(Apologies for the old, degraded photos)
CARE Canada’s offer of a posting as Regional Coordinator for the Southern Angola Relief Programme sounded good. We would be in the small provincial town of Lubango, away from the problems of head office. We spoke adequate Portuguese, or more accurately ‘Portuñol’: a mix of Español and Portuguese. After 17 years of war a Peace Accord had recently been signed bringing a promise of increased security and opportunities for much needed development assistance. The diverse geography and indigenous cultures were attractive. I accepted the offer but we really should have known better. We had heard that CARE Angola couldn’t keep staff, that living conditions were abysmal and the work chaotic. Somehow we figured it would be different for us. Clearly, we weren’t thinking!
Angola had been at war in some form or other ever since independence in 1974. A tentative peace accord, signed in 1991, had separated the main combatants but insecurity reigned as still armed, demobilized soldiers, with nothing to do, turned to banditry. The economy was non-functioning, inflation was rampant, most everything, even food was hard to come by and the countryside littered in land mines – what could go wrong!
Angola was at the forefront of the proxy war between the US and the USSR. The Soviets and the Cubans were supporting the Marxist-Leninist regime of Marcelino dos Santos (MPLA) and the US and apartheid South Africa were supporting Jonas Savimbi’s anti-government forces (UNITA). We lived in Angola for the duration of the so-called ‘peace’. Fortuitously, we ended up leaving the country two days before the UN brokered elections and the subsequent resumption of hostilities as Savimbi refused to accept the results of the largely ‘free and fair’ elections. It was not until his death 10 years later in 2002 that a lasting peace finally prevailed.
During the time we were there it was no place for an accompanying spouse, especially one with a four month old child, but CARE was desperate and despite our previous experience(s), we were naïve and to some degree, deceived as to the conditions. We were told there was ‘good’ health care in Lubango including a 500 bed hospital. It couldn’t have been further from the truth.
The previous eight months in Canada waiting for the birth of our first child had been idyllic. We were living in beautiful Dundarave Village in West Van, reconnecting with friends and family, walking the seawall and swimming daily. Claire was still swimming laps the day before going into labour. However by the time we left for Angola, funds were running low and it was time to get back to work.
Our first week in Luanda, the capital, was a prelude of what was to come. The city was hot, dirty, dangerous and falling apart. We were put up in one of CARE’s apartments in a residential tower. The lobby was a disaster zone. The elevator doors opened on to an elevator shaft full of garbage and smelling of urine. Our first night, we fell asleep with a fan keeping the mosquitos off but the power failed and as a result, Claire ended up contracting falciparum malaria (the most deadly of the five types). Luckily, she responded well to treatment.
Lubango, high up on the interior plateau, had a much better climate and, on the surface, was a pleasantly laid out provincial capital. However, the population in recent years had tripled and the town was now surrounded by make shift ‘barrios’ of predominantly rural Angolans fleeing the instability of the countryside. Electricity, water supply, infrastructure and supplies of any kind were even more precarious than Luanda. Livable housing was a rarity and we ended up having to renovate the 2nd floor of an up/down duplex, a complicated undertaking that took three months to complete. Meanwhile we lived in the Grande Hotel da Huila. Despite being the best hotel in town, there was nothing grand about the Grande other than its name. We had running water for two hrs/day and no hot water. Electricity was intermittent at best. Claire had to wash Nina’s cloth diapers in the toilet. The hotel’s dining room would typically have one poor quality meal on offer and we soon lost any appetite for whatever it happened to be. There were only two other, moderately tolerable, restaurants in a town swollen to almost 250,000 inhabitants.
As I leapt into my work, soon consumed by 12 hr days, 6 days/week, Claire had it much harder. She spent all her days scrambling for the basics of life and keeping our daughter healthy (more on this to follow) all without a vehicle. Other than private trucks with people crammed into the rear box, public transit did not exist (see below). My assigned vehicle, a Mercedes jeep was at the local dealership awaiting parts (coincidentally, and suspiciously, the dealership’s manager’s jeep, the same model as mine, was now back on the road), so I had to borrow whatever vehicle I could get my hands on.
It is hard to describe my work. Ostensibly, I was to complete the existing food distribution projects while preparing for a major refugee resettlement effort and a food-for-work project to rebuild secondary roads, both awaiting the funding promised with the peace accord. Southern Angola had been caught in a persistent drought and agricultural output, exacerbated by the war, was a fraction of the local food needs. There were two young, inexperienced Canadian CARE staff already on the ground but they were barely managing. Communication with the head office in Luanda was intermittent and impossible with North America. We didn’t have an office and our local staff were directionless. Food aid delivered to our warehouse in the port of Namibe would come in one door and soon disappear out the back. The rail line to the port wasn’t functioning and our regional warehouses and logistical capability were essentially non-existent. Our trucks, when operational, had to travel in convoys with UN peacekeepers. The CARE Country Director in Luanda was indecisive and, for the most part, ineffectual. He was gay and would often throw parties that local boys would attend. He also stashed the mission’s cash, indispensable for operations under local circumstances, somewhere in his apartment. A day after one of his parties, he was robbed of $15,000 USD at gunpoint. In short, the CARE mission was as chaotic as we had been warned!
Despite the hardships of the posting life goes on and it is remarkable how quickly one adapts and normalizes a difficult situation. We lived above a ‘middle-class’ Angolan family. The lady of the house, Fernanda, was maybe 28 and had 6 kids. We would often observe the goings-on of the girls out back where they would do the laundry, scrub the pots & pans and take care of their various animals. One evening we watched as Zanate, the 11 year old, pin down a chicken while Sylvia, the 9 year old, pluck the feathers from the neck of the bird, then pick up an old, dull knife and slowly cut the head off. The image of sweet little Sylvia and the headless chicken convulsing at her feet was a bit disconcerting. The girls would often come up and play with Nina (or more accurately, her toys!) and, on occasion all bathe together.
Next door was a family of Portuguese Angolans with whom Claire became quite close. Marrisa, the mom, would help Claire in locating household basics (bread, sugar, meat, eggs, propane fuel for the stove, etc.). Her kids would often babysit Nina where she received an abundance of love and attention, to the point that she was rather blasé when Dad arrived home from work. Claire returned some of their kindness by giving English and computer lessons to the older kids. Claire also helped track down rabies vaccine when one of Marrisa’s kids was randomly attacked and bitten by a monkey. The actions of the monkey, the lack of vaccine availability, cold chain requirements for the vaccine (a worry throughout rural Africa) and the lethality of rabies had Mom understandably frantic in her search.
Ironically, the longer the ‘peace’ held, insecurity at night, even within town, became increasingly problematic. In our case, being on the second floor, with bars on all accessible windows and doors, a perimeter wall topped with broken glass and a sheet-steel, entry gate with spikes on the top plus a night guard, we felt secure. However, trips in the evening to visit friends were always a carefully choreographed event. Our guard would open our gates and close them immediately after we drove off. We would speed down the main roads blowing through any stop signs if encountered, honking our horn as we approached our destination, where our friend’s guard stood ready to open the gates. A rousing board game (Pictionary was a favourite) with friends, some good Portuguese wine and then the reverse operation for the drive home.
One night we were awoken to the sound of gunshots, probably an AK47, and very close by. I got up, peeped through the shutters just in time to see some fellow running for his life across the roofs of our out-buildings. We found out in the morning that one of our neighbors had opened fire on two suspected robbers. Blood on the road indicated he wounded at least one, presumably not the guy nimbly traversing our backyard. Two days later the dead body of the suspected thief was found amongst tall reeds in a nearby ravine. Police investigations and/or justice of any kind was nowhere to be seen.
A positive aspect of hardship postings of this kind is that the expat population tends to be mutually supportive and typically we share an adventurous disposition. One evening a call went out (we all had some form of radio or walkie talkie type communication) to assist in the emergency evacuation of a young Brazilian women who had lapsed into a ‘coma’. About 35 vehicles from assorted UN agencies & NGOs drove out to the airport to light the runway for an incoming air ambulance (a commercial jet). The runway lights had long been out of order, as were the numerous broken down and shot up planes strewn on either side. For some unknown reason it fell upon me (an organizing gene inherited from my mother) to evenly space the vehicles along either side of the 3.0 km long stretch. It was a hectic undertaking speeding up and down the runway, guesstimating spacing and giving instructions in three languages (only 1 proficiently). Once all organized, a Russian helicopter pilot sardonically told me in broken Portuguese the vehicle lights were pointed the wrong way. Never mind…..after hours of waiting, the plane never arrived. Most everyone left, in convoy, back to Lubango on the notoriously dangerous stretch of road to town. A couple of us were talked into waiting around to give the air traffic control staff a ride home. It was a lonely and nerve-wracking drive into the barrios then to our homes in town. We found out later that the girl, evacuated the following day, had suffered a ‘hysterical coma’ induced (presumably) by the stress and fear of the shooting we would hear at night. Maybe sub-consciously she just wanted to get the hell ’out of Dodge’?
Almost since the beginning of our stay in Angola, our poor girl had been plagued with one illness after another. During our fourteen months in country, Nina had two bouts of malaria, two attacks of bronco-asthma, hymenolepis nana, amoeba, ascaris, trichuriasis, ancylostomiases, and was stung by jelly fish. At the same time, one would never have called Nina sickly. She was always full of beans, out-going and would bounce back from each setback stronger than ever. The evacuation however was different. Claire had been watching Nina decline for several days. What started out as a cold progressed to a broncho-pneumonia. With the help of Doctora (female doctor) Rosa, a Peruvian neonatologist for whom we will be eternally grateful, they started her on injections of antibiotics but she didn’t respond. Then followed a frantic search for an aspirator, pediatric intravenous needles and oxygen. I raced up to the enormous Soviet built hospital but nothing was to be found. The hospital was one in name only. Both water and electricity were intermittent. The back-up generators (if working?) didn’t have batteries. They had no x-ray plates and the pharmacy seemed to have nothing more than aspirin and malaria prophylaxis. We managed to MacGyver a working aspirator, finally located some oxygen in a container at the compound of a evangelical medical team but pediatric needles could not be found. Claire had to use adult needles to start IVs, a painful and emotionally draining process. Eventually, and I will never forget it, Doctora Rosa came to my office to inform me we had to evacuate Nina. It took me awhile to pull myself together and then began the frantic process of organizing a flight south. Our only option was with MAF (Mission Aviation Fellowship), a Christian based ‘airline’ that served the relief and development communities in Africa. They had at least one small plane operating out of Lubango but just as we were to head to the airport a thunderstorm rolled in and we had a long wait until the morning to leave. The plane, a small Cessna, was unpressurized and Rosa, who accompanied us wanted to fly as low as possible (due to the risk of pulmonary edema??) but the pilot insisted on flying at 10,000 ft due to the risk, believe it or not, of being strafed by small arms fire from below. We arrived at Windhoek with an ambulance waiting on the tarmac but Nina was sitting up and smiling at that point, wondering what all the fuss was about! Claire and Nina ended up staying two weeks in Namibia. I returned the following day with MAF.
Upon reflection, our accepting the posting in Angola with a 4 month old child was, if nothing else, irresponsible . Whatever it was, it was Claire who suffered the most. Not only was she also plagued with one illness or infection after another, she was the primary caregiver of Nina while also trying to keep meals on the table and a home functioning, all under exceptionally adverse conditions. Totally immersed in my work, I was no help at all.
All the expat families, and there was a surprising number with children in Lubango, had sizeable home- based pharmacies which of necessity we all shared. As a result, Claire got to know a number of staff with Coopération France, UNICEF and other NGOs who became good friends. In our experience of ‘hardship’ posts, the international community tends to come together. The vast gulf between the life of locals and that of international staff, on typically shorter term assignments, remains whereas the expat community with our shared experiences can quickly form strong connections. Parties, though infrequent, were always loads of fun and an opportunity to really let loose and mitigate the tensions of our environment.
Needing a short break from the difficulties of our life in Lubango we wanted to get away for a short R&R. São Tomé and Principe, two small islands in the Gulf of Guinea represented a relatively easy getaway logistically and the promise of an exotic paradise most people have never heard of. An ex-Portuguese colony (uninhabited islands prior to the arrival of the first Portuguese in the 16th century) and a transport hub during the slave trade, the islands had zero tourism infrastructure and relied on coffee, cacao and banana plantations as the mainstays of the local economy. There was maybe a handful of tourists on the island when we were there. With our now adequate Portuguese we could communicate wherever we went and were very warmly received by the locals. Nina was the star attraction. Her radiant smile, curiosity and sociability won over all she met. We were soon being recognized about town, driving around in our rented Mini-Moke.
While Claire visited with the locals and played with Nina on the beaches I tried my luck at spearfishing. At one reef I was in water about 10-15 M deep. I was repeatedly diving down and cruising the bottom but no suitably sized fish were to be had. Once, while down deep, the sky over me darkened eerily as a large, dense school of sardine-like fish swam overhead. As I turned and headed up, the cloud of fish parted in a beautiful, undulating circle that I swam through to the surface above. Super cool!
Another time, I hired a fisherman and his panga to take me 2 kms offshore to the remnants of an extinct volcano, part of which projected above the ocean in a jagged crown, open on one side and with a tunnel like opening on the other. With each ocean swell, air inside the tunnel would be trapped creating a disturbing whoomphing sound. As the panga and fisherman floated inside the crown of rock I would dive down, maybe 18 M, to the bottom where there were fish aplenty. Regrettably I was out of shape, the depth was at my limit, the water a little cool and all, combined with the whoomphing above and our remote location, had me a little on edge. Nevertheless, I was getting fish. I would swim to the surface, hand the fisherman my spear, he’d pull off the fish and back down I go. After getting 3 or 4 parrot fish, I spotted a school of yellowtails a little further off but running out of air I started for the surface. Just as I turned skyward, a small barracuda come into view in the murky water. As I was bringing up my gun for a shot (a slow movement under water) a couple of monstrous barracuda came into focus immediately behind my intended prey. They are one scary looking fish and now, quite spooked, I shot for the surface and called it a day. Later I was told by my climbing buddy Pascal, also an expert spearfisher, that hunting barracuda warrants certain precautions none of which I was aware of. I’m glad I never shot.
When the South African army illegally and clandestinely chased ‘rebels’ (from the Peoples Liberation Army of Namibia) deep into Angolan territory in 1990, they were finally stopped just shy of Luanda. As they retreated back to Namibia, they blew up infrastructure along their route including this, the main highway south. Despite having an awesome 4×4 it was slow going through the potholes left from anti-tank mines. We ended up having 3 flats which we needed to change by hand (at that time in Angola all tires had tubes). Learning how to break the bead of a tire off a truck rim was a lesson I do not want to repeat. The trip to the border involved crossing the Kunene River which we did on a narrow, bailey bridge (without guardrails) perched precariously on the ruins of the old bridge. The complete absence of signage, lack of development, services or authority of any kind other than the occasional ‘village’, a collection of round huts of extended family, barely distinguishable amongst the fields of millet and maize and only an occasional vehicle, lent an air of wild adventure to the drive south. We overnighted with some MSF (Medicins San Frontieres) staff in the bombed-out town of Ondjiva in one of the few remaining buildings with a roof and made the border the following day.
The transition from Angola to the neat, ostensibly modern, conservative, and ‘apartheid’ state of Namibia was dramatic. Moreover we switched from driving on the right to the left side of the road, which takes some getting used to. We would drive through vast, white owned farms with hardly a soul to be seen then transition to the tribal homelands, with overcrowded minibuses, overgrazed land, kids herding goats and livestock on the road. There would be a bottle-store (liquor)and grocery store every few kilometers with a crowd milling about out front.
On one of last nights camping, when Claire and I we were busy packing up in the morning, Nina let out a piercing scream. We looked her way to see a scorpion scuttling along the ground away from her. Fearing she had been stung (Mom over reacting!) we took her to the local ranger’s hut. He quickly allayed our fears saying that if stung she would be writhing in agony which, given her great big smile, she clearly was not.
Despite the bleak picture portrayed by our anecdotes in this post, we grew to appreciate the positives of our life in Lubango. We had a fine group of expat friends and were feeling more and more integrated into the local Angolan life, being especially close with our neighbours. Climbing, adventures to the coast, running and tennis at a local court we managed to rehabilitate (with a rope for a net) provided enough recreation. Moreover the pressures of work had eased as the relief programs came to an end and funding for the new projects had yet to be confirmed.
It was also fascinating witnessing the UN sponsored and monitored electoral process. The ruling party, with all the government resources at their disposal clearly had the advantage but the sudden appearance of the rebel UNITA supporters in shiny new GMC trucks, courtesy of the US government was very unsettling. Up to this point, living in government controlled areas, our experience was with the diverse, multi-racial, multi-hued urban population. UNITA on the other hand was from the rural areas and almost exclusively of the Ovimbundu tribe. They were uniformly dark skinned, small in stature and, from our perspective, intimidating. Their raucous, flag waving, slogan chanting, in-your-face presence on the streets of town was much more notable than that of the ruling party. In fact, the government became completely ineffectual, almost non-existent, during the campaign. Was this simply the perception that the outcome was inevitable, one in which people in authority take advantage of one last opportunity to ‘line their pockets’ – a phenomena we had seen with the election in Nicaragua.
Whatever was to happen, due to the limited opportunities for Claire, and Nina’s on-going health issues, we had put in place a transfer request. Three weeks before the election CARE offered me a very interesting posting to Zimbabwe, a country at peace with a, more or less, functioning economy. We accepted unconditionally and put in motion the myriad considerations to leave the CARE operation in Lubango in some semblance of functioning order.
We packed all our personal effects onto a CARE truck which Antonio drove south to Namibia. I had wanted to stay to witness the elections but, in the end, Claire, Nina and I flew to Luanda for a final debrief with head office, then an ongoing flight to Harare, Zimbabwe, two days before election day. That day went remarkably well with long, patient lines of voters most of whom were voting for the first time. The UN strategy to issue photo ID to all registered voters was highly effective (for many it would represent their first photo!). However as the count slowly progressed and it became clear that Savimbi (UNITA) would lose, all hell broke loose. The civil war restarted!
Most expats fled the country. CARE Angola’s international staff all flew with MAF to Namibia. Our friends from Coopération France drove overland to the border which must have been a very tense 10 hour drive. Reportedly two hundred people died in street fighting in Lubango within one week of the elections. It was very hard thinking about our friends back in Lubango, those without the resources or connections to leave, hunkering down in their homes. Many had done their best to stock up prior to the election fearing this eventuality but now all provisions would have disappeared with resupply totally unpredictable. Antonio, who had driven south with our personal effects stuff couldn’t return to Lubango for six weeks. He must have been worried sick about his wife and three daughters. One can only begin to understand the plight of refugees. We had left just in time and to some degree felt like the proverbial rats fleeing the sinking ship!
And so began our life in Zimbabwe. Tales for another time.