Thursday, August 12, 2010

7 - The President, the Archbishop and Me

Sounds like a dirty pub joke. A first foray out from the Soleme past an attractive pink Portuguese mansion gets me motioned to the other side of the street by a menacingly gesticulating soldier. It turns out to be the Ministry of Defence. In fact there are soldiers on guard outside most buildings in the Cidade Alta, where churches, mansions and large administrative buildings glow in various tones of deep salmon pink, sometimes almost but not quite verging on brown. As yours truly approaches the Presidential Palace, the Presidential Guards approach yours truly.

'Waddyadoin 'ere,' quoths one.

'Taking a postprandial peripatetic constitutional,' quoths I.

'Well, get the f... out of here, and while you're at it photographs are strictly verboten' requoths he.

In fact, photos of government buildings in their widest context are forbidden, as is snapping much else throughout the country, such is the official paranoia.

The palace behind its iron barriers is splendid indeed, blushing pink on its palladian fa├žade in front of an exuberant green, befountained park. At its centre a black and red national flag flaps limply about bearing a stupid cog and machete variant of the Soviet hammer and sickle in the middle. I obey the military command post haste, passing a sign on the way: 'Reserved for the Presidential Palace and archbishops.'

Archbishops? Well, they clearly didn't take me for the president, so perhaps I can try faking an archbishop. The arch-episcopal palace adjoins, so His ex-Communist Excellency can rub shoulders with His still-Catholic Eminence. Moreover the baroque Church of Jesus, another door down, was recently made over, no doubt at extortionate cost, for His Excellency's daughter's wedding. Welcome back to the fold!
Gated mansion of well connected

Oh to be the son or daughter, the son-in-law or daughter-in-law of His Excellency! How can a country with so much oil revenue have so many poor? Well, very easily, according to a Brit oil engineer here (yes, I'm also learning how a new drill can go 20,000 leagues under the sea, turn corners with tremendous efficiency and pollute the whole planet). Very easily, too according to the proverbial taxi driver (well driver, anyway - there are virtually no taxis here to get proverbial about). It’s the first family first, quoth they.
Getting slummier - almost opposite, just up the road

President Croesus, who started out as a staunch Marxist and continues as an even stauncher capitalist, takes very good care of himself, his sons, his daughters, his sons-in-law, his daughters-in-law, and his whole damned over-extended family, owning most businesses, quoth they and many others. No wonder Transparency International puts Angola right up there on the corruption chart. One frequently heard rumour has it that a daughter sends four huge shipping containers crammed full with dollar bills out of the country every month.

The vast disparity is visible all around vast sprawling Luanda - the walled enclosures of fancy red-tiled villas for party proteges, generals and oil functionaries almost cheek by jowl with the huge and expanding scabs of musseques, the Angolan term for the well-know Brazilian favela, their grey hovels perched precariously on top of each other on the very rim of cliffs, garbage cascading down the ravines - a disaster in waiting for the next heavy rains. Yet some of them, too, have satellite dishes sprouting from their shanty tin roofs. Such is the siren call of modernity.

And the slum - view from just over the edge

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