Linked with Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola MPLA.
She is one of the 1000 women proposed for the Nobel Peace Price 2005.
She is also named on political heroe.
She says: “I was standing barefoot in the warm African earth and my mother said to me, ‘This land is ours, go tell the world that this land is ours”.
She says also: “We live on our mothers’ backs, our skins are fastened. That imbued me with Africa. It is something I have never forgotten” .
Maria de Jesus Haller – Angola
She works for the Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola MPLA, and for the Union of Angolan Writers/Uniao dos escritores Angolanos .
The first woman ambassador from Angola, Maria de Jesus Haller, was born in 1923 to a 12-year-old Angolan mother. Her father, the Portuguese owner of the plantation, sent her to Portugal at the age of three.
Twelve years later a short-lived but decisive reunion with her mother provided the incentive for her political commitment. She became a teacher, then a journalist fighting racism and discrimination.
Her years of activism in the Angolan liberation movement earned her the post of ambassador to Sweden, soon after her country’s independence.
Angolan political activist Maria de Jesus Haller is a slight and soft-mannered woman. But when she speaks, everybody listens. In fact, in 1973 she interrupted a United Nations conference in Hungary, asking to have the floor. She was then the representative of the MPLA, the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola, dedicated to freeing Angola from Portuguese domination.
At the time, however, liberation movements such as the MPLA were admitted to United Nations conferences only as observers, and could not take active part in debates. Maria de Jesus Haller changed that. “That was my moment of glory”, she says, “all the press was focused on me. Angola had never been mentioned as much as it was that day”.
How did this woman, born of the union between a 12-year-old plantation worker and the Portuguese plantation owner, rise to such prominence? And which strategies did she use to achieve so much for her people?
“Just before leaving for that conference I saw a picture of an Angolan woman, holding a child on one side and a gun on the other.
I took that postcard with me. It was my only document to go to this conference”, says Maria de Jesus. In the assembly she asked for the right to speak by holding up her hand with the postcard.
“I said, this picture is the reality in my country. This is how women in Angola live, with a child on one hip and a gun on the other. If I am not able to defend this woman, then I shall say so to my president and leave this conference”. Thus she won the right to address the conference, as well as the other delegates representing national liberation movements.
In 1975 Angola won its independence, and three years later Maria de Jesus was appointed Ambassador to Sweden, the first woman in her country to achieve such distinction. She has a beautiful picture of herself, stepping down from a royal coach with her credentials in hand, about to appear before the Swedish court. “I made that dress myself the night before”, she says, pointing to her long black gown, “and it was very low-cut in the back, because I ran out of material”.
Maria de Jesus has used this practical attitude to achieve her goals. She has drawn her strength from intuition and from first-hand knowledge of the people. She relied on her own sense of justice and her life experience, rather than on diplomas and abstract ideologies.
She traces her love of Africa to the first three years of her life, when she was nestled against her mother’s back. Her father, a wealthy landowner, sent her to his family in Portugal to ensure she would receive a proper education. She attended a prestigious boarding school and returned to her native land 12 years later. “My mother said to me, your father has taught you many things, but he has not told you the most essential thing, and that is: This land is ours. She told me to go tell the world that this land is ours”.
Maria de Jesus first worked as a teacher in a village away from her home. Her first action was to abolish the color barrier in the school, according to which the light-skinned pupils sat in front and their dark-skinned classmates stayed at the back. “I could not tolerate that. All those things fostered in me a sense of rebellion. The parents came with a duck and a little rabbit to thank me. It is those small steps that put me in the path of politics”, she recalls.
Given her level of education and her commitment to defend the rights of her people, Maria de Jesus soon came into contact with the intellectuals and political activists who would become the future leaders of independent Angola.
In 1952 Maria met Jean Rodolphe de Haller, a Swiss businessman working in Angola. A few years later they married, had a child and moved, first to Léopoldville (now Kinshasa) where they befriended the Angolan intelligentsia in exile, and later to Switzerland. From there, she was recruited by the MPLA to be its representative in Egypt.
Maria de Jesus was put in a difficult position not unfamiliar to women in politics: “I could not be Mrs Haller and also take care of the MPLA. What could I do from Switzerland? I accepted to go to Cairo”.
Maria de Jesus found emotional support from her youngest daughter Colinette, who understood she had an important role to play away from home. “A classmate asked me if it was true my mother was going to leave me”, said Colinette Haller from her home in Geneva, and I answered, “you know, my mother is the mother of all children who suffer, I must understand that other children need her now”.
Colinette, although only eleven years old at the time, supported her mother’s political commitment: “I remember seeing images of the war in Biafra, and I asked my mother: What are you doing to stop that”? The young girl lived in Geneva with her father, who also backed Maria’s decision even though the couple had already separated. “I did not know how to get through this, but Colinette helped me. She wrote me beautiful letters”, Maria de Jesus remembers.
It was 1972 when her life became a whirlwind of political activity, taking her around the world, representing the movement headed by the man whose memory she cherishes, the man who would become the first president of independent Angola, Agostinho Neto.
As the official voice of the MPLA in Egypt, Maria de Jesus was expected to present the movement’s weekly radio broadcast. But nothing was handed on a platter, and she had to convince the radio manager to give her that show. Shortly after she had arrived, Neto visited Cairo and asked her why she had not been able to fulfill her mission. “The next day I went to see the station manager and said that unless I was on the radio, I would leave with Neto to another country”. The station manager questioned her worth as a journalist, to which she answered that she had been the first person to interview Che Guevara, at an international conference in 1964 in Geneva.
“The manager told me I needed to say no more. As soon as I got home that evening I had a job on the radio”, says Maria de Jesus.
With her iron-strong determination and straightforward speaking, Maria de Jesus won over hardened politicians and resistant bureaucrats. She presented her case in such a simple and direct manner that it was impossible for anyone to ignore it. “Those are small things, but they are important”, she said, “man is too fragile for us to not to consider that those small things are important”.
Following her work in Cairo, Maria de Jesus was selected to represent the MPLA at international conferences. When she arrived at her first big meeting in Hungary, she found out liberation movements were admitted only as observers, and could not address the conference. When the decision was made to allow liberation movements to speak at the conference, Maria de Jesus remembers her emotions “I was proud, and I had won people’s respect”.
Other women quickly spotted Maria de Jesus for her tenacity, and considered her a mentor and an ally. “I became very popular”, she said. When faced with difficulties she would also rely on her colleagues for help. “When I was not given the floor, they would put up their hands and say to the president of the assembly that Angola was asking to speak, and why were they ignoring me or pretending not to see me”.
In a conference in East Germany, she confronted the representative of Unita, the group opposed to the MPLA. “I addressed the Secretariat, and said I was the delegate of the MPLA, and as such the only one allowed to speak on behalf of Angola in this assembly.
The whole room shouted ‘Angola, Maria’. The Unita man packed his bags and went to the airport”, she remembered.
In 1975 the MPLA successfully put an end to Portuguese dominance, and Angola was proclaimed an independent state. As a reward for her lifelong dedication to the movement, President Agostinho Neto appointed her the first woman Ambassador. In 1978 she took up her duties as Ambassador to Sweden, a position she held until 1982.
With President Neto’s death in 1979, Maria de Jesus was sidelined because of her loyalty to the man who had led the country to independence. She would pay the price for refusing to blindly follow Angola’s new leaders. Upon her return to Angola in 1982, she lived in a hotel for two years because of security concerns. There were three attempts on her life.
But Maria de Jesus cannot stay quiet for very long. She soon resumed activities, mainly in health and education. She helped open a primary school, presented radio shows and remained a savvy counselor to whom the government increasingly turned for advice. “I am not only defending myself”, Maria de Jesus said, “but also the memory of those who put me forward. We waste a lot of time on petty issues, and Africa cannot wait. This is not helping our development”.
The list of personalities that Maria de Jesus has met during her five decades of activism is long and impressive, including Che Guevara, Fidel Castro and Indira Gandhi. Yet it is the people, the ordinary citizens, who were her source of inspiration and the motivation behind her work. “What Africa has is the courage of its people, which is extraordinary. Peace depends solely on the will of the people. In Angola, peace must be achieved by and for the Angolans. The same is true in Iraq”.
Now, after two decades of conflict, her country is slowly embarking on a more peaceful path. “I am neither pessimistic nor optimistic. Wealth is unfairly distributed; corruption is everywhere, and the people who gave their hearts to this country are misunderstood”.
Her concerns are not limited to Africa. “The world is confused, there are no moral values. We want to improve our own lives, but it would be better to think about others”.
Maria de Jesus is currently working on finishing her memoirs, to share with the next generation the experience she gained over five decades of political activism. She has also published stories for children and is a member of the union of Angolan writers. “I spent my whole life inventing things, dreaming. I found reality oppressive. Misery, poverty is difficult to accept. But I also learned from an early age that one has the power to do a lot”. (1000PeaceWomen).
6th Poetry Africa Festival 29 April – 5 May 2002;