Suitcases and Sacrifice in Luanda:
interview with Alberta Damião

Published in Chinese Urbanism in Africa magazine (guest-edited by Go West Project), China, April 2014

Go West Project

A resident of the Chicala 2 district in the Angolan capital of Luanda, Alberta wears many hats. Not only is the mother-of-six a trained nurse, she is also undertaking a university degree in clinical psychology. An entrepreneur at heart, Alberta has established a business sourcing and selling goods from China at markets across Luanda.

Alberta, you live in Chicala 2, here in Luanda’s centre, you are a mother of 5 [6 since the interview took place], a nurse, a university student… and an entrepreneur doing business between China and Angola. Can you please introduce yourself?

I am a nurse. You know I work at the state’s expense. The state doesn’t really pay a decent enough wage, to provide for a home. Our salary isn’t a salary that we can live on. So in order to live better we have to do something extra, some business...

How do you reconcile your business with your studies and your family life?

That part is more complicated, I make a lot of sacrifices... I have a lot of work, and on my days off I go to the market. I wake up at 4.00 or 4.30. I have a shower, I get dressed and so on... I arrive at the market at 5.50. I leave the market at 12.00. I get home at 12.30 at the earliest; sometimes I don’t get home until 13.00. I get home and I put lunch on to cook, and while it’s cooking I have another shower. When I get out of the shower, I comb my hair. Once my hair is well-combed, I go to check on the food. When everything’s ready I turn off the cooker and put the food on the table. Then I go and get dressed. When I’m dressed, I glance at my notebooks before heading off to the university...

What are you studying?

I’m in the 4th year of a clinical psychology degree. Last year was really difficult for me, when I was in my 3rd year, because I was rushing around a lot. The days when I was at work were alright, I had a quieter day. But on market days I have to serve clients, do the accounts with the employees, tidy up... And leave all the business calculated and noted in a diary. Sometimes I can’t go the next day, so I have to leave everything ready for the employee. Working and then selling on my day off, working and then selling, working and selling, always like that. It was really tiring last year, really tiring... I think this year I’m going to slow down a bit.

How did you start your businesses?

I started out by changing money in the street. I would sell 50 dollars and when I finished I’d rush to buy kwanza [Angolan currency]. I’d go with the kwanza to the entrance of the DEFA [Department of Emigration and Borders of Angola] and I’d ask the people who were there if they wanted to change kwanza for dollars. At the beginning, in two days I managed to make 100 dollars. Then I’d run to sell them and bring back kwanza, then I’d go again and change them for dollars, and so on and so forth.

And when did you start travelling?

Soon I started going to Namibia, back when I still didn’t have much money. Buying sheets, bedspreads, then I’d come back. I’d give you the set of sheets, and at the end of the month, when you got your salary, you’d pay me. So that’s how I started saving some money.

When I got to a certain amount, I started going to Brazil. I’d buy clothes in Brazil, come back here, sell them. I’d buy shoes, come back here, sell them. When they’d finished, I’d go back... Always like this. So then I amassed even higher amounts.

Where did you sell here? Which market was it?

At the Roque Santeiro Market. And here at home too. The neighbours would come, choose and I’d write their name in the diary. I’d write: “he took two pairs of trousers, a skirt and a pair of shoes”. When the neighbour received the money at the end of the month, he’d pay me a slightly higher amount than he would have paid if he’d had the money at the time of the purchase. And that’s how I went about raising funds. So I started going to Thailand. I’d bring back clothes, pay the customs tax here at the airport. I’d always sell the clothes at Roque Santeiro. Then I stopped selling clothes and I started going to Dubai. In Dubai, I bought phones. I entered via the Democratic Republic of Congo [DRC]. Sometimes I went by car from Luanda to DRC, via M’Banza Congo [Northern Angola, close to the border]. I arrived in DRC and bought a flight for Dubai via Ethiopia – the price was a bit lower. It was better to bring the phones back via the Congo. From there, I travelled back by car, with the suitcases full of mobile phones... It took all day, we only arrived back here at night time.

Why did you come and go by car?

Because at that time, bringing telephones through our airport was a big problem. If you brought a suitcase of telephones you paid very expensive customs tax and there was no profit. That’s why we came through the Democratic Republic of Congo, via Kinshasa. I carried on selling, raising money, saving money... And I stopped going to Dubai [and] started going to China.

To China?

Yes! Because in China the phones were a lot cheaper! Then, I stopped with the phones and started bringing back clothes, in suitcases. After bringing back clothes in suitcases I realised it was too much work, so I started packing containers. Now I just get the goods and put them in a container.

Where do you travel to in China?

Guangzhou.

What do you bring back from there?

I bring everything: clothes, furniture, household appliances, I bring tiles, everything!

And where do you sell, now that the Roque Santeiro Market doesn’t exist anymore?

I distribute the tiles to the women who sell at the Madeira Market. I sell the clothes at Kicolo, which is now called Hoji-ya-Henda Market. I’ve got two employees there, three including me. I bring the furniture over on order.

How do you go about getting a stall at the market? Do you have to hire it?

To get a space in the market you have to give two photographs and 6000 kwanza [approximately $60]. That’s the only way they’ll give you the stall.

And how much do you have to pay per day?

Per day you pay the market tax of 100 kwanza [$1] and the cleaning tax of 50 kwanza [$0.50]. That’s 150 kwanza [$1.5].

And you have to pay the employees who are there as well…

Yes, I have to pay the employees’ salary.

And even then it’s worth it?

It’s worth it!

Do you have a stall in any other markets?

I had a stall at Km 30 Market, but the market started dying, there weren’t many shoppers. I was paying more to my employees than I was earning. That meant I was paying the employees in vain. So, I cancelled the “Thirty” and the employees transferred to the Hoji-ya-Henda.

Has it been better or worse than being in the Roque [Santeiro]?

The Roque Santeiro was really close to my house. It was better there, it was a very big market and the business was going really well. Lots of people went there. Now, the Kicolo Market is a bit further away and the clients are sometimes too lazy to go that far. But there’s always a bit of movement, there’s always some money coming in... There are days when you don’t sell much and days when you sell a lot... There are even days when you sell really well!

How much, for example?

200,000 [$2,000] or 300,000 [$3,000] kwanza…

In a day?

Yes, regardless of the product. If the product is new – for example a nice item of clothing -, I bring the model from Brazil and I take it to China. I have it sewn, I have 1000 or 2000 pieces of that clothing made. And it’s a novelty in the market. I can take 300 items in a suitcase and it sells out!

How do you communicate in China, to explain what you want?

Speaking in English. “Hello! How are you? This is how much?” [laughing] I speak in English… it’s a kind of pidgin English, but it’s enough to spot and make purchases.

And do you pay in dollars?

Yes, I pay in dollars. Or I buy RMB. The currency they have in China is RMB. There are shops which accept dollars, and others which only accept RMB.

Are there many Angolans doing this?

There are lots! But the majority of Africans doing business in China are Malians and Senegalese. There are lots of them.

When and how was your first trip to China?

The first time I set foot in China was in... I can’t remember the year now. But the first time I set foot in China it would have been hard to find another Angolan. Even when going to a factory to have some clothes sewn, the Chinese would be afraid of you. They’d hold you... They’d hold your skin and do this [scratching], to see if the [black] colour came out, if the colour didn’t change, if the skin didn’t change. [laughs] It was really hard to find an Angolan. You could walk for long distances without seeing an Angolan. You look behind, you look ahead and there’s not a single Angolan! Now and again you’d meet a Senegalese person. And you’d say: “As-salam alaykum”; “Wa alaykumu s-salam”… You could be taken for a Senegalese person.

When is the next time you’ll go there?

The next time... I’m raising funds to see if I can buy a car, a jeep. I want to buy my car this year still, if God blesses me!

How do you pay? Cash or card?

I carry credit on my Visa card and cash in hand. When I land there, I go to the car market to do some research. I know it quite well now, I’ve got a lot of business cards. I take a taxi which takes me to the car market. If I want the taxi to stay with me all day, I arrange that with him, because the market is so big... The car market is huge! You can’t see everything if you’re on foot, it really has to be by car.

Then the car will arrive by container, will it?

The car comes through the agency, yes. By container. Then it has to be paid for here at customs. After paying at customs I have to pay at the dry port terminal, and it’s only then that I can take the car.

And in the middle of all this activity, you still had your children...

I was doing business, studying and having children! [laughs] I’m going to tell you a story! On one of my last trips to China, I was seven months pregnant. Seven, almost eight. So I went to a friend of mine, a midwife in the maternity. I told her: “look, I want to travel, but I’m seven months in, almost eight. I'll have to sit down for good a month from now, I won’t be able to travel... Can’t I just go there quickly and come back quickly?” And she said: “I wouldn’t recommend it. There might be a risk, of something going wrong, something or other...” I said: “No”. I said: “Everything’s fine, nothing will go wrong.” I was stubborn, I got a visa for my passport and went to the airport. That day, I put on some jeans, a shirt, I tied my hat almost around my belly. At the airport, the Ethiopian who was checking the tickets said to me: “Wooo Mamma! Is baby?” And I replied: “Yes!” And the Ethiopian asked: “How many months?” I said 5. He asked me to show him a certificate. I’d been to the hospital, I had a certificate for 5 months. I left the original card behind; the false card [laughs], that’s the one I took with me!

So you went to China and you managed to buy what you wanted?

I managed to buy what I wanted in China. I had problems on the return journey as well. In China, a Chinese man saw me and asked “Are you pregnant?” Well, during the time I’d been in China, my belly had grown a lot... So, [the Chinese man] told me to sign a document, a declaration of responsibility, so that if something happened to me on the flight, they wouldn’t take responsibility. I signed the declaration of responsibility saying that I was only 5 months [pregnant]. On that day too, God gave his blessing, nothing happened... I got home fine. I gave birth, I nurtured the baby girl until she was 9 months old. My children only breastfeed until they’re 9 months old, then they’re bottle-fed. So I left her behind and I went away again... Because of life’s sacrifice, of the need to help my husband… I really had to go. [Pause] That’s it... a life full of sacrifices. I’m a fighter. I’ve got what I’ve got thanks to God and thanks to my efforts. That’s why we’ve got what we’ve got. My husband’s salary doesn’t go far enough either, I have to help. If my husband buys the food, I buy the clothes. My husband saves money to do this, I do the other... And that’s it, our life moves along in this way...