Sunday, April 24, 2011

Of Life and Death

Note: The same night that I posted this, a pirogue loaded with merchandise and passengers sank near Minova, killing around 100 people, including family members of at least two of our staff. Almost no one here knows how to swim, and of course life jackets are practically nonexistent.

"We heard shots...the militias had killed a woman in the neighboring compound. So we left our post at the entrance to the base and locked ourselves in the office. We called the logistician, who told us we should evacuate, if we could find an opportunity. But the militias were everywhere. We stayed put and hoped for the best."

The base watchman is recounting a day in September 2008, when militias stormed Minova. The expats were evacuated to Bukavu, and the other staff sought shelter where they could, but the guards were asked to stay, in hopes that their presence would discourage the militias from looting the base.

At first, no one realized the severity of the situation. The guards managed to dissuade the few soldiers that showed up from entering, warning that their bosses were only a few houses away and that any troublemakers would be found out and punished afterwards. But things began spiraling downwards, and the militias shot and killed several people in the neighborhood during their pillaging. With the escalating gunfire, the watchmen retreated to the office, where they remained, unable to find an opportune moment to escape, for the rest of the day and the following night.

They were lucky; for whatever reason, the militias stayed away. All of the other NGOs in town were ransacked except our own, and calm was restored within a few days' time.

It's Easter, and almost Passover, an appropriate time to talk about life, and death.

Chatti, our base cat and my only housemate for almost two months now, gave birth to five kittens two nights ago. Our housekeeper, a pregnant single mother who initially told me she was expecting in June, quietly had a baby girl one night at the beginning of April. The cook and I went for a visit last week, and when the housekeeper handed me the heavily swathed bundle, she calmly informed me that her three-week-old baby was sick with malaria (and no, she did not have a mosquito net).

She then mentioned that one of her sister's adolescent children had been missing for two weeks now. The family feared that the girl had fallen victim to the "Kabanga" phenomenon, wherein, according to local belief, a ordinary length of rope is accorded magic powers if it is used to strangle a person to death. Such a rope can then be sold on the black market--to merchants or politicians--for impressive sums of money. Kabanga sounds so crazy to me that I am tempted to laugh it off...except that it is real. A local man's body was recently found in a nearby river, and three men were sent to a Bukavu prison, charged with his murder by strangulation.

The insecurity and violence that the Congolese have to cope with on a daily basis is astounding. What often comes across as passiveness in the face of death may actually be something closer to recognition of helplessness. Although the state has begun to regain a bit of clout since 2003, when the war here nominally ended, it is far from functional, and your average resident has little hope of achieving justice for any crimes committed against him or his family.

And so the Congolese continue to play the cards they're dealt, and to stake their claims in the future by having children--lots of them. One of my staff members, an extremely intelligent 40-something who earns about $300 a month, has nine children. And most of the other staff members are not far behind.

I often talk to them about family planning and its benefits, which are so widely accepted in the West--the idea that it is easier to properly feed, clothe, educate and provide medical care for your children if you have fewer of them--and although most seem to grasp the theory, I kind of doubt I've really convinced them.

Here, you're never sure what will happen from one day to the next. I suppose if I were trying to raise children in such circumstances, I might try to increase my odds of keeping at least a few of them alive, as well.

Monday, April 18, 2011

The Poorest Rich Country in the World

The Democratic Republic of the Congo is not a land of the wealthy. The average annual income here is 189 bucks, less than I spent during last week's trip to Madagascar. Of course, money isn't everything. But according to the 2010 United Nations' Human Development Index, which attempts to account for numerous other factors that impact quality of life, including education levels and health, the DRC trails every other country in the world except for Zimbabwe.

The crazy thing is, the DRC is a land of enormous wealth. Its elephants and rubber trees financed the construction of the decadent palaces and monuments of colonial-era Belgium. It is home to the world's most voluminous river and the vastest tropical forest after the Amazon. Its mountains teem with copper, cobalt, gold and diamonds, to name a few. Even its soil is relatively resilient, as I realized during my Malagasy sojurn (Madagascar has some of the most fragile, and the most degraded, soils on the planet.) Despite the abuse of farmland here, and the almost universal lack of erosion control practices, fields continue to produce, at least for the moment.

King Leopold II's Laeken Palace, Belgium

Political economist types have theorized that such well endowed countries are inherently destined for slow or even backwards development. While plenty of examples (including my own country) suggest otherwise, there's certainly some truth to the theory. Congo has attracted a slew of voracious plunderers, drawn by the promise of boundless riches, heedless of the welfare, let alone the suffering, of the general population.

Leopold-era rubber slaves, victims of the profit-crazed monarch's brutal regime.

It seems to me that true humanitarian intervention, that is, when people, in the case of exceptional circumstances (e.g., post-tsunami Japan), are unable to clothe, feed, or shelter themselves, and the state is temporarily incapable of addressing the need, is almost always justifiable. But a case like Congo is much more complicated. The people here are intelligent, educated, capable, and often willing to work to better their lot, but the political climate makes real progress almost impossible. This environment is incredibly frustrating for me, who
knows that in a few months' time I can retreat to
the States, my mission "complete."

I can't imagine what it must be like for the Congolese.
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