Oil boom in Angola: In a poor land, an exploration of the trickle-down effect

THE DISPATCHES: Kristin Reed

Venturing outside Luanda, encountering a petroleum engineer and a toothy grin

We were a few miles from Soyo when the flight attendant announced our descent. Thousands of feet below, the ocean was calm. It seemed to lap at the shore more than crash on the beach, as it does a few blocks from my home in San Francisco. I was anxious, feeling the weight of numerous warnings about traveling outside of Luanda. But as the plane descended, my worries dissipated. Below, rising from the placid expanse of blue, was an unmistakable flame - a natural gas flare from an offshore oil rig.

  Mangrove trees
The tangled mangroves haunted the Portuguese when they first traversed the Zaire River (Kristin Reed photo)

The shadow of the prop plane tumbled over the rippled surface of the ocean, climbed up the sandy cliffs, rambled through the mangrove swamps and scrub land and danced in the awkward arms of the baobab trees. As we bumped down on the runway, a group of children ran from their cinderblock homes, laughing and waving at us, while a scrawny dog loped at their heels. I smiled. This was the Africa familiar to me - the rural lifestyle, not the hectic, crowded capital city, complete with its whirling traffic. I crossed the tarmac and headed for the dull concrete structure labeled Aeroporto do Soyo. I breathed in the smoky sweetness of nearby brushfires and winked at the pied crows in their prim white vests. A sense of ease had settled over me.

I was chatting casually with a petroleum engineer stationed at the nearby Kwanda base (who had visibly recoiled at my mention of UC Berkeley, as if I had said UC Greenpeace), when I noticed that my bag had not yet arrived. It soon surfaced that I had mistakenly put my bag in the wrong luggage hold. And, now, the plane was preparing to leave for Cabinda - with my backpack. The flight attendant laughed off my profuse apologies as we ran back toward the plane, waving our arms. He only laughed harder when I showered him with thanks upon receiving the bag. I slung the backpack over my shoulder and breathed a sigh of relief. I felt a toothy grin spreading across my face: this was oil country.

— Kristin