It's hard to get your head around Angola's capital city, Luanda, on a short trip, especially when traveling with the pope.
We travel in bus motorcades that hurtle along the bumpy streets well in advance of the pope, and we glean what little we can through the window as we race by. Sometimes we can snatch brief conversations with local people and get a chance to look around while waiting for the pope to arrive at a ceremony, but there is usually very little time to walk about the city like real tourists.
At first glance, Luanda looks like an immense construction site, tall, modern buildings going up everywhere among the old, abandoned, low Portuguese-colonial style houses and the overpopulated, ugly Soviet-style tower blocks.
Some of the old buildings have been spruced up, but these are all ministries or official buildings. Socialist-style statues of the country's past heroes stand surrounded by the busy building sites and towered over by the skyscrapers.
The streets are littered with piles of trash while water and what looks and often smells like sewers flow along the badly kept roads. Water pours from the buildings above, too, as you walk along the pavement and have to dart to avoid it falling on your head. You hope that the water is from the ancient air-conditioning units that are plastered on every house facade and not from something more unsavory.
Luanda is striving to be Africa's Dubai and looks like it is in a rush to get there. All the roads are filled puzzlingly with huge sparkling new SUVs and fancy cars driven by Angolans and foreigners alike, and there seem to be newly opened banks -- none that I've ever heard of -- on every street downtown. A young boy raced a bright new motorcycle along the seafront where the palms, now all stunted spindly trunks, are planted in a row along what is meant to be a promenade.
Some people are definitely on the make here; one forgets that Angola is the second-largest petroleum and diamond producer in sub-Saharan Africa. The Chinese won most of the lucrative rebuilding projects after the war. Some say Angola is now China's biggest supplier of oil, but most of the profitable business is currently in the hands of the Portuguese, Brazilians and the Dutch.
The city has had a massive population boom with people flocking here from the countryside; the number of declared residents went from 800,000 just a few years ago to 6 million in 2008. The city is now made up of pockets of wealth and poverty; the poorest live in the crowded slum of Rocque Santeiro while thousands also live surrounded by garbage in the Lixeira area.
One has to remember that Angolans have only lived in peace for the past seven years after suffering through 27 years of a bloody civil war between the government and U.S.-backed rebel forces. The result was 500,000 people killed and 80,000 maimed, the country's infrastructure totally destroyed and the country peppered with land mines. Today, 48 percent of Angolans are unemployed and 60 percent of the homes lack water and electricity. The country still has the second-highest rate of infant mortality in the world and a third of the children under the age of 5 die.
There are signs that the country is slowly starting to pick itself up after the war; some Angolans have returned to farming, but the country still has to buy all its food from abroad.