What Makes Kinshasa Tick

One man pushes 18 empty oil drums on a "pousse pousse" cart down a Kinshasa street.
One man pushes 18 empty oil drums on a “pousse pousse” cart down a Kinshasa street. Photo by Cindy Shiner.

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.

On the "shoulder" of Kinshasa's Boulevard Lumumba on the way to town from Ndjili Airport
On the shoulder of Kinshasa’s Boulevard Lumumba on the way to the city center from Ndjili Airport

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

The UN's funding of nearly 20,000 soldiers, the largest peacekeeping force in the world, helps keep the current Kabila administration in power
The presence of nearly 20,000 UN soldiers, the largest peacekeeping force in the world, helps keep the current Kabila administration in power

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

Frederic’s Plea

The following message was sent me last week by a Congolese friend Frederic LoFrederic Lombe, Congo Disciples Minister mbe who shared an office with me in the Mbandaka headquarters of the Disciples
Frederic Lombe, Congo Disciples Minister

The following message was sent me a few days ago by  Congolese friend Frederic Lombe who shared his office with me in the Mbandaka headquarters of the Disciples “Communaute”.  With it, he has asked me and several U.K and U.S. based friends for advice on the Congolese pursuit of democratic rule. The complete message and my response follow. If you would like to respond to Fred’s heart felt inquiry, you may use the comments section of the blog or write me at dsmithy1@verizon.net.

Dear friends,

I am sure you all are more informed and experienced in the DEMOCRACY than us here. What can you advice me about what happens here in my country? I am often in contact with different people and many of them concluded that they will not vote in the future because it is not necessary when their willing is not respected. And I think you are following through your TV, there is already much trouble, we are going to die as flies. Your powers showed us this excellent system to vote the one people like much, but finally the contrast. The dictature continues, so what can we do now? Your different replies will encourage my family and myself.

Kindest regards.

Frederic.

Dear Fred –
Someone once said, “the price of liberty is eternal vigilance”. We in the United States, a young nation but with two hundred thirty five years of pursuing liberty through democratic rule, keep learning the truth of this statement. Our democracy is always in jeopardy but today’s threat posed by a small minority with wealth and power seems to be especially great.
You may have heard about the increasing gap between the very rich and the rest of the U.S. citizens. Over the past thirty years, but accelerated during the younger Bush administration, taxes on the rich have been cut resulting in part for a massive transfer of wealth from the middle income in the U.S. to the wealthy. Some of the largest U.S. corporations, G.E. for example, pay little to no tax on their profits and pay their executive management annual salaries and bonuses larger than most Americans make in a lifetime.

It is increasingly apparent that the great wealth of a small elite in our country is being used to manipulate elections in our American democracy. Skepticism continues regarding the results in our 2000 and 2004 presidential elections. The Republican party in the U.S. slavishly adheres to an ideology favoring the wealthy and has appointed most of the current members of the U.S. Supreme Court. That Court in the recent Citizens United decision gave unprecedented support for corporations to use their funds to back the candidates they favor. We now know that the conservative/corporate ideology favoring the wealthy has been promoted by the investment of millions of dollars by billionaires such as the Koch brothers and Art Pope in North Carolina with the aim of electing like-minded candidates.

It is the gap in wealth and the super wealthy’s increasing influence on the electoral process in the U.S. that the Occupy Wall Street movement is protesting; like the “revolutionaries” who opposed British rule of the U.S. colony and set the stage for the writing the Declaration of Independence and the rule “by the people”, protest is a hallowed tradition in our country and, I believe, in every nation where the people truly rule.

A recent example in Africa of a non violent people’s movement taking power from an elite and standing up for democratic rule comes from Liberia. It is not surprising that the Liberian women who demanded the Charles Taylor regime make peace with the rebels also backed the election of a woman as the first President of an African country. Organizing meetings of women from all backgrounds with the simple aim of “We want peace. No more war” it was women

Press Photo of Leymah Gbowee
Press Photo of Leymah Gbowee

in Liberia who also brought about free and fair elections with Ms. Johnson Sirleaf being reelected to a second term.

It should be noted that while the Liberian women represented diverse Muslim and Christian faith backgrounds, it was prayer and deep faith in our God of justice that held them together and on course. Nobel Peace Prize co-awardee Leymah Gbowee describes the movement’s beginnings in this way. “We started a peace outreach project, going to the churches on Sunday, to the market stalls on Saturday, the mosques on Friday.” And when there was confusion and dissension among the women, one of them would intervene with the unifying reminder, “We need to pray”.

You say, “we are going to die as flies” but so far as I know very few of those women in Liberia died. Ms. Gbowee was asked to serve as a cabinet member by the new President. She declined because she was afraid it would weaken her capacity to continue bringing about positive change in her homeland. Liberia is fortunate to have women and men like her leading the way to rule by the people and for the people. What will their system of government eventually become? Will it be a democracy like the U.S. Or a parliamentary system like in England? I don’t know, but I do know Ms. Gbowee, like Patrice Lumumba in the Congo, will always be acclaimed as a great leader in her country.

Thank you for your note. I look forward to continuing our dialog in the new year.

Your friend,
Doug

Return of a Native Son

 
 
M. Boetsa with sheaf of papers in hand stands among a few of his visitors

A long line of visitors waited for hours to speak with Mbandaka native son M. BOETSA  during his stay last summer.  Living next to him in the duplex housing at the “Maison des Missionaires” I had the opportunity to get acquainted with this esteemed native son and learn the reason for his return. 

During the colonial era, the Belgians had built in Mbandaka what they envisioned would be the first and only Institute for Tropical Medicine in Central Africa.  Independence scuttled those plans but a Belgian foundation now wants M. BOETSA to carry out the original vision of a medical research center in Mbandaka.  Having caught wind of those plans, the Congolese Ministry of Education has asked him to also consider assuming the post of C.E.O. of the University in Mbandaka.

For more than twenty years, he has raised a family and taught biology at the Ecole Polytechnique in Paris.  Raised in the Disciples church, BOETSA told me about his baptism at the Mbandaka III cathedral church and how his parents continue to participate in the Ikongo Wassa Disciples parish of Mbandaka.  When I told him of my friendship with Pierre Sangana, now resident of Indianapolis, BOETSA exuberantly described Pierre’s son Georges as one of the most respected surgeons in Paris. He also noted that Pierre’s daughter Aimee, now living in the San Francisco Bay area, had ignored his childhood crush.

M. BOETSA returned to Paris at the end of last summer to ponder the logistics of maintaining a home in Mbandaka and one in Paris.  He planned to return with his wife on his next Mbandaka visit and planned to again stay in the “Maison des Missionaires”.    His wife  had rejected the Ministry of Education’s offer of a large house in town in favor of staying next to the river and enjoying the porch’s cool breezes.

 

 

Portrait of a Parish

 

                 Nouvelle Cite Sanctuary and Primary School on June 24, 2010 Preschool Graduation Day

Two primary schools with up to 800 students.  A preschool with 180 three to five year olds enrolled..Three levels of adult literacy classes which meet between 6 and 7 am before the children arrive for school.  A women’s micro loan group with 30 participants.  A diaconate committee that assists widows and orphans of the parish.  This is not a mega church I’m describing; it’s the Nouvelle Cite parish of Mbandaka where about 450 persons worship every Sunday. 

Construction of the Nouvelle Cite Sanctuary in 1970

Parish pastor Rev. Ilondo Michel LIKUMBA completed his advanced theological studies at UPC in 2004. Before returning to the Kinshasa campus for the equivalent of the U.S. M. Div. degree in 2002, Rev. LIKUMBA had served the Communaute des Disciples du Christ as a pastor and a Regional Minister.   The UPC (Universite Protestant du Congo) grad and his wife Mme. Engesu LIKUMBA have left behind a visible addition to every community they have served:  a guest house in Boende, a new church building in the Basoko parish of Mbandaka, the new preschool at Nouvelle Cite.

What impressed me most about this couple is their dedication and sacrifice in educating their 8 children.  Four of the children are currently in university; even with Mme. LIKUMBA working in the matenity ward of Mbandaka hospital, much of the household income goes for the children’s education. 

Rev. and Mme. LIKUMBA and anyone else who works for the church in Congo needs our help in educating their

Rev. LIKOMBA with a young woman, orphaned at an early age, who is studying for the ministry with the help of the parish at Bolenge's Protestant University of the Equateur

children.  After preaching this June at Nouvelle Cite, I was presented with a chicken, bananas, plantain, varieties of fruit and an offering amounting to about $7.50.  When I learned that the LIKUMBAS’ household includes three orphan children living with them, I considered an increase in my household’s UPC scholarship giving for educating youth with academic promise in Congo.

Contributions for scholarships at either Kinshasa’s Protestant University or the Bolenge Protestant University of the Equateur can be made through Global Ministries of the Chrisitan Church (Disciples of Christ), P.O.B. 1986, Indianapolis, IN  46206, (317)635-3100.

State of the Congo Disciples

    

Current Disciples President, Rev. Eliki BONANGA chose Palm Sunday to present an overview of the state of the “Communaute”, one of sixty plus denominations making up the unified Church of Christ in Congo.  On his lenten tour of Tshuapa River “Posts” of the Disciples, Rev. BONANGA spoke to over 800 parishoners of Yalusaka, a congregation in the Post of Mondombe 600 miles from Disciples “Communaute” headquartrers in Mbandaka.

Rev. BONANGA stated there are now 23 Posts founded by Disciples in the provinces of Equateur, Bandundu, and Orientale, and the city of Kinshasa as well as missionary extensions in the cities of Kisangani, Lubumbashi , Gemena, Boma, Bikoro, and Lukolela.  In a brief review of the Disciples 112 year history in Congo, he called on the parishoners to give thanks in prayer for the missionaries who died on duty in the Congo or in retirement in the USA. He then noted the transition from a missionary led to an autonomous church in the early 1960’s and the paramount importance now of local support of the church’s mission. 

Yalusaka parish of Disciples Mondombe Post following Palm Sunday worship

 

Relying primarily on the support of church members, Congolese Disciples have built schools, clinics and churches in significant numbers even during the turbulent years of the recent past.  Under the continuing adminstration of the Church’s central office of Education are 486 primary and secondary schools with 65,000 students and 2700 plus teachers.  In addition to 6 hospitals staffed by 12 Congolese doctors are pharmacies and clinics in all the Disciples Posts.  While the Congolese government is committed to health and education services through payment of salaries, local labor, church offerings and user fees  maintain the buildings and make up for delayed and inadequate salary payments by the state.

Tremendous growth of the Congolese Disciples is reflected in the fact that the Church consisted of 10 Posts at

Disciples Education Director Mr. BOFEKO and Bolenge Regional Minister Rev. NGOY meet with Ikalenganya parishoners building the village's first primary school. Children have been walking over twenty miles round trip to school.

independence in 1960.  Another sign of progress among Congo Disciples is the Church’s relative unity after a period of dissension resulting in the split of the remote Tshuapa River Posts.  A native of the Tshuapa Post of Mondombe, Rev. BONANGA appealed to the Yalusaka congregation to support the parish through their offerings, their tithes and community projects (e.g. a parish manioc field) to generate revenue.  Following Rev. BONANGA, four pastors prayed for the local and world church, including Disciples partners in the U.S. and Germany, for missionaries both dead and living and for social concerns both international and national.  The five hour Palm Sunday service ended at 2 pm, long after the Sunday lunch crowd has dispersed in the U.S.

NOTE:  Report of the Palm Sunday service is from Nathan Weteto’s blog originating from Disciples headquarters in Mbandaka.  Address is natana@tumblr.com  He concludes the report by noting there were among the 825 persons at the worship service 57 Bibles and 14 song books.  The several offerings taken up totaled around $70.

Congo Preschoolers Make the Grade

Short video of June 24, 2010 Preschool Graduation at the Nouvelle Cite Disciples parish in Mbandaka, Congo.  Note the talcum powder poured on the graduates’ head at the end of the video.  Anyone out there who can explain why the powder please let us know.

PRESCHOOLS OPEN IN CONGO

Graduates and Community at the Nouvelle Cite June 2010 Preschool Graduation

Ecoles Maternelles”, our equivalent of preschool along the Head Start model, have opened in Mbandaka and other urban areas of Congo. In one of the larger Disciples parishes in Mbandaka, the Nouvelle Cite parish, 180 children enrolled last year.

The Mbandaka UNICEF staff member assigned to Education programs told me the preschools were among the strategies intended to foster completion of primary school in the country. With only two in ten children graduating from the six years of primary school in the Equator Province, the lowest rate of any province in the country, special attention is being paid by UNICEF to the results there.

Rev. Michel LIKOMBA, Nouvelle Cite’s head pastor, serves as Counselor to the provincial volunteer committee charged with oversight of the preschools. The provincial committee’s chair, a Catholic priest, is liaison with the Congolese government for the national movement of Ecoles Maternelles.

While UNICEF leads in funding construction and purchase of furnishings for the preschools, the World Food Program, PAN in the French acronym, supplies daily lunch for the children and staff. Parents’ Committees in each school collect the fees, averaging $1 per month plus an enrollment fee, which results in some children dropping out during the year. Two thirds of those enrolled did complete last year’s instruction at Nouvelle Cite, among them children of Mbandaka Pygmy parents whose fees were covered by the Parents’ Committee organized by the Disciples parish. The Congolese government provides virtually no funding for the program.