chapter  12
Kinshasa’s Syndrome-Planning in Historical Perspective: From Belgian Colonial Capital to Self-Constructed Megalopolis
ByLuce Beeckmans, Johan Lagae
Pages 24

Considering the dilapidated state of the city’s infrastructure and its chaotic functioning, one would barely believe an Urban Planning Department is still active in Kinshasa today. While most of Kinshasa’s roads are hardly paved, with the exception of the former European city center and some major arteries which were refurbished in recent years, and while the city only possesses an improvised, though functioning transport system of taxi buses, the Bureau d’Études d’Aménagement et d’Urbanisme (BEAU) is still working on a scheme for a tram line, already initiated in the 1970s, despite its exorbitant costs. Anticipating its non-expected implementation, the inhabitants of Kinshasa, called Kinois, cover most distances on foot (Wa Mwanza, 1997, p. 96). Whereas most streets in Kinshasa are bulging with garbage, bi-lateral and multi-lateral development programs from all over the world, now also including the East, are in an almost competitive way digging sewage systems in the same streets. For anthropologists Kinshasa, the former Leopoldville, forms a dreamed city to study Africa’s inventive responses to the enduring infrastructural crisis, as in the city extreme (material) deprivation goes intertwined with a frantic hedonistic tradition (see, for instance, the Congolese rumba and the cultural movement sape2) and a profound religious devotion (see, for instance, the burgeoning Pentecostal churches). In Tales of the Invisible City, De Boeck and Plissart (2004, p. 233) describe Kinshasa as a city in which the urbanity “exists beyond its architecture”. Instead of the materiality of architecture and infrastructure, they argue, it is primarily the body and the imaginative life that structure the capital city of Congo. This is an inspiring perspective, because it turns Kinshasa’s infrastructural failure into a site of creativity and imagination. It also points at the many shortcomings we, as (western) architectural and urban planning historians, face when trying to tackle Kinshasa’s

urban space with our conventional frameworks of analysis (Çelik, 1999). However, this perspective also entails the risk of romanticizing the everyday struggle of many Kinois, something De Boeck and Plissart (2004, p. 250) acknowledge themselves, metaphorically stating that the city full of dreams simultaneously is “a space where desire and longing remain unfulfilled, where … erection and impotence go hand in hand”. While De Boeck’s analysis goes way beyond a portrayal of the city celebrating the “poetics of decay” which Enwezor criticized in Koolhaas’ representation of Lagos as the “terminal condition of urbanization” (Enwezor, 2003, p. 113; Koolhaas and The Harvard Project, 2000, p. 653), it does tend to neglect the tangible aspects of the city, their history, and in particular the way they are related to the rich history of urban planning in Kinshasa, elements which are central to this chapter.3