Fiston Mwanza Mujila’s Tram 83 thoroughly explores a society that is seldom touched upon in literature, putting the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and to a greater extent, Africa, through much scrutiny. A significant amount of the novel is focused on the bleakness of the Africa’s future (or rather, lack thereof) due to a range of factors, such as the lingering effects of colonial rule, the tendency of its people to act within their own interests at the expense of the continent’s, and the exploitation of lower-class citizens, which make up the majority of the population. The persistent image of baby-chicks, young women that sell sex to strangers at the train station and Tram 83, the titular bar, serves as a symbol of the African people, and is used to explore the issues that plague the land.
In order to determine how Mujila tackles these issues, however, we must first figure out how the connection between these girls and Africa is established in the first place. In my own reading, I first noticed it near the end of the novel, when the protagonist Lucien calls out Emilienne, someone who frequents the Tram, for conditioning these extremely young girls for prostitution, asking her, “What’s got into you to colonize these young girls?” (191). It prompted me to go back to the near beginning, where they are also described as “emancipated, democratic, and independent” (30). The narrative simultaneously applies an oxymoron of colonization and freedom to the baby-chicks, using language that mirrors the political changes that the DRC has seen in the past few centuries.
Though the girls are independent in that they have some sort of control over the men that use them by getting them to do favors for them, they are still seen as sex objects—things that are to be used, instead of individuals with actual agency. It is men (some of which are described as foreigners from the same countries that had colonized Africa years prior) who objectify these young women that continue to keep them from rising up and achieving better for themselves. Continued demand along with power keeps this industry afloat, in the same way that stagnancy exists in Africa as a result of capitalism and autocracy.
The static nature of the baby-chicks is even established at the very beginning of the novel, as one of them goes up to Requiem, the deuteragonist, offering her services. She is described as a “girl, dressed for a Friday night in a station whose metal structure is unfinished” (2). The image of an unfinished metal structure serves three purposes. First, the girl is implied to be a minor, as an unfinished structure sounds strikingly similar to a body that is not fully matured. Second, the comparison to something made of metal serves to treat the girl as an object, especially when metal is associated with exploitation (search for metal drives much of the evils of capitalism, and capital itself is mostly made of metal). Third, the phrase “unfinished metal structure” is repeated constantly throughout the novel, used also when describing the lingering effects of Belgian colonialism and unresolved conflicts among the people, all contributing to what the author sees as a lack of a future in Africa, should these things persist. When reading the baby-chicks as a symbol for the people of the DRC, and applying the meaning behind the phrase “unfinished metal structure”, it becomes apparent that Mujila is arguing that the abuse of the country’s citizens boxes them into a bleak future with no way out.