Flunky in the African Land of Black Gold

My flunky African adventure continued as we landed in Luanda, the capital of Angola. (We had just flown from Rwanda to Luanda, you can imagine the confusion with the travel agents and bosses' personal assistants during the preparation for the trip, especially with Singapore pronunciation being not quite perfect) The multiple transits to get there had resulted in our luggage being damaged and looted of all gifts that we had brought along- everything from letter openers to brooches to electronics that had been in the check-in bags and boxes were taken. I was beginning to understand the extent of petty crime of the region.

Angolan leg of the journey would soon reveal itself as one of my most eventful ever. So much so that even at the retirement speech of the person leading the delegation several years later, I had a special mention because of this Angolan Adventure.  To make matters worse, by this leg of our journey, either my strong malaria pills had kicked in, or some African virus had taken a hold of me and my memories of the country are coloured by nausea.   

View of the congested capital city

Angola was the second largest producer of oil on the African continent after Nigeria and all the major oil companies had set up shop there. The country was enjoying immense economic growth from the oil industry since the long civil war ended in 2002, but looking around, one could hardly tell how much wealth there was coming from this country's resources. Having been engaged in internal conflict since independence from Portugal in 1975, Angola's infrastructure was crippled, population poorly educated and bureaucracy inefficient. But the large oil companies seemed to be able to work around these limitations, as they always do, and extract whatever they needed, while leaving most of the rest of the country unchanged. 
Street in front of our hotel
As the flunky of the delegation, I was sent to pick up the luggage from the conveyor belt while the rest waited at the lounge. I checked each piece of the delegations luggage off my list, but alas, my luggage was nowhere to be found even as the last piece from the plane tumbled out. I was sent to get my statement taken along with the 20 or so other angry Angolans who had luggage missing as well. How they manage to miss out that many pieces is beyond me. So with me speaking only English and everyone else crammed into that little office speaking only in Portuguese, I somehow managed to be interviewed by an airport staff barking at me, and get a Portuguese form filled in about my lost luggage. The rest of my delegation had been taken to the hotel for a little rest, and thankfully they sent a car back to the airport for me. That night, I understood why torch lights were common issue in every hotel we stayed in Africa as I experienced multiple electricity cuts, which I was told, was the norm in the country. 

The next day, there was still no news about my luggage. While my boss had told me to always bring an extra change of clothes on my carry-on, my suits were all packed away in my check-in bag. So this little flunky showed up for the official programme for that day in a tank top and pencil skirt (lightest items to hand carry). Brilliant first impression I was making. It turned out to be a blessing in disguise as the day was filled with site visits, and in the African heat, I was glad I was not in a suit.
Flunky at the broken dam in a tank top looking rather malnourished
We were taken to visit a dam which was so damaged by the civil war that it could no longer produce hydroelectricity. Neither the government nor the private sector was willing to pump in the upfront costs to repair the dam so it sat there in decay and disrepair. It was hard to witness such unfulfilled potential. It was harder to think that in a land which produced so much fossil fuel and had so much renewable power potential, much of the population still relied on candles and firewood, and power cuts were a daily occurrence. This was my first run into the incongruence of this country, which also characterised much of the region.
The glassy swiftly running river

I also remember the river there as one of the most amazing things I had seen. At first glance, the water seemed to be still. Almost like a sheet of glass covered the water, yet at each drop, we could see the ferocity at which the river ran, and the raging rapids almost instantly disappeared into another glassy mass. I have never seen anything quite like it again. 
River meets rapids

Our next stop was a little chapel at the coast. The tiny white unassuming building did not betray its dark history as the place where thousands of Africans from Angola and its neighboring countries were "baptized" before being shipped off to Europe and America as slaves. Most never made it to the other side of their arduous journey. I thought of the thousands who where marched for hundreds of miles to the point where I stood, with the knowledge that only death, torture or immense hardship lay head. It was the place where "saving souls" and taking lives stood hand in hand. In the thick, warm coastal breeze, I could almost hear their cries of anguish.
Where the ships filled with slaves set off to the "developed" world

We were next told that we would be heading to a nearby township for a traditional lunch. I have come to learn never to trust anyone when they use the term "nearby". It turned out to be a 3 hour drive outside of the capital city, on majorly potholed and unpaved roads to a building in the middle of nowhere. 

By the time we got there, it was 3pm in the afternoon. The buffet spread was clearly laid out since normal people's lunch hour and the flies had taken over. I managed to shovel some potatoes and chicken into my mouth while praying the flies didn't carry some exotic African virus. Meanwhile, tribal dances and music was performed in all their glory for our enjoyment, but with my tummy churning, I could hardly enjoy anything.

It was soon time to take the long drive back. But of course, even the drive back could not be smooth sailing and we got a flat tire an hour into the journey.

That evening, I got back to my hotel room to find that my lugguage had been delivered. Seeing my stuff again brought an inordinate amount of comfort after the tough day. I embraced my stuff and slept like a baby that night through the sound of the dripping plumbing and the multiple electricity cuts that my colleagues complained about the next day, as our adventure continued...

No comments:

Post a Comment