CECI EST UN BIDON, 2021
“This is a bidon. It was made to store cooking oil, but we use it for everything.”
If the 20L yellow plastic bidon could speak, it would tell many stories… It usually arrives in Angola as packaging of edible oil imported from producers in Asia. Once in Angola, the contents are consumed, the bidon is washed, dried and ready to begin a new life.
If the water supply fails, you fill your bidon [preferably earlier] with water to carry you over the dry spell. If the power supply fails, you fill your bidon [preferably earlier] with fuel to run your generator until the power returns.
Bidons are everywhere in Luanda. They circulate the streets carried in people’s hands or balanced on people’s heads. They travel on homemade wheelbarrows, in the boots of cars, in the back of kupapatas – three-wheel motorcycles with a loading bin. They stop at gas stations and water cisterns, are stacked high in open-air markets or lined-up neatly on the side of main roads where they are advertised for sale. They are found at homes grouped near the generator in the yard or the sink in the kitchen.
They are must-haves in the city and in the countryside. You will rarely find a discarded or abandoned bidon. Even an old cracked bidon can double as a stool or cut in half to be reused as a scoop. You can speculate that there isn’t an Angolan that does not own one.
Beneath the ‘success story’ of the high reusability of the bidon are less marketable stories: for the majority of Luanda’s population, water for drinking, cooking, cleaning and washing comes in the form of a bidon, whose cost, 100-150AOA [15-20-euro cents] per 20L many cannot afford on a daily basis.
The same goes for the power supply. Frequent power outages mean that neither households nor industries can rely on network power. The generator is the backup supply per excellence, with its liable environmental pollution and added final cost of consumer goods produced locally.
All this in a country with an abundance of hydric resources and hydroelectric dams to harness them. This is, however, another story we will leave you to puzzle over.
The bidon is so much a piece of contemporary Angolan life that it has become heritage. It is our inheritance of the 27-year civil war – a long period of everything lacking –, of economic policies that export one commodity and import everything else, of corrupt governance that fails to provide basic utilities for all.
It is also a container of stories. Behind every litre of water careful meted out, every decision to drink or cook, wash or clean [or simply do without], every fire caused by misfuelling your generator, is a person fighting, overcoming or overwhelmed by their circumstances. These stories of survival are too our heritage.