Academic journal article African Studies Review

The Apocalyptic Interlude: Revealing Death in Kinshasa

Academic journal article African Studies Review

The Apocalyptic Interlude: Revealing Death in Kinshasa

Article excerpt


Temporality in contemporary Kinshasa is of a very specific eschatological kind and takes its point of departure in the Bible, and more particularly in the Book of Revelation, which has become an omnipresent point of reference in Kinshasa's collective imagination. The lived-in time of everyday life in Kinshasa is projected against the canvas of the completion of everything, a completion which will be brought about by God. As such, the Book of Revelation is not only about doom and destruction, it is essentially also a book of hope. Yet the popular understanding of the Apocalypse very much centers on the omnipotent presence of evil. This article focuses on the impact of millennialism on the Congolese experience, in which daily reality is constantly translated into mythical and prophetic terms as apocalyptic interlude.

Résumé: Le concept de temporalité dans le Kinshasa d'aujourd'hui est d'une espèce eschatologique bien particulière et trouve son origine dans la Bible, plus précisément dans le livre des Révélations, qui est devenu un point de référence omniprésent dans l'imagination collective des habitants de Kinshasa. Le temps vécu de la vie quotidienne à Kinshasa est comparé au canevas de l'achèvement ultime, un achèvement qui sera accompli par Dieu. En tant que tel, le livre des Révélations ne se concentre pas seulement sur la fatalité et la destruction mais c'est essentiellement un livre d'espérance. Et pourtant, la conception populaire de l'apocalypse tourne principalement autour de la notion du mal. Cet article se concentre sur l'impact du millénarisme sur l'expérience congolaise, dans laquelle la réalité quotidienne se traduit constamment en termes mythiques et prophétiques comme interlude prophétique.

Les morts qui n'ont pas de vivants sont malheureux,

aussi malheureux que

les vivants qui n'ont pas de morts.

(Without the living the dead are unhappy,

as unhappy as

the living without the dead.)

(Sony Labou Tansi, 1979)

Introduction: The Place of Death hi the Realm of the Apocalyptic Interlude

This article intends to explore the changing place and meaning of death and time in one of Africa's largest cities, Kinshasa, capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo.1 As in other cities around the continent, Kinshasa is marked by the rise of Christian fundamentalism as propagated by a great number of Pentecostal churches and other "miracle" churches of spiritual awakening.2 Since the early nineties, these new churches have become the norm rather than the exception. Drawing hundreds of thousands to their prayer meetings, they have gradually come to supplant other, often more syncretic, prayer movements and independent churches that sprang up during the long life of the Mobutist reign. They have also been very successful in attracting a great number of Christians who previously identified themselves with the traditional Catholic and Protestant "mother" churches. This new strong wave of flourishing faith that has overtaken the city of Kinshasa and Congo as a whole is set against the backdrop of a socioeconomic and political context marked by deep crisis, war, and material conditions of hardship, hunger, lack, and poverty. Without any doubt, the harsh living conditions that prevail throughout the country have contributed dramatically to the rapid spread of these new church movements.

One of the central questions this article addresses is what happens when people's material conditions of life become so incredibly hard that their very conceptions of what constitutes reality are affected. I will try to provide some answers to that question by looking at the changed place of death in this urban world and by analyzing the apocalyptic time scale that the churches have introduced and that profoundly pervades daily life in Kinshasa, a city that feverishly attempts to make sense of its own crisis. In such an urban context, the religious transfiguration of daily urban reality, with its juxtapositions and contradictions generated in the "telescoped" experience of the passage of time and of events as laid out in the Bible, and more precisely in the Book of Revelation, produces a constant and often astonishing switch from the social to the semiotic, leading to what could be described as an overproduction or an "overheating" of meaning that gives expression to a disturbing unmooring of the social imagination. …

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