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Fieldwork in the Democratic Republic of Congo

Children, Kinshasa (Clara Devlieger, 2015) The lead dancer of Raka-Raka, a music group of disabled musicians (Clara Devlieger, 2015) Two disabled border workers pose for the camera (Clara Devlieger, 2015)In Kinshasa, adult disabled people live in tension with society around them, as their impairments are associated with preconceptions of incapacity, mendacity and violence. I spent 18 months conducting research with these individuals as they interacted with state and non-state actors, managing their identities in the public and private sphere.

Giving special attention to everyday experiences, I focused on economic niches, such as begging and border activities, on which disabled people lay a claim in the absence of social security. While these controversial activities often reinforced stigma in the public sphere, an income making it possible to have and care for children was an essential way of emancipating from the stigmatising gaze of disabled people as ‘batu pamba’, ‘worthless people’.

Their everyday means of dealing with hardships ranged from dance and music, the cultivation of social networks, investment in reputation, and, above all, a good sense of humour. These they cultivated further in organised campaigns for integration through musical expression, theatre groups, and political organisation. Examining these tensions, my research hopes to contribute to debates on ideas of value, personhood, rights, obligation, reciprocity and aspirations to a welfare state that are particularly salient in Kinshasa’s turbulent political and economic climate.

From top right:

For people with disabilities in Kinshasa, having children is the ultimate expression of wealth in people, and caring for them forms an important part of everyday life.

The lead dancer of Raka-Raka, a music group of disabled musicians, gets ready to go into handstand as he dances during the filming of their first music video.

Bravado, negotiation skills and humour are important qualities for participating in border activities. Here, two disabled border workers who have just finished a round of transporting goods across the Congo River from Brazzaville pose for the camera while their friend laughs on in the background.