Oxfam: Diary from Angola

Originally published
Kate Kilpatrick is working with Oxfam GB in Angola for six months. She will be writing regularly about her impressions of the country, its people and the work we are doing there
In April 2002, UNITA and government forces in Angola agreed a ceasefire, a halt in the 27-year civil war that has destroyed much of the country's industry and infrastructure, and left its citizens displaced and impoverished.

As a result of the end of the fighting, humanitarian agencies have been able to scale up their work in Angola to meet the widespread needs of previously inaccessible communities, hundreds of thousands of demobilizing soldiers, and millions of people displaced from their homes. Oxfam GB is working in four rural provinces, providing essential public health facilities - clean water and sanitation - to some 400,000 people.

First impressions

"While a few are able to enjoy the returns from Angola's ample natural resources, millions of Angolans are relying on humanitarian aid just to survive."

The South African Airways flight to Luanda leaves Johannesburg every two days, and it is almost always full. Its passengers are diverse: Western aid workers; wealthy Angolans returning from shopping trips to South Africa; Portuguese nuns; oil company workers - from executives to riggers; and their spin-offs - mainly South Africans heading to Luanda as security workers, construction workers, traders.

Now that there is peace, after 27 years of civil war; now that Angola is about to be one of the non-permanent members of the UN Security Council; now that conflict in the Middle East threatens to disrupt Gulf oil supplies... now, Angola is big business. It is starting to flex its muscles in the international arena. It is opening up.

But oil profits, diamonds, and South Africa shopping trips are worlds away from the experience of the majority of Angolans. Sixty per cent of Angola's population lives below the poverty line. Infant mortality is the second highest in the world.

Angola currently sits at number 161 out of the 172 countries on the Human Development Index. Measured by its export earnings, it should sit much higher. It is testimony to the impoverishing effects of war that this is so; but it is also an indictment of Angola's public policies, and the government's lack of transparency around the incomings and outgoings from its coffers.

Although the fighting between UNITA and MPLA ended with a ceasefire in April, peace only officially arrived on 21 November 2002, with the conclusion of the Lusaka Protocol (Angola's peace plan, established in 1994). It remains to be seen what dividends the new peace will pay to the people of Angola.

In the arrival hall, where the passport queue moves at geological pace, a group of oil workers greet each other exuberantly. They are explaining to the new recruits the important aspects of life in Luanda - the best restaurants, the best beaches, the best nightclubs.

I find myself talking with a missionary, and a group of humanitarian workers. The natural associations that form as we wait illustrate Angola's contradictions. While a few are able to enjoy the returns from Angola's ample natural resources, millions of Angolans are relying on humanitarian aid just to survive.

The 'real' Angola

"It has quickly become clear to me that life in central Luanda is a lesson in unreality. While 60% of Angolans survive on less than $1.68 each day, a burger and chips at one of Luanda's beach cafes can set you back a cool $20."

The destruction of Angola's own industries during the civil war means that almost everything that can be purchased here is imported, with a price tag to match.

Today, I am traveling to Bie, one of the four rural provinces where Oxfam GB is running a public health programme. As our driver, Claudino, drops me off at the airport at the unreasonable hour of 3am, he assures me that today I will see 'the real Angola: because Luanda is not Angola'.

Disembarked from the plane, our journey to Bie continues with a five-hour drive through some of the worst roads I have ever experienced; we lurch slowly around the craters and pot-holes - the results of mine explosions, and the passage of heavy vehicles. Burnt-out and abandoned tanks are a frequent sight along the way.

While we pass through a few settlements, mostly we drive through extensive and beautiful wetlands, running with small streams, and brimming with flowers and butterflies. Much of the Angolan countryside is barely populated - this vast country has a population of around 13 million, of whom about four million live in Luanda.

Kuito, where our Bie regional programme is based, stands unsteadily as a memorial to war. Much fighting between government and UNITA forces was concentrated here - with the town's main street at one point forming the front line between the armies.

There is no building in the town that is not riddled with bullet holes, or which possesses all its external walls and windows. Blocks of flats in a state of semi-collapse continue to house residents who have no choice but to accept this precarious form of shelter.

It was here that I had come to meet local programme staff to find out about the work Oxfam is doing in this region and about our plans for the future.

Oxfam's programme in Bie

"Peace brings new opportunities and challenges for the Angolan government, for external NGOs and agencies that work here, and for all Angolans."

Now that the guns have stopped, the area around Kuito is playing host to Reception Areas for former UNITA soldiers and their families, and to camps for people displaced from their villages by the fighting.

Oxfam has provided wells and pumps in several of these areas, as well as working in villages that were previously inaccessible as a result of the fighting. Access to clean water is essential for the health and well-being of both the displaced, and the non-displaced.

We are here in Bie to attend a meeting that is intended to shape the way that Oxfam will work in the future in Angola. The ending of the civil war that has riven the country since 1975 means that the situation here is changing. Without doubt, the humanitarian needs throughout the country are enormous, and will remain so for a time to come. But the peace brings new opportunities and challenges for the Angolan government, for external NGOs and agencies that work here, and for all Angolans.

Gradually, we hope, this country can begin to move from a situation of widespread humanitarian crisis into a process of development. Now that the peace has held for over six months, agencies like Oxfam GB are starting to consider what a development programme within Angola could, and should, look like. Amongst a population with so many needs, what should our focus be?

The discussion allows us to tease out some of the complexities and challenges inherent in starting the next phase of our work here. This is an opportunity for the staff in Kuito, who between them possess years of experience of living and working in the local context, to explore what they think Oxfam can and cannot achieve over the next three years, and to express their views about what our most positive contribution to life here can be.

And they have plenty of ideas - we spend the time planning new livelihoods and adult education projects, and extension of the work we are already undertaking in water and sanitation. Enthusiasm, and hope for the future, are palpable here. But how do the poorest Angolans feel about the future? Tomorrow, I hope to gather a few of their perspectives during a visit to a camp for displaced people where Oxfam is working.

Displaced by war

"We are not sure when it will be safe to go back. In the past, UNITA has killed people in the villages. We don't know whether they have really stopped."

Caluapanda camp is exposed and windy, perched on the side of a hill a few kilometres outside Kuito. Hundreds of small round huts, built from clay and straw, stretch across the site.

In this camp, Oxfam has installed three handpumps providing clean water, essential in the fight against diseases like cholera and dysentery. We also support the training of community members to become water and sanitation educators.

In Caluapanda, a team of six camp is responsible for ensuring that people use the pumps correctly, that the water supply is kept clean, and for educating people about the importance of drinking water from the pumps, and not from the nearby river.

Before the wells were installed the hospital was handling several new cases of diarrhoea every day. Since the installation, the rates of diarrhoea have dropped considerably, with no cases this month so far.

Antonio and Rosalina have been resident in Caluapanda since April 2002, when they were displaced from their villages by Angolan government forces, and brought to the camp. They explain how their villages were destroyed in the fighting, and that they have lost everything. Theirs is a common story - the UN estimates that one third of the entire population are currently displaced from their homes.

In Bie, many of the displaced people are beginning to return home. Caluapanda seems quiet today, almost deserted. Adriano, the deputy soba, or leader, of the camp, explains to us how, at the moment, men are leaving the camps and going home on a temporary basis to prepare land for planting, and to undertake house building.

Women and children remain in the camps, in order to be able to access the fortnightly World Food Programme food distributions. In addition, many of the camp residents have planted small plantations of maize and other crops within the camp. For them, it is better to remain here and harvest the crops, than to return to their homes when it is too late to plant.

Life in the camp is difficult. The site is devoid of trees or bushes, and as a result, women must walk further and further each day in search of firewood. Rosalina is most concerned about the lack of seeds and tools for planting. Many of the residents are forced to trade some of their distributed food quota in exchange for seeds.

Antonio is worried about the lack of a school. Although the soba requested that the local authority should set up a school at Caluapanda, nothing has been done, and so there is no education available for the camp's children.

Neither Rosalina nor Antonio knows for sure when they will leave the camp. Rosalina explains, 'We are not sure when it will be safe to go back. In the past, UNITA has killed people in the villages. We don't know whether they have really stopped. There is no information to tell us what is happening outside in the villages. I want to stay here for now, because there is protection for me here.'

Adriano is more optimistic. He believes that peace has come to stay, because, in his view, 'This is an initiative created by Angolans for Angolans, and not by foreigners.'

Next week find out about the problem caused by landmines in Angola