Pandemics and the paradoxes of life stories in Kikwit

Published on 13 April 2022

Jeremy Allouche

Professorial Fellow

Dieunedort Wandji

Research Officer

Gauthier Marchais

Research Fellow

Project Co-Investigator, Institut national des Arts, DRC

Senior Researcher, Institut National des Arts, DRC

Senior Researcher, Institut National des Arts

Local communities in Kikwit, Democratic Republic of the Congo, have long endured the ravages of local ravines, without government assistance. Their political marginalisation and distrust of the central government mean that state-led Covid-19 pandemic response are failing in the area.

The historical, political and cultural significance of Kikwit

The town of Kikwit in the new province of Kwilu is known for many reasons. Politically, it goes down in the annals of African history as one of the bastions of Congolese resistance with the Pende revolt in the early nineteen thirties. It is also known as a mythical place close to where the Lumumbist rebellion was reorganised under the leadership of Pierre Mulele in the 1960s, after the assassination of the Congolese independence leader Patrice Emery Lumumba.

Kikwit is also depicted as an important cultural bastion with King Kester Emeneya, an internationally renowned artist-musician, leader of the Victoria Eleison Orchestra, and flamboyantly sharp dresser. During his lifetime, King Kester claimed to be the father of a musical revolution that brought Congolese rumba into the electronic era, turning the usual orchestration of modern Congolese music upside down.

On an international scale, Kikwit conjures up other memories, emotions and images. Here, its historical and cultural charisma gives way to the tremors of the Ebola haemorrhagic fever that struck the city in 1995. However, lessons learned from Ebola appear to be lost in Kikwit, largely overridden by a ‘politics of exclusion’, marginalisaton and a lack of trust in central government.

Marginalisation and trust in epidemic and pandemic response

For a long time, the central government in Kinshasa has been weary of dissenting political elites from Kwilu Province, taking steps to exclude or at least restrict these elites from political power. Such exclusion, however, has had detrimental effects on the people of Kikwit. Rose Mangala, a primary school teacher whose family home was lost to the city-wide ravine problem, has been unable to get support from the local authorities to relocate. Deemed an issue for central government, the colossal funding needed to address the ravines issue has never been forthcoming – despite the fact that the ravines have been unearthing dead bodies from the Ebola cemetery, and thus threatening public health.

Rose is not a lone case, in fact her entire community lost their homes. The failure of central government to respond has created mistrust among the Kikwit people, who feel they are being punished because of their historical association to revolutionary protest.

Unsurprisingly, when the central government directed funds to the Covid-19 pandemic response in Kikwit, this was met with suspicion. For the vast majority of the population, the coronavirus is a pure and simple invention, or  a disease of the ‘mindélé’ (whites). Some revivalist churches even preach that the ‘whites’ are using the virus and vaccines to eliminate as many blacks and Congolese as possible. The inference in Kikwit is that the central government views Kikwitese as expendable.

Resourcefulness as a form of resilience

The example above is one of many that demonstrates the failure of the government to create a modern welfare state. However, distrust of central government has played a major role and is felt across the wider demographic, young and old. Chaparon Mungunza, for example, is a 17-year-old, part-time employee in a Kikwit restaurant and a seasonal agricultural worker. He is committed to protecting himself against Covid-19 using traditional therapies. He is convinced of the effectiveness of the natural substances recommended by the healers: boiled mango leaves, mupeshi-peshi (a medicinal plant) , tangawishi (a type of ginger).  With limited access to medical care, it is not surprising that Chaparon is being resourceful, creating his own (perhaps naïve) path to resilience. In fact, Article 15 of the Congolese Constitution encourages a culture of resourcefulness.

However, these life stories show the distress that arises from incomprehension, exclusion and neglect by the public authorities. Under such conditions of political exclusion and marginalisation, rumours can take hold and preclude any genuine attempts at pandemic response. Indeed, when it comes to vulnerability assessments, there seems to be a double standard applied by the government, seen in the inertia in acting in Kikwit regarding the ravine and its prompt investment in the pandemic response. Resilience as understood by the central government in Kinshasa therefore confronts and conflicts with the local paths to resilience deemed more adequate by the communities in Kikwit.

The views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IDS.

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