Suspicion, Accusations, and Moral Correction in Digital Kinshasa during Covid-19
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 following provides a brief overview of questions of moral and immoral behaviour as they appeared in conversations among “Digital Kinois” between mid-March and early May at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic in Kinshasa. The material is based on a reading of digital publications, mainly on Facebook and Whatsapp. All names are pseudonyms, except for public figures such as political actors, musicians, and authors of public blog posts. I have translated the online messages from French, Lingala and kiKinois into English.
The Covid-19 pandemic has amplified various tensions within Kinois society: fraught relationships between Kinois (inhabitants of Kinshasa) at home and the diaspora; Kinois and the political leaders; and Kinois and the spiritual. These tensions were expressed in the form of paranoia, suspicion, straightforward accusations, and proposals for moral remedy.
(a) An infectious diaspora and political elite
For the last decade (2010-2019), the relationship between the so-called Combattants, an acephalous political movement within the global diaspora speaking out against the Kabila regime, and those who remain at home (in Kinshasa), has been tense. Several people in the diaspora have spoken out against Kabila’s undemocratic rule (2001-2019). They first and foremost did so via the internet (Pype 2020). In Kinshasa, I heard several times frustrations about the mikilistes, ‘they had become arrogant by the sheer fact that they were living abroad, and were able to send remittances.’ Kinois at home found the Combattants’ political critique too easy and urged the mikilistes (Congolese living in the diaspora) to reiterate their anti-Kabila insults in Kinshasa. They also felt humiliated by the claims made by several of these anti-Kabila protesters stating that those in DR Congo were “ignorant”, and “were sleeping”.
It is in this spirit that the earliest “origin myths” of Covid-19 in Kinshasa need to be read: Mid-March, when the first Covid-19 cases in Kinshasa were announced, social media users were quick to describe the recent travel histories of these patients. All these patients seemed to have attended a concert by the Congolese rumba musician Fally Ipupa, in Paris on Saturday on February 28 2020. In addition, when the French journalist, Jean-Michel Denis, died because of Covid-19, some Congolese like Freddy Mulongo argued in a blog post on the French site Médiapart that Fally Ipupa “is responsible for several deaths”. Denis had reportedly introduced Fally Ipupa on stage.
The concert itself was the first live performance of a Congolese musician in the diaspora since 2011. The Combattants had been blocking (often via violent means) any live music performance because they assumed that the musicians were accepting money from the Kabila regime. Enjoying live music performances was, so the Combattants declared, a way of glorifying or at least confirming the Kabila leadership. When a new President was sworn in on January 2019, the Combattants seemingly lost their raison d’être, and Fally Ipupa’s management successfully organized a music concert in one of Paris’ biggest concert halls. This event was, at least in Kinshasa, perceived as the end of the influence of the Combattants.
Yet, with the Covid-19 pandemic taking off in Europe in the weeks after the concert, the performance became a moment to critique the mobility of the political elite in Kinshasa. Kinois joke that their President is a “pigeon”, who spends more time abroad than in his own country – thus also bitterly expressing critique on his lack of powerful leadership. Most of the promises that the President has made in his campaign were never realized. And, many people in Kinshasa grumble that their President prefers to spend time abroad rather than “at home”. This is also readily interpreted as the outcome of a deal President Tshisekedi might have made with his predecessor, Joseph Kabila. Kabila would remain the leader in charge, while Tshisekedi is merely a puppet on Kabila’s string. Having Tshisekedi abroad, allows Kabila to rule as he wishes. Yet, members of Tshisekedi’s government are also travelling much, and they were the first reported Covid-19 victims in Kinshasa. Some commentators felt it necessary to mention that these victims had attended Fally Ipupa’s concert. “Dedié Bandubola is the first victim of the Coronavirus in Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo. He as well has been at the concert of Fally Ipupa at Bercy. Arrogant rabbi who had made a lot of noise for Fally Ipupa in the heart of Paris, after his arrival from Kinshasa. (…) He was among those who encouraged others to attend Fally Ipupa’s concert at Bercy, as footage shows. His driver died as well, and 5 other people are infected”, so read Freddy Mulongo’s inflammatory blog post (see above). The deceased was readily identified as a medical doctor by training, but working as “the adjunct director of the cabinet his biological sister, the minister of economy, in the federal government.
From March through May, death announcements (nécrologies) circulated online. Initially, these were about mikilistes and people from within the President’s entourage. Below is, for example, the death announcement of the head of missions of the Presidential cabinet.
While for many Kinois, the diaspora community and the Presidential circles seemed to be rather far removed from their own lifeworld, a panic installed when in Lemba, one of Kinshasa’s municipalities, the dead body of a mikiliste was found in a hotel room. Reportedly the Coronavirus was the cause of death. On March 25, a video circulated online, shot from the street in Lemba, just outside of a hotel. Images were shot with a mobile phone. During the short clip, the filmer appeared in front of the camera from time to time as to claim authenticity and veracity regarding the content, though most attention was given to people passing on the street in front of the hotel. With a nervous voice over, the filmer sometimes addressed the viewers, and at other times tried to get some more information from the (male) bystanders, though to no avail. The name of the hotel was mentioned a few times, and it was repeated several times that the mikiliste had died from the Coronavirus. Viewers learned that heavily protected employers of the INRB (National Institute of Biomedical research – coordinating the Congolese anti-Covid-19 program) were seen at the scene, as well as the deceased family members and the adjunct-mayor of Lemba. In a mixture of Lingala and French, the filmer repeatedly requested the Kinois to be careful.
The caption of the remediated video that appeared in my Facebook feed read “Covid-19: Panic this afternoon in Lemba. A Congolese residing in France died of the Coronavirus in the hotel of the jewellery maker xxxx, on the avenue xxx (full address)”
Comments on this message varied: some claimed it was fake news, while others took this as a reminder that the virus really existed. A few days later, a correction was published, arguing that the person “did not die from Corona but from hypotension and hypoglycemia after a failed surgery.
For a social scientist, this correction is significant: in Kinshasa, it is apparently important to indicate that a person did not die from Corona. The Covid-19 seemed to have become a taboo, to such an extent that people would literally correct news about other’s deaths.
So announced one of my Facebook contacts on his wall: “one of my friends has been poisoned. May she rest in peace. I repeat, she died by poisoning, not because of Covid-19. Let’s not stain the remembrance of people in our community. It is already so hard …” Some of his contacts wrote condolences; while someone else argued: “it is really mean to poison a young woman, whatever reason there could be”, another commentator thought that: “poisoning is worse”; a young woman felt she had to educate her friend and drew attention to his responsibility in posting this message: “you should not make these kinds of corrections. It is exactly this kind of messages that make it difficult for people to confirm that they have Covid-19. This leads to even more deaths”. The friend responded that he understood her concerns, but because he saw other people writing online that she had died from Covid-19, he felt it was” disgusting.”
The Belgian in Idiofa
A few weeks into Kinshasa’s lockdown (in effect as from late March), panic erupted about a Belgian who reportedly had arrived in Idiofa, a small town about 700 km east of Kinshasa. His arrival was on March 21, so well before the lockdown, although that detail seemed to get lost on Digital Kinois. When he had suddenly experienced some Covid-19 symptoms, the unnamed Belgian had entered in self-quarantine, so Radio Okapi (the UN radio station for the DR Congo) communicated on its Facebook wall. This news apparently had caused a “total psychosis” in Idiofa. Also online, this news stirred emotions and led to various heated discussions, of which some were based on prejudices about “black people”, and on a mix up of the chronology of the political measures during the pandemic. Several commenters reminded about the Belgian’s white privilege: how could the white guy have breached the lockdown, and travelled so far as Idiofa? Someone opined: “those who work at our borders should quit their jobs”. Others made exactly the opposite remark, arguing that “only white people will self-quarantine. We blacks, we would hide our symptoms, and go into the streets and infect others.”
(b) Immoral political leaders
As of mid-March, when the first Corona-victims were identified in Kinshasa, the critique was addressed to the minister of health. People accused him of trying to make money based on the pandemic. On the one hand, the launch of the radio and tv station SantéTV late March (see my first blogpost) seemed to be perfectly timed, although of course, this could only be a coincidence. Yet, many Kinois argued that the country did not need another radio or TV station.
Harsher criticism was uttered, also in the press, regarding some plans to renovate several hospitals in the country. One of my Facebook friends remediated a newspaper article from the online outlet AfricaNewsRDC. He copied one sentence in the caption “On the back of the @COVID19RDC, at a time when already 5 fellow Congolese are killed by this pandemic, he creates “affairism” around the allocation of funds for the rehabilitation of certain hospitals even though the government has already decided upon the matter”.
Another poster qualified the Congolese state as a band full of witches and sorcerers (état-sorcier), when he communicated that the Congolese customs had blocked “I don’t know how many tons of equipment sent from China to help us fight against the Coronavirus in this country which is nevertheless completely naked in the face of the pandemic.”
Around the same time, ex-pats and politicians and their families were spotted at Kinshasa’s international airport, trying to board the last flights out of the country. Photographs of white people, ànd Congolese ministers trying to enter the airport circulated online. Someone argued “that is why one refuses the double nationality for people with power. The country is at war, they flee but will remain paid.” It is sadly part of the political history that the elite travels for medical treatment abroad, while most medical facilities in the country cannot provide basic health care. Unsurprisingly, such evidence sparked outrage among Digital Kinois. So commented Pierre, a twenty-something and father of one child, on one of these photographs: “everything needs to change after the Coronavirus. A Congolese leader who falls ill and gets evacuated out of the country for care overthere does not deserve to govern us. It means he does not have any confidence in the medical system in his country.”
On the postponement of the lockdown
On Friday early afternoon March 27, the city governor Ngobila declared a lockdown on the city to start as from the weekend. Immediately, many Kinois took to the markets in order to buy food for the coming days. Literally, by 4 pm, Kinshasa’s markets were flooded. By the evening, the governor decided to delay the lockdown with a few days, in order to avoid a dramatic increase in food prices.
This sudden change in policy was received with mixed feelings in Digital Kinshasa. Someone wrote “our country is sick. Our leaders suffer of a drug that is more powerful than the Coronavirus.”
Someone else published on Facebook: “Delayed? Oh God, what did we do to deserve such leaders? how many people have been infected today when they were looking for food? How to make sense of all of this? I have tears in my eyes. (emoji with a tear; thinking emoji) Around 3 pm, the prices on the market have tripled. and people were running in all directions. In the evening, they tell us that the general lockdown is delayed. This is a joke. (thinking emoji). He (the city governor) has to step down!”
His Facebook friends responded in similar outrage: “hmmm”? or “this is not a country” or “they should follow your advice”. Someone added “delayed (thinking emoji). but the way in which people have infected themselves today (crying emoijs)”
Quickly, short clips circulated on social media depicting masses in the markets. Social distancing clearly was impossible. People were fighting over cassava leaves and other vegetables. Within a Whatsapp group of men of the political and business elite, this footage elicited a lot of laughter and mockery. One person added “people fight at the market to buy … pondu (cassava leaves)! We’ve never seen this before! (emojis of amazement and horror). Some responded: “and corona does not touch them. (emojis of laughter) One would say that corona only affects the rich and those that travel or that have travelled”. Another one confirmed by saying “apparently”. Significantly, these commentators are part of “the rich and those who travel or have traveled”. Most of them live in Gombe and Ngaliema, the community of the political and economic elite; and regularly share pictures of their holiday and business trips to places such as Dubai, Monaco, Beijing, and New York.
Elsewhere, Digital Kinois observed similarities between the Corona-lockdown and experiences during looming civil war in the city that were part of Kinshasa’s history since the mid-1990s. Wrote Mamitsha, a 50-plus mother of four children with the caps lock on: “YESTERDAY A LOT OF TENSION AT THE GAMBELA MARKET. IT NEARLY ENDED IN LOOTINGS. THANK YOU, GOVERNOR, FOR DELAYING THE QUARANTINE. WE ARE STAYING AT HOME AS IF THERE WERE GUNSHOTS OUTSIDE. LET’S PROTECT OURSELVES”
Mamitsha expressed gratitude to the governor for the delay of the lockdown. She feared that the markets would have been looted; now she was just at home, safely inside, as she and her family used to do every time when gunshots could be heard outside.
The former first lady and the questionable gift of chloroquine
Figures of the previous national leadership, i.e. those at power during Joseph Kabila’s regime (2001-2019) were met with suspicion for their efforts to alleviate the suffering (mpasi) of the Kinois population. During the first days of the lockdown, the former first lady, Olive Lembe, donated food and drugs to the Kinois population through her foundation Olive Lembe Kabila. At a first glance, one could interpret this gesture as an effort to show compassion and offer consolation to the Kinois who suffered economically during the pandemic (and continue to do so). However, these gifts are part of a larger political culture in which patrons donate essential goods to those in need. It is a common practice in Kinshasa’s media worlds, that much of the political TV and radio shows report about governors, ministers, deputies, and other political actors visiting orphanages, retirement homes (Pype 2017), schools, and other communities in need, while they donate much needed medical supplies, clothes, utensils required for daily usage (shovels, radio sets, etc.) and food (usually bags of rice) to elderly, orphans, victims of natural disasters, etc. So, when late March, Olive Lembe got herself photographed in her gardens outside of Kinshasa, collecting tomatoes and cassava leaves to distribute in Kinshasa, this was fully in style with the Congolese “politics of visibility” (Pype 2012).
Yet, people keenly critiqued, and sometimes even mocked these pictures. A young man who had spent the previous decade in the United States, and only settled back in Kinshasa a few months ago, posted the following statement: “the population should not be living off donations”
Another Facebook commentator compared the previous first lady with the current one: Maman Dénise (the spouse of President Felix Tshisekedi) did some donations in the hospital a few days ago, but radio silence about that … but if “”: they have to give her all visibility” The “” shows a refusal to name Olive Lembe. It could be read as a political statement, he does not want to give her even more visibility; he does not want to play the game of “name dropping”, so strongly cultivated in Congolese popular culture (White 1999). Yet, it could also be a form of conforming with the self-censorship enacted during the Kabila years. Whatever motived my Facebook friend to omit the former first lady’s name, significant is that the comparison favoured the discretion of the current first lady.
Others felt that these donations marked the beginning of a new political campaign for her husband, former President Joseph Kabila, who some expect to be a candidate at the next Presidential elections in 2023.
Most fascinating was the discussion that ensued after photographs circulated online, showing Olive Lembe at the national institute for biomedical research (INRB), where she donated 1,000 pills of the chloroquine drugs, apparently good for 400 treatments. At the time of the donation, this drug was globally very much hyped. In particular, the French medical doctor Raoult seemed to have treated patients successfully with the drugs. His rebellious attitude and hopeful statements about the African continent in various media outlets also turned him into a chéri of Digital Kinois. Yet, several “Digital Kinois” with a medical background opined that this drug was too dangerous, and remediated warnings about chloroquine that were published in newspapers and discussed in TV news shows from the Global North. Others seemed to appreciate Olive Lembe’s gift, which was welcome especially at a time when the pandemic was just about to start in Kinshasa, and when globally, warnings about the lack of adequate treatment sounded louder and louder.
Yet, one of my Facebook contacts, who claimed to have easy access to gossip from the Presidential entourage, published on his Facebook wall that “according to real sources, the 400 cures of chloroquine donated by the former first lady Olive Lembe Kabila have been confiscated by the Presidential circles. Dr Muyembe (DR Congo’s biomedical expert leading the anti-Covid-19 national program), has been ordered to give these to the patients in the President’s entourage and in the various ministries. The remaining are stored away for the President’s security guards”. Such message seemed to confirm not only the rumour that the virus circulated especially within the political elite; but it also reminded his Facebook contacts about the predatory nature of the Congolese leadership.
Several suspicious Kinois asked, “where she had retrieved these drugs, who were not available anymore?” Someone responded that “she and her family have more than 150 contracts with mines and businesses in all sectors in the DRC. We just need to think … the indo-pakistani etc.”, thus referencing the various public-private partnerships President Kabila (and many of his relatives) had set up during his 18 years of Presidency, and through which the former Presidential couple had a lot of economic power behind the scenes.
Others, however, seemed to have other concerns. Around the same time, reports were published about government officials buying expired drugs for DR Congo. One sharp commentator told people to verify the expiration date of the drugs; someone else questioned how these drugs (seemingly coming from Belgium) had been able to be imported so quickly, especially since there was hardly any international travel anymore.
The discussion zoomed in on the label (etiquette) of the drugs bottles. People observed that the labels contained a mixture of French and English words. So opined a journalist on his personal Facebook page “THIS LABEL SAYS EVERYTHING. How can one write in English and French on one and the same label of a product made in the branch of a British firm which does not even exist in Belgium. XXX Please do some further investigations for me, I beg you.
PS: this drug is a gift from Maman “the one who buries corpses. the wife of the gangster Shina Rambo” (Olive Lembe has received this nickname of “the lady who buries corpses” because during her husband’s Presidency, she contributed financially to the funerals of cultural and sports leaders; though never assisted them when they were ill and in need of medical treatment; Shina Rambo is a moniker for former President Joseph Kabila)
The mixture of French and English was interpreted as a first sign that these drugs were fake. The label also contained the name and address of a British pharmaceutical company. Someone apparently emailed this company asking more information about the drug. In an email, a marketing officer of the British company responded that they did not sell that kind of medicament. The email got remediated online quickly and served as further evidence for the suspicion that Olive Lembe only seemed to have good intentions, but that actually she was purposively harming the population.
These doubts circulated quickly online, and they became a sign of the level of corruption in Congolese political culture. Some identified the hand of her husband, former President Joseph Kabila, behind this – the distribution of fake drugs was part of an insidious plan of the former President to weaken his successor. So warned one poster the current President, Felix Tshisekedi: “it is impossible that Kabila would do something good for Congolese. Felix Antoine Tshisekedi everything is done to sabotage you!”
Another commentator observed: “Olive Kabila doesn’t even make sure that the label of her drugs is credible; and we’re searching for the cause of the idiocy here in DRC”
The idea of “idiot leaders” also appeared in a powerful post by Jérémie, a thirty-something who has studied informatics in Seoul, and returned to Kinshasa four years ago. He wrote in French that “in this country of which I prefer not to name it, especially because foreign friends are reading along, I want to say the following: we certainly need medicine to counter Covid-19, but this will not be possible without an intellectual dictatorship dethroning this idiocracy which characterizes our “elite”, dethrone this imbecilocracy, this moron-cracy, this stupidocracy, this cacotracy (I think he evokes a cacophony here)!!!
The Holy Scriptures say in the book of Ecclesiastes: “I have seen slaves on horseback and princes on foot like slaves” It is unacceptable!!! Let’s take our place!!!”
He added two drawings of mental coaching, one showing an open mindset (in green), and a closed mindset (in red).
The reference to the Holy Scriptures is not accidental. Rather, many Kinois also interpret the pandemic as part of a spiritual battle, between the Christian God and the Devil.
(c) A spiritual battle
Amidst all the political struggles, Kinois did not tire to remind one another of the spiritual dimensions of the pandemic. As I described in a previous blogpost, Christians readily domesticated the social distancing rules within a Christian discourse. Yet, Christians also interpreted the whole pandemic within an Apocalyptic frame. Someone reminded: “DO NOT FORGET, the Coronavirus exists; the false leaders are also the signs of the end times. So: read the bible”. Someone else commented: “In the same fashion that God has saved Loth and his family in Sodom, he will also save the Congolese people from Covid19. But we need to remain vigilant.”
Others supported these statements with evidence from written texts. “Someone will have to explain to me how a book, published in 2012, could know what would happen in 2020? wrote a young woman, who identified herself as a Christian in her Facebook name. The post contained the cover of the book “La Fin des Temps” (the end of times) by Sylvia Browne, and next to it a picture of some paragraphs in the book. One paragraph was highlighted with digital strokes in purple: “Around 2020, a disease resembling severe pneumonia will strike all over the world, attacking the lungs and the bronchi, and it will resist all known treatments. Even more striking will be that this disease will suddenly disappear, and it will only reappear 19 years later, and then it will forever disappear, but also as suddenly as it has appeared.” The Christian young woman mentioned in the caption: “the projects of Satanists will never bypass those of God. Because he is sovereign”, thus interpreting the pandemic as the outcome of satanic plots.
The spiritual dimension was also addressed from another angle. On March 23, the Alliance of customary authorities in Congo (ANATC) organized a press conference in which they advised the INRB and the larger Congolese population to use two mystical powders, a “mungwa basenzi” (salt of chimpanzees) and “bodisa”. “One should fill a bucket with warm water, and add some Bodisa powder, which comes from an ancestral black stone that evokes the ancestral powers, and then wash oneself fully, naked. The potion should not be drunk. Then, one should take some “salt of the ancestors” (mungwa basenzi) on one’s fingertip, and put it on the tongue and lick it like a candy.” The customary chiefs argued that both powders establish a shield against the devilish spirit – which they estimate is behind this pandemic. They requested President Tshisekedi to help them in distributing the recipe.
Online reactions on this proposal varied from “it doesn’t cost anything to try this out?” over “this was bound to get a mystical edge! I can testify to the efficacy of the “mungwa basenzi” as I use it to treat strong coughs”; or “this is merely distraction” to “this is an effort to steal our souls” and “who do they think we are?”
(d) Some humour: reversing the morals
Luckily, Digital Kinois also added a dose of humour to the discussions about the arrogant elite and selfish and incompetent leaders. The evening on which the confinement was delayed, someone wrote “urgent. a confined man is looking for a confined girl for an honest and longstanding confinement.”
Others posted memes in which they mocked girls with sugar daddies, who now spent so much time in their own houses, often in the centre of Gombe, the elite area that was under full lockdown. Certain memes warned young men in the overcrowded municipalities: “if your girlfriend suddenly has more time for you than ever before, be afraid. It just means that her other man is at home, with his wife.” Someone else remarked that the confinement had good sides as well, “especially hardly any infidelity. The city is calm, no music at all, nightclubs closed, and no alcohol.”
The confinement seemed suddenly a solution for the assumed immorality of city life.
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. (2012). Political billboards as contact zones : reflections on Urban Space, the Visual and Political Affect in Kabila’s Kinshasa. In: R. Vokes (Eds.), Photography in Africa. Ethnographic Perspectives, Chapt. 9, (187-204). Suffolk, UK: Boydell & Brewer and James Currey.
Pype, K. (2016). Caring for people “without” value: movement, reciprocity and respect in Kinshasa’s retirement homes. In: Ageing in Sub-Saharan Africa. Spaces and Practices of Care, Chapt. 3, (43-68). (Ageing in a Global Context, 2). Bristol: Policy Press.
Pype, K. (2020). Stones thrown online. The Politics of Insults, Distance and Impunity in Congolese Polémique. In: P. Budka, B. Bräuchler (Eds.), Theorising Media and Conflict, Chapt. 11, (237-254). (Anthropology of Media, 8). Oxford / New York: Berghahn Books.