Smithsonian Journeys Dispatches

Dispatches from Africa, Part 2: Angola to São Tomé and Príncipe

Thursday March 3, 2011. Lobito, Catumbela and Benguela, Angola

Our first stops in Angola were Lobito, Catumbela, and Benguela, which are pretty and relaxed towns several hundred kilometers south of Luanda, the capital. The first Portuguese landed on the Benguela coast around 1601 in search of the silver and copper mines. Lobito at the time was one of the finest natural harbors on the African coast and its deep water port linked with the Benguela Railway. Mineral exports from the Democratic Republic of Congo and Zambia coupled with corn exports from the Bie Plateau, made Lobito Angola’s chief port before it was taken by Luanda. Lobito was built on a sand-spit and reclaimed land and the town was founded in 1843 by order of Maria II of Portugal. Benguela started as a Portuguese fort and became an official town in 1617. This town was a trading post for black African slaves, sold to Portuguese merchants who sent them to Brazil for cheap agricultural labor. The city is the capital of Benguela Province, and the second most populous city.

During the forty-minute drive to Benguela from Lobito we observed construction everywhere including a new airport, the recently built stadium, a new bridge and many other buildings. These were all signs of very rapid economic development. The first stop was at the government palace, an old thick-walled building typical of the old Portuguese architecture, that houses important government meetings and events. It has beautifully landscaped gardens with tropical palms and fig trees. The building is located close to the ocean. Next to the government building is the slavery museum—a large building that was once used to gather, hold, and process slaves before transport to Europe or America. The tall building and large open areas now host a collection of wooden art and two very old jeep vehicles. Outside the building, we enjoyed a music and dance performance by local musicians.

We drove by the new cathedral and visited the 1748 Portuguese church of Nossa Senhora do Popul, and were impressed with the very old architecture and beautiful wooden structures, made from wood from Brazil. The last stop before boarding Corinthian II was the old fort in the small town of Catumbela that is under reconstruction and which provides a great view of the area and the port.

Friday March 4, 2011. Luanda, Angola

Angola, the “Republic of Angola,” is 481,351 square miles, and is slightly less than twice the size of Texas. The country has some 1,000 miles of coastline on the South Atlantic. There is an estimated 10 million people, a population density of 18 people per square mile, with much higher density in the cities and more urbanized areas. The population overall is very young, less that 3% over the age of 65 and 43% below the age of 15. Forty-two percent of the population over 15 can read and write.

First to settle the Angola region were the Bushman, then the Bantu. The area now known as Angola was a part of the 13th-century Kingdom of Congo, which stretched over a large range of southwest Africa. The aristocratic “Mani” people held power over a unit of designated land, in a system much like feudalism. In 1483 the Portuguese established trade relations with the King of Congo; firearms and Christianity for slaves, minerals, and ivory. The Portuguese settled on Luanda (now the capital city of Angola). However, Spain occupied Portugal, and the Dutch took the opportunity to take Luanda in 1641. The slave trade from Angola was important to Portugal, so the Portuguese in Africa built up an army and took Luanda back, as well as the rest of the Angola territory in 1665. In the 1950s, residents of the “Overseas Province of Angola” began to demand rights. After many years of conflict, the nation gained its independence on November 11, 1975. After gaining independence, Angola was launched into a civil war between the aforementioned groups until 2002 when a ceasefire was called. Currently, Angola has a modified republic with a president, a prime minister, and a Council of Ministers. In 2010 a new constitution was adopted, giving more and ultimate power to the President, who is elected by a majority vote in parliament. Economically, Angola depends on fish and fish products, mineral resources, and oil export. Angola provides 9% of US oil.

Luanda is situated about a quarter of the way down to Angola’s Atlantic coast. It is a vast and sprawling city, and the gap between rich and poor is very evident. The shiny new tower blocks owned by the oil companies stand in stark contrast to the modest living quarters where the vast majority of Luandans live. Luanda is the capital and largest city of Angola with a population of at least 5 million. Luanda is a seaport and administrative center. Until 1836, Luanda was a main center for slave trade. Most people speak Portuguese and one third of the population of Angola lives in Luanda. The main exports are coffee, cotton, sugar, diamonds, iron, and salt.  57% of the population lives in poverty.

The visit to the city included driving past the impressive National Bank Building constructed in a colonial style with clay roof tiles and an impressive façade. We continued to the Museum of Anthropology, housed in a typical colonial building with a fascinating collection of masks representing many of the traditional rituals including circumcision, traditional hunting tools, baskets to process, store, and transport products and babies, traditional musical instruments, and a variety of pottery artifacts for cooking and other uses. I led the Portuguese-English translation of the tour at the museum for and was interviewed by the local TV station about the nature of the visit to the Museum and its value for education.

From the museum we walked, escorted by the police, to the Church of the Remedies which was built by the city merchants in 1655. It was the first and oldest cathedral for Congo and Angola. The cathedral hosts many 200-300 year old saints and we were greeted by Father Apolonio and the gospel choir of the ladies dedicated to support church events and mission. Father Apolonio provided a detailed history of the church which I translated to English, that included the damage caused during the country’s civil war.

We visited the Fortaleza which was the 17th-century Portuguese Fort that provides a comprehensive view of the city and the many new buildings under construction. The fort is now the military museum that hosts old military equipment and statues of Angolan and Portuguese heroes. The museum was currently being remodeled. We had a delightful lunch at the Moulin Rouge restaurant located by the beach at Ilha de Luanda.  Upon arrival, we were greeted by a colorful carnival dance and drum music performance by local dancers. We dined with David Brooks, the Deputy Chief of Mission of the U.S. Embassy, who provided a short overview of Angola and the challenges and opportunities that this beautiful country offers.

After lunch we visited a local school and orphanage, Mama Maxima, which is home to 120 children, age between 3 and 19 years old. Other children from the nearby communities attend school at this location where they spend time learning English, cooking, sewing and mending clothing, participating in manual service, and religious practice. The voluntary teachers are mostly from the oil companies and the organization is run by the Catholic Church of Santa Barbara and is under the responsibility of the nuns. On the way back from the Mama Maxima home, we stopped at the Mausoleum Monument, constructed to honor the first president of Angola. The professional police escort service took us back to port and we sailed for Pointe Noire, Congo around 6 pm.

Note: Several people visited the Kissama National Park that is 3 million acres in size bordered by the north, Cuanza River and by the south, Longa River. Operation Noah’s Ark is an attempt to repopulate the park with wildlife from other regions including Northern Botswana to Kissama.

Saturday March 5, 2011. Pointe Noire, Republic of Congo

Saturday morning found us navigating the waters of Angola and Congo and crossing the mouth of the Congo River. The Congo River is the 10th longest river in the world and the deepest at more than 7850 feet deep. It crosses the equator twice and over 30 million people depend on the river.

We observed numerous oil rigs from Angola with large flares to the side, oil tankers and many support ships. In the morning, we had a lecture by Vincent Resh on “How African Rivers and Lakes Work” and a panel discussion with Vincent Resh, George Brooks and Francisco Dallmeier on “Central and West Africa African Art.

We arrived at the waters of Pointe Noire close to 2:00 pm and enjoyed the diversity of fishing vessels, oil industry vessels contrasted with several fishermen in dug out canoes spreading the nets. Pointe Noire (Black Point) is the second largest city of the Republic of Congo with 663,400 inhabitants and an autonomous Department since 2004. Before this date, it was the capital of the Kouilou region (now department). It is the main commercial center of the country and is situated on a headland between Pointe Noire Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. The name originated from the Portuguese navigators who saw a block of black rocks on the headland in 1484. The city is the essential center of the oil industry in Congo-Brazzaville, one of the main producers in Central Africa. Congolese oil has been largely exploited by the French company Elf Aquitaine since its discovery in 1980. Pointe Noire is also known for its fishing industry.

Once in Pointe Noire, we drove for about one hour through a busy and colorful town. People were preparing for carnival, the markets were busy and many small houses offered meals and drinks with loud music. Traffic was very busy and the escort vehicles provided a great service in speeding up the traveling. We first arrived at the Museum of Diosso, a small museum that was the former residence of the King of Loango, a nation comprised of seven tribes in what is now the Congo. Behind the main Museum building, there are four similar abandoned buildings which housed the Royal Wives and the kitchen. We were greeted at the museum by its curator Mr. Kimfoko and assistant Mr. Taty. The first room of the museum houses a very detailed exhibition about the slave trade that prospered in this region. The exhibition also documents the flow of goods, both material and human. Several collections of artifacts from various tribes such as hunting tools, baskets, musical instruments, and masks for different rituals illustrated the cultural and historical traditions of the Kingdom of Loango and the recent history of Pointe Noire.

After the visit of the Museum we visited the Diosso Gorge, a vast and deep rock formation caused by erosion and one of the most visited sites in Congo where you can see the red clay erosion walls and the green forest vegetation in the lower end. We drove back through the busy town streets escorted by a skillful motorcycled policeman.  The town was loud with music and many people eating and drinking in front of houses along the road. We were on board of the M/V Corinthian IIabout 6:30 pm and started sailing to São Tomé.

Sunday March 6, 2011. At sea sailing to São Tomé and Príncipe

São Tomé and Príncipe are only 87 miles apart, 155 and 140 miles wide respectively with a population of about 176,000 inhabitants.  The islands are part of an extinct volcanic mountain range which provides good soil for sugar, coffee, and cocoa. In 1908, the islands were the world’s largest producer of cocoa. The country is the second smallest country in Africa and the smallest Portuguese speaking country in the world. It was originally colonized by Portuguese, and it gained independence and has a multiparty democracy since 1990. The capital and largest city is São Tomé.

Today the program included lectures by George Brooks on “Symbiosis of Slaving and Legitimate Commerce during the 19th Century,” Vincent Resh on “São Tomé and Príncipe: Islands as Laboratories of Evolution,” Heather Arrowood on “Gabon: The Lake Oguemouen Ecotourism Project” and Drs. Brook, Resh, Dallmeier and Marius Burger provided a discussion session on “the ecological, environmental, social and economic variations of the region already travelled from Namibia to the Ecuador.”