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The pursuit of pleasure in a war-weary city, Butembo, North Kivu, DRC

Kristien Geenen (UGent)
(2012)
Author
Promoter
Filip De Boeck
Organization
Abstract
The current study focuses on the city of Butembo, North Kivu, Democratic Republic of Congo, and attempts to offer an all-embracing view of this city. This dissertation is roughly divided into two parts, one that discusses the bright side of the city, and another one that reveals its dark side. By the bright side, I refer to the city’s outward image, to its business reputation and its glorious coverage worldwide. Indeed, Butembo an important trading nod in the area, and it is widely praised as an exemplary city whose citizens fend for themselves whereas the state fails to fulfil its duties. Beyond this visible surface however, lies a hidden reality, a reality I refer to as the dark side, and which involves local initiatives and views that are given less exposure, and contrast with the widespread laudatory image. The study is structured along consecutive chapters that gradually disclose different facets of the city. The first chapter of the part on the bright side, aims to introduce Butembo to the reader, and to get acquainted with the singular atmosphere that lingers about the place. Butembo is very much turned towards itself, fenced off from the outside, and its inhabitants cherish this seclusion and immerse their world in secrecy. These particularities are defined and elucidated through the analysis of a local myth. The myth stars a foreign flower, which originated from the Amazon basin but drifted its way into Congolese waters somewhere in the late 50s. The Congolese gave this water plant the appealing name “the New Congo,” a name that exudes expectations of a better future. Alas, along with the flower came trouble, as its unusual rapid spread caused severe damage, clogging the powerful – and economically important – Congo river. The colonial authorities mobilised the population in an effort to eradicate the New Congo-flower. In areas that were so far free from the overgrowth, such as the North Kivu province, pamphlets and posters were preventively spread, with the request to destroy the flower wherever it would show up. People of Butembo reacted in a most particular way to the appearance of these posters in their midst, ascribing the New Congo-flower mythical proportions right from the start. Bubolais, as the inhabitants of Butembo are called, had no idea that the flower had appeared elsewhere in Congo, nor that it was a nuisance to be cleared. In their interpretation, the anticipated appearance of the flower in their midst, was a sign that a “New Congo” would rise in their very town, endowing their place exclusively with a particular force. I scrutinise the myth’s origin and analyse its social meaning, in an effort to better understand Butembo’s society. I proceed by translating local narratives about the event into a reading of the city as a whole. An analysis of the myth indeed reveals several features of the city, and this knowledge turns out to be most helpful in order to fully capture the rendition of Butembo that follows. The most prominent of the features that the myth teaches us, is the city’s seclusion, the way it is turned toward itself, the way it embraces its secrets, trying to keep them out of reach of anyone, or anything, “strange.” I also outline the functionality of the myth, as it is suitable to sustain the glorious image of the city. In short, with this first chapter, I aim to confront the reader with the particular atmosphere that lingers in the city, a background that helps to shed light upon topics that are treated in the following chapters. After this introductory chapter, I discuss the bright side of the city in full in a second chapter which discusses the growth of the city. It contains an elaboration on the successful trading movements across national and continental borders. I outline the previous and current flows of trade, and contextualise the coming to power of a group of local traders. This second chapter also includes a brief outline of the history of the Nande people. Butembo is a fairly mono-ethnic city (about 70 per cent of its inhabitants belongs to the Nande ethnic group) and being Nande is said, by numerous informants, to be at the origin of Butembo’s peculiarity. As such, I include digressions on the socio-cultural background of Butembo’s inhabitants where useful to arrive at a broader understanding. Finally, the chapter considers at length the development of the built environment of Butembo, and explores how the “autochthonous city, ” as they call it, is perceived by its inhabitants. The link between this first part on the bright side of the city and the next one on its dark side, is made by chapter three on the (failed) electrification of the city. The city’s obscurity is a constant source of annoyance to its inhabitants. Night sets in at 6:00pm sharp each day, and the ensuing darkness brings about feelings of insecurity, not to mention the numerous additional inconveniences. In fact, the lack of power affects each and every person in daily life. Although private and public actors undertook many attempts to bring power to the city, all these efforts remained fruitless, as an overview will highlight. What is interesting about an analysis of the numerous failed projects to electrify the city, is that it offers a glimpse at the city’s power relations at the very same time. As such, the chapter sheds more light on the way Bubolais relate to different bodies of authority. In so doing, the bright image of the fend-for-ourselves-city gradually weakens as underlying tensions within the local society surface. The origins of the violence that takes a stranglehold on the city every so often, will be explored too, as it impinges upon the existences of every single Bubolais. Then follows the part on what I have called the dark side, which is an indispensable part of the city as well, and this part contains three chapters. In chapter four, I explore Bubolais’ pursuit of pleasure, map out spaces of social encounters and elaborate upon the once openly exposed but now hidden nightlife. I wanted to find out what moves the people of Butembo, where do they go to have fun, and what does “fun” mean in a war torn place? After a general overview of nightlife, I will elaborate upon prostitution in Butembo in chapter five. Finally, I focus more closely on the city’s countless cabarets in chapter six, as these seemed the places where numerous people usually met. A cabaret is a private dwelling where its owner – usually a single woman – serves home-brewed alcohol and offers sexual services. She uses her bedroom as a chambre de tolérance. Additionally, this room may be hired by the hour by clients to withdraw with a guest they bring along. Usually, a cabaret bears no signage at all, and from the outside, there is nothing much to be seen. Unless one is accompanied by a regular customer, it is difficult to recognise a cabaret. Yet, cabarets may be found everywhere, from the centre of the city to its more remote outskirts. Authorities turn a blind eye to the cabarets, and officially these places are non-existent, but they are omnipresent in local discourse, private as well as public. Their sheer invisibility in the built environment stands in sharp contrast to their major importance. In this sixth chapter, I outline how these places gradually became an interface between outsiders and insiders, and how prostitution plays a major role in connecting the city to the outside world. As such, cabarets are not only sites where prostitutes or wambaraga tune in to what is happening outside their town, they are also places where fresh immigrants search for an entrance into the secluded city. New faces are screened thoroughly – as Bubolais treat foreigners in general with utmost suspicion – but the homely atmosphere of a cabaret eases attempts at integration. I have a particular interest in the representational realm of the cabarets, both in figurative as well as discursive terms; I analyse the whole range of vocabulary used to mask what is going on, and explore how clients and neighbours on the one hand, and cabaret owners and their servants perceive their working activity and space on the other. Cabarets have multiple functions: pleasing clients, exchanging job offers, spreading rumours and sharing frustrations. It is exactly in these places, and by lending an ear to its regulars, that my biased image of the bright city became disrupted. One of the recurrent complaints captured over and over again, concerned the way that the city is run and the excessive power of a couple of wealthy traders. To call this part of the city its “dark side,” might seem contradictory, as while elaborating the chapters, the reader will understand how important the cabarets really are, in contrast to the connotations of darkness or unseemliness. As I proceed through the chapter six however, it will become clear that these obscure cabarets are in fact spaces of sociability with an undeniable importance that contribute to the functioning of the city in many respects. Finally, I present my conclusions, and I outline how my approach to this secondary city – an all-embracing approach – contributes to broader literatures in urban anthropology.
Keywords
Kivu, DRC, Butembo, urban anthropology

Citation

Please use this url to cite or link to this publication:

MLA
Geenen, Kristien. “The Pursuit of Pleasure in a War-weary City, Butembo, North Kivu, DRC.” 2012 : n. pag. Print.
APA
Geenen, Kristien. (2012). The pursuit of pleasure in a war-weary city, Butembo, North Kivu, DRC. KU Leuven, Leuven, Belgium.
Chicago author-date
Geenen, Kristien. 2012. “The Pursuit of Pleasure in a War-weary City, Butembo, North Kivu, DRC”. Leuven, Belgium: KU Leuven.
Chicago author-date (all authors)
Geenen, Kristien. 2012. “The Pursuit of Pleasure in a War-weary City, Butembo, North Kivu, DRC”. Leuven, Belgium: KU Leuven.
Vancouver
1.
Geenen K. The pursuit of pleasure in a war-weary city, Butembo, North Kivu, DRC. [Leuven, Belgium]: KU Leuven; 2012.
IEEE
[1]
K. Geenen, “The pursuit of pleasure in a war-weary city, Butembo, North Kivu, DRC,” KU Leuven, Leuven, Belgium, 2012.
@phdthesis{4080465,
  abstract     = {The current study focuses on the city of Butembo, North Kivu, Democratic Republic of Congo, and attempts to offer an all-embracing view of this city.  This dissertation is roughly divided into two parts, one that discusses the bright side of the city, and another one that reveals its dark side. By the bright side, I refer to the city’s outward image, to its business reputation and its glorious coverage worldwide. Indeed, Butembo an important trading nod in the area, and it is widely praised as an exemplary city whose citizens fend for themselves whereas the state fails to fulfil its duties. Beyond this visible surface however, lies a hidden reality, a reality I refer to as the dark side, and which involves local initiatives and views that are given less exposure, and contrast with the widespread laudatory image. The study is structured along consecutive chapters that gradually disclose different facets of the city. 
The first chapter of the part on the bright side, aims to introduce Butembo to the reader, and to get acquainted with the singular atmosphere that lingers about the place. Butembo is very much turned towards itself, fenced off from the outside, and its inhabitants cherish this seclusion and immerse their world in secrecy. These particularities are defined and elucidated through the analysis of a local myth. The myth stars a foreign flower, which originated from the Amazon basin but drifted its way into Congolese waters somewhere in the late 50s. The Congolese gave this water plant the appealing name “the New Congo,” a name that exudes expectations of a better future. Alas, along with the flower came trouble, as its unusual rapid spread caused severe damage, clogging the powerful – and economically important – Congo river. The colonial authorities mobilised the population in an effort to eradicate the New Congo-flower. In areas that were so far free from the overgrowth, such as the North Kivu province, pamphlets and posters were preventively spread, with the request to destroy the flower wherever it would show up. People of Butembo reacted in a most particular way to the appearance of these posters in their midst, ascribing the New Congo-flower mythical proportions right from the start. Bubolais, as the inhabitants of Butembo are called, had no idea that the flower had appeared elsewhere in Congo, nor that it was a nuisance to be cleared. In their interpretation, the anticipated appearance of the flower in their midst, was a sign that a “New Congo” would rise in their very town, endowing their place exclusively with a particular force. I scrutinise the myth’s origin and analyse its social meaning, in an effort to better understand Butembo’s society. I proceed by translating local narratives about the event into a reading of the city as a whole. An analysis of the myth indeed reveals several features of the city, and this knowledge turns out to be most helpful in order to fully capture the rendition of Butembo that follows. The most prominent of the features that the myth teaches us, is the city’s seclusion, the way it is turned toward itself, the way it embraces its secrets, trying to keep them out of reach of anyone, or anything, “strange.” I also outline the functionality of the myth, as it is suitable to sustain the glorious image of the city. In short, with this first chapter, I aim to confront the reader with the particular atmosphere that lingers in the city, a background that helps to shed light upon topics that are treated in the following chapters.  
After this introductory chapter, I discuss the bright side of the city in full in a second chapter which discusses the growth of the city. It contains an elaboration on the successful trading movements across national and continental borders. I outline the previous and current flows of trade, and contextualise the coming to power of a group of local traders. This second chapter also includes a brief outline of the history of the Nande people. Butembo is a fairly mono-ethnic city (about 70 per cent of its inhabitants belongs to the Nande ethnic group) and being Nande is said, by numerous informants, to be at the origin of Butembo’s peculiarity. As such, I include digressions on the socio-cultural background of Butembo’s inhabitants where useful to arrive at a broader understanding. Finally, the chapter considers at length the development of the built environment of Butembo, and explores how the “autochthonous city, ” as they call it, is perceived by its inhabitants.  
The link between this first part on the bright side of the city and the next one on its dark side, is made by chapter three on the (failed) electrification of the city. The city’s obscurity is a constant source of annoyance to its inhabitants. Night sets in at 6:00pm sharp each day, and the ensuing darkness brings about feelings of insecurity, not to mention the numerous additional inconveniences. In fact, the lack of power affects each and every person in daily life. Although private and public actors undertook many attempts to bring power to the city, all these efforts remained fruitless, as an overview will highlight. What is interesting about an analysis of the numerous failed projects to electrify the city, is that it offers a glimpse at the city’s power relations at the very same time. As such, the chapter sheds more light on the way Bubolais relate to different bodies of authority. In so doing, the bright image of the fend-for-ourselves-city gradually weakens as underlying tensions within the local society surface. The origins of the violence that takes a stranglehold on the city every so often, will be explored too, as it impinges upon the existences of every single Bubolais. 
Then follows the part on what I have called the dark side, which is an indispensable part of the city as well, and this part contains three chapters. In chapter four, I explore Bubolais’ pursuit of pleasure, map out spaces of social encounters and elaborate upon the once openly exposed but now hidden nightlife. I wanted to find out what moves the people of Butembo, where do they go to have fun, and what does “fun” mean in a war torn place? After a general overview of nightlife, I will elaborate upon prostitution in Butembo in chapter five. Finally, I focus more closely on the city’s countless cabarets in chapter six, as these seemed the places where numerous people usually met. A cabaret is a private dwelling where its owner – usually a single woman – serves home-brewed alcohol and offers sexual services. She uses her bedroom as a chambre de tolérance. Additionally, this room may be hired by the hour by clients to withdraw with a guest they bring along. Usually, a cabaret bears no signage at all, and from the outside, there is nothing much to be seen. Unless one is accompanied by a regular customer, it is difficult to recognise a cabaret. Yet, cabarets may be found everywhere, from the centre of the city to its more remote outskirts. Authorities turn a blind eye to the cabarets, and officially these places are non-existent, but they are omnipresent in local discourse, private as well as public. Their sheer invisibility in the built environment stands in sharp contrast to their major importance. 
 In this sixth chapter, I outline how these places gradually became an interface between outsiders and insiders, and how prostitution plays a major role in connecting the city to the outside world. As such, cabarets are not only sites where prostitutes or wambaraga tune in to what is happening outside their town, they are also places where fresh immigrants search for an entrance into the secluded city. New faces are screened thoroughly – as Bubolais treat foreigners in general with utmost suspicion – but the homely atmosphere of a cabaret eases attempts at integration. I have a particular interest in the representational realm of the cabarets, both in figurative as well as discursive terms; I analyse the whole range of vocabulary used to mask what is going on, and explore how clients and neighbours on the one hand, and cabaret owners and their servants perceive their working activity and space on the other. Cabarets have multiple functions: pleasing clients, exchanging job offers, spreading rumours and sharing frustrations. It is exactly in these places, and by lending an ear to its regulars, that my biased image of the bright city became disrupted. One of the recurrent complaints captured over and over again, concerned the way that the city is run and the excessive power of a couple of wealthy traders. 
To call this part of the city its “dark side,” might seem contradictory, as while elaborating the chapters, the reader will understand how important the cabarets really are, in contrast to the connotations of darkness or unseemliness. As I proceed through the chapter six however, it will become clear that these obscure cabarets are in fact spaces of sociability with an undeniable importance that contribute to the functioning of the city in many respects. 
Finally, I present my conclusions, and I outline how my approach to this secondary city – an all-embracing approach – contributes to broader literatures in urban anthropology.},
  author       = {Geenen, Kristien},
  keywords     = {Kivu,DRC,Butembo,urban anthropology},
  language     = {eng},
  pages        = {278},
  publisher    = {KU Leuven},
  school       = {Ghent University},
  title        = {The pursuit of pleasure in a war-weary city, Butembo, North Kivu, DRC},
  year         = {2012},
}