Tag Archives: Kinshasa

retrospective no. 5: banks, art, fashion.

There is something very powerful about the ability to express oneself through aesthetic means. Everywhere I’ve been in Congo, there have been statues, paintings, sculptures; stone, metal, wood, oil, acrylic, colored sand, cloth, any medium you could imagine.

mask, Goma, Congo

It doesn’t matter how poor or rich a place is, there will always be art, music, culture.  The cultural outputs of a place or a people that is most often seen as destitute are some of the most vibrant and beautiful that I’ve come across.

One of the biggest banks in Congo, TMB, has more art on the walls of its Kinshasa office than any other bank I’ve seen. Beautiful murals and paintings from several different Congolese artists. One of them (whose name I’ve regrettably forgotten) has sworn to sign his name upside-down on any ‘oeuvre’ he produces, until the situation in the Congo rights itself up. Apparently there was a period of about a year when he was signing his name right-side-up in the mid-2000s. This is no longer the case.

The bank also has an art gallery that hosts some of the most beautiful Congolese art I’ve ever seen. And c’est pas donné non plus.  Paintings go for thousands of US dollars; the artists are known for their particular style and genre, having really made a name for themselves. One of my favorite artists has this amazingly vibrant style using some of the brightest colors in a sort of abstract way, and then also incorporating metal or wooden statues into his works. I’m trying to find a picture of one of his paintings that I can post. The originals go for about $10K, so when the kitchen counter change jar is full, I’ll be right on my way to buying one of those…

Across the street from this branch of the bank is one of the biggest houses of haute-couture in Kinshasa: Vlisco. Incidentally, a Dutch brand, but the super-wax they sell and their clothing design is unmatched by any other.

I said I wouldn’t roll down the streets of Kinshasa in Jean-Paul Gaulthier, but if someone were to offer me a Vlisco gown, you’d have a hard time getting me out of it.

The défilées must be positively blinding; a super-saturation of color and shapes the likes of which Bryant Park has probably never seen.

Mind you, the super wax in this store goes for about $100 for a bolt of fabric (six yards) and the dresses they have on display are not priced.  That’s probably for good reason.  The wealth in Kinshasa can be just as blinding as the colors of the fashion, so I am sure there is no lack of clientele.  But the difference in price between a Vlisco gown and a tailored dress made by a street tailor has got to be about as striking as the contrast between apartments lining the Grand Boulevard and those in the outlying communes.

I leave you with a sunset.  Just because.

éblouissant

retrospective no. 4: getting there.

I love Congolese fashion.

sapeur congolais

From their style alone, to the stark contrast with the surrounding. Bright colors against the dusty roads.

mec du bas congo

Somehow, no matter what, it works. There’s no real taboos, nothing is out of line. That’s not to say I’d walk down the street all got up in Jean-Paul Gaultier, but à 95%, anything goes. Especially when jackets are coordinated with the burnt ochre of the road.

red on red

red shirt, pink shoes

It doesn’t really matter if it matches or not. Those standards – set by I’m not even sure who – don’t apply. Sometimes there’s a statement, but to be honest I can’t always tell what it is.Kinois fashion is something all on it’s own. Kinshasa, like most capital cities, has it’s haute couture and has those who strut the streets looking straight up fly. As Ghostface Killah so aptly tweeted: “You can take the wackest gear but make sure that gear, that K-Mart gear, whatever you wearing, you official wit it.”

word.

retrospective no. 3: and, long nights in kinshasa.

I spent most of the night last night wishing I wasn’t alive. A bout of gastrointestinal pyrotechnics, to put it nicely, kept me up most of the night, vacillating between chills and sweating profusely, having delusions and anxiety attacks, and thinking only of the conversation with Cédric where he warned me about the water in Kinshasa. “C’est moyenne sure de choper le choléra.” So this morning when I woke up from whatever delirious excuse for sleep that was last night, and almost fell over trying to stand up, blacked out trying to get dressed, and fell back onto my bed soaked in sweat, the only thing I could think was: “Shit. Cholera.”

Baguette and fromage Vache Qui Rit for breakfast, a bit of strength regained, and a one-hour trip through traffic jams (a specialty Kinoise) later, I found myself at SOS Médecins, a medical center in most francophone countries across the world, and my new favorite place in Kin. Well, sort of.

Blood pressure: very low; slightly dehydrated; possible food poisoning; possible malaria. “Come back at 17h and we’ll go over the results from the blood tests, and go from there. Not to mention urine samples, an injection to calm my stomach and the most disgusting salty/sweet mixture to mix with water that I’m supposed to be drinking. Yetch.

Well, at least it doesn’t look like cholera. Silver lining?

Four times in the Congo, four times this sort of digestive adventure has rendered me useless for hours if not days. Kinshasa wins for the level of seriousness, Butembo takes second place (an overripe avocado?), Lubumbashi, I blame the fufu and the poorly washed vegetables, and Goma was my inaugural voyage. Nothing out of the ordinary.

So to the root of the question: is it a matter of not being accustomed to the food? Is it water that’s not clean? Is it poorly washed vegetables and cooking with water that’s not clean, some combination of those things, I’m sure. The thing that throws me, is that it’s not just foreigners who are affected by this. Food security and a lack thereof is a huge problem in developing countries, especially in urban areas. The fact that a good percentage of the produce grown in urban settings (Kinshasa, Kibera in Nairobi…) is not regulated, zoning laws often don’t allow for access to clean water (the solution? waste water.), and farmers very often don’t own the land they are cultivating, it’s not hard to see why the food produced isn’t the safest to eat.

woman farming in urban setting

The necessity to produce food wherever and however one can is more and more urgent as urbanization rapidly – an estimated 70% of the world’s population will live in an urban setting by the mid-century (UN figures). Urban ag is by no means new. It’s a legitimate source of income and work, and market farmers can offer long-term employment to city dwellers, who have often migrated from rural areas with a background in agriculture. The list of things to regulate, problems to address, before urban food production is a safe and sustainable venture, is long. Zoning laws, access to safe inputs, recognition by governments of the existence, even, of urban agriculture, access to credit, regulation (of some form) of production – these are all things that demand the attention of several different actors.

The good thing is that urban agriculture is getting more and more attention. It’s difficult to see a way past some of the biggest problems, however, when the Kenyan government refuses to acknowledge even the existence of Kibera, one of te largest slums in Africa, and one of the largest centers of urban food production. I’m not entirely sure what the next steps are; there are plenty of NGOs working on the question, and I plan to dedicate the next few years of my life to studying it close up; what is sure, is that something’s gotta give. For my stomach’s sake and the GI tracts of so many others, je vous en supplie.

retrospective no. 1: also, where i am now.

I promise eventually to update this blog with a “Best Of” set of posts from my travels over the last year. It’s been about three weeks since I created this blog, and only today am I sitting down for the first time to write a post. The (mostly self-imposed) pressure for that first entry to be so witty and catchy pretty much kept me at the widgets and layout phase of blogging. Well, here I am now and I’m sorry if the wit is lacking. I’ll blame it on jetlag.

Kinshasa et le Congo, view from above

Kinshasa is hot. Hot and humid and oppressively congested. I’m sitting in the office here doing some work (‘some’ being the operative word) and wondering if it’s even possible to go “en ville” without consecrating the next three hours to the trip. It took more time to get to lunch yesterday than it did to get a table, order and eat. Which is surprising, given the time it normally takes for even the simplest of meals to be served.

Michel’s wife Mapuseke (a beautiful Lesothan woman whose accent is so charming it makes me feel quite big and bumbling) leaves two hours early to get their children to school. No one seemed surprised when we rolled up an hour late to our meeting yesterday with the tax office yesterday, which was supposedly at 14h. It just adds to the slow pace of life. But also makes me wonder how much work is just completely lost to inefficacy.

I read something once that a Peace Corps volunteer had posted about his experience trying to get things done in Niger during the rainy season. People just can’t (or don’t want to) work in this kind of heat. Admittedly, when the electricity goes out, the generator doesn’t power the AC. Fifteen degrees hotter in the room I am working in, I’m sweating in a very unladylike fashion, and all of a sudden my work ethic is out the ineffectively open window. Alas.

The office where I am working these next two weeks – for the NGO “Initiative pour un Leadership Cohésif et la Cohésion de l’Etat – or, Initiative for a Cohesive Leadership and State Cohesion – or, ILC for short, is situated in a ‘commune’ of Kinsasa that I’m not at all familiar with. Which says next to nothing, considering my last stint in Kin consisted only of a six-hour period: a trip from the airport to the office in the middle of the night during one of the the most intense storms I’ve ever experienced, and then a trip back to the airport (the United Nations section, this time) to hop a flight to the East. But I do know that it hardly matters where you are, because it’s going to take at least an hour to get anywhere.

I’m in Kin until November 13. I promise to post pictures and write more. For now, I just kind wish I were back in Goma.