Page last updated at 11:04 GMT, Saturday, 18 September 2010 12:04 UK

Angolan traders mourn loss of Roque Santeiro market

By Louise Redvers
BBC News, Luanda

Customers at Roque Santeiro market
Roque Santeiro market had been trading since the 1980s

Angolan street traders are mourning the loss of the historic Roque Santeiro market which has moved to refurbished premises as part of the country's recovery from its civil war.

"Roque, Roque, Roque Cem Kwanzas," the taxi boys would chant, hanging from the open doors of their blue and white minibuses, touting for trade.

Named after a Brazilian soap opera, Roque Santeiro was the beating heart of Angola's informal economy and the main destination for the city's Candongueiro taxis.

In the television show, Roque Santeiro was the hero who rescued his city. During Angola's decades of Marxist rule and civil war, the market was a similar sort of saviour.

It sprang up in the 1980s when only "party" officials had access to the shops and even when those restrictions lapsed, you were guaranteed that however empty the shelves were in town, Roque Santeiro would always have what you were looking for and more.

One Angolan friend, now living in the United States, described Roque, which sprawled over a vast site alongside the city's port, as Luanda's first shopping mall.

There may not have been air-conditioning or cinemas, but it certainly sold anything and everything you ever wanted, from food, clothes, household items and cars, homebrew and contraband cigarettes and alcohol.

A tailor operating a sowing machine in Roque Santeiro market
At the old Roque Santerio market tailors offered a bespoke service

It was arranged by sections, shoes in one row, lightbulbs in another, and at the back, mini livestock areas where chickens, cows and goats were slaughtered to order and cooked in giant saucepans on charcoal fires.

Lining the darker alleys, currency traders and traditional money lenders would sit hissing at potential customers, waving wads of dollar bills in front of them, occasionally smiling to reveal a gold tooth.

Young women in torn flip flops would stride through the litter strewn sand pathways, sleeping babies hanging from their backs, and buckets of soap powder and vegetables balanced on their heads.

They would call out the prices in a deep guttural tone, their voices merging with the sound of distorted speakers blasting out pirate CDs, the rattle of sewing machines where tailors (usually from the Democratic Republic of Congo) made clothes to order, and the high-pitched screech of motorbikes which weaved precariously through the crowds.

Those voices and motorbikes have been silenced now, the music switched off and the sewing machines packed away, replaced by the whirr of bulldozers which have moved in to flatten the land after the provincial government of Luanda called time on the market.

Traders' tears

Now all that is left of the famous Roque Santeiro is a litter-strewn wasteland, where children play among the broken glass and dogs run wild.

Bulldozer clearing Roque Santerio market
The site of the market has been cleared ahead of development

The authorities say the market had to be closed down because it was cramped and unhygienic, a den of organised crime and prostitution.

According to officials, the land is to be "urbanised" as part of what politicians here call the "requalification" of an area where millions live in overcrowded, slum conditions without access to water or sanitation.

Cynics, however, say the motive behind the closure was to reclaim this prime real estate for the development of luxury homes with Atlantic views.

Some of Roque's women traders I spoke to in the days before the closure had tears in their eyes. Many had been selling there for decades.

"Roque is our mother and our father," one told me. "This is our space, the space of the people, and now they will take it away from us."

A brand-new market has been built 20km (12 miles) north of the city and has just opened to traders for the first time.

Market trader in Panguila
Will the new market in Panguila prove at hit with customers?

I went up to Panguila to see the new facilities which were impressive: an organised single entrance, car parks, a police and medical post, banks, running water, electricity and plenty of space.

But the road is still under construction and it took me a good two hours to navigate the traffic and potholes to get there.

When I did finally arrive, there was chaos at the entrance with scores of women still queuing to get registered for their stall.

Those vendors who had managed to register and were already selling said they liked the new market but it was just too far from the city.

One complained he had got up at 0400 to beat the traffic and it had cost him the equivalent of £4 ($6) to get there by taxi, compared with the £0.50 he used to pay to reach the old market.

"I like the place," he told me. "It's clean and feels safe, but the road is not good and I wonder whether any customers will really want to come here."

The market's administrator shrugged off the complaints when we met for a short interview in his comfortable air-conditioned office, tucked away from the hubbub of the market stalls.

He said the road would be fixed in time and that Roque could not have carried on how it was. The people had to accept change.

Driving back past the desolate plot where Roque once throbbed and thrived there seemed to be more than just a gap in the landscape.

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