Monday, June 04, 2007


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.

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