Friday, June 29, 2007

One less Angolan airline to make me late

Photo of the accident from AngolaPress (ANGOP).

I doubt we'll be flying much TAAG again....

M'BANZA CONGO, Angola (Reuters) -- A Boeing 737 belonging to Angola's state TAAG airline has crashed in the northern city of M'banza Congo, killing at least six people and badly injuring others, Angola's ANGOP news agency reports.

Full English article here.

Portuguese articles here and here.

I wonder if the plane was one of the new ones that TAAG bought this year. They still haven't determined the cause of the accident, but apparently it happened as the plane was trying to land.

UPDATE: I hadn't even noticd, but I was scheduled on a TAAG flight from Luanda to London in September! No longer! Cross your fingers for my colleague Sandra, who still has to fly TAAG to Ondjiva on Sunday.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Sierra Leone's Refugee All-Stars

Sierra Leone's Refugee All-Stars. Photo from SodaSoap Productions, from New York Times article

There is a nice write-up in the New York Times about the documentary about the Sierra Leone's Refugee All-Stars. I saw them for free in Central Park right before I left for Angola. Their story is incredibly moving and inspirational. The band played first and then they presented the documentary. There were several Sierra Leoneans in the audience, and their excitement and emotion was catching. Their music is great- a mix of traditional music, reggae and other styles.

The documentary the talk about will be shown on PBS's P.O.V, but sadly I think it has already passed. It's available on Netflix, though!

Later in Angola, I heard similar stories. It's hard to imagine living in a war-torn country, much less one where you are forced to literally leave everything behind in order to survive. I was overwhelmed when, talking to people who had been internally displaced (fleeing within their country, as opposed to refugees who cross borders), I heard about women having to grab their children and run- in the middle of cooking lunch for example. Makes my complaints about not having fresh broccoli seem quite superficial.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Catumbela barragem

Anne with son Weni (age 5, left) and daughter Kadja (age 3, right)

You can barely make out women going down to the river to fill up tubs of water...

The weather in Lobito has finally cooled down a bit. In the morning and at night, it’s cool enough to where I use a jacket or long-sleeves. Of course, according to Angolans, it is absolutely freezing outside, although at its coldest I would say it is in the low 60s. I get a kick out of one of the guards that wears a down coat at night.

It makes for perfect outdoor weather, so on Saturday my French friend (former coworker) Anne and I went with her two kids to the Catumbela barragem, which was about an hour away from Lobito. It’s not much more than a dam, but it’s surrounded by some pretty mountains. It was a nice afternoon away from Lobito.

Great example: the guy in the middle is rocking a Veggie Tales t-shirt. He also gave us a chicken, which David from CDA is holding.

I’ve posted before about the used clothing trade here in Angola. Nothing much is manufactured in Angola, let alone clothes, so most Angolans buy their clothing from the used clothing stalls in the market. I did this a lot in Honduras when I was in the Peace Corps. The clothes were cheap and of decent quality, and I began to understand the Honduran rumor that American bought their clothes and would throw them away after they got dirty. (How else could such good quality used clothing be explained? Most Hondurans wear their clothes until they fall off their body because they can’t afford much else. Logically, Americans have SO much money that they can just throw clothes away, no need to wash them!)

I was a little disappointed by the used clothing options in the market here in Lobito. Maybe I just don’t have the patience to go through them like I did in Honduras. They were also more expensive- or least more expensive for me, the obviously rich foreigner- up to US$6 for a tank top. I’ll save my money and get a new tank top at Old Navy when I go home.

I love seeing ironic English-language t-shirts on people. I keep a list of the good ones. I’d love to take pictures, but I would feel awkward about that.

Here are some of my favorites:

I Survived Legislative Fitness Day (on a fat boy)

I Love Singapore

Front: STATE SUX! Back: TOP 10 REASONS WHY STATE SUX! (This was funny because it never specified what school it was for and which state they were talking about.)

It’s My Perogative! (On an elderly woman)

If I Throw a Stick Will You Runaway? (On a sweet, village elder near Cubal)

Aaron Cohen’s 1999 Bar Mitzvah: THE MILLENIUM!

I Don’t Need Therapy, I Need $MONEY$!

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

"How to Write About Africa"

Here is an excellent piece from Granta on how people tend to write about Africa.

Your African characters may include naked warriors, loyal servants, diviners and seers, ancient wise men living in hermitic splendour. Or corrupt politicians, inept polygamous travel-guides, and prostitutes you have slept with. The Loyal Servant always behaves like a seven-year-old and needs a firm hand; he is scared of snakes, good with children, and always involving you in his complex domestic dramas. The Ancient Wise Man always comes from a noble tribe (not the money-grubbing tribes like the Gikuyu, the Igbo or the Shona). He has rheumy eyes and is close to the Earth. The Modern African is a fat man who steals and works in the visa office, refusing to give work permits to qualified Westerners who really care about Africa. He is an enemy of development, always using his government job to make it difficult for pragmatic and good-hearted expats to set up NGOs or Legal Conservation Areas. Or he is an Oxford-educated intellectual turned serial-killing politician in a Savile Row suit. He is a cannibal who likes Cristal champagne, and his mother is a rich witch-doctor who really runs the country.

I wish I could say I'm completely immune to the suggestions in the piece, but I'm not.

UPDATE/CLARIFICATION: The Granta piece is a satire. Several people have written me asking if I agree with the points. Being here now and reading that article, I understand perfectly what the author is talking about. I don't agree with everything, but I think the author is trying to make the point that Africa- the continent- is so diverse but many people approach it as if it were homogeneous and/or hopelessly tragic. The worst tends to come out of Africa in the media, but there are plenty of good things- things that us Westerners can identify with- you never hear about. Before coming to Angola, I was sure that I was stepping into a country full of land mines, war and Ebola, because that's all I could find about it before I arrived. Yes, those things are/have been problems, but there is much more that you never hear about. I think that's the point of the piece.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

My New Best Friend

A little over two weeks ago, I arrived at work and found a big commotion. Three baby kittens had somehow gotten inside the office and were meowing their heads off. They were adorable and I asked one of the custodial staff what he was going to do with them. He said, "Oh, leave them alone. They'll probably die." My bleeding heart couldn't bear it, so I offered to take one.

As fate had it, that was the day I came down with typhoid, so taking little Kitty home with me wasn't really an option. When I got back to work the next week, the kitties had indeed died. I felt guilty, but mostly sad because I was really looking forward to having a cat, someone to keep my company.

I shared my woes with a friend, and last Friday he knocked at my door with this beautiful black kitten that had been hanging around his backyard. He caught his dog snapping at it, so he brought it over to me. Isn't she cute?!

Her name is Willie, after one of my favorite Willie Nelson songs ("Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain") because she has blue eyes and cries a lot. Her favorite toy is my stove/oven, because she can play with her reflection. Her favorite sleeping spot is inside the back of the fridge, because the motor is nice and warm. This makes me nervous but so far she has outsmarted all my attempts to keep her out of there.

I was nervous about getting a pet because I will have to leave it behind when I leave. However, a friend has already offered to take her when I leave, so I know she'll have a good home. In the meantime, she's made being at home so often a much more enjoyable experience.
She also likes sleeping on my neck.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Home Sweet Home

A view of the sunset from from my kitchen window.

My parents asked me to post pictures of my apartment so they could see where I live. The link is here. The apartment is the size of a small one story house, definitely a nice change from the tiny New York apartments I lived in for four years. It's very bare bones. Few decorations, apart from the bronze plaque from the former Soviet Consulate to Angola.

The most amazing thing about the apartment is the building that it is in. Apart from being across from The Most Dangerous Block in Lobito, the building is located in a prime spot. We locked in the lease for the apartment during the war, so it was dirt cheap. We are good tenants who pay all their bills on time, so it’s a good gig for the landlord. Which is why it was surprising a months ago when we received a letter letting us know that an offer had been made on the building and that if one of us tenants wanted to buy the building at the same price or higher, as residents we had that right. The buyer’s offer? $1.8 MILLION DOLLARS! Yes, American dollars! Just another sign of how elevated prices are in this country. No word yet on if the sale has been finalized and if I’ll have to move yet again.

Nothing a little Ciprofloxacin can't cure...

The scene of the crime

A few weeks ago, I noticed that the dozens of water bottles I use to store boiled, filtered drinking water were full every single say, no matter how much water was in the filter and no matter how much I had drunk the day before. I had left it up to Juliana, my maid, to boil and filter the water. When she started working for me around 8 months ago, I made it abundantly clear that this one thing she had to be very careful with. I gave her instructions, showed her hot to do it and she assured me that she knew how to do it. And she did do it, for several months. When I moved into my new apartment, I inherited sever 1.5 L water bottles. I told Juliana to continue to do the same thing for the water.

When I first noticed that the water bottles were strangely full all the time, I asked her if she had continued to boil and filter the water she was putting in them. She said she was, and she continued to leave a pot full of boiled water ready to put in the filter every day, so I had little reason to doubt her. Little reason, until two weeks ago when I noticed the brown bits of gunk accumulating at the bottom of the bottles. And then I noticed that the water tasted rather dirty. So I asked her again. “Oh no, mana, that’s water from the tap.”

AAAAAAAAAHHHHHHH! My worst nightmare! Upon investigating, I found out she had been putting tap water straight in there for quite some time, at least a month and a half. When I asked why she had stopped, she claimed I never told her to boil and filter water. What?

Four days later, I came down with typhoid. AGAIN. This time was much worse, and I was forced to take 3 days off of work. Feeling better but not 100%.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Wild Wild Lobito, Pt. 4: The Most Dangerous Block in Restinga

I think it’s official. The triangulo, the little island in front of my house with the mini-mart and rolote, is the most dangerous spot in Lobito. Or at least Restinga.

Friday, around 7 pm, I was in the kitchen. I had the veranda doors open as usual, and suddenly heard a horrible screeching noise, followed by what sounded like a huge explosion. In reality, there was no explosion, just a four-car pile up. A car had come around the slight curve in front of the triangulo and hadn’t anticipated that there might be other cars on the road. (Other cars on one of the city's busiest roads? Imagine that!) It was coming in at around 50 mph and in the wrong lane. Miraculously, no one was injured- and no one tried to flee the scene so no gun shots were fired! The guilty party really couldn’t flee the scene though- mainly because his car was totaled, but also because within 5 seconds of the accident, approximately 200 people flooded into the street and surrounded the car.

Just another exciting night in Lobito!


Typical house in Ondjiva

My trip to Kunene, one of Angola’s southernmost provinces, was a bit mixed. I was really excited to get out of Benguela and see a different part of the country. I went with my Angolan colleagues Sandra, who coordinates the HIV projects we run, and Humberto, our accountant.

We went to visit a new project we are starting with Caritas Kunene. They are a much smaller operation- they only have five employees, none of which are full-time. They don’t have much experience, although they have been in the province for over a decade. Sandra and I were to held with programming issues, such as setting an implementation calendar, and Humberto was to provide support to their accountant.

Ondjiva is the provincial capital of Kunene province. It is only 45 minutes or so from the Namibian border. It’s a small town- maybe around 75,000 people. Because of its proximity to South Africa and Namibia, South African mercenaries, which both sides used in the war, had a strong presence in the province. (Some info on this in a BBC article here and Human Rights Watch report here.) It was absolutely destroyed during the war. This is why everything in Ondjiva looks new. As it happens, Humberto was in the Angolan army and had been stationed in Ondjiva and surrounding areas for a little over a year. He could only recognize two buildings from the time of war: the church and the former “dance hall” which is now only half of a dance hall, but still standing. Everything else is new: the buildings are in good condition and the roads- the roads are BEAUTIFUL. Paved, well-maintained roads. Unbelievable. I was remarking on the difference between Lobito, a much larger, more important city (in terms of commerce, industry and politics) and Humberto said, “Well, Lobito wasn’t bombed into nothing.” True.

A kuimbo, traditional housing compound in rural Kunene

The Namibian influence can also be seen. I was surprised to see clear, visible road signs everywhere. The food products are all from Namibia, and most things are written in English. People cross the border to do their shopping in Oshikango, where things are much cheaper (including good school and medical services).

We got to work right away and realized that this project, an HIV/AIDS prevention and education project, would required a lot of hand-holding on our part. As an organization, they really have nothing: no phone, no generator to power the one computer they have. The staff, who are all wonderful people who appear to be dedicated to the organization, are “political appointees.” The head of programming is the Bishop’s nephew. The accountant is an adorable retired teacher who is wonderful, but has never turned on a computer in her life, so it will be a bit difficult for her to do the excel spreadsheets we require. (She will do them on paper and a colleague will transfer the info into electronic form.)

It was a bit disappointing to see how much work we need to do in terms of capacity building, mainly because we had a lot of high hopes for this province in terms of future projects. As the HIV prevalence rate in Kunene is so much higher than the rest of the country (15% as opposed to 6%), we had hoped to start with this pilot project and then move into more programmatic and financially intensive projects. This won’t happen any time soon. It’s understandable: the region was truly hit hard during the war. This, along with its physical isolation and lack of oil, means that it doesn’t get a lot of attention.

We had hoped to do a bit of research on an AIDS orphanage that Caritas told us existed. Orphans and vulnerable children are an institutional priority for us, so we wanted to explore project possibilities. Back in Lobito, we were assured over the phone that there was indeed an orphanage and that Caritas would arrange a visit for us. When we arrived, we found out that, in fact, there is no AIDS orphanage, but there were so many orphans that a Catholic mission has received funding from the World Bank and UNICEF to begin one. We arranged a visit to the mission, which was a long 3 hours away by car.

The mission church. This mission was one of the few that was operational during the war. It was still bombarded during combat. Bullet holes are visible inside and outside the church.

We arrived at the mission, which includes a small school and hospital. The sisters who were there looked at us in utter confusion when we asked about the orphanage they were building. Turns out they have only loose plans to build one, and not with help from UNICEF or the World Bank. But they assured us that AIDS orphans were a major problem in the area, so perhaps we would help them. I explained again that we couldn’t offer any help right away and that we were just making an “exploratory” visit, but the smart sister kept asking for money from the white lady. It turns out that there are approximately 10- only 10- AIDS orphans that they have been asked to take in. Their current “project” to help them consists of the distribution of a box of tuna fish cans they once got from the government. Even then, they just gave the tuna to the sobas, so who knows if the orphans even go the food.

Building where the mission priests live.

So the visit was a bit of a bust in terms of work. But thanks to a cancellation, Sandra and I were able to cross into Oshikango, Namibia for a few hours of shopping. I hadn’t planned on going but luckily had my passport. I exchanged $50 and set off.

Even though we were just at the border, both Sandra and I could tell the extreme difference between Namibia and Angola. There was the obvious infrastructure- as in, they have infrastructure, like sidewalks and public trash cans. But we also noticed the stares we were getting. Men were constantly cat-calling us, something that has never happened to me in Angola, and the aforementioned hair-pulling incidents. We were pleased by how far our money went in Oshikango. Granted, most of it was cheap Chinese junk, but even cheap Chinese junk is expensive in Angola! So many Angolans go to Oshikango to do their shopping that Portuguese is more common than English. Even the Chinese shopkeepers speak Portuguese. I drop $50 easily just picking up a few things at the ShopRite in Lobito. In Oshikango, I was buying just anything at the end of the trip to get rid of the Rand that I had left over. I didn’t buy anything terribly exciting: a couple of shirts, some kitchen supplies (fresh ginger included!), and grapefruit juice.