All for a Bag!

By Catherina Wilson (Leiden University)

20211124%20Michael%20Kors%20bag The second-hand Michael Kors handbag/ © Catherina Wilson

Letting it be: Congolese in The Netherlands

On a cold, winter afternoon in early 2021, I visited Philo (all names have been anonymized), a Congolese lady, at her place. We had been introduced by an acquaintance a couple of months before. Around the same time, I was to start research on Congolese migrants in The Netherlands and I was eager to interview Philo for this purpose. During previous encounters, she had shown interest in participating. But soon after this initial euphoria, Philo grew suspicious of our request. Finally she decided to tacitly withdraw from the research. Philo never communicated an explicit no. She just stopped talking openly about herself, as she had done before. On that cold afternoon in 2021, I tried to convince her one last time. I wanted her to know that her story was important and that we would respect her privacy. My attempt was to no avail, Philo did not want to talk on record. So, I dropped the request and spent the rest of afternoon cooking, braiding hair and drinking tea instead.

Philo had studied to be a hairdresser in Congo, she was talented and I could feel she really knew what she was doing. During the braiding Philo nonchalantly commented on Tanzanian women’s love for having short hair. Trying to hide my astonishment, I gently inquired how she had such a clear opinion about this? I soon learned that, on her way to Europe, Philo had passed through Dar es Salaam, where she had spent a couple of weeks. The researcher in me was triggered and I started asking questions. Philo’s reply to every question was that she did not remember. Even if I thought to have found the missing link in our project, the one that connected our work with DIGNITY Kwanza in Dar es Salaam (the results of which can be found in TRAFIG working paper no. 8) with our research in The Netherlands, I felt disarmed and was unable to fire (indirect) questions. I did the only thing I could do: let it be.

Many months passed by during which Philo and I saw one another at different events. Our relationship and appreciation of one another grew as we helped one another on different occasions. I discovered that next to being a gifted hairdresser, Philo was a great cook. From that point on, many of our conversations turned to food. Late 2021, while having dinner at my house, I mentioned casually that I was travelling to Dar es Salaam. Philo replied, almost immediately: ‘Can I give you a colis (the generic term used in Congo for a parcel) for an acquaintance who lives there?’ I agreed, of course I agreed! Experience has taught me that taking a small package (from someone you trust and only if you know the content) for a third person is a productive way to discover one’s field anew. It reinforces old bonds and allows for new connections. Philo thus gave me a second-hand, red Michael Kors bag with a pair of sandals in it to take to her distant aunt Louisa. I also received her phone number. It made me think of Jedlowski’s article All for a container!, in which he analyzes the container’s social meaning with regards to mobility and technology (Jedlowski 2016). I was inspired to do a similar exercise with regards to the social actions triggered by a handbag. By carrying the colis, I was, without asking for it, witnessing the connectivity between Congolese in the diaspora (between The Netherlands and Tanzania), while being very much ‘part of that connection’ (De Bruijn and Brinkman 2012). In fact, I was the physical connector who physically travelled with the fashionable handbag.

A beautiful garden: Congolese in Dar es Salaam

One week after my arrival in Dar es Salaam, and especially after a conversation with Philo through WhatsApp, in which we joked about Tanzanian cuisine (which for the record I do enjoy), Philo told me about Ma Louisa’s garden. Curious to see it with my own eyes, I contacted Ma Louisa on the next day. Her house was relatively close to our hostel and even if I had not been to that neighbourhood before, I was acquainted with the area and I knew how to get there. As the bus drove into the bus stop I recognized Ma Louisa from afar, she was elegantly dressed in vitenge (colourful African print), the Congolese way. We went to her house, which was located in an oasis of calm in the midst of one of Dar es Salaam’s most bustling neighbourhoods. Sitting on the porch, which looked at trees, flowers and a schoolyard, I felt as if I was in the village. The breeze cooled down the burning sunrays. The calm was soothing. Even if I kept on telling myself that this visit was not linked to my work, I was there because of a friend, how was I supposed to separate my researching self from my other, social self? I swallowed questions, it was anyway too hot for an interview, but just keeping silent also felt awkward. I then remembered the garden, an excellent topic for a small talk, and asked Ma Louisa about it. In an instant, the awkwardness disappeared. Louisa was very eager to talk about her garden. In fact, she had been gardening for quite some years. Her neighbours appreciated her efforts, because she would keep the place tidy and clean. I asked if I could take pictures and she agreed and thus, after the sun had cooled down a bit, she showed me around.

20211125%20Garden Ma Louisa wearing the handbag in her garden/ © Catherina Wilson

Ma Louisa’s garden was not like any garden. The fact that she grew Congolese vegetables (not always readily available in Tanzanian markets) made it not only special, but also a valuable source of income, as Ma Louisa catered for the Congolese community living in Dar es Salaam. We walked through matembele (sweet-potato leaves), bitekuteku (amaranth leaves), ngai-ngai (young Rosella shrub leaves), and sombe (manioc leaves) among others. The latter, sombe, is a case in point. Tanzanians refer to these leaves as kisamvu; sombe is the Congolese Swahili word for manioc leaves. These leaves are not difficult to find in Tanzania, but they are not part of the common diet of the inhabitants of Dar es Salaam. In Congo, on the contrary, sombe or pondu (the Lingala term) is part of the daily diet and a loved vegetable in most areas of the country. While in Congo it is cooked in palm oil, in Dar es Salaam it is prepared with coconut oil. Unfortunately, however, 2021 had not been a good year for harvest. In Dar es Salaam, the rainy season should have started in October, but it was already November and still dry. Many people were indeed complaining about the drought, the subsequent water and power cuts, the rising temperatures and especially the lost harvest. Louisa’s crops dried out, like many fields in other parts of the country. When we told Philo about it as we called to greet her through WhatsApp, she seemed to deeply regret the loss. Philo had hoped that Louisa would send her fresh vegetables, but with no yields that would be difficult.

Nevertheless, the day I was travelling back to Europe, Ma Louisa passed by the hostel to drop a colis for Philo. Once again, I had become the connection. The colis contained two bags of fresh matembele, two bags of freshly pounded and frozen pondu, and a couple of bags with seeds to plant. I also received a pair of Tanzanian-made sandals as a present. Everything arrived well in The Netherlands. We prepared the matembele two days after my return, fearing it would go bad. The pondu (which is in the freezer) and the seeds are still waiting to be handed over to its recipient. Philo and I decided we would prepare the pondu together. However, there is a sense of urgency with regards to the seeds. In a WhatsApp message Philo explained: Nalingaki naya kuna kozua ba graine maman atindaki po nazotiela ndeko moko yango na poste ekende Londres. / I wanted to come there (to your house) to take the seeds Ma Louisa sent because I am sending them to an acquaintance by post to London.

It brought a smile to my face. I had not been the connection in its totality, but part of a longer and multi-dimensional chain of connecting rings. If we were to look at the grains, the chain started in Congo (where the grains originally come from), passed through Dar es Salaam, travelled to The Netherlands and would continue to England and, who knows, perhaps elsewhere.

On Opacity and incompleteness

There are a couple of (methodological) lessons to draw from this story of connections and connectivity. First, we must cherish serendipity (Rivoal and Salazar 2013). Often the most beautiful stories and insights happen by coincidence, when one least expects them. When writing proposals it is a challenge to incorporate this serendipitous approach, it is not in our hands and it might as well not take place. However, if we underline its potential, we could count in serendipity by creating room for the unexpected in our research proposals, that is, in addition to more traditional and countable methods, such as interviews. One approach complements the other.

Second, we must accept the right to opacity. Not everything should be disclosed in the name of science. It is OK to accept the silences, secrets and to let stories be, just for the sake of themselves. Not everyone will want to participate in research (as in the case of Philo), also when privacy is guaranteed, and we must respect it. Thus, even if we might not stop ourselves from being curious, we can withhold ourselves from turning all conversations and meeting moments into data. The ‘right to opacity’ accepts that ‘not everything should be seen, explained, understood, and documented’ (Khosravi 2018) and is especially powerful when researching people on the move.

Third, as researchers we find ourselves in an ethical dilemma with regards to what to share (in other words data management): On the one hand there is a need for in-depth qualitative data; On the other hand, we must guarantee the anonymity of participants. Opacity helps us navigate this dilemma. So does the celebration of ‘incompleteness’ that encourages us to embrace conviviality, i.e. an open-minded and open-ended attitude (Nyamnjoh 2017). There is no one-fits-all solution for finding a balance between sharing a story and respecting the wishes of our respondents and friends. In this case, I found this story too beautiful and meaningful not to be told. My solution was to focus on an object, the handbag and the social actions it entails, rather than focusing on people behind the bag. Of course, I cannot write a story with no people and no context, therefore I anonymized all names and personal details. Where needed, I wrote in generic terms instead of detailed descriptions. Opacity and incompleteness guided me to be vague. Yet, there are other solutions to this dilemma. Embracing incompleteness starts with serendipity, and we can choose to embrace it throughout the whole of the process. It would yield beautiful and unexpected results. Don’t we want science to be about discovering the unforeseen and writing about it in a respectful, meaningful, convivial and, why not, enjoyable manner?


De Bruijn, Mirjam, and Inge Brinkman. 2012. ‘Research Practice in Connections: Travels and Methods’. In The Social Life of Connectivity in Africa, edited by Mirjam De Bruijn and Rijk van Dijk, 45–63. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Jedlowski, Alessandro. 2016. ‘All for a Container! Return Migration, Transport Technologies and Love Affairs’. Transfers 6 (2): 94–11.

Khosravi, Shahram. 2018. ‘Afterword. Experiences and Stories along the Way’. Geoforum, May.

Nyamnjoh, Francis B. 2017. ‘Incompleteness: Frontier Africa and the Currency of Conviviality’. Journal of Asian and African Studies 52 (3): 253–70.

Rivoal, Isabelle, and Noel B. Salazar. 2013. ‘Contemporary Ethnographic Practice and the Value of Serendipity’. Social Anthropology 21 (2): 178–85.

The views and opinions expressed in this blog do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the TRAFIG Consortium or the European Commission (EC). TRAFIG is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information contained therein.

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