Sunday, 14 April 2013

G Adventures West Africa. Day 7: Lobito and Benguela, Angola

Pics: Municipal building, Benguela; young women in national dress; locals
turn out to wave during our train journey; Chinese-built bridge on the
Lobito-Benguela road.

There's an old African saying that goes (something like) 'when two elephants
fight, it's the grass that gets trampled' and so it was with the people of
Angola.

Turning up in a country with such a tragic reputation for civil unrest and
outright war was always going to generate some apprehension. For the best
part of 40 years, Angola was torn in a vicious and bitter struggle, firstly
with the stubborn Portuguese who would not relinquish the territory despite
the drain on resources, then after independence in 1974, among the various
factions looking to dominate the spoils. The parallels with Vietnam, East
Timor, Cambodia and Burma are there, except (thankfully) without the Pol Pot
type genocide.

UNITA, MPLA, SWAPO and the FNLA (splitters!) propped up by various
international powers including the USA, Cuba, the USSR, China, South Africa
and even neighbouring Zaire fought vicious set piece battles for control of
the resource rich nation. The Soviet-Cuban backed MPLA prevailed and almost
immediately went to war with South Africa who were then in control of
Namibia to the south. Hostilities in various forms continued until just a
decade ago.

Despite the presence of many uniformed men in one capacity or another, I
didn't see a single AK47 or overt military presence. Like so many countries
released from the devastating grip of war, the regular folks are keen to get
on with peace and rebuild what they have. Commerce, industry, agriculture
and tourism will all play their part in the reconstruction, social and
political. Financially, however, things may have toppled out of balance as
our tour leader, Paul Wesson of Eco Tur (a Brit living in Angola for some 30
years) tells me: "This is now the most expensive place in the world!"

The Chinese influence is the first thing I noticed. Against a backdrop of
fading, crumbling Portuguese colonial architecture, the Asian economic
powerhouse is rebuilding roads, bridges and railways. Chinese workers are
camped alongside their local colleagues erecting everything from power poles
to airports. Some cynic sneered that the Chinese buildings will only last
five years thanks to shoddy concrete and there was some evidence of that
around the port of Lobito with semi-complete multi-storey buildings
collapsing before they were even finished.

Oil is the new gold in Angola. The port is chock full of rig tenders, while
offshore the night horizon blazes with their tell-tale incandescence. With
the unrest in Nigeria, it seems Angola is now neck-and-neck with its
northern cousin as the primary African producer. Just where the billions of
dollars are going is another question and during our 35km train ride to the
neat seaside town of Benguela, the dirt poor locals turned out to wave us
cheerfully on our way. Their houses, built variously from salvaged wood, tin
and railway sleepers were the equivalent of South Africa's shanties, albeit
significantly cleaner. The wide, paved streets of Benguela were swept
spotless with a general, pleasing absence of litter.

The quick and almost reflex action of locals to break into smile and
exchange cheery waves was a most heartening discovery. It speaks volumes for
the resilience and resourcefulness of Angolans - and Africans in general -
who see their best interests in the now and the future, rather than wallow
in the misery of history.

Our full day tour encompassed really just seeing what there was. A small
market and dances in the central park, visits to significant buildings and a
quite respectable buffet lunch at a seaside restaurant. A handful of locals
cavorted in the meagre surf, occasionally stopping to peer curiously over
the wall as we sipped local beer in the courtyard. A small group of
schoolchildren stopped to chat and exchange inquisitive glances as we
re-boarded our vintage buses to complete the tour.

It remains to be seen whether Angola will capitalise on its new-found
prosperity or tumble in fiscal anarchy like so many of its neighbours. Watch
this space.

For more information on tours in Angola, see www.eco-tur.com

For more detail on this itinerary, see www.gadventures.com > West Africa

More images at www.flickr.com/photos/rodeime




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