Monday, October 16, 2006

Cabinda

I recently spent a few days on a reconnaissance trip to Cabinda, a small enclave of Angola that supplies a lot of oil to the western world. I was actually there in order to try to cross into a remote part of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) but never actually made the border crossing. But Cabinda is an interesting place so a few pictures have been posted to Flickr.

What comes across is that this country, which recently (~2002) ended a 30 year long civil war, has a long way to go to catch up. A major part of the problem has to be the large number of land mines that remain concealed around the country. Mine clearance is not something that seems to have a high priority and even the knowledge of where mines may be is not always remembered with candid honesty.

I traveled with an interesting character, Nick, who is a mine clearance expert. Much of the work involves talking to local people about where mine fields were established during the war. The mines are then either cleared or flagged. The latter does not appear to be a long term solution as the signs and tapes are often removed by villagers who may simply be ashamed that the mine fields still exist. Mine fields are not that common in Cabinda but of course it only takes one.

By design a typical land mine only maims, it does not kill. So it is no surprise to see a lot of people in Angola with injuries and the capital, Luanda, has many street beggars with missing limbs. There are fewer casualties visible in Cabinda so it is possible that there were fewer land mines laid here. Typical locations for mine fields include around a village meeting place (often a shade tree), along the fences around government installations and military bases, and at road junctions.

The challenge today is to get the economy back on its feet. Angola is a major oil producer offshore but there remains some potential onshore as well, so mine clearance is a priority, particularly when starting new exploration seismic surveys. Unlike in neighboring Congo (that's the old French Congo, not DRC) Cabinda shows little sign of prosperity despite the oil wealth. Farms and smallholdings seem to flourish in the Congo, I never saw a vegetable plot in Cabinda. Fish seem to be the only locally supplied foodstuff. In the countryside the wildlife has largely been hunted into extinction and the jungle can be eerily quiet with just a few birds audible in the trees. I was told that the locals will kill and eat "anything". We came across one party of undernourished hunters but they had nothing to show for a morning's work.

The locals often have a hard time understanding foreigners and their ways. One example is that, under Health and Safety rules, locals cannot be given lifts in company vehicles even though this is a time-honored way for villagers to hitch a ride to town. This does create a "them and us" mentality but even so the people are often more than friendly. At one small town we were feted with cold beer by the "mayor" and local military commander in a gesture of friendship that also carried the notion that jobs and other economic benefits were available should we start work in the area.

Cabinda seems to be neglected by just about everyone. The NGOs and charities that seem to be everywhere in Africa were missing. Schools have been built but many are not open as there are few teachers. Those that are making it in society have little respect for those who haven't (i.e. it's strange how drivers speed up through a village, just to show off their job, skills and new found position).

It will be interesting to see how quickly things change (or not). I was constantly reminded of an earlier entry about Africa.