Angola-US relations hurdle

November 18, 2010 1 comment

Angola’s US bank accounts have been frozen.  And this could lead to a very sticky situation if not resolved soon.  It will be interesting to see how the US responds — or how Angola will retaliate.

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November 17, 2010 Leave a comment

I just got back from a 3-week trip to the US to visit friends and family.  I came back feeling refreshed, happy, worry-free, and have a positive attitude towards my remaining time in Angola.  I haven’t seen this me in months.

One of my objectives for this past year, and for this blog, was to highlight the positive stories about my time here.  There is just way too much negativity already written about Africa, the world really doesn’t need another blog to cast it further into darkness.  Besides, if I wrote about the positive stories, not only would I be helping Africa with its image problem, but maybe it would also help me to remain positive.  I have not  been the most prolific writer.  Over the past few months I found myself asking, “but what could I possibly write about without being negative?”  So I remained silent.

But for the time being, I’m happy.  I just want to set my sights ahead and forget about the last several months.  When the plane descended into Luanda over the miles of musseques (shanties) as far as the eye can see, I didn’t feel the usual pang of dread that accompanies my return to Luanda.  When I got log-jammed in traffic just seconds after leaving the airport, making it impossible to ignore the crowded sidewalk life and heaps of rubble and trash on the side of the dusty roads, I didn’t feel the world closing in on me like I have before.  As it turns out, 3 weeks is long enough to feel like I haven’t been here in a while.  To even….miss it.  I can’t afford to feel irritated by daily living — I don’t want to lose myself to negativity again.

A good book (and a flashlight for when it gets too dark to read), and I hardly notice the 1 hour commute it takes to go to/from work each day — all told probably only 2-3 miles away!  I’ve been back a week now and I’m keeping it simple — sticking to the things that make me happy, making light of possibly negative situations.

I think as my organization continues to wait through its transition, my honest smile and light-heartedness may be one of the few things that may uplift my colleagues’ spirits each day.  And for me, I just need to keep my eyes on the prize.

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Cultural Dilemma

August 5, 2010 2 comments

Several weeks ago, I was put in my place. After an impromptu, informal brainstorming session with my 2 managers (one American, the other Angolan) – literally, think 3 chairs crowded around a desk with ideas flowing from every direction – I was pulled aside by my Angolan boss who told me that I needed to stop talking out of turn. Apparently, I answered a question before he did and it really pissed him off that I made him look bad in front of our other boss. Apparently, I piss him off a lot.

Yes, yes, we learned all about this in our cultural dimensions discussions at Thunderbird. African (and most Latin) cultures tend to be extremely hierarchical. Respect is given to seniority, and I, being the most junior person of the three, should respect the authority figures. Of course, this situation wasn’t exactly clear cut. In a hierarchical society, there would be no such thing as a brainstorming session (clearly an idea imported by the American manager). The Director would give detailed directions to his inferiors, who would then be expected to carry out the tasks without questioning authority or adding value to the process. The junior member certainly wouldn’t be part of the decision-making process or strategy setting. The truth is, my organization is implemented by American managers, using standard American management practices, and is employed by young, eager to learn Angolans. I think that most of the Angolan employees find it refreshing to be part of a collaborative environment where they are asked to be involved in coming up with ideas to improve the way we do things. So, you can imagine my surprise when after 9 months of freely participating in meetings and sharing my opinions among a flat organizational structure, I was told that I was being disrespectful to my manager by not giving him a chance to answer questions first — while brainstorming!

To fully appreciate the irony of this situation would involve knowing a little about where I’ve come from. I grew up in an extremely hierarchical family structure, so neither the ideas nor the practice are foreign to me. I was taught to be obedient, respect authority and speak only when spoken to; and I carried this with me throughout my schooling and into my first job. It was while working that I realized that the cultural norms I grew up with (my parents are both immigrants) differed greatly among my American peers who seemed much more at ease with authority. They asked for (and received) things I would never dream of asking. They asked insightful questions and voiced their opinions in meetings with managers 3 levels above them. I, on the other hand, sat quietly, took notes, and did my job…very well, I might add. Only speaking up when someone asked me what I thought. During most of my early career, all of my managers consistently gave me the same review: “You’re one of our best performers. You have great ideas and initiative. SPEAK UP!!”

It wasn’t really until business school that I truly got over my fear of voicing my opinion to authority figures. I would challenge myself to participate at least once in each class discussion. It was a little frightening at first to overcome whatever mental barrier I had put up, but after 2 years and countless case discussions, I emerged confident in my own abilities and opinions. I am proud of myself. I no longer am a passive, subservient little girl, but rather someone who offers up ideas, sizes up situations, and communicates an action plan without needing to wait to be asked.

So here I am in Angola, now being asked by authority to return to my old self, to a self I don’t think I can return to. In business school we learn that good international managers adapt their management styles to the cultural norms of their host country, careful not to inadvertently offend or disrespect the colleagues they are trying to lead and influence. So the big question is: In adapting to the hierarchical structure and being mindful not to disrespect my manager, am I actually undoing my own progress and disrespecting myself? That is something I simply cannot do.

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As Zungueiras

March 8, 2010 1 comment

“Quem não anda na zunga, não come.” — Maria Monte

[“She who doesn’t walk continuously in motion, doesn’t eat.”]

The streets of Luanda are filled with action and continuous motion – people moving about their day, children playing, dogs scavenging and zungueiras selling their wares.   In Luanda, the zungueiras are a part of the scenery; they are a part of everyone’s lives.  Zungueiras come from all the provinces, every part of Angola, to Luanda in order to make a better life.  When they get here, they often have to start from scratch – carrying a load on their heads in brightly colored buckets, usually with a small child strapped on their back.  This is the hardship of the zungueira.  They form the base of the informal market.

The zungueira sets up shop on a favorite street corner – a smattering of blues, greens and yellows selling sumptuously ripe mangoes, avocados, bananas, tomatoes, cilantro.  They call out to you, “moça, moça” and try to entice you with their wares.  But they never stay in one place for too long for that would harness complacency and the zungueiras are anything but complacent.  Day in and day out, rain or shine, the zungueira is walking the streets with a load on her head.  Is it kitchen bowls, shoes, school supplies you want?  A zungueira is selling it.  Fresh ice cream?  Yes, a zungueira will scoop some for you.

With zungueiras, you must buy right away if you see something you like.  They rarely bargain.  They all charge the same price anyways.  You don’t know if you will see the lady selling that amazing piece of African fabric tomorrow.  If you ask her if she will be there the next day, she will just answer yes, she will be somewhere in this vicinity.  Sometimes you can’t even count that they will be there in a few hours.  A favorite spot, under the shade of a building’s awning, might attract 10 different zungueiras to set up shop, but when you walk by again after lunch, only their scatterings remain.

Zunga derives from Kimbundu, a local Angolan language, meaning continuous motion.  It is no wonder then that these ladies who struggle for their existence should be dubbed zungueiras.  They are the true fighters of our times.  The true heroes who work tirelessly, thanklessly.

Today is International Women’s Day, a national holiday in Angola.  I would like to dedicate it to the zungueiras.

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CAN 2010

January 24, 2010 Leave a comment

Here in Angola the atmosphere is full of excitement.  Later today, the Angolan national soccer team will play Ghana in the quarter-finals of the African Cup of Nations (CAN).  If Angola wins tonight, there is a pretty good chance that the President will declare tomorrow a national holiday.  There’s also a pretty good chance that I won’t be able to sleep tonight.  If the previous celebrations that occurred outside of my window in the populous bairro of Cassenda can serve as any indication, there will be plenty of loud music blaring, horns blowing, people banging on tin or metal surfaces and kids and adults alike singing and chanting at the top of their lungs. All night long.  It’s not totally off the mark to think that Angola will win considering that Ghana sent its third-string soccer team to the tournament, keeping their more talented and valuable players fresh and ready for the slightly more important soccer tournament that will take place in South Africa later this year.

But for now, Angola is enjoying its moment.  Everyone is wearing Angola t-shirts, hats and scarves.  Angolan flags wave from every other car.  For the last game, the President declared a half-day of work so that everyone could make it to watch the game on time (it started at 5pm, but with Luanda traffic, people sat between 2-3 hours in their car to get to the stadium.)  Luckily, I decided to continue working till about 3pm and missed all of the traffic.

Angolans are so proud to be hosting this tournament.  It’s their debut to the world that Angola, one of the fastest growing economies in the world, has turned a new leaf and is enjoying the fruits of their natural resources.  Unfortunately, the world (at least the part of the world that is paying attention) is coming away with a different picture.  The games kicked off with a tragic incident in the northern region of Cabinda by a separatist group hungry for media attention.   The group misfired and instead of hitting the Angolan escorts they were aiming for, their gunfire fell on a bus carrying the entire Togo national football team.  Two men were fatally injured and Togo opted to return back home and not play in the games.  Here in Luanda, the city has been preparing for CAN since before I arrived.  New high-rise hotels built to accommodate the influx of tourists for the games have been popping up everywhere.   But there are no tourists and most of the hotels are still not finished.  Journalists and soccer teams were told they would be given visas upon arrival at the airport, but regular tourists still had to go through the normal process of applying for a visa – meaning theirs should be approved about a month or 2 after CAN is over.  It wouldn’t have mattered anyway, even most journalists can’t entirely afford to pay $400+/night to stay in a hotel in Luanda – the most expensive city in the world, especially those coming from other African countries.

As for me, this is all part of the experience.  And of course, I don’t want Ghana to spoil the party.  I will be heading out now to watch the game at a friend’s place.  Forca Palancas Negras!

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Bela Angola

January 7, 2010 1 comment

When I received the offer to go to Angola, the first place I went was the travel section at Barnes & Noble. There’s nothing like glossy, colorful pictures of beautiful places and cultural sites to quell my fears and give me that first sense of excitement that I usually get when traveling to new and unknown territory. But I didn’t find a guidebook on Angola. It took me a few minutes to realize it wasn’t there. Maybe someone had perused it and forgotten to put it back in alphabetical order on the Africa shelf. There was a guidebook on Sudan, but not one for Angola? I didn’t even find an honorable mention in the travel book on Southern Africa – not even a few pages to inform the reader that Angola was also a country in Southern Africa. When I finally did find a few pages in the huge Sub-Saharan Africa guidebook, it wasn’t flattering. It basically said: travel at your own risk.

I was going to devote this blog entry to how the guidebooks had it all wrong. But the more I’ve thought about it, the more I realize that the “average” tourist may find the conditions unfit for their traveling tastes (note the distinction between traveler and tourist). Surely, they would all come back to their home country with stories of the wild and crazy adventures and near-death experiences in Angola. And they would be right of course. There are the inconveniences (sections of unpaved, pot-holed roads; few bathrooms, hotels or restaurants on the way) and the real dangers (landmines, high rate of car accidents, car trouble – you know, like wheels coming off, electrical fires under the hood, 4x4s sliding down an embankment). That’s what makes traveling in Angola that much more exciting. You just never know what’s going to happen. I have the benefit of traveling with people who know the land and who travel prepared (fire extinguishers, tow ropes, first-aid kits, etc.). They know where to go, and more importantly, where not to go.

Angola has a lot to offer in terms of untouched, breathtaking, natural beauty. What is even more wonderful about them is that there aren’t ANY signs of tourism. When traveling in Angola, you truly are at your own risk. But with any risk, the prepared know how to hedge their bets and enjoy great rewards.

Below are a few pictures from various places around Angola.  And lastly, I am posting a new link to my blog page on Luanda night life (on the sidebar to the right). There are lots of great pictures of bars and restaurants for those who are interested in seeing a few pictures of Luanda.

(The Leba Pass – the road between Lubango and Namibe;  Arco – an oais in the middle of the Namibe desert; Cristo Rei overlooking the city of Lubango; and, Tundavala)

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‘Tis the Season

December 29, 2009 Leave a comment

December 28, 2009

This year I decided to stay in Angola for the holidays. It was the first time I’ve been away from my family during Christmastime. Spending Christmas in the Southern Hemisphere, where December is hot and balmy, makes you forget that the holiday season is upon us. There are no boughs of holly, no winter wonderland, no impressive window displays and this year my good cheer was replaced with hitting the “3 month wall.”

As many expats will testify, the phenomenon referred to as “culture shock” sometimes gets the best of us. Culture shock is technically defined as “anxiety and feelings of surprise, disorientation, uncertainty and confusion felt when operating in a different and unknown cultural or social environment.” It is brought on by not being familiar with local customs and norms, not understanding the local language and possibly not enjoying the local cuisine. When someone (my boss) first mentioned that I was going through culture shock, my first thought was that he was sorely mistaken. I love learning about and experiencing aspects of different cultures. I’ve lived abroad in a culture that to me felt more foreign than the culture in Angola. I’m a T-bird, for goodness’ sake! But, perhaps there may be some merit to this argument. The “honeymoon period” is over (see diagram below), and I am now dealing with adjusting to the realities of daily life. In truth, the smallest things build up and something as silly as my car service screwing up once again or frustrating as another week at the office where work doesn’t get done because the Internet only works for 1 ½ hours a day all compound on top of each other. I have had my share of screw-ups as well. I have offended co-workers by not greeting each one personally in the morning, followed by an inquiry of how their weekend or night was. A blanket “Bom dia colegas” at 7:30am before I’ve had the chance to drink my morning coffee and wake up is very American of me, and therefore……rude. The same is true of not personally saying good-bye and giving beijinhos (2 kisses on the cheek) to each and every person in a group before leaving. I’m learning through my mistakes. It only takes 1 time for someone to point out my mistake for me not to do it again. I’m sure there are many more things I’ve done or will do that seem perfectly normal to me, but will be viewed as offensive to others.

But what has taken the biggest toll on me is the separation from people who know me and know what is important to me – my friends and family, my support network. Of course it takes time to form real friendships in any new place. And of course, I know that I will make friends here. The truth is that as independent and adventurous as I may be, I need strong friendships and relationships to support me. This has always been true – whether in Angola or the US.

This year may not have felt like Christmas, but it wasn’t the lack of decked-out Christmas trees or “Santa Baby” blaring from the loud-speakers that were missing. I truly missed not being with my family and partaking in family traditions. It didn’t help that my 3-month honeymoon period expired right before the holidays. I don’t want anyone out there to feel sorry for me (apparently, people really do read my blogs!!). While my Christmas Eve left much to be desired for, I had a very, very nice Christmas Day with friends in Luanda. There was a warm glow coming from the Christmas tree lights and a feeling that we are all in this together.

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