“Where were you when we were we?” – wandering thoughts about rain, fire, monsters and privileges

Last Monday was one of these low-productivity day. It was raining in Luanda.

“Rain in Luanda” is not just “rain”. It’s a wake-up call. It’s a magnifying mirror showing us everything that’s wrong in our little microcosmoses. It brings up global warming and climate anxieties. It amplifies my internal rage against generalised urban failure. It feeds paralysing feelings of social injustice and spatial segregation. Social media buzz with tragicomic videos of people canoeing in flooded streets, pictures of semi-immersed cars and cathartic memes exorcising the fatigue felt in front of a too-well-known scenario.

Luanda is a city located in the tropical rain belt. Forget the scientific jargon and ask anyone on the street in Luanda: April is the month for heavy rains. It might not rain for 11 months but then comes April and the skies open. And Luanda is flooded. Every single year. And every year, we see new videos, new pictures, new memes. And we laugh and we cry. And we go on. What are we supposed to do?

‘Humanity is turning into its own monster’

A few hours after the rain stops, formal reports start to replace social media outcry. Local journalists provide the facts, cold and terrifying: 14 people died, 8000 lost their homes. They produce the material that is likely to call the attention of international media, like this series of pictures signed by a photograph of the French Press Agency and published by the US media Voice of America. There will even be a little bit of turmoil when the Portuguese President expresses his solidarity with Angola before the Angolan President made any official declaration. Armindo Laureano, editorialist of respected weekly newspaper goes lyrical about the feeling of abandon felt by his fellow citizens.

[Citizens] expect from those who are leading them a word of comfort, of courage and of hope. And when those who should speak remain silent, for them it sounds like contempt, like the incapacity to lead and to deal with the situation. Life is hard and difficult. Citizens are in need of affection and attention, and those who govern, unfortunately, take time to read the signals.

Life is certainly “hard and difficult” but I don’t know if citizens are in need of affection. A good hug would probably be a nice gesture but I’d say they mostly need better urban planning, appropriate public works and reliable social support. There is something slightly patronising in this reading of a citizenry waiting to be ‘comforted’ by its President but it captures well how much these annual torrential rains tend to leave us flabbergasted. Or maybe I should say anaesthetised. Were we supposed to expect anything at all? The question is maybe less “what are we supposed to do?” than “what are we supposed to feel?”.

In a recent interview about his latest exhibition in Luanda, visual artist Thó Simões speaks beautifully of how “humanity is turning into its own monster”. The title of his exhibition, Between Monsters and Humans, is a reflection on how we are losing our sensibility in front of daily problems, more often than not we end up adapting to absurd situations instead of fighting against them. “I gonna give you an example,” goes Thó Simões, “if I wake up in the middle of the night and find my house flooded because it rained outside, but I don’t panic – I might be irritated and angry for a few seconds, but then deal with the situation as if it was mundane – then there is something weird in this scenario. The normal thing would be to panic.”

‘The normal thing would be to panic’

Thó Simões about his latest exhibition Between Monsters and Humans

So it rained in Luanda. I woke up at 5am to take our clothes off the line and I went back to sleep. My daughter was probably a little late at school, my workflow was a bit more interrupted than usual but that’s all. I could press that “I’m safe” button that Facebook likes to create when there’s a natural disaster. But the button doesn’t exist for Luanda. Who cares? People who are affected by the rain have other thing to do than press a Facebook button. People who are willing to press a button don’t know what rain is.

As I tidy my thoughts up, I realise that a rainy day in Luanda is yet another reminder of the interlaced privileges I have, as a French expatriate, as a white woman, as a knowledge worker. But then what? People are still throwing buckets of dirty water out of their living room as I write. Parents are scared their child might get electrocuted when stepping in their flooded backyard. “What would you save first if your house was flooded?” Tip: the answer is not my TV-set or my PlayStation.

And then, a second theme comes and runs through my Facebook thread. Fire in Cape Town. I heard of the wildfires on Table Mountain during the weekend but that was like floods in Luanda. Unfortunate. Usual. Today is different because of the pictures I screenshot below. It’s not about Table Mountain anymore, not even about overpopulated settlements on the Cape Flats where losing one’s home to a fire is common thing. Unfortunate. Usual. No. This time, the pictures are calling my attention. They are pictures of the century-old University of Cape Town. Pictures of the Jagger reading room aka African Studies library. On fire. And suddenly it feels like a personal loss. I spent long hours in that library during my PhD. I was a student, I was a sponge. Many things I’ve read there I have absorbed without really knowing how. It was before “Zotero” and before PDFs. It was old style book reading and journal’s scrolling…

Google Image search for “UCT FIRE” on Monday 26th April,
one week after the JaggerLibrary was destroyed by a bushfire.

Just like the floods in Luanda, the fire in Cape Town only reached beyond my ‘monstrous’ filters when it touched deep personal memories. In both cases, people have lost their homes. In Cape Town fortunately, it seems that people living on the slope of the mountain had the time to be evacuated. There, local government and civil society have been able to organise emergency accomodation and food assistance. In the last week, damages have been thoroughly assessed by professionals, and the popular emotion has partially translated into donations, either through dropping-off needed products for firefighters and evacuated students, or through financial donations to the firefighters, to the NGO coordinating the disaster response on the ground and directly to the University’s Donations Fund.

Here in Luanda, I’m left with my very own little privileged monster. I feel ashamed. I am saddened by the picture of an old building in flames but almost untouched by the images of the floods in the city where I live.

“People are at work, building and talking to each other.”

My personal emotion at seeing the library devoured by the fire makes me feel awkward and, once again, bounces against the whole “privilege” story. I can try and unravel my mixed feelings (sadness and shame, fear and lassitude, anger and cynicism etc.). Or maybe I should read more marxist theory and postmodern metaphysics. Instead, a colleague sends me the link to a great paper by Mũkoma Wa Ngũgĩ entitled White Privilege in African Studies: When You Are Done, Please Call Us. The US-based literary scholar speaks, with a wit and plainness I could ever only aspire to, of the “self-perpetuating and self-rewarding African Studies Industrial Complex”:

African Studies as a discipline is led by a conservative ideology (…) Covid-19 and the consequent lockdowns made this plain and clear — that the problem with African Studies is one of ideology and relevancy rather than becoming a more efficient and racially equal disciplined machine. In the US, we went into lock down —no more jetting into convention centers or more accurately, no more hustling for visas, airline tickets, discounted conference fees for Africa-based scholars, etc. Those on the continent quickly created alternative spaces, in addition to all the other initiatives and intellectual projects historically happening on the ground. (…) People are at work, building and talking to each other. The self-flagellating discussions about white privilege and African Studies were outside the radar of the urgent work that was being done.

Thank you Mũkoma Wa Ngũgĩ for giving me the words to express what I’ve been feeling for some time now and that this troubled Monday of rain and fire has revived once more. “People are at work, building and talking to each other.” I have been increasingly frustrated in the past couple of years by the number of publications trying to list what it takes to be a “woke” white person, to commit to what is called “transformation” in South Africa, or, more academically, to be/ think / act “decolonial“. Although there might be some cool ideas here and there, I’ve felt that reading this kind of texts took me off the actual task of crafting spaces (mental, temporal, physical) for the kind of work and life I aspire to.

On the 17th of April, José, young activist, was arrested and beaten up by the police while he took part to a student march in Luanda. A week later, he calls for a new protest for better public services in his neighbourhoods. His Facebook post reads as follows: ‘I’m having a chamomile tea for body strength. Today the administration of Cacuaco is going to learn how things work’.

A week later, the mud is still sticky on the streets of Luanda and the smell of burnt wood and paper is probably still acrid on the ruins of the Jagger Library in Cape Town. I cannot really say I’ve tidied my thoughts and feelings up but I know it’s time to be at work, actively, everyday. Time to dig into those difficult conversations about privilege and being a monster to oneself. But also to feed all these other conversations that we deserve to have. Conversations about why rap music helps me link the dots in Luanda (coming up soon!). Conversations about the right to protest and how to make a march fun and uplifting (follow José’s advice above: drink chamomile!). Conversations about the choice of the dress for a young bride or about the place that sells the greenest veggies in town. Talking to each other might help keep the monsters at bay for a while, and in the meantime, we might make a few steps towards building a lighter, more creative and less judgemental space. For academia and for life.


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