26 August 2008

Visiting and Visitors

We’re a few of weeks removed from our last visa-renewal trip to Namibia, and I have to say that I’m happy to have it well behind us. It’s not that Namibia isn’t wonderful – in fact, it’s just the opposite: leaving a beautiful, clean, organized, relatively cheap Windhoek behind to return to filthy, chaotic Luanda wasn’t one of the easier things I’ve done recently. Coming at the six-month mark of our time here (half way, as we’ve recently decided), the trip was a sort of bittersweet celebration. We’re proud at how well we’ve done here in six months – how much we’ve accomplished both in terms of work and in terms of making a home – and how easy it’s seemed despite being difficult and exhausting. We’re excited that we get to return to the US in six months – to return to the comforts we enjoy there and to be closer to our family and friends. We’re sad, however, at how quickly time has passed and how little of it we have left here.

One might reasonably expect that we’ve learned a lot about Luanda in living here a half year, but after our visit to the country next door I can only say that I’m more confused than ever. How country like Namibia which is comprised largely of dessert and boasts a fraction of the wealth of (natural and fiscal) Angola be so much better off?

It’s not that Namibia doesn’t have its problems, to be sure. I feel a fairly intense vibe of racism and there are still some fairly serious problems with poverty. But, when you meet Namibians they ask for how long you’re on holiday instead of saying, “Welcome to hell” as I frequently hear around Luanda. Another difference between there and here is the presence of an educated middle class to manage and run the country. When the Portuguese left all of the knowledge about how to manage and maintain industry and infrastructure left with them. In the 30 years of civil war that followed the situation with local capacity deteriorated further. And while I’m not sure having a white, imported middle-management class, like Namibia’s, would be the best thing for Angola, having a sizable, decently educated group of people seems to make a world of difference in keeping a country functioning.

Despite its problems, though, Luanda is a far nicer place to be now than it was a mere two years ago. This fact has been highlighted by the recent arrival of a friend making her first visit to Angola. Even though she’s been studying and reading about Angola for years and is quite well traveled, she’s been awed by the conditions here in Luanda and how disgusting things are. Last week, as I was showing her around town, I spent a lot of time talking about how much has been improved recently and being surprisingly defensive about the conditions. For example, arriving here in the Bairro Popular this year I was amazed at how relatively little garbage there was in the streets. As compared to two years ago it absolutely gleams; one of our main roads is regularly swept and there’s nightly pick-up of trash that almost works.

However, based on the amount of trash remaining on the streets in our neighborhood among other things, it was pretty clear that our friend was having a hard time believing me that things are actually better today than they were a short time ago. So one day she asked a cobrador (the guy who gets people on and off the taxies and collects fares) if life here has improved. He said it’s more than improved; he said that life here today is good. His statement highlights the difficulty of describing the current situation here. The following two statements are both true: life here is far better than it was 2 year ago; life here is miserable, difficult, and unhealthy. The fact that it’s improved considerably shouldn’t be overlooked, but it also can’t be allowed to detract from the problems that still remain. More than that, given how poor the situation is we can’t afford to have satisfaction with the speed of progress.

As Angola prepares for its first elections since 1992 the ex-pat and international communities are rightfully concerned about how free and fair the elections will be especially given the situation here with government control of media. The effect, however, that the elections seem to be having on the government in terms of pressure to make improvements and pressure to demonstrate their fitness to govern are impressive. Free and fair or not, I’d say that the elections have had a positive effect on the country.

The propaganda on TV, Radio, and Billboards here brags about how little has been accomplished in the mere 6 years that have passed since the end of the war. One television ad, in particular, compares how much rebuilding has occurred here with how long it took in Europe and Japan to recover from two world wars. It’s hard to argue: a lot has changed and a lot is changing – quickly. Moving forward, though, we must hope that the government continues to compare the situation here with the situation abroad and that Angolan’s visit other places as people from other places visit here so that we continue to be reminded that no matter how far Angola has come or how fast, there remains a long way to go.

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