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Angola: On the sadness and happiness of being a returnee

When Angola became independent in 1975, the former Portuguese colonizers were forced to go back to Portugal. But they were not the only ones. Angolans too, Portuguese descendants or not, left their whole life behind. They abandoned goods filled houses, cars, jobs, and most of them travelled only with a change of clothes. They did not have time to say good bye, to give notice at work, to guarantee they possessed the houses of which they left the front doors open.

Many years later, the home owners returned to recover their goods. They got nothing back. The houses had been occupied in most cases by people coming from the countryside or given to other people by the Angolan state, which declared them abandoned by previous occupants.

They arrived in Portugal with no hopes, looking lost, holding their kids by their hands, with their only a certainty an unstable present and grey future. In Portugal, they were dubbed the “returnees”, a pejorative term which has dimmed with time, but which still marks the soul of those who fled their own country.

The author of 25 de Abril – O Antes e o Agora [April 25 – Before and Now, pt] blog reproduced the story of a man who left everything behind to flee Angola:

“Entre essa massa anónima de pessoas de destino incerto encontrava-se Ribeiro Cristovão, a sua mulher e os três filhos menores. “Mantive-me em Angola quase até à independência. Acreditava que apesar das alterações radicais haveria lugar para todos. Enganei-me.” No final de 1975 abandona o seu emprego na cervejaria Cuca e a sua casa em Nova Lisboa. O homem do desporto da Rádio Renascença confessa que os primeiros três meses passados em Lisboa foram os mais difíceis da sua vida. E sem o abrigo na casa da irmã em Alcochete, a sua história estaria hoje pintada em tons ainda mais negros. “Recordo-me de calcorrear a cidade à procura de emprego, sem sorte nenhuma. Estava mesmo desesperado. No primeiro Natal na capital, Ribeiro Cristovão afundou-se numa tristeza profunda. Ali estava ele rodeado com a sua família mas com a árvore despida de presentes. O rótulo de retornado teimava em fechar-lhe as portas”.

“Among the mass of anonymous people whose destiny was uncertain, there was Ribeiro Cristovão, his wife and three small kids. “I stayed in Angola nearly up to Independence. I believed that despite the radical changes, there would be room for all. I was mistaken”. At the end of 1975 he left his job at the Cuca brewery and his house in Nova Lisboa. The sports reader at Rádio Renascença confesses that the first three months he lived in Lisboa were the most difficult of his life. And if it was not for the shelter at his sister's home in Alcochete, his story would be painted in even darker tones. “I remember walking the whole city seeking a job, without any luck. I was indeed in dispair”. At the first Christmas in the [Portuguese] capital, Ribeiro Cristovão sunk into a deep sadness. There he was surrounded by his family but with a present-empty Christmas tree. The returnee tag closed all doors to him.

JPF, from Fado Falado [Spoken Fado, pt] has a different perspective:

”Tenho contudo a ideia – e a convicção – de que por cá, os retornados foram na generalidade bem acolhidos. Pelo Estado e pelas pessoas em geral. Aliás a maioria e a sua descendência está por aí em situação identica à dos casos dos que já cá estavam e nas respectivas descendencias. Dir-me-ão que conhecem um caso X e outro Y diferentes. Provavelmente, há casos desses. Como os há de retornados que, não necessitando de nada, se fizeram e beneficiaram de toda a prebenda”.

I have however the idea – and conviction – that over here the “returnees” were fairly well welcomed, by the State and by people in general. Incidentally, most of them and their descendants are now living here in the same situation as those who were already here and their descendants. Some would tell me that they know X or Y different case and probably, there are stories like these just as there are stories of “returnees” who, not in any need, benefited from all the donations.

The Cubatangola [pt] blog author tells us a curious fact:

“Ontem tive a certeza que uma grande maioria dos antigos habitantes de Agola, não enjeita serem chamados de “retornados”. Tenho um familiar que devido a graves problemas de saúde, ACV já por mais de quatro anos se encontra internado num lar para idosos. Recentemente conseguimos arranjar um novo lar com umas condições bastante melhores e uma assistência mais completa, para o mudamos ontem. Quando umas das empregadas soube que este novo utente tinha vivido bastantes anos em Angola e tinha regressado na leva de 75, chegou-se a ela e disse simplesmente, EU TAMBÉM SOU RETORNADA! Uma frase simples, mas tão cheia de significado que foi suficiente para acalmar esta pessoa idosa, arrancando-lhe um sorriso, aqueles sorrisos de cumplicidade que trocamos com as pessoas que já conhecemos há muitos anos. Sim, mais do que nunca continuo a acreditar que esta palavra “RETORNADOS”, identifica um povo, povo esse que não se deve envergonhar de assim ser chamado, mesmo que alguns o achem pejorativo”.

Yesterday I had the certainity that the greatest part of former Angolan residents don't mind being called “returnees”. I have a relative who, due to serious health problems, he had a stroke over four years ago, lives in a care home. Recently we managed to find a new place with much better conditions and more extensive care, and we moved him yesterday. When one of the carers learnt that this new patient had lived many years in Angola and had come back in the bunch of '75, she came to him and said, simply, “I AM A RETURNEE TOO!”. A simple phrase, but so full of meaning it was enough to calm down this elderly person and bring a smile to his face, one of those smiles of complicity we exchange with people we have known for many years. Indeed, more than never I believe that this RETURNEE word identifies a people who should not be ashamed to be called thus, even if some think it is pejorative.

The truth is that neither the Portuguese state or citizens themselves made the life of those returning to the country easy. JPF confirms this:

“Tenho família que fugiu de Angola em 75. Foi terrível para muita gente, para muitas famílias. Pelo que apreendi na altura e sei hoje, o Estado português, na época, não lhes prestou lá o apoio que deveria. Abandonou-os, mesmo. Mas isso é uma questão que têm de colocar aos responsavéis políticos de então. Basicamente, militares barbudos, alguns comunistas, muitos revolucionários e oficiais-generais, como Rosa Coutinho, Vasco Gonçalves e Costa Gomes. E outros de quem não conhecemos os nomes”.

I have family who fled Angola in '75. It was terrible for many people, for many families. As far as I learnt at the time and know today, the Portuguese state did not provide them with the support due at that time. They were indeed deserted. But this is a question which should be directed to the relevant polititians of the time. Basically, bearded militaries, some of them communists, others revolutionaires and general-officers, such as Rosa Coutinho, Vasco Gonçalves, and Costa Gomes as well as others whose names we don't know”.

It is true that tha majority decided to leave for the old metropolis, but some decided to stay. It was, nevertheless, the place where they had started a family, a place where dreams and a promissing future were bonded together. JPF publishes a story of courage and love for the homeland on his blog:

“Há uns anos, li na revista Pública, uma excelente reportagem com “o mais velho português de Angola”. Era um tipo com quase 90 anos. Tinha nascido lá, por volta de 1910. O seu avô tinha ido para Angola na primeira metade do século XIX.
O homem relatava a história da sua vida. Em 74 ou 75, quando rebentaram a sério as hostilidades em Angola, desfez a casa, carregou carros e camionetas e rumou, da cidade onde vivia, a caminho de Luanda, para se pirar com a família. Chegado a meio do percurso, de muitas centenas de quilómetros e milhares de perigos, parou o carro e pensou: vou fugir para onde? Porquê? Esta é a minha terra! Esta é a terra que eu gosto!
Voltou para trás com a família e ficou. Hoje terá perto de cem anos. Ou já morreu – na terra onde nasceu e que sempre amou. E onde foi enterrado pelos seus familiares.
Não tenho dúvidas de que este velhote amava mesmo de Angola”.

“Some years ago I read an excelent story about the “oldest Portuguese in Angola” in the Pública magazine. He was a nearly 90 year old man born there, in around 1910. His grandfather had gone to Angola in the first half of the 19th century. This man told his story. In '74 or '75, when the serious hostility in Angola broke off, he packed up his home, loaded the cars, and drove out of the city he lived in to Luanda to flee with his family. Half way through, after hundreds of miles and thousands of dangers, he stopped the car and asked himself: “where am I going to run away to? Why? This is my land! The land I love”. He went back with his family and stayed there. Nowadays he is close to a hundred years old. Or, if he has since died, it was on the land in which he was born and lived, always. Where he was buried by his relatives. I have no doubt this oldie did love Angola.

To round off, Carlos Pereira of meus escapes [my scapes, pt] uploads a video made in Luena in 1975 showing what he calls “moments of great drama for the victms of a disasterous decolonization”:

The wonderful pictures that illustrate this article are screenshots from the video above, by Dailymotion user kutemba
Originally written in Portuguese, translation by Paula Góes


  • Beautiful images!

  • my father left the country in 1975 now he is 64 years old
    and very sad for not returning to his beloved nation as travel arrangement is difficult, as currently he is living in namibia. if you could help please assist him to enjoy the happiness of being a returnee.
    his name is simao pembele joao, born at toto, damba, uige province,angola in 1944.06.15 and lost contact with his family in uige province and childrens who could have labeled him as dead. please if you can look for manuel simao and tombe manuel both born in the 1940 as they are his big brothers, both could be in uige, his father is simao pembele and mother tungilu elizabeth(DRC) background.

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