Rich in Oil and Diamonds, Is Luanda Africa's Dubai?

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.

Angola's Fast Growing Economy

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.

Amazingly, however, through all these changes, Angola's President Jose Eduardo dos Santos has clung on to power for 29 years after running for election once.

It is hard to stomach the fact that a country that is so wealthy in oil and diamonds and is one of the fastest-growing economies in the world can still have people living in such dreadful conditions and on an average of less than $2 as day, and the wealth just isn't trickling down from the elite. Some of it reportedly is being siphoned off: According to the International Monetary Fund, more than $4 billion in oil receipts have disappeared from Angola's treasury in the last decade.

Even if you are intrigued, I wouldn't recommend going to Angola for a holiday anytime soon, because, surprisingly, Angola is one of the most expensive countries for a foreigner to visit. The hotel we stayed in, which was not one of the famous international chains, cost $380 a night. Our buffet lunch at the hotel cost a fixed $79, and a large bottle of water cost $8. It wasn't much better if you left the hotel though. A meal for four people by the sea in an open Angolan "Buddha-bar-style" disco restaurant cost $300.

Other hotels that cater to foreign visitors cost just as much. Even more surprising is they are all full all the time, so you have to book at least two months in advance. We were told that renting a 300-square-foot apartment costs about $12,000 a month, add a garden and you're up to $36,000 a month, with daily water rationing and frequent power cuts included.

I couldn't work out who the other people staying in our hotel were; they could have been traders, builders, investors or contractors. Most of them lounged about looking bored as they spent their Sunday at the hotel bar eating hamburgers and drinking beer, or by the pool with their cell phones constantly within reach. Aside from the press traveling with the pope, only a few foreign reporters came to Angola to cover the trip. Journalists rarely make it to Angola these days. Not many news organizations can afford to send reporters there and though cell phones work, Internet connections are very poor, making reporting difficult.

Angolan authorities aren't particularly friendly to journalists, either. We got a taste of their kind of welcome when we went through a lengthy security check to get into the presidential palace for the pope's speech to Angolan political leaders and international diplomats, including the U.S. ambassador.

Pope's Visit to Angola

We were led through the palace and back outside and left standing in front of the building for almost three hours while inside the pope made the most politically important speech of his whole trip! A few members of the well-trained Angolan press looked as if they were going to weep for missing the story they were sent to cover, while the Vatican press corps got increasingly irate in the torrid heat. Our various vocal protests were totally disregarded or rebuffed. We were told nobody had been informed that we were meant to be admitted. The Vatican insisted that everyone had been informed and lodged an official complaint.

Most of the Angolans I spoke to throughout our visit seemed to be disturbingly afraid of something, and wary. They don't seem to trust authorities or the police. "There's not much freedom of press here," I was told in a hushed voice by a local at a ceremony, "but best you not write that."

In Cameroon, the first stop on the pope's African trip, he was greeted with people dancing and singing, but the Angolans welcomed him in a different way. They cheered and engulfed him chaotically as he drove by wherever he went. As he left the airport on the day he arrived, his motorcade was suddenly surrounded by a swarm of cheering Angolans, many of whom ran alongside the pope mobile for miles as he drove past the crowds lining the route to the city center.

This is the second papal visit to Angola. Pope John Paul II visited in 1992 and traveled around the country for six days. Although statistics conflict, according to the Catholic Church, about 57 percent of the population of Angola is Catholic, one of the highest percentages in Africa. A former Portuguese colony before it became independent in 1975, it was evangelized by missionaries more than 500 years ago, and it is apparent that Catholicism has deep roots here now. The night we arrived, the street outside our hotel was blocked for almost an hour by a procession of thousands of people -- mostly women -- singing prayers and carrying candles as they walked to a prayer vigil that was held in a nearby church.

The 81-year-old pontiff, who stood up to the more than 90-degree temperatures in Luanda amazingly well, seemed genuinely moved by the warm response.

He ended his visit to Angola with a special meeting with women in a church in Hoji-ya-henda, a densely populated area on the outskirts of Luanda. A few Pope Benedict posters had been taped crookedly onto the walls along the dirt road that led to the simple, recently painted church that included a primary school and small infirmary complex.

People perched dangerously on walls and on top of trucks to get a glimpse of the pope arriving. Riot police dressed in black uniforms with helmets and shields stood about, along with policemen with dogs, and soldiers walked along the edge of the crowds in the sweltering heat. Crowd control consisted of a line of young scouts in uniform holding hands along the front of the gathering. They were used throughout the visit for this purpose.

Women and The Catholic Church

A large, dignified crowd of Angolan women from various women's associations awaited the pope in front of the church. You could distinguish women from the different associations by the pattern of cloth they wore. Most belonged to the largest Angolan association for the promotion of women called Promaica, which has 71,000 members in Africa and is linked to the Catholic Church.

"The women are the true strength of this country," Sister Marlise Heckler, a Brazilian nun who has been working in Angola for 10 years now, told me. "There are many more women than men in Angola because so many men lost their lives in the war, and they have to put this country back together again." When I asked a group of women in the church what were the biggest problems for women in their country, they immediately said "domestic violence" and then added unemployment, hunger and illiteracy.

In his formal way, the pope tried to address their problems. But as he did throughout the trip, he spoke more about the Gospel than about their specific problems. He did stress, though, that discrimination against women "forms no part of God's plan."

I never got a chance to ask the women what they thought of the pope's words. They all listened in silence when he spoke: Some seemed awed, others seemed bored. We were whisked out of the church to our buses as soon as the pope left, but the women were still singing and waving the photos of Pope Benedict they'd been given as we pulled away.