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New Left Review 98, March-April 2016

joe trapido


Kinshasa is a natural amphitheatre. [1] This image is drawn from Léon De Saint Moulin, Villes et organisation de l’espace au Congo (rdc), Tervuren 2010, p. 244. The author would like to thank Saint Jose Inaka Bokulaka, Ian Phimister, and Carlos Sardiña. The older, more affluent districts of the city sit on a flat ‘stage’ of grey alluvial sand and clay next to the Congo River. Post-colonial suburbs, slums for the most part, have grown up on the red, erosion-prone soil of the ‘stands’, the ring of hills surrounding this plain. From a vantage point in downtown Kinshasa, with one’s back to the river, the arena appears to be one-sided, but you can see both sides from the hills on a clear day. Across the water stands Brazzaville, capital of the Republic of Congo. These are the closest capital cities in the world, bisected only by the great river, and located at the point of a natural gate between the Congo basin and the Atlantic Ocean. [2] Congo-Brazzaville was colonized by the French; its much larger neighbour, the Democratic Republic of Congo, was a Belgian territory during the age of empire. Although there has always been interchange between the two banks of the river, the colonial and post-colonial periods have given them very different histories, adding to the psychological distance between the cities. Once the more peaceful and better functioning of the pair, Brazzaville has been cursed in recent times by abundant off-shore energy reserves, finding itself sucked into the vortex of Big Oil. While conflict in the drc tends to spare Kinshasa, Brazzaville usually bears the brunt of any fighting. Several recent elections have ended in gun battles on the capital’s streets between youth gangs representing the major factions: Remy Bazernguissa-Ganga, ‘Les “guerres électorales” et les mobilisations violentes au Congo-Brazzaville’, in Kadya Tall et al., eds, Collective Mobilisations in Africa, Leiden 2015. Below Kinshasa, the Congo descends via a series of rapids, only becoming navigable again at Matadi, 600 km away.

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Joe Trapido, ‘Kinshasa’s Theatre of Power’, NLR 98: £3

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