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Wandering women: the work of Congolese transnational traders.


Congolese commergantes, or transnational women traders, travel abroad to cities such as Guangzhou in search of affordable products to import to Kinshasa. Without any support from local banks, women must search for the means to finance their trips and navigate a complex bureaucracy governed by unpredictable customs tariffs. Just as men rely on their social networks to ensure the success of their business activities, women traders must also forge relationships with people in positions of power. However, a woman's social network, linked to her business activities, invites assumptions about her sexual morality. Men working within the country's unstable economic landscape are celebrated for their ingenuity and ability to 'work the system', while a woman's sexual morality is perceived as being affected by, and bound up in, Kinshasa's corrupt business matrices. Transnational commergantes are thus not only an important part of the economic milieu, largely governed by patron-client relationships; but are also representative of changing gender dynamics in Kinshasa. Based on multi-site fieldwork in Kinshasa and Guangzhou, this article explores the moral anxieties associated with women's transnational trade, anxieties that relate to broader issues about the politics of social networks within local bureaucratic infrastructures.


Les commergantes transnationales congolaises se rendent dans des villes etrangeres comme Guangzhou en quete de produits bon marche a importer a Kinshasa. Sans soutien des banques locales, ces femmes sont contraintes de rechercher des moyens pour financer leurs deplacements et de composer avec une bureaucratie complexe regie par des tarifs douaniers imprevisibles. De tnerae que les hommes s'appuient sur leurs reseaux sociaux pour assurer le succes de leurs activites professionnelles, les commergantes doivent elles aussi forger des relations avec des personnes en position de pouvoir. Or, le reseau social d'une femme lie a ses activites professionnelles alimente des hypotheses sur sa moralite sexuelle. Les hommes qui travaillent dans le paysage economique instable du pays sont salues pour leur ingeniosite et leur capacite a << se jouer du systeme >>, tandis que la moralite sexuelle d'une femme est pergue comme etant affectee par les matrices professionnelles corrompues de Kinshasa, et melee a elles. Les commergantes transnationales sont done un element important du milieu economique, essentiellement regi par les relations patron-client, mais elles sont aussi representatives de revolution des dynamiques de genre a Kinshasa. Base sur une etude de terrain multisite a Kinshasa et Guangzhou, cet article explore les anxietes morales associees au commerce transnational feminin, anxietes qui se rapportent a des questions plus larges de politique des reseaux sociaux au sein d'infrastructures bureaucratiques locales.


Entrepreneurial women, known as femmes commerfantes in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), are active in local and international markets. Embarking on buying expeditions to purchase wholesale goods, commergantes (1) are increasingly travelling to China, as it offers affordable products, especially electronic goods, ones that yield a good profit margin in Kinshasa, capital of the DRC. These women are experts in koluka (2) (searching), as they hunt for deals, new customers, and people who can help finance their business trips. Filip De Boeck, a scholar who has written extensively on Kinshasa, reflects on koluka, describing it as 'the capacity of citydwellers to "look for," to be on the outlook, to blaze a trail in the city and trailblaze oneself into the next moment of daily urban life' (De Boeck 2015: 48). Women traders are also wanderers by profession. Their wanderings (Lingala: koyungana) are tied to the act of searching for networks of customers, and it is this wandering, so integral to women's business activities, that invites a negative connotation locally. Travel is associated with social prestige in Congo, and when Congolese men go abroad to koluka, they enjoy an elevated social status, especially upon their return. Highly mobile, travelling women, on the other hand, have a different status.

The majority of Kinshasa's population lives according to the ethos of debrouillardisme, which roughly translates as making do, or coping with one's available resources. (3) Part of debrouillardise activity in Kinshasa is structured around the act of searching, or koluka, for new contacts, ones that can lead to employment, food and money. Whatever one's social class, one's reseau (social network) of contacts is necessary for mitigating the risks associated with business; these include paying fines and bribes referred to as sucres (sweets). Women with kin--or, as I highlight later, a husband--in powerful positions in government (and elsewhere) have an advantage over women who do not have access to family members who might provide assistance in their business activities in a city where financial success depends on one's continuous engagement with a political and economic system premised on social networks and gift-giving. At every level of the administrative apparatus, there is an employee engaged in koluka from the policeman who stops cars for bribes, to the customs agent who steals from shipping containers. In this environment, women must protect themselves from theft and extortion, and they do this by leveraging their connections. One woman complained that the DRC has some of the highest import taxes in Africa. 'Compared to any other African country, import business is the most expensive in the DRC. They want to crush us. This country prevents people from getting ahead, there are too many people to pay off.'

There is a local perception that women are vulnerable or 'exposed' to Congo's stymied economic landscape, where extortion and other forms of corruption are prevalent. Furthermore, it is widely held that, in order to navigate Congo's administrative system, one must be astute in making the appropriate connections with men in powerful places, such as in the police department or in government ministries. A woman must cultivate a large network of contacts to protect and help her negotiate the state's unpredictable bureaucratic practices related to the import-export business. Because this network invariably includes men in powerful positions, women's connections invite assumptions about their sexual morality.

This article considers some of the moral implications for transnational women traders who, like men, are engaged in a dynamic search for opportunities that can sustain their business, and thus their livelihoods. We will observe that women's involvement in global commerce is inextricable from local social norms associated with the business of building up one's social network. While it is understood that social networks and 'contacts' (bokanga) are integral to business and economic success, a woman's social networks pose a threat to men, since they represent independence, mobility and access to people--specifically men--in positions of power. For the most part, transnational traders (women who make multiple trips abroad every year) were unmarried, which facilitated their ease of travel, as they did not have to assuage anxious husbands. As I discuss later, although single life is sometimes a choice, many women traders yearn to find a partner; however, many men find it difficult to accept their work, despite the economic stability it may offer.

While a wide array of international empowerment programmes offer Congolese women new opportunities to study and work, women nevertheless are confronted by a local economic system premised on social relations. This article argues that it is not so much a woman's financial independence that provokes moral anxiety (Hodgson and McCurdy 2001); rather, it is her ability to be mobile, which is facilitated by her expanded social network, that invites criticism, gossip and suspicion. Here, the idea of 'wealth in people' discussed by scholars such as Jane Guyer and Samuel Eno Belinga (1995) is testament to the importance of social capital in business activities. As we will see, a transnational trader woman's success and power are often dependent on who she knows, further reinforcing the importance of koluka and developing personal connections.

Exposure to the moral economy

Socio-economic class in contemporary Kinshasa society is difficult to categorize and cannot be equated to Western notions of class (Freund 2012; De Boeck 2015; Trapido 2017). This is a highly stratified society in which a small percentage of elites enjoy economic stability. Salaries are tenuous, and even government employees sometimes live from pay cheque to pay cheque. For this reason, it is difficult to place traders within a system of social classes, mainly because class in Kinshasa is so precarious. There is a sense in which class is also pegged to social connections--access to a government minister or a municipal depute can lead to access to resources. As Joseph Trapido writes, 'patronage ties are often the medium through which class is realized' (2017: 107). Women who maintain a social network of Congolese political elites are in a position to offer help with financing and managing customs taxes, which are among the highest in subSaharan Africa. Access to an elite customer base that can afford to buy women's handbags costing over US$500, among other items, also dictates what kind of profits one will earn.

Olivier de Sardan questions the West's stigmatization of what it considers political bad practice--or, more specifically, corruption--in African contexts (1999). He argues that what the West calls corruption is in fact socially embedded in 'logics' of negotiation, gift-giving and solidarity, and can be thought of as a 'moral economy'. Briefly, Olivier de Sardan posits that petty corruption, framed as gift-giving in the form of real currency, is important to the sociality of everyday life in many African societies (ibid.). He emphasizes the necessity of monetary exchanges in the acquisition of social capital:

Nowadays gift-giving is usually a question of money. The general monetarisation of everyday life has transformed the giving of kola into the giving of money. One must constantly have one's hand on one's purse. Many practices of petty corruption enter into this 'gift' category: one owes a 'little something' by way of thanks to a compliant or helpful civil servant. (Olivier de Sardan 1999: 39)

In Kinshasa, transnational trade rests squarely within the 'informal economy' (MacGaffey and Bazenguissa-Ganga 2000: 33). Customs agents and other actors at the airport who are officially employed by the state benefit from extracting fees; these are sometimes framed as taxes or gifts. In this arrangement, traders support the overall state structure by contributing to the official salaries paid to government employees on a sporadic basis. (4) The dynamic between what is considered informal and formal is further complicated by the fact that women traders are being encouraged by the state to 'formalize' their business activities. (5) Indeed, as De Herdt and Titeca contend, 'it is important to distinguish between the official regulatory framework and the practical norms that make up real governance' (2016: 91). When confronted with how a formalization process would look in practice, most women traders to whom I spoke had no response, nor did the government officials I consulted. Perhaps the reason for this is that trade is already co-determined by the state and so-called informal actors.

Wandering and searching for new contacts is part of a process to increase one's opportunities, but how this plays out in the 'moral economy' implies something different for women. As actors in the moral economy, men unjustly suspect women traders of compromising their morality. In other words, there is a presumption that direct exposure to corruption leaves a woman vulnerable to becoming morally corrupt herself.

Globalization from below, or what Mathews and Yang call 'low-end globalization' (2012), consists of circuits of trade independent from, or indirectly linked to, large multinational corporations. Transnational women traders are actors within this schema, and they reveal the gendered dimensions of South-South business arrangements. Congolese traders are not exceptional cases in discussions about the gendering of global trade. Scholars have refocused attention on the gendered differences in global trade and the stigma that is often associated with intrepid African women involved in commerce (Darkwah 2007; Desai 2009; Howson 2012; Sylvanus 2013). Drawing on Carla Freeman's intention to 'bring into relief several powerful dichotomies in need of dialectical engagement: global/local; masculine/feminine; production/consumption; and formal/informal sectors of the economy' (Freeman 2001: 1009), this article examines the gendered geographies of mobility. It contributes to these discussions, offering new insights into the ways in which social networks, vital for women traders in Kinshasa, invite moral suspicion and affect their ability to attain professional respectability.


In 2016, I embarked on a four-month, multisite research trip in which I followed one trader named Solange (6) from Congo to China and back. In Guangzhou, we stayed at the Hotel Nairobi located in Xiaobei, a neighbourhood popular with African traders. For three weeks, I accompanied Solange on her daily outings, which consisted of purchasing wholesale items from various Chinese merchants throughout the sprawling city. I assisted Solange in purchasing the items on her shopping list, hauling bags of product across town, climbing on and off public buses in the sweltering heat. Our evenings were spent sorting through plastic bags overflowing with high-heeled shoes, sandals, dresses, spandex leggings, jeans, lingerie, costume jewellery, wigs and electronics. We packed up the purchased goods in canvas bags that were then sewn shut (to prevent theft during transport). The lobby of Hotel Nairobi was always occupied by groups of traders endlessly packing boxes and bags--we joked that the sound of globalization must surely be the sound of packing tape.

As a woman and a friend, I had the advantage of being able to share a hotel room with Solange and to speak candidly about highly personal issues. It was often in the moments before falling asleep that anxieties were expressed and articulated in a manner that would not be possible in formal interviews. During my time in Guangzhou, I interviewed over forty Congolese transnational commergantes between the ages of thirty-five and sixty-five, the majority of whom imported their cargo via air. In addition, I conducted in-depth interviews with six traders who were wealthy enough to pay for entire shipping containers. (7) I complemented this with fieldwork data gathered in Kinshasa between 2012 and 2014 for a research project relating to men's perceptions of women in the public workplace and, more broadly, local notions of feminine virtue.

La femrne vertueuse

Kinshasa's transnational commergantes are viewed in an unfavourable light. From the locally produced television series depicting traders as untrustworthy, to the Pentecostal discourse about the virtues of women who remain close to their homes, not to mention the myriad rumours circulating around women, transnational traders are regarded at home as morally suspect; this was something I was reminded of throughout the course of my fieldwork both in Congo beginning in 2008 and later in China in 2016. One of the first reactions about commercantes I noted occurred in the offices of a Congolese consulate. I was invited to take a seat with three gentlemen who were also presumably filing paperwork relating to travel visas. Seated among these men, I was gently asked a series of questions by them all. Am I married, what do I do for a living, have I ever visited Congo before? We exchanged pleasantries, and I described what a professional anthropologist does. As soon as I mentioned that I would be researching Congo's transnational commerfantes, the bureaucrat shifted in his seat, looked at the other men in the room and chuckled. I carried on with my project description, and casually brought up the fact that it seemed as though these women were not seen in the best light. He immediately blurted out, 'Mama ehhh! Yes, now you're onto something.' I asked him if he disapproved of my project, to which he responded:
   No, no, this is a phenomenon [c 'est toute une phenomene] in
   Kinshasa. There are many women in this line of work now. But, you
   know, we Africans, we don't approve of women travelling all over
   the place by themselves like you Europeans. Ask any man in Congo,
   and he will tell you this. This is a cultural thing. But, yes, I'm
   interested in your project, and seeing what you find out about
   these women.

This bureaucrat, although perhaps removed from any direct interaction with women traders, expressed an anxiety that is shared by many men in Congo.

One characteristic of a virtuous woman is that she does not 'expose' herself to the public: that is, she does not mingle or network with the masses, wandering outside the family structure. (8) In contrast, men are expected to grow and mobilize their social connections, since these are crucial to generating opportunity in the city. Non-virtuous women are often depicted in popular culture as corrupted by consumer culture, greedy, and a threat to matrimony. As I show in the following sections, commercantes' work is often counterpoised with the circulating discourse about virtuous women.

Solange, although unmarried and involved with a married man, confided in me that she had been engaged to a man for seven years. They split up mainly due to his misgivings about her trading activities.
   My fiance was a very jealous man by nature. There was always a
   discussion when I had to leave for a trip. Nothing made him happy,
   even if I called him morning and night while I was away. Even if I
   brought back the best clothing for him. He was always concerned
   that I was fooling around behind his back. He didn't trust me, and
   this hurt me very deeply.

This is not to say that Solange feels that she is better off without a meddling husband; however, her romantic history reflects many other women's experiences with distrustful partners Solange now prefers the role of mistress, or deuxieme bureau: 'My current boyfriend accepts what I do for a living, and doesn't create problems. He will never marry me because he already has a wife, but for now I am happy.'

The commercantes I met were not formally educated in business or marketing. In the words of one trader I spoke to: 'Before, I was a high school teacher. I was not getting paid enough, and often my monthly salary was delayed and not given to me. I gave up. I got into this business because it's what pays for me to live.' (9) This is one reason for the age demographic of traders in Congo--the youngest of the traders I spoke to was in her mid-thirties. (10) Trade is often a contingency plan when formal sources of revenue do not satisfy the family's basic needs.

From Nana Benz to Mama ya Guangzhou

Although West African women have a long history of trading in the region and abroad (Grier 1992; Sylvanus 2008), transnational trade is a recent activity for central African women. And while transnational trade between China and Congo is a new phenomenon, Congolese women's involvement in commerce is not new (Comhaire-Sylvain 1968; Mianda 1996).

Congo's economic downturn in the late 1980s, which was marked by currency overvaluation, drove more people to search for income alternatives outside the formal system. It was during this time that Congolese women increased their presence in trade, particularly between Brazzaville and Kinshasa. Women traders took advantage of the cheaply produced Asian textiles available across the Congo River in Brazzaville, and quickly gained a reputation linked to illegal business activity (De Herdt and Marysse 1999: 245)." MacGaffey and Bazenguissa-Ganga's (2000) research on traders shows how people who were otherwise marginalized from formal avenues of work carved out a space within the informal economy by forging trading networks between Congo and Paris. They discuss the importance of social networks in the trajectories of both the traders and the products entering Congo. Drawing on this work, the following sections describe some of the continuities between the earlier traders and contemporary transnational commerfantes travelling to China, especially with regard to the strategies they deploy to manoeuvre within the logic of a gift-giving system. As more women entered the domain of transnational trade, new concerns emerged in relation to the morality of their work within the wider economic system.

Initially, Congo's commergantes travelled to and sojourned in neighbouring African countries including Togo and Angola, buying items such as household wares and patterned cotton textiles called pagnes. Imports from West African countries, manufactured in places such as China, were cheaper due to longer established trade networks connecting them to global wholesalers. Later, once direct flights were introduced connecting Kinshasa to Dubai, Turkey and Brazil, intrepid entrepreneurs cut out the West African middlemen and ventured independently in search of their own wholesaler connections. (12) Currently, China is a popular destination because of accessible business visas, as well as direct flights to Guangzhou with generous baggage allowances.

Some traders purchase wholesale goods to sell in their shops, but most sell informally, out of their homes, to their network of customers. (13) That said, there are several categories of commergantes, and what they import reflects the amount of financial capital they have access to. For instance, one woman might be in the business of filling entire shipping containers with expensive furniture and construction material, while others pack large bags with cheap sandals that they resell for five times the wholesale price. Although these businesses yield different profit margins, commergantes face similar negative attitudes and perceptions about their trade.

Transnational trade is not unique to the Congolese context. West African women have long been in the business, and are referred to locally and abroad as Nana Benz. (14) Congolese traders were given this name in the 1980s when trade to and from West Africa was booming. Nina Sylvanus's research describes how Togo's Nam Benz rose to financial independence through the importation of Chinese-manufactured textiles, as well as the stigma associated with such textiles (2013). Chinese imported textiles are of a lower quality compared with those previously produced in the Netherlands or Togo. Because of their price point, most people can afford only these cheap imports, and thus traders are perceived as being complicit with malevolent global forces responsible for the decayed local industry (ibid.). Congolese women also face moral suspicion and are considered untrustworthy. Gracia Clark's extensive work on market women in Ghana during the country's neoliberal structural adjustment period points to market women being likened to greedy 'human vampire bats' (2001: 297). Many people believe that the traders are exploiting their customers by overcharging them for cheap Chinese products, which are referred to pejoratively as la chinoiserie (Braun 2015). (15) Traders are also criticized because of the inherent koluka, or searching, involved in trading.

In 2011, Kinshasa experienced a burgeoning of Mama ya Guangzhou, another colloquial name given to traders travelling to China. Trips to China became more accessible because of strengthened political relations between the two countries. Travel agencies organize visas and flights and manage baggage allowances, keeping logistics to a minimum. Traders must secure the means to finance their trips--a task that requires substantial business acumen. Successful traders are admired specifically because of the trappings of the trade. One young woman explained:
   China has become a trend and many women think that money can be
   made easily because it is like going straight to the source. We
   envy the big, shiny ladies' handbags that traders carry, those used
   to be called Mama ya Guangzhou, because they seemed heavy and
   filled with cash.

While many woman admire these traders for their financial success, the suspicion and anxieties lurking in Congolese society found popular expression in a local television series simply called Les Nanas Benz. In this series, commercantes were depicted as duplicitous women having affairs abroad and ruining their marriages. In her analysis of the widely viewed Pentecostal television melodramas, such as the one featuring the Nanas Benz, Katrien Pype addresses the idea of the immoral woman. She writes, '[Cjrucially the "bad girl" reflects modern and urban dispositions of young single women: extremely mobile, they do not remain in their homes but create networks outside the family and escape the control of patriarchal structures' (Pype 2012: 212). Indeed, women who wander beyond national borders in search of business opportunities arouse concern. Some people attribute the spike in divorces in Kinshasa between 2010 and 2015 to the increase in the number of women embarking on transnational trading excursions. (16) It is uncertain whether this panic about traders' morality is linked to Les Nanas Benz television series, or if art imitated life: that is, 'divorcing women' inspired the series. Whatever the case, the rumour mill churned round and round, and traders became easy targets for gossip.

La Mama Mabokoli: the mother who nourishes and raises her family
   I am a merchant
   I gave my soul to the Kasai River
   Seeking fortune in order to feed my children
   What suffering, pitiful me. (17)

Market trade has long been an important source of revenue for women, and--as the song lyrics articulate--also a source of hardship. Transnational trade constitutes a different kind of hardship, one linked to spending weeks away from the home and one's family. Staying close to home is a sign of virtue, so transnational trade represents a kind of break with this traditional norm. Women working in full-time jobs often continue to do most of their family's food preparations, and they take pride in being able to juggle their work both inside and outside the home. Women are chastised in popular discourse for being absent from their homes for weeks or sometimes months at a time, 'wandering' in search of increased profit margins. Their morality is questioned due to the perceived physical distance from the domestic sphere. Tu Huynh's research on African traders in China includes several interviews with East African men who blame women's extended sojourns abroad for their countries' urban youth problems (2015: 512). For many people, motherhood is seen as incompatible with transnational trade, which stands in opposition to local market trading activities in which women can combine their business activities with raising their children (Cornwall 2007: 41). However, people's ideas and impressions of what it means to be a trader do not correspond to the lived realities of most of the women to whom I spoke.

Most commergantes feel dignified in being able to support their families, by providing for basic needs such as education and medical care. In their self-conception, many women consider themselves virtuous when they are supporting their family, and often their extended family. One woman likened her work to that of a lion leaving the pride in order to hunt her family's meals. Successful traders travel abroad up to five times a year for two to three weeks at a time. When abroad, telephone calls are made home several times a day, not to mention the constant communication through applications such as WhatsApp. In the words of Solange:
   My daughter stays in our home with my mother and cousin. As you
   see, I call every day to check up on her. However, I do know of
   some women who are gone for up to three months at a time. This
   maybe becomes difficult for children. But then again, they have to
   earn money.

A trusted family member, usually a grandmother or an aunt, watches the children, and some traders cook and freeze meals in advance for their children. For Solange, if people's gossip made her indignant before, now, after ten years in the business, she feels completely indifferent to it.

Anxieties over the mobility of successful women traders have produced a backlash in which women are not celebrated for their business acumen and ability to feed their children, but instead are accused of sexual promiscuity. This is echoed in various African contexts, one of which is described in Madagascar: 'The implicit subtext to this statement is that women who do "wander around" are more likely to take lovers and possibly break up the household' (Cole 2010: 77). Mobile phone technology has prompted a pushback from Pentecostal churches, underscoring the threat that a woman's online social network poses to a virtuous Christian lifestyle (Pype 2016). Here, mobile phone technology and the internet are blamed for facilitating women's philandering. It can be argued that, in both real and virtual life, a woman's social network poses a threat to patriarchal authority in the city. The assumption is that, if a woman is searching for opportunities to further her business, she will be more inclined to accept the romantic and/or sexual advances of the men in positions of power with whom she comes into contact. But it is an exaggeration that women are ruthlessly opportunistic when it comes to selecting their partners. (18)

Given the norms associated with romance and finance, it is not surprising that many of the women I interviewed spoke of having had boyfriends at one time or another who helped them with their business. In many cases, while a particular relationship might end, the business connection can be maintained. For instance, one trader had dated a customs officer (a married man) for several years; after ending their relationship amicably, she continued to rely on his help in negotiating fees at the airport when her bags arrived. She stated: 'Just because we no longer go out doesn't mean he doesn't still help me. Plus now, I bring him things like new shirts, or even a new purse for his wife.' Here, some women's strategy is to initially create a contact base through romantic liaisons, a base that can later be maintained once a rapport has been established. Further, once a woman has achieved an economy of scale that allows her to finance her own trips, as well as to pay bribes and assume the costs of unexpected theft, she is less dependent on particular patrons for help with her business.

Women who can afford to pay middlemen to help them with the various negotiations that take place during the course of their business trips are spared the lengthy discussions that occur in both clandestine and banal spaces such as airport backrooms and in front of market stands. (19) From travel visas to customs taxes, there are associated operational costs that the right middleman can resolve. Women who do not have access to these facilitators, perhaps for financial reasons, must confront the different levels of corruption personally, sorting out each individual matter on their own. Younger women with little experience and beginning their careers as traders often have fewer financial resources than experienced traders and must navigate each step in the circuit of business dealings alone, leaving them 'exposed' to male solicitation. As Cynthia Howson notes: 'The decision to approach a customs officer in advance and seek assistance is precisely the kind of behaviour that is attached to rumours of sexual impropriety' (2012: 441). In many African contexts, allegations of women's sexual looseness are linked to a crisis in men's own economic subjectivity (Cornwall 2001; Perry 2005). Furthermore, a woman's financial independence can be threatening to a man, especially if she competes for the same resources.

'You can't trust those wandering women'

The morality espoused by Pentecostal churches, which are located on virtually every street corner in Kinshasa, has also shaped people's ideas about gender roles. Pentecostal discourse advances the idea that women are more susceptible to moral corruption, and are therefore more inclined to be moral corruptors themselves - spiritual leaders invariably bring up the biblical story of Eve tempting Adam in the Garden of Eden. Pastors generally agree that women are considered to be the weaker of the genders, and easily 'seduced' into sin. There is a sense in which women are in a continual battle against their own immoral nature. Biblical passages are invoked during discussions about the morality of women's work, particularly commerce that requires travel abroad.

While in China, I encountered Congolese male traders who spoke disparagingly of their female counterparts as 'loose women' or 'unserious'. For instance, at Guangzhou's airport, waiting for a flight back to Kinshasa, Solange and I stood in line with dozens of other traders at the baggage check-in desk. I felt as though I was in yet another warehouse, with bags stacked everywhere and people weighing and shifting the contents around so as not to pay any extra fees. We met a young Congolese agent, or middleman, who was working with traders, helping them with wholesalers and travel logistics. (20) An agent, but also a recent medical graduate, he began to tell me, 'This is my first trip to Asia, and I'm here helping a friend with his business. But I hope to one day import medical equipment and start a clinic in Kinshasa.' We then chatted about what he thought of the commergantes. In a hushed voice he said: 'These women come back with HIV and infect people in Congo. They spread it around.' I asked him if male traders also came back with HIV, to which he responded, encouraged perhaps by the confidence of his medical background, 'No, it's the women who transmit it.'

The necessity to 'be strong' surfaced in many of my interviews, and women are perceived to be in a perpetual position of having to resist the temptation of having affairs. Congolese men fantasize about women's business trips as occasions for sexual bacchanals, but also for opportunities associated with social mobility. As a result of men's inability to satisfy all of a woman's financial needs, as well as those of the family, there is a fear that a woman will not be 'strong enough' to resist the advances of a man who might contribute to her coffers. Strength of character is thus associated with fidelity, and also with accepting one's plight without looking too far for economic advancement. In Solange's words:
   Some traders have ruined all of our reputations, especially the
   younger ones, by fooling around [/'aire des betises] when they go
   abroad on buying trips. Yes, it's true that some women take
   advantage of being away. The men approach you here in China. A
   husband must trust his wife. We are here to work. These are long
   days and I run around going from wholesale vendor to vendor. I
   don't have time for anything else. Some women come here and they
   are not serious about their business. Maybe it's their first time
   on a trip. I've seen women travel on business, and fool around with
   men (usually other traders), drinking in the evenings and then
   sleeping half the day. But these women don't last in the business.
   They are not serious.

In the lobby of Hotel Nairobi is a small bar where traders often sit during the day between their errands. At night, it becomes animated with men and women drinking beer and eating take-out food from neighbourhood restaurants. Solange never sat there at night because this was a space for people she referred to as 'not serious', and for male traders whom she referred to as 'aventuriers'. (21) I spent several nights at the bar, chatting with guests, some of whom were young Congolese women just getting started in the import business. Here, there was a feeling of conviviality and joy that was heightened by the fact that we were all enjoying some leisure time abroad. When I returned to the hotel room, Solange playfully reprimanded me for hanging out with the 'non-serious' traders, telling me that men might take me for a sex worker. 'Some of those young traders are looking to make extra money if they can. Some of them, it's their first trip, and they might find enough money to return on another buying trip to China, so they're just wanting to party.'

While transnational trade can offer the potential for women to explore outside the purview of society's gaze, there is something else at work, another element of the immorality associated with women's trade. This concerns financial capability. How do women accumulate enough finance to make the initial trip abroad? Furthermore, how do they manage Congolese import taxes--those that are not fixed but change depending on the state agents currently in power--and other hidden fees associated with their import activities? Despite political rhetoric, it is rare for Congolese banks to fund small entrepreneurial projects, especially those considered to be part of the informal economy. Micro-credit associations run by women sometimes finance trips and provide support by sharing information about wholesale vendors and tips on how to maximize profits. As Cornwall observes among Yoruba women traders, extensive social networks are particularly necessary for start-up capital (2007: 30), and, in this context, micro-credit associations were relied upon less for financing than for mediating 'the destructiveness of open competition' (ibid:. 35). In Kinshasa, the majority of women must be experts in koluka, not only in terms of finding good deals, but also with regard to having access to the right people to ensure the longevity of their business. In short, given Congo's precarious economy, which is shaped by a deep-seated gift-giving system, women must often forge strategic relationships with men if they want to maintain their career. However, the agentive power demonstrated in these feminine strategies of building trust with key people (whether romantically or not) has contributed to the overall distrust of women in this line of work. In other words, women traders' activities reinforce the notion that success can be guaranteed only for those who know how to leverage their relationships, thereby provoking suspicion from husbands, or potential husbands.

Behind every successful woman is a strong man?

Writing when Congo was still Zaire, Janet MacGaffey asserted: 'Success over the long run is highly uncertain for women unable to call upon favours from powerful political patrons or wealthy relatives' (1991: 126). I would add here that it is assumed (among both men and women) that a favour from a man (obtained outside one's own kin) is reciprocated with intimacy, or the promise of intimacy. Sylvie Ayimpam's findings point to the ways in which traders cultivate relations with men in order to ensure that they effectively manoeuvre the labyrinthine network of customs agents (2014a: 87). Sylvie Bredeloup also notes that traders alternate between performing the role of the tired mother and flirty seductress depending on their audience of porters, customs agents or wholesalers (2013: 177). In my research, I found that most of the women I interviewed, at one point or another, had had a relationship with a man who was directly affiliated with the import-export business, and the women could therefore call on them for assistance. Whether these relationships were strategic or not, my interlocuters spoke of the necessity of having someone 'behind you' (derriere toi) to mitigate the threat of extortion.

When traders' cargo arrives at Kinshasa's N'djili airport, it remains in a room where it is subject to inspection. Depending on the value of the imported goods, a series of customs taxes are charged. For instance, human hair used for wigs and hair extensions is valued differently from cargo containing shoes. These taxes can be negotiated onsite if the appropriate customs agent is involved. Most traders have a contact at the airport who handles these negotiations and receives a kickback. For instance, if the price is set at US$100 per bag, the trader's contact will pay only US$80 to the official customs and will pocket US$20. Solange explained:
   When I arrive at the airport, I don't need to wait around, or even
   make a special trip to the airport to handle customs. I have hired
   someone for that. This way, my bags are delivered straight to my
   home and they are unopened and I don't have to worry if someone has
   stolen things, or even if a whole bag mysteriously gets lost. In
   this business you must always have someone behind you [derriere

Traders who have the resources to pay the appropriate people can ensure that their goods arrive safely and on time. It is not uncommon for theft to occur, and during my fieldwork in China, traders' prime concern was bags getting 'lost'. I heard many stories of entire cargos going missing, leaving a trader in debt. The women I spoke to who import shipping containers to the port in Matadi, DRC claim that items inevitably go missing virtually every trip and that this is simply something that must be built into one's costs, and therefore must be mitigated with the appropriate contacts with men affiliated with the government or military. Mama Mireille explained to me that she calls up her contact, a government minister, before her shipping cargo arrives at the port of Matadi. This wealthy woman trader has an extensive network of men on whom she can call for favours, because she reciprocates with gifts in the form of special merchandise. 'When I pack my container with household construction materials and furniture [quincaillerie, hardware], I include products and supplies for some of the people who help me.' Mama Mireille does not maintain romantic liaisons with the different men with whom she does business, but her social network suggests to people that at one time she strategically deployed her sexuality. Because she is unmarried and thus a 'free agent'--an empowered position for a woman--she is vulnerable to further accusations.

I met Mama Mireille's niece serendipitously one afternoon at a high school graduation ceremony. I introduced myself to her, and mentioned that I was researching women traders in Congo. She immediately took a defensive tone and said:
   My aunt has paid the school tuition for her children as well as
   other members of our family. Because of her hard work she has also
   paid for several parties and funerals. We do not question how she
   manages her success, or even how she began in the first place.

Indirectly addressing the disparaging attitudes towards women traders, this young woman was granting her aunt professional respectability by highlighting the many ways in which her aunt is instrumental in the family's social reproduction. This echoes MacGaffey and Bazenguissa-Ganga's discussions about the obligation placed on traders to redistribute wealth--being successful in business also implies that one is successful in sharing the wealth generated (2000: 126).

Ambitious women who want their business to flourish must forge contacts with powerful patrons. These networks subsequently render it difficult, if not impossible, for traders to marry, because once a woman establishes a rapport with a man in power, she is suspected of being romantically involved with him. In fact, men believe traders to be exploiting their networks affectively in search of ways to secure their business operations. Although men, perhaps out of jealousy and resentment, erroneously speculate wildly about what traders do when they go abroad, they also know the score: doing business in Congo inevitably requires patronage and protection, a notion called encadrement. The most direct and literal translation of the word encadrement is 'framing', an allusion to the idea that a woman must be managed, led, accompanied, protected or supervised by a man as she negotiates the public sphere (Braun 2016: 29). Some women are fortunate enough to have family members who provide financing and/or political protection if there are complications with airport customs, while others must find other ways of navigating the system. One thirty-eight-year-old woman I spoke to explained:
   I did not begin with big trips to China. I gathered money, I asked
   for loans. I paid the agency to organize my plane ticket and visa.
   Then I looked for customers and took their orders. But, I was also
   fortunate to have a wealthy lover who gave me money for my
   business. He also knew people at the airport who would help me with
   customs. Every trader gets some help; if it's not from their
   lovers, it's from their family. You think the banks here in Congo
   help? Ha!

The initial start-up costs associated with trade--an approximate sum of US$5,000 is the minimum requirement to cover the fees of one trip to China--are often facilitated by an assemblage of people, including lovers. Solange, whose current boyfriend was married, told me that he gave her pocket money for her trips (while in China, she once treated me to a manicure and said that it was 'on him'). When I pushed her on the exact sum given by her lover, she snapped and let me know that I had asked a rude question. However, days later in an unrelated conversation, Solange wanted to make it clear to me that she was not one of those women who maintained several boyfriends at once, nor was she a woman who financed her trips largely through money from men. She offered:
   Some women start out this way. You need money to buy the plane
   ticket, the visa, the baggage fees, the hotel, your food, and most
   importantly, money to buy products. Once a woman completes her
   first trip, if she is smart and buys the right products, she will
   make a profit which will then go to the next trip. This is how you
   get ahead and how you can finance your own trips in the future.

It is apparent that women require initial help with their financing; however, if budgets are respected, and if goods have been wisely selected to ensure that they will all be sold, they can amass enough money to finance future trips themselves. Love and commitment often require men to financially support their wives and lovers, and this has left many men in a constant state of anxiety, fearing that their girlfriends and wives receive money from multiple partners. And, indeed, some women maintain several boyfriends at once, which further reinforces negative images circulating in Pentecostal discourse and in popular media of women as cunning temptresses who seduce for resources. (22) Women, for their part, are also suspicious of men and the potential for resources to be divided up among several unknowing girlfriends.

The few traders I met who were married enjoyed the encadrement or protection of their own husbands and therefore did not need to search for business connections. This is echoed in an article written about cross-border traders in the context of rural Senegal: 'Mariam benefits from a wide margin of manoeuvrability because her husband used to be a customs officer. Because he transports products for her, she never has to worry about seizure' (Howson 2012: 441). One married trader who enjoyed the benefits of a higher social standing emphatically informed me that, because her husband is involved in transnational commerce, they had a mutual understanding. As I later learned, because these husbands are either customs officers or middlemen working in China, they are in the position of being able to provide the resources and connections necessary for a successful import-export business, and they can also keep an eye on their wives. Consider Yvette, mother of three, married to a man working for a cargo agency in Guangzhou. She makes six visits per year to China on buying trips--and, of course, to see her husband, who lives there permanently. I asked her about the trust between them, to which she confidently responded: 'My husband helps to facilitate my cargo transport to Congo. We are a team.' Another married trader I met expressed something similar:
   I am married and my husband accepts my work. He himself works as an
   international businessman. We both travel, and if I run into any
   problems, his connections help me. For instance, at the airport
   when I arrive with my bags, we know people, and I won't be hassled.
   He knows I do not have to look elsewhere. My husband also knows
   people in China and Dubai who have contacts with wholesalers. It is
   difficult searching for the best deals, and if I have a connection,
   I can do my work in less time.

The unmarried commergantes to whom I spoke related to me that they felt their intimate relationships suffered because of the distrust associated with their metier. Several of my interlocutors said that they yearned to find a stable relationship with someone who accepts their work, and who trusts them despite the rumours and the disparaging portrayals of women in the media. While encadrement is necessary for financing, as well as for protection during the customs tax process, women are stigmatized for this engagement with corrupt bureaucracies. In the eyes of most, it is only really morally acceptable for a woman's husband to be her encadreur.


Market-savvy women are increasingly seizing new opportunities to do business abroad in cities in the global South. The lack of local industry in Congo has created a dependence on foreign imports. Now, as visas to Dubai and China are easily granted to anyone who can produce the money, more men and women are participating in trade. Transnational commergantes face similar hardships to those borne by their forerunners who used to travel between Brazzaville and Kinshasa: namely, women's mobility and financial independence invite moral suspicion. But today women are doing more than selling onions in local markets; they are engaging with the global system while navigating local economic structures characterized by gift-giving logics. Rather than mounting an argument concerning the efficiencies or inefficiencies of this local economic system, this article has attempted to shed light on where it leaves women who wish to participate at a higher economic level. Commergantes have come under public scrutiny, not because it is assumed that they operate on the margins of the law, but because they are participating in a system premised on patron-client relations. Women's trading activities therefore reveal the gendered differences of patron-client relations. These differences shape local discourses about women in business, and interact with and challenge rhetoric associated with women's empowerment programmes.

Commercantes are financially autonomous, professional wanderers, travelling outside the control of their kin groups, yet they are also dependent on support from connections with men in powerful places. A commergante's reliance on her contacts is linked to the financial resources available to her. A woman with little purchasing power may rely more heavily on her contacts, asking for assistance to finance trips, as well as for customs officers and perhaps even middlemen. Solange is not the only woman to have a man behind her both as a financial provider and as a lover, and it is precisely this ambiguous tension between opportunism and 'free gifts' that offers something new to discussions regarding Congo's gift economy. Male resentment partly emerges from knowing that a woman with scarce economic means can forge connections with powerful men by offering the possibility of intimacy. Although their connections are also affective relationships, men do not have these strategies available to them. It is unsurprising that they are therefore quick to judge women who successfully get ahead in this business. Engagement with Congo's moral economy requires maintaining contacts, and the women involved, whether or not they choose a lover who might help and protect them, are ascribed a dubious reputation. Not only do commergantes lug heavy cargo to Congo, they also carry with them a social stigma, one tethered to their own mobility.

doi: 10.1017/S0001972019000135


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(1) Femmes commerfantes is the full term used in the DRC, but for the purposes of this article I refer to them as commerqantes.

(2) Depending on the context, the Lingala word koluka can mean 'to search' or 'to see'.

(3) For more about debrouillardisme in Kinshasa see Ayimpam (2014b).

(4) As De Herdt and Titeca have outlined in their research about public education in the DRC, parallel systems of official wage generation--in this case, paying the public school teachers' salaries instead of privatizing education--strengthen the official structure to reproduce the state's authority (2016: 91).

(5) In September 2014, I attended a conference in Kinshasa called "Matinee d'echanges des femmes d'affaires' sponsored by the Agence Nationale pour la Promotion des Investissements (ANAPI). The national ministers of gender, commerce and family were all in attendance, along with roughly 100 transnational women traders. The main message of the conference was to promote and valorize women traders, as well as to encourage them to 'go formal', although it was never stated what 'going formal' entails.

(6) All names have been changed to protect informants' identity.

(7) In 2016, import taxes for a shipping container were roughly US$17,000.

(8) One of the main markers of female respectability in the city is marriage, and Pentecostal churches go to great lengths to encourage their congregants to find partners who are brothers or sisters in Christ ifrereslsoeurs en Christ) within the church. Although marriage continues to be an aspirational goal for all social classes in the city and most women are hopeful that they will eventually be married, it is difficult for most to achieve because of the associated financial costs. Once married, ideally a woman stays at home and manages her household. Despite the vicissitudes of economic life in Kinshasa and the necessity for women to contribute to a household's overall expenses, Congolese people continue to perceive stay-at-home women as the main symbol of economic success and feminine virtue.

(9) Andrea Cornwall's research among Yoruba market women notes something similar: 'Educated women in public service professions such as teaching or nursing may trade to supplement their incomes' (2007: 29).

(10) There are exceptions: I met some younger commerfantes in China in their mid-twenties, but it was their first business trip and they were not purchasing anything in large quantities. As they put it, they were merely 'doing market research'.

(11) Similar to Ghanaian women's experiences. Congo's commerfantes were often vilified for reselling imports at high prices and thus were seen as avaricious merchants (Robertson 1995; Bowles 2013).

(12) This is not to say that middlemen are not present: in China, there are many Africans who act as guides to new traders, helping them find the appropriate wholesalers and assisting them with other logistics. For more on this, see Gordon Mathews' work on middlemen (2015).

(13) Women traders in other African cities often rely on social media and new technology to facilitate their business (see Steel 2017).

(14) It is said that Benz is short for Mercedes-Benz, a symbol of success and wealth in the 1970s.

(15) I noted several instances when traders were accused of importing sex toys and other products perceived as being morally dubious.

(16) Inexperienced women often manage only one trip abroad, and it is only those who are particularly apt at negotiating deals, finding the right customers and reinvesting their profits who are able to enjoy longevity in the business.

(17) Song lyrics from 'Femme Commergante' by Mpongo Love (1982).

(18) Katrien Pype describes a similar situation among television actresses in Kinshasa, where women must be cautious when searching for a patron, as this invites presumptions of romantic alliances (2012: 94). Actresses experience a level of public exposure that might compel them to manage their reputations more closely than women in other industries. Like these actresses, traders also establish connections with particular men to strategically create relationships of dependency and obligation that will secure their positions. Unlike actresses, commercantes are directly linked to the local market economy, and this requires an engagement with corruption, leaving them more vulnerable.

(19) Olivier de Sardan's conceptualization of the different iterations within schemas of corruption addresses the importance of middlemen or facilitators in negotiations: 'One readily says in songhay-zarma ir ma faaba ceeci ("let's look for help"), which means let's find "a useful relation" for any given kind of mediation, which clearly implies a bribe, a commission or a "gift"' (1999: 38).

(20) For more on African middlemen working in China, see Mathews (2015).

(21) This French word translates as 'adventurer', carrying with it several connotations: that these men have ambitions to stay on as illegal migrants, or that they are searching (koluka) for a new sexual experience.

(22) For more about women who maintain several lovers at once, see Nyamnjoh (2005) and Masquelier (2009).

Lesley Nicole Braun is a senior lecturer at the Institute of Social Anthropology, University of Basel. Email:
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