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Clara Devlieger

Clara Devlieger

Affiliated Researcher

Research Interests

Central Africa (specifically Democratic Republic of Congo and Republic of Congo), borders, the political and moral economy of disability, value(s), welfare, personhood, belonging, identity politics, urban anthropology, citizenship.

My research centres on the lives of physically disabled adults (the majority of whom are polio survivors) in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) as they engage in controversial activities on which they lay a claim in the absence of a national social security system. A large proportion of disabled people in Kinshasa make a living through economic niches such as group begging and working as intermediaries on the border between Kinshasa (DRC) and Brazzaville (Republic of Congo).

Their impaired bodies and their contested strategies of making a living create tensions with society around them, as they are frequently associated with preconceptions of incapacity, mendacity and violence. Reacting to the negative stereotypes associated with them, their everyday means of dealing with hardships range from dance and music, as well as the cultivation of social networks and investment in reputation.

While controversial, at times their activities prove to be lucrative, and it is through these means that disabled people describe dramatic changes to how they have been perceived throughout their lives. Begging and border activities often reinforce stigma in the public sphere, but an income making it possible to have and care for children is an essential way of emancipating from stigmatising gazes. From being considered as ‘batu pamba’, ‘worthless people’ to ‘grand responsables’ ‘big men’ and back again, polio survivors who have been disabled since childhood have experienced prominent changes to how they are perceived in society. In my research, I consider the diverse stereotypes with which disabled people are associated, how they manage their identities in the public and private sphere, and how they ultimately pursue social respect or ‘valeur’ in different spheres of their lives.

The rapidly fluctuating nature of how disabled people are perceived in society gives insight into changing ideas about  personhood and value in the urban environment. Examining these tensions, my research hopes to contribute to debates on ideas of rights, obligation, reciprocity, cultural values and aspirations to a welfare state that are particularly salient in Kinshasa’s turbulent political and economic climate.