The Wild, Wild East

September 5, 2007 - Kinshasa, DRC A few hours after my first visitor arrived in Kinshasa from Los Angeles, I took him to dinner at Chateau Margaux, one of the nicest restaurants in town.  We sat in the casual dining section, on the outdoor wood patio under a majestic, artfully lit tree.  We started with a bottle of beautiful red wine, and then dined on crisp green salads, moist risotto, flavorful lamb chops, creamy asparagus soup, and homemade breads and sorbets.  My friend commented that it was "just like L.A.", with an added hint of mosquito repellent gone astray from our hands to the dinner rolls. 

I hate L.A., and can't be there for more than two days.  I love Kinshasa, and can probably continue to do so indefinitely. Though fully aware of the hypocrisy of my comfortable expatriate life here, I don’t like to be reminded that mine is a life of relative privilege.  In one of the biggest hoodwinks of philanthropy, aid workers from the “First World” and their friends and family back home are all in mutual denial, reinforcing and clinging to the illusion that international aid is actually noble.  I was soon able to re-establish all noble pretensions of a development worker’s life: I departed a few days later on mission to North Kivu, visitor in tow.    

The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is experiencing a fragile peace after over a decade of incessant and brutal civil war. In North Kivu, located in the eastern part of the country, tensions between rebels, the Congolese government, and neighboring countries continue to be high.  Bordering on Rwanda and Uganda, and on the shores of the African Great Lakes, the area is a mishmash of Hutu, Tutsi, Ugandan, Rwandan, and Congolese loyalties and strongholds.  It is also rich in fertile soil, dense forests, gold, and diamonds. General Laurent Nkunda rules over some parts of this territory and occasionally launches campaigns to expand his area of authority.  Since infrastructure and governance within the country are weak, the North and South Kivu provinces have closer ties to their neighboring countries than with the rest of the DRC.  Consumables arrive from or via Uganda. Restaurateurs hail from Rwanda.  The language of commerce is Swahili, spoken in East Africa, and not Lingala, which is spoken in Kinshasa and Western Congo.  But the relationship between North Kivu and Rwanda and Uganda is an uneasy relationship.  As one Congolese colleague noted, it is like one of an old married couple: you are forced to live together, and you try to make do.  By day, moto-taxis are the most common form of transport and people bustle around the market, conducting business as usual.  After the sun sets, trucks of blue-helmeted UN peacekeepers patrol the streets.  UN peacekeepers are all out in full force at night. 

The landscape of North Kivu is as temperamental and haunting as its recent history of civil strife.  Goma, the provincial capital, sits by Lake Kivu and on the Rwandan border.  An active volcano lies to the immediate north.   A few months ago a Chinese girl fell into the volcano’s crater, and died a slow death from breathing in volcanic fumes while rescue teams looked on, unable to reach her. News of this bizarre death reached my parents in their carpeted Queens, NY living room. They called me the next day with warnings not to go near any Chinese-girl-eating volcanoes, though they didn’t mention a word about potential encounters with dangerous rebels.  After the last eruption in 2002, much of the rebuilding accomodated the relics of the volcanic destruction.  Streams of hardened lava serve as roads through town.  Low walls of lava rock demarcate land plots. The old lava flow reaches to the beautiful Lake Kivu, deceivingly tranquil but dangerous to swim in because of powerful gas pockets.    We bought tickets to hike the forbidden volcano, but by some unfortunate divine or maternal intervention my time in Goma was cut short by an opportunity for onward travel to my work destination.   Our free ride was a flight chartered by a team of election experts, on a twenty-seater plane with twenty-three passengers and twice as many bags. The two-man crew stood on the tarmac, hand calculating baggage weights for at least thirty minutes. The Russian pilot and plane had probably seen their best years in the Soviet ‘60s. The cabin door had to be opened and re-closed four times before the pilot felt safe enough to take off. 

One hour later, we landed on an airstrip of packed red earth in Butembo. Butembo is located just north of the Equator from Goma, at the foothills of the Rift Valley.  The security situation in this lively market town, a major commercial center of North Kivu, is so tenuous that it has been mostly abandoned by national government and foreign businesses.  Only a handful of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) remain.  Private generators create limited electricity; the town does not have enough funding to pay the security premiums companies demand to fix the defunct hydroelectric plant.  Wide unpaved streets become rivers of thick red mud during the rainy season.   With surprising success given insecurity and limited resources, residents’ initiative and personal pocketbooks maintain some order in Butembo.

I had been sent to Butembo on mission for our Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration (DDR) program.  Our program focuses on the reintegration part.  Ex-combatants and members of the community work side by side for pay to re-build a stretch of road.  Ex-combatants then each receive a bicycle to help them demobilize, and to commute to the training center.  They each choose a skill to be trained in – e.g., carpentry, animal husbandry, tailoring, and baking. Upon completion of training each participant receives a starter kit for his or her new career path.  You’ll ask me how we know that our participants have in fact gone on to start their new vocations instead of selling their bicycles or four goats for instant money.  I wish I had a better answer for you.  This is one question I personally struggle with, but follow-up is beyond the scope of the mandate and funding from our donors.  The lack of monitoring and evaluation plagues many development projects, and is a fundamental flaw in foreign aid.  

I had zero to negative expertise in livestock purchasing, baker training, or general ex-combatant rehabilitation.  My role in all this?  The money mule. To purchase all these post-training reintegration kits, we needed money.  In the DRC the banking system is unreliable or non-existent outside of Kinshasa.  Therefore, we needed to bring the money for purchases with us from the capital. My boss carried about $100,000 USD in cash across the country in a leather satchel.  To account for what has been spent, someone like me was needed: completely unknowledgeable about market prices, where to buy things in town, the local language, or the quality of a sack of baker's flour, but willing to take on the unwelcome responsibility of carrying large sums of cash in an almost lawless land.  With me came a locally based colleague Jean-Baptiste, who did all the hunting, negotiating, quality control, and logistics. I just carried, counted, and paid out the money. 

The highest commonly circulated denomination of local currency is 500 Congolese francs, about $1. US dollars are freely used for any transaction over $7, but people are very particular about the bills they will accept.  Bills must be printed in the year 2000 or later.  They cannot have rips or be tattered. One-dollar bills are frequently rejected.  

Many of my days consisted of counting out random sums like $7,368.23 in a mix of USD and Congolese francs.  I then handed the stack over to a colleague to verify that the new USD bills were not sticking together.  Then the store clerk counted the money, and thoroughly examined each bill in the light to see whether it was in an acceptable state of health.  I went through this process at each of the twenty places I visited in a day in order to buy the twenty different things needed for one type of rehabilitation starter kit. We only had one week to complete all the purchasing for about 800 kits.  We started to run low on money and my supervisor put in a request for an additional $20,000 from Kinshasa.  He did this reluctantly, for good reason:  anyone seen coming out of a transfer office is an easy target for robbers, and the money was given to us in five dollar bills which had to be verified and re-verified by all parties.  

I was in charge of the kits for the following vocations: hairdresser, baker, and tailor.  I also put in a few stops for animal husbandry, carpentry, and masonry. Each day I ran around town very visibly unloading large amounts of cash, quite possibly the only Chinese female present for many kilometers in all directions.  Soon Jean-Baptiste and I had an unhealthy following of two boys who suspiciously popped up anywhere we went offering to lead us to the best deal for our next purchase. We finally were able to lose them by day three, but I kept wondering when the rebel militia lurking outside town would finally come to extract their tribute.  

By the end of my mission, I had handed out 300 bicycles to ex-combatants.  I bought and distributed 720 goats and sheep at the veterinary station, which also served as a butchering ground.  I negotiated for planks of wood at the lumberyard.  I picked up fifty sacks of flour in a ratty truck (to the great astonishment of other Congolese walking around, who yelled at the driver for putting a foreigner in an old car).  I asked after and even learned something about the quality of various sharp instruments such as machetes, tile cutters, and razors.  I stopped by to see the ironsmith who made metal waffle presses over a fire in a straw shack in his front yard, and was falling behind on our constantly growing order.  I often felt a sensation akin to that of the several times I've visited a large investment bank’s trading floor, when an unknown female presence enters into a testosterone heavy world of traders or lumberjacks, butchers, metalworkers, ex-combatants.  Stranger still was my dynamic with the younger male ex-combatants, some of whom are now barely 17 years old and tried to act extra tough and manly. They probably were in the trenches at the ages of twelve or thirteen.   There are even younger soldiers but they are not part of our program, and work instead with an NGO dedicated solely to child soldiers.  

Only upon returning to Kinshasa two days ago did I recognize what a peculiar position I had been in, and not just because of my strange identity as a young Chinese-American female.  While I had been in North Kivu, the security problems in the province had been quickly escalating.  Upon arrival in Butembo on a Sunday, I had insisted we go out dancing.  The next morning a co-worker told me that at 10pm that very Sunday night four people had been shot on a nearby street by either a military man or a rebel member, for no known reason.  I had wanted to go see the silverback gorillas in their natural habitat, about thirty minutes outside Butembo, but had no time to spare in the busy work schedule.  The day I returned to Kinshasa, I received news that the national park in which the gorillas live had been taken over by the rebel forces led by General Nkunda, to the great alarm of conservationists; more killings of the already depopulated gorillas are likely to occur.  I went with my visitor to a farm on the road between Goma and Butembo, about 1.5 hours outside of town.  We stocked up on veal, cured ham, home made cheeses, fresh honey and jams, and ate a home-made meal in a cozy room overlooking a tranquil landscaped garden.  On the way there we saw a man with a bandage across his face, covering a scar left by a machete slashing. 

In Noth Kivu, everyone is disillusioned with Joseph Kabila, the Swahili-speaking president from the East who had the full support of this part of the country ten short months ago during the expensive and optimistic October 2007 national elections.  Many people I talked to in Goma and Butembo said that Kabila has done nothing for them or about the rebels, and they will never vote for him again.  Some told me they want to vomit whenever they hear his name.  No-one has been certain whether the government troops or the rebel forces are in power over the past few days.  Killings, such as the one that occurred the Sunday night I went out dancing in Butembo, are attributed at times to national military, at times to ex-combattants, depending on who is telling the story.  In Kinshasa, everyone assumes the national government censors the news, and reportage about the renewed violence is minimal.  One Kinshasa newspaper announced the death of a prominent political figure one day, just to recant their story the following day.  Kinois and much of the country rely instead on "Radio Trottoir" – “sidewalk radio”, or word of mouth -- which is often surprisingly quick and reliable in mood if not in nuance.  

This past Sunday, BBC reported that General Nkunda claimed the region was in a state of war.  Is this really what life in the midst of violent rebellion is like?  People go about their business in normal fashion by day, ear to the trottoir for news.  One part of the brain keeps stock of the latest number of killings from the night before, the number of villages abandoned, or how many kilometers outside of town the fighting is now taking place; the other side of the brain tracks how much a sack of sugar costs in today's market – not surprisingly, prices are volatile.  (An estimated 170,000 people have been displaced from and within North Kivu this year. I purchased 50 kilograms of sugar at around $43, wholesale price.) I can't pretend to know the feel and look of war based just on my short sheltered trip to Butembo.  Do I hope, dare I hope that one day someone will visit Butembo, sit in a nice restaurant, and be able to say for a fleeting moment: "This is just like L.A.!"?