Monday, September 8, 2008


This is it for me. The final results are not available yet and I’m already in the plane back to Paris. I spend some time sorting out my photos and once again my heart is struck by the clarity of these smiles.

Yesterday I had breakfast with one of the European Union observers staying at my hotel. His face was devastated with fatigue. He’s been in the country since the beginning of August, working very hard (I’ve seen what they do – I can guarantee that this observation stuff is like daily triathlon) and from the day before the election until the time we sat together for coffee he hadn’t had any sleep. But he didn’t complaint at all. He did say he needed some rest, but he knows what gets him high and what he’ll return to in a few months’ time: election observing. Highly addictive.

When you land on an exceptional setting, where people are going through something unique, and you open yourself to that world, to register and process what you see, and you lose sleep, and skip meals, and fall off the rails of any kind of routine, and logistics are complicated, and you phone like a call center, you write, you edit, and it’s hot inside the car and you inhale smoke and loud music coming from the cab in front of you, and you talk to so many people and most of them are young and sprouting, and you contemplate so much waste, and you sit on a doorstep to rest for a while and a little boy stops by your side and says
- você és bonita
well, when these things combine, something pierces your entrails and exposes your flesh. And there’s a beautiful wound for the world to infect.

Elections had logistical problems. After speaking to one of the guys that worked in the organisation at communal level, I got the feeling that it was pure inexperience that caused it all. They accumulated problems and didn’t realize they couldn’t get them all solved before D-day. Since almost all polling stations functioned in tents, they couldn’t just leave the material there before someone arrived. But late and disorganised accreditation caused station members to ignore where they should be. This was the type of mechanism behind the nightmare. And Luanda was a bigger problem because it’s a chaotic city. The simple distribution of material through warehouses around town mobilized insane amounts of time and energy. This is what the guy told me, looking hopelessly at me through layers of fatigue and frustration. Perhaps the country didn’t have the necessary skills for such a huge task.

It’s hard to say how these events biased the results. But although nobody expected such a massive score for the government party, it is coherent with the reality we all saw. The party sustains all institutions. If you want to teach at the university, you have to at least pretend to be one of them. It works not so much in a logic of repression, but of give and take. You want this job? This house? Then sign in. The state media – private ones don’t exist outside Luanda – are anthologies of bootlicking prose. And 70% of Angolans are uneducated and very poor.

But as the opposition said, this is just one step in the democratic process. New elections will be held in 4 years, not 33. It’s true that the country is progressing in education and health issues. Let’s see what happens. How the opposition reorganises as well.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

What a shame

Everybody was taken by surprise. I don’t think anyone predicted such a huge mess. It started on Thursday, when national observers, members of polling stations and party delegates didn’t get the necessary accreditations. They were supposed to be 2500 national observers, they got only slightly more that 1000 accreditations. Same thing for party delegates. At night, many people scheduled to work at the polling stations didn’t have information on where they were supposed to be.

At about 6am, I arrived in Cazenda (Luanda suburbs) and chose a neighbourhood where 4 polling stations were installed in tents by the road. About 200 people were already queuing. Pitch dark – there is no public lighting here. At 7am, when polls should start working, everything was missing. No lists of voters. Not enough bulletins! No PDA computers, the ones the electoral commission had been boasting about for weeks, the very cool system allowing voters to present themselves anywhere in the district, regardless of the station they were registered at. One of the stations had simply been forgotten: no material, no workers. People were eager to vote, and that’s why they were queuing since dawn and kept arriving. Five hundred. Six hundred. 8am. 9am. Nobody new what was going on. The polling station people were either sitting down looking clueless or running in all directions like Rosalino, a guy that hadn’t had any sleep for three nights because he was so involved in all the preparations. On the phone, I kept getting news about other polling stations where either the urns hadn’t arrived, or the ink used to mark the finger of those who voted was missing… Women carrying children, in the heat, for hours on end… and really, really, people were so calm and orderly despite the mess that they gave everyone a lesson of civic behaviour. And the participation was amazingly high.

The bulk of the mess was Luanda and its suburbs. Stations that never opened. Stations that opened at 4pm. Stations that opened after closing time, where people could vote by candlelight. Stations that opened at 11, closed two hours later and waited for new bulletins that never came. Members guarding urns until midnight, after spending a whole day with no food, because they had no information on how to proceed. People counting votes with the sole light of their mobile phones. Where I spent the morning, they opened the stations without the lists of voters and noted their name and number down on a piece of paper. Others didn’t even do that.

The electoral commission decided to extend elections in Luanda for another day. They said only the stations that never opened will be on. I’ve already been told that the logistical problems continue. Still no bulletins, etc etc. They completely lost control.
There are very few people on the streets to vote. I do believe that most people did vote yesterday. But it’s hard to say how this logistic mess affected the whole process. Can they really say what province the votes come from? Because a voter registered in Cabinda may have voted in Luanda. And that would be ok if they could keep a decent record. But I don’t think they did. And the attribution of Parliament seats depends on that.

The largest opposition party, UNITA, already asked for the impugnation of elections in Luanda. Others may follow.

These elections were set to be “a model for Africa”. How far that all seems now. The government spent 650 million dollars on this process. All the material was here and ready to use two months ago. No explanation on what the hell happened has been given. Nobody assumed responsibility for the mess. And in the good old Angolan tradition of opacity, probably nobody ever will.

Was this an engineered failure, as some suggest?

I’m going out to check the streets now.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Good rides

Oh, Internet ! How beautiful thou arst !
I miss you so much when you’re not around.
And I sleep so much more when I don’t have to check the computer every 10 minutes to see if the 1h30m uploading process is actually progressing… and not just…no…no… aborted! Arghgh!


Benguela (and nearby Lobito) are very nice cities. As you arrive, you feel your edgy Luanda self cool down and transform into the “I wanna drink a beer by the beach” self. But helas, I must edit some stuff. My new room is under some sort of tin roof where cats and dogs like to play cats and dogs, thus making a roar/thunder noise that seriously damages many of my recording attempts.

I’ve had great transportation experiences here. I took the train, a charming old train that rides 18 km of what used to be a 1100 km railway connecting the coast to the Congolese boarder. A lot of copper travelled this line during the 20th century. War asphyxiated the trade. Rails are no more.
It was a slow 45 minute ride. Sunset poured through the open widows. Happy cacophony. I interview a “regressado”, one of these Angolans who lived many years in Congo and came back with a strong French accent. He sells body milk and wigs in the train. A natural born entertainer. Everybody bursts into laughter as he speaks. Women tell me they are coming home after a day spent cleaning, washing or ironing in Lobito. At the terminal, a man introduces me to a bunch of women that await him. Sisters? Cousins? My question seems to make very little sense to him. “Family, that’s all”.

As he and his family left, I realized Weza was there waiting for me. He’s my second transportation experience. Taxi driver slash student. My chauffeur in Benguela. He was holding two canes, fulfilling the promise made in the morning – he would get me one of those canes women sell by the road, “not sugar canes, just canes”. And there he was holding them with a smile. You don’t know him, otherwise you would understand why it made me feel like crying. He’s the guy who says that Angola was blessed by God eight times. The one who was born in the jungle because his family was on the run. The one who grew up on fruit, the occasional fish caught in the river, and quiabos with no salt because trying to get some in a nearby village could cost your life.

His tender voice melts in your ears like candy. As sweet as the cane he had me taste.

Before going to sleep (the election marathon starts in a few hours) I must share another moment with you. Yesterday, I was stuck in traffic for about two hours trying to get to the Kwanzas Market to check out the electronic information stands installed by the electoral commission. Dust, smoke from those old Toyota Hiace that crowd the roads, more dust, and a mounting need to pee. How to proceed when you’re jammed at the heart of the musseque? There isn’t even a bush where you can crouch. Antonio, the driver, stopped the car and asked a young woman if I could use her toilet. She looked at me and said it was broken. I said I was desperate. She allowed me in. There were no real windows, so it was very dark. Hens everywhere. A very bad smell. She took a big bucket from a corner and placed it where there was some light. Just piss there, she said, and I knew her embarrassment was much bigger than mine. And so I pissed, while two little kids stumbled around me in awe. I offered her some money, but she didn’t accept it.

Tomorrow is Election Day and I pray the Election God to give Angola a strong opposition. An opposition occupying more than half the seats in Parliament. That would be nice.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Sights and sounds

It’s a computer-free airport. You must arrive early in the morning to ask if and when there is a flight. Benguela? Yes. Noon. $120. Then you wait in a crowded room and enjoy the smell of the nearby water-free toilet. That’s where I’m writing these lines.

After my visit to Kilamba Kiaxi, I thought I had seen a musseque. But then I passed by Boavista, where a cholera epidemics killed hundreds in 2006. I felt a kind of numbness as I contemplated those never-ending shacks, all made of waste, sitting on hills made of waste. Quite literally. It all merged in many shades of grey against the greyish Luanda sky. In our Range Rover, the cheerful Development Workshop girls suddenly became quiet. Or maybe my brain shut down for a while.

We arrive in Sambinzanga, a 600 thousand people slum. I marvel at the sight of all these bits and pieces, people and flies. It’s somehow like Versailles. A cathedral. An intricate piece of jewellery. I take out my microphone, start speaking my white Portuguese and become the entertainment of the day.

People don’t say much about the elections. Some don’t really understand what it’s about, Many think it’s dangerous. Very few dare say they will vote for the opposition. An exuberant twenty something girl spoke of Angola’s future with a smile and proudly said the supported UNITA. An old man (was he really that old?) sewing sandals at his vintage Singer said he was satisfied with his life.

The MPLA meeting on Saturday was an intense experience as well. The kuduro show started and everybody ran to the stage, raising a huge cloud of dust. Thousands of electrified people. My heart races as I interview Bento Bento (a MPLA hotshot) in the VIP tent. Dressed in red, twice my size. I look up and am sure he can smash the opposition with his little finger, like a crumb.

A couple of EU observers came to the meeting as well. They’re staying in my hotel.

The girl is really something. She goes jogging in Luanda. Women here don’t run and white women don’t go out alone. Elections are definitely transforming Angola.

Friday, August 29, 2008


It smells of gas, sewers and homemade food. The traffic is hallucinating, even by African standards. Everybody owns a SUV-like vehicle (offered by the regime to regime friends, whispers my very dear Angolan friend on the picture above). People on the streets want to sell you everything: from room deodorisers to fancy suits (of the striped kind).

And there are so many of these vendors. You’re either unemployed or a street vendor. Nobody produces anything in this country that was once a top exporter of coffee, cotton and sisal. I travelled the road to the Kilamba Kiaxi slum (7km in more than one hour) and they were everywhere. Weting their feet in the dirty water that flooded the road after a pipe was damaged during construction work. How much weight can women carry on their heads?

We meet a happy group of MPLA partisans on scooters. They propably came from one of those popular meetings with half-price beer and free DVDs:

Cars everywhere. In the slum, their carcasses decorate the streets are provide accommodation for hens. I speak to two thirty-something women whose life changed after they received a 250 dollar loan from a microcredit agency. It allowed them to become… vendors. Now they want to expand their businesses and aim at a 1,000 dollar loan from the same Canadian-funded project, Kixicrédito. And so they come here:

The national oil company, Sonangol, has slightly better quarters:

They keep the light on all night. I suppose the idea is to attract all the mosquitoes that carry malaria and other evil diseases. If they stay away from the slums maybe life expectation at birth will rise above 42 years.

Fortunately, I have only one mosquito to fight in my room before I go to sleep, after all these strenuous and happy hours.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Kingdom of Kongo

I just love the name “Congo”. Somehow, my little occidental brain came to associate it with drums, big animals standing in the savannah, thick dark water humming with mosquitoes, some sort of danger or threat at nightfall. Joseph Conrad’s book “The Heart of Darkness” certainly helped develop this mystique. Congo would be the perfect name for “heartbeat”. I’m walking in the jungle, branches crack behind and above me, my heart is beating at 160 congos per minute.

The Congo river was (and is) one of Africa’s hearts, and the Portuguese explorers who sailed it in 1482 and found the many villages of the Kingdom of Kongo on its banks most certainly realized that. This was a prosperous region, densely populated, with the capital Mbanza Congo (in today’s northern Angola) registering around 100,000 inhabitants at the beginning of the seventeenth century. Natural resources, manufacturing activities and a functional trading network accounted for this prosperity. The painting above, by missionary Giovanni Cavazzi (sixteenth century) depicts that commercial buzz.

The Portuguese and the Kongo rulers soon established a successful partnership. Nzinga a Nkuwu was the first king to convert to Christianity. He adopted the Christian name João, and his offspring was named after Portuguese kings and VIPs: Afonso, Henrique, Diogo… The Portuguese provided military power and education through the church. The Congolese provided… slaves. The trade existed prior to the Portuguese arrival, but exploded as the colonization of Brazil – its sugarcane plantations, its goldmines – demanded an ever-growing workforce.

Anyway, this happy friendship didn’t last forever and as other colonial powers entered the game (the French and the Belgian) the Kingdom of Kongo (along with its puppet ruler) was abolished in 1914. Previously, the region’s new boarders had been drawn at the Berlin Conference (1885). Because the Belgian wanted a land exit to the Atlantic for their Zaire, the Portuguese Congo was detached from main Angola and the Cabinda enclave was born.

Cabinda. What a headache for the Angolan government. Why can’t they slurp its immense reserves of oil (more that 60 % of the country’s production) without being bothered by separatists and voices claiming the end of human rights violations and a fairer distribution of revenues?
Although a Peace Agreement was signed in 2006, Cabinda remains Angola’s most unstable region. The many riches of the Kingdom of Kongo prompted greed and war. Cabinda carries this history and is somehow still living it.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Miss Landmine

A norwegian artist named Morten Traavik had this crazy idea after travelling to Angola in 2003, only one year after the end of the war. Landmines were shaping the body of angolans (the country is one of the most heavily mined places in the world) and creating this one-legged angolan we see on TV (and on the videos below), often with a homemade wooden leg to replace the prosthetic limb denied by an incipient health system. Morten Traavik says it was a spontaneous beauty contest being held by teenagers on the streets of Luanda that gave him the idea of Miss Landmine. Combining sweet innocence and harsh reality. Subverting the sexism of this kind of pageants by exposing mutilated bodies. This artistic and humanitarian project (supported by the angolan National Demining Comission) got wide attention from the international media. Last April, Augusta Urica from Luanda and Maria Restino Manuel from Cuanza Sul were the first crowned Miss Landmine (the creators plan to redo the stunt in Cambodja soon). But my personal favorite is Maria de Fátima Conceição, Miss Moxico:

International estimates say there are about 10 million landmines in Angola. The country is slowly but steadily reducing this figure. With precious help from the chinese entrepreneurs, who don't mind sacrifying a few bulldozers (and the occasional worker) in order to satisfy the government's frenzy for reconstruction and thus collect its abundant petrodollars.