Life after war

Decadence and decay are sinister neighbours in this enigmatic city, once known as the Paris of Africa. Luanda, a place of relative safety during the 30-year civil war, is bursting at the seams with approximately four million inhabitants. The dramatic influx of people seeking some kind of normality and safety in the midst of the fighting has placed a burden insurmountable on this the capital of Angola, writes LINDA MARTINDALE.  

 To say that housing is inadequate is an understatement, and the incredibly high infant mortality rate is just one indicator of the strain and consequence of war and corruption. Millions live in trying conditions where survival is the primary concern. The flats in the city are often overcrowded and seldom enjoy luxuries such as running water.

Rich in resource and cultural heritage, this beautiful country is struggling to get back onto its feet after centuries of colonial rule, and three decades of civil war. Before the arrival of the Portuguese in 1575 the African inhabitants of the area referred to the island-like strip that is today a part of the city, as Loanda, meaning 'flat land'. As 

the previously idyllic bay became the port through which millions of people were sold into slavery and exported to Brazil and other countries, so the settlement grew. In 1605 the Portuguese governor, Manuel Cerveira Pereira, declared Sao Paulo de Loanda a city - the first to be founded by Europeans on the West Coast of sub-Saharan Africa. As the slave trade died, other forms of trade developed such as the export of cotton, palm oil, coffee, lime, wax, leather and ginguba oil, and the city continued its expansion. Before independence from Portuguese rule in 1975 the demographics were largely the Angolan masses on the outskirts of the city with the Portuguese few in the centre. Today the expats live in the town-housed suburbs such as Villa Alice while the rest of Luanda's residents are either in cramped flats, mansions or the musseques.

Makeshift dwellings inside an old Portuguese factory - a stone's throw from the presidential palace

Harbour scene from the Ilha

Townships in the outlying areas of the city are known as the musseques, their name derived from 'mu seke' meaning 'area of sand'. This is perhaps the heart of Luanda. An aerial view of these settlements forms a mosaic of various shades of brown squares, the thousands of makeshift homes that ripple outwards from the city centre. As in any city settlement, gangsterism is rife, but so is the zest for life, music and dancing. Samba, a musseque on the shore a few kilometres from the city centre, is home to close-knit communities who are always hoping for a better future for themselves and their children. It is in these communities that the spirit of independence from colonial rule was born, and where men and women have died for their political alignment or beliefs.

On the other side of Luanda, literally and metaphorically, the Ilha de Luanda resembles a tropical resort. A strip of land much like an island although linked to the mainland, the Ilha separates the city and bay from the open Atlantic Ocean. It is here that the Angolans and expats alike come to swim and relax, and enjoy the sun and sea. Although separated by the resort-type beaches allocated for those who can afford to pay dollars to sit on a deck chair, the holiday vibe permeates throughout.

The chasm between the rich and poor, the haves and have-nots, is immense, as the majority of the people struggle to make it above the breadline in a city that has been sited as being more expensive than London. It can cost up to $400 to get a phone line installed, and this with no guarantees of the line working consistently. Dos Santos' presidential palace looks regal and out of place on a hill overlooking makeshift housing below, the freshly painted buildings, green grass and fountains in sharp contrast to the surrounding structures. The Angolan elite and those with foreign business interest, such as the oil companies, are the minority who can actually afford to live in Luanda. One can relish a meal for $70 on the Esplanade on the hill whilst hearing the festivities and noise from the shacks below, the candles and lanterns forming an eerie glow in the dark. Street children scratch in bins whilst the privileged pass by in four by fours. Potholed roads, littered streets and buildings damaged beyond repair or simply unfinished, are commonplace in the city that never sleeps. The empty shell of the Ministry of Justice building is an ironic reminder of some of the gaping holes in this society.

The people of Luanda are revelling in the peace that has filtered through since the disintegration of the once-powerful UNITA force after Jonas Savimbi's death in February last year. The atmosphere on the streets is a mixture of relief and frustration. "It's impossible to get anywhere here in Luanda," a young man from Samba says. "If you don't know anybody in key positions, or have lots of dollars, it's a dead end street!" Talk of corruption is on the lips of both professionals and paupers, and it seems that the eradication of this will be the first saving grace of the nation.

Promises of development, both structural and social, abound. Door to door rubbish removal, unheard of in the past, is supposedly on the cards for the litter-infested city. Luanda provincial governor, Simao Paulo, has recently approved a model that promises improved basic sanitation for the various areas of the city. The drainage system,currently in a critical condition, is receiving attention

The main road into Samba

with plans for drastic action afoot. Development and restoration of the city includes plans to reconstruct and complete building operations of unfinished structures. Hopes are high that these promises and projects to uplift Luanda are not merely talk to gain funding and line pockets but genuine attempts to make the future of the city and its inhabitants brighter.

The indomitable spirit of its people, an increasing hunger for justice and truth, uninhibited voices of opposition, and true freedom - these are the real hope for Luanda and the nation it represents.
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