B: Could you describe Lubunga a bit?
F: Okay, right now we are sitting by the Congo River on the right bank in Kisangani. Across the river on the left bank is Lubunga. We are not exactly in the city center so we cannot see the urban life, but when you are in the city center and look across, especially at night, you wouldn’t imagine that it’s actually one of the most populated areas in the city because it’s really dark. It never used to be that dark.
Growing up in Lubunga – part of the time, there were years when my base would be in Lubunga – I would always come to school on this side of the river because the best schools were on this side. It was like that already in the ‘80s. When I was sitting on the right bank and looked across the river, I would see cranes at the port at the train station that still worked, meaning there was still electricity. And around the train station you had beautiful colonial villas that are still there today. These villas belonged to the railway company. And then you had some private houses around the station, mainly colonial houses, beautiful constructions that had electricity. As you went down the river you'd see a long street, actually the only tarmacked one, and this is still the only tarmacked street in Lubunga. It’s a small street, not more than 6 meters wide, but we call it Boulevard. Boulevard Hassan II. It was named after Morocco’s king Hassan II and you even had street lights on Hassan II. Outside these two areas, the train station and the Boulevard, it was mainly dark. There was no electricity.
The main difference today is that even these islands where there used to be electricity have disappeared. So at night it’s dark. You can hardly imagine that there are so many people living there. Maybe 20 percent of Kisangani´s population lives there, possibly maybe less, but definitely a big part of the people live there. I grew up in parts there because my mother’s family comes from there. My grandmother still lives there. I am particularly attached to this part of the city because it says something about how we deal with periphery in this country. You concentrate on whatever is immediately visible, whatever is immediately accessible, and whatever can serve immediately as a facade. You put all your energy there and everything around can stay in the dark, it’s not a big deal really. Life has always been organized like that: You have a few facades that you really take care of, that you try and make shine as much as you can – even though those facades became difficult to maintain throughout the years – and just forget about the periphery. But the politicians around the elections, because they know that maybe 20 percent of the population lives there, they go there and try and get the votes. And once they have the votes, they are gone and they disappear.
So when I look at Lubunga and this black hole that it is, somehow I see a position that I feel I can operate from as a citizen, as an artist. And my being a citizen informs my being an artist and vice versa. In that I don’t feel that I can side with the powerful. I don’t identify myself with them, I identify myself with this fragile territory trying to remain alive and to propose other ways of getting through the days. I see Studios Kabako as a project trying to speak of whatever is forgotten, from that place of what’s forgotten.
From your description, Lubunga seems somehow isolated. How is it lived in by the people living there? Is life centered in Lubunga or is there a lot of transition to the other side?
F: Kisangani is made up of six districts. Five are on the right bank and only one is on the left, that’s Lubunga. And between Lubunga and the city you have this huge, powerful river and there is no bridge. So even physically it is isolated. All manufactured goods have to come from here and go to Lubunga. So yes it is isolated. People’s lives are really built around what they can get from this side of the river. And one of the things that you can only get from this side of the river is electricity. Electricity is produced on the right bank, then it has to go across the river a bit further east where you have the Wagenia Falls. If there is rationing of electricity by the electricity company, Lubunga is one of the first places that they cut. It’s not the heaviest district on the electricity grid, but they cut there first.
So there are many people I know who would speak of coming to the right bank of the river as a social progression. The best schools in the city are on this side, none of them are over there, really. There is still some faith left in the schools, otherwise people wouldn’t be killing themselves to send their children to get some education, even though in reality it’s worth nothing really. But people know that if they want to give the best to their children they have to send them to the right bank. At least there is still a hospital in Lubunga that more or less works. But there is no running water because there is no electricity and so people also know that if you want better medical attention, you have to come here. If I lived in Lubunga, at least in the way the city is organized today, unless I build an autonomous infrastructure around me, I need quite a lot from this side.
B: So you are talking about basic infrastructure on the one hand and about education and urban life on the other hand.
F: Even just the little entertainment that there still is, which is going to a bar when you can afford it and having a beer or two. You can count maybe five places with loud music in Lubunga, if you are lucky. So people, if they want to have some fun, those who can afford it would come to this side of the city. I remember as a teenager I would stay on this side of the river until 11 or midnight simply because I wanted to see a show. It was never in Lubunga, it was always here. The only thing we had in Lubunga was TV. On my street there were two TVs, two families that had television and one of them would take it outside. They would take the small 14-inch black and white TV outside, so the whole neighborhood would gather there and watch some Telenovela, or Dallas. Or a football game. So if you wanted more than Telenovelas with 20 other people around you shouting and commenting and no one listening, if you wanted more than that you had to come to this side. Or you had to know someone who lived in some of the better houses around the river, around the railway station, who could invite you over to watch TV. Lubunga, it’s a black hole in the city, really.
B: If I lived in Lubunga, what would I live on? What would people do who don’t commute to the other side?
F: You can work at the railway station, but the railway company is moribund. You have a train going from Lubunga to Ubundu, 100 kilometers south. That was really like the elite. You could be a policeman or a policewoman. You could be a soldier or an officer, because one of the main barracks in the city is over there, the Lukusa camp. You'd be in the military staying at Camp Lukusa. You could be a teacher. You could work on the river taking people across the river. If you are lucky you would be doing that on a motorized pirogue, otherwise it would be a rowing one. Or you could be farming, but not inside Lubunga, you have to get out of Lubunga. There are two main roads out of Lubunga; the railway and also a road going south all the way to Ubundu. And then you have another road going west and then south. That’s the road that used to go all the way to Kinshasa until the early ’60s, it goes through Kasai and then west all the way to Kinshasa. But now it’s been over 40 years since the roads just disappeared because they were not tarmacked, so the forest grew back and took over everything. Along those two roads there are people farming. They grow cassava or plantains and some fruits like pineapples and bananas, corn, maybe rice. Everyone else would be surviving on selling a couple of soap bars outside their house. If you were young, what would you do in the evening? You would go to the church, you would be involved in some activity at your church. Girls become pregnant quite early over there, so boys as well get married early. What would you do in Lubunga? If you are ambitious I think you would dream of leaving Lubunga.
B: What are the potentials you see in Lubunga in the long term?
F: I once read something very interesting. It’s by Sony Labou Tansi, who is a writer from Congo who died many years ago. Sony wrote in some book: “Tout était par terre, même la terre était par terre.” Everything had fallen to the ground, even the earth had fallen to the ground, but the people were still there. Of course that’s very optimistic to say that the people are still there and you have youth. Maybe it’s even blindly optimistic in that for those people and for that youth to be an asset, we need to invest today. I don’t know of anything that is being done in that sense. We need to invest in their physical and mental health so that those people in the long term really become a generation with assets. So that’s what I see and maybe that’s the whole idea. What kind of space can we set up that takes into account the fact that the people are still here and what role can I play to turn that potential into an asset? How can I play my part? It will definitely be working on a very small scale. But at least I can start something there so that I’m not only waiting for God knows what to come. I should go in there and just play my part. But hey, everything is on the ground, even the earth has fallen to the ground. But you are still here. We are still here. So what is it that we can start imagining, now. We know that demographically we represent 20 percent of Kisangani but concerning political, economic investment we count for what? 0.1 percent? Good, but what can we invest in ourselves. Green power, imagination, and maybe then when we start speaking from that perspective, it’s like the city speaking from its weakest or rather most fragile territory. Suddenly. We go here and say okay fine it’s a black hole, but we are still here. Maybe we have a matchbox and we start lighting a fire. And maybe it will get big enough to be noticed.
I was reading this by Aimé Cesaire, a Caribbean writer, thinker, political figure, it’s an introduction to a poetry collection : “L’inégale lutte de la vie et de la mort, de la ferveur et de la lucidité, fusse seule du désespoir et de la retombée. La force aussi toujours de regarder demain.” A translation would be: “The unequal struggle between life and death, between enthusiasm and lucidity, even if it’s only the lucidity of desperation but also the strength to always look forward to tomorrow.”
So again yes, it goes back to the people, to individuals, to those who can be lucid about the situation but who would be stubborn enough to look forward to tomorrow. That’s the potential that I see there.
B: You intend to start on the individual level.
F: Yes, that’s where it starts. I can only start from there. Especially in a country where there has never been any space for individuals. The history of this country is that of turning individuals into just a herd, a mass, statistics. So if we can imagine a project where we begin to think from the individual point of view, not to cut off the sense of community, no, but actually not to take the community as a given but rather as something that needs to be constructed – and it can only be constructed by individuals who feel responsible for that sense of community – then there is hope for something. Otherwise no one will ever be responsible for anything. So it should be all about articulating this strengthening of an individual voice with a larger sense of belonging to a greater picture. Maybe that’s why as an artist I insist quite a lot on this idea of names. When I talk of my work as an attempt to remember my name, it is that with the name, of course you are at the level of an individual, you are identified as an individual. But if you are serious about the name, you can never afford a collapse into yourself, because the name opens up a world of relationships: Relationships to place, to history, to families, to other people and that’s what’s really interesting. It’s focusing on individuals and trying to see how they can be able to say their names and to say: my name is, and I live in Lubunga, and if I live in Lubunga I know what it means. I have dreams!
B: The consequence would be to start investigating Lubunga or working in Lubunga on Lubunga, doing something there on an individual and small scale?
F: It’s about building an infrastructure where people can come together, a small group of people at first. Because you need to build trust for anything to happen and you cannot build trust with a mass immediately. So a small group of people who can believe in this madness. It’s crazy really to imagine a project there, especially if you are not a politician seeking people’s votes. In fact I am sure that at first people would think: what does he want? What’s going on in his head? What’s the hidden agenda? So it’s about building a small group of people who trust each other and who begin to look at what’s going on around them, reflect on that amongst themselves. Then, if you have let’s say ten individuals who were brought together there, you can be sure that there are at least ten families that are beginning to get involved indirectly. Through this you begin to actually have an indirect impact on a slightly larger circle. It’s about setting up a process. A process that will take time, it will take years, but at least some people, mainly young people can come together and begin to analyze what is going on around them and begin to think about what it is that we can do. And then as an organization like Studios Kabako, we can provide a platform for that to happen and also creative ways of sharing that with others. And then this can become like a platform where that group of people really work around questions of water in Lubunga. They go around, talk to people and they document that and come up with a film, go and see the authorities, the district chief, the major of the city of Kisangani or the governor of the province and say: this is what is happening. They give it a shape that can exist even in the media here. I hope it would have more impact than just once every five years during the election campaigns politicians going there and then people saying: “Baba, hatuna ta mai uku”, because we call politicians baba - father. Father we don’t have water here. And then yes, we don’t have water, do something for us! And then what? But if you go there and say: If we had ten pumps distributed like this, it would serve that and that population. We would concretely begin to propose solutions for our own things. Maybe a dialogue. Such a project cannot replace a government initiative. That’s not the idea. It’s about trying to get voices channeled. While doing that, and because I still believe in the power of the arts, may be some artistic voices could begin to come up, artistic voices that could be supported and nurtured through the Studios Kabako.
B: So is it about articulating needs and desires?
F: Even remembering that we have needs. It’s in Lubunga but it’s also the situation of the people in this country in general. We’ve grown so accustomed to not having anything that we have even forgotten that we have any desires and needs and rights. Already if we can just remember that we have that, that’s a first step. Maybe it’s a dangerous one, to remind someone who was born to believe that being hungry is the normal state of being that actually it’s not, maybe it’s like throwing a bomb in someone’s head. There is always something to remind me of how hungry we are as a people and maybe I do what I do because I acknowledge that we are hungry. And I don’t want to be alone in that journey, it’s like trying to infect others around me and Lubunga being so dear to me, it’s important for me that the people around me in Lubunga begin to share a bit more my world as well. Otherwise the only way to share my world will be when I give them a hundred dollars every now and then, because a family needs the money to pay the children's school fees. But is there a way of sharing my world at a deeper level? Of course it’s necessary, it’s important to give the one-hundred-dollar bill, but can I share something with them? So is the answer yes? Do I want yes? So make the space for that to happen.