Sanity, Sanitation, and the Politics of Segregation.
The Case of the Sanitary Corridor in Lubumbashi

The third chapter of our  ULTRASANITY project takes place in Lubumbashi, DR Congo, as a collaboration with Picha Art Center and artist Sammy Baloji. It draws upon the research and work of Baloji on the sanitary corridor and the urban racial segregation designed during colonial times in Lubumbashi. In this iteration, SAVVY Contemporary interposes its quest on ULTRASANITY and madness with situated reflections around issues of contamination, containment, and politics of segregation in Congo. Within a two-day programme, we will engage with deliberations around practices of sanitation and distribution of space on the one hand, and with predicaments of cognitive and corporeal displacement on the other one. 

With the exhibition project A Blueprint for Toads and Snakes (2018 at Frarmer Framed, curated by Vincent van Velsen), Sammy Baloji – whose work addresses not only colonial structures and technologies of oppression, but also post-colonial disillusionment, and continuing imperial backwash – retraced and pondered the colonial urban planning of the “indigenous city” of Lubumbashi, which was structured according to strict politics of sanitation. The “cordon sanitaire” (sanitary corridor) was a buffer zone inscribed in the landscape to separate physically and efficiently the black from the white population. 

With the Invocations programming – the well-rehearsed mixed format of talks, presentations, performances and spiritual interventions at the core of SAVVY Contemporary – we invite local and international scholars, artists and practitioners to engage with the still visible traces of this colonial segregation, traveling through its architecture, addressing its forms and politics, and tackling the current struggles and ethnic tensions intensified by economic interests and conflicts.

The etymological roots of both "sanitary" and "sanity," that respectively reference cleanliness and a correct and normative mind set, lie in the Latin word "sanus," which means "healthy or sane." The treatment of people considered mad as dirt, outcasts, and untouchables is thus not surprising. The location of asylums – be it for the mad or for refugees – outside of the realms of society and “the clean”, has been recurrent since the end of the Middle Ages, when madpeople started to be expelled from towns. The madwoman and madman, who too often speaks the truth, had to be both excluded and enclosed, interned in the Narrenschiff or in the asylum to avoid physical and mental contact with the citizens of the rising municipal society across Europe.

The concept of the cordon sanitaire (sanitary cordon) denotes mostly artificial boundaries set up to prevent the spread of infectious diseases by limiting the movement of people and carriers of diseases within certain geographies. In Belgian colonised Congo, a cordon sanitaire was imposed from 1903 to 1914 in the Uele Province with the aim of controlling the spread of sleeping sickness. This very physical boundary was a corridor that separated the indigenous people, i.e. the “impure”, from the “pure” colonisers. This segregational practice was common in many colonised cities, with similar claims of avoiding the spread of illnesses, but it essentially stood for the racist demarcation of sanity. With the aforementioned relations between coloniality and madness, it is not far-fetched to equate the “purity” and “impurity” on both shores of the cordon sanitaire with sanity and insanity, respectively.

In Mary Douglas' Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (1966), the meaning of dirt/filth is illuminated using anthropological tools in varying geographical, social and religious contexts. In making relations between the sacred, the clean and the unclean, the sane and the insane in different societies and times, Douglas illustrates death rituals of the Nyakyusa people in Malawi and Tanzania. She points out their association of dirt with madness, as in the cases where those who are mad eat filth. In the Nyakyusa cosmogony, there are two kinds of madness, one sent by God and the other comes from neglect of ritual. “Thus they explicitly see ritual as the source of discrimination and of knowledge. Whatever the cause of madness, the symptoms are the same. The madman eats filth and throws off his clothes. Filth is listed as meaning excreta, mud, frogs: ‘The eating of filth by madmen is like the filth of death, those faeces are the corpse.'" [2] So ritual conserves sanity and life: madness brings filth and is a kind of death. Ritual separates death from life: “the dead, if not separated from the living bring madness on them.” [3]


In the previous days we travel to the quarry of Kipushi and Munua, to retrace the path of Gbaguidi’s researches, conversations, life stories and sharing of knowledge collected during a residency conducted by Pélagie Gbaguidi in Lubumbashi in 2019. This experience lived as a cartography located, intends to be the ground of a reflection on the problems discussed during the meetings made during her stay. The installation Zone de Tissage invites masks, objects, anti-pollution textiles designed with the textile designer Nila Lila, including glasses, canvases and embroidery, which are as many media intended to resonate with sensitive situations and local communities, including the urgency of starting a decolonial ecology. In a context of environmental and metaphorical pollution, injuries in the body and mobilization of survival strategies, Gbaguidi has tried to give human form to various tragedies that affected it. Udji Kinge is a video about performances in ore quarries, intended to reveal psychological spaces affected by social and political issues.


Wilson, Monica. 1957. Rituals and Kinship among the Nyakyusa. Oxford University Press, pp.53, 80-81 


Douglas, Mary. 1966. Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. Routledge.