This is part two of the Congo article by my friend, Hoji Fortuna, who has been shooting a movie in Kinshasa for two months. Here are his observations about life in Kinshasa, coming from a man born and raised in Angola who has been living in Portugal and New York for the last 15 years.
KICKING AROUND KINSHASA (PART TWO)
Kinshasa breathes music and the arts. People love having fun here, going to parties, spending time at cafés and clubbing. In fact, it seems like they do it all the time. During my stay, I’ve had a chance to see a few bands performing. They were composed of mostly men, seven or so singers plus the instrumentalists. There are also bands of mainly women, with big focus on dancing. What I can say about the music in Kinshasa is that it’s very rhythmic and naturally inspires one to get to the dance floor and shake the body.
People of Kinshasa fascinate me. Despite the corruption, most of the people are very friendly and honest. Women are exuberantly beautiful. I am also endlessly fascinated by the men pushing wheelbarrows full of wood or other kind of merchandise along uphill roads. Small guys with amazing strength! Strong is a good word to describe the people of Kinshasa. It takes strength and flexibility to survive in this town.
We cannot talk about people without talking about the way they relate towards each other. For instance, when it comes to marriage, the costume of dowry is still present in the culture of Kinshasa. A couple can only get married once the family approves the union, and the family only approves the union once dowry has been paid by the family of the groom. No dowry, no civil marriage and, by consequence, no religious marriage. And religion, as in many places in Africa, is a big thing in the Congo.
One can find anything in Kinshasa; it’s just a matter of knowing where to look. There are typical Congolese restaurants and bars, as well as those that cater to foreigners. I like to go and eat at Chez Biby, in the neighborhood of Kintambo/Magasin (Av. Ecurie nº1; Kintambo Magasin & Res de Chausse Galerie Presidentielle; 099.994.6092). A meal costs between US$14 and $20 per person. My favorite dishes are Filet Capitain, the Côte de Porc and the Entrecote de Boeuf, served with rice, plantains and mushroom sauce. On Sundays, one of Kinshasa’s best musicians, Koffi Olomidé, performs here. There’s also a club upstairs, if one wants to dance.
I also like Inzia, Saveurs d’Afrique “Chez Mama Ekila” (6 Av. Cadego; Gombe; 099.860.1604), where you can have typical specialties of Congo-Kinshasa & the rest of Africa – such as boa and crocodile stew. On Fridays and Saturdays they have a buffet service for US$25 per person (without drinks), and live Congolese band.
Supermarkets are well-stocked although the prices are higher than in Europe or in the US, something that I have trouble understanding, since I’m on the world’s poorest continent. Kinshasa also has a huge amount of boutiques, small shops where you can buy all sorts of things – from drinks and food to clothes. These are found on almost every street corner, as are kiosks where you can buy cell phone credit and change money. You’ll also find a variety of boutique d’habillement, salon de couture, or salon de coiffure, various names for boutiques and beauty salons, a sign that the people of Kinshasa love to dress up and look fashionable.
There are some westernized clubs in Kinshasa, where one can hear and dance to international tunes from abroad, combined with Congolese music classics and modern hits, as well as a conjunction of other rhythms. My favorite club is Black & White (8 Av. Isiro; Kinshasa/Gombe; 081.570.5986), where they also have an upper floor with a pool table.
Traffic is an issue in Kinshasa. If you plan on renting a car, get ready to live the ultimate experience in instinctive driving. There are practically no traffic lights or signals in the entire city. Apart from the basic understanding that the car coming from the right has priority, the rest is about trusting your reflexes. On the streets, cars rule, not people. Strangely enough, passersby are so relaxed crossing the roads, seemingly unaware of the cars and the fact they can actually kill – until the moment the driver uses the horn. Using the horn liberally is a major form of communication in the streets of Kinshasa. Drivers use it for the slightest of the reasons, occasionally together with a curse or a contraction of the lips and the teeth that releases a hissing sound.
I had the opportunity to ride a local train at the Gare Centrale. For me, it stands out as one of the most amazing experiences. The train itself is run-down and the passengers very poor. Yet somehow the train has a soul of its own. Maybe, like many things in Kinshasa, the train is determined to refuse to die, to want to preserve if not the glamor of the old times, then at least its vitality. It’s said that four people die every week on that train, so packed it usually is with people riding under the carriage, on top of it and holding on to the doors outside. Many young men wait until the train actually starts moving to run and catch it, since they can’t afford the fare.
Right next to the central train station is another wonderful place I discovered: the art market where artists sell their work. Here you’ll find anything from sculptures and traditional masks to drums, jewelry and swords. Be ready to be called upon from all sides and be ready to bargain, or the price will be very high. Again, it’s about the art of diplomacy.
Kinshasa, like all other cities, is a living being. As such, it is in constant flux, while trying to maintain its original composition. Looking around at the new buildings going up and being aware of Africa’s potential, I can sense a big change coming to this part of the world. I can only hope things will improve in the next couple of years and that this improvement benefits the locals as much as the big investors. I am sure that if I come back to this city in ten years, I will find an entirely different Kinshasa. Hopefully, it will be a better Kinshasa.
As I write this, my thoughts bounce between my homeland country, Angola, and the Congo. I catch one thought running through my head: “I want to come back to Kinshasa. I will come back to Kinshasa.” So, despite the corruption, the hours spent in traffic, the poverty, the frequent lack of electricity and water and the hustling, I guess I am hooked. As are so many who come to this poor continent full of struggle, and who keep coming back as if addicted. This is Africa after all, the cradle of humanity. Maybe when we come here we reconnect to our original umbilical cord and it feels, naturally and unconsciously, like home.
All photos taken by Julien Momenceau