The British weekly news publication, The Economist, recently summarized the Angolan capital, Luanda. The city markets itself as the “New Dubai.” The Economist notes a number of similarities: “Luanda has vast oil wealth. If they could only get visas, which are rarely granted, tourists would flock to its beaches and nearby game parks. Following the opening of a modern airport, flights arrive non-stop from Europe and America.” But there’s one key difference: “… if prices in Dubai seem inflated, they have nothing on Luanda. Last year Angola’s capital was the most expensive city in the world, according to Mercer, a New York-based consultancy. A bog-standard hotel room costs $400, a non-alcoholic drink in the lobby $10 (though a mere $2 in a supermarket). An underwhelming hotel buffet is $75 and a pizza on the street $25.” Etcetera, etcetera.
As a professor of African history, I spend ample classroom time analyzing Western produced images, past and present, of the African continent, African peoples, African economies and African cultures. I suggest that these images tell us more about the producers than they do about the places and people they show us. Reading this blog entry (excerpted above) on the The Economist website about Luanda, Angola (the city where I currently live and work), reminded me again of this ‘kickback’ of representation.
Surprise and wonder at the high prices and cost of living in Luanda and at the extremes of wealth and poverty in the city are journalistic boilerplate for foreign correspondents visiting Angola. And I’ve come to find it just as tiresome and problematic as 19th century European depictions of African savagery because it erases the complicity of outsiders (who, in the end, consumes the great bulk of oil pumped from Angola’s ocean floor?), and paints Westerners as victims of official corruption or as heroes – in the blog above a Frenchman tried to sue a local business for profiteering (no mention was made, of course, about the ongoing case against French officials on trial in France for having illegally sold arms to Angola during its long civil war and bolstered state power).
Those who pay the highest price, both literally and figuratively, are Angolans. They experience more crime, more hassles from government bureaucrats, and spend huge amounts of time, energy and money on poor goods and services, while a small number of their fellow countrymen and ex-pats make money hand over fist. And yet, I know very few Luandans who ever see themselves as victims.
Representations of Luanda’s high cost of living are 21st century are a lazy riff on 19th century ideas and images. Exotic economies and corrupt officials replace quaint folklore and savage rulers reminding us that Westerners continue need the continent to do symbolic work for them.