In the beginning
“Ali boma ye” (Ali has killed Foreman) was the word on everyone’s lip in Kinshasa after the Rumble in the Jungle. Hosting the fight was part of Mobutu’s plan to put his country which he had recently renamed Zaire on global map, and he did it in grand style paying $10 million for the 8-round fight!
Anyone who was in Kinshasa at the time must have seen the city in its nicest ambience. Crime ebbed away, unveiled were loads of pride and promise! The 1996 award-winning documentary, “When We Were Kings” presents us a clean and green Kinshasa, with gleaming white buildings and broad, nearly empty streets that defined Kinshasa in 1974.
This thought of Kinshasa gripped my mind as I journeyed from Dakar where I had, had a swell time to Kinshasa, only to be jolted to reality at the Ndili airport by the fact that Rumble in the Jungle is already 41 years ago!
An estimated ten million people live in the city once called Léopoldville, with another half million joining them annually.
The City of Arts
Anyway, if music looms large in Dakar where I was coming from, here I behold the city of art! My destination of course is Matonge: the cultural and musical centre of Congolese music/Art. This is where Papa wemba, Koffi Olomide, King Kester Emeneya among many others cut their teeth!
Late afternoon after leaving the airport, as I made my trip through the dusty roads of Matonge to the residence of my friend, Dioup, who had offered to be my guide across town, I saw street children, called the “sheges”, lazing around and mature “Kinois”, as Kinshasa’s residents are known, trying to eke out a living. Let me break it to you, this is not where daily bread is easy to come by; Kinshasa ranks close to nowhere among the rich cities in Europe, though one sees skyscrapers and highbrows in the city, these are easily dwarfed by its ratio of shanties!
However, if Dolly Parton’s “Coat of Many Colours” is anything to go by, this is how far the unfortunate tale goes; kinois don’t dwell on these sorry state! The good news is that things are fast picking up thanks to their resilience!
The Kinshasa I met 41 years after the Rumble in the Jungle is a city of frenzied entrepreneurship, where everyone is a salesman of whatever merchandise comes along, an uncertified specialist—self-employed, self-styled—a creator amid chaos, an artist in a shed, name it!
Indeed, as Dioup told me when we hanged out at a popular joint that night, Kinshasa is full of crazy dreamers who set goals and defile all odds to meet them. It is on the wings of these crazy dreamers that the city is crawling out of its years of poverty.
I think there is no other place on Earth where hope walks the street like Kinshasa, and as Dioup aptly said, this is the miracle of Kinshasa that finds expression in the creative art and craft of the kinois.
I met a young artist, Pierre, at Matonge who has some impressive painting each with its unique message. The one, which got my attention, shows ragtag youths trying to fit the Congolese map into the map of Africa which itself is in an obscured place on his map of the world.(He didn’t allow me snap it though). The message, he said, was that the sweat of the people of his generation would define the future of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
He is one among many artists in the city who communicate hope, and decry the city’s wrong with their irrepressible, dreamy and wistful work. Pierre’s friend was putting finish touches to a painting depicting cluttered street scenes and the solitary toil of daily life. Faces of Kinshasa greats such as the painters Pierre Bodo and Chéri Samba, musicians Papa Wemba and Koffi Olomide, sculptors Bodys Isek Kingelez and Freddy Tsimba are shown in a corner of the work. He said that if these people made it in Matonge, anyone else working hard enough could too.
Before leaving the city, Dioup took me to one of the locations where robot is used as traffic police. “The Arts are wearing new shades now with technology,” he said. He was right.
The solar-powered aluminium robots towers over the jammed streets of Kinshasa, each of its hand are fitted with green and red light that regulate the flow of traffic. They are also equipped with rotating chests and surveillance cameras that record the flow of traffic and send real-time images to the police station.
We also visited a nightclub in the city, I will tell you about my experience there in my next piece.
Usifo Mike-Alvin is a creative writer with a knack for budget traveling and adventure. He travels across Africa and reports for www.afrotourism.com