Academic journal article Africa

'Sleep Occupies No Space': The Use of Public Space by Street Gangs in Kinshasa

Academic journal article Africa

'Sleep Occupies No Space': The Use of Public Space by Street Gangs in Kinshasa

Article excerpt


This article deals with issues of territoriality, public space, the microphysics of power and street gang life in the current urban context of Kinshasa, capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo. In this city, a growing number of street children invade the public places. They team up in gangs and scour the streets in search of a location to settle (for a while). Along with their appropriation of public space, these gangs encounter several actors such as the city authorities, shop owners, tenants or rival street gangs. Before any settlement, deals have to be closed since every inch of the city is negotiable. All participants get involved in these negotiations, for no one is considered marginal, certainly not the street youth who are inextricably bound up with Congolese society. This contribution considers this dynamic field of negotiations through a focus on space and analyses it from a Foucauldian angle. It explores how gang members develop particular ways to control their territories and exercise power in them. Additionally, it examines how street youths manage to construct a home in the streets and make sense of their urban environment in the process.


Cet article traite de la territorialite, de l'espace public, de la microphysique du pouvoir et de la vie des gangs de rue dans le contexte urbain actuel de Kinshasa, la capitale de la Republique Democratique du Congo. Un nombre croissant d'enfants des rues envahissent les lieux publics de la ville. Ils se constituent en gangs et deambulent dans les rues en quete d'un endroit ou s'etablir (pour un temps). En s'appropriant l'espace public, ces gangs croisent des acteurs divers comme les autorites de la ville, les commercants, les residents ou gangs rivaux. L'etablissement temporaire d'un gang fait l'objet de negociations, le moindre centimetre de ville etant negociable. Tous les participants se melent a la negociation, personne n'etant considere comme marginal, certainement pas les jeunes des rues, inextricablement lies a la societe congolaise. Cet article examine ce champ de negociation dynamique a travers le prisme de l'espace et l'analyse sous un angle foucaldien. Il explore la maniere dont les membres des gangs developpent des methodes particulieres pour controler leurs territoires et y exercer leur pouvoir. Il etudie par ailleurs comment les jeunes des rues parviennent a construire un foyer dans les rues et, ce faisant, a donner un sens a leur environnement urbain.


In the Democratic Republic of Congo the governing agencies (in the broadest sense) fail to provide some of the most elementary public services to the population, which is pushed to support itself. In an attempt to make ends meet, the city dwellers of the capital, Kinshasa, turn their seemingly desperate surroundings into promising ones through exploring what de Boeck (de Boeck and Plissart 2004: 225) defines as 'the possibilities of the (im)possible'. They actively defy their precarious socio-economic conditions and they do so with an outstanding creativity (Trefon 2004; Nlandu 2002; Emizet 1998; Mwanza 1997; de Herdt and Marysse 1996). These creative outbursts are perceptible in the city's (physical) public space. Kinois driven by commercial ambitions and social practices of all kinds occupy every disposable inch of the capital. Mamans ya bilanga grow cassava on traffic islands (Mianda 1996) and pasteurs say their prayers in the open air (Kuyu Mwissa 1996: 19). In a gradual and individual way, inhabitants have literally invaded the urban margins, the grey area between buildings and streets. Stalls selling telephone cards and stationery, workshops and garages, bars and brothels all thrive on the sidewalks with minimal infrastructure, if any at all. A steadily increasing number of street children join this invasive movement. Teamed up in gangs, they comb the streets in search of a location to settle down (for a while) and convert it into their home. …

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