Monday, December 31, 2007

Driving is a dangerous thing...

Today I'm the office finishing up two accident reports that occurred within 5 days of each other. Before you go thinking I've adapted to the Angolan driving style, neither of them were my fault!

Accident #1: Two friends and I were sitting in my living room at 10:15 on a Sunday night. We heard a large crash and the sound of breaking glass. We rush to the balcony to see two drunk guys on a motorcycle, somehow attached to the back of my car. (Reminder: I live on what I like to call the Most Dangerous Block in Lobito, right in front of an outdoor bar.) Now, there is a security guard posted to my building that is supposed to intervene in situations just like this- he was totally absent, of course. The three of us quickly ran downstairs to see if there was any damage. We tried to make it down there before the bandidos got away, but as we were exiting the stairwell they fled. I passed the guard, who was standing in the carport the whole time, why the heck he didn't stop the guys, and he slurred, "Oh no, they hit it and ran away!" Yep, dude was drunk. Now, we had time to hear the accident, run to my balcony AND make it down the stairs before the two guys left, so the guard had plenty of time to at least go over and stop the guys from leaving. Luckily there was little damage- just a broken license plate light. Oh yeah, there were about 30 witnesses at the bar and no one did anythign either.

Accident #2: Not five days later, the SAME two friends and I were coming back from another exciting trip to ShopRite. The set-up is so difficult to explain, so I will just say that there was some road construction going on, and a traffic cop was directing traffic down a side street. I knew there was a way to get to the street I wanted as long as I continued straight. Many of the other cars that had been diverted were making U-turns down a second side street. One of these cars making a U-turn was in front of me. I could tell right away that he was going to make a U-turn without looking behind him- and not see me coming. I honked to get his attention but it was too late and he slammed into the side of my car, right between the two passenger-side doors. Luckily, no one was hurt in either car.

I pulled over immediately and was pissed off. However, I saw that the other driver was wearing a blue uniform. "PLEASE let that be a security guard," I thought. Sure enough, with my luck, it was a senior police officer. I haven't had good experience with police officers, so I was a little worried. I quickly checked to make sure that I had my passport(s), NY driver license and international driver license- luckily I did. "BE NICE, it's a cop!" I hissed to my friends.

Luckily for us, the officer was very nice and immediately assumed responsibility for the accident. There was no need to call the police so we were able to take care of things right there.

Accident #3: We had to wait for our org's fleet manager to show up so that he could coordinate the repair work with the officer. It was taking a while, and the officer started to get antsy. I was trying to keep the guy calm because everything had been going well up until this point. As we were waiting, I see a taxi van totally sideswipe a motorcycle. the guy on the motorcycle fell right down. It was really scary because it looked like he was hurt. However, the guy jumped up- he was actually wearing a helmet!- and started cursing. To the motorcyclist's luck, there happened to be a cop- the guy who had hit me!- at the scene already. The taxi driver pulled over, surprisingly, and they worked out whatever needed to be done.

Legislative elections, finally?

As the NYT reports, the government has finally scheduled legislative elections for September of 2008. This is a huge deal here. The last elections in Angola were in 1992. When the opposition party/rebels UNITA lost, they plunged the country back into war, a period that ended up being the most devestating.

People here are wary of elections. They associate elections with war and I've heard some people say they'd just rather not have elections. A few months ago, while in the interior, I spoke with some internally displaced people who were from the Huambo area. I asked why they hadn't returned to Huambo after the war ended, and the guy said, "Well, they keep saying they're going to have elections. Why should I go back, because the war will start again with elections?"

There's no real danger for the war to start again, from what I understand. There might be minor conflicts in UNITA strongholds, but the ruling party (MPLA) will likely sweep the elections. The real, interesting election will be the preseidential one in 2009.

If they actually have elections, that it. The government has been promising free and fair elections every year since the war ended. My boss has a calendar from 2004 still that says, "2204: The Year of Elections!"

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Return of the Dreaded Boas Festas

Around this time last year I wrote about the boas festas phenomenon. Boas festas means happy holidays; this time of year is generally when employers give out holiday pay. The expectations are not limited to employers- anyone who looks like they have any sort of money will be asked for money. It works like this: the requesting party will say "Boas Festas!" and then hold out his or her hand.

I should be used to it by now, but I'm always a little astounded when it happens. Here are this year's boas festas highlights:
  1. In the ShopRite parking lot, a teenage girl tried to sell me some dish rags. (Note to vendors: the Angolan equivalent of Wal-mart is NOT the best place to be selling things.) When I said no, she then said, "Amiga, boas festas!" Oh, well- I didn't want to five you money in exhcange something of value, so let me just give it to you for free!
  2. There is a mad rush on food and beverages during the holiday season, so I went to the last shop in town that was selling reasonably priced cases of beer. (Reasonable price = US$20 for a 12 pack as opposed to US$30.) At this particular shop, you tell the clerk what you want, pay for it, and get a receipt to take to the dispatch in the back. They then wheel the goods out to your car. When the guy finished loading the beer, he held out his hand and said "Boas festas!" Annoyed, I said, "Okay, obrigada e boas festas para ti tambem!" (Okay, thanks and happy holidays to you also!") He looked confused, like he wanted to tell me that I was supposed to give him money, but he caught on and prefered to them mock with his friends. They might have thoguht it was funny, but who had the money?
  3. And this year's audcity winner goes to the young kids who live near my coworker Bernie. Christmas Day he heard a knock on his door and opened it to find a group of kids standing there. They held out their hands and in unison said, "Boas festas!" a la trick-or-treating. Bernie, who had no idea who the kids were, just laughed and shut the door.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Oh, really?

Here is an... article? press brief? in its entirety from the NYT:
Angola: Actors Mistaken for Robbers

Two actors were shot dead while filming a crime drama on the streets of a crime-ridden suburb of the capital, Luanda, when the police mistook them for armed robbers, their director said.

That's it. I can't decide which is more perplexing: the fact that the actors were mistaken for robbers or that the NYT was so desperate for news from Africa that they were willing to post a one sentence item that pretty much says nothing. (Which crime-ridden subrub? Movie actors? Shot by whom? Etc., etc.)

Thursday, December 13, 2007

A Tale of Two Visas

I’m currently in Zambia, assisting the country program here on a large, multi-million dollar proposal they are writing for USAID. (More on that later.) It’s always interesting to get out of Angola and do a little bit of comparing between it and other African countries. What sticks out the most right now is the way the two countries handled tourist/ordinary visas.

The visa I have now for Angola is a multiple entry visa that is good for 2 years, with stays of up to 90 days. In other words, until I get my work visa I must leave every 90 days and am technically a “consultant” according to my employer in Angola. (Consultants are allowed to perform work in Angola on an ordinary visa because they are technically not residents.) This is how it must be done until I get my work visa. Work visas are even slower to process than other visas, so it’s sort of an open secret in Angola that many foreigners- NGO employees, oil workers, whoever- use these ordinary visas in the meantime. The ordinary visa differs from country to country- the one I have is specific to the US, apparently. My visa expires in July, so I hope to get my work visa before then. If not… who knows what will happen!

I’ve entered and left Angola several times on this visa. Each time the immigration official looks at each and every entry and exit date, sees that I am in compliance and lets me go through. I’ve never had a problem… until Thursday.

If there was any doubt that Angola used to be a Soviet-backed state, then the internal immigration controls should erase it. Every time I or any other foreigner flies domestically, we must present our passport and visa. It’s a pain, but not such a big deal. Thursday I flew from Benguela to Luanda. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m currently using my expired passport containing my valid Angola visa, attached (via paper clips) to my current, valid passport. When the immigration folks took a bit longer than usual to authorize me to fly, I assumed it was because of the passports. The female official began to ask me how many times I’ve entered and left Angola. I answered honestly, that it has been several times, but that the last entry was on 25 Oct so I was in compliance

Then all confusão broke loose! The woman explained to me that I have been in Angola for more than 90 days. According to her, the visa that I have is valid for ONE 90-day stay in Angola, to be used between the dates printed on the visa (between 17 July 2006 and 17 July 2007), and during those 90 days, I could come and go as I pleased. Let's say I came to Angola for one week then went back to the US- according to her logic, I would only have 83 more days to come back to Angola. According to her, since I had clearly been in Angola for a grand total of more than 90 days, I was breaking the law.

I pointed out to her that the date on the visa was for 2 years, and that it was for multiple entries of 90 days each. She wouldn’t budge, however, and called her colleagues over to confirm. She explained her position to them, and they all nodded their heads in agreement.

At this point, I was completely dumbfounded. Either my employer, the Angolan Consulate in Houston and immigration officials in Cunene and Luanda are ALL completely wrong, or this band of paper-pushers in Benguela who are paid to know these visas simply do not know the visas. This is a common problem in Angola. People who are paid to enforce the laws- police, bureaucrats, state lawyers- don’t usually know the laws of the country. Luckily I’ve avoided any real problems associated with this ignorance up until now.

I was getting very upset and angry. One moment I was taking deep breaths to not burst out into tears and the next moment I was trying my hardest to stop rolling my eyes and not say anything to insult them. (How do you tell someone they don’t know how to do their job? It ain’t easy!) I supposed it’s possible that they are right- but how would I have slipped by so many other officials for over a year? Unlike other countries I’ve been in, Angola is very serious about who they let in their country and how they monitor them. (My employer must send a copy of my passport, visa, and entry stamps to a local immigration office every month.)

Luckily, my favorite driver, Manuel, was with me. Manuel has helped me out with visa problems at the Benguela airport before. He knows all the people and has a very nice, calm way of not taking crap from anyone. I decided to follow his cue and simply stop talking and crossing my arms. It seemed to work. They backed down on their threat to take me into custody (my second threat of being taken into custody in this country!) and let me go. As they stamped my ticket, they said that I had to call their immigration headquarters in Luanda and get an explanation. Yes folks, if they don’t know the law, it’s YOUR responsibility to call THEIR supervisors and get an explanation.

I was very upset about this. I like Angola but sometimes the hassles overwhelm you and you just want to scream. That, coupled with a 4 am wake-up call in order to make check-in at the airport in Luanda, put me in bad mood on my way to Zambia. Zambia requires US citizens to buy a $100 visa, available upon entry to the country. During my last visit in July, I bought one that was good for 3 years. However, that was in my old, expired passport, so I assumed that I would have to buy a new visa.

When I presented my new passport to the immigration officer, he asked if I had ever been to Zambia before. When I said that I had, he asked about my old passport with the visa. I had it with me, so I presented it to him. He said, “Well, you shouldn’t have to pay for a new one. Let me just transfer it to your new passport. Is that okay?” I was floored by his flexibility and shocked at his politeness! It certainly restored my faith in bureaucrats. At least Zambian bureaucrats.

UPDATE: I wrote this last Sunday. In the meantime, my collegaues in Luanda and Benguela have visited the immigration supervisors in their respective cities and, indeed, have confirmed that the Benguela immigration officials' interpretation of my visa is incorrect. We'll see what happens next...

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

"Misadventures" in Angola

My friend Lynette forwarded me this article from Newsweek about China’s presence in Africa. To my surprise, the article started with a Chinese work camp in Catumbela, home of the best ice cream in Benguela province. Unfortunately, the journalist said that Catumbela was in the central highlands, several kilometers from Lobito. Wrong! Catumbela is about 15 km from Lobito, right on the water. I just drove through there this morning. Perhaps he meant Alto Catumbela, which is on the way to Huambo, but that’s like confusing Columbia, South Carolina and New Columbia, Pennsylvania. Similar name, completely different place and context.

That wasn’t the only thing that made me scratch my head and say, “What?” For example,
Even China's success in Angola is creating headaches for its businessmen. The
handful of business hotels in Luanda are booked months in advance. Good luck
finding a cab—the city has only one official taxi service—or renting a car,
which can go for as much as $12,000 a month. Rents for houses in Lobito are double that.
Really? Rents here are outrageous, but the highest rent I’ve heard of is US$12,000 for a 2nd story, full floor apartment, outfitted with WiFi and brand new American-style appliances. I believe the US$24,000 for a place in Luanda, but even in Lobito it seems a bit much.

The rest of the article seems to mesh with what I’ve heard and read. Now I know where they get those rice noodles for the new Chinese restaurant in Benguela:
State-owned Chinese companies prohibit any type of fraternization between their employees and Angolans. If a worker becomes romantically or sexually involved with a local, he's quickly hustled back to China. "Africans and Chinese think differently," says Xia Yi Hua, a regional director for China Jiang Su, a massive construction conglomerate with offices across Angola. Xia has been in the country for four years, and his company still sends him shrink-wrapped packets of Chinese food from back home, along with regular sets of chopsticks. Everything in his office comes from China. One coffee table is made of Angolan wood, he admits, but he flew in a Chinese carpenter to fashion the table.