Kisangani. A photo novel on the failure and paradoxes of a
colonial Utopia in six chapters. Pep Dardanyà
Kisangani, once known as Stanleyville, named after its founder Henry Morton Stanley, is a city in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in Central Africa. It might also be called Kurtzville, since it is here, beside the Congo river, where Joseph Conrad placed Kurtz, the main character in his novel The Heart of Darkness. A place cast far from “civilization” where Kurtz built an autonomous state in which there was neither reason nor ethics. The biographical story of Marlow, the other character in the novel, travelling upriver in search of him has become an inevitable reference to the criticism aimed at African colonialism.
Reaching Kisangani is still difficult today. In fact travelling to the D. R. of the Congo is impossible without a “mission order” issued either by the United Nations Organisation, a multinational company working there or an international Non Governmental Organization with consolidated projects in the area. This “order” allows you to get a visa which is indispensable if you wish to enter the country. It is also totally forbidden to take photographs or videos throughout the country without a special permit signed and sealed by the “competent authorities” for “security reasons”. The authorities and people in the republic are particularly zealous to ensure compliance with these prohibitions is met. The plundering of the material and symbolic resources which the country has suffered for so many years is perhaps the reason for this zeal. Yet this prohibition implies not only added difficulties for those who want to show what is happening there in pictures, but this generates a corrupt system of collecting kickbacks which is just another fragmented sign of the general system of power which has spread to all social relationships. These corrupt relationships not only affect foreigners but especially the Congolese themselves. One simply cannot fathom this complex system of hierarchy of power without putting it into context with the difficult ties of dependence which this has caused over the years.
The city was built at the end of a navigable stretch of the Congo river, far from the capital of Kinshasa, at a bend in the river just before reaching the falls. Stanleyville was an important river port during colonial times and vast amounts of ivory, wood, minerals and precious stones were exported from here to the capital and the rest of the world. As the prosperous city grew, the wealth from extracting the country’s resources legitimised the colonial utopia, which could be seen in its urbanism and architecture. The city was built with the basic principles of this utopia: education, literature, tourism, art, religion, but above all industry, tied mainly to exploiting the mineral resources in the area. Between 1950 an 1960 the rise this utopia coincided with the social and workers’ independence movements.
The resulting architectural and heritage of urban planning is still visible today, though most buildings have been transformed and reoccupied. The building of the old Congo Palace Hotel, built in 1960, has become home to some three hundred families who crowd the former rooms. Urban legends have it that Patrice Lumumba, the first president of the new independent state of Zaire and his partners in the Mouvement National Congolais once stayed there. The facade has become a large canvas where marks can be seen from all the battles the city has suffered. L’Athénée Royal, the work of architect Georges Loosen, opened in 1955, though now practically in ruins still works as a school. The pupils still sit at the desks left by the Belgians, at one of which Jean-Claude Van Damme sat when he was a child, one of the favourite sons of Stanleyville. The almost empty space where the old University library once lay now contains a total of two hundred and fifty books, most of which are old and rotting. The Laboratoire Médical de Stanleyville, a building also designed by architect Georges Loosen in 1953 and funded by UNESCO, is now occupied by the Faculté de Médecine linked to the Université de Kisangani. The laboratory is still in use surrounded by the rust which taints the research instruments. Instruments that were used between 1957 and 1960 by the researchers in doctor Hilary Koplowsky’s team in search of a new vaccine for poliomyelitis. One of the hypotheses of the origin of AIDS involves this laboratory when HIV passed to humans while inoculating this vaccine, which contained chimpanzee cells, to over one million people, both in the Congo and neighbouring countries. The Espace Culturel Ngoma now stands where the old theatre l’Athénée Royal used to stand. This is now a meeting place for the young locals where they play and present their free shows of Rap and Hip-Hop.
Yet, apart from the old areas and their new uses, the most surprising thing about this emblematic city is the brightly painted fronts of the shops which buy and sell diamonds. Diamonds are still a symbol of the city constantly reminding its population that the colonial Utopia came to an end but not the ties of economic dependency and corrupt social structures inherited from it. The Maï-Maï, paramilitary groups armed to the teeth, are in charge of controlling the mines and the traffickers who cruise through the avenues in their luxurious black Hummers remind the selfless average man that everything is possible in this new city of wonders, even losing one’s life trying to photograph it.