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.

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