Angolans battle to save iconic theatre bridging past and present

The bright pink walls of Elinga Theatre in Luanda, Angola, face imminent destruction to make way for a building development. Photo published on Facebook by Sou Contra a Demolição do Elinga Teatro
 
There are many casualties in the rapid expansion of Luanda, the capital of Angola and now one of the most expensive cities in the world. One may soon be the Elinga Theatre. Its loss would deprive Luanda of a historical landmark and a social space that, according to our Observer, bridges the country's political and socioeconomic divides.
 
It used to be that Luandans could drink an after-work beer and gaze from the Elinga Theatre's open windows at the blue waters of the Bay of Luanda. But now, the view is blocked by a construction project that may soon engulf the very theatre if building goes ahead on Elipark, a new development that would include luxury apartments, restaurants and a massive parking lot. Angola’s oil and diamonds are fuelling a real-estate and construction boom and a growing divide between the have-lots and the have-nots.
 
Our Observer said the windows are always open to let in the breeze from the Bay of Luanda. Photo published on Facebook by Sou Contra a Demolição do Elinga Teatro
 
Elinga is more than a theatre -- it is a cultural and communal space that hosts a bar, free concerts and an art gallery. It’s also a living witness of Angola’s troubled past. Portuguese colonists built it as a school in the 1800s. Many of its students went on to become major political figures during Angola’s fight for independence and brutal civil war, which lasted between 1975 and 2002. Elinga survived the war years. After becoming a theatre in 1988, it served as a cultural anchor for the city and launch pad for the careers of many of Angola’s best-known performers and artists.
 
The theatre also serves as a gallery, one of few in Luanda, according to our Observer. Photo published on Facebook by Sou Contra a Demolição do Elinga Teatro
 
Our Observer says that members of the regime and the opposition manage to mingle at the Elinga, despite the bruises of a war so recently finished. In 1981, the Elinga Theatre was declared a cultural heritage site by the Angolan government as a monument to the country’s colonial history. But in 2012, that status was revoked by the culture minister. Soon after, the construction project was announced.
 
The culture minister declassified Elinga Theatre as a historical building in 2012. Photo: http://centralangola7311.net.
 
Fans of Elinga were outraged. One architect drew up an alternative plan, but it was ignored. Since then, community members have created several Facebook groups and websites, organised online petitions and lectures on the importance of the theatre.
 
This alternative plan for construction suggested by an Italian architect would preserve the Elinga Theatre. Photo source: http://centralangola7311.net
This alternative plan was ignored. Photo source: http://centralangola7311.net
The Elipark development contains a parking lot and luxury apartments. Photo source: http://centralangola7311.net
    Contributors

    "What I love best is that it is a place that does away with social distinction"

    Claudio Silva was born in Luanda, grew up in the United States and returned to Luanda a few years ago to start his own business. He runs a Yelp-like service advising Luandans on the best places to eat and go out. Elinga remains his favourite night spot. He has recently joined the campaign to protect the theatre.
     
    Elinga is unlike any other place in Luanda. When you walk in, you notice that it’s a little bit dilapidated. It feels old but there is an energy about it. You go up two flights of beautiful stairs made of old wood, and then windows are open and there is a breeze coming in from the bay. The theatre space is small, intimate. The best times of my life have been spent in Elinga.
     
    What I love best is that it is a place that does away with social distinction. Our city is becoming segregated between rich and poor. Our government’s urban policy drives the poor out of city centres. But Elinga is a cultural melting pot. You see people from the oil companies like Chevron mixing with people from the embassies and from the slums and even foreigners. It’s one of the rare places where people from different political parties mix. Everyone goes there.
     
    Actors perform at Elinga Theatre. Photo published on Facebook by Sou Contra a Demolição do Elinga Teatro

    "Angolans don’t like to be linked with any kind of protest against the government, they are afraid. But with Elinga, it’s different."

    Our petition to save the Elinga has garnered over 1,300 signatures. This is rare because Angolans don’t like to be linked with any kind of protest against the government, they are afraid. But with Elinga, it’s different. Both people who are pro-regime and those against the regime want to save it.
     
    The movement is a visceral, collective feeling of disgust spurring people into action. When you come to Luanda, you’ll notice that there is a lack of historical landmarks even though it is older than America. It’s perplexing that the government doesn’t care about these spaces. And the theatre is just one example. Construction is complete chaos in Luanda.
     
    I just don’t want the city to be bulldozed. In ten years, everything will be gone, with no public debate.
     
    Supporters of the Elinga hope to present their petition to the National Assembly on April 18, UNESCO’s international day for monuments and sites.
     
    Post written with FRANCE 24 journalist Brenna Daldorph (@brennad87)
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