Domesticating social distancing in ‘Digital Kinshasa’
Author: Katrien Pype, associate professor, Institute for Anthropological Research in Africa, KU Leuven University (Belgium). She can be contacted at katrien.pype (a) kuleuven.be
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 18th of March 2020, the Congolese President Félix Tshisekedi announced a state of sanitary emergency for the national territory. On the 23rd of April, Parliament prolonged this for another fortnight. During this state of emergency, most social and economic activities have been suspended or should be reduced. All schools, universities, religious buildings, bars, nightclubs, and sports clubs are closed; and meetings are limited to a maximum of 20 participants. People are requested to follow the WHO guidelines of “distance sociale” familiar to most people around the world by now: coughing or sneezing should be done in the elbow, or in a disposable handkerchief, and people should keep a distance of about 1,5 meters away from others. The government asked people to stay at home (French “confinement”, Lingala “fanda na ndako”) as much as possible, and certainly as soon as one feels flu-like symptoms. Any Covid-19 infected person confirmed by a medical test in a hospital is supposed to self-quarantine at home and is – so it is proposed – monitored by employees of the riposte (medical unit treating COVID-19 infections).
Following the President’s speech in mid-March, Kinshasa’s 24 municipalities went into a partial lockdown, combined with a curfew from 7 pm until 5 am. On the 4th of April however, the measurements were tightened for one small part of town, Gombe, the municipality housing major state buildings, embassies, headquarters of NGO and international organizations, as well as the city’s largest market. Gombe is the so-called political heart of DR Congo and is very much an expat and elite community. It is here that the first COVID-19 infections were reported, thus very much establishing COVID-19 as an affliction hitting the expat community and the Congolese cosmopolitan elite. Gombe went into full lockdown, meaning that supermarkets and banks were also closed. Only those with a special badge issued by the city hall could enter Gombe.
Since the 20th of April, when the curfew was lifted all over town, people are obliged to wear a cache-nez (mouth mask, literally “something that hides the nose) when leaving their compound. Failure to comply can lead to a fine of 5.000 FC. Some legal experts argue that this decision is illegal, especially given the fact that the government does not help the population obtain the mouth mask.
Since the 24th of April, Gombe’s strict lockdown has been loosened to a partial lockdown, meaning that Gombe’s residents are able to freely move around in their municipality, although when they want to visit another municipality, they need to take their badge along, in order to be able to re-enter. Anyone living elsewhere can now easily visit Gombe’s supermarkets and banks as well.
Decisions like these have drastic consequences for people’s livelihoods, their daily rhythms, and the unfolding of their social lives. The “stay at home” policy pushes people into prolonged states of boredom in the house. Most people in Kinshasa share a living space with others and it is indeed very rare that one lives on his or her own. While in “normal times”, the compound turns into an almost exclusively female space during daytime, now teenage and adolescent boys and their fathers spend much more time at home than before. This has led to what some local observers call “promiscuité”, not necessarily referring to sexual harassment and violence (although this has been reported as well), but rather speaking about the socially undesired mingling of generations and genders in the domestic space.
Probably unsurprisingly, some bars continue to serve customers, but do this secretly (kuzu, “hidden, clandestine bars”); I have heard about Pentecostal leaders organising prayer gatherings, though they are careful enough to do this out of sight, and reduce the volume when people start praying in tongues or singing in worship. There is loud grudging and mumbling about nzala (hunger) and mpiaka (poverty) due to the restrictions. Yet, the government’s decisions about the (partial) lockdown and curfew have been largely respected by the majority of Kinshasa’s population.
I do not want to speculate about the grounds on which people are making these huge efforts to stay at home. Rather, for the purpose of this blog, which asks about “online responses to social isolation”, I point at two ways in which the policy of social isolation has been appropriated, and brought closer to Kinois (<Kinshasa) lifeworlds. The first is situated on a semantic level, and shows how new meanings are given to the global COVID-19 vocabulary, situating the pandemic in local political culture and socio-economic difference; the second form of domestication brings us into the religious realm. The social distancing policy is readily inserted in a, for many Kinois very familiar, Pentecostal Christian ideology, which proclaims distance from “sinful others”. All of these are practices of “sociation”, of active group formation online, “light community building” (Blommaert (2018: 68), drawing on socio-economic realities, and religious registers.
Appropriating the COVID-19 lexicon
Online, Kinois versions of the French idioms of coronavirus and covid-19 have emerged. In “Digital Kinshasa”, as I call the electronic space in which people who identify as Kinois (inhabitants of Kinshasa) exchange content about Kinois life, linguistic innovations circulate, are explained, and are archived. Social media thus become living dictionaries, helping people to add new idioms to the Covid-19 dictionary, and producing meta-language about COVID-19 vocabulary. Every new social phenomenon sparks linguistic creativity. This is not different in COVID-19 times.
KiKinois, or slang Lingala, boasts several neologies to indicate the virus: colonel, corovis, gorovirus, coro, kulaviris, colona, and corocoro. Obviously, these words play with sound, and could be called homonyms of the global idioms of corona and covid. Yet, each one of these quite literally resonate with other domains of Kinois lifeworld. In particular, three domains seem to be singled out: the army (colonel), male sexuality (gorovirus, “goro” is slang for “penis”), and juvenile delinquency: kulavirus and colona sound like kuluna, male street gangs that in Kinshasa’s recent history (in particular from the mid-2000s to mid-2010s) sowed terror and fear in various areas of the capital city. Among these kuluna boys, coro and corocoro denote “a bad person”, someone on whom they cannot rely.
These linguistic innovations situate the local experience of the pandemic within a familiar world of uncertainty and physical threat. Both the army and the kuluna boys are well-known instigators of fear and uncertainty among Kinshasa’s population, and incite dispersal when people spot them; people literally flee when they perceive groups of kuluna marching to a fight, or when soldiers get out of their jeeps; the Congolese army has the sad reputation of mistreating the population rather than protecting them.
Covid-19 itself has been unpacked as an explanation for the dire recent political past:
So wrote Dona, a teacher, in his early twenties on March 19 on his Facebook wall: CO derives from Congo; VI=life; D= difficult, -19= for 19 years. This explanation makes a clear connection between the pandemic and the former political regime. 19 years ago, the previous president, Joseph Kabila, came to power in 2001. He is rumoured to still be very much in charge of the current government (which came to power in January 2019). The majority of Kinshasa’s inhabitants have been dissatisfied with his regime, not least because they consider him to be a foreigner, of Rwandan or Tanzanian origin, not speaking their language, and not behaving as a leader should. COVID-19, the scientific name of the virus, which has become a global idiolect, appears to hide a message to the Congolese, uncovering a hidden connection between the recent political past and the present crisis. It is identified as part of a secret language, a code that needs to be broken, and that can enlighten the Congolese. Thus, added Dona in at the end of his explanation: “this is the whole point of the confinement; we are gaining new insights, aren’t we?”. The comment elicited a lot of laughter, and agreement, as well as convivial applause for his inventiveness.
While the formal news media commonly use the French loan word “confinement” to denote the drastic restriction of economic activities and people’s mobility, also here, Kinois have transformed the French word, and localised it. Two slang idioms stand out: système ya coffre and kofinana.
Système ya coffre evokes the image of being put in a trunk, and hardly having any breathing and moving space; kofinana plays with the existing Lingala verb kofinana, which means being cramped; to be stuck; to be trapped. None of these communicates the very first meaning of “confinement,” i.e. to hold within a location; rather both convey one of the consequences of having to stay at home. It conjures up having to stay with too many people in the same space, and the verb thus speaks more about Kinois’ housing conditions than about the restriction of movement.
The linguistic creativity is socially relevant. The political elite addresses the national public mainly in French, a “foreign language”. Yet, the KiKinois translations amplify a social distance between the political elite and the majority of Kinshasa’s population. With the linguistic adulterations, Kinois emphasize a difference in lifestyle. They convey the idea that the political elite may think that the worst about the confinement is the curtailing of people’s movements; but that in practice, for “us”, the Kinois (who prefer to speak KiKinois rather than French), it means we are forced to amass in the compound. “How do people live these days, if you are eight to a house, and you are living in a “chambre-salon” (a house with one bedroom and a living room)?” Matshombe, a married mother of three in her mid-thirties, asked rhetorically.
Kofinana has also gained a second signification: to continuously accumulate or add up numbers. In this semantic extension, kofinana denotes the incessant addition of numbers to “the list” of COVID-19 contaminations, deaths, and healed patients which is updated daily. On the 30th of April, the official numbers said: 500 contaminations; 31 deaths; 65 recovered. On public television, these numbers are constantly on display; they circulate on social media and are read out on radio stations. Every day, these numbers increase. Yet, so Matshombe doubted: “where are the dead bodies? They have never shown these! Who has seen any coffin?”. Matshombe’s question echoed a rumour that I have heard several times since the beginning of COVID-19 in Kinshasa: the pandemic is interpreted as a concoction serving the political establishment. It has been argued that the COVID-19 is just one more health crisis abused by Congolese political leaders in order to pocket funds donated by international organisations, very much like they do with – as popular parlance goes, with the Ebola and HIV crisis. This meaning of kofinana suggests that the government is lying, and is thus one more assertion of the lack of trust in the government.
The word kofinana has become so popular that it has generated various new forms of digispeak. Examples are the hashtag #kofinana; and idiomatic expressions such as en mode kofinana (living a confined life) and kofinana toujours (still in confinement – playing with a formula that is used to express loyalty to a person/group/value etc.). These idioms accompany photographs of people staying at home, memes expressing boredom but also political critique, and comments such posts.
Yet, a university professor in linguistics, of Congolese origin, and living in Brussels for over two decades, published a correction of the usage of kofinana on his Facebook wall on March 31.
“confinement means getting together in the same place, in order to be far away from other people.
Confinement is not being cramped.
Confinement in Lingala is botangwi
to confine: kotangola
to confine oneself: kotangwa”
The post elicited numerous reactions, in which people engaged in meta-talk. One man commented that the Lingala word kofinana evokes a mental and acoustic image of confinement, which he appreciated; while someone else argued that the professor’s correction had simply arrived too late, and everybody is already used to kofinana.
These digital practices of explaining and commenting on words, idioms and phrases signify an appropriation of the global COVID-19 lexicon. Social media users such as Dona and his Facebook friends are literally creating a common language, trying to represent their experiences in their own terms. The correction that the professor, living in Belgium, tried to make while reminding his Facebook contacts about the “right” translations of kofinana and confinement is particularly insightful as this gesture showed that he is quite literally excluded from the Kinois COVID-19 experience. He literally does not share their language. He does not understand the relevance of the semantic transformations of kofinana.
So, beyond evidencing that COVID-19 is a lived experience, the meta-language about the coronavirus in “Digital Kinshasa” conveys a shared sense of suffering and mistrust, and pitches the Kinois living in the non-elite municipalities against the political establishment and others who do not share their living conditions.
Christianising COVID-19 restrictions
This second section delves into the religious sphere. Like in many other African cities, religion informs social life in Kinshasa. Christianity (in its various denominations) is arguably the dominant religious tradition, although the Muslim community is growing; and there are a few Hindu and Jewish groups, mainly among the expat communities. Of course, various other syncretic religions, which draw on local and some also on foreign mystical traditions thrive in Kinshasa as well, although they seem to be less present in the public sphere.
The city boasts numerous Christian churches and an increasing number of mosques. Pentecostal-Charismatic churches are known for turning their loudspeakers towards the street as a way of pulling passers-by in. The neighbours living next to these churches say that the quality of their life ànd sleep has significantly improved since there are no vigils or late-evening prayer gatherings.
Since the declaration of a state of sanitary emergency, all religious meetings have been forbidden in Kinshasa. Yet that does not mean that religious leaders are excluded from the effort to banish COVID-19. Quite on the contrary. President Tshisekedi has requested the religious leaders to unite in their prayers and to solicit God’s mercy for the nation. Christians can resort to religious TV and radio stations, and prayer chat groups. Obviously, the digital religiosity did not begin with the COVID-19 crisis, but it has gained a national dimension after this political request. Pitshou, a Muslim man in his early thirties, wrote me over Messenger that ‘he prays at home, but doesn’t use the smartphone to pray as the Prophet did not have this utensil either.’ The growing Muslim community in Kinshasa has also started the Ramadan during the state of emergency.
Matshombe, a born-again Christian herself, cannot attend the weekly prayer gatherings at her church, so now she follows the religious instructions and advice on her pastor’s television channel, and worships online more than ever. Social media users like Matshombe mobilise the digital as a space for spiritual fulfilment: prayers are posted, read out while scrolling through chat groups; and religious leaders are contacted online. These voice religious interpretations of the COVID-19 crisis, provide spiritual advice to their contacts and readily frame the pandemic within a spiritual battle between the devil and the holy spirit (see Kirby et al. 2020 for a discussion of Pentecostals’ interpretations of COVID-19 elsewhere on the continent). One example is Pastor Kasongo, an upcoming young Pentecostal pastor, who began preaching three years ago on buses travelling from the outskirts of town to the big market in the city centre. Since a few years ago, and for a few hours a week, he rents space in a compound in Ndjili, one of Kinshasa’s overcrowded municipalities. These days, he invests much more time in his Facebook communication, as his social media platforms evidence. His Facebook wall contains messages of encouragement, boosting people’s morale, and interpreting the pandemic in a Pentecostal spiritual scheme. In a post published on April 10, he asks his contacts “JUST SAY AMEN, without any further comment. BECAUSE ONLY GOD CAN PROTECT US FROM THIS DEADLY PLAGUE OF THE CORONA VIRUS. Anyone who remains in the house of the Almighty is sheltered by the Almighty. May the eternal God be our refuge and our strength here on earth. #pastor’s name”
The post is followed by a string of comments of his followers who obediently have only written the word “Amen”. In other publications, the pastor summons his contacts to comply with the WHO guidelines of social distancing, while confirming the overall power of the Christian God.
Christians, so not only born-agains, but equally Catholics and Protestants, eagerly match the COVID-19 crisis with the Christian ideology. For Matshombe, the deceleration of life imposed by COVID-19 provides all of us the time to reflect upon our lifestyles, and to think about whether we are really “walking with Jesus”. The following text message, received from a Congolese elderly politician, sent via Whatsapp, is entitled “spiritual confinement for a Christian”. The message literally translates the social distancing rules into a Christian spiritual frame, while referring to Biblical verses.
*Do not wash your heart with soap but with Jesus’ blood (Hebrews 9:22);
*Respect a social distance towards any sin (2 Timothy 2:19);
*Avoid meeting up with sinners (Psalms 1: 1-3);
*Preserve your spirit from any infection coming from the sneezing of any sin and of hate (2 Corinthians 1 0v5-6);
*Do not hold hands with anyone, this would mean abomination of the hand (Romans 2:22);
*Do not embrace heresy and false teachings (1 Timothy 4:1-3);
*For your security, do always wear a helmet of salvation and the sword of the spirit which is nothing else than the word of God (Ephesians 6:17);
*If you observe on yourself any symptom of sin, then call immediately 2 Chronicles 7:14, the line of support in prayer;
*Do not forget to boost your spiritual immunity system by your faith and the power of the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 6:18) May God bless you abundantly.”
Messages like these provide a spiritual foundation to the reorganisation of social life in times of COVID-19, and encourage people to enact the social distancing. In Christian language as the above, the virus is not explicitly mentioned; rather the virus is here identified as “the sin”. Even though the politician is a Catholic Christian, the text message he forwarded me contains a play on the social distancing that Pentecostals propagate to any (new) Christian: born-again Christians “make a break with the past” (Meyer 1998), meaning they distance themselves from non-Christians because these can easily lead Christians astray. The social distancing that is advocated in Pentecostalism anyway is explained as a strategy to preserve one’s spiritual health. Born-again Christians hear time and again that the protection of their soul depends to a large extent on a “pure” Christian social environment (Pype 2011).
Dona’s post, and the ensuing comments, illustrate how the toile (the internet canvas) serves as a space in which words and their meanings are explored, negotiated, and assessed. Individual posters may agree or disagree with the offered explanations, though they all partake in a collective effort to literally make sense of these unprecedented times and impositions on their social life, and find the appropriate words to describe these.
There is also a lot of boundary-making going on in these digital musings. The meta-language of COVID-19 on Kinois’ social media platforms connects certain social media users with one another through the participation in the Kinois understanding of kofinana, while excluding others who do not share that experience and do not speak the same language.
Born-again Christians as well domesticate the restrictions of physical distancing and social isolation. By literally matching the language of protection against the virus with Christian advice on how to stay spiritually safe, meaning keeping distance from sinful others, COVID-19 social isolation is embedded within a religious universe. This does not disrupt but rather confirms the Pentecostal narrative of spiritual warfare, and thus thrives on symbolic strategies of boundary making that are familiar to many Kinois.
The domestication of “social distancing” in “Digital Kinshasa” thus plays out on two levels: on the one hand, there is a linguistic domestication going on, a vernacularisation of the COVID-19 lexicon going on. Words and idioms of this pandemic borrowed from French are translated into KiKinois, and associated with certain spheres of Kinois life, mainly the army and the juvenile street gangs. They are also inserted within religious narratives. Second, the boundaries between those who are safe and those from who to take a distance/a distance are felt, and are connected to already well-known procedures of social and religious differentiation, under which the COVID-19 distancing is subsumed.
Blommaert, J. 2018. Durkheim and the Internet. London/New York: Bloomsbury Academic.
Kirby, B., J. Taru, and T. Chimbidzikai (2020). Pentecostals and the spiritual war against coronavirus in Africa. The Conversation; April 30 2020. Last consulted May 2 2020.
Meyer, B. (1998). ‘Make a Complete Break With the Past.’ Memory and Post-Colonial Modernity in Ghanaian Pentecostalist Discourse. Journal of Religion in Africa, 28 (3), 316-349.
Pype, K. (2011). Confession cum Deliverance : In/Dividuality of the Subject among Kinshasa’s Born-Again Christians. Journal of Religion in Africa, 41 (3), 280-310.
 All names used here are pseudonyms.