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The long walk

Joao Balewa Batista lives in Soweto today. But he was not born there. Joao was born in a far—away country called Angola. Why is Joao different to other people? Joao is different because he did not come to Johannesburg by train or bus. Joao and some of his friends walked most of the way from Angola. Their journey was very long — and very dangerous.


“I was born in a small village in the south of Angola,” says Joao. “My father was a chief and the whole family lived on a big farm. We grew mealies, wheat and lots of vegetables. And we had all kinds of fruit — oranges, mangoes, avocados and pineapples.

“Because my father was a chief, he never walked anywhere. He rode around in a rickshaw. He had 15 wives and lots of children. I was the last born from his first wife.

“My father had many crops. He sold them and got lots of money. We all worked in the fields, all the children and all the wives. There was no time for school.

“In the village we all spoke the Chimbundu language — like most people in Angola. But we also spoke Portuguese. At that time Angola belonged to the people of Portugal.

“When the Portuguese first came, they asked my grandfather for land. They wanted to build a church. Now everyone belongs to that church, the Catholic Church.

“In 1940 I was 19 years old. I was young and my feet were itchy. I wanted to see further than the trees of our village. I decided to leave the village. I wanted to live and work in another place.

“I left the village with 60 other young men. We heard that there was work on the diamond mines in Windhoek in Namibia. We began to walk.


“We carried food and water with us. We took papa, like we eat here, and dried beans to keep us strong. We carried food in wooden pots. We tied the pots around our necks.

And we took water in grass bundles. We made the grass wet— and when we were thirsty, we held the grass above our heads. The water dripped down slowly into our mouths.

“We suffered a lot. Some men got swollen feet from walking in the heat. Our food from home was soon finished. We then hunted small animals. But sometimes we caught nothing for many days. And then we got very hungry.

“We walked for a month. Then we came to a village called Calvare. The people were not friendly to us. We had to sleep outside the village. The lions came and took one of our friends. The lions ate him and there was nothing we could do. After that, we climbed trees at night. We tied ourselves to the trees so that we did not fall out. In the trees we were safe from the lions.

“We walked for many days — just like animals. One of our men was sick. He was not strong enough to climb a tree one night. He had to sleep at the bottom. During the night two lions came. They grabbed him round the neck and pulled off his head. We watched from the trees. We were very frightened. The next day we found his head but not his body.

“The wild animals were not the only problem. Many men got sick along the way, from the mosquitoes and the flies. We could not wait for the sick people. We gave them food and water.

Then we went on our way. If people died, we also left them. There was no time to bury them.


“We got to Windhoek after three months. If you went by train today, it will take only three days. When we got to Windhoek, we could not find work anywhere. We searched for six months — but we had no luck.

“We decided to go to the gold mines in Johannesburg. We had no money, so again we walked. We walked westwards this time, through Botswana.

“From Windhoek we went to Okavango. And from Okavango we walked to Francistown in Northern Botswana. There were now only 30 men left, from the 60 who started together.

In Francistown we went to the contract office. At the office we found people there from all over — from Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe. We even found some people from our own country, Angola. We took contracts to work on the mines in Johannesburg. And for the first time, we got on a train.”


“When I got to Johannesburg, they sent me to a place called Mzilikazi, near John Vorster Square. They sent people there who came from other countries. I went to a mine school for three weeks. I did not like it so I ran away. I was also frightened to work underground in the mines.

“For two years I saw my friends from Angola. When we met, we never spoke our language, Chimbundu. We were scared that someone would hear us and send us away. We only spoke Fanakalo.

“Then we all got jobs and each one went their own way. Each one looked after himself. I don’t know what happened to them. Some were sent home. Others went to live in other places.”

“Since then I have moved around Johannesburg and I have done many different jobs. I went home only once.


“I went home in 1947. This time i went by train. I took a train from Park Station to Botswana, from Botswana to Zimbabwe. From Zimbabwe I took a cheap train to Angola.

When I got home, there was a big party and much feasting. The Salvation Army Band played music. My father fired a cannon for every year that I was away. Everyone ate much meat. They were happy to see me. They said they knew I would come back — because the last born is always the luckiest.

“But I had to say goodbye once again. I now had a family and a new life in South Africa. I have not gone home again. Forty years have passed already.

” I hear about the wars in Angola but I don’t know about my village. I don’t even know if my father is alive. I cannot answer these questions and there is no one who can answer them for me. There are no letters and I get no news.

“I cannot go home now. It’s too late now. The people at home have forgotten about me. I often dream about home – but I know they no longer dream of me.

“Johannesburg is my home now. I cry tears for my first—born who does not know the home of his father. He does not know that his grandfather was a great chief. He just knows about living in Soweto, that’s all.”


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