Bart Simpson seemed out of place in the Model UN, but at least he got his stock phrases down. “In conclusion, Libya is a land of contrast,” he said.
It’s hard to land in Angola without thinking the same thing. Skyscrapers next to slums, gleaming new hotels next to old façades riddled with bullet holes, Luanda and the rest of the country: the contrast is impossible to avoid. It’s as if wealth flowed into the country so fast it struggled to keep up with its own potential.
The roots of this divide between coast and interior are nothing new—you have to go all the way back to the Late Medieval Period to see the birth of modern Angola.
Angola has one of the longest histories of colonialism of any once-colonized place in the world. The Portuguese first arrived on the southern African coast and treated with the local Kingdom of the Kongo nearly a decade before Columbus sailed to the Americas. For a while not much happened; Portugal was less interested in Angola than in the lands to its west and east. For the next several decades, Portuguese ships mainly sailed west to the Americas and east around the southern African cape to India and the Spice Islands, and trade between the Kingdom of Kongo and Portugal remained small. But all of that was about to change.
In 1500 Pedro Alvares Cabral landed on the east coast of Brazil and claimed it for Portugal. Opportunistic captains started planting sugar cane, and by the mid-1500s the sweet crop was the new colony’s most important export. All those sugar cane plantations needed a lot of labour, and Portugal knew exactly where to look. The Portuguese King struck deals with the kingdoms on the west coast of Africa, who were only too happy to capture their brethren from the interior and sell them into slavery. The trans-Atlantic slave trade was born.
These were boom times for the coastal peoples. Luanda was founded in 1575 as the principle slave-trading port, and tribes like the Imbangala and Mbundu grew rich and powerful, trading slaves captured from the interior for guns imported from Portugal. This cycle reinforced itself: Portuguese guns made the coastal tribes more powerful, allowing them to capture more slaves, who in turn produced more Brazilian sugar cane, fuelling demand for more slaves and more guns—all of which enriched Luanda and devastated the interior.
With more money came more problems. Portugal, alarmed at the growing might of the coastal tribes, began to play them against each other opportunistically to ensure no one tribe became too powerful. Warfare was a constant fact of life for the next 200 years, and the stakes were high: if you lost, your people were enslaved and shipped off to Brazil to work the cane fields.
But then something happened. In 1822 Brazil gained its independence, and with it control over the profits from sugar exports. Suddenly, Portugal no longer had an interest in maintaining the flow of slaves who produced that sugar. In what must have been a huge coincidence, Europe realized that the trade in humans was evil not long after it stopped being profitable; Portugal abolished the slave trade with its former colonies in 1836, and the market for Angolan slaves dried up.
Portugal’s former suppliers were only temporarily phased by the loss of their main customer; after all, they’d had 250 years of experience in global trade, and soon turned their attention to non-evil exports, producing rubber, coffee, and other goods. Angola prospered, and the people of the interior got to breathe a sigh of relief that they no longer had to worry about being captured and sold as property.
But the good times didn’t last. In 1885, the European powers drew lines across maps of Africa, and Portugal suddenly knew where the borders of its Angola colony ended. In this new Age of Imperialism, the Portuguese government began to develop the interior of the country, building roads, mines, and schools. Portuguese settlers flowed in and began hugely productive farms. That was the good part. The bad part was that many of these farms were built on land taken from the local inhabitants, and many of these now-landless peasants fell into a new system of forced labour in mines, farms, and factories. It wasn’t slavery, but it was a slavery-like state of existence. By the early 1900s, infant mortality was 60% in some parts of Angola.
Reformers and priests tried to end this system of forced labor, but they were blocked by Portugal’s right-wing government. The brutal conditions continued, and by the 1960s the Angolan people had had enough. The Angolan War of Independence broke out in 1961, led by the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) and National Liberation Front of Angola (FNLA). This war lasted for 14 years, killing more than 50,000 people, until Portugal’s costs of keeping it up led to a coup in the home country. The new Portuguese government promptly granted Angola its independence.
And that’s when things started to get really bad. In a story so often repeated across newly-independent African nations, the rebel groups could not agree on how to run the new country and started fighting each other within weeks of independence. One recent development probably didn’t help the rebels to come to agreement: oil had been discovered in 1955, and pumping seriously began in 1966. In other words, there was a lot at stake for whoever gained control of the country. In the ensuing chaos, more than 200,000 Portuguese fled Angola, taking with them most of the new nation’s expertise in business, science, and government. The economy collapsed, and what was once one of Africa’s most prosperous nations (economically speaking) descended into a devastating 27-year civil war. Cold War tensions further inflamed the conflict, with the US backing the rebel group UNITA against the socialist MPLA. Even Cuba got involved, sending tens of thousands of Cuban troops to fight on behalf of the MPLA; as a result, Cubans sometimes refer to the conflict as “Cuba’s Vietnam.”
By the time the war ended in 2002, Angola had been laid waste. Most of the country’s infrastructure had been destroyed, the economy was in ruins, and the countryside was littered with landmines that are still being removed today by groups such as HALO Trust.
But the war did end. Finally after three centuries of slavery, seven decades of forced labor, and four more decades of civil war, there was peace. Combine peace with the world’s 16th largest oil reserves (30% larger than oil-rich Norway’s), and the economy started to boom almost immediately. Indeed, Angola has registered the world’s fastest growth rate since 2001 (11.1%), fuelled mostly by oil and diamond exports. The government has gone on a massive infrastructure-building spree, investors have poured money into the country, and this brings us to the Angola I arrived in a few weeks ago.
It’s a weird intermediate state of development, as Luanda has boomed and attracted people from all over the country while the rural areas have been slower to catch up. There’s massive wealth and development, but also extreme poverty.
This contrast was readily apparent as soon as I landed in Luanda. Luanda is famous for being the world’s most expensive city, and it did not disappoint. $36 pizzas. $400-a-day car hires. $12 bottles of water. These comically high prices for everyday items leave you feeling physically as if you’ve been mugged—and indeed, some of the practices at restaurants are positively extractive, as if designed to suck money as a drilling rig sucks up oil: they put starters at your table when you sit down, but these are not the free breadbasket we’re used to in the West—these are $13 breadbaskets, and if you don’t know this, you eat happily until you find “bread” on the bill. Luxurious restaurants line the city’s built-up waterfront, while oil company skyscrapers, sleek shopping centers, and 4- and 5-star hotels rise in the background. For Angola’s elite, life is expensive, but it’s pretty good.
But as soon as you leave the city center, you’re right back in Africa. In these tan and brown Baobab groves, gone are the luxury apartments and glittering office towers; instead you’re back to tiny tin shacks and mud houses like the ones you see in East Africa, though smaller and more ramshackle. The scars of the war are still apparent: in contrast to the individual and scattered plots of home-and-farmland you see in East Africa, houses in rural Angola are clustered tightly together as if for protection from marauding armies.
And none of these places have electricity. Just outside Luanda is a settlement called Zango. It’s made mostly from mud brick and corrugated iron, and while electricity poles line one side of the road, the residents on the other side have no power.
But then you notice: nearly every house in Zango has a satellite dish on the roof. How is this possible if there’s no power?
The answer lies in the little 2.5kVA generators inside every house. The typical generator costs $300 to purchase, and consumes around 1 liter of petrol per day, which at Kz 115 ($0.90) per liter is costing residents $27 per month. Worse, these generators produce carbon monoxide (CO), so you either leave it inside your house and risk CO poisoning, or you put it outside and risk someone stealing it.
No wonder they were so excited to learn about solar—one guy we met was so enthused to hear what we were doing that he jumped in his truck (yes he had a truck but no electricity) and made us follow him through Zango to see just how many people lacked power.
People have more money than they look like, and the money they have, they are spending on energy. And this was just outside Luanda. When you go further out, almost no one has electricity – yet you still see satellite dishes on perhaps 1 out of 10 roofs in the village.
In other words, it looked like we’d have little trouble finding customers for these 100 solar systems kickstarted by the Honnold Foundation. More on this to come.