Saturday 15 November 2008

An ace comment, sadly anonymous

Wherever we are in the world, whatever we are doing, we lucky few who have had the honour of wearing the uniform and standing alongside the best that a country has to offer, will always remember them. On those occasions when men and women such as we gather, we will raise a glass and say, with quiet pride, "they were our friends".

Bang on. Pity the author is so shy


Friday 14 November 2008

Lest We Forget

The memorial plaque in Palace Barracks dedicated to those members of 321 Explosive Ordnance Disposal Company who lost their lives during the troubles in Northern Ireland. I recall with fondness and sadness Warrant Officers Mick O'Neil and John Howard with whom I had the honour to serve.

We must also respect the memories of all Ammunition Technicians and Technical Officers, all Bomb Disposal Officers and Technicians of every nationality, their courageous support teams, the signallers, the drivers, the search teams, the escorts and all mine clearance experts worldwide who have been killed or wounded in the course of their duties, sacrificing their lives or health in order to save so many, and we should all be grateful that there are still men and women brave and dedicated enough to continue to volounteer for some of the most dangerous duties in the world so that others may live their lives a little safer.

Thursday 25 September 2008

To Tommy Atkins

I stumbled across this recently. I recited it at my father's funeral. He was called Thomas as well.

To T. A.
I have made for you a song,
And it may be right or wrong,
But only you can tell me if it's true;
I have tried for to explain
Both your pleasure and your pain,
And, Thomas, here's my best respects to you!

O there'll surely come a day
When they'll give you all your pay,
And treat you as a Christian ought to do;
So, until that day comes round,
Heaven keep you safe and sound,
And, Thomas, here's my best respects to you!
R. K.

This was written so long ago by the Soldier's Poet and it still holds true today for the shabby way servicemen and women are treated all over the world.

Tuesday 9 September 2008

A new citizen of the World...

so where is he better off?

There are lots of things that could, and should, be explored here in Angola. The trouble is that editors tend not to be particularly interested in Angola as a rule so one can end up putting in a lot of work to no avail.

The typical angle on Angola is the rich living it up while the poor starve (the latest published in the Guardian/Observer a week ago on Sunday; mine were the only positive comments in it).

I am not an apologist for the ruling party, now returned with a massive majority after the recent peaceful elections. Rather, I am a realist and having been here for fifteen years and having seen the very worst of the civil war and the extraordinary changes made since, I accept that on balance, the government of Angola is doing a good job under very difficult circumstances and things are most definitely better. Look at it this way. While old grannies in UK freeze to death because they cannot afford to pay their energy bills to foreign owned companies enjoying ludicrous profits, the executives of which are paying themselves outrageous bonuses yet this is considered free market economics, the Angolan ministers rake a bit off the top but are actually improving the country yet are accused of corruption. By whose standards?

Rather than looking at it as corruption, we should consider that Angolan politicians have only been doing exactly the same as our Politicians, City Boys and CEOs have done; they have merely awarded themselves a very big salary. Unlike our lot, though, instead of presiding over an ever more dire economy or asset stripping a vulnerable company mercilessly consigning its workforce to the dole queue, this lot are managing the fastest growing economy in the world. A growth that flies in the face of the global downturn.

Now there is an angle to be explored. Rather than the clichéd exposure of corruption perpetrated by arbitrarily targeted individuals, how about a general comparison of the moral issues; why is one sort of rapacious behaviour considered acceptable business practice and another corruption, and of the two groups studied, which is actually doing the better job? Unlike Global Witness et al whose approach is inevitably one sided, a study such as this should make all sides sit up and think. It’s about time the Emperor’s new clothes were exposed for what they are. The bonuses enjoyed in the first world seem rarely performance related, more a right. Yet dipping your hand into the Angolan till is corruption if you are Angolan, perfectly OK if you are French. What is the difference between fleecing shareholders or a population? Are they not all people who have placed their trust in the hands of a few?

Traditionally, oil rich countries tend to ignore other market sectors, such as fisheries and agriculture, in favour of the carbon fuelled Milk Cow with the paradoxical result of urban deprivation and rural poverty. Angola, however, has instigated agricultural loans; easier access to finance for those wishing to rehabilitate or develop farms. Same for the fishing industry. Now that the interior is safe, the government is encouraging investment in mineral exploitation beyond the diamond industry.

The coincidence of high oil prices and the onset of peace places Angola in a similar position to Nigeria in the 70’s. Nigeria wasted the opportunity with costly white elephant projects and the blatant corruption that painted the face of African economics for decades, and the grease stained hand of external influence was writ large on the walls of every African President’s palace. You are not telling me that Mobuto Sese Seko could have raped his country for so long without the support of the United States? This is a temptation which Angola is now resisting, concentrating instead on the rehabilitation and construction of sensible infrastructure and keeping corrupt practices within ‘acceptable’ limits. It has shunned the advice of the IMF, has always been wary of the US and is finally reigning in the French. You can do business in Angola but increasingly only under their terms. You may still be required to pay the odd ‘consultancy’ fee but at least they are leaving enough in the trough to fund improvements.

Leading up to the first elections in 1992, the governing party, MPLA, honestly thought it might lose the elections to UNITA. African politics are such that opposition parties have virtually no funds whatsoever with which to mount an effective opposition campaign. Knowing this, and under cover of a recently declared policy of denationalisation as part of a move from socialism to a free market economy, the government gave party loyalists control of most of the major companies in Angola so that, in the event of defeat, they had their own independent sources of funding. MPLA did scrape a victory but UNITA refused to accept the result. The return to war post 1992 resulted in an imperative to generate the funds necessary to prosecute the war since the end of the cold war also saw the termination of the proxy superpower war and ready supplies of war materiel.

Naturally, these two coincidences made a few people very rich and doing business here over the next decade necessitated some very questionable bedfellows along with the creative accounting that the United States eschews, (but its own lawyers and accountants are experts at circumventing) and which the French, with Gallic shrugs, accepted as part of the field of play.

The end of hostilities with the death of Savimbi in 2002 has allowed the government to gradually swing from the widely acknowledged and criticised opaque war economy to a steadily more transparent peace time economy the benefits of which are tangible. There are those who suggest the government’s investment over recent years were nothing more than a cynical attempt to buy the electorate. I would argue that there are many cheaper ways of buying the vote than building new hospitals, railways and thousands of kilometres of roads. These are long term investments benefiting any party who ends up in power. Faced with literally concrete evidence of the government’s determination to improve the country, journalists typically now resort to ridiculing these efforts by suggesting in print, to quote an example from a recent article, that there is little use in a new hospital if it does not have the qualified staff to run it. Had the correspondent bothered to visit one of these new hospitals, she would have found it staffed by expatriates from Brazil, Portugal, Cuba and even to my surprise, Canada.

My first son was born in 1999 and I made sure I sent his mother to Cape Town to have the baby. My second son was born only a week ago in the Clinica Sagrada Esperanca in Luanda. If, with all my experience and above all means, I am content to allow my second son to be born in an Angolan hospital, then surely that speaks volumes for the improvements that have been made? The big joke here is that I never considered a state hospital for the birth and was blinkered when I chose the country’s most prestigious private hospital and paid well for the privilege. I recently visited the new state hospitals in Luanda, Lubango and Huambo, all of which are free, and was stunned by the standards. I mean, marble bloody floors and all the latest kit including whole body scanners. For free? In UK we have the brightest minds running the government and civil service yet, according to Sky News this morning, the NHS will be bankrupt in four years.

So which country has the brightest prospects?

The UK, the citizens of which are suffering an ever increasing tax burden? A country where food and energy costs are leaping at a rate higher than Angola’s official and far more transparently calculated rate of inflation, and where house prices are plummeting even faster? A country in which government has effectively put a cap on the price of life and where every day new terms to describe the financial woes that beset its habitants are coined? Now a British citizen may not merely be afflicted with ‘negative equity’, his problem will likely be compounded by ‘energy poverty’. I suppose this sounds better than the frank admission that the value of your house does not cover the mortgage and you cannot pay your gas bill let alone fill your car with petrol. Or even tax the bloody thing. A country that has just posted a zero economic growth rate. Unless your name is Alistair Darling, I suspect that no UK politician would be so honest as to admit such gross incompetence to his electorate while at the same time voting himself and his colleagues a pay rise.

So what about Angola? A country the growth rate of which has just been revised upwards from an already unparalleled 23%. A country that has, in the last five years, built more roads, hospitals, railway lines, power stations and schools and connected more people to reliable power and clean water than the UK, the world’s fourth richest economy, has done in the last twenty years? Sure, Angola has its problems and is by no means perfect but don’t forget, the bombs stopped dropping on England sixty-three years ago as opposed to six years ago in Angola.

No wonder Scotland wants to cede from the Union.

The same recent article I referred to earlier suggested that Angolans should vote with their feet, or rather with the lack of their use. A clumsy suggestion; the best way Angolan citizens could protest their mal-afflictions being not to vote at all. What point hard fought for democracy then?

Well the Angolans did vote. And they turned out in numbers that would make a European or US politician bleed with envy. There was none of the violence or intimidation that beset the Kenyan or Zimbabwean polls. None of the blatant rhetoric that accompanies first world politics. Instead, every citizen wasn’t so much encouraged to vote as obliged to. No voter’s registration card meant you could not register a land purchase. You could not register your child for school. If you were not registered, life became more complicated. The government forced democracy on its populace and they responded with alacrity. Every one of the multitude of political parties campaigning, as far as I could tell by hours of mostly boring, sometimes hilarious, party political broadcasts, enjoyed equal exposure on state television and the population were encouraged to ‘vote with their hearts’ and warned that their choice was constitutionally secret.

The opposition parties painted their neighbourhood strongholds in their various colours and put up billboards promising change and a better future. The government quietly erected signs stating simply: so many thousands of kilometres of roads built, so many millions of square metres of land demined, so many new hospital beds and made sure that the new power stations produced and, of course, the face of the benign dictator, the architect of all this progress, stared at his electorate from hoardings, flags and T-shirts and the voters responded.

At first, turn out was slow. People were scared that there would be a repeat of 1992. Then there was confusion. Ballot papers were not delivered on time to some of the thousands of improvised polling stations in schools, hospitals or simple roadside tents. There was no violence so people decided to vote but time was running out. The government ordered the polling stations to stay open late. Then they announced that the polling stations would reopen the following day. The opposition cried foul and demanded a rerun of the Luanda vote. The population said that if Samakuva, the UNITA leader, prevented them from performing their ‘civic duty’, they would kill him. No arguing with that.

MPLA won by a landslide 86%.

The population did vote with their feet and afterwards proudly displayed index fingers blackened by indelible ink. They had exercised their democratic right, in many cases for the very first time, and had voted unanimously for the party that has wrought so much change in the last few years. Yes, you will still hear cynical comments about the ‘Futungo Clique’, the ruling class running Angola like a personal corporation but these Executive Officers seem to be doing a better job of it than most. In five years, they have endowed the country with peace, economic prosperity and above all, hope. There is a long way to go, still many people that need assistance but the general consensus is, those in charge are earning their bonuses and deserve another few years at the helm.

I hope that I and ten million or so other people are right. This is the world into which I bring Alexander and continue to look after Dominic and Marcia.

Wednesday 16 July 2008

I guess I will never learn...

No one would be surprised to learn that children, the essential ingredients of a happy, stable existence are expensive.

I was two weeks late being born. The trees on Unter-den-Linden in Berlin back in 1959 were gently scattering their blossoms across wide pavements in the shade of buildings still scarred by the attention of the allies while my mother laboured with an increasingly fidgety baby who remained stubbornly reluctant to enter the exciting new world awaiting him.

No doubt exasperated by my tardiness, the consultant at the Military Hospital in Spandau advised my parents that a caesarean section and forced expulsion from my residence of the last nine months and disputed few weeks was the only solution. The time of my birth, therefore, was set for 10am the next day.

My father shrugged and pushed off to the Sergeant’s Mess leaving my mother to her rising panic. This was 1959 after all, and the idea of being sliced open and having the child she had nurtured at great physical expense dragged out of her womb by its heels was traumatic to say the least. I can imagine Aniela Gelinsky, my Great Grandmother, who spoke no English and German with a thick Polish accent, spitting on the shadows of the gynaecologists and pointing out that in her day girls gave birth in a barn without complaint and still had to make sure the men were fed at the end of the day. A turn in the fields would do the trick. Nature should take its course, not be hurried by the sacrilegious hands of mere mortals keen to empty a hospital bed space.

With a few litres of Berliner Weisse inside him and well used to the black art of military humour, my father was not about to fall for yet another prank and probably not so politely told the caller attempting to inform the father-to-be that his wife had suddenly gone into hysterical labour to fuck off. He knew his son would be born at 10 am the next morning so he had time for a few more jars and a decent kip before the wondrous event.

I am proud to say that my father was present at my birth, albeit under Military Police escort and bearing the scars of a verbal exchange that had evidently quickly turned physical. He held me briefly in his arms and then did his 28 days. He probably slept better than my mum and mopping jailroom floors and making his own bed was good training for the months to come.

Ever since then, I have always been late. I am famous for it. Years later, following my father’s footsteps, I had the full weight of the Manual of Military law launched at me yet was late for my own hearing. Fools, they should have jailed me as they did my father. At least I would have been forced to turn up on time and saved myself the ire of the Brigadier, a stinging fine and the hangover only self pitying overindulgence the night before in the company of some very sympathetic US and Canadian officers can induce. They, our over-the-pond and unforgivably maligned cousins, were even kind enough to stuff me into my dress uniform and help me start the car after pushing me into it. I am sure suiting me up with my Sam Browne on the wrong way round was a joke rather than because, as their uniforms resemble pressed boiler suits with everything held on with Velcro, they were unfamiliar with the addenda we adorn ourselves daily in the British Army.

Still, the Adjutant was a decent bloke so, with a pitying glance, he sorted me out and gave me a freshmint before pushing me in the direction of my fate. You carry your sword in and success is measured by whether on your way out it is still on your hip or jammed in your chest. I had forgotten mine so I had the Brigadier’s writing implement jammed in my eye. Fortunately, he was considered as dangerously incompetent as I was so he only had wax crayons to hand.

As I said, the Adjutant was a decent bloke.

I have rambled on a bit. I started by pointing out the obvious, kids are expensive, and then I banged on about a hereditary tendency to be late and get into trouble but the two are inextricably linked in the Gowans family.

Everyone recognises that it does cost money to look after a child: food, clothes, school fees and a thousand discarded toys, but no man can be mentally prepared for the costs before birth.

And I am not talking about anything as cheap and reasonable as weekly private medical attention in a city so expensive even Michael Winner would never consider writing a restaurant review here. He couldn’t afford it even if he could get an entry visa.

The house has only recently been built. A few months ago, I accepted that the constant attention of various tradesmen of the building kind, to sort this and that out and just tidy this bit up had sullied the place somewhat so agreed to having it all redecorated again.

Now I am told that the bedroom furniture ‘simply will not do’. Apparently the bed is too small and where will the baby sleep?

In a cot, preferably in any bedroom other than mine I thought surveying a bed big enough for a testosterone laden Prince to land his helicopter, shag the entire neighbourhood and get in a decent bit of rough shooting to boot without having to put a foot on the bedroom floor. It is so big I am amazed that after leopard crawling across a slightly larger version of Salisbury plain dragging a weapon the effectiveness of which has decreased with age and distance and the amount of post prandial whisky I have consumed, I still had the energy to get Marcia pregnant in the first place.

Or maybe it was the gardener. After all, I am away a lot. I’ll find out pretty soon, though.

If it was the driver, I will be really angry. Any fool can drive but it takes a man with real skill to turn desert into Eden. I would sooner look after the gardener’s genes than those of a wannabe Luis Hamilton who has remoulded all the panels of my truck against various gate posts and the bodies of those innocent road users arrogant enough to get in his way.

All the curtains need to be replaced. And the poles. Because the new curtains will have different lengths. That means the old holes will need to be filled which will leave scars that must be painted over. So we might as well do the whole house again. Even the armchair that has served me faithfully all these years is to be consigned to the annex. My armchair!

At least it won’t be lonely. It will be joined by the sofas, my ridiculously small side tables (perfectly acceptable for the demands placed on them: an ashtray and a whisky glass) and, incomprehensibly, my Persian rugs (although the latter might be a ploy for a new vacuum cleaner).

Marcia is determined to ensure Alexander enters a pristine new world. It is costing me a fortune and all I can pray for is that the little sod breaks a family tradition and arrives on time. Only painful labour will stop Marcia’s spending spree.

If he doesn’t, he better be a bloody good gardener.

Tuesday 17 June 2008

A rehash, but also an update...

Not many expatriates can claim to have lived in the same shanty-towns that the impoverished endure. I did, occasionally enjoying town water and electricity, but never at the same time. I had the misfortune to go bust in Angola and faced with a dole queue in UK, decided I would rather tough it out here. I lived in what Angolans refer to as a ‘Cubico’, the colloquial name for the breeze block, wriggly tin covered cubicles that one can rent cheaply in the less trendy and invariably muddier parts of town.

Angola has its problems. Anyone who visits the place will immediately be struck by evidence of squalor and hardship. Go to any African country and more than a few others, and the same is evident. What encourages me about Angola is that things are definitely improving.

The Economist predicts growth of over 21 per cent GDP this year, the highest of any country in the world. The changes wrought in the first years of peace are truly breathtaking. Cynics say this is merely the government trying to win imminent elections to continue their decades long reign but name me a government around the world that has not curried the favour of its electorate with a few well thrown crumbs? Here, they are tossing whole bread rolls and that can only be a good thing for a long suffering population.

In his excellent book, The State of Africa, Martin Meredith argues convincingly that major impediments to development in Africa are weak or non-existent land title laws. In developed countries, we may suffer outrageous taxation but at least we can demonstrate legal ownership of what we have. Or at least the banks can. In Africa it was impossible to register the benefits accrued through years of hard labour.

This means the poor will always be poor. A budding entrepreneur with a spark might create a nascent business but without access to finance, his enterprise will remain just that, a good idea generating enough to survive but not enough surplus capital to turn it into a thriving concern.

That, in Angola at least, is about to change.

It was always possible to gain some sort of tentative grasp on property. Title may have been elusive, all property then owned by the State, but you could buy the ‘Chaves’, the ‘Keys’. So, in spite of socialism, property continued to change hands. If you had enough spare cash, you could persuade the original occupants to find somewhere else to live allowing you to accommodate a growing family.

The trouble was, you could not actually own it. Imagine; billions of dollars of potential wealth rendered worthless.

It was rather like possessing a stolen work of art. Sure, you could enjoy it and nominally it was worth a lot but in reality, as an exchangeable commodity, it was toilet paper. Certainly no bank would accept it as collateral.

Granting legal title allows the entrepreneurial spirit access to finance, the leg up they need to turn their idea and hard work into sustainable reality. It allows the many banks that have set up here in Angola keen to do business to lend, confident that their investments are covered. Empower the emergent middle classes and they will be the driving force of the economy. No longer will the value of land be measured solely in terms of the Cassava or Maize it produces or the cattle that graze on it. It will have a tangible value legally recognised by government and financial institutions. It is the break they have all been waiting for without realising it.

At last, a so-called authoritarian and recently socialist government is taking the lead by granting the people their right: personal security and above all, security of tenure. I hope they stop short of high income tax, capital gains tax and death duty but, at the moment, they are on the right track.

A few days ago I was ordered to present the documentation for my house and land at the local government offices. To my surprise, this was not an attempt to fleece me. I was informed that in accordance with new legislation, all local authorities had to survey their areas and register all property so that legal title can finally be confirmed.

The new property law came into effect in Angola on the 15th of June. The local authorities have until September to register all claims. I discussed this with my neighbours, some of whom have land but until now could not afford to build so live in tin shacks. We are all very excited. It means that those who need to can borrow against their land and build. Some want houses. Others restaurants and shops. A depressed neighbourhood will suddenly become affluent and just think of all that employment.

On paper, we are worth a lot more than a week ago. Imagine how much more wealth will be generated with access to capital. Maybe the Economist should revise its forecast because there are a lot of us that cannot sleep at night. Not through worry, but through unaccustomed anticipation.

Friday 13 June 2008

Testing Tolerance

Pick one to discriminate against...

Two weeks ago, my wife’s thirty year old brother died.

One minute he was bouncing around enjoying life and then 48 hours after feeling a bit poorly he passed through coma and onto death leaving behind a young wife and a two year old daughter.

Naturally, I was away on business and Marcia had to deal with everything herself.

I gave her the support I could, a few sympathetic phone calls and paid for the funeral. Conscience salved I concentrated on work, only marginally interested in the as yet undisclosed cause of such a sudden departure. People here drop dead or get killed all the time. This one was a bit closer to home but I hardly knew the guy and only vaguely recollect an affable individual who had once engaged me in a conversation the details of which I have forgotten.

I have always considered myself free of prejudice. I might have held a few extreme views as a teenager but that was ignorance. Age has a way of tempering attitudes, of eroding the sharp edges of intolerance and besides, is hate really worth the effort?

Racists are insecure. I am areligious, if not irreligious at times and to me, even taking a couple of hours off a week to attend church is an extreme notion, never mind explosive underwear. I am aware of Aids but look at it the same way an airline passenger does the risks of flying. We know we can crash and burn but the chances of it, compared to dying of Malaria in this part of the world for example, are remote. I suppose I thought I was free of prejudice but then again, my convictions had never really been tested.

I was really shocked, therefore, when Marcia phoned me a couple of days ago and told me her brother had been HIV Positive.

Blimey. Aids is something you get if you screw around, were homosexual or a needle swapping drug addict. Normal people didn’t catch it. And especially not your wife’s brother. He had a good job and his wife, widow now, is a bank official. They were normal people building a life for themselves and doing quite well.

Why should the fact his death can now be attributed to Aids, as opposed to some other lethal ailment, make it feel so much closer to home than when I first received the news of his passing?

Before I had time to work out exactly how I felt, the second bombshell dropped.

Marcia took her sister-in-law and two year old niece to a clinic and had them tested. The child tested negative. The young mother was positive.

This was tragic news and even I could appreciate the enormity of it. One minute, a normal life filled with hope for the future, now sudden loss and a death sentence on top. How can you look a child in the eye knowing that having lost her father, and inconsolable to boot, she will inevitably lose her mother as well?

Marcia went on. Now the mother was known to be HIV positive, a stigma had attached to her. Her own family, while sympathetic, was not exactly keen to welcome her back. As far as her husband’s family was concerned, the widow could look after herself. Even though the child is proven HIV negative, no-one is cuddling her anymore. Stigma here is evidently hereditary.

Suddenly I could see where this was going. The child is Marcia’s niece. Marcia could not stand idly by and see her consigned to life’s rubbish tip, the flotsam of human misery washed up on the shores of prejudice. I support two orphanages here so could easily contemplate the child’s desperate future in all its cold, heartless clarity.

I told her, ‘Look Marcia, I understand. One more mouth to feed won’t make any difference, if you want us to take the kid on, I’ll go with that’

‘Two mouths’ says Marcia.

Despite what the less informed may think, and I included myself in this group before the last couple of days of frantic research, Aids is not a death sentence. It is in a way but it isn’t the same as a last cigarette in some forlorn courtyard followed by the firing squad’s bullets thumping into a blind-folded body. Laura is only HIV positive and, since her daughter is negative, one can only assume that infection was recent. She could live for years if not decades. Except that unlike the relatively merciful rapid dispatch by a hail of lead, Laura will not only have to deal with her own fears and understandably volatile emotions, she will have to cope with her expulsion from mainstream society. Imagine looking at your darling baby wondering if you will ever see her grow up? Imagine realising that through no fault of her own, she will never enjoy invitations to fellow classmate's birthday parties? What will happen to her when you are gone? People can be really evil sometimes.

I rang my mother for some advice and she asked, ‘would you drink from the same glass?’ Good question I thought, would I? The thought of living with someone I knew to be HIV positive was disturbing, if not terrifying and really called into question my self professed tolerance, compassion and lack of prejudice.

My Mother advised me not to get involved. She said I had a responsibility to my nine year old son, to Marcia and the soon to be born Alexander. I interpreted this as a Mother’s natural instinct to protect her offspring from any form of danger so will naturally ignore her advice.

Laura and little Cila will come and live with us and I do not care what anyone else thinks. We will not only use the same glass, but the same plates, cups, cutlery and linen. We will sit on the same chairs, relax on the same sofas and swim in the same swimming pool. We will watch the same programmes on the TV and will laugh at the same jokes and if either of them needs a hug, I will give them one.

Laura, sadly, may have a more acute sense of her mortality but in my house, we will all enjoy whatever time we have left.

As a family.

Saturday 31 May 2008

Things are getting better...

I accept that compared with many Angolans who survive from day to day on incomprehensibly small incomes, I enjoy a high standard of living. There are not many expatriates, however, that can claim to have lived in the same shanty towns and Bairros that the impoverished endure. I did for two years, occasionally enjoying town water and electricity, but never simultaneously.

Angola has its problems. Anyone who visits the place will immediately be struck by the squalor and hardship that is the lot of the masses.

Go to any African country, and more than a few other countries, Asian, European or Latin American and the same is evident.

What encourages me about Angola, however, is that things are definitely improving. And having politely declined further assistance from the World Bank and the IMF, the Angolans are doing it by themselves. The Economist predicts growth of over 21 per cent GDP this year, the highest of any country in the world.

Angola endured decades of interference in its internal affairs and suffered years of destructive civil war as a result.

In his excellent book, The State of Africa, Martin Meredith argues convincingly that one of the major impediments to development in Africa is weak or non-existent land title laws.

In developed countries, we may suffer outrageous taxation but at least we can demonstrate legal ownership of what we have. In Africa, for so long, it has been impossible to register the benefits accrued through years of hard labour.

That, in Angola at least, is about to change.

There was a system to register title to property. One inherited from the Portuguese, therefore bureaucratic and exposed to corruption. It was suspended immediately after independence in 1975 as the country toyed with socialism and nationalised everything but, one way or another, it was always possible to gain some sort of tentative grasp on property. You may not have been able to buy title to property, all of it then owned by the State, but you could buy the ‘Chaves’, the ‘Keys’. So, in spite of socialism, property continued to change hands. If you had enough spare cash, you could persuade the original occupants to find somewhere else to live and allow you to accommodate a growing family. The trouble was, you could not actually own it.

Imagine; millions and millions of dollars of potential wealth rendered useless.

It was rather like possessing a stolen work of art. Sure, you got to enjoy it and nominally it was worth a bomb but in reality, as an exchangeable commodity, it was worthless. Certainly no bank would accept it as collateral.

Granting legal title allows the entrepreneurial spirit access to finance, the little leg up they need to be able to look after themselves and have a degree of control over their own destiny. A chance for a better life.

It allows the many banks that have set up here in Angola and are keen to do business to lend, confident that their investments are covered. Empower the emergent middle classes and they will become the driving force of the economy.

And who are these emergent middle classes? Why, the very people who have found a vacant piece of countryside and have toiled to make something of it. No longer will its worth be measured in terms of the value of the cassava or maize it produces or the cattle that graze on it, it will have a tangible value legally recognised by government and financial institutions. It is the break they have all been waiting for without realising it.

For too long countries blessed or blighted (depending on your point of view), with incomparable mineral wealth have ignored the fundamentals, the God given sustainable resources that can be exploited with the sweat of man in favour of quick and invariably filthy lucre.

At last, a so called authoritarian and recently socialist government is taking the lead by granting the people what is theirs: personal security and above all, security of tenure.

The new property law comes into effect in Angola on the 15th of June.

Maybe the Economist should revise its growth forecast as there are thousands of bright minds and hard working individuals ready to go.

Thursday 8 May 2008

Wash day in Lubango

Every day as I drive to the site I pass these women busy doing their washing in a well by the side of the road.

Called M'Huilas, they are traditional to Huila Province, Angola.

I am told that the number of rings around the ankle denote the number of cattle each individual owns. Sadly, friendly as they are, I cannot talk to them for they do not speak Portuguese and I do not speak their tribal language.

The best part, however, was that when I offered to take their picture, rather than rush for bras and T-shirts, they all stuffed a rag on their heads. Only then would they allow me to take the photo.