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Who is Irene Cohen? The Re-Discovery of Feminist Freedom in Modern-Day Angola

Every year, Irene Cohen and Deolinda Rodrigues, two Angolan nationalists, are eulogized on Angolan Women’s Day on March 2; their short and tragic lives are made emblematic of African feminism and national pride.

Largo Irene Cohen (Irene Cohen Plaza) is the unassuming patch of green space in front of Igreja do Carmo (Carmo Church) in the well-to-do Ingombota neighbourhood of Angola’s capital city, Luanda. An internet search in English yields very little about the plaza’s namesake and the Anglicized name would easily give the impression that she was, perhaps, a South African heroine of Jewish ancestry. My quest to learn the truth about the life of Irene Cohen turned into a yearlong ethnographic introduction to her death; moreover, it led to the acute awareness of a contemporary, youth-driven intellectual arts movement keen to re-discover and re-introduce Angola’s independence war heroes. 

Were the Angolan War for Independence (1961-1974) a screenplay, Irene Cohen would be the sensitive supporting actress, overshadowed by the more boisterous lead, Deolinda Rodrigues. And that, in fact, is how she was portrayed in the 2019 theatrical release, ‘Esquadrão Kamy’, which depicted the historical experience of five female Angolan freedom fighters who formed part of the Esquadrão Camy (Camy Squadron) that trekked from Congo Brazzaville to Angola from January 12 to February 17, 1967 (Rodriguez: 136). The play draws heavily on the 2003 release of Deolinda Rodrigues’ personal diary from 1956 to 1967, Diário de um Exílio sem Regresso, hence Deolinda’s prominence. It is a re-enactment that highlights the brief and tortuous weeks before the women’s capture and assumed execution by opposition forces in 1967. 

I learned about Irene Cohen side-by-side with an entire generation of Angolans who were also discovering her for themselves. 

Deolinda’s Diaries

Irene is one of five women who died during military combat in the fight for independence. The martyred group has a certain mythology. They are the only known women to have taken up arms and to have joined an otherwise all-male military detachment tasked with entering Angola crossing both Congos. Aside from a few articles and Deolinda’s diaries, very few facts are known about these women’s actual lives. What we do know is that Irene and Deolinda’s activism began in the church. Both women studied abroad, and more importantly, both were driven by the cruel hypocrisy of Portuguese colonialism to use their relatively privileged positions among Angola’s assimilated class to join the anti-colonial movement, the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA). Annually, they are eulogized on Angolan Women’s Day on March 2; their short and tragic lives are made emblematic of African feminism and national pride. 

Deolinda had short and tumultuous experiences studying abroad in Brazil and the United States. But, when she died, she had spent almost eight years of her 28-year life in exile. Her diaries show her anguish abroad and her enthusiasm to set foot on Angolan soil again, to reunite with both her mother and her motherland. She left behind a fiery and detailed diary that depicted her as multi-lingual (Kimbundu, English, French, and Portuguese) and well-travelled, yet also crass and rebellious. Deolinda’s experiences of racism from earlier on in her life had made her a firebrand. In her diary, she takes us from her enthusiasm with joining MPLA’s predecessor Movimento de Libertação de Angola (MLA) in 1956 as an English-Portuguese translator, to her fulfilment with her responsibility as the MPLA’s Social Action Committee Director in the 1960s. The diary ends abruptly on March 1, 1967, believed to be just hours before she and the rest of the malnourished cohort were captured by National Liberation Front (UPA) soldiers and forced into a prison camp. 

The diary shows that before the failed Camy expedition brought her face to face with hunger and violence, Deolinda struggled with misogyny. The MPLA was male-dominated and the Camy expedition was believed to be the only Angolan deployment to have ever accepted women in combat. Though she was one of the founding members of the MPLA’s Women’s branch (the Organization of Angolan Women (OMA)), her diary shows that she repeatedly rejected pressure to get married, have children, and leave the battlefield. She even described her own relationships with other women as complicated, saying she was perceived as aggressive and her opinions were characterized as judgmental. Yet, in the thick of her realization that the Camy mission was failing, Deolinda mentioned Irene twice in one of her last journal entries. On February 8, 1967, she wrote:

… we will spend the night here to arrive at Mbridge tomorrow. Casimiro and Anselmo got into a fight. Irene, the girls, and Brica also got into a fight about food before leaving the campsite, and Irene cried. I gathered lots of wild berries and recharged on sugar. A Portuguese plane passed overhead at 11:16 and 17:00. There is no prospect of dinner because there is no vegetation; meanwhile, we heard gunshots from the hunters and everything. Hopefully, we will have meat tonight… We are confused: are those shots from the Portuguese or from our hunters? We are about 20 kilometers from Mbridge, where they have their site. Mateus came back empty handed; we are waiting for Mussunda. I hope there is meat tonight. Happily, there will be. Mukenge killed a pacaça [wild, cow-like animal] and the usual confusion ensued. Irene was lost for two and a half hours. (Rodrigues: 179-180)

Here, we see Irene, through Deolinda’s lens, as sensitive and disoriented. While Irene’s reported love for children indicates that she may always have been this sensitive, Irene was not always quite so worn down. According to those who knew her earlier in life, Irene was also clever and cunning. 

Luzolo and the Sisterhood

According to Limbania Jiménez Rodriguez’ 2009 Portuguese translation of Heroínas de Angola, Irene Cohen de Brito Teixeira, also known as Luzolo was born on April 19, 1939 to an assimilated family from the province of Benguela. As the oldest of three children, she had to enter the workforce immediately after finishing high school in Luanda. At the age of 19, she started working as a Secretary in the Economic Service of the Portuguese colonial administration. Within two years, she had joined the pro-nationalist, inter-racial intellectual community, the Association of Angolan Nationals. By 1963, she joined a female religious group named Santa Cecilia, which purported to be an apolitical youth group for the petite bourgeoisie among assimilated urban black Angolans. Ultimately, it doubled as a philanthropic organization and a clandestine MPLA cell. According to Jiménez Rodriguez, the women eventually married the two efforts by visiting political prisoners and their families, ensuring they had food and shelter. By 1964, Irene was an active member of the MPLA and that May she used her employer-paid trip to Portugal to join the anti-colonial movement in exile. A fake passport got her safely to France. But, like Deolinda, her resilience quickly devolved to discontent with life outside of Angola and she slowly sought opportunities to return. After a trip to Bucharest, she moved to Brazzaville and became the Secretary to the MPLA Steering Committee, before joining the Camy squad (Jiménez Rodriguez: 59-67). Irene’s journal entry on the Christmas before her death foreshadows the end of her very short life:

December 25

For me, there is no Christmas.

Only a great solitude dominates my soul, a mix of sadness and happiness with the responsibility of fighting for our cause.

Although in the bottom of my heart, I am nostalgic, it is bittersweet, a sad nostalgia for everything and everyone, in the silence of my solitude. (Jiménez Rodriguez: 67)

And just a few short months later, she and her sorority would be among the most famous martyrs in recent Angolan history. If little is known about the life of Irene Cohen, even less is publicly known about the other three female members of the squad. Engrácia, Teresa, and Lucrécia, who were 20, 21, and 28 at the time of their capture. Furthermore, only upon reading Jiménez Rodriguez’s text did I become aware of a sixth hidden sister, Josefa Gualdino, who trained for the mission, but became, suddenly, too ill to depart with the squad. At 16 years old, she would have been the youngest martyr among the group. 

Revolution from the Middle Class 

My curiosity about Irene Cohen predates the current political climate of freedom for young Angolans. My search began under the José Eduardo dos Santos Presidency (1979-2017) just about the same time that knowledge about Angola’s 15+2 case came to reach international audiences. The case pertains to a group of 13 young men who claimed to have been reading Gene Sharp’s From Dictatorship to Democracy. The twenty-somethings were accused and later arrested for subversive acts and for allegedly plotting to overthrow the dos Santos regime, which had—at the time—been in place for 36 years. Days after the men were arrested, two women were charged, but not detained. At the time, I did not see the connection between the contemporary intellectual freedom fight and the historical one, but there are many parallels. 

Angolan youth are historically well-acquainted with radical intellectualism among the middle or assimilated classes as a necessary precursor to slow, but radical change in governance. This concept of the privileged among the dispossessed being the greatest threat to power closely mirrors the Creole Revolution in Latin America, but Angola’s hybrid approach to grassroots activism and political revolution from the middle class is atypical of Lusophone African forms of revolution. For example, Amilcar Cabral of Cape Verde mobilized uneducated peasants in Guinea Bissau to successfully end Portuguese rule in both Cape Verde and Guinea Bissau. It is even arguable that the minds behind the Mozambique Liberation Front (FRELIMO) largely divided their exiled, multi-racial intellectual arm from their Black, domestic military arm; with very few (if any) combatants having played both roles. So, what does this say about Angola?

After 2017 ushered in a new president, Angolans in all segments of society have created new space to discuss and to re-imagine the nation’s political history and civic future. This social aperture for examination has started with a discursive review of recent decades and is showing signs of resurrecting and revising even a pre-colonial past. Among youth and art circles, I found myself asking about Irene Cohen and hearing the ruminations of an unsatiated curiosity, reminiscent of my own. The newfound ability to have genuine socio-political conversation, however, was impeded by a severe lack of historical information available in the market. My own hunt for books on political women brought me to a handful of bookstores with nothing on the subject. The Agostinho Neto Memorial bookstore was the only one in Luanda that carried historical books about the heroine cadre. Even Margarida Paredes’ 2015 book, Combater Duas Vezes: Mulheres na Luta Armada em Angola (Fight Two Times: Women in the Armed Struggle in Angola), is not currently available for purchase inside Angola. This disconnect between the revolutionary literati and the written word available in the country are perhaps a holdover of the historical censorship perceived necessary to control this class. Or, perhaps, it is an indication of an under-developed publishing industry that has been slow to seize newly available opportunities to reprint and distribute texts about Angola written by authors living abroad.

Yet, it is precisely because of this educated, intermediary class that we know anything at all about our heroine, much less about any of the social realities of Angolan life. The written tradition in Angola is limited, but where it exists, it is telling. Whether it be the anthropological writings of the blind author Óscar Ribas or the fiction of the acclaimed novelist Ondjaki, Deolinda Rodrigues is in good company among realist writers that centre urban Angola as their principal protagonist. Within themes of Angola as a motherland, these texts retell the suffering of a people coping with very recent cycles of violence. It is believed that, as recently as 2012, approximately 170,000 Angolans lived in exile in southern Africa, as a result of both the War for Independence (1961-1974) and the Angolan Civil War (1975-2002). Under the current leadership, the intellectual space for critical examination is wider than ever, but the legacy of war is very present. Little by little, young people are asking more questions about the past and answers are emerging in new ways.

It is in this environment that I found answers to my questions about Irene Cohen and realized that I was not alone in probing. Angolans are not just re-discovering Irene Cohen, but they are also re-discovering a number of national figures, like Queen Nzinga Mbande, in themselves. New definitions of leadership are emerging, and different representations of their embodiment are under discussion. It is within this context of an emergent renaissance that we see that Cabinet-level political participation by qualified women is at an all-time high. Youth-centred women’s organizations, like Ondjango Feminista, have a growing rural and urban followership for their anti- gender-based violence campaigns. Women are generally thought to bring a certain level of accountability and credibility to social environments and political regimes. To know an Angolan woman is to be sure that she is not a token. So, what does the past say about the future?

Role models for Feminist Freedom

The Camy squad of female freedom fighters are to Angola what Josina Machel is for Mozambique, but perhaps it would be better if they were more like what Winnie Mandela was for the world. Machel, like our five heroines, died in her twenties—early on in what was expected to be a long military career. Much of what we know about these Lusophone heroines is myth. Fictionalized versions of their revolutionary spirit trade as political capital. Instead, I hope for Angola a role model who lives long enough to be complex and contentious; a woman who has a full life span, in which family life co-exists side-by-side with fervent activism. 

After the sacrifice of such a short life and sensitive soul as Irene Cohen, Angolan women deserve to actualize the freedom she earned on their behalf—not just politically, but in every sense of the emancipatory spirit with which she lived. As Thomas Sankara once famously wrote, ‘revolution cannot triumph without the emancipation of women…emancipation, like freedom, is not granted, it is conquered.’ The radical intellectualism needed to conquer new African futures is precisely the same tool Angolan youth activists have mobilized over and over again to distinguish social reality from political fiction

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