The gap between rich and poor is more visible in Luanda than anywhere else I’ve been. The overpriced beach clubs and restaurants on the Ilha are just a mile away from a beachfront shanty town, but a whole world away in terms of accessibility. Still, that’s not a problem anymore because last week the shanty town was demolished.
The back gate of the Embassy compound opens onto a coast road, and I’d have a nice seaview from my lounge window if it weren’t for the slums and cement works standing between me and the Atlantic. Each time I go out in the car with Dino I sit in the passenger seat and watch Luanda go about its business in its own overcrowded, dirty, run-down, flooded, gridlocked way. Supermarket journeys that should take an hour take three, and when we finally do get back I dash into my air-conditioned house and shut the door on the heat and congestion.
Whether Dino turns left or right out of the compound depends on where we’re headed, but the two directions offer very different impressions of the city. To the right you have the Ilha da Cabo: a 7km-long promontory that sticks out into the ocean like a long thin finger. It’s chain of private beach clubs, restaurants and nightclubs offer the wealthy Expat an evening of cocktails and pretty good dining under the stars, to the sound of waves lapping the beach. Go to the Ilha for dinner and you can almost believe you’re in a nice tropical tourist resort. All this comes at a price: dinner on the Ilha averages $90 per head. At least it does when it’s Karen and me doing the dining.
Turn left, however, and after a short while you’d pass one of Luanda’s many shanty towns. This one is — or was — a labyrinth of single story slums made out of mud bricks and corrugated iron, spread over an area the size of two football pitches and knitted together with narrow, twisting alleyways. The “skyline” is dotted with Angolan flags and TV aerials made out of coat hangers. Whole families sharing a single room in some cases, with no mains electricity and no running water. They power their lights and small TVs with portable generators, and they collect water in yellow plastic jerry cans from a nearby well, pushing their heavy cargo back home in wheelbarrows made out of forklift pallets and an old car wheel.
I expected to find this level of poverty out in the Angolan countryside but not right in the city. The Civil War ended in 2002, but the mass influx of refugees from rural areas has left Luanda with way more people than it can handle, and this shanty town is one of the results. I wouldn’t feel safe getting out of my car there, but the high rate of petty crime is not because the people are inherently bad, but because they have so little that survival instinct alone might be motive enough for someone to mug me for my watch and mobile phone.
When we first arrived we learned of Luanda’s ongoing redevelopment projects, and we’ve already seen signs of ‘beautifying’ parts of the city — the most notable being a new road along the Ilha complete with jogging track along the beach. Last week this beautification took another significant step. I’d seen some worse-than-average traffic congestion out of my lounge window over the weekend and when I first Turned Left during the week the reason for it became clear. The shanty town had vanished. Completely vanished. Where there were slums, alleyways, and thousands of people before, now there was just bare uneven earth between the road and the beach. It looked as if some giant hand had lifted the edge of the ocean like a rug and swept an embarrassing mess underneath.
The authorities do have a programme of re-housing the people displaced by such operations, and yesterday I saw some of these new residences being built: hi-rise blocks of flats that look pretty normal from a distance, but as I passed I did wonder what utilities would be provided. Would they get electricity and plumbing, or would they be swapping a ramshackle slum for a room in a giant official one?
Still, the beach looks nicer now as I sweep past in my chauffeur-driven 4×4 to spend $200 on food I don’t need, so there’s a silver lining.