Louise Redvers says the Pope is likely to receive a rapturous welcome when he touches down in the south-central African nation next week Every Saturday a group of women gather outside the Church of Our Lady of Nazareth in downtown Luanda dressed in a uniform of brightlycoloured headscarves, sarongs and white T-shirts and armed with traditional brooms made of sticks.
They collect water in large buckets which they carry on their heads before dousing the paving slabs outside the church and scrubbing, their bare feet covered in soap suds.
“The church must be cleaned,” one elderly woman told me, stooping wearily as she brushed fiercely at the ground. “It is our duty and we come every Saturday to do this.” Another with a child tied to her back added: “The Church is our life, it gives us strength and it keeps us safe and in peace.” For the women in groups like this one, which number hundreds in Angola where more than 55 per cent of the population is Catholic, the visit of Pope Benedict XVI is an important confirmation of their faith.
Fernanda Amelia da Costa, 51, remembers shaking the hand of the late John Paul II when he visited Angola in 1992, and she spoke excitedly about Benedict’s imminent arrival.
“I remember it like it was yesterday,” the grandmother of 10 said, “I was working in the hospital and he came to see us there and that is when he took my hand. It made me so happy and I will never forget that moment.
“Knowing that the Pope is coming to see us here in Angola gives us much happiness because we know he will come in peace and bring affection and support to us all.” Angola’s relationship with Catholicism dates back more than 500 years and celebrating this anniversary is another reason for Benedict’s visit.
A lot has happened to Angola in those 500 years however: centuries of Portuguese colonial rule, a long and cruel slave trade, a bloody liberation struggle and then three decades of bitter civil war which claimed half a million lives and displaced many more.
John Paul visited Angola in 1992, during a brief ceasefire, but fighting resumed soon afterwards and peace only came to the southern African country in 2002.
Since then, however, Angola has seen its fortunes begin to change.
Oiland diamond-rich, it has been one of the world’s fastest-growing economies, and last September the country held a peaceful and credible legislative election (won overwhelmingly by the MPLA – the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola).
The Catholic Church has been with Angola through each twist and turn of its long journey, notably leading the humanitarian aid effort during the war and then playing an active role in the peace movement and encouraging dialogue between the different sides.
Now, in peace time, the Church continues to play a much-needed pastoral role: two-thirds of Angolans lives on less than two dollars a day, 10.5 million have no access to sanitation and one in four children die before their fifth birthday.
While the government is starting to address the country’s social needs, much support is still provided at grassroots level by the Church, from orphanages to schools to HIV and Aids programmes.
Sister Amelia Carreira, a member of the Hospitable Franciscan Sisters of the Immaculate Conception, helps run a centre in a Luanda suburb, giving food, play and lessons to over 100 children between six months and five-yearsold who would otherwise be left at home by working mothers.
“The war changed a lot of things here,” she said, “And people are still trying to recover from that, the many social problems still need healing.” But while the Church continues this pastoral duty, it has not silenced the critical voice it found in the peace movement and Radio Ecclesia is widely acknowledged as Angola’s most credible news source, carrying views from opposition parties and hosting open forum debates on social and human rights issues.
But the station continues to be restricted to transmission only within the capital, Luanda.
David Sogge, an independent development researcher who worked in Angola during the war years, said: “Luanda has a very progressive Catholic network and this has formed some of the most interesting parts of Angola’s civil society and the majority of the human rights efforts.
“The fight to extend Ecclesia’s transmission has been going on for years and reflects the government wanting to keep the progressive voice in Luanda where it is already strong, but not let it out into the provinces.” Previous attempts to extend the signal have been turned down, but Fr Mauricio Camuto, director of Radio Ecclesia, said Benedict’s visit was an opportunity to change the minds of politicians.
“For me today, these attitudes are out of date,” he said. “We are no longer in a time of controlled information when people are only able to hear the information the government wants them to hear.” While Radio Ecclesia will be at the forefront of the Church’s agenda, the government will perhaps be hoping to use Benedict’s visit to show its openness to the Catholic Church ahead of the forthcoming presidential election.
There was a similar display in 1992 for the visit of John Paul when the previously Marxist ruling MPLA used the papal tour as a way of legitimising itself in the eyes of Angolan Catholics.
Perhaps it’s no coincidence that 17 years later Benedict’s first appointment on his three-day tour is with President Jose Eduardo dos Santos, followed by an audience of politicians and diplomats.
Aside from this first day of officialdom, however, Benedict’s programme is very much community-based, with Masses in neighbourhoods and football stadiums and meetings with Catholic youth and women’s groups.
The Catholic Church, of course, knows how important Benedict’s visit is to his dedicated flock, but they are perhaps also mindful of the increasing number of new reli gious movements springing up across Angola, particularly in urban slum areas, and will want the papal visit to renew interest in Catholicism.
The Brazilian Igreja Universal do Reino de Deus (Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, or UCKG) now has more than 200 churches across Angola and also growing in popularity is the Igreja de Nosso Senhor Jesus Cristo no Mundo (Church of our Jesus Christ in the World).
Aside, however, from these well-established congregations, there has also been a surge in traditional African faiths and some have been linked to child abuse and human sacrifice.
Last year 40 children had to be rescued from the Luanda premises of a group calling itself the Evangelical Church of Traditional Healing.
The youngsters, some just babies, had been made to fast, had their arms burned and perfume poured in their eyes, state media reported. Fatima Viegas, director of INAR (the National Institute for Religious Affairs), said the war and its legacy of poverty were to blame.
“Everybody needs to believe in something,” she said, “And these churches appear offering solutions to problems when in fact they are just there to exploit.” Whatever Benedict makes of Angola his visit certainly marks Angola out as an important Catholic nation.
Nicole Walshe, Angola country representative for Trócaire, said: “I think the Pope’s visit to Angola will give people confidence that Angola is now turning the corner, coming out of a difficult period into a new one of consolidation of peace, following on from elections last year.
“And more than anything,” she added: “The people will appreciate being recognised by Rome and by the Vatican.”