Luanda the unjust

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My first contact with Angola had occurred five years ago, in 2010, when my boss at the office I worked for in Chengdu, China, put me in charge of a project for an office building in Luanda for a Chinese developer there. At that time I could not travel to the country to do the proper site studies, so I had to limit myself to getting to "know" Luanda through satellite images in Google Earth. In those days, what the images showed, was mostly a large agglomeration of slums and the first few tall buildings that started to surface. Such was the contrast, that as an architect it felt absurd to me, almost an aberration, to design a 30-storey glass building surrounded by a large mass of cardboard houses.The project would never be built in the end, and it would be yet another 5 years until I would be riding into Luanda and see for myself this city along the Atlantic coast, transformed into some sort of a horrifying Miami-like city but African-style, of Portuguese influence but mostly Made in China.
 
 Luanda, unknown to many, is a paradigm of excess, corruption, waste and extreme social inequality. Luanda is known as "luxo e lixo" (Luxury and garbage). It is the daughter of consecutive years of obscene speculation with the price of the black gold, which abounds in the northern coasts of Angola, diamonds, gold and corrupt millionaire contracts mainly between China and the local government. Of them, only the family and friends of its president, Eduardo Dos Santos, running the country endlessly, are benefactors. It's hard to forget that year when he came to visit China, and the official rumor was that while Edu visited Hu Jintao, his wife, infinitely bored billionaire woman, had gone to Hong Kong for shopping where, among other things, spent 1 million dollars in Louis Vuitton.

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 Luanda, unknown to many, is a paradigm of excess, corruption, waste and extreme social inequality. Luanda is known as "luxo e lixo" (Luxury and garbage). It is the daughter of consecutive years of obscene speculation with the price of the black gold, which abounds in the northern coasts of Angola, diamonds, gold and corrupt millionaire contracts mainly between China and the local government. Of them, only the family and friends of its president, Eduardo Dos Santos, running the country endlessly, are benefactors. It's hard to forget that year when he came to visit China, and the official rumor was that while Edu visited Hu Jintao, his wife, infinitely bored billionaire woman, had gone to Hong Kong for shopping where, among other things, spent 1 million dollars in Louis Vuitton.

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Consistently ranked among the three most expensive cities in the world in the last 5 years (the most expensive in 2014 followed by Geneva and Hong Kong), the cheapest rentals in Luanda start at US$ 5000 per month for a new 2 bedroom apartment of about 100 m2 in a peripheral district. A property that would cost around 3 million dollars. In central districts or with a view to the sea, the price shoots quickly to over US$ 12,000 per month. At the same time, a room in a grimy 2-star hotel does not fall below US$ 250 per night, and a dinner in a non-African standard restaurant is around US$ 50-70 per person.

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If you need medical attention you'd better have health insurance. Hospitalisation at the Girassol clinic, one of the private health companies of the new Angola, goes for 4500 USD per night, a money that has no correlation with the quality of the medicine and service provided rather than with the insatiable need to make money. My friend Germano arrived one day at the Emergencies room with a cut in his ankle made by the helix of a boat while swimming in the sea. After a minor surgery to sew the tendon, he would spend the next two months with strange pains in his back without understanding what was happening to his body. It was not until he returned to his native Italy on vacation that he discovered in a public hospital that the physician at the Girassol clinic had sewed the tendon to an artery and the blood was no longer flowing properly to reach his foot ... It all cost him US$ 600. Should he have paid more?

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The truth is that the alternative of going to a public hospital fades quickly from one's mind as soon as you pass right in front of one of them and you can see clearly, that death is probably a preferable option to actually enter them. The relatives of the sick camp outside the gates of the hospitals, crammed under carboards. They are the ones in charge of taking care of their ill relatives who managed to find a place within the hospital. If there were not there, their relatives may simply die because of lack of proper care. There are neither enough doctors nor nurses to be able to handle the large number of patients.

In another part of the city, Luanda's number one school, 'Luanda International School' costs US$ 50,000 per school year, that's after paying the admission fee of US $ 40,000 to get it. The new rich and oil-industry expats get pretty worried ahead of time, because the quota is always full and it takes an extra several thousand to be able to jump positions on the long waiting list. On the contrary, public schools in Luanda have at least walls, doors and roofs (although not necessarily teachers) as opposed to being just a chalkboard hanging from a tree in the south of the country as I described in my last post. Each class takes anywhere from 60 to 100 students and teachers who will not always teach.

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By the time I arrived in Luanda, after 25 days crossing the southern half of Angola, I had spent US$ 17, less than US$ 1 per day, such was the immense hospitality of the Angolans and the simplicity of rural life in the bush. Being happy for having saved so much money, I went to eat a hamburger to a big mall with my Portuguese friends, Anita and Inés, who welcomed me like a brother in their luxurious apartment in Talatona for almost two weeks. I could not fault the burger, it was actually delicious, but what was harder to digest were the US$ 23 that it cost me. A burger that cost me more than what I had spent to ride cross half of a huge country.

Given this situation, it is inevitable to wonder how anyone can make a living in such a city when the majority of its population does not earn more than US$ 300 per month (which in itself is a wage five times higher than that of great part of Africa). Well, the answer is very simple: either you live in excess or you live in the extreme poverty of the 'bairros' the name with which the Angolans call the slums.

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The 'bairros' are a clump of houses made of wood, cardboard, corrugated steel sheets and/or adobe, which huddle together along the length of the city extending for tens of km2. Its streets are muddy, have no light or water but provide magnificent views of the state of the world we have created, to all those who celebrate watching from a multi-million dollar balcony, lucky to have succeeded in getting on the other side.

Contrary to what one might believe, walking around the 'bairros' is a magnificent experience, not just to see what people lack, but to feel the indestructible joyous spirit of the Angolans. In spite of the onerous obscenity that parades before their eyes when they see the rich ones passing by in luxury Toyota Landcruisers with tinted glasses, in the 'bairros' one breathes cheerful energy and no resentment. People here smile, laugh easily, play and dance like if they were not affected by being at the very bottom of the social pyramid.

On my visit to 'bairro' Rangel I spent more time enjoying conversations with people than documenting life in the slum itself. Each person gave me a lesson in life, saying, again and again, the phrase par excellence of the Angolans: 'estamos juntos' (we are together) A phrase that explains everything, because in such a situation, you are in company or die.

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I spent 3 weeks in Luanda the unjust, resting in the house of several lovely Portuguese friends who made Angola their home and made me feel at home in their home. During my days there, I began to fight the first battles against the unbearable bureaucracy of the countries that would be ahead of me on my trip, mainly the visa for D.R.C (The Democratic Republic of the Congo, which only in the name of the vilest cynicism can be called this way). I was also invited to give a talk at the "Hora do Moskito", a very popular event organized by my friend Anita, which was attended by many people, mainly photographers, both expatriates, and Angolans, to see my work and hear about my adventure. There I made friends, of those that one would like to have always close. Many of them, I would see them again later.

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Places like Luanda give me nausea, they are the faithful expression of a world in which I DO NOT WANT TO LIVE IN, and yet, paradoxically, the people (most, not all of them obviously) that inhabit this abominable city, are the kind of people with whom I do want to live in this world. It is a great dilemma without a solution, which also in itself, speaks to us of the world we created, but to which we can not escape. Parallel to these lives of Angolans and Europeans sifting through life between lust and misery, luxury and garbage (luxo e lixo), are the Chinese, but their overwhelming presence in Angola as well as in Africa deserves a chapter o even a book in itself, on the new reality and economic geography of this continent in the 21st century.