Review: ‘Kinshasa – Tales of the Invisible City’

Author(s) Filip De Boeck, Marie-Francoise Plissart
Publisher Leuven University Press
Year 2014

Kinshasa: Tales of the Invisible City is a fascinating and challenging effort to probe the social and cultural complexities of an African metropolis. Originally published in French in 2004, this study was a landmark of French ethnography on African urban spaces and the people who live in them.

Based on Filip de Boeck’s long periods of research in the city as well as along the Angolan-Congolese borderlands and among the Lunda people in Katanga province, this book also features beautiful and provocative photographs by Marie-Françoise Plissart. De Boeck righly notes in the introduction how Kinshasa defies the once-commonplace discussions of resistance and collaboration. Instead, he asserts: “Both literally and figuratively, Congo’s capital smashes its own mirrors. At the same time, it never stops piecing itself together” (p. 19). A central theme of this study is the elusive and often impermeable divide between the real and the “irreal” world of spirit, fantasy, and rumor. Rather than set the realm of the spiritual and the imaginary as opposed to real, everyday life, De Boeck shows how Congolese constitute themselves and their lives in a relationship in which the supposedly supernatural world constantly becomes tangible. Likewise, the collapsing infrastructure of abandoned monuments, dilapidated buildings, and declining access to Western health care suggests the real world is dissolving rapidly.

A typical example of the authors’ postmodernist approaches to spiritual concerns in daily life in Kinshasa is chapter 4. The author begins with a quote from the star singer Tabu Ley’s song “Mokolo Nakofufa” (The Day That I Die) and an excerpt from a conversation in a taxi with a man whose girlfriend died during an abortion. De Boeck and Plissart weave together a bricolage of various accounts concerning death and apocalyptic threats, from ebola to new alternative spiritual movements such as the Dibundu dia Kongo. The authors’ logical trajectory at times can be a bit hard to clearly discern in their effort to capture the heterogeneity and incoherence in daily life of the city. Though this is an entertaining and intriguing way to structure a book, it does not lend itself to a short synopsis.

Following in the same vein as poststructuralist observers of Africa such as Achille Mbembe, this book documents the heterotopia of African city life through both detailed discussions of occult fears and power in the city and sharply focused discussions of how Kinshasa residents have sought a living smuggling and mining diamonds in Angola. Chapter 6’s examination of witchcraft accusations and redemption narratives of homeless children in Kinshasa is startling and disturbing. Street children played key roles in clandestine economies of prostitution and theft. Many street children as well as others in Kinshasa believed homeless children often became vectors of negative mystical force through unknowingly ingesting magical substances given by adults (particularly kin or neighbors), and then were manipulated by their new mentors.  Charismatic Protestant churches then provided a source of refuge and public penitence for homeless children, if they admitted their role in sorcery to their congregations. The divide between the material and spiritual world no longer clearly exists, and the erratic movement to and from the supernatural corresponds with the byzantine social and economic arrangements that Kinshasa residents rely on.

This study goes far beyond the confines of the city. Chapter 7, for example, is a life history of a female Kinshasa resident named Mado who became a participant in the illegal diamond trade from areas in Angola under the control of the UNITA rebel group in the 1990s. Congolese middlemen in this business put much of their money into Kinshasa. Mado made and broke a series of relationships with different Angolan and Congolese men to act as partners and patrons. These negotiations demonstrated her agency, but also the limits of her ability to operate and to protect herself, as she experienced violence at the hands of UNITA rebels herself. Since most of this chapter is made up of transcripts of interviews with Mado, it is a valuable primary source. More generally, the authors highlight statements by their informants not only to analyze their statements. In many cases, informants’ statements are left without direct analysis, leaving the reader to draw his or her own conclusions. One reason for this choice in structuring the book comes from the laudable effort the authors make to provide a forum for Kinshasa residents to express themselves.

De Boeck concludes the study by noting, “In the end, words seem to be the only weapons one has to defend oneself against the city. They are also the only tools, the most basic building blocks at the disposal of Kinshasa’s inhabitants to erect the city over and over again” (p. 258). Admittedly, this gnostic view ignores the more tangible and less beguiling aspects of city life (taxis, food vendors, housing come to mind), but efforts to understand the beliefs of Kinshasa residents are also vitally important.

There have been many changes in Kinshasa since 2004. Though much of the spiritualities on display here have not radically changed in the last fifteen years, the urban infrastructure has been altered. The advent of Chinese investment and the shaky hold of Joseph Kabila’s regime had led to new fantasies taking physical shape and altering the Kinshasa landscape, most notably the construction of a luxury neighborhood on an island in the Congo River, Kinshasa II. Even so, this book deserves a wide readership among scholars of contemporary African cities.  It is beautifully written, and the photographs are stunning. Leuven University Press is to be commended to agreeing to translate this seminal work so it can reach a wider audience.

This review  by Jeremy M. Rich was originally published by H-Net Reviews. August, 2015 (http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=42612)

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