21 May 2008

Being Angolan, and Not

While I wish my most recent trial were ending, I cannot report such good news. I write to you from the comforts of my good friend's home in Maianga where there is air conditioning and, most importantly, electricity. The power in our part of the bairro went out early Friday morning and as of this moment (Tuesday afternoon) has yet to return. Our generator has not worked since day one in the new place and our water only runs if the pump has energy to retrieve it from the tank. Fortunately, we've had good luck with the spigot out front (which we usually use to top off the water tank) and, so, with a small amount of physical labor life at home remains almost comfortable.

It's been a somewhat convenient time for this to happen, as lately I've been contemplating my Angolan-ness. Having no power and having to carry all my water (though not nearly as far as most of my neighbors) has created a nice space in which to consider how well I'm adapting to life here. There are a few Angolan-isms with which I was born and a few that I've acquired in my time here. All-in-all, I'm assimilating rather well but it remains clear that I am not and will never be Angolan. Four months into my stay here seems as good a time as any to give you the current rundown.

I make noise CONSTANTLY, or so I'm told… This may or may not be apparent to you depending on the context in which we've spent time together, but it would appear that if I'm not playing a radio or music just loudly enough to annoy my spouse I am singing, talking, clicking (yes, clicking), whistling, or, worst of all, working. To be fair, making strange noises all day is kind of my job, but I suppose that this doesn't quite justify all of the other racquet. I would kind of like to deny the charge, but have been forced into a situation of self-awareness and I cannot. The good news is that I fit in perfectly here. In fact, if anything, I've got some headroom. Since arriving I've even made some somewhat surprising complaints about life here being too loud. For example, the ladies that we employ listen to the radio all day at volumes just loud enough really wear on you throughout the day; even I'm relieved when they go home and we can turn the damn thing off.

I am a master of the overly long and complicated precursor statement and I repeat the same point ad infinitum as though the slight variation in my examples carries profound meaning… No statement here begins without a precursor. The simplest variation is “olha” (look) as a clause at the beginning of nearly sentence (or, more commonly, “olha, olha, olha…”). Other favorites are, “É como assim…” (It is like this) and “É o seguinte…” (It is the following…) which begin most declarative statements but add no meaning whatsoever. I would be tempted to claim that my lead-ins are important and that they pave the way for the coming information in an important way, but to make such claims would be a folly.

I've picked up the habit of counting money out of a drawer… In every loja here in Luanda (I'd guess Angola, but I can't say for sure) the money behind the counter is kept in a drawer. Not a drawer, however, like you'll find in a cash register, but one rather like my sock drawer. Money received is tossed in casually and change is made by digging through a heap of crumpled bills. The result is best described as dinheiro soup. Larger or well organized shops have two drawers, one for small bills and one for large, with a result that is much the same. In what I must confess was a moment of pride, I recently found myself digging through (read: making a mess of) the top drawer of my desk, where I had put all of my money at the end of the day, for a 200 kwanza note.

I recently began improvising objects out of plastic... É como assim, I've needed a laptop stand for quite some time to facilitate the use of my external keyboard and mouse, and to help cool down an already hot-running laptop in the miserable heat. I didn't bring one because I didn't have room and expected I'd be able to make one out of something. I have been using a stack of books, which took up too much space and caused problems each time I needed to use one of the volumes. After months of contemplation in a world filled with plastic (I mean FILLED; seriously, this is a whole other post), the vision for my perfect laptop stand hit me like a bolt of lightning. With one container and a razorblade I had the below in under 5 mintues. I feel like I'm living the end of the first matrix movie when the hero is able to see that the world is really made of code and he can alter it as he sees fit. I have arrived.

But for all that I may have or may be gaining in common with your average Angolan, the degree to which I am not and will never be one is ever-present. Last week, for example, a woman we know that works as an empregada got beaten by her ex-husband for going to his home to ask for money to help support their three children. She was beaten over the weekend and subsequently missed work (and pay) on Monday as she was seeking care for her mangled teeth and dealing with unresponsive police about the incident. On Tuesday when she went to work, she learned that she was losing one of her two cleaning jobs (the one with more hours, of course) because the husband in that house was sick of paying for a cleaner when “all his wife does” is study full time in university. In her remaining job she works about 15 hours per week and gets paid $120 per month. That's less than $2 per hour but it's also a slightly generous wage by local standards. How she supports her three kids, I have no idea. If she spends her entire salary on food she's got around $4 per day to make it work out. That's about 6 eggs (or 2 small pieces of meat), 2 cups of starch, an onion, and a tomato per day. Give or take. I wish I could tell you her life was unusual or particularly unfortunate, but I can't. It could be going a whole lot worse for her – it is for others. And, while there is plenty of abuse and poverty in the US, but it doesn't compare to the quantity and depth of it here.

And so, really, as amusing as it maybe now and then to marvel at my own budding Angolan-isms, I'm working hard to keep things in perspective. Unfortunately daily life here provides plenty of reminders. I was born in a rich country. I was born with access to all of the privileges afforded white men. I have experienced financial insecurity and have wanted for food because of it, but I do not know poverty or hunger. I am well educated. I have opportunity. I also have an obligation to make a positive contribution in this world. I have yet to figure out how best to do so, but I will learn. Being in Angola will help me. And, maybe, as I work to figure it out, I can pick up that beautiful Angolan ability to laugh and sing and dance, to find a way be kind, to be generous, to be joyful, and to find beauty despite the crushing misery all around.


testando said...

Olha... (lol) that was an interesting overview about your life in Luanda. Definitely i want to be there someday, born a brazilian and afro-descendent, i think it would be somekind of religation with my ancestrals.

Please, keep on posting about your life there in Luanda. Sure i'll be around watching in detail :)

Grande abraço, vindo do Rio de Janeiro!

Vitor Pellegrino

Nils said...

Hi Matt, this is Nils. I`m impressed by your reckless effort to get to know the world, I wish I had the time to do so either.
There is a question coming up in me every time I get to read, hear or whatever something about poverty in Africa and I`ve been to scared to ask, since at first it sounds "Grotesk"(don`t know an english word for that). But I dare to ask you now: How far is there life just different from ours. I mean of course they suffer real poverty and other circumstances which are way beyon believe, but on the other hand they don`t suffer from those civilized diseases (psychological diseases). Though they probably don`t have the luxury of suffering on that since there just about to stavre to death, they find more easily good times on small things, as you discribed singing, dancing... I have a hard time seeing people in Germany cheerfully crowding the streets... They get up, go to work to finance a live which they can hardly participate at for people they love who they hardly see...
I can`t put it in better words, hope you understand what I want to say. I wouldn`t ever want to switch lives with an african. But I have a hard time with my life as well, .. why is it better to be rich and unhappy then it is to be poor and unhappy?
Take care
Like your blog

matthew_pw said...

Hi, Nils! Thanks for reading and for your comment. Despite not knowing what "Grotesk" means, I do understand, I think, and agree that this can be a difficult topic for some to discuss. I don't have answers, but I do have a two quick thoughts that I would like to share.

The first is that it isn't so clear that mental illnesses, such as depression, are an affliction of developed nations. More and more evidence has come to light in recent years that this is as much of, if not more of, a problem for the poor than for the rich, even if it goes undiagnosed because of inadequate access to healthcare. A quick web search reveals a number of articles on this topic in the New York Times, the BBC, and the medical journal The Lancet, among others. There also appears to be evidence that those most effected are women, who also happen to be the ones hardest hit by poverty.

Secondly, I keeping coming back to your ending question coupled with an understanding of poverty as a lack of access and opportunity (not simply a lack of money). I presume that if one is rich and unhappy that one has the option, if one prefers, of being poor and unhappy, but that the reverse isn't necessarily true. This seems a critical difference to me.