Mayamba Thierry NLANDU
Professor of English Literature at the University of Kinshasa (Congo) * 

Kinshasa: Beyond Dichotomies

Exploring the condition of modern city life in Kinshasa is a challenging but rich experience that reveals an environment longing to become one village where life is good for everyone. I personally am not a sociologist nor a specialist in urban issues. That is why I will humbly speak from the point of view of a city-dweller caught prisoner of a distorted dichotomic city. Here "la Ville," or the urban, gains a status in itself and stands as superior to the "Cité," the suburban. This tragic, competitive game makes the urban and the suburban forget that they are in reality interacting parts of the same whole, that is, the city. Therefore, for an entertaining and rich tour in Kinshasa, I will move away from this tendency to value the urban more than the suburban. I intend to get rid of the inclination to oppose the two in a potential destructive way. During this tour I will try to relate the two opposites with each other revealing their mutual enriching. The focus will obviously be on men and women that make the city of Kinshasa.

The present life narrative is the translation of my awkward perception of Kinshasa, a life city very difficult to grasp, moving forward and backwards with currents and undercurrents that merge into each other. A poor tourist-guide I refuse to run the risk of forcing Kinshasa into a pattern that reduces its fullness to a no man's land or a tragic space. Consequently, this narrative will selectively present different aspects of Kinshasa’s life. The narrative will be intuitively analytical referring to facts, experiences and accounts of facts. I will reveal the sense that these make to me and probably to "many people without history" who live in Kinshasa. The narrative will finally show how city-dwellers in Kinshasa perceive and shape their individual and communal identities. In addition it will figure out what guides their actions.

You will probably have the strong feeling that the guide's perceptions and to a lesser extent those of Kinshasa city-dwellers mark the descriptions. You will certainly notice many hesitations about the interpretation of the multifaceted image of Kinshasa. These limitations are part of this exploration conducted in a spirit of trying to understand rather than to explain. Indeed I want to stand-under: to put myself in a lower position, a position of receiving, an attitude not of learning about, but of learning from city-dwellers in Kinshasa.

This communication wish is to turn the present mental visit of Kinshasa into a real-life meeting with the "Kinois," the people in the capital of Congo. The intent is to share their perceptions of Kinshasa. We want to understand the forces that drive them in shaping their lives the way they do in a context not only of a deep sense of loss, but also of hope beyond optimism. Indeed in this part of the world there are city-dwellers who struggle to remain creative actors able to give meaning to their own lives. Steadfastly facing fundamental ruptures and breaches in their lives, they are definitely gaining self-confidence. They are subjects of this city life and maintain hope in this city simply because they can cope with the challenge of moving beyond dichotomised alternatives.

Let us now discover this city ambivalence. Although a tragic space and a no man's land, Kinshasa is also a healing environment constantly looking for ethical pillars, seeking for more meaning for its social, political and economic realities. Probably the understanding of this city life goes intimately with the rediscovery of the necessity to integrate rather than separate these aspects of the city. This can be possible in a process of selective re-appropriation of both the "Cité" and the "Ville" values and practices. In this search for experiencing the wonder that is city life the challenge remains the quest for a spirituality that unites rather than divides the urban and the suburban. A new art of living is developing in Kinshasa based on simple lifestyle, love and concern for the neighbour.

I. Kinshasa: A Tragic Space?

Kinshasa is a dead city. It is not the city of the dead! Kinshasa is a city that has fallen apart. Nobody denies it, neither the Kinois nor the visitor who enters this space for the first time. The city-dwellers refer to this city and to the whole country as "cadavéré, épave." Kinshasa is not a city. It is something else, "kiima kinkaka" to use a brewer's slogan of a bottled beer. Kinshasa is a sum of stories of physical and mental hardships.

What is the population of Kinshasa? Nobody knows but the White anthropologist, the specialist in demography and in development issues, and probably Congolese political leaders when they claim for new seats in the Parliament. According to their opinion the population of Kinshasa turns around five and seven millions.

How do these millions stand the incoherent miserable life of Kinshasa? The city-dwellers in Kinshasa consider it a miracle! Indeed many among them if not the majority are jobless. The pillages of September 1991 and January 1993 destroyed many available jobs. If they happen to find a job the salary is not regular. When one gets it paid , it is very often a poor, miserable salary that does not cover a family's basic daily necessities. The best allusion to the salary is SIDA meaning here Salaire Insuffisant Depuis des Années (Insufficient salary since many years).

How do people manage with the collapse of public transport, the degradation of the city infrastructure, the absence of roads, the breakdown of electricity and sewage systems? These are not questions to raise if one still wants to remain sane.

How do they provide education and health care to their children in this general state of material and ethical deficiency? Where do people go to solve infectious and nutritional health issues? God knows! No one invests time in these issues nor in the ruthless economic world order, the ceaseless inflation of the currency, and the collapse of public order and governmental institutions.

What is the life expectancy of the Kinois? Is decent housing a utopia? Apparently nobody cares. This is a city with a high childbirth rate where children suffer from malnutrition. Here the population grows rapidly even as people live on the edge of famine and plunge into an existence marked above all by total uncertainty about the future.

People here simply live. There is no doubt they are living in poor conditions and in extreme deprivation. However they remain aware of the birth and death cycle that accompanies the life of Kinshasa and of many other cities of the world. They respond by first taking care of the immediately useful while struggling to safeguard their dignity. They now refuse to consider this period of their existence as a step backward moving away from tragic linear notions of "backwards" and "forward." This period in the history of this city and of its people is a step sideways. It enables all the inhabitants to explore new choices and combinations besides the familiar ones in the permanent attempt to unite the urban and the suburban. Progressively released from competitiveness both the "Ville" and the "Cité" refuse to be all losers seeking to give a chance to the Kinois.

Present-day Kinshasa is a large urban centre in Central Africa. It is probably the largest and the ugliest in tropical Africa. Officially, nobody says it, but the Kinois at least is aware of it. Using his now legendary derision he sings a verse in which "Kinshasa la belle" rimes with "Kinshasa la poubelle" just like "beauty" would rime with "dirty."

Kinshasa is a huge city including the "Ville" and the "Cite." It has one main impressive street dominating the centre, the Boulevard du 30 juin or the Champs-Elysees of Africa. The boulevard is height lanes wide and runs almost the full length of the "Ville". On it you will find major commercial stores and administrative offices, the main post office, and the city’s number one landmark-the 22-storey SOZACOM building (the mineral marketing company). About five km from the center along the river, you will come to Gombe. It is a chic residential area where is located the Hotel Intercontinental, the city’s best hotel. The "Ville" includes the downtown area with its places of employment, stores and neatly planned neighbourhoods where the privileged minority reside.

The pulse of the city is the "Cite," the main artery being Avenue Kasa-Vubu. It runs perpendicular to the Boulevard du 30 juin, starting at the post-office. When you arrive at le Rond Point Victoire, four km down Kasa-Vubu, you’ll be in the heart-the commune of Matonge. This is the vibrant quarter of the "Cite" where you find cheap hotels, lively bars, Congolese foods and the musical groups on which the country stakes its reputation. Matonge invites the visitors to experience, not ‘see’ the city. Kinshasa’s night life is lively. In Matonge almost any night of the week you can walk into a variety of colourful night clubs and hear famous musical groups. It is said that no other city in Africa has as much live entertainment as Kinshasa.

The "Cite" covers more than three quarters of the total area of the Capital. This suburban area is where most Kinois live. We meet some of them in almost mapped out older districts. The majority are now living in newer, poorer zones or shantytowns of spontaneous peripheral expansion to the South, East, and West (Devisch 1995: 598).

The shantytowns on the fringes of the city arrogantly show their rudimentary shelters of two or three rooms in breeze-block wall and corrugated iron roofs. They too are Kinshasa, although concentrated in unplanned areas lacking basic urban services and infrastructure. Here people patiently wait for the moon, a better and reliable company than the national electricity company. The shanties too sing Kinshasa thanks to the frenzied sounds of empty tomato tins against bottles of Coca-Cola rythming the creative advertisement of children selling kerosine. Immediately after the passage of these informal traders little shy lights will illuminate the shanties from between the fruit trees in which these houses proudly stand.

One hears the warm sounds of laughter and songs from the shelters located on the hillsides. They are unconsciously paving the ways of a city planned in smaller scale and in which the inhabitants try to re-establish or reinvent the disrupted environment and communities. One probably can imagine the frenzy of these bodies, now a single body, taking a deep breath. They are coming slowly back to life happy to have survived the hardship of the just past day (de Boeck in press). The shanties become an alternative that is not an unprogressive culturalism. For like any area of the city, the shanties actually need paved roads, sewage and sanitary systems. However they offer in return a chance for more social cohesion and solidarity. Here the Kinois ceases to be an object to be urbanised. He seeks to become the actor of his urbanisation. He is the one who organises his housing unit introducing various changes to the shared spaces. When he comes down the top of hillsides he joins the pauperised functionary, the intellectual in the old district.

In the old district, people recognise the intellectual by his mastery of the French language, his nostalgia for his French etiquette, his school education and his petty bourgeois lifestyle. The intellectual still masters the language of his master, that is, French. He is a trained national, educated and bears degrees from Cambridge, Oxford, The Catholic University of Louvain, Paris II or IV. However he has lost what matters in present Kinshasa, which is financial power. Indeed his knowledge of the master's language does no longer guarantee high level of status, income and other social privileges as it used to be in the past.

Thorn between his old and new worlds, the intellectual, this collage of personalities redefines his identity. This is the condition to achieve the healing encounter with the other city-dwellers in Kinshasa. He progressively becomes a city-dweller among other city-dwellers no longer obliged to adapt his identity to the divided environment like a chameleon. From now on he will be a person in the diurnal and public space, in the bar and in the conjugal and domestic milieu. The intellectual is finally returning to a simpler lifestyle with less emphasis on material and academic success. He no longer considers himself a failure. Obviously he ever more realises that his social climbing and his diploma were nothing but a mirage. Consequently he is willing to reject the illusion that widens the gap between him and his urban identity and mode of life.

Perhaps more than the city-dwellers in the shanties, the old district and the "ville" the intellectual feels the nostalgia of their lost unity. He reacts against the feeling of incompleteness instilled in them for centuries. He is painfully inviting the members of these different communities to turn their temporary material poverty into a symbol of dignity. Materially poor persons, all of them do 'not have' many things. That is why they should concentrate on the inner strength of their 'being' to retain a feeling of human dignity.

Together with the inhabitants of the shanties and the "ville," the intellectuals are shaping the realities of a shared inhuman and divided city life. They are likely using their limited resources to rewrite new modes of being on older modes. Together they resist to this antagonistic male and female or up and down division of the city. For many city-dwellers this division is a tragic and dramatic question of life against death, humanity versus exclusion.

The challenge for all of them nowadays is the ability to share the same social and physical space without erasing the trace of being rooted in each other’s respective original space. Such a qualitative change does not imply a total rupture with the divided Kinshasa of the past. The shanties, the old districts and the urban will not disappear because they do not stand for retrograde clan solidarity. They are not negative spaces to convert nor to leave behind. On the contrary they must blend into a new city characterised by adapting transformation, that is, by continuity in change. New Kinshasa will move in cyclical spiral course, relating, re-linking, re-connecting the suburban to the urban, re-appearing in different but never entirely new environments.

B. Kinshasa: An Ambience of an Uninterrupted Feast

Kinshasa is a big bar. To paraphrase the song of a famous Congolese musician, Pepe Kallé Kinshasa is a night-club in which "those who want to drink, drink and those who want to get drunk, get drunk." Every evening the bars and the discos transform the "Cité" into the city centre. After the city centre had fallen still life throbs at the heart of these different older quarters endowed each with its own "Matonge," the hub of the dance bars (Devisch 1995:620). In these circumstances and hypnotised by light and music, an individual can spend his daily earnings, or even his month's salary in a single night. "Mboongo eloko pamba" money is nothing compared to what the bar can offer.

Songs, erotic dances, games of seduction, beer, and mannerly speeches create the euphoric atmosphere that drowns out the frustrations of the day, and the discriminations of age, income, class and ethnic differences. Tangibly the city-dwellers experience release and fulfilment in the bar. Throughout the night affluent youngsters, married men and unmarried women with the best singers and musicians present a world hostile to continence, frugality, and sobriety as an ideal social model of openness. They advocate a liberalisation of mores with their sumptuous appearance, suggestive "heated" mannerisms, and ludic message. In doing so they temporarily exclude any reference to virtues, wealth, ethnic group or social classes (Devisch 1995:620).

This collective frenzy and euphoria giving to the city an ambience of a seemingly permanent feast will certainly astonish any visitor. People in the bar seem to have adopted the hedonist lifestyle propagated by the world-embracing radio waves and television channels. In the bar the city-dwellers meet; they no longer consider their social status. Fare-collectors in the taxi-buses, the pousse-pousseurs (hand-driven carts), bootblacks, errand boys, motor car guards meet in the bar to venerate the myth of elegance and money. In recent past the functionaries were monarchs in this arena. Nowadays your pocket and the way you dress can offer you a place in this space where money is the new master. Here people spend money as if it were peanuts. Money offers its owner the arrogance to impose himself as the new king of this kingdom of perversion and illusion. Money buys beer, women, social relations, and probably redemption after a sinful night spent in the hands of many irresistible women! The accumulated money helps to accumulate women and social relations in the bar. In the bar the slogan is "more- is- better."

The bar belongs to the "true men" the "big men," those who have money and cultivate virtues of libertinism, frenzy and conquest. It is the siege of those who have hands that spend easily 'mabooko peete.' It leaves out those who do not have money to consume beer and women. The pub provides the site where people celebrate the cult of beauty, elegance and the dandy look (Devisch 1995:620). Here male and female achieve superiority and self-assurance through mutual ostentatious or sumptuous behaviour and frenetic exhibition.

In terms of capacity for pleasure and appearances the disco-bars and singers portray a society that vindicates the freedom and identity of the individual. They offer the illusion of an imaginary, erotic world without structure or law (Devisch 1995:620).



In this context and from the male point of view a woman is an object that is eaten. One takes possession of her "on the champs-de-tir" for an ejaculation called 'shooting the bullet'(de Boeck in press). Her Christian name is "diamante." Her family name is "money." Her surname is "wealth." The illusion created in the bar is that of men's superiority over women. Here like in everyday life, women are asked and accept to be seductive, understanding and caring. In reality they feign to respect men's power over them because men are very often eaten losing their daily pay or monthly salary in one night. That is the "Mushina" phenomenon.

Although men claim to control the female body, women constantly challenge men and refuse characterisation as a body only. Women in the bar take a great pleasure in assuming positions that traditionally are men’s and shaped according to their values and rules of the game. In the bar the accepted and expected behaviour of women gets less and less clear. This locus creates real confusion and overturns the conventional perceptions of what it means "to be a man" or "to be a woman."

In the bar women voice their claim although covered by the volume of the music. Apparently they are as good as men in this aggressive and violent win-win seductive game introduced by them in the bar. Obviously they are not the only looser in this locus where competition has become an objective and where right is on the side of the financially strongest. Nevertheless, more than any member of the city they know that life reduced to money and pleasure is nothing but deceptive.

The bar makes women aware that money generates both power and the ability to limit their freedom. Consequently although there may be no limits to male aggressive treatment of female in the bar, they very often succeed in putting a limitation to what they will accept! In the bar they will with subtlety invite their partner to an interior journey to realise that they can regain their lost human dignity only through common struggle and suffering. They have no choice. This experience of oneness in their differences is vital for continuing to face and deal with the degrading forces of a city that separate them and finally destroy them. Without denying the presence of the oppressive man in the bar, women can change their priorities according to situations and moments of time inside the bar.

Therefore in an arena where men seek for ‘power over’ them they regularly keep the balance between 'power over' (control) and 'power for'(service). In doing so they refuse man's distorted image of women as human beings who passively accept their condition in the bar. They invite men to move beyond male and female disparities in an environment that is hostile to both of them alike. In the bar they remind men that they are in the same boat and they refuse that their honour should depend on the other.

Mammy Watta in the bar is a being in total discontinuity. She borrows man's predatory practices while simultaneously longing for the moment when men will become midwives again and learn not to treat her as an object to be explored, exploited and controlled. She asks him to recognise her not as the 'dog that breaks the leash' (bwa bakata nsiinga) but as an actor in her own right in the bar.

In the bar, drumming, passionate singing and dances offer ludic and effervescent moments and strangely contribute to reaffirm the ephemeral freedom and identity of the city-dweller as a human being. The time for a beer, for a warm kiss and dance, the city-dweller spends his money in search of a social status he knows the bar cannot offer him. For beyond the show of his fashion, and his spending and sexual behaviour, the city-dweller's strong wish is to exist as a human being both in and outside the bar. He wants to assume the bar and to accept that it is part of his environment, part of his life.

Definitely, the bar is not the locus where the city-dweller reconstructs his manhood. It is and will remain the temporary expiatory setting where regularly the agonising city-dweller comes to weep on the loss of the unity with his environment and faces his permanent degradation. This introspection or self-revelation process aims at filling the emptiness within the self. Obviously the city-dweller has no yearning for a reconstruction of manhood that will take place in the bar. The bar, its beer, its sex, its physical and verbal violence, its power and gentleness, drive forcibly home the pity for what the city-dweller has done with his own self.

The passage to the bar becomes then a state of psychic illumination. The subject city-dweller induces himself to be aware of the deeper reason for the disparities created by himself and by his divided city between people, within and among the city. Thanks to this approach he avoids accusation, exclusion and domination. Paradoxically, the bar, its music, dances and lights initiate a process that starts with self-discovery and self-reflection. It ends recognising the other human being and the city inside oneself. Since he cannot afford a psychoanalyst, the neurotic city-dweller in Kinshasa goes frequently to the bar and night-clubs paradoxically to seek moderation and equilibrium. This city where poor and wealthy, men and women, the "ville" and the "cité," are in a common void constantly challenges these two values.

C. Kinshasa: From Violence to Violence?

Violence is everywhere in Kinshasa. Extreme deprivations due to the collapse of the formal economy and State institutions have created a underclass of demoralised and impoverished citizens. People in Kinshasa suffer from hunger. Children are starving from malnutrition or disease. Registration for secondary school and university is possible by auction. The hospital detains some patients until they can pay the bill. The mentally ill, the drug addicts and alcoholics fight in the street over scraps of food. Small craftsmen, like their clients, receive only meagre earnings and lead a life of misery. The adult looses his or her capacity to think clearly and to act according to his or her conscience. There is a vacuum in places where people exercise or pretend to exercise power. Life is a daily struggle to survive.

This permanent violence of economic competition and of exclusion of the urban dwellers from material progress foreshadows increasingly destructive behaviours. Economically, the rampant inflation continuously erodes the value of money. Wealthy and poor people have no means to avoid the deflect economic disaster. The situation is no longer bearable and people are often unable to understand the core of the events and to distinguish between good and evil. The "Ville" and the "Cité" are all victims of structural violence. They are victims of the principle of each one for himself or herself that deprives the human being of all his or her dignity, dehumanises him or her, and intensifies different forms of violence.

Violence, injustice, extortion, systematic abuse of human rights, impunity, extra legal actions of police and private guards permanently accompany life in Kinshasa. Military violence is not easy to contain in an urban setting where weapons and military experts come from different countries and for various interests. The hope of a better future becomes more uncertain in a world dominated by army and police violence, and abusive tribunals.

Violence in Kinshasa marks the end of the era of conviviality between the political leaders ruling the country and the people. It occurs because the city-dwellers have lost their confidence in the social conventions and rights guiding the community. In Kinshasa people indeed lack the means to re-establish civil order and have lost the capacity to take a stance on current problems and projects. Here apathy, irony, parody, derision and violence have established themselves simply because the structures of law do no longer exist or have failed. The people are under constant threat of dispossession, misappropriation and dislocation of self. Permanently exposed to abuse and deterioration they have lost many of their illusions.

However, although exhausted, the city-dwellers refuse to turn against themselves. They reject self victimisation to avoid depression. On the spot there are apparently no other strategies of resistance than violence. Uncontrolled this violence has been turning inward Kinshasa and is now breaking loose within the city. Constantly frustrated and deprived of hope the city-dwellers resort to frequent pillages re-enacting the structural violence they have internalised. Symbolically they assassinate the life of ease represented by their targets, that is, luxury motor vehicles, symbols of a rapacious State and an opulent, ostentatious, and self indulgent privileged minority. The city-dwellers enter a cycle of violence in which the voiceless are always the losers. They destroy both enterprises and private properties and they lose their jobs. Violently they react against a system characterised by institutionalised violence, extortion of the weak, arbitrary arrests, disastrous inflation and ruthless economy.

It will be wrong to interpret these revolts as acts against modernity and the hopes that it awakened. City-dwellers in Kinshasa do not refuse material progress represented by these factories, businesses, industrial complexes, warehouses and dispensaries. They simply claimed for a system at the service of the majority not the other way round. People need material progress that supports social bonds instead of destroying them. The burst of violence in Kinshasa has nothing to do with people's inability to adapt the western search for material progress. This temptation to gratuitous violence, to the excitement of destructiveness is a call claiming for the redistribution of the goods produced by this material progress. It is essentially a concern for social justice that says no to the law of the strongest and the brutal struggle for life based on the survival of the fittest.

Unfortunately, the victims have used the same weapons as those of their oppressors. They have repeated the same violence that victimises them. Blinded by their anger and despair they have missed the opportunity to introduce real changes to the core of their existence. They have repeated the oppressor's ethic, which is bankrupt, the law of vengeance and of the strongest reign. City-dwellers have revisited the violent cycle of destruction and inhuman repression.


Nevertheless they have at last learned the lesson. This violence never leads to relationships. It appears to offer no destiny, no plan. The have-nots of urban and suburban Kinshasa have ceased to be passive beings. Indeed exploitation, domination, exclusion has led them from resignation and despair to adjustment and resistance. Their violence has been a process of self-identification identifying the urban dweller's self with both the oppressor and the oppressed. As a result they now refuse to validate the notion of violence as a banal and inevitable element in their struggle for survival. They seem ready for other victories, but this time on the evil that destroys the human being. To achieve real change, that is, peace, they must first move inwards to connect the inner path to their future outer actions.

D. Kinshasa: an Economy of Resistance

For the populations in the "ville" and the "cité," most of the trade is possible within the so-called informal economy that functions as a survival strategy for the masses. The code that regulates the life of the growing deprived people in Kinshasa is the now famous "Article 15." This Article is the one that the voiceless in Kinshasa would have loved to see in the nation Constitution of the wealthy minority. It refers to the economy of resistance the centre of which is not exclusively the street. These are various life, subsistence and survival strategies that the excluded masses of urban dwellers use to handle difficult situations.

This economy of resistance is multifaceted. It takes various forms: self-managed workshops, food buyers' groups, soup kitchens, productive workshops, small retail stores, junk collection and resale, taxi drivers, small repairs, street vendors, housing organisations, beneficiaries of charity institutions, begging, drug smuggling, alcohol selling, and small theft. It concerns first the usufruct of "goods that one has displaced," such as tools, bricks, lumber, tires, piping, and other construction materials. In addition it comprises acts of fraud and blackmail of all sorts. They often occur in a context of ruse and play. For example the pedestrian or driver, by the simple fact of stopping in the anonymous public space, naturally exposes himself to all forms of extortionist play. Along the street and in the small so-called Kuwait Cities all forms of barter emerge such as the street resale of boxes, wood, metal, stone and used vehicle parts. Diverse small crafts and traffics multiply: fare-collectors in the taxi-buses, the pousse-pousseurs (hand-driven carts), bootblacks, errand boys, motor or car guards. Their scanty profits afford the petty thieves and street vendors the illusion of pride and autonomy, the feeling of being their own boss (Devisch 1995:610).

The structure of informal economy ranges from family businesses, informal individual initiatives to illegal activities. A very crafty, even malicious sort of behaviour, not violent organises the last category and particularly the petty thievery. For the oppressed, small thefts get the status of a common mode of survival. It is the version of power of those who have little shares in the material progress of the city.

The economy of resistance is the consequence of a dream of development that has turned sour for most of urban dwellers crushed under the weight of poverty. It is a soulless wasteland characterised by the arrogance of the privileged few in Kinshasa that gave birth to the informal economy. The intolerable and unsustainable degradation and acute misery of people in the "Ville" and the "Cité" are at the origin of this economic alternative.


The urban dwellers refer to the informal sector developing at the margins of the nation-economy and state with both self-conscious laughter and pride. This economy of resistance brings them honour in a context where the logic of the market leads to total despair. In addition, the so-called informal economy provides more benefits than regular employment. It is informal because probably it pays no heed to experts. In addition informal economy is not irrational nor backwards. It has its structure and does not need to be formalised nor normalised with a view to accumulation. The experts qualify it informal economy probably because they do not understand its mechanism and its ethics.

As an intermediary place, the informal economy does not only "evoke the semantic and social space of the petty thief, crafty sorts of minor aggression, and resourceful predation on others and the state" (Devisch 1995:610). It does not either absolutely "denote in a ludic context the capacity to manipulate or deceive another, by ruse or charm, for money or goods" (Devisch 1995:610). It responds to a multiplicity of objectives that are simultaneously economic, social and cultural. The informal world of crafty plunder and enterprise, is the voiceless answer to the degeneration of political and economic life in Kinshasa. It is a state built on the fringes of the formal state and that arrogantly challenges the privileged few who use the instruments of state to enrich themselves.

The informal economy is certainly the space from where those who had no civilisation, 'the' underdeveloped, 'the' black, ‘the’ garbage-human intend to re-establish the balance between ‘not-having' and 'being.' Here the individual, the subject who brings in the labour factor, his creativity, his potentialities and his choices organises the economy. He or she is the boss who hires workers from the local community or from his or her family. He or she steps in the informal economic space as an actor. He or she is at last the protagonist of an economic system where co-operation and community play the central role.

Involved in informal activities the urban dweller ceases to be expelled from labour, that is, activity. He or she organises a market different from the world market for it does not exclude him. The informal economy is ultimately the locus where the city-dweller settles and starts again. Here people do not long for another America. They simply voice their refusal to be the potential beneficiary of material progress promoted by a phantasm State.


The above comments attest that the informal activities are more than a list of simple survival strategies. Indeed in Kinshasa, it has evolved into a set of stable employment and revenue-generating economic organisations. Furthermore people here do not think that they have to formalise the informal to assure the economic growth of the country. What is wrong is neither the existence of the formal nor the informal economy. What is wrong is to claim that formal economy alone is economy. Just as man and woman make the "human," the formal and informal economies constitute "economy." They are the two wings of the bird named "economy." When the formal economy dominates, the informal does not disappear. It is still present, latent and patient. The same happens in a society predominated by the informal economy. The formal economy remains still present although it is no longer organising the economic life of that society.



Taking the above considerations into account we can realise how tricky it is to ask the younger generation to be creative economically speaking. There is no doubt that they are creative. Indeed creativity is not the point to question. What is at stake is the context of a formal economy that does not give them a chance of survival unless they become competitive, meaning that they "eat" each other. Obviously the adults are intelligent enough to avoid recognising their responsibilities in establishing the dominion of a formal aggressive economy where only the fittest are winners.

E. Kinshasa: A Healing Parody

Through parody the urban dweller in Kinshasa writes a mock poem that allows him to overcome the manifold daily experiences of loss. Laughter, irony, mimicry are healing tools in the hands of the weak that enables him to stand as a moral critical instance of his fragmented city. In Kinshasa people mock their political leaders and their false impression of power over people. The church prophet and his arrogant pretension to liberate people are turned upside down. The priest and his fictive sanctity are caricatured. Jesus and the church he represents are not spared. They are also pillaged! The policeman and his corrupted sense of order are turned into derision. The married man who is always faithful until he is found adulterous by his partner is ridiculed. Values embodied in the virgin are questioned. The white man and his illusory formal economy are ironically painted.

Present life is nothing but a desert just like Europe, one hears in a now familiar song in Kinshasa. "Bakendeki poto e bakweyi na desele... Na poto malili e Kinshasa moto, moto." (They have taken the road to Europe, they have landed in the desert... Europe is cold, Kinshasa is hot.)

Things have fallen apart and the city-dweller can only exorcise himself through laughter, mimicry, irony and parody. He laughs at himself as a member of this superficial and outmoded city. He ridicules himself the person who can live in this empty city of his. He mocks his reality and his dream for a better future, or salvation order characterised by equality, equity and solidarity. He reduces himself to an invisible man, a nobody. He kneels down to rediscover the sense of humility that reveals his person not as a "diplomé" nor an intellectual but simply as a human being.

The above process requires tremendous strength and courage because the quest is not only for material progress but also for ethical values. The issue for the urban dweller in Kinshasa is to be able to reach a balance between the satisfaction of his needs "to have" and "to be." To reach his goal the city-dweller has to kill the false man and woman he or she has been so far. He or she must get rid of the inhuman unethical being he or she has become to have access to material progress. She or he ultimately can refuse to be reduced to his or her potential for the accumulation of money and power. She or he can reject this world based on a perverse logic of growth, productivism, individualism, power over and profit maximisation.

In this long pilgrimage the parody becomes the socio-drama that helps in these first moments of his or her quest for political and economic activities that support social bonds. For the city-dwellers in Kinshasa economic and political activities are social activities. They do not conceive any personal betterment without social, political and economic betterment nor any social, political and economic transformation without personal transformation.

From Isaiah and the Biblical tradition they know that there is also a strong accent on the interrelationship between the individual person seen as microcosms, and the wider world, here, the city. God calls the city-dweller to be co-creator with God of a city more whole and more humane. Indeed his wholeness is linked to the wholeness of the city. Obviously individual political or economic profit making is less important than the moral obligation to help others in need. People find help to friends in need more important than quick profit. Consequently, facing the Euro-centric modernity that constantly re-imposes its failed recipes of the past, the city-dweller resists thanks to this healing parody, the informal strategy of resistance of the so-called weak.

Parody stands then as a means to put into question the whole idea of backwardness versus "being modern," the belief in the joys of possessions without limits. Its goal is to transform both the victim and the actor of this violent and dehumanising system that holds on to things believing they are permanent. The purpose is to recreate the unity through an act of reconciliation that requires the respect of both man and woman, of the oppressed and the oppressor. Parody can obviously lead to a deep change since it is the victim who initiates it and signals new ways of acting and being.

People are not against modernity, but against modernity that imposes the past of Euro-american societies as a future to our cities and countries. What people are struggling for is modernity on their own terms. Indeed trying to be (come) like the other is not satisfactory. Admittedly, parody is the first step of this long and hopefully rewarding process. It starts with a deconstruction of the city-dweller's self and leads to the search for an ethical order that will support the modest and localised alternatives of the future.

In present Kinshasa, people are not lacking in knowledge, but rather in wisdom. They frequently realise that their efforts to construct a sustainable and kind city will need courage or better spiritual resources. Therefore to paraphrase T.S. Elliot, brave city-dwellers will not cease from exploration because the end of all their exploring will be to arrive where they started and know the place for the first time.

F. Kinshasa: a Local Ethical Quest

Kinshasa is visibly a city agitated. However this agitation goes together with a strong will to reshape the city and make it move beyond the gospel of competitiveness and dichotomies. It is strangely here that the urban dwellers learn to accept each other's limits and take the responsibility for it. They all seem aware that this is the condition of one's fertility and of the city's revival or renewal. The visitor in Kinshasa who will remain in the "Ville" will not notice this flame reshaping the city and its inhabitants. New Kinshasa is coming to life out of the local communities, Christian or not, the tontines, the neo-lineages social clubs, and so on...

These local or communal organisations are settings that widen opportunities and reduce risk in case of disaster due to the dichotomic nature of the city. It is here not on top of the city that city-dwellers' struggle against the entropy to which has led the divided city that did not offer any real betterment of living standards.

Men and women from the "Cité" and the "Ville" face their human identities in crisis and realise progressively that they are the two wings of the same bird; that is, Kinshasa. Kinshasa can fly if both wings have the same motion. To be transformed Kinshasa must move beyond the "Cité"/"Ville" divide.

The challenge in the local communities is obviously to reach a balance in the appreciation of the urban and the sub urban, ways of perceiving life and shaping reality in Kinshasa. How can we reconcile the inhabitants of the urban and the suburban by inducing them to cross-fertilise rather than to move away from each other's life? In their attempt to reconstruct a different city the inhabitants of this divided Kinshasa must be able to reflect and act together.

Local communities are spaces where people learn to tame all sorts of urban fears, be they innate or created, natural or cultural, existential or ideological. For these fears lead to rejecting the other, ratifying the other preconceived ideas or blackmailing the other. A fundamental condition for real change in the relationship between urban and suburban city-dwellers is the need for urban dwellers to face their deepest fears, their fear of themselves and their fears of the other. Local communities are initiating social changes generated by this interior journey to avoid backlashes, painful regressions, which imply impoverishment for the city and the city-dwellers. Here people from the urban and the suburban bring their different world views together and learn to communicate to initiate an encounter that will not break down in violence.

These local communities are not static because they are part of the history of groups of citizens living in the "Cité" and the "Ville." They acknowledge a dynamic process of change. Indeed it is at this level that social struggle, creativity and solidarity are taking place. Here external and internal mutual influences, be they social, economic, political, ideological or generation, continuously pose new challenges. New answers and new solutions are invented when the old ones are not satisfactory anymore. Admittedly, they are most often localised and modest. Still, they deserve our attention although no equally strong force of change in mentalities actually balances the force of change in practices. Will the "Ville" and the "Cite," one day indeed, be in a state of deep 'interpenetrating'? Will the dichotomy and the disparity between them vanish one day?

Examining these questions underlines the basic challenge all city-dwellers experience in Kinshasa, that is, establishing vital social networks that can offer help in times of need. It seems an endless and demanding process of gifts and countergifts. This process is permanent, because of the evolution of the city-dwellers themselves going through different stages of life and because of changes in Kinshasa. The urban dweller's constant challenge is to re-establish or reinvent his or her disrupted communities and city. In this constant attempt, festivities, burials and funeral wakes (matanga) take an important part. They are not wasteful but reasonable investments in social relations that may prove useful in the future.

The interaction between the city-dwellers of both spaces will only work out in a positive way when the inhabitants of both sites are of equal value. Obviously city-dwellers from the "Ville" and the "Cité" can only move beyond this dichotomy when they find new ethical and spiritual motivations. This is not pious nor unrealistic dream but a concrete necessity for their future as city-dwellers in Kinshasa. On their way towards a new united city, urban dwellers in Kinshasa do not deny the divisions that are part of the city reality. They know that re-planing or re-shaping the city will introduce new divisions, be their physical, social or even cultural. This is not the point. The problem lies on how one looks at these divisions, vertically or horizontally. A vertical perspective introduces a destructive relationship between these spaces and those living within them. Rather an horizontal one gives a chance for a mutual respect and acceptance of the different settings, all units that form the diversity and the richness of the city. This explains why the city-dwellers step back for a few moments in the local communities and are rediscovering values such as:

- Faithfulness, friendliness, conviviality, community spirit, fellowship, co-operation, mutual aid and collective work in the city

- preference for consensus in decision making, respect for the aged, institutionalised paternalism as a social security system, need of symbolic next to material accumulation

- gratuitous approach to labour which is not seen as a commodity having economic value

- autonomy, self-reliance based on community strength and lessening of dependence on the State

- sense of justice through redistribution

- equality, and a sense of justice and human decency

- frugality, moderation and balance

- respect for life, caring, harmony, dialogue, …

The above values are associated with womanhood and attest to the city's need to search for a healing female spirituality. These values are more and more present among city-dwellers, men and women in the local community. For it is the locus where the city-dweller refuses to accept the culture of silence very often imposed by the divided city. Here the city-dweller stands up as a creative actor able to give meaning to his or her life, subject and not object of his or her existence in the city. His or her effort to search for more meaning in this hostile environment would lead to more freedom of the city-dwellers. Consequently, the city-dweller is like the wave in the ocean that appears visible and distinct as a wave-form for a moment. Indeed like the wave the city-dweller is always in constant movement: rising up and submerging with the city he or she is in relation with. The next moment the ocean wave blends itself in ever-widening ripples with the foam and the waters.

As he or she copes with various problems of the city, the urban dweller feels the pain of being submerged, of losing breath. Paradoxically, he or she emerges with a strong inner self, because he or she has the consciousness to respond to the life needs of his or her person and environment.

Present Kinshasa does not inspire much optimism. However hope, struggle and creativity can achieve profound change. The emergence of a new and different Kinshasa is the responsibility of each city-dweller. Each in his or her way is longing for the moment when together they will compose and sing the new song that foreshadows the change of Kinshasa.


Thierry Nlandu teaches Anglo-American literature at the University of Kinshasa-Democratic Republic of the Congo, and is the Scientific advisor of the Congolese Association of Moralists. Besides he is a dramatist and a political activist, member of "Groupe Amos" in Kinshasa. Visiting scholar. International Centre for Advanced Studies. NYU. 


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