Thursday, 15 March 2007

The start...

I am sitting in a 20-foot container, a reasonably well-appointed container admittedly but a container nevertheless. The kind of container in which people stuff cars, or building materials, illegal immigrants, whatever, or wash up on the southern coast of UK loaded with BMW motorcycles, that sort of container. It is one of a few that sitting on their little wooden blocks plugged into a generator together form the residential half of the industrial site that I am running.

The site is situated in what is by all accounts, generally regarded as the worst area of town; by its own residents and anyone foolhardy or desperate enough to venture into its slums. At night, the frequent crackle of gunfire raises hardly an eyebrow. Five months into the job we are all hardened veterans. Even the shudder of a grenade thrown over the perimeter wall and exploding two feet away from our night guard woke no-one except me, and the unfortunate guard, of course. Under the circumstances, he was bloody lucky to be woken rather than be dispatched immediately to brightness or oblivion depending on your personal beliefs. Why should I wake up? I don’t know, perhaps I have heard too many exploding grenades in the past to be able to miss it, even through the fug of sleep. Surrounded by a three-metre wall topped with razor wire and 24 hours of light, the baking sun during the day and floodlights at night, I have decided that if ever I did anything stupid enough to warrant a custodial sentence, I would cope. The upside here is that I am unlikely to be buggered in the shower.

It is hard to think of a place such as this as isolated. We are, after all, slap bang in the middle of Luanda, the capital of Angola. With this being a 24 hour operation and off site excursions generally limited to the admin manager doing an occasional bank run and the cook going shopping, and sitting in a place that looks like the inside of Dartmoor prison’s exercise yard, we do feel isolated. We could be half a mile from Marble Arch and we would still feel as far removed from reality as a party political broadcast.

This city, designed for perhaps half a million or so inhabitants was, during one of the longest and largely ignored civil wars in Africa, inundated with millions of desperately impoverished and war weary citizens. Camped on any unoccupied square metre they could find, they eked out an existence doing anything they could; regardless of how pitiable, pathetic or depraved it might look to the casual and invariably unmoved observer, of whom there were many. Life, even that sort of life, was preferable to the horrors of the interminable atrocities being committed in the interior.

I have yet to meet anyone who can state with confidence the exact population of Luanda now. Six million feels about right. Along with about twelve million cars.

Suffice to say, what infrastructure that had not already crumbled into ruin through lack of investment was quickly overwhelmed. With a war to fight and the country’s future revenue in oil and diamond production mortgaged to the hilt, there was nothing left over for the luxuries of life. Like clean water and electricity or a decent place to have a dump. Unless you had money, and lots of it by comparison, you would be lucky to find enough to eat, let alone a comfortable place to sleep.

When I first came here not so long after the Luanda street battles of 1992, I was shocked. Then, over the next few years, it got worse. Slowly though, signs of improvement appeared. Nothing dramatic but, rather like the first flowers poking through melting snow after an unusually long and harsh winter, it was the slow realisation that spring had at long last arrived. It wasn’t skylarks in the sky, but the first glints of hope were discernable in the eyes of the average person on the street.

The greatest changes occurred after the death of Savimbi, the UNITA leader some described as an enigma and most others as a psychotic despot. The cost of prosecuting a bloody war could no longer be justification for the diversion of the wealth generated by the country’s enormously valuable natural resources and some of it is finally being invested in infrastructure. There are now new hotels and more springing up (but still the demand for hotel beds will never be sated). Underpasses and overpasses and dual carriageways have been built in a still largely unsuccessful attempt to relieve the grinding congestion that afflicts the city. The place is a concrete pourers paradise. I remember when the only place you could make an international phone call or send a fax was from the Press Centre in the lower city. Now everyone has mobile phones, internet connections and DSTV. Boutiques, supermarkets and even a shopping centre have sprung up and I have lost count of the number of new restaurants. A smart new suburb to the south of the city is well under way and driving along its wide thoroughfares gazing at large, well appointed houses, Acacia trees splashed orange with countless blooms in the gardens, you could be in the smartest residential area of any pleasant tropical country. Except here an average house starts at a million US.

The only all too obvious signs of the affluence starting to find its way to an ever-increasing proportion of the population that I could do without are the cars. Cars in all their forms definitely outnumber the population. In the old days, you could wait for a car to pass early in the morning, then take a table out onto the street and have a picnic. Later on in the afternoon, you would have to move the table in order to let the same car return. Now you cannot even see the road, so packed is it with generally immobile modes of transport, never mind find enough space to plonk a table down. They say that the number of cars imported through the port of Luanda each week numbers the thousands. Each week. Not even Jeremy Clarkson could build the roads needed fast enough.

I came here nearly 14 years ago for a six-month humanitarian demining contract. Apart from occasional interludes in places like Gabon, Nigeria and Uganda to name a few, I have been here ever since. I have been shot at and stabbed in this country, I survived a plane crash here, got married and divorced here, have been formally expelled from the country and then very grudgingly and still precariously allowed to stay, been arrested three times and detained many times, went through a week long court case facing ten years for trumped up charges before being acquitted. I am raising a son here, have had seven varied and interesting jobs here, have a farm down south on which I intend to run sheep and have just finished building a house in the southern suburbs to replace the one I lost after the divorce. As much as the immigration services want me to leave, I want to stay. Ten or so years ago we all ran around with 9mm pistols in our bum bags and an Uzi in the car. Karl Maier wrote an excellent piece in one of the US broadsheets entitled ‘Black pouched pistol packers’. Just about said it all really. Now the only gun I have is the glue gun I used to put my kitchen cabinets together.

I was originally sent to Angola by the charity that I worked for in Mozambique to establish a demining project down south. The ODA, as it was at the time, had only provided sufficient funds for a two-week viability study. The charity director, however, had other ideas. This was the same man whose suggested kit list for deploying deminers read like something out of Evelyn Waugh’s ‘Scoop’, only instead of hockey sticks, we were supposed to take tennis rackets. I gave mine to a street kid who became the best air guitarist in Quelimane.

I was to stay until I had a put together a project proposal that would fly. That was in June. By August, I had a project and at the end of September, the money finally arrived. Four months surviving on what the ODA considered were sufficient funds for a two-week stay. Anyone who knows the costs of accommodation in Luanda should find that remarkable. As an explosives engineer, and one working for a charity, I was a bit of a rare beast so any NGO willing to feed me whisky and cigarettes and the occasional bun or two in the interim could have my services. I got to see a lot of the country. In Luanda, I ate local food bought for pennies from street side vendors. Dysentery was no stranger to me but I soon toughened up. I found a place that normally rented rooms by the hour but was willing to let me have one for $40 per month, not even the equivalent of a six-hour stay in the Meridien. If the girls using the place had any trouble, I bounced for them. In return, they washed my clothes and not once, not once, did anything disappear from my room. Except, perhaps, worryingly large quantities of Passport scotch but it was second hand when it disappeared and it was me that was leaking it down the sewer anyway.

Once the funding came through, however, I was able to move to slightly more salubrious accommodation and took a room in the hotel happily situated only yards away from my only form of communication with the outside world (and the source of my monthly beer token allowance), the Press Centre. Not surprisingly, I discovered that the Avenida Hotel was also a favourite for those members of the international press corps who, though esteemed, were at the lower end of the remuneration scale, the stringers.

The two with whom I struck up an enduring friendship were the Reuter’s and the BBC stringers, Nick Shaxson and Chris Simpson. Both highly intelligent and articulate, let’s face it; they would have to be to indulge penmanship in such a cutthroat business. They could not have been more different. Nicholas was smooth and refined, reserved with impeccable manners. Chris shambled about in worn out tennis shoes, washed out T-shirt hanging over prison floppy jeans. Nick produced intensively researched insights into economic developments and strategic impacts and such like. Chris, when filing a story down a dodgy telephone line, sat cross legged on his bed while he described the latest atrocity or the plight of the long suffering population in general. Where Nick was almost clinical in his reporting, Chris was passionate. When Chris and I needed company, we would go out and get it and never gave a thought to what the ‘stuffed shirts’ might think. Nick, even though one would imagine that in such a tight knit expatriate community it would be impossible, was discreet. I heard a rumour once but that was all. But then again, maybe I was pissed and missed it. Wouldn’t have been the first time. I do not think that I ever saw Nick angry. If he ever was, then his emotions were well concealed. By contrast, the normally implacable Chris losing his temper made Chernobyl look like a party cracker.

While Nick and Chris were trawling around for and reporting on anything interesting, I was actually leading a very interesting life. My father once told me about the old Chinese curse, ‘may you live in interesting times’. I could never figure it out at the time but, since he was fond of popping irrelevant titbits into his discourses (another one was an alleged Arab curse, ‘may the hairs on your body turn to drum sticks and beat you to death’), I never gave it the thought perhaps I should have done. To hear about me being bombed by Sukhois… hang on, not me particularly. I am sure that despite my not infrequent bar room altercations I never sufficiently aroused the ire of some, unknown to me, Ukrainian pilot to make him track me down to Kuito and bomb me specifically as opposed to the rest of the population of that unfortunate city. Anyway, to hear my experience of being in the part of a city that was being bombed by ex soviet aircraft as ‘interesting’ brought the subtle threat contained within that Chinese curse into full clarity. It also provoked Nick to suggest that I keep a journal and carry a notebook around with me.

‘You’ll never remember it all’ he said. ‘Over time you’ll forget’ he continued, eyeing the half empty bottle on my bedside table.

Well I am sorry, Nick, I was just too busy. Actually, I was an idle bastard and never got around to it. But you were right, I did forget. I have forgotten whole chunks of my life. Angola is the more recent part and was very interesting. The times before that were pretty interesting too. Running trucks through Mexico with sawn off shotguns in the cab in case we were ambushed by banditos. Racing motorcycles in Germany. Trying to carve a citrus plantation out of the jungle in Central America. Twelve years of military service. That was all ages ago and memories of those times are little more than magic lantern images etched somewhere in my brain.

Africa represents only the last decade plus a few years of my life yet I cannot even remember the name of that ex East German bomb disposal officer who in a back street slop house taught me, with diagrams scribbled on beer soaked napkins, how to defuse the bombs that my Ukrainian nemesis was chucking at me. You know, the one that drove a bloody great mine clearing tank all the way up from southern Angola? (The German, not the Ukrainian, that is. The Ukrainian was too busy hotwiring Sukhois so he could have another go at me). The name of the Sandhurst trained Mozambican officer who was my translator until he killed himself by wrapping a Land Rover around a tree? Gone. The name of my sidekick and investigator when I was working with that security company who was gunned down outside his house because he was getting a little too warm? I wouldn’t even be able to find his grave in that, albeit vast Santana cemetery, and I helped bury him. I cannot remember the name of the Irish Charity, let alone those of any of the wonderful people who worked for it, who looked after me and fed me in N’Dalatando and Kuito and then invited me to Kitty O’Shea’s in Dublin, never expecting me to make it and when I did, buying me drinks all night. Having said that, after a night of free beer in Kitty O’Shea’s, who would remember? You were right, though, I should have kept notes and I didn’t. What a plonker.

So from now on, I shall not only keep notes, I shall dredge the depths of what memories are left and put to paper anything that breaks the surface. Sadly, what this means for any reader who stumbles across this blog and has so little else to occupy them that they actually read this, is an inconsistent time line, a probably disconcerting randomness and the generally muddled approach that anyone who knows me will recognise.

Who should we thank, or curse for my sudden overwhelming urge to commit as much as possible to paper? In part, Lara Pawson.

For those of you who do not know, she is currently the BBC stringer in Luanda. It is most unlikely that she will remember me and it is, in any case inconsequential (in as much as me starting my first blog). The last time I saw her, quite a few years ago, was when due to circumstances I no longer recall, we were standing in the shade provided by the block of flats near the old South African Embassy where she lived and she was telling me something. I am sure it was interesting. It was very likely a well reasoned argument against which, only those possessed of the greatest eloquence heavily reinforced with some sound knowledge would have had the temerity to argue, yet the only things I remember were the drip, drip, drip of the condensate of the air-conditioning units above splashing onto what was left of the pavement, and an overwhelming desire to take her to bed.

I think I was searching the Internet for a train set for my boy when Google threw up a link to a blog. Lara’s. What the hell Lara Luanda has to do with Marklin train sets escapes me but reading her blog, apart from enjoying it, I suddenly realised that feeding a blog could be the journal that Nick recommended all those years back. Journals were traditionally private documents only ever revealed to the world after one’s death (if you had been famous in life and there was either something worth sharing with the world since clearly the world hadn’t had enough of you and/or there was a surviving relative eager to cash in), or, during one’s lifetime as a result of impeachment (if you were infamous as well as being obviously alive and famous and had forgotten to lock the bottom draw of your desk). The majority of us, however, scribble away in our little notebooks none of the effort of which will ever see the light of day. How sad.

Does anyone remember the scene in Blade Runner when Rutger Hauer, or at least the character he played (to all intents and purposes a human being capable of feeling all the emotions of hope, desire, longing) spoke of what his eyes had seen? Great battles, galaxies we could only imagine? His imminent, programmed death would obliterate those memories for all eternity. At the time of my father’s sudden death, I never imagined I could forget him. Now, fifteen years later, I still feel the same love for him but can hardly remember him. I have a few old photos, disintegrating in the humidity, some ties I never wear, his gold cufflinks but that is it. Is that how my son will remember me a few years after I inevitably lie down and close my eyes forever? I may not be as eloquent as those with a real gift for communicating their thoughts and ideas to others and I am sure my father wasn’t either but I sure as hell wish he’d kept a journal, something that in my lonelier moments, I could read and I would remember.

I did take Nick’s advice a while back. I wrote loads. Not in a notebook but on a computer. The few notebooks and the many photos I had, from my time in the Army, racing motorcycles, Mexico, Belize, my pilot’s logbooks, Angola ‘the Early Years’, all of them were lost when I shipped my kit to South Africa. The boxes simply did not turn up. My whole life up to that point, or at least the tangible records of it, had disappeared. So I started again and thought that I was safe with a computer. Until the hard drive blew its brains out.

I live an itinerant, gypsy life. Material possessions have to be entrusted into the care of faceless individuals as I move around. Things get misplaced or just crumble to dust under the onslaught of humidity or voracious insects, and yes, Nick, I admit that I am simply not as disciplined as you. You are a professional and, once the last few hairs fall out of your head, you will be considered a luminary. I am a bumbling amateur. A blog seems to me to be the answer. Not a complete answer, but at least the belt that will supplement the braces. If my hard copy gets soaked in a Luandan flood, I have a file saved on my laptop. If the laptop stuffs up, I will have my back up drive. If some bastard has nicked the back up drive along with all my DVD’s, then it’ll still be out there on Google. Unless of course, someone sues Google for billions and the company suddenly shuts up shop…


  1. And so it begins..... so looking forward to the journey.

  2. Blimey! Take plenty of rations and water with you. Good luck!


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