27 September 2009

Leaving Luanda

Somehow, 15 months has passed since I arrived in Angola, and just like that the MBA Enterprise Corps assignment is over. There were several going away parties the final week in Luanda, but the most touching was our team lunch held at Jango Valero on the Ilha. I knew something was up when Wilson, an Angolan colleague, brought a guitar case to the outing. The mystery was solved before long, when he broke out with his special song. I didn't know what to expect, but luckily the cameras were rolling.

The meal was great (lobster on the buffet line is never a bad thing) but I was caught off-guard when it became clear I was expected to make a speech. I had been so focused mentally on trying to finish work projects and figure out my packing strategy (it's not easy to pack after living somewhere for 15 months when you're constrained by airline baggage policies to get all your stuff home!) that it never dawned on me that I should prepare some remarks. Of course Burch - the MBAEC volunteer that I arrived with 15 months ago - spoke well and from the heart, which made my speech seem all the more inadequate. I stumbled through it somehow and nobody threw any food at me so I'm taking that as a sign that my comments were acceptable. I was honored to have the experience and look forward to keeping in touch with the team.

Wilson's going-away tribute:

19 September 2009


I may have saved the best weekend trip for last. I have been impressed with the potential for tourism in Angola, and a quick trip to Malanje last weekend only reinforced that opinion. The ride from Luanda involves a gentle climb through a large imbondeiro (baobab) forest to the town of Dondo, at which point we continued in the direction of Malanje only to find that a bridge was under construction about 20 minutes down the road. There were cars waiting, so we thought it might be a temporary close. Rolling down the window to ask for an estimate, we were told that the bridge should be open by Monday (it was Saturday morning). We found an alternate (unpaved) route and amazingly didn’t end up losing much time.

The Kalandula Falls (known as the Duque de Bragan├ža Falls during colonial times) were impressive. The remarkable part about it for me was that there is absolutely nothing stopping you from walking right up to the edge, and falling over should you be so unlucky. The large sandstones in the river bed atop the falls are full of carved graffiti from colonial times and make for some interesting reading. During the visit I kept thinking how waterfalls are a curious attraction. I think they are beautiful, but what exactly are you supposed to do there? I find myself staring at the falls in sections, fixing my gaze on one section of water’s journey downward and then picking a new section when the water I was previously watching is down. Then I focus back to take in the overall scene. I mean, what else could you possibly do? It sounds so boring when you’re writing about it, but people travel hundreds of miles and sometimes base their entire vacations around doing nothing but what I just described. Maybe it’s inspiring. In any event, I spent some time scrambling on the river rocks taking care never to get too close to the edge. And then it was time to go, which was fine by me.

After a quiet Saturday night in town we got up early and drove to the Pedras Negras area, which was another surprise. The road leading into the main area isn’t marked, but we were able to confirm the route by stopping to ask one of the locals in a nearby village. At this point I got out of the truck and rode standing up in the truck bed as we drove down the dirt road through the massive rock formations. We came to another village (Pundo Andongo), this one with paved roads and electricity – a definite leftover from Portuguese times. On the other side of the village was an area with footprints in the smooth rock with a barrier. It turned out we were visiting at the same time as the delegation from the “Miss Malanje” pageant that was due to be held the following weekend. The contestants were taking cheesy photos with the rocks in the background and it was awesome. We asked someone what the footprints meant and got the reply that it was the “footprint of the queen.” Highly doubtful, but we didn’t press for more details. After exploring a bit more and summiting one of the rocks for an impressive view it was time to start the long drive back to Luanda. We took a different route that was in even worse shape than the previous one, and after three hours of shock therapy it was a relief to find the asphalt again. The highlight of the return trip was the need to ford a river with a steep incline on the opposite side (the adjacent bridge was not yet open). We watched a semi full of Coke bottles take two tries to make it up, but luckily we fared better.

Throughout the weekend drive we passed many villages made of mud dwellings with straw roofs. It seemed to be the season to put on a new layer of straw, which makes sense since the rainy season is just around the corner. We’d pass women beating cassava into paste to make funge with the large wooden utensils I had only previously seen in the anthropology museum in Luanda. There were pigs, goats, and chickens roaming around the villages and kids playing soccer. None of these villages had power or running water from what I could tell. It was a glimpse into a life from another century…

Road hog:

Driving through the Baobab Forest:

"The Queen's Footprint":

If at first you don't succeed:

Approaching the Pedras Negras:

Looking down to Pungo Andongo:

Last look at the Pedras Negras:

17 September 2009


July was a month for unexpected events. In the same day, I received news that the father of one of my colleagues had passed away and that another colleague had to be medically evacuated to South Africa. That was a pretty big blow to CAE’s operational capacity, and as a result of the former event I found myself on a flight from Luanda to Soyo bright and early at 6am on a Sunday morning (following the night of my birthday party...I was not exactly chipper).

The NGO I work for has been contracted to lead a series of business training classes for potential suppliers to Angola LNG, which is the company constructing the country’s first liquid natural gas processing plant. A separate huge project involves building a deepwater port so tankers can export the processed LNG. It’s a big deal, and Soyo is a small town so the impact is visible everywhere. I got to meet the small business owners participating in the training (the week I happened to be there the subject was health and safety standards at work), and noticed a notable drop in the level of sophistication compared to some of the companies we work with in Luanda. Most of them were thrilled to have access to the training courses though, and the level of participation in the courses was high.

Geographically speaking, Soyo is an interesting place. It sits at the point where the Congo River (the world’s 2nd largest in terms of volume) empties into the Atlantic. Across the river, barely visible on the horizon, is the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly known as Zaire). The roads in town are mostly fine, sandy dirt that make travel in a 4x4 not just handy but a requirement in some neighborhoods. I have no idea how people get around during the rainy season – some potholes on the unpaved neighborhood roads would be enough to drown my car from back home. On the main road in town ladies hold up large lobsters as long as it takes to sell them. The main type of fish is different here too – large freshwater river fish that you just don’t see in the Luanda markets.

On the other hand, anyone that thinks life in Luanda or Benguela is hard should spend a few days here before complaining. For one thing, the phone and internet connections are horrible. It’s not that the connections are bad, it’s that you can’t make connections in the first place. It took me 20 minutes of continuous attempts to reach my driver to let him know I was done with dinner. The dinner on that occasion was another thing altogether – I waited 90 minutes for my meal to arrive. I hadn’t expected the wait and wasn’t prepared with anything to occupy my time. I tried sending amusing text messages to friends back in Luanda, but the network kept telling me it wasn’t possible. I entertained myself by counting the rats running around the trash heap at the house under construction across the street, and wondering how many of those rats made the trip across the street to visit the kitchen of the restaurant I was frequenting (which I had picked, incidentally, because someone told me it was the best place to eat in Soyo). I discovered a very crude graphics game called “Snakes” on my cell phone and resigned myself to playing it instead. My order arrived eventually and it was actually very good (the bill for my grilled side of chicken and French fries plus a small bottled water came to $25).

The living conditions here are another story altogether. I’ve never seen anthills being formed inside a house before, but the house in Soyo proved there’s a first time for everything. Running water in the house relies on turning on a pump, which frequently breaks (or won’t work when the power is out, which fortunately is not very often). Forget about hot water. It’s quiet though, which is a welcome relief on the weekends compared to Luanda, where lately it seems impossible to escape party noise until after 5am. At least there was that…

It was an interesting day at the market:

The giant baobab is helpful for giving directions:

The aftermath of a day at the market:

Leftovers from the war slowly washing away:

05 September 2009

Luanda International Fair (FILDA)

By far the biggest networking event of the year for CAE, FILDA (Feira Internacional de Luanda, or Luanda International Fair) was held at an event center just off the road to Viana. Traveling to get to the event is like driving through some kind of post-apocalyptic traffic nightmare, but once you arrive it’s pretty much like most conventions I’ve ever been to. There are several pavilions, and anyone interested in doing business in Angola has a presence. Some pavilions are sponsored by countries (Portugal, Brazil, and Spain were the most prominent) and others by companies (dominated by banks, oil companies, and Chinese manufacturers).

We were there to register new clients and to make our presence known to the oil companies, who are our major partners (my NGO helps small Angolan-owned companies win contracts with the oil multinationals operating in the country). The highlight of the fair was the visit by the Angola Minister of Petroleum, who turns out to look a lot like Teddy Roosevelt. He spent a solid 5 minutes at our booth, which is more time than he spent talking to Exxon, who were our neighbors across the hall (a fact the Exxon representative commented on afterwards).

It’s no question that Angola’s economy is growing rapidly, and it was exciting to see the interest in the country at the fair. If only participants didn’t risk dislocating vertebrae on the road to get there…

Brazil one of the major countries participating:

But wait! There's more!

Earth-moving equipment a popular item:

Sweet, I was needing a snag. I wonder if I can tek it away?:

Ministry of Petroleum is Angolan Teddy Roosevelt:

20 August 2009

Ghana: Signs

These signs pretty much speak for themselves. I'll just add that this phenomenon was probably the best unexpected feature of my trip to Ghana - it may have been unbearably sweaty, humid, and hot at times, but these signs never failed to put a smile on my face.

Vote for your favorite!

2-Pac. Jesus. Car decorations. More in common than you might think:

No laughing matter:

Bordering on creepy:

Late realization that it's better to sell more than one phone:

Advertising lesser-known skills of the almighty:

I'm sure she wouldn't mind if you brought her too:

Pretty high service promise:

If you haven't seen enough:

18 August 2009

Ghana: Top Ten

It might sound strange, but my fascination with Ghana started with a 5th grade Cub Scout project. My den (Indian Nations Council) introduced us to a pen pal organization and we were assigned addresses to write to. The project turned into a kind of competition to see who could get the most number of people to write back, and at one point I was writing to 25 pen pals from all over the world. My first one, however, was from Sunyani, Ghana. That pen pal relationship lasted for over a decade, and as a kid I remember getting cuts of kente cloth, leather goods, and cedi bank notes in the mail. Ghana always seemed like an impossible place to get to, and even from within Africa it took a fair bit of planning. But it was worth it.

Without any more babble, my top ten from Ghana:

Built by the Swedes (who knew the Swedes were building castles in Africa???) and later occupied by the British, the castle’s started as a post in the gold trade but became a symbol of the slave trade. The dungeons where slaves were kept prior to leaving the “door of no return” left me speechless. President Obama visited here last month – many of the slaves that came through this castle went to the United States.

The castle in Elmina (20km down the road) is the oldest European-built structure in sub-Saharan Africa still standing. Started by the Portuguese and then occupied by the Dutch I thought it was even more interesting than Cape Coast Castle. The Posuban Shrines (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/09/travel/09ghana.html?_r=1) and the Dutch cemetery were also worth visits. Don’t believe the neighborhood kids when they try to charge you to take pictures!

Not your everyday shrine:

This is definitely not the most comfortable way to get around, but absolutely the cheapest. I went 40km for about 75 cents. You have to wait for the vans to fill up before they leave, but depending on the route this usually doesn’t take long. The commercial activity surrounding the vans while you wait is excellent entertainment anyway. Tro-tros have their own slogans too – the best I saw was “If you don’t get into heaven, don’t blame Jesus.”

Pick your seat strategically:

Yogurt vendor while waiting for a ride to Kumasi:

I arrived at the chaotic scene at dusk and a Ghanaian woman that had been on my tro-tro from Cape Coast for the previous 4 hours took me by the hand and led me through the maze. She said that people related to the chiefs would try to steal me. I later realized she probably meant steal “from me”, but I couldn’t get the thought of being kidnapped out of my mind. I wasn’t scared but took her advice and followed her to a safer place to get a taxi to my hotel. Only to find out that we had basically walked right past it and that I didn’t need a taxi anyway…

Please don't steal me:

The 10-acre market in Kumasi is theoretically west-Africa’s largest. I had reserved an entire morning to explore it, only to have selected the day that a big chunk of it burned down. Instead of browsing I started taking pictures of the aftermath. What struck me was how nonchalant most people were about the tragedy. Many people had come to see what happened and carried on laughing and joking like they were going to see a soccer game or something, others were going about their business trying to sell whatever they could in the streets in the true market spirit…

The lady at the market stall in Sunyani was laughing at me, but I just couldn’t believe the size of the snails she was selling. They were literally the size of my hand. She offered to cook one for me if I bought it, but somehow the thought of a snail that size just wasn’t appetizing. Cute little escargot in garlic butter is one thing, but that satisfying squishy sensation didn’t seem so appetizing writ large. They were fun to look at though…

You'd need a special escargot pan to cook these suckers:

I decided I was going to buy fabric and have a local tailor make some African shirts for me. The trip to the market was fun in itself, and I picked out three patterns (I can’t trust my taste so I was trying to hedge my bets). I had asked a local what the price for fabric was so I knew if I was getting ripped off, and remarkably nobody tried to. The price to sew a shirt was cheap enough, so instead of picking one piece of fabric I had the tailor make shirts with all three designs I had bought. The grand total for the fabric and tailoring for all three shirts: $18. I was kicking myself afterwards that I didn’t buy some plain blue cloth to make more shirts – the style is very comfortable in the humid climate. Something to keep in mind for the next visit.

This is sort of in the “you have to see it to believe it” file, but I really liked the spirit of the novelty coffin shops. Film projectors, Mercedes-Benzes, airplanes, chili peppers, elephants, crabs, soda cans, wrenches – you name it. I left thinking that being buried in a novelty coffin is sort of like getting in one last laugh at death, and I have to say I like the idea. I’m not sure it will convince me to change my preference for cremation, but it definitely had me thinking. It’s about $700 for each hand-carved and painted coffin, but you have to figure out the shipping. Apparently that doesn’t stop some people - the shop owner I talked to said he gets orders from the US all the time.

I was expecting this to be kind of gimmicky, but actually it was pretty cool. I was stuck between a couple from Holland and an evangelical family from the US that had moved to Ghana. The patriarch from the latter group tried to chat me up and I ran away as quickly and tactfully as possible. My escape allowed me to focus on the perspective the canopy walk offers. It was obvious a lot of the surrounding forest had been cut down, but what was left was still impressive.

Hang on!

One thing that struck me the most about Ghana was its entrepreneurial spirit. There are lots of small shops each with their own personality that speaks to a savvy marketing sense. Religious themes were the most common, often with humorous results. I'll post separately, because there are just too many to choose from and this is already a long post...

Click here for more photos:

16 August 2009

Ghana: Getting There

One of the best parts about the trip to Ghana this past May was just getting there. I was flying on points, and was required to have a nearly 24 hour layover in Johannesburg. For those of you looking at a map, you’ve realized this makes no sense. It’s like flying from Dallas to Miami to get to Seattle. But that’s how the African infrastructure works – there aren’t any direct flights between Angola and Ghana, and it makes more sense to connect in Johannesburg than, say, London, which would have been the other option (and with only two flights a week to most European capitals, not a very convenient one).

It turns out the adventure started as soon as I got to the Luanda airport, when I had one of three possible departing times to consider for my flight. My printed reservation had one time, the public information system at the airport had another, and my printed boarding pass had a third, representing a possible departing time spread of 3 hours. On a previous trip to Johannesburg the original reservation document was correct and the other two were wrong (including the boarding pass). This time it turned out the boarding pass was correct. I try to get to the airport ridiculously early (I recommend 5 hours ahead of time, because of this and other unpredictable nonsense), so I was never really worried, but anyone uncomfortable with uncertainty would probably have had a heart attack. After I sweated my way through the immigration line (they really need to think about getting some AC in that hall) and passing through the Kwanza shakedown (you have to open your wallet and show the police you’re not taking any Angolan currency out of the country, which is illegal), I was on my way at last.

I landed in Johannesburg after the 3+ hour flight on a Friday evening in time to have dinner at a Thai restaurant with some friends in the Melville neighborhood, enjoyed a night out, slept in, did some shopping, and got back on the plane the next evening for the flight to Accra. Once there, I was pleasantly surprised to discover my hotel had fast wireless internet and I promptly set about downloading podcasts and episodes of Saturday Night Live to watch back in Angola when the power goes out. I was loving Ghana already.