THE IRON AGE

 

The Iron Age, a period that historically began from 1,200 BC, was characterized by the use of iron as a metal. This use was imported from the East through the emigration of the Celts, Indo-European tribes that began arriving in Western Europe, and was a period that lasted until Roman times and, in Scandinavia, until the time of the Vikings, around the year 1,000. The Iron Age is the last of the three major periods in the Three Age System, used to classify prehistoric societies.

More than thirty centuries later I came across a family on the side of this road, in a remote region in southern Angola, who are literally reliving the Iron Age. They are women and children who survive by working in a kind of cemetery where the remains of crashed cars lie. They dig through the abandoned scrap metal, eagerly searching for pieces of metal and plastic parts to sell to some recycling industry. The women wield handmade hoes and turn over the parched earth, exhausting all possibilities to find the tiniest pieces of metal. Cables or small pieces of copper are the most coveted find because they are the best paid. The children use only their bare hands or an iron with a twisted end. The few carcasses left here have long since been stripped of their noblest and most valuable parts, almost nothing can still be stripped from them using only the hands. The scrap merchants, men who also live off the same predation but who are at the top of the pyramid in this ecosystem, have already passed through here, leaving little behind.  

The age for getting into the Iron Age and digging in the dirt starts early in this family. In fact, these women's children were practically born here, this arid plain and this landscape sown with car skeletons is all they know. It is sitting among pieces of scrap metal that the mother breastfeeds her smallest child, perhaps as she did with all the others. It is also on top of this amalgam of twisted pieces of iron, broken glass, plastic and stones that the other five children wander, almost all of them barefoot. They don't go to school, they don't play on swings or slides in playgrounds, they don't watch TV, they don't know the sea or the rivers.

The older daughters are true premature mothers. As soon as they are able to carry their younger brothers and sisters on their backs, it is up to them to take care of them while their mothers work. They carry them around all day, wandering among the skeletons of cars, as if they were walking their siblings in some kind of amusement park, picking up their lice, and carefully managing the little food and little water they have brought with them that has to suffice for the whole day. The only moments of rest happen when they take refuge inside the carcasses of cars to avoid the heat and the inclement sun. Eventually they play or smile when they can't help it, but it is clear that they stopped being children a long time ago. Maybe once upon a time they were children here, playing hide-and-seek or pretending to own little houses inside the carcasses of cars or captains of some boat they never saw. But as would happen with any other child, this ceased to be novel and interesting, soon monotony and apathy set in. Now they just get into the gutted cars and emerge from the holes without doors or glass as if they were windows to another world. No longer a game, there is no sparkle in their eyes nor even a simple smile. 

The work routine here is the same as yesterday and every other day. They peek once again at the same carcasses, dig deeper into the same earth, store the smaller pieces in the same bags, and pile up the larger pieces of metal and plastic in the same separate piles. Throughout the day the bags get poorly filled and the piles grow timidly, and when the sun has set on the horizon, they carry the booty on their heads to the place where they live, a few kilometers away from this place.  

Although I tried to catch a glimpse of the fragile dwellings on the plain out of sight to where they were walking at the end of the day, I could not. I also could not get an answer from these women about how many hours it takes them to get to their homes. There are no clocks here, time seems to have stopped in the 12th Century B.C. for these women, truely in the middle of the Iron Age.  Their life is ruled by the sun and hunger, although hunger is almost always present. With many questions and no answers, I just watched them leave the place at the end of another day of work with the heavy load on top of their heads as they walked until they blurred into the horizon line.

Who knows how long these women and children have been digging this dry and dusty land? Who knows what they will do and what they will live on when this vein of already poor wealth is exhausted forever? Who knows what will happen to them when the page of history called the Iron Age turns forever here, at the side of this road?