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Back From the Congo

abstract:Many of you have been asking about my trip to the Democratic Republic of Congo. The purpose for the trip was to gather photos and essay material for a coffee table-style book on Katanga, the southern-most province of the DRC. Here are a few thoughts and accompanying photos. The photographer on the project was Roger Moore.

article:

June 25, 2006

Part 1 of a 3-part series

The Democratic Republic of Congo, formerly Zaire, is located on the equator in the center of the African continent and is bordered on the south by Angola and Zambia, on the east with Tanzania, Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda and shares a northern border with the Sudan, the Central African Republic, and the Republic of Congo.

Katanga Province

Katanga Province (pink) is an area rich in history and mineral significance that is poised for change. President Joseph Kabila is deemed to be managing to hold the country together politically, and UN forces (the largest anywhere in the world) are determined to keep remaining rebels from stirring up trouble.

There is a new Constitution. The interim democratic government awaits its first free election in a few short weeks. Multinational companies are streaming in to establish businesses. Trade agreements are being negotiated, and the governement promises to comply with World Bank transparency requirements for aid.

There is a sense of renewed hope among the people for a better life, a chance to fight poverty, to re-build infrastructure and slowly climb out of 30 years of a decline that eroded since the previous colonial governance under Belgium. In as little as three to five years the places I visited will be changed forever.

Preparing For The Trip

Reading the information bulletins online before departure at government sources was not encouraging. They served to alarm my family and cause my usually OCD husband to go into overdrive on precautions. I had the biggest mosquito net, the fattest first aid kit, and the most comprehensive medical evacuation coverage, protective footwear (which I wasn’t wearing at the time of the cobra encounter) and the list goes on.

 

Government websites all said something along the lines of, “Travel to the DRC at this time is not advised,” or “if travel to the DRC is required you must take the following precautions…” They site roaming bands of armed rebels, reports of violence, rape and killings. There is the ever-present risk of a particularly virulent strain malaria in the area where I was headed, along with occasional outbreaks of cholera.

 

You are warned not to drink the water or even rinse your toothbrush. Not to have ice-cubes in your drink. Not to eat food that has not been rinsed with clean water. Not to go in bodies of water or rivers because of parasites – water is strictly verboten unless it comes in a brand-name sealed bottle. 

 

Next, you are not to go outside without long shirt sleeves and pants, and slathered in >50% Deet bug spray after dark, when the female Anopheles is out. It is recommended you close windows and screens and spray the room with insecticide each night, and use a bug repellent-soaked mosquito bed net. 

 

Malaria is the leading cause of death and disease worldwide. A child dies from malaria in Africa every 30 seconds (Center for Disease Control.) An eradication program was started in the ‘50s but failed because of resistance in the mosquitoes to insecticides, and resistance in the parasites of infected people to the drugs – plus the program was never wide-spread in Africa. (The Constant Gardener brought malaria to the mainstream conscience better than any recent media or organized effort.)

 

There are two well known medications to take for malaria prevention.  One has a high propensity to cause paranoia and halucinations, Mefloquine (brand name Lariam ™.) The other more commonly used drug is Atovaquone/proguanil (brand name Malarone ™.) 

The drugs do not prevent initial infection through a mosquito bite, but they prevent the development of malaria parasites in the blood, which are the forms that cause disease. This type of prevention is in fact "suppression." This is why you must take the meds a few days before and after your trip. 

 

Malaria was evident in every village hospital and clinic we visited. The majority of patients were either there to have their baby, or there to have their malaria-suffering baby treated. Many of the locals we met told us they were either recovering from a bout of malaria, or coming down with the cyclical flu-like symptoms.

It is routine for people to have to take time-off from work because of this. Those that can afford and get to treatment get through symptoms relatively rapidly. It is a fact of life.  If you live in the Congo, or anywhere in Africa where malaria is endemic, you will contract it.

There is no way to take the drugs long-term. Those are for short-term stay tourists. Even the international executives that we met who travel to the DRC for extended periods do not bother to take the meds.  If you are staying longer than two weeks, you can begin to get sores in your mouth and other side-effects, and people finally stop taking the meds.

Life in the Congo

Despite the disease and tragic sounding scenarios one must be attuned to the people to see they are any sort of distress.  It is remarkable to note that we did not encounter a single crying child anywhere in Africa. After that realization I began to wonder why? 

Every child or toddler is carried on its mother’s back in a sling arrangement of colorful fabric that matches the mother’s skirt; they are visually and figuratively a unit. In addition to the live burden on their backs, these women will often carry huge loads, of all manner of things, on their heads and walk with such erect posture and such a graceful cadence to their gait they have the poise of a dancer. 

They carried loads of sticks of wood for fuel, huge sacks of maise, jugs of water, baskets of fruit and other foods, and piles of charbon de bois or charcoal for cooking fires. Everything is carried on their heads or strapped to the back of a bike, or piled impossibly high on transport trucks, which also are loaded with animals and people.

 

The second most common form of transportation is the bicycle. The Congo version, remarkabley, has no brakes. Since we had arrived at the end of the rainy season when the elephant grass is 10’ tall on both sides of the narrow, sometimes paved roads—the people literally have to go careening off the road into the elephant grass to avoid being struck by the speeding trucks and cars. Watching them wobble on their bikes precipitously close to traffic as they attempt to control their bikes at the loud beeps of oncoming cars took some getting used to. I was in continual fear for their safety, and indeed we witnessed two pedestrian/cyclist auto accidents.

 

The roads in the Congo are another subject all together. In the city of Lubumbashi there are the remnants of colonial-style paved wide boulevards and roundabouts. But years of economic decline from the Mobutu era have left them in shambles.

The National Highway between Lubumbashi and another main city Kolwesi, is a convoluted washboard with 500-yard stretches of partial pavement that has eroded to a thin strip that only one side of your car can travel on, the other set of wheels are two feet lower on the irregular dirt surface.  You are driving on an angle the whole distance.

 

Our driver was skilled at speeding for the 60 seconds of good road, and breaking to a near-halt when a dry-rutted washed-out area came up, then switching sides of the road to oncoming traffic and back, where ever it appeared to be modestly smoother. Driving in the Congo is a constant game of weaving between pedestrians, cyclists and decent stretches of road.

 

We had three flat tires, and I cursed the suspension (of both the car and my bra!) after bouncing along for hours each day. The whole trip was spent on the road.  We turned that car into the rental shop with a mechanical list of difficulties encountered: no brake fluid, no suspension, no grease on the bearings, fuel filter clogged with dust, no air in the spare tire, (hence an emergency rescue after dark on a road with known bandits.) And it takes a 4” thick!! wad of Congolese bank notes to fill your tank with petrol. 

 

But complaints about the road aside, the countryside is very beautiful. Ochre dirt, lush (at that time) foliage, wild flowers 10 feet high, stands of agriculture of banana, casava, maise, beans dotting the landscape close to villages that appear every few miles along the way.

We flew over spectacular waterfalls and rivers, dams and open savana dotted with huge termite hills where the pilot said ten years earlier he would have guaranteed his passengers a siting of 2,000 antelope and 200 elephant. No where did we see any African wildlife.  It has all been killed and eaten during the war of 1998 – 2002 by soldiers with machine guns and hungry villagers afraid to harvest their own fields.

History

The BBC has an excellent timeline of events in the DRC.

It can broadly be divided into 4 time periods:

  • Pre Colonial
  • Colonial Rule
  • Independence & the Mobutu Years '64 - '97
  • New Constitution, Democratic Rule

The history of the Congo is not dis-similar to the rest of nations in Africa. The continent was divided into colonial regions in 1884-5 at the Berlin Conference. Austria-Hungary, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Russia, Spain, Sweden-Norway (unified from 1814-1905), Turkey, and the United States of America all took part in the process.

The impact of colonialism on the continent continued until the 1950's when one-by-one African nations began the process of independence. Ironically many of them faced the same, roughly 30-year, autocratic rule by sometimes despotic and kleptocratic governements, which further hampered their economic viability and progress away from third world conditions for the people.

 

Links & Resources

The CIA World Fact Book on the DRC

BBC News Country Profile: DRC

CDC - Center for Disease Control: Malaria

 

 

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