Documentary Photographer João Coelho is the Edge of Humanity Magazine contributor of this documentary photography. From the project ‘The wrong side of freedom – The Block No. 5’. To see João’s body of work, click on any image.
The Block No. 5 is a 6-floor block with 32 apartments located right in the center of the capital. In 2016, a crane collapsed onto the building’s terrace, causing irreversible structural damage and forcing the evacuation of all residents. After 7 years without being demolished, the building has become a skeleton, devoid of everything that could be removed or looted. Windows, doors, tiles, electrical installations, and even plumbing were ripped out over the years. Today only a maze of bare walls remains, also half-destroyed and completely covered by graffiti and inscriptions, the only adornments of the building. They are testimonies of feelings of revolt, victories won, or personal declarations of those who have passed through here over the years, the so-called “marginals”.
Wandering through the gutted interior of this naked giant, strewn with debris and devoid of life, it is as if you have been transported to a post-apocalyptic future. Yet there is life here! An old cloth hanging at the entrance of what was once a bedroom, or the living room of an apartment indicates that there is someone living there. They are the new doors of the houses in this building, fragile like the lives that dwell here now. Old mattresses and sheets recovered from the garbage are all that these elusive and almost ghostly lives need to call home to some cubicles, where only bare walls and the cement floor remain. They are all part of a gang that have seized this concrete skeleton, a kind of surreal condominium for outcasts of the society.
Only at dusk does the building come to life. The gang gradually came in, as if they were soldiers returning from the front line. They wandered around the city all day, doing odd jobs to get money to buy food. Every day they fight a kind of trench warfare, trying to slowly advance on the ground to defeat an invisible enemy: hunger.
Like nurses at the rear of the battlefield, the girls braid their comrades’ hair and pick lice from the younger ones while the boys play the game “Don’t get angry.” An old cloth laid out on the floor with the game markings already almost imperceptible and a handful of bottle caps is all they need to play it. The bets with some change collected during the day make the game more thrilling, which has been named “Don’t Get Angry” because of the strong angry reactions of the losing players. The ease of playing this game and its capacity to provoke almost addictive emotions, made “Don’t get angry” the most popular game in Angola among the poorer social classes, becoming part of the urban culture.
With the excitement of the game the marijuana cigarettes begin to be lit. Drugs are part of the daily life of the gang who grow marijuana in abandoned backyards to sell it on the streets and for their own consumption. Smoking together is a ritual that everyone is entitled to and strengthens the feeling of being part of the gang. The cigarettes are expertly rolled and passed from hand to hand by everyone until they are extinguished, in a choreography rehearsed thousands of times that does not need to be remembered or spoken. More than just offering a hallucinatory trip, most of the time the drug helps them to stave off hunger when there is not enough food for everyone or to endure the fever and the pain caused by malaria.
When it’s time to eat, they light a fire in the ground. Today they got a package of rice and a chicken stolen from a neighboring yard. It has to be enough for everyone. Under the watchful and anxious eyes of his companions, the cook distributes the food in a sisterly fashion on makeshift plates, plastic containers that they have recovered from the garbage and water jugs cut in half.
There is another silent threat hanging over the gang living here: malaria. The garbage piled up for years in the building and the standing rainwater that almost never dries up in the dark corners of the building, are the breeding grounds for the mosquitoes carrying the plasmodium that causes the disease. Data from 2022 show Angola as the fifth country with the highest number of malaria cases in the world, with more than 9.2 million infected and 12,485 deaths. Malaria represents about 35% of the demand for medical care in the country, 20% of hospital admissions, 40% of perinatal deaths and 20% of maternal mortality.
As if hunger and malaria were not enough, the gang also have to deal with the cops, one of their worst enemies. Although access to the building is not fenced off, the cops make frequent rounds of the place and arrest anyone they can catch. The gang knows the labyrinthine corridors of the building like the back of their hands and most of the time succeed in evading the police onslaughts. Those who are unfortunate enough to be arrested are returned to the correctional institutions from which they escaped.
They all have a common history, a past that they don’t want to keep memories of and that led them to choose to live on the street. In fact, it was not their choice. Some were almost forced to leave the houses where they lived by the mistreatment they received from stepfathers or stepmothers. Others fled from asylums or correctional homes where they were institutionalized for being orphans or for being repeat offenders. Most of the girls have been mothers several times and had to abandon their children, who were left in the care of grandparents or aunts. Almost all of them were sexually abused from a very young age or were beaten by the parents of the children they lived with. Oddly enough, they now feel safer living in this building with no doors or windows, in a room separated from the world only by an old sheet hanging at the entrance.
The constant threat of the hunger, the malaria and the cops can’t take away from the gang what they hold most dear: their freedom. It is not just about the freedom to do what they want, how they want and when they want. They all wanted to be free to be able to decide that they no longer wanted to suffer mistreatment in the correctional institutions they were thrown into at an early age or in the very home they were born in. They all agreed to pay the high price of living on the margins of society. They are all proud to be called “marginals” because they have decided to live on the wrong side of freedom.
All images and text © João Coelho
By João Coelho
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