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Field notes

Old age in Kinshasa – Part 2.

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

This is a 2nd 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).


I spent nine months visiting elderly people in their homes, and joined them going to church, visiting relatives, and getting medical treatment. Apart from these “expected” activities, I also engaged in surprising events, such as visiting retirement homes, and participating in dance groups of elderly people, who dance on Congolese music of the 1940s-1970s, and appear on local television stations.


Check out a Bana Leo broadcast on Youtube (March 2012)



Each week, on Wednesday afternoon, the members of Sentiment Lipopo meet in a bar, hotel, or nightclub in Kinshasa. The exact location depends on the venue with which the group’s TV station has struck a deal. On Thursday afternoons, their rival group, Bana Léo (broadcast on DigitalCongo, the presidential family’s private media outlet) meets in another bar, hotel, or nightclub. Members of these associations are elderly people who dress up according to African criteria of elegance: women wear fine Dutch wax, head scarves, nice jewellery, and, if possible, sunglasses; most have marks on their faces, cheekbones, or necks, evidence of a skin condition resulting from using lotions or products for making the skin glossier. The men are dressed in suits, and wear expensive ties, shiny shoes – Westons if possible – as well as sunglasses. Some will don abacosts or safaris for the occasion. The latter, male suits with short sleeves that required no ties, were a national dress code for male citizens during the Mobutu regime. Today, almost twenty years after Mobutu’s fall, this “Zairian” costume remains fashionable among men who either want to mock the contemporary political establishment, or who wish to express nostalgia for the Mobutu period.


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The camera zooms in on the designer shoes, and the sparkling earrings and bracelets worn by the dancing men and women. Prior to recording, the producer prompts the old men and women to “smile,” telling them that “the audience needs to see that they are enjoying themselves” (kosakana, “to play”). Performers are also reminded that the dance floor should not be too crowded. In order to convey a sense of order to the spectator, a maximum of five couples should be dancing at a time, a rule, which is never followed as all members are eager to dance whenever possible.

During these weekly meetings, the elderly people of Bana Léo and Sentiment Lipopo, whose ages range between fifty and the mid-eighties, dance for one to two hours to Congolese music produced mainly from the 1950s to the 1970s. A DJ plays CDs with songs from legendary Congolese music bands such as OK Jazz (Franco Luambo Makiadi), African Jazz (Kabasele), or Afrisa (Tabu Ley Rochereau). As the sound boxes blast the opening notes of a song, group members get up, look for a dance partner of the opposite sex, and start performing the cha cha cha, polka piquée, bolero, rumba, and sometimes even merengue, according to the program director’s instructions. Between dances, the men and women sit on chairs carefully placed around the dancing space; they sip bottles of beer or soda, which the sponsoring local brewery offers at reduced prices, all the while carefully listening to TV hosts conversing with the erstwhile protagonists of Kinshasa’s old music scenes.

Because many musicians from the earliest Congolese music scene have died, interviewees in these TV shows are usually their proxies: men who, as young boys, lived in the same neighbourhoods as the protagonists for instance, or their (former) brothers-in-law, secondary school schoolmates, or perhaps people who accompanied them to Angola, South Africa, Europe, and elsewhere.


These TV-shows are situated within the emergence of a category of “urban elders”, i.e. greying people who have been born and raised in the city, and who have never known a life as commonly associated with “elderly people” or “people from the village”. Just like Papa Wemba, these elderly dancing cha cha cha and bolero also cherish their urban youth, and like to enjoy themselves. Though, they do so by showing themselves to the whole city, and thus proving to the urban spectatorship that they have intimate knowledge of the city’s origins. As such, the dancing elderly carve out a new space in the city, a new role of the city’s elderly.

The fact that these elderly are borrowing the space of music and dance in order to negotiate a new role in Kinshasa’s society is not accidental. Very much like Papa Wemba was heralded as “the father” of all Congolese, so are the musicians of the earliest decades of Congolese dance music Kinshasa’s “ancestors”. Kinshasa’s society grew and developed very much within the spaces of the bars and dance floors, and on the tunes of musicians such as Wendo Kolosoy, Franco and Tabu Ley Rochereau.

Many of these old dancing Kinois are conscious that the day will come that their old bodies will not be flexible or healthy anymore and ill-health will prevent them from coming to the recordings. Some even regret that their bodies cannot perform the ndombolo dances. They complain that these contemporary dances are “too acrobatic”, you need to “use your muscles”, which the “pure rumba” does not require, and their own bodies are already aching. The physical requirements thus put the elderly “hors jeu” (Funkwa 2003: 19% Kindle Editions). Such grievances nuance the rejections of contemporary dance forms as immoral. Rather, there is a particular, practical nostalgia that these elderly music lovers exhibit and which touches the very heart of what it means to be an old urban African.

Listening closer to the words of the dancing elderly, it becomes clear that the members of Bana Léo associations distance themselves from the stereotypical representations of “the elderly” in the contemporary urban imaginary. By using the names such as “children of Leopoldville” and “children of the Flemish”, these elderly people signal to the larger society that, although they are old today, they were in the city, this (at the time) modern space of hope, prosperity, and development, before Kinshasa was named Kinshasa. The name choice is a powerful claim not to be confused with the “elderly from the village” (ya mboka).

Usually, in contemporary urban popular culture, if “elderly” are portrayed or discussed, there is an almost natural equation of elderly with residents of the village (mouta, those who are born in the village). This occurs in the space of jokes, songs, dance and popular drama. One of the popular songs and dances in contemporary nightclubs in Kinshasa is the la danse de la grand-mere, a coupe decale song performed by the Ivorian Dinosaur Kpangor I. The dance movements thus imitate an elderly woman whose body is not flexible anymore. The joy that this dance, the song and the music video clip generate comes from mockery with the elderly, who are imagined to be out of place in contemporary African popular culture. A similar strategy of cultural representation occurs in the space of jokes. In the jokes that circulate in Kinshasa, elderly men are very often the protagonists. They are being ridiculed for not knowing how to walk, dress and talk in the African city, a “modern” place. Also elsewhere in Congo, popular culture is a site in which elderly are being mocked with for being out of tune with modern life. In the edited collection on urban music in Katanga, Dibwe dia Mwembu cites the lyrics of a Kalindula song (in Jewsiewicki 2009, Kindle 1061-1063, translated by the author)


Have you ever seen an old man? Have you ever seen how an old man chews gum? He blows air in a plastic bag.

Have you ever seen an old man without teeth grilling mais grains? He refuse to share with others who have teeth. He eats the (grilled mais grains) like nivaquin, aspirin pills.


Such humorous engagements with elderly people might be rather innocent; there are other cultural worlds in Kinshasa where the representation of the elderly is more harmful. Pentecostal Christianity, another important symbolic world in contemporary Kinshasa where meaning is being given to private and public experiences, targets the village, and in particular the elderly in these spaces. They are imagined as being closer to the Devil, the churches anti-hero, because of their alleged attachments to “traditional” practices, beliefs and dances.

However, Kinshasa’s elderly, especially the “urban elders”, do not identify with the ways in which they are being represented in local popular culture. The Bana Léo dancers do like to dress nicely, they do drink beer (and not palm wine), they do know how to distinguish the horn of a car and the sound of a trumpet, etc. In addition, they still like to dance, and they are familiar with nightclubs. The ambianceurs of the 70s, 80s, and early 90s do not want to give up dancing and flirting. Importantly, these participants do not reject their social status of being “old.” Rather, they play with that status. They enact dance movements with their elder bodies on old music, which were “hot” (chaud) in their youth. The Bana Léo dancers are not the “traditional elderly”; rather as a new and “urban” category, the “urban elderly” reject any identification with the “elderly from the village”. And, when elders are identified as witches, the “urban elders” state that they do not feel attacked because “We pray. We know God.” (tozosambela. Toyebi Nzambe), thus themselves rehearsing the stereotype that all village elders are heathen.


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Funkwa, Guy Nkongolo 2003. “Musique, Ambianceurs et Femmes Libres a Lubumbashi.” In Musique Urbaine au Katanga. De Malaika a Santu Kimbangu, edited by Bogumil Jewsiewicki, Chapter 2, 27–48. Paris: L’Harmattan.


Jewsiewicki, Bogumil, ed. 2003. “Introduction.” In Musique Urbaine au Katanga. De Malaika a Santu Kimbangu, edited by Bogumil Jewsiewicki, 1–10. Paris: L’Harmattan.



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