Kisasa Makambo! Remembering the Future in the Congolese Urban Cauldron


Charles-Didier Gondola

date de sortie



Histoire moderne

In 1961, as Congolese were basking in their newfound independence, Joseph Kabasele released a song that captured the zeitgeist of Kinshasa better than any song written before or after. “Oh Kisasa makambo” goes the lyrics, “mikolo nionso feti na feti na sala boni/Natiya mwa loleya na posi/Ekobima ngai awa nakozonga wele wele/Chèque na ngai ko esila kala/Bipayi nadefaka bakanga pointage kala/Mboka ko moko kombo ebele/Kisasa, Kini Malebo, Lipopo, Leoville... [Kinshasa/there is not a day that goes by without a party, what shall I do?/If I try to tuck money away/there it goes, leaving me broke/My checkbook is long gone/No one would lend me money anymore/A single city, yet many names/Kisasa, Kini Malebo, Lipopo, Leoville…].


Kabasele’s social commentary on the hubris of postcolonial Kinshasa serves as a point of entry into this peregrination back to the future. What Kabasele foretold and derided had to do with a city that lived breathlessly, without a single thought of the future that lay ahead; too enthralled by the quotidian demand for fête and celebration to manage the long term; resembling the cigale of La Fontaine’s witty fable on capital and labor rather than the fourmi. The urban environment where the Kinois lived is also depicted in Kabasele’s lyrics as a versatile and whimsical space, which changes its name much like Kinshasa’s elegant women change their colorful pagnes. In such an urban space, there is no place for the future, but a permanent quest for and obsession with the present, a fixation with the instant gratification of consumption with its immediacy and certainty. What Kabasele described so aptly and sadly is an escapist ethos, not an escape and a break away from the past but a break away from the future.


Ouroboros Remembering the Future


My intervention first endeavors to complicate the category of time and interrupt its linearity, convenient arrangement and sequentiality. I am also intrigued with the idea that time is not just a figment of imagination, but also a temporal category that can be produced, constructed and turned on its head, especially within the Congolese urban Juggernaut where space no longer serves as a marker of time and where life destroys and entangles itself in the manner of Ouroboros, the Greek mythical serpent which eats its own tail. The cyclicality and circularity of time, rather than a linear stretch marked by progress, renewal, or what Karl Marx called creative destruction in his description of capitalism as a process of accumulation and annihilation of wealth, loom large in the ways in which Kinois make sense of time, and hence of their future. In their collective imagination, Kinois link their future inextricably with the presence of the past and the challenges of a chaotic present. Finally, I would like to argue that rather than imagining the future, the Kinois are remembering their future in a way that befuddles most observers, that is by constructing the future as a golden age, a fleeting and evanescent bygone epoch that vanishes in the interstices of the past as they march toward lobilobi (Lingala for “future”). This nostalgia of a bygone future is, I believe, at the heart of Kinshasa’s social and political conundrum.


Past, Present, Future: But Just Not in that Order

What is time? Although time has long been equated with motion and change, and can only be grasped in connection with space, there is also this pervading notion that time, especially the passage of time, is only an illusion. The convenient sequence of past, present, and future, is a mere construct and a convention; something that has to do more with perception than reality. Time also does not flow quietly like a nonchalant river meanders through green pastures from its source to its mouth. It is more unpredictable, more equivocal, and more circular. Certainly we think of time as a sequential and linear arrangement in a given city that possess both remnants of the past and promises of the future. When for example, a city wins a bid to host the Olympic games or the World Cup, say, in 12 years, all the energy, vibrancy, and creativity are harnessed and channeled through the future. While residents (most residents) bask in bliss, atwitter with the expectation of what such groundbreaking event may bring to their city, resources quickly flow in to change the urban landscape, add a few more stadia and venues, improve public transit and lodging. In other words, a dramatic change takes place that adds layers of history and identity to that city.


Consider the official website of the City of Nantes (where I am based): one will find a link called Imaginons Nantes 2030 with the following ludic entreaty: “La vie à Nantes, vous la voyez comment dans 20 ans ? Jusqu’au jeudi 15 décembre, inventons ensemble la métropole nantaise de demain. Invitez vos voisins, vos amis et imaginez ensemble l’avenir de Nantes…” But the issue gets more complicated. Nantes inaugurated a memorial for the abolition of slavery on March 25, 2012, although the city played no role in ending what had become by the early xixth century the “commerce de la honte”. In fact, Nantes continued to be actively involved in the slave trade until 1830 even though France had officially abolished it in January 1817. Yet, as the city seeks closure from its “infamous” past, time’s sequentiality of past, present and future gets reshuffled in what appears as a random trifecta, especially when one considers the memorial’s signature: “l’esclavage se combat encore aujourd’hui !” Abolition comes before the slave trade; slavery rears its ugly head in the present; and its abolition looms vaguely on a distant, nondescript future and space.


Lifelo Living with the Future

Now, take Kinshasa. Neither does the city possess ubiquitous sites of memory, places where people can interrogate and commune with the past; nor does it create spaces that summon people’s energy and creativity towards a common future; nor does it weave laces that tie together people’s imaginaries into a collective, singular project for a better community. One can walk far and wide within this city of 12 million souls without been beckoned by beacons of the past, without being arrested by visions of the future. The city seems to be devoid of historical and cultural landmarks and has been reduced to a locale where the intensity of survival seems to have fused the past, the present, and the future inside a fiery cauldron. When scholars, especially western scholars, imagine the daily lives of Kinois, they tend to find a silver lining on the cloud. Hence, Trefon discerns a pattern where order lies at the heart of a duplicitous and deceitful disorder. De Boeck, on the other hand, constructs narratives of an invisible city lurking in the dark, in the shadow of a cannibalistic city. De Boeck’s invisible Kinshasa is une ville de la nuit, une ville de joie, pulsating with life, yet haunted by death. For the Kinois themselves, Kinshasa is lifelo. Back in the late 1990s, Koffi Olomide, one of Congo’s reigning musical icons, put in words a sentiment that resonated profoundly with many Kinois. Olomide set the tone of his 1996 theme song Wake Up, with the following spoken phrase: “Tozali ko vivre na system ya lifelo, veut dire, moto ezali kopela kasi tozali kozika te” [We’re living in the scheme of hell, I mean, fire is blazing, yet we do not get burned] (See Kazadi wa Mukuna 1999: 80). Seemingly contrapuntal, yet so jarring, Olomide’s vivid images offer a shorthand take on a paradox: Kinois’s resourcefulness to cope with the present, on one hand, and resignation with respect to the future, on the other.


In fact, lobilobi is remembered as much as it is dreaded precisely because Kinois tend to imagine the past and the future as apocalyptic twins that fought in the womb of time for birthright and came out entangled like Jacob and Esau. The litany of oppressive histories, from the rivers of sorrow that Robert Harms so aptly described (Harms 1981) to red rubber during Leopold’s rule (Vangroenweghe 1986; Hochschild 1999), to blood Coltan (Eichstaedt 2011), haunts Kinois’ lives and dreams. These histories telescope in the Kinois’ daily maelstrom and loom dreadfully in their imaginary like Charybdis and Scylla. Or, as Nancy Hunt argues, Congo’s postcolonial landscape is so littered with “colonial debris”, and has registered so many repetitions and much ruination (Hunt 2005) that the future has become a ghost.


Losambo From Temporal to Eschatological Future

To escape this connivance of the past and the future, Kinois have adopted multiple strategies. They have retreated from the quotidian lifelo into the realm of religiosity and spiritual battle (combat spirituel). The proliferation of charismatic churches or assemblées, as they are called in Kinshasa, speaks volumes to the duality that characterizes Congolese society. While the issues that confront the population would strike anyone as tangible, concrete, and profoundly social, the solutions that Kinois seem to be yearning for are eminently intangible, spiritual, and almost irrational. Rumor has it that one street in Matete, one of Kinshasa’s townships, counts no fewer than forty different assemblées which every Sunday morning try to outduel one another in a contest of decibels. Indeed, to be successful, these local assemblées not only challenge their followers with tithing but also with spiritual battle through fasting and ardent prayers of deliverance. Mama Olangi’s Ministère du Combat Spirituel, for example, has largely based its redemptive theology on spell (envoûtement) and spiritual chains (liens). Poverty, illness (including AIDS), academic and professional failure, as well as infertility and other marital woes, and a host of all kinds of misfortunes, stem from envoûtement, according to the dominant biblical exegesis promoted by Olangi. In addition to fervent sessions of deliverance prayers, lasting well into the wee hours of the night, Olangi’s sermons recommend fasting as a powerful spiritual weapon to break all chains of bondage. In fact, by attributing misfortune to spiritual evil forces and by casting the social struggle into a spiritual battle opposing invisible foes, Olangi’s theology, a sort of reverse liberation theology, has played into the hands of successive regimes. Last but not least, it has de-historicized ruination and pain that are clearly rooted in the country’s brutal history, thus exonerating the powerful economic and political forces that have wreaked and continue to wreak havoc in Congo.


Religious fervor has also captured Kinois’ imaginary through what is known as the “prosperity gospel”. With rare exceptions, evangelical congregations in Kinshasa, now joined by a slew of churches from Catholic to Kimbaguist groups, have made the “gospel of prosperity” the cornerstone of their message. Using, among other biblical verses, the third chapter of the Book of Malachi, Sunday sermons cunningly link social and spiritual personal misfortune to the unwillingness to tithe. Pastors and priests promise their followers, as the Bible declares, that God will “throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that there will not be room enough to store it”. And God will bestow such blessings only onto those who give to the church, not just money, but also their personal belongings, cars, furniture, appliances, jewels, time, expertise, and bodies too… Stripped off of their ability to form a real social consciousness, Kinois have relinquished the agency to shape their future onto the hand of a record-keeping, vengeful god, a god demanding endless sacrifices rather than bestowing mercy upon believers. Indeed, religion (or “la prière”, in Kinshasa’s parlance) fulfills many functions in the imaginary of Kinois, as they contemplate lobilobi’s ominous and imminent manifestation, oblivious to the fact that lobilobi is already upon them.


Kufuamputu Exiting the Future
There is yet another strategy that Kinois have devised in their desperate attempt to eschew the pangs of lobilobi and escape the pains of lifelo. Seeking a legal or illegal entry to Europe and North America has become such an obsession in Kinshasa that oftentimes one encounters in Kinshasa youngsters, adults, men and women, rich and poor who have already made the psychological move to Paris, Dallas, Canada, or London and live vicariously through friends and family. How many times have I not heard a young person in Kinshasa quip, “I may be here, but I don’t belong here”? Just as with religion, Europe and North America (known in Kinshasa through the single, generic moniker of Poto) enable Kinois to break the “cycle of the serpent” (a reference to both Thierry Michel’s riveting documentary and the aforementioned mythical Ouroboros). When finally their lucky stars lead them to the safety of northern skies, many Kinois continue to imagine Kinshasa as lifelo even though their hopes of a better life in Poto may be dashed by the brutal realization that life in Europe is not as rosy and merry as they had conjured it up. A new figure has emerged in recent years, a frightful and forlorn figure, a figure that bodes ill for the future of Kinshasa. That figure is the figure of the Kufuamputu, young diasporic Congolese who have vowed never to return to Kinshasa but to die and be buried in Poto.


Conclusion Guangzhou and the future denied

In closing, I would like to return to the idea that for Kinois, lobilobi may not be located at a distant vanishing point, in a sort of twilight zone. For that, I would like to equate the future with the idea of progress and modernity, especially in its material and technological dispensation. When in the West one comes across the claim that “the future is here”, it usually relates to an ad of a voice-activated car, the latest GPS system, or perhaps the newest robotic vacuum cleaner. Indeed, cutting-edge technology propels us into the future or, maybe, it summons the future to meet our present needs and to fulfill our wayward wants.


In Kinshasa, however, the only two technologies of the future available to most Kinois lurk on them and connive in broad day light like two vengeful sorciers. One is cheap and grotesque and bears the quixotic name of Guangzhou, a city in China which Kinois believe is the devil’s workshop, where half-baked, low-cost, shoddy goods are spewed out by the tons before being dumped in their city. The other one is worn out, decrepit, yet glimmers of its past glory and authenticity appear once one scratches its dull surface. Its name says it all: “occasions d’Europe”. Complaining about life in Kinshasa, my sister-in-law told me one day, “Everything in this country is Guangzhou” (by “everything” she meant foods, goods, resources, such as water and electricity, transportation, medical care, jobs, politicians, white residents, the future, life in general). “Everything in this country is Guangzhou,” she wailed, “everything, except for our children, because they come from God”.


De Boeck, Filip and Marie-Françoise Plissart (2004). Kinshasa: Tales of the Invisible City, Brussels: Ludion.
Eichstaedt, Peter (2011). Consuming the Congo: War and Conflict Minerals in the World’s Deadliest Place, Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books.
Harms, Robert (1981). River of Wealth, River of Sorrow: The Central Zaire Basin in the Era of the Slave and Ivory Trade, 1500-1891, Newhaven: Yale University Press.
Hochschild, Adam (1998). King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa, New York: Mariner Books.
Hunt, Nancy Rose (2008). “An Acoustic Register, Tenacious Images, and Congolese Scenes of Rape and Repetition,” Cultural Anthropology 23:3, pp. 220-253.
Kazadi wa Mukuna (1999). “The Evolution of Urban Music in Democratic Republic of Congo during the 2nd & 3rd Decades (1975-1995) of the Second Republic — Zaïre,” African Music 7:4, 71-88.
Trefon, Teodor, ed. (2004). Reinventing Order in Congo: How People Respond to State Failure in Kinshasa, London: Zed Books.
Vangroenweghe (1986). Du sang sur les lianes: Léopold II et son Congo, Bruxelles: Didier Hatier.
Nelson, Samuel H. (1994). Colonialism in the Congo Basin, 1880-1940, Athens: Ohio University Center for International Studies.

Professeur d’histoire de l’Afrique et des études afro-américaines à l’Indiana University, Indianapolis, il est l’auteur de Villes miroirs, L’Harmattan, 1997, Africanisme : La crise d’une illusion, L’Harmattan, 2007 et chez Greenwood Press : The History of Congo, 2002. Enseignant-chercheur à l’université de Kinshasa en 2008-2009 dans le cadre d’une bourse de recherche Fulbright octroyée par le Département d’Etat américain, il travaille actuellement sur les jeunes, les films western et les cultures liées à la masculinité à Kinshasa.


01/04/2012 - 31/08/2012


Histoire coloniale et postcoloniale
Histoire contemporaine
01/09/2011 - 30/06/2012