Learning by Living: notes on a research trip to Luanda, Angola
Design Exchange Magazine #23 (June 2011)

Design Exchange Magazine #23

My journey to Angola had begun many weeks before I arrived. A research trip to Luanda needs to be thoroughly and patiently planned. You will need a visa, but unless you are working for a company which takes care of the process on your behalf, it will be very hard to get it; not least as a citizen of Angola’s former coloniser, Portugal.

To get a visa, an Angolan citizen or expatriate with a residents’ permit must formally invite you. The letter must be very carefully written, because misusing a word or misplacing a sentence might mean you have to begin the application process again. The letter and identity documents of the signatory must be authenticated by a local notary and by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, then faxed to the consulate, before being emailed to you. Take into consideration that on the day your friend goes to see the notary, the electricity might have gone off and nobody knows when work can begin again.

“Be patient, it’s Africa,” you will hear.

You will need to show a clear criminal record, and an international certificate proving you have been vaccinated against yellow fever, polio and hepatitis. You will also need to present a bank statement proving you have withdrawn $6,000 (officially, you are expected to spend $200 per day during your stay in Angola). Once you have fulfilled all these requirements, you will still need to pay for the flights and visa services, which adds up to another £1500 or so. Then, sit back and wait for four or five weeks.

If your Angolan friend cannot put you up, you will need to find somewhere to stay. Hotels are out of the question (Luanda topped the cost-of life ranking in 2010). Fortunately for me, by the time I had started planning my journey, a friend of a friend had returned from Angola, and recommended staying with a local family. He showed me photos of a courtyard with a vibrant sense of inhabitation: kids playing; hens wandering; a tyre rim used as a barbecue; a man shaving holding a piece of mirror. At the back, the room which was to be my home for the month I was to spend in Luanda.

Everyone in Portugal knows someone ‘earning loads of money in Angola’. In practice, the expatriates speak in warning tones: “There’s no-one to pick you up at the airport? You must be crazy! No driver? You’ll never survive here.” Even though, as soon as I’d collected my visa, I bought loads of mosquito repellent, expensive anti-malaria pills and jumped onto the plane.

Once I arrived, Luis was a couple of hours late. There I was, in the recently renovated airport, waiting for someone I did not know. I watched the courteous greetings between American oil-men and their company drivers, as a plane landed from Houston. A TV screen showed São Paulo, Shanghai and Lisbon on the arrivals list. Finally Luis arrived. Once I had met my “chauffeur”, it took us over an hour to drive home; through a never-ending, chaotic traffic jam.

“Be patient, it’s Africa”, I thought.

photo by Paulo Moreira (2012) 

photo by Selani, 11 (2011)