“We are eating food from a country I can’t remember the name of,” says A on the phone before we eat dinner, acknowledging mum’s atrocious attempt to cook Angolan food.
We begin the journey to Angola knowing that Virtual Nomad is live and people have been reacting quite positively. Nearly 500 people have visited Virtual Nomad’s four adventures and the feedback has been wonderful. It encourages us to continue the journey, and it seems to have inspired others to start theirs.
So, to our fifth country on the Virtual Nomad journey.
Where is Angola? The first guess places Angola in the Middle East (sigh) and then in Africa. A guesses West Africa and L guesses East Africa. Angola turns out to be so far the most difficult to find and the one they have heard the least about. For both, this is the first time they hear the name Angola.
Angola is famous for its nearly thirty-year civil war, one of the world’s most expensive capital cities (Luanda) and vast mineral resources. It has a rapidly growing economy but uneven distribution of wealth, low life expectancy and high infant mortality rates. The civil war left the country with nearly a million deaths and thousands of antipersonnel landmines distributed around the country. It is in Angola where Princess Diana did her famous landmine walk.
Rich cuisine, poor cooking results
Angolan cuisine is very rich. The diet is based on beans, rice, vegetables, chicken and pork. Funge is a traditional side dish made of cassava flour and water. Funge seems to accompany most Angolan dishes and form the foundation of Angolan cuisine.
There are a few African restaurants in Sydney but with most, the description of the menu is generic. ‘West African’ does not satisfy our thirst for something specific and it is back to the kitchen and putting my nomad cooking skills into play. Oh, hear the children roar with happiness.
The result is atrocious. I first try to make funge by combining cassawa flour (found in a local supermarket) and boiling water, but it turns into an inedible mess. All I can produce is a dough, hard as a brick. There is no way to eat it and I am not quite sure what I have done wrong. I followed the recipe religiously but the result is a disaster. We nibble the stone dry dough and abandon the idea of eating it altogether.
Studies have shown its various health benefits – it is rich in antioxidants, helpful in preventing heart disease, and regulates cholesterol. Since Angola was a Portuguese colony for ages, Portuguese gastronomy had a great influence on Angolan cuisine, so as a result, many Angolan dishes are based on meat and palm oil.
The result is not much better than with funge but at least it is edible. L says that it is almost good. It does not look like anything in the photos but I trust that the Angolan spirit accompanies it. I make butter chicken out of plant-based ‘chicken’ to accompany the dinner, but that is not great either.
I am afraid I am not doing Angola any justice with my cooking skills. Disculpe, sinto muito Angola.
Music makes you dance
Spotify offers several Angolan playlists and the ‘Angolan Music’ playlist is the one for us. At first, the music does not sound different from other popular music from basically anywhere but then we find ourselves taking dance breaks because the music makes our surprised bodies move from side to side and then get up and boogie on the improvised dance floor that is the living room. We are, in fact, quite surprised about how delightful and hybrid most of the music we are hearing is.
We hear artists such as Dotorado Pro (Africa House, for example song Marimba Rija, quite hypnotic), Neru Americano -watch the video for the dance alone, Deejay Telio (Que Safoda – probably my favourite), Trx Music Angola, Fildo do Zua (A Saia Del – in the video a boy dreams of a girl of whom you mostly only see the torso and her bottom, but again an interesting video for all the dancing). A lot of Afro House music. Spotify also offers an Angola Afro House list but it is much more repetitive.
Oil, diamonds and one of the most expensive cities in the world
A Super Quick History of Angola by Mr History does not disappoint, once again. This is a quick and entertaining way to introduce something as turbulent and difficult as colonisation, slavery and civil war.
The first people to inhabit the lands were Khoi and San – Khoisan (Khoi were cattle keepers and San were hunters) who were mostly kicked out by the Bantu people. Bantu spoke different languages and the word Ngongo (meaning an iron object that symbolises kingship among the Mbundu and Lunda people) is where Angola gets its name. The 500 years of colonisation by the Portuguese started in 1483 when the Portuguese arrived. Paulo Dias de Novais founded Luanda in 1575. During the Portuguese colonisation, more than a million Angolans were sold as slaves. The Atlantic slave trade continued until the independence of Brazil in the 1820s. Slavery was abolished in 1836 and all slaves freed in 1854. Angola finally gained independence in 1975 after the 12 year Independence war and then embarked on a 27 year civil war that left millions of people dead and many injured.
Geography Now is another constant feature of Virtual Nomad. We learn that Angola has the world’s most expensive city, Luanda. Angola’s flag mirrors the design of the old Soviet flag. 60% of the very important oil reserves are in the Northern part of the country in the disputed area of Cabinda.
Angola has only two important islands – an oil and gas support island Kwanda and Ilha de Luenda. 99% of the economy revolves around oil and agriculture is a very small sector. Two out of three children suffer from malnutrition and one in six die before the age of six. That number is almost incomprehensible – 1 in 6.
The forgotten 27-year-civil war
Then to the more difficult documentaries that again are not for preteens. It is difficult to find a good quality production (mainly regarding audio and visuals) about the Angolan Civil War. It is like the world has forgotten the nearly 30-year war. We find documentaries that feature the Angolan war as part of the Cold War in which Angola is the battlefield for the East-West tension. L and I start watching several documentaries but in most, Angola is secondary in the narrative to the world powers. This leads to me explain the conflict and the recent history of Angola from my perspective to L, and I am not sure if I always get the facts right. That leads to hours of research in the late hours of the night.
In a nutshell there are three main parties: the Communist People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA); anti-communist National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA); and the National Liberation Front of Angola (FNLA). They are all backed by foreign powers, predominantly the USA, Cuba and South Africa. Thousands of landmines are used around the country. Millions of people die. Ultimately the MPLA won and has ruled the country ever since.
Queen’s resistance and the richest woman in Africa
Angolan history and present has two fascinating female figures. Queen Nzinga of Ndongo and Matamba and Isabel dos Santos. Queen Nzinga was a ruler in Angola (circa 1581-1663) when Angola fought against the slave trade and European influence. She was known be a skilled diplomat and an excellent leader of an army who, for 30 years, resisted Portuguese invasion and slave raids. Not a small feat. She is an interesting and polarising character with a fascinating story.
Isabel dos Santos is the daughter of José Eduardo dos Santos who was the President of Angola for nearly 40 years. She used her role as the ‘Princess of Angola’ to gain economic benefits, lucrative deals and licenses because of her connections. Her money comes from involvement in mobile networks, diamonds and construction. She was the chairperson of Angola’s state-owned oil company, Sonangol, while her father was President. When her father finally resigned, she left the Board with a 58 million dollar payment. Her wealth is a striking contrast to the 40-50% of the Angolan population living below the poverty line, despite oil and diamond revenues. She and her husband are accused of embezzling more than one billion dollars of public money. It is quite entertaining to watch some of her interviews in which she claims to be a self-made woman.
Oil, diamonds, land mines, poverty and more oil
I looked into recommendations for Angolan literature. There seem to be two books that appear on different lists: Black Dahlia, Black Gold by Daniel Metcalfe (2014) and The Return of the Water Spirit by Pepetela (1995). Both are available on Kindle – one in English and one in Portuguese – so that is where I am heading.
I start with Black Dahlia, Black Gold. This book is not written by an Angolan author but a British journalist who embarks on a journey in Angola (and also São Tomé and Príncipe, a place I have always, always wanted to visit). It is a fascinating book and written in an entertaining and informative way, even if in a slightly obnoxious (and sometimes ungrateful) way by a privileged outsider.
I learn more about Angolan history from this book than any of the documentaries I have watched. Daniel has really done his homework and travels the country from one corner to another like ordinary Angolans do, many times hosted by generous locals. I find myself taking notes about people and places – whether the activists he mentions are still alive, what are the distances that he covers, where are the towns he talks about, what are the oil companies he mentions, who are the different leaders of ethnic and political groups, etc. He does an exceptional job describing the backstories of Angolan landmarks and people, but also of prominent contemporary figures. I learn more about Jonas Savimbi (leader of UNITA), Holden Roberto (leader of the FNLA and brother-in-law of Mobuto Sese Seko, a Congolese dictator) and Agistinho Neto (leader of the MPLA and the first president of Angola), He also writes about Elias Isaac, the country director for the Open Society of Initiative of South Africa and the work of the Halo Trust that works in clearing landmines around the country.
Metcalfe travels around the country with a journalist’s gut and drive. Conversations are detailed and he has a great eye for details and descriptions. He covers the Angolan history in detail, drills deep into the slave trade, visits the most landmined battlefields, talks to everyone and writes down the human stories. He travels through Luanda and several other cities and regions including landmine-infested Cuito Cuanavale and oil-rich Cabinda. He looks into the culture and history of different ethnic groups. I wish I could read a book like this for every country.
The Return of the Water Spirit
I also want to read Angolan fiction but that proves to be more difficult than I had imagined. The very interesting Rainy Season by José Eduardo Agualusa, which is about disappeared activist Lidía do Carmo Ferreira, is not available anywhere. Other readers have loved it, which really makes me frustrated. I then turn to search for books by Pepetela, the most prominent Angolan writer. The Return of the Water Spirit has received a lot of praise but it is not available online and ordering it from overseas would not only be costly but also take a lot of time. The best option is to read it in its original language on Kindle.
Now, my French is not perfect but my Portuguese is worse. By paying a mere $4.71 I get access to this book and its 102 pages, so I decide to give it a try. To my complete surprise, it is fairly easy to follow and an enjoyable reading experience. Even if I could not have a decent conversation in my incredibly rusty Portuguese, I am able to have the pleasure of reading this book.
Pepetela (Artur Pestana) is an Angolan author and former member of the MPLA during Angola’s Independence guerrilla war. In 1997, he won the Camões Prize, the most important literary award for Lusophone literature.
The book is about the clash of two worlds. A husband who plays videogames while the world collapses around him and a Marxist militant wife who underneath is a ruthless capitalist. The book mixes mythology with a critical look at the Angolan society after independence and introduces the symbolic destruction of ideals (and built landscape of Luanda) in the form of Kianda – the mysterious water spirit that moves worlds and demands the taken territory back. The book is a satirical, clever tale of the corruptive force of power, betrayal by greedy leaders and the corrosion of ideals after the fight is over.
A long walk to find what has been taken
Angolan cinema is a rare treat so it requires quite a lot of digging and research.
The movie sites on the holy Internet seem to agree that the 1972 movie Sambizanga is the one to watch from Angola. It is not only the best rated Angolan movie but also the one with most views (the last at least on IMDB). Mark Cousins’ ten year old list of 10 best movies from Africa (2012, the Guardian) describes it as “a modern, radical account of a woman going from prison to prison looking for her husband. The setting is Angola, but it was filmed in Congo. Director Sarah Maldoror studied in Moscow, worked on the classic The Battle of Algiers, then grabbed African cinema by the scruff of the neck, forcing it to engage with feminism, loss and movie aesthetics. Wow.”
I am convinced so I will give it a go.
As said, the movie is directed by Sarah Maldoror whose husband Mário Coelho Pinto de Andrade was the founder of the MPLA (but lived in exile after independence). Maldoror died of Covid19 in April 2020 in France.
The movie was filmed in 1972 in Congo because it was not possible to film in Angola at the time. It has strong Marxist undertones but above all it is a human story. Domingos is a working man and an independence movement activist in Angola in 1961. One day he is dragged away by the secret police. His loving wife Maria (played by a Cape Verdean economist Eliza Andrade) starts a long journey to find him. Maria goes from prison to prison, walks long distances while carrying her infant son on her back.
For me, the movie is fascinating. For others, it might not be.
The movie is slow and that might be why it is so effective. The emotion is in long shots of people’s faces. The dialogue is scarce. When Maria starts her long walk, the camera follows her for a long, long time.
It is not the political message that I find so compelling but the human story. It is a universal story of injustice, longing and loss. This story is about Angola but it could be from any other continent, or country where people try to find their loved ones. A person is captured and tortured, and the ones left behind carry the price of desperation, uncertainty and suffering. It is a story of the big fish eating the small fish, be it from political orientation or whatever. Above all it is a story about loss, longing and the corruptive stench of power, once again.
The giant antelope
The giant sable antelope, thought to be extinct since 1982, was rediscovered in Angola in 2006.
And with that we come to an end of a very long entry for Angola.
Next stop: Antigua and Barbuda