Serving God in the Face of Death
AS TOLD BY JOÃO MANCOCA
On June 25, 1961, soldiers broke up our Christian meeting in Luanda, Angola. Thirty of us were taken to prison and beaten so viciously that the soldiers returned every half hour to see if anyone was dead. Some of them were heard to remark that our God must be true, since we all survived.
AFTER that beating I remained in the São Paulo prison for five months. Then, for the next nine years, I was transferred from one prison to another and suffered many more beatings, deprivations, and interrogations. Shortly after my release from confinement in 1970, I was arrested again, and this time I was sent to the infamous death camp of São Nicolau, now Bentiaba. I was held there for two and a half years.
You may wonder why as a law-abiding citizen, I would be imprisoned for speaking to others regarding my Bible-based beliefs and where I first learned about the good news of God’s Kingdom.
Blessed With a Good Education
I was born in October 1925 near the town of Maquela do Zombo, in the north of Angola. When Father died in 1932, Mother sent me to live with her brother in the Belgian Congo (now Democratic Republic of Congo). It was not what she really wanted to do, but she had no means to provide for me.
My uncle was a Baptist, and he encouraged me to read the Bible. Although I became a member of his church, my spiritual hunger was not satisfied by what I learned, nor was I motivated to serve God. My uncle, however, sent me to school and helped me to get a good education. Among other things, I learned to speak French. In time, I also learned to speak Portuguese. After leaving school, I got a job as a radio telegraphist at the central radio station in Léopoldville (now Kinshasa). Then, when I was 20, I married Maria Pova.
A New Religious Movement
That same year, 1946, I came under the influence of a well-educated Angolan choir conductor who belonged to the Baptist Church. He was eager to educate and uplift the Kikongo-speaking people who live in the north of Angola. He had acquired a Portuguese translation of the English booklet The Kingdom, the Hope of the World, which was published by the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society and distributed by Jehovah’s Witnesses.
The choir conductor translated this booklet into Kikongo and used it to conduct a weekly Bible discussion with a group of us Angolans who were working in the Belgian Congo. In time, the choir conductor wrote to the headquarters of the Watch Tower Society in the United States and acquired more literature. However, the information he conveyed to us was mixed with the teachings of the churches. Thus, I wasn’t able to differentiate clearly between true Christianity and the unscriptural teachings of Christendom.
I did notice, however, that the Bible message contained in the Watch Tower Society’s literature was different from anything that I had ever heard in the Baptist Church. For example, I learned that the Bible places great importance on God’s personal name, Jehovah, and that true Christians appropriately call themselves Jehovah’s Witnesses. (Psalm 83:18; Isaiah 43:10-12) Further, my heart was warmed by the Bible’s promise of everlasting life on a paradise earth for those who would faithfully serve Jehovah.—Psalm 37:29; Revelation 21:3-5.
Although my knowledge of Bible truth was limited, I felt like the prophet Jeremiah, who could not contain his burning desire to speak about his God, Jehovah. (Jeremiah 20:9) Members of our Bible study group joined me in preaching from house to house. I even held public meetings in my uncle’s yard, using typed invitations to invite people. As many as 78 persons at a time attended. Thus a new religious movement was formed under the leadership of the Angolan choir conductor.
My First Imprisonments
Unknown to me, any movement that had a connection with the Watch Tower Society was forbidden in the Belgian Congo. Thus, on October 22, 1949, a few of us were arrested. Before our trial, the judge spoke privately to me and tried to arrange to set me free, since he knew that I was a state employee. But to gain my freedom, I would have had to renounce the movement that had formed as a result of our preaching, and this I refused to do.
After two and a half months in prison, the authorities decided to send those of us who were Angolans back to our own country. When we returned to Angola, however, the Portuguese colonial authorities were also suspicious of our activities and curtailed our freedom. More members of our movement arrived from the Belgian Congo, and eventually there were over 1,000 of us scattered throughout Angola.
In time, followers of the prominent religious leader Simon Kimbangu were included in our movement. These people were not interested in studying the literature of the Watch Tower Society, since they believed that the Bible could only be explained by a spirit medium. The majority in our movement supported such a view, including the choir conductor, who was still considered our leader. I prayed fervently that Jehovah would bring us into contact with a true representative of the Watch Tower Society. I hoped that this would convince our entire movement to accept Bible truth and to reject unscriptural practices.
Certain members of the movement resented the preaching that a few of us were doing. So they betrayed us to the authorities and accused us of being the leaders of a political movement. As a result, in February 1952 a number of us were arrested, including Carlos Agostinho Cadi and Sala Ramos Filemon. We were locked in a cell without windows. However, a friendly guard brought food from our wives as well as a typewriter so that we could make more copies of the Watch Tower Society’s booklets.
After three weeks we were deported to Baia dos Tigres, a desert region in the south of Angola. Our wives accompanied us there. We were sentenced to four years’ hard labor, working for a fishing company. Baia dos Tigres had no harbor for the fishing boats, so our wives had to wade back and forth from morning till night carrying heavy loads of fish from the boats.
In this prison camp, we found other members of our movement and tried to persuade them to continue studying the Bible. But they preferred to follow Toco, the choir conductor. In time, they came to be called Tocoists.
A Long-Awaited Meeting
While in Baia dos Tigres, we discovered the address of the Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) branch of the Watch Tower Society and wrote requesting help. Our letter was passed on to the South Africa branch, which corresponded with us, asking how we became interested in Bible truth. The headquarters of the Watch Tower Society, in the United States, was informed about us, and arrangements were made to send a special representative to contact us. He was John Cooke, a missionary with many years of experience in foreign lands.
After Brother Cooke arrived in Angola, it took him a number of weeks before the Portuguese authorities would permit him to visit us. He arrived at Baia dos Tigres on March 21, 1955, and was permitted to stay with us for five days. His explanations of the Bible were very satisfying, and I was convinced that he represented the only true organization of Jehovah God. On the last day of his visit, Brother Cooke gave a public talk on the subject “This Good News of the Kingdom.” A total of 82 were present, including the chief administrator of Baia dos Tigres. Each one in attendance received a printed copy of the talk.
During his five-month stay in Angola, Brother Cooke made contact with a number of Tocoists, including their leader. However, the majority of them were not interested in becoming Jehovah’s Witnesses. Thus, my companions and I felt obligated to make our stand clear to the authorities. We did this in a formal letter, dated June 6, 1956, and addressed to “His Excellency the Governor of the District of Moçâmedes.” We stated that we no longer had any connection with the followers of Toco and that we should be viewed as “members of the Society of Jehovah’s Witnesses.” We also requested that we be granted freedom of worship. Yet, instead of our sentence being reduced, it was extended two years.
Events Leading to Baptism
We were finally set free in August 1958, and on returning to Luanda, we found a small group of Jehovah’s Witnesses. It had been organized the year before by Mervyn Passlow, a missionary who was sent to Angola to replace John Cooke but who had already been deported by the time we arrived. Then, in 1959, Harry Arnott, another missionary of Jehovah’s Witnesses, visited. However, he was arrested upon disembarking at the airport, as were the three of us waiting to meet him.
The two others, Manuel Gonçalves and Berta Teixeira, recently baptized Portuguese Witnesses, were released after being warned not to hold any more meetings. Brother Arnott was deported, and I was warned that unless I signed a paper declaring that I was no longer a Witness, I would be sent back to Baia dos Tigres. After seven hours of interrogation, I was released without having signed anything. A week later I was finally able to be baptized, as were my friends Carlos Cadi and Sala Filemon. We rented a room in Muceque Sambizanga, a suburb of Luanda, which came to be the location of the first congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Angola.
A growing number of interested people began to attend the meetings. Some came to spy on us, but they enjoyed the meetings and later became Jehovah’s Witnesses! The political scene was changing, and the situation became more difficult for us after a nationalist uprising on February 4, 1961. Despite the falsehoods that circulated about us, on March 30 we succeeded in celebrating the Memorial of Christ’s death, with an attendance of 130.
In June, while I was conducting the Watchtower Study, our meeting was broken up by the military police. The women and children were released, but the 30 men there were taken away, as noted in the introduction. We were beaten continuously for two hours with wooden clubs. For three months afterward, I vomited blood. I was certain that I would die; in fact, the one who had beaten me promised that I would. Most of the others who were beaten were new, unbaptized Bible students, so I prayed earnestly in their behalf: “Jehovah, take care of your sheep.”
Thanks to Jehovah, none of them died, which amazed the military personnel. Some of these soldiers were moved to praise our God, who they said had enabled us to survive! Most of the Bible students eventually became baptized Witnesses, and some now serve as Christian elders. One of them, Silvestre Simão, is a member of the Angola Branch Committee.
Nine Years of Suffering
As I mentioned at the outset, I suffered in many ways during the next nine years and was transferred from one prison or labor camp to another. In all these places, I was able to witness to political prisoners, many of whom are baptized Witnesses today. My wife, Maria, and our children were allowed to accompany me.
While we were at the Serpa Pinto labor camp, four political prisoners were caught trying to escape. They were cruelly tortured to death in front of all the prisoners to scare them into not even thinking of escaping. The camp commander later threatened me in front of Maria and the children: “If I catch you preaching again, you will be killed in the same manner as those who tried to escape.”
Finally, in November 1966, we ended up at what had become the terrible death camp of São Nicolau. When we arrived there, I was horrified to find out that the camp administrator was Mr. Cid, the man who had practically beaten me to death at the São Paulo prison! Dozens were systematically murdered every month, and my family was forced to watch the brutal killings. As a result, Maria suffered a nervous breakdown from which she has never fully recovered. Eventually, I was able to get permission for her and the children to be evacuated to Luanda, where my two older daughters, Teresa and Joana, took care of them.
Freedom, but Imprisoned Again
I was released the following year, in September 1970, and was reunited with my family and all the brothers in Luanda. It brought tears to my eyes to see how the preaching work had progressed during the nine years of my absence. When I was taken away to prison in 1961, the congregation in Luanda consisted of four small groups. Now there were four large congregations, properly organized and assisted every six months by a traveling representative of Jehovah’s organization. I was overjoyed to be free, but my freedom was short-lived.
One day the director general for the now extinct Police for Investigation and Defense of the State (PIDE) called me. After flattering me in the presence of my daughter Joana, he handed me a document to sign. It enlisted my services as an informer for PIDE and promised me many material rewards for my services. When I refused to sign, I was threatened with being returned to São Nicolau, from where, I was told, I would never be freed again.
In January 1971, after only four months of freedom, those threats were acted on. Altogether, 37 Christian elders from Luanda were arrested and sent to São Nicolau. There we were incarcerated until August 1973.
Released, yet Still Persecuted
In 1974 religious freedom was proclaimed in Portugal, and afterward this freedom was extended to the Portuguese overseas provinces. On November 11, 1975, Angola gained independence from Portugal. What a thrill it was for us in March of that same year to experience our first circuit assemblies in freedom! I had the privilege of giving the public talk for these joyous gatherings at the Sports Citadel in Luanda.
The new government, however, opposed our neutral stand, and civil war raged throughout Angola. The situation became so critical that the white Witnesses were forced to flee the country. Three of us local brothers were put in charge of the preaching work in Angola, under the direction of the Portugal branch of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Soon my name began to appear in newspapers and was broadcast over the radio. I was accused of being an agent of international imperialism and of being responsible for Angolan Witnesses’ refusing to take up arms. As a result, I was summoned to appear before the first governor of the province of Luanda. Respectfully, I explained to him the neutral stand of Jehovah’s Witnesses worldwide, which is the position that was taken by the early followers of Jesus Christ. (Isaiah 2:4; Matthew 26:52) When I pointed out that I had spent over 17 years in prisons and labor camps during colonial rule, he decided not to arrest me.
During those days, it took courage to serve as a Witness for Jehovah in Angola. Since my home was being watched, we had to quit using it for meetings. But as the apostle Paul said, ‘we were pressed in every way, but not cramped beyond movement.’ (2 Corinthians 4:8) Never did we become inactive in our ministry. I continued in the preaching work, serving as a traveling minister and strengthening the congregations in the provinces of Benguela, Huíla, and Huambo. At that time I went by another name, Brother Filemon.
In March 1978 our preaching work was again banned, and I was informed by reliable sources that revolutionary fanatics planned to kill me. So I took refuge in the home of a Witness from Nigeria who was an employee of the Nigerian embassy in Angola. A month later, when the situation had quieted down, I continued serving the brothers as a circuit overseer.
Despite the ban and the civil war, thousands of Angolans responded to our preaching. Because of the fine growth in the number becoming Witnesses, a country committee was appointed to care for the preaching work in Angola, under the direction of the Portugal branch. During this time, I traveled on a number of occasions to Portugal, where I received valuable training from qualified ministers, as well as needed medical care.
At Last, Freedom to Preach!
When I was in labor camps, political prisoners would often mock me and say that I would never be set free if I continued to preach. But I would reply: “It is not yet the time for Jehovah to open the door, but when he does, no man will be able to shut it.” (1 Corinthians 16:9; Revelation 3:8) That door of opportunity to preach without restrictions was opened wider after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. At that time we began to experience more freedom of worship in Angola. In 1992 the work of Jehovah’s Witnesses was officially legalized. Finally, in 1996 a branch of Jehovah’s Witnesses was established in Angola, and I was appointed as a member of the Branch Committee.
During my many years of imprisonment, somehow my family was always cared for. We had six children, and five of these are still living. Our beloved Joana died last year of cancer. Four of our remaining children are baptized Witnesses, but our other child has not yet taken the step of baptism.
When Brother Cooke visited us in 1955, we had a total of four Angolans declaring the good news of God’s Kingdom. Today there are over 38,000 Kingdom proclaimers in the country, and they are conducting over 67,000 Bible studies every month. Among those preaching the good news are many who formerly persecuted us. How rewarding this is, and how thankful I am to Jehovah for preserving me and allowing me to fulfill my burning desire to declare his word!—Isaiah 43:12; Matthew 24:14.
[Map on page 20, 21]
(For fully formatted text, see publication)
Democratic Republic of Congo
Maquela do Zombo
São Nicolau (now Bentiaba)
Moçâmedes (now Namibe)
Baia dos Tigres
Serpa Pinto (now Menongue)
Mountain High Maps® Copyright © 1997 Digital Wisdom, Inc.
[Pictures on page 22, 23]
Below: With John Cooke in 1955. Sala Filemon is on the left
Right: Reunion with John Cooke after 42 years
[Picture on page 23]
With my wife, Maria