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”.
The arc-lights 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 Day”.
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 lagging.
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.
Joseph Conrad 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 fashion.