Our first 48 hours in Angola! After 2 overnight flights and an early 5 am arrival in Luanda, I had the sense of living in a dream, like I should recognize my surroundings but couldn’t quite place them. There was no reason that they should be familiar, since I never spent time as a kid in Luanda. The language was right, the Portuguese colonial architecture fit my image, but it just seemed surreal.
The guesthouse we stayed in was located on a narrow rutted street a couple of blocks from a main drag, with 2 grocery stores nearby. The house is owned by someone associated with the World Food program, and managed efficiently by an Angolan woman. Most of the other guests, from several nations, worked for the UN or NGOs. The odd man out was an Angolan gemologist who buys and sells diamonds and has to renew his license frequently. They made for entertaining conversation when we weren’t snoozing or taking a tour of the city with the driver we’d hired to drive us to Lobito the next day. The contrast between wealth and poverty couldn’t be more stark. The total disregard for housing, infrastructure, and affordability for anyone outside the ruling class reminded me of the disdain our bankers have for anyone outside their circle. The tour of this huge chaotic city made us happy that we had planned to leave the next day.
A recent article named Luanda as the priciest capital city in the world for expatriates. A mediocre meal can cost a minimum of $40 per person. Some expats regularly pay $20,000 to $25,000 a month on rent! Rather than blow our budget on eating out, we purchased groceries and cooked a meal for the 6 of us in the guesthouse kitchen for $30. And then we all crashed in anticipation of a 4 am departure the next morning, earplugs stuffed in our ears.
The TV in the guesthouse was always set to loud, a party a couple of houses away went on all night, dogs barked and barked, music played everywhere. My brother has a theory to explain the nonstop noise in Luanda. It’s related to post-traumatic stress. After 40 years of war, everyone uses noise to maintain the adrenaline, the tension, unable to relax.
The advantage of leaving early in the morning is that our driver avoided the traffic jams normal to the southern suburbs. For us it meant traveling in the dark for 2 hours, sitting on hard benches against our piled luggage, floating in a dreamlike state. With daylight the coastal terrain of cactus and baobabs emerged. We drove through Kissama National Park, the only staffed park in Angola with tourist facilities, but sparsely populated with animals. We pushed on to Lobito, a good 7-8 hour drive on a paved but narrow road.
At each curve we learned to expect a wrecked truck or the skeletons of several cars. In this country where no one has to have a driver’s license, a toot of the horn warns cars, motorcycles or pedestrians that you are coming and they should get out of your way. Our driver, Evaristo, had spent several years during the wars working for World Food. He drove in convoys of 50 trucks, delivering food around the country and bringing people hiding in the bush to Lobito for safekeeping. I tried not to pay much attention to the road and relied on his skills to avoid disaster.
We stopped for breakfast in Sumbe at the Ritz Hotel and again a little south for gas in a beautiful lush mountain area. Our driver has invested in this gas station and was enthusiastic about the opportunities available right now in Angola. Much fighting between MPLA and UNITA was centered in this gorgeous terrain, at the border between Sumbe and Lobito. In the end it kept the war out of Lobito. The driver was also from Lobito so we all let out a cheer as we crossed the river dividing the 2 territories.
We turned west off the road south and descended through the hills into Lobito. Evaristo took us on a circuitous route so there was no way to get my bearings, even if that were possible after 44 years. He pointed out the church and school compound in Canata where my parents had worked. It was unrecognizable and I couldn’t see the salt flats that used to be adjacent (see my website, nancyhendersonjames.com for pictures of what it looked like in my childhood). Finally when we started down the commercial street, past the port, and the train station it all became more familiar. Some places are in good repair and others are derelict. 12:30 was too early to arrive at Casa Missionaria, my old home, so we stopped for lunch at the bar-restaurant and pastry shop where we used to stop for treats. Now it is a restaurant with a Sunday buffet of Portuguese food… Vegetable soup, cod in cream sauce, fried fish, fresh salad.
The bar-restaurant, formerly the Luso, is now named Tamariz. It’s on the plaza with the post office, the MPLA building, and the train station. The post office, which was our vital communication center, has now been superseded by email and mobile phones. The trains, our means of transport inland, currently only run the 30 km between Lobito and Benguela. The rails are being rebuilt now by the Chinese, but so far only carry cargo. When we travel up country to see the Dondi mission, we’ll have to go by road. We’re debating whether to hazard renting a car or whether to hire Evaristo again.
After lunch we drove down the 28th of August avenue to my old house. Eva and Jose Chipenda came out to greet us. The Henderson and Chipenda families have had a long relationship beginning in 1949 when we moved to Lobito. Jesse Chipenda, who began the church work on the coast in 1924, was my young father’s mentor. In the tense years leading up to the war for independence, Jesse Chipenda was arrested and eventually died in the prison camp.
More later on the next post!