Deciding to move to Luanda to live for a few years as an expatriate was an easy step to take. After all, hadn't I grown up in Africa? How hard could it be? I was used to the dust, the heat, the creepy-crawlies, the laid back attitude that claims most of Africa's inhabitants after a fashion. What I wasn't prepared for was the hard lesson of lack, and I certainly didn't envisage this vast and inhospitable African country teaching me anything new about urban survival. What a difficult lesson that was; an arduous climb from arrogant first world structured thinking to the haphazard and oft times precariously scrambled manoeuvres to metaphorically float the tide.
Who knew that washing can dry in 10 minutes flat? And yet - this luxury is offset by the need to iron every single thing afterwards. This, in order to kill the bot fly eggs that are always laid in the drying clothes, as failure to do so results in the eggs hatching out under warm and pliant human flesh. Who knew that cleaning a verandah in the morning can remove the harsh red dust only for a couple of hours before succumbing to the grime and dirt once more? Who knew that the sewerage system, designed for half a million people and now groaning under the weight of 5 million users, can literally rise up to greet you should you be caught unawares during morning ablutions? Who knew that rats can and do get as big as cats and wreak havoc on kitchens and garden refuse? Who knew that catching these rats requires chocolate and wire in a grisly combination? Who knew that potholes can gulp down a large 6 seater SUV in one swallow after 15 minutes of rain? Who knew that shopping for fresh produce can result in cat-fights amongst the more affluent women all trying to garner just one fresh vegetable serving per week? Who knew that leprosy is alive and well and eating many local inhabitants lolling heedlessly on street corners? Who knew, indeed?
It was a difficult lesson; a physically taxing and emotionally draining one. Moving to Luanda seemed exciting at first. Angola held, after all, intriguing yet distant romantic memories of a ravaged Africa, of childhood friends drafted into a long-forgotten war fought against enemies unknown, far beyond our South African borders. It was a vague and formless place that held little relevance and proffered less facts. But the reality of life in Luanda was a rude shock. Recently claimed to be the fastest growing and most expensive city on earth, it is an unresponsive and mirthless place, both seedy and opulent in turn, rundown and filthy and yet arrogant in its growing wealth and fortune. Towers of cranes soar on every city skyline and the building of sites proceeds with seemingly reckless abandon. New structures change the network of roads daily and the increasing traffic causes hour long delays for even the shortest of journeys through the city. Life in Luanda is most certainly hard, in every way.
The most difficult part of living, for a young growing family, is the complete and utter lack. The lack of water on some days, the lack of electricity on others. The lack of rain that cracks the soil and the stones as well as the spirit of the humans living there. The lack of communication lines and postal services. The lack of good schooling. The lack of culture and entertainment. The lack of products to buy. But most of all, it is the lack of food on the supermarket shelves that horrifies the most. General produce is scarce. Fresh produce even more so. And one dares not risk buying meat or chicken in the fear of how long it has been defrosted and unrefrigerated. I remember eating pasta for months on end. On good days, we had potatoes and a bit of bread sold by the bag by street vendors. When a cargo plane was flown in from South Africa with cheese, yoghurt, eggs and a small selection of fruit and vegetables, the shops were an uproar of scrabbling women reminiscent of first world departmental store handbag sales. And the goods we did buy came at a cost; USD 8 for a cucumber, with no guarantee that it had not been frozen and was brown and rotted inside.
We bought bootloads at a time and learned to freeze everything. And I mean everything, from bananas and bread to yoghurt and yams. And we had packaged milk on our cereal, if we could in fact find any cereal to buy. Bottled water was a way of life. Hoarding and storing became my friends. Bargaining was synonymous with shopping, which usually took an entire day and visits to at least 3 different shops to complete. Or not, depending on if any edible food could be found. We didn't just fight other women over the produce; we fought the flies on the fruit, the mice on the pasta and the cockroaches on the cans.
So to make life easier, we jetted off back to South Africa every third month with 5 empty suitcases, and returned with 5 cases filled with food. We even smuggled meat back into Luanda, and on the odd occasion that a bag went missing via the airline and was later recovered, received a suitcase of maggots in lieu of the steaks we had bought. Each trip home to SA was eagerly anticipated and vast lists were made in preparation. Each trip back to Angola got more difficult. Our only saving grace during our three long years there was the small circle of other expat families who buffered the lack with a small solace of friendship and caring in the Angolan dust.
Angola, the forgotten country. Deserted by her people to make way for the booming Chinese and American industries. Scarred lands left desolate under the toll of civil war. Remnants of beauty struggling to be noticed in the form of magnificent baobab trees, panoramic vistas of red land and scourged earth, long-forgotten columns of once regal colonial houses left to perish and wither under the harsh African sun. Angola, the irretrievable country. Once savagely beautiful, now a pitiful dump in the vast scope of neglect. Angola, a memory that will both haunt me and keep me flush with gratitude for what I have, for the remainder of my days.