I came back to Kinshasa: Tales of the Invisible City more than a year after I first picked it up and ended up admiring all the images rather than reading it. Kinshasa takes its title from Italo Calvino’s great paean to architecture and the human imagination, Invisible Cities. Specifically it is taken from the tale of Valdrada, a city on a lakeshore whose every building and happening is mirrored by the city reflected in the water. As Calvino writes, “The two Valdradas live for each other, their eyes interlocked; but there is no love between them.” Author Filip De Boeck and photographer Marie-Francoise Plissart use this as a starting point for their exploration of the connections between Kinshasa and a number of mirror realities: the city and the forest, Africa and Europe, the waking world and the world of spirits.
De Boeck and Plissart collected the stories and photos that compromise this book in 2001 and 2002, during the last days of the second war, and it’s influenced as well by the time which De Boeck spent doing anthropological research in eastern and southern Congo in the late 1980s and 1990s. I kept thinking of this in reading the tales of Kinois working to support themselves, find security, and manage their social relations – that most of the people interviewed had grown up amid the slow-motion collapse of Mobutu’s state, and had more recently lived through the violent social and political upheavals of the wars.
What strikes me most about these stories is their pervasive sense of longing. In the face of systemic poverty and insecurity, mythologies of comfort and ease spring up in various ways. Migration is one of the more obvious tropes in this vein. As De Boeck writes, “Europe is malili, cool, whereas Africa is moto, hot, full of suffering. For most, the ideal of [the West] conjures up a world without responsibilities. ‘Something is broke? … Bring it to the white man and he will fix it’ sang [popular singer] Pepe Kalle” (p. 47). The spirit world also offers the promise of riches, with De Boeck relating the story of a man who claimed to be able to enter the spirit world at will in order to take on wealthy female spirits as lovers, and to control a python which vomited money. Even street children, cast out of their homes as witches amid accusations that they engaged in cannibalism, inverted this condemnation by developing stories of the ways in which the human body can be converted to material riches. As a twelve-year old accused of witchcraft explained, “In the human body, everything is useful. The blood is fuel, diesel … and red wine… The backbone is a radio, a satellite telephone; … the head is a cooking pot; … the eyes are mirrors, a television, a telescope” (p. 183). De Boeck neither asserts nor challenges the factual accuracy of this story, but lets it stand on its own as an example of the “witchcraft idiom of … immediate access to the fruits of modernity” (p. 183).
These mythologies are not uncomplicated, however. Even as Europe is acknowledged as a place of ease, the struggles of Congolese migrants to find well-paying jobs and suitable housing are placed in contrast to this narrative. The money vomited by the spirit python eventually kills the people who handle it, as no one can care about wealth that much without being poisoned by it. And the witch-children’s stories of effortless accumulation of modern technologies stand in poignant contrast to the powerlessness of these street children, some as young as five, in daily life.
Montage of Kinshasa from the book’s frontispiece
For that matter, Kinshasa itself is not depicted as a place of endless grinding struggle, but of struggle interspersed with solidarity and diversion – a boxing match, a church service, old American Westerns showing at a cinema. Plissart’s photos do a wonderful job of capturing the diversity of enterprises and social structures which populate the city. This is the real strength of Kinshasa: its authors’ ability to step away from the lenses of poverty and corruption through which it is so often viewed, and take its inhabitants’ lives seriously on their own terms.