Re-imagining Africa's cities (3)

Written by Kim Gurney

Images by Kim Gurney - Getty/AFP

Events register on a forceful scale, questioning our understandings of what a city is, says Filip De Boeck, research coordinator of the Institute for Anthropological Research in Africa at Belgium's University of Leuven. Kinshasa in particular attracts him because of its preoccupation with the present.

Its formalised economy and political organisation is minimal: “It’s a very dynamic place but also with a very short-term memory, a city that seems to have to reinvent itself every day. It doesn’t really remember where it is coming from, although all its different colonial and pre-colonial pasts continue to run through the city and form the city – very often people are unaware of this, the exact historical trajectories but also in terms of where the future of Kinshasa lies. There is no clear pathway or roadmap. It is very much a city that lives in the moment,” De Boeck says.

Kinshasa heads towards its future in a very unplanned way, calling for improvisation and responding in the moment to opportunities. This is also where religion and notions of the miraculous enter – since the start and end point of a day is tenuous and there is little to hold onto in-between. People talk in terms of the miraculous, mystical or unfathomable, he adds.

De Boeck describes Kinshasa as a post-political city where the state does not define what the public sphere ought to be. It therefore re-invents itself outside the institutionalised context. He explains how this informality is generative, but also creates problems and is far from an ideal.

“That apparent freedom and the chaotic nature of the city at the same time also come down to a very prescriptive mode of action that generates a lot of social violence because of the proximity of people and the fact that you have to fight for a place in the city ... Former models of belonging and togetherness don’t function very well anymore. At the same time, the proximity regenerates possibilities to survive.”

In his earlier work, De Boeck foregrounds less visible aspects of a city’s infrastructure, “Not in terms of concrete and cement, but as a mental space, a state of mind, that exists in people’s imagination.

“The body is actually the only thing you have, it is your house that you constantly carry with you ... one thing people cannot take. So that is what you have to put into the urban struggle, and that is how urban space is designed, in a way – you just move your body forward and you occupy a space. Occupation becomes a kind of infrastructural form.”

The way people live in a city is also commonly through movement, because people often cannot hold onto physical belongings – a house or land, for instance. That kind of constant mobility really forms the city, De Boeck says, formatting, developing and inventing urban space. For many, however, there is inward mobility, an almost semi-nomadic existence, which is constantly informed by basic needs. This is because everybody is searching – for food, for an opportunity to make some cash.

“That searching is the driver of the city. So it takes you back to the body, to the belly that needs to be filled, and that generates the mobility to move. In that way, the city beyond its built form is [being constituted] through those dimensions. And the body, with all its affective and emotional states, is what makes a city,” he says.

De Boeck’s current research approaches from the opposite direction, exploring the importance of the city's material plane and the role of infrastructure. This includes the generation of satellite cities that are springing up to cater to a growing middle class. “They create new geographies of exclusion, no doubt, but the real living city is so overwhelmingly large and powerful that it obliterates the impact of these new cities and they remain something marginal,” he says.

He describes his research work as urban acupuncture; selecting spaces relevant to the creation of publics – like a building, field, burial site or crossroads – and inserting an analytical needle.

“By writing an ethnography of that place, from that nerve centre the nerves radiate and connect with other places, from spot to spot, to try tell the story of that horizontal plane. By [inserting] the needle, you go into the deeper layers in the longue durée of the city, and you touchall the histories that very much continue to be there – such as land, who owns it, who opens it up for the city, constellations of power, and so on.”

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