NOT TO BE MISSED
"Samantha à Kinshasa", a novel by Marie-Louise MUMBU
Kinshasa/Bruxelles, Afrique Edition/Editions le Cri, 2008. 188p.
Ce compte rendu en français
Samantha à Kinshasa by Congolese writer and journalist Marie-Louise Mumbu is a witty, yet thought provoking personal account of life in Kinshasa, the capitale of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Yes, the city is confronted by intractable problems such as political impotency, corruption, violence and on-going wars. Yes, that makes life awfully difficult for the population but, as Mumbu argues, Kinshasans still remain attached to the land they call home.
Life is tough for large families and children abandoned to fend for themselves, for civil servants who have not received their wages for years and for female students requested to pay, in kind, for their tuition. Yet, out of a plethora of dubious activities that reflect the universal application of the famous "Article 15" look after yourself in order to survive the city is a hub of activities that bring people together on all occasions. Privacy being a luxury that no one can afford, people's interactions, altercations, love-life, family, successes and failures turn always into public matters that become the ingredients of a rich and frenzied social life.
Samantha is a journalist in her thirties. She is a regular of "Chez les branchés" and other trendy bars, restaurants and terraces where she chases the latest news and gossip that inspire her chronicler's activities. An endless string of soulmates allows her to take the pulse of the city that beats to the rhythm of the latest political campaign, religious gurus, family businesses, "4e bureaux", love, music and fashion. Samatha's circle of friends is quite broad. It comprises Fanta, the M.A. student in love with a university drop-out who became a "roulage": that is a constable directing traffic; Kabibi, the call-girl who spent every weekend in the "Professors' quarters" conducting her multiple "illicite love affairs" to the ire of the regular wives and mothers; Arsène, the sleazy businessman ; Ingrid, the Russian friend who liaises between the Congolese commission in charge of the "free, democratic and transparent elections" requested by the European Union and the Bureau of the International Observers in charge of controlling the voting booths, and many others characters who cross her path as she moves around town, or at least attempts to do so as travelling in Kinshasa is not an easy task, even for the most experienced taxi drivers.
Makambo is one of them and he plays an important role in Marie-Louise Mumbu's chronicles. He had to take up driving his uncle's cab as the Cabinet Director's job he was promised in the Ministry did not eventuate, so, day after day, he is toiling in the belly of the beast, fighting traffic jams, transporting unscrupulous "officials" who flash their travel pass instead of paying their fare and bribing "roulages" who extort money through bogus fines. For Makambo, there is no alternative but to grin and bear it. In that, he shares the predicament of his customers and millions of others attempting to make ends meet, one way or another.
Life aboard his crowded "Kombi" that moves laboriously through the streets of the megalopolis is also a microcosm of the society at large. Comfort is minimal for customers crammed into the vehicle beyond its capacity, acrimonious exchanges are frequent, complaints about politicians' incompetence plentiful and the diversity of human behaviour endlessly displayed. Life in a crowded taxi, busy markets or overpopulated dwellings provides nowhere to escape others' gaze, judgments or comments. It is indeed a heavy burden to bear but, as Marie-Louise Mumbu's novel shows, it is also the essence of Kinshasans' tremendous energy, resilience and lack of inhibitions in the face of severe economic and political difficulties. Nothing can be hidden for very long and every aspect of everyone's life is open for debate. Kabibi's lies to her lovers in front of a crowd of women queuing in front of the phone booth attract the same scorn as the Minister's failed promises denounced by some "intellos" on their way to work aboard Makambo's taxi.
Samatha à Kinshasa is interesting as it debunks a few myths. One of them is certainly the strong belief that democratically elected governments lead to democracy. It is clearly not the case. Thus the illusory nature of the help provided by the "Monique" and other external Aid Agencies blinded by rigid conceptions of democratic rights. The narrator suggests that the smartest thing to do would rather be to capitalise on the robust debating that takes place at every corner of the city within families, markets, taxis, bars and phone booths. That's the only way to know what the population really wants peace, food on the table, schools, health centres, etc.; and how to deal with the issue in order to make a difference in people's lives, for the better. The future of the county does not rest with imported political or economic orthodoxies, neither does it lie with foreign intervention and warring factions recruiting disaffected youth. More than five millions deaths over the past decade prove the failure of various top-down approaches masterminded in various parts of the world. A better future lies with better opportunities for the "shayeurs", the "shégués" and the population at large.
Millions have been compelled to live under "Article 15" and no one would condone such a state of affairs. Even so, the inextricable web of relationships born of necessity binds the country together and it is testing stereotypical concepts of efficiency, productivity and self reliance. One of the most fascinating aspect of Samantha à Kinshasa is to reconcile two notions that seem incompatible: absolute chaos and the ability to function. Against all odds and in spite of insurgencies, lawlessness, confusion and very limited opportunities, one gets the feeling that the Kinshasans have managed this tour de force. In an interview Marie-Louise Mumbu said, "I am part of a common experience, I tell of my country, my suburb, my city, the people from home who unfortunately are only known as images of ... mass graves on Euronews or columns of refugees on BBC. I myself tell the story of people very much alive: their daily life, their environment and their frenzy." (Interview http://www.congokulture.net/article.php?id_art=475/article.php?id_art=475 sighted 14 December 2008).
Samantha à Kinshasa does not shy from the dire situation the country is in. Every page reminds readers of the legacy of a century of oppression, plunder, dictatorship, revolutions and wars: a legacy that buttresses the negative image of the Congo constantly rehearsed by the media. But Marie-Louise Mumbu's chronicles give us a chance to move beyond this shroud of negativity, to look at the world differently, to be rightly outraged by the enlistment of young children in rogue armies, but at the same time to empathise with the plight of Ascari Hugo Boss, the child soldier, who tries to rebuild his life with the street kids of Kinshasa. Samantha à Kinshasa shows that above and beyond political wisdom, or lack of it, it is meaningful relationships with others that give meaning to life. And that cannot be ruled by remote control using the rod of economic rationalism.
A useful "Lexicon for the neophytes" is provided by Marie-Louise Mumbu in the first few pages of her book. It proposes definitions for more than 100 words such as "3615", "4e bureau", "Gepamal" and of course "Kinois", the inhabitants de Kinshasa.
The University of Western Australia/School of Humanities