Once ravaged by war, the coastal Angolan town of Benguela offers an incredible beach and street culture and is a worthy stopover on any given Sunday.
After the congested high-rise business buzz of Luanda, a Sunday afternoon relaxing in the tranquil beauty of Benguela was exactly what we needed to revitalise us for the next leg of our documentary shoot in Angola. Strolling along the wide, tropical, tree-lined streets in the colonial part of the city, passing the majestic Nossa Senhora do Populo church, we stopped occasionally to take in the detail on the colourful Portuguese-style homes, with their ornate metalwork and tropical gardens.
The local Benguelans were also out and about enjoying the balmy March weather. People leaned over balconies to catch some rays, chat to restaurant patrons spilling out onto the street, or wave to friends passing by on foot or on motorbikes – a popular form of transport across Angola. We gravitated towards the sea to walk on the soft sand glistening white at the end of the road, rounding the corner straight into the heart of this charmed and alluring port city. Benguela’s vibey beachfront was packed and pulsating.
Rollerbladers cruised by as people chatted in groups, chilling out or dancing to rhythms emanating from car radios and beat boxes along the promenade. For a while young street dancers dressed in black captivated us, their funky hairdos and rebellious attitudes defied their nimble grace. There were kids frolicking in the warm Atlantic under the gaze of lifeguards and fishermen waiting for a bite, while young people played foosball and older folk sat on the wall watching the world go by.
Immersed in the feeling of an endless summer, it was hard to believe this country had been wracked by 27 years of civil war that had ended only 13 years ago. I had seen the devastation firsthand when I came here in 1995 during a brief ceasefire to work on a documentary exploring the benefits of peace, which was sadly not to be found at that time. Yet here at the beachfront in Benguela, as a witness to the creativity, vibrancy and tenacity of Angolans, it seemed well that they were well on their way to healing the political wounds of the past. As the country continues to rebuild itself, we could see the real potential that young people hold for this country, and this continent.
A real highlight was the capoeira groups doing their highly acrobatic cartwheels, handsprings and fast fighting moves. As I watched them, I was reminded of another brutal era in Angola’s past. Brazil may be famous for developing capoeira and sharing the popular African martial art with the world, but this is where it originated, with Angolan slaves captured and taken to Brazil 400 years ago.
The city of Benguela was founded in 1617 around the São Filipe fortress and was one of the bases for Portugal’s expansion in Africa. The Portuguese abolished slave trafficking only in 1836 and it was right here, from this idyllic port with its colourful fishing boats bobbing in the bay, that as many as two million Angolans were shipped across the Atlantic as slave labour to the Americas, in particular Brazil and Cuba.
The port is still a centre for trade via the Benguela Railway, which links the region with the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Zimbabwe. It is Angola’s third largest city after the capital, Luanda, and Huambo, but is considered by many to be the cultural capital.
Images: Jasyn Howes.