Angola is often called the “new Dubai of Africa,” mostly because of its renovated and lively capital, Luanda. The city´s recent development is best symbolized by the Ilha, a new bayside boardwalk lined with palm trees imported from Miami, where residents and visitors can stroll, rollerblade or savor an ice cream in the sun.
Once a year, the Angolan capital makes the international news, because it heads the Mercer survey of the world’s most expensive cities for expatriates. Last year it took first place, ahead of Moscow, Tokyo and Singapore.
“The prices are totally crazy here, and not only for expatriates but for everyone”, says Aldemiro Ladislav, a 23 year-old university student. “Everything is very, very expensive - food, clothes, electrical devices, cars, housing... it’s hard to believe but it’s true, that is our day-to-day life.”
If you don’t know how to bargain, the “m amas” selling vegetables and fruits on the street will charge you five dollars for a pineapple. In an ordinary restaurant, a dish such as fried chicken with French fries or fish of the day with rice will cost between $30 and $40.
A night in a “pensao” (hostal) costs about $150 and you’ll have to pay at least $100 more if you choose to stay in a hotel.
This hyper-inflation is the result of the country’s recent history. The conflicts that roiled Angola for over four decades, between 1961 and 2002, were enormously destructive: roads, trains, communication lines were destroyed, while agriculture and many other industries were ruined. Since the civil war ended in 2002, the country has been recovering very at a rapid pace, thanks to its oil resources. Angola is today the second-largest oil producer in Africa following Nigeria, producing 1.7 million barrels a day in 2013.
The government of President José Eduardo dos Santos, in power since 1979, has been spending the money to rebuild and modernize the country, but the process is far from being completed.
“There are still problems with infrastructure, logistics, water and electricity supply”, says Salim Valimamade, professor of economics at the Catholic University of Angola. “And, as the country is not producing enough, it has to import the vast majority of the food and goods. All of that means higher prices.”
The oil-based economy, combined with the presence of a large number of expatriates, has combined to create a real-estate bubble and a shortage of essential services, all of which contribute to rising inflation.
“It’s a difficult situation but we are now used to it. Everyone finds their own solutions and tactics to get through it,” says Aristide, a student in biology.
With a population of five million, or a quarter of the country’s total population, Luanda is on a different scale than other Africa capitals such as Lagos or Cairo, which have 15 million inhabitants each. But it’s still a very chaotic place. Built by Portuguese in the 16th century to house 500,000 people, the city has undergone rapid growth without any urban planning.
As a result, its electricity, water and telephone systems are all undersized or outdated. The shortage of public transportation creates horrendous traffic jams, while the collective taxis - blue and white Toyota vans called “candongueiros” (“illegal traders”), famed for their dangerous driving - further complicate the situation.
“I have to wake up every day at 5 a.m. and leave at 5:45 a.m. in order to avoid traffic and get to my office in the city center,” says Maria, a 33 year-old Angolan woman who works at a bank and lives in a condominium in the suburbs of Luanda.
For newcomers, this can be very disturbing. “Because of the traffic and the time wasted waiting for people, it’s really hard to have more than two meetings on the same day,” complains a South African businessman on a commercial visit.
Security is also a major concern. As in most African countries, simple measures are required, such as driving with the car doors locked, not carrying any object of value, or avoiding walks at night. Very recently, the Angolan authorities observed an increase in crime, which was followed by a strengthening of the police force and the launch of a so-called “zero-crime” operation.
But what is most striking for the strangers is that Luanda, perhaps more than any African capital, is a place of extreme contrasts. The city is home to both a rich elite and a massive poor population; to both modern skyscrapers and decrepit colonial buildings; to luxurious suburban developments and sprawling slums.
Nothing illustrates this dichotomy better than the Ilha, a 4.5 mile-long peninsula on the bay of Luanda. Not many years ago, it was a peaceful spot, peopled by fishermen, where traditional celebrations were held and a gentle lifestyle was the norm. Today, it houses fashionable nightclubs, expensive seafood restaurants and trendy bars where expats and wealthy Angolans enjoy themselves on the week-ends. However, the local population is still there in the background, holding their modest parties on the beach.
“I don’t like to come back here to where my house was, it’s too painful”, says Fernando an Angolan teacher, evicted from the Ilha because of a road reconstruction. “I had to move very far from here, where I miss the ocean and the solidarity of our former neighborhood.”
Across the street, young people are enjoying themselves at a new club where patrons can drink and dance until sunrise. On the Ilha, there´s always a reason to have a good time, whether it´s Carnival in February, Women’s Day in March, the winter – called cacimbo – in July or the New Year.
That’s because fun, music and dancing are an essential part of the Angolan way of life. Despite the difficult conditions they live in, Angolans are very welcoming and friendly, always quick with a smile or a laugh. Silence can hardly be found because there’s music everywhere: in restaurants, in the streets, in cars, even in offices. The sound heard is usually is kizomba, the typical Angolan music, created by a fusion of West Indian zouk, African rhythms and semba, an Angolan mixture of traditional and modern rhythms with European and Latin American styles.
“Kizomba means «party,» or «advertisement» in Kimbundu, one of Angola’s national languages,” explains Domingos Nguizani, director of the Angolan National Ballet. “During the civil war, the music helped the population to think about something else. At that time, people gathered during the week-end, trying to forget the violence of the battles by listening to music, singing and dancing,” he adds.
Kizomba is also the name of the dance associated with the music. Everyone in Angola, from the youngest to the oldest, knows how to dance kizomba, a colorful, two-person dance.
“This dance is more and more popular today, and is known all over the world. There are kizomba classes in Lisbon, Paris and London”, says Eduardo Paim, the singer-songwriter who helped to popularize the step in the 1980’s. “The dance did create the success of the music, because of the creativity and freedom it offers.”
In Angola, a new generation of young singers invented kuduro, which is a mixture of kizomba with R&B or electronic music. Rap also enjoys great popularity, from romantic rappers to revolutionary ones, who criticize the long-serving Angolan president, the style is very lively. Other well-known artiists include Paulo Flores, the Angolan king of semba, or Waldemar Bastos, a guitarist and singer whose music combines Afropop, Portuguese fado and Brazilian influences.
Music is just one example of Angola’s dynamic culture. The country is also alive with theatre artists, one-man show producers, painters and fashion designers. The sisters Delfina and Beatrice Geraldo created their own brand of clothing, Geraldo Fashions, and have participated in fashion shows in Luanda, Windhoek, and even New York, during African Fashion Week. Their designs are inspired by styles from Africa, Europe and Brazil.
Angola is indeed an astonishing melting pot of influences: the Portuguese colonial past, the Soviet-dominated period, and the strong links with Brazil as well as with the rest of Africa. The country’s cuisine reflects this richness: the cod and steak with pepper sauce dishes from Portugal, barbecues from Brazil, and beans in palm oil, mashed manioc and seafood from the Angolan and African heritages.
The Angolan traditional cuisine also reminds us that Angola is still largely a rural country. “Luanda is not really Angola, the capital is an anomaly in the country”, Angolans like to say. A trip outside of Luanda will show you that the rest of Angola consists of villages, small and quaint cities, forests, deserts, beaches and mountains. The country has a wide variety of landscapes and a high tourism potential. Nowadays, only 500,000 persons per year come to visit the country, mainly on business trips. But in the future, the figure is expected to be much higher; Angolan authorities plan to welcome more than four million tourists annually in the decades to come.