Photograph: Manuel Roberto
During the Portuguese colonial war in West Africa Guinea-Bissau there were those who named them “soft Portuguese”. Now, among former war veterans some prefer to call them “children of the wind”. These children that Portuguese former soldiers had with Bissau-Guinean women are not familiar with this poetic designation. In Guinea-Bissau they were referred to as “Portuguese leftovers”. More than forty years after the end of the war they continue searching for their fathers. “To stop feeling like half a person.”
“Hello, father! I’m very happy we’ve had the opportunity to speak today. I’m alive and so is my mother. Father, don’t feel bad, it’s life, there are no hard feelings. And father, don’t be afraid, you don’t have to worry, I’m a man and I’m working. Thank you very much for speaking to me, father. May God be with you in your life over there.”
Fernando Mota, 40 year old, doesn’t know how many years this dialogue has been playing in his head. Sometimes he changes small details, he adds words, removes others. This is the most recent version. The dialogue is, in fact, an imagined monologue. It was never more than that, because in his head it’s as if he could utter it exactly as he has imagined it, with no interruptions, with the sweet tone he is using now. Fernando is a Geography teacher at Jorge Ampa High School, in Bissau, Guinea-Bissau’s capital.
West Africa’s Guinea-Bissau was, along with Angola, Mozambique, Cape Verde Islands, Sao Tome and Principe, part of the Portuguese Empire for centuries. Portugal was one of the last European countries to give independence to its African colonies. It was only after a long war (1961-1974) and a military coup that overthrew a 48 year old dictatorship that the territories became autonomous. Around a million Portuguese men were stationed in these territories during the conflict.
Fernando Mota dreams of the day he will hear his father’s voice on the phone, but he never imagined what his real words would be if he could find his father’s phone number from that far away place, Portugal, and the man really did answer on the other side, as had happened with some of the children of former soldiers.
He prefers to hang on to this perfect monologue, as if he was resigned to the possibility of it never occurring beyond his imagination, pacified by the idea of never hearing the voice of the Portuguese soldier who was in Guinea-Bissau 42 years ago and who is his father.
If Fernando Hedgar had known Fernando Mota, he would probably think he was too sentimental. He imagined himself face to face with the father, only, in his scene, the father would offer to shake his hand and Fernando would punch him.
There was a time when Fernando Hedgar only felt anger towards his Portuguese father, more so when he realised he was never going to find him. There was a time when Fernando thought his father’s name was “quartermaster”. It was a former soldier that told him that “quartermaster is not a person’s name, it’s a rank. ‘You have nothing to go on, I can’t help you’. I have less than a one percent chance of finding him.”
In the days when he had nothing but resentment against the quartermaster, Fernando thought of forming an association with a name that encapsulated that feeling – the Association for the Abandoned Children of the Portuguese Colonists.
Fernando, 45, a truck driver, his arm tattooed with his nickname, Dinho, has calmed down. Nowadays he would choose a different name for the association he still dreams of creating. Its goal: “I want to show the Portuguese that we exist, that we were abandoned, that there are many of us” and, who knows, he says shyly, maybe to “find my father and to stop feeling like half a person.”
In one of the most popular blogs created by former Portuguese military personnel from the war time, called Luís Graça and the comrades of Guinea, someone recalled that, in those days, these children were known as “soft Portuguese”, after a famous Portuguese cigarette brand that men smoked at the time. They were fairer than the other local children, they were born around Portuguese military bases, father unknown. Usually the other men knew who the father was but this was never said out loud. As for the father himself, he wouldn’t admit it.
The Portuguese colonial war went on for 13 years, in Guinea-Bissau it started in 1963 and lasted up until independence in 1974. Around 200.000 Portuguese men passed through this small African territory. The local population was around half a million, says the blog’s editor.
In the blog, José Saúde, a former quartermaster in Guinea-Bissau, decided to start calling them “children of the wind”, because it was as if they were nobody’s sons and daughters, children of a Bissau-Guinean mother, who stayed, with an unknown father who, when the commission ended, returned to Portugal. “It’s a very delicate matter” among former soldiers, “a taboo”. Even so, he decided to bring up the subject on the blog. He felt the men should talk about the subject, so he left them a question: “Comrades, how many mixed race children, whose father was supposedly Portuguese, did you meet over the years and in the places you were stationed at in Guinea? Let’s talk about it”. About 30 men left a comment although the blog is followed by 500 people.
Very few of them gave a straightforward answer: “How many of us, in the solitude of the forest, in the anguish and incertitude of being alive the next day, committed acts that resulted in these cases”, wrote a former soldier. Another one just quoted a poem, by the Portuguese poet António Gedeão: “I shivered in the dark, distillery of sweat/ I layed down in the sand and in the grass/Women of all colours”. There were those who resorted to irony, “what have we here, a country with crowds of mixed race people!”. There were also those who simply replied “much ado about nothing”. Those who took the time to really give an answer to the question remembered having met one, two “children of the wind”, during their commissions, some of them even posted the photos of these fair skinned children they had kept and who had never left their minds.
Dauda was blonde and had blue eyes. Captain José Neto took a photo of him playing in a puddle alongside other children from the village. The photo looks like one of those Benetton adds, only black and white, Dauda’s fairness in contrast with the darker skin of the other kids.
Dauda was the son of the Portuguese captain whose company José Neto’s was there to replace. All the men knew, only the Captain pretended to ignore it, wrote José Neto, who died of cancer in 2007, saying how much he had grown to hate the dismissive father. He even ordered all his men to address the child by the surname that should have been his, had the captain acted properly. They all had to call Dauda ‘Vieira’ (for privacy reasons the real name is not revealed ).
José Neto became fond of the fair-skinned boy, more so when one day he ended up saving the boy’s life. There had been a bombardment, he was able to remove the child from the house minutes before a grenade exploded.
Only after her husband had died did Júlia Neto realise why she was not allowed to touch the shrapnel that was kept safely in the bookcase like a piece of a treasure, in their house in Portugal. It was, in fact, a piece of grenade that could have killed Vieira if Captain Neto hadn’t intervened.
Captain José Neto never returned to Guinea-Bissau but in his house, his wife and daughters always heard about the “adoptive son” of his. His daughters always knew they had “a brother in Guinea”, recalls Júlia Neto.
When, 40 years after the war, Captain Neto resumed contact with Guinea-Bissau, through an NGO run by Bissau-Guinean of Portuguese descent, he had a request to make: “Please find Vieira for me”.
So he did, but Vieira had died a month earlier, not reaching his 40th birthday, and Captain Neto died without ever reencountering the light-skinned boy.
After her husband had died, Júlia Neto travelled to Guinea-Bissau and made sure to meet Vieira’s wife and three children. She felt that if she couldn’t meet the “boy” she had to at least meet his family. Vieira’s father is still alive, he retired not so long ago, she had heard.
While trying to piece together the boy’s story, Carlos Silva learned that, at the time, Dauda’s father was pushed to the wall. Once his wife understood he had a son with a Bissau-Guinean women, she said he had to choose: it was either him (Dauda) or her (the wife). “He, of course, chose his wife and left the child behind.” And the three little girls, Paula, Fátima and Fatu da Fonseca, don’t know a thing about their Portuguese grandfather, they only know Júlia, the Captain’s wife who send them presents every now and then. Dauda, or Vieira, died a son of the wind.
This was not the name they were known as in Guinea-Bissau. “Children of the wind” doesn’t sound bad, it sounds poetic. Without knowing it, many of them had been referred to, at some point in their lives, as “Portuguese leftovers”.
Some of their lives sound like Cinderella stories. In Oscar´s story there is a house, with brothers and sisters, a mother and father who has always known that one of the children, the light-coloured one, is not his. The supposed father, who is in fact the stepfather, knows that he is his wife’s son from another man, a white man. Because of this, Óscar ends up being treated badly in comparison to his siblings.
Photograph: Manuel Roberto
Fairness of skin
In Guinea-Bissau there is light-dark scale that can go without notice if you’re not local, but it is very clear to a Bissau-Guinean. What people call a “real Bissau-Guinean” is someone who is darker. For all those that are of fairer skin it is perceivable that there is a mixture between local Bissau-Guinean and white people. In Oscar’s case and others like his, having been born during the war or soon after, in the areas where there were Portuguese military bases, there was no way of hiding that they were “tuga’s children”, as they were also referred to. The term “tuga” is taken out of the word Portugal to refer, in a derogatory way, to the Portuguese troops. Even if they wanted to go unnoticed, there was no way round it: “You can’t hide your skin colour, there’s no way to disguise fairness of skin”, says José Carlos Martins, 48.
Skin colour was their first clue that they were different. Ever since they had been children, and others noticed their colour, they were confronted with their origins. Nowadays, they are adults in their forties and fifties, but when they tell their stories it is as if they go back to being children and they cry, they cry so much, like they did at home when they felt they were different.
In the house of Fátima Cruz’s family, the fact that she was different was emphasised whenever the mother asked her daughters to do chores: to fetch water or wood. “Aren’t you sending the white?”, one of the sisters moaned. Fátima was mistreated by her mother and her stepfather who she feels blamed her. She was a burden on their relationship. She was the clear evidence, for everyone to see, that his wife had been with another man, a white man, and they even lived together.
“If you talk to my mother she is going to tell you she never treated me differently.” It’s true. Sanu Mané was 15 when she started being her father’s laundress – today she is a vendor and the president of a communitarian association against gender violence – and she claims never having treated Fátima differently from her sisters, although she suffered so because of that pregnancy and went through so much hardship because of the “white daughter”.
As soon as her family understood that she was pregnant with a Portuguese officer they tried to make her have an abortion. At home, everyday she had to drink an herbal remedy made out of roots so that she would lose the baby. She pretended to swallow it but never did. When the pregnancy became evident, her uncle started whipping her belly, to prevent “the baby from the white man” from being born.
Fátima Cruz heard all these stories, and also that it was her father that chose her name, which was also his own mother’s name. It is also said that he wanted to stay with her mother, but that the family was against her being with a white man. Fátima has also heard that, after returning to Portugal, her father kept on sending the baby milk, clothing, jewellery, but the uncle received it and burned everything, so a man at the post office recounted years later.
Fátima Cruz is 36 years old, she is well off, has three children, and sells clothes, but she still thinks that that post office man could be the missing link that could have put her in touch with her father. If only he hadn’t died, maybe it would have been possible to recover the address, to find his whereabouts, to find him. If only the post office man hadn’t died…
In these children’s stories there are often people outside the family who disappeared but could have made a difference. But now you just can’t ask the person that knows the most.
Photograph: Manuel Roberto
A mother’s secret
“You don’t ask a mother that question. It’s a mother’s secret” and not even now Óscar Albuquerque, 40, manages to say it out loud. If he did, it would be something along the lines of: “Mother, who is my father?”. The most he dared to ask was by skirting around the question, delicately: “Mother, can a man have two fathers?” He got no answer.
It ended up being a next door neighbour, who once called him from the street when he was playing football, who answered the question, he was around 11. “Come here, come here”. Inside that lady’s house, away from the eyes of the village, he confirmed what he had always suspected but was too young to understand: “That man is not your father, you’re the son of a Portuguese soldier. Everyone here in the village knew your real father.”
As was the case with many of the Portuguese children, once they realised Óscar’s mother was pregnant with a Portuguese man, her family married her hurriedly to a Bissau-Guinean of their choice. Only after Óscar’s birth was it clear he was not like the others. When he was an adult, his mother told him, one day, that immediately after he was born his grandfather looked at the baby and told his son: “This is not your child, it’s the son of a white man.’ My mother told me this episode just to hurt me.”
Ana Sanconha, a street vendor, 40, distinctly remembers the exact place where her mother made the revelation. They were going along the same dirt road bordered by cashew trees, that connects Iemberém to Cacine, in the South of Guinea-Bissau, she has walked on foot for five hours to come and tell us her story. “It was here, just here”. They both sat down and Ana asked her: “Mommy, please tell me who my father was. She cried and cried and then she told me. His name was António da Silva.” She was 25 when she found out.
Califa Tcham’s mother only told her the truth because she knew she was dying. It was only when she was already very sick that Califa confirmed that her father was Portuguese. She had always known this was the case because the gossipers in the village repeatedly called her “captain Trindade’s daughter”.
If the mothers hadn’t kept the identity of the fathers a secret for so long. If, after independence, being the child of a Portuguese father hadn’t become so dangerous and the mothers hadn’t burnt all the documents and photos that associated them with these Portuguese men. If some of the mothers hadn’t died prematurely. If at least the mothers knew how to read and write and had written down the father’s names and home addresses.
The fathers’ identities are buried underneath entangled layers of impossibilities, connected with the fact that Guinea-Bissau is a country where life expectancy is 49. Older people never get to be old and their memories die with them. Only 5% of the population is over 60. All this is combined with the turbulent history since the country has become independent.
After independence, in 1974, life became hard for all of those who were somehow connected to the occupiers. The first victims were the thousands of Bissau-Guineans who had fought alongside the Portuguese, and who were left behind. It is a known fact that many Bissau-Guineans who were former soldiers on the side of the Portuguese troops were shot down for aiding the “enemy”. It was also hard on the woman who had relations with Portuguese men, “tuga’s women”, they were called, more so if they had children with them, providing unequivocal proof of the liaisons. And, ultimately, it was difficult for the children whose fathers were Portuguese.
In the post-independence period all the documents, photos, registrations, related to their parents had to be destroyed. These were the objects that, after the storm had passed, could have helped them find their fathers.
In Fátima Cruz’s story it was passed on to her that her father officially registered her in the civil register, but that her mother had to destroy the official paper and many others, out of fear for her life.
The photos of those young men in uniforms were erased forever. Torn up, burned, one had to hide any connections with the colonists.
Carlos Alberto Silva still remembers being six and looking at that one photo of a young soldier, trying to find resemblances to himself, thinking “he is just like me”. After independence, “my mother tore it up and put it in the gutter”. As an adult he has been lucky enough to come across a copy of that exact same photo in an acquaintance’s house. He copied it, enlarged it and keeps it in a family album, as if the unknown father was part of the family.
José Maria and Elva Maria Indequi are siblings and in their family, aside from the destruction of photos, their mother sent them both to live far away, out of fear of having her children shot. José Maria and his sister grew apart from their mother. “We were hidden, my mother only kept the black child.”
They all remember the post-independence period as the most complicated in their lives. Óscar is still close to tears when he chants the verses in Bissau-Guinean Creole that he was forced to sing in school, the anthem of the African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde (PAIGC) that praised the heroic expulsion of the Portuguese – “Grilla na terra, tugazinho na nuven” (“guerrilla in our land, Portuguese in the clouds”, that is, far away). “I started to cry, I was the only one in my class that cried” – because they were singing about the father he didn’t know, but who was, nonetheless, his father.
Nataniel Silva Évora heard the same anthem being sung by his colleagues, sometimes they sang and at the same time threw stones at him. “When I shave my head you can see the scars.” Or they would throw peanut shells at him. His biological mother couldn’t afford to keep him and the adoptive mother who raised him was patient. She would wipe the blood resulting from the stone throwing, she would disinfect the wounds and say: “Don’t say a thing, just run.” At the time they all heard variations of the sentence: “we kicked out your parents, what are you still doing here? Go back to where you belong.”
“Do you know what a Xerox machine is, Óscar? You’re just like your father”, a former colleague of his father told him. He was very happy when he heard that. Fátima Mané’s mother used to tell her: “he was pretty”, and she points to her face: “Just like me.” Fernando Hedgar da Silva remembers looking in the mirror and trying not to cry.
Aside from physical similarities they try to search for, in themselves, personality traits of their unknown fathers. They collect small details to which they give exaggerated meaning. “I’m a sportsman, he was a sportsman”, says José Carlos Martins, who has one of his biceps tattooed with a scorpion, his father’s company symbol.
When they find something that is a quality they establish a link: Nataniel is a patient man, “it must be because of my father.”
Isidro Teixeira, a journalist for national TV, discovered one day why he felt the urge, out of the blue, to get into a music school and did very well with the eight songs he ended up composing. One of them was a hit at Carnival, 15 years ago. He had always heard that his father was a bugler corporal but then, a couple of years later, he found a photo of his father in the war time playing a Portuguese guitar. “When I saw that photo… Talent is born with a person. So I like music because of my father, he played wind and string instruments, I sing.”
More than 40 years after the war many of these children have reached adulthood with nothing or very little to go on in the search for their fathers. Many of them are left with only their imagination.
For the majority, the search has begun too late. By the time they finally leave their family homes, clues to finding the other half of their stories are often too scarce.
The search for their “tuga” father depends on what they have as a starting point, but also on their resources. The more educated usually go further. Having some time and money is also important. Men do better than women.
Photograph: Manuel Roberto
Maria Djasse, the oldest of three sisters, each of a different Portuguese father, has reached 45 with just two words in relation to her father, “corporal” and “refectory”. A former Bissau-Guinean soldier has told her that maybe her father was a corporal that worked in the base’s kitchen. As many of the children in her position, Maria uses her birth date to try to figure out the period her father might have been in Guinea-Bissau.
Maria is 45, at least she thinks she is because she was never registered and has no identity card (the population in Guinea-Bissau is 1,6 million but only 150 thousand have ID), which means she must have been born in 1968. Minus a nine month pregnancy and a two year military commission, Maria thinks, other than the fact that he might have worked in the kitchen, that her father may have been stationed in Guinea-Bissau around 1966-67. That’s all she has.
Mariama Camará knows more but very little. She has travelled for two hours, with her one year old child sandwiched between herself and her husband on a small motorcycle, to tell us this that her father’s surname is Amaral and that she would very much like to meet him, maybe we could help her.
Some are not so sure about the spelling. Zita Morato does not know if her father’s surname is Parque or Parco. These are the two versions she has written down on a small piece of paper. They are also the few words she can utter in Portuguese and not Bissau-Guinean Creole. Indequi’s brother and sister have three different versions for their father’s name. “It’s a very confusing story. It’s very obscure”, says José Maria: he is either called Roberto Silva or Corporal Vicente, or José Carlos dos Santos.
Those among them who have more doubts than certainties ask that we publicise the only thing they know for sure: the names of their mothers. They imagine that if their fathers are still alive, they may read names of these women in the newspaper and remember that they were with them once upon a time. Fernando Hedgar Silva’s mother was called Sabadozinha Mendes, Nataniel’s was Elizabete Pereira Évora, the mother of the three sisters was Fatuma Sale Djasse and the twins, Higina and Teresa, had a mother called Domingas da Silva.
But maybe the men may not recall these African women by their strange names. So they suggest we write the names by which the men knew them: Zita Morato’s mother was Naná, Óscar’s father called his mother Spaghetti, because she was very skinny.
Since they want their fathers to go back in time to their past lives in Guinea-Bissau, they make sure to remember the Portuguese name that local settlements had at the time. Higina Silva, who spoke on behalf of her twin sister who does not know Portuguese, was worried. She was afraid that we would write that her father was stationed in Bula. Her father might not be aware of the new name, so she asked us to write that her father’s base was in Nuno Tristão, the name of the Portuguese navigator who discovered Guinea-Bissau in the 15th century.
They hope that with all this data the fathers will read their stories and realise or remember that they still have children in Guinea-Bissau.
Some have managed to go a bit further. These are the ones that carry with them small pieces of paper neatly folded in their wallets, where they have carefully handwritten all they have managed to gather, as if they did not know by heart those names and numbers.
The information amassed is the result of strong perseverance. It has been collected from former Bissau-Guinean soldiers that befriended the Portuguese. The children made these inquiries in secret, so as not to disturb their relatives, who see this search as a betrayal of their Bissau-Guinean families, especially of the stepfather who, whether good or bad, was the person who raised them. These are the children who know the number of the battalion their father belonged to (each had around 600 men), the company number (each had around 150 men). There are those who have even managed to discover the number that identified each soldier individually.
But the data they keep repeating is now out of context, in a void. It’s part of a life that is no more. What good does it do Florinda Barros to know that her father, 44 years ago, belonged to Company number 799? Or that Fernando Mota knows that his father’s company was named Green Scarves? And that Fátima Mané’s father’s company was called the Black Dragon? What good does it for Zita Morato to know that her father’s nickname was Chinese and that he loved monkeys and often carried one on his shoulder? Or that his best friend was Zézinho? So what? What do they do with this information?
The more enterprising and the ones that have some money to travel to Bissau have been to the Portuguese Embassy. There, they told Fátima Cruz to take a ticket and to wait her turn. “It’s no good, they won’t help us.” To Fernando Mota they said “we don’t deal with these issues.” Almost all have given up.
The embassy informed us that, in the previous year they had three people asking questions about Portuguese fathers. “The majority of the requests are mere questions, because they no longer hold in their power documents or other corroborative proof (for example photographs) to justify starting an inquiry. Just the vague memory of family conversations.”
Others have been to the Red Cross, also in Bissau. Valério Candete, responsible for the Reunification of Family Bonds Department, says that, since 2010, he has received 13 requests for information about Portuguese fathers from the war days but, again, what they have to start a search is very tenuous.
Those who persisted were told to write to a place in Lisbon called the Army National Archive. But how could they get the address? Obtaining the address is another obstacle that only the more nimble managed to overcome. Like Óscar, who has become a Catholic in a country where Muslims are the majority, and asked for the help of nuns that he had befriended. The return letter read: “We regret to inform you that with the data that was sent to us we were unable to find the former quartermaster’s file. Furthermore, this Archive cannot provide information regarding a third party without superior authorization. If you wish to do so, you may make a request to His Excellence the National Army Chief of Staff”. So he did. “Your Excellence, I have written five letters since 1990, so far I have not received a single answer.” “His Excellence” did not reply.
After the Embassy and Red Cross possibilities were exhausted, a new opportunity arose in the 1990s. Back for their vacations, Bissau-Guineans living in Portugal brought back news of a TV show on a Portuguese TV channel that seemed like an answer to their problems. It was called Meeting Point and one of episodes showed that they had managed to reunite a son with his father. It sounded dreamlike. Nataniel Silva Évora was filled with hope but was not able to find the address. Civil War broke out in Guinea-Bissau in 1998 and he had to take refuge in neighbouring Senegal.
Óscar was able to ask a friend of his “who knows about computers” to go onto the Internet and get the TV channel’s address. When he says “going onto the Internet” it’s as if he is talking about an almost unreachable place and somehow mysterious. Very few of them even have email.
He wrote to the show, he made the most of being sentimental: “I’m afraid that death may take one of us before a first encounter takes place between a father and a son that have never hugged.” He never got an answer. “It’s a good thing that Meeting point”, says Isidro Teixeira, getting sad when we tell him that it stopped being broadcast back in 2002.
In this lifetime quest some have achieved more. Isidro is one of the children that has had the resources to search. He discovered his father’s whereabouts in a Portuguese city they say is “small and beautiful”, Viseu, and even initiated, in 1994, a paternity claim file in Bissau’s Judicial Courthouse. But, four years later, he was informed that his father had died and he ended up giving up. “I thought it didn’t make sense anymore.”
Isidro is very moderate but when he talks about his father he seems to be divided between emotion and reason. “My dream was to talk to him, it was very unmanly of him to act the way he did. A man must take responsibility for his actions.” Soon after this he starts using legal jargon – he is a journalist and also an assistant at the Civil Registration Office, “you cannot judge someone without hearing a person. He tried to take me to Portugal.” There were cases, like Isidro’s, where the fathers wanted to take their children to Portugal, but the families hid the babies out of fear they would never come back to Africa.
Isidro admits that for some children the main motivation for wanting to find their father is a material one. They want help, life is hard in Guinea-Bissau. As for him, and he believes the same is true for the majority of them, all they want is to not have an empty field in their identity card after the colon. “It’s shameful to carry your mother’s surname. And to “have Portuguese nationality. I don’t want anything else. I have Portuguese blood.” If he were a Portuguese national he would not have had to go through what he did.
Isidro was in Portugal for one day. Better still, he was in Lisbon’s airport for one day because Immigration would not let him leave. “They were afraid I wanted to stay. I told them: ‘I’m a journalist, a TV anchorman, an assistant at the Civil Registration Office, do you think I want stay here to sweep the floor?’ They wouldn’t listen.” He just wanted to go to Viseu, to visit the place where his father came from and maybe to meet some relatives that lived there.
José Carlos Martins found that his father is alive. He has his address in the Algarve written down on a piece of paper, to where he sent a letter, unanswered. With the help of an influential friend he managed to be with him in an online chat-room. He got to see his profile photo on Faceboook, an old face that vanished as soon as he said “this is Zé Carlos, I’m your son from Guinea.” He saved the low definition image of that one encounter, it’s an enlarged A4 version of the passport-size photo that was on the computer screen for brief seconds.
Óscar Albuquerque also wrote to his father, seven letters altogether, to an address in Lisbon. In the first one, in 2005, he started off addressing him as “my dearest father” and ended asking “for a photograph of yourself so that I can better imagine you. In case you want to get in touch with me I leave you my phone number”, and then he wrote his mobile phone number. The father never wrote or called.
One day he filled himself with courage, he admits that for that he had to drink half a litre of Malaquias Portuguese red wine, while thinking “I have to call this man”. “Hello, good evening, I’m calling from Guinea-Bissau, you’re talking to your son, Óscar”. “Don’t take it personally, I don’t know a thing, buddy”. Some time later, he tried a second time: “This is Óscar again”, “I don’t know what you’re talking about”. “I’m so sorry, then”.
“I stopped calling”. It’s been ten years. The words he heard were short and very brief but they stayed with him. “I never thought I would hear my father’s voice, a hoarse voice. I was touched.”
Erasmo Fonseca also sent a letter to a first floor apartment in a place called São João do Estoril, with some photographs to go with it. He thought the father might be moved at the sight of his children. “I’m hereby sending a photo of me and of your little grandchildren, Jennifer, Vítor, Ivanilda, Jaquelin. That’s all for today. A strong hug from your son that so wishes to meet you.”
Erasmo was very patient until when, one day, he decided to give him a ring. He first presented himself as a comrade in arms, so as not to scare him, then he spoke about his mother. “He knew exactly who I was talking about.” The conversation went sour when he told him “this is the son you’ve left in my mother’s womb”. The father answered that only with a DNA test would he believe him. “I would go there and I would to the test. If I did he would be embarrassed”, he says, ending what is saying with a sad smile. “Who is going to take me to Portugal?”.
Only the more educated have heard about DNA, but the possibility of getting to do one of these tests one day is so remote that it seems like a scene out of a science fiction movie. There are no DNA tests in Guinea-Bissau where people still die of causes such as “a disease” or “a fever” (this is the answer many of them give when you ask them for the cause of someone’s death).
Carlos Alberto Silva was close to his father. He has lived in Portugal for 12 years, working as a construction overseer. While he was there he walked the streets of Lisbon obsessed with the middle-aged men that crossed his path, trying to recognise in one of the aged faces, the young man from the photo that had survived the destruction of documents. One day he was in the Lisbon square where the Bissau-Guinean community gathers on Sunday and he had reason to get his hopes up. A former Bissau-Guinean soldier once enlisted with the Portuguese told Carlos that he was going to introduce him to his father. “Come by on Sunday, at five”. “He never showed up”, he imagines that the father changed his mind.
When he hears about children that just want to meet their fathers to became Portuguese nationals and get to Europe he gets sad. “I already have Portuguese nationality. I lived there for 12 years. I really just wanted to meet him.”
It is as if Nenedjo Djaló has lived the dream. On one of her living room’s tables there is a big photo frame with fluorescent yellow borders, the most garish of them all. It is there as proof that she has a father, that he did not abandon her – as she has heard all her life – that he has acknowledged her. They have their arms around each other in front of a restaurant called Portuguese Horse, where they had lunch when she went for her vacation in Portugal. She has a green photo album filled with out of place pictures that testify to the happiness of those 45 days.
Nenedjo was found by accident by a group of Portuguese war veterans who were in Guinea-Bissau on a nostalgia trip and who happened to know her father.
The first time they spoke on the phone her father told her to choose: “Do you want to come here or do you want me to go to you?”. There was no doubt in her mind, the opportunity had come to be redeemed of the humiliations. “I need you to come, I want the people who discriminated against me to see you.”
Nenedjo knew that her father could only stay a week so she decided to prepare a little ring binder book for him condensing the 33 years they had lived without each other. “We talked so much. We were only apart to sleep, we stayed at the hotel until 4 am. We did not stay longer because I was breastfeeding my baby girl.” Her father met with her mother, sad that he only got to know he had a daughter when she was already “all grown up”: “Why didn’t you tell me you were pregnant?”.
It’s been six years since the scene at Bissau’s airport that left everyone who was watching in tears. It seems so remote. Since the reunion, Nenedjo has been trying to ensure that her father officially acknowledges her as his daughter. Nenedjo wanted to have her father’s name in her documents, she wanted to have his surname and to be Portuguese. “I am half Portuguese”. She underlines she does not want to move to Portugal, saying she has a husband and children in Guinea-Bissau but if she was Portuguese she could travel there whenever she felt like it, on vacation. The father always told her he was going to look into it, that it was a delicate matter. She rings him and hangs up, he calls back, they talk almost every week on the phone. The father has never been back to Guinea-Bissau, Nenedjo has never returned to Portugal.
Nenedjo’s father, who prefers not to identified, said that his biggest problem was telling his wife, who was in shock at first but ended up welcoming this daughter. He knows that Nenedjo wants recognition, and although he addresses her as daughter and sends her a little something every month, he says “it’s complicated. In the meanwhile she has to be patient. Legal issues can arise”. It is the major fear of every man who does not come forward. “They don’t want to have problems at home. Having a stranger in the family all of the sudden is not simple.”
The 71 year old former soldier explains it was very disturbing news to find he had a daughter in Guinea-Bissau. “These are situations that came about when you have men without women. I’m no saint, I have had my share of mischief. These are children that are the result of occasional relations. It happened all over, in Mozambique, Angola”. He also fought in Mozambique. “I haven’t had any surprises from Mozambique”. Nenedjo’s mother was his laundress. Each soldier had one, a woman that went to the military base every week to collect the dirty laundry and to return it after it had been washed.
“Everyone that served there knew that laundresses did more than wash dirty clothes”, says Carlos Silva, director of the NGO Action Towards Development (Acção para o Desenvolvimento), in Bissau. When it was not the laundresses themselves they served as a connection for the men to be introduced to other women in the local community.
Luís Graça, creator of one of the popular blog of Portuguese Colonial War veterans, says it is important to talk about context. These men, now in their sixties and seventies, were in their twenties and, at the time, going to the army was the first time many of them had left their small villages. They had very low levels of education, “many were single and had never been with a woman before”. They came from a very conservative and Catholic country that, in 1963, had led the Portuguese dictator Salazar to close down the brothels, he remembers. You only had organised prostitution in the capital, Bissau, not in the countryside. These were men that had never in their lives seen women with their breasts showing, as it was a habit among the unmarried girls of Guinea-Bissau in those days. “Some of the photos of that time are a proof of that, they are exotic, even erotic. It was wartime, the fear of dying, the need to be with a woman…”
One must avoid imagining titles such as “love in times of war”. “Due to cultural, religious and linguistic barriers it was hard to talk about love, there was friendliness, physical attraction”, explains Luís Graça.
Love stories such as the one of the Bissau-Guinean Romana Lopes and the former Portuguese soldier Manuel dos Santos, who have had four children and still live in Quinhamel, near Bissau, are the exception.
There were some cohabitation stories, sometimes lasting for the entire two year commission, sometimes even involving “traditional marriages”. But what prevailed were “fortuitous and occasional relationships”, notes Luís Graça. What was mostly at stake were “sexual favours in exchange for food products, sugar, soap, oil, olive oil”, adds Carlos Silva, “we are talking about situations of extreme poverty.”
In addition, this was a time when there were condoms but “they were a luxury and men didn’t use them” – health army services handed out antivenereal creams”, remembers Luís Graça, who is also a college professor at the National Public Health Institute and Lisbon’s New University.
The question about how many “children of the wind” these 200,000 men fathered while they were in Guinea-Bissau remains unanswered. There are no numbers, what follows are impressions. Isidro Teixeira says that many of the children don’t come forward, “they try to hide their real you”, but it’s at Bissau’s Civil Register that he receives nationality requests on the grounds of having a Portuguese father. He estimates that in Portugal and Guinea there must be around 500 requests.
Fernando Hedgar da Silva laughs at the estimate. As a truck driver he covers the country. When he gets to a place they tell him “tuga, you have ‘brothers’ here” and he sends for them, writes down their history. “What you’re doing now I have been doing for years. There are thousands of us.”
The first time the engineer Cherno Baldé ever saw white people, in 1965, they were Portuguese soldiers and he was about five. In his village, where fewer than a thousand people lived, there were times there were around 200 men stationed. After the war ended, there were at least ten children fathered by the Portuguese in Fajonquito (in the North). He refers only to the ones that were born and grew up with us”. He has no doubt: “If you spent a month here you would get to meet a crowd of people.”
The history of wars where soldiers fighting overseas leave children behind is not new. In the 20th century there were, for example, the cases of German soldiers who, in the Second World War, had children with French women, who were then ostracised.
In the United States of America the children American soldiers had with Vietnamese women even have a name, they call them Amerasians. Many of these “sons of the dust”, the name by which they were known in Vietnam, grew up in orphanages or became homeless people. Their existence went into the public debate and they managed to gain access to a legal migrant status in 1987 through the Amerasian Homecoming Act. It granted them the right to come and live on American soil without need for paternity evidence, it was enough to have physical western traits. This legislation allowed 26,000 children and 75,000 of their relatives to live legally in USA.
A study published in the Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development about them concluded that 77% wished to know their fathers but only 33% knew their names. Around 22% had tried to get in touch with the men but a mere 3% had the opportunity to really meet their biological fathers.
When Inês Miriam Henrique was ten she had this dream, remembers these freckled white-faced women with coarse hair: the Portuguese father arrived and said “come, come, I’m going to take you”. He had a jeep, he was elegant, light-brown hair, his head shaved, he was tall, white. “Come, come, let’s go. I stood up to follow him and then I woke up”. Inês Miriam is now 37, 8 children, but she continues to have these kinds of dream. It was just today that her father told her, while she was sleeping: “My daughter, I so wanted to meet you.”
Some Portuguese children have heard of parents who are looking for their children. “There are cowards but I have heard of men who have come to look for their children, good-hearted men. I’ve never know one but I have heard about them”, says Erasmo Fonseca, who, as many of these children, uses his father’s surname without the man’s consent. Those who have never heard from their parents, unlike Erasmo, who has listened to the man saying on the telephone “do a DNA test”, can hang on to the dream of one day being found. Maybe, somewhere, in Portugal, there is someone looking for them.
Carlos Alberto Silva knows “three fathers who came to Guinea-Bissau to legally recognise their children, one was from the Azores [Portuguese islands on the Atlantic], the other one from Penafiel [in the North], another one from Borba [in the south]”. He claims that the fortunate sons and daughters of these benevolent men have already moved to Portugal, because the fathers gave them nationality, the means to live and their friendship. “These are the children that can come and go as they please”. The ones that remain in the Guinea-Bissau were left behind.
João, a high-school teacher in Portugal, prefers not to talk, but his mother, Luisa, tells their story. She was only 17, a virgin, the Portuguese soldier was in his early twenties. He left Guinea-Bissau when she still did not know she was pregnant, but she later wrote to tell him the news. “He did not doubt the baby was his son, he sent me a proxy statement to legally recognise him as his son from a distance.” Luisa ended up leaving Guinea-Bissau after independence, when she came to marry a Bissau-Guinean man, but the letters from the Portuguese father kept being sent to Guinea-Bissau. They lost track of each other.
When Luisa remarried, she ended up moving to Portugal, where she has resided her entire life, a mere 50 kilometers away from the man she pursued for 41 years. During this long period she did everything to trace him down, until, three years ago, a friend suggested the simplest of things, going to the Financial Department and asking for his house address. Luisa wrote him a letter and he called her back as soon as he received it saying: “I’m ready to meet my son.”
In this father’s house everyone had heard of the son left in Guinea-Bissau. They understood how upset he was when they were showing images on TV of the country’s civil war, thinking that he was probably dead. That lost son haunted him so, he even decided to name his other son, born in Portugal, João, after the name of the Bissau-Guinean boy. This naming was a choice, the rest was coincidence. When the same named brothers met for the first time they realised their own sons had the same names, the oldest boys were both Francisco, the youngest were Miguel.
Nowadays father and son “get along very well”, spend birthdays together, they have parties, both sons Joões, and all the grandchildren Francisco and Miguel now doubled.
“He was always looking for this lost son”, says Luisa, and her son “changed a lot since he met his father. He was very reserved, and serious. There was a sadness to him. I’m not saying this because he is my son, but he is such a good person, he deserved this.”
“After 40 years of absolute silence many fathers are not willing to accept these children, because that would mean that they would have abandoned them for 40 years”, says Carlos Silva. Maybe the reverse search might be easier for a different generation, the brothers’. Some of the Portuguese children might want to meet their Bissau-Guinean brothers.
Marisa Tavares’ father died of cancer when she was only six years. As an adult, she heard that he had a son in a place called Catió, from the war years in Guinea-Bissau. In a wooden box she has discovered dozens of photos of African women with their breasts uncovered. Could one of these women be his brother’s mother? In a particular one, her father is carrying a black child. Could this be her brother? She wanted to find him so very much.
Marisa speaks very little Portuguese – her parents migrated to Canada when she was little – so she created a blog for that search in English with some words in Portuguese (http://omadragoa.blogspot.pt/). She also spread the story on the blogs of Portuguese veterans. Some colleagues of his replied, remembering that her father was a man who liked to have fun, but saying they did not know he had left a baby there.
She created the blog without knowing her brother’s name. Marisa has been looking for him for three years now. If he is alive, he must be around 40. But it’s unlikely that he has read her words, after all, there is no electricity network in Guinea-Bissau, very few have access to the Internet and her brother would have to be able to speak in English. It’s the language she uses to ask him, online: “Are you my brother?”