Friday, March 14, 2008

A few thoughts from Kinshasa

Kinshasa is an ungentle place.

The other day, a young shegue I know, who always displays the most upbeat demenour despite what must be a life of grinding desperation on the streets of Congo’s capital city, came up to me as I walked along one of the main roads where the street children wash cars for a pittance. His left eye was bandaged and horribly swollen, and he said that he had been hit with a rock, by whom I was not able to understand. Buying him some bread, as I habitually do (250 Congolese francs) seemed to be the least that I could do.

Driving in a friend’s care yesterday, though, looking out the window, I saw a young boy who couldn’t have been much more than 10, struggling under the blazing sun, loaded down with suitcases that he and an older man who I assume was his father, were trying to sell. He was shoeless.

Walking down Boulevard du 30 Juin to buy some groceries, a young boy that I know, who is missing an arm and habitually begs from motorists at stoplights on the thoroughfare, was hard at work, as usual.

Despite the wonderful music and the looming, watchful presence of the Congo River only a few hundred yards from my door, Kinshasa, it must be said, has perhaps the most pervasively visible misery of any city that I have ever seen. There is a noticeable lack of the Caribbean joie de vivre that animates Port-au-Prince, or the jarring moments of deep spirituality and vibrant colour with which Bombay is suffused, or the sheen of urbane sophistication one still finds in Abidjan despite the civil war there.

As Congo struggles to leave behind the weight of its history and to find a way to use its vast resources to create a more equitable, stable country, conflict continues to flare not only in the east of the country, as I have written about in the past, but also in the west nearer to Kinshasa, where the politico-religious group Bundu dia Kongo (BDK) is currently slugging it out with security forces in Bas-Congo province.

Despite the failings of the Congolese state, stretching all the way back to Belgium's brutal seven decade occupation, the Congolese, in my view deserve better than what they are getting right now, both from their own leaders and from the international community. The lack of moral energy of many in the journalistic profession in the west, who would be covering front pages worldwide if a conflict in Europe or North America had claimed 5 million lives, is decidedly underwhelming, as is the decided lack of transparency of the United Nation mission here. The human rights chief of the mission (known by its French-language acronym of MONUC), Fernando Castañón, seems plainly terrified of reporters, local or foreign, poking around too closely around its activities in the country, a stance unique in my history of covering three previous UN deployments (Côte d'Ivoire, Haiti, Guatemala) and one which rather makes a mockery of MONUC’s stated mission regarding the “monitoring, and the reporting of any violations” of the ceasefire agreement that helped end one phase of Congo’s civil war. Perhaps the fact that MONUC troops have been caught in some violations of there own once or twice might have something to do with that reticence.

Not to end on too grim a note, the city does have its charming side. Having a beer by the rapids of the Congo River at Chez Tintin as the sun sets, as smooth soukous plays and Congolese families chow down on goat and fisherman cast their nets just offshore is one of them. The sublime barbecued chicken at Mama Colonel in the Bandalungwa district is another. A meal at the Taj restaurant, after an eight-story ride on a decrepit and foul-smelling elevator, only to find the entire city spread out in the view beneath you once you arrive makes a hectic and sweat-drenched day on the streets disappear like so much pollution-hued ether on a windy day.

Nevertheless, for all the good they are worth, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a country more desperately in need of good journalists than the one I find myself in today.


Anonymous said...

What a wonderful, insightful piece. You bring an eye to human experience that is simultaneously journalistic and poetic.

Wesley Gibbings

Clarence said...

Excellent description.

My heart went back there, especially to the kids I visited in Kinshasa in November 2007.

thanks for your work there