Monday, August 27, 2007

Happy Anniversary

Me, one year later, with Bernice of the Sheenan tropa.

As of 4:30 am this morning I have been in Angola exactly one year. It’s been an eventful year, to say the least- one of the most challenging I’ve had.

And how did I celebrate this milestone? I think I broke my toe! I wish I could say it was doing something exciting, but I was just cleaning and jammed my foot into my chair.

UPDATE: Sergey, the former EMT informs me it is not a break, but a bad sprain. Still limping and getting an awesome bruise, though.

Angola wins AfroBasket

Even garbage trucks have come down with AfroBasket fever!

Angola with their trophy, from

As predicted, Angola kicked but and won the AfroBasket tournament. Cameroon gave them a run for their money, tying at several points in the game. But by the end of the third quarter it was clear who was going to win. When it was finally over, Lobito erupted. Cars and motorcycles started the procession around town, with constant honking and bodies hanging off screaming.

The game was over before 9 p.m. but I knew the partying would go on for a long time. However, by the time I went to bed (around midnight) most of the activity had died down. Except next door. For some reason, two of the young men that live in the house next to mine (who were making such a ruckus a few weeks ago) felt the need to carry on the party. Their form of merrymaking was the noisemakers that Unitel the cell phone company, gave out as the tournament started. Remember the noisemakers you got at kids’ birthday parties, the ones you blow into and the paper uncurls? Imagine that sound, magnified by 30 bazillion. These two guys sat and blew these things all night long. They only took a break to take a deep breath and start again. Just when I thought they were getting tired, a car would drive by honking reminding them that they too should be making as much noise as humanly possible. I finally got some rest after 3:30 am.

Apart from that, I got a kick out of seeing how happy everyone was. I think Americans are spoiled by how awesome we are in pretty much everything (ha ha) and forget that winning a tournament can be a big deal. Angolans are very proud of their team, as they should be.

Here is a not-very-visible video from my camera, but you get the idea:

And here is one complete with sirens. No, those cops are not keeping order, they're celebrating!

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

My best friend in Lobito

Willie is growing up. She’s in her biting phase, which appears to be somewhat permanent. I’m trying to train her not to turn her teeth on me, but it’s a challenge. She just really likes to bite, and my hands are too tempting. She gets mad that I leave her alone during the day. I hate to think what she'll do when I'm on my home leave! However, when she’s not biting she’s the sweetest kitty in the world!

She doesn't have blue eyes anymore, so her name makes less sense than it did before. I mostly call her "bandida" (bandit) because she's usually biting me or not using her litter box like she's supposed to.

AfroBasket Comes to Angola

Angolan team in action against Central African Republic. Angola is in the white jersey. Photo from

FIBA’s AfroBasket Tournament is currently taking place in Angola. (FIBA = Federation of International Basketball) Everyone in Angola has Afrobasket fever, including me. Whoever wins this tournament is automatically qualified for the 2008 Olympic Games.

Angola got a lot of attention last year for their surprising qualification for the World Cup. But what I didn’t know before coming here is that Angola is a basketball powerhouse, the best in Africa.

The tournament is taking place in various provinces, including Benguela. The stadiums were built by the Chinese. People were doubtful it would be done on time- in Benguela they didn’t start building until 4 months ago. Any animosity Benguela residents had towards the Chinese were washed away when they entered the sparkling new stadium. Suddenly the Chinese are master builders, helping Angola in their reconstruction efforts!

The goodwill is understandable. Angolans are very patriotic and this is their chance to show off. Things are going very well in the tournament, both in the logistics and the basketball. My American friend Nancy, who owns an English school in Benguela, had the chance to meet the Moroccan team and their head coach. She said he was amazed at everything in Angola: that everything ran so smoothly, that the food was so good and- believe it or not- that things ran on time! (Okay, I had a nice chuckle over that one.) But there’s definitely an air of pride in Lobito, with 7 out of 10 people wearing Angola shirts.

And the fact that the Angolan team is laying the hurt on everyone else certainly helps! The first game I watched was against Cabo Verde. Their win was overwhelming: 100 – 44! It was actually a bit embarrassing, bordering on the unsportsmanlike, because the Angolan team just kept dominating, keeping the better players in and doing fancy dunks.

I’m even staying up past my bedtime right now, watching Angola struggle against their strongest competitor yet. (It’s 10:30 pm. I certainly don’t have the social life I did in New York, that’s for sure.) At the beginning of the second half, they re only winning by 7 points! Their competitor even has an American college basketball player (for the University of New Orleans). Their competitor? Central African Republic. What? Who knew! They’re pretty good, actually.

I’m watching the game on a South African channel. There is an American announcing and a South African accompanying him. During the half, they had a former Angolan team player, talking about Angola. He had this to say: “Oh, Angola is a very popular place for foreigners to take their holidays. And there aren’t that many poor people. If you look at normal Angolans, you will see they have money.” Oh, so it’s normal Angolans that have money! Better not tell that to the 70% of Angolans living below the poverty line.

UPDATE: Angola "barely" won the game, 78-51. Considering that they won their others games by an average of 44 points, CAR was their first real challenge. Angola has now qualified for the quarterfinals.

Kids do the darndest things

These kids frequent the little playground in front of our apartment building. They also “guard” cars at one of the local supermarkets, and I pay then about US$0.75 to watch over my car when I’m there. I can’t figure out if they are street kids or if they actually have a place to sleep. Even if they don’t sleep on the streets, they certainly don’t have any adult supervision. They are very sweet kids, just without any support emotionally or financially. Sad and all too common.

Last Friday I was sitting on the playground benches with my neighbor Stella, watching her 20 month old son play with the boys. I tried to secretly take pictures of them, but as soon as they saw the camera they went crazy. They started doing these crazy hand signs, and I was a little afraid they were throwing gang signs. I asked them what the signs meant and I just got confused looks. One said, “It’s Os Nigas!” and they got all excited and started to scream “Os Nigas! Os Nigas!” I had no clue what they were talking about so I asked one what Os Nigas meant. He got really embarrassed because he clearly had no idea what Os Nigas was and the other ones started to laugh at him. An older boy, clearly a leader, said, “They are rappers!” And it suddenly dawned on me what Os Niga meant in Portuguese. (Add another “g” to the word and you’ll get it.)

I tried to convince them not to say that word, that it was very bad, but to no avail. Just another American cultural export, unfortunately.

This is how they look when they are not trying to be OGs.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Yet Another NYT Article on China in Africa

But, surprisingly, it doesn't mention Angola! China is in favor with Angolans these days, due to the success of Afrobasket construction.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Explosive, Exciting News in Food Security

Unloading sacks of flour in Cubal

(Or, “With this title, could I possibly be nerdier?”)

CARE has announced that it will no longer accept US government (USG) food aid! This is major news for those of us in international development. If CARE is successful, it could possibly change the way international development organizations provide food aid.

Basically, it works like this: the USG sells subsidized, surplus US agricultural products to NGOs overseas. These NGOs usually sell the goods in local markets, in turn using profits to fund projects- a process called monetization. The goods must be transported on US flag bearing ships. (This is common with USG funds; if I, as a project manager whose salary and benefits are paid for by a USG funded-project fly home with project funds, I am obligated to fly on a US carrier if one is available, no matter what the cost.) There are a lot of politics that go into this policy, having to do with US agricultural subsidies designed to help US farmers. CARE’s argument is that these imported commodities distort local markets and unfairly disadvantage local farmers.

The IHT article linked above lays out both sides’ argument well. In my personal opinion, the policy is inherently flawed. However, it does provide millions of aid dollars that would not otherwise be available. Sadly, most development NGOs are desperate for funding and will take it in whatever form it appears.

The big question for me is how exactly CARE plans to continue to provide food security aid in the countries where it works without accepting USG money. They’ve talked about doing local, sustainable projects that will provide money. This may work, but I doubt it will work on a scale that will provide millions of dollars. They speak specifically about Kenya, but what about other countries, like Niger? I don’t know much about Kenya, but it seems to be somewhat stable and have more infrastructure when compared to other countries. I’m pretty sure Niger wouldn’t provide sufficient aid dollars.

It should be noted also that CARE is one of the powerhouse development NGOs- well-known with lots of donations rolling in. (Donations which I’m sure will rise significantly when people read articles about their decision.) I doubt that smaller NGOs without CARE’s resources would be able to take such a decision.

Our program in Angola does not have any monetization projects, although our programs in other countries rely heavily on monetization projects for funding. During the war I know we received significant USG food aid, but I believe it was not monetized but given directly to people suffering. Joint Aid Management (JAM), another NGO here in Benguela, does accept it and is one of the organizations that actively support the USG policy. For Angola, their decision makes sense- to an extent. They provide food to local governments, schools and hospitals. With the exit of the World Food Programme, JAM is the main provider of food to schools and hospitals (NOT the government). Without that USG aid, how would they get their food? Most of the agricultural sector was completely destroyed in the war and has not recovered. Angola continues to import just about everything when it comes to foodstuffs. I’ve never even seen locally produced milk- it comes from South Africa or the EU! There is no market to destroy in Angola!

Having said that, is food aid stunting the growth of the Angolan agricultural sector? If USG food aid was absent and Angola forced to produce on its own, would Angolan agriculture grow more quickly? It’s not clear to me what the answer is. In any case, I’ll be looking for information on the results of CARE’s decision.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

How Things Work Around Here: Broken Bathroom Pipe Edition

Two Saturdays ago I woke up to find water all over my bathroom floor. In my groggy state I blamed it on the cat, but I don’t even think she an pee 10 L in one night. I looked up and saw that my ceiling was dripping water all over the place, meaning that a pipe in the apartment upstairs had burst. The upstairs neighbors weren’t at home, so there was nothing I could do.

I called our housing coordinator to see what could be done. It was a Saturday, so I wasn’t expecting much, but I did hope that at least someone could come to rig up a better water collection system or something like that. When I explained the situation to our guy, he said, “Oh I know what the problem is, Princess. You left a faucet on!” Um, no, that actually was not the problem. I was annoyed that he thought that it was just stupidity and forgetfulness on my part, but as the “princess” of the office (only female expat) I am used to these macho assumptions. He said he would stop by, but I knew he wouldn’t. In the meantime, I was emptying buckets of water every half hour or so. I called again Sunday to remind him it was an emergency, and he said he would stop by. I knew he wouldn’t. And he didn’t.

On Monday, I saw him and reminded him. “Oh yes, Princess! I forgot!” He and Jesús went over to check out the ceiling. When he got back he stopped by my office and said, “Oh Princess! It’s a very bad situation! You should have told me!” Huh!? ARGH! He assured me that it would be fixed by Friday.

My assumption was correct- a pipe for the apartment above me burst. Unfortunately, this meant that it was not a job we could do, but a job that the building owner was responsible for. Over a week later, nothing has been done. The leaking has subsided somewhat, but my bathroom is in an absolute state of disaster. It’s no use cleaning because it gets dirty as soon as I finish cleaning. Chunks of the ceiling are falling down- luckily there is a small roof over my shower because otherwise I would be showering in falling cement.

When I followed up with the housing coordinator on Friday, he was surprised to learn that nothing had been done. I gently reminded him that he had said he would speak with the building owner every day until it was fixed. Blank look… “Oh yes, Princess! He says it will be done.” Seeing that nothing had been done on his part, I resorted to what I hate to do- email with a CC to his supervisor and the big chefe. I’m still of the school of thought where you should assume that people will perform their jobs as required, in spite of being in Angola for a year now, where things (and people) don’t work this way. I’m a lowly manager, not a big chefe- I know the situation would not have lasted this long had it been one of the big bosses with this problem. The email with CCs got an immediate response as of Friday afternoon, but nothing has been done. I might have to get obnoxious in order to have it fixed.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Some tidbits on the health of Angolans

Job training?

CNN reports that TEN people have been stricken with polio in 2007. Don't go around thinking polio has been eradicated from the earth, like I did before coming to Angola.

I wish this article was in English! Basically, it talks about how Angolan women make a living carrying things on their head. In the article, one woman states that she carries bags of cement on her head for between 300 - 500 Kwanzas (between US$4 - $6.67). That can't be good for your spine. A lot of people justify the presence of Chinese workers in Angola saying that Angolans would not do the same work the Chinese do. I've never bought that argument, given cases like this one. Carrying heavy things on your head is not an easy way to make a buck, that's for sure.

China in Africa, Again

Yet another New York Times article on the presence of Chinese in Africa, this time in Chad. Angola is mentioned.

Crazy Neighbor Lady Stikes Again!

(Scene of the craziness!)

A few months ago I wrote about the water situation in our building. To sum, my next door neighbors, two nice Portuguese professors, have an empregada (maid) that is crazy and rude. She blamed their apartment’s lack of water on me and would yell at our guards when they wouldn’t turn on our generator for their apartment.

Well, things calmed down a bit. Jesús, our handyman, did something to the pipes and the problem was solved. At least, they were hooked back up to the public water works, meaning that they would not get any water when the city water was out. (Be careful what you wish for, you just might get it, lady!) After all the yelling and insults, the university the professors work for had to nerve to call our office and ask if they could hook into out pump. The empregada was so rude to us that we said no. I felt a little bad because the actual residents of the apartment, the two Portuguese women, are quite nice. But if they want to take advantage of our resources, then they should talk to their empregada about her actions.

Anyway, today is Saturday. I woke up a little cranky because the people in the house next to the building decided that 6:45 am was an appropriate time to start blasting music- cheesy Brazilian romantic music at that! About an hour later, I heard the shouting, the familiar raspy voice of my neighbor’s empregada. From my bedroom I could see the empregada at our pump and our guard at our water pump telling her to step away. She starts yelling about the water situation, calling our guard names. Once again she’s blaming the lack of water on my neighbor/colleagues and I- instead of, say, THE MUNICIPALITY, the entity responsible for supplying the water to residents. But we are easier targets, I suppose.

She basically wanted the guard to turn on the pump so that the professoras could take showers. Her argument was, basically, “Do you think it’s proper that the professoras have to take baths out of buckets?!” Oh, how my heart bleeds for them! This was one of the weakest arguments I have ever heard. Everyone takes baths out of buckets when there’s no water, including me! Our guard had little sympathy- a given, considering that he is poor and probably lives in a place with no running water and bathes out of a bucket too, like ¾ of the people in this city.

Our guard explained that the pump belongs to us and that without our authorization he could not turn it on. He spoke calmly and politely, ignoring her shouts. She then got personal, telling him he was ignorant. This was the final straw for him, and he started yelling at her, telling her that she was out line and that if she had a problem she should talk to me or Sergey, not him. She yelled again and said that she had knocked on my door and I didn’t answer (a lie) so he should go ahead and turn it on.

She finally went inside and things calmed down for a bit. About an hour later, I heard her shouting again, this time saying that there was too much noise coming from the house next door and that the guard needed to go next door to tell them to turn the volume down. He said in a loud voice, “I work for Dona Elizabeth (me, I think) and Dona Stella! I don’t work for you! You have no right to tell me what to do!” Good answer! She didn’t like it, however.

Another hour later, I heard her shouting from the stairwell, this time “talking” with our downstairs neighbor. ("Talking" = shouting and not letting the other person speak.) She was complaining about the water situation trying to get the neighbor to come up and talk to me. Now, the downstairs neighbor is hooked into our generator because she is friends with Jesús, and she doesn’t want to press her luck. So she just said, “There’s no city water, so we don’t have water. There’s nothing was can do about it.” At least one of our neighbors is smart!

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Important Figure in Angolan History Dies

Holden Roberto (NYT link, interesting article!), one of the early leaders in the fight for independence from Portugal, died late last week. He was the leader of the Frente Nacional de Libertação de Angola (FNLA, or National Liberation Front of Angola). During the early part of the struggle, the US supported the FNLA to counter the MPLA (current ruling party), which was supported by the Soviets.

I don't know much about the FNLA. It is one of the minor opposition parties, with no real political power to speak of. However, the fact that so many people have expressed regret over his death shows that he was respected as one of the first leader to fight for Angolan independence. I wish I knew more about this history. Before I came here I had a hard time finding any books that dealt with it. Another Day of Life, by
Ryszard Kapuscinski is one of the few good books I found on the independence era. It's more of a memoir, however.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Homemade Toys

In Angola I’ve seen a lot of homemade toys. I really enjoy watching kids play with them- such a refreshing change from all the electronic junk that is rampant in the States these days. When I was in Zambia I also saw some great ones as well. These toys generally involve wire, used tin or aluminum cans, or an old wheel. Of course, as with kids all over the world, just a pot and a spoon will do here, too.

Here is an Angolan homemade “bicycle.” The kid was really shy about having his picture taken, but I bought him a juice and it broke the shyness.

Here are some Zambian toys. The boy with the old tire had a stick and would just push it along. This was a huge hit and a swarm of kids would follow him, trying to catch the tire.

Here’s one of my favorites, a wire car from Zambia. I wanted a picture with just the boy and his car, but the camera was too much of a novelty and he was quickly mobbed. (You can see the little girl next to him trying to grab the car out of his hand!) In Angola you see these too, but usually made out of old Fanta cans. You can't see in the picture, but old bottle caps are used as wheels- they really work!

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Human Error Cause of Mbanza Congo Crash

It's in Portuguese, but this article explains that after analyzing the black box of the airplane, pilot error cause the crash in Mbanza Congo. This confirms what Nate, who was on the plane, suspected. With this news, I don't know if I should feel safer or not!

President Kabila of DRC Comes to Lobito!

Joseph Kabila, the president of Angola's neighbor the Democratic Republic of Congo, recently came to Angola for an official visit. DRC and Angola resolved a border dispute. And then Mr. Kabila decided to come to Lobito to visit Sonamet, a subsidiary of the state oil company. He stayed at their guest house, which is visible from Juan’s house. (This explains why they were furiously doing all sorts of water and electricity work on the block where the house sits.) Apparently, Lobito is now a "seaside resort," according to this article. I wish!

Traffic between Restinga and the commercial center was completely blocked for about 20 minutes. I had the pleasure of sitting in my car during this time. As usual, motorcycle drivers thought the law didn’t apply to them and tried to go around the road block. It was extremely satisfying to see one get stopped by a cop and be escorted away.

Add one to the list of places I have cried in Angola

Sunset in Zambia. I did not cry here.

-My office

-My house

-The beach volleyball court

-In the car after getting stopped by the immigration cops

NEW!- Luanda domestic airport

My family will tell you I am a crybaby. During high school I was a mess and would cry at the drop of a hat. I mellowed out in college and later in life, but it seems to have all gone away in Angola. I don’t know if it’s the stress of living in Angola, but I seem to cry easily here and often in situations that don’t deserve the emotional effort required by shedding a tear. Sometimes they work to my advantage, especially in this macho society.

Angola is hard to fly in and out of. My training in Zambia ended on Friday and I left for Johannesburg early Saturday morning (got up at 4:45 am). My priorities in Jo’burg were shopping at the Eastgate Mall and seeing my SIPA friend Karena, who is working in Jo’burg. The mall was oh-so-nice, so I didn’t get a chance to take a nap before meeting Karena at her house before dinner. Dinner was a restaurant that had a floor for salsa dancing, so we stayed until around midnight dancing. I was quite pleased. However, this meant very little time for sleep, as I had to repack my suitcase with my new purchases AND get up at 5 am to catch my flight. I only had about 8 hours sleep in two nights before catching my flight to Luanda.

Why is this important? I was completely exhausted when I got to Luanda. I had been up since 5 am (on less than 3 hours of sleep), had a layover in Windhoek, Namibia, and all I could think of was getting home. I knew there was a good chance of me getting to Lobito in one day, so I was very excited about sleeping in my own bed and playing with my cat, Willie.

My bags were literally the last ones to be put on the luggage conveyor belt. I didn’t get out of the international airport until 2:20 pm. I thought the last flight left at 5 pm, but our frantic driver, Firmino, informed me that the flight was supposed to leave at 3 pm! Banking on the fact that every single one of the flights (international and domestic) I have taken in this country has left at least ½ hour late, I held hope that I would make it.

Getting into the ticketing area, there was no one at the check-in counter. We went to the migration check-point and the immigration guy waved us on, telling us that the Sonair check-in guy was in the passenger waiting room. Firmino went into the room to ask the check-in guy if there was still a possibility that I could get on the flight. Sonair Guy said that I could still check in, but that I had to hurry as the little busses that take passengers to the airplanes. Firmino rushes to get my bags from the hallway and bring them in. The guy in charge of the waiting room suddenly stops him and says, “You can’t bring those in here.” Firmino, whose job it is to make sure I get on the plane, hurriedly tries to explain that I have to get on the plane and tries to push pass. Waiting Room Guy gets an attitude and starts yelling in Firmino’s face. I try to intervene, because Firmino is getting angry and I sense trouble. I try the humble approach, “Oh sir, I’m so sorry, I just got in and my colleague here is just trying to help,” etc. etc. Waiting Room Guy wouldn’t even look at me, and continued to yell at Firmino. I notice another couple from the same flight I was on come in the waiting room, and Waiting Room Guy waves them on. Seeing this, Firmino tried to push past the guy, but Waiting Room Guy PUSHED Firmino away.

This is where I lost it. I had just been in Zambia, where people were so friendly and polite and here is this guy on an ego trip, preventing me from going home. He had no reason to get violent with my coworker; he just wanted to feel important. My desire to get home coupled with my exhaustion pushed me over the edge. The tear started rolling and didn’t stop. The embarrassing thing is that the room was full of people already staring at me thanks to the pushing.

However, this roomful of people jumped to my defense, restoring my faith in Angolans. “What SHAME!” shouted one woman. “Why are you making this poor woman cry? What are you gaining from this?!” Then, a well-dressed man walked up to Waiting Room Guy. He must have been an important chefe (big boss) because all he did was walk up to him and say, “You will let this woman and her bags get on the plane.” Waiting Room Guy suddenly got shy and said, “Sim, senhor.”

I got through and managed to get my bags and body to the tarmac in front of the buses taking passengers to the plane. The other people in my same position and I were just waiting in front of the buses- we were not being allowed on, but the buses (full of passengers) weren’t moving. After about 20 minutes we finally are allowed on the bus. A woman starts yelling, “This is disrespectful! You are holding us up for a foreigner! Passengers have rights!” This, of course, only started my tears again, which had only just stopped. Other people hushed the woman, but it still hurt. Ach. Made it on the plane and got some quality time with Willie before crashing at 8:30 pm.

Welcome home!

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Zambian kids are cute

Back from Zambia and have been quite busy. Here are some pictures of adorable kids we found while walking around the lodge where our training was held. You can see who really loved having their picture taken! They followed us for the rest of our walk, singing behind us. I tried to get a movie of them singing without them knowing it, but they were too clever.