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An energetic pelvis, clad so tight in orange velour that the material rumples at the groin, is jerking forward with fantastic emphasis. An easy frenzy of rhythm and sexual invitation breezes down from the stage. Eleven more pelvic regions – five female, six male – keep up to speed, swizzling and thrusting to the uptempo drum beat.
“Dance in Congo is characterised by two aspects: the spirit of combat and the sex act,” Felix Wazekwa, legendary Congolese singer-showman and choreographer of the orange-hued routine, had told me earlier in the day. The signature move – long familiar to local audiences who watch from behind sunglasses after dark – is the climax of a rehearsal at Gillette d’Or (Golden Razor), one of Kinshasa’s lesser-known open-air music bars. But it might also be the reason that Congo hasn’t had a successful revolution yet.
In this vast, impoverished country, social life is an absorbing anaesthetic. When I first lived in Kinshasa in 2010 I gulped it down. I have since wondered whether hedonism acts as a cultural opium of the people here. I have come back to try to find out.
Nearly 65 per cent of the 70 million people in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) live in poverty in sub-Saharan Africa’s largest country. Still emerging from wars in the 1990s so turbulent that they sucked in eight neighbours in a conflict dubbed “The Great War of Africa”, militias haunt the east of the country and the UN operates its longest-running peacekeeping mission here.
Local businessmen joke bitterly that when Congo won independence from 75 years of brutal, self-serving Belgian colonial rule in 1960, the state was “decommissioned” even from the start. Soon after freedom came civil war, then 32 years of kleptocratic dictatorship from late president Mobutu Sese Seko. He once told his own soldiers they should pillage rather than be paid, a philosophy known as “getting by”.
People today somehow manage to get by, coping with daily crisis, squalor and ill health in the mineral-rich nation. While the economy is forecast to grow at 8.7 per cent this year thanks mostly to rising copper and gold exports, few outside the industry feel the benefit and the average annual income is less than $400 per person. Congo is ranked the second least developed country in the world by the UN; some estimates put youth unemployment at 90 per cent. Its politicians are legendary for their corruption and a scandalous lack of interest in the common good. Few set any store by the country’s claim to democracy. “Here the state exists only to the extent that it harasses people – the leadership is disconnected from the masses; I’ve been struck by the total lack of social contract,” a senior western diplomat told me in Kinshasa.
Only when you leave Gombe, the upscale part of the capital where I lived (which was far from consistently smart: my fifth-floor windows had bullet holes in them), do you reach Kinshasa’s real, diffused heart. The metropolis of 12 million largely jobless people is spread across ragged neighbourhoods ill-served by the government. The city’s populace famously has little truck with today’s ruling president, Joseph Kabila, whom many here see as an ineffectual import from the east. But while the spirit of opposition seethes, real change never comes.
The party town – decades in the making – instead turns on what US-based Congolese academic Didier Gondola calls “an escapist ethos” that dulls criticism and plunges residents into “a fixation with the instant gratification of consumption with its immediacy and certainty”. During 11 days and nights in the city, photographer Jana Ašenbrennerová and I encounter pursuits – from music to religion, fashion to sport – that help to fend off the chaos and aggression of the state with discipline and passion, whether by picking up a Bible, brass instrument or boxing gloves.
“Pain is so quotidian and so deep and unmerciful that people are attempting to find solace through pleasure,” says Gondola. He argues that, besides fear of repressive state security services, this is the main reason that Congo will continue to experience “order within disorder” rather than “convulsive revolution”.
Héritier and Rodrick Mbuangi’s family home has many of the accoutrements of comfortable living: a big stereo, a bigger flatscreen TV, a dining table with high-backed chairs, a set of stiff sofas around a glass coffee table and a gold-faced wall-clock in the shape of an anchor. But as the two brothers talk, they are fighting off competition from the groaning generator they have just switched on. It would be hard to find a better example of Kinshasa’s “order within disorder”. Their well cared-for home accommodates them, seven other siblings and their parents in four bedrooms. The house functions well enough – except when it comes to things that the state might be expected to supply.
There is no sewage system, no way to fuel a kitchen save for cooking in the outdoors. As today bears out, grid electricity regularly goes off without warning. They cannot drink the tap water – it is too poorly treated. Both brothers were educated at private school; when they are sick, they go to their father’s workplace, which provides healthcare at its own private company hospital.
Outside, in a narrow alley brightened by laundry hanging from a spangle of lines, metal pots sit on hot coals and bubble with spaghetti and omelettes. A woman suds up clothes in a plastic bucket.
Sometimes the filthy dirt road beyond the metal gates is in such a bad state that neither of the brothers wants to leave the house. “During the rains it’s a catastrophe,” 31-year-old Héritier says.
Héritier is a musician. Every day he picks his way for 20 minutes along the dirt road to play first violin in one of Africa’s few classical orchestras: the Kimbanguist Symphony Orchestra, based in Kinshasa. He remembers that when someone first put a violin in his hands he was 13 and had no idea what an orchestra was. A family friend who noticed he was always singing thought he might enjoy a visit to the amateur ensemble. Héritier broke a string immediately but was hooked. Another member of the orchestra gave him free after-school lessons for three years, before the orchestra proper accepted him. He then taught his younger brother Rodrick to play. Rodrick joined after a year and played a concert within his first week. Now 26, Rodrick has climbed the ranks to join his brother among its 15 first violinists.
“I’m always a bit shocked to see the state of our country,” Rodrick says. “It’s a country that’s fabulously rich and full of potential … but we’re shocked to find this paradox, to be a country of the third world. There are countries that don’t have what we have but they do better, like Kenya. I always say it’s a problem of governance, it’s a failure first of government.”
The Kimbanguist Symphony Orchestra was founded 20 years ago. I first visited it in 2010, the year a German documentary, Kinshasa Symphony, shot it to international fame. Four years later, the orchestra’s founder and music director, Armand Diangienda, is used to acclaim. Thanks to donor-funded foreign trips, he and some of his 170 musicians have recently visited the US, Monaco, France and Germany. In September, 100 of them – the biggest touring group yet – will visit the UK for the first time, practising and performing with professionals in London, Bristol, Manchester and Cardiff.
“It wasn’t easy in the beginning,” says Diangienda, a self-taught conductor who plays seven instruments. “We didn’t have enough instruments. One musician would keep the violin; one would keep the bow.”
Nowadays the orchestra attempts difficult works that many of its members enjoy struggling to play. In the UK, it will perform movements from Beethoven’s Symphony No 9, Symphonie Fantastique by Hector Berlioz and a symphony composed by Diangienda himself.
Although gifts of everything from iPads to carbon-fibre violins have trickled in from supporters, some of the ensemble still make or repair their own instruments in and around Diangienda’s large family home, which doubles as the orchestra headquarters. It sits at the corner of a dusty intersection in Kinshasa’s Ngiri-Ngiri municipality, opposite an open-air hairdressers and stalls selling mobile-phone credit. An empty warehouse across the road serves as the main rehearsal area for the full orchestra, while the choir practises in a room in Diangienda’s house. Smaller groups of musicians organise themselves by instrument and practise in the spaces they can find in the compound’s car park. On one of the days I visit, two young girls play together, with their sheet music and violin cases perched on the bonnet of a car while mechanics crouch down in front of them. Come evening, women cook up vats of cassava-leaf stew over hot coals on the ground between the parked vehicles.
Clasping a small handsaw, Didier Maketa – one of the orchestra members headed for the UK tour – bends over a desk that he has just heaved outdoors and cuts two-thirds of the way into a mobile phone scratchcard. Using it half as a rule and half as a makeshift clamp, he replaces the wooden bridge of a violin and struggles with a misshapen metal wire to jostle a new spindly soundpost into place through the instrument’s elegant f-shaped soundholes.
“This is a very difficult operation; if I’m in the middle of work then I forget about everything, even eating,” he says. The 36-year-old shopkeeper, who trained as a mechanic, has a second job as a carpenter and races home from work sites in the evening to shut up shop and attend rehearsals.
Maketa taught himself to play the viola and made his first double bass in 1998. Earlier this year, he made his first violin with the help of a professional craftsman during an 11-day trip to Monaco as part of the orchestra. Picking up the still unvarnished instrument, signed on the inside by him and his instructor, he starts stringing away at Ravel’s Boléro.
It sends one more set of sounds floating into the orchestra courtyard. A trombonist tests out mournful notes in the narrow passageway between two parked buses; guitarists perch elsewhere on an old table; flautists with pursed lips look at their instructor; choristers sing out as small children turn trumpet mouthpieces into playthings.
Later in the day, across from stalls where small-time traders sell palm oil and popcorn, Maketa reaches for his viola from behind his small shop counter. A music stand and plastic chair fit behind the door of his shop, which sells Kinshasa’s usual wild array of goods: stationery and onions outside, strappy maroon shoes on the counter, margarine and olives high up on the shelves. His plaintive notes sound out as shoppers leave 100 Congolese franc notes (seven pence) on the counter in exchange for biscuits. “I have to find when I can to practise, it’s not easy,” he says.
The orchestra takes its name, the Kimbanguist Symphony, from a Congolese Christian church with a long title and a large following – the Church of Jesus Christ on Earth by His Special Envoy Simon Kimbangu. The doctrine of this homegrown religion, called Kimbanguism, has gradually evolved since the movement started in 1921. It considers “Papa Kimbangu” as the incarnation of the Holy Spirit, while his late son proclaimed himself to be Jesus Christ.
Recognised as an official religion by the state, it is estimated by some to have a membership of about seven million in Congo alone but it has followers throughout central Africa and beyond. Papa Kimbangu, a Congolese spiritual healer who is said to have performed miracles and was jailed by the colonial authorities, died after 30 years behind bars in 1951. News of his miraculous healings, including resurrections of the dead, spread throughout the region, and his late son – the father of orchestra founder Armand Diangienda – converted the movement into a full-blown church.
“When my father died in 1992 we had 17 million [followers],” says Diangienda, a former pilot whose airline closed after one too many crashes. He says his father always told him he must bring the faithful together, although it was Diangienda himself who settled on an orchestra as the best vehicle.
Like many Congolese entities – whether music acts, rebel groups or political parties – the church has long since fractured. Diangienda fell out with the church leadership in a 2002 schism, when his late father’s nephew – another grandson of Papa Kimbangu – took over as spiritual leader and legal representative instead of him. The cousins no longer speak. “It’s really so sad because if things weren’t like this the orchestra would be a really big orchestra,” he says, regularly glancing at a picture of his father on his desk.
The religion – which may count as many as 10 per cent of the population as followers – nonetheless remains supremely present in the orchestra. While in theory the orchestra is open to anyone, in practice Diangienda can think of only one member who is not from the faith. Most tend to join following introductions by Kimbanguists. Diangienda even composed his own symphony, Tata Kimbangu, in honour of his famous grandfather – among the works that will be played in the UK.
The orchestra headquarters is covered in the Kimbanguist colours of green and white, which symbolise hope and purity. And although Diangienda is not the official spiritual leader of the church, he is revered for his bloodline to its founder: as he moves around the building, women fall to their knees praying. But while the orchestra inspires much the same discipline and enthusiasm as the Gillette d’Or does in its dancers, its ethos could not be more different. The Kimbanguists ban smoking, drinking, eating pork and washing naked. They even – unusually for Congo – ban dance. “We believe dance is obscene,” says Diangienda.
He is not without a point. Later that week, a few streets away at the Chez Kindo bar, we watch as a music show called the Big One reaches its finale with another thrusting dance act. Jazz Mbengu-Mbengu, a 25-year-old dwarf, pumps the floor and then the air very close behind his female colleague’s bent-over backside. “It’s a spectacle,” he says afterwards, with a smile. Ndombolo – the sexualised dance style that Congo made famous in the 1990s, partly to mock the ailing president Mobutu – was even banned by some African countries.
The peace-loving Kimbanguists espouse something of a militaristic ethos, and the movement has a historic fondness for brass bands and marching. At the orchestra headquarters on the first evening I visit, children as young as three years old are put through their drill. “Left! Right! Left! Right! Attention! Discipline!” cries 26-year-old instructor Emile Masudi as a wide-eyed tot’s attention wanders in the dark of the early evening. “They’re like soldiers, to protect the church,” he says.
Diangienda says that, despite the schism, the Kimbanguists’ religious precepts help keep the orchestra together – many other music groups have split, especially after a foreign tour. It also ensures no one dodges visa restrictions to abscond while on tour. “It’s really difficult in this country to do something without the church,” he says.
In Congo, people put far more faith in churches – of which there are probably hundreds, most of them Christian – than they do in the state. They are at the heart of culture, authority and sometimes politics in the country. A new wave of charismatic revivalist churches that engage in “spiritual combat” has multiplied in the past decade, attracting many vulnerable urban poor who hand over their cash. Others feel let down by the hypocrisy of some local Catholic priests who secretly father children. These revivalist churches are now officially recognised by the state, promising the prosperity and stability that no government has ever come close to providing.
Many people blame the devil rather than the state for their ills. Those who fall sick or suffer misfortune fear they are possessed by serpents; stepmothers cast out rival wives’ children in the name of witchcraft (polygamy is commonplace in Congo). While many Congolese talk about the comfort and richness of African solidarity, whereby people stand together and support one another, Belgian anthropologist Katrien Pype, who has studied Congo for a decade, says accusations of witchcraft instead point to great rifts in Congo’s social fabric.
On the way into Kinshasa from the airport, I saw a mass of plastic chairs set out beside a main road in an outlying neighbourhood. Returning one evening a few days later, all 19,000 were filled. They were here for firebrand Congolese prophet Jacques Neema Sikatenda and his eight-day “Evangelical Invasion”, a huge outdoor crusade. Neema is the son of the founding prophet of Congo’s Church of the Living God, which has 137 churches in Kinshasa alone. Tonight the satin-shirted pastor, who has toured Angola, Brazil and Belgium, is bellowing to the rapt crowd as followers surge forward and start to pray. Some wave white flags, illuminated by the disco lights from the stage, which features an electric guitar and a drumkit. “Receive the force! Receive the power!” Neema cries after a finger-pointing speech about delivering prosperity to Congo.
Close to the front row, a young woman’s face contorts as she starts to wail and judder. Three female church officials dressed in maroon quarantine her from the crowd, linking arms around her. In an ecstasy of distress, chanting “Thank you Lord”, she becomes feverishly incomprehensible. Others are carried off like flailing cadavers in their state of trance. Up on stage, the prophet slaps a girl on the cheek to exorcise her of a serpent.
The quarantined young woman’s name is Vanessa Asina. She is soon entirely poised in her demure clothes. “I felt a very strong power inside me; I feel peace now,” says the 26-year-old, who has no husband, no job, no parents and two children. “I have many worries; I pray all the time.” When I ask about her views on the government and what it does for her, the church minder, who is translating between Lingala and French for me, refuses to ask her the question. “That’s a political question, you can’t ask about politics,” he says.
Critics of Congo’s government say the state has co-opted populist power bases – from charismatic churches to musicians – to its cause, thereby corrupting the very outlets that give people sustenance and refuge from predatory authorities. Politicians sponsor and book top musicians, for example, and pay them to mention their names in songs. Congolese academic Léon Tsambu Bulu characterises musicians’ own hankering for stardom as part of the generalised and tainted search for power, prestige and money.
As Congo prepares to go to the polls in 2016, uncertain whether Kabila will stand again despite reaching his two-term limit, marshalling populist forces may prove key to securing an electorate let down by a mining economy that creates few jobs, and growth that few feel. Some, however, reject the idea that anything is wrong. “The north wants us to beg them all the time, but we don’t speak of poverty; poverty is an insult,” says Papa Wemba, a Congolese celebrity long feted by Joseph Kabila. “Even if you eat only one time a day you are not poor. God gave everything freely – we have the sun; these are riches. The state can’t do everything; I want to support my chief of the country.”
Papa Wemba is an idol for many and the leading living proponent of Sape (a French moniker that loosely translates as the “Society for Ambience-Makers and Elegant Persons”). Congo’s penchant for this local strain of dandyism was recently highlighted by an international TV advert for Guinness. “We want to dress well to leave the ordinary behind,” says the 65-year-old.
On an uneven street one dark evening, Sapeur and Big One star Djouna Mumbafu points out his designer labels to me by the weedy light of a mobile phone: a Galliano T-shirt, a Gucci belt, JM Weston shoes and a Yamamoto jacket. “It’s in the habit of Sape that you have to show the label; in the beginning we had no money but I still managed to be chic,” he says, puffing out his chest. “I do that because I’m always ready, macho.”
Such dandyism was once “a revolutionary act”, says Gondola – a refusal to fall in line with Mobutu’s policy that disdained all things western including clothing (his tieless “abacost” uniform was derived from the French for “down with the suit”). But today it may reinforce a culture of greedy gros légumes (“big vegetables” – Congo’s fat cats), where success reinforces the distance between state and people. “The social system is built around ‘rags-to-riches’ individuals who fear losing their ill-gotten fortune,” adds Gondola. “The haves have no compassion for the have-nots.”
Some, no matter how far apart their views, hope for change, and culture in Congo is, after all, powerful. At the orchestra, Armand Diangienda wants to find time to finish his third symphony, which he is calling My Identity, an effort to unite the traditions of Congo’s many different ethnic groups across class and region. And before the dance rehearsals at the Gillette d’Or, choreographer Felix Wazekwa says he wants to cultivate new forms of dance. His latest signature dance move is “Call me the plaintiff” – a reference to misuse of power. “This dance is a little bit political,” he says. “We are in a country where if you demand your rights you’re arrested. The people know the politicians must do something for them but they don’t have the means to make them do it.”
Katrina Manson is the FT’s East Africa correspondent.
L’Orchestre Symphonique Kimbanguiste and choir make their UK debut with performances at Bridgewater Hall, Manchester (Sept 11), Royal Festival Hall, London (Sept 14), Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama, Cardiff (Sept 15) and Colston Hall, Bristol (Sept 16). Tickets are available from venues
Photographs: Jana Ašenbrennerová