Violence and Dysphoria: The Villagization of Kinshasa and the Role of Healers

René Devisch, Social Anthropology, Katholieke Universiteit Leuven

Research Grant, 1994, 1995, 1996

The 1993-96 Guggenheim Research Grant has allowed me to further my long-term anthropological research in postcolonial Western Congo (formerly Zaire) and the capital city of Kinshasa (of some six million inhabitants, two-thirds of whom are living in destitute conditions). My exposure in September 1991 and January 1993 to the very widespread lootings in Kinshasa, followed by the collapse of the public institutions, has urged me to fathom Kinois’ (as the inhabitants of Kinshasa are called) deeper longings and their survival strategies for countering the local turbulence and coming to terms with their exclusion from the benefits of economic and informational globalization; how do they succeed to thwart the spiral of violence that numerous other parts of Black Africa have been caught in?

Compared with Kinshasa as a whole, the suburban township Ndjili XII, where most of the empirical investigation took place, shows high indices of educational qualification. An apparent increase in single female inhabitants over the last years, however, reflects both men’s loss of status and their reluctance to engage in egalitarian marriage relations. As in many other parts of Kinshasa, most parents in this suburb are no longer able to provide for their children the levels of education and health care they themselves enjoyed in their youth. The annual sojourns of some five weeks in Kinshasa allowed me to organize semistructured biographical interviews with representatives of various income groups and associations of Kinois who emigrated from southwest Congo, on their perception of the colonial discourse and the colonists’ and missionaries’ pretense at superior civilization; in the postcolony, of the Recourse to Authenticity ideology of President Mobutu’s Party State; in the early 1990s, of the dismissal of justice claims and the dismantling of State institutions.

Many feel victimized by the political misrule of today and by the ruthless economic world order inasmuch as they tangibly sense its devastating effects in the ceaseless inflation of their currency, as well as in the very wild and pervasive traffic of diamonds, narcotics, narco-dollars and weapons in Zaire. Paradoxically, the massive looting of September 1991 has inspired a much greater search for “nesting” in the city: in this search, called the villagization of town, people reinvest in their neighborhood as the major resort for solidarity and protection in their relentless struggle for survival and minimal rights. It has indirectly been investigated in five charismatic healing communes of the sacred spirit. To protect against robbery, people start to increasingly rely on their neighborhood, that is, on a vicinity comprising some twenty houses along a road, or circumscribed by interconnected streets.

Contrary to the anticipations of Western development rhetoric, the poverty-stricken suburbs of Kinshasa do not become the scenes where people are haunted by the search for food, shelter, and a reposeful future, nor where the bankruptcy of the state institutions spills over into a generalized disorientation and muddle.

In the early 1990s, with the fading away of the regime of law and order, the collective imaginary resorts to archaic dual imageries, where the anguish for evil and utopian dream are like two sides of the same coin. It appeared to me that the contradiction between the parental and the alien ethos, rather than the current social anomie in Kinshasa, is the primary incentive to both the euphoric and dysphoric moods and extortionist play in the public anonymous zones (such as the many dilapidated administration buildings or road borders filled with refuse). It is perhaps also that contradiction that is being played out in the public sorcery accusations. I hold that the enchanting and euphoric frenzy, in both the many bars and nightclubs as well as the healing communes of the sacred spirit in Kinshasa, is to be understood as an attempt to expel the rampant dysphoric mood. Indeed, both the collective euphoric versus dysphoric moods might be seen as compulsive ways in which the urbanites are searching out—in a highly corporeal way—new models or ideals of identification to embody. I postulate that these attempts moreover aim to repudiate the plurality of cultural models and reinforce a (new) local overarching normative model.

Contrary to the anticipations of Western development rhetoric, the poverty-stricken suburbs of Kinshasa do not become the scenes where people are haunted by the search for food, shelter, and a reposeful future, nor where the bankruptcy of the state institutions spills over into a generalized disorientation and muddle. Here the populace first and foremost counteracts the turbulence while seeking to enhance and share amongst one another trust and hope or courage to cope with their lasting suffering and deprivation. By substituting today the greeting in daily encounters “how are you?” with “brother, sister: where (that is, in which church or healing commune) do you pray?,” entire neighborhoods have come to address one another no longer in terms evocative of their haunting memories of shattered worlds and senseless history, but in terms of dignity, common humanness, search for a moral center, and reconciliation and recovery.

Through satirizing the Africans’ overall internalization of European models and through strengthening their communal sense of confidence in one another, the Kinois thus discover their genuine power from below. They counter in their own cultural and psychosocial terms the macrosocial and ideological forces of oppression. In their parody, suburbanites simultaneously mimic, refashion and re-empower their multiple identities—in their individual and social, secular and religious constituents—out of plural cultural or endogenous premises. At neighborhood level, communalism increasingly anchors new households in a common sense of duty and shared responsibility. The latter are defined by ideals and values of solidarity, patterns of organization and lifeways cross-breeding exogenous Christian Eurocentric strands with endogenous ones that have been locally transmitted and ceaselessly revitalized over generations.

Today, it is increasingly through the equivocalness achieved through parody that the urbanites deconstruct the grands récits of the west. They do not fail to reverse the omen, speak in their own voices, and play their own bid on the urban and national scenes by domesticating (literally, bringing home) the alien civilizational project. They thereby vent and live through their (post)colonial traumas. They thus deflect and tame the violence inherent to their ever-more destitute social and material life conditions, their feeling excluded out of any possibility of advancement on the national and international scenes. Through irony and parody, they moreover conjure, transform and reappropriate the highly moralized and deprivatory views cast on them. Western-style Christianization, modernization, and development were to supplant their “indigenous” lifestyles, ancestral customs and peasant environments.

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