The heavyweight world championship showdown between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman electrified a city full of pride and promise in the early years following independence – and then the money ran out …
Thomas Yocum in Kinshasa
Wednesday 15 October 2014 14.53 BST
“Kinshasa was a very nice place. Very clean. Not too many people, like there are now,” Dieudonne Duabo explains quietly. Sitting in the shade of an ageing hangar at the edge of the city’s Ndolo airport, the 64-year-old former army pilot is reflecting on when he first came here as a 17-year-old student in 1968. “At the time, with what I had, I could go to the supermarket and get what I wanted. I could really control my life. It was OK. No problem.”
Ndolo airport was once a shining symbol of Kinshasa’s modernity, growth and prosperity. Built in the early 1920s, it was a cornerstone of Congolese aviation and a major hub in the allied African air network during the second world war. Now it is as tumbledown as most of the rest of the sprawling city, with derelict planes littering its margins and weeds slowly eating the decaying concrete.
Ndolo is located close to the south bank of the mighty Congo river, a few kilometres upstream from where Henry Morton Stanley, the infamous Welsh explorer, established the small trading post of Leopoldville in 1883. Stanley named it after Leopold II, the Belgian king who had created what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo, racking up a record of abuses that caused an estimated 10 million people – as much as half the country’s population – to flee or die.
Renamed Kinshasa in 1966, the city is located in the far west of the DRC – a vast, wild, central African country with some of the richest natural resources of anywhere in the world. But despite this inherent wealth, the lingering effects of a brutal colonial regime, followed by a painful struggle for independence and decades of violence and political mismanagement, have left it at the bottom of almost every socio-economic league table. And nowhere are the problems more visible than in the chaotic capital city, spreading out across the banks and foothills of the Congo basin.
It wasn’t always this way. Forty years ago this month, the eyes of the world turned to Kinshasa to watch the “Rumble in the Jungle”, the legendary boxing event that saw Muhammad Ali and George Foreman slug it out for the world heavyweight title. An estimated 50,000 spectators crammed into the Stade du 20 Mai for the 4am start necessary to accommodate prime-time schedules in the United States. It was hot and humid, and the atmosphere was charged with excitement and expectation.
Muhammad Ali (right) and George Foreman in action in Kinshasa. Ali won and regained his heavyweight title.
A huge image of President Mobutu, who had offered an extraordinary $10m to bring the fight to Kinshasa and put the country he had renamed Zaire on the map, joined the stadium’s four distinctive banks of lights in towering over the crowd. Mobutu had left little to chance. He allegedly rounded up 1,000 of Kinshasa’s leading criminals before the fight and held them in rooms under the stadium before executing 100 of them to make his point. Unsurprisingly, the city was virtually crime-free for the event.
When We Were Kings, the Academy Award-winning documentary about the 1974 fight, captures a city that was clean and green, with gleaming white buildings and broad, nearly empty streets. It’s full of pride and promise, reflecting the optimistic mood in the early years following independence in 1960.
Mobutu, who had had seized power in a 1965 coup, was in his prime in 1974 and touting his country’s success. Like many older Kinois citizens who remember his reign, Duabo says he had mixed feelings about Mobutu: “He was really a saviour for the people.” Duabo cites the price caps and subsidies for popular staples such as transportation and bread that often took effect as soon as they were announced. “People liked that. Whatever Mobutu said, it used to happen. But that was only because, when he came to power, he found the reserves of money in the bank. This country had enough money to live on. But when that money started going down, because when it comes out, nothing is going in, you can see what will happen.”
Young boys on the streets of Kinshasa – some say the city has never recovered from Mobutu’s time in charge.
Mobutu’s image is long gone now, of course, but the four light towers still dominate the low-slung neighbourhood of Immocongo in the Kalamu section of the city. The grassy verges that used to border the venue have given way to houses and dusty, litter-strewn lots. The stadium, once one of the largest and grandest of its kind in Africa, is slowly rotting, its concrete stained with streaks of black and grey. Renamed Stade Tata Raphael in 1997, it is still used for football matches – but in between the irregular fixtures, weeds and waste litter the interior, and groups of people doze in the stands where the crowds once cheered for their hero, Muhammad Ali.
In July 1974, Olela Shungu was 26 and working for an insurance company in Kinshasa. A native of Lubumbashi, a city in southeastern DRC, he was happy to have found the position in the bustling capital. But one afternoon, on the way home from work with friends, he passed a line of young men queuing outside a downtown office building.
“I asked, ‘What is this?’” Shungu recalls. “‘Oh, we are being interviewed because we want to work for the Commission Foreman-Ali,’ they told me. I said, ‘Ah, I would like also to try something like this.’” So I went and met with President Mobutu’s counsellor. He said, ‘Oh, you came very late. Now we cannot interview you.’ I said, ‘Please give me a chance’. Then he told me, ‘Ah, you speak good English. Let me try something.’
“I went through the interview. Two weeks after, I was called to President Mobutu’s office and I was told, ‘We will hire you to work with the Commission Foreman-Ali.’ That’s how it all started.”
Shungu was made the head of a three-man team working directly with the commission, making the necessary preparations for the event. “When Ali landed it was our first contact with him,” he recalls. “It was really a very big day for us to be close and in contact with him. From that day on, when he had to do interviews, when he had to go visit, when he had to go to the training centre, we would be riding in the same car together.”
Shungu pulls a stack of ageing black-and-white prints from a folder. The photographs record the sense of excitement surrounding the boxer’s time in the city: they show Ali together with his wife; Ali picking up a little Congolese girl; Ali aboard one of Mobutu’s yachts on what was then the Zaire river.
“He got a very good impression of Kinshasa,” Shungu says. “Ali was very happy to fight in a black country – the people loved him. Before we got to the fight, we had a lot of people around us, and they were shouting ‘Ali! Ali!’ Then he told me, ‘I will tell them that I will kill Foreman. How do you say that in Lingala?’ I said: ‘Ali, boma ye!’ But he wasn’t able to say it that way. He was saying ‘Ali, boom ye! Ali, boom ye!’ I said, ‘No, not boom, boma’ … but he wasn’t able to say that, so I say, ‘OK, leave it off!’”
Kinshasa was entranced, but the real focus was in Nsele, north-east of the city, where Ali and Foreman were both making their final preparations. Shungu’s position allowed him to be incredibly close to events leading up to the fight. “When we departed from Ali’s villa in Nsele, I remember he went into the bathroom and when he came out, he said, ‘Hey guys, tonight I will be champion!’ Nobody said anything. We were all a bit sceptical. Then we got in his black Citroen and moved to the stadium. It was so crowded, inside and out. Mobutu wanted everybody to attend the event – but I believe the Congolese people were so fond of Ali, if the day was not declared free, nobody would have reported to work anyway.”
Ali’s eighth-round knock-out of Foreman shocked the world and electrified the city, which went on a two-day binge to celebrate the victory. “After the fight, everybody was drinking and dancing and shouting ‘Ali, boma ye!’ – the whole city,” Shungu says. “There were big celebrations. Very, very big. For the whole day, that night and the following day, there were big, big celebrations.”
Amid the triumphant scenes, however, Kinshasa was already on the road to self-destruction. A year earlier, President Mobutu had announced his policy of “Zairianization”, which meant appropriating broad swathes of international investment from large farms and industries, and smaller shops and businesses. This, along with the collapse of the international copper market in 1974, started a dramatic downward economic spiral that has continued to this day.
A family in modern-day Kinshasa.
“Mobutu took all the wealth that belonged to the foreigners,” Duabo says. “Some of them lost all their goods. They lost their farms. That’s when it went terribly bad, because the people who took over had no plan. If you have a shop, how do you replace the goods? How do you plan for your relationships with other shops and so on? It was something strange for them. They had in their minds that, ‘OK, we’ll finish with what we have, but how will we refill again?’ They didn’t know. A lot of people left at that time. People didn’t like it.
“We started to lack fuel, and bread. We couldn’t have food stuffs because we didn’t have fuel. The vehicles couldn’t go to get what was needed. That was a big problem, and people didn’t do anything about it – they couldn’t. There was nothing to do. But things were still not too bad. Though salaries were very small, there was still something.”
With the country moving in the wrong direction, however, people started looking for new urban opportunities. “From the 1980s, things started to get worse,” Duabo says. “At that time the value of copper, which is our principal product for export, really went down. Within the countryside, nothing was happening. It was an advantage for people to come to Kinshasa, so the population here started growing. And the number of new buildings … there was an explosion. People came here to do business; they found it easier to work here than in the country. That’s how the city became so wide and grew so big.”
By the early 1990s, the economic situation was becoming untenable. In 1991, the annual inflation rate was more than 4,000%. By September, army soldiers who hadn’t been paid for months reached breaking point. Together with crowds of frustrated civilians, they went on a three-day looting spree that left Kinshasa in tatters. Hundreds of people were killed before Belgian paratroopers were called in to restore order.
“At this time, there were a lot of factories up along Limete on this side of the city,” Duabo says, swinging his arm over his shoulder in the direction of the Congo river shoreline. “We called it ‘Industrial Limete’. It used to bring a lot of the population of Kinshasa here. When the looting started, they looted everything – even the machinery. Everything was destroyed. And people went out of a job even until today. Since then it is not possible to bring the old situation back. It’s not possible.”
It is estimated that half of the businesses in Kinshasa left after the 1991 riots. Those who stayed and struggled to rebuild were faced with unchecked hyperinflation and rising tensions across the city. In early 1993, when the embattled Mobutu government tried to introduce a 5-million Zaire note, the army again took to the streets.
It was a tipping point, Duabo says. As many as 2,000 people were killed, including the French ambassador. “A lot of people were out of jobs after the first [uprising]. It was already very bad, so nobody listened to anybody this time. Mobutu’s power was very low: the population, the politicians, even the people living in the streets said openly that they didn’t like him any more.”
Unable or unwilling to start over again, many of Kinshasa’s remaining businesses and industries left with no plans to return. “People were no longer together,” Duabo says. “We could see there was a big, big difference between those with money, like businessmen or people working within the government, and the general population, who didn’t have enough. The rich peopl were driving Mercedes while a big part of the population didn’t even have a private car. They had to rely on the public transport, which wasn’t even good. There was a big difference between those classes which we didn’t know before.”
The road ahead
The road from Ndolo airport to the centre ville a few kilometres away encapsulates the history and challenges facing Kinshasa today. It is a new four-lane highway, built with international funds and regarded as one of the best in the city. With smooth, black asphalt, shiny white lines and deep, concrete ditches to catch the tropical downpours, the road is meant to improve the city’s desperately poor transportation infrastructure, which it does. But along its edges, little has changed.
Each day, tens of thousands of people – business owners, students, workers and people looking for work – walk along the new road because they can’t afford to ride in anything that uses it. For them, it’s ligne onze (“line 11”) – a wry reference to the only form of mass travel available to people with little money to spend.
The endless line of pedestrians is joined by a parade of two-wheeled pushcarts filled with everything from oil drums and scrap metal to furniture and business supplies. The road passes small vendors selling sweets, water, beer, mobile-phone credit and small bundles of fish or cassava loaf wrapped in banana leaves. It passes larger markets with rows of faded umbrellas sheltering traders offering an array of clothes, household goods, fruit, vegetables and racks of dried fish. Mounds of litter collect in the eddies of the traffic, coated in layers of dust from the dirt side roads and ash and soot from small piles of burning garbage.
The new road ends next to the city’s disused train station – joining up with the Boulevard du 30 Juin (named after the Congolese independence day) which bisects the city, dividing the more affluent centre and its leafy Gombe districts from the rest of Kinshasa.
The modern boulevard roughly follows the same divisions put in place by Belgian colonial planners, who created a buffer zone between the European and Congolese communities. Congolese workers were barred from the European sections at certain hours, and often refused service at businesses catering to whites.
While the physical and social barriers have fallen away, many of the differences between the two sides of this boulevard are as stark as ever. An ever-expanding collection of old, rundown neighbourhoods and new, informal settlements are home to millions of Kinois. Basic services in these communities, such as running water, sanitation and electricity, are usually either unreliable or non-existent. Malaria and water-borne diseases are common, while outbreaks of polio and cholera often strike without warning.
Nobody even really knows how many people live in Kinshasa. The last census was in 1984, so any figures are just a guess. Most estimates are that there are between 8-12 million people currently living in the city. It’s thought to be the second largest metropolitan area in sub-Saharan Africa after Lagos and projections are that it will overtake Paris as the largest francophone city by the end of the decade.
Perhaps it doesn’t really matter how many people live here. The local government long ago lost the ability to provide even the most basic level of services. With so little in the way of infrastructure and little hope of government help, the interesting thing isn’t that things don’t work in Kinshasa, but that anything works at all. And that so many people are able to live and work and play in spite of all the challenges they face.
“How can 10 million people be living in this city with very poor infrastructure –practically no water, no electricity, have to pay for their school fees, very, very little access to cash – and yet, when you go out on a Saturday night, people are drinking beer, they’re beautifully dressed, they’re having a good time?” asks Theodore Trefon, a researcher at the Royal Museum for Central Africa who has been studying Kinshasa since 1994. “This is the miracle – that they have some type of will to keep on moving on. That they can still be happy in these dire conditions.”
Trefon’s 2004 book, Reinventing Order in the Congo, examines how the people of the city adapt new ways of arranging their lives in order to survive. It describes “the order in the disorder”, with people constantly developing new networks of family, friends and alliances to increase their chances of accessing food, money or success. While social institutions might normally be expected to fall apart as state systems collapsed, in Kinshasa they appear to be diversifying and even strengthening.
Ten years on from the publication of Reinventing Order, Trefon says the Kinois are continuing to evolve, and to take charge of their own destinies: “People expect very, very little from the state and from public authorities. So they have continued to design new strategies, whether it be for credit, family supports, religious groups or, depending on diaspora, relatives.”
Trefon says Kinshasa’s citizens are constantly forced to balance personal survival and success with family and community expectations. “There is a degree of solidarity, but is has to be nuanced because even within families, you have this sense of jealousy, and the levelling concept. So while there are certainly examples of the way people tried to take charge of their destiny, there are other family issues or social levelling processes that really make it difficult to get ahead.
“People have to be extremely clever and extremely discreet. The only way you’re going to survive is striking the right balance between sharing, being discreet and knowing how to manage your own success, your own survival. If you don’t know how to do that, the system is going to absorb you.”
Even among the survivors, the lucky ones, Olela Shungu’s personal story is particularly rare. “For myself, after the Ali fight, I was lucky,” he agrees. “Because President Mobutu hired me as his personal translator and interpreter.”
Shungu went on to serve as Mobutu’s translator and interpreter for nine years, meeting an array of international dignitaries and heads of state, including the US Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. He then continued working for Mobutu’s government for another 14 years in other jobs until two months before Mobutu’s reign finally ended in 1997.
Sitting at his desk just down the street from where he had that interview 40 years ago, Shungu can’t help but smile when he thinks about how a chance encounter with a queue on the way from work one afternoon changed everything. “Ali brought a good chance for me in my life,” he chuckles. “It’s really exciting for me to think about it. I was too young at the time, but now …”
A broken system
After decades of poverty and deprivation, one might expect Kinshasa to be a pit of despair, yet there is an energy among the Kinois that refuses to die. The famously good Congolese music is everywhere, from the throbbing clubs of the Matonge district to the tinny transistor radios of people in the street. People still have hope and poise and dignity, and they still laugh – a lot.
But while Kinshasa has been relatively quiet since the violence that marred elections in 2011, tensions are beginning to rise again. The current president Joseph Kabila, son of Laurent Kabila, who was assassinated in 2001 four years after overthrowing Mobutu, is due to stand down next year under Congolese rules limiting him to two terms. Kabila and his political allies are mulling plans for a possible constitutional change allowing him to serve a third term, something his critics and members of the international community oppose.
There were protests in Kinshasa and other DRC cities last month, and it’s safe to assume there will be more. There is a lot of discontentment across the social strata – but according to Trefon, it may be too much to expect people who are busy simply trying to survive to muster the strength and courage to tackle what amounts to a broken system.
Dancers perform in the streets of contemporary Kinshasa.
“People have the view: what’s the point in trying to get ahead, because there are so many negative forces bringing them down?” Trefon says. “So they can live with this sentiment of ‘survival without development’. It’s like the Congolese singer Koffi Olimide said: ‘If there’s a field of corn and one corn stalk is higher than the other, the wind is going to take it down.’”
At Ndolo airport, as the fierce midday sun starts to beat down on the hangar roof, Dieudonne Duabo paints a depressing picture of daily life for many Kinois. “Nothing is going up, it’s going down. Everything, every day. It’s true that we are free to express ourselves today – but people can’t eat. The majority of the population doesn’t have something to eat all day. There is food, but they have no money. So it’s very bad.
“Anywhere you go today, somebody tells you, ‘Ah, everything is OK, don’t you see that they are making roads, and they are building schools and universities, hospitals? So life is OK, there’s no problem.’ But who is going to put that food on his plate? Nobody. That’s why there’s no hope. People are crying all day.
“Every day, people with uniforms go to the poor population, taking away whatever they’ve made during the day and so on. I’d like them to go to people from the government, high-ranking people, generals, and take money from them. That would be OK. But not from people who are just fighting, fighting for their life. Every day, they are crying. Every night, problems – they can’t sleep. People just break in with grenades, anything. They break into somebody’s house and take everything there is.”
Ever since Ali came to town and inspired its people, Duabo has watched Kinshasa endure countless plagues and problems that would have brought other cities to their knees. Yet even now, he retains a glimmer of optimism. With characteristic Kinois aplomb, he believes the city that was once a shining star of Africa can somehow find its way back to prosperity.
“The future of Kinshasa depends on a new system,” Duabo says. “The current system has to go away. But people are very tolerant in this city, very tolerant. And with just a small change in a good direction, everything will go OK. Everything will work out.”
Thomas Yocum is a journalist and the author of Loba Lingala!, an English guide to the language of Kinshasa