Borderlands produce flows of people and commodities, but as 'in-between' places they also produce social and cultural hybrids and transformations. Within these cross-border economies, transformations take place on both material and conceptual levels. Thus, the body involved in trade networks in the borderland is subject to different socio-economic and corporeal transformations. As a borderland, Beach Ngobila, the official border crossing point at Kinshasa facing Brazzaville, creates a lot of economic opportunities for the Congolese population. It is a means of cushioning the present political and especially socio-economic situation in D.R. Congo that causes hardship, especially for people with disabilities who belong to the lower end of society. However, Beach Ngobila creates a specific situation: those most marginalized by society are advantaged and successful at the borderland through border trade activities. As a result their participation at the border zone questions the notion of "disability" in modern Congolese society.

Setting the Scene

Next to being a metropolis in constant change, Kinshasa is first of all 'une ville fleuve' 1 , a major capital at pool Malebo, which is a widening of the Congo River. At Beach Ngobila, the official port of Kinshasa, the commotion is almost overwhelming. The border zone daily witnesses thousands of people coming and going from both sides of the mighty Congo River that separates them. The border area employs various people such as carriers, 'pousses-pousseurs' (chariot drivers), saleswomen, local sellers of cigarettes and water, mechanics, 'cambistes' (money changers), prostitutes and so on. The office in charge of the ferry transport on Kinshasa's side of the river is ONATRA or l'Office National des Transports. At the other side of the river, at Beach Brazzaville and the ATC (l'Agence des Transcongolaise Communications), circumstances are similar. Comparable amounts of people attempt to get on the 'bac', a ferry with the name Matadi that crosses the river several times a day. Among them are a great number of people visiting their families, or attending music festivals and other events. There are different kinds of migrants, and many merchants, mostly selling at the ports ('libongo' in lingala) or one of the nearby markets ('wenze' and 'zando' in lingala). The Beach is at times very vibrant, but it is not without tensions. As Belgian anthropologist Filip De Boeck described the place:

Upon entering Beach Ngobila, the first, violent, impression is that of cannibalistic space which swallows everyone, and which sucks one down into a swirling maelstrom of soldiers, vendors, custom officials, traders, fishermen, street children and travelers. Beach Ngobila also spits people out. Crossing the river from Brazzaville to Kinshasa, Beach Ngobila is a place of warm welcome and homecoming for some. For others who leave Kinshasa's shores and cross the river in the opposite direction, to Brazzaville and beyond, it is a place of promise, the exit from a city they always dreamt of leaving behind (De Boeck, 2004, p. 14).

One phenomenon that certainly catches the eye is the amount of people with physical impairments that are trying to get on the ferry. Many among them are paralytics, polio survivors or people who became disabled through traffic accidents or through other forms of violence. At the border Congolese people with paralysis often drive vehicles heavily packed with cargo that is sometimes hidden underneath a cloth. A Beach visitor might also see visually impaired people that carry bags on their back with one hand, and have another on the shoulder of a guide leading them through the chaotic border zone. Deaf people are present but less visible. Here we will mostly discuss the group of traders with paralysis. Traders with a physical disability specialize in bakery products, manioc, soap, palm oil and products from the butchery (Cappelaere, 2011; Devlieger, 2009; Smith 2003). More research could indicate whether and why specific groups of people with disabilities specialize in specific products.

Sometimes the products are piled up on a 'vélo bac' 2 with the person with a disability sitting on top of it while others —helpers- are pushing the load. The several governmental officials, typical of the official border zone, are familiar with the sight of the disabled traders and their commodities that are leaving or entering the country. However, the spectacle does not go unnoticed, as many people are attracted to the strangeness of the event. Western travelers that have visited Beach Ngobila immediately recognize the phenomenon when talked about and express surprise when witnessing this surrealistic scene. Local and international media have reported on the phenomenon. In the last two years even a number of documentaries on this particular subject appeared. 3 In Western eyes the event is strange because of the unexpected high number of people with physical disabilities in one place. Another surprise is the fact that traders with a disability are actually dominating the business. Next there is also the aggressive behavior of both officials and merchants that accompanies the theater-like events at the border zone.

In many countries people with disabilities find it difficult to conduct certain activities (e.g. employment) or fulfill specific social roles (e.g. marriage). Moreover, people with disabilities still have to face prejudice and stigma. According to P. Cappelaere (2011) the Congolese word 'bamuela' means "those who are physically disabled and subject of pity" (my translation, p. 86). The border traders in D.R. Congo are defying traditional and widely held ideas about the roles and abilities of persons with disabilities. Various related factors enable the traders with disabilities to dominate a specific economic niche in the borderland: the construction of a specific legal frame, power negotiation, particular forms of hybridity through technology and an unexpected creation of disability identity at the border zone.

Trade between Two Capitals

Keeping in mind the political and socio-economic situation of D.R. Congo, formerly Zaire, it is not surprising that there is a lot of movement going on at the country's borders. The diamond trade between East Congo and Angola is well known. Less known are the kinds of trade at African borders in which people with physical disabilities play a crucial role. Such trade occurs in places such as the border between Bukavu (D.R. Congo) and Ruzizi (Rwanda), and at the Congolese border with Burundi. The same phenomenon of people with disabilities trading at the border can be found in different countries all over the world. This research will focus on the transborder trade between Kinshasa and neighboring Brazzaville, the two closest capital cities in the world.

Brazzaville (Democratic Congo) and Kinshasa (Democratic Republic Congo) are situated north and south of pool Malebo, at the river Congo. The inhabitants on both sides of the river belong to the Bakongo, Bangala and Batéké and speak the same language, namely Lingala and Kikongo. In both countries, the governmental and administrative language is French. The people at both sides of the border share the same traditions and customs. The short distance between both capitals, often named for that same reason 'villes miroirs' or 'twin cities', allows for an enormous interchange of people, commodities and money. Kinshasa exceeds in surface area, population and population growth and is politically and economically less stable. As a result it is more chaotic.

Migration between the two sides of the river Congo dates back to pre-colonial times. Gondola (1997) describes the different migrations between both shores, in early age mostly due to forest-savannah-ocean commercial relations. The colonization by the French on one side, and the Belgians on the other made for a tabula rasa and redistribution in the area of pool Malebo. Consequently this led to the coming about of different kinds of traffic. 4 The economic crisis of the 1930s influenced the subsistence potential of many Africans who depended on European markets for their employment. Thus the crisis intensified the commercial and professional lines between the two colonies. After independence traditional models of grouping were replaced by systems that allowed a better socio-economic functioning, namely socio-cultural groups. 5 According to Gondola:

C'est la fin du systè me 'traditionnel', reconnaissable au caractè re figé de la distribution des rôles sociaux et économiques, en faveur d'un systè me plus dynamique où le parcours de l'individu échappe au déterminisme de sa naissance ou de son état. [It is the end of the 'traditional' system, recognizable by the fixed character of its distribution of social and economic roles. This is in favor of a more dynamic system where the trajectory of the individual escapes from the determinism of birth or nation] (p.279).

After 1960, the openness of the border region depended on the stability of political relations between both countries. In October 1968 the assassination of Pierre Mulele, a PSA parliamentarian and a revolutionary, caused a temporary interruption of diplomatic relations between Brazzaville and Leopoldville (Kinshasa). As a result, traffic was closed. However, social and economic relations necessitated the signing of a peace contract in June 1970. This allowed for the reopening of the border for one day a week. It is clear that the strong socio-economic relations between both countries provide a basis for the enormous migration flows and the necessity of an open border between the two shores.

The Creation of an Economic Niche

Beach Ngobila and Beach Brazzaville create a specific situation: those most marginalized by society are advantaged and thus successful at the borderland through trade activities. Belgian anthropologist Devlieger (2009) described part of the local and global mechanisms at play after visiting the Beach in 2006. One way to explain the existence of this phenomenon is through macroeconomics. The massive economic collapse in D.R. Congo of the 90s produced the need for many locally unavailable products. A huge demand for these commodities allows for the import of goods. For instance, Kinshasa imports jeans, fabrics with wax prints, cosmetics and many agricultural products. When these products reach the shore, they are sold at local markets in Kinshasa or transported into more remote locations in the country. A second important pillar for transborder trade is the difference in currencies and product prices. Because of the inflation in D.R. Congo during the 90s money lost its value and prices fluctuated all the time whereas currency and prices in D. Congo (Brazzaville) more or less stayed the same. Product prices in Kinshasa went up while purchasing power of the people went down. Thus the franc CFA in D. Congo became a stronger and more reliable currency pursued by traders (Kongo, 1986). In contemporary D.R. Congo currency and prices are still unstable.

The success of the traders with a disability within the system of transborder trade also relies on several microeconomic factors. Their overpowering participation in trade is based on a bilateral resolution between the two countries. Since the 70s, a law from Mobutu allows people with disabilities to cross the border every Monday, Wednesday and Friday at a discount. The merchandise of traders with disabilities is mostly unregulated by custom officers. An explanation for this is that custom officers are unwilling to go through all the merchandise that is piled up on the tricycles. Another explanation could be the dubious status of traders with disabilities; other Beach visitors do not just pity them, but also fear disabled traders or suspect them of being smugglers. Newspaper articles often mention 'tracasseries' (hassles) at the border zone. The general lack of control at the border means that many uncontrolled and hidden goods, some of them illegal, reach both sides of the river. At the border between Goma and Gisenyi this illegal system is indicated by the term 'chora chora.' 6 Local news sometimes refers to traders with disabilities as part of the 'fraud' networks that employ custom and migration officers from Onatra and Dgm (le Direction générale de migration). Interviews with persons with disabilities make clear that they are often themselves the victims of extortion.

Due to the 1970s law people with disabilities pay fewer or no taxes on their transported goods. As a consequence of their advantageous position, many merchants appeal to traders with disabilities to transfer their merchandise for them to the other side of the river. Border officials state that people with disabilities take on a special position within the network of merchants, merchandise and markets. They are called 'passeurs' or 'facilitateurs' 7 between the merchants of Kinshasa and Brazzaville who now have to pay less to get their merchandise to the other side. For every transported package merchants pay up to 1500 or 2500 francs congolais (two or three American dollars) which is still cheaper than transporting the goods themselves and paying taxes (Tshiala, 2011).

Traders with disabilities are allowed to employ a limited number of helpers (sometimes called 'porteurs' or 'doublures'). Helpers push the load and the person with a disability who is sitting on top of it. A high number of helpers can maximize the amount of handled goods and profits. According to Cappelaere (2011) the helpers can push the loads but never carry them due to taxation rules (p.86). Moreover, helpers of people with disabilities profit from a cheaper passage. As a consequence many of them turn out to be clandestines that pay a small amount of money to people with disabilities to cross the border while evading control by governmental officials. Often they are 'shégè es' (street children) who are migrating illegally to the other side of the river. Thus this kind of trade increases both the number of unregulated products and clandestine passengers. Therefore, regulators want people with disabilities to carry a token with their identity and the name of an official helper. Despite regulations the Beach still witnesses traders with a high number of helpers. Because of the short distance between capitals, the crossing takes less than an hour. Short travel times allow traders to drop off their products quickly. Consequently, the passage can be traveled several times a day. In short, people with physical disabilities have succeeded in taking over a very specific economic niche, which they now dominate. Instead of beggars they have been assigned with the title 'les roix du commerce' 8 ('the kings of the trade'), but also 'roix de la contrebande' ('the kings of smuggling') indicating a shift in social perception.

Negotiating Power at the Border

The general economic situation makes for a hard living in D.R. Congo, especially for persons with disabilities. Many of them try to earn a living by sewing or other small jobs, or by begging at the side of the road. In the past the high number of people with disabilities and their reliance on begging for an income made the government decide on the notorious 1970s law. Over time some of them have succeeded in becoming 'roix du commerce', although only at the border of the state. The title itself does away with connotations of passiveness, lack of power, and inability.

Because of the developing sense of power that people with disabilities occupy in this border commerce situation, here we will discuss at large the notion of 'power' in relation to disability and social relations. Power is generally understood as "the capacity or ability to direct or influence the behavior of others or the course of events," but also a kind of "physical strength and force exerted by something or someone" (Oxford Dictionary). According to American anthropologist Eric Wolf (1989), there are four different modes of power in society. One is "power as the attribute of the person, as potency or capability (…) but it tells us little about the form and direction of that play" (Wolf 1989: p. 384). The second mode of power can be understood as the "ability of an ego to impose its will on an alter, in social action, in interpersonal relations" (Wolf, 1989: p.586). This power is based on transactions among people, but this type of power gives no information about the arena in which it occurs. Wolf thus describes a third kind of power—tactical or organizational power—which allows an individual or a group to structure the actions of others within certain settings, but which has no necessary control over the setting itself. The fourth mode of power is one "that not only operates within settings or domains but also organizes and orchestrates the settings themselves, and that specifies the distribution and energy flows" (Wolf, 1989, p.586-587). Referring to Marx and Foucault he also names it structural power, which "shapes the social field of action as to render some kinds of behavior possible, while making others less possible or impossible" (Wolf, 1989, p.587).

The ability of people with disabilities in this border situation to essentially occupy the fourth "structural" realm of power theorized by Wolfe, and to dominate an economic niche, is not just due to the legal framework established in the 70s between these two countries. Their structural power also relies on the strategies they use to control and maintain their businesses and position in the border zone. At the border, persons with disabilities show themselves as real entrepreneurs that apply strategies to negotiate power.

Applying Social Strategies

Traders with disabilities have to transgress many different boundaries on a regular basis. Because of the border trade they are part of different networks and thus, they engage in many social relations.

As they cross the border, traders with disabilities first must negotiate with all kinds of governmental officials. This does not always turn out well. Traders are sometimes asked to pay a 'pot-de-vin' or 'kanyaka' (bribe) to officials. The hassles are part of trading in a corrupt state, and it befalls almost everyone passing the official posts. A strategy that is used by female merchants is that of prostitution. There are no definitive data on the number of women with disabilities who engage in prostitution in cross-border trade.

An obvious relation is that between traders with a disability and local merchants. In this case people with disabilities take on the position of an 'intermédiair' (in-between) and transport local merchants' products from Kinshasa to merchants in Brazzaville or the other way around. Sometimes traders with a disability have direct relations with patrons and sell their products directly to the customers at the other side. In a country challenged by enormous inflation and within the context of cross-border trade, merchants must always be aware of fluctuating prices and calculate risks accordingly. Traders with disabilities have to negotiate merchandise and prices all the time. Consequently they have to be flexible and agile which partially explains the aggressive nature of doing business at the border. Lin and Tse argue that "the practice of flexible sojourning in cross-border trade is a creative and strategic way for border residents of different social backgrounds to use the potential of a border in an active and dynamic way" (as cited in: Holzlhner, 2008, p. 14).

Another important relation is that between traders with a disability and their helpers, which can be a number of people, sometimes ten or more. Helpers are employed to transfer the goods to one of the ports or even to the other side of the river. As mentioned before helpers are not always just employers who push the vehicles of disabled traders. Interdependence exists between both of them, as frequently helpers are clandestine who are able to cross the border thanks to disabled traders. An important survival strategy for Kinois 9 in general is to participate in an association, based on ethnicity, religion or other communalities. Just like their fellow citizens, people with disabilities are often organized in associations. Trade groups or other associations that existed before modern urbanization were formed around kinship or family networks and often distinguished between genders. In the new urban context associations often form around specific professions. "More people, in more ways, not only have experience of others at and across international borders, but through this, as tourists, students, shoppers, smugglers, soldiers, merchants, refugees, migrants and day-labourers, they also have experienced many different forms of power in social practise. These experiences allow many people than ever before to imagine communities beyond the national" (Donnan and Wilson, 1999, p.156). 10

In the case of contemporary Kinshasa we witness associations defined by disability next to kinship, gender and profession. A number of people with physical disabilities participate in small associations called 'muzikis' and 'tontines'. These groups are sometimes divided among gender lines. Carin, who is the president of a muziki of around thirty women, mentioned in an interview that men are not allowed because they "tend to take over" (fieldwork 2010). A tontine is also called a 'likelemba' (lingala) or 'kitemo' (kikongo). It allows members to collect finances that can serve as a reserve when one of them goes bankrupt or faces other financial troubles. The money is also used as funding for funerals, marriage or birth celebrations, or school funding. The reserve money acts as credit that must be repaid. So instead of working with money from official institutions, currency is negotiated through personal networks. Tontines formed by people with disabilities also put together money to buy prostheses and tricycles, which can be just as important. These small associations allow people with a disability to better negotiate power on an economic level.The formation of associations with a more formal character enables traders with a disability to negotiate power on a more political level. At the border, Kinois sometimes react against the corruption, the violent behavior, or the dubious position of traders with disabilities and their helpers.

In an interview the director of the Beach mentions that every day 40 or 50 people with disabilities travel across the river with ten helpers, paying only one ticket. When inhabitants of Kinshasa who use the border area complain about the situation both the city hall of Kinshasa and the government react against the complainer and in the end continue to protect traders with disabilities. In order to negotiate their position on a state level, traders with disabilities over the years have organized themselves in bigger legitimate organizations with a representative ('president') such as UPHAD (l'Union des personnes avec Handicap pour des actions de development). 11 This makes it easier to negotiate possible changes of their stature at the border and other disability-related policies.

Ability and Hybridity through Technology

An important element of power concerns a control of space. Processes of modernity and globalization that cause urbanization also tend to further push certain groups of people into a geographically marginal position. In developing countries then, people with disabilities tend to live at the margins of society, in significant poverty and in literal shantytowns. A modern strategy that especially allows people with physical disabilities in these countries to become more 'able' and economically and geographically flexible is through the use of tricycles, hand-pedaled or sometimes motorized.

Tricycles allow people with disabilities to better compete, especially in Kinshasa where there is a major lack of reliable public transport. A tricycle makes people with disabilities more mobile and allows them to cross the city rather quickly. It makes them more independent from family as tricycles enable persons with disabilities to undertake more social and economic activities on their own. They are able to earn a living and to establish many supportive extended social networks. Thus, the tricycle facilitates their participation in general society. In some cases, the use of a tricycle makes it possible for a person with a disability to live in a house and send his or her children to school. Tricycle use also allows disabled women to combine a business life with household duties as they are now less tied to the house and are to a greater extent able to participate in the trading business. Kohrman (1999) remarked on the same economic freedom gained by two disabled women in Bejing where

by gaining access to modes of time-space compression, Peng and Liu are projecting themselves out of their homes and creating financial and community structures. In doing so, they are making social enunciations to themselves and those around them about their value and social status: that they are not only members of a group but competent (neng gan) individuals." (p.149)

In just these ways the use of tricycles has altered the experience of people with disabilities profoundly. Not only has their bodily experience changed but also their socio-economic position; perhaps too the entire cultural experience of disability has thus been changed in these countries, although this needs further research. Tricycles are an important tool to gain, and maintain, economic power; they enable those with disabilities to re-territorialize urban space and dominate the borderland. In the specific context of border trade, tricycles can be used to heighten both the number of products and transports over any given length of time. Extended tricycles are especially made to compete in trade and they differ in prices according to factors such as the volume of the container that can be carried with them.

After doing research in a Chinese urban context Kohrman (1999) concluded that the use of tricycles in Beijing by people with disabilities has created a time-space compression that has altered the lives of these people enormously: "Buying tricycles and traveling alone at increasingly higher speeds has been, to a large degree, a joy (…). It has bolstered their sense of self worth and given them the power — or ability (neng li) — to expand their experiential and economic reach" (Kohrman 1999: p.147). Kohrman describes how the men with disabilities in Beijing reacted furiously when the government tried to ban their tricycles out of public space.

A similar event happened in Kinshasa. In 2005 the growth of tricycles in public space, more precisely in ports and on the ferries, made the government prohibit certain traders with physical disabilities at pool Malebo. According to local authorities, the big tricycles disrupted the services between the two beaches. Passenger safety and state border fraud were cited as concerns. Thus, after one of the traders with a tricycle caused an accident at Brazzaville the 'vélo containers' were forbidden to enter the boat. Normal tricycles could still enter the boats. Persons with disabilities using tricycles refused to cross the river unless the ban was lifted. They stated that doing cross-border business by using tricycles liberated them from begging as the only means of survival. After a while the state gave in.

Because of their relatively high cost, tricycles are not an option for all people with disabilities. In the documentary Mere-Chefs (2008) women complain about the difficulty of obtaining a tricycle. Observations and interviews with several informants at the Beach in Kinshasa in September 2010 indicate that more men than women use tricycles. According to Beach informants this is due to the fact that more men then women are disabled. Another explanation could be the hard labor of the trade that appeals more to men than women. A third reason could be that men are financially more able to buy one. Kohrman (1999) also discussed the unequal use of tricycles between men and women in Beijing. Women tend to be more concerned about their appearance and the way a tricycle emphasizes their disability, whereas men just want to be mobile.

People with hearing or visual impairments or people without a tricycle are unable to transport as many goods as those who own a tricycle. As a result, these people with other disabilities and without tricycles are less successful at the border. One could also say that because of this, deaf and blind people are less visible in the trade.

When you keep Kinshasa's infrastructure in mind a tricycle is not always a great mobility improvement. Roads in very bad conditions and with deep mud pools that hamper tricycle mobility characterize the city. The same phenomenon is recognized in other countries such as Uganda; whereas "the struggle in countries in the North is about making public spaces accessible by changing the environment, the struggle for these people was to obtain the assistive devices that would let them get to those spaces" (Whyte and Mayumbe, 2007, p. 309).

The close relation to the borderland makes people with disabilities sensitive to the many risks associated with their dangerous endeavor. For a person with a disability, it is very difficult to get onto the ferry, take the risky boat trip (local newspapers such as le potentiel often mention accidents with the boats), and then get all the merchandise in Kinshasa or Brazzaville without having it stolen from them. In Haidara's documentary (2008) one of the women tells the story of how, while being several months pregnant, she fell of the dockside and almost fell into the water. However, despite the bad roads, the bribery at the border, the dangerous boat trip and many other obstacles, many women and men with disabilities are leaving their households every day to participate in public space, and in particular the border area.

Sharing the Kinois Identity and Defining a Disability Identity

The political and socio-economical crises that characterize contemporary Congolese (Zairian) society make a harsh life for its inhabitants. War and poverty cause large migrations to the cities. The estimated number of Kinshasa's inhabitants is around seven million. The capital contains almost 10 percent of the country's population. Making a living is a challenge in a city that lacks basic infrastructure such as sewage, road transport, electricity, and jobs. More than 80 percent of the Kinois are unemployed. The riots during the early 90s reduced the little amount of jobs that were still left. Those who are employed are unpaid or paid too little to survive. All this has turned Kinshasa-la-belle into Kinshasa-la-poubelle, a city 'épavé' and 'cadavré'. Although the ruinous city resembles death, its inhabitants stand out because of their creativity and dynamism, which fills the city streets with all kinds of activities. Kinois are doing business as chariot drivers, small merchants, taxi drivers, 'khaddafis' (illegal vendors of fuel), cambistes, and shoe shiners. Money is still changing hands. More often than not Kinois combine different jobs. Many of them work in what has been described by Thierry Nlandu (1998) and Janet MacGaffey (1991) as a 'second economy': an informal economy that is acting as the only economy. Although they undermine the state, for instance by depriving its treasury from a lot of finances, Kinois have no other way to provide for themselves. Doing business has become a matter of survival.

In his work in Kinshasa, Theodore Trefon (2002) refers to the failure of the state yet he also suggests that the Kinois have

developed remarkably creative people-based 'solutions' to address the challenges of daily survival. (…) There is order in the disorder. Function and dysfunction overlap. This applies to all social and political levels. The Kinois have entered into a new phase of post-colonialism by combining global approaches to local problems while blending traditional belief systems and behaviours with their own unique forms of 'modernity' (p.481).

In a later work Trefon (2004) expands his view on Kinois identity and he defines it partially as their shared fight for survival and their ability to mobilize different aspects of their identities according to situational interests.

These same aspects of Kinois identity can be applied to people with disabilities, especially those who are trading at the border. Instead of begging, many people with disabilities participate in the daily struggle for an income following Mobutu's famous article 15. 12 They inscribe themselves in the Congolese (political) economy as "debrouillards". In Mè res-Chefs (2008) for instance we can see that the women portrayed also earn a living by trading instead of begging:

Les handicapés se débrouillent. Ils ôtent à l'Etat une charge nous nous prenons en main. Nos petites activités nous aident à survivre au quotidien. Nous ne sommes pas des mendiants, nous ne pratiquons pas la mendicité. [People with disabilities manage themselves. They take away some load from the State, which we think of as important. Our small activities help us to survive daily. We are not beggars, we do not beg.]

By inscribing themselves in the informal economy, much like other inhabitants of D.R.Congo's capital, people with disabilities take up the Kinois identity that unites them. Just like any other urban dweller, people with disabilities

cease to be expelled from labor, that is, activity. He or she organises [sic] a market different from the world market for it does not exclude him. (…) The informal economy is certainly the space from where those who had no civilisation, 'the' underdeveloped, 'the' black, 'the' garbage-human intend to re-establish the balance between 'not-having' and 'being.' Here the individual, the subject who brings in the labour factor, his creativity, his potentialities and his choices organizes [sic] the economy. He or she is the boss who hires workers from the local community or from his or her family. He or she steps in the informal economic space as an actor. He or she is at last the protagonist of an economic system where co-operation and community play the central role (Nlandu, 1998).

To share this sense of sameness, to be a Kinois, also requires a flexible use of that other part of people with disabilities' identity at the border zone: that of a person with a disability. The Encyclopedia of Social and Cultural Anthropology describes 'identity' as a form of sameness. It refers to "commonalities associated with groups or categories. The starting point is classificatory: the social and cultural world is held to be composed of segments, membership in terms of which individuals must define themselves, or be defined by others" (Encyclopedia of Social and Cultural Anthropology). At the border one has to negotiate and perform his or her identity as a person with a disability to be able to participate in the economic niche. Whereas the notion of being a 'disabled' is undermined because they are dominating the business in the border zone, people with disabilities paradoxically have to define themselves as being a disabled person. At the border zone being a Kinois is partially replaced by being a person with a disability. It is only by being categorized as 'disabled' that one can profit from legal advantages at the border. Close observations at Beach Ngobila show how people with disabilities negotiate their disability identity with state officials. This is especially clear with deaf people, who are less visibly disabled and need more proof to convince others of their disability.


Just like their fellow Kinois, people with disabilities insert themselves into the informal economy, an economy of survival, which has become Congo's real economy. For people with disabilities in Kinshasa the most important space to manifest oneself as a Kinois has become the border zone, a borderland where hybrids can be created and boundaries must be crossed. The border zone can be understood as a place where both the formal and the informal interact and overlap. "It is in these increasingly numerous informal urban areas, with its complex patchwork of multiple local ethnic identities, that the city's inhabitants have started to reterritorialize and reclaim the urban space (…) and infuse the city with their own praxis, values, moralities and temporal dynamics" (De Boeck, 2004, p. 33-34).

In Kinshasa's urban space, the formation of new groups and identities no longer depends only on ethnicity, but on a variety of factors such as geographical and socio-professional aspects. People with disabilities construct a similar kind of group identity based on a shared feeling of sameness. This feeling of sameness is not just based on the shared physical aspect of being impaired. The traders' identity as a person with a disability is defined by external constructions such as the socio-economic situation at the border and legal frameworks. Thus many of them find each other at the 'border' of society confronted with more or less the same advantages but also boundaries. Resistance towards the latter is made possible by different kinds of strategies to negotiate power. The formation of different kinds of associations on an economic and political level has been a powerful social response.

The use of tricycles is part of this reterritorialization of urban space. As a result the border between Kinshasa and Brazzaville witnesses a very specific hybrid of man and machine but also a possible shift in people with disabilities' socio-cultural position. Moreover, defining oneself as disabled in the borderland enables one to negotiate power and to be recognized as active, dynamic, creative, and able. This not only calls into question the nature of the border zone, it calls into question the notion of disability and the socio-cultural construction of the phenomenon in different societies.


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  1. Term taken from Pierre Cappelaere, Congo: Puissance et fragilité, p 85.

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  2. This is a tricycle with a container.

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  3. Belgian journalist Rudi Vranckx visits the Beach for instance in 'Bonjour Congo'. The event is also mentioned in the documentary 'Jupiter's Dance', directed by Renaud Barret and Florent de La Tullaye, and made into the subject of an entire documentary in both 'Mè res-Chefs', directed by Claudia Haidara-Yoka and 'd'une rive à l'autre', directed by Delphe Kifouani.

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  4. Further reading: Charles Didier Gondola Villes Miroirs: Migrations et identités urbaines à Kinshasa et Brazzaville 1930-1970, p 21-35.

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  5. Didier Gondola refers for instance to the work of Louis Wirth who did research on a similar subject in another modern urban context, namely Chicago.

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  6. More reading on this border trade: Doevenspeck, M. and Mwanabiningo, N.M. (2012) Navigating uncertainty: Observations from the Congo-Rwanda border. In Bruns & Miggelbrink (Eds.), Subverting Borders. Doing Research on Smuggling and Small-Scale Trade. Germany: Springer Fachmedien.

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  7. In 'Commerçantes de Kinshasa' Hélè ne Bouchard differentiates between three types of female merchants. One of them is the 'maman manoeuvre" who also fulfil an in-between role in commercial activities at the Beach.

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  8. France 24, an online news item, for instance uses this title: http://www.kewego.nl/video/iLyROoafI5VS.html (accessed: 28/02/2012). See also: Le Fleuve Congo (Smith, 2003).

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  9. This is a regular and local name for Kinshasa's inhabitants.

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  10. Hastings Donnan,Thomas M. Wilson, 1999. Borders: frontiers of identity, nation and state, Oxford and New York: Berg, p 156.

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  11. In 1997 the government officially recognized UPHAD, but today it has become a clandestine organization (Smith, 2003).

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  12. Article 15: 'se débrouiller' (taking care of oneself).

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