08 August 2009

It's a bay! It's a toilet! It's the Luanda Marginal...

Like many things in Angola, the Baía de Luanda has enormous potential. Unfortunately, it’s currently running for the title of world’s largest toilet.

I’ve been lucky enough to get a six-week house sitting gig at an apartment located on the Marginal, the main thoroughfare in Luanda that happens to border the bay. My duties include walking my friend’s Rhodesian Ridgeback twice a day along the wide Marginal sidewalk. I’m also able to walk along the same sidewalk to work, which has been a welcome respite from Luanda’s traffic. Normally the flat 20-minute walk would be a great way to get to work. It’s winter now afterall, so the temperatures in the morning and evening are comfortable low-mid 60’s and perfect for a stroll.

Despite the potential, my experiences on the Marginal have been less than savory. Not a day goes by where I don’t see someone walk right up to the edge of the Marginal in broad daylight, unzip, and relieve themselves right into the bay. Public urination is a competitive sport here, so that’s nothing all that unusual. I’ve also seen kids crawl down to “go potty” directly into the bay, and then proceed to wipe their bare bottoms by dragging them on the concrete edge of the sidewalk that drops down into the bay afterwards. All in broad daylight.

As if that’s not enough, the city’s sewers dump directly into the bay and anyone walking along the Marginal sidewalk doesn’t have to guess too hard about where the exit points are. The smell has been particularly ripe lately, to the point where I’ve caught myself gasping in disbelief as if I were trapped in an elevator next to someone with a horrible gas problem. The water usually has a slightly glowing greenish hue along with the permanent mess of floating refuse, which on several occasions has included dumped refrigerators and other large appliances. I’ve also witnessed people on at least two occasions walk up the edge and dump garbage bags right into the bay. Rats and cockroaches rule the sidewalk at night, a fact the dog reminds me of when she decides it’s time to give chase to either.

The bold disrespect for what should be a point of civic pride is depressing. Someone pointed out to be earlier in my stay here that “African priorities aren’t always the same as Western priorities.” Perhaps, but one would think that the government would feel a little more responsible for doing something to clean things up. Apparently people just don’t care (at least not the ones dumping their human and household waste in broad daylight).

And yet, it’s hard not to imagine a clean Marginal with parks and water taxis taking passengers to and from the clubs and beaches on the Ilha on the opposite side. It could be charming, and there are redevelopment plans posted on billboards along the sidewalk. Nothing has happened in the year that I’ve been here, and these are the kinds of experiences that make people cynical about the future while they book the first possible flight out of here after their contract duties have been fulfilled. Weak civil service organizations, a totally unfree press, and a lack of political will make it too easy to maintain the status quo. Unfortunately none of these factors seem to be changing anytime soon, so I’ll keep holding my breath on my walk to work…

Tomorrow: Plans for a greener, cleaner Marginal:

Today: Not so clean, not so green:

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