Artists and the flourishing Congo cultural scene emerge in our time as a vital front in the struggle to create a more just nation free of war. While there is ebb and flow in organizing political protest and resistance in the context of the government’s and ruling elite’s surveillance and harsh repression, Congolese artists continue to depict the brutal inequality of the nation’s current political economy and their vision of social change and a new order. A few non-Congolese artists of international renown have in recent years shown solidarity with Congolese “culture warriors” and sought to create a global platform for contemporary Congolese art.
The recent project of the British-Canadian photographer Finbar O’Reilly has succeeded in drawing attention to the work of a dozen Congolese photographers, half of whom are women. In an article for the Guardian newspaper, O’Reilly wrote, ”Dismantling the systems that have traditionally excluded African photographers from global conversations about their countries requires those of us in positions of privilege to understand that structural advantages have kept us in control”.
Awarded a sizable stipend by the French Carmignac Foundation to carry out a project of photographing Congo in 2020, when COVID closed borders O’Reilly and the Foundation agreed on an alternative plan. Congolese photographers were named and funded to create a portfolio focusing on selected themes of Congolese life. In the same article referenced above, O’Reilly described the selected themes:
“Raissa Karama Rwizibuka examined environmental issues in Virunga national park, and fashion and self-confidence in a post-colonial context. Arlette Bashizi captured the realities of confinement in a country with unreliable electricity. Moses Sawasawa looked at politics and insecurity caused by the ongoing conflicts, along with Dieudonné Dirole. Ley Uwera photographed Ramadan under lockdown, and the challenges of living through a pandemic where access to water is severely limited. When the Black Lives Matter movement turned the world’s attention toward global anti-racism protests, Pamela Tulizo examined aspects of our collective post-colonial psychology, but also ideas about African women and beauty.”
The International Criminal Court collaborated with O’Reilly and the Fondation Carmignac on Congo in Conversation. One of the Court’s judges explained their involvement, “Listening, learning and engaging with victims and other survivors is the first step to access to justice.”
In the photo gallery that follows photos from the project are featured along with the names of the Congolese photographers. They are all taken from the article written by Finbarr O’Reilly and Matt Fidler in The Guardian dated November 23, 2020.
After being exhibited in Paris and Antwerp, the photographs will be on public display at the Bronx Documentary Center in New York City from Sept. 8 -Oct. 12.
The Fondation Carmignac funded publication of two books of photographs that are now available for order at around $50 each:
Congo in Conversation and
Congo:Une Lutte Sublime Congo photographs by Finbarr O’Reilly
A recent visitor to our home prompted me to take out for the first time in twenty plus years the python skin from Congo. It was brittle and a few of the scales fell as we rolled the skin out on the living room floor; forty years out of the rain forest in our relatively dry atmosphere will do that. We took out the tape measure and no one marveled at the length more than I: eighteen feet. I had estimated it to be between eight and ten feet.
The python skin along with pre-ban ivory figurines are among the tangible possessions I carried away from two years in Congo 1969-71. Rarely in the forty years since have I stopped to admire the delicately carved ivory figurine of a woman’s head or the design on a three foot iron “executioner’s” knife. But the tangible artifacts from Congo serve as occasional reminders of the lasting impact on my life of those two years. And their display in my home represent a public testimony that the Congo experience shaped my life in decisive and indelible ways. They are clues to who lives inside the house and who I am. They help others get to know me as they help me understand myself.
What a joy to find on my return to Congo that my presence forty years before had not been
forgotten by the Congolese. Joseph Ikete, the bright, dignified youth leader of 1969, met me at the airport in Mbandaka and we laughed about the photo I had taken of him and his wife at their home in 1971. A couple of weeks after my arrival in June, 2010, we dined in his home again, but this time daughter Christine and husband joined us. She now serves as the Director of the Women’s Department of the Disciples of Christ community.
What a joy it has been to share the 2010 experience in Congo with you readers of this blog. That I have continued these postings for two years has helped me understand the place of Congo in my life, how it has shaped who I am and especially its role in shaping my faith. If we accept Augustine’s definition of theology as “faith seeking understanding”, theology has been the overarching theme/tag/category of every posting.
So as wife Kate Moyer and I prepare for a two year assignment with Disciples and UCC churches in Mexico, beginning this fall, I want to wrap up my lokoleyacongo blog postings with some questions that have guided and will guide my future theological reflections on what is going on in Congo.
How could the richest nation in Africa with an incomparable wealth in strategic minerals and other natural resources rank at the bottom of the world’s nations on the UN Development Index (number 187 out of 187 countries ranked)?
How could the nation considered a priority for African development aid by the United States have failed so miserably at the task of nation-building and forming a government which is held accountable by the people?
What is the responsibility of the Church in the U.S. and in Congo in upholding the human rights of the Congolese people? When will the unified Protestant Church, the Church of Christ of Congo defend the fundamental right of one person one vote and the nation’s right to hold free and fair elections?
When will the weak and corrupt regime in Kinshasa be seen as the primary source of continued conflict in eastern Congo – which an article in the National Geographic called the richest tract of land on earth? And when will Congo be permitted to form a government made up of persons committed to serving the people?
There is little doubt that Congo is a tough assignment. The questions above will perplex and bedevil anyone who goes there. But I hope this blog has succeeded in highlighting some of the rewards awaiting anyone who makes the effort to live and celebrate life alongside the Congolese. One of those rewards comes from the insight that Congo and what happens there is at the front line of African and, indeed, of human liberation.
Since my return to the States in 1971, we have celebrated the end of Portuguese colonial rule in Africa and the end of apartheid rule in southern Africa. There has even been progress in Sudan with the formation of an independent South Sudan in 2011. Among the new nations of Africa, only in Congo has there been retreat from the people’s aspirations in 1960. Only in Congo has the government failed to protect and further the rights of the people to such an extent they now proclaim the Mobutu era as the good old days.
At the same time, the Protestant churches of Congo have carried out ministries we in the States have had a hand in and can be proud of. Among the sixty plus Congolese Protestant denominations, the Disciples of Christ played a leading role in the creation of the unified Church of Christ of Congo and the Disciple Rev. Itofo Bokambanza Bokeleale served as its first President for 30 years. In many areas of the country, Protestant churches are the lone providers of health, education and community development services. While the government often fails in its promise to support these services in urban and rural areas, the churches and its leaders help raise the funds to keep them going. In the fields of public service, the churches both Protestant and Catholic lead the way.
In the midst of the decline in the country’s roads and other infrastructure, the growth of the Protestant movement in Congo challenges our imaginations. The Disciples community has grown from around 25,000 members in 1960 to more than 650,000 today. With missionary zeal, Congolese Disciples have planted new churches throughout Congo and the neighboring Congo Brazzaville. The honor and respect accorded the U.S. missionaries who first planted the seeds extends to those fortunate enough to visit and represent the U.S. Church in our day.
To those who might consider a longer visit to Congo in a missionary assignment today, I can assure you that your presence there would be answering the Congolese Disciples’ prayers. It has been many years since someone from the U.S. served with the Disciples in Congo in a longer term assignment. For several years, the office of Global Ministries (www.globalministries.org) has been seeking to fill the two fully funded positions described on the website. The need for French skills and the high humidity in Equateur Province have ruled a Congo assignment for Kate and me but I would welcome contact with anyone considering the call to serve there. You may reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org
For most travelers to the Congo, the dusty, chaotic capital city of Kinshasa will shape their first impressions. This is unfortunate on many counts but foremost for the reason that Kinshasa can overwhelm in ways that threaten to challenge appreciation of the overall Congo experience, including the experience of life in the more serene settings in the interior. A similar challenge would be faced by those entering the country via the war torn cities of the eastern Congo, Bukavu and Goma.
The following article on Kinshasa by journalist Cindy Shiner represents an attempt to describe how ten million people survive the degraded economic and environmental conditions of the capital city. It will, I hope, serve the reader in facilitating understanding of the order underneath the chaos and perhaps enabling an appreciation of the courage and vitality of a population struggling for a better life for themselves and their children.
By Cindy Shiner from All Africa. Com 11 June 2012 “Staff Blog”
Titled “Congo-Kinshasa: A City’s Modern March of Hope”
Kinshasa — It begins at twilight, just as the roosters begin to crow, before the sky reclaims the overnight rain. At first there are only a few hundred – the earliest risers, the ones hoping to get ahead of the traffic, those wishing for a jump on the competition. By dawn, the steam rising from the rain-soaked ditches and potholes, the people along the Boulevard Lumumba number in the thousands.
Once the mini-buses, trucks, motorcycles and car taxis have jammed the road, the masses of people heading into town have swollen to the tens, if not hundreds, of thousands: walking, jumping into trucks, tying things down, hoisting them up, holding them in place, limping, carrying, balancing, navigating, shifting a baby on their backs, holding a child’s hand, peering through the cassava leaves bundled on top of their heads, urban cowboys yelling from taxi buses, cash blooming in their fists, a man dressed up in a chartreuse shirt and polka dot tie, carrying a portfolio, another holding an umbrella in case there is an afternoon thunderstorm. Footsteps sound on pavement; mud sucks at shoes.
Twenty years ago, a pro-democracy demonstration called the March of Hope brought thousands onto the streets of Kinshasa. Now, a march of a different sort plays out six days a week in this city of 10 million, as masses of people head downtown to earn a living or seek a means to do so.
It is, in a sense, another kind of march of hope – one that has nothing to do with politics and everything to do with survival. To a returned visitor, however, it has everything to do with politics. Because it is poor governance – the lack of urban planning, corruption, neglected infrastructure – that is responsible for Kinshasa’s millions of poor people and the state they’re in.
I first came to this capital city in January 1992, a few weeks before what was formally organized by church leaders as the March of Hope. I lived in the city for five months and then returned intermittently throughout the 1990s while based in Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire, as a freelance journalist. My last trip to Kinshasa was in 1997 for the end of Mobutu Sese Seko’s 32-year despotic rule. Known as Zaire under Mobutu, the country became the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
I recently had the chance to return to Congo, on assignment for AllAfrica to do a story on maternal health, and I jumped at it. I wanted to see how much had changed in the past two decades. Demonstrators in 1992 were marching for democracy and the better life they thought it would bring. Where, I wanted to know, was Kinshasa’s hope now?
I didn’t find the answer on the rehabilitated Boulevard 30 Juin – an eight-lane highway that drivers treat like a speedway. (Just ask the head of the emergency department at the main hospital.) I didn’t find it in the many new hotels and high-rises in the city or in the brand new western-style supermarket downtown. I didn’t find it on the giant billboard advertizing the new Justice Ministry offices that are to be built with the help of foreign aid. I didn’t find it with the recognition that all the calendars I saw in government offices were for 2012, unlike previous visits when they were often out of date, serving mainly as artwork. I didn’t find it discussing the most recent, problematic elections. And I didn’t find it around the new fountain downtown or the one near the stadium, as aspirational and refreshing as they looked.
No, the hope I found was in an unlikely spot: on the Boulevard Lumumba.
The morning bustle on the boulevard is the audible manifestation of se débrouiller – the French word that means “to get by” or “to manage”. The Kinois, as the residents of this city are known, are experts at it. And as these things go, it is both their greatest strength and their greatest weakness. Perhaps if they hadn’t been so good at getting by and making do, they would long ago have gotten rid of the corrupt leaders who forced them to rely on theirdébrouillardise, or resourcefulness.
Eighty percent of the country’s workforce labors in the informal sector. Ask them how they deal with the many problems they face – joblessness, conflict in the east, endemic malaria, scant running water, poor sanitation, health and education they can barely afford, the rising cost of food and transportation – and they’re like to say, “Je me débrouille.” I get by; I manage.
But it’s more than that isn’t it? I get by wearing 10-year-old sandals. I manage the household budget (or I’m supposed to). Kinois, I thought, must have a unique idiom – possibly a local word, a Lingala word – for what they do. There is one term, Article 15, which encompasses ingenuity and state-sanctioned graft. But I was thinking of something a little different, something more physical, because being a Kinois is downright hard work. Ask the man hauling 18 oil drums on a wheelbarrow down the street.
These efforts are not “managing” or “getting by” they’re much more than that. So I asked my Kinshasa assistant, the efficient and pragmatic Emery Makumeno, if there was a Lingala term. And, he said, to some degree, there is:kobeta libanga. It is literally translated as “breaking stones” from the time of forced labor under the Belgian colonizers. It is often used to refer to Congolese in the Diaspora who will work any job to send money home. It is also used to describe the work, efforts and challenges Kinois will undertake to survive in their city. Je me debrouille rolls off the tongue easily, but kobeta libanga is worthy of a ballad.
Kobeta libanga plays out the length of the Boulevard Lumumba as more people are forced to walk several kilometers into town because of frequent traffic gridlock caused by road works. Named after independence leader Patrice Lumumba, the boulevard is the main artery leading to Kinshasa from beyond the international airport, Ndjili.
At the end of the runway, and visible from the air, is the city’s version of a potter’s field. There’s no telling how many people have been buried there: headstones are broken, stolen, grown over. It is one of the cheapest places around to inter a body. There’s another cemetery, downtown, that has been taken over, the precious soil now used as a community garden for people to plant subsistence crops or a few surplus vegetables they can sell at the market. I asked Emery if people had much success hawking vegetables nourished by decomposing bodies. “I don’t think they tell anyone,” he said.
Passing the airport on the right, the same side as the Congo River, the boulevard abuts the neighborhoods Masina I, II and III. I don’t know why these impoverished quartiers weren’t given distinct names. Perhaps by the time people had reached that far from the city center, they just plain ran out of ideas.
Health workers I visited at the Roi Baudouin I Hospital Center in Masina I, said the Masinas are
among the poorest and most densely populated neighborhoods of Kinshasa. Wikipedia says Masina (it didn’t say which one, or all three) had “recently become a desirable area in which to live and has a large, growing population”.
I think someone should tell the Wikipedia editors that just because a lot of people live in a place doesn’t necessary mean it’s desirable. Much of the Masinas are on a wetland. Malaria is endemic. The disease is the DRC’s biggest child killer, claiming the lives of some 180,000 children under the age of five per year, according to Unicef. A wet, warm, overcrowded environment is prime for malaria transmission.
Further down, the Wikipedia listing says this: “The urban area reaches population densities comparable to those of other municipalities in the heart of Kinshasa (about 50,000 inhabitants per square kilometer).” To get a perspective on just how many people live in the Masinas, take into account that New York City has a population density of about 27,000 people per the equivalent of one square mile, or 2.6 square kilometers, according to the city’s official website. So, for those of you who are math challenged like me, that means nearly double the number of people in Kinshasa live on less than half the equivalent area. And most don’t have running water, proper toilets or trash disposal.
If that wasn’t daunting enough, the United Nations estimates that between 2010 and 2020 Kinshasa’s population will have grown by 46 percent. That means the challenges for Kinois, the competition for resources, the pressure on an already overburdened infrastructure and the sheer effort it will take to get into town will become that much greater. The government of President Joseph Kabila deserves credit for making improvements to Kinshasa’s main arteries, such as the Boulevard Lumumba and the Boulevard 30 Juin. But little work has been done in the most populous neighborhoods, such as the Masinas.
Much has been written about DRC’s resources – it’s gold, copper, diamonds, rubber, forests – and how transparent use of them could turn the nation around. The Congo River – the world’s second largest river by volume – has enormous hydroelectric potential. But as it is now, DRC ranks near the bottom of United Nations indicators for human development.
It is true that the country could be an economic giant in sub-Saharan Africa and that it holds enormous promise. The World Bank predicts an annual economic growth rate of seven percent over the next two years. But growth cannot reach its full potential without the work of the Congolese people – the nation’s greatest resource, its best hope.
As I wrapped up my stories from Kinshasa I was also finishing up some of the escapist reading I had bought to pass the many hours spent on planes and in airport terminals. I found this passage at the end of “Sole Survivor” by Dean Koontz.
“Only the human spirit can act with volition and consciously change itself; it is the only thing in all creation that is not entirely at the mercy of forces outside itself, and it is, therefore, the most powerful and valuable form of energy in the universe.”
The government in Kinshasa should take note.
NOTE: Photos in this and all lokoleyacongo postings are by the editor/author, Doug Smith, unless otherwise noted
“But this is a people robbed and plundered, all of them are trapped in holes and hidden in prisons; they have become a prey with no one to rescue, a spoil with no one to say, ‘Restore!” Is 42:22
Like the people of Israel before their return from exile in Babylon, Congo today appears to be a land adrift, a nation state which has lost its bearings and its vision of what this newly independent nation in Africa might become. It is therefore to be lamented that Patrice Lumumba’s comprehensive and compelling vision for the nation is largely neglected if not contradicted by the current regime and not known by the Congolese people, few of whom were alive in 1960.
Following the dedication of the Lumumba monument and statue in Kinshasa, the 2002 placement of Laurent Desire Kabila’s ostentatious mausoleum across from the Palais de la Nationsignaled where the current regime’s roots lie. In contrast to the international recognition and respect accorded the
legacy of Patrice Lumumba, the father of the current president has the reputation of a cowering opportunist whose rise to power in Congo resulted from Rwanda’s desire to unseat Mobutu and exploit the resources of eastern Congo. The closest Laurent Kabila comes to resembling Lumumba is in his also having been assassinated.
In a 2008 article by investigative journalist Christian Parenti titled “In Search of Lumumba: Congo’s Landscape of Forgetting” investigative journalist Christian Parenti found no traces of Lumumba’s political thought in the country’s politics or daily life today. Parenti found that even those with access to the mass media outlets of Kinshasa have only a rudimentary understanding of Lumumba’s rise to power and what he stood for. “He was our first President” a handyman at a Catholic mission told Parenti, and “he became a Communist” responded a university student. An English teacher at a Jesuit high school told Parenti that in the Mobutu era, Congo history lessons focused on the President, “his family, his life”. Parenti sums up his findings with “ Once dead, the memory of Lumumba is erased, then revived to prop up a dictator, then to legitimize the rebel who overthrew that dictator”.
So what of the Lumumba legacy can be recovered and applied to the restoration of the Congolese nation today? Above all, there is the writing and speeches of a gifted and passionate defender of the rights of the Congolese people. Within the pages of Lumumba Speaks, edited by Jean Van Lierde, there can be uncovered the outline of a plan of action for the rise of a free Congo as well as a free Africa. There are excerpts which reveal Lumumba as a political pragmatist seeking to encourage the understanding if not the support of his opposition,
“Europeans must recognize and come to accept the idea that the liberation movement that we are engaged in throughout Africa is not directed against them, nor against their possessions, nor against their persons, but purely and simply against the regime of exploitation and enslavement that we are no longer willing to tolerate. If they agree to put an immediate end to this regime instituted by their predecessors, we will live in friendship and brotherhood with them.” (from his speech at the University of Ibadan, March 22, 1959, sponsored by the Congress for the Freedom of Culture)
And there are excerpts so prescriptive and truthful regarding the history of his nation and the entire continent of Africa over the past fifty years as to rank him among the major prophets of the last century. The words that follow were tape recorded during Lumumba’s last days in prison shortly before his death,
“The powers that are fighting us or fighting my government, under the false pretense that they are fighting communism, are in fact concealing their real intentions. These European powers favor only those African leaders who are tied to their apron strings and deceive their people. Certain of these powers conceive of their presence in the Congo or in Africa only as a chance to exploit their rich resources to the maximum by conniving with certain corrupted leaders.
This policy of corruption whereby every incorruptible leader is called procommunist and every leader who is a traitor to his country pro-Western must be fought.
We don’t want to tag along with any bloc. If we aren’t careful, we will risk falling into a neocolonialism that would be as dangerous as the colonialism that we buried last June 30. The imperialists’ strategy is to maintain the colonial system in the Congo and simply change the cast, as in a stage play, that is to say, replace the Belgian colonialists with neocolonialists who can be easily manipulated.”
Among his speeches and writings, I have found no words associating the U.S. with the “European powers” determined to enforce a neocolonial status on Africa. In the next blog, we will look at Lumumba’s trust of the U.S. as an inspiring former colony of the British Empire. We will also lift up his emphasis on the rights of women and the priority he envisaged in the new Congo of educating women.
Copies of Lumumba Speaks are unfortunately hard to come by. There is one copy in the County of Los Angeles Public Library system. Congo, My Country by Lumumba is an extended essay on the country’s march to self rule written in early 1958; the first book is essential for reading his mature political thought.
More accessible today are the film by Raoul Peck Lumumba, available on Netflix for instant view, and the biography by Leo Zeilig Lumumba: Africa’s Lost Leader (Life and Times)
The Christian Parenti article cited above is from the January 30, 2008 edition of In These Times magazine and though there are errors (Lumumba did NOT study abroad as stated) it is worth reading at:
Given the response of the Obama administration and other western governments to the incumbent regime’s manipulation of the Congo’s electoral process, it seems clear that the West still does not support democratic rule in the most resource-endowed nation of Africa. In a mid-February commentary for the “African Futures” blog, Joshua Marks reports that the West’s position on the flawed election remains “dangerously in favor of the status quo of the last five years”. Marks concludes that the failure of current aid for Congo is thereby assured: “these signs of policy inertia could prove disastrous, since Western policies have so far done little to strengthen Congo’s governance, a key goal of many bilateral programs”.
Official acceptance of yet another rigged election in Congo by the U.S., Belgium and the other western powers raises the question of whether the West is yet ready to accept democracy (“rule of the people”) in Congo. After fifty plus years of independent nation status, the reverse question of whether the Congolese people are ready for democratic rule still determines the West’s policies toward Congo. With the dismal record of Belgian colonial authorities in the field of higher education as the background, that question was repeated again and again in western media in the days leading up to the first election of 1960.
Although the question with all its racist overtones may still underlie the anti-democratic postures
and policies vis a vis Congo of the western powers, the 1960 voting results should provide decisive evidence that yes Congo was then and remains ready for self rule. In spite of the West’s attempts to silence and vilify him, Patrice Lumumba was the clear choice of the people in the Congo’s first national election. Lumumba’s eloquently expressed vision of a free and independent Congo remains the charter for social and political progress in the nation today.
Contrary to the charges that Lumumba’s brand of militant nationalism excluded whites from Congo, the public record of his speeches (see Lumumba Speaks , Jean Van Lierde editor) indicates that again and again the powerful orator envisioned cooperation of progressive whites in the development of Congo. The public record is also clear that the attempts to shove aside Lumumba after his election as Prime Minister were met again and again by mass support in nearly every corner of the nation. He was without question the leading spokesperson for the unity of a Congo free of foreign control. And it is important to note that Congolese politicians of every ideology and stripe extol his legacy today.
One aspect of this legacy comes to the fore in the aftermath of the conflicts in eastern Congo now widely referred to as “Africa’s world war”. Patrice Lumumba’s vision of an independent Congo free of foreign control was often related to his vision of a united Africa. True independence for the formerly colonized nation states of Africa depended, in Lumumba’s view, on the creation of a continent wide body strong enough to protect and advance the interests of the diverse peoples of the continent. With the hindsight of more than fifty years of seemingly fruitless effort to establish a nation free of foreign control in the former Belgian colony, Lumumba’s prescient vision may represent the only way to ensure that the Congolese people truly benefit from the vast resources of their homeland.
Participation in the plunder of Congo’s resources by Uganda, Rwanda and other African nations betrays Lumumba’s vision, but it may well be that the day will come when Africa sees that its peace and progress depends on a strong, united and peaceful nation at the continent’s heart. While the words Lumumba wrote to his wife just before his death may now seem more ironically tragic than prophetic, there can be little doubt that they will be extolled and recited by those who finally take part in Congo’s liberation,
“We are not alone. Africa, Asia, and the free and liberated people in every corner of the globe will ever remain at the side of the millions of Congolese who will not abandon the struggle until the day when there will be no more colonizers and no more of their mercenaries in the country. I want my children to be told that the future of the Congo is beautiful and that their country expects them, as it expects every Congolese, to fulfill the sacred task of rebuilding our independence, our sovereignty; for without justice there is no dignity and without independence there are no free men.”
We are accustomed to reading about the violence on women and children in the eastern Congo but what about the deaths caused daily by the country’s “highest rates of malnutrition in the world”? Consider these other facts from the IRIN (UN) News article published on February 17:
– “90 percent: Proportion of arable land not cultivated, largely due to insecurity preventing access to fields and markets.
– 69 percent: Prevalence of under-nutrition in the DRC; up from 26 percent in 1990-92. Under-nutrition includes being underweight for one’s age, too short for one’s age (stunted), dangerously thin (wasted) and deficient in vitamins and minerals (micronutrient malnutrition).
– Congo’s per capita daily protein intake is almost half the world’s average daily protein consumption.”
You can eliminate over population, ignorance, or any other factor that would point a finger at the rural majority of people in Congo. According to the IRIN article, there has been a 544 drop in daily calories consumed per capita comparing 1992 and 2007 (2,195 kcal and 1,651 kcal, respectively). Acute malnutrition caused by a “sudden, drastic decline in nutrition intake” is now experienced by over 10 per cent of the population in 53 of the Congo’s 87 “territories”. The decline in food production and food intake since 1992 points to the state administration as impeding Congolese trying to grow their own food.
The primary factor behind children’s deaths and low life expectancy in Congo is the succession of
predatory regimes beholden to foreigners intent on exploiting the riches of the country. As the late Cardinal and Archbishop of Kinshasa Frederic Etsou declared just after Joseph Kabila’s first election in 2006, “, “I say no to this exercise in imposing on the Congolese people a candidate whose sole mandate is to satisfy the gluttonous and predatory appetites of his foreign handlers”. Until international donor nations withhold support for ruling administrations who directly and indirectly war on their own people, thousands of children in Congo will succumb to malnutrition before reaching the age of five.
In a powerful recent article from the Guardian Global Development Network (London) journalist Chris Bird describes one South Kivu family’s ordeal in a pediatric hospital. Bird writes, “I quickly felt the child’s feet – icy cold. A careful look at Beatrice showed that all the curves and dimples of a healthy child’s face had shrunk, leaving the forbidding lines of a woodblock print. Beatrice was alert, but silent, which formed an ominous void amid the rheumy eyes that grew dimmer as she seemed to fall into it.
The nursing staff went into action. They gave her glucose to prevent low blood sugar, antibiotics through the drip to fight off infection; they advised her mother to keep her warm, as hypothermia takes the lives of many of these children at night. Careful fluid management and gentle refeeding was started: give too little and the child will succumb to dehydration and shock; too much and the child will die of heart failure.”
But Beatrice’s treatments began too late and Bird describes the parents reaction: “Beatrice’s mother sobbed as we wrapped her daughter in the green cotton cloth in which she was brought. Her father lifted her easily in his arms and left the hospital, his face immobile. Her mother walked, crying, behind him, stopping on the dirt road from time to time as she doubled up in grief. An elderly man going the other way, a Red Cross armband on his left arm, dismounted his bicycle and gave a formal salute to the family as they walked past.”
In an attempt to come to grips with what lies behind the death of Beatrice and countless childen in Congo today, Bird concludes, “Where I am in the east it is green and lush, but after years of war, insecurity and economic collapse, all the children in our tent are malnourished to some degree. It is this underlying weakness that determines how children respond to the infectious diseases that claim their lives with unrelenting regularity.”
While in Mbandaka, Equator Province, far from the fighting in the East, in the summer of 2010, I asked my cook Papa Jean what happened to his brood of fifty plus chickens. “They were all taken by the soldiers” he explained. The Congolese army deployed to protect the citizens of the city of half million plus inhabitants had rioted three times in the years just prior to my Mbandaka stay. The soldiers had not been paid because their commanders had pocketed the Army’s funding. Is this the kind of security for Congo we want to help provide with our $900 milllion in U.S. aid this year?
To read Chris Bird’s article “The Silent Cost of Child Malnutrition” go to:
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
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,
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.
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
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.”
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”.
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
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.
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.
It appears that once again the people’s hopes for a free and fair presidential election in Congo are about to be dashed. Congolese and international observers along with Congo’s opposition party leaders are increasingly questioning the wisdom of attempting an election in November of this year. Various facts on the ground feed their doubt about the nation’s readiness to undertake the logistical challenges under the auspices of a barely functioning central state with a history of conflict.
Expectations of increased international aid to monitor and organize the polls have been disappointed. And little concrete evidence exists that a coalition of opposition parties will be created to present a serious challenge to the current rule of the Kabila administration. With the change in the constitution ruling out a run off when no candidate gains a majority of the vote, the incumbent president Kabila is virtually guaranteed victory without an opposing coalition candidate.
Initial steps in organizing the election have faltered. The Congolese electoral commission recently reported that only half the eligible voters have been registered in Equateur Province with similar results elsewhere. Some observers fault the lack of international funding for this election. A recent article notes, “While the 2006 election costs of US $500 million were funded almost entirely by international donors, this year the DRC is expected to shoulder 60 percent of the financial burden.”
The article goes on to quote a Kinshasa reporter’s questioning of the U.K Ambassador to Congo, “What is the explanation for the fact that five years ago there was an enthusiasm from the west surrounding the 2006 elections while today we sense a lack of attentiveness for those of 2011?”
According to the article, Ambassador Wigan of the U.K. responded by saying that “90 percent of the 2006 elections were financed by the west because they were the first to be held post-conflict, and the DRC needed hand-holding. This time, everyone wants to see the Congolese carry out elections with less outside support. “It’s not a lack of enthusiasm, but rather the evolution of democracy,” Wigan said.
The presence of 20,000 U.N. sponsored international troops in Congo may not be enough to enable further evolution of a fragile democracy in Congo. The head of the UN Mission in Congo (MONUSCO), Roger Meece, has said other organizations are in a better position to monitor the elections and he now seems to value good relations with the Kabila administration above the holding of a fair presidential election any time soon.