I stumbled upon the mini-series Africa Riding (2018) on Youtube two years ago. Apart from the clever play on the problematic notion of ‘Africa Rising’, what I found gripping while watching the short episodes was the angle: the exploration of urban culture in African cities via the perspective of the youth that ride in them. Enter skaters in Accra and Dakar, BMX riders in Kampala and rollerbladers in Kigali for whom ‘the ride’ was a place of joy and refuge. The series stood out because even passable content on urban Africa is rare. Too much of it stands in the shadow of the ‘actual’ Africa content on Youtube: slum tours and game-drives in the savanna.
While doing some excited googling after spotting the inaugural issue of an indie print magazine orbiting under the hashtag #AnAfricanCityStory on Instagram, I recognized French-Senegalese journalist and film director Liz Gomis a co-director of the Kigali Episode of Africa Riding. For the African City Lover that I consider myself to be, OFF TO Magazine, founded by Gomis less than two years ago, was love at first sight. Three days later, when the parcel containing the freshly printed, 150-page magazine arrived, I was sold. After its release in February 2021, the second issue of OFF TO also swiftly found its way to my lap.
Unlike Accra, I have never been to Kinshasa (yet), but generally maintain high levels of curiosity about African Cities. A sense of space and place distorted by colonialism and its afterlives mean that as an East African, an anglophone West African city will feel more familiar than a Francophone one in Central Africa even when the latter, as in my case, is much closer to home. In this context, any publication that aims to tell #AnAfricanCityStory in two widely spoken languages on the continent (French and English) is by all accounts groundbreaking.
My curiosity was generously rewarded. Only a few pages in, I learned that Kinshasa is the world’s fifth most expensive city, and a fifth of its 15 Million residents struggle to put food on the table every day despite obscene amounts of mining-money circulating there daily. The resulting “deep hustle”, as writer Sarah Bitamazire describes it in her article The Hustlers Code is not only a catchy description. As the subsequent pages reveal, it is a large part of the exceptional drive that defines the city in almost every aspect.
I immediately recall two exceptional works (filmed on-location in Kinshasa) that explain why this Issue landed on fertile ground in my case. The first is Baloji’s bold experimental film Zombies (2019), whose praises I will never stop singing, and whose costume design the magazine’s cover reminded me of. The second is Alain Gomis’ Film Felicité, the most tragic and beautiful film I have seen in the last decade. For filmmaker Dieudo Hamadi, who is interviewed in the Magazine, Felicité (2017) is essentially a compressed version of Kinshasa. For him, “Kinshasa is a film set, a musical city, and art city, a theatre city where people are characters by default. It is a place full of stories”. Having watched the aforementioned films, his words feel less like platitudes and more like the critical observations of a Kinshasa resident born and raised elsewhere but enthralled nonetheless. “The beauty” Hamadi contends “always finds a way in”.
It is this discreet beauty that the Kinshasa issue of OFF TO tries to harness for a larger audience. Importantly, the magazine does not cater to tourists, or travellers particularly. It is the open-minded, curious and critical reader that will take away the most from the publication’s depth. There are, admittedly, a few odd moments: it was hard for me to shake off the feeling that Kintambo Nostalgia, the last story about the city’s oldest district Kintambo, uncritically romanticizes a colonial Kinshasa of the 1950s, going as far as advising readers to avoid certain areas which are no longer ‘what they once were’.
However, while many have descended on Kinshasa to photograph its famous extravagant Sapeurs in recent years, OFF TO’s portrayal of regular Kinoise living their lives and quietly making an impact for their city is the magazine’s main selling point. From photographer Nizar Saleh, whose images dot this issue, to former Kanye West team member Titia Kandolo, who now produces clothing under her Made in Africa label Uchawi. The most memorable quote is from an interview with the ‘Poet of the City’, Sinzo Aanza, who muses that many Kinoise are indeed able to dream beyond what is instituted, signalling an imminent and necessary triumph of the imagination. OFF TO Kinshasa is the most immersive, complete and informative hommage to Kinshasa, the megalopolis affectionately called Kin, currently available. That alone warrants space in as many shelves and coffee-tables as possible.
Flip through OFF TO Kinsahsa
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Eric Otieno Sumba
I am a decolonial scholar working at the intersections of social justice, politics, the economy, art & culture. I enjoy reading, dancing, cycling, and cappuccinos without sugar.