Twenty-five years ago this week, Princess Diana visited Angola on behalf of the British Red Cross. She met with victims of landmines and the demining charity HALO in the highlands of Angola, a town called Huambo.
The visit was very powerful in raising awareness about that country’s drawn-out civil war, the scourge of landmines, and the need for an international treaty banning the use and manufacture of these indiscriminate weapons.
Actions matter. She did not just offer words of support. She went there, spoke to survivors and learned from workers on the ground. She showed her solidarity not just in well-meaning statements but by being physically present in person.
I went to Huambo in 2002, and the landscape was etched in my memory as well as captured on film and in my field notebooks. It is very similar to Malanje, the setting for Into the Mouth of the Lion. The black-and-white photographs I took tried to capture the dramatic landscape, the sense of danger, and the scale of the humanitarian crisis.
I have recently uploaded more photos from Angola and Liberia onto my website. At the time I was there, five years after Diana, landmines were still a dominant presence. It made humanitarian work especially precarious, and the lives of displaced people even more so, as they were pushed around by militias and governments through contested territory, with no protection.
In the months since the publication of my novel, I have had the delight in meeting with many readers and hearing their views. It is one of the best things about writing a book: hearing what people think, and how your writing made them feel.
Many people want to speak to me about the landscape. The sense of threat, danger, and yet an urgent need to keep going: readers recognise that these are elements that define the book and drive the action forward.
If my words have helped people feel like they were in the scene, made them care about the fate of the different characters as they raced towards the conclusion, then I feel I have done my job as a writer. I have written words that conjure up feelings, creating connections across space and time.
Words can have power. Readers are telling me that they feel for the characters I created. One reader, who grew up in Stockwell, south London (the setting for the 1984 chapters in the book) said, “I wanted to know what happened to the characters…I hoped they would be okay. Even the bad ones – and I had a feeling who they would be – I really cared what happened to them.”
That is empathy, caring for people – fictional, or real – who may be from very different backgrounds, very different personalities and make different life choices than ourselves. If my writing can help people care about others from far away, that can be really powerful.
But action is also needed. In 1997, Diana’s visit was somewhat controversial, as promoting international treaties were not considered to be the business of a princess. Some people wanted her to just sit back and say the polite words.
It is important to note that, due in small part to the Angola trip and her awareness-raising, and the hard work of many other people and organisations, the UN Landmine Treaty was agreed nine months later, and has 164 state signatories in 2022.
Today, while Angola and many other countries are not yet landmine-free, the good work of the HALO trust and other organisations has made a huge difference. Look at this recent video of how the Halo Trust managed to clear land in Zimbabwe where there were 625 landmines in just 250 meters:
While I might not be actively involved in humanitarian work at the moment, I still support demining efforts strongly. I think that removing these deadly weapons of war might be some of the most important actions we can take today, to rid the soil of the awful legacies of 20th century conflicts.
If you want to learn more, look to these excellent organisations:
This January lets make both our words and actions matter. That’s a resolution that could make a real difference, in little and not-so-little ways, throughout 2022.
Happy New Year, and thanks for staying connected.
PS My January Sale must end at the end of the month! Check out photos from Angola, other parts of Africa, Asia and lockdown London at https://abkyazze.co.uk/shop/