Kinshasa is still reeling from two wars, but, as MICHAEL SCHMIDT discovers, it’s a city that likes to party (Sunday Times, Johannesburg, 18 May 2003).
IT WAS the showdown
of the decade in a heaving stadium bursting at the seams with scores of
thousands of sweating bodies as heavyweights Muhammad Ali and George Foreman
went eyeball-to-eyeball. Eight years younger than Ali and having wiped the
floor with the only two boxers ever to beat his opponent, Foreman was the
bookies’ favourite at 8:1 when he jetted in to Kinshasa in the then-Zaïre in
1974 for the fight billed as the “Rumble in the Jungle”.
blazed in the tropical night as James Brown cranked up the over-capacity crowd
at the 80,000-seater Tata Rafael Stadium who had paid from $10 for a seat in
the stands — still expensive today — to $70 for a box, and an astronomical $250
for a seat on the field around the ring. The atmosphere, according to my driver
Papa Pierre, a veteran “fixer” for British wire agency Reuters, who drove Ali’s
father to the stadium on fight night, had “an ambiance more than Independence
From the moment the
first-round bell went, Ali was subjected to a systematic punishing series of
body-blows, and he quickly took two crunching rights to his jaw. Foreman later
said he had landed “some of the hardest punches I’d ever delivered on a man”.
Ali’s unique strategy — if one can call it that — for the fight was to tire Foreman
out by allowing him to get him up against the ropes and hammer away at Ali’s
muscle-bound midriff. The “rope-a-dope” tactic put Ali squarely in harm’s way
for the hammering of his life. But it worked: a baffled Foreman slowed. The
hypnotised crowd roared “Ali, bamba ye!” (Ali, kill him! in Lingala). In the
eighth round, the punchline was Ali’s and he exploded a one-two on the spent
Foreman’s chin. The champion crashed to the canvas and Ali was once again king
of the ring.
It’s three decades
on, and Kinshasa itself looks like it’s gone eight rounds with Foreman after
its two back-to-back wars of the late 1990s. The city began as a tiny
starch-white Belgian enclave, still represented by the downtown cluster of Art
Deco blocks and vermilion-latticed Chinese restaurants. Today, it spills
comfortably from the tennis courts of the genteel to the chaos of hilly poor
suburbs. The streets are potholed, the buildings dilapidated and faded, but the
Notre Dame Cathedral celebrates négritude with a pot-bellied drum in its choir
and a Madonna-and-child statue with black features. Still, Tata Raphael is a
rusting relic, melancholy and weed-ridden, with the former training rooms
locked and gloomy. Plans to smarten it up and turn it into a museum are sorely
But at the KAB
Gymnasium next to the Number 1 Stadium, two medium-weights from Simba (Swahili
for “Lion”), the national boxing team, dance and slam Ali-like in the original
“Rumble” ring. Coach Dominique Milambo is proud of the ageing ring’s history,
but to him, the more contemporary fact that President Joseph Kabila was an
amateur boxer seems to matter more: “It’s just like in South Africa; Nelson
Mandela was a boxer. It’s the same thing.”
Kinois, residents of
Kinshasa, give the impression of living in a perpetual present, of leaving the
bigger political battles over their country’s future and past to the gun-toting
elite. It is a pleasure to see them at play. And especially to see public
facilities used so enthusiastically: at the Number 1 Stadium, built in 1995
with Chinese money, the lights burn late into the cicada-stirred night as thousands
of city youths practice their athletics, netball, boxing or soccer. One of the
most inspiring football teams is Vivi, named after the first capital of the
independent Zaïre, and consisting of a reservoir of 30 youngsters aged between
six and 12, many of them former street kids, under the guidance of Henri Capon,
a Belgian-Congolese, and his two coaches. I even played a game myself, against
aid agency folk and embassy kids at the American School next door to the late
dictator Mobutu Sese Seko’s pallisaded hilltop retreat with its overgrown former
zoo. Although the city is still reeling from the left-right combination of the
twin wars, life goes on.
described the Belgian colonial-era Congo River in sinister, implacable terms.
But today, its wide sweep seems to bear the dreams of an entire continent (plus
a few dugout canoes and entire trees) to the unseen coast. Across the water,
lies Brazzaville, the lesser twin of Kinshasa. Plunged into a deeper darkness
at night, it is reachable by rattle-trap ferry, but nervous soldiers ward off
photographers because it is an international border.
Kinshasa has a
curiously Chinese feel to it, due in large part to those other twins: giant
gilt statues of the late Laurent Kabila and of independence leader Patrice
Lumumba, unveiled by Joseph Kabila a year after his father’s assassination. The
statue of the chubby Kabila bears more than a passing resemblance to Mao. Work
on the Lumumba statue started in 1973 at the instigation of Mobutu. At pains to
misappropriate the popularity of the man he had had tortured and killed, Mobutu
nevertheless underscored his distaste for Lumumba by never quite getting around
to finishing the project over the next 30 years. Raoul Peck’s acclaimed 2002
film Lumumba, an intimate forensic
meditation on the extinguishing of one of African socialism’s leading lights,
has been shown in cinemas, on TV and is widely available on video in the DRC.
But in the modern
Congo, the national museum of which was looted by art dealers in the first war,
amnesia seems to be upheld as a virtue. Kinois prefer to party. Near the
stadium, wildly popular Congolese rhumba musician Noël Werrason (the surname
means “Son of the Forest”) is winding up his boy-band into its pelvic-grind
rhythms to the delight of a packed courtyard audience, mostly of young women.
The singer-dancer line-up fluctuates between four to eight men, some of whom
take turns at playing a set of congas, a steel plate that looks like an
armoured triangle, an electric keyboard and three electric guitars. The music
is sometimes as crass as distorted township taxi kwaito, sometimes far more
melodic and intricate, and the dancing veers between a crude haka-cum-toyi-toyi
and a more sophisticated Full Monty. The mood is up-tempo and the band
exchanges jokes and pleasantries with their fans.
For those who have
suitcases full of virtually worthless Congolese francs, stylish dressing in all
the top Italian and American brands is a must, a counterpoint to the savagery
of the recent conflict. At smart garden-eateries where the dress set come out
to play, Versace and Dolce & Gabbana rub shoulders with Levis and Armani.
Skimpy, painted-on Aguilera-wear for women and silk neckties for men. “You have
to dress well, Johnny Versace, something expensive; it’s like a religion,” says
my interpreter, Emery Makumeno.
He said if he was to
describe Kin, as the city is nicknamed, as a woman, she’d be “very
materialistic”. But in a country where the dollar is king and a respectable
monthly salary only tops the $30 mark, living large is out of reach for most
Kinois. At a run-down restaurant called Mama Kani’s, I tuck into boiled
plantain — a banana-shaped fruit that tastes more like sweet potato —
spinach-like bitekuteku and roast chicken, while Papa Pierre eats mabundu, a
large river-fish, with pondu — cassava leaves — spiced with red pepper. We both
ignore the panga-wielding butcher hacking chunks off a deer amid a swarm of
flies in the background. The meals, plus a cold locally brewed Skol lager or a
glass of Sprite come to $5 each.
The markets are
packed with everything from tacky lounge suites to bicycle spares. Hooters
blare constantly. I had just remarked how Papa Pierre believed hooters superior
to brakes (his disc-brakes squeal and grind together) when he clipped a passing
car, smashing his side-mirror and taking the metal trim off his doors.
On the streets of
Kin, in between the weaving vehicles held together with wire, you can also buy
apes and monkeys — either as pets or as food. This bush tucker industry,
combined with the illicit muti trade in “gorilla” fingers (imbued with the
power to make one an invincible warrior), has devastated the Congo’s endemic
population of bonobos, a black-haired species similar to chimpanzees that is
only found in the DRC’s equatorial rainforest.
Last year, Claudine
André set up Lola ya Bonobo (Paradise of the Bonobo) on a private estate to the
west of Kinshasa and today cares for a mix-and-match troupe of 25 bonobo
refugees. André got involved with bonobos in 1997 when she made daily trips to
the looted Mobutu compound to feed the abandoned animals in his zoo.
Her amazing charges
may be wild, but they use tools to crack nuts and understand French. André
calls them the “hippies of the forest” because unlike chimps, which sometimes
gang up on each other or kill their young, bonobos prefer making love to war
and are as relaxed, cheerful and non-violent as most Kinois. I think they make
a better national totem than either Mobutu’s leopard or the Kabilas’ lion.
Kinshasa may be
punch-drunk from its latest rumble in the jungle and it may have lost a few
memory cells in the hammering, but the city I leave behind appears to have quit
while it was ahead, so it can look forward to a second career — maybe in