Christopher Thompson

Halfway down Luanda’s Marginal Boulevard, which runs along the rim of its Atlantic bay, is one of the city’s few billboards, advertising Mont Blanc jewellery. Resting in its shade is a group of street children. None is older than 12, some have distended bellies and all are trying to hustle a bread roll for breakfast from passers-by. One of the children, Fernando, is usually on parking duty next to the Hotel Tropico. The small tips he gets from businessmen for keeping an eye on their cars are enough for one decent meal a day. Occasionally he manages to get a little extra by saying he needs money for school fees. He distributes some of the cash among his friends, who provide protection in numbers from older hucksters keen to chase the boys off their patch.

Fernando tells me he’s from Boavista, one of the largest slums in the city. When the Portuguese left Angola, Luanda was a city of half a million people. Since then, with the influx of a steady stream of refugees from the war-torn interior, it has grown into a sprawling conurbation with an estimated population of five million. Town planning wasn’t on the government’s list of priorities during the war, and the city’s slums look more like refugee camps, lacking any sort of infrastructure.

A cholera epidemic that began in Boavista has spread across the country, killing more than two thousand people. It’s the first serious outbreak in Luanda in more than ten years; the interior has not seen the disease for even longer. In the centre of Boavista a man is collecting water from a pothole. It hasn’t rained for ten days, but if you make less than a dollar a day, you can’t afford the water ferried in by private tankers. At the nearby emergency clinic a doctor tells me that the disease has already moved hundreds of miles south, to the port of Benguela. During the war, which lasted until Jonas Savimbi, the leader of Unita, was killed in 2002, people tended not to move out of the capital, so cholera didn’t spread. Since the government has been rebuilding the country’s infrastructure, however, the disease has travelled along the new roads.

Most of the reconstruction, financed in the main by Angola’s oil boom, is concentrated along the Lusophone coast, traditionally a bastion of government support – to the detriment of the vast Umbundu-speaking interior. The linguistic divide is also political, dating back hundreds of years to when mulatto families on the coast acted as intermediaries in the slave trade between the Portuguese and the interior tribes. Savimbi, backed by Western cash and guns, skilfully portrayed his fight as the struggle of an authentic African people, or povo – authentic because they were indigenous – against a mixed-race Communist coastal elite, whose definition of the povo was exclusive and ‘racist’.

In the city of Huambo, a centre of the old Ovimbundu kingdom high in the Planalto region, a guide drove me to the place where Savimbi lived in the early 1990s. The dilapidated ‘White House’ is decked with lines of colourful clothes hung out to dry by squatters in its gutted interior. The city’s colonial buildings are dilapidated, their pastel façades scarred by shrapnel, and crumbling factories are all that remain of a once thriving manufacturing base: ‘Before the war Huambo was the industrial centre of the country, making everything from plastics to TVs,’ an official from the Environment Ministry said. Now a motorcycle factory is all that remains. The buildings in the old industrial park on the outskirts of the city are surrounded by overgrown grass, their insides long since gutted by bombs. One, a former municipal office block, bears the faded slogan ‘Viva o Marxismo Leninismo.’ That was before the oil boom. President José Eduardo dos Santos and the MPLA (Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola) government abandoned their commitment to socialism some time ago.

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