The girls of Kin don’t wear lipstick. They walk the streets of Mbakabi, Avenue Lumumba, past Bobozo and 4E Rue in sandals, long wrappers, sometimes kitambalas, and “Jaria” gold link chains dangling across their foreheads because Tabu Ley’s dancers do–-mettez vos mains en l’air! Blessings says that isn’t Tabu Ley, that’s Sam Mangwana or Zaiko, see you country folk don’t know anything. She’s always saying things like that, ending every other sentence about them being too country, too mapeka, while jutting out her hip and sticking up her nose like a curious Basenji pup. So they wear their sandals, and maybe wrappers (but the youth prefer the Parisian style), and Jarias, and mascara, and sometimes blush but they don’t wear lipstick because no one wants to look like a maquillage ya midi. You’re trying too hard is what people will say.
But it’s only later in 1977 or sometimes after that, it is hard to say when, that Mpongo Love’s hummingbird vocals would begin ringing in all the bars (Victrola record players, transistor radios) and her cover of Ndaya was on every girl's mind when they swarmed the salons, wanting the look of such a belle. Louise “Louisa” Djidja Mokongo had thought it was all silly, still sees it as a childish passing fad is what she tells older sister Nelly. But she also taps her foot to the beat as Femme commerçante drifts from the radio in the other room and Nelly stands over her in the bathroom, finishing the braids on the head of Louisa Djidja Mokongo.
Page eight of a wrinkled La Mode Française magazine rests open on the bathroom sink, the piercing yet smudged face of Brigitte Bardot (Why She Turned her Back on Stardom! Look what Jeanne Moreau was caught wearing!) seeing better days before sitting in the basket at the local wenze off of Petit Boulevard de Limété. The issue is seven years old and Émilie’s husband sends her the newest magazines all the way from Bruxelles because his job at Air Zaïre had sent him there four years ago, and she always mentions it. Did you know? She says he’s still working on getting her visa so she can visit or stay, but really how long does it take to finish visa papers. She is suspicious but pretends not to be. And Nelly had attempted to say all of this to Tonton Alfonse after he brought the two Mokongo sisters these magazines, tried to tell him about Émilie from down the street, and Air Zaïre and please we only want magazines no older than three years but Louisa Djidja Mokongo had given her sister’s arm a quick pinch. Because.
Tonton Alfonse is dark, his skin softly sketched with deep set wrinkles and resting kind eyes. He tells the Mokongo sisters (his little nieces or something they’re not really sure how they’re related but he has always been part of the family) that Gustave at the local wenze has increased his prices. Tells them that he thinks it’s absolutely absurd because, you see tu vois, he had to haggle longer than usual only to get a few makuta knocked off the full price. And this is how it went down: Ezalia ntali mingi. Too expensive. Kakola mote! The Mokongo sisters listen to this story, this twenty-four-minute-thirty-two-second story (side quests, plot twists, backstories fully included) before repeatedly thanking Tonton Alfonse for the gift and for the dishes (ndakala fish, kwanga cassava, and rice). He says you girls are too thin, just too thin. Papa Mokongo rolls his eyes at this because that’s what Alfonse always says. But a few years later Papa Mokongo will welcome the food that Tonton Alfonse brings him at the radiation oncology unit. He will tell him that Alfonse’s cassava has always been his favorite and that, tchip, he has really tired of the hospital food at the Centre Médical de Kinshasa, my God.
Oh Mario, Luka ata mwasi yo moko obala--oh Mario, look for one woman to marry Mario, mosala kolinga ba mama mobokoli--you have a tendency to go after older women Basuka yo te ?--will you ever get enough of them?
Lelo makambo lobi makambo nalembi - today problems, tomorrow problems I’m tired Lelo bitumba lobi koswana nabaye - today fighting, tomorrow quarrelling, I hate it
--Mario by “Le Grand Maitre” Franco et O.K. Jazz, 1985
So the Mokongo sisters prepare themselves in the bathroom, Nelly touching and retouching the thick coils on Louisa Djidja Mokongo’s head. She’s proud of her work, and she keeps saying this but Louisa Djidja Mokongo is certain that her older sister only feels a little guilty because she didn’t invite her to go to Mama Wanlongo’s salon de coiffure earlier. Because the elder Mokongo sister had gone three days ago on Monday with Isabel and Vitaline. Mama Wanlongo is a friend of a friend so Nelly got a discount on her hair. How many New Zaïres? The hairstyle is called the Nadina or the Boya Yé (Nelly continues to refuse to wear glasses so the truth will remain a mystery), and it is braided knots sectioned into four with threaded dark ribbons. Elder sister Nelly is known in Kin for her hair, the tight chunky curly-q’s dark like soil after a long morning rain. Morning dew. Nelly knows this and owns it. Today is a special occasion and Nelly thinks she looks sharp so she says this, several times in fact, to the bathroom mirror, in the sun room, out the backdoor, and to two unsuspecting men waiting for the taxi bus on the corner of Minikongo and Kwenge.
(But what Louisa Djidja Mokongo doesn’t say is that she could have done her sister’s hair herself for half the price, and a Michael Jackson cassette).
The streets of Limété softly beat to the patter of motorbikes, fula-fula trucks, a few vendors (Mboté! Yaya, sister, these bracelets are one of a kind!) chatter, specs of dust. It’s hot in Kin, it’s the dry season, and the Mokongo sisters stand underneath the shade of a hyphaene petersiana (or palm tree), fanning themselves with 1971 La Mode Française magazines. They listen to the other Zaïrois waiting for the next taxi bus and discussing the latest re-airing of The Rumble in the Jungle at Mafuta’s Bar & Lounge because when do you think Ali will build those centers and businesses he had promised? Ali, boma ye! Don’t hold your breath. Tchip.
And so the Mokongo sisters find themselves standing here on a hot Saturday on the corner of Minikongo and Kwenge, not wearing lipstick but painted in some mascara and blush and sandals and their best wrappers (marigold, chartreuse, crimson patterned). Nelly likes to go out with friends to take pictures in photo booths and go to the discotheque. She dances to M’bilia Bel, shoulders shaking, and pretends to enjoy candy cigarettes because the girls who travel for work to France and Switzerland do. Louisa Djidja Mokongo doesn’t go out, prefers to read magazines on the back porch, eating pondu with fufu sticky fingers. So it’s odd to see Louisa Djidja Mokongo out and about because Louisa Djidja Mokongo rarely goes out and about, which is why Paulin does a double take from his bwaka nzoto food stand down the street. She’s also beautiful and, yes, all of Kin knows this.
But today is a special occasion, because the Mokongo sisters are leaving the City of Kinshasa for the first time and no one really leaves the City of Kinshasa. They walk the streets of Kingabwa Uzam, Quartier Masiala but on this day, at this moment, they are going to Brazzaville, travelling across the Congo River to head to a mantanga for the passing of their friend’s great grandmother. There is no formal invitation, just word of mouth, and the mantanga began yesterday but it’s okay because they can last for days.
The hippo pulled. Great waves churned up the river. The elephant pulled! Earth was ploughed into clods. The hippo pulled, the elephant pulled! Great clouds of dust and spray rose into the air. The water beat against the shore, the earth crashed into the water! The noise was so great, the antelope bolted in panic and ran off to ride. –Excerpt from Congolese folktale, “Prince Tortoise”
The Mokongo sisters are tall, but they are not Baluba tall (they are the tallest and everyone always stares) because Papa Désiré Mokongo is Basakata and Mama Sala Kwasi is Bacongo. It had been a scandal before, the mixing of different tribes, but Nelly has dated a mutéké, two bayakas, a mutetela and currently a mupende but she wants to take a break “to focus on herself.” Nelly says things have changed now, their generation is different and who cares what the elders think? The people of Kin dance to soukous and shake their hips and James Brown bought a townhouse down here in the district of Gombe but he hasn’t visited since 1975. The Mokongo sisters are tall but Nelly is the shorter of the two, and she is known for her hair in Kin. She plucks her eyebrows and borrows their cousin’s high heels even though Angelique keeps telling Nelly not to. One year Nelly had a short afro after reading Steven Biko articles, and Louisa Djidja Mokongo thought she looked particularly sophisticated. Louisa Djidja Mokongo has a wide nose that flirts when she smiles or laughs, crinkle lines, but she doesn’t do either that often because everything is too boring.
Louisa Djidja Mokongo is tall and slender and says she can’t dance but when no one is looking, she likes to shimmy to O.K. Jazz (but everyone always tries to look because she is Louisa Djidja Mokongo and they find her oh so interesting). Men say to her no one in Kin is as beautiful as you are, yaya, trés jolie, but she doesn’t pay any attention. Louisa Djidja Mokongo is beautiful and all of Kin knows this. She likes to watch the planes take off at N’dolo Airport and spook the fishes (putterfish, cichlids, elephantfish) in the Funa stream as they leap around with surprised o shaped mouths. The Mokongo sisters live in the house at the end of Mutebe. It’s Papa Mokongo’s and he says he will leave it to his two daughters when he passes. He will leave the house and some land in Lingwala and his personal collection of philharmonic orchestra Suisse choir records.
And there are many rooms in Papa Mokongo’s house because Tantines Jeannette, Lucy, Marie Antoinette, and Ornella live in the three rooms down the hall. Then there are two cousins Eugene and Winner but they prefer to sit on the front porch and talk to all the Zaïrois walking on Mutebe street, like look at our new dance moves, we want to be on Live Télé Zaïre! Felix, Fala, Esau visit when they can, and they tinker with all the appliances in the house because they enjoy working with their hands. They promise they will try to fix the generator at some point soon because they tried taking it apart three months ago and lost the manual. The house was built back in 1956 by Papa Mokongo and his older brother who died before it was completed so their names are carved in the cement of the back patio. No one likes to talks about it.
And it’s always too loud at Papa Mokongo’s house, (laughter, off-key singing, talking) and
people come and go as they please-–mboté, Papa! Nsimba, Chantal, Fortunat, Maxime, Arthur, Boniface, Julienne, Gaeton, Magalie, Corinne, Patchou, Guyguy, Willy, Rodrigue, Marie
Pauline, Dylan, Marie Rose, Ernest, Zöe, Dieudo circle in and out of Papa Mokongo’s house, the
house on Mutebe but before Popokabaka, you can’t miss it. And that’s how life has been for the
Mokongo sisters. That is Kin.
"The Sapeur cult promoted high standards of personal cleanliness, hygiene and smart dress, to a whole generation of youth across Zaire. When I say well-groomed, well-shaved, well-perfumed, it's a characteristic that I am insisting on among the young. I don't care about their education, since education always comes first of all from the family."
--Papa Wemba on La Sape movement, Disco Magazine Kinshasa 1980 (Societe des Ambianceurs et des Personnes d'Elegance or Society of Ambiance-ists and People of Elegance)
Kinshasa wasn’t always Kin, it had been Leopoldville until 1966 and this is what Louisa Djidja Mokongo is thinking as she stands on the barge with her sister, hair windswept, and watches as it moves away from the dock. She is too young when the country gains independence, too young when Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba is assassinated, young when the Belgian Congo becomes the Republic of the Congo becomes Zaire. Kinshasa wasn’t always Kin. But Louisa Djidja Mokongo still remembers President Kasa-Vubu visiting her school and when Mavuzi shoved her out of the way to shake the President’s hand (he has a picture of that day and continues to show it when he can, have you seen it?). Louisa Djidja Mokongo had worn the Lycée Français René Descartes Kinshasa uniform and Mama Sala, sucking her teeth, tchip, twisted Louisa Djidja Mokongo’s hair, piling the kinky strands on top of her bean-shaped head.
The barge is large, streaked with old cars and sun-kissed Zaïrois who shade their faces with the back of their dark hands. It is only a few minutes away by barge, Congo-Brazzaville, and the water bubbles and churns minty, seafoam, emerald colors against the metal. The Mokongo sisters took a taxi-bus full of a family of five, one priest, a man carrying a small cage with two roosters, and walked the streets of Itaga, Limyaya, Luisa–hey, look! Men offered them a ride on the back of their motorbikes in Centre Ville, grins of heyy, yaya, stretching their mouths. They say boni-o how are you, such kojazze, and Louisa Djidja Mokongo only had to give Nelly a brief look before pinching her arm again. Because. Tchip. So they catch the barge at the docks, gasping as they had to run, and the barge is free so the crewmen shake their heads when Louisa Djidja Mokongo offers them some makuta. It’s nothing, thank you.
It is dusk when the pair reach the mantanga in Congo-Brazzaville, the skies a darker shade of boysenberry and rice wine, but they can hear rumba music and people before finding the house. The houses are painted yellow, red, gold, separated with large gates, barbed wires, and Louisa Djidja Mokongo wonders if Europeans live here. She says they are always everywhere, like sand that sits in your shoe and no matter how hard you shake it, there’s always some bits remaining in between your toes, I swear God is my witness. But the two Mokongo sisters find the house, find the mantanga, and their friend who is pleased to see them, bushy eyebrows raised and dimples. It is the sisters’ first time in Congo-Brazzaville, away from Kin, and it’s a special occasion. Their friend shows large posters of her great grandmother, stoic, in black and white. The house is full of people, doors opening and closing, hot humid breeze. Their friend says her great grandmother lived to be almost a hundred, and people always think I look like her, do I? There is a live band in the backyard, blue plastic chairs set up, and tantines fanning themselves with crinkled Disco Kinshasa papers.
One of the bandmates says his name is Paul but he’s changing it because the uncle he is named
after drinks too much, what do you think? He is short and has almond eyes and taught himself to
play the guitar with a shoebox and rubber bands when he was eight. His hands are calloused. He
has lived his whole life in Congo-Brazzaville but two years later they will bump into him in Kin,
in the streets of Binza Kinsuka, at a Jimi Hendrix cover band concert. They all look different, tu
vois, but also the same so it takes a moment for them to remember. Is your name still Paul? What
did you change it to?
No matter how full the river, it still wants to grow. --Congolese proverb