Yme-Cabinda Director, Andre Massanga & Uige Project Coordinator, Manfred Arlt in Uige.

By Andreas G Koestler

A sound of voices passes through the night in the city of Uige: power is on. For many days, there was no electricity in Uige because there was no fuel. Fuel has to be airlifted to Uige, everything has to be airlifted. You feel the darkness differently, the darkness of scarcity. Uige is in the north of Angola, isolated, surrounded by the UNITA rebels (National Union for the Total Independence of Angola) in villages and the forests. A population of some 240 000 people within the borders of a city, many of them having fled from the rebels. A mixed population of local inhabitants and displaced people. There is a lot of activity with housing construction right now, a few weeks before the rainy season starts. Bricks are formed and baked in huge towers, foundations are dug and material for roofing is collected: both traditional grass and rusty iron sheeting.

Andreas Koestler at water collection point in Papeao, Uige

Andreas Koestler at water collection point in Papeao, Uige

Uige is a city of farmers. It was not always like this. The ruins from the Portuguese time tell another history. Water was distributed to the citizens in pipes, canalisation was working, roads were properly paved. Years and years of war and isolation have worn out what was left after the movement for independence. Dark ruins of huge houses with apartments, offices and shops along the lonely main road give a desolated impression. Entering a shop, only some soap, a few beer cans, some Coca Cola, a few shoes of far too large sizes, and a few bottles of oil are found. Another shop only sells the rest of a few bags with rice and maize. The empty shelves in the shops, the lack of material for construction, no pipes, no cement, no iron for concrete constructions, no tarmac for roads – you feel so helpless, especially as a water engineer. It is difficult, no impossible, to find people educated in practical professions, masons, carpenters, plumbers. Numerous persons offered their services as guards, day and night. There is not too much to be guarded – or perhaps, there is.

Uige is a garden with plenty of water. Small rivers have sculptured a lovely landscape of small hills and valleys. The flanks are populated with small houses, built in the traditional way with mud bricks or baked bricks. But, many, many rainy seasons have washed away the trails, the roads, the walls of the houses. In the valleys a small river often carries the heavy load of sewage and waste a couple of hundred meters downwards. The slope is too small to really wash the disease-bringing water out of the town. Higher up in the valley, small springs bring clear water into a pond. The women and children are in the pond collecting drinking water from a rusty part of a barrel, which serves as a well protector. There is a lot of water, nice springs and small artesian wells in many small valleys. Although there are not high mountains around the city, there is plenty of water, also now at the end of the dry season. But the people are polluting the water they are collecting at the spring.

Many diseases are surely related to this, although no statistics can directly confirm this. At another place, a lot of water is coming up between the rocks, but in the middle of a pond. Often there is not sufficient slope in the valley bottom to guide the dirty and the clean water away from the spring, to make a proper water collection point.

Uige is a town of activity. Yesterday the first rainfall, reminding that the time of easy housing construction will soon end. Numerous piles of mud bricks are burning and spreading the characteristic smell of burning rainforest wood. White smoke is rising into the late afternoon sun

After two more days of burning, the bricks have to cool for about one week. Then, housing construction can be started and it will take only some 10 days until all the walls are raised. The houses get closer and closer together, families move closer together to make space for relatives and friends. People coming from outside the city, fleeing from an undefined enemy, fleeing from sad memories and severe attacks.

The sounds get familiar after a few weeks, especially the sound of the night. Some shooting in the darkness is not that frightening any more. It belongs to Uige as the croaking of the frogs at dawn or the roosters crowing in the early hours. The crickets sing their long evening song mixed with the voices of neighbours and the loud music of a poorly amplified western song. There is still a lot of laughing at the water places, also some quarreling. But it is the place where you meet the people, where communication starts. I love to be at the water holes.