The newly published book, Searching for Hell, follows teams of filmmakers around the globe as they produce segments for the documentary of the same name. For the film segment set in the Congo, director, James Kenney, places us in the first-person POV of a child accused of being a witch. The boy becomes our guide as he searches for his mother in the vast pockets of tribal neighborhoods of Kinshasa, known to its inhabitants as Can City, because most of the structures are a precarious combination of cinder blocks and corrugated tin roofs.
Kinshasa is a mass of people estimated at nearly ten million. No one knows its exact population, because the poverty is rampant, and the government is insufficient for the care of its citizens. The majority of the city is divided into nests of alliances – invisible to strangers – who just see a sprawl of chaos mostly without running water or electricity. Tenuous wires snarl through alleys and across rooftops, attempting to tap into any grid. The din bustle of people is constant.
And yet James writes that he felt safe there:
I had read that it was moderately dangerous in Kinshasa, but after spending a few days there, I was surprised by the dichotomy of seeing relatively few police and yet general order among the people. I witnessed no crime. I asked my guide how this was, and he explained, in his broken Belgian-English, that people mostly stay in line because the consequences of not doing so are severe. Before 1960, under colonial Belgian rule, one could have a hand, or even a foot, cut off by machete for each infraction—such as not meeting your quota or causing unrest. Baskets of hands displayed the power of the King, and in Belgium you can still buy little chocolates in the shape of hands. The mostly docile culture is also a continuation—city-mind-thought—of the strong-arm dictator, Mobutu. He introduced the doctrine of Article 15, “debroulle voi”: suggesting to his people that they just get by, fend for themselves, hustle, finagle; however you need to, just don’t do anything too violent or serious and definitely nothing against the government. Under Mobutu, you could be sent to prison without trial and tortured for years, and then you might be mysteriously released and appointed to the government, where you would surely be an obedient minister. The memory of these rules survives into modern Kinshasa. I have certainly felt less safe in cities in the United States.