« Do you also think of any optimistic scenario ? »

Washing hand station set on a street corner. Luanda, April 2020. pic@chloebuire

A few weeks ago, I took part to an informal meeting organised by an international institution in Luanda. The objective was to gather the opinion of various social scientists in order to support their emergency task force whose mission was to imagine different scenarii regarding the imminent arrival of the Covid-19 in Angola. The convenor explained that they were elaborating five scenarii of gradual gravity. Stage five would require the immediate evacuation of all their foreign staff out of Angola.

Although no one was naive enough to expect social scientists to foresee what would happen, the idea was that, thanks to our in-depth understanding of social dynamics, to our capacity to analyse situations from within, we could provide valuable insights on topics such as « are the poor able to apply the basic hygiene recommendations in their home? », « are the churches aware of the crisis underway? What is their messages? », « is it likely that people in the musseque would rebel against the state and march onto the city? », « would a state of emergency bring up wartime memories and (re)ignite post-traumatic stress? » …

This is a message I received on Whatssap without caption or comment from the sender. It reads: “We inform you that the sickness healing meetings are cancelled because of said sickness”. It reflects the sarcastic humour that surrounded the arrival of Covid-19 but also holds a certain degree of helplessness as it emphasises the uncertainty of ‘healing’.

The meeting was pleasant. We shared the last jokes received on Whatssap and I suspect we all felt somehow flattered to be able to contribute with our own expertise.

But to be honest, I also personally felt as a total fraud in there. I had no clue what would happen, or not happen in the next few days, weeks, months, be it in Angola, in ‘Africa’ or in my own home. As everyone else, I was scared about the « worst » that was coming, the « looming humanitarian and security crisis », « the triple hit », « the chaos » that everyone was predicting. I remember thinking that there were no good translation for « bracing oneself » in either French or Portuguese. We were bracing for the impact. A few days earlier, I had been losing my mind pondering whether I should follow the flow of expats flying back to their Europe or US-based home (the decision to stay in Angola came when I realised it was my only home anyway). A few days later, we would receive the news of the first official cases of Covid-19 infections in Angola.

So there I was, in an acute moment of personal uncertainty, sitting in a meeting whose objective I found dubious from the start but that somehow made me feel empowered. And as the discussion unfolded, I realised that my spontaneous reaction was always to emphasise the fact that Angolans might actually be better prepared for this whole thing than ‘we’ (international staff, foreign experts, expats) were and than we expected.

we need to tell stories about the everyday lives of everyday people who struggle, aspire, fear, grieve, and overcome in no more and no less than anywhere else.(Jess Auerbach, in African Argument, 19 March)

Who am I to speak for Angolans?

I told my colleagues that for most Luandans I knew, dealing with food scarcity was actually a familiar struggle and they knew how to handle it. In the family where I used to stay during my first sojourns in Angola, I saw several days of food stock go to waste because of prolonged power cuts. Of course we were all pained and only ate rice for a couple of days afterwards but nobody went mad about it. It even seemed I was the only one feeling angry about it.I remember once delaying having a shower because our water tanks were empty. My host told me not to worry and just use half of the last jerrycan. The next day, water was flowing out of the faucet.

These are just small anecdotes but they are good reminders that my own idea of scarcity and danger doesn’t compare with that of people who grew up in wartime, who have long given up on the public health system to support them and whose purchasing power has already been divided by two or three in the last couple of years. They are highly vulnerable yes, but they are also used to count only on themselves and aren’t weight down by excessive worry or anger.

At the end of the meeting, the convenor was teasing me for being so optimistic. I smiled but deep down, I felt that it wasn’t exactly a matter of optimism. It was actually a genuine concern for not overgeneralising our own fears and for trusting that a lot of people in Luanda were actually connected to the world enough to understand what was going on and to prepare themselves as rationally as we were. Stocking up on food as much as they could, keeping their homes cleaner than usual, lecturing their children on hand washing and elbow-sneezing. I had no doubt churches were already reading sermons about the responsibility of caring for those who are ill. Public schools were actually quite good at disseminating propaganda materials such as these little posters who explain how to wash your hands properly (even if they often don’t have running water).

So no, I wouldn’t call myself an optimistic per se. I do not believe that Angolan lives worth less than French or Italian ones nor that the people here is more acquainted to death, hence better able to cope with a deadly pandemic. I do not believe in the myths of genetic advantages linked to melanin levels or in a miraculous blockage of the virus at the borders of African countries. But I’m also very skeptical about Armageddon discourses that spread fear and distrust, especially when we basically have no clue about what is happening, let alone what will happen. I asked my host whether they also wrote optimistic scenarii where the situation in Angola would not follow the dreadful exponential curves seen elsewhere. « No. Our job is to plan for the worst. »

I left the meeting quite ill at ease. I don’t want to live in a world made of worst-case scenarii.

I want to be in touch with what real people really do in their real lives. I’m not ready to give up on the diversity of opinions, tactics and priorities that each of us is likely to develop. And I certainly don’t want that my own worldview comes to define the fate of people I don’t even know.

I’m utterly privileged. I belong to the dominant class on almost every aspect. My skin color is a privilege. I earn a fix salary in a stable currency and even in the context of Angola where many products are so overpriced, I earn enough money to buy virtually any kind of food I like (that hasn’t always been the case for me in Luanda in the past decade!). I also own a very powerful passport that allows me to easily travel to more than 160 countries in the world (against 61 for the Angolan passport). And although I’m a woman, my professional status undoubtedly grants me a certain recognition and authority (I still have to figure out what to do with that though). So no, what I’m saying here is not that « don’t worry we’ll all be fine in Angola » just because I personally have no reason to fear for my life.

Things are more complicated than « Covid-19 x (individual poverty + weak public health) = disaster ». 

A month later, it seems that « the worst » hasn’t come yet and slowly, we hear new voices saying that, maybe, the African apocalypse might not take the form of a crowned virus causing respiratory symptoms. Angola remains one of the least infected countries in the world, with only 26 official cases to this date. So yes, figures aren’t transparent and governmental communication is far from perfect. The state was prompt to suppressing basic individual rights, less so to organise support for students, informal workers or even health professionals. But yet, it seems that there hasn’t been any cases of « communitarian contamination ».

As weird as it may sound, the acute class divisions that slashes Angolan society in almost impermeable stratas might play a positive role for once.

The people infected with Covid-19 all arrived by plane. They belong to the privileged class that can afford a passport and international tickets. They do not spend their days in overcrowded markets. They do not live in overcrowded tin houses in overcrowded neighbourhoods. They do not commute everyday in the overcrowded candongueiros. They also don’t depend on the public health system.

Maybe, the epidemic will not take off in Angola after all. Maybe it will be tamed internationally early enough. Maybe Angola will write one of these unbelievable scenarii that the country is so familiar with. Or maybe, what is happening at the moment is simply a proof that the ‘worst-case scenario’ approach just does NOT help to deal with real life.

I still have no clue about what is going to happen to Angola but now I understood that I might have to start playing my part in countering these ready-made tales of humanitarian emergency that dominates how ‘Africa’ is thought from outside and governed from within. More than before, I am convinced that prudent, reflexive, and grounded social science could help shift this trend. Forget prospective scenarios. Stop making promises and predictions. Embrace the slowness of observation. Accept the partiality of chaotic understandings. Give space to the other stories that come  from the past, from the people themselves, or even simply from the streets as the work by manetov showed above illustrates.


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