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Railroading Angola

Angola’s railway is reopening after an 18-year hiatus.

I rode on part of that railroad when I was there in 2007. And then, in Luanda, an oilman took me to a whorehouse .

The oilman is sitting in a darkened corner of a whorehouse in Luanda. He’s fat, white, American. Around him slink a growing number of prostitutes from this, and other corners, of Africa. Waitresses in jeans and short, tight tops pad around lazily taking orders and comments. He orders a beer, sits back, and watches as the room begins to fill. He has been to this place, and places just like this, so often in the twenty plus years he has lived and worked in African oil that he seems — and I wonder if he also feels this — to fit in as comfortably as anywhere else I might imagine for him, a bar in west Texas, or a beetle-stained platte, gazing contentedly at the sand.

Some of the prostitutes come from Congo, says the oilman, across the river. Many come from right here in Angola. He tells me it’s common for men like him to take on wives and girlfriends in a casual way, here and there, when it suits the both of them. The man will pay for items for them, small and big. He has rented apartments for his girlfriends, cars. He has had to keep a gun sometimes, in case the real boyfriends and husbands come calling. It doesn’t bother him much. It’s a fair transaction and most of the time everyone agrees to be on the same page.

More men have begun to drift in now, and along with them, more languages. There is a smattering of French. And German. Dutch, Spanish, and of course Portuguese. The diamond men are coming, says the oilman. And the arms men, too. Slowly, and then more quickly, a swirl begins to form as the men and their initial, careful non-observance begin to flow back and forth with the constantly moving currents of these tall black women. Soon they are talking. And then laughing.

The oil market is changing, he explains. For a long time, many, many years, Nigeria was the undisputed king of the continent. They had the best oil, and more of it than anyone else. He worked there for years, he says. He risked kidnappings, attacks on offshore rigs, the mighty chaos of Lagos. Like all the other oilmen he lived in a compound and rarely ventured outside, and then only when it was absolutely necessary. But times are changing, he says, ordering another beer from a passing waitress, now taking a slinking, unsmiling look at her bottom as she walks away. Angola is becoming the new king. The Chinese are taking over here. There is more oil being discovered here than anywhere else in Africa. Angola has it all.

The expatriate life appeals to him. He has had it with American women. You have to watch out for HIV, he says. He has lost count of the times he’s contracted malaria. He took pills for a while to stave it off, but gave that up years ago, back when the only medication on the market induced psychosis and nightmares and made your piss go green, he says, and half goddam blind, and hell with it, he’ll just take it when it comes because, well, that’s what he’s decided. You can tell the diamond men, he says, they always seem to be the ones wearing glasses.

The men are almost outnumbering the prostitutes now. And everyone is having a good time. This is how it is, and how it should be. The oilman smiles. There are still large tracts of Angola, he tells me, that are completely unreachable by road because the land-mines laid during 27 years of civil war have yet to be removed. Seems the only way in and out is by helicopter. Those diamond and arms men are always skulking about up there. The oilmen stay down here, in the flatlands, by the shores, the easy life, on the rigs now and again, but always back here. The black gold will run out sometime, he says, but not for a long, long time. There’s so much goddam oil here, no one knows what the hell to do with it all.

Not until every one has drunk long and hard and had a good long go at it, the oilman says.

— Luanda, 2007

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