Turn left at the abandoned tank

When I was given directions the first time I visited this office, when they said ‘abandoned tank’ I didn’t realise they actually DID mean an armoured tank!

Excellent – more field time this week – well kind of…

I managed to make it out of my office yet again, to visit another of our provinces. Making it as far as the compound I then made the fatal error – instead of getting in my car and driving to the minefields – of switching on my computer to just ‘quickly’ check emails!

I never did make it to the minefield in the end but even so ‘a change is as good as a rest’ apparently and actually working in an office which is not my usual office does seem to make me a little more productive.

My original plan was to visit our road clearance teams. Actually I say ‘clearance’ but what we do a lot of here in Angola is ‘Road Threat Reduction’ which is not like mineclearance where we dig out every single metal signal from the ground but instead we drive down roads in a huge armoured truck dragging heavy trailers.

The concept is simple – a heavy weight on top of a landmine activates it so we drive over suspected roads with something very very heavy!

The problem we have had recently is actually getting these trailers onto some of the roads. We are just coming out of the rainy season during which bridges have collapsed and roads washed away meaning we simply can’t access where we need to get to.

So we have a back up plan…it involves a man and a wheelbarrow. I know I know…hugely technical!

This concept is more like our standard mineclearance but adapted for roads where the danger is from anti tank mines (so you can walk over these mines but the weight of a vehicle would set them off).

We send a man with a huge metal detector strapped to a wheelbarrow down the road and when the detector finds a metal signal in the ground a couple of deminers come and dig down to investigate whether it is a mine or not.

Simple but effective!

All this goes on in Bie province which is way out east from my usual home town. Bie is where we started our clearance in Angola, back in 1994. We stayed throughout the war and such is the enormity of the landmines problem that we are still clearing the province to this day.

What is now tarmac road, when we arrived in ’94 was a battle ground – with the middle of the street dividing Government troops one side, guerilla forces the other

Chatting with my staff here is fascinating. Most of them worked with us during the war and they describe the provincial capital being divided down the middle of the town with Government troops on one side of the street and the guerilla forces on the other. You can almost imagine a thick painted line down the centre of the road.

Our first emergency tasks when we arrived in ’94 were to create safe land for refugee camps to be built on. Visiting these sites now they are unrecognisable from the old photos adorning our office walls. Now they are markets, schools and hospitals!

With work still to be done it would be incredible to revisit in another 5 or 10 years time and see just how different again this town is.

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1970’s family camping

Watching an amazing African sunrise is a jolly good reason to get up at dawn

Maybe happy memories being relived?

Maybe rose tinted spectacles!

Either way I feel like I’m back on a family camping holiday this weekend.

Deciding I was spending too much time in the office I headed out for a few days to one of our remote camps. Arriving at the camp I felt like I had turned into Mum..unpacking the coolbox into a little travel fridge, taking your boots off at the door to keep the mud out, heading off into the dead of the night clutching your torch and your loo roll, boiling up some water for a cuppa ‘old style’….

The smell of a burnt match and a gas cooker always takes me back to our retro family caravan and Mum making a cuppa as soon as the caravan was parked up.

The only thing which I’m sure didn’t happen on our camping holidays…or maybe I just blanked it out…was the COLD COLD shower. I say shower when I actually mean a big bucket of freezing water and a plastic jug! Gasping as the water splashed onto my head, it was so cold it literally took my breath and actually gave me an ice-cream headache!

I’m still chilly now, an hour later, sitting in bed, wearing all the clothes I could lay my hands on.

It was good to be back in the field today though. We visited one minefield which we are close to finishing clearance of. As I was briefed by our supervisor he told me that just last week a woman from the nearby village had turned up at our briefing shelter carrying an anti tank mine. Literally walking towards our supervisor holding this huge mine in her hands.

The black curved line on the top of the mine is where the woman hit with her hoe

She was urged to put it on the ground very slowly and very carefully, which she did. The supervisor edged closer and saw that the mine had a huge chunk out the top of it – this woman was one lucky lady. She had been cultivating her land and hit the top of this mine with her hoe, the chunk out the top was where she had stuck the mine. I dread to think what could have happened if she had struck it a few inches to the right.

My supervisor led me to where this woman had found the mine – I found myself walking straight into a village. Incredibly this lady had literally dug up an anti tank mine in her back garden. Within minutes of standing at the site we were surrounded by inquisitive children. If this woman had activated this landmine all these kids would have been within striking distance.

.                  Young girl stands hiding behind her newly built house

We spoke to the local leader of the village who explained to us that this community used to live a few miles away but the soil was not good for cultivating so they had moved their entire village to this new site – unbeknownst to them rebuilding their houses on a minefield.

Marking off the dangerous area we moved some of our deminers to start clearance and are now clearing inside and outside these houses. Three more mines have already been found!

Days like this certainly make my job feel oh so very real.

The community are amazingly still building new houses on this land – on the ground you can see red stones which mark the edge of the suspected area.

Media daaarling!

This week we had an unexpected visit from a lovely team of film makers.

Actually here to film the underground world of Angolan metal and rock music (!) they were keen to find out more about the landmines problem in Angola. Always happy to bang the drum and raise the profile of the threat of landmines here, we set up a day filming in one of our minefields.

When they announced their arrival dates my initial thoughts were that their timing couldn’t have been worse. Each month my deminers work for 3 weeks then take a week break, 3 weeks on, 1 week off. Typically our new movie maker friends were due to arrive the week we weren’t working.

So what do they film?

Not to be defeated by this mere ‘logistical challenge’ we plucked a few of our hardy deminers and their supervisors out of their monthly tools cleaning session and set up an exact replica minefield (sans landmines!) in our training ground.

To be perfectly honest I think both myself and the film crew actually preferred it in the end.

I didn’t have to spend the entire day worrying about them crossing our marking sticks into dangerous ground all in the name of a good shot and they didn’t have to try to get the perfect shot whilst sweating in our heavy body armour!

It was facinating watching the cameraman work…we always struggle to demining look, well, interesting! I mean its really just a man on his knees with some gardening tools digging holes in the ground, admittedly rather dangerous ground.

Photos never do demining justice; the look of concentration in our deminers faces as they work away or the sheer length of time it takes to clear just 1 metre forward. Neither do you get the sounds of the minefield – the click click click of the detector battery, the gently spoken words of advice from the supervisors, the squeak of the detector when it identifies a metal signal.

The film crew will hopefully capture all which makes our working enviornment surely one of the most unique in the world.

The deminers worked so hard, bless them, and by the end of the day they were positively relishing the attention – I swear they were actually ‘performing’ for the cameras by the time we filmed the last few shots of the day!

It also got me out of the office and reminded me that two days really never are the same out here!

It was a long hot day but the producer seemed happy. I’m hoping we’ll get a look at the finished film before too long. I can’t wait to show my deminers them in their starring roles.

.                                        Eat your heart out Hollywood!

 

Are you a sunrise or a sunset kind of person?

I have a funny feeling I may have gone on, once or twice, about how unbelievably amazing African skies are!

Well here I go again…

Now I think people are either sunrise or sunset folk. In my youth (yes I know, those many moons ago!) I only ever saw the sunrise if I hadn’t been to bed. Nowadays oh how times have changed and the only 9 o’clock I am awake for is the one first thing in the morning.

But if there is one thing which makes it worthwhile getting out of bed at first light is to see an African dawn.

I am 100% a sunrise person and my favourite of favourite times of day for the African sky at its best is 6am, just as the sun is rising.

Each morning I arrive first to my office compound and so am the one to switch on the huge generator which powers our numerous computers, printers, welding machines, battery chargers, not to mention the kettle for my morning coffee!

My compound is on a bit of a hill and the generator is way down at the bottom.

I relish my little bit of ‘quiet time’ before the troops arrive as I wander down to the generator taking in the morning sky – each day I stand in the same spot waiting for the generator kick in and stare at the same patch of sky and each day the morning sky is completely different.

(and each day the compound guards stare at their odd programme manager taking photos of the sky!)

Some days I arrive as the sun is rising and watch the huge red ball slowly climb above the horizon.


Other days I arrive just after dawn as the sun has risen and is starting to break through the clouds.


Other days I am late (!) and end up staring transfixed to the fluffy clouds which hang suspended in the sky, not moving an inch. The sky looks like the set of the Truman show.


I just wish I was a better photographer to be able to show you just how incredible they are. These pictures don’t do them justice!

Amateur David Bailey

I have 2 dogs out here – not taken on me but inherited from another expat who was here years ago. These poor dogs must get serious cabin fever as although I live in a fairly big old rambling house, the compound it’s in is not so big. So as often as time allows I take the dogs for a long run just out of town.

The place is actually the land of an agricultural training college and gets busy on sunny weekends with picnicking Angolan families and young couples.

I am an early bird these days so tend to arrive way before the crowds which means the dogs can be let off the leash to race round like lunatics and go a swim in the lake.

Last weekend I was there particularly early, it was not too long after dawn.  I stayed for ages watching as the sun came up and the light changed by the minute.

.                              These are pine trees…in Angola, in Africa!

It’s a really beautiful peaceful place in fact as I wandered round the muddy paths snapping away I felt quite homesick – it looked exactly like the English countryside and reminded me of home!

The most dangerous landmine in the world?

I have never taken the work of my deminers for granted. Having done the job myself – albeit briefly – their painstaking dangerous work is something to be held in the highest regard.

Now though, having arrived in Angola, my admiration has reached new levels.

This is a PPMiSr….a nasty anti personnel mine made in Czechoslovakia:

Close up PpMiSr hidden by leaves, you can just see the  metal lid of the mine.

With small pieces of metal sandwiched in between the inner and outer walls of the main body, when someone stands on the spike at the top of the mine it has a device which ejects it into the air and after a couple of seconds it explodes. As it explodes the metal pieces fly out.

Can you spot the spikey top of the mine? Being unable to spot them is what makes these landmines so dangerous to the local population who enter the area to cut wood or graze their cattle.

Closer up it’s a little easier to spot but still fairly hidden in the vegetation waiting for an unsuspecting victim.

In fact these mines are so dangerous that should one explode in the vicinity of someone it is essential that my guys wear specially designed PpMiSr protective body armour.

My hardy deminers hate it because it’s much more bulky and cumbersome than their usual protection, added to this these minefields are in one of the most baking hot and humid provinces.

My guys are working on minefields right now where we are finding these mines.

 

3000 kilometres later…

It’s now been more than a month since I arrived in Angola.

Thoughts so far…my first thought is that I wish I’d brought more warm clothes! The town I’m living in is fairly high up and it’s actually chilly as I leave the house before dawn each morning, so much so that I’m wearing my pashmina scarf to stay cozy.

There are lots of similarities to Mozambique in terms of the landscape, like these random rock formations which just appear on the horizon of an otherwise pancake flat landscape – just like in Mozambique.

This one is called German rock (apparently after a German bloke who jumped off the top of it!).

The food is similar – remember Xhima? Well here its called ‘fundge’.

Similar music and love of Nigerian ‘Nollywood’ movies.

Similar religions – the Church of “Jesus Christ is the Man” is here too,

And the climate is similar. It’s good to be back in a land of awesome skies and its rainy season at the moment so I’ve been driving under lots of angry skies (usually just before being battered by yet another awesome thunderstorm).

So nothing too different to Mozambique…apart from the people of course!

The Angolans certainly have their own quirks and traditions. There is however a much more obvious attitude towards pride and saving face. Angolans are incredibly proud people, in fact it has been heard Angolans categorically stating it is in fact THEM who speak the proper Portuguese and not the Portuguese themselves!

On the language front, I’m remembering more Portuguese than I thought I would and although some of the words are different I’m not as bad as one of my colleagues who regularly reverts to Spanish – in fact my Portuguese is now definitely stronger than my Spanish – although I do once in a while say a word I learnt in Mozambique and receive some odd looks for confused Angolans!

As ever our national staff are incredibly tolerant of my awful grammar and ability to speak only in present tense and will indulge me as I prattle on before then desperately raising an eyebrow to their colleague as they attempt to figure out what on earth I am wittering on about.

I have been out in the field a little (interspersed with efforts to get my head around spreadsheets which would blow your mind). As I feared my days of traipsing round minefields day after day are now just a distant memory but it’s important I have a good idea of what is going on in the field so I am determined to not spend my days confined to an office and end up as some ‘armchair general’.

If nothing else, I can claim being confined to an office is a health risk for me – I randomly get very achy legs if I sit in my office chair for too long. I firmly believe my body’s way of categorically reminding me that I am just NOT meant to be an office bod!

I have got a BIG programme to manage here – 650+ staff and 5 locations over a huge area (Angola is about 5 times the size of the UK).

The town I’m living in was fairly beaten up during the war. Some buildings still wear their scars, like this block of flats which had its top blown off yet astonishingly is still fully occupied by hundreds of residents!

But equally it seems every week a new house is renovated so the town is definitely on the mend.

Even for its slightly rough around the edges appearance, compared a couple of my previous postings it is very civilised – there is a half decent supermarket for starters which although has tear jerking prices at least sells gin, chocolate and fresh veg (my priorities being in that order of course!)

So after 3 weeks of driving round with the exiting Programme Manager, we completed our 3000km round trip in the capital for meetings with ambassadors and Government Ministers  – oo la la!

I am responsible for keeping our mineclearance programme “on the map” so to speak when it comes to embassies and donors deciding how to spend their money which generally means small talk with diplomats. I have even brought a suit with me for such occasions – although I can’t remember the last time I wore a suit so I no doubt look as uncomfortable as I feel when I am wearing it.

Anyhow, with meetings and visits done and dusted and last Friday night’s ceremonial passing on of the Programme Manager phone and the handover is complete. This programme is now MINE!

African thunderstorms rock my world

I just went to bed then got up again.

I KNEW I was going to do that. I knew that I should have just taken my laptop to bed with me. I know that sounds strange but when you have to go through the total palaver of tucking in your mosquito net, getting up and down in and out of bed is such a mission that you rarely forget to take everything you need with you as your climb under your net.

I regularly sleep with my torch, alarm clock, book, hand cream and on occasion my laptop, scattered around me as I sleep!

Anyhow even though I had properly tucked myself in for the night, I was compelled to untuck, grab my computer and re-tuck…and why you ask?

Well today I came to visit one of the new compounds we recently built. Part of my job is to check that everyone else is doing their jobs so I spend a lot of time asking why are you doing that? Or why are you NOT doing that?!

After a long day it’s now 8 o’clock and time for lights out (as in ‘generator switch off time’) and after several hours of distant growling and grumbling thunder slowing creeping towards the camp, the tap has been turned on, the heavens have opened and the storm has finally hit us.

I’m sitting in a little room, the last one in a block of 6 – imagine something like lots of little brick sheds side by side – with a tin roof over my head. The walls are thin and I’ve got the most twee (but actually fairly ineffective) pink lace curtains.

It’s like camping but without being crouched over getting soggy in a leaking tent – and yes if you cast your mind back I have in fact done just that during one of these torrential African thunderstorms…

The rain utterly pounding down on my tin roof is deafening, the lightening forks lighting up the black sky through my window with thunder loud enough to crack the glass.

And it is without a doubt one of the best places I’ve experienced a true African thunderstorm.

The town built from shipping containers!

It’s not a huge surprise I suppose considering that I am in a port town but it really does look rather odd. Houses, offices, shops…all in some shape or form an adapted shipping container!

I’m in Lobito, Benguela province. The landscape and energy zapping heat is unbelievably similar to my old Moz location in Tete except for Lobito is on the Angolan coast.

It feels an absolute world away from the other provinces I have been zipping around during my minefields visits. Winding down the hillside into Lobito town it strangely looks exactly how I would imagine Israel or Jordan to look.

Instead of usual dark red African soil brick houses, houses here are the colour of Mediterranean sand.

 

Dotted across the landscape, they are precariously perched on the side of the hill looking like the slightest gust of wind would send them toppling down into the sea below.

 

 

Even the local church is balanced on the edge of a cliff!

As you enter the town however life reverts from my imagined Middle East back to Africa…bustling minibus stands, street side clothes sellers, women carrying immense loads on their heads – usually with a baby strapped to their back!

We arrived at the compound yesterday after a long and dusty journey and lo-and-behold our compound is made out of….yes you’ve guessed it…shipping containers, just like the rest of the town. I was immediately convinced that without a doubt this is HALO’s most obscure compound.

We actually took the place over years ago from another charity and to be fair the shipping container concept was theirs.

The office block is 2 containers with their sides chopped out and a roof and floor between them to create 3 offices.

My sleeping accommodation is this container with plywood partitions creating ‘bijou’ sleeping quarters.

The kitchen is another roofed space between 2 containers, the radio room another container with the huge end doors welded shut and a window and door cut in to its side and the generator housing…yes you’ve guessed it – a container with the side chopped off!

It’s actually a very creative use of shipping containers.

And obviously being just that little bit more quirky than any other compound I have seen – I LOVE it!

Angolana

I’m not sure this is even a real word…!

But it’s exactly what I am these days. The word is used to describe a female Angolan. Ok so I’m not quite native Angolan but I am certainly a resident of the country. I’ve moved to Angola!

It’s been quite a while since my last blog – my only excuse being that life has been rather on the manic side these last few weeks.

Since leaving Sri Lanka I have been back in the UK unpacking, washing, repacking, travelling south and north, unpacking and repacking again….you get the idea! After a couple of weeks catching up with friends and having some fun (rather to the detriment of my voice box unfortunately – thanks for a great rugby weekend Edinburgh folk!) I jumped on yet another long haul flight and have come back to Africa.

Wise Jackie once told me just before my first visit to Africa that ‘‘it gets in your blood and under your skin and when you leave all you want to do is to go back’’. Little old me thought no, not me….but oh how wrong I was. My year in Sri Lanka was an interesting one but as soon as I arrived in Asia last year I realised in my heart that I really wanted to be in Africa.

Well it’s true what they say that you should be careful what you wish for before just one year later I landed in Luanda – the high rise, highly populated, highly priced capital of Angola. Read THIS.

Luckily for my bank balance this was not to be my new home, instead I spent my birthday sitting in a landrover bumping along a very long road south to the middle of the country where it feels like you are back in the REAL Africa.

Now I know what you are thinking – Angola…where the heck is that? Well never fear, misshelen is here to give a geography lesson.

This stint in Africa is a little more scary than the last one as I have returned to this vast continent bearing the weight on my shoulders of being the big boss Programme Manager. Although quite exciting it’s also a little daunting as this is probably one of our most – erm – ‘challenging’ programmes. Having been here for 3 days and already with a file full of notes and a head bursting with facts, figures and to do lists it feels ever more of a challenge.

However I’m entering into the unknown with an attitude that I’m sure it will all be ok. Watch this space…

p.s internet here is truly RUBBISH! So posts may become a little sporadic over the next wee while. Might be easier if you sign up for updates so you will get an email when I post a blog. Just scroll up to ‘Get automatic updates’ on the left hand side of this page and type in your email address.