I return for the third time to Angola, one of the least-visited and most difficult to access countries in Africa. People following my journeys will likely remember my last report from Africa, “At the End of the World”. The main goal of that trip was to visit the isolated island where the abandoned town of Sao Martino dos Tigres is located (read here). Preparing for and arriving to that place took up so much time that I did not have much space for other things. Particularly following the footsteps of the recently concluded civil war and examining its consequences for the people of Angola.
I had already visited Tombua, located in the south-western part of the country, a year ago. During its heyday, it along with the neighbouring town of Mocamedes was one of the largest fishing centres in Angola as well as one of the largest in the world. After oil and diamonds fish were (and still are) the country’s greatest resource. For many ordinary Angolans it is often the most important – and only – source of income.
When Angola gained independence in 1975, most of the Portuguese colonisers hastily left the country, leaving behind an economically developed country and decades of accumulated wealth. However, lacking an educated elite, Angolans were unable to take advantage of the opportunity given to them. Additionally, immediately after independence and liberation from the Portuguese dictatorship civil war broke out, plunging the country into total chaos for 26 years. When the war ended in 2002 nothing remained of the modern fishing industry other than a ghostly costal landscape with the ruins of factories and the rusting wrecks of fishing boats. Luckily, the fish remained.
Most of the residents of Tombua continue to earn their living by catching and selling fish. Whole families work. Even children, who begin their careers fishing from canoes they fashion for themselves out of polystyrene. No one here cares about any kinds of catch limits or the conservation of endangered species of fish.
Unlike in the days when Angola was still a Portuguese colony, today the work is done completely by hand and on a much smaller scale. No complicated processing, canning or even freezing the fish. From fishing vessels or wooden boats, the fish are taken directly to shore where, on the dirty ground sticky with blood and fish tails, they are immediately gutted, rubbed with salt and dried. With the ever-blazing sun this only takes a day, two at most. Then, tightly packed on pallets, they are sent throughout Angola.
Following in the steps of the recently ended civil war, we head to the opposite end of the country trying to reach the site of the largest African conflict since the Second World War.
After Angola regained independence, two warring factions began to compete for control over the country. Both sought allies to strengthen their positions. The communist MPLA was supported by Cuba and the USSR, and the anti-communist UNITA by South Africa and the USA. Civil war broke out. Thus entering into the rivalry between two political and military systems, Angola became a battlefield for the Cold War. One of the results of this was the largest and heaviest land battle in Africa since the Second World War – the Battle of Cuito Cuanavale. It is also called Black Stalingrad.
Although nearly 15 years has passed since the end of the war, its traces are still visible. In places where fighting took place you can still see tanks, heavy equipment, even planes and helicopters. Abandoned, damaged or destroyed. They threaten no one anymore. Unlike landmines, which still innocent people. It is estimated that 10 million landmines were laid during the war, and nearly half of them still lie hidden under the soil waiting their next victims. Fear of death or maiming prevents the cultivation of land and the raising of livestock. In most cases, there is no information about where the mines were laid. Often the only information available is obtained from local communities or another tragedy where a person accidentally treads on a mine or a dud. As a result of these explosions in Angola there are more than 70,000 amputees, including 8,000 children.
In order to reach the places where the fighting took place, we head to the eastern provinces of Cuando-Cubango and Moxico. Along the way, we visit the NGO dedicated to clearing the surrounding area of mines. Under the supervision of trained Angolans, we learn how to find mines and identify areas that have been cleared from those that are still dangerous. Most of the areas are marked by wooden stakes. Their colours indicate if the area is still mined or has already been cleared, or where unexploded mines or duds are located. Of course, we are not training in order to clear the way for the Land Rover and discover new, unexplored areas. We just feel safer being able to recognise the places where it is safe to drive.
We cover hundreds of kilometres through complete wilderness, only interrupted at times by small villages. In the case of travelling by a single car, and in the rainy season besides, this is a rather backbreaking task. If there are any problems, you will have to wait several days for help. But since we managed to overcome the desert and make our way to the abandoned island and town of Sao Martino dos Tigres, we will also manage now.
Due to the terrible weather conditions and the state of the road, we are often able to drive at most only a few dozen kilometres per day. Wandering and weaving. Sometimes, after 1-2 days on the road, we have to go back because it turns out that a bridge has been destroyed or does not exist at all. Or a minefield starts.
One the way, we wear through three sets of brakes pads. Not being prepared for such a situation, we are forced to improvise. We cut and glue friction lining from an old lorry to the completely destroyed brakes. Glue, a minute in the fire, and then they are ready.
When, after a long and exhausting journey, we find the destroyed helicopter, we know that we are close.
Mission accomplished. After spending more than 3 weeks in Angola, it’s time to return. But since we have gone so far into the country that it is much easier to head further east than turn back. From here, it is closer to Zambia than from where we started in Namibia. But Zambia is also an intermediate stop. We are heading further east in search of Malawian Gold. But more on that next time.
At the end, there traditionally is a short film about the trip. No picture could better render the prevailing atmosphere than a moving one.
P.S. LOST SOULS – FINAL
Whilst in Angola, I would not be me if I did not stop somewhere along the way and take several pictures for the project “Lost Souls”. Its aim is to present Africans living in the bush in a natural, very refined and visually rich manner. Differently from the widespread photographs depicting African tribes in dirt and poverty. 5 years have passed since I started working on this project, and it is finally time to finish. Angola is to be the last country where I will conduct this sort of photography session. Below are several behind-the-scenes photographs and their results. More on this project can be found here.
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The women’s hair is very interesting. It looks like clay applied to form horns. Also some of the beading looks very heavy. Is it removable? They are very pretty!