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Field notes

Old age in Kinshasa. – Part 1


by Katrien Pype, research professor at IARA (KU Leuven, Belgium) and Fellow at DASA (University of Birmingham) – September 2016.

This is a series of four blogposts that are connected to my research on the lifeworlds of elderly Kinois. The research was funded by a Marie Curie Postdoctoral Fellowship (PIOF-GA-2009-252331) and was carried out at the Anthropology & STS departments at MIT (Cambridge, USA, 2011-2013) and the Africanist Anthropology Department (IARA) at the KU Leuven (Leuven, Belgium, 2013-2014).

The four blogposts accompany the paper “Dancing to the Rhythm of Leopoldville: Nostalgia, urban critique and generational difference in Kinshasa’s Music TV Shows” (Journal of African Cultural Studies, 2016)


Photo 1.jpg

Bana Leo dancers in action (June 2012)




Our society is greying, though one hardly sees this reflected in global media. Apart from a few senior news hosts, radio and television are dominated by young, stylish cosmopolitans. The lifestyles of these “millennials” are far removed from the social concerns and economic priorities of the greying population. Yet, everywhere in the world, elderly people meet up to play cards, to flirt and to dance. These clubs are invisible in the public domain, though they are important for the elderly’s well being.

So far, sociologists and anthropologists have not yet begun to take the popular culture of the ageing segment of our society seriously. Between 2011 and 2013 I conducted research on the livelihoods of Kinshasa’s elderly, their “fun spaces” included. I worked, among others, with Bana Léo shows, which are music TV shows with elderly dancing on Congolese rumba music of the 1950s until the 1970s. Congo’s golden oldies. The dancers perform cha cha cha, merengue, polka piquee, bolero and a slow rumba. These TV-shows have names such as Bana Léo (“The Children of Léo[poldville]”) and Sentiment Lipopo (“The feeling of Lipopo”, “Lipopo” being an affectionate term for “Leopoldville”).

My research into the identities of the dancers in these shows, their intentions and the interactions with audiences has shown some continuities and ruptures between Congolese colonial, early postcolonial and late postcolonial society.

The major rupture performed in the critique these Bana Léo shows utter regarding the ndombolo scene (the key term for the fast, sexualized dance movements of Congolese urban dance music since the late 1990s). The dancing elderly cherish the assumed “African” and “moral” qualities of a popular culture of Léopoldville (as Kinshasa was named during the colonial and early postcolonial era), and performed in bars and cabarets of the indigenous parts of the colonial city.



The most important continuity that I encountered resides in the social categories of the late colonial/early postcolonial society. Four different social figures who played a role in the city’s earliest nightlife reappear in the music TV shows: the vedeti (female celebrities), membres (members), bangembo (bats), and young boys that warmed the dance floor. The latter three are male roles, while the vedeti is a female figure.

The vedeti is a type of “free woman” (ndumba, or femme libre) who lived in late colonial/early postcolonial Kinshasa. Very much like prostitutes, vedeti were not married and lived on their own. Some had children. Most of these women had multiple sexual relationships with men who assisted them financially and materially. In her study of “the Free Women of Kinshasa”, La Fontaine (1974, ‘The free women of Kinshasa’, in J. Davis (ed.). Choice and change) describes how vedeti needed to adhere to strict ideals of elegance, by wearing the finest pagnes (three piece cloth), straightening their hair, taking care of their appearance (both their figure and their face), and preferably showing off a new headscarf each week. Most of the vedetis belonged to elegance associations such as “La Mode” (Fashion), Diamant, Boule de soleil (“ball of sun”), which were also spaces of social and economic emancipation for women in the cities.

Membre is the word typically used to indicate male fans of music bands. When someone was a “membre of Franco”, it meant that this person did not belong to the band as a musician or performer, but rather was a fan (fanatique) of the music band around Franco and participated in his concerts. Usually membres paid a membership fee allowing them to get into concerts for free or get discounts. Nowadays young male Kinois are divided along the fandoms of either J.B. Mpiana or Werrason; in the early days, young Congolese were either membres of Franco’s band or Kabasele’s band. Membres were very well known by band leaders because they showed up to all the concerts. They also frequented the bars that supported their favourite musicians and were usually very good dancers.

The third category belonging to the core of the Bana Léo associations, and probably making up the majority of their participants, are those who, during the heydays of the second and third generations, were labelled ngembo (bat). The animal symbol is used to indicate children who, during the 1960s and 1970s, left the house early in the evening and stayed out. Just like bats, these children were not allowed to enter the bars or nganda where orchestras rehearsed or performed. Rather, they would stay outside, on the pavements, and peer through wicket-gates or windows, thus enjoying from afar the fashions, rhythms, and dance movements of musicians, membres, and the general dancing public. It was here, on the streets, in front of bars and nightclubs, where these young boys emulated the dance forms of the 1960s and 1970s ambianceurs, that the “bats” learned to dance well. Their dancing skills, as well as the fact that they witnessed the first days of the Congolese music scene, have turned them into “experts” in a culture from which they were in fact formally excluded.

The fourth category of participants in music TV shows with the old music are those who belonged to male youth groups, who were very good dancers, and who, especially in the late 1960s, were invited to the bars, to dance at the beginning of the evening in order draw people onto the dance floor. When they saw that people had started dancing, they would leave and move on to another bar, where they would do the same.


Photo 2.jpg

Two women of the Sentiment Lipopo group (June 2012)


Of all these categories, the “membres” occupy the most privileged position in the Bana Léo associations because of their close ties with the leading musicians and their proven dancing skills (even though nowadays their old bodies do not always allow them to be very flexible and proficient in dancing).

Within these groups, the vedetis positioning is different from that of the membres. The social ideal for a “good woman” (la femme vertueuse) remains to be (or to have been) married and to have children. Many of these old vedeti spent years in the urban nightlife and are thus suspected of having had multiple love affairs. Most of them have never had a stable marital life, and, in their old days, are either living with a sibling or with an elder aunt. The connections that allowed them to enjoy a luxurious life during the 60s and 70s have mostly died out, and these women can thus only turn to their relatives for survival. Nowadays, during the other days of the week, these former vedeti sell manioc flour, groundnuts, or soda on the streets – their clients rarely know about these women’s bygone glory. They return to their roles of “(aged) free women” upon arriving at the meetings of the Bana Léo, Sentiment Lipopo, and the like. While some of the old vedeti later entered into marriages (sometimes with bar owners, wealthy businessmen, or politicians), and thus attained the status of respectable women, there still seems to be a stain on their reputation. These women are rarely interviewed and are not greeted with the same respect as the men.



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