Thursday, March 29, 2007

I wonder why they picked Angola...

Six Eritrean footballers have requested political asylum in Angola after their 2008 African Cup of Nations qualifier in Luanda on Sunday.

Eritrea is no laughing matter these days. (Our Eritrean country program was kicked out of there a long time ago for being uppity and questioning human rights and development issues.) It must be really bad for them to seek assylum in Angola, of all places. Perhaps it was the timing. Or perhaps they were astounded by Angolan's futebol skills, after the Angolans beat them 6 to 1. Go Palancas Negras!

Tuesday, March 27, 2007


Two weeks ago I went with Angola friends to Bocoio, a small town about an hour and a half outside of Lobito. Whereas Lobito is on the coast and humid, Bocoio is in the mountains and nice and cool. It was a nice change from a hectic and at times dusty city. A friend just bought a large piece of property with a small house on it.

We didn’t do much except eat, drink, and relax. The highlights were: sitting in the rapids of the river on the property, getting an improvised hydromassage; walking up the big hill across the road from the property and seeing the valley below; seeing a homemade bicycle; hearing about the dragon.

Homemade bicycle and the boy who made it

Yes! There is a dragon in Bocoio, and it lives in a tree on the mountain that looks like a pregnant lady giving birth. No one is allowed to climb that mountain. Only one person ever has- the soba, or village leader- and survived! The dragon, you see, is very protective of the pregnant lady. At night it breathes fires and swoops down from the mountain to eat cows and cover itself in their excrement.

When we asked the boy with the homemade “bicycle” about the dragon, he confirmed the story. Our plans to hike the mountain on our next visit were quickly scrapped. The dragon, however, doesn't mind if you watch him breathe fire, so next time we will return to the road at 10pm to watch himprotect the woman.

Pregnant Mountain

Friday, March 23, 2007

Awesome Structures in Angola Series: Part 2

I took this picture from the balcony of my new apartment. These types of houses- once grand, Portuguese structures, now decaying, ruined shells- are quite common along Restinga, the peninsula where I live. Most of these houses were abandoned during the independence days and the ensuing war. It's not clear to me who owns these houses. Local friends say that those who abandoned the houses still maintain property rights; others say that they belong to the government, who chooses not to do anythign with them right now. There are so many houses like this. I really would have liked to have seen them in their glory days, with a nice coat of paint and tended gardens. Perhaps they were never like that, but older friends tell me they were quite nice.

I especially like the tear-shaped garage on this one. Don't know if a car ever really fit there, though. You can also see that, in spite of a large trash container right in front of my apartment building, people (don't know who) choose to dump trash on the corner.

(Yes, Restinga has trash-pick up! A pleasant surprise. The garbage trucks used to come at 11 pm, which was a bit disruptive, but now they come around 7 am, which is tolerable. The municipal water company even distributed odd-shaped bright yellow trash bags for free. Of course, some enterprising people stole them from the doors of houses that hadn't picked them up yet and then sold them to local stores.)

Angolan Ninjas in Zimbabwe?

I came across this mysterious article on the BBC News website this afternoon. The Ninjas, a fearsome, black-uniformed arm of the Angolan police, has allegedly been sent to Zimbabwe to train its police force. Hmm. I think the article does well in explaining why this might be worrisome. Zim says, "Yes, they're coming!" And Angola says, "Who? What? What police officers?"

Zimbabwe, meanwhile, is rapidly falling to pieces. Seriously. It's frightening. When I was in Jo'burg a few weeks ago, a Zimbabwean colleague participated, representing our justice and peace programming there. These days she has a difficult job, to say the least. But the saddest to me was how during every break she was calling her teenage daughters in Harare, making sure they were okay. And during every lunch hour she would wolf down her food and run to the mall next door to basic basic things- medicine, underwear, food- to take them to her family and friends.

Not sure if this is getting any coverage in the US. Somehow I don't think so...

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Just how hot is it in Lobito?

It's really hot here. Like, Houston in August hot. (You New York City people might think you know what hot and humid is, but unless you've been in Houston in July or August, you've still got a bit of learning to do!)

People here sleep outside because it's way too hot to sleep indoors, as you can see with these tents. I took these at my old apartment building: the one at left is from an apartment on the first floor and held about 6 giggling kids. The one below is from the house next door, and held a small family of three. In the mornings when I run along the beach road, you can see rows of dozens of people laid out along the beach, seeking respite from the heat.

So, of course, in the middle of all this heat my air conditioner goes kaput. It's in my bedroom, the one room in the house that doesn't get much breeze. So I'm suffering a little. But thankfully haven't been forced to camp out. Yet.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Angola in New York Times!

Interesting article in today's New York Times about Angola's oil riches. It does a good job of showing just how much money Angola has the potential to earn and how the government feels no need to disclose what it does with it.
“Angola has no interest in transparency and there is no source of external leverage on the government right now,” said Monica Enfield, an analyst at PFC Energy, a consulting firm in Washington. “With all their oil revenue, they don’t need the I.M.F. or the World Bank. They can play the Chinese off the Americans.”

True to form, the Angolan government cancelled all talks with the IMF, claiming that they didn't need the IMF for economic stability.

Overall I thought the article did an okay job of touching on the major parts of the oil debate in Angola. Perhaps it is just my bias, but I thought they should have touched more on the development situation in the country. (Here is a UNDP fact sheet on Angola's poverty indicators. Table 2 is especially indicative.) When you look around a "rich" city like Lobito (where many of the oil companies have operations out of the port), you would never know that this country is earning billions of dollars in oil revenue. It's honestly quite depressing to see the poverty here, knowing that the government is earning so much money. We'll see how these Chinese infrastructure projects (building roads, railways) work out. Angola would be wise to invest in its people in order to avoid a situation like Nigeria.

(UPDATED to include permalink.)

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Why I like Angola

From Bocoio, a municipality about 1.5 hrs from Lobito. I promise I did not alter the coloring on this photo. Spent a nice weekend there with friends, will tell more about it later.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Taken into Custody (almost)

Last week I went with colleagues to a funeral held for the sister of a colleague. It was a tragic death: his sister, only 34 with two young children, was outside washing dishes when the loose stone wall holding up the hillside collapsed, immediately killing her. The wall was illegally constructed by a neighbor who had powerful connections that protected him when others complained about the instability of the wall. All it took was one night of heavy rain for it to come down. The funeral was unlike anything I’ve ever seen, but I really don’t think that I can do it justice here.

What happened on the way back to the office is much easier to explain. There were 5 of us in the Land Cruiser, with me sitting in the front seat. In Angola and other developing countries, white Land Cruisers are synonymous with international NGOs. As we approached one of the commercial areas of town, we were flagged down by two people: one uniformed, female police officer and one plainclothes bureaucrat. Instead of asking for Ben’s (my Angolan colleague) driver’s license, they asked to see the personal identification of everyone in the car. I looked at the plainclothes bureaucrat’s badge, and it read DEFA, the dreaded arm of the Angolan government that deals with foreigners and their visas, the very department that has been causing me so much trouble lately! With the white Land Cruiser and me in the front seat, we were easy targets.

I had a slight moment of panic, because I had just cleaned out my purse from my South Africa trip the night before and removed my passport. I was relieved to find that I had a copy of my passport and DEFA stamp authorizing the extension of my visa. I did not have, however, a copy of my actual visa. I handed the papers over and hoped for the best.

Perhaps he sensed my apprehension, because before even looking at the papers, he said, “This is not good.” He didn’t even bother to look at everyone else’s identity cards. He asked to see a copy of the visa and when I couldn’t produce it, he shook his head. Vai ficar detida,” he said. “She will be detained.” The female cop came around to my door and put her hand on the handle, either to open the door and get me out or make sure that I wouldn’t flee the scene. Ben explained that I was out of the country and had just returned to Lobito, and that I did have a visa, it was just with my passport at home. After much arguing, the guy allowed us to leave Ben’s identification with them as guarantee that I could go home, get my passport and return.

We dropped our colleagues off at the office and sped to my house to get my passport. We handed the passport to the DEFA cop and waited as he read it. He looked at all the stamps, then looked at me, and said, “What are you doing here?” Before I could answer, Ben said, “She’s here visiting,” which is exactly the answer I was told NOT to give. I am supposed to tell people that I am here as a consultant, a position that does not require a work visa but allows me to be in the country for longer than a tourist stay. “What?! That’s impossible!” the DEFA cop said. I piped up and said that I was a consultant. He then said, “You’ve been here too long. You need to get a work visa.” There were several things I could have said about the lack of cooperation from his department on this very matter but I chose to play dumb and say, “Oh yes, it’s true. É verdade.” He then asked to see my consultant paperwork from DEFA. This was the first I’ve heard of any such paperwork and said as much. He said, again, “Então vai ficar detida.” “So you will be detained.” This time the female police officer didn’t move and just sort of looked at the DEFA guy as if the say, “Come on!” They finally let us go.

Upon return to the office I found out that the consultant paperwork is something the employer files and keeps on record, nothing that I have to carry around with me. Later in the day, Angolan several coworkers reported that they too were stopped in the Land Cruisers and other foreigner friends were also stopped.

What’s the deal? Is it related to this lady in Cabinda? Is it related to the new law in Portugal prohibiting Angolans driving with Angolan driver’s licenses, prompting the Angolan government to enact a similar law outlawing Portuguese licenses, effectively immediately? (Here's a link to an article in Portuguese. This has caused quite a debate in the country, and the Portuguese residing in Angola are not happy about this reciprocal law. The new law means that Portugal no longer recognizes driver permits from Lusophone countries that are not a party to Vienna Convention on Road Traffic- like Angola.) Who knows. I now carry my passport around with me at all times, which makes me nervous, but I have no other option. I used to not worry about these things and often left the house without even a copy of my passport to go the store, but the thought of spending any time in Angolan police custody is enough to change that!

Monday, March 12, 2007

Great time killer

Bored and have a computer lying around? This is a high-tech version of a game that Peace Corps volunteers in the La Esperanza house will remember. After conquering states we'd head for the capitals, which was much harder.

50 States in 10 MinutesPublish

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Back in Angola

Praia Morena, Benguela

Oh, Angola. I returned today and immediately have a headache. Coinicidence? I blame it on Luanda. It is oppressively hot and my cell phone refuses to work. Sigh.

Jo'burg was a nice place to visit. I shopped quite a bit and found things to make me happy in Lobito, like a corkscrew and cous-cous. I wish I could say I went on wonderful outings and discovered the spirit of South Africa, but I pretty much stuck to the hotel in my two free days. I was just so exhausted from a week of meetings and travel that the air-conditioned room and hot showers were enough to make it a nice trip.

I'll be glad to get back to Lobito, especially to my new apartment which I spent all of one weekend in before leaving. Of course, I will only get to spend one and a half weeks in it before I leave for Zambia for another regional meeting.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Culture Shock: Jo'burg

I’m in Johannesburg for a network meeting. I’ve been looking forward to this visit for a long time, mainly because it’s the first time I’ve left Angola since arriving at the end of August. As much as I like Angola, I needed a break.

I’ve often heard South African referred to as the “USA of Africa.” I’m not sure that I agree with that assessment, but upon arrival I can understand how many would come to that conclusion. After spending hours in various lines in the dirty, expensive (US$6 for a coke and pack of gum) international airport in Luanda, arriving in the clean, efficient airport in Johannesburg was a pleasant change. It was when the transport to my hotel arrived that I really began realize that I was in a very different place. The driver picked me up in a brand new Mercedes, which in and of itself was a jarring change from the beat-up Land Cruisers we tool around Lobito in. He refused to let me sit in the front seat and insisted that I sit in the back. As we pulled away I suddenly noticed that the roads were paved and without potholes. Drivers obey the traffic signals! No honking! Amazing.

I’m staying in Rosebank, which is a part of Johannesburg that many financial institutions and companies relocated to when downtown Jo’burg became too dangerous. It’s an upscale neighborhood, with luxury apartments and cars swarming around. It’s also green. We spend all day in the hotel, which is a corporate hotel that serves all meals. It’s getting a little old.

We did venture out to visit the Center for Study on Violence and Reconciliation (CSVR) and interesting South African NGO that covers an impressive range of social services, research, and advocacy topics. Afterwards we went to Soweto. It felt a bit strange- we didn’t go on a tour or visit any institution, we just drove around. Which felt a bit conspicuous in a huge tour bus! I feel strange about slum tours in general, so I wasn’t too keen on the idea, even though we were a bus full of well-intentioned development workers from various countries (I was one of two Americans, the rest of the group consisted of national staff from South Africa). Soweto wasn’t what I expected. First of all, I imagined one large slum, but learned that Soweto is an acronym for South West Townships and consists of several townships. Many of the townships in Soweto are now quite nice and could easily pass for American middle class neighborhoods. Comparing the townships to the neighborhoods in Angola, Soweto seemed well-off. It hardly recalled the image of oppression that is associated with the riots and apartheid. But we did soon stumble upon the tent houses and shacks that show the reality of being poor and black in South Africa.

One stop we did make was the Regina Mundi Catholic Church in Soweto. When oppression was at its worst in South Africa, all meetings except religious meetings were prohibited. Soon the church became an important meeting place for anti-apartheid groups. It was unremarkable in and of itself, but knowing the history of the building and its importance in the struggle was enough to give me the shivers.

Other than that, I haven’t really left the hotel, except to go to the mall with others to eat. Tomorrow, my first free day, is dedicated to commerce. Yes, my American commercial urges have been stifled in Angola, where there is nothing to spend my money on. As soon as I stepped off the plane, I was making a list of things to buy in my head.

Kwanza Cops

Leaving Luanda, I completely forgot that it is illegal to take Kwanzas (the Angolan currency) out of the country. Unfortunately for me, I didn’t remember this until I was shuffled into the currency declaration office of the airport. It was one of the stranger moments of my life.

There are two separate rooms in the currency declarations department, one for women and one for men. I didn’t realize this at first and got in the shorter line, which was the men’s line. The female official of the women’s line looked at me, hissed and grabbed her breasts then pointed at the women’s line. Words would have worked, but so did grabbing her breasts.

I got into the office and there was a rather large, stern looking woman sitting lazily at the desk. I sat down and she just looked at me. I said, “Bom dia,” and smiled, thinking I would win her over as one of the few foreigners who speak Portuguese. She just looked at me and slapped her hand down on the table, palm facing up. Quantos?” she asked. How much? I asked her to specify and she said, “Money angolano.” At this point I remembered that it was illegal to take money out of the country, so I decided to be honest and play dumb. But I started to freak out and wonder if it was against the law to take large amounts of AMERICAN money out the country, and remembered the US$1,300 I brought to use for shopping in South Africa.

I came clean and said that I had around Kz. 2,000 on me. She cocked her eyebrow and shook her head no, and thrust her hand out again. Por que? Tem que me dar tudo.” (Why? You must give me everything.) So I took out my money and gave her the Kz. 1500 or so (around US$22) that I had. She looked at it and said, “Where’s the rest of it? You said you had Kz. 2000.” I tried to explain that it was just an estimate but she didn’t believe me until I emptied out my entire wallet and purse.

She then said, “How many dollars do you have?” Then I started to sweat. I admitted to US$1000 (hoping she wouldn’t ask to see the money belt, which actually had US$1,300). She looked at me and said, “Where are the 500 Euros?”

Me: What Euros?

Lady Cop: You said you had EU 500.

Me: No, I don’t have any Euros.

Lady Cop says nothing.

Me: I’m American, I don’t have Euros.

Lady Cop: I’ve seen Americans with Euros. How many do you have?

Me: Zero. I don’t have any Euros.

Then she just stared at me and after a minute waved her hand. I asked if I could go and another lady cop appeared and told me I could go.

Lesson learned. Hide Kwanzas in the luggage or get rid of them at the gift shop before check-in.