“Kinshasa: Tales of the Invisible City”, Filip De Boeck and Marie-Frangoise Plissart

openDemocracy Opendemocracy
30 July 2006

“Kinshasa: Tales of the Invisible City”

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"Kinshasa: Tales of the Invisible City"
by Filip De Boeck and Marie-Frangoise Plissart
Ludion | September 2006 | ISBN 9055445541

What the publisher says: "Kinshasha: Tales of the Invisible City offers an original analysis of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s capital, Kinshasa. The authors, anthropologist Filip De Boeck and photographer Marie-Françoise Plissart, provide a history not only of the physical and visible urban reality that Kinshasa presents today, but also of a second, invisible city as it exists in the autochthonous mind and imagination in the form of a mirroring reality lurking underneath the surface of the visible world. The book explores the constant transactions that take place between these two levels in Kinshasa’s urban scape. Based on longstanding field research it provides insight in local social and cultural imaginaries, and thus in the imaginative ways in which local urban subjects continue to make sense of their worlds and invent cultural strategies to cope with the breakdown of urban infrastructure."

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Extract from "Kinshasa: Tales of the Invisible City":

"Photographe azwui yo photo, abimisi carte ya yo moko. Na yo, na carte, nani akomona moninga? Yo okomona carte; carte ekomonaka yo te. Carte ya photo ekomona yo ata mokolo moko te, ata ba agrandir yango lolenge kani. Ndenge moko biso tozali na Nzambe. Nzambe okomona biso, ye nde akeli biso; biso tokomona ye te."

"A photographer takes your photo and he gives you a paper with your image. Between you and the photo, who looks at whom? You can contemplate the paper with the image; the paper with the image does not see you. It will never be able to contemplate you, no matter how much one aggrandizes the picture. It is exactly the same between us and God. God is able to see us because he created us, but we can't see God."

– Papa Verbalizant, Kinshasa, September 1997

This reflection on photography by Papa Verbalizant, an inhabitant of Kinshasa, points to the demiurgical qualities inherent in the creation of photographic images. It also points to the power relations at play in the production of the image. Both the camera and the pen are, in a way, ultimately colonial tools, ordering, categorizing, and thereby creating reality in their own image. Each in their own way, photography and writing take possession of the world, freeze it in images and representations, and often kill its vitality in the process.

Surprisingly little has been published about Kinshasa so far. This book is the product of a collaborative effort between myself, an anthropologist, and photographer Marie-Françoise Plissart. Since 1987, I have carried out extensive long term field research in Congo, and the text presented here reflects my long engagement with the urbanscape in Central Africa.

In 2000, Marie-Françoise Plissart visited me at home shortly before she was to travel to Kinshasa for a photography project on Belgian colonial architecture. Upon her return, we began playing with the idea to return to Kin together to make a book about this intriguing city. During one month in 2001, and again in 2002, we traversed the city together, filming and photographing. The photos in this book are the partial outcome of this joint effort.

Inevitably, my text and the photographic images by Marie-Françoise Plissart are the product of our, the authors' gaze, our lens; they are informed by our own biases, with their specific histories and backgrounds. It is also the strength of their vision: they vindicate the right not merely to reflect or to give proof of having been there, but to select, frame, interpret, stylize and culturalize. And maybe precisely because they do so, they might have the capacity to bring the world back to life transformed.

Like the image with which I start this book, namely Italo Calvino's twin cities of Valdrada, cities that are not equal and do not mirror each other symmetrically, our mirror image of Kinshasa does not pretend to reflect the "true" or "objective" reality of the city of Kinshasa, nor does it make an attempt at creating analogons, through art and thought, of the "object" that is Kinshasa.

In any event, Kinshasa is a city that not only by its size but by its very shape shifting nature resists objectification, colonization, synthesis and summary. It constantly remains out of focus. It is a city difficult to tame, and impossible to capture in one master narrative. It eludes any order which one imposes upon its realities. Its constant energy and movement refuse to be frozen in static images, in linear text. Its sum is always more than its parts.

Rather than offering to encompass it all, the textual accounts and eidetic memories reflect the ways in which we have tried to generate our own personal forms of urban planning, our own subjective, and by definition incomplete, trajectories towards understanding this city. If the city is a writing, as Barthes notes, and if the person who walks around in it is a sort of reader, then the text and photos in this book provide our own personal and provisional reading of a city that refuses to be written but that writes itself.

We do hope, though, that the texts and photographs, in spite of, or maybe precisely because of, their necessarily fractal character, add to a better in-sight to the city's own internal dynamics. Our reading of the urbanscape's geographical and mental map, the moorings of its imagination, has constantly been shaped in dialogue with, and informed by, the various ways in which Kinshasa's own inhabitants write, read, talk, dance and live their city and its signs. And Kinshasa constantly invents, expresses, indeed verbalizes and reads itself in a voice that is loud and clear though not always in ways that are easy to understand.

If the city is a writing, it is often a palimpsestual one, and if the city speaks, it often does so through its own forms of glossolalia. Contrary to Papa Verbalizant's remark about the powerlessness of the represented object, unable to return the gaze through which it is produced, the subjects of Plissart's photographic images do speak: they are constantly making themselves heard in and between the chapters that constitute the body of this book. The different chapters are themselves constructed as a polylogue, in which the voice of the anthropologist and the eye of the photographer are alternated with the voices of some of Kinshasa's inhabitants.

We also hope that the photos, along with these voices, succeed at providing an opening through which to look into other worlds that lie hidden beyond the screen of the city's scene/seen (does not the photographer, like the inhabitants of Kinshasa's "second worlds," have four eyes as well?) Through its very form and nature, photography offers a perfect medium to reflect on some of the themes and theoretical preoccupations upon which this book touches.

The photos force us to consider the status of reality and its representation in Kinshasa today. As image, and as a medium that produces an image for a consciousness of absence, of something that is no longer present by the time the spectator beholds it, the phenomenology and aesthetics of photography address the importance of appearance, and the relationship between presence and absence, between the reality of unreality and the unreality of reality, between visible and invisible, between having two eyes and having four eyes, between first and second worlds. Ultimately, photography, like Kinshasa itself, constantly refers to death and the relation with the world of the living, two themes that are central to this book.


Untitled, Marie-Françoise Plissart, 2001, 42 x 63 cm © Marie-Françoise Plissart

The possibilities of the (im)possible

Approached from the river, Kinshasa reveals itself in a different guise. On the river, amidst the sounds of silence, one is engulfed in the immensity of the water's surface, stretching out in endless shades of silver and gray, hardly distinguishable from the watery sky above, a large canvas on which the black silhouettes of fishermen, standing upright in their canoes, paint a hesitant ripple when throwing out their nets.

Turning to the other side, in the direction of the city, all one sees at first is a wide marshy strip of long green grass. Behind it, barely visible, a skyline of palm trees, lining the neighborhoods of Masina and Kingabwa. As one floats downstream, small makeshift pile dwellings appear, sheltering fishermen and others who make a living out of the river. And then, one by one, the ports of Kinshasa glide by.

At first they emerge only in audible form, as an approaching soundscape that gradually breaks up the river's silence. Voices shouting and yelling, the noise of machines, fragments of music carried across the water, the sound of metal upon metal, and the more subdued plops of wooden peddles entering the water.

Then one catches sight of a port now occupied by the United Nations. The unnatural white of their boats stands out against the background. On their white surfaces are painted, in large black letters, the acronym UN (les Uns, as the United Nations people are called in Kinshasa, in opposition to the "others," les autres, the Kinois themselves). And then follow the other ports: Port Baramoto, the Yacht Club, Beach Ngobila. Here, the river banks are packed with people. Behind them, old warehouses with barely readable names painted on the dirty cement of their façades, names like NOGUEIRA, reminders of a time when Greek and Portuguese traders provided the shops of Kinshasa with goods.

The riverbank itself is hidden from view by boats, lots of boats, but boats that no longer float, dead bodies, cadavers of boats, old steamers and ONATRA (Office national des transports) ferries, in every possible shade of rust eaten brown. The port is a cemetery. Sunk, immobilized, stuck in the mud and entangled with floating carpets of hyacinth, these boats were dismantled and turned into squatters camps a long time ago. Still afloat, patiently waiting between these corpses, are hundreds of baleinières, large wooden boats with outboard motors, smelling of tar, dried fish and the penetrating odor of cassava. These are the boats that transport people and goods back and forth between the Congo river and a vast network of waterways in the interior of the country. Like an octopus' sticky tentacles, the hinterland's riverarms thus firmly wrap around Kinshasa, connecting both in an endless ebbing and flowing of people and commodities.

Painted on each of the boats, in large, colorful letters, a name: "Satellite," "The City of Jericho," "L'Avenir" (The Future), "Tantine Henriette—Proverbs 13.11" ("Wealth hastily gotten will dwindle, but he who gathers little by little will increase it"). On one boat is written: "One day, the future will prove us right."

In Of Other Spaces Foucault writes about boats as the greatest reserves of the imagination. But what if the imagination has been unmoored, and the ship itself has sunk? Even if, one day, the future proves the inhabitants of Kinshasa right, what will the shape of that future be? What elements, in an urban politics of the possible, could give form to the making and remaking of associational life in such an urban configuration? The riverbanks of Kinshasa reveal the stunning material geography of failing infrastructure, a spectacular architecture of decay which constitutes the physical life of crisis.

At the same time, the boats' names reveal the local production of zones of desire, expectations and hope. Similarly, the myriad activities and the whole web of informal economies that have spun themselves around the river and the city as a whole, have given birth to multiple technologies of fixing and repairing. They form a constant reminder of the productivity of degradation and its capacity to invent new material structures and generate and moor social ties, even if these social ties are often marked by their harshness. Kinshasha is a pitiless city with no place for the weak. Infrastructures of lack and incompleteness rarely generate great capacity for compassion.

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The fact is, we shouldn't spit upon the city … cities have to be made, and they make themselves. That is the unavoidable fate of the city. In this sense, Kinshasa is also self generating. It is its own creator. Therefore it is eternal. There will always be people to create and recreate the city, to regenerate or to destroy it, and then start all over again. It is a city that will accept its history yet to come. There is no finished city. All there is, is a historical quest. All it takes is confidence in oneself and in the other.

This is a city that still has to learn a lot, but I believe it is learning fast. Maybe Kinshasa shouldn't try to follow the West. We could not catch up with it even if we tried. We would do better to follow the last one in the race, the hungry one, and follow the rhythm of his footsteps, the time of that hungry one. Of course, hunger signifies a lack of freedom.

Somehow we have lost the equilibrium between the physical question and the beyond that creates freedom. Ready to accept and eat about anything, hunger reduces one to mere survival. But beyond that hunger lies something else. Kinshasa is not only stomach. We have the capacity to open up to that something else, but we haven't yet managed to surpass the problem of hunger, of death, of illness, of suffering. We haven't yet overcome the rupture. And then, hunger and death do not only signify closure, they also enable the creation of an opening, if not physically then at least mentally.

There are such streams of energy running through this city and we have not yet sufficiently explored them. Hunger might help us to learn how to do that, it offers a possibility. Hunger is a good starting point for this incessant search for a beyond, for it reveals the paradox in which we are living: a country so rich, with water, rivers, sun, forests, and yet with inhabitants so miserable. There is a hiatus somewhere, a void, and this void needs to be filled. It has to be filled by us, the inhabitants of this city, the initiated, the shege, the expatriates, the multitudes of people that make up this city. The city belongs to all of them. And they all have to constantly reinvent their own myths, their own stories of the street, to keep going and to offer themselves a semblance of direction for this world that keeps slipping through their fingers. The city is indeed a never ending construction.

– From an interview with Vincent Lombume Kalimasi, writer, Kinshasa, February 2004

Click here to read a review by Steve Pile

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About the authors:

Filip De Boeck is the program director of the Africa Research Center, Belguim and a professor of Anthropology at the University of Leuven. His academic interests include postcolonial identity in Africa, processes of accumulation and expenditure in informal economies, history, memory, death, and popular urban culture, especially with regard to children and youth. Together with Alcinda Honwana (currently Program Director at the Social Science Research Council, New York ) he edited Makers and Breakers: Children and Youth in Postcolonial Africa (2005). He also co-edited a special issue on children and politics in Africa for Politique Africaine (2000). His most recent publication is Kinshasa: Tales of the Invisible City (2006), a joint book project with photographer Marie-Françoise Plissart. In recent years he was a visiting professor at the University of California, the University of Cape Town, the University of Kinshasa and the University of Uppsala amongst others.

Marie-Françoise Plissart is an artist and photographer

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