Life in Congo 1: Arrival

(These Congo posts were from an online magazine article I wrote back in 2002)

A couple of folks have wondered what the day-to-day here in Kinshasa is really like. My guess is that most folks will never get here, but if you’re interested, I’ll tell you about it. It’s 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 textbook writers have not agreed upon the history yet. But here’s some background info and some of my own impressions.
Screen Shot 2015-07-12 at 6.17.34 PMScreen Shot 2015-07-12 at 6.18.08 PMScreen Shot 2015-07-12 at 6.18.51 PMThere’s a lot of seedy history to this place, and if you feel, like I do, 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”, 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” which is about President Mobutu’s 40-year reign of abuse and economic savagery, and “Facing the Congo”, 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 fairly complete 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.

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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 from the coast. In 1880 something, Henry Morton Stanley (of “Dr. Livingstone, I presume” fame) came down the Congo River from the east, being the first white man 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 on a ravaging cross-country trip. 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 opened fire on people along the shoreline left and right in a race to get to the Atlantic. Later, in order to open the region to commerce, King Leopold of Belgium hired Stanley to build the road around the rapids at the mouth 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 shells and he was the only member of all of them.

He garnered wealth by forcing the natives to work gathering rubber sap. He would have his managers (he personally never visited the region in his entire life) kidnap the women in a tribe, and force the men to go into the jungle to gather rubber to secure their release. 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 (see the photo at the top of this post), or their families were 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). Just as with Stanley, Leopold’s managers got the locals to do the dirty work of cutting off hands or killing families and 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 ever returned to the infrastructure of the country.

After another long period of neglect and brutality, Belgian Congo got its independence and became a sovereign country called The Congo. 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 and CIA got involved, assassinated the elected president (Patrice Lumumba) and perched Mobutu on the presidential platform, who promptly changed the name of the country to Zaire. 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 tapped. However, Mobutu (an 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, as system known as a kleptocracy. The World Bank, the UN and the US all were the 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 by demanding heavy bribes, seizing cash and assets and selling off hardware. 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 the residents of Kinshasa who were living on the financial wealth 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 eight years ago, the refugees (including an organized army of Hutu aggressors who started the genocides) were driven by Tutsi leader Paul Kagame into eastern Congo where they set up squatter camps on the outskirts of Goma. There was a huge influx of financial and material support through naive but well-intentioned relief organizations which leveraged the Hutu rebel army’s organization to disperse those materials. This displaced Mobutu’s monopoly on finances, and rather quickly the well-fed and loosely-organized rebel army seized control of the far eastern region of Congo and pushed Mobutu’s forces out. The unpaid, unloyal, underarmed Congolese forces retreated so quickly that the astonished rebels swept across the country and took over Kinshasa and the government. It helped that Mobutu had cancer and ran off to Ivory Coast and died.

The new government, under long-time rebel Laurent Kabila, had various conflicting allegiances with other countries, so the resulting battles and chaos across the far eastern border left the job of rebuilding the infrastructure unaddressed. Within the year, Kabila was assassinated and his son (who did not have the same allegiances) took control. Joseph Kabila is now politically untethered and charged with facing 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 still seen as ‘cash cows’ that 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, with or without your stuff. There is no higher authority to appeal to, and the customs guys know it. Forget the idea of 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. This is their only livelihood, and they know it’s dying…and as not seen a real payday in many years, they don’t want to let you go too cheaply.

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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 Joberg.

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One response to “Life in Congo 1: Arrival

  1. Pingback: BURKINA FASO: A shot in the arm… | The Wandering Sole·

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