Author: Katrien Pype, Associate professor, Institute for Anthropological Research in Africa, KU Leuven University (Belgium).
Fieldsite: Kinshasa, the capital city of DR Congo, home to more than 10 million inhabitants. Katrien Pype has been carrying out ethnographic research on technology cultures in Kinshasa. Her primary interests are in media production and circulation. She asks how people embed information and communication technologies in the construction of their lifeworlds.
On the 29th of March, so almost a week after the first confirmed COVID-19 death in Kinshasa, the capital city of DR Congo, the Congolese state significantly improved its communication infrastructures. People can now receive text messages with the latest updates issued by Dr Jean-Jacques Muyembe-Tamfum, Congo’s scientific head of the COVID-19 campaign himself – so the advertisement says.
The Ministry of Public Health has set up a new TV station, MinSanté TV, whose official mission is to inform Kinshasa’s inhabitants (more than 10 million) about the COVID-19 pandemic. The Ministry has also partnered with an international digital agency to build an accompanying website. However, both the TV station and the website seem to have difficulties reaching their intended audiences. The TV station is broadcast by a private enterprise that sells bundles of digital TV-stations. Even though the channel is said to be “en clair”, meaning easily accessible by everybody, none of my interlocutors had watched any broadcast yet, let alone searched for it. The website https://www.stopcoronavirusrdc.info/ only communicates in French, and not in any of the other national languages: Lingala, Swahili, ciLuba and kiKongo. Furthermore, the website seems to have copied the guidelines from the WHO without adapting these to Kinshasa’s social codes. For example, although it is mentioned that people should not shake hands, or kiss on the cheeks when greeting one another, no mention is made of the head bumping, which is part of salutation practices among Congolese men. Another, similar website https://rdc-trackcovid.com/, contains more up to date and scientific information, but also here, most content seems to be replicated from other websites and hardly any effort has been made to translate this to a “Kinois” public.
Unsurprisingly, Kinois (inhabitants of Kinshasa) search for news (sango) and information about COVID-19 via other channels. They navigate various media platforms; their active engagement with public radio and TV, and social media informs us about how political subjectivities are construed.
Watching the leader
On Wednesday, the 18th of March at 9.30 pm, Papy, a well-travelled man in his mid-forties, with a white-collar job in one of the international import/export companies in the city centre, posted a message (in French) on his Facebook wall: “The leader talks” (le chef parle). The post elicited only a handful of comments, mainly from Congolese living in the diaspora asking what “the leader” was saying. Papy responded to one of these comments saying that they needed to wait ‘until the leader has finished talking’. About an hour later, the same message appeared, only now in the past tense: “the leader has talked”.
This was one of several similar posts made by Kinois that Wednesday evening. “The leader” referred to the President, Félix Tshisekedi Tshilombo, whose voice Kinois had been eager awaiting. While reading Papy’s comment saying to wait until the leader had finished, I imagined people being glued to their radio or the television set in living rooms or in the open spaces in their compounds. During the speech, the president announced the closing down of churches, schools, universities, and bars in the capital city (despite some bars clandestins still being open), as well as the interdiction of funerals. The president was restricting Kinois’ movements in unprecedented ways. Papy’s attention and that of many others was taken away from the digital screen; the president’s voice and image sucked all attention. In a society where “big men” tend to have others speaking on their behalf (Yankah 1995), the voice of the president emanating from the classic media channels was uniting people in town.
Papy’s text ‘to wait’ not only showed Papy handling various media devices at the same time, but it also expressed a media hierarchy: first the TV set, and then the Internet. Such are media practices in Kinshasa, that for political communication, public radio and TV stations, and the occasional commercial radio station (especially TopCongo) receive priority.
It is helpful to use Gershon’s notion of “idioms of practice” to make sense of Papy’s prioritisation of mass media during the moment of the Presidential speech. For Gershon (2010), “idioms of practice” are morally or socially appropriate ways of using different media. These have been developed through time, and are the outcome of “collective discussions and shared practices” (2010: 6). Idioms of practice are “solutions” to a range of problems, both social and technological (2010: 7). Here, I mention three idioms of digital media practice, but of course many more exist.
Protecting against police violence
The choice to listen to the president does not necessarily speak about Kinois’ perceptions of classic mass media such as the public radio and TV stations being more “trustworthy”. On the contrary. At stake is Kinois’ desire to be informed by the president himself about his instructions. This first-hand information will inform Kinois how to behave in public spaces, and mainly how to avoid police violence.
The necessity of knowing what the official orders are in order to be able to protect themselves against police violence during COVID-19 times had quickly been made clear to me via a short digital clip that, also in late March, circulated on various media platforms showing about 6 policemen beating a taxi driver with sticks. Comments on the footage – clearly filmed with a smartphone, explained that policemen had pulled the taxi driver out of his car because there were too many passengers. The footage testified to the excessive violence several policemen enacted on the taxi driver and illustrated how the spectacle of violence generated what the policemen were contesting in the first place. The person who was filming the scene quickly moved on to show a small crowd that had assembled during the violent act. The policemen generated an event in which physical distancing was impossible.
The footage did not surprise me. After all, this event of police violence, now digitally archived, follows a long history of rule by physical violence and intimidation. Mbembe (2003) would call it “necropolitics”: leaders exert the right to expose their citizens to social and physical death, thus reducing people to precarious conditions of life. In Kinshasa, the police can be your friend but can be your assassin as well. COVID-19 has certainly not changed this, but it is exactly to prevent these kinds of violent encounters with the police that people want to know what the police’s main chief, the President, has ordered. In order to know how to move safely around town, people need to be aware of what the Commander-in-chief has publicly instructed the population and the various institutions to do.
A second idiom of digital media practice is the search for inconsistencies in political information. It follows the taken-for-granted assumption that the government covers up and hides “truths”. An example in a Messenger conversation I had with Flavie, a woman in her early thirties I have known for many years, on Sunday morning, the 19th of April. She messaged me over Whatsapp, informing me that she had learned that there were already a few contaminations in Lemba, the neighbourhood she lives in with her family. The cases were reported to be situated on the university campus. Similar rumours circulated around town, and, so she said during the ensuing Whatsapp phone conversation, these did not so much create anxiety but rather curiosity. Yet, so Flavie continued, something odd was going on … She had been following the news on TopCongo, one of the commercial radio stations, which in contrast to the public TV station, has a reputation of being rather trustworthy. The radio broadcasts a daily press conference from the country’s national scientists and the Ministry of Public Health, communicating numbers of new deaths, new infections, and people who have recovered. People talk about la liste (the list). These numbers also circulate on social media, and the public TV station RTNC publishes updates throughout the day. Flavie does not always have time, mobile data, or electricity to always keep up with the latest numbers. Yet, when possible, Flavie carefully compares the information communicated on the radio to numbers communicated elsewhere. So she told me during our Whatsapp conversation on the 14th of April, when she had heard, on the radio, talk about 288 cases in Kinshasa. However, a list issued by the government circulating on Whatsapp mentioned 307 infected cases, she confided in me. Multiple, conflicting lists thus circulate according to Flavie – confirming her suspicion that the Congolese government is not telling the truth. When Flavie reassured me that she was not mixing up lists of numbers on different dates, she confided that the list she had received over Whatsapp came from her brother-in-law, who worked at the Ministry of Public Health. It was unclear to her as to whether he had been allowed to let this list slip into the public domain, though that did not matter that much to her. More important was the question: where did the difference come from? Flavie was not so much worried about a larger spread of the virus, rather, she expressed suspicion about a cover-up, and thus a lack of trust in the truthfulness of official communications.
Involving the diaspora
The third idiom of digital media practice is a consistent reaching out to the Congolese diaspora in order to get additional political information. This practice is closely related to the second one, but it plays out on a global scale. The subtext here is that the Congolese diaspora knows more. It is assumed that the Congolese political elite has a more immediate connection with the diaspora (libanda, “outside”) than with those on the national territory.
On Friday the 18th of April, another presidential speech was announced. The president was going to inform Kinois about a possible extension of the closing off of Gombe, the city centre, and eventually the adjacent municipalities. For more than a week now, one has needed a special permit to be able to enter this area. It is the area with most infections. That evening, Jolie, a young woman in her early twenties and eager to know whether she was still going to be able to stroll in the street during the next few days, had been waiting in front of the TV in the living room since 7.30 pm, anticipating new information. To her frustration, the public broadcaster only showed loops of the newscast, and at 9.30 pm, Jolie withdrew to her room. The president had not spoken. The morning after, Jolie asked me via Messenger whether I could confirm the rumours about the extensions of the lockdown. “He didn’t come on television. We don’t know why”, Jolie wrote. Surely, I was not the only person that Jolie reached out to in order to gain trustworthy information. But, surely as well, she was mainly looking for confirmation among people in the diaspora. Due to a long history of censorship, Kinois expect that their leaders do not tell them the full truth.
Sometimes people address questions for verification on Facebook themselves. A Facebook post posted by Fabrice, one of Flavie’s friends from church is particularly illustrative. The meme says: “it seems that food is distributed in our houses …??? So says a friend who lives in Belgium. Our media are saying this”.
Both examples express an experience of “knowing less than those abroad”. While confusion and uncertainty reign in Kinshasa. The internet becomes a space to gain additional confirmation mediated by people in the diaspora. This reliance on official information that comes from far away is nothing less than a critique on contemporary political leadership, which is indirectly accused of not informing its citizens properly.
The three idioms of digital media practice (protecting against police violence; comparing media content; involving the diaspora for confirmation) emerge out of a particular political media ideology. In Kinshasa, the toile is the shadow, the street side of the communication circuit. It is there that opinions, personal reflections, remediations, mockery and jokes circulate. These stories find meaning in their relation to the formal sango (news), communicated on media channels owned or approved by the government. “News” thus does not so much pertain to the objective, factual “truth”, but rather to information approved by leaders. Kinois’ interest in “COVID-19 sango” is fundamental to their political subjectivity. Sango from the government helps Kinois to navigate their everyday life, orients them in taking risks (such as going to a clandestine bar), and in knowing how to deal with the police. The digital space is a back-up channel that complements official information coming from the government, or allows one to get this information second hand, as Jolie tried to do through me, and Fabrice via his Facebook contacts.
Gershon, I. 2010. The Breakup 2.0. Disconnecting over New Media. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Mbembe, A. 2003. “Necropolitics”. Public Culture. 15 (1): 11–40.
Yankah, K. 1995. Speaking for the Chief: Okyeame and the Politics of Akan Royal Oratory. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.