By John Martin
The legacy of colonial power in Angola is ugly. Portuguese control of the area dates to 1617. and the port of Luanda, now the capital of Angola, soon became one of the major centers of the slave trade to Brazil.
When the Portuguese left in 1975, the country plunged into 27 years of civil war as different factions clambered for control of the fledgling nation’s oil and mineral wealth. The years of colonialism and war left a country with little infrastructure.
Angola is a byword for grotesque inequality. It is second only to Nigeria among African oil producers, but little of this wealth trickles down. International companies pay salaries and allowances reflecting eye-watering living costs, higher than in Hong Kong or Tokyo.
All consumer goods are imported; a can of beer can cost $50. Little of this wealth benefits ordinary people. Half the population lives on $2 dollars or less daily, and infant mortality ranks close to the highest in the world. Public health services are nearly non-existent; recent malaria and yellow fever epidemics left 8,000 people dead in one city. Endemic corruption siphons off much of the funding meant to help the poor.
There are about 1,000 religious communities in the country, and Roman Catholics comprise half the population. One of the most important “new” churches is the Igreja Universal do Reino de Deus based in Brazil. Angola insists that churches register with the government, which restricts expansion and growth.
Since 2003 the Rt. Rev. André Soares has served as bishop to the 63 parishes in the Diocese of Angola. He leads a church with one of the most remarkable stories in the Anglican Communion. Most Anglican dioceses trace their origins to the work of “official” mission societies. Anglican work in Angola began in 1925 when Archibald Patterson, an English lay reader from St. Clement Toxteth, arrived freelance in the north of Angola, in what is now Uíge Province.
He built a school, and one of his first initiatives was to teach local chiefs to read. He made thousands of converts, baptized them and trained many to be evangelists using the Book of Common Prayer. By 1961 the church numbered about 70,000 members.
Portugal saw foreign missions, especially Protestant missions, as a threat and they were fiercely persecuted. Patterson was expelled in 1961. As he left he was given a list of his church leaders who had just been executed.
Many of his church members hid in the bush and others fled to Kinshasa in neighboring Congo. Those remaining were pastored by Alexander Domingos, who walked vast distances caring for the scattered Anglicans, who were often in great danger.
These dispersed Christians came to the notice of the Rt. Rev. Dinis Sengulane, Bishop of Lebombo in Portuguese-speaking Mozambique on the other side of the African continent. The Diocese of Angola is now a constituent member of the Church of Southern Africa.
Bishop Soares says his church suffers alongside the poorest people of Angola; there are serious food and water shortages. Corruption in the country is endemic “from the very top to down” and has left all but the urban elites in permanent want.
Many of the nongovernment organizations once working in Angola have left, save for Norwegian Church Aid, which conducts audits of work done by local authorities to ensure that it reaches the intended people.
“You can only supply effective services where the state takes responsibility,” said Soren Jensen, who has worked with Norwegian Church Aid. “If you could take 1 percent of what the government spends on health and channel it properly, it could achieve a lot more than charity.”
Another sign of hope is that the Conference of Bishops of the Catholic Church is beginning to recover its prophetic voice. It recently issued a pastoral letter on economic justice. It takes a measured approach.
“You can build relationships over time,” Jensen said. “But confrontation doesn’t work.”