As the plane descended through the sepia smog that hung over the city, I could see the small concrete slums and their corrugated tin roofs held down by broken cement blocks. The slums were surrounded by potholed dark red dirt roads, and children dressed in charity shop clothes ran barefoot alongside open sewers filled with garbage. In the distance, cranes dotted the skyline in Luanda city centre where high-rise buildings were being erected for the few who could afford the luxury of modern apartments. The gap between rich and poor was clear to see.
As I stepped into the arrivals hall I searched for the familiar sign and yellow shirt of the oil company agent sent to collect me. A large group of disorganized Angolans, some eagerly and some half-heartedly holding signs, was gathered to muster the expats who were listed on their sheets of crumpled paper. I was scored off the list and chaperoned out into the car park where a car was summoned. The warm humid morning air was filled with dust and car fumes. Traffic jams are the norm in Luanda and it can take hours to get just a few kilometers, but thankfully I was early enough to beat the worst of the traffic.
It was 5:30 am. In the streets of Luanda people were already starting their day. Men, women, and children could be seen collecting water in large, plastic, beaten-up yellow canisters. These would either be carried to their homes or pushed along the streets in rusty dilapidated wheelbarrows. Every few hundred metres women, some with small blackened stoves, sold long white bread buns and steaming cooked stews to passersby and hungry soldiers who were randomly posted on the streets. Some of these women were seen later in the day selling fruit, vegetables, whole fish, and baked goods that were carried in brightly coloured basins on their heads. A small, tightly bound lump of cloth was placed between the head and the object being carried, which I’m sure assisted, but it was still quite an amazing skill. You only had to stand on the street for two minutes before a woman would walk by with a load carried on her head. The women who did this typically had the most amazing posture and grace. Their lower backs had an exaggerated arch, their shoulders were held back, heads were held high and they could turn themselves on a dime if they spotted a potential customer.
The streets of Luanda are generally a sad sight and it’s not advisable as a foreigner to be walking around the streets alone, especially after dark. It’s not uncommon to be stopped by the police and if you don’t have either your passport with a visa or notarised copies of your passport and visa you’re likely to be fined. The civil war caused an influx of millions into the city, and now a city built for 600,000 people is home to nearly five million. The homeless wrapped in jackets or blankets could be seen in alleys, on main streets, in the grassy verges by the side of the road, and even up trees. As I lay on my clean white hotel bed that day with the air conditioning keeping me cool, I was very grateful.
Despite the obvious challenges that Angola faces, there is a positive side to the country and some adventure travel companies are beginning to realise that this is a country worth experiencing. The landscape ranges from the dense, humid, lush forestland in the north to the dry desert of the Namibe area in the south. A number of national parks and reserves have been created to protect habitats and wildlife, including the National Park of Cangandala, in the province of Malange, which is home to the black palanca, a species found only in Angola.
The Atlantic coastline of Angola is greater than 1,600 km long. Beautiful beaches and islands have been created from the sediment carried by the rivers flowing from the high plateaus inland. Even in Luanda city the Ilha is a long spit of sand with bars and restaurants where parties go on late into the night. If you prefer the quiet life, then take a boat to Mussulo Island where you can do some surfing or just relax on the white sandy beaches.
Despite the hardships that the people face and the social problems that are very evident, the people very gracious, polite, friendly, and fun loving. Every day in the office I hear people sing and laugh. Greetings come with a hug as do goodbyes, and smiles are as big as they are genuine.
Certain moments stay with you as long as you live. I had one of those moments tonight. As I left the office a small group of young boys was gathered outside near the steps that led down to the street level with their shoeshine boxes. They were making some money from the workers who wanted their shoes shined for the following day. As we drove away I watched them and wondered if they had parents, somewhere safe to sleep, food to eat, anyone to care for them. They were sitting on the wall, waiting for the next potential client. One of the boys was staring right at me. I don’t know if he could sense my concern but he gave me the biggest, most beautiful smile, a little wink, and a positive thumb up. I guess business must be good.
Yvonne Booth is a contract geologist in the oil industry who is currently on assignment in Angola, a country trying to recover from the destruction and social problems caused by 27 years of civil war. The majority of her work is based in the male-dominated environment of oil rigs, but most recently she was based in the capital city of Luanda. Her work is rotational allowing her the time off to follow her true passions of travelling, and most recently writing and photography.