How Congolese Yankees use cool to conquer the city

Youth from the DRC city of Kisangani are embracing a newly found identity to survive – and succeed in – life, reports Catherina Wilson in her award-nominated thesis. Reader, meet the Congolese Yankee.

By Anne Saenen
Published by Radio Netherlands Worldwide, Africa Desk

“A Yankee doesn’t have complexes,” says 28-year-old Gaston in an interview. Asked by Wilson, a half-Belgian and half-Colombian woman, how to identify such an indvidual on the street, he explains: “there are boys who are not civilized, if one of them sees you, a white person, he will be startled, he will not feel at ease […]. But someone who sees you, greets you and then continues his way, well a Yankee, he is enlightened.”

This is just one of the various examples of being Kiyankee, as a Yankee is called in the local language, that Wilson’s study catalogues. Above all, her thesis looks at how these Yankee youngsters use distinct language and creative ways of speaking to “overcome stagnation and enter adulthood”.

Through speaking the slang variant of Lingala known as Kindoubil, the youth endeavour to sound “important” and “cool”. Building on the work of other researchers, Wilson points to the signification of social codes as a way of trying to escape marginalization and poverty. In the same way the sapeur resorts to clothing, the Yankee resorts to language.

But it is not just through language that Congolese Yankees seek progress. The study shows that attitude, too, is an all-important feature. The Yankee is supposed to emanate self-assuredness and collectedness. He is “composed, self-confident, apparently indifferent and experienced”.

Relatedly, a Yankee is a “master in survival techniques” who has “everything, always under control”. These characteristics require being a quick thinker. “If losing out in a conversation, the Yankee will do everything to change the direction of the argument into his own advantage. The Yankee does not accept misfortune publicly,” writes Wilson.

An inadvertent Yankee
Another interviewee, named Kongo and in his early 30s, claims that the researcher managed to embody Yankeeness in one scenario that he himself witnessed.

In the study, Wilson recalls how outside a bakery she had seen a sign with the English word “toast” on it. Wanting some of the product advertised, she went in and waited in line to order. But when she asked for “toast”, the baker began reaching for something in the refrigerator. Fellow customers began indicating that toast was not to be found there and after some “very uncomfortable seconds for both sides”, as Wilson puts it, the language gap became clear. The Congolese man realized his customer requesting “toast” was in fact seeking pain grillé.[related-articles]

The researcher describes the experience as “quite embarrassing”. But, as far as Kongo was concerned, she had won the linguistic battle. By using the word “toast”, Wilson showed that she knew the baker’s product better than the baker himself. As Kongo expressed it, she “came out Yankee”.

The anecdote illustrate how part of being a Yankee means to be in – and win at – a kind of competition. In the researcher’s terms, coming out Yankee means to come out on top, “to impress the other by showing that one’s knowledge is greater than the other’s”. According to Wilson, this finding well exemplifies the “creative and provocative nature of urban youth languages”.

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