Pity the Angolans: rich in oil but mired in poverty, led by scoundrels, victims of as grim a history as any country in Africa. A Portuguese colony for over three hundred years, scarred by the slave trade, Angola was finally liberated from Lisbon in 1975, only to be traumatised by a 27-year civil war. Ever since independence the country has been the milch cow for a ruling elite dependent on the patronage of President José Eduardo dos Santos. In office since 1979, he has drawn on a slush fund of billions of dollars from oil exports, now running at nearly two million barrels a day, which he has dispensed to his cronies and family, including his daughter Isabel, Africa’s wealthiest woman. For most travel writers, a destination with such a cornucopia of distress and excess – one Angolan fat cat is said to boast a statue that pees champagne – would have an overwhelming allure. Provided, that is, they have the resilience required. Paul Theroux found the sheer misery he encountered in Angola too much and abandoned a journey that he had intended to end much further north.
Daniel Metcalfe, a 34-year-old who won praise for his first book, Out of Steppe: The Lost Peoples of Central Asia, is made of sterner stuff – or perhaps he enjoys the resilience of youth. To prepare for a three-month stay in Angola he takes the trouble to learn Portuguese, reads