Wednesday 5 September 2007

All expats are failures...

I live in a twenty-foot container in Angola. It may be air-conditioned, have hot and cold running water and electricity, but it is still a steel box for shifting cargo.

I was reasonably content but then I read Jeremy Clarkson’s article in which he suggested that all expatriates were failures. Nothing more than people who, unable to be any kind of fish at all in their own ponds, migrated like eels to distant pools setting themselves up with the proceeds of house sales and redundancy payments, grimly determined to demonstrate they had made the right decision. A gin and tonic fuelled self-delusional existence leading to bitterness, liver failure and skin cancer. I downed my whisky and started thinking.

Seventeen years ago I was in the Army. I enjoyed the social benefits of an honourable profession, not least the tolerance of a bank manager who appreciated the disastrous consequences of not being able to pay a mess bill on time.

Whatever madness it was that brought me to Angola, it wasn’t a desire to emigrate. I came here to start a humanitarian mine clearance project. In UK, I had a three-bed semi in a provincial mining town. I regretted leaving the Army and was drinking myself to death. The final blow to self-esteem was when my wife ran off with a married gas bottle filler from Aga Gas. I lacked the courage to put a bullet through my head so pushing off to a war zone to clear explosives seemed the next best thing for a man hell bent on going out as quickly and spectacularly as possible. So far, Clarkson is spot on. I had fallen into the gutter and was running away.

The job satisfaction was intense. In six months, I lost 23 kilos. I worked for cigarettes and whisky and if the odd bun or two were thrown in, I was in paradise. I ate one meal a day, charcoal chicken bought from street vendors and lived in an establishment that normally rented rooms by the hour. If the girls had problems with a client, I bounced for them. In return, they looked after my washing and other occasional needs and never, not once, was anything stolen from my room.

Now I run a power station. I have an eight year old son who goes to a private, Angolan college. He is bi-lingual, rides a motorcycle and, because we hunt together, is responsible with a firearm. He recently fought some older boys who were bullying a girl and suffered stitches in his face as a result, but refused to rat on the culprits. He is not racist; for him all men are divided into nice types or ‘Ladroes’, bandits. He is fit, healthy and, as I am sure the older boys would testify if pressed, hard as nails. He has even caught a 90 Kg Tarpon.

Angola has everything going for it. Name a crop and there will be somewhere with suitable climatic conditions in which to grow it. The fishing, both commercial and sporting, the kind that interests me, is excellent. It has oil. Angola’s significance as the second largest African producer is witnessed by the size of the American Embassy, a huge, bomb proof monolithic structure that dominates the smart Miramar skyline overlooking the rest of down-town Luanda and its increasingly busy port. It is a major diamond producer. Angolan diamonds are some of the finest in the world and along with oil, fuelled the long running civil war that only ended with the death of the rebel leader, Jonas Savimbi in 2002.

There are plenty of organisations that lament the lack of transparency, worry about the ‘missing millions’ and claim Angola is a dictatorship, not a democracy. I can only go by the evidence of my own eyes. The country has embarked on house building on an impressive scale, specialists have been brought in to assist with energy production and water distribution, Chinese contractors are rebuilding the railways. Roads are being improved. Hospitals are being modernised and new ones built. There is even a modern shopping centre. Luanda is a lot safer than Johannesburg and the idea of a kid on a BMX shooting another is unheard of. It is the fastest growing economy in Africa and opportunities abound, just try getting a confirmed hotel reservation. So who cares if a few people abuse their trust and make a lot of money out of it? If this is a dictatorship, then at least it’s a benign one. Let the elite have their cake and eat it, there are more crumbs dropping off President Dos Santos’ table than Mugabe’s.

Granted, I live in a 20-foot container in the poorer end of town. But only during the week. Fridays, I am driven home in my company car and, since my long time Angolan girlfriend is a good Catholic, enjoy a fish supper in my nice house in an agreeable country without having to worry if my son is a drug addict or a gang member. When I die which, according to my doctor is long overdue (he insists I settle my account after every consultation), I will leave my son more than the gold cufflinks my father left me. Here, the assets of the deceased pass to heirs, not the state. I will leave him houses and a farm he can rent out to pay for his further education and the benefit of a broad experience and tolerance I would imagine difficult to replicate in UK.

Life in Angola isn’t perfect. But sitting here with my family around me; safe, content and happy, no mortgage, the sun shining, the pool almost ‘de-greened’ and the house full of friendly, cosmopolitan Angolans and only 6% income tax, it’s bloody close. Petrol is 27p a litre and diesel half that. It isn’t a crime to drive a 4x4, there is a race track only five miles away on which I can lay a bit of rubber whenever the urge takes me, and a golf course even closer. There are nice beaches where the smaller the Bikini the more fashionable, and I get to spend a lot of quality time with my son.

Mr Clarkson’s article did get me thinking, but having done so, let him have the Cotswolds and leave me the dictatorship. I vote for Angola.


  1. I think you're right - not all expats are failures. Some may be - may be running from their lives 'at home' or settling for a new home somewhere because the life they left behind was 'fucked beyond repair' - but others certainly are not. Some end up living abroad as idealists or adventurers, but certainly not as failures.

  2. Is there a chance I might be able to ask you some questions about angola as a possible yank expat? I've been to SA, Botswana, border areas of Zim, and have been thinking about making a big shift.

    I am amish [dot] tom {at} gmail (dot) com

    You seem like you might be a good fellow to pick the brains of and perhaps a similar sort.

    Thank You

  3. Maybe this article is about a chap who falls on bad times/luck. However, I spent just a little time in Hong Kong and I also can to this conclusion having meet a few Expats. Most wouldn't have made a living in their own country but as standards were lower in HK, they made a very good living. In the main the best people stay in their own countries to make a living .........period!


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