An audience with Angola’s president
By Dr Stephen Foster | in Southern Africa
SIM Canada’s Dr Stephen Foster, who has served in Angola for 42 years, shares about an opportunity for collaboration between the government and the church.
It was Friday afternoon and I was scrubbing up to do a skin graft on a woman in my care when my phone rang.
I ignored it, but then as I de-gowned after the operation, it rang again.
This time I answered to hear, “Are you Dr Estevão Foster?”
I said, “Yes, sir.”
It was the general in charge of the Office of the President of the Republic of Angola. He said, “Can you be at the airport in 90 minutes? You are an invited guest of President João Lourenço at the official opening of the Dr Walter Strangway Hospital tomorrow morning in Cuito, Bie.”
Dr Campos, an old colleague from 30 years ago and a former dean of the faculty of medicine, had called a month before to ask me to say a few words at the opening. It would be on behalf of medical mission efforts in Angola, dating back 140 years.
He told me the churches in central Angola would determine the date and organise the opening ceremony. I asked if it wouldn’t be more proper for another colleague, Dr Collins, to speak, since he had grown up knowing Dr Strangway and had called him “Uncle Walter.”
Nothing more was said, so I assumed it had been cancelled due to COVID-19 restrictions, which prevented travel outside Luanda for those inside the sanitary cordon.
Clearly, I had not anticipated the influence of Angola’s president.
My wife Peggy dropped me at the Lubango airport after the call. I was met by State Protocol and asked to wait for the airliner. Soon, we were on our way to Cuito.
Opposite me were three members of the president’s office, one of whom took me to supper that evening. He was chief of social media for the Office of the President. He plied me with questions about our time in Angola. I explained in detail the difficulties the church and the mission organisations had encountered.
I told him that coordinated work with the government would require re-learning and building trust. I kept asking him if the president was serious in getting the churches involved again in healthcare.
I got up early to pen a speech, because they had not communicated my role in the opening ceremony. Instead, Dr Collins and I were taken to the new provincial reference hospital.
There, we met with our honorary Canadian consul, Allan Cain. He said, “After much internet research, I haven’t found the connection between the president and Dr Strangway.”
Before the president’s red-carpet entrance, a staff member drew all three of us aside and said the president wanted to meet us in the governor’s palace after the hospital tour. Finally, I thought, we might get to speak with him.
The ceremony started with a video on the life of Dr Strangway, who left Ontario in 1928 with his wife Alice, a lab technician, to work in Chissamba, Angola. He built a 140-bed hospital and went on to do some 40,000 operations.
I was surprised by the praise for a medical missionary. At the time, Protestant mission work was not allowed within a 15-kilometre radius of any town.
After the impressive tour of a beautiful 230-bed setup, we were permitted half an hour with the president. Once introductions were finished, Dr Collins asked, “What is your connection to Dr Strangway?”
He smiled and said, “Let me tell you my story.”
For the next 15 minutes, we were spellbound. It emerged that his father was a nurse who had trained at the Methodist mission hospital of Quessua near Malange. His dad then got a job with the Port of Lobito Clinic, where the president was born the following year. His dad was picked up by the secret security police in 1958 and jailed for two years in Luanda.
Upon release, his CV was blacklisted, preventing him from working in any state institution. Fortunately, his father found work at the Chissamba Hospital and a warm welcome from Dr Strangway. During his boyhood, the president watched Walter on rounds, because his dad insisted that he had to do his homework on the ward porch where he could be seen.
The president spoke with such affection and emotion. I could see he was deeply moved by these old memories. He said he had hoped to someday have an opportunity to honour Dr Strangway. Saturday was that day.
I couldn’t have prepared a more perfect moment to be asked by our consul to present a vision of what the next 10 years of ministry in Angola could look like.
“Sir,” I said, “If God should spare me for another decade, I would like to prepare up to one hundred new doctors, nurses, administrators, and mid-level providers.
“I want them to bring healthcare at the primary and secondary level to the rural peoples of Angola. We need your permission to launch a pilot programme in four initial municipalities.”
I went on to detail the struggles we’ve experienced in delivering healthcare and asked him to help the churches of Angola. He smiled!
He asked what all the proposed improvements would cost. I said that 25 million USD would get us started. He turned to his cabinet chief and said, “That’s only 2.5 million per year. Let’s do it. Please get Dr Foster’s contact details.”
This was a massive accomplishment. I hope the new mandate is a gateway for other breakthroughs, like recognition for non-profit hospitals which are currently counted as for-profit businesses.
Pray with us
Will you pray for the work ahead?
• Pray for the working group as they generate a vision statement, core values, and expected results.
• Pray for the team to find an external group of consults to help us implement our vision.
• Pray for good relations with the president’s office.
• Pray for Dr Foster and the other Christ followers involved to be faithful in lifting up the name of Jesus above all else.