Living in Congo Part 1

December 1, 2004
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A couple of folks have wondered what the day-to-day here in Kinshasa is really like. My guess is that most of you will never get here (nor, unfortunately, should you…), but if you’re interested, I’ll tell you about it. Its kind of hard to give a chronological evolution to it, because my perceptions of this place seem to shift weekly, the country is undergoing dramatic changes daily, and the history has not been agreed upon by the textbook writers yet. But here’s some background info and some of my own impressions.

There’s a lot of seedy history to this place, and if you also feel that you need to understand the past of a place to understand the present, there are some excellent books to read (in general, not just for those planning to come here). For an excellent chronology, read King Leopold’s Ghost by Adam Hochschild, which is about the colonialization of the Congo Basin, In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz; Living on the Brink of Disaster in Mobuto’s Congo by Michela Wrong, which is about President Mobutu’s 40-year reign of abuse and economic savagery, and Facing the Congo by Jeffrey Tayler, which is about a man who tried to do a canoe trip from Kisingani to Kinshasa on the Congo River about 6 years ago. These three will give you a chronology for the modern-day Congo. Here’s a summary, but I don’t have the books in front of me, so the actual dates are probably off a bit.

Until the later 1800′s, the region was the last entirely unexplored part of Africa because the huge rapids at the mouth of the Congo River blocked any upstream travel. In 1880-something, Stanley (of “Dr. Livingstone, I presume” fame) came down the Congo River from the east, being the first white to explore the midst of what he coined “Dark Africa.” He was not the gentle, intrepid explorer I had imagined from my youth; instead he was in charge of a heavily armed, rather ruthless and completely exhausted band of travelers who literally shot their way through the region with their superior firepower. Of course, many of the people they encountered were intent on eating them, but in general, they didn’t wait long enough to find out. They floated down the river in their big pirogues (dugout canoes) and dropped people along the shoreline left and right in a race to get to the Atlantic. Later, in order to open the region, King Leopold of Belgium hired Stanley to build the road around the rapids because he realized Stanley had the kind of self-serving savagery that could get the job done. In addition to strong-arm tactics, Stanley used intertribal politics to get locals to turn against each other, capture and force their enemies into labor, and then literally worked people to death leaving bodies along the side of the road. This pretty much defined the style of manipulation and management used by the Whites for many years to come.

King Leopold was no benevolent leader, either. He had inherited the newly formed country of Belgium, and found himself a European monarch without a rich history or much personal wealth. To remedy that, he basically duped the world (especially the US) into giving him sovereignty over the Congo basin under the pretense of protecting the natives from the ruthless Arab slave traders encroaching from the East. He did this by forming several layers of “Benevolent Organizations” that were given mandates, but it turned out that they were just covers and he was the only member.

He garnered wealth by forcing the natives to work gathering rubber sap. He would have his managers (he personally never visited the region) kidnap the women in a tribe, and force the men to go into the jungle to gather rubber. If they refused or came back with less than the designated quota, their wives were beaten, the men were whipped, their hands were cut off, or their families killed. They were not paid for their labors, and as the sap became more scarce, quotas increased (Leopold feared that Rubber plantations would soon eclipse his monopoly on supply). Similar to Stanley’s tactics, Leopold’ s managers often got the locals to do the dirty work and often claimed that it was the natives, not the whites, who were the brutalizers. The world eventually became aware of his reign of terror, and he was forced to relinquish control of the region to the Country of Belgium in the early 1900s, forming Belgian Congo. But not before he managed to decimate the population, breed a tremendous mistrust of the whites, and stash away a huge amount of wealth. None of the money was returned to the infrastructure of the country.

After another long while of neglect, Belgian Congo got its independence and became a sovereign country called The Congo. In a nutshell, there was a period of about 30 years where there was a lot of political scuffing about, with several governments forming and collapsing, and like all recent history, the details of this time period are conflicting, confusing and not well-agreed upon. But in general, in the early 60s, the Congolese were starting to have socialist ideas, so the US got involved, probably assassinated the elected president, and perched Mobutu on the presidential platform. Money and assistance started flowing in, and over the next 10-20 years, the country seemed to prosper. Roads were built, hydropower dams generated electricity, mining was lucrative, and the extensive mineral wealth of the country was being tapped into. However, Mobutu (the ex-Military leader, without any real training in how to manage such a rich nation) quickly lost connection with the people in the bush, and began hoarding the wealth of the country as his own personal wealth. The World Bank, the UN, the US all were seen as Golden Geese, making deposits into Mobutu’s personal accounts. The economic system became a huge old-boys club; tribal relatives were given ministerial posts where they could dip liberally into the coffers, glean bribes and pass favors, and then were rotated to other posts to let others take their turn at the trough. Governmental support of the people was eliminated, and the people were encouraged (by a law called ‘Article 13′) to do whatever street-level marketing they could in order to make their own living. In other words; don’t ask your country to help you…help yourself! People started all sorts of cottage businesses: selling boiled eggs, hawking old clothes, building ramshackle furniture. People everywhere were doing whatever they could to make a buck. But no one had any chance of developing a large business: if they started getting too successful by getting organized, suddenly some government minister would swoop in and take all the profits.

Eventually, rampant defaults and general distrust of the financial integrity of Congo forced the World Bank and other lending instructions to pull out their support, so Mobuto and the ministers started cannibalizing the countries industries. Soon, all major industries were sucked dry and closed down. The power plants, the mining, the roads maintenance…everything. Congo was back in the Stone Age, except for Mobutu and Kinshasa who were living on the financial base meant for the entire country. The army held a death grip on the countryside, and the unpaid soldiers made a living fleecing foreigners and NGOs (still seen as the White Cash Cow) and ruling villages like little fiefdoms. Once again, the world was told that the natives were doing this to themselves.

This next part is well documented, but a bit complex. In a VERY simple nutshell, when the wars broke out in Rwanda and Uganda 8 years ago, the refugees (composed of an organized army of aggressors from Uganda and Rwanda) fled into Congo. There was a huge naive influx of financial support through relief organizations, which displaced Mobutu’s monopoly on finances, and rather quickly a well fed and organized Rebel army took control of the far eastern region and pushed Mobutu’s forces out. The unpaid, unloyal, under-armed Congolese forces retreated so quickly that the astonished Rebels swept across the country and took over Kinshasa. It helped that Mobutu had cancer and ran off to Ivory Coast and died.

The new government, under Laurent Kabila, had various confusing allegiances with other countries, so the resulting battles and chaos across the far eastern border left the job of rebuilding the infrastructure unadressed. Kabila was assassinated, and his son (who did not have the same allegiances) took control. Joseph Kabila is now politically unencumbered to face the huge task ahead of him: to rebuild the infrastructure that has a 40-year history of being neglected and left to the rats, who have been on the take for every scrap possible. In the street, foreigners are seen as ‘cash cows’ who bring excess money to pass out to whoever is first in line. There is no major industry and many of the people in higher positions know that, if the country gets organized, their situation will actually deteriorate rather than improve. The place where it is the worst is at the airport, where the Customs agents can demand huge bribes to clear your items and you either pay them or you can get on the next plane out. There is no higher authority to appeal to, and the customs guys know it. Forget sending stuff by container; if you are not standing right there with the boxes at your feet, you will never see them again. Remember, the Airport customs agents do not want to send you back; they are completely expecting to come to ‘an agreement’ with you, as they want and expect your money. But they also have not seen a real payday in many years, so they don’t want to let you go too cheaply, either.

So these are the thoughts sitting in my head as I am landing at Kinshasa Airport, 500 kg of baggage in the hold beneath me, packets stuffed with $100 bills and my passport freshly stamped with the incredibly expensive Visa I acquired in Johannesburg.

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2 Responses to Living in Congo Part 1

    • Linda Buchanan
      May 15, 2011 at 8:18 pm

      Dear Mr. Buck,
      I have an unusual request, a favor for a young student studying the DRC at Evergreen State College in Olympia, WA. John Harrity (my 20 year-old son) is a student in an ESC course this quarter in a program called “People’s Geography of American Empire”. His term-long project is focussed on the DRC, especially with regard to the conflict, Katanga province, minerals, etc. A major component of his work is to talk with/interview someone (phone or email) who has spent time living in the DRC. He has had a lot of difficulty connecting with anyone to interview (10-12 questions). Can you help??? His time is running low (hence my effort to assist in finding a willing interviewee!). I would be delighted to provide his contact info, if you could email me. (You are terrific writer, by the way – clear, informative, personal and insightful, a wonderful combination of talent. Thank you!)
      Linda Buchanan

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