Antea in a country of contrasts
What are the fears and expectations and initial impressions of a volunteer travelling from Europe to Angola for the first time? “I often say that I’ve had the luck of belonging to a generation that’s been able to benefit from the European Union’s youth programmes. Thanks to these initiatives, I’ve been provided with amazing experiences in Europe and now I’m taking part in a field I’ve always wanted to work in.” Meet Antea Gomes from Portugal. Helping with Logistics Support and Capacity-Building for an Angolan team, Antea served for a year as an EU Aid Volunteer on People in Need’s Angola country programme. This is her story.
This is actually happening!
Peering through the window from the central aisle, I try to catch my first glimpse of Luanda. And although I’m able to see nothing more than red soil, the sight alone is enough to feel the butterflies in my stomach. This is actually happening! Getting off the plane, I’m hit by an intense mass of hot, humid air. The first thing my sleep-deprived brain can think of is, “How are people supposed to breathe normally here?” But being so tired, all my nervousness about travelling to Angola on my own soon fades away.
I’m brought to Kuito, where I’m introduced to the local team at one of its weekly staff meetings. Needless to say, I’m a little anxious. It’s a mixture of the good anxiety that puts a smile on your face – the kind that says to the world, “This is where I want to be” – and the bad anxiety that makes you speak too fast during your presentation. Something all the more trying for this group of people who, despite sharing the same language, aren’t used to my harsh Euro-Portuguese accent.
A country of contrasts
The province of Bié and its capital Kuito, where I was based, was one of the areas most affected by Angola’s 27-year civil war. Walking through the streets of what is now a quiet city, it’s sometimes hard to imagine Kuito as a war zone. But the bullet marks still visible in some of its heavily damaged buildings are a telling reminder of its bloody past. In wartime, the city was divided by the main road into two zones, each controlled by one of the two opposing militant parties. Since the supply of food would vary in each zone, during the hours or days of truce people from the different zones – often members of the same family – would meet to exchange food and eat together.
The war ended 16 years ago. Many international non-governmental organisations (INGOs) have left the country over recent years, mainly due to the country’s economic growth but also as a result of donor fatigue. Fortunately, some INGOs have remained, with local organisations mobilising to meet the needs of the population in several areas. Being able to contribute to their work is something that gives me a personal sense of fulfilment.
Angola is commonly portrayed as a country of contrasts. Indeed, some are so extreme that I’ve often had to learn to shield myself from normalising what should never be normalised. But it’s also a country that teaches you about the value of family – the large kind, with loads of cousins, aunties and uncles! I’ve experienced the unique character of the Angolans through their joy of dance and in the sweet conversations I’ve had with odd ladies in supermarket aisles over some flour or spice.
Getting to know myself
This year has been a true learning process. Firstly, as clichéd as it might sound, I’ve learned about myself. I’ve discovered that although I can live with less than I thought possible, I still miss certain things; also, that living abroad is a constant fight between what you want to do and missing the people you love. Second, it’s taught me about international development; particularly, how each country deserves to carve out its own path, to move in tune to its own rhythm of development, and that in many instances the priorities of the West have yet to co-align with those of Africa.
Every time I arrive at Luanda Airport, I remember how different everything is now. Since serving as an EU Aid Volunteer, I’ve taken up a new role as a Monitoring and Evaluation Officer with my hosting organisation People in Need. So, today, although I have the comfort of familiarity, there’s always the feeling that my heart will be forever divided.