Luanda – My First Days There

Some years ago, my wife – Lotty – and I worked at Luanda International School in Luanda, the capital of Angola, which had just finished a 30 year civil war when we arrived there.

Before we arrived in Angola we had been told all manner of horror stories about Luanda and Angola.   About how it was the most expensive city in the world, how dangerous it was to venture alone onto its crime ridden streets and how chaotic it was. The result of this was that the first time we went into the city (safely tucked up in our school bus, with uniformed guard) we were all terrified to set foot out of the bus. It duly arrived at the “South African Super Market”, which we were being shown, as a good place to shop, This is a smallish supermarket, surrounded by a high cement wall with armed guards at the entrance to the parking lot, as well as at the entrance to the supermarket itself.  By the way, these armed guards were armed with AK47s, which I later discovered was totally normal in Angola at that time.  Every shop had its uniformed and AK47 toting guard sitting outside it.  Taking all our courage in our hands, we climbed cautiously out of our bus into the heat of a Luandan afternoon, and hurried into the supermarket to do our shopping.

Once I had managed to sort out how the price of things was indicated, I felt that the info about it being expensive here was true..The prices were terrible! Anyhow, I gritted my teeth and bought the few things I needed (Lotty was working, so not on this first trip). I then took my purchases and hurried back to the safety of our bus, parked in the car park.

Middle class side street
I later discovered that there were two sorts of shops in Luanda, those that sold stuff chiefly to expats living there, and those that sold stuff to the locals.  This supermarket was one for the expats, and the prices reflected that.  Ordinary shops for the locals were much, much cheaper, and provided you didn’t insist on having well known western makes of food and were happy to eat the local stuff, life was actually very cheap.

This was something that most white expats never discovered, as they refused to go into the small local stores as they were simply terrified of those “dangerous black people”  Silly idiots.

Anyhow, having done my bit of shopping, and as the others others were still happily engaged in their shopping, I returned to our bus and sat and waited for them there. After a bit I felt silly, so I got out again and walked over to the gate and peered cautiously out into the street..And experienced Luanda for the first time in the flesh, as it were, and not from behind the window of a secure bus. Frankly I was scared, the street was filthy, and stank, and there were groups of Angolans sitting around looking suspicious, and to my eyes, dangerous. When they saw me, some of them came rushing towards me, shouting….. So I nipped hurriedly back into the car park. What I hadn’t realised was that they simply wished to try and sell me things, bananas, vegs and so on (Luanda is full of street traders).

So, this was my first attempt to set foot on a Luanda street..a dismal failure owing to what I had been told about the place by our esteemed administration.

I have since discovered that in spite of having lived there for a number of years, they have never actually walked around in Luanda on their own, and had not got a clue about the place.

Having survived this baptism of Luandan fire, I was very happy to return to our safe, walled and guarded compound.

By the way, at that time, as the war had only just finished, supplies were sporadic, there were times when there was simply no soap powder to be had, or eggs, or coffee… So whenever we saw the main staples in the shops, we always bought them, as we couldn’t be sure that when we actually needed them, they would be available in Angola.  Just about everything came in on ships, as the local industries and farms were more or less destroyed at that time.

The following week, I was told that I had to go into town to buy a lot of materials for the computer department in the school, and to be honest, the prospect scared the hell out of me as it entailed going into town on my own (well, with a driver for the bus) and to actually walk on the streets on my own, and going into shops on my own…. With my wonderful Portuguese? And my fear of the place too? Hmmmmmmmmm…..
Anyhow, being British, I firmed up the old upper lip and set off bravely. When we finally  arrived at the first shop I had to go to (it could take up to two hours to get into the centre of Luanda from the school owing to the incredible traffic), the driver parked the van in a dingy car park beside the road and pointed out the shop to me and settled down in his seat to wait for me.  That was when I realised that my moment of truth was upon me! So, bravely, out I got, and set off towards the shop.

Now, the side streets of Luanda were not much more than mud tracks by and large, covered in a thick layer of filth, all manner of rubbish festering happily away, plus groups of women sitting around selling things, or simply sitting and dressing each other’s hair. Also, there were always groups of young men standing around doing nothing in particular, and almost wall to wall cars, trucks and other vehicles (many of which would have given any European Cop a heart attack they were in such appalling condition). So I carefully navigated my way between all of these obstacles, and even managed to cross the busy road to get to the shop. And then I discovered the truth about Luanda, and Angola in general………………… The people there are friendly, easy to talk to, and extremely helpful to an idiotic, pink, sweaty person such as I was at that time. They appeared to have absolutely no feelings of antipathy to white people, or even particularly to register that I was white. The only thing which caused comment was my beard… But that is the same almost everywhere I go.

Thus, it transpired that my fears were completely groundless, Luanda was a safe city for someone such as myself to wander around in on his own. Once I had made this discovery I was unstoppable. I finished my shopping that day, with complete success.  Using a mix of English, French, my tiny amount of Portuguese and a lot of good will, I was able to communicate my needs OK.

So, it was a much relieved Tony who returned to the school that day.

I then become completely at home in that city, using cheap Luanda supermarkets, drinking in Luandan bars and cafes, in preference to the ones used by the expat community, and generally enjoyed the place a lot.

I would go so far as to say that in spite of the enormous problems there – 4 or 5 million displaced people living in a city designed for about 500 000, lousy, or non-existent drainage, water supply and usable infra structure –  it was one of the safest feeling cities I had ever been in. I liked the place!

Market in Luanda
Typical street scene in Luanda
Luanda was a strange mix of the Middle Ages and the late 50’s, both in terms of the architecture and the living conditions. There were elegant houses in quiet side streets, quite beautiful old Portuguese style houses, but the streets they are on are swamps with filth and stink everywhere.

Street Kids
The whole place was a weird mix of rich and poor side by side. The traffic was insane, mainly caused by the infamous white and blue taxi vans everywhere (anyone who has been to Africa will know these taxis, I am told they are endemic in Africa).  These were driven by young men who seem completely insane, they roared along the pavement, on the wrong side of the road, hurtling about, stopping with no warning, crashing regularly, overfilled with passengers ( I have seen them hurtling along with people’s legs and bums sticking out of the windows they were so stuffed with people). Almost all of them were falling apart, and alarmingly, almost all of them had front windscreens that had been hit really hard at some point. They were a complete menace, and you wouldn’t get me in one for any money!
However, they were the main form of public transport there, which is sad, as they killed no end of people every year I am told.

As in most African cities, the inhabitants tend to live their lives out on the streets, rather than in their homes, which is understandable given that most of them lived in shanty towns or dreadful, rotting, 50’s style high rise flats built by the Cubans.    So the streets were always full of people, sitting, talking, working and getting on with their lives. Sadly, the streets were also full of cripples, mainly Polio and landmine victims, beggars and street kids, which was very distressing to see. Like a lot of people there, I gave small amounts of money to those people when I saw them, but basically there was nothing one can do to help.. It was horrible! I have no pictures of landmine victims or polio victims, no way I could point a camera at someone in that condition.

And, as a young friend of ours who was in Angola to clear land mines said, one also saw a lot of people who have given up and cracked under the conditions of life here…   Walking along the streets, shrieking their anguish, or curled up in foetal positions in odd places. It was a very powerful experience, being in a city like Luanda, one I shall never forget!

On the positive side, in spite of the awful conditions of most people in Luanda, the people radiate a feeling of positive energy and happiness which was astounding.. And they smiled so much too. If I had to live as they did, I can’t imagine I would be able to rustle up even a fraction of this energy and apparent happiness. Amazing people, the Angolans are.

An extra ordinary place, full of contradictions.

2 thoughts on “Luanda – My First Days There”

  1. Hi Denise, I am glad you think so.. Living and working in Angola was an interesting experience on so many levels. Wandering around in mine-fields, seeing kids crippled by Polio, and adults crippled by land-mines (mines wound adults and kill kids), burnt out tanks in people’s gardens, whole towns shot up so that every square meter of house front was full of holes… But in spite of all of this, and the filth and poverty all around us, the Angolans were clean, smart and cheerful and full of pride in both themselves and their country – an amazing experience on so many, many levels!

  2. Fascinating account! Life in Angola after the war, beautifully and poignantly rendered and brought to life. Thanks so much for sharing.

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