I arrived in Kinshasa, the Democratic Republic of Congo, last week on Sunday. I know what you’re thinking: “What? You were just in Joburg! What are you doing in Kinshasa now?!” Well, admittedly this was all rather sudden for me as well.

The Congo from above

I’ve been hired by a big refugee agency as a Mass Info Officer. For security issues – to avoid freaks (I’ve gotten a couple emails from a few so far), I’ll avoid saying who I’m working for… let’s just say y’all know it… It’s the “big leagues”.

I cancelled my contract with the previous organization as, after several months of waiting for progress, or at least a mandate on the HIV/AIDS project, I got tired and… well… was offered a much better deal.

My job is to compile info and present it to the refugees. Yup, that’s the condensed version. Mostly I’ll be writing, editing, putting together a couple publications, designing/revamping the layout, and going to the field to gather the info. I’m excited as this is the first job that really enables me to get away from the computer and out to the audience I will be targeting.

It seems weird to use loaded words such as “targeting” when you’re in the DRC. Let me explain. Here comes your short dose of Congo (DRC) history. For those who hate history and just want to get straight to the action, skip down to the paragraph, “We’re now in the present – Elections.”

Please also note that this is far from a comprehensive breakdown of the troubled and very interesting history of the country (in fact, given my limited knowledge at this point I could be totally full of kak) – for more info there is plenty available on the web, in numerous books (including, I’ve heard, a good one by the explorer Stanley), or in the really great book I’m working on by Adam Hochschild, King Leopold’s Ghost.

The History

The fateful year of 1908 saw King Leopold II of Belgium gain control of the Kingdom of Kongo. It was a typical colonial story in that the Belgians of the time grabbed the gold, minerals, rubber, people, and anything else they could find, then traded ‘em all for a few supplies of guns to the king. Now the king needed these guns mostly due to the undermining of his power and control by the very Belgians who were supplying lovely European trinkets (and loud pretty guns) to the masses. So they grabbed whacks of people, loaded ‘em in boats, and shipped them to Brazil, the (now called) USA, Europe, and so on. Shoving Christianity (Roman Catholicism and Protestantism) down their throats and attempting to “educate” them via missionary schools, the Belgians by 1960 decided that they’d give them “po’ black folk” their freedom. Now, remember, all that transpired between 1908 and 1960 was whole boatloads of blood, destroyed lives, and a demolished local kingdom – all for some gold and rubber. Really.

The First Republic. So then, after independence on June 30, 1960, and until 1965, two dudes, Kasavubu and Lumumba did a little power dance partnered with the cold war alliances of the US and USSR, respectively. So Kasavubu was the democratically elected President but Lumumba was a nationalist Prime Minister (for an explanation on the differences between Prime Minister and President, look into the French structure of government – let’s just say that, as Prime Minister of Parliament, Lumumba had more power than Kasavubu when it came to the government and making decisions). With help from their uncles in the west (Mr. Dwight D. Eisenhower and the CIA from the US), Kasavubu, along with his crony Mobutu in 1960 assassinated Lumumba.

The Second Republic. In 1965, the (by then) Commander in Chief of the national army, Mobutu decided he wanted a bit more of the power pie for himself. He was elected (NOT democratically) as President and went on a mass campaign of “gettin back to his roots”. He renamed the country Zaire and tore down a whack of colonial legacies throughout the country. Angolan rebels attacked, protests internally arose, in 1990 underpaid soldiers looted villages and cities, a multi-party system was reluctantly established (the Third Republic) under international pressure. Mass exodus of foreign nationals transpired.

War. In 1996, a bunch of Hutus and Tutsi’s started having “issues” in neighboring Rwanda. Resulting Hutu refugee camps just inside the Congo’s borders bred rebel groups bent on killing off any Tutsi’s in the area. Tutsi’s got pissed and formed their own groups which then went on to rebel against Mobutu. Rwanda and Uganda got into the action and supported a guy named Kabila (Sr.) in his fight (backed by the Rwandan, Ugandan and Zairian Tutsi and Mobutu-opposed rebel groups, remember) to oust the guy in charge. Mobutu ducked out and Kabila walked into the big office in 1997 and renamed the country the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He wasn’t such a great President and showed little promise in sorting out the country. As a result he lost a couple allies, including leader (and warlord) of the MLC, Bemba (we’ll talk more of him later). He, along with some of his Rwandan and Ugandan buddies, attacked in 1998. Angola, Zimbabwe, and Namibia backed Kabila’s government and they all had a good blow-out until a ceasefire was signed in 1999. The Congolese rebels didn’t go for it and the fighting continued until Kabila was assassinated by his own bodyguard in 2001.

Kabila’s son Joseph jumped into the office and a multilateral peace agreement was signed. Rwanda, Uganda, and Kabila all became buddies and MONUC, UN peacekeepers, arrived on the scene to keep the tentative peace.

We’re now in the present – Elections.

So we’re in election time right now. I came to the country almost one week before the official election date as the airport closed, on government order, for the week preceding and following the elections – as I understand it, to prevent any disruptions of this, the first FREE official multi-party democratic elections since 1960. There is anticipation in the air as we all await the results, aimed for the 20th of August.

The two primary candidates slated to win are Kabila (Jr.) and Bemba (remember him? The warlord? Well, he has been one of four of Kabila’s VPs between 2001 and today). Both have numerous human rights abuses on their history books, but seem to desire turning over a new leaf to promote peace in the country.

I know many people, friends and family, are concerned for my well-being here in the DRC, but I have to say that under the auspices of the “Really big organization” for which I work, I feel quite safe and well-protected. Far better protected, in fact, than I ever felt in gangster’s paradise, Johannesburg.

I’m wrapped up in work and so far my route has been home to work and back again. I’ve ventured into town a few times to pick up groceries and various other supplies, but really haven’t had much time to explore. I hope to change that this weekend as I’m trying to round up some colleagues for a bit of R&R time and dancing in some local clubs.

Tonya remains in Joburg to finish some of the work that she’s doing there. My job is considered “unaccompanied” however I get plenty of R&R time (and cash!) to venture back to Joburg or have her come here. I also have a good friend in Senegal and hope to see her very soon, as well as a Congolese friend in Jozi whom I hope will play tour guide for Kinshasa some time very soon.

There’s some news on the horizon regarding me going out on a field visit sometime this month to the Equateur province and I’m excited about that as it’ll give me an opportunity to see first-hand what conditions are like in the camp and who exactly my audience is.

The house situation is fine. I’m staying at a colleague’s house who is currently on leave until the first week of September, so I’m also keeping my eye open and asking around for possible housing situations post-September 1st. For now, though, I’m living rent-free and enjoying a massive house all on my own.

It’s true that it’s quite lonely and I really miss my constant contact with friends, but I also know that I’ve been in the very same situation in each country in which I’ve lived. I’m getting well known for my uber-friendly and open approach to people (especially the locals who are more accustomed to expats who only hang with other expats) and I have no doubt I’ll have plenty of names on my dance card in the near future.

The constant French speaking is also a bit of a challenge as this is the first time I’ve really worked and lived in my second language. I’m doing fine with it as I’ve been told that I’m far more advanced than many other Anglophone colleagues, and again, personal efforts to communicate make all the difference in people’s willingness to help you learn the “rules of the road”. I’m also organizing some lessons as I’d love to finally be able to get grammar and French writing under control.

The food and local views are much like what I found in Malawi – rice and meat with some form of light tomato or lemon sauce, bananas, plantains, and all the Fufu (cassava glop) you can eat. The city itself is pretty dirty and very dusty from the dry season in which we’re just in the middle. The infrastructure, as can be expected after years of political upheaval, is crap and I frequently come home to no electricity, no water, or both. I’m getting used to it, however, and have become way more relaxed about bathing habits and diversions (read: TV, computer, and other electronic funstuff). I also buy giant bottles of water to balance possible “outages”. I’ve got a few books on the go to compensate and it’s rather romantic reading by candlelight – though I’m sure the novelty will wear off in time.

I’ve also been asked to compete for a job in New York and am awaiting news on a Cambodian interview I had before leaving Jozi. I don’t know if I’d take the Cambodian position if offered as it’s quite nice to be on the same continent as many of my friends, but the NY job means working with the same organization (though in the public info division) and making heaploads more cash as well as an opportunity to finally see my friends and family back home in Canada! I like the job here, though, and there’s some talk of the ability to continue past my 4-month contract. We’ll see how it all goes and what comes my way.

In the meantime I’m enjoying the work and the life here so far. It’s weird to be on constant alert of potential political upheavals, but many Congolese are so tired of conflict that I get the impression that all will go well. Only time will tell, as they say.

I hope all is going well in your part of the world. Feel free to ease my loneliness with updates on your side. Much love and a peaceful coexistence to all.