So while I was in Rwanda last weekend, I was able to follow up my long-held ambition to visit DRC – mainly so that I can say I’ve been (already added it to the facebook ‘where I’ve been’!), but also because I’ve always thought it would be really interesting to go and just have a better image of what it’s like than you get from the news (even if only a little bit better). And I’m really glad I did – I’m still having a little trouble processing, but thought I’d post some of my reflections, and I’d be interested to know what people thought.
The first point is one made well by Richard Dowden in his new book, but which I’ve also picked up from reading fellow Peace Fellow Walter’s blog from Uvira; Congo doesn’t function like a state. You have to pay a lot of bribes (Walter to get his passport back from a random guy, and on our trip Parker paid a $20 bribe to get out after forgetting his yellow fever certificate, and that was only within about 4 hours), and even in the centre of town there are barely the modicum of services; things like piles of trash EVERYWHERE, no need to change money because no-one uses anything but dollars, etc*. Then there’s the usual war-zone stuff – but taken to a whole new level. Normally there are a lot of NGO cars and a lot of UN air-conditioned vehicles. Here there were barely any NGO cars and barely any UN civilian cars – but a host of UN military vehicles, petrol tankers, and the like, and a massively fortified base complete with airstrip. Proof that the development enterprise has yet to hit – just too dangerous to work effectively.
There’s also obviously massive poverty – even in the centre of town, the standard of housing is poor, there are a lot of ragged and malnourished street children (we spotted one chewing an electric wire), and almost no cars except those owned by the UN. Also, as you would expect, there is lava everywhere and are a lot of houses in various states of disrepair. Interestingly many of them had pretty new-looking roofs, which would presumably have been nicked had they been there long; this suggests that they’re being built – but who would build big fancy lakefront houses in Goma?
That bit was the depressing stuff – but the real reason I’m glad I went was that it made it more three-dimensional than what you see on TV; Congo isn’t just warlords and fighting and women getting raped; it also has towns where, despite everything, people cope. They use matatus and moto-taxis like everywhere else in the region. On Sundays they get out their best outfits – well made out of beautiful pagnes – and go to church – we visited one that had an altar cloth using a cut up ICRC badge for the cross. When they need to transport stuff they build wooden push-bikes that they attach dozens of jerry cans to; the technology is medieval, but it works and they can build and fix it themselves. There were also signs of 21st century Africa, with adverts for mobile phones everywhere – but unlike everywhere else, they take up all the shopfronts, showing how utterly the Congolese economy has collapsed. Visiting Goma is depressing and in the context of Congo’s vast mineral wealth it is a monument to war and the resulting poverty. But it is also a testament to human ingenuity; it made me realise how people are adaptable; being born Congolese is a pretty bum deal, but people cope, and do everything they can to help themselves – to put it crudely, they don’t need saving, they need a little help, and if they get it they’ll use it imaginatively to get the most they possibly can out of it.
It was also interesting to compare Goma to Burundi, and Buj in particular. Buj has developed really fast – the suburban streets are still heavily rutted dirt tracks, with only the main arteries paved, and my friends are constantly taking me down roads that, they say, were only recently paved. As I posted a couple of days ago, visiting Kigali came as a major culture shock – obviously Kigali is cleaner with better roads than almost any other African city anywhere, but until then I hadn’t realised how underdeveloped Bujumbura is. Visiting Goma made me think that this must have been what Burundi was like ten years ago, in the middle of the war – and coming back to Bujumbura, it made me realise how fast they’re rebuilding their country and how far they’ve come – while visiting Kigali made me want to come back in five years to see how far they’ve travelled along that path.
Lastly, there was the element that was simply weird; Bujumbura is, at times, faintly threatening. Congo takes it to a whole new level. The whole time we were there we were followed by a guy with a rock, which slightly scuppered our attempt to walk out of town. He didn’t try anything, he just followed us with a rock; at first we thought he was going to rob us, later we wondered if he was going to claim to have been our protector and ask for money. But he didn’t ask, so we have no idea; he just followed us with his rock for three hours, occasionally throwing the rock at a passing UN vehicle and choosing another, and foiling all our attempts to lose him by going to church, diving around corners, and so on. Can only imagine the conversation he had in the bar that evening; “I followed some Muzungus for three hours, it was amazing!”
I apologise that this post is a little rambling; as I say, haven’t quite managed to put it all together, but I’d be interested to hear any responses!
You can also see Lisa’s thoughts about the trip here.
*As an aside, my father always makes me take a bunch of $1 bills with me when I travel on the basis that they’re useful for paying for stuff. I’ve never once found this to be true, and am pretty sure that the $1 bills I brought with me this time are the same ones I took when I first went travelling, in 2003. But here there were pretty useful, so I guess I should thank him!
Posted By Laura Gordon
Posted Jul 26th, 2009