António Tomás picks through the post-independence architectural ruins of Angola’s capital city and reveals a cross-section of the economies of exchange and distribution, the relationships of give, take and take again, and the vice and violence that permeate the act of securing land and home in a city greased with the “devil’s excrement”.
In his haste to squat in an apartment in downtown Luanda, António Macedo may have run into a group of those city dwellers, mostly white settlers, who began packing up to leave the city in May 1975. It was the end of almost 500 years of the so-called Portuguese Empire in Africa, and the settlers were making a hasty exit from a country that would very soon be ruled by former guerrilla fighters. The contents of their apartments and residences, in the words of the Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski, were transferred from the “stone city to the inside of the wooden city” – to the thousands of crates standing in the main downtown streets, or in backyards, waiting to be shipped to Portugal, Brazil or South Africa.
I can imagine my uncle Macedo wandering amid the debris of a past civilisation, picking through the remnants to lay claim to a place in the phantom-like cement city that had been built for settlers. He was one of the million Angolans who squatted in the houses of the settlers before and after independence. Before claiming a place in the cement city, Macedo had lived in the musseque of Prenda with family members of some unknown and untraceable blood relation. With independence approaching, he moved to an apartment building in Coqueiros, a cosy neighbourhood only one block from the famous Marginal. That area of Luanda was flatteringly described by the author Gabriel García Marquez, in a visit to the country in 1976, as a “French Riviera” because of its pavements planted with palm trees in front of rows of glass buildings.
Like many other Angolans, Macedo did not occupy only one apartment. He was young and unmarried, but he took four apartments. His estate in this building consisted of one apartment on the first floor, another one on the third, and two more on the fourth. Besides these, he also controlled the little service rooms in the corridors, those spaces that colonial architects had designed for black caretakers. These cubicles, hardly big enough for a single bed, would be in high demand decades later when the city became a hub for speculators. For his part, Macedo would later use these rooms to accommodate family and friends.
As a soldier and an athlete of CODENM (the powerful military sports club), as well as a member of the ruling party, MPLA, Macedo was easily able to amass property. He had proudly represented Angola as a long-distance runnner at the Olympic Games and in marathons around the world. He was well regarded by the political elite, and a recipient and distributor of gifts in a culture of patronage instituted by MPLA.
The Angolan state never recognised the property rights and claim to title of the squatters who occupied those buildings. Instead, through the Act covering the Nationalisation and Confiscation of Factory and Other Goods enacted in 1976, the state became the sole proprietor of a great part of the urban stock. In the first years after independence, with the abundance of urban space and the demonetisation of the economy, the settlers’ old apartments lost their value: they could be acquired and exchanged almost for free. But things would change in the late 1980s. Luanda would become the final destination of thousands of Angolans fleeing the bleak economic prospects of the countryside, as well as of many foreigners coming to work in the country. Urban dwellers, or the tenants of the state, could still informally acquire apartments, as long as they could navigate the bureaucratic labyrinth of the Junta da Habitação Housing Board to get their names on the payment receipts. With this in mind, one of Macedo’s subletters on the third floor began to plot to get her hands on one of those receipts so as to transfer the apartment into her name. The neighbour quickly befriended Macedo’s daughter, who would often invite her over. One day, when Macedo was out, she managed to sneak in and stole the pile of receipts that he kept in a drawer. A few days later, when Macedo was about to set out for the Housing Board to pay the rent, he realised that the papers were missing. He had no doubt who had stolen them, and went downstairs to confront his subletter. She denied these charges, an altercation ensued and Macedo slapped her twice in the face.
Macedo then decided to sell the apartment. A few days later, a young man came to his house and told him that there were two potential buyers downstairs. Macedo went down to find two well-dressed men inside an expensive Audi, which in those years was the car most likely to be driven by a minister, MP or army general. Macedo was invited to get in and listen to their proposition. He acquiesced, but after taking his place in the middle of the back seat, between the two men, he suddenly realised that one of them was a Unita general who had recently been integrated into the unified national army.
The situation became eerie when the car stopped at Quinaxixe (in the city centre), to drop off the young man who had introduced the alleged buyers. Night was approaching and the city was getting darker. Suddenly, the men began to hit Macedo, beating him so badly that by the time the car arrived at its final destination, Cacuaco, a satellite city of Luanda, he had lost his senses. He felt nothing when he was dragged out of the car to a secluded place, dumped with his belly on the ground, and shot three times in his back with an AKM automatic rifle.
Almost miraculously, the bullets failed to kill him. He recovered consciousness in the middle of a pitch-black night, and somehow managed to drag himself to the closest village to get help. Once there, he had to first convince the villagers that his appearance was not the outcome of a failed robbery – thieves were frequently subjected to vigilante justice – but, rather, a failed murder attempt. He was then taken to the Military Hospital in a pick-up truck, and admitted after paying a gasosa (bribe). After several months there he was discharged, and immediately filed charges against his third-floor neighbour and her associates. Nothing happened to her, since her material involvement in the affair was never proven. The young man who had come to his apartment, however, was sentenced to 15 years in prison, and died after 10. The general was never convicted, but he died a couple of years later, from natural causes. Macedo still lives in the same building and, ironically, earns a living by helping a group of Portuguese citizens recover property they lost after independence.
Today, Luanda is a city haunted by its colonial past. Walking through certain parts of the city one experiences a phantasmagoria akin to what Walter Benjamin found in the ruins of Naples, which he deemed a “transiency of empires”. For Benjamin, the decaying Naples was allegorical in its refusal to be reduced to the architectural forms that were triumphing all over Europe. And Luanda’s decay can also be decoded in such allegorical terms. Like Paris, the Angolan city’s centre was conceived to have a vibrant commercial life. But here the arcades have been tropicalised: they are open to the city. In the Quinaxixe Market, buildings are supported by poles, so as to both provide shade that protects passersby from the irradiating sun and create a space for built-in stores. Even though a number of the stores have been refurbished and operate normally, a great many of these spaces are in ruins. Today, a number of the arcades are simply showcases of the infrastructural problems that afflict these buildings: extensive water damage and decay.
Anyone seeking to understand the negotiations of liminality in a Luanda on the verge of imminent collapse, need look no further than a specific complex, formed by five buildings with twelve apartments each, distributed in six storeys, located in the Municipality of Rangel, in the neighbourhood of Nelito Soares. This housing project, built in the early 1970s, signalled a shift in Portuguese urban policy, when housing for Africans began to take on the form of vertical constructions. These buildings were erected very quickly by the Portuguese, using a prefabrication technique that made it possible to assemble a pre-built iron structural grid, which would then be plastered with a thin layer of cement. As with many other buildings in Luanda, they were only inhabited after independence, when the Housing Board distributed the keys of these apartments to a number of its clerks. Now, 42 families (roughly 250 people) live there. Time has eaten away the cement that once covered the building. The decaying walls, with large holes through which the rusted iron structure is visible, recall a putrefying prehistoric animal. On the first floor, where the signs of decrepitude are most prominent, industrious tenants have tried to repair the damage. Parts of the iron structure have been welded to pieces of tyre rims. As almost everywhere else in Luanda, water damage was probably the key cause of the deterioration of this complex.
Inhabitants of the complex would often go for long stretches of time without running water, forcing them to fetch it from outside the building. Worse than the lack of water was its sudden appearance: it would start running from the taps with such pressure that pipes would explode, creating leaks, sometimes in parts of the steel casing. So now, with the walls eroding in most parts, some corridors have only the steel casing left. There are no more stairs, no more banisters, and, in some parts, not even a floor. In the worst parts of the buildings, the outer walls, which support the bathrooms, have collapsed. From the streets, those bathrooms – one stacked upon the other, some hidden by curtains and others not – can be seen, as if the whole building had been longitudinally cut open.
But it is not only necessity that forces the building’s inhabitants to live under such appalling conditions. Nobody in this complex wants to leave their apartments. A couple of years ago the tenants were approached by a developer – certainly one of those investors acting for people in power – to leave their apartments in exchange for a total payment of US$1 million to be divided among 42 families. In addition, they were offered houses in Zango, a social and urban development project on the outskirts of the city, where the government relocates squatters cleared from other areas. They rejected the offer. There is a sense of justice in the squatters’ reasoning: it is not fair for them to be relocated to a place that is situated 30 km further from the city centre than the place where they were born, and for which they have paid the rent for many years, especially because they would have to live alongside squatters who have never paid rent. But there is also greed in this story. The apartments they live in do not have any value; once they leave, the building will be bulldozed. But this patch of land, which could be the location for a factory, or a hotel, is worth a great deal, especially in an Angolan economy inflated by oil. But to get that money, which the squatters believe they deserve, they must first gamble with their own lives, by sticking around and living in unsafe conditions.
Prices for buying and renting space in Luanda have risen in a way that almost replicates the ups and downs of the only product that supports the Angolan economy: oil. However, the relationship between oil and real estate in Angola is more complex than this. It is true that in times of bonanza the demand for space in the city drives prices up. But it is no less true that Luandans in general have absorbed a kind of consciousness that derives from oil. As the “devil’s excrement”, oil has the effect of providing the nationals of the country who live off it with the impression of value production outside the realm of labour. Luanda, as we have seen, was for a great part squatted in by people who came from the musseques. For many years, those houses had only use-value. Now that space in the city has become scarce, and those houses cost many hundreds of thousands of dollars, the impression a number of Angolans have is, metaphorically, that they have struck oil.
In this way, a number of Luandans have founded business ventures that yield them profits without investment or labour. Or, to be more precise, living off rent has allowed a number of people to de-link labour from income. For the most part, however, this has been the only way to have access to services that are not available in Angola. Take, for instance, the case of Mr Lemos, a clerk at the Banco Nacional de Angola. He owns a residence in Bairro Azul, which has been rented, while the apartment he shares with his daughter and son was given to him through his job. What Lemos earns as a bank clerk and teacher at a private college is enough to meet his family needs. The money he garners from the residence he owns allowed him to pay the college fees of his sons in Portugal (where he has also purchased an apartment). Furthermore, the money from the rented house has also allowed his daughter to pay for expensive treatment for her serious health problems, which force her to spend long stretches of time in Lisbon.
To understand the question of the value of real estate and how this informal sector works, I followed two informal real estate brokers. The first is Abrãao, who spends his days in Quinaxixe Square, at a spot in front of the new branch of Banco de Poupança e Crédito. The other one is Agostinho, whom I met through a friend who was looking for an apartment to rent. The work of these agents is primarily to visit residents in a section of the cement city, from Mutamba to Quinaxixe, to offer their services. If the owners of the apartments are interested in renting their spaces, the agents seek clients for them, in exchange for a commission of 10 per cent of the contract.
Any one of the crumbling apartments, some of them simply in ruins, can be rented for US$1,500 per month. The prospective tenants have to advance a year or two of the contract rental. Furthermore, they are responsible for repairs, either because they have to undertake them in order to make the place liveable, or because this is stipulated in the contract. At any rate, this provision ends up guaranteeing the improvement and conservation of many of these buildings. In some of them, where more affluent residents have rented apartments, there are already functioning lifts.
If the real estate business is booming, it is partly due to the indirect investment the Angolan state is making in this sector. Its major clients are oil companies, and according to the terms negotiated between the state and the companies, each company pays the maintenance costs of its expatriate labour force. Thus, companies will not look at prices when it comes to finding places to accommodate their workers. Furthermore, this system has been replicated in many other areas of the economy, serving as the template for the entrenchment of a foreign labour force in the country.
Abraão, the informal broker, is left with those clients who do not have the means to do business directly with the rental agencies. And the terms of business are always murky, even for one who knows the labyrinthine complications of the Housing Board. Abraão is trying to legalise the ownership of his family house, a couple of blocks south from Quinaxixe, in a street where a number of owners have already sold their houses, for prices not less than US$1 million. Those houses have been demolished and in their place high-rises are springing up. Selling is always easier than renting, because sometimes tenants may refuse to leave, or may find ways to change the ownership title of the houses they have rented (as Macedo’s tenant once attempted).
I learned these realities first-hand when I looked to Abraão to help me find an apartment. We went to visit a couple of places, and then we happened upon a studio apartment in Mutamba. I met the owner, who was sharing the apartment with three or four other young women. We agreed on a six-month contract, set at US$1,000 per month. On my way out, I met other brokers with other clients, and at least one of them was from a real estate agency. The next day I got a phone call from the owner, to nullify the agreement. Later Abraão told me that people in Luanda are reluctant to rent their places to Angolans, who are more likely to know how to navigate the bureaucratic system and grease the palms of the bureaucrats at the Housing Board. The owners might also be trying to avoid having to pay for the intermediary – if the owner does not want to pay the commission, they simply talk directly to the prospective renter, which exposes the precariousness of Abrãao’s work.
This was the situation in the housing system in Angola until 2008, when the country held elections for the second time since independence in 1975. In various assessments of the conditions in which people were living, the government came to the conclusion that the problem was a scarcity of housing, and it was agreed that speculation could be brought down if the city increased its urban stock. However, the devaluation of Luanda’s real estate is due less to the expansion of the urban housing stock than to the global crisis that rippled through the Angolan economy in 2009. Some economists claim that speculation in the housing sector in Luanda has more to do with bureaucracy and corruption than with the economic relationship between supply and demand. In other words, although the urban crisis is an economic problem, the solution sought has been political.
During the election campaign, President José Eduardo dos Santos made a bold announcement: that between 2008 and 2012 his government would build one million houses. Details of the mega-operations were only given a month after the election, when Angola hosted World Habitat Day, at which, in the presence of the head of UN-Habitat, dos Santos not only reiterated his electoral promise but also provided more specifics on his plan to restructure the city. At stake was the need to eliminate the slums by upgrading them into planned, formal and yet affordable housing for the poor. A government agency was created, the Program for Management and Projects, which would see to the construction of 115,000 houses. The private sector would be responsible for 120,000, the cooperatives (such as that of the Veterans) for 80,000, while the lion’s share, 685,000, would fall into the murky and unspecified category of “directed auto-construction”.
It is expected that the elimination of the slums as proposed by dos Santos will bring a profound realignment of the fabric of the city, in the same way that the war and the economic crisis had an impact on the urban environment. Those who flocked to Luanda built their houses in every available space: within other houses, in buildings, in public gardens and near deactivated railroads. Concomitantly, those years were also marked by the emergence of a middle class with very particular tastes in terms of housing and locations. Creating and controlling the desire of those groups has thus become a powerful technique of political control.
The architectural form that predominates in many of the projects of Luanda Sul, a veritable satellite city in the south of the capital, signals the recent transformations of forms of Angolans’ habitation. Whereas during late colonialism, and in the first decade of independence, the city’s predominant architectural forms were either the housing block and the single family residence in the cement city, or the shack in the musseques, Luanda Sul brought about a radical innovation: the gated community, locally called the condominium, protected by barbed wire and private security firms. Inside these walls inhabitants can enjoy some urban amenities that the city no longer offers, such as gardens, parks and sometimes, as in the most affluent ones, swimming pools and tennis courts. This urban model was imported primarily by South African construction firms, in their first experiences of internationalisation with the post-apartheid normalisation of economic relations with neighbouring countries.
Luanda Sul, in the beginning, looked like a viable solution to the problem of speculation, since it was anticipated that the increase in housing supply would bring down prices. But it only worked in the first years, while the number of inhabitants remained relatively low. It was conceived as a residential area, with limited commercial services. Those who moved to that part of the city faced a daily and congested commute to town for work and to take their children to school, because the business area was still located in downtown Luanda. Luanda Sul had to be totally re-planned, not only to accommodate roads and freeways, but, more importantly, to accommodate a number of services so as to prevent its inhabitants from having to go to Luanda proper on a daily basis.
Recently, in a newspaper interview, a leading Angolan economist, Alves da Rocha, made the case that the expansion of Luanda southwards (Luanda Sul) has been the main device for siphoning off financial resources from the state to a handful of private entities. The modalities of those transfers have varied from simple to elaborate. A high-ranking member of MPLA and of the government, for instance, recently explained how he became wealthy by moving to the new house given to him on account of the job he holds, and renting his old house – in Alvalade, one of the most expensive neighbourhoods of Luanda – probably to an oil company for a premium price that can reach US$200,000 annually.
Angolan laws concerning foreign investment are very permissive, and allow holders of public office to do business with foreigner investors. Portuguese firms investing in Angola have among their board members various Angolan politicians. Furthermore, Angola does not produce construction materials locally, and every item (including cement) is imported. The way to accumulate funds here is to overprice construction materials and transfer the difference to private accounts in Western banks.
One of the consequences of corruption and the traffic of influence in the construction sector is that it is only the state, through state-owned companies, and oil companies that can invest in this sector. As such, housing in these new projects is so expensive that very few Angolans can afford it, thus reinforcing distribution as an important political tool. For instance, the market price for condominium housing for the middle class is between US$200,000 and US$400,000. This type of housing is out of reach for the Angolan middle class, unless they have access to a bank loan; loans are very restricted and have prohibitive interest rates attached.
So, as a member of the middle class, the only way to access a house is through a working relation with one of the state companies, such as Sonangol. But this is political. The MPLA forces workers of state-owned oil companies to become party members. Moreover, not even the urban poor, those who apparently have nothing to trade, are out of reach of this political juggernaut. For instance, in 2010, after several months of indecision, the government finally announced the official price at which the social housing would be sold: US$40,000. And this in a country where the beneficiaries are unemployed and underemployed, or, if they are employed probably make about US$100 per month, the official minimum wage.
In a recent development, Sonangol was given control over the housing construction project, through a newly created subsidiary called Sonangol-Imobiliária (Sonangol-Real Estate). This political decision shows that the Angolan government intends to develop the housing sector along the same lines as oil production. Oil is extracted offshore, by foreign companies, and the vast majority of the population is ignorant of the legal niceties that preside over its production and the money that it brings to the country. Technology and a specialised labour force are imported. It is likely that the same will hold true for construction projects, which will be given (as has been the case so far) to Portuguese, Brazilian and Chinese construction firms.
The best example to illustrate this is the construction of the housing project Kilamba City. The Angolan government, through Sonangol, contracted the China International Trust and Investment Corporation (CITIC), and together they launched the US$3.5 billion construction project to house 200,000 people. One of the most ambitious projects developed by the Chinese in Angola, it involved 10,000 workers, of whom only 4,000 were Angolans. The first phase of the project was inaugurated in July 2011 by President dos Santos. Kilamba, located 20km south of Luanda’s centre, stretches over an area of 52km2 and is expected to add 20,000 residential apartments and 246 business units to Luanda’s urban stock. Plans also include 24 preschools, nine primary schools and eight high schools. It will also be equipped with two electrical substations, 77 transformer stations, water supply stations, a sewage treatment plant and infrastructure for drainage.
It is not only from the point of view of infrastructure that Kilamba will be self-sufficient – and cut off from the rest of the country. The management of Kilamba will be rooted in an idea that has gained currency in the global South, pertaining to the formation of charter cities, special urban zones accorded their own administrative status and special by-laws, which according to the urban scholar Filip de Boeck “would allow governments of developing countries to adopt new systems of rules and establish cities that can drive economic progress in the rest of the country.”
If profit (by speculation) is the essence of charter cities, Kilamba may be different in this regard. Ultimately, Sonangol is not particularly interested in making profit out of real estate. But the government, through Sonangol, may exploit the distribution of housing and space for economic ventures and political gain. According to Bornito de Sousa, the Minister of Internal Affairs, it will be the first rehearsal in the government’s attempt to decentralise the state administration, through the formation of autarchies, or local power structures. These autarchies will have financial autonomy, elect their own management bodies and produce by-laws. When Joaquim Marques was appointed, by dos Santos, as “President” of the administration of Kilamba – a position that does not exist in Angolan administrative law (as cities are administered by governors) – the political contours of Kilamba became more visible.
The transformation of material space into political space deprives people of the possibility of making claims over any occupation of land outside politics. However, until the arrival of this ethical horizon, the political community will always have the power to deprive its members of their rights. The Luanda case at hand shows the extent to which the elimination of disposition of usufruct – the right to use or enjoy a thing possessed – from the legal system erases the distinction between politics and land tenure. Political space, then, not only allows the government to conduct forced removals, but also opens up new ways through which people can make claims on land. The new class of squatters in formation no longer comprises those who expect to legalise their occupational rights on the basis of usufruct in the future, but people who expect to be given accommodation by virtue of occupying the land that the state has earmarked for various purposes, such as urban development projects, infrastructure or business ventures developed by private interests under the umbrella of the state.
Since the end of the civil war, the Angolan government has conducted major slum clearance campaigns. According to Human Rights Watch, more than 3,000 houses were destroyed in only four years between 2002 and 2006, a crisis which affected more than 30,000 people. Although the number of people evicted in the period after 2006 is not known yet, it will probably have increased. This is partly because the Constitution has brought a new wave of removals. For instance, when in March 2010 Isaac dos Anjos, the governor of the province of Huíla, ordered the forced removal of thousands of people, he backed his action with reference to the recently approved Constitution. Furthermore, the assumption that people forcefully removed are outright squatters might be misleading.
When the Land Law was first discussed, in 2002, a window of three years was included, so as to allow squatters to legalise their occupation rights. However, because the law was poorly regulated, this provision was not implemented or reinforced. Consequently, very few people have taken advantage of it. Some people, like residents of the municipality of Kilamba Kiaxi, had bought title deeds from the local administrations that were nullified when orders were given for the destruction of these informal settlements. Let me now illustrate both situations with some examples.
In April 2009, violent tides once again swept across the Island of Luanda. These tides occur with such seasonal regularity that they have been integrated into the popular culture not only of the communities of the Island of Luanda, but of the city of Luanda itself. These tides, called calemas, have to be appeased by gift-giving ceremonies, in which fishermen in canoes throw food onto the surface of the sea to feed the Kianda (or spirit of the waters). This ceremony, apparently pre-Christian, is so important that it has entered into the Catholic cosmogony. A church called Nossa Senhora do Cabo (Our Lady of Cape) was built in homage to Kianda on the Island of Luanda. In the first years of independence, these ceremonies were abolished on the grounds that they were promoting obscurantism and devil worship. But when calemas started taking a heavy toll on fishermen, they were reinstituted. So, the tides that swept the island that day in 2009 were part of the fishermen’s everyday lives. But this time, the provincial government acted swiftly to clear the area. As such, the entire Avenue Mortala Mohamed – the main paved artery on the island – was evacuated. According to Sebastião Vemba, a reporter for Novo Jornal, in less than 24 hours the provincial government had organised a convoy of several trucks provided by the Casa Militar. A woman who had just lost her baby was forced to board one of the trucks with its corpse. Alongside her were thousands more people (roughly 700 families) with their wares, clothes, furniture, appliances, and other things they could salvage from the tides, first, and then from the destruction by the brigades sent by the Casa Militar. After a trip of more than two hours, people were left in Zango, in a sort of refugee camp. Like many others displaced by the destruction of their houses, they were relocated more than two hours from their workplaces, left to live in tents under the rains, and their children were left without schools. The vast majority of these people are still living in tents, a provisional situation that has become permanent. Thus, a temporary response to a natural disaster has become the alibi for forced relocation.
Later on, the governor of Luanda, Francisa do Espírito Santo, announced that the cleared area in the Island of Luanda would be part of the extension of a recreational project to offer space in the city for a number of leisure activities. A vast pavement area has been built to accommodate restaurants, bars and other ventures for Luanda’s nightlife. As elsewhere in the city, the logic of these removals is to displace the urban poor and build urban infrastructure for the middle class and the burgeoning national bourgeoisie. Informal settlements in Iraq and Bagdad (named after their Middle Eastern counterparts, probably for being places that received many people fleeing from war in the countryside) were also cleared so that the housing project Nova Vida, a middle class neighbourhood for government officials, could be expanded. The destruction of these settlements in July 2009 was even more merciless than that of the Island of Luanda. With no notice, bulldozers (30 vehicles again from Casa Militar) did the job, leaving no one time to save furniture or clothes. This time, the police also encountered a woman giving birth, and waited for her to finish before taking her out and destroying her house. Those displaced staged a protest whose destination was Cidade Alta, the presidential palace. But while they were on their way, a heavy contingent of the National Police, with armoured cars and dogs, dissuaded them from continuing. Later on, one of those residents would tell a journalist that he “had never seen so many armed men in [his] entire life”.
During colonialism and in the first years of independence, the area of Boavista was the city’s refuse dump. By the 1980s, squatters had taken it over. Boavista, home to thousands of people, is an informal settlement strategically located between Port of Luanda and Roque Santeiro. It would not have expanded without the market that provided squatters with the means to eke out a living: by stealing commodities in the port to be sold in the market; by supplying the market with a variety of services, such as loading and unloading and carrying goods; and with whatever people can keep at their houses to rent to sellers, such as chairs, shades and generators.
As the shacks of Boavista have been literally built on refuse and sand, landslides are a constant occurrence. Every year, during the rainy season, a few people die when the ground on which their houses are built collapses. However, unlike the situation in other places, the removal of the Boavista settlers has not been treated as a priority by the government. According to informal conversations I had with a number of residents, the distribution of houses for them is a matter of time. Moreover, local government officials have worked in that settlement, registering the households and allocating numbers to the shacks. Counting and recognising these houses have given them value, turning them into commodities or assets to be bought and sold. But to be given a house requires more than proof of registration: squatters have to live there. So now, in Boavista, there is no longer a distinction between those who moved to that part of the city because they had nowhere to go and those who have purchased houses so as to get accommodation in Zango. What they share is the experience of living in danger.
Among those drawn to Boavista by the allure of a new house in Zango is my cousin Zezito. Zezito was born not very far from Boavista, on the other side of the road that divides the Sambizanga municipality from Barrocas (a waste dump). When he became a taxi driver, he moved to Kwanza, a neighbourhood where a significant number of people work directly or indirectly in the taxi business by fixing cars, selling parts, driving, and so on. When he heard of an imminent relocation of Boavista’s residents, he purchased a very derelict shack, for US$2,000. When I reconnected with him during my return to Luanda in 2008, he was in the process of fixing the house.
One Saturday morning, Zezito gathered his friends, his business associate Bari, a native of Guinea-Conakry, his helper Rei Leão, and many other youths in the neighbourhood to help him fix his house. They climbed the hill to the market, to get a wooden door, half a dozen sheets of corrugated tin, nails and so on. They passed through infested alleys that smelled of rotten food and urine, where the most dangerous burglars of the market gazed at them (men who would kill a stranger on the spot for a cheap cellphone). They then passed through a clearing, where they could see children and adults defecating. And then they had to go down the hill, through the zigzag passageway that people have opened through the heaps of refuse.
Zezito’s house is halfway down the hill. It is literally built on refuse. This became apparent when his friends started to dig a big hole, to serve as a toilet: an archaeological cut through layers of Angolan practices of consumption over time. Hundreds of cans of imported soft drinks, along with many plastic bags, were extracted from the hole. After that, a petrol barrel was placed about a metre deep in the hole, and its surface covered by a piece of wood pierced with a little hole. “You can do your thing and it never smells, since the heat dries everything,” one of Zezito’s neighbours told me.
Zezito did not have money to invest in the construction of the house, so I decided to help him. My plan was to move in with him as soon as the house was ready. As I also wanted to observe the process of building a house in such circumstances, I gave him money to buy sacks of cement. I went to the market with him and he bought four sacks (US$150). We then paid two men to haul the cement down the hill. A couple of days later, Zezito hired two experienced neighbours as masons to make the floor. For the door and the walls of corrugated tin, he did not have to pay for labour, only providing his friends with marijuana and whisky. But when it came to the floor, things were different. His neighbours were professionals who had held formal jobs as masons. They finished the floor on a Sunday morning, after paying a group of children and women to fetch sand from nearby, further weakening the ground. Only with the floor done could Zezito move in, for a cemented floor brings more stability to a house, reducing the risk of a collapse.
Zezito moved to this house a while after I left Luanda in November 2008. He lived there with his wife for almost two years. When I went back to Luanda in December 2010, he had split with his wife and moved to Viana, another neighbourhood. He had someone taking care of the house, and he expects to be given a house if the government decides to relocate Boavista’s residents.
Boavista is quintessentially a political space. More specifically, it is a space of exception. The transformation of the waste dump into an informal settlement is only possible in the context of a particular understanding of rights and law. Boavista is not a place over which property rights can be claimed. And yet its occupancy allows settlers to make demands for a relocation to decent accommodation. But for this to happen, they must first live in danger.
This story features in the new Chronic, an edition in which we ask: what if maps were made by Africans for their own use, to understand and make visible their own realities or imaginaries? How does it shift the perception we have of ourselves and how we make life on this continent?