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Jeunes, culture de la rue et violence urbaine en Afrique / Youth, Street Culture and Urban Violence in Africa

 | 
Georges Hérault
, 
Pius Adesanmi

Kinshasa. Summary

Tshikala K. Biaya

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Youth, street culture and violence

1The expression Kinshasa mboka ngele (watch out in Kinshasa) signifies the existence of a street culture and the phenomenon of street children against which, a colonial decree was enacted as far back as 1950. It also underscores the popular perception of the violence already in existence in the city by the end of the Second World War. Since 1939, there has been an increasing migration of young rural dwellers to Kinshasa in search of employment, educational opportunities or a more comfortable life with relatives. Today, the city’s population is estimated at about 4.5 million. Kinshasa is also regarded as the city of pleasure and has been the seat of political power since the excessive centralization of political authority from 1966. Thus, the city has all the characteristics of a polar city. War and rebellion (1960-1967) forced thousands of children and youth to migrate to the city. These immigrants, who were for the most part orphans or separated from their families, had to join street gangs in the absence of structures of integration. They have their own slang – indoubill.

2Since 1950, Kinshasa has been characterized by poverty, unemployment and the regular expulsion of unemployed youth back to their villages of origin. This policy of controlling the population of youth through violent ejection betrays the dearth of new investments which would have regenerated the domestic market apart from creating new employment opportunities. These two evils, unemployment and poverty, have resulted in inciting the youth to violence. Being undesirable elements in the city, these youth organize themselves into street gangs in order to resist exclusionist political and economic policies. They survive by foisting a mimesis of violence on the society. They subjectify themselves by transforming violence to a way of life and a means of survival.

3In Kinshasa, eight categories of street gangs can be distinguished by age and types of activities. Those in children’s gangs (moineaux, 4-8 years; bana shege 8-13 years) thrive on begging, petty thefts and other small occupations in the market. Adolescent gangs exist side by side (bana imbwa, ballados and phaseurs) and even interchange members. These gangs are often independent and are led by an adult member (a delinquent between 23-29 years) from the Ngiriba group or by a member of the kraneurs, usually an unemployed family man above 30 who lives on unholy transactions. Sometimes, these adolescents join gangs of young adults who are astute crooks (the bana mayi, 18-25 years). Violence is the golden rule which determines self-sustenance or movement from one group to another. It also enables one to get fully integrated, to impose oneself on peers or conscript young ones.

4The reduction and the eventual disappearance of employment opportunities first stimulated the growth of a ‘petty trade economy’ and the informal sector, which the economic crisis has transformed into Zaire’s dominant employer of labour: 7.5 million people worked in this sector in 1990. Youths find succour in this flourishing sector which is not spared by violence. Here the flagrant exploitation of child labour is observable. Young girls are drawn into prostitution either by parents or relatives, as the case may be. This sector also harbours occupations which are well known in Africa, but have been given a new impetus in the Zairean context by that country’s economic and cultural peculiarities. Such occupations carried out by youngsters include: kadafi (for the sale of petrol); quado (vulcanizers); ‘coup de pouce’ (labourers); res or wayambar (motor-park touts). Some actors are engaged in the local fabrication of toys while others deal in drugs (matiti – hemp – for poor people and twabi – cocaine/heroine – for whites and some rich Zaireans). Those youth who cannot be absorbed by this sector have taken to violence as a means of livelihood. This violence comes in different forms and has become part of a dialectic, without which the structures of livelihood based on resourcefulness (libanga or ‘stone’) cannot work. This dialectic includes: (a) violence among street children and their gangs, (b) violence of youth in uniform, (c) violence by thugs of political parties, (d) mob justice, (e) violence against the weak and the poor, (f) symbolic and linguistic violence, (g) vandalism and (h) violence associated with prostitution and drugs.

5The democratic transition which commenced in June 1990 created a situation of political chaos and the resultant conflicts generated various forms of state violence on the one hand, and forced people to take their destinies into their own hands, on the other. In this state of anomie, the rule of law and justice disappeared and were replaced by several survival strategies and irregularities which are unabashedly rooted in violence. Sometimes youth in uniform were recruited by individuals to execute private assignments or to protect them from the growing insecurity. These youth who were recruited in the world of the street often linked up with con men and criminals in rebellion against their employers.

6The two spheres of activities in which youth operate (part-time jobs and daily violence) are not independent of each other. Like the second, the first is instituted and maintained by violence. It encapsulates the exploitation of children and a host of other illegal activities (theft, assault, reception and sale of stolen goods) sometimes masked by a semblance of legality.

Conceptual framework: structural violence

7Violence in Kinshasa is structural in as much as it is not a pathology. Rather, it forms part of the physiology of the social system. It is a constructed reality whose immediate causal factors are: unemployment, war, competition for power, growing poverty, early sexual activity (and its demographic implications), and religion. The targets of violence are the child, the youth and the family; its venue is in the street. A proper conceptualization of this violence will reveal the fact that its specificity lies in the vitiation of childhood (and adolescence); it has also rendered inferior the position of minors on the social ladder – they clean the city, they are politically exploited, and their gangs are sometimes controlled by adults.

Reintegration policies and possibilities of change

8Today, the number of street children between the ages of 8 and 15 in Kinshasa is put at 10,000. The combined population of career street children and children on the street (between the ages of 4 and 28) has been put at 35,000. This figure implies that 2.3% of Kinshasa’s 1.5 million youth (0-29 years) are affected. This is an alarming situation. Insufficient statistics and the insufficiency of active reeducation centres make it difficult to redress the situation of needy children and youth in the city. Even if they learn particular skills in these centres, the chances of putting such to practice are very slim in a labour market whose absorption capacity has been shrinking since 1973. The situation was made worse by the political disturbances of 1991 and 1992, which resulted in continuous insecurity as well as a rapid disintegration of the economic fabric.

9National policies aimed at curbing delinquency and violence in Kinshasa date back to 1950. These policies were modified by two successive reforms in 1959 and 1978. The Zairian government established a categorization which recognized people from 0-21 years as official minors. It also established juvenile tribunals and reeducation centres for the young. These centres situated at Madimba and Benseke-Futi in Kinshasa never really worked at optimal capacity and now are deserted. Yet, adolescents are still thrown into the prisons in Makala and Ndolo. The response of the state to gangsterism, crime and armed robbery, regularly orchestrated by youth and deserters from the army, has generally been ruthless: death penalty, the granting of arbitrary powers to security services, deportation of youth to far, unknown places; forced conscription into the army, etc.). This situation of violence and insecurity has given birth to a number of religious NGOs. These religious NGOs came into being with the financial assistance of foreign-sponsored NGOs in the country. They run open or institutional centres for jobless children. In addition, the parishional departments manage the distribution of health services and food. Government restricts itself to coordinating and providing a judicial backing for these alternative action NGOs, which all fall under the umbrella of the National Council of NGOs in Development. This Council is in turn sponsored by agencies of the UN (UNICEF, UNDP, UNFPA, etc.).

10Short-term solutions can hardly be effective in a troubled context made worse by an economic crisis which has brought about social and domestic anomie. However, mobilization remains a priority if children and their families are to be reunited, and if we are to put an end to a configuration of violence in which street children are both producers and victims. A long-term solution must envisage the drafting of a charter on street children and youth. The experiences of other regions of the Third World where the vitiation of childhood is denounced provides a good starting point. The structures of local and secular NGOs must be reformed to make them more dynamic. Rather than waste money and energy on unproductive ventures, it is more reasonable to reinforce and extend the action of the existing religious NGOs, so that they can reach out to a greater number of children and youth through the promotion of strategies of social and professional integration within the context of an economic revival.

© IFRA-Nigeria, 1997

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