My trip to Angola in August 2010 promises to be one of nonstop surprises, orientation, disorientation, and reorientation. The last time I was in Angola was in 1966, 5 years into the war for independence from Portugal and still 9 years away from its end. That war morphed into a series of civil wars, as the opposing parties vied for control of the country when Portugal abruptly left in 1975. The civil wars ended in 2002.
Forty years of war. That is something to think about. Hundreds of thousands of Angolans fled the fighting, going to Congo, Namibia, Zambia, and other southern African countries. They fled from the land-mined countryside to cities within Angola, swelling them to megacity size. The country’s infrastructure suffered. The Benguela railroad that took me back and forth to school as a kid was destroyed. Roads were strewn with landmines. Agriculture came to a halt. Large oil reserves were discovered, developed and controlled by the government. The world’s fifth largest diamond cache fueled the rebel side.
Eight years of peace later, the country has undergone more enormous changes. I expect to be constantly surprised by what I see. One of the changes I’ve been warned of is the number of Chinese now in Angola. In exchange for access to Angola’s oil, China is rebuilding the railroad, roads, hospitals, and other infrastructure. The Chinese-Angolan interactions have been guarded, I hear. The Chinese are in Angola to do a specific job, not to make friends with the Angolans. Their work styles are quite different. An Angolan woman I know described to me watching Chinese people walking around town and repeatedly stooping to pick up very small somethings. What those somethings were, she didn’t know, she couldn’t imagine what they were finding. In addition, their constant industry was puzzling to her. Don’t they ever rest?
The new roads are welcomed additions. Now Luanda and Lobito, both on the coast, are only 6 hours apart by car. Lobito, my old hometown, and Huambo, which is inland and used to be an overnight train ride, can now be made into a day trip. Unimaginable in my day! When I am there, I want to check out the rumors I’ve heard that the Chinese enterprises are using Chinese workers, not the many Angolans who need work and experience. A beautiful new hospital built by Chinese sits empty for lack of trained nurses and doctors and lab techs and all the other personnel a hospital needs. Angola’s personnel infrastructure is still lagging after 40 years of war. A shocking statistic I just read on AfricaFiles.org it that oil and diamonds bring in $100 billion a year for the government. Yet education and health remain virtually unfunded outside the coastal cities. Even in the cities education is sparsely provided.
I hope you will come with me as I rediscover the land of my youth.