Village of Tchikala, Angolan Highlands, 2009. This welcome from the village kids was as refreshing as the temperate climate, a welcome respite from the confused furnace of Luanda where we lived and worked behind heavily-guarded Embassy walls, meeting only those Angolans who worked in government or for NGOs. I had come here with my Ambassador to visit a Save the Children health project, as part of a wider programme in and around Angola’s second city of Huambo.
It took a tortuous two hours to travel the final 15km between Huambo and Tchikala along a track of red clay liquified by heavy rains, the Embassy’s Toyota Landcruiser sliding sideways as much as forwards before spinning helplessly like a fly trapped in a glass of water. We squeezed into an accompanying Save the Children Land Rover and inched onwards through maize fields littered with granite boulders, observed by lines of egrets stood motionless but alert like border guards before the threat of foreign invasion. Where our Embassy 4×4 had struggled locals transited with ease: women glided past with bundles of firewood on their heads; a young boy skipped with his baby sister strapped behind while their father spluttered ahead on an old Yamaha bike, spraying red clay in his wake; and clapped-out trucks defied science to collect piles of carbon that were produced in the thatched hives that smouldered nearby.
On alighting in Tchikala, a jumble of crumbling colonial houses and traditional adobe huts set amongst lush vegetation, the rain spat its protest at the incongruous outsiders. Local dignitaries – a portly administrator puffing on a cigar beneath a ten-gallon hat and a police chief in faded uniform and dusty shoes – greeted us with stiff handshakes and we all grimaced politely while exchanging pleasantries about the weather and our journey. In Angola protocol and hierarchy reign as king and queen, and homage must be paid to both before transacting business.
Then we processed through a passage of red and white balloons tethered to smiling, clapping children who sung us their own unique welcome. Infected by their joy and curiosity, we quickly forgot our own discomforts and awkwardness. As their song faded, a member of the village health committee shuffled forward sheepishly. Adilson, a gangly middle aged man in a baseball cap, explained in a low, wavering voice the work of his committee.
Supported by Save the Children, the committee promoted basic hygiene, sanitation and healthcare to tackle preventable killers like malaria and diarrhoea. They distributed mosquito nets and trained villagers in their use, built latrines and water points, and capacitated networks of traditional birth attendants. This was vital work given how limited infrastructure and state support were in those days; the average rural Angolan would walk up to 30km to reach the nearest health post, and would have a one-in-four chance both of accessing safe drinking water and of losing a child before its first birthday. Adilson illustrated every hardship so emphatically with his long bony arms that they lingered in the damp air, silently reproaching those privileged visitors from lands of plenty. My heart had grown heavy but once again the kids lifted the mood, sending us on our way with an uplifting song of hope.
Whenever I recall that day, those kids remind me to set aside the accumulated cynicism of life and to rediscover the world through younger eyes, appreciating simple pleasures and finding wonder in everyday places and encounters.