Angola’s battle scars + end of the road

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Africa » Angola
June 10th 2018
Published: July 8th 2018
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Wherever you look, there you will fly – Thai Proverb.

One of my life mottos is that when the student is ready the teacher will appear. In life there are opportunities or learning's that appear only when one is set, not before. These opportunities may have always been there however it’s not until you are personally fit that it will reveal itself. Now once visible, the choice on whether you take this path is yours and yours alone. This was the case with West Africa and me. In various times in my life this special region had beckoned but I was never ready, something got in the way; the path was blocked. For West Africa is not a beginners journey, it takes experience, time, money, patience and passion to make it through in one piece. In the past I have to accept that I was just not ready to take the plunge no matter how confident I was. It wasn't until a year out from my eventual trip that out of the blue an article on Mauritania appeared in my news-feed. West Africa was on my long term travel plans but not right now. This soon changed as I dug into Mauritania more (and its iron ore train ride), things started to materialize but on a much grander scale than I first imagined. A Mauritania trip starts morphing into a West African coast adventure. Then it appears that all the wars had cleared, visas have now became available, Ebola had moved on, moving from work became a reality. Now its arguable that these things were always there but I just wasn't ready or awake to see them yet. Its like all of a sudden the front of the storm lifts and the view of the mountain appears, the mountain was always there but the world wasnt ready to reveal itself at that moment. Now the trick is with this is to know when the front is lifting, to know the signs. For its in these opportunities that the greatest teachers will appear and its now your choice whether to jump. This is what led me on this adventure, time had simply come.

“Discovery consists not in seeking new lands but in seeing with new eyes.” – Marcel Proust

Angola was off the map for me, its like it didn't exist. My initial plan for west African was to shoot down the coast and cross through the Congo/Rwanda to the east side of the continent. I think that deep down I would have liked to have gone further south however all I remember in my planning was that it was a war zone + an impossible visa so I ended up throwing it in the too hard basket. Worst still I didn't even take the time to register what Angola was about and what it has been through, I just completely dropped it. This in essence was where I was not ready, I was too preoccupied with the other challenges of West Africa and this was one step too far. The more enlightened side in me would probably say that I had to experience the rest of the coast first, then my eyes would be open to this possibility. Whatever it was this initial view changed as I crossed Cameroon and took some time to find out a bit more on what I would be missing out on. Within a few minutes of reading its history I was hooked, it was deeply interesting and I was immediately drawn to it. A country that after 500 years of colonial oppression and decades of non-stop war had somehow transformed itself into one the richest countries in Africa (with the most expensive city in the world, Luanda). How was the possible? It now became a must do and all other countries faded into the background. So I made the decision to head quickly from Cameroon to Gabon into Congo and attempt to get its infamous visa in the coastal town of Pointe Noire. This quick decision proved to be fortuitous as within 4 days of arriving and applying I had my Angola visa. So it stands that after 2 weeks of making the decision to go; everything was set and all barriers ceased to be there; the clouds had lifted. But before I get ahead of myself, a quick glimpse into its strange and twisted history.

To sum up modern Angola's history in a sentence it would be take half a millennium of oppression and instability, add in a big serving of civil war; put it into a large pot and shake vigorously. Now Angola’s fate began just like most other West African nations with missionaries landing. In this case they were Portuguese and they stepped foot in the then Kingdom of Kongo in the 1400s. This presence laid the groundwork for establishing Luanda as the slave capital of the area and with it the plunder of its local people began. Estimates put the number of slaves transported from the area now known as Angola to be a staggering 5 million. The vast majority of these heading to the another Portuguese colony on the other side of the Atlantic, Brazil. Pro-independence unrest began shortly after WWII and was inflamed in 1961 when colonial authorities began to crush uprisings by dissents. In 1975 the Portuguese finally granted independence to Angola following continuous rebellion and the overthrowing of the fascist Sanzar government back home. What followed was one of the craziest and swiftest colonial withdrawals ever seen. Almost overnight the largest airlift in history began as the Portuguese completely gutted its citizens from the country leaving the capital and its regional centres as ghost towns. They left their houses, locked up; drove to the airport or port and threw their keys into the ocean. There is a well publicized piece of history where in Luanda lines and lines of cars flowed from the port & airport, all empty and abandoned where the Portuguese just dropped them and ran; never to return. Virtually overnight the country lost all its qualified human resources and administration personnel. It is said that they had less than 30 local university graduates left within the country from day one. Now try to establish a new country with that start. Problems beckoned.

Almost immediately a power struggle began. Now this was not fought over race or religion (or language like in Cameroon) this one was fought over governing ideology. In this case Socialism or Capitalism and in either corner were some big backers in the United States, South Africa, the Soviets and surprisingly to me Cuba. Its like they kicked out the colonial mongers and next in line were the modern day merchants of doom to fill the vacuum. What followed after this was a tit for tat war that would stretch for 3 decades and by the end plunge the country into despair. It is hard in this instance to work out how this all happened, I think its far easier to explain the why if the battle is over race or religion. The ideology battle essentially pitches brother against brother. They are the same people but due to rich benefactors they are now on opposite ends of the battlefield. The ensuing decades were filled with confusion on who’s side was who and in my opinion it is a war none benefited. For by the middle of the saga the backers of the war started pulling out, America burned by the Vietnam war was out and with the fall of the soviet empire they also followed suit. So from the mid 90s the two rival factions MPLA and UNITA were left fighting a war for simply power and control of the country rather than ideological conversion. Then in early 2002 the murder of the UNITA party leader was the a catalyst for a lasting peace pact. Finally after decades of fighting and the deaths of half a million people both parties moved from a military campaign to that of a political one. As one of my hosts aptly put it another way: the country was sick of fighting; we have had enough and are tired; we just need to move on. After the last 530 years of despair who can blame them. Fast forward into the early 2000s and the country began the first steps to rebuilding itself from a virtual ruin to its current state of supposed grandeur.

So with visa in hand I am at the gates of Angola at the random landmass that is Cabinda. Cabinda is an oddity in that it is part of Angola but totally seperate from the main country (cut off by the DRC, see the map above). So if you want to travel between the two parts of the country you either need to fly over the Congo or get a multi entry visa so you can cross out and then back in. As I approach the Angola frontier the border man has a look of shock on his face. He remarks that I am the first tourist he has seen crossing overland in four years. With this he rolls out the red carpet with high fives and nothing but help coming my way. Was not expecting that but anyway I will take it and grab a taxi and head to the largest town also named Cabinda. The streets are wide and paved and it looks like a little slice of Portugal. It’s a dramatic step up in standard from what I have seen in the rest of West Africa. However what I learnt later was that the local Cabindanese want independence from Angola. With some of the largest oil fields in Angola off of the coast here I can see why they want to split but also why the mainland want to keep them around. So looks like the mainland are out to impress by making the city an impressive sight and trying to buy them out of their independence. This becomes even more apparent when I book my airplane ticket to the capital for the ridiculously low price of $32 dollars. The flights are heavily subsided at about 1/4 the real cost, all in the name of trying to stay in the locals good books, I suppose it’s better than a campaign of brutality and the government simply taking.

My final order of business in Cabinda is to exchange money. Angola is known as one of the most expensive countries in the world and figures such as $50 US for a pizza have been thrown around. What this fails to observe is that there is essentially a dual economy going on. The first is one where the government devalues its own currency to make their exports more appealing. 98% of Angola’s exports are oil so this sort of makes sense. Of course this will now make the reciprocal true and imports are ridiculously overpriced, hence the $50 pizza. Now the second economy is that of the black market and here the US dollar is king. For if a person has American money they can command an extremely high rate of exchange on the black market and bring that pizza back down to orbit. That pizza officially costing $50 dollars is now down to a slightly more realistic $25. So with my US dollars in hand I head to my local vegetable seller and she gives me an insanely good rate. All the locals have a hand in the black market as it’s anway to survive and get ahead. Because of this simple fact I can afford to travel this country. Media companies and my guide book use the official rate for pricing and in turn it scares people off, if only they dug into the truth; it’s not that bad. After converting almost all my US dollars and feeling like a millionaire I board my late night flight over the DRC into the Capital. It is onboard a brand new Boeing courtesy of a deal with Singapore air. I had seen via an online post that it was an army transport so I had my earplugs at the ready. Don’t believe everything you read.

Flying into the capital Luanda is like arriving into a different world. After coming through the rest of West Africa I had gotten used to a certain level of dirtiness, poverty, rubbish everywhere, low slung houses and mud galore. The first thing I see is high rise buildings with top to bottom glass and a long sweeping bay with a promenade where people are jogging. On the other side of town there is a collection of sandy beaches with bars and cafes overlooking the clean water where people are swimming. It’s like I fell asleep in West Africa and awoke in Dubai, the modern reality rocks me. I check into my Airbnb, a local by the name of Matt whom is an entrepreneur and a visionary for what Angola could be. He gives me a run down on its past and makes the war seem more real to me. As I walk around town with him I realize that since the war only ended relatively recently in 2002 almost all the people here were exposed to it. This wasn’t some war that happened years ago and only lives through our elders or history books, it still resides in everyones minds. This is what preoccupies my thoughts, not the war itself but how do you as a country and a people successfully come back from something like that. How does a nation take the necessary steps to rebuild not only its physical environment but also the emotional well-being of its citizens all while setting itself up for future growth. As me and Matt discuss these things it becomes very apparent that through the proceeds of oil the city the country looks squeaky clean and prosperous however not all as it seems one layer down. It’s like they have tried to apply a fresh coat of paint without fixing the gaping holes in the wall first.

“There are no foreign lands. It is the traveler only who is foreign.” – Robert Louis Stevenson

The next morning I am treated to a day out with Matt and his mum. We take a road trip out of the city with the first stop being the unique “viewpoint of the moon”. This crazy canyon is literally 5 steps off the main road and has huge rock and clay structures flowing a kilometer down to the sea. After the view we continue south and head to an all you can eat South African BBQ lunch on the Cuanza river. This reminded me of long pacific island family lunches back home. These are the sort of occasions where you basically eat, graze and talk your way into the evening when lunch becomes dinner. Going into our second round of mains Matt openly discusses what has become of his country since the war finished. In the last 16 years due to the proceeds of oil and a generation intent on being more than just a war-torn country they have achieved great things. They have seen huge strides taken but he is concerned about the next generation coming through. They do not know the war, they never saw it. Their ancestors did and were motivated by it but how do you now energize the next ones coming especially when they might take those freedoms for granted. This is not to dissimilar to a the once poor, now successful parent and their first generation rich children and really has no distinct answer. After I finish off my second desert (apple crumble just like my mums) the discussion turns to inequality and the distinct line between the have and have nots of Angola that is widening each day. This seperation was brought to stinging reality the next day when I climbed to the top of the fort overlooking the city. On the right side there is nothing but high rise buildings. To the left nothing but shanty towns except for a row of bulldozers parked up as the government slowly destroys people’s homes. This is where you have the problem of inequality staring at you in the face. In NZ and other high performing nations we have a few at the top, few right at the bottom and a fairly large mass in the middle. From what I have seen in Africa there are a lot at the bottom, a lot at the top and no one in the middle. The middle class is what helps a community thrive, the poor live hand to mouth and the rich horde their money bags. The middle are the ones whom work and spend to keep the economy going, without them the society is rags or riches; that’s it and that’s Africa.

As we start the long drowsy cruise back to the capital Matt starts pointing out all the empty apartment and office blocks that line its entrance. Due to most recent global financial crisis in 2007 and the subsequebt oil price drop Angola was plunged into a deep recession. Firstly from flying high with double digit growth in the early 2000s the GFC shook the country to its roots. Ambitious skyrise building blocks stand vacant, billions were lost, jobs were destroyed, homeless rates increased exponentially and the poor just got poorer. With the tightening of the purse strings it became apparent that over 28 billion of oil proceeds had gone missing over the last decade through corrupt officials (the presidents daughter is worth 3.3 billion). This GFC shock was the catalyst to bring all this bad laundry to the surface. When times are good, corruption can be swept under the table more readily. When times are bad people and people are hungry the voices of distain grow louder and louder. It is interesting because sometimes people need a massive shock to get them out of their lethargic sleep. Most are content just cruising through life, its not until a major shock that they are so enraged they wake up (like a Donald trump). That’s why these shocks are not always a bad thing. For Angola this jolt brought out more than just the mass coruption and inequalities discussion, it also highlighted the lack of freedom that the normal Angolan thought they enjoyed. Essentially Angola is a one party system with no true opposition. This in itself is not uncommon however when prominent protestors chose to organise a march to prompt democracy discussion, they were arrested and sentenced to jail time. Just for organizing a march to raise awareness. Normal Angolans couldn’t believe that this was happening in their free society that they fought and worked so hard to protect. Locals suddenly broke from their slumber and protested heavily against the injustice, eventually managing to get the group released. This my friend Matt remembers back as the moment that the perception of freedom was totally blown away. The people were in a repressive system and didnt really think they were. If life is good and you think you are free then there should be no problems however tomorrow if you woke up and realised you had no say in the future of the country would you be angry? Politicians quickly tried to bring back the perception of freedom but the damage was already done and people wanted change. With their own actions the freedom fighters of Angolan were able to lay the foundation for the resignation of the then current president Jose Eduardo dos Santos. His reign lasted 38 years. The power of the masses had ignited and pushed change, all that it needed was a spark.

After my enlightening time in Luanda I board my next plane to the southern city of Lubango. Lubango was one of the rebel strongholds from the civil war and its buildings are still poketed by bullet holes. It is high in the mountains so is freezing cold. The first real time I have been exposed to the cold in my whole trip and I have to say its lovely. I come from New Zealand and cold is our thing (even in summer), after 47 degrees in Niger this 10 degrees is lovely. Therefore with my jacket and gloves out of my bag I commandeer a taxi for a morning spent in Lubango taking in its stunning scenery. The sights here all revolve around the high mountains that rise straight up from the valley floor to over a thousand meters. The first stop is the Lebe mountains to view the remarkable road up to the pass built to avoid a 5 hour torturous detour. It reminds me of the high mountain roads of Europe but of course we are in Angola. On the way back we make a detour to the Christ redeemer statue next to the Lubango Hollywood sign. The statue has patched up bullet hole marks from the war meaning not even his holiness was safe. Last destination on the agenda is the 1000 meter shear drop of Tundavala. Here you are on top of a monstourous mountain with a straight plummet down to the valley floor. These locations are breathtaking but there is a twinge of sadness as I view them as I am the only person here. Good for me, bad for the locals. Sights like this if they were in other countries would be swamped with people but here I am all alone just me and my Taximan preoccupied with his newspaper.

Angola has all the makings of the next big thing in tourism. It is stunningly beautiful and filled with some of the nicest people around, then throw in it’s remarkable history. However it is years before its image will be reshaped and many more before its war wounds fully healed. It’s people have suffered extremely over the past 500 years by the hands of the Portuguese, by the hands of superpowers, its own civil war and then the false hope of its oil boom. There is hope as it has managed to finally get to peaceful terms and is now able to deal with its own post war demons. From through the GFC the great rifts in its society was exposed, inequality stood up and corruption stood out. It is only through the ferocity of its people that they are fixing and making genuine change to their country. This is heartening to me but what would you expect.... these people are true survivors. They will rebuild.

The end is near

After Angola I make a dash into Namibia to attempt to get a South African visa. After making it to Angola I was planning to finish my Western Africa journey down there. Casablanca to Capetown had a nice ring to it. Unfortunately it was not to be and due to some questionable political rulings I could not get the required SA visa. How ironic, fought and received some of the hardest visas in the world to get; failed in the apparently easy last one. Oh well, as I have done throughout this trip; I cannot dwell and must move on. So instead I opt to explore the truly amazing Namibian desert and take a well-earned week off traveling. So with that all done I have to say goodbye to the Atlantic Ocean. Lots of things have changed over the last few months but the Atlantic has always been my constant, continual, dependable travel buddy. Am going to miss it’s sights and sounds. I have lost track of the times I have sat by it’s edge eating fresh fish, running along its shores and cooling off in its waters. Now with it at my back I turn and depart West Africa. Exactly 4 months on the long road down.

Last thoughts

The journey down the west coast of Africa has exceeded both my wildest dreams and imagination. Coming into this adventure I didn’t think it would possible; the obstacles seemed insurmountable. From all the unknowns: the Visas, to the language barriers, to the wars, disease, lack of roads, poor transport, to the corruption. All the available worst case scenarios are possible in this region. When I look back on this trip it’s hard to believe I even attempted it; even stepped on that first plane. What’s interesting about this was that the hardest part was just making the decision to go; the traveling bit turned out to be far easier than I imagined. All the things that I had been told ceased to be an issue especially security. Sure it was frustrating and hard at times but nothing like what was going on in my head to start. In fact I ended up embracing the chaos around me which made for an enlightened and invigorating experience. My advice: if you have an inkling; just go. Places are never as bad as what they seem and if in doubt just do as the locals do and go with the flow. One will not regret it.

Now to West Africa proper. It is truly a beautiful place that has been subjected to some of the worst treatment that people can be put through. From the effects of slavery to colonial masters to the endless civil wars, it would be fair to say the region has suffered more than most. West Africa was essentially put back a century by a foreign invading people not from its lands. With this sort of background I expected resentment here but what I encountered was nothing but acceptance. For I, as a westerner symbolically represent the atrocities placed on these people. Never was I danger, never was I put in a bad situation, I was always welcomed, protected and embraced by their enthusiasm. To its people: Never have I come across a set of individuals more connected to its land, one another and to the visitors whom make it there. In other countries we try to put up barriers between us and others, mental or physical; here they bust them down. For the people here are happier than that of our Western countries because they concentrate on what they do have rather than what they don’t. They relegate the pursuit of material possessions and focus instead on strengthening bonds with family/friends and as a result end up embracing life and simply seeing the joy in it all. No matter what hardships are placed on them and how bad the situation is, they choose life. That being said that does not mean that they simply accept their situation as fate. From the ousting of slavery to the push for independence to the civil wars and the power struggles that ensued, West Africans have shown that you need to fight for what you believe in. Not only that but fight for preservation of your culture and ultimately the country you want to live in. This is a powerful message, one cannot just sit back; you have to care about the decisions that are made around you. If you don’t, you will end up in a life scripted by someone else. This all leads to a life filled with meaningful connections, acceptance for what you have and one where you stand up for what you believe in. Powerful teachings for what makes a fruitful existence. The student was ready.

Thanks for reading and sharing this journey with me. From here I head to East Africa and repeat the journey in reverse, up the other coast to hopefully reach Egypt. During this time I will be taking a break from blogging so I can just relax and focus on the path ahead. Again thanks for your eyes, comments and messages; has been a blast!

“The road is there, it will always be there. You just have to decide when to take it.” -Chris Humphrey

West Africa by the numbers

* 21 countries visited
* 19 Visas needed
* 3 countries missed (Mali, Eqtl Guinea, Sth Africa)
* 21,000 kms of roads traveled
* 4 months total
* 14 French speaking countries
* 150+ taxi rides
* 100+ bus rides
* 5 plane trips
* 17 SIM cards
* 0 coffees
* 1 happy kiwi!


8th July 2018

Epic Journey
Thank you for sharing your experiences, Shaun. West Africa does not look too "unapproachable" after reading your blogs. Have a good break from blogging. I look forward to reading your adventures in the future.
8th July 2018

Congratulations Shaun on an awesome West coast adventure - truely incredible to have walked a road less traveled. Really loved the history, insights & reflections. Good luck on the trip back up the other side!
9th July 2018
Perched on the edge

The shoes that travelled with me
Your travels may be famous...but your shoes are also hanging in there Shaun. Some are on display in our "The shoes that travelled with me" thread in the Photography Forum. Check 'em out.
9th July 2018

My only memories of Angola, Shaun, are the news of never ending wars and the magnificent music of Bongo. Now I can read of first hand experience of its troubled history and marvel of what you have seen and where you have been. Brilliant.
13th July 2018

Being Ready
Love this blog. Very well said about "being ready" and the right things in life will come - and you will be aware of these! We have experienced this soooo many times! Just go with the flow, open up and it will happend what is supposed to happen. Thanks for this blog and happy travels!
14th July 2018
Perched on the edge

Fantastic photo
I would not sit that close to the edge but glad you did it!

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