Cuivre, na’osomba, Cuivre na’osomba!!!!

For those of you not living in Kinshasa, and not speaking Lingala, the title must sound weird… Strangely enough, it also sounded weird when I heard it last week. For a week, I was stuck at home with a bout of malaria, coupled with the flu and sinusitis – heaven, one could say – and I was resting in my room which is quite close to the street, in my average neighborhood in South-West Kinshasa.

Suddenly, one day, I heard someone scream the title  of this post as he was strolling through my street, and he kept on doing it until I could no longer hear him, and assumed he had kept going. What does it mean? In fact it is “Cuivre, Nazali kosomba”, which means “Copper, I am buying”. The young man was in fact strolling the streets, offering people to buy whatever copper-made tool, art, cable, what have you, so he can go resell it at a higher price, on the grey market (it’s not totally a black market, but close).

Like in many countries, including in the US, France and other powers, copper has become quite the hot commodity, due to ever-rising demand, particularly from China. It has led to this type of bargain-roaming, and many other phenomenons. Kinshasa, for instance, is already poorly supplied in electricity, due to the catastrophic power grid, and antiquated distrinbution network. SNEL, the national power company can barely hold the system together, and is gangrened by corruption and greed. And in this context, we have seen the rise of cable thefts, sometimes in complicity with unscrupulous police officers, causing entire neighborhood to be left in the dark for days, months, even years on.

It is ironic really. Congo is one of the locations on earth with the largest and most concentrated copper deposits in the world. In fact, that vast mineral wealth has formed the basis of the much-famed Chinese contracts, by which the Congolese government is essentially bartering its copper for roads and other infrastructures. There is no shortage of copper in the DRC, it just needs to be extracted. Yet we are witnessing the same type of theft and spoliation as in countries where those electric cables are really the only place to find relatively large quantities of copper… why is it that people cannot see further than the tip of their nose?

In any case, I was amazed when I heard that young man screaming, because in a twisted way, that young man has quite unconsciously and inadvertently become an agent of globalization. This young man in Soyth West Kinshasa, trying to find the means to feed his family, has answered the call, the direct demand  of  a market half way across the globe, that he most likely will never see. It shows, if anything, that globalization has insiduously worked its way so deep inside the banalities of our daily life wherever we are, that it is an inevitable force that we must truly rise to the challenge to reckon with, and fast. This young man is a living example of Africa’s and the DRC’s relationship with the forces of globalization: we are subjected to these forces, flowing aimlessly wherever the big powers’ needs must be met, instead of being agents that wield these forces with a transformative purpose of our own.

I am not blaming the young man. He is doing what he has to do to survive, and his method is smart, under the circumstances. However, I dare say the problem lies with the national decision-makers, who sometimes lack the necessary weltanschauung, and the political will to make decisions that reflect a middle and long-term vision of economic agency, instead of economic dependency. They do not have the excuse the young man can be afforded. These are university graduates with doctorates, masters and special diplomas, who often simply cannot be bothered to come up with an economic program that rationalises the use of scandalously vast natural and human resources to increase prosperity, and start truly delivering on the social and other services the people is entitled to receive from the state, by law.

Now, when I bring up entitlements, many immediately label me an anti-business socialist. Nothing could be further from the truth. If a label is needed, I am a social market economist. I believe business has its role to play, but so does the state, and all should be somewhat accountable to the public, the people. The state has a higher threshold of accountability, and responsibility, as it is supposed to defend and represent the interests of the people it leads. Businesses are accountable to shareholders, but must operate within the confines of the law established by the state, in the name of the people. Only with a rational, win-win, public-private-people triungular partnership, can we, in my opinion, rise to the challenge of developping Africa in general, and the DRC in particular.

The problem now is that, as things stand each element of this potential partnership is acting against it. The private sector – especially foreign companoes – is quite irresponsibly seeking exhorbitant profits on the back of a people that is struggling to survive, bribing whoever is needed not to lose their privileges and their profits. The people is allowing itself to be corrupt by the business people and the elites in the ruling class. And the elite that form the state want to maintain the unheathy staus quo because it allows them to continue reaping the benefits from the continent’s wealth for their own personal gains. A vicious triangle…

In the mean time, the young man is still buying and selling his copper, unaware of his pivotal role in perpetuating the vicious triangle that maintains him in poverty and misery. Maye I ought to stop him the next I see him, and have a conversation with him… Would it make a difference? I am still wondering…

Kinshasa International

So, as some of you know, I have not been able to do much of what I was planning to do in Kinshasa. With my father’s sickness (he is doing much better, by the way), my mind has been operating on a single, unique track. I have not been able to seek and obtain employment, I have not been able to be active in the advocacy milieu here in Kinshasa, and I have not been able to go out and party the town away (mostly because I have a mother that is a bit compulsive about her fears for my safety, to the point that I fear going out… for her nerves).

However, there are things I am happy I was able to do. First, I was happy and sad at the same time to take part in the farewell party of my friend Lina, whom I only knew online. Not only was it a great party, with great food and great music, but I got to meet new people that I would otherwise not be in contact with in Kinshasa. Hopefully I find ways to get back in touch with all those people, for additional parties, of course, but also to see how we can collaborate, for the sake of the Congo.  We’ll see…

Also, for the first time in a very long time, I was lucky and privileged to host two friends from the US and Belgium, at our place here in Kinshasa, and they both simply made me happy to see them. Lys came first, to visit the land of her ancestors for the first time, and Denis was here on a business trip. But they both allowed me to bring a bit of my outside world into the Congo, and to meet my family. I am waiting for more people to come, so feel free, and come to Kinshasa.

I will also try to get into the upcoming business creation salon, to have an idea what business leaders think, and how they see the market in Congo. It should be very interesting.

Ask me questions, it helps me write pieces!

Peace!

Na rhythme ya Congo…

Since I have been back here in the Congo, there is nothing that has been more irritating than to hear than that expression “na rhythme ya Congo” (the Congolese way). This expression is used, and abused, to somewhat explain or justify – not without a hint cynicism – all the non-sensical, destructive, and counter-productive practices that have been erected as norms in Kinshasa, and in the country in general.

Whenever I point something out as wrong, or at least wrongheaded, there never fails to be someone, somewhere, ready to remind me (almost taking offense) that that is “rhythme ya Congo”, and the sooner I adapt to it, the better it will be for me, and for everyone around me. For instance, cars keep going when the traffic light is on Red, and the cops are watching them peacefully… until a shiny SUV comes, and the know they can suck some money out of the owner, so they wait til he/she crosses the light and then… GOTCHA!! Now I understand cops have not been properly paid for over decades, so I will not go confront that cop, but no one should ask me to find that situation normal, and just chug it to “rhythme ya Congo”.

There are practices in my country that are just… un-f-in-believable. So, the other day, I am at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, try to get myself a passport, cause, for some reason, someone has decided that the ones they printed and introduced just at the beginning of this year, are no longer worthy of being used (that is another story altogether), and I realized that my country is in even more of a mess than I thought before.

See, there is a procedure to follow to get a passport, that involves the Ministries of Justice, Interior, Foreign affairs, and the foreign and domestic intelligence agencies. It is already a bulky process as is, but with decades of learning to circumvent the system to obtain what you need, very few people actually go through the regular process. Everybody uses intermediaries (which is technically illegal), who are generally civil servants of the MFA, who supply these services to guarantee some extra income. And even for those that follow the regular process, at every step, every civil servant treating your file expects a little discreet bribe, to “expedite” your file. But the truth is… no one knows if the expedite, or slow down the process. Every interaction the citizen has with the State takes place in a murky, and foggy mess of corruption, poverty, greed and disorganization. And people have become used to that, and resigned to the inevitability of the situation.

And when the relative outsider that I have become points out that it is not a fatality, that we are not cursed, and that something can, and should be done about it, people – even in my own, relatively okay family – turn to me, and, almost laughing in my face, tell me “Oyo nde rhythme ya Congo” (That is the Congolese was)…

It is very frustrating, even though I knew full well to expect it. And though it does not change my will to explore ways to help change the situation somehow, it does dampen my enthusiasm a bit….

Oh well, such is life.

More to come…

Eventful

I have been back in Kinshasa for about 4 weeks now, and Kinshasa is pretty much the same: warm because of family and friends, but still stuck in a time loop that makes it seem like not much has changed in the last 20 years (at least nothing for the better. More about that in another post).

I have had more excitement – both positive and negative – than I bargained for. Let me start with the negative stuff first. About a week or two after I arrived here, my siblings (in the Western world, people would say “half-siblings”) lost their mother. It was quite sad, as you can imagine. And I have rarely felt as helpless as when I saw one of my brothers cry his soul out, and there was absolutely nothing I could do to alleviate his pain…

Then came the fact that my father was gravely ill for almost two weeks, and I had to be by his bedside at night, and see him suffer in agony of the pain he was under… I mean I had never seen my father shed a tear before, let alone howl in agony… I am glad it’s mostly over, since he is no longer in pain, and he is well on his way towards recovery.

But one must admit, that is one hell of a comeback home trip. Add to that the constant power outages, my generator going kaput, water also disappearing from time to time, and you have my life in Kinshasa so far, in a nutshell. My mum’s car broke down completely, and it cost a lot of money to repair, and gas prices are simply too high, and did I mention my internet is sometimes so slow I have the time to pull my hair out and glue it back on before my yahoo mail page opens? I won’t even talk about the food poisoning I am still reeling from myself.

I know, I know, I am all gloom and doom, right? Well, not exactly. See, despite all that – and that’s a big THAT – I am stil happy to be home. I am getting to interact with dear family members I have not been able to see for ages. I am learning to know and appreciate and love my 20+ nephews and nieces, many of which I had never met. I am helping my mother get settled in her new job… It ain’t so bad after all.

More details about Congo in general, and activities Kinshasa in particular very soon (with pictures, Internet-willing)

Until then, keep coming back, keep in touch, and keep commenting

Hello world!

I like the title of this post… it is quite appropriate. So yes, hello world. After several years abroad, I am going back to my native Congo. It has been 6 years since the last time I was there, and in fact, it is the first time in 20 years I am going to be there for this long (a few months, maybe more). 

I have endured devastating trials and tribulations in the USA, as well as great moments that I will never forget, and great friendships that will last forever. Now, I am going back home, which is exciting, but also brings with it its own set of trials and challenges. I have grown to be – I must admit – quite a Westernized Liberal, during my time in the US, and I do not know how I will be able to navigate the weight and tediousness of some aspects of my own native culture… just the fact that this is an issue in my head is concerning to me. And then there is the ever present corruption, the constant power outages, the rarity of water at the faucet, the lack of basic services, and the poor transportation system (which is going to be the greatest challenge, after being so used to the MTA in New York). When you add to this the new restrictions on my movements that I am foretold, especially at night, for safety and distance reasons (we live in an outlying suburb), you can understand that I am a bit anxious and apprehensive… which is frustrating to me because I love my country, and I resent having to feel apprehensive to live in it.

But I have prepared myself as best I could, and I am looking forward to going back home, despite the challenges. I will try – as safely as possible – to document my time, the issues I faces, the cool things I encounter, the debates I am suggested, and how life simply is in Kinshasa, especially as I am trying to get employed for the time I am there. In many ways this will be an expat-blog… well, more like a non-expat expat blog. See, in Congo, I have all the assets of an expat:

  • US-educated
  • Multilingual
  • Worldly
  • World citizen
  • Computer and Internet litterate
  • Itunes-addicted
  • Feels your pain
  • Eager to save the world

all the inconvenients of an expat:

  • Mistrusted
  • Outsider
  • Feared
  • conned
  • disoriented
  • Foreign-thinking, sounding, and acting

and none of the expat advantages:

  • a shiny SUV with a shiny logo (UN, Red Cross, CARE, etc) that opens some doors by its mere presence; with a driver
  • an expat-level salary waaaaay beyond what 95% of the Congolese people could dream to make, that allows them to live like kings in Congo
  • a foreign passport guaranteeing them evacuation should things get too dicey
  • and, let us be completely honest, white skin (or at least a “non-African” ethnic look) which – in a country still reeling from the complexes and fears born out of colonialism – is still a mark of wealth and authority, given priority and precedence in many instances, even when junior in rank, station, education and knowledge. (To carricature, think of the educated Congolese man as a black A-student from the University of Idaho, and some expats as the C-student from Yale. Somehow the latter always has more chances to be President than the former…)

So those are the realities I am preparing to face. I will have to learn to be somewhat of a second-class citizen in my own country (actually, third-class, since the expats are already second to the rich Congolese elites), after fighting discrimintaion in the US… a brother can’t catch a break!! But I really shouldn’t complain. I will have a car, and I have a strong family to support me. So, I am better than the average Congolese citizen, who is about sixth or seventh-class… 😉 

I digress. So this blog: My life, back in the Congo. I hope you come back and read some of the stuff I write, and that I can bring some insight on this beautiful yet suffering country that I love, through my own experiences there. I will also write and/or post things that just randomly interest me, regardless of whether it linked to the Congo (Ithink that is what bloggers do, no?) This is a continuation of my blog African in America.

Happy reading!