“Welcome to the Congo”, said my driver, Emmanuel, as we walked to the car from the vaguely organised chaos of Kinshasa’s Ndjili airport. “This is not a place for beginners”, he continued, as I confessed that this was my first visit to Africa. He was smiling and laughing, but I had the feeling he wasn’t entirely joking. If the airport was anything to go by, my trip to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) was going certainly going to be interesting. ‘This isn’t a place for beginners’ was a phrase I was to hear repeatedly over the next few days.
I’ve been fortunate enough to travel to DRC over the last couple of weeks to conduct some training with DFID staff based there and to visit some DFID-funded projects, with a view to getting a better understanding of the challenges of reducing poverty in the second largest country in Africa. Bearing in mind that the second largest country in Africa is the size of western Europe, this is no mean challenge at all (only Algeria is slightly bigger, but with half the population). On almost every level, the DRC is a story of huge scale and huge contrasts, of huge need and huge potential.
The sun was just setting as we pulled out of the airport onto the main road into the city, and it was getting dark quickly. Kinshasa is just a few hundred miles south of the equator; it gets dark early here almost all year round. It soon became apparent that you didn’t need daylight to tell how bad the airport road is, but you could do with it to see where you were going. Pot-holed and unpaved, incredibly dusty and dark, we didn’t get far before we ground to a halt in the mother of all traffic jams. I’d been warned it might take a couple of hours to get into the city. “Ca commence”, said Emmanuel, slipping the gearstick in neutral and turning up the radio. It begins.
It wasn’t really clear what the problem was. Rush hour? True, but we were heading into the city, against the tide of humanity heading home for the day – the majority of them on foot. Accidents? Check, we saw a couple; a minibus taxi rolled on it’s side and mangled. A burnt out petrol tanker. Breakdowns? Ditto. Police checkpoints? Check. Roadworks? Check. The Chinese are upgrading the road, which is clearly causing even greater disruption.
But this isn’t a road in any normal sense of the word. It’s more of a 50metre wide, 20 mile long scar through the city’s sprawling outskirts. People drive where there is space, regardless of which direction they happen to be going. And where there isn’t room to drive, they walk, choked by dust and fumes.
The roads into, and out of, Kinshasa turned out to be a pretty good metaphor for the some of the bigger contrasts of DRC itself. If you turn right out of the airport, you’re immediately into the chaos of the airport ‘road’, as outlined above. It’s almost unbelievable that this is only way into a city of 6 million people. But turn left, and you’re almost immediately onto a near-perfect highway that speeds you away from the city, with virtually no traffic on it. That would almost be irony enough alone, but it turns out that this almost immaculate road carries on for nearly 500 miles east, into the heartland of DRC, towards the mineral-rich lands of Kananga and Lumbumbashi.
The trouble is that it doesn’t reach either of those places. The road stops abrubtly near the town of Kikwit, and turns into a dirt track again, from where there’s another 400 miles or so to Lubumbashi, which can take days. But as far as Kikwit, it is a beautiful, 500-mile long, road to nowhere. There are speed limit signs, speed bumps to slow you down as you approach villages and settlements, kerb-stones, drainage culverts and even zebra crossings. But virtually no traffic.
And all the way along it, you can see high-voltage electricity pylons, carrying power from the Inga dam on the Congo River to the mines in Lubumbashi. The Congo River (second longest in the world after the Amazon) could potentially generate enough hydro-electricity to power the whole of Africa and then some – yet the majority of the population has no access to electricity.
DRC is one of the richest countries in the world in terms of natural and mineral resources. The land is so fertile, it could be one of the worlds largest exporters of fruit and vegetables (at the moment it is one of the largest importers). People say that you can almost just throw seeds on the ground and they will grow, yet some somewhere between 50-70% of the population doesn’t have enough food to eat and is malnourished. In terms of mineral wealth, in some parts of the country the story goes that you can pick up a handful of earth and almost sift diamonds and precious metals through your fingers. It has water in abundance; you can sink a well almost anywhere, yet the majority of the population has no access to safe, clean drinking water.
The superlatives go on. DRC is home world’s second largest rainforest (again after the Amazon), and to over 50% of Africa’s forests, containing countless species of flora and fauna still unknown to science. The Congo River is, in places, the widest and deepest on the planet. It has everything from active volcanoes to savannah, gorillas and bonobos (the closest primate species to man), found nowhere else in the world.
Yet it’s also a country with a history of extreme violence and conflict, and this tends to be the image of the country that gets portrayed in the media. From a brutal period as Belgian colony, when it was known as the Congo Free State (the ‘Free’ bit theoretically referring to trade rather than democracy, although in practice it seems it meant neither), to the autocratic, corrupted, regime of Joseph Mobutu (1965-1997, when it was known as Zaire), to what has become known as the ‘African world war’, which began in 1998, involved 9 African countries and killed nearly 5.5 million people (the world’s worst conflict since the second world war), Congo has developed a reputation for blood-letting. And that’s without even mentioning the infamous literary representations of the country as the ‘heart of darkness’ or the ‘blood river’.
The legacy of the 1998 conflict, as well as from the 1994 Rwandan genocide, is sadly still being played out today, in the eastern Kivu regions bordering Rwanda and Burundi. Various armed factions are still terrorising civilian populations, still displacing people, still causing death, misery and suffering. The DRC currently hosts the UN’s second largest peace-keeping mission and is one of the worst places in the world to be a woman or a child, with alarmingly high rates of sexual violence and the second highest rate of child mortality. By any measure, it’s one of the most difficult countries to live and grow up in.
I was lucky enough to have a Kinshasan colleague as my guide during my time in DRC, and I’m indebted to her for her insights into an amazing city and country. We travelled together out on the road towards Kikwit with the international NGO Action Contre la Faim – stopping in the town of Masi Manimba, where there’s a very different story to tell. I’ll blog and post pictures about that part of the trip separately, as soon as I can.
After just two weeks in DRC, I know a little more than I did before. True, it may not be a place for beginners in Africa – but it certainly is a great place to learn. I already want to go back..