Thursday, December 21, 2006

Boas Festas

There’s a holiday tradition in Benguela- perhaps everywhere in Angola, but I can only speak to Benguela- called boas festas. (Happy Holidays) I had been warned about this tradition by other ex-pats, but I didn’t think it could be true.

Basically, someone comes up to you and says, “Boas festas!” Then you are supposed to give them money. Really! When Mark told me about this, he said that anyone would do this, regardless of how well (or if) they knew you or economic condition.

Indeed, yesterday people started saying “Boas festas!” to me and holding out their hand. I just play dumb. Kids come running up to me in the street, saying, "Amgia! Amiga! Boas festas, amiga!" And these are NOT the poor kids who ask me for money usually. In every store there is the equivalent of a Boas Festas tip jar. Readers of the previous post will remember Deborah, the sullen receptionist at the cable TV office. Even though it took me almost a week to get service, every time I went in there she would hold out the box and say, “Boas festas! You didn’t put in the boas festas!”

Boas festas, indeed!

Our office is closing for two weeks so I’ll be away from the computer for a while. Keep sending me emails, though! Remember me in Angola!

Happy holidays to all. I miss you!

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Cost of Living in Luanda

A "fellow Fellow" sent me a link to an article in The Economist about the high cost of living for expatriates in Africa. It focuses on Luanda but Lobito is only slightly less expensive than Luanda. The article also neglects to mention that it's expensive for ANGOLANS, too!

Case in point: our Luanda office's lease was set to expire at the end of December. The owner wanted to raise the rent from US$3,500/month to US$12,500/month. With no improvements to the building. Our office is across the street from the main Chevron office. Coincidence? As an NGO we certainly can't afford the new rent, so we are moving to an office whose rent will be US$6500/month.

My friend/coworker Mark also pointed out that here it's no big deal to carry US$100 bills in your pocket. He recalled being dumbfounded by the strange looks he got on his last home leave when he would pay for things with $100 bills. It's quite common here.

I spend at least US$50 every time I go to the supermarket. Yes, I do buy Western food, but you can't tell me that US$8 is reasonable for a box of cereal! Even the local markets (like the Cubal one, above in the picture of the chicken section of the market) are expensive. A bunch of bananas costs US$2.50!

How things work around here: Satellite TV edition

I decided to get satellite cable. A good decision- I get CNN, Discovery Channel, and can watch reruns of Beverly Hills 90210! Actually getting the service was an infuriating experience and indicative of the way that things work here in Angola.

Monday: Ben Carlos, and Angolan colleague, took me to the cable sub-office to sign up for the service. I was US$40 short for the package of the satellite and service payment, so I just paid for the satellite installation. I gave directions to the technicians and waited and waited for them. I waited for about 3 hours. When they got there and I asked why they took so long (they supposedly left the office at the same time I did) they said, “teve atraso,” or “there was a delay.” They set it up, or at least 75% of it. They said they would have to return for something the next day, but I couldn’t understand what exactly.

Tuesday: I called the sub-office to set up a time to finish the job and the technicians were out sick. Amazingly, all 5 of them were ill!

Wednesday: I finally got my dollars from the bank (getting money from the bank is a whole other ordeal), so I paid for the service to start. The technicians went over to my apartment to finish the job. Satellite service guaranteed to start that evening. The weekly Wednesday volleyball game was cancelled, so I went home very excited to start watching TV in English. Except, there was nothing!

Thursday: In the morning I call the sub-office to see what the problem is. They never recorded the number on my cable box so they couldn’t start service. They guaranteed to start service that evening. I was traveling to Cubal for the night, for the closure of the office and holiday party, and I expected to have quality TV time when I got home on Friday.

Friday: This is where things get ugly. I come home EXHAUSTED from Cubal. Apart from only getting 5 hours of sleep, thanks to all the kizomba dancing at the party, the ride from Cubal to Lobito is on one of the worst roads I have ever been on. It takes around 4 ½ hours- we left at 9 am and got to Lobito at 1:30 pm. I was so excited to have lunch in front of the television, but again, no signal! When I called the office phone, a cell phone belonging to the receptionist, Deborah, it was desligado, or turned off. There had also not been any water in town for 4 days, and the maid used all the water for cleaning without replacing it, so I couldn’t even take a bucket bath after a long trip. I was a just little cranky. On the way back to work, Juan took me to the cable office since he had to make his payment and both Eduardo (the manager) and Deborah (the sullen receptionist) assured me that I would have service that afternoon. Eduardo said he would call the main cable office and have everything resolved. Deborah also said to call if I had any problems. I told her that I had called only a few hours earlier, and the phone was turned off. She said, “Oh yes, the battery is dead.” I said, “So how can I call?” Blank… look… So then Eduardo gave me his cell phone number, assuring me that he was heading over to the main office right away to straighten things out.

After a quick cerveja Cristal (Portuguese beer) at the end of the workday with my officemate Anne, I headed home, completely exhausted and starving, looking forward once again to vegging out in front of English-language TV. I turned it on and NOTHING. I called Eduardo and the following exchange took place:
E: Oh, you’re going to have to wait until Monday because the office is closed until then.
L: What did the people at JEMBAS (the main office) say?
Dead silence.
L: Eduardo, did you go to the main office?
E: No, the office closes at 3 pm. (Juan and I got to the sub-office around 2:30.)
L: Eduardo, why did you tell me you were going to take care of it if the office was already closed?
Dead silence.
L: This is bad. I’m paying for a service that I’m not receiving.
E: No, no! Don’t worry- your service is paid for!
L: Yes, that’s the problem. I paid and I’m not receiving anything.
E: Yeah, don’t worry, it’s all paid for. Look, everything is closed until Monday, you’ll have to wait.
L: But I’m paying for the service!
E: Calma, calma. (Calm down, calm down.)

At this point, I break into tears and hang up. As my parents, brother and sister will tell you, it doesn’t take much to make me cry, but this was an all-out bawl-fest. I was just so tired from the trip and had really been looking forward to watching English-language TV, as pathetic as that sounds. Worse still, I could see the title of the programs that I could have been watching: The Daily Show! Grey’s Anatomy! Beverly Hills 90210! Lord of the Rings II! The whole interaction is indicative of just how difficult it is to get things done in Angola, and the utter lack of customer service.

Saturday: Juan picked me up to take me grocery shopping. He asked how my night was and when I told him, he said, “No way. We’re going there right now.” We went to the sub-office and saw Eduardo and Deborah. Now, Angola is a both a macho and hierachical-sensitive country. A woman on her own, as assertive as she may be, can’t get the same things done that a man can- especially a chefe (boss) like Juan. As soon as they saw Juan, they said, “Oh, Senhor Juan! Dona Leslie! We’ll do everything we can to get this taken care of!” There was someone else there, another customer, who said, “Why don’t you call the main JEMBAS office and have them take care of it?” To which Eduardo said, “Oh. JEMBAS is open on Saturdays? I didn’t know.” Juan, Eduardo and I then spend the next two hours running between my apartment and the JEMBAS office getting things taken care of.

After shopping, I come home to find a crystal-clear cable reception! With no sound! I call Eduardo, who tells me to call the Luanda help line. They tell me the problem is with the installation, not the signal. I call Eduardo again, and he promises to send over the technicians. “I’ll personally accompany them, right now!” he proudly tells me. Five hours later with no technicians around, I call Eduardo to find out where they were.
E: Oh, we came by and there was no one home. I was with them.
L: Really? I haven’t left the house all day. I’ve been waiting for you.
E: Yes, the technicians went and said no one was home. [Notice how he suddenly wasn’t there with them.] They can only come tomorrow morning.
L: Okay, what time?
E: Tomorrow.
L: What time?
E: Sometime tomorrow.
In the meantime, I ask my neighbor Sara who also has satellite TV if she knows what the problem is. She sends her 7 year old son to fix it. He is very cute but not good at fixing the satellite. The 8 people who live in her apartment and hang out in front of my apartment assure me that no one came looking for me.

Sunday: Around 1 pm and several phone calls to Eduardo, two technicians show up at the apartment. They are completely dumbfounded by the lack of sound and keep pressing the mute button over and over again. They leave to get another technician. This takes only one and a half hours. He takes one look at the TV, fiddles around with some of the menus, and I immediately have sound.

That’s all it took!

Monday, December 18, 2006

People gave Madonna a lot of heat for adopting a baby from Malawi, but in the middle of all that mess she said something that rang true for me. She said, more or less, that anyone who set foot in Malawi and saw those children would want to adopt them. The same holds true for Angola. Kids here are just great. Sure, there are a few bad apples, but that’s the way they are every where.

Kids here are just fun. They love to jump around and do flips and can make a toy out of anything- mostly because they have no toys. Adults here spend a lot of time with children, but not in the way that we do in the States. There’s not a lot of reading or imagination work going on, so kids here really like any sort of fun attention from adults. The times I've played with kids, there's an initial skepticism- "what is this branca doing?" But then they get into and ask when I am coming back to play with them.

Last Sunday we had a small party at Juan’s house. He lives in front of the beach and near a squatter’s building, so a couple of kids wandered over to see the what the white people were doing. Our friend Ze Maria had opened his car to blast kizomba, the most popular music in Angola, and they kids went crazy. I had been taking pictures of the kids, and then I told them to dance and took a little video of them. Very cute. If you look at the video, the stuff the kids are using as sunglasses is a roll of film negatives.

This is the first time I'm trying a video, so let me know if this doesn't work!

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

I love this picture!

My coworker Suzie took this picture while visiting her project's beneficiary communities. The woman is weaving the basket from the inside.

Monday, December 11, 2006


Electricity in Angola is a tenuous thing. It’s not a question of whether or not the lights will go out in a given day, but how many times it will go out. Any Angola household than can afford it will buy a generator to provide electricity when the lights are out. (With gas at only US$ 0.40 a gallon, the big purchase is the machine itself.) I share a generator with my coworker/neighbor, Tito. He lives two houses away, so there is a very long cord stretched across his roof and my apartment- one of the wires in the above picture is the magical generator cord. Somehow it holds up in the rain.

You don’t notice how much you use a generator until it is broken. For about 6 days last week I was without the generator. It was apparently broken and, as things tend to happen in Angola, the importance of getting us a new generator slipped as the days went on. The bad thing about not having a generator is that you can hear everyone else’s generator. Imagine the sound that a diesel engine built for an 18-wheeler. Now imagine that 20 feet from my bedroom window. Just a little noisy. Most people, Tito and I included, turn off their generators after a certain hour (midnight, in our case) to save gas. Unfortunately for me, I live cattycorner from an oil industry house, which not only has the most powerful generator around to handle all the air conditioners, but they leave it on all night so the poor oil employees don’t have to suffer the natural sea breeze coming off the bay and the ocean. It’s on most nights, so I’ve gotten used to it, but on the rare night that the city’s electrical grid is up and running, it’s so still that I can hear birds and even the ocean.

Some of you might know that my father’s side of the family is quite large. Grandma Aline, bless her heart, had 10 children; my dad is 2 of 10. In US, this greatly impresses people since few people have that many children any more. In Honduras, this impresses people, although not as much since there are families that large. In Angola, I tell people my grandmother had 10 children and I get an unimpressed, “Oh.”

Yesterday I was talking with Adi, our receptionist here in Luanda. She was telling me what her family does for the holidays, and started rattling off how many brothers and sisters would be coming to Luanda for Christmas. After about 8 names, I asked how many brothers and sisters she had. “Alive?” she asked. “Twelve. But my mother gave birth to TWENTY THREE (23) children.” Wow. That explains why, according to a 2001 UNICEF study, 67% of Angola’s population is under 20 and 97% of the population is under 50. The same study also mentioned that Angola’s percentage of children that reach the age of 5 is one of the three lowest in the world, keeping stellar company with Niger and Afghanistan. So, sadly, it’s not uncommon to lose ten of your children to illness or, in Angola’s case, a brutal 27 year-long civil war. When I asked Juliana, the woman who cleans my house, how many children she had, she said she had two daughters who were aged 7 and 15. She then mentioned that she first gave birth in 1985, so I was a little confused. She then said, “Well, I’ve had 8 children total, but six have died.”

Maybe this is part of the explanation for the grief expressed by the family of the killer I talked about in the previous post. To have a son make it through to his twenties and then die from unnatural causes- when so many young children die from “natural” although preventable causes- must be devastating.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Love in Luanda

I'm in Luanda right now. As many of you may already know, Luanda is not my favorite place- lots of traffic, lots of people, lots of confusão (confusion) as Angolans would put it. We were supposed to leave Lobito yesterday at 3, which meant that we left for the airport at 12:30. Around 3:30, we got curious because no airplane had arrived. (The Benguela airport is a one-airplane type of airport. You know if your plane is there or not.) Our driver Joel went to ask at the AIR26 desk and the lady nonchalantly said, "Oh, the flight has been canceled." Why, thank you for telling us! Upon further investigation, Joel discovered that we would be leaving the next morning at 7 am, meaning that I got to wake up at 5 am this morning. So I'm a little crankier than usual.

Air 26 is a ew airline, touted by many in Angola because the flight attendants are nice. Actually, this does set them apart. The airplanes are used but spruced up a bit. Only a bit. There were still three rows of seats missing and the air conditioner dripped cold water on me all during the flight. But hey- they had air conditioning! Again, different from other Angolan airlines.

The flight left not at 7 as planned but at 9:30. I'd say we hit Luanda at rush hour, but every hour in Luanda is rush hour. Our offices are only 15 miles or so from the airport, yet it takes us 2 hours to get there from the national airport. Today the delay was the result of a very large funeral procession. About 50 cars were in a caravan, complete with casket, traveling at a speed of 20 m.p.h. Each car's dashboard displayed the picture of a young man. "How sad," I thought. "Cancer? AIDS? Malaria?" Gilberto, the driver then said, "That guy killed his ex-girlfriend and her current boyfriend in a fit of jealous passion." (Whoops! Still sad, though not for the reasons I originally thought it was sad.) The three young people lived in Gilberto's neighborhood. He said that the jealous ex-boyfriend had to be buried on a different day because the ex-girlfriend's family threatened to kill everyone from the killer's funeral if they saw them there the same day.

I'm not sure I understand why people were displaying the killer's face everywhere. People were even wearing t-shirts with his picture on it. It just seemed like a slap in the faces of the families of the people he killed. I asked Gilberto about this, and he just sort of shook his head. He didn't understand it either.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Ladies on Deck!

I live on a peninsula. One block to my left is the beach; one block to the right is Africa’s deepest port, the Port of Lobito. It’s a nice little bay- very narrow (I could swim across in half an hour) and very deep. The Luanda port is significantly reducing its activities in order for renovation and modernization, so Lobito will soon see a lot more water traffic. Those of us who aren’t in the oil industry look at those big ships passing at all hours and think, “What the heck is on those things?” Chris, the oil rig guy who had us to his house for Thanksgiving, invited Suzie, Angela and me to take a tour of the port yard and even finagled a tour of an “unusual-sized cargo” ship!

The yard is huge. All of the oil companies have little trailers there that function as offices. We stopped off at Chris’ company’s trailer to gear up with hard hats and protective eyewear then headed to the Chevron trailer for work boots. Surprisingly, we didn’t have to sign our lives away on a liability agreement. An oversight, perhaps?

Scattered all over the yard are HUGE oil rigs, platforms, pipelines in the process of being constructed, waiting to be towed out to sea. I can see these things from my front balcony; they look big from there, but up close they are massive. After seeing the scale of this equipment, I must say that I am quite impressed with the engineering that goes into those productions. For example, we saw a big tower that will be lowered onto the ocean floor, at which point a vacuum will come on and burrow itself into the ground for drilling. Amazing.

After a short tour, Chris took us to the German unusual-sized cargo ship. The ship is specially designed for large and heavy cargo that does not fit on traditional container cargo ships. Chris had spoken with the German manager to get the tour, but the German had apparently forgotten to tell anyone else, so there was some confusion when we got on board. The crew was partly German but mostly Filipino. Either way, I think they were happy to have three foreign women on board! They go out for 3 months at a time, and then have a month off. The ship was headed to Singapore, a trip which takes about 17 days. They were hauling a helipad.

The ship is HUGE. The captain said it was built in 1989 and is not state-of-the-art, but to our uneducated eyes it was quite modern-looking. They certainly had better communication abilities (phone, internet) than whatever we have in Lobito. The ship was also very clean- spotless, even!

They took us all around the ship, even down into the cargo hold, which Chris thought was a bit of a liability since we had to climb a ladder down three stories. But it was fun! I will post pictures at the “My Pictures” link to the right when the connection here is a little more stable (it's not letting me right now).

Friday, December 01, 2006

Wild Wild Lobito

About three nights ago there was a car crash in front of the building where two collegaues live. (This building was recently sold for US$1.2 million, but that's another story.) It's front front of a very small shopping center- the Policentro- situated on a median in the middle of a road. The center has a small market, pharmacy, snack hut and playground. Like every other buidling on Restinga, the peninsula where I live, there are guards guarding the premises.

Around 10:30 pm, there was a car crash. My two coworkers watched the following scene from their respective apartments which have balconies facing the shopping center. The driver had crashed into a parked car. Both the driver's car and the parked car were relatively undamaged, although there was enough damage to warrant repairs. The driver got out of his car to see the damage. Deciding that he didn't want to pay for the damage, he got back into his car and started to drive away. Now there are a few people in the street, watching all this. One of the guards from the Policentro takes out his AK-47 and just starts shooting at the car- which is on a busy road now filled with several people. The car got away and luckily no one was hurt.

I am glad that we request that the guards that watch our houses and office carry nightsticks, not guns.

I mean, if you insist that your guards have a gun, okay:
  1. Train them how and when to use them! Shooting an AK-47 into a crowded street? It's a miracle that no one got hurt or killed by a stray bullet. The cars involved had nothing to do with the shopping center- did the guard really need to shoot after the driver?
  2. How about a more appropriate gun, like a pistol?

Friday, November 24, 2006

A Petroleum Thanksgiving (and a little more info…)

First, I wanted to just clarify a little more on the CDA project. I meant to include a link to the website but forgot, so here it is. They don’t have any of the reports up (they are just getting starting on the project) but they give a description of their institutional philosophy and approach to collaborative learning. When all the “conversations” are analyzed and put into reports, CDA will create a larger document- likely a book- and make it available to aid agencies, organizations, etc.

Secondly, happy belated Thanksgiving (to those who celebrate it)! Thanksgiving is perhaps my favorite American holiday. I really enjoy its spirit of appreciation- and, of course, pumpkin pie. I’ve only spent one Thanksgiving with my family since I was 18, so I’ve always been away from home on the holiday. However, I’ve always been fortunate enough to spend it with friends and adoptive families where ever I’ve been. Some of my best Thanksgiving memories are from the Peace Corps, when 50 or so Volunteers descended upon La Esperanza to have a huge turkey dinner at the volunteer house. Honduran friends would show up, and soon 100 people would be eating turkey and sweet potato pie.

Angola was no different. I had hoped to have a similar big dinner with Angolan colleagues and friends, but most of my American coworkers are away for work. Luckily I was invited to Chris and Diane’s house. Chris works for a company that builds oil platforms way out, and Diane is his wife. Like a lot of oil industry wives, she is not allowed to work in the country so spends a lot of time doing volunteer work and being, as Diane describes it, “desperate housewives.” Their house is like having a bit of the US in Lobito- one of the advantages of working for a company that will pay to have your entire house shipped from post to post. Diane cooked a fabulous meal, complete with turkey, mashed potatoes and homemade biscuits. She had name plates! And individual menus!

There were other Americans at the dinner, too. One Chevron employee from Katy, TX was there and an insurance inspector from NE Louisiana. It was interesting to step into the world of the oil industry. When the men started talking shop, it was as if they were speaking a different language! The man from NE Louisiana mysteriously said that he used to do off-shore work until he was hospitalized. He then mentioned off-handedly, “And then I was held hostage in Nigeria, so I decided to move into the insurance part.” Hmm. Then the Chevron guy said, “Oh we’ve all been held hostage.” A different world than mine!

(Picture: sunrise from my porch! Yes, I am usually up to see the sunrise, believe it or not.)

Thursday, November 23, 2006


(For context, see previous post)

Luanda is chaos. The city has exploded and is not prepared for the millions that live there. Traffic is a mess- it can take you 2 hours to go 10 miles, primarily because no one respects traffic laws, including the police. In this picture you see a car that has met an untimely demise outside our guesthouse. The white car is going in between two parked cars on the curb, and the brown car is heading into on-coming traffic. Drivers on both sides of this two lane street refused to yield to the other side, causing mile-long bottlenecks. A traffic cop was standing approximately 50 feet away from this scene, doing nothing, not even the traffic direction he usually does. He seemed to have recognized the futility of getting Luandan drivers to do anything at all and just given up.

But back to the project… In Luanda the three teams regrouped. (There were two other teams carrying out conversations in Huambo and Bié provinces.) It was interesting to hear the perspectives from the other provinces. Huambo and Bié were some of the most affected by the war, with political tensions still holding. Although Cubal was a strategic spot for both sides, from the people we talked with we got the impression that they were caught in the middle of it all as opposed to belonging to one side or the other.

We also carried out conversations in Luanda. The first was in Viana, which is a large “suburb” of Luanda, although certainly not a suburb in the American sense of the word. We found two camps there: one for IDPs and one for refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Both were living right next to each other. Now, I know next to nothing about refugee and IDP issues, but even to my novice eyes, this was a bad set-up. In the conversations held on the IDP side, we heard over and over the complaints of Angolans that the Congolese were being given preferential treatment: at one point they had a UNHCR health clinic and the elderly refugees were receiving emergency aid still. On the refugee side, we heard about the discrimination and violence they face from their IDP neighbors who they say are jealous and don’t understand the reality of their situation (like that the UNHCR clinic has long been closed and that the UNHCR never repatriated them like they had promised). In short, the place was desperate. Both groups clearly felt abandoned by the agencies and governments who were supposed to help them.

“It’s not the first time white people like you come here asking us these things,” explained one Congolese refugee woman. Following what we learned in Kalumwe, we carried out the conversations in gender-separated teams, thanks to the presence of an Umbundu-speaking female staff member from one of the other participating NGOs. If I thought that the women in Kalumwe were talkative with a predominantly male team, I was not prepared for the avalanche of ideas that came from a women-only conversation. The anger and frustration of these Angolan and Congolese women really came out. While always polite and respectful, they expressed their frustration with the aid community. Over and over, we heard things like, “when are you coming back to help us? They just abandoned us here.” “They come and just ask questions, but never bring any help.” It was a sobering day.

The next day was surreal. We didn’t have access to a car, so we set off on foot to an area where someone said there were some refugees and IDPs. We ended up in a very hidden slum, tucked underneath two larger buildings. I got a bad vibe as soon as we walked up- perhaps it was the group of men smoking marijuana at 10 am or the beat-up woman at the entrance who begged us to help her. We walked in, again in gender-separated teams, and started to talk to people. The people in that community were neither IDPs nor refugees, just people who had come to Luanda for a better life but had not yet found it. They had received no help whatsoever and obviously were not happy about it (can’t blame them). They spoke of the need for decent housing; the majority of the shacks were open air and there was a trickle of who-knows-what running through the center. As we went further through, we attracted some unwanted attention so we left. Later we found out that the men’s team had been directly threatened, so it was a good thing we left.

Unfortunately, that was the end of the exercise- too bad that it ended on a negative note. My overall experience, however, was extremely positive. If nothing else I learned a lot more about Angola.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

“Peace is more than the end of war and the absence of bullets.”

This was written on a water tank on the outskirts of Cubal, a rural municipality where I spent last week. I was there with an Angolan colleague, Pedro, and an American visitor, David. We were there to carry out a series of conversations as part of CDA’s Listening Project. CDA, based out of Cambridge, MA is conducting a 20 country study of the distribution of aid during conflicts. This Listening Project is based on the radical idea that aid organizations should ask recipients and non-recipients about the distribution of aid: how was it carried out? Did you get what you were supposed to? And so on…

We were the coordinating agency here in Angola; two other international NGOs participated. After a day of training, David, Pedro and I headed out to Cubal, where we would be carrying out these “conversations.” Since this is a qualitative project, we didn’t have a questionnaire to work from; we were just supposed to start talking to people and see where the conversation took us- always keeping on the subject of aid and community needs. A major worry was that people would think we were doing an assessment to see what type of project to support in the community- as such, we had to be very careful about describing what we were doing and what we could give them. (We could only give them an opportunity to speak their mind.) Personally, I wasn’t sure how we would be received. My previous experience of visiting aldeias (villages) was great, but that was because I was attached to a very real mill project and wasn’t asking them about the most vicious parts of their lives. We didn’t want to go into communities and do further harm, so we had to be careful. In all, we visited 13 communities and spoke with about 150 people there. I learned a tremendous amount in the week I spent in Cubal. Some of the highlights and more memorable experiences I’ll detail here. I’ll talk about the second part of the project, work done in Luanda, in the next few postings.

Ussollo, Caimbamo Municipality

The road to Cubal is atrocious. It is by far the worst I have seen in my travels, the worst I have seen in Angola. The roadsides are marked by bombed-out tanks and trucks that were casualties of the war. The road was once paved, but after years of tanks rolling down them and no effort to repair them there are potholes the size of swimming pools and kids jumping around on the tanks. We would often drive in the ditches next to the road, which was disconcerting when we would pass the land-mine warning signs.

After two hours, we were ready to break so we stopped and decided to hold our first conversation. The village, Ussollo, consisted of approximately 12 families, living in mud and straw huts. We all sat under the shady tree and began the conversation with an elderly man (the soba, or village leader usually the oldest man in the community) and two women. Soon we were surrounded by the entire village. We were lucky in that many people spoke Portuguese, so we didn’t have to rely on Pedro for translation to/from Umbundu except for the elders.

These people were internally displaced people (IDPs), from other provinces in Angola. Generally, IDPs in Angola were forced to flee the fighting during the war and seek refuge in safer cities. These people were from Huambo and Bié province, some of the most ravaged by the 27 year long civil war. Interestingly, when we asked the oldest man present to tell us about his life before the war and his life know, he spoke glowingly of colonial times. He said, “No one was killing us, we had food. The Portuguese taught us many things. Then the war took it all away and we lost our families.” This is not to say that they Portuguese were in any way benign colonizers, but compared to what they lived in the war and are living know, this gentleman thought it was the preferential option.

As we would hear in other conversations, people have not been able to recuperate what they lost in the war and feel as if they are constantly struggling to survive. This community, like others we talked to, relies almost entirely on subsistence agriculture and charcoal production. They grow just enough food to survive- mind you, just corn and many a few onions or peppers, nothing fancy like tomatoes or fruit. (They do have mangoes and bananas, which are easily found in nature here.) Charcoal production is grueling work which is no compensated monetarily. They must go into the forest (invariably further and further away as time goes on because nothing is left after trees are cut) and find the right type of young tree. They then cut the tree, haul it back, and begin the process of making charcoal. They then sell it on the side of the road or in a market in the cities. It’s in no way lucrative, but people feel that they have no other option to get a few Kuanzas for their families.

They also talked about why they can’t go home. Firstly, they simply cannot afford to relocate: there’s the transportation, the purchase of new household items, etc. Secondly, they think people are living on their lands. Many people would squat on abandoned lands and occupy houses as they came across them. Thirdly, they are afraid of the elections. The most violent phase of the war came after the elections in 1992, so many people associate elections with violence and war. Because the current government has yet to set a date for elections (they were supposed to happen in 2005), many people are waiting until they happen so they can see if it is safe. They simply don’t trust the current peace and elections.

Like many people in this area, they received emergency food aid during the war. They stated that without this help, they would have surely starved. Their complaints were that the aid simply stopped without any explanation as to why. They also describe some of the problems the aid caused in their community. A neighboring community was not receiving aid and got jealous of them. So then the community members left to go to the distribution center, the neighboring community came and stole their goats. Other people were assaulted on the way back from the center and lost the aid they had just received.


One thing everyone in the Cubal area received was peas: good old American peas sent by the US of A. Peas are not native to Angola, so people just didn’t know what to do with them. Once they learned what to do with them, they liked them.

Tchimbinga, Panda Village

The coping strategies in this community really interested me. The community was remote, and upon first glance quite poor. There wasn’t a tree within miles, making work in the sun horrible and exhausting. When we approached the community, we suddenly saw several heads of cattle, around 25. (Wealth in many of these places is determined by the number of cattle you have. If you have a bull you can work your fields much more efficiently and with a cow you have free milk.) The woman described an interesting lending mechanism that brought young people to the city. A family or rich person in the community lends a young person money to pay for transportation to the city (around Kz. 200, or US$2.50) and money for housing. The young person works until he can save money for a cow, which he buys and sends home to his family. He then works to pay off the loan and have return fare. The interest on these loans was about 50%. The woman said that these types of trips brought a lot of good things into the community but that there weren’t enough rich people around to lend the US$50 for all this. I smell a microcredit project!

Panda Centro, Panda Village

This village described an interesting trading system. They appreciated the food aid, but they received more oil than they did other things. They had all this oil, but no food to cook it in! There was a praça (market) where many UNITA (rebel party) people and others would trade/buy things. The UNITA people, who were living in the forests, had food and wanted clothes. The community people had things like oil. They would go to the city and take the oil and sell/trade it for clothes. They then would trade this clothing for UNITA’s food. This lasted from1997-1999 until the oil aid stopped.

This community returned to the village before the end of the war. We hadn’t heard of a lot of people returning before the end of the war, so we explored this a bit. They said that by this point, the war was only for those with resources. Since they had nothing, they had nothing to lose and went home. They would pay off both sides of the war (with food or animals like hens or goats) to leave them alone.

In appreaciation of our visit, they have us three cans of Coke. No potable water in this community, but plenty of Coca-Cola.

Alto Cubal

This community spoke a lot about a current Food for Work (FFW) program led by GTZ, the German development agency. The FFW program there is repairing the road leading out of Cubal- in other words, back-breaking work under the hot sun. According to one man working on the program, they received 1 50 kg sack of corn, 4 L of oil, and 2 kg of salt for three months of work. That totals about US$10 for three months of work. I hope the man was wrong. That is nothing, even for Angola. Either GTZ is the worst aid agency around or there is some corruption somewhere along the line. The man said the work was insulting, but that it was work, and there are no other jobs around. Sure enough, we couldn’t find anyone else who was lucky enough to get on the FFW program and those we spoke with said they would take it even at that miserable pay (“miserable pay” is their term, not mine).

Ngolo: “USA- União Sovietica Americana”

One of the richest communities we visited in terms of information was Ngolo. The community members weren’t at all afraid to express their opinions and once we got them started, they wouldn’t stop. One man (seen here in the Veggie Tales shirt) spoke passionately about theft of aid. In one neighboring community, everyone received 2 cans of oil, whereas in their community and and another one, they only received one can. He traveled to Cubal frequently and went to complain at the distribution warehouse, where he saw row upon row of cans of oil, with, as he put it, “USA written on them; ‘the Soviet Union of America’.” (In Portuguese, Soviet Union of America spells “USA”.) He never got an explanation of why there was so much oil sitting around when his community needed it.

This was a central theme in all of the conversations: communication. Perhaps there was a good reason that the oil in that warehouse was there: maybe stockpiling until the next distribution, or they were expired or spoiled. But this man left thinking that the agency’s employees were criminals who stole the oil and sold it for profit. Certainly, this is a possibility- these commodities were worth big money in a time where they were the only things flowing into these war-torn cities. But more likely (the optimist in me says), they were sitting there waiting to be distributed. But no one bothered to explain it to him. This came up all to often: communities left waiting for the next food distribution, only to find out 4 months later that they agency stopped with program without telling anyone; agencies not asking communities what type of hoes they used and giving them hoes that broke as soon as they hit the ground; etc.

We had a great conversation with the people in this community; as a result they tried to give us a chicken. We couldn’t take it because we were flying to Luanda the next day, but a chicken is such a nice thing to give (like I said, animals are investments and represent money down the line) and refusing a gift can be insulting if not explained properly. I explained that we were going to Luanda and they don’t allow chickens on the plan (true) and they honestly got sad. So instead I offered to take a picture (above) of all of us with the chicken so that we could always remember then and the chicken. They LOVED that idea and really flipped out when I showed them the images on my digital camera.

Kalumwe, Puhona Village: “Catchindele, catchindele!”

Women were present in many of our conversations but many times kept quiet due to machismo or patriarchal reasons. Pedro, David and I really felt the absence of women’s voices and ideas in the conversations, so we tried to find a group of only women to speak with. We stopped next to a village to eat lunch and noticed that there were only kids around, not adults. Pedro said that usually when kids are alone like that, the women are off working. As we approached the village, the kids immediately ran off, screaming, “Catchindele, catchindele!” which, in Umbundu, means “White people! White people!” Sure enough, the women were pounding corn into fuba, corn meal (seen here). They were kind enough to take a few minutes out of the process to talk to us. This women-only conversation was much different than the other ones. They immediately told us that the real needs in the community were schools and hospitals; in other places, the men had told us that the real needs in the community were bulls and tractors. When we asked why they thought that men and women said such different things, they burst out laughing and said that men only liked thinking about themselves.

These women were smart cookies. They mentioned that their names were the ones that were on the distribution cards. This varied among communities, but most places both mothers’ and fathers’ names were on the cards. I asked why their names only were on the card, and again bursting out laughing, they said, “We know our husbands! There was a bar set up right next to the food distribution center. We only used the men to carry the food home.”

Monday, November 06, 2006

Out for a while

Just a quick note to let you know that I will be gone for about 2 weeks with limited email/internet access. I am participating in an interesting project to gather the perceptions of international aid from recipients in Angola. Too infrequently international development NGOs don't bother asking aid recipients if they got/are getting what they need from aid. The idea of this "listening project" is to actually LISTEN to people (imagine that!) and see if aid has helped or hurt people. This particular project focuses on aid during war, so hopefully I'll get to learn more about Angolans' experience during the civil war. I'll be going out to Cubal, where I was offered the chicken, for one week and then to Luanda for the next. I hope to have some interesting stories when I return.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Special witchcraft edition

One of my favorite things about Lobito is the packs of goats that roam the streets, looking for garbage to eat. The packs total up to 15 and there is always one clear leader that the others run after. My other experience with goats was in Honduras. In Honduras, there was no way you could let your goats roam free; your neighbors would see them and think, “Vamos a almorzar cabrita!” ("We're having goat for lunch!") I thought Lobitanos were very respectful of private property- until I learned the REAL reason that no one takes the goats: bruxeria (witchcraft)! Yes, if you take a goat that is not yours, you will fall prey to witches. Those little baby goats running around look innocent, but now I know better.

Witches don’t limit their spells to goats. If you lend someone money and later ask for it to be repaid, that money will be hexed and only bad things will befall you: bruxeria! So be very careful when lending out money.

Monday, October 30, 2006

TV or not TV?

I spent around 20 hours this weekend with colleagues working on a grant proposal to secure funding from the US State Department. We are desperately in need of funding. NGOs in general are having a hard time getting funding for projects in Angola because donors know that the Angolan government is filthy rich (at least compared to other developing countries) and can afford to fund the majority of development initiatives in this country. The US and European governments think, “Why should we give Angola more money? They have plenty in their oil coffers.” Understandable, but what you see on paper does not reflect the reality in Angola. Yes, the Angolan state is rich; but no, they do not share that money with the Angolan people in the form of development projects.

We as an organization have an added burden because we have an institutional policy that prevents us from taking money from oil companies. Other international NGOs admire our position- there is a lot of conflict surrounding oil money and many NGOs have a guilty conscious about taking it. Since we do economic justice and advocacy work regarding oil and other extractive industries (diamonds, for example), it would be a conflict of interest for us to take money from those companies. This is great in principle; but not so great when it comes to the practicality of US government grants. The US government currently offers many grants through public-private partnerships. In Angola this means you can get, for example, a USAID grant with money from the US government and Chevron. As a result, we cannot apply for a lot of grants.

So this State Department grant is a big deal; we really need the money and expand our programming areas. This is all a very long explanation for the current internal debate I am having. We did most of the work at the country director’s (Juan) house. He has satellite cable with English language channels. I was with Juan a few weeks ago when he signed the contract for the cable and asked him how much it cost per month. He answered, “US$400” which I thought was a bit much; I quickly got rid of any desire to have cable and give up my two fuzzy Angolan options.

As we were working this weekend, we would take breaks to catch up on regional news: the airplane crash outside of Abuja, Nigeria and the elections in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Sergey, another colleague friend asked how much Juan paid for the cable. Suddenly the answer was $60! I was shocked! Apparently the $400 was the initial cost for the dish and the set up fee, and included 3 free months of service.

Now, my dilemma is the following: do I get digital cable? Tell me what you think.
Here are the pros/cons:
· Something to kill the boredom, which is prevalent at nights and on weekends
· English language news (CNN, SKY, BBC)
· Entertainment (Brazilian telenovelas)
· Still have access to Angolan networks
· American movies and television series (The Daily Show!)
· Missing the $60/month wouldn’t be a problem since there’s nothing else for me to spend my money on
· The $400 set-up fee
· $60/month means $60 less for vacation
· I would be watching TV ALL THE TIME, and probably read less

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Angola's poor progress on Millenium Development Goals

I came across an intersting report about Angola's progress on reaching the Millenium Development Goals. The article mentions the widening gap between rich and poor in Angola- notice the employer of the seven richest Angolans.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

I Stand Corrected...

An Angolan friend has brought it to my attention that Jay-Z is only one in a long line of stars that has played Luanda. Missy Elliot, DMX, and Busta Rhymes among others have played here. So I ammend my statement to say that Jay-Z is the biggest star to play Angola since I've been here. Which of course means nothing since I've been here only 2 months! Either way, it was briefly exciting.

Also, the friend says that Unitel, the cell phone company, paid Jay-Z $500,000 to play here. I haven't been able to find any info on this, but it would not seem too out of the ordinary for this to happen. Oh well- there go all my hopes for celebrities saving the world!

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Jay-Z in Angola

Last week Jay-Z played a concert in Luanda- at the Karl Marx performance space, no less. In and of itself, this is amazing. As far as I know, no big name entertainer has played here. Rap is extremely popular among the Angolan kids, so this was a very big deal. At first I was a little surprised that Jay-Z would come to Angola. No one comes to Angola! (With the exception of Chris Tucker, the actor/comedian who came here to film part of the PBS series African American Lives, which is worth putting on your Netflix List.) It’s no longer a cause celebre, now that the war is over; it’s not as commercially powerful as other places, like South Africa; and it’s certainly not comfortable, even for the people rich enough to pay for the very best.

Then my friend Jade sent me a UNICEF release on Jay-Z’s work as a UNICEF ambassador. Jay-Z is making a tour of African nations and filming his travels as part of a MTV special on water access. I think this is great; he is a celebrity using his fame and abilities to bring attention to a development issue but not acting like a savior… and he didn’t even have to adopt an orphan!

(You can follow Jay-Z's MTV work in Angola here.)

Monday, October 16, 2006

Radical Thoughts on "Jovemania"

Sunday night I was sitting at home watching TPA-2; my choices were “Luanda da sorte” (literally, “Luanda Gives Good Luck”) the televised lottery and gift give-away program, or “Jovemania” (“Youthmania,” a variety hour for teens). I chose Jovemania because I need to stay hip while in Angola. Jovemania usually follows the same format of an Angolan music star lip-syncing to his or her latest hit and info sessions on topics that might be important to youth; past topics have included “The Internet,” “Sign Language,” and “Art in Angola.” Youth from high schools in Luanda fill two small bleachers and serve as the audience.

Sunday’s episode was interesting because the topic of corruption came up two separate times. Corruption is rampant in Angola. (Here is what Human Rights Watch has to say about corruption in Angola and here is what the Economist says.) Of the places where I have lived, Angola is by far the worst; it is expected and unchallenged. The first lip-syncing artist was Teta Lágrimas. He “sang” two songs, the last of which was called “Eu quero ser politico” (“I Want to Be a Politician”). Basically the song was about how his girl left him and he wishes that he was a politician because that way he could get whatever money, car, or power he needed to keep her. The song was pretty bold on its own; corruption is something people are frustrated with but have accepted and just deal with, so to hear an underhanded swipe at the government was a change. It was especially bold given that he was “singing” this song on a state-run television station.

The second thing to catch my attention came up during the info session. Today’s topic was “Youth Employment” and they had two men speaking, one from the government’s youth department and the other from a computer company that has a youth employment program. Both men were just generally talking about how high school student can go and find jobs. (These youth programs are only in Luanda; the other kids in the country are on their own!) After the government guy praised his program, the computer guy started talking about his company’s program. I didn’t catch how it came up, but he started talking about transparency and that none of the job applicants would have to worry about having to pay the gasosa. (Gasosa literally means soft-drink, but is more popularly known as a bribe. It took me a while to catch onto this usage; I didn’t understand why policemen would want soft-drinks when they could get money out of people!) The guy asked the audience, “How many of you know of anyone who got a job without a gasosa?” The teens, who are usually pretty quiet and bored stiff during these info sessions, suddenly perked up and shouted “No one!” and began chatting animatedly amongst each other. The computer guy said, “That’s illegal! You shouldn’t have to pay that! We need to start reporting these things so things can change in Angola!” The teens burst into applause. The government guy looked bored.

I’m not expecting any youth protests or changes in the corruption system, but it was nice to see, on public state-run TV, some complaints about the way things work here.

Finally, those familiar with my inexplicable aversion to all fish and seafood will be surprised to learn that I ate fish on Saturday night- and not just a bite or two! My coworker friend Mark is out agriculture program manager by day and a fisherman by night (really- he goes out any time of day, sometimes until 9 pm). When he heard about my dislike, he said, “If I catch you a fish, will you eat it?” I agreed and was safe for several weeks- the fish in the bay next to his house weren’t biting. Saturday, however, he invited several of us over for a fresh fish dinner. He made some chicken on the side, just in case, but I didn’t touch the chicken. The fish was coa- no one knew the English name- and it was quite tasty. I’m still not totally convinced that I like fish now, but I learned I can at least get through it without keeling over, which as a child is something I truly believed would happen.

[This is the view from Mark's front porch of Mark (yellow shirt)and Juan going out in the kayaks for some late afternoon fishing. Yes, this place could be worse!]

Friday, October 13, 2006

Two minutes of fame down, 13 left to go

Yesterday I attended a forum in Catumbela, a small comuna about 15 mintues away from Lobito. As a Fellow, I am usually sent to conferences, trainings, etc. because as an organization it's politically useful and usually I am the only one who has time to go to them. Either that or no one wants to go. Sometimes I have a hard time telling which one it is! Unfortunately, yesterday’s forum was one where I was checking my watch ½ into the event.

I had high hopes. The forum was organized by the Department of Family, under the Women’s, Demibolized Soldiers, Former Combantants’ and Veteran’s Program; apparently one office is enough to cover all groups. Its title was “Rural Women’s Provincial Forum: Investing in Women Guarantees Stability in Our Communities.” It was supposed to start at 9, but there was no action and around 10 am everyone started to get anxious. The governor of Benguela (the province where Lobito and Catumbel are located; also the name of a city 45 minutes away from Lobito) was supposed to come and open the session. It was a good example of the political sensitivity and respect for higher-ups that exist in Angola: there was no way the forum could start without this guy, but it was soon clear that the forum was not number one on the governor’s list of things to do for the day. At 10:30 the governor and his entourage rolled in- among them was my buddy from the last training I went to, the mayor of Lobito, who happens to be a huge professional wrestling fan (Hulk Hogan is his favorite). With his arrival, the forum officially started. A group of women and men from a nearby village paraded in with local products: fruits, vegetables, sugar cane, collard greens, a goat and a case of pineapple Fanta. (Not sure why the Fanta was thrown in there...) Then they performed some traditional dances, which was awesome because the elderly men and women were the most enthusiastic and really got into it. The governor gave a little speech and then was immediately on his way out the door.

Then the forum started. The schedule had listed all these topics regarding women’s issues: women and microcredit, women and the environment, women and health, and women and community development. Sounded great… except the people they invited didn’t speak about women, with the exception of the microcredit lady and a woman from Oxfam. At one point the man speaking about commercial leaders in rural areas said emphatically, “We need MEN to step up and act like MEN! We need entrepreneurial MEN!” Then he sort of caught himself and said, “Uh, and women, too.” Also frustrating was the complete lack of control over the speakers and those people questioning them. They collected all the questions to be answered, then read them and then every single panelist answered them regardless of the fact that the panelist before them had said the exact same thing! The questions posed were done in an open mic way; given that no one from the government ever really listens to anyone, local leaders and NGOs took the opportunity to voice their complaints vociferously. The result of all of this was that the lunch break, which was supposed to be at 1:00, did not happen until 3:00. I should have taken this as a sign that lunch was to be missed, but like everyone else I was ready for it when it came. Ready, that is, until I picked up my plate and saw chunks of hair (fur, really) on the several piece of pork that were in my stew. I just ate the rice. Luckily, a meeting to discuss a funding opportunity for a new project with one of our partners has come up for tomorrow morning, so I will have to miss the end of the forum.

The good to come out of the forum? A lot of the attendees from surrounding villages spoke in Umbundu, which I enjoy listening to- it's a very melodic language- despite not understanding a single word. I talked quite a bit with the microcredit lady, who had some interesting things to say about the future of microfinance in Angola. We exchanged phone numbers and she invited me to come visit some clients with her. And, continuing the trend I set in Honduras by appearing briefly on “X-0 Da Dinero” and my two friends’ commercials on Lencavision, I made it onto Angolan TV! The local news was at the event, and came up to me and stuck the camera right in my face. I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to look deep in thought and fascinated by the panelists, so out of sheer embarrassment I turned red, smiled, and kept looking at the camera as if to say, “hi, how are you?” (It was no more than two feet away from me and blocking my view of the speaker, so I really couldn’t do much else.) Sure enough, on the Benguela Province news hour, there I was. Today, Benguela local news; tomorrow, the world! (Or at least Angola...)

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Armenia in Angola

Last Friday was quite fun- my coworker, Sergey, and his wife, Stella, invited a few people over to their house to celebrate their son Aram’s first tooth. Stella, Segey and Aram are from Armenia. According to Armenian custom, when a baby starts teething, the family and friends hold a party to determine the future profession of the baby. They placed a white sheet on the floor and different objects that represent professions: a stethoscope, optical mouse, book, pen, soccer ball, etc. Stella then placed a white cloth on Aram’s head and put a mixture of grains, nuts, and chocolate on the cloth. This symbolizes the sustenance that he will need in order to become strong and healthy. Then Aram was free to choose his profession- as determined by the first thing that he picked up in his hands. At first he was distracted by all the nuts and grains, which he found to be quite tasty. However, he will follow in his father’s footsteps and become an IT specialist, since the first thing he grabbed was the optical mouse, and the second being the pen drive (Sergey loves technology and although it is not in his job description, is the go-to guy in the office for all things technical).

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Working 8 to 6 (with an hour for lunch)

NOTE: Because this is a public forum, I won’t be naming my employer directly. You all know who I work for- if you want to ask me something specific, send me an email.

Several people have asked me to describe just what it is that I do. I’ve been here just over a month and I am finding my way in this fellowship, but I will give my general impressions so far. I’m finding that my responsibilities change as I finish one task or project, so this might all be different by the end of the month!

Basically, my job here is to learn as much as I can about the organization so that by the time my year is up (or before), I will slide right into a new job as a program manager. (Knock on wood.) I am not assigned to any one specific program, but am floating between all departments, including the finance department, to get a feel as to how they work. This is really a unique opportunity within the organization- project managers that don’t come through the fellowship program are forced to learn how the organization works while managing a project and its staff- I get to do this at my own pace and without having to supervise staff. My coworker Suzie manages the HIV/AIDS/TB prevention project and has really made clear to me how lucky I am to get to know the systems at my own pace. She was thrown into a several-thousand dollar project without more than a two week orientation; what is effectively my year-long orientation will give train me to be a better manager in the future.

So, what exactly am I learning? Currently I am working on a few projects. The most pressing is the task of closing the findings of our 2003 internal audit. Unless we as an organization address the findings, our “ranking” as a country program will slip. Many of the findings have been addressed already, but no one has had any time to report them back to headquarters. I am currently writing the memo that will be sent hopefully in the next two days.

Another project is writing a proposal to train our organization’s staff on HIV/AIDS issues. Addressing the world-wide HIV/ADIS pandemic is a top priority within the organization. The organization soon saw that the disease didn’t only hit the communities in which we ran projects, but that it hit staff as well- if not with staff members having the virus themselves, then by having family members and other loved ones die from it. (If you think of Botswana, for example, with its estimated 40% prevalence rate, then you can understand this realization.) They therefore developed a policy to reach all staff, teaching them about the disease, funding workshops, establishing a progressive insurance program for national staff, and other activities to raise awareness and fight stigmatization. As this is a new project, guaranteeing funding is a competitive process and I am writing the application to secure monies. We won it last year but had to forfeit funding because there were no qualified consultants available to give the trainings. I have been investigating the HIV/AIDS situation in Angola, local testing and treatment centers (VCTs) and helping formulate the project outcomes.

Another project I believe is the result of someone’s sick sense of humor- you might think so too if you read my previous posting. Today I was informed that I will now be the final signature on the vehicle logs. This is part of the financial learning process- double-checking mileage, making sure that the tanks of gas match the mileage and receipts, etc. I won’t have to compile any of this myself, just check all the reports once a month to make sure the assistant did them correctly, and sign off. Really- of all the finance projects to have me come in one, they picked the one thing that really makes my life difficult here: TRANSPORTATION!!!

Those are the projects I am currently working on. I will also be involved on some interesting projects in the next few weeks- participating in a “listening project” to gather lessons-learned from relief projects conducted during the war; helping to develop our strategic plan for the next five years (this is really interesting to me, because we are transitioning from post-conflict work to more traditional development projects; it will be interesting to see which direction this country programs goes into); assisting in the closure of our agricultural project (which involves selling off hundreds of yokes, hoes, and tractor tires); and others. Of course, there is the usual grunt work- last week my big project was making an organizational chart, and I have a stack of 35 agricultural manuals that I am punching holes into and making into binders. (The binders project is for my friend Mark, who has been really helpful to me, so I am doing this more as a favor than anything.)

Driving Me Crazy

As some of you may know, as a fellow I cannot drive due to liability issues. What you many not know, however, is that it is VERY difficult to get around without a car! I know in a previous post I talked about Angola driving- part of me is glad to not have to worry about crazy minivan taxis, wild motorcyclists, and children who dart across the street without even a look in either direction.

During the week, I get a ride with Tito, my coworker and neighbor. He is just a few yards away, so it is quite convenient- he usually takes me in the morning, at lunch, and at the end of the day. However, if Tito is out in the field, then I am out of luck. I can usually get a ride with another coworker who lives half a mile from me, but he rides a motorcycle home for lunch, so I can’t go with him then. And frankly, a lot of coworkers forget that I can’t drive or assume that someone else is taking me.

Going shopping is also difficult. Unlike other places where I have lived and work, there aren’t really any corner stores- bodegas or pulperias- that I can just run out to and buy something when I need it. (This is another result of the war- the mom and pop places were abandoned due to violence or had to close because there simply wasn’t any food to sell.) Again, I must rely on coworkers to take me to stores. For me, this is difficult for a variety of reasons. Although they have all insisted that I call them whenever I need a ride someplace, I still feel like it is an imposition to ask someone to drop what they are doing (on their days off, because that is the only time we have to go shopping, really) and take me places, especially because it is considered a personal expense that people pay out of their salary. (Not the biggest deal, given that gas is only US $0.50 a gallon here, but still...) Also, it is very difficult to go from completely independent to being completely dependent. It’s frustrating. There are rumors of a mountain bike in one of the warehouses, but it has yet to materialize. They do sell bikes here, but they are ridiculously expensive (around $350) and of horrible quality (no shocks!). Collective taxis- little minivans- are around, but I have been advised against taking them because of safety reasons. (For the usual poor-driver reasons, but also because some ex-pat women- wives of coworkers- have been harassed and robbed on them.) So basically I don’t go a lot of places other than the area where I live. This is okay, because I live in a nice neighborhood, but it does start to feel claustrophobic after a while.

Angolan Boob Tube

Angolan television is an interesting thing. There are two public Angolan stations, TPA-1 and TPA-2; both are run by the state. Several people have satellite cable, which carries several Brazilian and Potruguese channels, as well as CNN, Discovery, and others. If I were earning more I would pay for it, if nothing else because while at the hotel I got hooked on the Brazilian soaps currently showing on TV Globo. (If anyone knows what’s happening on Cobras e Largatos or Páginas da Vida, let me know!) However, I am receiving a fellowship salary, so I’ll stick to TPA. The first morning in my apartment I was looking forward to eating breakfast while watching TV, but there was nothing but static- no programs are broadcast until 8:30 am, and the program they show then is “As Seen on TV” which is an Angolan version of the Home Shopping Network. At night they show old soap operas (from the 80s) from Colombia or Mexico, or a couple of hours of music videos. Then of course there is the news, which is basically just an hour full of all the wonderful things the government is doing to help the people of Angola. The president's birthday was a few weeks ago, and they showed nothing but him blowing out the candles and programs about his life.

My favorite, however, is on the weekend when they show movies in English. These are not very good quality, but it is nice to hear English. For example, last weekend I watched an old TV miniseries based on Verne’s “Journey to the Center of the Earth.” The problem is that they only show these movies for ½ hour at a time. So now I have no idea what will happen once the explorers reach the volcano. They usually don’t show the other parts of the programs, so each week I get to start- not finish- another movie.

But not today! Today I had the pleasure of watching a full hour-and-a-half of a made-for-TV movie staring Country Music Legend Reba McIntyre. Reba played a brave housewife (in the South, of course) who first loses her mother to breast cancer, then takes in her younger sister to raise. The Younger Sister is a “real handful” and drops out of high school to go live with her gas station attendant boyfriend. Reba then finds a lump in her breast, but luckily it was benign and she is in the clear. All of this prompts her go to back to college at the age of 35. She becomes the best student in the class thanks to the tutelage of her TA, Joshua. She spends hours and hours in the library, making her family resent her new Fancy College Ways, but it doesn’t stop Reba. Even when her farmer father dies, she trudges on in spite of her sorrow. What does nearly stop her is Joshua, who invites her over to his apartment for a private tutoring session then tries to rape her. Luckily she gets away with only a few scratches. Joshua threatens to fail her unless she drops out, but Reba studies extra, extra hard and aces her exam. Her wayward little sister comes home and all is well.

Friday, September 22, 2006

If only I knew how to kill a chicken...

September 16, 2006 (I've been out of the office and internet-less for a while!)

Last week I went out into the field to visit our programs in the municipality of Cubal. Several of the villages in the municipality wrote micro-project proposals and received small amounts of money to fund their grants. The projects range from cattle (bulls, cows, goats) production and livestock raising, grain mills, school construction, and other community enhancing activities. Each community formed a Community Development Group and performed assessments (PRAs, for you SIPA/EPD people!) to determine which project the community needed the most. These micro-projects are part of our peace and reconstruction program- there was heavy fighting in and around Cubal and several of the displaced people are (or are in the process) of returning to their villages. These assessments were important because they were done not along political lines but through other grouping- by age, gender, profession, etc.

Anyway… several of the communities choose to buy grain mills as their community development project. Grains- manioc (yucca), corn and sorghum- form the base of Angolan food. They are finely ground down and used in making pastes, porridges, and other foods. In many small villages, women spend up to four days grounding out these flours by hand- it is back-breaking work, usually done on top of large rocks or in large mortar and pestles. Most families use up to 20 kilos a week- you can just imagine how strong these women are. In some fazendas (large farms) there will be a mill available for a fee of about 10 Kuanzas (US$0.01) per kilo, but they are far away from most villages and not worth the time to go out there. So as a solution, some of the communities have opted to buy generator-powered mills to free up time for the women- to dedicate to other chores, of course! (How thoughtful!)

The communities predict that the mills will bring money to dedicate to other projects- helping the elders of the community, buying cattle, etc. However, this is the first economic enterprise in many of these places, and much institutional knowledge was completely destroyed in the war. In other words, they really have no idea how to run a business. So when I sat down with all the projects when I first arrive, this project in particular was glad to see that I had experience working with microenterprises in Honduras. Although I didn’t bring any training materials with me, thanks to the glory of the internet and my memories of charlas up in the Opalaca Mountains, I cobbled together a basic accounting and business planning training to give to the three community organizers we hired to oversee these projects.

I needed to go out to one of the comunas (villages) that would be receiving a mill and speak to the people running it so I could get a better idea of what it was that they needed. From the Cubal office, we headed to Catapi, village of about 15 families. The “road” up there was terrible; I use the term “road” loosely, because it’s more like a wide footpath. Thank goodness for 4-wheel drive! We arrived at the village and it was clear that I was quite the attraction. Everyone in the village came over to sit with us under the tree (except the kids, who were in school; although the teacher came over too, so who knows who was supervising them). My coworkers introduced me in Umbumdu, the traditional language of the region, and one by one the people in the comuna introduced themselved to me, starting, of course, with the soba, the traditional, elected leader/person of honor (in the picture, the man in the green suit jacket). When my coworker said I was American everyone went, “ahhh!” and started to clap. The soba personally thanked me for all the hard work the U.S. government did to end the civil war in Angola and for all the help and money the government had given to Angola in its reconstruction efforts.

I asked my questions- I won’t bore you with the details, but basically they haven’t planned too much but are enthusiastic and have thought out *most* of what they should have, so I think they will be okay. If they can do the basic accounting, it will be a big challenge, but a good first step. I asked to see the structure they were building to house the mill. They were hard at work, and I asked to take a picture. Immediately everyone ran to be in the photo- I ended up taking around 4 because more and more people were running to be it. At the end, they once again applauded. There was a little girl, around a year and a half, who was absolutely terrified of her (in the picture, the baby is with her mother in the red-striped shirt). I would look at her and she would cry, as her mother shook me hand (with her tied to her back), the baby swat at me. I thought it was a curious baby swat so I took her hand and smiled, and she started screaming bloody murder. I am very scary. As we were leaving, the soba tried to give me a live hen as a sign of thanks- I had to decline it, if nothing else only because I don’t know how to slaughter it. I wowed them with my “twapandulo” the one word in Umbundu I know (“thank you”). It was a great visit- helpful, exciting and full of new experiences.

The training went well- they said it was good and that it would help the communities. That’s all I can hope for. In all, the site visit was great, and made me feel professionally USEFUL, which is something I haven’t felt in a while!

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

God Bless ShopRite

(I wrote this a while ago and haven't had a chance to post it. I've been in ny apt for a week or so now...)

September 10, 2006

I have officially moved into my apartment! Without any remorse, I said goodbye to Hotel Turimar and dropped my suitcases off at my apartment. I then went with a coworker to ShopRite, a new South African supermarket that opened only a week ago. I cannot stress enough that ShopRite has revolutionized Lobito. ShopRite is an American-sized supermarket, with prices that more people can afford. (As opposed to the other supermarkets, which only foreigners and rich Angolans could afford.) Later, a French woman told me that she went near closing time, which is around 6 pm. There was a mob of people outside clamoring to get inside the parking lot- they were so “enthuastic” that they broke down the metal gate. But they still didn’t get in to buy that cheap, fresh bread! Like 90% of the things sold in Angola, the products are from Portugal, Brazil, and South Africa. Not too many American brands- in fact the only ones I found were Coca-Cola (of course) and Snickers. Mmm. I did find South African peanut butter, which is not bad.

After the ShopRite we went to the antithesis, o mercado chapangueira, Lobito’s largest outdoor market. For the first time since I have been here, I really felt like I stuck out- I was clearly the only foreigner around, and promptly had five kids following me, asking for money or trying to convince me to buy their plastic bags. I enjoyed it- it was nice to be in a real market again, see what Angolans buy (everything from red palm oil to Crest toothpaste).
There’s another young American woman in town, and she invited me to her birthday party on Saturday. I met a ton of the ex-pats in Lobito- the ones I’ve seen driving around in Land Rovers and swimming in the one pool in Lobito (in fact, the party was at the house with said pool). Mostly French, but also a large number of South Africans, sprinkled with one other American, and a Danish guy and his Filipina wife. ¾ of the crowd were oil employees, which was interesting for me- definitely a different mindset, although not the greedy capitalists I had prejudged them to be either. It was nice to meet people. Some day I will have Angolan friends too!

I didn't bring any cookbooks (too heavy), so I'm in the market for recipies with any of the following ingredients:
and your usual beef and chicken. There aren't too many spices, but I can make do.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

"The World Passes Through Here"

Well, it only took 12 days for me to get sick! I'll spare the details, but yesterday I woke up feeling gross and after showering and getting dressed, thinking I would be fine, I made one too many trips to the bathroom and called in sick. As much as I was sick in Honduras, you think I'd be used to a little stomach virus, but it always takes so much out of you. My coworkers were very nice and constantly called to see if I needed anything. My officemate, a French woman who happens to be an RN, came by to visit, bearing gifts of saltines and rehydration salts.

I'm posting some pictures of Lobito I took this weekend. The first is a sign that says "Lobito: The World Passes Through Here." Now, you might laugh... until you see all the Portuguese, Brazilians, Norwegians, and Americans that live here, mostly working for oil companies. The sign was used as a blockade for Lobito Day then taken down. The second is a picture of a sculpture that is in the port. There's no explanation for her, just one of those things something thought would look good among all the tankers. The third is a picture of the bay side of Restinga, the peninsula-like neighborhood where I will be living. (The other side is ocean.) My coworker lives steps away from here and has some kayaks that he takes out to go fishing. It's still too cold to go swimming (according to the Angolans- it's about 72 degrees right now), but in a few months it should be great.