Writing about “that kind of country” in a time of coronavirus
Now more than ever, it is essential that writing on Africa focuses not just on devastation and despair but beauty, success, dignity, love and laughter.
One memorable evening in 2013, I watched hundreds of proud parents file into a rented auditorium to witness the grand finale of their children’s school play. As the performance commenced, the audience began to glow. Mums and dads took out their tablets to film their little ones dance and stumble across the stage dressed as trees, bunnies and butterflies. The next day, social media was awash with clips, selfies and official photos – posed for on an actual red carpet the school had procured – from the evening before.
These families’ main concerns were of how to love, care for and celebrate their children. How to help them grow and ensure they’d be equipped to deal with the inevitable struggles of life. How to capture memories for the future and build a solid foundation from which to navigate an unjust world.
The above scene could have unfolded in just about any middle-class community around the globe. The questions facing these families are universal. This one happened to take place in Angola.
It was in this country that I spent years doing my doctoral research on the emergent middle class. I taught music at a primary school, went on long hikes with local Boy and Girl Scouts, and explored the everyday transformations that are the substance of individual lives, whether or not they are occurring at the edges of political upheaval.
That research has now taken the form of a book, From Water to Wine. This is not a typical academic text on Africa. It uses sensory writing – dividing the book into sections like “Touch”, “Taste” and “Sight” – aimed at bringing attention to how life is experienced in embodied ways. It shares the flavours, textures, smells, sounds and visions of a nation that, for the first time in the 500 years since the Portuguese settled near the river Congo, has had almost two decades “at peace”.
The book is written with digital natives in mind: that is, people who have learned to think in the stream of the internet, or perhaps who are learning to do so right now in conditions of lock down amid the coronavirus pandemic. This group, of course, includes many in Angola, where members of the youthful population check their phones just as often as their counterparts in Berlin or Caracas.
Perhaps the most unusual aspect of the book, however, is what it is about.
Growing up white in South Africa at the tail end of apartheid, Angola was not a topic of public conversation. South African troops had been heavily involved in the Cold War proxy conflict that took place there in the 1970s and 1980s. Many of us intuited as children that the horrors they’d unleashed abroad might have been even worse than those exposed by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission at home.
Today, Angola is still rarely spoken of by outsiders, except in terms of its deadly history, its vast oil reserves or corruption. The Luanda Leaks investigation this January – which exposed former “First Daughter” Isabel Dos Santos and the global networks involved in the looting of hundreds of millions of dollars – was one of the very rare moments in which Angola registered in international headlines. A similar thing could be said of most African countries.
This matters. In March 2019, Cyclone Idai hit Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Malawi, and was followed quickly by Cyclone Kenneth. This caused one of the worst environmental disasters to ever afflict the region, killing over a thousand people, affecting millions more and causing over $2 billion of damage. A global appeal was launched. Two weeks later, it had raised $35 million. The contrast with what happened the next month when the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris burned down could not be starker. Within just ten days of that fire, donors had pledged over $835 million, far exceeding the estimated costs needed to actually restore the building.
This is what is at stake in contemporary writing about Africa. It is one of the arenas in which we continue to contend with questions like: Whose humanity counts? Whose culture, symbols and relationships are worth caring about? Whose lives matter when fires, floods and other disasters – which will only become more frequent amid the climate crisis – strike? What happens to a country with a weak health infrastructure like Angola in a global pandemic, and who pays attention?
These questions are particularly important at this historical moment. Many of the world’s most powerful actors are no longer committed to human rights; global mobility is increasingly being curtailed, most starkly, now, with a viral outbreak; and the effects of climate collapse are becoming more immediate.
As things stand, vast swathes of the world’s population are effectively dehumanised in the Global North by what people see and read. Many regions are still only ever painted as in crisis or corrupt, and the instinctive response by many to huge global problems – most of them man-made or based in unjust global systems – is to simply build walls. Under the covid-19 crisis, many countries have closed down airports and banned foreign visitors. What new precedents will this set that, even once the virus is contained, will shape the next world order? What will be the place of each of us?
In a conversation with a highly educated, well-travelled European friend this week, I expressed concern about the lack of data from Angola on Covid-19, and my fears of what might happen – probably will happen – when the virus takes hold there. “It’s tragic, of course” he said, “but people in that kind of country have far more proximity to death so they can probably cope with it better than those of us in Europe.”
This was alarming to hear, but in retrospect, was perhaps most upsetting because of how uncontroversial and mainstream a perspective this is in the “West” writ large. Let us remember that the coronavirus became much more concerning to the global media when it ceased to be just a problem for China – another “that kind of country” – and when Europeans began to die.
As yet, we cannot say what the implications of the current crisis will be, only that it is very unlikely that things are going to get better quickly. This is why I believe that, now more than ever, it is essential that writing on Africa focuses not just on devastation and despair but beauty, success, dignity, love, life, hope, drama, laughter and perhaps the occasional soap-opera.
We need to tell stories about school plays, workouts at the gym, holidays at the beach and investments in the stock market. In short, 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. We must recognise that “that kind of country” is our kind of world.
In current maps, the spread of the virus is just beginning in Africa relative to the rest of the world. That may be because of significant under-reporting due to a lack of testing capacity. Most accept that cases will almost certainly increase on the continent, as the virus spreads from countries with far more resources to control it to those with far fewer. In a worst-case scenario, an Orwellian future looms, where for some of us, the borders might never be reopened.
We cannot afford to have the humanity of our families, friends, and school children compromised by tired clichés of suffering, even as attention must be continuously drawn to the real challenges that citizens face. My book, From Water to Wine, was written before the coronavirus outbreak, but it offers a contribution to a hopeful shift away from a discourse defined by suffering, and towards one of beauty and everyday humanity that is more critical than ever in the current global moment.
The hope is by the time the children who played flowers and butterflies in Luanda in 2013 come of age, they may discover a world that actually sees them. If the world even looks, of course. Right now, fear is making many of us look only inwards, instead of outwards to the world where we might see what will really define us.