Through the years. I have played an ongoing guessing game as to which year I will visit a particular country. To illustrate, during my senior year of high school, I speculated that a trip to Africa might materialize in 10-15 years. Nevertheless, I learned early on that one should never try to circumvent destiny. A few months later, a letter arrived from New York stating that I had won the 1974 Kodak/Scholastic National Travel Scholarship, which encompassed a paid month-long safari to Kenya and Tanzania. The month-long adventure was a revelation and it set me on the path to becoming a photojournalist.
Nearly 39-years later, another African invitation arrived through an email from a Chicago-based Non Government Agency who constructed schools and delivered donated shoes to children living in Angola. Many photojournalists like myself work closely with NGO's to gain access to parts of the world typically restricted to tourists. The undertaking would grant me rare access to a reclusive nation notorious for shunning journalists.
Organizing a trip to Angola would be immensely more challenging than my previous journey to Kenya and Tanzania. I surveyed the assortment of camera gear on my bed which included two Nikon D700 digital cameras in addition to the Nikkor 14-24mm, 24-70mm, 70-200mm and 80-400mm lenses. Additionally, there were two Leica M7 rangefinder film bodies, including four additional optics in the mix. Frankly, if I had a choice, only the Leicas would have accompanied me. Juggling analog and digital mediums amid two camera systems is agonizing, but I felt the ordeal was worth it. Such a haul would have been manageable during my youth, but at age 57, the harsh conditions of Angola would test my endurance. To counteract these restraints, I invited my wife Corinna, 35, to join me and luckily she agreed to babysit.
Because the odds of me returning from Angola unscathed were iffy, I developed a planned strategy to hit the ground running, capturing as many pictures as possible before Murphy sabotaged me with malaria, yellow fever, hepatitis, typhoid, rabies, dengue fever or assorted snake and insect bites. When Corinna and I finally managed to get our caravan of camera bags, suitcases and backpacks loaded onto the airport train at Hasselbrook station, I began to question whether I had made a serious error in judgment.
When the KLM Airbus A360 approached the Quatro de Fevereiro airport, I was struck by the armada of wealth floating below our wings. There were dozens of oil tankers hugging the coastline along our flight route, moreover, I wondered how much of the liquid treasure actually trickled down stream to the impoverished citizens … likely not very much.
Foreboding best describes my feeling when entering third world airports. The uncertainty has been a constant source of belly aches throughout my career. There were horror stories from other photographers on the internet about Luanda customs officials confiscating camera equipment. My NGO reassured me that the corruption had declined since the country's cease fire a decade earlier, therefore, I should not be concerned. She was correct … my camera gear made it harmlessly through the metal detectors minus my entire supply of seized camera batteries. In view of me being a photojournalist, the welcoming team members requested their identities remain anonymous for fear of government reprisals.
Corinna and I spent the next fortnight traveling to schools in isolated villages on dirt trails so dreadful that our vehicles routinely got stuck in dried riverbeds, forcing everyone to exit and push. When the roads behaved, our trucks kicked up a virtual sandstorm which was evident for miles around. The second battered vehicle following our dusty route hauled hundreds of black slippers and a grubby driver. The desolate landscape had a stark beauty of withered grassland sprinkled with cattle and naked children playing in streams and diving off bridges. It was hard to imagine that a civil war had raged in the country for over 27-years killing half a million people. Then, an abandoned tank turret would appear from behind the dense brush as a grim reminder.
The throng of toddlers wandering barefoot throughout the trashy outskirts of town was disturbing which reinforced the importance of my NGO's mission in improving the health safety and education of thousands of youngsters throughout the country. In one village, excited children abandoned their soccer game and cheered as we arrived at a mud church where the waiting congregation greeted us with song and applause. The residents had graciously donated a live goat to our party which awaited it's fate in the back of a pickup truck.
One delighted child celebrated with a break-dance while others stood puzzled against a wall. Corinna helped measure the many feet while I struggled with low shutter speeds in the darkened church. In the rear of the chapel, a young boy peeked through a window as schoolchildren waited anxiously for their donated shoes. Outside, the harsh lighting was equally challenging where I often used fill flash to battle the afternoon sun. Dust followed us everywhere, which attached itself to clothing, camera gear and food. Though the Nikon D700 cameras were not a major concern, my pampered Leica's were, so I generally packed them away.
Compared to American public schools, the students of Angola were extremely well behaved and projected a sense of pride. Teachers demanded respect and funny business delegated outdoors as I found with a couple of boys hamming it up for my camera. Even the most unhealthy child seems to grasp the importance of the books they clung to as their only hope for survival.
As we rolled into the town of Chilonda our team was offered an overnight stay and during the final course of dinner, I was informed that the home's power generator regularly shut down at 10PM. This complicated things because a few hours later, my stomach started raising hell while lying in bed so I grabbed a flashlight to see it was 2AM. “Ok”, I thought, “Here it is”. What had I eaten? The chicken was pretty burnt. Surely the potatoes were OK. The river water was boiled … or was it? I tried to ignore the unpleasantness and fall back to sleep.
It’s amazing how fast one can find a zipper and egress a mosquito net in complete darkness. I lost the flashlight while inadvertently kicking it beneath the bed and I stumbled blindly towards the bathroom, which consisted of a plastic seat above a hole in the ground adjacent to a bucket of water. I gambled, which part of my body to aim with while maneuvering my trembling hands around the toilet rim.
Though my groans surely awakened the entire household, only Corinna arrived to the rescue after recognizing my sobs. In the worst stomach illness ever encountered outside of New Delhi, I became dangerously dehydrated with the nearest major hospital located hundreds of miles away. Just when a sense of relief came, the agonizing drama repeatedly returned until I thought it would never end. When I started getting cold and clammy, I really started to fear the worst. As Corinna and I held each other in the darkness, I began to realize how fortunate I was to have found her four years earlier on a Beijing Boulevard in China. Love is a certainty when your partner spends five hours sitting in your bodily fluids.
While recovering over the subsequent days, Corinna and I continued to stay with the NGO team in assorted guest houses and farms in sparsely populated areas. We had to use pots of cold water to shower and on some lucky days, the local ladies would heat the river water over a wood fire and leave it at our bedroom door. Breakfast consisted mostly of baked bread, jam and tea while the dinners offered questionable mystery stews and more bread. After a while Corinna and I were undeniably in need of a McDonalds.
During one sleepless night, I tiptoed to the outside patio where I was greeted by a spectacular sky engulfed in a blaze of stars. Marveling the moment, I wandered up to the farmhouse's second floor which was undergoing renovation. Weaving my way around piles of lumber and scattered tools, I maneuvered a bag of cement near an open window and seated myself. Just for kicks, I aimed my Samsung tablet towards some distant lights and was thrilled to see the sliver of a signal on my display screen. I quickly cranked up Skype and made several failed attempts to call my friend in Hawaii who was an eleven-hour time zone away. Finally on my last attempt, a distorted glowing face shined in the blackness. It was surrealistic being so isolated, yet so connected. I excitedly said “Hey Philippe, I'm in the middle of nowhere here in Africa”. “Wow that's cool”, he replied … Then the line dropped.
The following morning, our team packed up our belongings and the seven of us crammed into a white van for our next destination, the capital city Luanda. As much as I wanted to break away from boxes of shoes and meetings with town officials, our NGO was concerned for my safety especially because I was a photojournalist which could have raised issues with local authorities. Though I was annoyed being exiled to the rear windows, it actually worked out pretty well in the metropolitan areas because I was in a somewhat stealthy environment with a long zoom lens. Besides, there was no way I could translate Portuguese from an angry street vendor.
As we followed a large truck dangerously overloaded with passengers and we zigzagged around crazy motorcycle riders, our team decided to splurge and seek relief in a modern shopping mall for lunch. Being one of the most expensive city's in the world, Corinna and I decided to lunch on the cheap, so we headed towards the familiar smiling face of Colonel Sanders. Our KFC tab totaled the equivalent $120.00 US dollars for a party of four. At least the mall was air conditioned.
Though my illness remained a mystery, neither Corinna or I regretted the Angola encounter. The undertaking gifted us a lifetime of memories which will remain with us forever. Though I wished there had been more street photography time, I was nevertheless pleased with the results and looked forward to our return to Germany, where a long, hot shower awaited .... along with a Big Mac.