Sunday, March 30, 2008

More tala stories

Earlier I wrote about the tala and the trouble it can cause. My friend Dominga confirmed its existence. Her own father fell victim to the tala!

Her father, who passed away not long ago, was a carpenter. During the war he had a lot of work replacing furniture that had been destroyed during fighting. People became very jealous of him, because as their lives were getting worse, his seemed to be improving. So someone put the tala on him out of envy. His leg became covered in boils and swelled to a large size.

He was a devout Catholic, so he refused to believe that he had fallen victim to witchcraft and, even worse, that his cure lied in witchcraft. Finally, his sister brought the curandeiro (traditional healer) to the house and the two of them were able to convince him to take the cure. The curandeiro made several small cuts on her father's leg and rubbed the herbs in.

The next day he was fine.

Benguela Railroad

Here it comes...

The president of Zambia was in Lobito recently on a diplomatic mission, checking on, among other things, the progress of the reconstruction of the Caminho de Ferro de Benguela (Benguela Railway) that will go from the port of Lobito and west to Zambia. This used to be a major transport route to Zambia, bringing Zambian cooper to Angola and beyond. (There are some interesting pictures and history here.)

The war detroyed much of the rails beyond Cubal, and the government of Angola has given the contract to reconstruct the railway to a Chinese company. (Who else?!) The train does run from Lobito to Cubal a few times a week, but the train is mostly used as a "commuter" train between Lobito and Benguela.

I've been meaning to take a picture of the train for a long time, and last week got stopped by its crossing and was finally able to take these pictures. Those smudges are from the windhsield.

It's not actually crowded on the train cars. These guys are just train "surfers" and adventure-seekers who grab on and ride a bit without paying.

The train crossing is a bit strange. Only one lane of the street has a barrier that comes down, and it is manually operated. This guy with a red flag comes out and puts it down about 5 seconds before the train is about to cross or even as it is crossing. Needless to say, I always go very slowly when I approach the tracks.

It's a bit dark, but that's the guy with the red flag in his hand...

The guy in blue was hanging on the outside and had just jumped off.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Miss Landmine Angola in the BBC

Today on the BBC website there is an article about the Miss Landmine Angola 2008 pagaent.

I wrote about this before. All in all, I think its a good way to raise awareness about landmines in Angola. I admit it; I'm a traitor to my province. I voted for Miss Moxico.

On Easter Sunday, a Brazilian friend and a friend of his went bike riding up where they are slated to build the new Lobito refinery. Someone had told him there were landmines up there, so he started to worry when they happened upon boxes of old ammunition. His friend went around exploring and luckily didn't get blown up.

Monday, March 24, 2008

The bridge leading to Cubal from the road to Benguela. Destroyed during the war, never rebuilt. Rumor has it that it will be rebuilt by the Chinese. Of course!

Because Angola’s civil war lasted so long (30 years or so), many (if not most) adult men over the age of 30 or so served some time in the military. For the most part, people don’t really talk about it. I’m not sure if it’s because of bad memories/trauma, fear of repercussion or because the fighting never hit Lobito as hard as it did in the interior, but it’s not something people talk about every day- at least not to me. Having said that, if someone was affiliated with one side- MPLA (the government/ruling party) or UNITA (the rebels)- everyone knows it.

It’s really strange for me to think about. The people I see every day in the office have seen the worst of humanity, and in some cases, actively participated in it. I’m not judging anyone- I fully appreciate the luxury of not having lived in a war-torn country. It’s just a little mind-boggling to think that my friends and colleague have suffered so much and seen things that I can never imagine.

My organization doesn’t hire based on political party affiliation (something that unfortunately is not as common as it should be here), so we have people from both sides working here. We have rules about official politcking in the workplace, but even without them I don't think it would be an issue. I normally don’t give it a second thought, but every so often I have these moments when I realize that many of my coworkers could have easily killed each other at some point during the war.

This morning I had a strange interaction with two other people who happen to have fought on opposing sides in the war. These two guys were not just every-day soldiers- apparently the fofoca (gossip) is that they were both loyal to their sides and fought for a long time.

One, whom I’ll call Party-Hack Pedro (clearly not his real name) is older and was a young man in the new army when the MPLA took over newly independent Angola. He traveled all over the country and saw heavy fighting along the border of Namibia. This morning, we happened to walk in the office at the same time. We were chit-chatting about our holiday weekends and what we had done, when we happened upon RPG Roberto (also not his real name).

RPG Roberto fought for UNITA manning, what else, RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades). Apparently he was so good at it that he became famous and whenever they really needed someone who could launch an RPG spot-on, he was the one they called. (Note: I have never heard this directly from him, just from ex-pat coworkers, so it could all be a gross exaggeration.)

As Party-hack Pedro and I approached RPG Roberto, Party-Hack Pedro suddenly changed the conversation and said in a very loud voice, “Yes, this weekend I went to Biópio to visit the hydro-electric dam there. I defended it AND my homeland in the 70s. I wanted to go back and visit my old friends who didn't betray us back then!” RPG Roberto, who is one of the nicest people I have met here, just smiled like it was nothing. I wasn't sure, but it seemed like an awfully weird thing to say, considering I have never, ever talked with Party-Hack Pedro about the war, other than to say he was a soldier. I suddenly felt really awkward, convinced that I was a pawn in a game of war-time one-upmanship. I pointed to my bag and said, “Okay, time for work!” and took off.

It was all in my imagination, though. As I got my morning cup of coffee, the two of them were out there laughing. Probably at me.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Oh, the hilarity...

I wish this article was in English. The title is "'TAAG Shouldn't Even Be on the Black List,' Laments Luís Brandão [Minister of Transportation]"

Em entrevista quarta-feira ultima a Radio Nacional de Angola (RNA) Luís Brandão disse que “a última palavra é dos europeos. Para nós, a TAAG nem deve estar na lista negra.”

Rough translation: In an interview with Radio Nacional de Angola last Wednesday Luis Brandao says that "the final word [whether TAAG is allowed to fly in EU airspace] lies with the Europeans. According to us, TAAG shouldn't even be on the black list."

...Em Julho passado, Bruxelas anunciou a inclusào da TAAG na lista negra da UE por motivos de falta de segurança, depois do Comité de Segurança Aéreo, uma semana antes, ter aprovado por unanimidade uma decisão neste sentido.

...Last July, Brussels announced the inclusion of TAAG on the black list of the EU due to lack of security after the Air Security Agency, one week earlier, had approved unanimously this decision. [Emphasis mine]

Hee! Really, it's quite funny. Maybe Mr. Brandão should remind the EU that it's the carry-on bags that are causing the problem, not so-called "security problems." And come one, what do these "experts" on these EU "Air Security Agencies" really know that TAAG doesn't?

Monday, March 17, 2008

When it rains, it pours

Last Wednesday heavy rains fell in Lobito. The main street, recently paved, was fine, but the side streets were an absolute mess. This is the street in front of my colleague Elizabeth's house. She lives one block from the office. She had to get her son to carry her piggy-back style, to work on Thursday morning. It hasn't rained heavily since, and most of the water has dried up. However, there are still standing pools and lots and lots of mud.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The Price of Living Forever

As we crossed into Benguela province, Manuel (my favorite driver) started telling some stories about the area. I always enjoy driving with Manuel because he's open about the war and his political ideas.

He talked about the heavy fight that went on in one particular area. We crossed a bridge and he said, "The South Africans never made it past this bridge. They killed every last one of them."

Then he started telling stories about the brutality of one particular commander who was especially cruel. Apparently this one commander would kill any person who slighted him in the least, so the population of the area lived in fear. As we passed a roadside market and a hill with a lone hut on top. He pointed to it and said, "A man lives in that house, and no one can ever take his picture." I assumed he meant that he was wanted for a crime or wary of technology, but Manuel quickly corrected me. "No, Leslie. There is not a camera on earth that will take his picture."

He explained that this man was so fearful of losing his life to the cruel commander or to the violence surrounding the area that he went to a feticeiro (witch doctor) and requested a spell that would make him live forever. The side effect of this spell is that he literally cannot have his picture taken. People have tried to take his picture, but it never comes out. All of his offical documents- identity card, voter registration card- are missing the picture. Not only that, but his name cannot be writen by any machine- no typewriter, no computer will spell out his name.

As a result, no one wants to be near him, so he is doomed to spend the rest of his life all alone.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Cunene Floods

One house flooded. Note the proximity of the water to the side of the road. Normally this road is raised by at least 5 feet.

In addition to slipping across the border to renew my 90-day visa, I went to Cunene to gather information about the devastating flooding going on in the southern province that borders with Namibia.

It has rained much more than usual- in fact Cunene was suffering from a drought before the rains came. Estimates are that 40,000 families have been affected in some way.

The director of our local partner agency and I tried to meet with some government officials to get numbers but it was short notice and I’m not important enough, so no one would meet with us. On the radio they said 23,000 people in Ondjiva (the capital city of Cunene province) had been displaced (read- homeless).
An IDP tent in one of the camps

The situation in Ondjiva alone was shocking. We visited two IDP (internally displaced persons) camps that had been set up by the government. The tents are crammed with people- we heard of one tent that was housing 4 families- and all the belongings they could grab before their houses were flooded. I saw no more than 3 makeshift latrines for each camp which, by the looks of it, house approximately 2,000 families (which would be around 10,000 to 15,000 people). Not a pleasant or sanitary set-up, to say the least.

What’s interesting about the Ondjiva flooding is that it doesn’t come from a river- it is simply accumulated water and all over the city. This poses an intense public health risk- I witnessed countless children playing in the water as if it was a giant swimming pool, adults with giant nets fishing inside the sewage gates which were gushing with water and dozens of people living right next to the stagnant water.
Note how close this house is to the water.

It’s harder to gauge what is happening in the interior of the province. It can only be worse. Unlike communities in Benguela province which are relatively close to one another, communities in Cunene are very spread out. Your closest neighbor may be a few miles away, so it’s difficult to know who has been displaced or killed. There weren’t any roads to speak of in the first place, so whatever was there has been washed out, making rescue and relief efforts difficult.

We will be bringing in an internal consultant to do a proper assessment and response proposal. Our partner plans to focus on the rural areas where response has been minimal. Sadly, it will only get worse as March is the peak of the rainy season.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Awesome, in the truest sense of the word

Sunset, Saturday March 8, 2008 in Restinga, Lobito.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

The visa saga continues...

(Part 1 of 3)

Two weeks ago I sat down and counted out the days left on my visa- I had fewer days left than I thought I did so I had to get out of the country within two weeks. It didn’t make sense to pay a lot of money to go to South Africa or Zambia, so my supervisor and I decided it made the most sense for me to go visit our programming partner in Cunene and run across the border to Namibia for a few hours.

I got on the direct flight from Benguela to Ondjiva (the capital of Cunene province). The flight was scheduled to leave from the smaller airport in Catumbela, which is 30 minutes away from Lobito. For some reason that’s not clear to me (like so many things here), you must check in and go through immigration control at the Benguela airport (1 hr from Lobito), then drive to the Catumbela airport to wait.

You might remember my visa fiasco from the last time I flew out of the Benguela airport. (Quick recap: Angola has immigration checks on all domestic flights. Two Benguela immigration officials are convinced, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, that I am in gross violation of my visa.) Immediately after that run-in, Elisabeth, the head of our HR department, called some provincial government big-wigs, all of whom agreed that I was correct. The provincial people assured us that it would not be a problem in the future. We should have known better.

Just my luck, the exact same two officials who tried to arrest me last December were the ones on duty last Wednesday as I was leaving for Cunene. Great. Sure enough, they recognized me and my visa and once again threatened to arrest me and, in a new twist, fine me. Their supervisor happened to be there, so the called him over and explained their side of the story. This was frustrating because I have a feeling that had he looked at the visa on its own, he would have come to a different conclusion, just like every other immigration agent I’ve encountered in this country. Now that the three of them were against me, I plead my case, telling them in a polite way that Elisabeth called the provincial government officials and had the situation resolved. They didn’t believe me (!!!) so I called Elisabeth and gave the phone to the supervisor to talk to her.

The supervisor was reasonable enough, but not enough to be fully reasonable. He explained to Elisabeth that she had called the wrong people (even though they were the people they told us to call the last time). The three people then began to argue about what to do; the two original ones wanted to take me in, but the supervisor luckily won out and I felw out to Cunene because we showed evidence that we were trying to resolve the problem. “But you’ll have a serious problem when you try to come back in the country! Vai ver! You’ll see!” (Ha! They didn’t give my visa a second look at the border checkpoint.)

The bad news is that they DID make it very clear that if I showed up again without a written declaration from the people they indicated to us, I would be arrested and fined, no exceptions. That means that this latest trip to Cunene might have been my last, unless we can get this letter. It also means that I will have to drive to and from Luanda, which takes about 6 – 7 hours.
So, if I can’t fly in and out of Benguela, then how did I get back home from Cunene? A trip from hell, as evidenced in the following post.

TAAG - Mystery of the EU Ban Solved

(Part 2 of 3)

Because there are two immigration agents in the Benguela airport out to get me, I was unable to make the trip from Cunene to Benguela via air. There is major flooding in Cunene and the roads leading to the north, which were in horrible condition in the first place, are now totally inaccessible. My only option, therefore, was to fly to Luanda and then drive back to Lobito: meaning that a trip that usually takes 1 hour by air would take two full days.

The only available flight to Luanda the Friday I was scheduled to leave was on TAAG. You might know TAAG as the nationalized airline that crashed a plane in Mbanza Congo on they same day that they were put on the black list and banned from flying in the European Union. (A twist of fate that could only happen in Angola.) Needless to say, I was not excited, but the only way to avoid TAAG was to wait until Wednesday. I just had to suck it up and hope for the best.

Check-in was to begin at 6:30 for a 9:30 flight, so I got there at 7 am. Checked in without a problem, especially since I didn’t have any bags to check. 9:30 came and went. 11:00 came and went. Finally around noon, I went to the TAAG window and asked for information about the flight. “Has it left Luanda?” “Oh yes, it has.” “Really? When did it leave? When will it arrive?” “Oh, I don’t know. Soon.” Helpful.

Finally, around 3:30, the plane arrived from Luanda. There was a mad rush to the door and out we went onto the tarmac. There was a hold-up getting on to the plane; the airline people weren’t allowing anyone on board with their carry-on bags. For some reason they didn’t say anything to me, and I managed to get to the stairs. A baggage handler ran over and stopped me from getting on. “You can’t get on with any bags!” I asked for an explanation and was told that the crew in Luanda and second city on the route hadn’t complied with the carry-on restrictions, so they weren’t letting any people carry things on in Cunene. I said as calmly as I could, “TAAG has made me wait for six hours. I refuse to have to wait any more because of a mistake you made.” He still insisted- no apology, of course- and grabbed my carry-on. Assuming it was finished, I started to go up the stairs to the plane. “No, I need the other one too!” He was referring to my purse! Pretty ridiculous, if you ask me. I explained that I had my camera, wallet, passport, and money in there- if he was willing to sign a paper listing every single item with its value and be held responsible, then I would give him the bag. Finally succumbing to reason, he let me on the plane with my purse.

The flight attendant was not as “helpful.” Sure enough, all the overhead bins were in use, so I put the purse underneath the seat in front of me. For some reason, the flight attendants wouldn’t let anyone have anything underneath the seats, so she said she would put my purse in the back of the plane. I refused because, as I said, I had my camera, passport, etc and didn’t want it out of my sight. “Senhora. It’s because of these carry-on bags on the floor that we got citations and were put on the black lists in Europe!” I looked at her and just laughed. Oh, it’s the CARRY-ON bags that banned TAAG from the EU!? Mystery solved!

Her solution was as inane as her comment. He asked the man sitting across the aisle to get out of his seat and move to another one. She put my purse in the empty seat and strapped it in with the seat belt. The woman sitting next to me said, “You won’t let her put in under the seat so you put it on top of the seat?!” Glad to know I wasn’t the only one astounded by the whole thing.

Finally, on to Lobito

One way to try and get a big 18-wheeler out of a pit of mud...
(Part 3 0f 3)

My colleagues and I left for Luanda around 8 am on Saturday. I’ve give a lot of credit to the Chinese- the road to Luanda is paved and smooth as a baby’s bottom, making it a pleasant trip- at least until the turnoff to Lobito. They haven’t finished paving the road so cars are forced to take a secondary dirt road. That wouldn’t be too comfortable during the dry season, so you can imagine what it would be like during the rainy season.

We got stuck for about an hour as all confusão broke loose. There was a major traffic jam thanks to some big trucks, taxis and buses that got stuck in the mud. When the one taxi that was causing the major delay came loose, there was a bigger problem with the jerks who had decided that everyone else just didn’t know how to drive and had tried to circumvent the wait by driving in the on-coming lane of traffic. So although there was no longer a taxi stuck in the mud, there were 4 other cars blocking its passage. It didn’t help that the drivers of these four cars were no where to be seen. When they finally reappeared, they got into a shouting match with the other drivers. They refused to go back to the end of the line of cars because they didn’t want to wait. Finally, the mob of people that quickly formed around the four cars was enough to convince them to back up and let everyone go about their way. I finally got home around 4 pm. Phew.

Monday, March 03, 2008

Watch out for the tala!

I was in my supervisor’s office this afternoon, and he received a phone call from his daughter. I didn’t want to eavesdrop, but it was a little hard. “It already burst? But now it’s growing back? Okay, but put the antibiotic on.” Sounded a little gross. He sighed and said, “Oh, Leslie. We Africans, we have such crazy ideas. Have you heard about the tala?” And then he proceeded to tell me about the tala.

The tala is some sort of witchcraft or curse that affects your foot. It will swell your foot and leg so much that you will not be able to put on shoes, walk. Even worse, you will eventually have to have it amputated! But how do you get the tala? The person who curses you with the tala will put it on a keyhole or something s/he knows you will touch. Not to worry, though, if you share a house with anyone- talas know their destination, and even if you tough the tainted object, it is not meant for you and it will ignore you.

Why would anyone put a tala on you? There’s your usual revenge- you are dating a jealous lover’s ex or you are suspected of hurting someone. But it can also be to show you your place- if you get a raise at work too soon after starting the job, or the boss openly compliments your work, then you are a target.

My supervisor said that his daughter was calling on behalf of her cousin. He woke up one morning with the tala, so he put aloe vera on it. It helped quite a bit, but then the blistered popped open, so they were concerned. My supervisor didn’t seem concerned for the cousin’s future.

I asked if the tala had a cure, either through traditional or modern medicine. “Leslie, this cannot be cured in any hospital!” He then proceeded to tell me the story of the wife of a mayor of one of the municipalities where my organization used to work. One day the woman woke up with the tala, although she didn’t know it was the tala. Over the course of two years, her foot swelled to such a size that she couldn’t wear any shoes and had great difficulty walking. She went to several doctors and hospitals, and no one could cure her. Finally a doctor in Benguela told her he would have to amputate her foot. She went to Luanda to get a second opinion, but the doctor told her the same thing.

She scheduled the surgery and bought the medicine (here you have to buy the medicine in advance), but the doctor cancelled at the last minute. After rescheduling the surgery for a few weeks in advance, she went back home to wait. Her maid begged her to go see her aunt, who was a traditional healer. She conceded, and visited the aunt. The aunt took one look and said, “This is very serious. You must go see this other healer.” So she went to see another, more elderly woman, an established healer.

The healer suspected that it was tala. She got a bottle of comproto, a locally produced alcohol, and rubbed it all over the foot. She then made a cut at the bottom of the foot, sucked some blood out and then spit it out on the wall. Looking at the results, she said, “You have tala. You will go home and be able to put on shoes and walk again. Tomorrow the person who put the tala on you will come and act happy for you, but secretly they will be angry.”

The woman went home and went for her shoes. Sure enough, she put them on without problems and began to walk. The next day, a neighbor with whom she had a minor squabble came by and said, “Oh, mana! How wonderful that you are cured!”


Sunday, March 02, 2008

MIss Landmine Angola 2008

My dear friend Cesar emailed me a link to a website. “Is this thing for real?” he asked. The website was for the Miss Landmine Angola 2008 beauty pageant. And yes, it is for real.

I heard a little about this last year and didn’t know what to think about it. On the one hand I was put off, as I usually am with beauty pageants. On the other hand, this was obviously different and the contestants are were your typical bimbos. After looking at the website, I think it’s an interesting way to bring awareness to the landmine issue.

This year the pageant will take place in April. The website has an option to vote for the candidates, each one representing a different province in Angola. Personally, I am torn between two candidates: Miss Benguela, my hometown candidate; and Miss Moxico, because she listed her ideal job as “boss”- obviously a woman who wants to be in charge!

(By the way, Angolans LOVE beauty pagaents! There's even a Mr. Angola pagaaent, which people take very seriously.)