Inhabiting Ocular Ground: Kinshasa's Future in the Light of Congo's Spectral Urban Politics

Peer Reviewed


This article addresses the tensions that exist between the lives of city dwellers in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, and those official attempts currently being launched by the Congolese government to create a new, albeit exclusionist, urban environment. During the campaign leading up to the 2006 presidential elections, President Kabila launched his “Cinq Chantiers” program, arguably the most ambitious project since the end of colonization in 1960 to overhaul the country and respond to its most pressing and urgent needs—or at least that of its elites—with regard to its urbanization. The article first situates the main phases of Kinshasa's expansion from the colonial era to the present day. It then turns to an analysis of the impact of the “Cinq Chantiers” program by examining two concrete cases: the expansion of fields in the Malebo Pool (looking at current modes of “informal” expansion of the urban space) and the development of a new urban project, the Cité du Fleuve (whose progressive uplift leaves out a large swath of the population). Are these examples of an African futurity, and for whom do they envision a new kind of urban life?

Editorial Overview

In the May 2011 issue of Cultural Anthropology, Filip De Boeck examines the Congolese government’s plans for the future of Kinshasa in light of the history of the expansion of the city from the colonial era to today. De Boeck describes colonial Kinshasa as a city characterized by industrialization and rapid population growth. In order to house the large number of Congolese from the rural hinterlands who were needed in Kinshasa as a source of cheap labor, labor camps and “indigenous” living areas were built, leading to a segregated city with the European population living in the center, in La Ville, and a peripheral African city growing quickly around it, commonly called La Cité. Kinshasa continued to expand in the postcolonial period, and De Boeck makes special note of the unplanned and chaotic nature of much of this expansion. In these new areas, the city’s residents, “giving little or no credence to the claims of official urban planning and its related matters of the map, have started to re-territorialize and reclaim the urban space” (6). One such example is Malebo Pool, where inhabitants are converting water into arable land. Though De Boeck recognizes the precariousness and hardships of functioning outside of official government plans, he also sees agency and possibilities in these forms.

It is within this history and context that De Boeck then contrasts the current elaborate city plans of the Congolese government, many of which will end up destroying the informal networks that had previously thrived. In the past two years, billboards illustrating a new, modern, and spectacular, though speculative, Kinshasa have proliferated in the urban landscape. These billboards include representations of elaborate new conference centers, hotels, skyscrapers and a new, elite development called Cité du Fleuve. Although most residents of Kinshasa will never have access to these new developments, De Boeck shows that the longing and dream for a better future in these representations is irresistible even to those whom the developments would exclude. Indeed, De Boeck argues that it does not seem to matter if the new city ever takes physical form, for it is in the language, “the architecture of words,” where new urban orders are being created.

Editorial Footnotes

Cultural Anthropology has published a number of essays on African cities, including Danny Hoffman's “The City as Barracks: Freetown, Monrovia, and the Organization of Violence in Postcolonial African Cities” (2007), William Cunningham Bissell's “Engaging Colonial Nostalgia” (2005), Brad Weiss' “Thug Realism: Inhabiting Fantasy in Urban Tanzania” (2002), and Timothy Maliqalim Simone's “Metropolitan Africans: Reading Incapacity, the Incapacity of Reading” (1990).

About the Author

Filip De Boeck.

As the coordinator of the Institute for Anthropological Research in Africa (IARA), a Research Unit of the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Leuven, Belgium, Filip De Boeck is actively involved in teaching, promoting, coordinating and supervising research in and on Africa. Since 1987 he has conducted extensive field research in both rural and urban communities in D.R. Congo. His current theoretical interests include local subjectivities of crisis, postcolonial memory, youth and the politics of culture, and the transformation of private and public space in the urban context in Africa. Filip De Boeck has published extensively on his research. Together with Alcinda Honwana he edited Makers and Breakers: Children and Youth in Postcolonial Africa (2005). Other book publications include Kinshasa: Tales of the Invisible City, a joint book project with photographer Marie-Françoise Plissart (2004). Together with architect and critic Koen Van Synghel, De Boeck also curated an exhibition about Kinshasa for the ninth International Architecture Biennial in Venice (2004). This exhibition was awarded a Golden Lion for best installation. In 2010, De Boeck released Cemetery State, a documentary film which examines urban youth's politics of death in a Kinshasa graveyard.


Images from the Essay

Filip De Boeck, "Cite du Fleuve, Kinshasa." March 2012.

Filip De Boeck, "Cite du Fleuve, Kinshasa." March 2012.

The following images are referenced in the print essay:

Figure 4. Filip De Boeck, "Malebo Pool - Water Transformed into Arable Land."
Figure 5. Filip De Boeck, "Billboard for Cite du Fleuve."
Figure 6. Filip De Boeck, "Riverview Towers."
Figure 7. Filip De Boeck, "Modern Paradise."
Figure 8. Filip De Boeck, "Billboard Showing the Future Cite du Fleuve."
Figure 9. Filip De Boeck, "Map Showing Location of Cite du Fleuve."
Figure 10. Filip De Boeck, "Plans for Cite du Fleuve."
Figure 11. Filip De Boeck, "Construction Begins for Cite du Fleuve."
Figure 12. Filip De Boeck, "Plans for Cite du Fleuve."
Figure 13. Filip De Boeck, "Plans for Cite du Fleuve."
Figure 14. Filip De Boeck, "Plans for Cite du Fleuve."


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