Afonso Loureiro is a Portuguese blogger who has been living in Angola since 2008 for professional reasons: he works in cartography for an Angolan company and is also dedicated to train local staff with the distinct purpose of reducing dependence on foreigners working in that area.
Because of his blog, Afonso has been threatened with death. In this interview he tells Global Voices about these episodes, he reflects about self censorship and freedom of expression and he speaks about his foreign perspectives about the country that welcomed him.
Why did you chose blogging as a form of expression?
The Aerograma [Aerogram, pt] was born mainly as a channel to broadcast my experiences abroad to close family and friends. The lines of communication between Angola and Portugal do not always work the best and this was the way I found that it would always be possible to pass on what I was living. On the other hand, the blog would become a repository of memories that I could revisit later. However, without that I had realized, it fled out of my hands. I started writing regularly and not only targetting my dear ones: a real crowd of people began to follow my experiences in Luanda. The next step will be the completion of a book inspired by the journey that Aerograma has drawn.
How long have you had this blog?
What motivates you to write about Angola?
I don't write exclusively about Angola; I write about what moved me. Aerograma was brought to life so that I could share my experiences, which in this moment happen in Angola, aiming to present in a balanced way the country that hosted me, with its good and bad things.
Do you have family ties with the country?
From my family only my grandfather has been in Angola, doing military service during World War I, when he fought against the Germans.
How would you describe Angola?
Angola is a country full of potential, though wounded by a war that soon became an excuse for resources to be appropriated by a very limited elite. Oil is the basis of the Angolan economy and agriculture doesn't really go much further than subsistence. New generations will face many challenges ahead, but after a decade of peace and increasing openness in politics, they also have a promising future ahead. Moreover, if there is a word that sums up Angola that word is ‘future’.
Angola seeks to establish its own identity, denying its colonial history, but some traces of five centuries of coexistence with the Portuguese cannot be erased. The very integrity of the country is achieved at the expense of the Portuguese language, which unites and distinguishes its people, erasing ethnic boundaries.
How do you see the unbridled growth of the country?
Angola's economic growth was mainly due to the fluctuation of oil prices and capital movements. A sustained growth has not been seen that would translate into improved economic and social conditions of the country. Most investments only seek short term return, as imports or luxury hotels. Investment in agricultural or industrial production, with more dilated payback periods of capital, is pre-empted by the Angolan businessmen.
Fortunately, in the midst of so many dazzling projects, the roads are being recovered. Bottom-up economic growth will arise even with an economy that depends on oil as the main source of revenue.
Currently, the Angolan economy depends almost entirely on foreign companies and technical expertise that, of course, are also interested in generating wealth for themselves. While the Angolan staff are not sufficient to meet the needs, the Angolan economic growth will only enrich others.
What do you like the most about Angola and why? What do you like the least and why?
After having traveled around part of the country, from the dense forests of the north almost to the southern desert and having been amazed by the endless horizons of Africa, I have to admit that what I like and admire the most in Angola is its people. Especially outside Luanda, I have had super interesting and relaxed conversations with Angolans of all ages. I discovered a fighting people, still marked by a war that was not theirs. I discovered engaged students and good professionals seeking an opportunity to show their potential.
The endemic corruption that pervades the country and the climate of war that is still lived in the capital are the main negative points that I highlight. These two factors create and exacerbate inequality and make life very difficult for most of the population. The misappropriation of public money, the scandals linked to the National Bank of Angola and the megalomaniac projects at the expense of infrastructure is a reflection of the worst that there is in Angola.
Do you frequently read blogs written by Angolans? If so, what is your opinion of them?
My reading list includes many blogs written by Angolans, Brazilians and Portuguese. I find no substantive differences between them that justify a definition of Angolanity of their blogs, other than that stem from natural cultural and social baggage of every nation. Blogs by Angolans are generally critical of their country, but nevertheless show love for Angola. They represent excellent places to find out how the Angolans define themselves, in the diaspora or in Angola.
You have told us that you are threatened. What are the issues that raise the anger of those who threaten you?
While seeking to be balanced in the analysis that I do about the country, everytime I slip a bit from political correctness or I do not limit myself to repeating MPLA propaganda, I know I will receive some less amenable feedback. Among it there are always some people who threaten reprisals, whether physical or others. As usual in such cases, the threats are anonymous, but, interestingly, they all come from Angolans living in Portugal. They criticize and threaten for not being in line with the official ideology, for not sticking to saying only good things about the country. Of course they forget that the purpose of Aerograma is not indulge the ego of others, but to serve as an account of the experiences of someone in a new country, speaking of what is good, but also of what is bad.
I received more threats when I invoked episodes in the history of Angola during the civil war. The May 27 [pt], for example, is still a taboo, or so I realized.
How do you deal with the threats?
In early times, I would want to know if the article in question could be interpreted differently than planned, but quickly I realized that the threats were directed at Aerograma altogether just because it spoke of Angola without reflecting the views of the official gazette. There are two or three individuals with too much time on their hands that carry out the task of intimidating those who write about Angola. After establishing a few rules in the filtering of comments, most of the xenophobic messages are deleted immediately.
Although it is an unpleasant task, I analyze each message, in order to find out to what extent I should take them into consideration. One of the measures I took, was to remove my photo from the signature of the articles.
What would you say to those people?
When the threats started coming, I wrote an open letter [pt] where I tried to explain that freedom of expression is a fundamental right, as is the freedom to ignore what we dislike. I suggested to the ones that threaten me they should seek a blog that they liked more, because it may be a symptom of masochism to insist on reading what they dislike or makes them so itchy. Some find the cure for an inferiority complex by mistreating others.
I still think that the blogosphere is big enough for everyone to search what one likes or, if not found, to create whatever he pleases. The ones who don't like what I write have a good remedy: not to read me.
Did you change in some way the subjects you address in your blog?
I did not change the subjects. If I did, who threatens me would have won. The articles in which I address most controversial topics now I make a short introduction where I foresee that I will offend someone and that threats will surely arise. I just started to take extra care avoiding to identify the places where I usually live and work. Some of the threats I received quoted places which are too close for me to feel comfortable.
And finally, do you believe there is press freedom in the country?
Officially, the freedom of the press exists, but especially for those in Angola self-censorship is a serious problem. It takes great care to navigate the waters between the official line of thought and the themes that conscience dictates. Furthermore, I believe that there are two separate government structures operating in Angola: the official multi-party MPLA, which accepts press freedom and democratic principles; and a mono-party MPLA, whose structure works in the shadow of government and roughly accepts criticism. Especially in the countryside, organs of MPLA take the place of government, even with their own intelligence services. Self-censorship is caused by the fear of this shadow MPLA, which acts and reacts in a somewhat anachronistic way.
There is still a long road ahead for freedom of expression to be granted (not only in Angola), but I think that for what there is, it is already consolidated. There have been more and more Angolans saying what they think and the time when the reprisals were immediate seems to have passed. The proliferation of private weeklies is a good sign.