Consolation, Compassion, and the Digital during COVID-19 in Kinshasa
Author: Katrien Pype, associate professor, Institute for Anthropological Research in Africa, KU Leuven University (Belgium). She can be contacted at katrien.pype (at) kuleuven.be
Fieldsite: Kinshasa, the capital city of DR Congo, is 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. The material has been collected via remote ethnography (Postill 2016), following public and private lists and publications on Facebook, Instagram, Whatsapp and YouTube, and privately interacting with individuals over Messenger and WhatsApp. The data are limited to conversations carried out from her flat in Brussels between mid-March and early May 2020, while living under a loose lockdown and enjoying the comfort of a stable internet connection on various digital devices. She continued interacting with friends in Kinshasa over various electronic platforms just as she normally does in between periods of field research in Kinshasa. All names used here are pseudonyms.
In this contribution, I want to foreground the centrality of mawa in my interlocutors’ digital engagement during the (partial) lockdown in Kinshasa. The material is limited to the period between the 18th of March and early May 2020. It has proven to be very difficult to follow the lockdown measures in Gombe, the only municipality of Kinshasa that was put under a full lockdown. Journalists reported that it was especially politicians who did not respect the rules of access and social distancing. Social gatherings were limited to 20 people, which seemed to be fairly easy to follow. Most challenging was the obligation to maintain a distance in the public space, such as at markets, in squares and when waiting for public transport. Yet on the 20th of April, when wearing face masks became compulsory, social and economic life eased somehow.
In all my (electronic) conversations with Kinois during that one month and a half, the Lingala word mawa came up as an organising principle. Mawa is one of the keywords in the dictionary of Kinois sociality. Together with mpasi (pain, suffering), mawa evokes the social and epistemological crisis that Kinois have been experiencing for decades.
Mawa can express an emotion, an experience of a personal condition – such as sorrow, grief, and anxiety; yet, mawa can also reference a more social, intersubjective affect, such as pity and compassion; mawa has a spiritual meaning as well, it denotes mercy, an action from spiritual agents. All three layers of mawa appeared in my online interactions with Kinois residents about the digital during COVID-19, albeit in different ways. Here, I will not address the third meaning.
All in all, mawa references a shared experience which pushes people to reach out to others, either to request for help or to offer support. Mawa thus reduces social distance; it is the basis of urban conviviality (see Nyamnjoh and Brudvig 2014 on conviviality in urban Africa). Ozanga mawa? (“don’t you have any compassion?), is one of the recurrent questions expressed when someone fails to assist someone in need, in a final effort to get the requested support.
Questions that emerge are: how does mawa find expression in these times of enforced social distancing? And, in what ways is mawa a socially productive affect in Kinois’ digital practices?
I discuss two types of responses to this utterly disruptive moment of COVID-19 that Kinois internet users engage in: going online to find consolation and chase boredom, and sharing wi-fi connectivity. Both illustrate how the experience of mawa intertwines with the digital, while also expressing poignantly how COVID-19 is lived in Kinois’ houses, and, maybe more importantly, in Kinois’ minds and hearts.
1. Chasing loneliness and boredom
On Monday the 27th of April, around 10 am, I saw that Matshombe was online on Messenger. I sent her greetings and she texted me back that she was still lying on her mother’s bed, with her newborn baby lying next to her. The baby, a prematurely born boy, had been crying the whole night, and he was finally sleeping. She was online, because “Fcb me console”, “Facebook offers consolation”, she wrote. Matshombe explained that in these times of social distancing, she would be often online just to feel closer to others. Online conversations with contacts over Whatsapp and Messenger reduced her uncertainty and fear for a while.
In Kinshasa, digital consolation is easily accessible with the ‘free Facebook’ feature, a type of data plan that provides unlimited access to Facebook, which Facebook introduced in a limited number of countries, mainly “in markets where internet access may be less affordable”. With this option, Facebook users can communicate over Messenger and Facebook without consuming mobile data and have access to “content on things like news, employment, health, education and local information”. They can exchange text messages and static emojis, but they cannot see photographs, memes, gifs or other audio- and visual content. “Facebook gratuit” provides for Matshombe and many other Kinois alike, daily relief, even though she only has partial access to the mobile app. There is some irony here: in periods of partial confinement in town, Matshombe relies on partial access to one of the world’s largest social media platforms.
Matshombe’s active search for emotional proximity online was not a new practice. Ever since she had received her first smartphone, a Blackberry at the time, Matshombe has resorted to the smartphone in order to deal with isolation. In the last ten years, Matshombe had experienced periods of social distancing, so she reminded me. Some of these had been imposed by the church. As a born-again Christian, Matshombe from time to time participates in prayer camps, which take her away from home for a few days. She then sleeps in the church or in another venue singled out for intense prayer activity and meditation; during breaks in between spiritual activities, Matshombe then looks for distraction online.
Social codes of “being a good housewife” have forced her to cancel her visits to friends and work as well. In the months preceding their marriage, Matshombe’s husband made it clear that he wanted her to quit her job and stay at home. She complied with these rules, though found the boredom of sitting alone at home very difficult (see also Gilbert 2018 for a case study of young women, boredom and mobile phone interactions in Nigerian Calabar). It was especially during the first years of the marriage, when the couple only had one child, that Matshombe suffered from social isolation at home. She had longed for a subscription to satellite television, which her husband, unfortunately, could not afford. Still, in order to be the “respectable wife”, she would only move between their house, the market, her mother’s house, and the church. During the lonely moments in between shopping for food, preparing her husband’s meal, and waiting for his arrival (often late in the evening), Facebook and other social media became her main ways of killing time and chasing loneliness.
Luckily, Matshombe could bend the wale custom, a caring practice that requires that a new mother and her baby are nursed by her (classificatory) mother in the first months after childbirth. In many families, the (classificatory) mother moves into the house of the married daughter, and takes over household tasks, while initiating her daughter in the skills of mothering. Yet, as Matshombe’s mother shares her rather spacious compound with her only son, Matshombe has spent the initial three months after each of the three childbirths at her mother’s house. And now, when she learned mid-March that a partial lockdown was going to be announced, she moved back in with her mother and brother. “I’m in an extended wale (wale prolongée)”, she joked via Messenger. In the meantime, Matshombe’s mother enjoys the company of her grandchildren. In her free moments, or when waking while the baby can’t sleep, Matshombe reaches out to others via social media, trying to momentarily escape this new social isolation.
While Matshombe’s story details the religious and social rules that impose social distancing on her as a married Christian mother, politics have also enforced physical and social distancing on Kinshasa’s residents at various times. Curfews are a characteristic of postcolonial Zairian and Congolese governance; “dead city days” (ville morte) are well-known practices of political resistance, often organised by the civil society. During such days, shops and schools are closed and hardly any economic activity goes on. The young take to the streets to protest; often leading to violent confrontations with the police and the army. Others, especially the elderly and children, stay at home. During various periods of fieldwork in Kinshasa, I have spent many days locked in the house of my host family because of ville morte, while following on television and online reports about protests marches, waiting until protestors would come in the evening and tell me about their day. In addition, the lack of an adequate judicial system also pushes people to “disappear” for a few days, weeks, months, until the anger of the other party has ceased. In order to avoid retaliation after a car accident, theft, fight with serious injuries, etc. people often hide, either with friends or relatives elsewhere in Kinshasa, in the provinces, or even abroad. They only return after a few months, once the dust has settled.
This sense of continuity or familiarity with social isolation is significant. In the Global North, geeks and nerds have been posting digital messages jokingly saying that the lockdown does not seem to change their rhythm, thus evoking the stereotype of geeks as being socially isolated anyways. In a city such as Kinshasa, commonly portrayed as one of the largest metropoles of the African continent and discussed in the context of being “overpopulated”, social distancing and isolation are part and parcel of urban life, familiar to many, despite Kinshasa’s overcrowded compounds. One could argue that the (partial) lockdown has exposed this paradox of Kinois social life.
While physical and social distancing may be a familiar experience to many Kinois – for a various number of reasons- not all Kinois spend their time under lockdown in the same way. Searching for comfort online and chasing away the boredom via digital communication seems to be very much a strategy used by the generations of the youth and young adults in order to cope with social distance. After all, Matshombe’s own mother does not need social media or the internet for comfort. Rather, “she is consoled by her grandchildren! Why would she need to be online?”, Matshombe exclaimed when I asked whether her mother borrowed Matshombe’s smartphone from time to time.
2. Compassion and the sharing of internet access
Mid-April, Flavie, a single mother with three children, told me that “the internet” had already had one positive effect on her life since COVID-19: it had brought her closer to her neighbour. Living in one of the houses her father bought more than a decade ago, Flavie is lucky she does not have to spend any money on rent. Yet, costs for food, school fees, and medical treatments for her children are her daily worries. As I describe elsewhere (Pype 2020), Flavie relies to a large extent on flirtatious and sexual relationships with men in order to make ends meet. During these COVID-19 times, most of her “husbands from Facebook” (mibali ya face), many of which live in the diaspora, are unable to help her via money transfer agencies, as their work and mobility are restricted as well. In addition, following the total lockdown of Gombe, where several other sugar daddies reside, Flavie is close to a literal experience of “confinement of hunger and poverty” (confinement ya nzala na mpiaka). This idiom is often evoked by Kinois to critique the government’s decision for the partial lockdown and curfew, especially amidst a pandemic in which Kinois distrust the government (see my post on “spells of moral panic and flashes of pride”). When mid-April, I asked Flavie how she was able to feed her children, she confided “I have no idea. I’m asking myself the same question. It is a miracle”.
Flavie’s house was built by colonial urban planners during the 1950s. Terraced two-floor buildings were designed to house nuclear families of the nearby university. The confinement of the nuclear family – which meant a social distancing from the extended family ànd from street life – was also part of the design of the compound. A gate separates the street and a small courtyard, thus ensuring privacy and preventing any uninvited access or glancing inside.
Yet, Flavie’s living conditions are far removed from the lifestyle the colonial designers imagined. Since she separated from her children’s father, she and her children’s survival rely to a large extent on social and physical intimacy. In Flavie’s world, flattery and sex get easily exchanged for financial assistance, free medical check-ups and fun moments in bars and nightclubs.
Much to Flavie’s surprise, this confinement, and in particular the desire to be online, has brought her closer to her bachelor neighbour, a man in his fifties. Flavie doesn’t know much about him and could only tell me that he has moved in with his older brother about a year ago and is engaged to a Congolese woman living in Belgium. Yet when Flavie told him that she hardly has any distraction nowadays, especially since she lacks the funds to replace her broken TV set, he kindly offered her access to his mobile data. Usually, Flavie can afford the 1GB a day for 1US – cheaper internet plans that various telephone companies in DR Congo have been providing for a few years now; but this has become more difficult since the COVID-19 pandemic. So, now, when Flavie craves for consolation online beyond Facebook gratuit, she merely needs to signal this to her neighbour. For a few weeks now, when Flavie anticipates that the next day she will not have credit to purchase mobile data, she sends her neighbour a text message. He arrives the next day and turns his mobile phone into a hotspot, allowing her to consume his mobile data by browsing the internet on her own smartphone. Often, he spends a whole day on one of the plastic chairs in Flavie’s living room. “He just sits there, chatting on his phone, or from time to time talking to me or the children,” so Flavie told me.
For Flavie to get absorbed in her digital encounters, her neighbour needs to be close by. “Of course the wi-fi signal doesn’t travel through the walls! His phone and mine need to be in close proximity to one another. Otherwise, it doesn’t work”, she explained when I asked whether he really needed to come to her house. The sharing of the internet connection requires physical proximity, which produces new clusters. Yet, these clusters have their own forms of sociality: people are mainly engaged in their own, personal digital interactions. “He leaves when I think I have finished my conversations. When he’s gone, then I revert to Facebook gratuit,” Flavie added.
This story is particularly meaningful because Flavie had only started greeting the neighbour around New Year. So, even though he had been living in Flavie’s vicinity for a while, the relationship had been very superficial and contact was minimal. It was only by early April, during the COVID-19 lockdown, that Flavie’s neighbour became a reliable provider of internet access, deepening their relationship. Access to the internet is thus one of these scarce resources which produce new social worlds.
For Dadou, an unmarried father in his late twenties living with his parents and siblings, wi-fi solidarity has not so much established new ties, rather, it has changed his interactions with his younger siblings. As an older brother (a yaya), Dadou is not supposed to spend much time with his younger (classificatory) brothers and sisters. Social life in Kinshasa demands social distance among siblings; especially adolescent men, who are expected to entertain close ties with peers. These are usually strong in terms of time investment and practices of sharing of information, money and commodities. Yet, as Dadou told me during a Messenger conversation, as the government insists on people to stay at home, he hardly sees any of his friends anymore. There are hardly any spaces where they could hang out. Most bars are closed and the police patrols the streets, arresting people or sending them home. Nor do they have much money to spend. Very much like Matshombe, Dadou is much more online, chasing away the boredom. Echoing the generosity of Flavie’s neighbour, Dadou shares his internet connection with his siblings. Although there is no such written rule, he feels obliged to do so.
Mawa, or pity, pushes Dadou to share the precious resource of mobile data. “Would it be nice if I were sitting in the living room and manipulating my device, while Roberto and Junior (his two brothers) are watching me and craving to use their cell phones as well?”, he asked me in a rhetorical fashion during one of the audio-clips he sent me over Whatsapp. So now, often, Dadou’s siblings are clustered around Dadou and his mobile phone, each one of them concentrated on their device. During these moments of heightened digital interactivity, Dadou and his siblings rarely talk to one another what they are seeing, reading or writing. After all, it is not appropriate to inform a sibling of a flirtatious conversation or of secrets that friends tell you. “When someone starts laughing, then we get curious. But overall, we don’t ask any questions on what each one is doing online”, said Dadou.
This practice of sharing a connection is new. In the many years that I have been visiting Kinshasa, I rarely saw someone turning his or her smartphone into a hotspot and allowing others to go online on one’s mobile data. While there is a taken for granted etiquette to share battery time (see Pype 2019), such expectations were inexistent for internet access until COVID-19. Wi-fi solidarity seems to have become part of conviviality in times of imposed social distancing.
Consolation and compassion are two social actions that bridge emotional distance, enhance intimacy, and that in times of enforced physical distancing are mediated via digital infrastructures. Mawa, the Lingala concept that combines consolation and compassion, is thus a steering social force, that not only inspires social interaction but also shapes people’s access to the internet.
Or, in other words, I discussed two ways in which the digital is solicited by the feeling of mawa: first, the digital, and in particular social media, provides means through which people can overcome isolation; merely interacting, sometimes even engaging in phatic communication, provides a sense of sociality. Second, contributing to one’s digital connectivity is one way of showing mawa, of showing solidarity in times of social distancing. Even siblings and less familiar neighbours share their network.
The material presented above could be analysed along gendered lines: Matshombe emphasised various experiences as a married Christian woman through which she was already familiar with social distancing, and during which she had also relied on the internet to cope with isolation. Flavie, on the other hand, was familiar with using the digital in order to survive financially. There is also continuity regarding men’s worlds as well: in the material presented above, men are providers of the internet, they are the ones sharing their mobile data (either with a female neighbour or with their siblings). What is new is, as these observations suggest, that the confinement at home is more disruptive for men than for women. Flavie’s neighbour deepens his relationship with Flavie insofar as he spends hours in the house of a woman he had barely interacted with before COVID-19, while Dadou and his siblings have been sharing mobile data for the first time.
Cover photo taken from: https://linterview.cd/kinshasa-covid-19-hausse-de-prix-des-cartes-prepayees-et-recharge-electronique-de-telephone-mobile/ (retrieved 16 May 2020)
Gilbert, J. (2018). ‘They’re my contacts, not my friends: reconfiguring affect and aspirations through mobile communication in Nigeria.’ Ethnos: journal of anthropology 83(2): 237-254.
Nyamnjoh, F. B. and I. Brudvig (2014) ‘Conviviality and negotiations with belonging in urban Africa’ in E. F. Isin and P. Nyers (eds), Routledge Handbook of Global Citizenship Studies, (217-229). London: Routledge.
Postill, J. 2016. “Remote ethnography: Studying Culture from Afar.” in Hjorth, L., Horst, H., Galloway, A. and G. Bell (eds.), The Routledge Companion To Digital Ethnography. New York and London: Routledge.
Pype, K. (2019). ‘(Not) in Sync – Digital Time and Forms of (Dis-)Connecting. Ethnographic Notes from Kinshasa (DR Congo).’ Media, Culture & Society – online first.
Pype, K. (2020). ‘Bolingo ya Face. Digital marriages, playfulness and the search for change in Kinshasa.’ In: J. Helle-Valle, A. Storm-Mathisen (Eds.), Media Practices and Changing African Socialities. Non-media-centric Perspectives, (93-124). Oxford/New York: Berghahn Books.
 https://info.internet.org/en/story/free-basics-from-internet-org/ – last consulted on May 2 2020.