Two Gifts from Congo for You

Ms. Hepburn in her Congo rainforest dressing room, one of the Eliot Elisofon photos from her book on the making of The African Queen
Ms. Hepburn in her Congo rainforest dressing room, one of the Eliot Elisofon photos from her book on the making of The African Queen

Let me interrupt this site’s news and commentary on the election and other developments in Congo with a recommendation of a couple of books to enjoy. After recently reading both, I feel I have already opened my Christmas gifts this year.

The books are Katherine Hepburn’s The Making of the African Queen published by Knopf in 1987, 36 years after she, as the subtitle describes it, “went to Africa with Bogart, Bacall and Huston and almost lost my mind”.  The movie crew’s camp for the primary shooting location was a short walk from a village in the Congo rainforest below Ubundu (then Ponthierville).  The second book is Margaret Myers’ Swimming in the Congo, a treasure of short stories inspired by the writer’s pre teen years growing up in the Disciples’ first mission post in Congo, Bolenge.

After making The Treasure of the Sierra Madre with Bogart in Mexico, John Huston felt ready for an African movie location - and the hunting opportunies there
After making The Treasure of the Sierra Madre with Bogart in Mexico, John Huston felt ready for an African movie location - and the hunting opportunies there

The Hepburn book could interest solely as the actress’ account of making a movie classic under very difficult conditions.  What strikes me about the book is the impact of the “Africa experience” on the pampered, famous woman who not only handles the deprivations gracefully but finds herself ruminating just before returning home,  “Would I ever come back here?  Oh, I hope – I hope”.  So for those who have also had the Africa experience take up residence inside them the book pleases as an account of discovering our common humanity with people so different in a so different setting.

It was the first book Hepburn wrote and she comes close to getting at why she wrote it with the words, “when you’ve lived as long as I have, you usually wish that you had kept one (a diary) because you can’t even remember the plot of many of the movies you’ve made – or the plays – really not anything about them or who or why.  But there are happenings you can’t forget….This happened to me with The African Queen.  I remember it in minute detail.”

So she remembers the quality of the water, “here it’s like honey. It is the most spectacular water. Dirt evaporates…. It is like sheer heaven and no need at all for any lubricant.” (pp25-26)  And the rain:  “The raindrops pelted down, making wonderful sounds on the palm trees and on the roof. It made everything seem very cozy.” (p. 54) She remembers the drumming in the night, “as the sun went down, we heard the drums begin.  The answering drums from another direction, then another and another.  A symphony of drums.  It was thrilling”. (p. 90)

But after days and days of soldier ants, living in a mud floored hut, the sinking of the Queen herself early in the shooting,

The Queen and the Jungle, two stars of the great movie
The Queen and the Jungle, two stars of the great movie

and a terrible case of dysentery it is Ms. Hepburn’s description of her relationship with her Congolese attendant that stands out.  And it is here that the real, lasting impact on the actress, and on many of us others who “know” Africa, is touched on, “I remember observing one thing which struck me very powerfully.  I would look serious or worried or trying to be sympathetic – or solemn.  And I would receive back an absolutely impenetrable expression.  A wall. But if I smiled or laughed, he did too.  The universal language.  This amazed me. I would have thought that tears were the things which bound us together, but no – smiles, laughter – and they warmed up immediately.” (p. 120)

Humphrey Bogart won the Academy Award for his role alongside Hepburn in the movie but the book suggests that she came away from the Africa experience with something even better – a greater understanding of herself, the world and what it is to be human.  And it makes me hope with her that she was able to return to
Africa, and Congo in particular, some day.

Microcredit Congo Style

Training of a Microcredit Union group of 25 CADELU Church women in Basankusu
Training of a Microcredit Union group of 25 CADELU Church women in Basankusu

More than 1000 women are now receiving credit and saving their earnings by participating in one of the  Microcredit Unions organized by the Disciples Community of the Church of Christ of Congo. More than thirty groups have been formed throughout the Equateur Province with members spreading the news of the benefits they enjoy.  One of the first Microcredit Union groups, organized by the Disciples pastors’ wives in Mbandaka, recently distributed six months of profits and savings amounting to over $12,000.

One of the pastors’ wives group members, Mme. Ingesu Likomba, recounted her progress in generating new income for her household

Mme. Ingesu LIKOMBA in yellow Disciples women's movement garb
Mme. Ingesu LIKOMBA in yellow Disciples women's movement garb

thanks to the credit extended.  With her first loan, Mme. Likomba bought an old kerosene refrigerator and began selling cool bottled water.  More recently, with another loan, she bought a small generator which will enable her to sell chilled flavored drinks along with the water.  She and her husband, pastor of the Disciples’ New City parish in Mbandaka, are now better able to help with the fees and expenses of four children in college.

The master trainer and initiator of the Microcredit Union groups is none other than M. Nathan Weteto, Director of Communications of the Disciples and fellow blogger.  In addition to conducting trainings in rural and urban Disciples settings, M. Weteto has trained Baptist microcredit group leaders in war stricken North Kivu province and  CADELU church members in Equateur.  With many Disciples group members now testifying that they can better feed their families and pay children’s school fees, Revde. Christiane Ikete, who heads the Disciples Department of Women and Familes, plans an expansion of the program.

In a recent meeting in which Disciples President Bonanga and Vice President Mputu participated, the creation of the Women’s Association for Savings and Credit, a new division of the Women’s Department,  was announced.  The Association’s first step will be the preparation by M. Weteto of at least ten trainers for deployment to organize five to ten new  Microcredit Unions on their own.

The potential of this income generating strategy to increase household and parish revenues is best seen in one of the poorest Disciples parishes in the city of Mbandaka.  Mme.  Micheline Mwani , the pastor’s wife in the Besenge parish, tookthe lead in bringing together 2 groups of 25 women total. In a conversation in July, 2010, Mme. Mwani reported that the only material aid her groups received initially was a “kit” comprising calculators, accounting notebooks and pens.  These two groups after a six month period distributed a sum of $1,889 among the members,

On left pastor's wife Mama Micheline Mwani leads Microcredit Union at Besenge parish in Mbandaka
On left pastor's wife Mama Micheline Mwani leads Microcredit Union at Besenge parish in Mbandaka

representing the six month interest payments and savings of the women participating.  Other Besenge Disciples women, and, members of the nearby Catholic church  are clarmoring to join.

With the aim of sharing the microcredit concept and benefits with the most vulnerable members of the Congolese population, M. Weteto also trained two HIV positive groups of men and women last December.  Forty six persons were organized and trained in two groups, with each group given “kits” and $250 each for an intital fund to be added to by the members.  For more on the micro credit process Congolese style, read my next blog coming soon.

A Congolese Warrior Against AIDS

Augustin Bolankoko, Assistant Director of Disciples AIDS programming, died on October 25, 2011
Augustin Bolankoko, Assistant Director of Disciples AIDS programming, died on October 25, 2011

Africa has lost one of its warriors in the ongoing battle against the AIDS epidemic. Because he waged a courageous, public struggle to help stem the spread of the HIV virus among the Congolese people, Augustin Belanoljo Bolankoko  could not be described as a victim of the disease.  When I met him in July 2010, I met a man illuminated by the conviction that he had found his true calling.

In Congolese terms, Augustin Bolankoko had become a wealthy man thanks to employment in the accounting office of a multinational corporation in Kinshasa.  When he was diagnosed with the HIV virus in the year 2000, he gave up his large salary and became the Treasurer of the Disciples’ “Communaute” of the Church of Christ of Congo.  He returned to Mbandaka in his home province of Equateur but his frequent treatments in Kinshasa and the illnesses that beset him forced his resignation as Treasurer. So in 2006, he began the work he will always be remembered for among members of the Disciples Community of the Church of Christ of Congo and among many others in Congo. 

The Disciples office of AIDS programming opened in 2004 following the training of its Director Rev. Alain Imbolo Lokalamba, previously Director of the Community’s Youth Department.  Supported by a grant from the UN   

Director of Disciples AIDS office Rev. Alain Lokalamba assists in receiving the confession of faith of two youth in a rural parish
Director of Disciples AIDS office Rev. Alain Lokalamba assists in receiving the confession of faith of two youth in a rural parish

Development Program, Rev. Lokalamba shepherded the writing and publication of an AIDS education booklet (“Linga Kasi Keba” or “Love But Take Caution”) in comic strip format that gained wide circulation.  The staff of two in the Disciples AIDS office made “I’m Not Passing On AIDS” the motto of their campaign and focused on testing, abstinence or condom use as the cornerstone strategies for preventing transmission of the virus.

Today, there are 8 virus testing centers in Equateur Province, with 5 located in  Disciples clinics or hospitals.  With community education as another key element of their prevention strategy, Rev. Lokalamba with Augustin Bolankoko’s assistance has trained a Director of AIDS Education and Prevention for each of the 22 Disciples’ regions.  Every Disciples Regional Minister has been trained in “accompanying” their ministers and lay people stricken by the virus.  Doctors, lab technicians and nurses in the 6 Disciple hospitals and many of the clinics have been trained in the diagnosis and treatment of the virus and its development into full blown AIDS.

Through the trainings and other public outreach efforts of the Disciples, Augustin Bolankoko shared his own story widely.  Clearly a man with a mission, his proud dignity and the strength of his conviction made it difficult if not impossible to maintain an indifferent or scornful attitude with respect to others with the disease.  Nathan Weteto of Disciples headquarters in Mbandaka wrote in announcing his October death, “He did not spare himself in his efforts to convince the populace to be tested for the virus and to train those suffering from AIDS in the formation of micro credit savings groups to generate income for their treatments.”

Disciples Recently Co-Sponsored a Mbandaka AIDS Community Education Fair
Disciples Recently Co-Sponsored a Mbandaka AIDS Community Education Fair

 Augustin was eager to tell me his story during my Mbandaka stay in the summer of 2010. He was aware that he was part of a world wide movement to turn back the spread of AIDS and I believe he wanted people in the States to know Congolese and in particular Disciples in Congo were doing their part to wipe out this scourge.  I know he would have wanted me to thank Disciples here for funding of the trainings and the German VEM Church for funding the opening of the Disciples AIDS office.  I believe he knew that in spite of the setbacks – the presence of UN troops in Ikela led to half the middle aged adults contracting the virus – the world’s battle against AIDS would be won some day.

While the prevalence of AIDS in Congo has been as high as 7 per cent of the population, Rev. Lokalamba noted there has been a decline to 5 per cent more recently. Given the associated scourges of warfare and abuse of women in Congo in the past fifteen years, the decline must be in part attributed to the work of people like Augustin Bolankoko. So we join Congolese Disciple Nathan Weteto in praying, “May our Lord acknowledge his efforts and may his soul rest in peace”.

A Mbandaka Policeman Undergoes AIDS Testing at the Fair
A Mbandaka Policeman Undergoes AIDS Testing at the Fair

UN Aid in Congo’s Equateur Province

UN plane unloads election materials at the Mbandaka airport
UN plane unloads election materials at the Mbandaka airport

Following the decrease of rebel activity in the Congo’s Equateur Province, UN troops and service agencies now battle random banditry, poaching, a cholera epidemic and other effects of dire poverty in the vast rainforest province of the Congo. In this post we share some highlights of the UN efforts as reported on the mission’s web site http://monusco.unmissions.org.

 With the extension of the mandate for the world’s largest UN peacekeeping force for another year, there’s a much better chance that legislative and presidential elections will be held in late November this year. On a recent visit to the still ungoverned eastern Congo, MONUSCO’s (the UN mission’s official name) chief staff person Roger Meece declared, “I can assure you that everything is in place to provide security for the

"I've voted; have you?" coasters for voters in the late November elections
"I've voted; have you?" coasters for voters in the late November elections

upcoming elections.”  Security as the priority for the UN was further signaled by Meece’s commemoration on September 18 of the 50th anniversary of UN Secretary General Dag Hammarsjkold’s death in a plane crash during the early period of post independence conflict in the Congo.

In a now peaceful Mbandaka, the UN’s anti mines unit recently organized and funded the scanning of an area around the Mbandaka airport for buried ordinance.  Having declared the land safe, MONUSCO announced on September 6 that construction would begin on the construction of a new terminal for Mbandaka.

 Banditry and looting by armed former rebels continue to plague some parts of the province and UN investigators have accompanied Congolese police in efforts to maintain law and order in the villages of Ilenga and Bosenga not far from Mbandaka.  To the south, poachers hunt elephants and prey on villagers in the remote Salonga National Park and surroundings despite deployment of the Congolese armed forces (FARDC) with UN advisors.

 On the health front, the World Health Organization (WHO) reports that Equateur was hit hardest by the cholera outbreak in Congo this year.  While cases are now on the decline, WHO figures show 1981 cases were treated in Equateur with 119 deaths in 8 of the province’s 20 health zones.

A $500 grant from Disciples/UCC Global Ministries bought desks for the secondary and primary school at Monieka
A $500 grant from Disciples/UCC Global Ministries bought desks for the secondary and primary schools at Monieka

 On the opening of the new school year in September, UNICEF promised to push Congo’s Ministry of Education to improve furnishings in primary school classrooms of those provinces where enrollment is below 75 % of the school age children.  According to UNICEF figures, 1.2 million children have been newly enrolled in primary school in the six targeted provinces, with Equateur still having the lowest rate of enrollment in the country.  One can hope that UNICEF’s efforts may also result in more regular payments for teachers in Equateur Province as well as outlays for classroom furniture.  Currently, Equateur parents have to contribute to a fund in each school to keep teachers in the classroom.

Palm Oil May Drive Congo’s Economic Growth

Backyard Processing of Palm Oil by an Ikengo Household
Backyard Processing of Palm Oil by an Ikengo Household

The largest fruit crop in the world today is not oranges, pineapple or apples.  It’s palm kernels with production worldwide about double the tonnage of the second leading fruit crop.  While Palmolive soap may be the best known palm oil product in our households, most of the average American’s consumption of palm oil is in the form of margarine and shortening these days.

In the 1960’s the second largest producer of palm oil in the word was the Democratic Republic of Congo.  Today, the Congo’s production of palm oil doesn’t even rank in the top ten worldwide.  From the mid 1970’s corporate owned plantations were looted by cohorts of the Mobutu regime and production continued to decline until recent years. An Indian company took over the Unilever (Palmolive soap) processing plants in Congo and now buys from villagers “who bring us oil after traveling weeks from deep in the bush” according to the company’s Indian chief executive.

Counting on leading the revival of the Congo palm oil industry is a Chinese company with plans to cultivate 1 million hectares (2.5 million acres) of palm trees in Equateur, Bandundu and West Kasai provinces.  But the Chinese company’s aim is not to market the palm oil for food products: 90 % will go directly for biodiesel replacing petroleum in Congo and elsewhere.

With Africa’s largest expanse of non forest arable land, only 4.7 % of which is now u nder cultivation, Congo’s palm oil and general agricultural potential is tremendous.  An agency of the European Union  devoted to alternative energy projects in Africa cites

Will Palm Oil replace petroleum in powering Congo's vehicles - and ours - some day?
Will Palm Oil replace petroleum in powering Congo's vehicles - and ours - some day?

Congo’s potential to supply all of Central Africa with food, fuel and fiber and to supply one tenth of the world’s bioenergy demand in 2030 “without endangering the rain forests or the food security of its people”.

From Coffee to Corn to Palm Oil

For the rebirth of the Disciples' coffee plantation, Rev. Regine Boole, unloads supplies
For the rebirth of the Disciples' coffee plantation, Rev. Regine Boole, unloads supplies

Even the remote Tshuapa district of the Equateur Province is not immune to the effects of the pricing of agricultural products in the global economy.  In 1970 I visited the Disciples coffee plantation in the Bokungu area of the Tshuapa.  By the late 1990’s the plantation had been abandoned as coffee prices began their fall to unprecedented lows.  The restoration of Vietnamese coffee plantations after the Vietnam War contributed to an over supply of coffee and the drop in prices.  Farmers from Nicaragua to Congo couldn’t afford to grow coffee any longer.

Today, the need for increased food supplies and the leadership of a dynamic recently ordained woman minister have led to the recovery of the Disciples Bokungu plantation.  The only female theology graduate to serve a rural parish, Revde. Regine Boole, has helped the parish of Lotakemela organize a team of 15 workers to clear the overgrown fields and begin new plantings.  The team is assisted by Revde. Boole’s husband and plans an initial planting of 5 hectares of corn.

Profits from the sale of an estimated 5 tons of corn will, it is projected, enable purchase

The main boiler at the Wendji Secli Palm Oil Plantation abandoned in the 1970's
The main boiler at the Wendji Secli Palm Oil Plantation abandoned in the 1970's

of supplies for the cultivation of the remaining 20 hectares and rebirth of the initial project as a palm oil plantation.  Expanding use of palm oil as a fuel alternative to petroleum means this crop, so widely grown in Equateur in the past, now promises price increases and viable profits for visionary growers.

In addition to the Bokungu plantation, the post of Boyeka has already begun planting of palm trees for oil production.  As used palm oil can be processed for fuel, “oil palm planting and palm oil consumption

Housing at the Wendji Secli plantation occupied by former employees and/or descendants
Housing at the Wendji Secli plantation occupied by former employees and/or descendants

circumvents the food vs. fuel debate because it has the capacity to fulfill both demands simultaneously” in the words of Wikpedia.  It does not, however respond to the concern stemming from deforestation wrought by vast palm oil plantations as in Malaysia and Indonesia.  What the effects of the demand for palm oil will be on the Congolese rain forest remains to be seen.

Congo Children Galllery

Will these children of Congo have the opportunity to vote in a free and fair election in a truly democratic Congo? Will their children benefit from a free public education offered at the primary level in many African countries today?  Will roads be maintained, water and power services function, and hospital pharmacies be stocked? Will these children live to see their children grow to mature adulthood? So much depends on the Congo gaining control of its vast storehouse of natural resources that to date has plagued most Congolese rather than blessed them.

It seems clear that until the population has the opportunity to elect leaders committed to ensuring that all Congolese benefit from the country’s wealth, the foreign corporations now extracting the resources will continue to do so to the loss and detriment of the population. U.S. based companies are not solely responsible for the looting taking place in Congo today. An international free for all pillages Congo today.

The resolution of support for fair trade in Congo minerals recently passed at the Disciples and United Church of Christ national conferences may be a sign that we in the U.S. are ready to support progress toward a free and truly independent Congo. It may be a sign that we will be informed and ready to side with these children when they stand up and demand control over the vast riches of their sub soil and their forests.

A Call for Solidarity With Congo

Paying her children's primary school fees is made possible by her bread sales at the Ikengo Saturday Market
Paying her children's primary school fees is made possible by her bread sales at the Ikengo Saturday Market

“You may consider your vote for this resolution as an expression of solidarity with the mother  who walks 50 miles each week to buy the flour to make bread she sells every Saturday at the Ikengo market to pay her children’s school fees.  Vote yes and then prepare to remember Congo with your congregation during Congo week the third week of October this year.” 

 These words concluded my statement of support for the following resolution passed with no opposition at the Disciples’ General Assembly in Nashville this week. We pray that this resolution, our commemoration of Congo Week each year and our advocacy on behalf of trade for Congo resources that truly benefits the Congolese people will assure Congolese who would stand for political and social change of our concern, our support and our solidarity. May this resolution be followed by many other acts declaring  “we are with you” to the people of Congo who have dug the coltan, the diamonds, the copper, the uranium, the cobalt and other metals and minerals that have been essential to the U.S..space program, our weapons systems, and more recently have become essential components of our household electronics and cell phone equipment.

 

NO. 1117

(SENSE-OF-THE-ASSEMBLY)

A CALL FOR REFLECTION AND ADVOCACY ON BEHALF OF THE

DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO

WHEREAS, the mission of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) declares its

passion for justice grounded in Micah 6:8 as declared in our vision statement: “to

be a faithful, growing church that demonstrates true community, deep Christian

spirituality and a passion for justice.”

WHEREAS, in Matthew 25:40 Jesus teaches moral responsibility in the reign of

God is strongest for those most in need, saying “just as you did it to one of the

least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me”; and

WHEREAS, throughout the past two centuries, for the Christian Church (Disciples

of Christ), global presence and witness have been a gift of God’s mission through

the church; and

WHEREAS, our international commerce and public affairs should be governed

by an obligation to ensure the common good, and to resist policies and practices

that do injustice and violence to others; and

WHEREAS, Global Ministries has encouraged congregations to recognize “Congo

Week,” (an initiative created by Friends of the Congo) the third week in October, in

their respective annual worship calendars as a week of commemoration for the

millions of victims of the scramble for Congo’s resources and a stand for justice in

solidarity with the people of the Congo; and

WHEREAS, the Community of Disciples of Christ in Congo (CDCC), in what today

is the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), formerly known as Zaire, was

founded in 1889 and has been related to the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)

in the U.S. and Canada since its inception; and

WHEREAS, the 62 protestant denominations united under the ecumenical

umbrella of the Church of Christ in the Congo have consistently decried the brutal

and unmitigated exploitation of the Congo’s immense mineral resources; and

WHEREAS, since the advent of Congolese independence on June 30, 1960, the

continued greed of global corporations for precious and strategic raw materials

from the Congo and failure of the international community to respond to the

documented human rights abuses of Congolese victims has contributed to the

failure of the Congo state;i and

WHEREAS, the series of invasions of the Congo by proxy states Rwanda and

Uganda that commenced in 1996 have facilitated unfettered access to Congolese

natural resources by international corporations and their collaborators in the

Congo; have not only undermined democratic advancements, but have also cost

the lives of an estimated 6,000,000 Congolese; have subjected up to a half million

Congolese women and girls to rape, including sexual mutilation by multiple armies

from Congo, Rwanda, Uganda, and Burundi; and have increased dramatically the

incidence for HIV/AIDS among women and girls, thus creating a health time bomb

with dire consequences for the Congo; and

WHEREAS, an estimated 45,000 Congolese reportedly perish monthly in Eastern

Congo as a direct or indirect result of the militarization of mines by elite networks of

militia supported by business interests in the Congo, Rwanda, Uganda, and the

industrialized world, at the detriment of Congolese socio-economic development

and liberation; and

WHEREAS, these criminal behaviors are orchestrated and maintained by those

seeking to profit from unfettered access to Congolese strategic natural resources

(notably coltan, cobalt, tungsten, cassiterite, in addition to diamonds, gold, copper,

uranium, oil, timber), in order to benefit mostly private wealth in industrialized

nations, yet subjugating the Congolese people, despite the wealth of their natural

resources, to poverty, suffering, slave labor, and human trafficking;ii and

WHEREAS, the response of the international community, including the United

Nations, has demonstrated a double standard in the application of international

justice because of financial greed and disregard for the value of Congolese

people;iii and

THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED that the General Assembly of the Christian

Church (Disciples of Christ), meeting in Nashville, TN July 9-13, 2011 encourages

all expressions of the church to pray, reflect, educate and advocate on behalf of

sisters and brothers in the Democratic Republic of the Congo; and

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, that our church encourage the development of

legislation such as the Conflict Minerals Law 20101 approved by the U.S. Congress

and the Trade in Conflict Minerals Act introduced to the Canadian Parliament in

2010 requiring manufacturers to trace the source of minerals used in the

production of consumer electronics for the purpose of developing a conflict-free

mineral supply chain and more ethical mining practices, most particularly in the

Democratic Republic of Congo; and

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that individuals and ministries of the church choose

products that are labeled “DRC conflict free” when purchasing electronic products,

once such labeling begins2; and

1 The current law, generally referred to as the “Conflict Minerals Law”, was included as Section 1502 of

the Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, passed by the US Senate on May 20,

2010 and signed by President Barack Obama on July 21, 2010.

2 The current legislation is expected to take effect in 2012.

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that Global Ministries continue to identify

resources for all expressions of the church on the matter of the exploitation of

people in the extraction of the mineral wealth of the Congo; and

FINALLY, BE IT RESOLVED that all expressions of the church work with Global

Ministries of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and the United Church of

Christ to carry out advocacy and education across the globe for the Congo.

Division of Overseas Ministries

[A resolution of the Common Global Ministries Board, through the Division of Overseas

Ministries of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) to the General Assembly in 2011. A

similar resolution has been submitted to the General Synod of the United Church of Christ

in 2011.]

BEAUTIFUL HARDWOODS – UGLY CORPORATE ETHICS

While forestry company trucks destroy Congo's dirt roads, Greenpeace International charges that the companies like Danzer/Siforco underpay or avoid Congo taxes entirely through the creation of offshore companies.
While forestry company trucks destroy Congo's dirt roads, Greenpeace International charges that the companies like Danzer/Siforco underpay or avoid Congo taxes entirely through the creation of offshore companies.

From time to time I check recent news of Equateur Province on the web site of Radio Okapi, the national network sponsored by the UN Mission in Congo.  Last month I came across an article reporting on more trouble between the population of a village near Bumba (on the Congo River 30 kms. above Lisala) in Equateur and a forestry company cutting hardwood in its area.  The story of Siforco’s (Societe Forestiere du Congo) actions in Equateur and neighboring Orientale Province got uglier and uglier when I did a search on Siforco on the Okapi site.

Mining companies are not the only multinational corporations acting like bandits in the American “wild west” while extracting the riches of the Congo.   Siforco is the Congolese subsidiary of the Danzer Group, the largest manufacturer of decorative veneer (think expensive  wood finish) in the world. The Swiss-German company’s timber processing plant in Maluku, Congo opened in 1976 and is the largest on the continent of Africa.  Someone with some time and, one can hope, a foundation fellowship , could look into labor relations at that plant.  Based on reports of the company’s relations with the local population in areas where they cut timber, their employee relations at Maluku are not likely to be very good.

 The Danzer-Siforco record since their forestry concessions in Congo were recertified in 2005 is abysmal.  On May 5, 2011 Radio Okapi reported that several villagers were injured and one person killed when Congolese army troops attacked locals intent on shutting down Siforco operations in Yalisika, near Bumba in Equateur Province.  After the company managers refused to discuss charges that they had violated the terms of their forestry agreement , the villagers sought to seize equipment and curtail further cutting of the forest.  The primary complaint is that the company has reneged on its promise to build a school and clinic for the local people.

The same complaint of no school or clinic built was filed in 2008 by the local population in the area of Siforco’s logging near Aketi in Orientale Province.  In their self defense presented to the Provincial Minister of the Environment, the company charged that villagers would not help with the construction of the education and health centers promised.

On the Danzer Group web site three facts stand out in the company’s justification for its lack of follow through on promises made to local populations in the areas of Congo logging operations:

1)    The company web site reports that by the end of 2011 8 schools and five health clinics will have been built by its subsidiary Siforco but it does not indicate where in Congo they were built.

2)    The company’s statement that these projects began “after 2009” is an admission that nothing was done per their 2005 agreeements with local populations until 2010.

3)    Danzer’s excuse for the delay is laughable for a company reporting revenue of  460 million euros (about $700 million) in 2006:  “Unfortunately we were delayed in the implementation of various social projects due to limitations in our capacities to implement social projects accompanied by low levels of cash availability caused by the world economic crisis in 2008 to 2010”

Danzer/Siforco’s record of adhering to their agreements in Congo certainly raises questions about their environmental practices as well as their corporate social responsibility in cutting the hardwood in the Congo basin rainforest. Do we want to entrust the “lungs of the earth” to their stewardship?

 

 

Return to Another Home

Eqeuateur Province's Governor walks back to his seat after amusing the villagers who have offered him gifts on the occasion.  Leaders of the Province's Protestant denominations of the united Church of Christ of Congo also participated in the dedication
May 1971 Equateur Province's Governor walks back to his seat after amusing the villagers who have offered him gifts at the Ikengo farm project dormitory dedication. Leaders of the Province's Protestant denominations of the United Church of Christ of Congo also participated in the dedication

In 1971 hopes were high in Congo that prosperity for the new nation, so rich in natural resources, was just around the corner.  Optimism among the people was fueled by the change in the foreign presence in the country:  Americans, representing U.S. based corporations, a large U.S. diplomatic and military advisor corps, and the Peace Corps, had replaced the Belgian colonialists, and the Congolese saw us Americans as true, worthy friends.

By the end of the 1970’s those hopes in American investment, foreign aid and support for the new nation were fast eroding with the increasingly brutal repression of the Mobutu dictatorship. By the beginning of the 1990’s, there was good reason for Congolese to believe that their new American friends had betrayed and turned their backs on them.

A new era for Congo was struggling to be born when I returned in 2010.  Thanks to the presence of nearly 20,000 U.N. troops and increased international pressure on the Kabila administration, a new constitution called for a presidential election in 2011 and again some dared to believe that the post independence years of dysfunctional, corrupt and brutal rule might come to an end in Congo.

But for me it was the reconnecting of  U.S. Disciples with the Disciples community in Congo, leaders in the creation of the Church of Christ of Congo, that led me to return after forty years to Mbandaka.  Since the rioting of Mobutu’s troops in 1991 led to the evacuation of most foreigners, no American Disciple has served as a missionary in Congo.  And until the naming of former Congo missionary Sandra Gourdet as U.S. Disciples Africa Executive and the election of Rev. Sharon Watkins, who served for three years in Congo, as President of U.S. Disciples, ties with our Congolese long time friends had weakened.

This context added to my thrill in returning to Ikengo on June 19, 2010 and seeing the dormitory we dedicated to house the staff of Director and ten young men in training at the Disciples farm project.  Two videos have been posted on You Tube that take up the story from here. The first, titled “Return to Ikengo”, shows our arrival by pirogue and the second records the villagers singing on the shore to welcome us.  You may catch a glimpse of one of the soldiers making up the small Congolese Army outpost at the farm’s port. He was and is a reminder that for Congo to realize those hopes held so widely and fervently in 1970, much remains to be done.

See the videos:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k-r62aw9vRs

I spent a couple of nights in the Centrer AgroPastorale d'Ikengo dormitory  last summer.
I spent a couple of nights in the Centrer AgroPastorale d'Ikengo dormitory last summer.