With its public parks, open-fronted villas and pavement cafés, Huambo has been said to feel more European than African. Add the Mediterranean climate and the tree-lined streets and you can see why the Portuguese called the city Nova Lisboa (New Lisbon) after their own capital.
Located in the country’s lush central highlands, among hundreds of thousands of hectares of rich agricultural land and connected to the coast by the Benguela railway, Huambo was once a wealthy and successful city and was even planned to replace Luanda as the country’s capital.
Huambo receives its name from Wambu, one of the 14 old Ovimbundu kingdoms of the central Angolan plateau. The Ovimbundus, an old tribe originally arrived from Eastern Africa, had founded their central kingdom of Bailundu early as the 15th century. Wambu was one of the smaller kingdoms and was hierarchically under the king of Bailundu and came of interest through the advent of the construction of the Benguela Railway by the Portuguese. Though the kings of Bailundu and Wambu (particularly Ekuikui II and Katiavala I) opposed the penetration of the railway by ambushing workers and settlers, they were eventually subdued by the Portuguese Army and Huambo was officially founded on 8 August 1912 by Portuguese General José Mendes Norton de Matos.
Huambo was found to be a strategic place for many reasons. A benign climate (greatly due to its high altitude, 1,700m) and the presence of abundant water resources in and around made of it an ideal spot to have a hub on the railway. A rail system was devised by the British entrepreneur Sir Robert Williams as the easiest and cheapest way to link the rich copper mines of Katanga (Shaba) in Belgian Congo to the Angolan port of Lobito on the coast from which the mineral could be exported; the Lobito bay was admittedly the best natural seaport in the whole continent.
By the 1920s Huambo already was one of the main economic engines of Portuguese Angola. It had some important food processing plants, served as the main exporting point for the Province's considerable agricultural wealth and was also known by its numerous educational facilities, especially the Agricultural Research Institute (currently part of the Faculty of Agricultural Science).
Decades of war, however, stunted Huambo’s ambitions of greatness. The city was a major flashpoint between the ruling MPLA and the rebel group UNITA and it saw some of the worst fighting in the country. Its beautiful buildings were devastated, the countryside peppered with landmines, and hundreds of thousands of people were driven from their homes.
In Huambo’s heyday during the 1960s, it was known as the “granary” of Angola and a major exporter of products such as beans and maize. The legacy of war and landmines still looms large in the province, however, and the majority of farming is subsistence and small scale. Analysts predict that it will take time to relaunch Huambo as a major agriculture exporter, but in the meantime the city is marketing itself as an eco-city. Home to the country’s Institute of Agricultural Research and Faculty of Agricultural Science, Huambo is the national leader in environmental matters.
It also has the Casa Ecologia, an environmental study and education venue, and the park in the city center with its Estufa Fria (greenhouse), which is to be redeveloped and expanded to become a base for researching and preserving indigenous plants.