Kinshasa, capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo

Once it was Kin la Belle (beautiful Kinshasa) but today it is a monster of a city, home to 12-million-plus people on the banks of the mighty Congo River. Sprawling outwards, it is bigger, faster and louder than many other urban centres. A long time ago the city government lost the ability to provide even the most basic services.

It was not always thus. In 1974 Kinshasa was a lush green city of wide boulevards and new buildings built on opportunity and promise. To this place on the slopes of the Congo Basin, two great heavyweights came to fight. On 30 October George Foreman and Muhammed Ali began boxing in front of 50 000 spectators in the Stade du 20 Mai – at four in the morning, to accommodate American TV schedules.

The Rumble in the Jungle is still the greatest boxing match of all time but the stadium is going to seed. The Immcongo neighbourhood in the Kalamu section of the city is still dominated by the stadium’s four light towers. Now the houses and dirty plots are built right up to the walls. Once the grandest stadium in Africa, it rotting concrete is stained black and grey.

The Boulevard of 30 June (in French, Boulevard du 30 Juin) is the main avenue in Kinshasa. The five-kilometre boulevard connects the business district of La Gombe in the south to the western part of the city. (Image: Monusco/Myriam Asmani, CC BY-SA, via Flickr)

The Boulevard of 30 June (in French, Boulevard du 30 Juin) is the main avenue in Kinshasa. The five-kilometre boulevard connects the business district of La Gombe in the south to the western part of the city. (Image: Monusco/Myriam Asmani, CC BY-SA, via Flickr)

But it remains quite an extraordinary city. Kinois will grudgingly admit that they love chaotic Kinshasa. They are not put off because things don’t work, but instead they enjoy what does. Despite all the challenges, Kinois still live, work and play.

It is a city that manages to throw up magic and creativity wherever you look. Keep an eye out for the Congo Astronaut, a kid from one of the city’s many ghettoes. In his futuristic space suit made from discarded debris, he floats through the city at night, reimagining his world.

Street-level shops and restaurants in Kinshasa. (Image: Irene, CC By 2.0, via Flickr)

Street-level shops and restaurants in Kinshasa. (Image: Irene, CC By 2.0, via Flickr)

Musicians in Kinshasa have a long history tapping into this creative spirit and creating innovative and socially meaningful music. Artists like Franco and his band TPOK were as innovative as the Beatles, but despite being among the most important musicians in sub-Saharan Africa were virtually unknown outside the continent.

The music being created in Kinshasa today, the soundtrack blaring from bars as you pass through the city, blends dancehall, soul, hip-hop and rumba. The Kinshasa band that has brought this new creativity to the outside world is Staff Benda Bilili. The band, which includes homeless and disabled musicians, went from rehearsing in front of emaciated animals at the Kinshasa Zoo to playing the Royal Albert Hall.

Staff Benda Bilili, Kinshasa street musicians who have gone from living on the grounds of the Kinshasa zoo to global fame. Their music is rooted in soukous, with elements of old-school rhythm and blues and reggae. (Image: Crammed Discs/Guillaume Aricique)

Staff Benda Bilili, Kinshasa street musicians who have gone from living on the grounds of the Kinshasa zoo to global fame. Their music is rooted in soukous, with elements of old-school rhythm and blues and reggae. (Image: Crammed Discs/Guillaume Aricique)

Their music, and the music they have inspired, can be heard all over Kinshasa, if you manage to get around the gridlocked city. The city government has embraced technology to deal with the massive number of cars and the population’s distrust of the police.

Enjoy the spectacle of Kinshasa’s Robocop traffic lights. Solar powered, designed to look like giant metal police officers, they feed information to a central office, allowing the city to monitor and respond to the traffic chaos of Kinshasa.

Here, the thing to do is simply give in to the atmosphere and liveliness of the city. Enjoy French-inspired Congolese cuisine, and dive into the maelstrom of Kinshasa.

TOP IMAGE: The great city of Kinshasa at night, captured from the top of a building in the city centre. (Image: Monusco/Abel Kavanagh, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Flickr)

  • Words: Sulaiman Philip
  • Editing, photo research and captions: Mary Alexander