AP Blog: Congo, on Too Much Money a Day
AP chief of bureau for Canada, Beth Duff-Brown, is in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which she visited many times as a West Africa correspondent in the mid-1990s. She has returned to visit to a remote village in central Congo, where she was a Peace Corps volunteer from 1979 to 1981.
TUESDAY, Sept. 5, 5:30 p.m. local
KANANGA, Democratic Republic of Congo
We got on the small U.N. prop plane this morning, carrying U.N. staff and peacekeepers from the national capital, Kinshasa, to Kananga, the provincial capital of Kasai Occidental. I’m now only about 100 miles north of my village. With no paved roads and an ongoing train strike, the second order of business is trying to find transportation south.
The first was a lunch of fried plantains in palm oil.
There’s little fuel in town because of the monthlong strike, which has pushed the cost of gas to about $13 or $14 a gallon, so I’m told finding a willing car and driver will be tough, even if I’m willing to pay. The strike has inflated all the prices of commodities in town. A bag of cement, for example, that was $20 a month ago now costs $35. Oil for the generators that provide most of the electricity for the city of about 1 million people has become so costly that most Kanangans know they need to get home by nightfall and light their candles and kerosene lamps.
I’m typing this blog entry in the dark, by battery-powered laptop, sitting in a crumbling, one-room concrete computer lab with a half-dozen Dells and a satellite dish for a wireless signal, bought with a U.S. government grant. James Diderich, who was an industrial teacher in the Peace Corps during the same years when I was here, is trying to get his generator running for me, so that he can get me on line and I can file this.
Diderich _ who used to make visiting volunteers Tuesday night pizza and Sunday morning donuts at the regional Peace Corps flop house. He sold his pizza shop in Champagne, Illinois, and came back here in 2004. He now works for the Congolese government, at a technical school, teaching computer science 101. His first class was to start yesterday, but the teachers are also on strike and his students didn’t show up. He has a room with a family, no indoor plumbing and gets around town on a bicycle.
I asked him how he survives on his salary of $35, and what possessed him to return to a lifestyle we loved as kids just out of college, but now must be rough at age 49.
``I’m just happy here; I really am,″ he says, adding that he never got what was then called Zaire out of his system.
``They think I’m insane,″ he says of his family back in Illinois. ``If my mother were still alive, she’d be looking to have me committed, that’s for sure.″
One of his first projects for the students will be to create a Web site, which will be called www.congosource.org when it gets up and running. He says that will allow the students to start blogs and chats with other students from around the world.
James has hooked me up with Jim Mukenge, a local guy who studied at Appalachan State University in Boone, N.C. Once he graduated, he worked as a manager at Taco Bell; his wife was down the road at Wendy’s. They also missed the Congo and came back in 1997 and he now runs several businesses in town. His English is excellent, so he’s agreed to work for me in Kamponde, translating from the local dialect of Tshiluba.
The generator is now working, but there’s massive, frightening lighting storm outside and James can’t get a wireless signal form the satellite. So, we’ll wait it out in the dark, with a few of his students, all of us jumping at each clash of thunder. In the end, I discover that my cell phone is actually working here, so I dictate this to AP bureau Dakar.
Then I’ll head over to the Catholic convent for the night, for a small room with a bed and mosquito net and communal bathroom down the hall. There’s no running water and I’m not sure yet about electricity, but for 10 bucks a night, I’m happy to have a quiet place for the night.
A U.N. official said he’d arrange for us to travel south in one of their supply jeeps.
Sunday, Sept. 3, 10:30 p.m. local
KINSHASA, Democratic Republic of Congo
Spoke by cell phone with another former Peace Corps volunteer, James, who is now running a cyber cafe in Kananga and teaching information technology at a school there. He was in Kananga the same years I was in Kamponde _ 1979 through 1981 _ and is helping arrange transportation down to my village for me.
James says the train has been on strike, so there’s not been fuel deliveries in weeks, pushing the price of gasoline to about $12 a gallon. He also says the Catholic teachers union has voted to go on strike and that school may not start tomorrow as planned.
I’m now on the list for another U.N. cargo plane on Tuesday, as is my translator Kamanga, who also has a U.N. press pass and who, by the way, seems to know virtually everyone in Kinshasa.
I told him I’d love to meet singer Papa Wemba _ a guy whose music I loved during my Peace Corps days _ so he flips through his old notebook, flips open his cell, punches in the numbers and starts chatting with the James Brown of Congo.
The creator of the band, Zaico Langa Langa _ known as the rumba rude boys in the 70s and 80s _ invites us over, so we drive up the road into the hills overlooking the river.
Papa Wemba, whose real name is Shungu Jules Wembadio and once called himself Jules Presley, greets us with the easy nonchalance of the Congolese, in jeans and undershirt, offering us a Coke in the pale yellow salon of his surprisingly formal home. African paintings and framed photos of his children dot the walls. They mostly live in Paris, where Papa Wemba says he spends much of his time because the recording studios are better and he collaborates with European artists.
His wife, Marie Rose, was among the 9,000 candidates vying for one of the 500 seats in Parliament and who are still awaiting the election results. He says she wants to improve society, that they’re nationalists who love their country despite the time they spend in Europe.
One of the biggest Afropop artists ever, I tell him how I danced for hours to the loopy lokole drums and manic electric guitar solos that dominated his music. I ask him whether he believes those dance tunes carried people through hard times and wonder at the seemingly endless good humor of people on the streets.
``If you walk down any street in Kinshasa, you will always hear music. But Congolese are just happy people; that’s our nature.″
We talk about our kids, swap photos. I tell him about how the last time I was in Kamponde, how the villagers had prayed I would have a child, and how Caitlin came along not long after.
He likes the story and asks, ``Why didn’t you name her Kamponde Brown?″
SATURDAY, Sept. 2, 9:10 p.m. local
Got bumped form the U.N. flight yesterday; still stuck in Kinshasa. There are no seats on commercial flights until Wednesday, so trying to get on another cargo plane Monday or Tuesday.
Went to the U.S. Ambassador’s Roger Meece’s residence on the banks of the Congo River for a meeting he called for Americans living and working in Kinshasa. About 300 showed up and he spoke of the ordeal of Aug. 21, when he and a dozen other ambassadors, including the head of the U.N. mission here, were trapped inside the home of Vice President Jean-Pierre Bemba, President Kabila’s archrival in the race to become the country’s next leader.
The initial results had come out earlier that day, showing that neither candidate had won a majority, so they will have to face off again in October. Armed men loyal to both men took to the streets, trapping the envoys inside for several hours before they were rescued by peacekeepers. At least 31 people were killed during three days of skirmishes between the two camps, until a U.N.-brokered truce was reached.
He notes that a nearby beer brewery never shut down during those days and never lost money.
``I’ll let you all draw your own conclusions on that, but I found it an interesting example,″ he says to laughter. While the clashes were nasty, they were largely contained to one neighborhood of the capital, while the remainder of Congo remained calm, he adds.
I then moved on to the headquarters of the 17,500-strong U.N. military force for an interview with William Swing, an American and former ambassador to Congo, and now head of the world body’s largest ever peacekeeping mission. I was stunned to learn that the United Nations is spending $3 million a day to pull off the elections. It’s determined to see them through, though worried member nations might begin to pull back when the new missions in Sudan and Lebanon roll out.
Playing devil’s advocate, I ask Swing why the world should care about Congo, particularly when some members in the camps of the country’s two top political leaders have sworn to go back to war if their man doesn’t win. How does the United Nations prevent Congo fatigue, persuade the world that it’s worth fighting for?
``As I look back over my career as a diplomat over about 40 years, I realize that one of the greatest weaknesses we diplomats have, one of the greatest challenges is exactly to answer that question,″ he replies, then gives an impassioned argument for why the world must stand by Congo.
``First of all, it is one of the largest humanitarian tragedies since the Second World War,″ he says, then ticks off a litany of sorrows: Between 3 and 4 million people dead; 3 million displaced; a growing HIV/AIDS rate due; a per capita GDP that has fallen below $100, less than what Congo had at independence from Belgium in 1960.
Second, he says, a stable Congo means a stable Africa.
``My argument generally is that of all the crises in Africa today, if you had to choose one, this is the one you would choose to put right, because this is the one crisis in all of Africa that has the potential for good for the rest of Africa. It has the potential to change the face of Africa, and the image of Africa.″
Then, he notes, unlike other nations where he has served as ambassador _ Haiti and Liberia among them _ the Congo has enormous economic potential. The industrial diamonds, copper and cobalt are endless; the Congo River has 10 percent of the world’s hydroelectric capacity.
``It’s not a country that’s going to be dependent on foreign assistance for a long period of time, if it gets a good government in place and follows good government practices,″ he says, adding that he knows that ``it’s a big ’if.‴
THURSDAY, Aug. 31, 4:30 p.m. local
KINSHASA, Democratic Republic of Congo
I just got approval to hop on a U.N. cargo plane bound for Kananga tomorrow morning at 5:30. I could take a commercial flight, but virtually every airline in the Congo has been deemed unsafe by international aviation organizations, and what with my fear of flying, I’ll take a pass. We’re trying to get a pass for my translator Kamanga as well, so he can travel with me. The only words I remember in Tshiluba are ``Moyo mamu,″ ``Malu kai?″ and ``Malu bimpe.″ Hey ma’am. How are you? I’m good.
Kananga is the provincial capital of Kasai Occidental, in southwestern Congo, and the closest city to the village where I served in the Peace Corps. The volunteers from around Kasai used to go into Kanaga every few months for shots, anti-malarials, mail and usually a round of Simba beer. I’d also stop by the Catholic mission to pick up mail and supplies for my school.
From there I’ll see if I can hitch a ride with missionaries or aid workers, or see if the freight trains are running again. The village is only about 100 miles south of Kananga, but with no paved road, it can take us a full day by jeep. The rainy season has just started, so I’m eager to get there before the roads become unpassable.
I’m also eager to get there by Monday, when schools open nationwide. It would be a hoot to walk into one of my old classrooms on the first day of school. The Institute Untu, where I taught English, was once a nationally recognized high school run by the Belgians. I remember running down the path in the morning, usually late, to stand with the kids in their white shirts and blue skirts or slacks, proudly singing ``La Zairoise″ _ the country was known as Zaire then _ with their hands over their hearts as the flag was raised.
This afternoon, Kamanga and I walk through the hugh open-air market in Gombe, the commercial and administrative capital of Kinshasa. I want to check out the goods and chat with folks about politics and the economy. Everything from dried fish to used sandals from India is available. People are funny and friendly as always, yelling out greetings and making fun of my green sneakers. But they say times are hard.
Pablo Kongolo, 33, sells the short wigs and long hair extensions that I’ve seen a lot this time around, instead of the intricate cornrows of days gone by. The wigs are made in China and imported via Nigeria. He charges five to 15 bucks; on a good day he makes just enough to eat.
``At the time of Mobutu, it was good,″ he says, as other vendors shout in agreement. ``Now it’s like someone has dug holes in the ground, stuffed us in, and strangled us.″
Aimee Marte, 50, sells ``pagnes,″ the batik fabric that many African women wrap around their bodies like sarongs or sculpt into elaborate headgear. Some of the fabrics sport the smiling faces of political candidates, the pope, and singers or actors.
Her ``super wax″ from Belgium costs $90; but she concedes she’s not selling much of those. The standard Congolese pagne _ six yards that are used for the wrap and blouse _ costs 10 bucks. On a good day, she says, she makes $20; six years ago it was more like $100.
She said inflation and the fluctuating Congolese franc are killing her.
Aimee might buy each pagne at $10 each from her dealer, then sell them in the market for $12. But then, when she goes to buy her next stock, the wholesale price has gone up to $12, so she’s lost her $2 profit. Yet like so many others here, she’s happy to talk, jokes with me, asks about my family. I ask her how the Congolese manage to maintain their well-known charm and humor.
``We’ve had so much pain, so why be sad? With the grace of God, we just keep smiling,″ she said.
_ Beth Duff-Brown
TUESDAY, Aug. 29, 6:47 p.m. local
KINSHASA, Democratic Republic of Congo
Just spoke to our 8-year-old, Caitlin, via the Internet; a long, leisurely call over the Internet, a conversation that would have been near impossible when I first came here 27 years ago. It was so good to hear her tell stories about visiting Grandma Stephie in California, then sign off by shouting at the computer: ``I love you bigger than the, um, what is it, the Kanga River?″
To find her a gift today I went to the Memling Hotel _ a five-star accommodation too pricey for my taste and budget _ where outside are craftsmen who cleverly market cool kitsch, items that their own families would roll their eyes over. Ten years ago, my husband got a great little faux camera made out of bent copper wire, complete with flash.
Today, a guy rushes me with a small painting of ``Tintin au Congo,″ taken from a famous series of comic books on which all Belgians and Congolese were raised. I never cared for the comic about a reporter and his adventures around the world, as well as in this former Belgian colony. But this painting, done on the back of a flour sack, was so over-the-top tacky and the artist looked so hungry, I figure it makes a nice addition to Caitlin’s African collection. Though she was born in Malaysia and lived in India for nearly five years, I remind her that the prayers that preceded my pregnancy with her came from my Peace Corps village in central Congo and are part of her unconventional heritage.
Another reminder of home today, seeing dozens of new Nissan X-Trails bumping along the potholes of Kinshasa. It’s the same SUV that we have back in Toronto, but not sold in the United States. Here the Parliament arranged a bargain price for its 500 members. They stand out in a country where most cars are decades-old Renaults and gas costs about $4 a gallon.
Driving back from NBA basketball star Dikembe Mutombo’s new hospital on the outskirts of the city, I see a cherry-red Mazda sports car by the side of the road in a neighborhood they call ``La Chine,″ or China, because it’s so congested. Kinshasa has about 8 million people, many of whom live in nothing more than plywood shacks with tin roofs, surrounded by concrete, dirt and rubbish. With only some 600 miles of paved roads nationwide, cars are a luxury, and a convertible sports car really shouts for attention.
I ask the driver to pull over so I can see who owns such a car. Turns out it belongs to the entourage of a large woman, dripping in gold chains, who is barking at a cameraman to get in closer, as she takes a shovel and appears to help clean out a stinking, backed up sewage drain.
When I ask what on earth she’s doing, I discover she’s a political worker for President Joseph Kabila, making a campaign ad about how her boss would make all this go away. All you have to do is vote for him in the upcoming runoff against rival Jean-Pierre Bemba.
SUNDAY, Aug. 27, 6:30 p.m. local
KINSHASA, Democratic Republic of Congo
A box of Kellogg’s Cocoa Puffs: $15. A can of Diet Coke: $7. A 12-pack of Huggies diapers: $35.
Who can afford these items at City Market in downtown Kinshasa?
According to the U.S. State Department, the average income in the Democratic Republic of Congo is a hundred bucks a year. Only the well off or well connected and, from what I could see today, mostly foreigners: U.N. peacekeepers, aid workers or the Indians and Chinese who now dominate much of the city’s trade.
The only locals I saw at the American-style grocery store were ``domestics″ shopping for their madams, the check-out clerks who tallied up items on a digital register, and grocery boys packing goods and avoiding eye contact. Because inflation fluctuates daily and the rate of the Congolese Franc _ today about 460 to the dollar _ changes so often, goods are marked with code numbers that coincide with daily printouts of prices posted at the end of the isles.
Mercedes cars and Japanese SUVs with U.N. and relief agency logos are lined up out front, as they were last night at Chez Gaby, a popular Portuguese restaurant with a well-stocked bar and apple-cheeked Gaby, who greets patrons with offers of chocolates to enjoy with their aperitif.
The last time I was here in 1997, it was a treat to find Belgian chocolate. Rebels were approaching the city and dictator Mobutu Sese Seko’s days were numbered. Since then, nearly 4 million people have died from civil war, poverty, AIDS, malaria, and other disease. Yet, there are vine-ripened tomatoes from Belgium, Pedigree-brand dog food, Doritos, and cans of imported whip cream.
Who would even want these items? Who has the time or inclination to shop for imported goodies when only last week 31 people were killed in Kinshasa?
The interim results of the first elections in more than four decades were announced and rival factions had taken to the streets.
My new colleague Shafiq _ the cousin of a friend from Toronto, ordered to watch over me _ pushed his shopping cart and shrugged off the horrors of the last decade, saying they haven’t really hit Kinshasa. Sure, the family bakery had to close last week, but they’re back to baking bread. He conceded people are tense and expect more ugliness when the runoff between President Joseph Kabila and former rebel leader Jean-Pierre Bemba is held in October.
Until then, the well-to-do shop at City Market, enjoy wireless Internet, juggle their cell phones. Yet, no one appears to be using the city’s first ATM machine and few have applied for the first offered MasterCard, he said. Instability trumps convenience.