Luanda, Angola, February, 2016

Extracted from notes made during a cruise from Barbados to Cape Town. It seems important to mention that a flying one-day visit is no way to form an accurate impression of a society, but one day was all we had in each of the countries we visited down the west coast of Africa in early 2016. These notes, drawn from immediate experience, are nothing more than vignettes. And you know what they say about first impressions …

In Togo our bus came with two armed guards in the back seats. In Luanda we get a police outrider and an unmarked two-man police car for the three buses on our “highlights of Luanda” day out. This is a two-faced city: a glitzy business district of office towers and apartment blocks that looks like a prosperous downtown in any tropical capital (though lots of crumbling tenements totter cheek by jowl with the shiny and the new); and slum areas like anything you’d see in Rio or Nairobi–sprawling Potemkin villages hidden by ten-foot fences that allow only fleeting glimpses inside through occasional narrow entryways.

A wide and splendid boulevard with parks and squares runs for several kilometres along the beaches, then gives out abruptly at the shanty towns, where you can see evidence of ongoing slum clearance. Apparently there’s a brouhaha over the lavish spending on the boulevard while social programs remain short-changed. A city and a country in transition? Luanda has the highest cost of living in the world, despite 40 per cent unemployment (at least) and rampant corruption, latest evidence of which is a case involving the misappropriation of billions from the Bank of Angola resulting in 50 convictions and counting. Independence for Angola was 41 years ago but the history has been, to say the least, unhappy. Our tour guide, Miko, says he was forced to become a child soldier at 14 and served for three years in the civil war–though he worked in Army logistics so “I never had to fight my brothers.” He eventually smuggled himself into the UK and got himself a solid education in communications.

We visit a pretty Catholic church and tour the military museum that’s housed in the old Portuguese fortress that overlooks the city (statues of Vasco da Gama and other colonizers, and displays of military might ranging from ancient cannons to a heap of smashed-up US helicopters). A vast park in the centre of town houses the mausoleum of Agostino Neto, who led the guerrilla war against colonialism and was Angola’s first president. The scale is bigger than Lenin’s tomb in Moscow and the security is fierce–no photography allowed anywhere on pain of camera confiscation, and a police mirror search under the bus for any hidden bombs we might be bringing in.

The catafalque at the heart of the building is ringed with lavish wreaths from appreciative nations and organizations, with pride of place going to the one from Russia. The obsession with security continues with a ban on any photography during our drive through the city’s up-market residential area where all the Angolan elite live. Heaven forbid that evidence of the inequities here would ever make it onto Facebook or YouTube.

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