Youth, Gender and “Bounded Rationality”: “Sex Workers” and ‘Ujana Phenomenon’ in Kinshasa

Kinshasa, the capital city of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is among African largest cities and heavily populated. Besides Lagos and Cairo, Kinshasa seems to be the third largest African city with roughly more than 12 million of inhabitants. The DRC latest population census took place in 1984 and since then, estimating its population relies on guessing. However, the large share of population comprises the youth who can represent approximately more than 60%. Regardless of one’s literacy level, young people in the capital city are characterized by highly unemployment rate. Except those working into the informal economy, unemployment rate in large city as Kinshasa may go beyond 80%. At some point, unemployment status has become a generational and transmitted heritage that can fall within the “poverty trap” story. Due to the plight that characterizes the level of poverty in cities as well as in rural regions, everyone must consequently fight to survive and live. Bu using all means, availability of alternatives are tightly limited. Besides moral values characterizing the Congolese and African societies, the “Ujana Phenomenon” may inherently have nothing to do with sex working or prostitution. The phenomenon can rather be ascribed within an emancipatory spirit driving the youth whose alternatives are bounded. One can easily read that young boys and girls are constrained in terms of finding ways out and may decide to resort to an exposure of their bodies.

Recently, a phenomenon called Ujana emerged within young girls in Kinshasa. It is being widely discussed across age cohorts within the cosmopolitan Kinois society. A Swahili words, Ujana means approximately “youthful”. There is yet a debate around the origin of the denomination; in other words, the background of chosing the “Swahili Concept”. Some refer to a sporting club in Kinshasa that trains young guys to undergo football career. The sport club has the same name though the club’s spelling sounds as “Ujaana’. Jokes from commentators have started to oppose the very young ‘Ujana’ to adults who may fighting to occupy a specific ‘space’ or ‘market’. Adults are sometimes called “Mazembe”, “Renaissance” or any other Football teams in DRC. Hence, the probable footprint is that “Ujana sport Club” is likely promising as it trains young guys who would for a long time undertake football career.

In addition, Congolese socio-political arena has seen the rise of social movements few years ago. For instance, Lutte pour le Changement (LUCHA), Filimbi, Ujana and later on « Les Congolais Débout » have emerged. Lucha and Filimbi have been initiated possibly from the Eastern Congo Provinces, mainly Goma and Bukavu. They are likely advocating to get a profound change within the Congolese political elite often accused of despotism. Similar to other Social movements mainly led by young people, Ujana emerged in 2016 and has defined its missions as to mobilize young talented politicians into the political arena. Unfolding any possible link between “Ujana Phenomenon” and Social movements requires cautious thought and much information. Specifically, the link between “Ujana”, a Swahili concept being used by football club, social movement and ‘teenagers behaving as sex workers’ remains something to be established. Moreover, a “spontaneous” choice of Swahili word in the cosmopolitan Kinshasa city dominated by Lingala speakers, needs also to attentively understand the background. Regardless of the origin, the phenomenon has some features that requires to pay attention on it. Taking into account these features  would help to understand and anticipate―distinguish forms―attitudes that express a frustration, intergenerational conflict as well as values backsliding.

Following the Kinshasa city announcement, hundreds young girls mainly teenagers or adolescent are said to have been arrested by the Congolese National Police (Police Nationale Congolaise). Kinshasa city in conjunction with General Sylvano Kasongo (Kinshasa Police Commander) had announced measures to curb the expansion of this “phenomenon”. These measures include deploying policewomen to control bars, night clubs or across streets where these girls do move around to find ‘clients’. Looking men who are willing to pay makes them look like prostitutes. However, a deep understanding may reveal another story of ‘constrained rationalities’ within a limited bundle of choices. It is believed that most of these members of “Ujana Phenomenon” belong to families whose capabilities to respond to their needs are highly limited. They may even belong to families whose parents are no longer able to pay for school fees, basic needs but also parents’ obligations are undermined by many challenges. Large cities such as Kinshasa are widely unequal to the extent some have the right to everything while others strive to have “Kanga journée”; a bread that many Kinois many can afford as it costs FC 200 ($0.13). Hence, circumscribing the “phenomenon” within the backslide of moral values may miss a point. Experience has shown that in the past, the emergence of similar behavior and attitudes have been calmed down by finding economic activities to girls who were likely seen as ‘prostitutes’.

When conceptualizing the way “Ujana” attract men, one can feel that that this is well thought ‘deal’. Informed observers keep stating that these young teenagers, when going out, they do wear transparent clothes, leaving at home whatever is considered as an underwear. They are recognized by walking without bra while trying to impress across the streets or night clubs. One can suspect that some parents maybe are aware of what these teenagers are doing. However, parents challenged economically may not stand form in front of teenagers or adolescent fighting for survival within the constrained environment. It is possible that some of these maneuvers are done on her way to a meeting location as handbags can help to hide these stuffs. Attracting ‘clients’ is a rational strategy for someone who cannot use a force to get resources redistributed. Observers familiar with the “Kuluna Phenomeneon” know how brutal and cruel these young guys do behave. Kuluna are mainly composed by young boys whose future is at stake. They can even kill to get your smartphones, have a hand onto your bags but mainly female handbags. Though unlikely similar, but we need to wonder what makes our young people behaving as such. I am sure this is something calling State, society responsibility before blaming parents. At the age of 15-18, the blogger feels that choosing “Ujana” or “being Kuluna” is a hard choice one can make when other alternatives are possibly closed. Though we need to sustain our moral values, we also have to understand why some do choose to “madly” behave and find durable solutions.



PhD Researcher in Conflict Economics

The Institute of Social Studies/

Erasmus University Rotterdam



About admin 393 Articles
PhD fellow @ErasmusUnivRotterdam/ISS: Microeconomic Analysis of Conflict. Congolese, blogger advocating 4r Equitable Redistribution of Ressources & national wealth as well as & #Justice4All #DRC In the top of that, proud of being "villageois"

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