Angolan Adventures

Thursday, February 23, 2006

I'll miss you Grandma

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

The Heat is ON

In the course of my research into the effect of HIV/AIDS here in Angola, I have spoken many times with Allan (Development Workshop’s Director) about the possibility of developing an HIV/AIDS education program for their over 10,000 microfinance clients. There are many good reasons for doing this. While nearly all people have heard of HIV and know some of the ways of transmission and protection, there are still a lot of mistaken beliefs (like condoms being very unreliable and therefore useless). Many people also receive their information only from the church, and while it is positive that the churches have begun to speak openly about HIV, there is still a strong sense of “HIV = SIN” that perpetuates stigma of those with HIV. Moreover, HIV/AIDS threatens all the remarkable gains people make in their lives through the microfinance program, as well as threatening the existence of the microfinance program once HIV affects the clients on a larger scale.

So when we discovered that there was an RFP (Request for Proposals) from the Global Fund for HIV, Tuberculosis and Malaria open to NGOs in Angola, we of course saw an opportunity. My excitement waned, however, when I discovered the 66-page guideline was in Portuguese and the proposal also needed to be in Portuguese. I think English speakers are used to having the world operating in our language, and I’m certainly no different. Who are these crazy people who expect me to write a proposal in Portuguese? Allan, a perpetually ‘glass-half-full’ kind of guy, pushed ahead with the idea and…put ME in charge! Is he crazy too?

So the last 2 weeks I’ve been working like mad, trying to put together a cohesive idea for an HIV/AIDS project which would be implemented with a local NGO while pulling together the incomprehensible number of supporting documents required by the Global Fund. Fortunately, people offered amazing amounts of support… in fact I feel uncomfortable taking any credit when so many people have helped me out. Maribel, Allan and Ariella deserve special mention for keeping me on track (and doing a substantial amount of the work).

In the end we just got everything together in time, the original plus 4 copies of all the documents into 3 separate envelopes, and rushed down to the Global Fund with 30 minutes to spare, only to be asked… for more documentation. So, back at it on Friday, collecting more forms, CVs, photocopies, etc. etc. and bringing them back on Monday only to be asked… for even more documents. Feeling like I’m in a Franz Kafka novel, once more I call on all the favours I can at DW in order to successfully launch myself through the bureaucratic hoops which kept changing their position in space. Finally, Monday finishes with Alfredo (a really great guy from the Global Fund with whom I had been in contact) and I sitting on the floor of one of the Global Fund offices and re-checking all the supporting documentation. Done. Stapled. Sealed. Sigh of relief.

I think I’m still recovering from the experience, but as I am now starting to look around me again I have realised that I am leaving IN 3 WEEKS! How did THAT happen? Time flies, as they say. I am getting really excited about being home (and finally seeing Sarah after 6 months!) but it seems like I just arrived here. Now my thoughts are turning to what I’m going to do when I get back… job hunting! Definitely not one of my favourite activities.
That’s all for now… for all of you reading from home… see you soon!

Friday, January 27, 2006

Ups and Downs

I guess there is a point when things, big and small, start to wear you down while you are away for a long period of time. Writing this blog entry itself fits in as a minor annoyance: I had completed an entry three days ago only to have the file mysteriously missing from my computer. A larger pain in my side has been fighting to stay in Angola when changing internship requirements were conspiring to force me to leave 2 months earlier than expected. Knowing that this blog was not the forum to discuss the issue (my Dad always taught me not to burn my bridges) I’ve been holding off in writing a post for a while. Happily, the whole issue was resolved, thanks to Allan Cain’s support in Development Workshop and especially to the extraordinary efforts of Jennifer Helmuth at MEDA. Thank you.

But that’s not really what this post is about. It’s really been the news from family and friends that has made the last few weeks increasingly difficult. So far 2006 has been a lousy year. My grandma recently had a stroke, her best friend and sister-in-law (Aunt Rita) died, and another relative (Uncle Don) had a heart attack. All that in about 2 weeks. And before Christmas, a former neighbour (who was like another grandfather to me) passed away.

Being away at times like these is tough. It’s hard to understand exactly how my grandmother is doing being so far away. The reports from my Mom and sister make it sound like she is showing some improvement (and remembers me, which of course makes me happy) but it is just incredibly frustrating not to be there, for her and for the rest of my family. I know it’s been hard on my them, and I really feel like I am not pulling my weight in the family (though I know they aren’t thinking this).

Also in the past few weeks I found out that my friend Rhys’ father was killed in Afghanistan by a suicide bomber. We knew it was a risky mission he was undertaking, but this was definitely the nightmare scenario. Rhys knew that his dad wanted to be there in the thick of it, making a difference. I hope it helps his family to know that he died doing what he believed in. By all accounts (unfortunately I only met him once) he had a powerful intellect and a sense of humour to match, and will be sorely missed by his family and the Canadian diplomatic community in which he worked. I have no doubt that Rhys and his family will get through all of this, but I really wish I could be there to have a few pints with him and plot about what we would like do to the Taliban’s pillows.

Well, there it is. These are the things on my mind lately. I’m sure (I hope!) the next post is a little less of a downer. I’ll have to do a “lighter side of” Luanda next as a counter-balance.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Work it, I need a glass of wata'!

bling! Posted by Picasa

Picking up the Jornal de Angola last week, I discovered that Missy Elliot was coming to Luanda. Wow! Not that I'm her biggest fan, but this was pretty exciting. Angola doesn't attract the biggest international stars, so this concert really got people talking. So, I joined the hordes of teenagers in line for the concert last Thursday at the Cine Karl Marx. The wait was well worth it: Missy was great and the Angolan opening bands were also very good. Missy brought the entire crew of dancers and the winner of her reality show whose rendition of Killing Me Softly had the crowd eating out of her hand. She also brought the scariest security guard I've ever seen, who looked ready to snap any potential troublemaker in two.

The only snag came as Missy attempted to give away the dancers' sneakers (!) which she was signing. I guess someone had told her that this would be a bad idea in Luanda, and would probably start fights, so she preceeded the distribution by encouraging the crowd to behave: "We all gonna do this nice, alright? We're gonna give these to the kids." She lost patience after a fight broke out near the stage, which caused her to suspend the shoe distribution and lecture people: "it don't matta' where you from, you all know how to act. You all know how to act." The whole affair left a bad taste in my mouth. To stand up there and preach manners (in English, which most of the audience probably doesn't undertand) smacks of a paternalistic "civilize the Africans" attitude. It left me feeling embarrased for the Angolans she was insulting as well as for Missy herself, so unable to control the events or stop herself from finger wagging.

It was Missy Elliot's first time in Africa. I wonder if she'll ever come back?

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Life of Ryan

Given the worries I had about Angola before I arrived, I’m sure you’re all wondering what my life is like here. On the whole, remarkably normal. I’ve written about the traffic, which is atrocious. But I’m used to it now. I would actually feel fine driving here, given the chance. It certainly would be nice to have access to a car, but getting driven around all the time has certain advantages, my blood pressure remaining in a normal range being one of them.

However, with one of DW’s cars being broken down right now, I spend on average (in the past two weeks) about an hour a day waiting for rides. Occasionally it has been over two hours. Being asked to be ready for a ride at 7:30 and then waiting until 10 really drains the motivation for work. But I did watch a pretty funny movie on satellite TV while I sat there, so at least my time was not totally wasted.

I am sharing my office with my roommate at the transit house, a Portuguese consultant named Vera. We spend nearly every waking hour together. We get along well, fortunately. And think her diet has improved substantially since I arrived and replaced her evening avocado with an assortment of delicious vegetarian meals and guilting her into cooking some Portuguese food from time to time.

Our office has A/C which points directly at my left side and is causing some mild paralysis. The internet access is ok, maybe a bit better than dail-up, and has lately been on almost all the time. I realised in the first few weeks how dependent I am on the net for pretty much everything: research, work correspondence, keeping in touch with friends, reading about the upcoming election, etc. I get very agitated when it shuts off, especially if it is not running in the morning. I can’t seem to start my day properly without checking my email first. I’m thinking about joining a support group.

I’m working right now on my research, but also on writing an HIV/AIDS Workplace Policy for Development Workshop, which will be one of their first steps in confronting the HIV/AIDS threat. Although some training has taken place, I am really getting an opportunity to carry out some important work here. Development Workshop hasn’t focused yet on HIV/AIDS within a coherent strategy, and I feel very lucky to be part of the process. The challenge will be to ensure that the internal work being done on HIV/AIDS will continue after my departure in March... I have lots of time to do this kind of thing, but most others already have too much to do and I worry about how the process will carry on once I leave. Fortunately, I have been given a research assistant by DW who will hopefully be able to offer some continuity once I depart.
Ok, you’ve read this far so now I owe you some news about the burning question in your mind: how’s my social life? I have to say, it is fantastic. I’ve developed a good group of friends ranging from 25 to 50-something, many of whom live in my neighbourhood, Mianga. I’ve been a regular at the salsa lessons given at the Viking Club on Thursdays, and I attended their Scandinavian Christmas dinner, filling myself on herring and Swedish meatballs, and then dancing it all off with my newly acquired salsa prowess.

Mmmmm, breakfast. Posted by Picasa

The weekends are filled with trips to the many beaches south of the city during the day and raging parties at night. The expense of going out to clubs and bars in Luanda has encouraged a thriving house party scene. The best one so far was the Mines Advisory Group (MAG) party, which was held on a split level terrace and featured a booming sound system, djs, food and lots of alcohol. We danced until 4am, and my ears rung until the next day. On nights like these we get to experience the flip-side of the pounding music that can keep you up all night in this city: no one will EVER make you turn your own music down. I can live with this arrangement.

I could tell you more: about the pastry shop beside the office, finding soup for 100 Kwz (about $1.20 US – really cheap in Luanda!), enjoying dinner on terrace at the apartment with a bottle of wine, my Portuguese classes at Alliance Francais, etc, etc, etc... but I would be amazed if any of you actually made it this far in this post, so I’ll save some stories for next time.

If Papa Smurf was a Viking Posted by Picasa

Saturday, December 03, 2005

World AIDS Day - December 1st

In my first 6 weeks in Angola, I have been slowly getting a feel for the level of HIV/AIDS awareness and general commitment to HIV/AIDS issues in the country. While Angola is far behind most other African nations (due to the civil war that only ended in 2002, and the relatively low rate of HIV), the visibility of HIV in the press and in government circles is quite high right now. On November 30th I had the pleasure of attending the Angolan government’s 1st Conference on HIV/AIDS and STIs. I arrived just in time for the coffee break on the 1st day, with a mix of Angolans and expats alike wolfing down party sandwiches and glasses of juice. Everybody loves free food.

HIV/AIDS Conference Posted by Picasa

I spent the coffee break checking out the stalls (and yes, the food too) and talking to a few people I have already met working in the HIV/AIDS field in Angola. I ran into a girl I had met at the MAG (Mines Advisory Group) party the week before, and it turns out she works for the CDC doing HIV surveillance in Angola. Lesson learned: partying is good for my research!

I joined the next session on HIV/AIDS data from Angola, and though it was all in Portuguese, I managed to understand quite a bit. Admittedly, it was mainly because all the numbers were projected in a PowerPoint presentation. I ducked out during the next presentation and headed back to the office. I really need to improve my Portuguese to get the most out of my time here.

Mingling Posted by Picasa

Friday, November 04, 2005

the informal economy

As I may have mentioned before, the informal economy in Angola is huge. By ‘informal’ I mean most of the commerce that goes on around you in any given African city: the lady selling bananas on the corner, the young boy weaving through traffic selling ice cold American Cola and bottles of water. Anything, basically, that isn’t regulated and taxed. But here, the density of this kind of trading is impressive – bordering on hallucinatory – and is the major source of income for the poor. There is a dizzying array of products you can buy from your car (makes sense with the amount of time you spend in your car!) A few of my favourites include household bug sprays, beer, car mats, irons, porn DVDs, cutlery sets, water glasses (often balanced precariously on the head), bread, cigarettes, local currency (Kwanzas, exchanged for US $), bar serving kits and – my personal favourite – an entire car stereo system. Not sure if the installation is included, but I’m sure it could be arranged. There are some general rules to the informal market; whether cultural or enforced I cannot tell. Most ‘consumer’ items are sold by men, including most of those listed above. Men (usually young) are also most likely to work in the traffic, weaving in and out in a dangerous game of chicken with the previously commented upon traffic. These men and boys are generally quite thin, as a necessity I contend: every inch of girth is a liability. The women generally trade produce – tomatoes, lettuce, peppers, carrots, mangos, bananas, pineapples – and they work more frequently on the street corners with many women concentrated in one area.

After my lunch this afternoon, I was buying some vegetable from women such as these, concentrated on one street corner, with many women carrying the same items but each with something unique in their baskets. I was bargaining for some green beans (Mom, you’d be proud!) when suddenly all the women started running down the street – leaving me holding a bag of green beans that I didn’t pay for. I quickly surmised what was going on: I had heard of the efforts to “clean up” the streets of Luanda, specifically by targeting people selling on the street. Is there a load of riot cops storming down the street? I wait, checking for police with clubs and dogs to come around the corner while also looking for the lady from whom I stole a bag of beans. More women run past, one asks me for something, but I didn’t understand so I give her the beans thinking the two women were friends; she actually wanted some help to get the large plastic bucket filled with produce back onto her head (I felt really stupid standing there while someone else walked up to help her). She gave the beans back and started down the road. A voice called out. The bean lady was across the street! I hurry over to pay for my purchase (a good bargaining tactic, how could I get her down another 20 Kwanzas now?) and pick up a few other things for which she gave me a pretty good price, I think. I ask, “what is the problem?” (or I at least try to ask that). She responds, “polícia.” Just as I thought. Not only do these women have to worry about selling enough produce during the day to feed her children, but they also have to worry about the police driving them off. I bump into a colleague moments later: she explains that this has been happening a lot lately, though it was worse 6 months ago, when people were beaten and their wares confiscated. The tactic is probably being stepped up in order to “clean-up” ahead of the Independence Day celebrations on November 11th.

With close to 3/4 of families with at least one member in the informal economy, I'm forced to ask: whose Independence Day is it?

Urban Poverty Posted by Picasa