For most visitors, Luanda equals agro. At least, that’s how it feels when you first land. The sheer onslaught of congestion, pollution, poverty and bureaucratic hassle is a lot to take in. Most of its five million inhabitants are bewildered and angered by the soaring prices. But if you’re privileged enough to have a wander around and let the city get under your skin a bit, Luanda has some wonderful surprises. There are some beautiful old Portuguese churches and peeling stucco mansions. Angolan food is, at its best, a rich and piquant blend of the African and Portuguese table, famous for seafood, stews, grilled reds snapper and spicy greens. There’s also an urgency to the city to live in the present, to enjoy what you can, to party hard.
Bizarrely, Luanda, the capital of a country where 70 per cent scratch a subsistence living from the soil, is consistently voted the world’s most expensive capital. It’s hard to miss, with yachts cruising around Mussulo beach and the luridly expensive dinners on Ilha de Luanda. There’s a culture of one-upmanship and excess, and there’s not a great deal of shame in flaunting what you’ve got while others can’t afford drinking water. It’s all down to the mineral boom. Angola’s been producing oil from the 1950s and diamonds from the 1920s but the great surge in income came after independence from Portugal in 1975. Huge oil and gas discoveries in the seventies and eighties swelled government coffers and financed a long and devastating war. Little of the care that’s gone into mineral extraction has found its way towards infrastructure, health or education, and it’s certainly helped a fatcat culture get fatter. Slowly, though, there’s a small but growing middle class. One effect on the city is the surge in car ownership, so the traffic is truly awful, and there’s been a boom in construction. These days a bevy of new skyscrapers are sucking the faded and sometimes rather glorious old centre into its hungry embrace. You’d expect petty crime to rocket. But the truth is it’s easy and relatively safe to wander around the city centre, snacking on bananas and avocados from street-sellers or enjoying the few museums that are open.
Not many people know capoeira comes originally from Angola, before it was exported on slave ships to Brazil where it really took off. One capoeira move, the ginga, comes from the legendary warrior queen Njinga, who fought the better-armed Portuguese to a stalemate in the 17th century. You still see youngsters practicing capoeira on the seafront and somersaulting on discarded tyres.
Coming back from a long bus journey into Luanda one time, I fell into conversation with a passenger who was determined to take me safely back to my hosts. She told me she’d run a catering company supplying the government during the civil war. Her contracts ran into hundreds of thousands of dollars. One particularly large order in the 1990s was never paid and it bankrupted her. This once wealthy businesswoman took me back to her basic flat in a rubbish-strewn courtyard where she plied me with water and funge (a local meal paste), insisted on praying for me, and finally brought me back to my hosts. In the ensuing weeks, I received phone calls from the woman determined to know if I was alright and if I needed anything. This clear victim of the system, who’d suffered the full brunt of government corruption, seemed only to think of my safety that evening. I felt that was pretty courageous and said a lot about Luandans: the grit, hope and resilience that got them through the darkest years and through a very strange present.