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A few weeks ago an uncle of mine, who’s very active on our family Whatsapp group, shared a meme that read as follows: “When will the next slave trade be? I want to leave [the country].” This was not the first time he sent one. Actually, we get several of them almost everyday, which very quickly generates laughing emojis or funny stickers as responses. That’s what happened in this case too. Some cousins ​​laughed at this meme, after having surely shared it with other people. I couldn’t laugh at this one. It took me a few minutes to process why.

In recent years, memes have become quite something on Angolan social media. Memes have become a way for online Angolans to cope with their various daily concerns, just like we historically have done with music and dance.

As many others still do, I initially looked at memes as mere funny internet posts with the sole purpose of making someone laugh. That’s why I didn’t think too deeply before sharing or even attempting to create some of them in the past. It took one such as my uncle sent for me to start looking at memes as more complex manifestations.

Attempting to compare memes to cartoons, Ribio Buse and Lesley Braun write that “In postcolonial settings they continue to be mediums that covertly—and sometimes explicitly—mock and challenge abuses of power.” That’s probably what memes are doing too, the authors claim, as they show how in the Democratic Republic of Congo, people are using memes online to laugh at powerful people and themselves.

In the Angolan social media landscape memes are now everywhere.  On WhatsApp stories and groups, on Instagram, on Twitter and obviously on Facebook, which is believed to be the main source of the most hilarious memes. Unlike “typical” memes, Angolan ones are mostly text-based, usually with no images. They are generally plain texts reporting issues on almost anything, from the country’s current affairs, common relationships issues, to well-known colloquialisms.

Memes are becoming so serious in Angola that there is already a popular name, memeiros, given to those who create and share the most memes, as well as exclusively dedicated social media pages for the daily sharing of memes made in Angola. Angola Depressão, for example, has more than 300,000 Instagram followers—1,000 times more than Angola’s president João Lourenço.

The intersection between memes and social reality is undeniable. The “When will the next slave trade be? I want to leave [the country]” meme, which, by the way, is very popular on Facebook, clearly illustrates a case where memes are used to express deeper frustration or a cry for help. This meme is undoubtedly part of broader socio-political discourse currently happening in the country. Dealing with an unprecedented social and economic crisis, Angola is each day a harder place to live for most of its nearly 35 million inhabitants.

Lack of jobs and opportunities for young people, the country’s largest population, difficulties in accessing health and education services, regular rising in food prices and the increase in fuel prices (-after the government announced the withdrawal of fuel price subsidies recently), are some of the key reasons leading many to believe there’s no hope for their future.

And that’s why memes aren’t always only memes.

My uncle’s shared meme, for instance, can be framed within a recent social phenomena where many Angolans, especially youngsters, are deliberately seeking to go abroad  to look for better life opportunities. Although there is no official data on how many have already left, the scenario is quickly unveiled due to the constant floods of people that can be seen at the doors of Western consulates in Luanda. At the Portuguese consulate, Angolans “favorite” destination, some people even spend the night outside just to secure their visa interview spot.

The scenario is so dramatic that there is even an inorganic movement called “Civic Movement, Let’s Leave Angola.” Created in 2019, it is popular on Facebook, with almost 60,000 followers, and posts featuring discontent with the country and the ruling party (People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), advice for people willing to join the movement, and also stories of Angolans who have already successfully left the country.

Edmilson Ângelo, an Angolan scholar, argues that recent political memes targeting the government should be understood as “reflections of the evolution and solidification of social media in our political sphere, as well as visible changes in the social contract between who governs and who is governed from the point of view of Angolan youth.”

As for now it’s unclear whether the fast-growing meme culture poses a real threat to the long-time ruling party. However, there’s a well-known African proverb that says: “When ants unite, they can lift an elephant.”

This post is from a partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site every week.