x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Around Africa: Stark contrasts in Angola

Obstructive officials and helpful people, oil wealth and shantytowns – Angola offers a strange experience.

Roger and Danny on the side of the road from Soyo to Luanda. Scott MacMillan for The National
Roger and Danny on the side of the road from Soyo to Luanda. Scott MacMillan for The National

When Bob Marley sings about a government yard in Trenchtown, I've always imagined something like the scene greeting us at the bus depot in Luanda, the capital of Angola. Arriving after midnight, we join the passengers huddled in the walled compound, straw mats spread out on the damp ground, sleeping bodies lined up in rows, with travellers from across the country mingling under the lamps. Somebody is selling beverages from a cooler outside the gate. I'm only missing cornmeal porridge cooked over a campfire.

"This is pretty scary," says Roger, inserting an expletive for emphasis. "To think that people spend the night here because it's too dangerous to go elsewhere." The locals have warned us not to venture outside the compound this late at night. The bus from the north left the city of Soyo, at the mouth of the Congo River across from the Democratic Republic of Congo, early in the morning, taking us 18 hours over some of the worst roads of our entire trans-Africa trip. We'll have no time to see the capital, for the next long-haul bus for Lubango, the largest city in the south, leaves at 4am. There's no point in getting a hotel.

Angola is easily the most difficult country on our route down the west coast of Africa. Neither of us speaks a word of Portuguese, for a start. Visa-wise, the best we could do was a five-day transit visa, requiring a breakneck pace to traverse the country overland. Officials here tend to have an eye out for opportunities to extract bribes. And we're now sleeping in a bus depot on a ground that, I'm sorry to say, smells of human waste.

Apart from all that, Angola is just a bit, well, different. Rarely has it enjoyed any measure of peace. Cold War sympathies and factional claims to oil and diamond wealth fuelled a civil war that lasted 27 years, with only the briefest of ceasefire intervals, ending in 2003 with a half a million dead. It has been blessed with oil, but only in the past decade has Angola begun reaping its benefits, and today it's in the throes of transformation.

The oil boom of the past eight years has led to eye-watering prices and haphazard development even while much of the population still lives in hovels. The port city of Lobito is an arresting site, for instance: gleaming petrol stations and supermarkets spring up in the midst of the rudimentary dwellings that cover the rocky hillsides. Were it not for these anachronistic splashes of modernity, Lobito could easily stand in for biblical Jerusalem.

Yet at no point during our journey - save for the last day, which is a tale for another time - did we suffer a moment when locals weren't looking out for us in one way or another. In Soyo, it was José, an English teacher who, over dinner, opened our first window onto Angolan life. Half Angolan and half Congolese, José doesn't identify completely with either of the two peoples astride the Congo's mouth.

The Congolese see themselves as savvy and sophisticated with a strong work ethic, he says; the way he describes it, they may well be the Lebanese of Africa, were that slot not already filled by the Lebanese themselves.

"They think they're the best at everything," José says of the Congolese. "This is not an opinion I happen to share, and sometimes this creates clashes."

Too many Angolans, on the other hand, are simple people who have known nothing but warfare: "They know how to load a gun and not much else." José helps us buy our bus tickets, finds us the cheapest hotel in town and lets us use the hot showers at his workplace, a blessing during the roughest part of our journey.

On the 18-hour ride from Soyo, we're consistently checked in upon by a young English-speaker named Danny. At the depot, the driver stops to shake my hand and asks a question using Danny as a translator. "He wants to know if you enjoyed the trip," Danny says.

I have to answer honestly. "The trip was horrible," I say. "But the driver was great." I venture back to our little encampment, bringing Roger a drink. We've stood our rucksacks on end to use as a makeshift frame for a mosquito net, for the biggest danger actually facing us isn't from fellow humans: it's contracting malaria.

"It's not so bad here, once you get used to it," I tell Roger. "It's a good scene." Everyone here is in the same predicament, I realise: we're all strangers in a strange place, on the road and far from home.

Scott MacMillan is blogging about his journey on his website www.wanderingsavage.com