April 2022: My wife, friend and I visited Angola as part of a multi-country trip across Africa. Angola was the last country we visited on this trip and the last country I needed to visit in order to accomplish my goal of visiting every country in continental Africa.  I waited this long to visit Angola mostly because of the difficulty in obtaining a tourist visa in years past. Only recently has the country introduced an electronic visa system, which has made the visa process  simple.  On this particular trip, I wanted to visit the country’s rich tribal south. The south of Angola is one of the best places to observe traditional tribes that have mostly dissapeared in other parts of Africa and our goal was to camp with the colorful mountain Muila people that live outside of Lubango.

About Angola

Angola was a Portuguese colony and is Portguese speaking. Angola has become one of the leading oil producing countries of Africa and as a result one of Africa’s wealthiest countries.  Despite this little welath has trickled down to the average person. Instead Angola is one of the most expensive countries in the world despite having widespread poverty. It also until recently was one of the most difficult countries to visit due to the impossibility of obtaining a tourist visa.

Angola is still recovering from a bloody civil war. It fought a bloody war for independance with the Portuguese that lasted decades until ending in 2002. The Angola war for independance brought in fighters and support from all over;  Soviets, CIA, Cubans including Che Guevera, South African aparteid government and many more countries. As many as 800,000 people were killed. Almost everyone in the country was affected by the war in some terrible way. Our guide in south Angola lost most of his brothers to the war and large portions of the country remain heavily mined leaving Angola as one of the most mined countries of the world. The political party that emerged victorius from the war is socialist leaning and Angola’s national flag is inspired by the flag of the Soviet Union.

 

 

Map of Location of Lubango the Jumping Point to See the Tribes of Southern Angola

National Flag of Angola with a machete on it resembling the hammer and sickle of the Soviet flag. 

Even though the visa process is a lot easier these days, Angola has been slow to open up to the outside world and few tourists visit Angola every year. Additionally, prior to my visit Angola had been mostly closed to outsiders since the arrival of Covid in March 2020. For a short period in November 2021, Angola re-opened and I had a flight ticket to visit from Mozambique but unfortunately the Covid strain of Omicron decided to appear out of nowehere and Angola closed its borders to all of Southern Africa and my flight was cancelled. As a result, this was my 2nd attempt to visit Angola.

Day 1: After some very rigerous covid entry procedures, PCR test, rapid test on arrival that took 2 hours, I finally made it to Angola with my wife and friend. We spent our first night in Luanda and departed to Lubango the next day via TAAG Airlines, the national airline.

 

 

Lubango-Jumping Off Point into the Tribal South 

Day 2: After the hour long trubo-prop flight to Lubango, the gateway to Angola’s tribal south and the wild wilderness of its skeleton coast and border region of Namibia.  At the airport we met our driver and guide, Don Ozio, who speaks multiple tribal languages fluently and is a police officer when he is not guiding.  Lubango is a much smaller and more laid back city than Luanda with old Portuguese colonial era buildings. On our first night in Lubango, we stayed in a lodge on the outskirts of town and enjoyed a traditional Angolan meal and locally produced red wine.

 

 

Day 3: On the morning of our 3rd day in Angola, we spent the morning shopping for groceries for our camping trip and looking for small change to pay the Muila for photos. Small change weirdly enough is very hard to find in Angola.

I found out from our guide that we were his first group to visit the south since Covid and our trip was kind of a guinea pig trip for a much larger group that was planning to visit later in the summer. Our trip was cheap considering I had reached out to other travel agencies and received prices that were typically a lot higher. Maybe the trip rpice was low because we were guinea pigs or maybe it was because we chose the bare bones minimum trip option, where we had to buy all of our own food and cook it for ourselves as well as pay for all the fuel we used.

Once we were fully outfittd with our tents, food, fuel and water, we set off to find the Muila. Our first visit was to the tribal lands of the plains Muila, where we planned to visit a market place that our guide expcted to attract many Muila selling their wares. It was here that we first spotted a few Muila women in their beautiful head dresses. The majority of people in this area however appeared to dress in western clothes. 

 

 

Plains Muila we met along the road

About the Muila Tribe

The south of Angola is rich in traditional tribal culture. These cultures have kept their traditionals in large part due to geographical isolation of the areas harsh desert terrain and the civil war that persisted for decades.  Now that Angola is opening up to the world, these tribal cultures are changing rapidly.

The tribe that I was interested in visiting on this trip the most was the colorful and beautifully dressed Muila Tribe. The Muila people are a semi-nomadic people who engage in subsistence agriculture and raise some goats and a few cows. They grow mostly maize as well as a few other vegatables as well as some types of cactus for food.  The Muila live in thatched huts  in small villages. Living conditions are tough and long distances may need to be walked in order to find water.  They have a tribal chief who serves as the head of the tribe followed by a headman. Serving under the headman are the elders. Conflicts are resolved by the elders and the headman. One interesting fact about the Muila is they do not mention a persons name in public because this is considered bad luck.

Muila women have beautiful hairstyles and coat their hair in a red mud which is mixed with cow dung. They also decorate their hair with beads and shells. The women also wear ornate beads and necklaces that are tick enough to give the appearance of elongating their necks. The women do not remove these necklaces even when sleeping and they also wear them when wroking in the agricultural fields. While many women still wear tradtional dress, the men typically wear western clothes. 

The Mwila believe in a God and that the spirits of their ancestors work to protect or hurt them.  Animal sacrifices are made to appease the ancestors and their God.

Camping with the Mountain Muila Tribe

To reach the most traditional groups of Muila, we drove a few hours to the town of Chibia to the southeast of Lubango. Chibia is a sleepy little Portuguese town with many old decaying colonial buildings. There we stopped to eat at a local eatery and re-group before setting off down a 4wd track through the scrub forest into the dry plateu where the mountain Muila people live. Our guide did not know the area where we were going but our driver did. The only problem was it had been years since he was there so he was operating memory and the hope that the families he knew were still in the same area. 

Old Portuguese colonial era building/Chibia

Old Portuguese colonial era building front/Chibia

The track led through agricultural areas that eventually gave way to dry scrubland and hills with rock outcroppings. We would occasionally pass clusters of huts and Muila woman with traditional clothes. We also passed  beautiful delipatated Portuguese farm buildings that weirdly enough didn’t appear to be reclaimed by the anyone in the area living in huts. Many Portuguese farms were abandoned during the civil war when the Portuguese fled to other countries. 

Old Portuguese farm abandoned 

Eventually we found the area our driver was looking for with the help of the some random Muila people walking along the dirt track, and we arrived to a group of empty huts that looked as if peope were recently living in them.

Abandoned village

Dry scrub forest

erlNot long after arriving at the empty cluster of huts, a man appeared claiming to be the son of the chief from the abandoned camp. The man explained that all of the people living there had left ever since the chief died 6 months ago.  When I asked our guide if we could still camp there, the chiefs son replied it is not allowed. Our guide explained that this is because of respecting the ancestoral spirits and upholding the tradition of leaving a village when a chief dies. The man did say we could stay in his village located nearby around a maze of thorn bushes but we decided not to because it was too dusty and none of the man’s wives were wearing traditional clothes.

Our guide asked me what we should do next, return to Chibia and find a hotel, or find another family to stay with. My response was find another family. Afterall I saw quite a few clusters of huts on the road and I figured we could find someone willing to let us stay with them. Our guide asked the chief’s son if there were other villages nearby and he said there weren’t but we soon discovered there were. It was easy to believe there were none because the thoronbushes were so thick and it appeared as if we were in the middle of the wilderness but hidden behind the thicket were many small clusters of family camps. We came across a few women in traditional dress and our guide asked them if we could see their home and they invited us to follow them to their house, which were only a few minutes away and surrounded by green fields of maize.  There were no men in the village just a group of women and children. The headwoman agreed to let us camp at the village. 

 

Village where we camped for the night

Muila women farming in their village field

Green fields mixed with scrub forest

Village where we camped

Mother carrying her child in village where we camped

It is always an awkard experience showing up to a village of tribal people who look and live so completely different than you. In my experience one of the best ways to break the ice and to establish a good foundation for friendship and to have poloroid photos to hand out. This proved to work very well and everyone loved them.

Paula handing out photos of people

Muila lady in our camp

Muila lady in our camp

Everyone including the adults were thrilled to have photos of themselves. Most Muila do not have cell phones yet and do not have photos of themselves, so they really appreciated this. Giving the Muila photos helped to make our exchange with them more mutually beneficial instead of paying them per photos, an idea starting to spread in populafrity throughout tribal areas of the world. While my wife took a poloroid photo of the Muila, I would usually snap a photo of them with my SLR camera. This felt less intrusive than pulling out my giant camera to take photos of the Muila all of the time. I tried to use my camera very sparingly and only with their permission in order to avoid being offensive or disrepectful. 

Muila girl

We tried to make sure we had enough photos to give to all of the children toprevent dissapointing any of them and at the very least we had enough to give to all the kids living at the village we stayed at. We also had enough to provide to the adults, who also wanted their own photos. Some of the women also wanted another photo because they weren’t satisfied with their hair in the first one. This was also a common request by Himba women just a few hundred miles to the south in Namibia, where Paula and I visited a few years back. 

Old Portuguese colonial era building front/Chibia

Muila lady at our camp

When the temperature cooled and the sun began to set, we started to explore the area and we came across more random women that would appear out of nowehere carrying kids and walking to their villages from the fields or distant markets.  We were invited to their villages, which were also hidden back behind gnarled thorn bushes and cactus groves. 

Muila women

We asked the women if we could follow them to their camp where they lived and they agreed to let us follow. We walked passed cactus groves mixed with green fields of maiz on the way to their camp of thatched huts, where we met the elder or the man in charge, who had multiple wives and even more children. I shared some of our snacks with the village elder and he promptly in a very universal fatherly way gave them to his children. 

Muila woman

Muila Woman

My friend Jimmie found a small wooden shack, the only structure in the area that wasn’t a hut, and when I found him inside he was doing banana whickey shots with two Muila women. One women was doing shots while also breast feeding a baby. 

At the Muila bar

The diseased chiefs son at the bar

We camped near a Muila camp in one of the most atmospheric places you could ever hope to camp at. While eating the dinner we cooked and drinking red wine, we watched the sunset and the distant flashing of lightning from thunderclouds. It was the rainy season, and the south of Angola can become impassible during the heavy rains but luckily there wasn’t any rain in the forecast.

Our camp 

The temperature was cool at night and mosquitos non-existant. Jimmie did have a bad brush was a swarm of bullet sized ants that appeared spntaneously out of a hole underneath our table biting his feet. We surrendered the location to the ants and relocated our table to a more peaceful location. 

At night kids from all over and one guy in a covid mask, the only one in all of Muila land who seemed to posses a mask, watched us with curiosity while we sat at our table eating. Jimmie put on a nature documentary downloaded to his phone about Africa and afterwards a one about whales  and about 20 kids gathered around to watch it intently with absolute amusement. The kids were adorable and was reminded that no matter how exotic and different people are, kids are the same all over the world. I fell asleep to the giggles of Muila kids as they gleefully watched more nature shows. That night we slept on an a mattress and had some of the best sleep of the trip in the cool weather.

Muila kids watching Jimmies nature show on his phone

Day 4: I woke up early in the morning and had breakfast sharing with the Muila children and women. Some of them saw the empy bottle of whisky in front of Jimmies tent and asked if we had anymore. I watched the women as they prepared for their day, and started to head for their fields. One of the women had a small doll fashioned after a Muila woman. I thought maybe it was a souvenir she wanted to sell me but she never once tried to sell it to me. I later discovered dolls are for women to practice having a real child. 

Up until now, the village we stayed with had not asked us for any money and we shared food and poloroid photos with them. When they realized we were leaving, many of the women gathered around us to ask us to pay them for photos and even some who were not previously in traditional dress suddenly decided to do so in the hope that we would pay them for photos. The fee was very small but I didn’t want to create a tourist circus like atmosphere by reinforcing this kind of exhange and so we settled on paying the head lady of the village a small fee for allowing us to camp in the village. This was something I was expecting to do anyways. This seemed to appease everyone and we departed on good terms.

Muila woman with doll

Lubango Area Sightseeing

After departing the Muila area and driving back to Chibia, we had lunch and then set off to explore some of the highlights of Lubango like the giant Jesus Statue that was modeled after Corcavado in Rio Di Janiero overlooking the city of Lubango from a mountain with arms stretched out and then we went to the sheer volcanic cliffs that stand 1500 feet overlooking the plains. The view of the Corcovado, Christ Statue was incredible but the view from the lava cliffs of Tundavala were staggering.

 

Paula at the Christ statue

Tundavala

Tundavala

Ship Graveyard

The shipgraveyard just north of Luanda is where dozens of gigantic ships some of them cargo ships are abandoned near the beach. The ships were abandoned decades ago during the civil war and have remained ever since, sometimes being stripped for recycled metal. During our visit, hundreds of local kids were swimming near the wrecks while others played soccer along the beach in the burning heat of the mid-day sun. 

Ship graveyard

Paula walking along the beach of the Ship graveyard

Ship graveyard

Robbed on the Beach

Luanda has a reputation for crime. I knew this because before the trip I joined a Luanda Facebook expat group and I would hear about the kidnappings and robberies ocurring there. Locals we met also expressed the same concerns. One man’s wife was robbed at gunpoint at a traffic stop. Because of this or drivers always requested that we lock our doors and roll up our windows when at traffic stops. 

Then on our last night in Luanda, we stayed at the Art Place hotel on the beach. Homeless intoxicated people were living on the beach and the hotel is sorrounded by shanty towns. Hotel staff was adament that walking alone outside at night was dangerous and the hotel even has its own taxi to drive guests to local restaraubts for this reason. Despite these warnings, on our last night in Luanda, my friend decided to walk the short distance to a store to buy some beer. But he didn’t make it far. Soon after leaving the hotel, a mob of teenagers jumped him  and tackled him to the ground trying to wresle his phone away from him. He fought them off keeping his phone but in the end he did lose a wad of cash and received a nasty scrape on his legs from the incident. Luckily the muggers didn’t have any weapons but one was hurredly trying to finish his beer to use the bottle as a weapon but my friend was able to get away from his attackers before this happanned. 

Day 5: On our last day we relaxed at our hotel something foreign to us on this trip and we caught an evening Brussels Air flight to Belgium. Our departure from the airport was without issue. I was veru dissapointed that the 200 USD covid test we obtained in order to exit the country was never even checked by officials at the airport.

9 + 3 =

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