(Not) talking like a Motorola: mobile phone practices and politics of masking and unmasking in postcolonial Kinshasa

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The expression ‘talking like a Motorola’ (koloba lokola Motorola) was long used during the reign of President Mobutu in the Democratic Republic of Congo/Zaïre to indicate the undesired disclosure of information. It manifests the perception of many Kinois (inhabitants of Kinshasa) that the Motorola handset was only deployed by Mobutu's secret service agents in order to detect and report critics of the regime. Today, mobile phones are no longer the preserve of political agents. Nearly everybody can have one. The idiom is thus outdated. Yet other lines between ‘what can be said [over the phone]’ and ‘what cannot be said’ are being drawn in Kinshasa's political society. Indeed, transformations in practices of secrecy, concealment, and, their counterpart, the divulging of information – all three significant axes of the production of power and contestation of authority – are key, both in state actions and in strategies of civil society. In this article, I attempt to locate the mobile phone within Kinshasa's political society, and analyse how relations to the Congolese state are articulated through the politics of cell phone technology and uses of the handset.


Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)633-652
JournalJournal of the Royal Anthropological Institute
Issue number3
Early online date25 Jul 2016
Publication statusPublished - Sep 2016