Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Leaving Luanda

Go ahead and hum Leaving Luanda to the tune of Leaving Las Vegas (I'm leave luuuuanda, lights so bright, I'm leaving Luuuuuanda, I'm leaving for good). Here's a little description of what happened on my way home. I wrote this right after everything happened, perhaps why my exasperation comes through a bit strong.  It lead to several exasperated phone calls, but most importantly they let me leave and I'm home again.  Thanks a million to everyone for the support as always, I couldn't do it without you.

The Luanda Airport as a Vignette of Angola

  •         The car arrives to bring me to the airport. Late. Despite the fact that I confirmed thrice the time it should arrive.
  •     We hit traffic. Various traffic laws are broken avoiding said traffic.
  •     Police, rather than being at intersections where gridlock occurs,  stand in the middle of the highway, which has no lane lines painted, aggressively gesturing and yelling at motorist to CONTINUE STRAIGHT! MOVE!
  •     First security check, my printed reservation and passport are taken. 2 people puzzle over the passport. The man has about 10 rosters of passengers in front of him. He is searching for my name by hand. He finds it. Puts a little star next to my name and sends me on my way.
  •      I check in. My bag is overweight by 5 kilos (books and paperwork!). I ask how much it will cost. $150 USD. I reply that I will remove the 5 kilos as I have another bag I can check. Ah, I can fix the problem. Nevermind then. Overweight is ok.
  •       I pass through customs and am gestured into a small room. I’m asked if I speak Portuguese. I say I understand but speak Spanish. Head shaking. I’m asked if I have money. Well yes. I do. I’m asked if I have Kwanzas (national currency), if I have dollars. To put all of it on the table. (My fear of what will happen if I lie and am searched is greater than my fear of losing the money.) I pull out over a thousand US dollars and more Kwanzas. Do I know that I’m not allowed to take Kwanzas out the of country? I do, I planned to spend them in the airport. My kwanzas are seized (over $125 USD), thankfully my USD is returned. I am informed that if I will be returning to Angola within one week I can get them when I return. I reply that I will not return. Apparently I have offended them, I’m asked why I won’t return. I explain. I ask for a receipt for the money they will take from me. They act as though they don’t understand, although I’m sure I have the vocabulary right after collecting receipts for 5 weeks. So some people will give up $125 with no written record? Either everyone else knows better or I’m missing an opportunity to give a gaseosa (literally – soda, actually – bribe) and keep my money. Money is taken. Receipt is received.
  •      I go upstairs to a bare but clean room with two small walk up counters with a variety of fried foods and alcohol. I look. I go to the open buffet. A hot option (pasta, chicken etc), plus a cold option (salad or bread) plus dessert plus soup is $50 USD. But if I just want a hot option it’s $35.
  •     I return to the counter and ask how I may pay for my food. I’m informed that either Kwanzas or dollars will do. When I reply that I’d pay in Kwanzas but someone just took all mine she smiles and says well I suppose you’ll pay in dollars then.
  •      I order. It’s microwaved. I pay too much. It’s not bad for here. At home I’d pick frozen Ellio’s pizza over what I’m eating. But the olive has no pit, that’s a plus.
  •      I am in a room with apparently 4 internet signals, none of which can I access.
  •     Tables around me slowly fill up, the room is full of men from Portugal, men from Brazil. And then there are American men, they sound like they’re from Texas. None of them is under 250 pounds.  I see two women and one table of non Anglo/Caucasian/White men.
  •       I’ve got another 2.5 hours until my flight. I was told to arrive as early as possible because “you can never be too early to the airport in Angola, anything can happen”.

 Luanda downtown from the fortaleza, a mix of construction, colonial architecture and unfinished buildings that are now homes for thousands of squatters.


 In another direction, homes and soccer and the ocean under a permanently white sky. The vast majority of Luanda residents live in inappropriate shelters made with inappropriate materials (confirmed by most recent survey, over 80%)

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Should Childhood be Relative?

The average lifespan in the US is about 74 years, longer for ladies. I think it is partly awareness of the probable length of our lives that allows us, both as a culture and as individuals, to determine when certain milestones in life, from finishing school to working to marriage to having children, should take place. It is also important to note that for most people their Healthy Life Years will continue well past the time they might consider starting a family.

But what if it wasn't so certain? To what extent would we change our expectations about what should happen and when? What if the average lifespan was 47, so you figure, give or take you'll probably live to be somewhere between 42 and 52. What would you do differently? I've been trying to ask myself these questions when moving around Angola, rather than reacting with shock at the sheer number of girls who have children or are pregnant. I have been told several times that by 14 or 15 girls will be encouraged to get married by their parents (remembering that if this is the average cited age, girls do marry earlier).  Then there's also infant and child mortality to consider, despite incredibly poor data collection, according to UNICEF, Angola has the second highest under-5 mortality ranking in the world, 220 children out of every 1,000 born will die before they reach the age of 5.  In realistic terms this means that women must have many children to ensure that several of them reach adulthood.

On one hand girls may not agree to these marriages, some might call them child brides, they are marrying below the age of consent and their husbands are almost always older.  I am having trouble reconciling how I feel about the whole situation. On one hand these girls deserve a childhood, an adolescence, during which they can grow up, go to school, be able to make good decisions before they have children of their own. On the other hand waiting until 30 just isn't a option. Because the lifespan here is so much shorter, every stage of life is shortened as well.

However, I cannot, in good conscience, say that I agree with encouraging girls to marry at 14, immediately bear children and leave school. The most telling point that comes out of a myriad of studies that I won't repeat here (the one linked to is just an example) is that the closest proxy indicator for the health of children is the years of education of their mother. Women with more years of education are more likely to have healthy children. So by either encouraging or forcing girls to leave school when very young, we're not only curbing their knowledge and perhaps future earning capacity, but also the health of their children and future generations.

Here we have looked at a program that allows children who have fallen behind in school, whether because of the conflict or working or poor academic performance to get "caught up". Each calendar year they complete two academic years, eventually aiming to integrate them with their same-aged peers. A striking "strength" of the program that was listed was that it allows girls to complete more years of schooling before marriage. True. It is a treatment but not a cure. Girls are more likely to go to school while pregnant and after giving birth because the program continues to welcome them. Also good.

But what would be the harm in waiting until 16? 18? There was a time when such marrying and childbearing ages were the norm in the West. In the current cultural standard here wait that long just isn't acceptable, something must be wrong with you if you haven't married by those ages. But as healthcare quality and access and longevity increases, as parents (who are also likely to have low educational attainment, if not be illiterate) and society begin to value girls and their education more, the average marrying age is likely to increase. But until then, meeting women my age who have given birth more times than they can count on one hand will never cease to amaze me. My own (and perhaps yours as well) extended adolescence seems like quite a gift and a privilege.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Letters Home

The traffic in Luanda is generally horrific. I know I know, it's bad wherever you live too. You live in the city with the worst traffic. I believe you. But for real. Literally constant gridlock with extraordinarily aggressive drivers, scant streetlights that do not work EVER, occasional police directing traffic (but they most often stand at the side of the road rather than direct), and lots of motorcycles, little van/taxis stopping every 10 feet, but oh the gridlock! So in the time I spend in cars each day being driven here are there I generally have two choices: listen or think. Listening takes much more effort as it's in Portuguese and requires my full attention, so if I'm tired I just don't listen.  Today on the way to work I was thinking about blog topics and considering which of the ones I've been considering is appropriate to write about. It occurred to me that we all edit our lives in some form or another, whether downplaying or exaggerating, we are all writing our own story, amending it for the time, place and audience. But this leaves some stories untold, I think particularly in my case as many of things I do or work on feel like they're not appropriate for public banter. On the other hand this is my blog, you all know what I do for a living, and if you don't know you will, and of course all of you are always free to ignore me. So rather than editing down where I am for public consumption, I'll see what I can do about showing you all a bit more and telling stories a bit less. Forgive me for the long introduction...

NOTE: The rest of this post addresses attitudes about rape here, feel free to skip

First a few introductory anecdotes:

After dinner with friends...
Me: Aww you like Kobe Bryant? How come!
1 of 3 men at the table: What? Why shouldn't I like him?
Me: Well he's a Laker, and a rapist for that matter.
1 of 3: Well aren't we all.
All 3 laugh.

I walk into a classroom where older kids learn to read and write, on one wall is letter with examples of words, on another are posters encouraging positive social behaviors. One poster shows a girl crying in a field and a man fastening his pants. Below it reads "What are the consequences of rape?" (called violacao or violation in Portuguese).

In the car yesterday on the way to visit pre-schools the others in my car were talking, I heard one person say "Her stepfather I can understand, but her father? And to get pregnant?", "But who is to blame in this case?"
They all agree it is the girl's fault, she should not have been "having an affair" with her father.

Each of these cases demonstrates a little bit about the climate and attitude here about rape, and incest for that matter. It is much more widely discussed than in the US, for instance on the radio on the way to work this morning a woman, live, was describing how a week ago "bandidos" broke into her home, raped her young daughter, and tried to rape her too. Can you imagine a rape survivor doing this in the US just a week after it happened? I heard through word of mouth that the 14 year old daughter of a guard at my guesthouse was raped last weekend at a family party and is still in the hospital. Rape is rarely, if ever, so known and discussed in the US.

But there are differences here. Many of the cases are discussing stranger rape, so it presents a big bad other that people can join in talking about; it is very different than spousal or acquaintance rape. On the other hand it really is a topic of conversation here, literally swapping stories of the rapes of other people over dinner. On one hand maybe this could help take the shame and blame away from survivors, but upon hearing that a daughter is to blame for incest, this is certainly not the case.

I think my conclusion is that, despite the fact that discussions of rape are not hidden here, it does not signify that the population is more sensitive to survivors, better able to provide support, or doing more to prevent rape and more harshly punish rapists. I think it's that it's titillating. It's seeing and hearing about violence without identifying or feeling empathy beyond thinking it's a shame. If we think of the poster, where the girl is crying in a field and a man is fastening his belt, and we're asked what the consequences of rape are, tells us a lot. The poster's goal is to raise our awareness about the fact that rape has victims, that it hurts someone. Can you imagine? And if we consider communal status and gender, before we can convince men (I am generalizing here, but it is generally true) not to rape, we must convince them that rape hurts women and girls. And it is not enough to show hurt, we must make them care that women and girls are hurt. Beyond decreasing their worth as brides and ability to fetch water, building a society that values its women and girls, those that are relatives and those that are not, making men believe that all women and children deserve safety and protection. 

In fact, I think ongoing conversations about rape serve to desensitize the community, so rape is not such a bad thing, since it happens to so many girls and women. This phenomenon of rape as frighteningly common, to the extent that it is expected, is not new and it is certainly not unique to Angola. On the other hand, I think we must draw a line somewhere as to what will be tolerated in media and even private conversation and I think everything from glorifying to normalizing rape has crossed it. But then, who am I? If I stopped and protested to all conversations about rape I would not only alienate myself, but my co-workers and those I am trying to work with. And so I stop listening in Portuguese and think instead, wondering if our convictions grow a little weaker every time they are unspoken.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Angolan Researcher: You shouldn’t tell people here you’re American [here is rural Angola]
Me: Ok, what should I tell them? I’m also Canadian
Angolan Researcher: No not Canadian, tell them you’re Norwegian, there’s lots of them here
Me: But I don’t speak Norwegian…
Angolan Researcher: Neither do the people living here.

** for an explanation of why being American isn't the best here, google Angola civil war and USA