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?