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: