In Postwar Angola, Glimpses of an Emerging Country

After years of civil war, Angola's capital of Luanda is massively overcrowded, its streets filled with hustlers selling everything from car mats to chewing gum. High-rises and shanties alike overlook Luanda Bay.
After years of civil war, Angola's capital of Luanda is massively overcrowded, its streets filled with hustlers selling everything from car mats to chewing gum. High-rises and shanties alike overlook Luanda Bay. (By Steven Le Vourc'h)

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By Lynne Duke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 27, 2006

On a steamy Monday morning in Luanda, while touring the Angolan capital from the front seat of a beat-up VW station wagon, I absorbed the stories the cityscape could tell.

There were centuries-old buildings -- sad and crumbling in shades of pastel -- that told of this southwest African nation's long rule by the Portuguese. Massive shantytowns teeming with Luanda's poor told of a deep urban desperation, compounded by waves of deslocados, the displaced from the long war.

I gawked, amazed, at a peacetime construction boom of downtown high-rises, fueled no doubt by the country's vast oil and diamond wealth, that suggested renewal and progress, albeit for a few.

And the lovely palm-fringed bay, with its sensuous, inviting air, seemed too beautiful to have played host to Luanda's richly sordid history. Perhaps the perfect bay, it is sheltered by a long spit of land curving out into the Atlantic, offering protection to the fleets of ships that through the ages have brought adventurers and fortune seekers from around the globe.

The stories of three continents converge here, as they do in many other African cities that were ports of entry for the European conquest and pillage of millions of Africans shipped away as slaves. Because I am African American, the vicissitudes of that history are both repugnant and alluring. In fact, it was history that prompted my husband, Phillip, and me to travel to Luanda in June as part of a trip to nearby South Africa. I needed to meet with officials of the Historic Archive of Angola for a nonfiction book I hope to write about a 19th-century slave trader from Luanda -- yet another layer of my fascination with this bewildering city and its history.

Maybe it was the 16th-century Fort of San Miguel that enticed me, with its battlements and cannons overlooking the bay. Or the picturesque churches of the 17th and 18th centuries, especially that small Chapel of the Hill of the Cross that sits on a promontory overlooking an inlet south of the city, which was the private chapel of a slaver whose human cargo was blessed by a priest before the voyage into hell.

I traveled frequently to Luanda in the 1990s when I was based in southern Africa for The Washington Post. But this was my first trip back since 1998, when Angola still was in the throes of its civil war.

Rival liberation groups fought one another even before Angola's 1975 independence from Portuguese colonialism, after which the war drew in troops from South Africa, Zaire (now Republic of Congo) and Cuba, as well as covert operatives sent by Washington. The Cubans helped the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) seize the capital, cementing it as the leading power in the country. The MPLA then won the country's 1992 election, prompting its main rival group, the National Union for the Total Liberation CIA of Angola (UNITA), to launch a new round of war that battered the country for another decade. The war ended in 2002, after the death of the UNITA leader, Jonas Savimbi, and new elections are expected next year.

Though peace has held firm for four years, the country is not yet ready for tourists and does not yet issue tourist visas. There aren't enough hotel rooms, jammed as the city is with visiting investors and businesspeople from the United States, China, Portugal, France, South Africa and elsewhere. And with a new international airport under construction, the country's transport infrastructure isn't quite tourist-ready either.

The long years of war ravaged the country. In some hinterland towns, not a building was left unpocked by bullets and mortars. Agricultural production was decimated, as were the nation's roads, rail lines and bridges. Though the capital had mostly been spared the fighting, it was nonetheless smothered by the effects of war.

During my earlier travels in Luanda, the city smelled moldy and rancid, in part from mounds of fetid garbage pilled high on the streets. By night, I saw legions of street children -- war orphans -- sleeping on sidewalks beneath newspapers or tarps. By day, they darted in and out of traffic, begging along with the ubiquitous mutilados (war amputees mutilated by land mines) who leaned on crutches at roadside.

Now, instead of beggars, the streets are filled with hawkers, selling everything from bras to batteries, key chains to chewing gum, flip-flops to axes, Kleenex to Rattex (rat poison). Our driver, Afonso Kapembe, one day bought car floor mats and an iron while idling at a traffic light. As for the street children, we didn't see any; perhaps they are just less obvious than before. Instead, while searching for an art shop, we stumbled into a school for the arts that was filled with singing and dancing children -- the children of peace.


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