huge bonfire on the line, and a short distance further on a three-metre-deep crater, at the bottom of which are several growing banana trees draped not with fruit but with bullet shells, and hand grenades as well as mines strewn around the trees. Beyond the crater lies a long stretch from which the tracks have been removed – “stacked in piles along the track about fifty metres into the bush” (89). Seven Ways, now also carrying a bow and arrows in addition to his usual equipment, joins Taiar at the sabotaged space, where a soldier is dismantling a landmine, whispering to the lieutenant that they are already among the enemy.

As soon as the mine is cleared, Seven Ways moves ahead on one of his solitary terrain-scouting missions. He returns four hours later – repair work on the rail having commenced during his absence – carrying two AK47s and a few magazines, undoubtedly captured from the enemy. Seven Ways calls the higher-ranked officers to a meeting, informing them that five kilometres of railway track ahead have been more or less demolished, with even ballast removed in places. Repair work is likely to take at least two weeks, but all should work to attempt to get it done in ten days. He reports that the self-styled Commander Baboon is a fat man in a black uniform, that his forces are half as many as those on the train – 150 men – well armed with AK47s, five bazookas and mortars. The situation will be difficult to contain, he warns them, requiring all officers to show an example of courage, while anyone who flees must be shot.

As those travelling on the trains are preparing their evening meal, the first mortar bomb explodes close by. Everyone flees to seek shelter under or near the train even as the soldiers move to repulse the attack and the “anti-airs” come into play. When the attack ceases, people try to salvage what they can of their suppers. No one appears wounded, but then the conductor of the front train realises that his shoulder is bleeding. Although he feels no pain yet, a piece of shrapnel has lodged itself deep in his flesh. Once the military medical attendant has removed the metal from his shoulder, he will have nothing but tobacco snuff to deaden the pain somewhat by stuffing it into the wound.

The next morning, before daybreak,

[t]he first bird has not yet chirped and the only sound that can be heard is the metal clinking of pots. Even the children have learned not to cry. All feel dirty and bruised and have slept badly. They have suddenly grown old. They are pallid shadows of what they were a few days ago, their sad thoughts dragged from the darkest part of life.

At half past four, when the first bird starts singing, the enemy attacks again, precisely on the left-hand side of the trains [from which the attack was not expected, having previously been from the right]. The enemy rapidly overruns the advanced pickets and forces them to retreat in disarray, Once again, the “anti-airs” prove insurmountable obstacles for the attackers. At first the guns strike behind the attackers, afraid of hitting their own men. But once [the aim is] corrected, they mow down the advancing enemy soldiers. (99)

During the rest of the day, repair work resumes, but the same evening sees another attack launched on them, which kills the operator of the “anti-air” and damages the machine. Three further attacks follow in quick succession. When the attackers retreat at dusk they are secretly followed by Seven Ways, no doubt setting about his own occult methods of defence against the enemy. Upon return, he sets two groups of soldiers, one group under Taiar’s and the other under Salomão’s command, in ambush on each side of the train, deep in the bush. The attack this time is from the right, repelled by Salomão’s group, which triumphantly displays three AK47s and a bazooka captured from the enemy – the officer braggingly flashing about his ID to prove that it is on his 30th birthday that this success was achieved, to be celebrated with plenty of “confiscated” “fire-water” and further boasting.

While an attack is expected, it does not come early the next morning, as “usual”, but one of the people working on the line, a teacher, detonates a mine which blows off one of his legs and this creates a false alarm. Taiar has to threaten those working with a whipping to prevent their fleeing into hiding. Even as the injured man’s leg is amputated, an ordeal only slightly relieved by the last few doses of morphine in the medical attendant’s stock, a heavily pregnant woman’s contractions begin – she had to flee her home as her husband had threatened to kill the child at birth, falsely believing it to be another man’s.

Later on, soldiers bring three men captured from nearby to swell the workforce, but they are treated punitively by the soldiers and avoided by the civilian passengers with whom they work. The train driver is indignant, pointing out that even if men like these had assisted in breaking up the track, it would have been under threat of enemy gunshots. The driver, Adriano, dislikes Seven Ways and his ruthless way of dealing with suspects, which he has previously witnessed.

One of the three captured men escapes during the night and when a group of civilians sent off with escorting soldiers to try to find water (now running very short) in the surrounding area, they encounter an ambush. It is now clear that the escaped man had given information to the enemy – a suspicion strong enough for Seven Ways to decide to kill the other two captured men too, further arousing the wrathful but helpless resentment of Adriano, who sees in this act further evidence of the abuse of the “povo” – as the poor masses are known in Portuguese – by men who are powerful.

“There is now no water on the trains” (120). So another small scouting party of soldiers and one civilian, the head conductor of the three trains, sets off. It is the conductor who locates a small, shallow stream and insists on drinking first; when the soldiers follow he moves upstream and finds that a small pool has formed, horribly, around fresh human faeces. He vomits and runs back to the train, but is soon running a high temperature.

An afternoon attack causes no deaths, but does further worsen the water situation by perforating the radiator of the leading locomotive. The leaks can be stoppered with improvised “glue” from plant sap, but water will have to be found for the engine’s depleted supply. Again an expedition – now a large one, going off at 3 in the morning – is sent out. They do find some water, but then have to flee an attack. Despite Taiar’s having initially launched a diversion attack on the enemy, they have repulsed his small force. Fortunately, enough water has been brought back to refill the radiator to the required level, with some even left over for human consumption – very strictly rationed, of course. To alleviate the desperate water shortage the last of the three trains is ordered to return to Iapala under Salomão’s command, reversing all the way, to fetch water.

During the afternoon, when the despatched train is halfway back, those who have remained with the other trains hear shooting. A huge column of black smoke can mean only one thing: the engine of the returning train has been blown up.

Salomão returns on foot with only a few of his soldiers. The train was derailed and captured and he and his men kept at bay or mown down by their own “anti-air”.

Seven Ways says little, but implicitly demotes Salomão by placing him and the few soldiers left to him in the train commanded by Taiar.

When the stoker of the ambushed train arrives the next day, he tells his railway colleagues  what really happened (in confidence, since he knows Salomão will hit back were he to report what he knows to the military, a risk he cannot take, although he will report fully in due course and in written form to the railway authorities). The irresponsible Salomão and his equally wild soldiers had, namely, forced the driver to exceed the enforced extremely slow pace of travel, necessary because of the compromised safety of the line and to allow inspection of the line lying ahead by the train’s diver. Inevitably, the driver could not see in time that the track ahead of them had been sabotaged.

The exhausted civilians, still toiling on repairing the line ahead of them (now having to pull up sleepers behind them as they move along, since the extra supplies of these from Iapala never reached them) ask Seven Ways for a mid-day break in the work, but he refuses, since their situation is too dire where they are.

Three attacks come in quick succession the following day, shrouded in a thick mist. Seven Ways is always a bulwark between his men and the enemy; seemingly invulnerable to their bullets and giving his customary repeated shout: “No-one flees! No-one flees!” (133). There are seven civilian dead, for whom shallow graves are dug the following morning while most civilians resume their labours, but even as they toil, Seven Ways gets blown into the air by a landmine. Taiar fiercely orders those working to carry on, while the unconscious commander is carried back to his cabin. No blood could be seen on his body, so as the reader might have expected, the commander recovers consciousness, seemingly unharmed, and re-emerges fairly soon afterwards, immaculately dressed as usual, restoring hope in the majority who had despaired when he had seemed on the verge of death.

Unaware of his recovery, Salomão is already planning how he can get rid of Taiar and reassert his power now that Seven Ways has supposedly died, when he spots the commander walking out of his cabin with no sign of injury.

On the morning of the 14th day of the journey a group of Christian passengers (there are also Muslims and animists on the train) set off to complete the burial of the seven corpses that had been interrupted by the previous day’s attack. Horrified, they see that the hands of all the dead have been cut off.

Two days later they arrive at the next and their penultimate station – named Malema. The entire population is there to greet the train. They will pause here to make necessary repairs and to gather available resources. The town has an unpolluted river that never runs dry. Taiar – recalling Rosa’s condition to their union – invites her to go there with him to wash. She is bashful, but happily so, and as they arrive he gives her a precious and now rare commodity: one cake of scented soap. They wash, make love on the clean, sandy bank and declare their love and their plans to marry and start a family – he wants “many” children, says Taiar, and Rosa is relieved to hear that this means three or four and not ten or twelve! She is in her fertile period and soon suspects that she may be already expecting their child. They spend the night together in Taiar’s cabin. The next day, as Rosa is returning from fetching some meagre available medical supplies from the local hospital, she is very nastily accosted by Salomão. As she runs away from this drunken oaf, who is weakened by his inebriated state, he shouts terrible insults after her. When Taiar is informed of this ugly episode by Mariamu, he sets off in a fury to find and beat up Salomão, whom he finds drinking even more in a tavern although he is already far gone in drunkenness. Taiar easily knocks him down and confiscates his pistol. Although Rosa is very worried about Salomão taking vengeance for this humiliation, Taiar is unconcerned. Rosa is also sad to think that they have no home to call their own.

Departing on the final stage of their journey the next day, the leading train encounters a slippery slope, which causes it to slide back. The problem is dealt with by placing small stones on the track. They proceed, only to see the twin rails “parting ways” ahead of them. Because they are travelling very slowly, they stop just in time, but a hugely fierce assault on the two remaining trains ensues. Taiar takes a leading and heroic role in the defence and manages to kill Commander Baboon – only to be found to have been mortally injured himself. He has been shot from the back – with the clear authorial innuendo that Salomão used the cover of the attack to murder his fellow officer. It is also hinted that Seven Ways suspects him. But Taiar cannot be saved; the bullet is lodged close to his heart and they do not have the skills or equipment to save him.

Once the rail has been repaired, the enemy having fled when their commander was killed, they proceed to the next village, but it has no medical resources – only at Cuamba, the last station on the present journey, are there Russian and Bulgarian doctors. As they approach Cuamba, Taiar asks Rosa to help him sit up so that he can see the beautiful mountain beyond the town. She would want them to go there, says Rosa, but Taiar knows he is dying and tells her she will go by herself – to which she responds that she will take their son there with her. Taiar says she must show him the railway line that had brought them together, and she promises, in tears. As Taiar sits with his back propped against Rosa’s chest, he utters his last words, looking at the mountain: “I can see it […] It is very bright. Everything is clear. So bright … as if we live in the sun. I can see many suns”; and then “almost smiling, he closes his eyes” (158). He dies with his head in Rosa’s lap, just as they steam into Cuamba.

The mutilated body of Commander Baboon has been tied to the front of the leading engine. The townspeople, riveted by the sight, stone the corpse, and the novel ends as the crowd is dispersed by a soldier firing a volley into the air. Thus, these two fittingly contrasted deaths conclude the novel.

This fine and moving text by an author originally from elsewhere is a rich contribution to the African library – an archival as much as an artistic achievement.

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