My friend, Hoji Fortuna, born and raised in Angola, has been shooting a movie in the Congo for almost two months. Hoji left Angola at 18 and moved to Portugal, where he lived until a year and a half ago. Before arriving to Kinshasa in late November, he hasn’t stepped foot in Africa for 15 years. It’s been fascinating listening to his stories from the motherland so I thought it’d be great to share them in a series of guest posts. Here’s part one of Hoji’s observations on Kinshasa.
KICKING AROUND KINSHASA
I’ve been here in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, (formerly known as Zaire) for almost a month and still struggle to find the right words of describing the city. What I can say for sure is that I am amazed by its contradictions. Kinshasa is home to eight million people and at least seven languages – Lingala, Kikongo, Tchiluba, Suahili, Tetela, Kissongue, and the official language, French – expressing the city’s large ethnic diversity. The languages that most people speak are French and Lingala, although a simplified and mixed version of the latter. The real “roots” Lingala, as the locals call it, is only spoken at the Equateur province; not even the Kinshasa inhabitants can understand it.
As I sit on the porch of my temporary home, a house that belongs to a wealthy family, surrounded by a garden reminiscent of a miniature tropical forest, with music on the stereo, I can’t help but do a search of what Kinshasa means to me. A sound of a wood-cutting machine zooms somewhere in the distance, while technicians inspect the equipment for the shooting that starts tomorrow. It’s a lovely Sunday day, bringing memories of childhood days at my uncle’s rural house back in Angola, the days when time was what I had the most of and I really enjoyed life, with no restrictions, when I used to go hunting birds and fish at the lagoons formed by the constant rain during the wet season.
Earlier today was the first time I went out without the driver assigned to me by the production company. It wasn’t a long walk but it was really fulfilling. The city was so quiet, so different than on weekdays or Saturdays, when one has to face two-hour traffic jams. It was warm, and while walking in the streets I noticed furtive curious looks. Even though I’m black, people here can easily sense a foreigner. As I walk, I keep thinking “I’ve got to get out and walk more often.”
Back at the house, I get up and cross the wall that separates the property from the outside world. In the distance, Congo River stares at me. On the other side of the river, I can see Brazzaville, the capital of Congo. Kinshasa and Brazzaville are the two closest capitals in the world. I look down beside the wall and see a group of boys, five or seven kids aged between ten and thirteen, walking, giggling and play-fighting. The sight brings me back to their age, and puts a melancholic smile on my face. To my right, a beautiful Congolese woman dressed in a traditional dress is walking calmly past a barbershop with zinc roof and walls featuring red letters: Coiffure Hommes. Vente certes. Appel. I watch her gracious walk for a moment while she traverses an empty canal towards the house where the kids are standing. She enters and the kids stay outside, looking at the door. It’s only then I notice that one of the boys is carrying a small girl, probably his sister, while explaining a fighting move to his friend.
Back at the garden of the house, I go back to my thoughts. Back in the 1960s, Kinshasa was considered the Paris of Africa. It was then stylishly called Kin, La Belle. These days, visitors to the city, which still holds some underground charm, can see the reminiscences of that old glamour. I’m amazed by the contrasts in the city’s architecture. There are large villas with high protective walls and swimming pools. On the other end, the city is full of very basic constructions with zinc rooftops and made of ramshackle materials.
When I first arrived, I was shocked at seeing a long white limousine parading itself in the degraded roads of Kinshasa (Congo is said to have some of the worst roads in the world). By now, I stumble into brand-new Hummers daily so I’m used to the sight. There are frequent cuts in the electricity and water supplies, even though the Congo River is so close. Despite the poverty, I am fascinated by the way the city lives. I feel a strong temptation to record the experience on video or photos. Not a good idea, as filming or taking pictures are both strictly forbidden by law. The punishment can be jail, even though one can get bailed out by dispensing some money. In this case, because the crime is so serious, it would have to be a lot of money.
Corruption is said to be an issue in Kinshasa. From the moment you arrive to the city, everybody is pretty much trying to get some cash from you, from the people at the customs and the police officers at the airport to the inspectors from the medical department, who always manage to find some irregularity on your vaccination certificate. But, with a small amount of money (twenty of thirty US dollars), the problem is quickly solved. Of course these are all allegations. I was lucky to pass without dispensing any cash.
If you go to the public market, keep your hands on your pockets – markets are rife with thieves – and get ready to be harassed from all sides by people begging for money. In fact, you’d be wise to use the ‘hands on your pockets’ advice everywhere you go here in Kinshasa. It may sound scary at first but once you’ve cracked the system, you can have a life here without any trouble. There is an established price for everything; the rest is diplomacy and your own ability to negotiate with the environment surrounding you.
All photos taken by Julien Momenceau