Congo needs fewer metanarratives from the West and more of this

A still from the film.
A still from the “Kolwezi on Air.”

Following the Democratic Republic of Congo’s highly politicized implementation of its decentralization policy–also known as découpagea new province, Lulaba, was created. It’s capital is Kolwezi which is also one of the major mining towns in what used to be Katanga, located in the southern DRC. In Fiston Mujila’s new novel, “Tram 83,” Kolwezi, like many other cities in Katanga, is described as a melting pot. Migrant workers from neighboring provinces such as Kasai, but also southern Africans, especially from Zambia, encounter there mining multinational corporations from China, Australia, Canada, and Belgium.

Kolwezi also happens to be the site of a unique media experiment: Radio Tele Manika, the largest local radio-and television station in the city, more popularly known by its acronym RTMA.

Radio Tele Manika is now the subject of a documentary film. The radio host Carlo Ngombe usually greets his listeners with this poem: “Kolwezi, be the land where vagrant breeze will sing me a symphony of justice. But above all Kolwezi be the inexhaustible source, from which I will draw a persisting zeal, and most importantly an oblivion of bitter memories.”

Reporters in Kolwezi, have to prove very adaptive by transforming different constraints into opportunities. Gaston Mushid Mutund, director of production at RTMA, drives through a miner’s town at the outskirts of the city, and explains that the ordinary residents do not have access to political authorities, but if the media covers an issue it can spark political reactions. Since “newspapers are only published in Kinshasa, 2,000 kilometers from here,” video and audio outlets have to highlight recurrent issues in mining towns such as the lack of proper sanitation, or the need to trust a doctor, not a magician with the treatment of HIV/Aids.  

RTMA reporters, hosting segments in French and Kiswahili, have differing talents. Patrick Busasa alias “Top One,” is a very confident man as his nickname might indicate. He sees himself as a role model of the Katangese media scene, a perfectionist, who often is a sound technician, cameraman, and moderator at the same time. He interviews popular artists such as Sando Marteau , or D’laranta, whose song “Au Nom du Seigneur openly challenges the corruption, which characterizes one of Katanga’s thriving new business models: the church and its self-made preachers.

Fidelie Muyongo is another RTMA talent, not fazed by what she describes as societal prejudice against female journalists. One of her segments covers the dining characteristics of Chinese residents of Kolwezi, and their fondness of Skol, one of many excellent Congolese beers. The exchanges portrayed in the segment were a very different perspective from the usual metanarrative of “China-in-Africa”, which is too often mediated by Western intermediaries with their own agendas.

By showing RTMA intimately engaging with issues in Kolwezi, the film indirectly manages to portray the distance, and bias from which international-, or even national media outlets would engage with local complexities. This is especially salient in the context of the DRC, a country that knows recurrent metanarratives and objectification all too well.

“Kolwezi on Air” also shows that RTMA’s crew is not afraid to take on local politicians. Whether it’s scrutinizing the salary gap between employees of the state-owned railway company SNCC and Members of Parliament (monthly wages $80 and $8000 respectively), the expulsion of tradeswomen from the market, or questioning a ruling party politician over his claim that the constitution merely exist in order to obtain foreign aid, RTMA is on it. Ironically, the politicians often demand from journalists to justify the failures of the Congolese political class, and criticize them for what they call “deceiving the masses.”

Being a reporter in Kolwezi is far from easy. “There are realities of power that we face.” Especially when questioning the activities of “the powerful,” journalists in the DRC are frequently intimidated, and private stations shut down. Other forms of power also pose challenges. Congo’s notoriously inefficient power company SNEL, is a frequent source of blackouts and technical failures, causing delays in segments, which anger RTMA’s advertisers.

On the radio, Carlo Ngombe’s voice constantly accompanies Kolwezi’s citizens in their day-to-day lives:  “We are no victims and there’s no culprit. We have a capacity to adapt that many people on earth do not have. So our precariousness, but especially our self-preservation, our ability to get by should command respect, not compassion, but respect.”

These words not only characterize the psyche of Kolwezi’s 500,000 residents, but also very well describe the objective of the film. Some might argue that the film engages in the “glorification of the local”, and it could do more to highlight the broader realities of political, economic, and historical dynamics of Kolwezi, Katanga, and the DRC (colonial history, multinational mining, etcetera). But director Idriss Gabel and his team have recognized that the international perception of the DRC has already been shaped sufficiently by controversial metanarratives about why Congolese people are constantly victimized. If one considers the coverage of RTMA carefully, the discourse of its reporters, and their encounters with mining sites, state employees, politicians, magicians, Chinese residents, and musicians all embody this assemblage, which defines Kolwezi’s broader reality.

More importantly, “Kolwezi on Air” achieves to demonstrate what makes RTMA’s perspective so important. The station embodies the struggles of Kolwezi’s residents, whether they are coping with power outages, making ends meet, or having to pursue multiple obligations simultaneously. The DRC needs less objectifying metanarratives from the West, and needs more RTMA’s.

George Kibala Bauer

George Kibala Bauer is completing a MA in international economic policy at Sciences Po in Paris, concentrating in African studies and emerging economies.

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