Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Column 126 – Angola

I've just returned from a week in Luanda, the capital of Angola in West Africa. In fact, I'm in London as I write this, between planes on what will, if all goes well, be a 27 hour trip home.


Prosaic as it sounds, the trip was a wake-up call for me, an insight into how much of the world outside North America and Europe lives, and the consequences of their living that way.


Luanda is about as unworkable a place as I've ever seen. Only the main streets are paved, and badly at that; the side streets, even some pretty major ones, are packed red dirt and I may have seen five traffic lights and one stop sign the whole time I was there. Traffic is ranges from jammed to hopelessly jammed – in the early morning it took about 15 minutes to go from where I was staying to where I was working. At 5:30 in the evening it took anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour and a quarter. The best way to describe Angola traffic is as a game of "chicken" played by 4 million people, about half of them in cars.


Most of the people live in what I could generously call slums, and as it is in places like Bangkok, life is lived mainly in the streets, in the dust and fumes. A large segment of the population seems to make what living they make selling things in the streets. Women with large plastic tubs on their heads offer fruit, shoes, beer, and in one case eggs. Young men pass among the jammed cars holding mops, towels, automobile parts, shower heads, you name it.


As you would expect, crime is rampant. The company I was there working for devoted hours before and during the trip to safety briefings and had a 24/7 fleet of cars that would come and get us and take us anywhere we wanted to go. The instructions were clear – only go by car and in the car do not open the windows.


Pretty grim, huh? Well the surprise is that it isn't, really, for the people who live there. They accept as a fact of life that the power will go out unpredictably and mostly they don't bat an eye when it happens. Expats accept that if they walk, even from their car to their home or office, they will be robbed from time to time and carry a small amount of money which they give up to the robbers. One fellow, who is actually a native Angolan, was held up, remonstrated angrily with the robber and refused to give him anything. The next day he saw the would-be robber coming toward him and thought he was in real trouble, but the fellow apologized for trying to rob him – he didn't realize my friend lived in the neighborhood, and if he had he would have left him alone.


Luanda is a mix of people of African descent, those of Portuguese descent (it was a Portuguese colony until the '70's), others who live and work there and expats, mainly working for the oil companies. Portuguese is the official language, and you will also hear a variety of native languages, but if, like me, you don't speak any of these, you will find the people are very patient and try to understand. There is no tipping and wages are pretty meager, but they go out of their way to be helpful and to serve.


So what does that have to do with us here in Incline? We are a wealthy community, with pockets of the less wealthy in our midst. We worry about immigration instead of appreciating what new groups bring to our culture. Many of us think that everyone who lives here should speak English, and we are sometimes impatient with those who don't speak it well or speak it at all. Maybe the "backward" folk of Angola have something to teach us.

No comments: