by Michael Hammerschlag
The dapper coal-black African man got on the bus at Lukyanovka. “Uh oh”, I thought, having seen this movie before in Russia, waiting for the stone faces, the averted glances, the muttered or snarled “Zanita”. What I saw was stunning. Everybody on the bus- maybe 10 people not only knew him, but loved him, greeting him warmly, shaking hands, patting him on the back.. and he greeted them in kind. Witnessing it, I was proud- Ukraine is sometimes endlessly surprising. We chatted and later became friends since he also went home at midnight.
His name was Rodriguez, from the endlessly war-torn country of Angola, but he'd been here for 17 years and been a Ukrainian citizen for 5. Angola fought an independence struggle against Portugal from 1961 to 1974, immediately segueing into a devastating civil war between the 3 factions: MPLA, supported by Cubans and Soviets; and UNITA and FNLA, supported by USA, South Africa, + China from 1975-2002. The MPLA, more or less, was the Socialist government in the central Luanda area, supported by up to 40,000 Cuban troops- at one point the Soviets, desperate for a military base, fomented a coup, which the Cubans resisted and reversed! After that the MPLA, which Rodriguez was a soldier for for 20 years, shrunk from Soviet ties, but the War became a superpower proxy fight, with American neo-cons pouring in hundreds of millions to Savimba and fueling the killing for an extra 15 years (1/2-1 million dead)- eventually the MPLA prevailed and peace finally came a decade ago. Twice the size of Ukraine, and rich in oil, diamonds, copper, gold; Angola still has one of the worst child mortality and life expectancies in the world, but is now booming by 20%/year.
Rodriguez fled at 37 years old in 1995, first to Belgium and Moscow for a month each- as MPLA he was an ex-ally; then to Kiev by train, without a visa, where he made a home for himself. A brother and sister made it to Paris. He's been remarkably stable, living in the same apartment for 11 years, same job for 7 years. We would chat late- though he speaks Portuguese, French, Russian, Bakonga; his English is weaker, and he liked to hear me rattle on. He practiced a clever strategy- preemptive gifts- he would buy people things, leave tips everywhere, though he was only working in a kitchen, first for McDonalds 7 years, then Mafiya for another 7. When he insisted on getting me another chocolate bar and salomka, I was impressed, but very uncomfortable- there was something very strange about a new acquaintance from the 3rd world buying something for someone from the 1st , in the 2nd. .
Things often weren't easy for a “Chorney” in this 99% white country: “There were many many provocations, very dangerous people, people died.” He was never really injured, though, and carried on, greeting life with unfailing heartiness and optimism, and his charm, warmth, and generosity won him many friends and allies. In that bus, 10 people would have instantly sprung to his defense, to battle, had anyone issued an insulting word. “Now security is good”, he said, though only “3 years ago it was worse... I prayed to God to protect me. Sometimes, this is not a good country.” He's Orthodox Christian, Christianity was massively predominant in Angola from the half millennium Portuguese influence, and has friends among the small African community here.
He studied biology for 3 years at Angolan Nature University, but has only worked in restaurant kitchens here. Once, in a stunning act of generosity, he diverted his cab to Lukyanovka from the Naberezhnaya to pick me up when I'd missed the last bus; because he worked so late, he frequently took taxis, expensive on a meager salary- cabbies were old friends too.
He's thinking of moving on, trying to find a program.. “God has a solution for your life,” he ruminates.
Michael Hammerschlag’s (Hammernews.com) articles have appeared in the NYT, International Herald Tribune, Seattle Times, Providence Journal, CJR; Moscow News, Tribune, Times + Guardian; and Kiev Weekly + Business Ukraine. He has spent 4 years in Ukraine and 2½ in Russia.