Driving in Luanda requires nerves of steel, nuts of tungsten and a head like a stubborn mule — as my driver illustrates when he guns his rattle-trap Toyota into the oncoming traffic before cutting back in front of a looming, overloaded truck.
Ignoring the stream of expletives emanating from the cab of the truck, Tonton casually swerves across a section of pavement before forcing his way in front of a late-model SUV.
“It’s a Range Rover, it’s got good ABS brakes,” he explains in response to my wide-eyed, white-knuckled look.
No word about nearly wiping us out in front of the truck, which has manifestly worse brakes. We live another day.
Luanda, a city designed for 400 000 people but now home to an estimated five million souls, and probably three times as many cars, is a city on the move — if you can make it out of bed before 5am to drive to work. Late risers had better wait for the traffic to thin out a little by 10am, as traffic jams snarl every major road to and through the city.
In a country where free movement was for many years restricted by the civil war, owning a car is a must to illustrate your upward social mobility. Apart from the kind of semi-wreck I have rented for the day, the streets are crammed with every conceivable brand, with luxurious, late-model SUVs the most sought-after, despite the clear disadvantage of their size.
Travelling to the airport, situated about 10km east of the city centre, is best attempted between 4am and 5am, my friends from a local NGO explain. If you cannot make it that early, you’d best prepare yourself for a long sit in the car, as the relatively short distance can take anything up to three hours.
In the crowded main street leading down the famous Ilha (island) across the bay, all that appears to move rapidly in the choked-up traffic are seemingly suicidal young men on scooters in various states of disrepair, often popping a wheelie just for the hell of it.
One of them goes one better: with one foot on the back of his oft-crashed Yamaha Jog and the other in the air, he flies down the main road on his back tyre — on the wrong side of the road — as his mates cheer and try to imitate him.
This is a bad idea; one of them smashes into a rock the size of a washing-machine. He picks himself up, boots away broken bits of plastic and kicks the suffering machine back into life before zooming off in total darkness and — seemingly — total obliviousness of his own mortality.
Why doesn’t anyone do something about these suicide scooters? The Ilha is home to many former and current generals (Angola probably has more generals per capita than any other country in the world), and you can’t be sure that the Evel Knievel who raced by just now isn’t one of their offspring, I am told.
Between them and the street sellers scurrying through traffic as they flog anything from Chinese rubber sandals to huge baskets full of fresh fruit, crossing any major street becomes a game of Russian roulette: you take your life in your hands every time you try it.
And yet, drivers demonstrates admirable consideration for pedestrians when they can, slamming on the brakes to allow an old lady and small child to cross six lanes (OK — two of them moving) of rush-hour traffic. That’s never going to happen on the Ben Schoeman highway, that’s for sure.
Parking is a major problem. In most streets, at least half the usable surface is taken up by rows of cars, double- and triple-parked as the owners rush in and out of shops. Traffic rules are only applicable as far as you can abide by them and as long as you do not kill anyone else.
Fender benders, including rather serious ones, are routine. Sitting at a restaurant on the Ilha, we witness two serious car crashes — total, chassis-bending wipe-outs — in as many hours.
But the drivers crawl out, miraculously unscathed. It seems that, after 40 years of civil war, the Grim Reaper has had his fill here in Angola.
Life is good, and no one is going to let a few silly traffic rules get in the way.