Blogging Angola: Luanda, Memory and Presence

The past hangs over Luanda like the humid air.  The hulking Portuguese fort that looms over the harbor and the Parliament building a constant reminder of the colonial era.  Also dominating the skyline is the memorial to Angola’s first president, Dr. Agostinho Neto who led the ruling MPLA party during the liberation war and for the first four years of independence.  The second and current president, Jose Eduardo dos Santos, has ruled Angola for eight times as long as his predecessor, but it is Neto’s visage which stares down at you, the way that Lenin, Mao and Ho Chi Minh dominate the iconography of their countries.


Memories are malleable and in Angola, the narrative presented by the two public buildings I visited – the aforementioned fort and memorial – creates an Angola that has overcome colonization, achieved peace, and developed into a global presence thanks to petroleum reserves and national determination.  The exhibits I saw were long on artifacts and photos and very spare in context or explanation.  Tour guides provide much of the context, but the language barrier left me to my own interpretations which are what follow.  The Portuguese fort has been re-purposed as the museum of war and focuses on the forty years of conflict that begun with the liberation war in 1961 and continued with the civil war until its conclusion in 2002.  The liberation war story is relatively straightforward, but also presented as part of the long continuum of struggle by Angolans against Portuguese rule.  There are hallways which show the weapons of centuries past and the development from musketry to machine guns and a very brief nod to the historic queen whose defiance of the Portuguese led to brutal reprisals.  The Portuguese cannon placements, facing inland rather than towards the sea, show where the colonial rulers feared the threat lay to their control.  The liberation war also created Neto as the national hero.

Photo 1 NETO

From the museum at the Portuguese fort, Neto leading troops during the liberation war.

The civil war, which started even before Angola’s independence, was a proxy war, part of the “hot war” that was the Cold War with South Africans, Cubans, Zaireans and Namibians participating, strengthened by the financial and military support of the United States and the Soviet Union.  The museum simplifies the narrative as a continuation of the colonial struggle pitting Angola against the Apartheid regime of South Africa, thus reducing the stigma against UNITA and allowing for reconstruction and reconciliation.

Photo 2 Battle of Cuito

The Battle of Cuito Cuanavale. Angolan troops are in the foreground fighting off the South Africans.

The artifacts of the civil war include pieces of a South African jet shot down during the pivotal battle of Cuito Cuanavale and a napalm shell attributed to both Portugal and the South Africans.

Photo 3 SAA Nosecone

Nose cone from a French-made mirage jet, flown by South Africans and shot down by Angolans during the Battle of Cuito Cuanavale.

Photo 4 SAA tail section

Tail section of a French-made Mirage jet (not sure if it is from the same jet as the nose cone), also flown by South Africans and shot down over Cuito Cuanavale.

Photo 5 Napalm shell

Napalm shell used by Portuguese forces and “racist” South Africans.

The use of landmines during the wars received very little attention in the museum, a fact that somewhat surprised me.  I am certainly biased on the subject, but I expected with all of the other weaponry on show that at least a representative sample of the dozens of landmines used in Angola’s wars would be in the exhibit.  Instead, there was just a single mine, lacking in any markings or distinguishing features.  Its provenance is unknown.  I am sure there are many examples of Portuguese or South African mines that could have been included, but the exhibitors chose this one.

Photo 6 Magnetic Mine

Only landmine to be found in the museum of war. No markings, no sign of origin.

Speaking of landmines, yesterday was a strategy and planning meeting for Angola’s mine action sector.  With more than forty participants including the national demining commission, CNIDAH; the national demining institute, INAD; national operators, APACOMINAS and Terra Mãe; international operators, Norwegian Peoples Aid, the HALO Trust and MAG; the Geneva International Center for Humanitarian Demining; and the US State Department.  I was told by those present that the meeting was positive and should set the framework for a mine-free (or landmine impact-free in State Department parlance) Angola by 2025.  Landmine clearance started in Angola in the early 1990s and was interrupted by the resurgence of the civil war in the mid-90s until the conclusion of the war in 2002.  Over the last decade much progress has been made, but we are at a critical point.  The international operators are all being forced to reduce staff due to a decline in funding: HALO has withdrawn from Bie province, DanChurchAid has completely withdrawn and MAG has shrunk from its peak staffing.  And peak staffing and capacity is what is needed to complete landmine clearance in Angola.  The size of the country and the scale of contamination means that if the international operators could function at double their peak capacity, Angola’s landmines would be eliminated by the target date of 2025.  That means more than doubling the investment currently coming in to the country.  Yesterday’s meetings should empower CNIDAH to take the lead on planning and deploying national and international clearance assets, but CNIDAH will also need to clearly communicate to the donor community about the need and potential.  The planned US-Norway summit on humanitarian mine clearance, scheduled as part of the United Nations General Assembly meetings are an ideal opportunity to make that case.


In addition to demining, Angola’s mine action strategy must include victim assistance.

In the Neto memorial there was a poster exhibit from Fundacao Lwini, a national organization that works on behalf of landmine victims and persons with disabilities. Angola’s First Lady, Ana Paula dos Santos was inspired by Princess Diana’s visit to Angola in January 1997 in which Diana met with landmine survivors at an orthopedic center in Huambo and dos Santos established Fundacao Lwini in 1998 to carry on the work that Diana championed.

Photo 8 Lwini and Diana

Princess Diana’s 1997 visit to Angola inspired the creation of Fundacao Lwini the following year.

The posters included photos from the OK Prosthetics missions to Angola in 2013, 2014 and 2015 under the Passo Seguro project.

Photo 9 Passo Seguro

Photo display of Fundacao Lwini’s Passo Seguro project which partnered with Iceland’s OK Prosthetics to deliver prosthetic limbs to Angolan landmine survivors and amputees.

OK Prosthetics is an Icelandic company founded by the same man who started the Ossur company, one of the leading producers of prosthetics (including the Cheetah legs used by Paralympic runners).  OK Prosthetics focuses on low income countries to make high quality prosthetics available.  As a comparison, on the left is a locally-made artisanal prosthetic from southern Angola and on the left is model produced by OK Prosthetics.

Photo 10 Prosthetics

The striking disparity between locally-made prosthetics and foreign-made ones.

The Passo Seguro project clearly benefitted many Angolans in need of proper prosthetics, but I have some concerns that I hope to share with the Lwini Foundation during my trip: Is it possible for Angola to produce orthopedic devices of the same quality as those made by OK Prosthetics?  How would one repair an OK Prosthetic should the need arise?  Landmine survivors and amputees often need more than orthopedic devices and prosthetics to fully participate in society: how does the Passo Seguro project contribute to other Fundacao Lwini initiatives?


Next stop is Malanje, a few hundred kilometers inland where Norwegian People’s Aid and APOPO are working.

Michael P. Moore

June 19, 2016

Moe (at) landminesinafrica (dot) org

2 Comments on “Blogging Angola: Luanda, Memory and Presence”

  1. Mike Kendellen says:

    If you get to Moxico be sure to visit the old Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation prosthetic workshop that started in 1995 about the same time as MAG in Moxico and was turned over to a local group in 2005 or so. Is it still operating? MAG once had a landmine exhibit at the fort in Luanda. How’s INAD and the local operators and development in general coping with the drop in oil prices?

    • Thanks, Mike. I’m going to visit that workshop in Luena and am very curious to see how it is doing. If MAG had a landmine exhibit at the fort, I missed it.

      Not sure about the local operators yet. I hope to learn more in the next few days.

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