Luanda is Expensive

By Marissa Moorman,
Guest Blogger

This is “The Economist” recently on the Angolan capital:

The Angolan capital calls itself the “New Dubai” and there certainly are similarities with the emirate. 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 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 site 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.

* Marissa Moorman teaches history at Indian University in Bloomington. She has written about music and politics in Angola, where she currently lives.

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Marissa Moorman

Marissa Moorman is a historian of southern Africa and on the editorial committee of Africa is a Country. She is the author of 'Intonations: a Social History of Music and Nation in Luanda, Angola, 1945-Recent Times.' (2008).

7 Comments
  1. Right. Nonetheless Luanda remains the most expensive city in the world. You can take the ‘paint’ of the Economist article and spin it how you want. From how I read it, Luanda is the most expensive city in the world.

    1. Prof. Moorman,
      I appreciate the fact that you have taken time to write. However, there is lack of indepth analysis on the angolan society both in the past and the present, critical look on the source and benefectors of those economic and social inequalities as well as solutions the stated problem. I am not sure how you evaluated your students or your input in their research and essay writing, your work is just shallow.

      Jean Claude from Burundi

  2. Professor Moorman:

    While I can sympathize with how annoying it might be for you to have a foreign correspondent jet in to your turf for a few days, look around, and then summarize the experience in a major publication, I otherwise really can’t figure out what point you are trying to make here, and can’t agree with very much that you did write.

    There is nothing to back up your assertion that the Economist writer “erases the complicity of outsiders,” and I don’t get why he would need to summarize other French relations with Angola simply because an included anecdote involved a Frenchman. And yes, I would consider a person who stood up to the racket of price gauging, however singularly and unsuccessfully, as a kind of hero–even if he is European (gasp!).

    Your main theory, that “representations of Luanda’s high cost of living are 21st century [sic] are a lazy riff on 19th century ideas and images” is not sufficiently explained or supported here. According to the FT.com from February 2010 (another European publication!!), the largest private employer in Angola is a Brazilian construction company, with Brazil’s state oil company not far behind. A leading investor in infrastructure and extraction is the People’s Republic of China. Houston and Luanda are connected by a non-stop jumbo jet run by the Angolan State Oil Company. How is any of that 19th century?

    The reality of Angola, exactly as alluded to in the Economist posts (there was another recent one that was longer, which you didn’t mention–you should read it, it will certainly provide more context), is that its kleptocratic elite, supported by foreign corporations and governments from many different continents, are gorging on state resources and profits, an exclusionist orgy manifested architecturally in an emulation of a redux of Marbella and Dubai. This is all very, very 21st century. No question that some of this has parallels with the colonial era, with foreigners coming in to extract resources without generally benefiting the local population–but this would then be a useful juxtaposition, that could further bolster the case against the current, despicable reality.

    Grossly overpriced, crummy pizza and hotel rooms might be an eye-rollingly tiresome subject of discussion for you, but that hardly means it isn’t worthy of journalistic enquiry or report. I’m surprised that a professor isn’t at least satisfied that the disgusting inequalities of your chosen place of academic enquiry is receiving a wider profile.

    Its unclear if you appreciate how these simple examples of bizarrely expensive, substandard consumables is reflective of a wider social and economic dysfunction (for which there is plenty of blame to go around, and which Luanda is but an extreme of a phenomenon common to African capitals). It wasn’t just that the Economist writer was inconvenienced at spending more than he wanted. It wasn’t just “Luanda is expensive”–its what this indicates about the larger situation.

    I find your claim that this can all be explained away as a thoughtless rehash of 150-year old European colonial notions very unconvincing. It might be productive for you to examine your own biases that you are bringing to the analysis. The one sentence from your post on which we agree is that often a bit of writing can tell us more about the author than the subject.

  3. readers,

    it’s true Luanda is EXPENSIVE and infrastructure is a disaster (in the past 5 days I’ve experienced 3 power cuts – a scheduled one of 12 hrs, and two unscheduled ones: of 26 hrs and another of 35 hrs). i’m not saying things are otherwise.

    i simply hoped to call attention to the work of representation in all of this. what happens when we repeat and begin to fix this image? what are the implications?

    any thoughts on representation out there?

  4. This is a brilliant analysis of the continuity of representational threads across time. Thank you, Dr. M., for pointing us to the underground structures of our ways of thinking. The pushback against your subtle argument shows the enormous investments people retain in the social categories that shape our world. More, please, of your learned posts.

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