MPLA President of the Organization of Angolan Women (OMA)
Tor Sellström: When did you come into contact with the Nordic countries?
Ruth Neto: I started to participate directly in the struggle in 1968, and I think that in 1968-69 there were people from the Nordic countries— particularly from Sweden—who came to Dar es Salaam to make contact with the liberation movements, and in our case with MPLA. At that time, I got to know some people from Sweden who not only visited Dar es Salaam, but also our eastern front in Angola.
Tor Sellström: When did you go into exile?
Ruth Neto: I left Luanda in 1956. I only returned in 1975. I spent the first years studying in Portugal. I also attended a religious course. I lived at an evangelical home where Graça Machel later lived. In 1960, I left for Germany, because I could not return to Angola due to the persecution from PIDE. They had already imprisoned my brother and my family advised me not to return.
I went to Germany—to Lüdenscheid—a town close to Cologne, where we knew a family who received my fiancé and me. At first, I worked in a factory. Thereafter, I moved to Frankfurt, where I took a training post as a nurse. I wanted to become a clinical analyst. Later, I went to Freiburg to enrol in a clinical analyst course. At the beginning of 1968, my brother—who was already the President of MPLA—passed through Vienna, Austria, and I went to meet him there. In April of the same year—when our new front had opened in the east—I went with his family to Dar es Salaam. I stayed in Dar es Salaam for some time, working in the MPLA office. Later I was transferred to our third political-military region at the border between Angola and Zambia.
Tor Sellström: At that time you had not yet visited Sweden?
Ruth Neto: No, not yet. My first visit to Sweden took place in 1976, after independence. We were invited by the Left Association of Swedish Women (SKV). The contacts with the women were mainly in the form of seminars, meetings and exchange of experiences between not only Swedish women, but also women from other African and European countries. These contacts were always very good, because there were new experiences for us to acquire. They also served to inform about the situation of the women within the liberation movement.
Tor Sellström: What were your impressions from the culturally so different Nordic countries?
Ruth Neto: Well, they were not only culturally different, but in every way. For example, the climate. During the first couple of meetings, we suffered tremendously because we went there during winter. The difference between Dar es Salaam or Luanda and Stockholm is huge. We also noticed that there was little knowledge about Africa and our work, our struggle. Especially from those who had never had any contact with women from other countries. Anyhow, these meetings had a positive effect. That was proven by the interest in helping us that was shown later. At each meeting we explained who we were and what the reasons behind our struggle were. That contributed to a better understanding of our cause and helped us to gain some solidarity, good collaboration and, above all, comprehension of our problems.
Tor Sellström: Would you say that the relationship between your brother and Olof Palme was close?
Ruth Neto: You could say so. They met a couple of times to discuss common interests. The relations were good.
Tor Sellström: Do you believe that those common interests were related to the nationalist process?
Ruth Neto: Yes. I believe that Sweden was concerned about our countries. Colonialism was coming to an end and there was a need for great support from honest and known people that could help the pursuit of the struggle for self-determination. On this point Sweden played a very important role. They received nationalists who they helped diplomatically and morally. Later they even helped us materially. I think this was the issue. The other parties and Swedish groups—mainly on the left—also condemned colonialism and imperialism. Those positions helped us.
Tor Sellström: Did you get to know Lisbet Palme?
Ruth Neto: I met her two or three years ago. Annie Marie Sundbom had invited us to visit Stockholm. We visited several places, and at the end we were invited to a conference about children where Lisbet Palme was the main speaker.
Tor Sellström: What kind of projects did the Left Association of Swedish Women support in Angola? Were they also educational?
Ruth Neto: Yes, some were educational. But the organization that distinguished itself the most was the Africa Groups, which supported various projects and used to visit us many times to see how we used the materials that they sent us. From SKV we got material support for the women, especially things that had to do with household tasks, for example needle-work, linen and machines. There were a number of projects developed by us with the objective to raise funds for our organization, the Organization of Angolan Women (OMA). The Africa Groups gave us tremendous support by sending us used clothes. We gave some to the most needy people and sold others to raise funds.
Unfortunately, after the multiparty elections the cooperation has not been very efficient. SKV argues that OMA continues as MPLA’s women’s organization, and that it is now important to help all women. Maybe they were hoping that OMA would be established as a non-governmental organization. It is not as yet. At this moment we are trying to establish a women’s movement from several parties and various associations. It is a lot of hard work, but OMA manages. We especially manage well in the provinces, but it is very difficult. The situation is very tough. The problems have increased and the women are poorer. They are displaced, widowed, have no homes and their children are missing. There are a series of problems. This is all the result of the war.
Tor Sellström: A question many ask is how Sweden came into contact with MPLA. Do you think that Amílcar Cabral played a part there?
Ruth Neto: I do not really know, but it is possible that he could have influenced that.
Tor Sellström: In a letter from Agostinho Neto to Olof Palme, he wrote after the Inter-Regional Conference in 1974: ‘We have reflected on the need to render the relations between our two organizations closer, since our countries in a near future, definitely, are destined to establish important links of cooperation in areas of common interest’. As women from OMA, did you have any contacts with the Social Democratic women in Sweden at that time?
Ruth Neto: I believe so. For example, Annie Marie Sundbom is a Social Democrat. She was one of the first Swedish women that I knew. There was also a group of Social Democratic women from SKV who kept in touch with us. SIDA too. There are Social Democratic women in SIDA. Those were the contacts we had. What I did not understand was that SKV was a broader organization. I thought that it was a branch of the Swedish Social Democratic women.
I would like to add that I knew the late Bernt Carlsson from the Socialist International. On one of our visits to Sweden, he came to us to know more about MPLA’s struggle. I got a very good impression of him. He came looking for us to exchange points of view and that really impressed me.
Tor Sellström: He died in the Lockerbie air disaster. He was the United Nations Commissioner for Namibia at the time.
Ruth Neto: Yes, it was very sad.