No one could have put it better than the sages when they stated, “There is always a first time for everything, even the journey of a thousand miles starts with but a single step.” It has taken eons but I finally had a reunion with the inner echelons of an airplane. The last time was in 2003 when as an esteemed member of the Aviation Club at my Alma mater Mang’u High School, we went to Juja Preparatory Academy for the Aviation Symposium.
After presentations of projects and the public infamy of my ‘co-pilot’ and I presenting an incorrigibly impractical prototype of a flying vehicle much to the amusement of the multitude, it was time to be indulged. Our recompense was to fly in Hon. William Gitau Kabogo’s Chopper from Juja Prep to Thika and back in a 5-minute round trip.
The aforementioned character was then the MP for the expansive Juja Constituency. A decade and a half later we have a new constitution, new boundaries meaning no giant Juja but in its stead we have a smaller Juja, Ruiru and Thika Constituencies. A less touted development is the aforementioned reunion between airborne conveyance and I. It’s been long coming and as such it was my first International flight out of Kenya, quite an enthralling experience nonetheless. It was to be an airborne odyssey from Jomo Kenyatta International Airport to Aeroporto International Quatro de Fevereiro in Luanda, Angola.
Let me move on to the subject matter of my piece today.
Luanda is in many ways similar to Nairobi. The divergence however comes in the medium of communication. Kenya is a member of the auspicious commonwealth a region referred to as Anglophone in respect not just of our colonial master the British Crown but also our predilection to use of the English language as lingua franca. Ironically; despite homophonal similarities with the prefix Anglo-, Angola is a Lusophone country paying homage to their colonial heritage in Portugal. It is a special privilege in Africa shared with only Mozambique, Guinea Bissau, Cape Verde, Sao Tome e Principe and starting 2011 Equatorial Guinea. While in Nairobi we have Kiswahili as the National language and English as the Official tongue, Luanda is akin to ‘Lisboa-Preta’ (Black Lisbon). Colonially, the City was named São Paulo da Assunção de Loanda but this mouthful had to be dispensed with on attainment of self-determination. Portuguese is both the National and Official medium for communication. For the most part, this has been a cohesive factor among the divergent Bantu tribes spread over the length and breadth of Angola. They have an expansive coastline straddling the entire Western border where Luanda is located to the North. Consequently, we are oft bombarded by the famous, cool Benguela current breeze from the Southern Atlantic Ocean that we previously only read about in Geography books but now we experience it first hand, the coastal heat notwithstanding. Use of Portuguese has forestalled any contests of ethnic superiority in Angola that still plague my motherland Kenya and as such the spotlight is on infrastructural development and national unity for shared prosperity.
For those not in the loop, the Portuguese culture as has been inculcated into Angola and their directly opposite, transatlantic, homo-lingual neighbour Brazil is quite permissive. People intermingle freely as a sea of humanity. Here you find globalization at its best. While in Nairobi palaver is an intimate matter between 2 people or a specific close-knit group, in Luanda you can enter a hotel or bar in Quifica in the suburbs and just join in a conversation unprompted. That was quite a culture shock for me and my Kenyan contingent who in the first place do not know a single word of Portuguese (PS: We are having to catch up fast in token of all the good girls we are missing). Then for their greetings, they have adopted the Europeanized, liberal culture where instead of shaking hands with a member of the opposite gender, you gently rub cheeks with a light kiss. You can imagine my dilemma when I was introduced to an elegant, portly, young lady and extending my hand to her she rejected instead pushing her rosy cheeks towards me and I had no option but reciprocate the gesture while holding the small of her back. I will discuss in a future post the inner warmth and sense of fulfillment within that can only be the trigger of a civil suit for indecent assault by ladies of less pulchritude for similar salutation in Nairobi. Luanda a vida é louca! Phew, Thank God I am single! Men too hug depending on the level of familiarity more often than can be permissible in the streets of Nairobi even under that convivial smile of the statue of Tom Mboya.
The Public transport culture in Luanda is equally as vibrant as in Nairobi. With almost similar Chinese sponsored infrastructural development much transport across the city has been facilitated. There are traffic jams but less rampant than Nairobi. However, with fewer vehicles the worst traffic jam could only be like what you see between Runda & Muthaiga at 9 a.m. Slow but moving. And I am talking about their busiest street of Morro Bento in the industrial area of the city. The roads in Luanda have long stretches before you can find a turn as opposed to the many roundabouts on Uhuru Highway in Nairobi. Back to public transport in Luanda, their version of Matatu is more decorous and organized than what we have in Kenya. We have the 14 seaters that carry 13 passengers, the conductor and driver. They have organized pick up and drop off points not the double packing and the Too-Fast Too-Furious u-turns you see with matatus on Ronald Ngala street or in Railways stage heading to Rongai. The Kenyan innovation ‘Sambaza’ a piece of wood that is used to leverage on sitting space in a Kenyan matatu that oft leaves you questioning why you pay fare merely to end up with an injured backside has no place in Luanda public transport. The ‘Blue taxi’ the Luanda equivalent of the matatu carries to its responsible capacity and that is that.
They also have many more of the 60-seater buses that are even more popular and spacious not to forget ruthlessly efficient with minimal fuss. For Personal vehicles the most popular brands are Datsun, Mazda, Mahindra and Hyundai considered backwater rickshaws as far as eclectic Nairobian sensibilities are concerned.
Traffic police here are dignified men and women who strictly facilitate order on the thoroughfares as opposed to their Kenyan counterparts who get into shenanigans with motorists over seat belts, driving with sandals and barbarically grab the back of people’s trouser merely for pecuniary benefit (bribes)!
The Luanda CBD is similar in architecture to the Nairobi City Centre. As a matter of fact, there is a street I have passed and thought I was on Kenyatta Avenue with similar infrastructure, an old post office and constrained parking space that saw our chauffeur drive around in circles as we executed our brief for the day. In pretty much the same way we have Times Towers in Haile Selasie Avenue and UAP Towers in Upper Hill as the tallest buildings in Nairobi, here in Luanda we have the Ocean Towers a sort of twin-tower complex; an architectural masterpiece no less, hosting office space, a shopping complex and residential apartments.
Both wings soar to 25 floors apiece and are a resplendent feature visible from the airplane when you are hovering over the Atlantic trying to find the best landing angle. They also have the Sonangol Building complex on Largo Rainha Ginga street, a combination of rectangular and cylindrical facades whose zenith looks similar to the KICC in Nairobi.
Talatona is similar to Westlands, Nairobi in-lieu of the lofty and idyllic sky-scrapers hosting business parks & high-end office space.
The most prepossessing aspect of Luanda construction is the interior design. Exquisite may be an understatement when used as an adjective to describe the finishing, furnishings and structural integrity of most buildings. Architecture may have greater value in Luanda comparable with Nairobi. For many homesteads, an outside patio sitting area or a veranda for bungalows and a balcony for flats and duplexes are an archetypal feature of Luanda residential real estate. Even in the mass market habitation, the same lofty standards prevail.
Nova Vida vs Runda
While in Angola I enjoy the great pleasure of being hosted within the confines of a leafy, green suburb. This is the equivalent of Runda in Nairobi, La Estado Nova Vida. Just like the aforementioned estate, Nyari and Kitsuru in Nairobi this one hosts the newly rich and mostly young but affluent family units, expatriates (like myself) & the local white community. It is quite a homely neighbourhood that domiciles high-end schools, a gym, a shopping complex and residential units. The chirping of birds and the lulling gush of the air conditioning unit is the most noise I ever get to experience. Needless to say, I pen this article from the tranquility of Nova Vida, in hand a tall glass of chilled coke away from the hustle and bustle of the commercially vibrant Luanda CBD which is of great solace to my literary muse.
Kilamba vs Buruburu
Middle-class habitation is also top-notch in Luanda. An alluring variant of middle-class habitation I have had the great fortune to visit is Estado Kilamba in downtown Luanda. It is a block of flats, each unit standing between 12–14 floors, one of the best organized multi-familial abodes I have seen anywhere in Africa. These are served by spacious and top of the range lifts. Even Buruburu estate in Nairobi does not scratch the surface of the pageantry of Kilamba. Unfortunately, the genesis of Kilamba is of a stalled mega-project by Chinese contractors to house their staff while exploiting business opportunities and the construction boom in Luanda. Abysmally for them, due to a downturn in the Angolan general economy precipitated by a crash in oil prices and a crunch on infrastructural growth the habitation was abandoned.
The Chinese built an entire estate of comely and well-organized flats, served by tarmacked driveways, walkways manned by in-situ traffic lights right in a compound with several flats even having dedicated rooftop BTS towers for telecommunication. Kilamba is the estate to live. A basketball court beside every few blocks of flats is the pick of this picturesque estate. Haphazardly scattered refuse is definitely not a by-word here, with well-manicured lawns the standard-bearer in this esteemed estate. Talk about a decent and dignified middle-class habitation.
Incidentally, the slums are just as miserable as in Kenya if not worse. I have actually seen a mother and daughter foraging in the dustbins of Kilamba before making the long, de-humanizing journey back to the slum area. In a township called Olympia, life is just as unbearable, valueless, short and brutish as any slum in Kenya with narrow streets, rhino-charge themed paths for driveways (unmotorable by small vehicles), emasculating tin shacks, sewage on the street and poor infrastructure. The homologous address in Nairobi is the world-famous Olympic area in Kibera.
Visit to the Local
As home to the effervescent Latino culture in Africa, the most popular music listened to is Kizomba. We have the local Kuduro and other styles but the preeminent clubbing scene is serenaded by Kizomba music, a creole mélange between local African and Portuguese music. Cuca is to Luanda what Tusker is to Nairobi if you have to imbibe in the tipple. Another item copied from Portuguese culture is the festival called the Carnival. This is an exhibit of cultural freedom and diversity where humanity mingles and enjoys each other’s company, the sun, culture, music, dance and many other blessings bestowed upon us by the creator.
In Luanda and most of Northern Angola, the predominant political party is MPLA (Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola). The southern part is majorly anti-MPLA but for the most part the atmosphere is not as heavily politicized as in Kenya. People are more concerned about their unity and progress as a nation.
It was not always this way and growing up I remember hearing about the rebel insurgency spearheaded by Jonas Savimbi under the UNITA banner. When Savimbi met his doom in 2002, the remaining rebel leaders were coerced by circumstances to sign a pact for the cessation of hostilities with long-time President Jose Eduardo dos Santos. Then aggressive reconstruction and industrialization ensued to the extent that Angola is one of the top 10 biggest economies in Africa.
The National Currency is the Angolan Kwanza. Just like the ones we are phasing out in Kenya, they have the most venerable Presidents Agostinho Neto and his successor on currency notes in ‘Kufuata Nyayo’ fashion while the 10 and 20 Kwanza coins have the legendary Queen Nzinga of the Mbundu people of Angola.
The Economy of Angola is propped up majorly on the export of Petroleum and Diamonds. Timber is also one export but not on a large scale. On the Import column is almost any item of foodstuff, electronics, stationery, upholstery and ignominiously water! All but the massive, burrowing, amphibious rodent — the Vlei rat roasted on the streets and cassava have to be imported. Through no fault of their own, it is too dangerous to till the land to grow their own food. This is mostly thanks to the landmines set during the previously discussed civil war. This discomfiture in the balance of trade is a major factor in making life expensive in Luanda. Tap water is deemed unsafe for drinking so water has to be imported from adjacent South Africa or far away diametric opposite Brazil or much further, half-a-globe away in Portugal. There is a saying here that Water is more valuable than Petroleum which is not a misnomer but a statement of reality! A Litre of water is at a going rate of 600 Kwanza (approximately 150 Kenya Shillings) per litre while Super Petrol in the most expensive Gas station is priced at 160 Kwanza (~ 40 KES).
I have thus practically seen a clerical employee arrive at work, forget to switch off his car engine such that it ran the entire day and come evening he came to his car, was slightly bemused, got in, reversed and went home without as much as a whimper. In Nairobi, if you had such an unfortunate episode of inadvertence; the cost of fuel alone can make your blood pressure rise, making you hurl insults at unseen opponents in at least four local languages while sweating the big stuff!
Dignity of Work
A technocrat leads a dignified existence in Luanda as he is commensurately remunerated to the level of professional output he exerts in his field and enterprise. Despite the costs of living you could make do and have a healthy saving of earned revenue. Crime is low as integrity is still a way of life in most of Angola a polar opposite of Nairobi. If the key-in-vehicle-ignition-for-whole-day anecdote in the previous paragraph was recounted in Kenya, no doubt it would involve a police case concomitant our culture of `pinching´ things! People in Luanda pay a great premium to exercise and fitness and are thus quite strong and healthy. It is not strange to find an alluring lady with well-toned arm and leg muscles rocking her shorts and or mini-dress going about her life nonchalantly.
Of 2-Pin Plugs & Unitel vis-à-vis Safaricom
The standard in Angola as probably is in Portugal is 2-way power sockets. I found this disconcerting as I had to get an adapter converter for my normal three-way charger plug to fulfill the basic requirement to charge my phone and laptop. An important feature to note is that almost every building has several Air conditioner units due to the sweltering coastal temperatures.
Our local preeminent mobile phone service is Unitel. The much smaller competitor is Movicel offering slightly more than a snivel for competition put in the stark context of Safaricom and Airtel in Kenya.
A strange phenomenon in Luanda is that almost everything is sold on the street by hawkers, anything!
Meat is sold by João on one corner of the street from his bag, surgically dissected proportionately with experiential precision yet on the other side a herbal concoction to heal marital problems sold by Emilia; on the next street is Sousa selling you an electrical shaver. Barbershops are predominantly an open-air affair where you have your business taken care of in the ambient of the coastal sun. An interesting phenomenon is that for most items street vendors are more expensive than the supermarkets, even the high-end international brands like Shoprite.
For instance, last weekend we met a lady with a good 3 Kg bag of potatoes on the street. They looked attractive so my colleague and I had made a decision to buy. However, a language barrier prevented us from concluding the transaction.
Piecing a few Portuguese words together coupled with my trustworthy eyes, I convinced the lady that we would be coming back for the potatoes after returning from the Supermarket. The lady’s 3 kg bag went for 2500 Kz while the supermarket rate was 1995 Kz. Your guess is as good as mine whose goods the penny-pincher Kenyan in us eventually settled for! Mercifully for the lady, she found a buyer and closed for the day before our return.
In conclusion, visiting Luanda is an eye-opener for me and I feel if possible Angola should look for overlapping spheres of interest with Kenya on import and export business and cooperate as we could have an excellent, symbiotic cross-pollination with each other’s culture. Kenya stands to benefit by lopping off the vestigial appendage of tribalism from its national psyche while Angolans will benefit by becoming more enterprising and diversifying their national economic ventures.