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.