With Dr Felicity Nicholson. For up-to-date information on health issues across Africa, click here.
Most of the tropical (and not so tropical) nasties are present in Angola – hepatitis types A, B, C, measles, typhoid, polio, leprosy, amoebic infestations, cholera, yellow fever, malaria, tetanus, meningitis, trypanosomiasis, rabies, tuberculosis, Marburg and HIV/AIDS to name a few.
Sensible preparation will go a long way to ensuring your trip goes smoothly. Particularly for first-time visitors to Africa, this includes a visit to a travel clinic to discuss matters such as vaccinations and malaria prevention at least eight weeks before travel. If you are on any medication prior to departure, or you have specific needs relating to a known medical condition (for instance, if you are allergic to bee stings or are prone to asthma), then you are strongly advised to bring any related drugs and devices with you. Take the informational leaflets as well, just in case you’re challenged.
Make sure all your immunisations are up to date, including tetanus, polio and diphtheria (now given as an all-in-one vaccine, Revaxis, that lasts for ten years), hepatitis A and possibly hepatitis B. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends that the yellow-fever vaccine should be taken by those over nine months of age, although proof of vaccination is only officially required for those over one year of age.
Though advised for everyone, a pre-exposure rabies vaccination, involving three doses taken over a minimum of 21 days, is particularly important if you intend to have contact with animals, or are likely to be 24 hours away from medical help.
The biggest health threat at lower altitudes is malaria. There is no vaccine against this mosquito-borne disease, but a variety of preventative drugs is available, including mefloquine, malarone and the antibiotic doxycycline. The most suitable choice of drug varies depending on the individual and the country they are visiting, so visit your GP or a travel clinic for medical advice. If you will be spending a long time in Africa, and expect to visit remote areas, be aware that no preventative drug is 100% effective, so carry a cure too. Those who don’t make use of preventative drugs risk their life in a manner that is both foolish and unnecessary.
Crime and violence
Luanda’s reputation as a dangerous city is overstated. With about two firearms-related murders every day it is certainly not up there with Johannesburg or Nairobi, but it is much more dangerous than London, Lisbon or Paris. Once you get outside the capital city, you are looking at quite a safe country to visit. The security situation has improved significantly since the end of the civil war – police numbers are up, there is a strong armed-police presence on the streets and mean-looking rapid-intervention teams known as ‘Ninjas’ patrol Luanda from time to time. There are also occasional high-profile security crackdowns. However, the police need better pay to remove the temptation to accept bribes, and more needs to be done on training. Despite the improvements you do need to follow a strict security regime and not become complacent. The main cities and their suburbs are the most dangerous. The countryside is much safer.
The main drivers of crime are poverty and the unequal distribution of wealth, manifested by the poor conditions in which millions of people continue to live. The principal tools of the criminal’s trade are guns and knives – they are frequently brandished but fortunately they are very rarely used against foreigners. A high proportion of the population owns a gun – a hangover from the civil war when the government armed the population of Luanda to help protect the city. A significant risk to visitors is mugging. You can reduce the risks to yourself by never walking anywhere at night; some embassies recommend you do not walk alone during the day.
Dressing down and keeping a low profile is always a good idea when travelling. Carrying valuables such as a laptop, camera or briefcase is an open invitation to trouble. Mobile phones are highly coveted and one of the main reasons for street crime. Never use a mobile phone on the street. Instead, switch it to silent/vibrate and return the call when safe to do so. Savvy travellers carry a second wallet with US$20 and an expired credit card or two which can be handed over to muggers. If threatened with a gun or a knife, your only defence is to hand over your valuables. Your life is much more important than your wallet and mobile phone. There has been an increase in targeting expats recently, even in higher-end areas such as Talatona, and during daylight hours. It is very rare for these robberies to result in violence if you offer no resistance, although there is a significant risk of violence in places such as Luanda’s Ilha if you attempt to resist.
There are a few no-go areas in Luanda such as the Rocha Pinto area, and the serpentine road that leads up to the American Embassy is unsafe if on foot. People have also been robbed at gunpoint here while queuing in stationary traffic, so wind your windows up so you are less of a target: it’s easier to snatch a phone from your hands with minimal resistance! Walking between the bars on the Ilha is not a good idea. Only walk or jog on the Marginal in the dark in the company of others, and at busy times. If you wander off into the poorer neighbourhoods you will attract unwelcome attention and are in any case very likely to get lost. As there are few taxis to help you find your way out, going there in the first place is a bad idea.
Levels of sexual violence are thought to be relatively high, but most incidents are between Angolans and are much more common in the suburbs than in the centre of Luanda. Drink spiking is on the increase, especially in some bars on the Ilha in Luanda. As a result, unaccompanied female travellers should certainly aim to stay at the more expensive hotels where security is better and room service can be ordered if necessary. As most of the clients of the big hotels are single men, women will receive attention from bored expats, the vast majority of whom will simply want to share a bottle of wine over dinner. Outside Luanda, female travellers should aim to stay at the new hotels which are springing up in each of the provincial capitals.
Travellers with a disability
The war maimed tens of thousands of combatants and land mines injured over 80,000 including innocent civilians and children. The NGO Handicap International estimates that persons with disabilities constitute 10% of the population. There is no legislation in place to ensure that people with disabilities can access public or private facilities. Many buildings are not accessible – narrow doors and steep steps and lifts that do not work. Pavements are often nonexistent or are broken or peppered with open manholes, obstacles and puddles of water. Public transport is not accessible. Only a few of the bigger hotels have access ramps. Having said all that, depending on your vigour, disability and desire, a visit to Angola could be very rewarding.
On 23 January 2019 Angola decriminalised homosexual acts, and introduced legislation prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation. Homosexuality is still not generally discussed openly. Parliament is currently debating a new draft penal code in which same-sex sexual activity is not criminalised, and the age of consent is set regardless of sexual orientation. Given the strong influence of the Catholic Church in Angolan society, it is often surprising how tolerant certain sectors of society are with regards to the LGBTQ community. Titica, an Angolan transsexual performer, gained enormous popularity as the kuduru artist of the year 2011. Her third studio album, released in 2018, is titled Pra Quê Julgar? (Why Judge?). Titica’s music blasts out of the candongueiro collective taxis and she is a regular on television and radio. She has gained the hearts of many Angolans and while her sexuality remains shrouded in mystery she has brought the taboo of sexuality to the fore. Despite her popularity she faces discrimination and there is a long way to go before LGBTQ issues are accepted in Angola. Indeed, the new Angolan Constitution of February 2010 rejected the idea of same-sex marriage.
Many Angolans find the public display of affection between same-sex couples distasteful at best, or downright repugnant at worst. Reactions could be extreme, including violence, so gay and lesbian travellers should avoid drawing attention to themselves. Of course homosexuality exists in Angola: just head to the Ilha on 28 June for Pride Day! The Angolan Ministry of Justice and Human Rights also took a step in the right direction in June 2018 when they legalised the first LGBTQ rights NGO, called Associação Íris Angola. It is perfectly acceptable for two people of the same sex to share a twin room in a hotel but asking for a double is not recommended.