In Kinshasa, chronic crises and lack of access to employment, quality education, and other resources contribute to the social exclusion of a growing number of disadvantaged young people. They are deprived of the possibilities of leading a decent life and alienated from both the market and legitimate authorities. Despite their social, political, and economic marginalization, many of these precarious Congolese youth have proved adept at improvising livelihoods in the informal economy and seek out ways to be agents of social change.

“Against all odds, these precarious Congolese youth, although socially and politically marginalized, constantly prove that they are also creators of livelihoods and agents of social change.”

As presidential candidates campaigned in the last two months of 2023 in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the country’s largest constituency—its youth—was conspicuously absent from the debates that dominated the run-up to the election. Their interests were ignored as the incumbent, Félix Tshisekedi, was reelected to a second term. But that was nothing new. Facing structural barriers to their economic and political participation, the DRC’s young people must resort to a range of improvisations to survive, especially in Kinshasa, the capital.

Young people comprise the largest demographic group in Kinshasa, where the average age is 24. Young people also represent the most disadvantaged demographic in the city, with more than half of those in the 15–34 age range unemployed. Despite the city’s youthful population, the average age of workers is 45 in the public sector and 40 in the formal private sector, indicating that the integration of young people in the formal labor market remains low.

Moreover, without guaranteed social security, most employees work beyond retirement age. In the public sector especially, civil servants are considered to be active until a very advanced age (or death). Paths to formal employment are also blocked for the majority of young people by nepotism and clientelism, which favor the appointment of children and other relatives of senior civil servants, or members of political parties. Kinshasa’s young working-age population therefore turns to the so-called informal economy—small-scale economic activities under different and at times unofficial regimes or modes of regulation—which accounts for over 60 percent of the city’s nonagricultural jobs.

A series of unfortunate events, internal political tensions, chronic armed conflict, and ineffective domestic policies have contributed to various socioeconomic crises affecting most of the Congolese people, and young people in particular. A notable example of these crises was the fallout from President Mobutu Sese Seko’s “Zairianization” campaign in the 1970s, which aimed to nationalize all foreign-owned companies. The regime ended up distributing the newly acquired companies to its political partners, who had no intention of maintaining production, leading to the deterioration of those businesses and a fall in gross domestic product. Another major source of instability was a drop in copper mining revenues between 1989 and 1992, caused by the collapse of the Kamoto mining site. Two waves of looting ensued, in 1991 and 1993. Faced with an acute political and economic crisis, unpaid soldiers, followed by civilians, began looting shops, industrial depots, and private homes, causing business closures and the deaths of several thousand people.

As early as 1962–63, shortly after the country gained independence, ethnographic research by the British anthropologist Jean Sybil La Fontaine focused on an increasing population of young Congolese city dwellers without education, jobs, or social security. Following in her footsteps, research on Kinshasa’s youth has generally highlighted the proliferation of delinquent gangs and violence as a consequence of deeper socioeconomic crises.

In Kinshasa, the consequences of the multi-crisis have led to the formation of distinct cohorts with very different fates. Differences in social conditions within cohorts lead to further divergences. The economic crisis of the 1970s and 1980s and the looting of the early 1990s contributed to a restructuring of social relations in the city. Many young people from poor families, unable to find jobs or finish their schooling, ended up joining gangs or getting by in a mushrooming informal economy. Children from disadvantaged families who became homeless were commonly known as Shegués, after the icon of the Latin American revolution, Ernesto “Che” Guevara—an allusion to their rebellious character.

Shegués are typically poor orphans or children of separated parents. They are relegated to sites of exclusion, having been expelled from their family home or having chosen to live on the streets after suffering abuse at home, in some cases following conflicts linked to reduced household income or inheritance. Often accused of witchcraft and of being the cause of family misfortunes, some joined gangs of older youth wreaking havoc in various neighborhoods. Some of these street children have experienced a devaluation of their social position relative to that of their parents. They might be children of working-class families or farmers, or of laid-off managers. After the fall of the Mobutu regime in 1997, the political instability and civil war—which some observers have described as Africa’s second world war—did nothing to improve the situation for youth.

The majority resort to daily acts of improvisation to earn a living.

Today, Kinshasa is one of the most populous cities in sub-Saharan Africa, with 15 to 17 million inhabitants. The first democratic elections in the DRC’s history, held in 2006, and the country’s first peaceful presidential transition, allegedly resulting from secret negotiations between the outgoing incumbent Joseph Kabila and his successor Tshisekedi after a disputed 2018 election, did not prove to be conducive to political stability and social development. The same applies to Tshisekedi’s reelection in December 2023, after a first term marked by growing insecurity, economic turmoil, and massive enrichment of the political elite.

Famine and poverty in the countryside have driven an influx of families and young people to Kinshasa. Lack of access to employment, quality education, and other resources contributes to the social exclusion of a growing number of disadvantaged young people. Together, they form a distinct social category: precarious youth. A small proportion of these young people travel to different parts of the city every day in search of contracted employment with the city’s few registered companies. The majority, however, resort to daily acts of improvisation to earn a living. These young people have never ceased to fascinate researchers and other city dwellers with the ingenuity and creativity they display in surviving their poverty.

“Youth” is increasingly understood as a sociopolitical category rooted in relations of production and consumption. Globally, young people are excluded from productive sectors that have been transformed and narrowed by the expansion of neoliberal capitalism. This exclusion gives young people a degree of autonomy, allowing for the invention of their own moral economy, their appropriation of public space, and their own mode of political participation. Yet this exclusion also reveals a paradox: precarious youth are perceived as a threat to society, as well as a promise for the future.

In this context, “youth” in the conceptual sense should be taken to refer not to a fixed-age cohort, but to a sociopolitical category characterized by precarity. In Kinshasa, the disadvantaged young people who roam the city’s streets and markets in search of opportunities to earn money include several excluded cohorts. There are certainly children and teenagers among them, but also adults in their twenties and thirties. Many come from the poor or working-class neighborhoods of Kinshasa; others are originally from neighboring provinces. What they all have in common is a state of socioeconomic insecurity and a relatively low level or quality of education. They are deprived of the possibility of leading a decent life and alienated from both the market and the legitimate authority.

In recent years, urban banditry, known as Kuluna, has become endemic across Kinshasa. Despite efforts by the police to maintain order, such as mass detention and re-education campaigns, a growing number of disadvantaged youths are both victims and perpetrators of violence. Kuluna gangs have divided the city’s neighborhoods into rival territories. This often leads to violent clashes between rival groups to protect their territory or to defend their honor when, for example, a member is attacked, or a girl is courted by a member of a rival group. These groups often engage in coordinated acts of theft, looting, and vandalism.

The presence of girls and young women in Kinshasa youth gangs is notable. Like their male counterparts, they mostly come from poor families and have not received a basic education of decent quality. But the place of women in these groups is often relegated to a reproductive role, mirroring, to some degree, the gendered division of labor within broader society. Although Kuluna girls may also take part in robberies and violent activities, their role in the production of violence is relatively limited. In many Kuluna gangs, women are in charge of running the business at “home” by engaging in activities such as selling Bombé (a homemade drug derived from vehicle exhaust residue) and storing, cooking, and distributing food. The men are the muscle of the group: they organize robberies at night and fight with rival gangs during the day.

As pointed out by urban anthropologists, an essential element in the formation of gangs and the persistence of violence in the city is the production of models of masculinity embodied by youth. These models draw on both traditional and modern images and converge on certain ideals of what “strong men” are. This entails conformity to specific norms and societal expectations linked to images of masculine becoming. For most male youngsters, becoming a “strong man” means physically taking care of oneself, projecting strength, relying on the group, and providing protection to fellow group members or dependents; “hustlers” are precarious youths who make more energetic and creative attempts to earn a living.

In what is often described as their “invasion” and “control” of public space, these young people often cross paths with politicians, for whom youth represent a surplus population that can be mobilized for political ends. Anecdotal accounts tell of Kuluna gangs being hired by politicians to sabotage a rival party or to fill the ranks at political rallies. During the 2011 elections, some Kulunas were recruited by the political party of the incumbent president, Joseph Kabila, to spread terror in Kinshasa and attack opposition political rallies.

Similarly, Tshisekedi’s party, the Union for Democracy and Social Progress, has its own militias, mainly made up of precarious young motorbike taxi drivers, commonly known as wewa, most of whom come from the same province as the president and have migrated to the capital in recent years. In February 2024, a large number of them were allegedly hired to protest outside Western embassies in Kinshasa against the silence of the international community in the face of the escalation of armed conflicts in the eastern DRC and the role of Rwanda in such violence.

Yet it would be simplistic to reduce the precarious youth of Kinshasa to urban bandits or thugs. Many disadvantaged young people also turn to nonviolent forms of improvisation, what anthropologist Henrik Vigh calls “social navigation,” to survive poverty and exclusion. As far back as the 1990s and 2000s, the Shegués were renowned for their ingenuity in finding ways of earning a living: as pickpockets and beggars, certainly, but also as cleaners, errand boys, and dockers. The business district and markets of Kinshasa are full of examples of such inventiveness today.

I came across many of these young people while conducting research into the popular economy of Kinshasa’s public markets between 2019 and 2023. The former street children of the 1990s and 2000s, who operated and slept in these markets, are now grown-up men and women, well into their thirties and forties. Though some are still living in poverty, others have managed to make a relatively decent living despite their inauspicious beginnings.

With age and acquired practical experience in the art of improvising, some former street children have established themselves as successful entrepreneurs and leaders of new generations of street children and other urban youngsters. With minimal capital, they have set up businesses providing various services. In the central market, for instance, former street children offer daily rentals of plastic sheeting to cover market aisles and stalls, and trolleys to move vendors’ goods. They also provide cleaning services for certain corners of the market.

Older members of gangs hire newcomers or younger members to do odd jobs. The elders draw on their reputations within their gangs and in the market to guarantee compliance with agreements and the smooth running of their business activities. Some have diversified their portfolios by buying cars or motorbikes to use as taxis.

In time, all this has enabled some to permanently leave the streets, rent a house, and start a family. Daily improvisation has evolved into a more-or-less stable moral economy, with its specific norms and practices, for those who are able to accumulate know-how and social and economic capital, providing access to a form of upward mobility.

In the words of many Kinshasa residents, however, “you can take a child off the street, but you can’t take the street out of the child.” According to some market vendors, young people who were once street children or thugs are not always reliable partners in business ventures. They are often perceived as prone to stealing or cheating, despite their relative success in more conventional activities. In the popular imagination, young people with a troubled past are still associated with excessive alcohol consumption, drugs, and sexual promiscuity. This explains their persistent financial difficulties, according to observers who tend to overlook the social mobility some have achieved.

Apart from young people who share a fairly similar violent past and are affiliated with generations of former street children and gang members, the public market is also populated during the day by different categories of vendors and intermediaries, including groups of young people from equally precarious socioeconomic situations. The distinction between gang members and other disadvantaged youth is not always straightforward. Some young people work in the markets during the day and join Kuluna groups at night.

Exclusion gives young people a degree of autonomy.

Some youth—mostly men between the ages of 20 and 40—work closely with the owners of market shops and stalls as helpers. They can be found doing odd jobs almost every morning when the market opens and again when the shops close in the evening. Many have families of their own and gained some previous work and trading experience before becoming shop helpers.

Working in such close proximity requires the vendor to have a certain degree of trust in the helper. That is why helpers are often relatives of stall owners, or have been personally recommended or managed to establish a relationship of trust over an extended period. Their services are particularly appreciated by female vendors, since they provide physical help with unpacking parcels, spreading out the merchandise, and repacking it every day.

The helpers can be considered to be providing informal labor to the owners of these stalls. They get paid at the end of the shift or receive a regular commission based on the profit made by the stall owner. Regardless of their age, they are perceived and referred to as trusted “young men,” ready to run errands and help the business run smoothly.

Other disadvantaged young people earn a living by working as street vendors or coopérants in Kinshasa’s markets and affluent streets. They range in age from teens to thirties. Some are former street children, while others come from poor families in the city. Many do not have the substantial start-up capital needed to engage in a commercial activity independently and consistently. They get by thanks to the relationships they have established with some traders who can give them goods to resell, adding to their small profit margins.

Since some coopérants have a reputation for being prone to theft and unreliability, many traders refuse to give them goods on credit. Some coopérants buy a few items for a modest sum and resell them in the busier areas of the market. These disadvantaged youth carry out a long list of small commercial activities and odd jobs in the city’s crossroads, shopping squares, and markets. At almost every busy intersection, you will find small-scale street vendors selling water or sweet drinks in bottles or plastic bags, cookies, or sweets, or offering services such as shining shoes or cleaning car windows.

Prominent among the enterprising youth in the markets and commercial squares of Kinshasa are the middlemen, known as Kwata or Kwatteurs (players). These are mainly boys or men in their late teens to early thirties. Bold and enterprising, they impose themselves in various situations, using eloquence, trickery, and flattery to attract potential customers. Because of this, they have a bad reputation for duplicity among customers and some vendors.

The main income strategy of the Kwatteurs consists of standing in market alleys, along the major commercial streets, or in front of big shops to attract or follow potential customers and propose to show them where they can buy the best merchandise. These intermediaries are paid by shopkeepers with whom they have made arrangements in advance. A typical arrangement is to add a percentage for the intermediary to the final price that the seller quotes to the buyer.

The largest agglomeration of these players in Kinshasa is in the business district, around Avenue de Commerce and the central market. Here, Kwatteurs operate according to an internal organizational logic. They are required to follow specific norms and respect certain codes of conduct. For instance, a player belonging to one “team” cannot stand in front of another team’s spot for fear of causing a conflict. Similarly, a player who attracts a customer is followed by other members of the same team and is obliged to give them a share of the commission. A failure to do so would result in conflict among peers.

Many players and coopérants are also organized into associations, or tontines, based on where they live in the city. They often commute together to the business district in the morning and return together to their home area in the evening. As with many other tontines in Kinshasa, these informal youth associations create a particular social identity. Members may rely on their association as a network of solidarity: it serves as an informal financial system or support group. Regular meetings on Saturday or Sunday evenings in bars close to their places of residence are an effective way of strengthening links among group members.

There is a visible gendered division in the income-generating activities of youth groups. The young workers who help the vendors display their goods or act as porters in the markets are usually men, since this work requires physical strength. But women are also noticeably absent from groups of Kwatteurs throughout the city. In general, although young women and girls from poor families in Kinshasa are just as exposed to poverty and precarity as their male counterparts, they follow different social and professional trajectories.

As with the female members of the Kuluna gangs, the wives of Kwatteurs are often at home, looking after family needs. When they do engage in income-generating activities, these are usually in roles conventionally seen as suitable for women, such as petty trading in front of the house or vending in the public market. Some girls in precarious situations also engage in petty street trading, like the coopérants, or do odd jobs in various settings in the city. Others fall into prostitution networks, join popular bands as dancers, or use their femininity to attract prospective suitors as alternate means of navigating poverty.

Ultimately, beyond their individual life and professional trajectories, which may have notable differences, most of these young people, whatever their sex, share a social condition that is marked by precariousness. Sometimes, in the quest to find a way out of their predicament, la débrouille (the hustle) becomes more than a simple survival mechanism. For some, there is a shift over time from survival mode to a livelihood strategy. The experience and skills acquired on the street, and the connections created with peers and prominent economic or political actors, provide them with long-term sources of income and opportunities for social mobility, albeit nonlinear, with both upward and downward trends.

Along with their marginal social position, Congolese precarious youth also occupy a marginal political position. Their more fortunate peers, who benefit from good education and social capital, can employ tactics of political opportunism, frequently changing party affiliation in hopes of winning public office and better living conditions. But most disadvantaged youth do not have a significant and consistent position in political parties. Nor have they played much of a part in the new social movements promoting democracy and social progress that sprang up around a decade ago, mostly in the eastern part of the DRC.

As Marta Iñiguez de Heredia pointed out in a 2019 article in Current History, the initiators of these social movements tend to be members of the middle classes. Though they have sometimes succeeded in rallying broad popular support, their leadership is dominated by young, well-educated city dwellers. By contrast, disadvantaged youth, lacking socioeconomic and educational status, experience precariousness in terms of citizenship as well. Not only do these young people constitute a dangerous category in the popular imagination because some are involved in various forms of violence, but they are also the object of social contempt, a symbolic form of precarity.

In the popular political parties, which tend to attract people from the same “tribe” or province as the party’s leader, the position and voice of precarious youth remain equally marginal. They are often relegated to a mass that can be mobilized by party leaders when a show of force is needed at organized marches and public meetings, or during elections. As with elections, marches and protests staged to demonstrate political strength often lead to arrangements granting public office to party leaders, who in turn favor well-connected party members for public sector jobs.

Neither marches nor elections are likely to lead to social change or improvements in the precarious situation of Congolese young people. Many have lost confidence in the way democracy and politics work in their country, seeing these institutions as instruments favoring a restricted, privileged group. This echoes a broader trend on the continent, as indicated by recent Afrobarometer survey data that suggests a general decline in satisfaction with the functioning of democracy among young people across Africa.

Perceived by the elite as a surplus population that can be manipulated for political ends, precarious youth try to make the most of this role as a means of improving their own situation, albeit incrementally and temporarily. For many, participating in political rallies or supporting a political leader can help meet an immediate material need, since they often receive money or a gift at the start or end of such events. Political engagement of this sort is just one of the strategies of daily improvisation that enable young people to cope with the contingencies of their existence.

But Congolese youth are not interested in politics only for instrumental reasons. Despite repeated disillusionment, they continue to show they have the will to participate in wider societal change. Urban youth responded massively to calls for marches organized by the Catholic Lay Committee, various social movements, and political parties against Kabila’s attempts to remain in power beyond term limits between 2016 and 2018.

For some observers of Congolese political life, the outcome of the 2023 presidential election, in which Tshisekedi won a second term, illustrates the consequences of strong identity politics and resignation or lack of interest among the Congolese people when it comes to holding the political class to account. Beyond purely selfish or short-term interests, however, most precarious youth continue to hope for and demand social change. A striking example of this hope, as expressed through political participation, occurred during the election campaign in November and December 2023. In some of the city’s neighborhoods, precarious youth joined forces with other inhabitants to protest during the campaign rallies of outgoing deputies who had not met the public’s expectations. For these young people, as for the rest of the population, these protests embody their right to hold politicians accountable.

Even if they do not always achieve the desired results, such popular modes of political action are in essence a legitimate means of expressing the needs, interests, and sentiments of precarious youth. Unlike coordinated campaigns organized by social movements, which tend to be directed by their leadership, these actions can be either programmed and guided or spontaneous and unpredictable. They can veer in either direction regarding the established order: maintaining the status quo or challenging it. Against all odds, these precarious Congolese youth, although socially and politically marginalized, constantly prove that they are also creators of livelihoods and agents of social change.