THE LIGHT WAS STILL FRAGILE AT SIX IN THE MORNING. PASCAL Rukengwa had to get used to the silence in his native village. What a difference with Kinshasa! Bushumba was thirty-five kilometers (about twenty-two miles) from Bukavu; this was his home region, this was where he came from, and even though he had lived for years in the frenetic capital, this was where he would vote. For the first time. Pascal was forty-two. The last time there had been free elections in his country, he was one year old. “I’m voting for life,” he said, “to be able to live. This act is a new beginning.”1
He saw how busy it was already. At this early hour there were rows of people waiting in front of the polling place. Some of them had spent the night in front of the door.2 This was not a Sunday like any other. Mamans had put on their best pagnes. Some men wore ties and spit-shined shoes. Teenagers were showing off their mirrored sunglasses. Young women had had new extensions braided into their hair. Patiently they stood in line, holding their orange polling cards.
Pascal Rukengwa had no time for pride or sentimentality, but in a way this was his day too. This was what he had been pushing for for years. He was one of the twenty-one members of the CEI, the national electoral committee that had organized the enormously complex voting process. “All hope was focused on us, but we had to learn everything as we went along. Sometimes I felt like a stranger in the jungle, where an animal could come along and tear you apart [at] any moment. Wasn’t all this hope out of proportion to our capacities? At some places people had never even seen a computer.” The United States and the European Union provided massive financial support. At almost half a billion dollars, the largest part of it from Europe, these were to be the biggest and most expensive elections ever organized by the international community.3
Pascal looked around. Around the country, fifty thousand polls were opening their doors at this very same moment. Forty thousand observers from home and abroad were keeping an eye on things.4 During the last few months, a quarter of a million polling officials had crossed the country, providing the people with information.5 The ballot boxes had been taken by helicopter, truck, and motorbike to the remotest corners of Congo. At some spots in the jungle, they even went by canoe or were carried by porters.
But today it was happening. Sixteen million people descended on the polling places, refugees even left their plastic huts. Pascal’s background was in South Kivu’s société civile, the congeries of nongovernmental organizations. “Free elections, that was the most urgent desire of the Sovereign National Conference. For the people it was transformed into a magic moment, but for me it was a day full of stress. A pregnant woman waiting in line fainted, and the closest hospital was ten kilometers [about six miles] away. A child became unwell and then died. I kept driving back and forth. That day I didn’t have a single moment to myself. But honestly, I had no idea that the people attached so much importance to choosing their leaders.”
Despite a few minor incidents, the voting took place with great dignity. In the polling places—often nothing more than a larger hut—the voters were handed the necessary forms. The ballot card for the presidential election listed thirty-two names. Joseph Kabila was among them, of course, alongside Jean-Pierre Bemba and Azarias Ruberwa, the rebel leaders who had been made vice presidents. Antoine Gizenga was on it as well, the man who had once served as deputy prime minister under Patrice Lumumba. And Nzanga Mobutu, the son of. In addition one had Pierre Pay Pay, the former director of the national bank and Oscar Kashala, a physician who had come back to Congo from America. The ballot card for the parliament was a good deal more complicated. There were ten thousand candidates for five hundred seats in the house, divided over more than two hundred and fifty political parties. The form consisted of six large sheets of paper with a passport photo of each candidate beside the name; one-third of the country, after all, was illiterate. Little old ladies asked officials to cross off “Monsieur Sept” (Mr. Seven) for them. That was Kabila, whose Parti du Peuple pour la Reconstruction et la Démocratie (PPRD) had been placed seventh on the ballot list.
When the polls closed, the counting began. Wherever possible that took place on the spot, to avoid ballot-box fraud, although that meant things were not always simple. “We had no electricity,” Pascal Rukengwa said, “and the flashlights they had given us didn’t work. There was no money to buy candles, but the people went off looking for them. We handled things ourselves. At some of the polling places the people actually slept beside the ballot boxes, to make sure nothing went wrong.”
The image of brave citizens counting votes by candlelight in a hut, often after having eaten nothing all day, is intensely moving. The image of fatigued men and women sleeping with their arms around a sealed ballot box, as though it were a shrine or a child, can leave no one unmoved. The elections’ biggest winner was the common Congolese man and woman.6 Before sunup the next day, many of the counts had already been phoned or texted through to the computing centers. The miracle had taken place.
Pascal Rukengwa flew back to Kinshasa. On August 20, 2006, three weeks after the elections, the definitive results were announced. None of the many thousands of observers had reported any large-scale fraud, and the surprising outcome seemed to confirm that: no one had an absolute majority. Kabila took 45 percent of the votes, Bemba 20 percent. Coming in third with 13 percent was old Gizenga, a man who had not campaigned but relied on his historical aura. Pascal: “The electoral returns led to enormous frustration: Bemba knew he hadn’t won and Kabila realized that he was not a shoo-in. There was a lot of shooting in the city. The Bemba supporters focused all their rage on Kabila and on us. They suspected the CEI of partisanship, while we were actually amazed that Bemba had raked in so many votes! We had to meet in a basement. I wasn’t sure I would be alive at the end of the day. The Mission de l’Organisation des Nations Unies au Congo (MONUC) tanks took us to the public broadcasting station to announced the official results. I sat on the floor, between the soldiers’ legs. It was an old tank, it had trouble starting. They actually make a sound like a huge diesel generator, did you know that?”
The election results showed that a striking fault line ran through the electorate. Kabila had won in the east of the country. In provinces such as North Kivu, South Kivu, Maniema and Katanga, he achieved Stalinist scores of more than 90 percent (of up to 98.3 percent in Maniema and Katanga). Hardly remarkable, though, when one realizes that he himself came from the east and was seen there as l’artisan de la paix (the crafter of peace), the man who had stopped the war. Bemba triumphed in those western provinces not directly affected by the war (Bas-Congo, Kinshasa, Bandundu) and his own Équateur. The fault line corresponded roughly with the border between Lingala-speaking and Swahili-speaking Congo. For a time, people feared for a macroethnic conflict.
The day after the results were announced, Kabila’s guards fired on Bemba’s residence in Kinshasa, by their own account after being provoked by his bodyguards. What they didn’t know was that Bemba was at home at that moment, in a meeting with virtually all the major Comité International d’Accompagnement à la Transition (CIAT) ambassadors. The shooting went on for hours; Bemba’s private helicopter was destroyed. The skirmish came to an end after an intervention by the MONUC and EUFOR, the European peacekeeping force.
Calm was restored, however, and the second round of the presidential elections was held in a largely peaceful atmosphere on October 29. As is usual in such second rounds, the number-one candidate made a deal with number three. Kabila promised to appoint Gizenga prime minister in exchange for his following. He also won the support of number four, Nzanga Mobutu, who was given the post of minister of agriculture. Mobutu Jr.’s conversion to the presidential fold was portentous; he came from Équateur, which was Bemba’s province as well. Kabila’s cartel, the Alliance pour la Majorité Présidentielle (AMP), now housed both his own PPRD and Gizenga and Mobutu’s parties. Truth can be stranger than fiction: that the son of mzee Kabila was now cutting deals with the son of Marshal Mobutu probably caused more than one ancestor to turn over in his grave. It was as though the children of Churchill and Hitler had banded together to form a political party.
Kabila took 58 percent of the votes, Bemba 42. On December 6, 2006, two days past his thirty-fifth birthday and newly married, Kabila was inaugurated as the Congo’s first democratically elected president since Joseph Kasavubu. With that, the Third Republic finally became a fact. Mobutu had heralded the end of the Second Republic in April 1990, but the transition to a new political system had taken more than sixteen years, sixteen years of hunger, poverty, war, and death, sixteen years of despair and hopelessness.
WERE THINGS REALLY GOING TO CHANGE? From day one, many in Kinshasa were skeptical. Kabila considered himself the candidate of the Western world. Although the elections had proceeded correctly by all accounts, the people of Kinshasa, the Kinois, remembered all too well how Louis Michel, then European commissioner of development cooperation and a former Belgian minister of foreign affairs who was extremely active in Central Africa, how this “big Loulou” with his cigar and his pats on the back and his guffaws, how this man, who for many Congolese had been the very epitome of the always-elusive “international community,” had said on TV in a less guarded moment that Kabila represented “the hope for Congo.”
Abbé José Mpundu, the highly acute cleric who had helped organized the March of Hope, was quite scornful. “From 1990 to 1995 I fought for elections that would not be like the charade we got this time. It was a parody, orchestrated by the international politico-financial Mafia! I wanted to vote for Tshisekedi, but he had relegated himself to the sidelines, so I just voted for Bemba. They let us play a bit part. It was one big, worthless Mafia gambit. For a lot of money, the international community bought itself the president it preferred; we would have been better off passing the hat around to finance the elections and building our own ballot boxes. At least then they would have been our own.”
Abbé Mpundu’s extremely critical comments were not all the exception in the capital. Electoral commissioner Pascal Rukengwa came from the east, where the people had voted en masse for Kabila. On December 6 he was present at the inauguration, but he was not impressed by what he saw. Of course, there were lots of important guests, lots of heads of state. And yes, Tshala Muana had sung beautifully. But everything seemed to be organized so amateurishly. “There weren’t enough seats. People had to stand outside in the sun for hours. I was invited to the dinner, but it was a complete chaos. The room was full of people who hadn’t been invited, so I couldn’t get in. It wasn’t organized very well, it wasn’t very professional.” Those were only details, of course, but Pascal found the day’s substance fairly dubious too. Western observers were pleased with the president’s speech. Hadn’t he spoken powerfully about “the five building sites,” les cinq chantiers, of national reconstruction? Wasn’t that a reference to infrastructure, water and electricity, education, employment, and health care? And hadn’t he literally said that “the recess was now over”?
Pascal wasn’t so sure: “I had no faith in it. That story about the five building sites, I thought that was rather childish. If a government doesn’t address those essential tasks, then what is it there for? He wasn’t on the campaign trail anymore, was he? As far as I was concerned, the recess was still going on. It was the same hesitant, immobile man. But looking back on it now, I can only conclude that I was being too positive about the whole thing.”7
HOW TO DESCRIBE CONGO on the eve of the Third Republic? Statistics, percentages, and figures are not enough. The world reveals itself in crumbs and grains of sand. How to describe this vast area?
By saying that it was a fertile country where many ate only once every two days? That countless of its people suffered from hemorrhoids due to an imbalanced diet of manioc? That people who had no money to buy hemorrhoid salve, if it was there to be bought at all, simply treated themselves with cheap, imported toothpaste? Yes, good friends of mine have told me that. Cuts were treated with brake fluid, burns with vaginal fluid. They shined their shoes with a free condom; the lubricant made the leather glisten. Women who wanted fatter buttocks, they said, inserted a bouillon cube in their vagina. Others gave themselves enemas of beef extract.
How to describe a country? A country that was not a state but still had more than half a million civil servants, older men and women who didn’t enter retirement because that didn’t exist and so just kept going to the office, amid file cabinets brimming over with moldy, termite-ridden files, hoping for a smattering of wages and dreaming of a bit of good governance.8 In a patient hand they filled out endless forms and treated the civil service hierarchy with great awe; just because a state exists only on paper does not mean it is unreal, on the contrary. In Bunia, a letter had to make its way across seventeen different desks before receiving a reply.9 In Boma I met a city librarian without a library.
How to describe a country? Through the jungle of Équateur there walked a man, leading a pig. He was on his way to his village along the Congo River. When he got there he would wait until a boat came by, which happened about once a month. If such a boat came by—they were more like floating villages with a market square, courthouse, and menagerie on board—he would paddle out to it to sell his hefty pink yearling to the crew or to the passengers who hung shouting over the railing. But the river was still far away, two hundred and fifty kilometers (155 miles) from here. He walked through the jungle in solitude, for three whole weeks, sometimes toting his pig, sometimes letting it walk at the end of its rope. At night he slept beside the animal. The river was far away, so terribly far away. And all he had on his feet were flip-flops.10
THE TASK KABILA SET OUT TO PERFORM was anything but simple. Manfully, he dictated: “There will be punctuality, and discipline. I will take up matters again with determination and regain 100 percent control of the situation.”11 The new constitution, in any event, provided a well-thought-out system of checks and balances. Congo was neither presidential nor parliamentarian, but something in between (the head of state did appoint the prime minister, but parliament could taken legal steps against them both in the event of high treason). Congo was neither unitarian nor federalist, but something in between (the provinces were smaller but received more powers and funding). Congo had a new parliament and senate (the former chosen directly, the latter through the provincial councils). And a constitutional court was set up, with extensive powers to settle conflicts between the prime minister and the president. This complex construction was intended to keep too much power from collecting in the hands of one and the same branch of government.
For the parliament and cabinet, there was little danger of that. The house of representatives was highly fragmented: its five hundred members represented no fewer than seventy parties, plus an additional sixty-four one-man parties. The two largest ones, Kabila’s and Bemba’s, held only 175 seats, but even they were internally fragmented. The cabinet was an obese monstrosity with some sixty ministers, not because there was so much to arrange, but because there was so many to mollify. (Later the cabinet team would shrink to forty-five posts, still twice as many as in Lumumba’s cabinet in 1960.) At first, eighty-one-year-old Prime Minister Gizenga received great acclaim, but soon his status proved more antiquarian than alive. One of his ministers was dubbed with the unusual title ofminister près le Premier ministre. A minister in proximity to the prime minister? In actual practice, the good man was charged with keeping the prime minister awake during meetings.
In late January 2007, after less than two months, a clear indication was seen of the new political culture. The provincial councils had to elect their provincial governors, and the results, to put it mildly, ran contrary to expectations. The PPRD, Kabila’s party, won eight of the nine provinces, even in places where it had not made a dent in the parliamentary elections—Équateur was the only province with a governor owing allegiance to Bemba. The country had been sprinkled generously with bribes: afterward, candidates who failed to be elected even went so far as to publicly demand a refund on their boodle.12 Provincial council members eventually admitted to taking bribes. In Bas-Congo this fraud created so much bad blood that rioting broke out. Few inhabitants felt like having one of Kabila’s flunkies at the head of their glorious province. Bundu-dia-Kongo, a religious-political movement of ethnic bent that had championed the rights of the Bakongo even in Mobutu’s day, called for public protest. The movement dreamed of restoring to its former glory the historic Kongo Empire, which had once reached from Angola to Congo-Brazzaville. During demonstrations at Moanda, Boma, and Matadi, there was massive rioting: ten policemen were killed and the army opened fire on the demonstrators. The final toll: 134 fatalities.
In March 2007 Kabila once again chose the path of violence. As vice president during the 1 + 4 regime, Bemba had had a right to a private militia. Now that he was a mere senator, however, he refused to disband his corps of guards. There was no way, of course, that he could continue to avail himself of a little army of five hundred freebooters. But after the attack on his house in August, he—not without reason—feared for his safety. With his Garde Républicaine, after all, Kabila still had a private army of no less than fifteen thousand troops, an elite corps he had assembled during the transitional period. On March 21, on Boulevard du 30 Juin, the city’s busiest arterial, Kabila’s men opened fire. For three days Kinshasa was in a state of paralysis. Office buildings and embassies had been hit by mortars. Bodies lay scattered about on rotundas. A storage tank for fuel exploded in flames. More than three hundred, perhaps as many as five hundred, were killed. Afterward the presidential services arrested and tortured an additional 125 persons, most of them from Équateur. Dozens were murdered.13 Bemba himself, despite the international warrant out for his arrest, fled to Portugal. He figured that his senatorial immunity would protect him. But in May 2008 he was arrested in Brussels and handed over to the International Criminal Court in The Hague, where at the time of this writing he is still awaiting trial.
“There shall be discipline,” Kabila had said. His violent actions in August, January, and March, however, did not bode well. It reminded many of the way Mobutu, immediately after his coup, had four cabinet ministers hanged to underscore his authority. Kabila’s Garde République also reminded people of the former DSP and his intelligence services of those maintained by Mobutu. But was there any substance to that? Perhaps the truth was all much more tragic, much more banal. In all three cases the incidents had followed upon skirmishes that got out of hand and ended inadvertently in a bloodbath. Kabila could hardly admit it of course, but what these incidents were, in fact, was proof that he had no control over his troops, not even his own elite troops, rather than any demonstration of active malice on his part. Mobutu had wanted to show that he was a powerful figure with powerful principles; Kabila had to hide the fact that he was a weak figure surrounded by feeble institutions.
But there was no hiding: soon enough, Kinshasa was buzzing with rumors that Kabila was hooked on cocaine—no, that he spent the whole day playing with his Nintendo—no, that he had been shot and wounded and that was why he showed his face so rarely. People went looking for the wildest explanations for the inefficacy they saw. “Après les élections = avant les elections” (after the elections = before the elections) they mumbled, a sarcastic nod to the situation at independence in 1960. His popularity plummeted, even in the east of the country. Only rarely did one see him smile; rarely did he appear in public. Only now and then did he appear on television: seated at his desk like a stony sphinx, he would read aloud an announcement.
But still, at the start of the Third Republic, a new élan could be noted here and there. The huge, unwieldy parliament voted on fifteen laws during the first ten months of its existence, called sixteen ministers to account, set up eight investigative committees, and discussed a budget. An investigation was started into reported corruption and unlawful mining contracts.14 The new spirit became even more tangible in Lubumbashi, where the public spaces were given an impressive face-lift. The holes in the asphalt were repaired, playgrounds and school were renovated, sixteen hundred garbage containers were placed around the city, and a public sanitation service was set up.15 When I arrived there in June 2007, workers were busy checking and repairing streetlights and pruning trees along the city center’s long, straight streets.
This was, however, invariably the work of a few energetic individuals. That parliament seemed to be getting down to brass tacks was thanks to its dynamic speaker, Vital Kamerhe, one of the president’s confidants who understood the art of concisely paraphrasing interminable debates and leading the way to a decision. Katanga once again showed initiative thanks to Moïse Katumbi, a flamboyant businessman who combined cunning with populism and remaining unconditionally loyal to le grand chef in Kinshasa. Kabila needed such dynamic figures to convince the people that his five workplaces were coming along well, but at the same time he made sure their popularity did not exceed his own. New elections, after all, were to be held in 2011. When the widely popular parliamentary speaker Kamerhe openly criticized Kabila’s military operations in the east of the country in January 2009, he was forced to resign and the regime lost one of its more intelligent players. Since that time, Katanagan governor Katumbi has—by his standards—been strikingly quiet. His voluntaristic approach had initially served to illustrate the disadvantages of highly personalized government. In June 2007 I saw that the general hospital at Lubumbashi had recently installed two brand-new coolers in its morgue and acquired a truck for picking up corpses. Don de Moïse (donated by Moïse) was painted in huge block letters on the sides of both. Generous, to be sure. But the hospital itself, the country’s second largest, had not had a drop of running water for the last four years.16 Patients going to the toilet had to first wade through a four-centimeter (1.6-inch) thick layer of dreck and piss. I saw it with my own eyes.
The elections cost a ghastly amount of money and generated great expectations, but before long people began concluding that the results had been quite meager. In keeping with age-old custom, the members of parliament bumped up their own monthly salaries—to forty-five hundred dollars in 2007 and then to six thousand dollars in 2008—and bestowed upon themselves and their secretary chairperson shiny new Nissan Patrols: it was one of the few agenda points that met with a little dissent.17 “I don’t get it,” a Kinois told me once. “During the campaign all those candidates looked us straight in the eye, but the first thing they do after being elected is to have themselves driven around in a four-wheel-drive with tinted windows so they don’t have to see us anymore.” As a result, important dossiers like military reform, governmental decentralization, and legal reforms remained untouched, with all the consequences one might imagine.
At the hospital in Lubumbashi I was introduced to Luc, a handsome young man. He was confined to a wheelchair. Nine months earlier he had been arrested one night while trying to steal a roll of electrical wire. In the absence of formal jurisdiction, Congo is marked everywhere by kangaroo courts. The crowd avenged itself on Luc by dousing his hands and feet with gasoline. He watched himself burn. His left foot, his right foot, his left hand. A few months later he went to the toilet and saw his right hand fall off. All he has left now is a thumb. He cannot operate his own wheelchair. And the judicial system is still a farce.
With the cabinet, things went no differently. In October 2008 Kabila replaced soporific Prime Minister Gizenga with Adolphe Muzito, who had previously been his minister of the treasury: a well-behaved, harmless man who has in the meantime done nothing in particular to distinguish himself, beyond accumulating some suspicions of corruption. With a few celebrated exceptions, most of the cabinet ministers proved equally indisposed to action. And why should they act? To display initiative was to risk falling from grace and losing a lucrative post (as happened in late February 2010, when Kabila once again reshuffled his cabinet team and invited twenty new notables to join him at the banquet table). Besides, real policy was established elsewhere, within the president’s own closest circles. In the Third Republic, true power did not rest with the country’s democratic institutions, but with a handful of the president’s most trusted advisers, including his mother and his twin sister. The real policymakers are often those like Augustin Katumba Mwanke, who owes more to his years of loyal service to Kabila than to any charisma or competence. Concerning military affairs, for example, the most powerful man since 2009 has been John Numbi. He is not the defense minister or chief of staff of the national army, but inspector general of police and long one of the president’s favorites. He has had almost no military training.
Bright spots? Yes, a few. Until the international banking crisis in 2008, Congo’s currency had remained relatively stable: one dollar equaled some five hundred Congolese francs at that time, only to fall afterward to nine hundred to a dollar. Year after year the budget grew, but by 2010 it still added up to only $4.9 billion, comparable to the annual means of a medium-sized European city or half that of New York’s Columbia University in the course of a single academic year. Hardly enough to finance the reconstruction of a gigantic country in ruins. What’s more, half that sum is coughed up by international donors: a quarter of it goes to repaying the nation’s debts. GNP rose by a few percentage points annually, due largely to mining activities, but that too is marked by total dependence on foreign capital.18 In 2009 per capita GNP was $200, clearly higher than the $80 seen in 2000, but still a far cry from the $450 of 1960. To arrive at a par with the current level of neighboring Congo-Brazzaville ($4,250 annually, thanks to oil revenues), the population will have to wait until 2040, an internal document from the prime minister’s office said in February 2010. And that will only be achieved if one can assume consistent real growth of 13 percent annually and an unchanged population growth of 3 percent.19
In macroeconomic terms, therefore, slight progress is being seen, but such trends say nothing about the life of the common people. The Human Development Index, calculated by the United Nations each year for every country in the world, provides a much better view of citizens’ welfare than does per capita GNP; the index takes into account such things as the degree of literacy, education, health care, and life expectancy. In 2006 Congo found itself on the tenth lowest spot; in 2009 only five countries had a lower index score. Not a particularly propitious trend.20
Each year Foreign Policy magazine, along with the Fund for Peace, publishes the Failed States Index, a list of the world’s sixty most defective states. In 2009 Congo was number five, worse than Iraq, and two places up from 2007.21 After a period of slight improvement, Congo seems once again about to descend into chaos and mismanagement. The Doing Business Index for 2010 places Congo in 182nd place in a field of 183 countries: only the Central African Republic scored worse. Anyone hoping to start a business in Congo must count on reserving 149 workdays for administrative purposes. Obtaining a building permit easily takes 322 days. On an average, one pays taxes thirty times a year. The tax on profits equals almost 60 percent—money that never ends up with the common Congolese citizen.22
What that common Congolese citizen does end up with is disease. The infant mortality rate is one of the world’s highest: 161 out of every 1,000 children do not live to the age of five. One out of every three children under the age of five is underweight. Life expectancy at birth is forty-six years. Almost 30 percent of the population is illiterate, 50 percent of the children do not attend elementary school, 54 percent of the population has no access to clean drinking water.23
SO WHY DON’T THE PEOPLE RISE UP? Within an eighteen-month period, a government investigation revealed in 2007, some $1.3 billion disappeared into the pockets of three national financial institutions and six state-owned businesses.24 A dizzying sum, yet it produced no public outcry. Of the sixty mining contracts with international concerns such as Anvil Mining, De Beers, BHP Billington, AngloGold Kilo, and Tenke Fungureme Mining scrutinized by parliament under Kamerhe’s leadership, not one was shown to be sound.25 State-owned Gécamines in 2008 contributed only $92 million to the state treasury, rather than the $450 million the government was owed.26 The diamond mines of Bakwanga and the gold mines of Kilo-Moto provided almost no revenues. But public outrage? Belligerence? Fury? Given, there were a few incidental strikes by civil servants and teachers, but the common Congolese makes the best of a bad job and is almost ashamed of the hope he once cherished in the run-up to the elections. “Ca va un peu,” it goes, it goes, he will answer when you ask how things are going.
In November 2008 I talked about this with Alesh, a twenty-three-year-old rapper from Kisangani and one of the most promising figures in Congolese hiphop. Rap is a relatively new genre in Congo, but for Alesh it is a way to break through the lethargy. In his song “Bana Kin” he point an accusing finger at the deadening music scene in Kinshasa: “Your music is rich and shows us the tradition / but ethically speaking offers no contradiction.” Figures like Werrason and J. B. Mpiana had not roused the country from its slumber, even if their commercial ditties may have had some artistic value. Alesh viewed religion in equally nuanced terms: “I’ve got nothing against praying / But for them it was a mosquito net / That kept them tangled, deep in debt / like a spider’s web.” To talk to Alesh was to talk to a new, self-aware generation freed of colonial or postcolonial inferiority complexes. “We have to dare to criticize ourselves; too many dreams die because of a lack of hope,” he told me. In 2008 he recorded “L’élu,” a merciless song in which he reminds the elected representatives of their promises: “You add to the dissension, with all your condescension / you have all these pretentions, but the people long for your detention.”27
WERE THE ELECTIONS, THEN, nothing but a show, after all? A difficult question. For millions of citizens they were of undeniably great symbolic importance. The zeal with which people voted and counted showed that this was more than a pipe dream on the part of the international community. But the elections were more meaningful before and during the actual polling than they were afterward. The ritual was at least as important as the result. It was, after all, an illusion to hope that proper elections would immediately lead to a proper democracy. The West has been experimenting with forms of democratic administration for the last two and a half millennia, but it has been less than a century since it has started putting its faith in universal suffrage through free elections. How then could the West expect that particular method to magically transform a deep-rooted culture of corruption and clientelism into a democratic constitutional state in accordance with the Scandinavian model? And then in a region that, during its precolonial, colonial, and postcolonial eras, had known almost nothing but forms of autocratic rule? How naive would one have to be to suppose that it would all land on its feet after that initial electoral impulse? Democracy must be the objective—it is, after all, the least bad of all forms of government—but in Congo very little emphasis was laid on the vitally necessary steps along the road to a democratic system, or on the pace at which those steps were to be taken. In 1955 Jef Van Bilsen had predicted that thirty years would be needed for the switch from a colony to a sovereign state, but today the situation is in many ways worse than it was then. Free elections should not be the kickoff to a process of national democratization, but the crowning glory to that process—or at least one of the final steps. Peace, security, and education should go before, as well as local elections that can stimulate the formation of a grassroots culture of political accountability. In principle, the local elections should come first, but Kabila disdained and ignored them.
Western political experts often suffer from electoral fundamentalism, in the same way macroeconomists from the IMF and the World Bank not so long ago suffered collectively from market fundamentalism: they believe that meeting the formal requirements of a system is enough to let a thousand flowers bloom in even the most barren desert. Nobel Prize laureate Joseph Stiglitz, however, has clearly showed that “sequencing” and “pacing” are essential to the introduction of a market economy.28 One does not start cultivating the desert by first sowing the best of seed. The same goes for introducing a democracy.
With its enthusiastic attempt to install democracy once and for all in Congo by means of the formal electoral procedure, the international community has above all sidelined itself. Democracy was the aim, obscurantism the result. For, as the democratically elected president of a once-again sovereign country, Kabila was not about to tolerate any more foreign busybodies—after four years of patronization by the CIAT, he had had enough of that. To put it cynically: America and Europe paid enormous sums to gag themselves diplomatically in Congo. One can, of course, flourish promises of loans and attach to them preconditions for good governance (the new buzzword at the IMF and World Bank in particular, but the European Union is all-too-willing to hop on the same bandwagon), but why would an African head of state respond to such advances when China offers much more money and is far less cantankerous about what’s done with it?
Some political scientists claim, by way of hypothesis, that three or four elections are needed to make things go in the right direction. That one must not despair too soon. That it is normal for a country to sputter a bit after a cold start. Repeated elections can, indeed, generate a pattern of change in which responsibility is taken; leaders may ultimately feel called upon to consider governing well. But it can just as easily become a hollow ritual and one that provides autocratic regimes with a thin veneer of legitimacy. It is much too soon to decide whether such elections actually promote democracy in Congo. It should be noted, however, that in September 2009 Kabila—with an eye to the elections in 2011 and 2016—set up a commission to determine whether the term of presidential office should not be extended from five years to seven and whether the constitutional limit of two mandates should not be scrapped, making him permanently eligible for reelection.29 It should also be noted that in 2009 a number of human rights activists were arrested for their critical stances.30 One of the president’s bosom buddies (who didn’t know that I knew he was a bosom buddy) once told me casually during a lunch shortly before the elections: “As president, Mandela was much too Western; Mugabe and Mobutu, those were real African leaders.”
LATE NOVEMBER 2008. I was having a meal with two brothers, both young actor-directors, at a little Indian restaurant across the street from the MONUC base in Goma. We were sitting outside under the awning, waiting patiently for our food, when my phone rang. Tomorrow’s trip would have to be canceled, I heard, the driver had run into problems, his battery was dead or his tank was empty, no, no, it was all very complicated, there was no way I could help, he was very sorry and wished me a good evening.
“Ça va?” Sekombi, the older brother, asked when I snapped down the cover of my cell phone.
“No,” I said, “I was all set to meet with Nkunda tomorrow and now I hear that it’s not going to happen.”
I had arranged for a jeep, a driver, fuel, and a guide familiar with the rebel territory. That morning I had purchased my press accreditation at the Ministry of Communication and Media for a measly $250—the most expensive sheet of paper I’d ever bought—I’d had passport photos taken, I had gone by the State Security offices. I had told the MONUC officer in charge about my plans. And, most importantly: I had called the number-two man at Laurent Nkunda’s civil staff. It had not been easy to reach him in rebel territory, where there was almost no cell phone coverage, but the appointment had been made: tomorrow morning at nine he would meet me at the old mission post.
“You want us to drive you?” Sekombi interrupted my lament.
Sekombi and Katya, his younger and more taciturn brother, were solid folk. To run a cultural center for young artists in bullet-riddled, lava-ridden Goma, one had to be made of stern stuff. Their eldest brother, Petna, had set up the center. One month earlier, with rebel leader Nkunda at the city gates and Kabila’s Forces Armées de la République Démocratique du Congo (FARDC) looting the town, the Katondolo brothers’ cultural center had gone on imperturbably with its idiosyncratic film festival. But to venture into the theater of war with two actors? In that old, beat-up jeep of theirs?
“But do you two have the papers you need to get through?”
To find Nkunda we would have to pass three roadblocks manned by the FARDC, a few kilometers of no-man’s land, and then three roadblocks guarded by Nkunda’s Congrès National pour la Défense du Peuple (CNDP). The rebel barriers would be no problem, I had been assured. Nkunda had his troops under control. But the national army roadblocks could prove to be a nightmare. Passports and press credentials could not always stand up to their frustration.
“No,” Sekombi said, “but we’ve got our hair.”
Excuse me? I almost choked on my poulet tikka masala, which had finally appeared on the table after a two-hour wait. I looked at their wispy hairdos. With plenty of goodwill, one could see them as the start of something like dreadlocks.
“We’re Rasta’s. Everybody loves us. Nous sommes cool. They’ll let us through.”
IT WAS ALREADY LIGHT when we left the city just after six. We had filled the tank and bought a few packs of cigarettes. “Always comes in handy,” said Sekombi, a nonsmoker, as he took a bite of his cookie. The jeep bounced over the dirt road. Its steering wheel was on the right: almost all cars in eastern Congo come from the neighboring countries, which are former British colonies. The silhouette of the two-thousand-meter-high (6,500-foot-high) Nyiragongo volcano with its eternal plume of smoke rose up in the distance. Sekombi was waxing lyrical. “That volcano is our mother, our sister, and our mistress, all in one. When I see that wisp of smoke I’m always reminded of a huge breast that keeps giving milk. Once you’ve drank of it, you always come back.” But sometimes that breast produced a milk black as night: in 2002 the volcano had buried half of Goma beneath a flow of lava. The second floor of some houses became the ground floor that day. The city had asphalted itself in a whirling intoxication. Goma, the black city in a rust-brown landscape, is the only place in Congo where the roads don’t have potholes, but bumps.
A little farther north we came past the first refugee camps, the same camps occupied by Rwandan Hutus back in 1994. Now they provided shelter for the quarter of a million civilians who had fled from Nkunda. A festival campground without the festival, a sorry jumble of canvas and cardboard. In North Kivu someone is always on the run.
Eight kilometers (five miles) later we arrived at the first roadblock. A thin rope with a branch dangling from it had been tied between two oil drums; half a dozen soldiers were hanging about listlessly. Sekombi rolled down the window. “Ya, man!” he laughed to the men in khaki. His brother Katya was sitting quietly in the backseat, but he was now wearing the trademark of the true Rastafarian: a thick knitted cap. “Rastaman!” the soldiers cheered, “wo-woow!” They joked, they shot the breeze, they accepted cigarettes from us and wished us a nice day. “Peace and love!” With those words, Sekombi put an end to the border formalities. Peace and love! To soldiers! During a war! But they untied the rope and waved to us as we pulled away. The same scene was repeated at all the other roadblocks. I had never realized that embryonal dreadlocks and nicotine were all you needed to get to Central Africa’s most feared warlord.
After the brutal taking of Bukavu in 2004, Nkunda had kept his head down for a time. As a trained psychologist he became the pastor of a Pentecostal church in Kivu.31 He only entered the public eye again in 2006. Immediately after the results of the parliamentary elections were announced, he set up the CNDP, the Congrès National pour la Défense du Peuple.32 The names of Congolese rebel movements are, often enough, gratuitous abbreviations, but Nkunda’s brainchild took the cake: it was not a “congrès” at all, but a militia, it was not “national” but regional, and what was meant by “the defense of the people,” well, you could ask around at the refugee camps about that. Yet still, that last part of the name was probably the most accurate, as long at least as you read it as the defense of “a people,” one particular population group, the group that had been mocked and pestered for the last twenty years and to which Nkunda himself belonged: the Congolese Tutsis. Had a colonial ethnographer in the 1920s wished to photograph an archetypal Tutsi, he would undoubtedly have dragged Nkunda in front of the camera. With his tall, bony frame, his high forehead, and pointy nose, he embodies all the clichés about the Tutsi male. He and Kagame could have been brothers.
The CNDP arose when it became clear that the elections would produce little or nothing for the Tutsis. Vice president Ruberwa’s Rassemblement Congolais pour la Démocratie (RCD), which was supposed to defend their interests, turned up empty-handed: no ministerial posts, no provincial governor, not even a provincial council member: nothing more than fifteen seats in parliament.33
On November 25, 2006, just before Kabila was sworn in, Nkunda bared his teeth and overran Sake, a town thirty kilometers (about nineteen miles) from the provincial capital of Goma. The hilly, volcanic area north of Goma, along the border with Uganda and Rwanda, became his stomping grounds. And although the movement was not exclusively Tutsi, it received Rwanda’s support from the start. Nkunda’s CNDP fit in the same category as Kabila’s Alliance des Forces Démocratiques pour la Libération (AFDL) and Wamba dia Wamba’s RCD, the only difference being that this was no Rwandan initiative operating under Congolese flag, but a Congolese initiative with Rwandan backing. His main enemies were the Hutu refugees in eastern Congo, now organized in the Forces Démocratiques de Libération du Rwanda (FDLR)—yet another questionable name, for there was not much democracy to be found and that liberation of Rwanda was a relative thing: many of them had Congolese spouses, farmed plots in Kivu, supervised a few little mines, and ensured themselves, raping and plundering as they went, of a steady income, so why go to war against Kagame’s powerful army?
The struggle between Tutsis and Hutus in Congo, therefore, now continued under the aegis of the CNDP and the FDLR. The motives were both ethnic and economic.34 On neither side did the troop strength exceed ten thousand men, but the brutality with which those troops were applied was indescribable. Civilian suffering became the norm, gang rape a right. As they had during the Second Congo War, the Hutus received support from Kinshasa—FARDC and FDLR officers sometimes worked mining sites together—and once again the Mai-mai joined in too. Sexual violence was a weapon wielded by both sides. Lawlessness reigned supreme. Even civilians began raping on a massive scale, not as a weapon this time, but just for the fun of it.
The years 2007 and 2008 were marked by repeated attempts to stop the violence. January 2007: Nkunda agrees to let his CNDP warriors be absorbed into the government army, but rather than any far-reaching brassage (intermingling), he receives a much more superficial mixage. His rebel army is not disbanded and spread over barracks far away, but is allowed to merge on the spot. The result is predictable: the FARDC does not swallow up the CNDP, but the CNDP the FARDC. Nkunda becomes a general in the national army and is able to get on with his rebellion. “FARDC?” the joke goes. “Forces Armée Rwandaises Déployées au Congo [Rwandan troops deployed in Congo]!” December 2007: The fate of the Hutu refugees is discussed during peace talks in Nairobi. January 2008: after lengthy negotiations in Goma, the Amani process is launched. Abbé Malu Malu, the former chairman of the electoral committee, succeeds in convincing all the militias to sign a provisional peace agreement.
But it doesn’t work. In May 2008 I fly in a MONUC helicopter from Goma to Masisi, where Malu Malu, in the presence of Belgian Minister of Foreign Affairs Karel De Gucht, will announce the armistice. Thousands and thousands of people have gathered in Masisi. There is singing, dancing, and drumming. It is exceptionally moving. Peace, yes, the people have been waiting for peace for a long time. But two young Hutus tell me: “It’s going well now, all we need is one more genocide, a little one, to wipe out Nkunda’s men.”35 The hatred remains endemic. In late October 2008, while Sekombi and his brother were screening art house movies, Nkunda moved on Goma.
THE JEEP RATTLES ITS WAY through the demilitarized zone, which largely coincides with the Virunga National Park. This is, quite literally, no-man’s-land: there is not a soul in sight in this dark green landscape, which is of a beauty so raw that it leaves you speechless. Volcanoes, forests, silence, mist.
The CNDP roadblocks are a piece of cake: they don’t even want our cigarettes. As we penetrate further into rebel territory, we see more people out on the road. Women carrying yellow water jugs on their back, men leading reddish-brown cattle, boys with wooden bicycles loaded with sugarcane, bananas, or charcoal. After kilometers of bumping along through jungle and plantations with tall banana plants we finally arrive at the ruined Jomba mission post. Hundreds of children crowd around the jeep with its cargo of two Rasta’s and a white man. They run their hands over the coachwork and race off hysterically when Sekombi honks the horn. The man I had agreed to meet comes walking up: René Abandi, a lawyer in jeans and a denim shirt, not yet in his forties, with a friendly face and a quiet voice. Could this really be the CNDP’s number-two man? He has friends in Antwerp, he tells me, and he worked on his doctorate at the university of Urbino. But when Nkunda started his offensive, he became the first member of his civil staff. Abandi is a Congolese Tutsi. From spokesman he has been promoted to something like the movement’s minister of foreign affairs, for the rebel territory has its own government. He suggests we drive on to a nearby village, where Nkunda is going to speak to the people.
The road turns muddy. We cross a stream lined with huge papyrus plants, then wind uphill to Rwanguba, a hilltop aerie. The view is breathtaking. We are able to see a dozen kilometers in all directions: hills, volcanoes, emerald green valleys, a wisp of smoke through the trees, a distant lightning bolt. It looks like a nineteenth-century panoramic painting, an idyllic fresco of nature with, in the foreground, in 3-D, the turmoil of war. Hundreds of people are packed together in front of the central building on the hill. CNDP soldiers frisk us, then let us through. We wade through a tractable crowd to the front. There, sitting beneath a lean-to, are all the rebel movement notables and officers. Bosco Ntaganda is there, the army chief of staff sought by The Hague for crimes against humanity. In the middle, in full uniform, is Laurent Nkunda himself. He is toying with a black walking stick, the silver handle of which has the form of an eagle. His remarkably long fingers never stop caressing the head of the cane. The chairman’s eyes are set back so far that his head resembles a skull. From beneath his military cap I can see the veins twisting along his temples. He stands up to welcome us and makes sure we get a seat. During these weeks, Nkunda is at the summit of his fame. His rebel territory is almost half the size of Rwanda, the international press is writing about him, he considers himself unbeatable. Children holding spears come and dance for him, young girls prance about in the grass. In Rwanguba he will demonstrate his authority; he is the new chief. When the war dances are over he stands up and walks slowly toward the crowd. He starts talking and never stops. He waves his eagle-head cane sternly, sternly points his bony index finger. Then he cracks a joke. Charm and terror in one. He praises the villagers for not having run away. “You are real people, you have stayed. Good. Work in your fields, go about your business. Don’t judge me by my face, but by my actions.” When he is finished, he walks back to his seat calmly and you can hear the grass rustle around his boots.
That afternoon Nkunda meets with his civil and military staff in a house on the hillside that was once built by a Protestant mission. I wait for hours in the garden with Sekombi and Katya. There is cola and beer. A group of about twenty child soldiers keeps watch, their bazookas and Kalashnikovs at ready. They will not be lured into conversation, but they do want to know what that heavy object is in my pocket. Obediently, I show them my two cell phones. At that moment, thirty kilometers (about nineteen miles) to the north, their comrades are waging a bitter fight against the Mai-mai. They are extremely tense.
The meeting takes a long time. Nkunda has granted an audience to local traders who want to pay fewer taxes. The rebel territory is not rich in mines: the CNDP receives its funds through the sale of cattle, coffee, and charcoal and the taxation of traders and truck drivers. Sekombi and Katya grow nervous. It is already three in the afternoon and it looks like rain. They want to be back in Goma before dark, for safety’s sake. I hesitate, reconsider, then let them go. A bit later I see their white jeep wind down the hill and disappear into the greenery. I am going to spend the night with a gang that, two weeks earlier in nearby Kiwanja, was involved in the slaughter of 150 civilians.36
Major Antoine raises a half-liter bottle of beer to his lips and wants to talk to me about history. Is it true that the Egyptians mistreated the Jews so badly, the way the Bible claims? Have the Egyptians ever apologized for that? Why did the Belgians cut off the hands of their Congolese subjects? Was that in order to get more coffee? (“Rubber,” an eavesdropper whispers, “coffee, that’s only around here.”) Why is the price of every raw material determined in Belgium? Why are there only three Frenchmen playing on the French national soccer team? Is that because of globalization? But then why does the International Criminal Court prosecute only Africans? The most absurd questions are punctuated by shrewd remarks. There is one thing about which he wants to be perfectly clear: “The CNDP is Congolese through and through, no matter what anyone says. That fellow in Kinshasa is a worthless do-nothing who is selling the country to the Chinese. You can tell by his soldiers. When we fight against them, it never takes more than half an hour. After that they run away. But if it goes on for hours, then we know for sure that we’re fighting against the FDLR, even if they’re wearing the uniforms of the government army that supports them. They just keep on fighting. They’re like wounded animals, you know. For them, it’s either winning or nothing at all.”37
It is pitch black outside now and I haven’t eaten anything since six o’clock that morning. Headache. Chills. We’re high in the mountains here. Finally, around ten o’clock, I’m allowed to go inside. First everyone has to eat: goat meat with rice, prepared by a few Tutsi women. A group of about eight officers and traders sit down at the tables, which are arranged in a U. Nkunda sits alone at his own little table, like an umlaut over the U. Behind him is a bodyguard with a machine gun and a receiver plugged into his ear. No one speaks. When the chairman says something, everyone pretends to be interested. When he tells a joke, they laugh a little too loudly. He is finished before all the rest. While the guests continue eating uneasily, he cleans his teeth slowly with a toothpick and looks at the others around the table, one by one. His teeth are bared in a horrible grimace. One of his eyelids droops badly. Occasionally he relaxes his features and swallows a leftover morsel.
“Come, let’s talk,” he says. He leads me to a dormitory at the back of the building. His bodyguard and René Abandi follow. We sit down on three low stools between bunk beds and mosquito netting. The teenage boy with the loaded rifle remains standing and never takes his eyes off me. Nkunda starts in right away. He doesn’t talk, he whispers. He speaks beseechingly and looks at me wide-eyed the whole time, as though he had to drive out a demon in me: “There are so many fault lines in this country, between the east that voted for Kabila and the west that wanted Bemba, between Mobutu’s former FAZ and the kadogos, between the Hema and the Lundu, between Tutsis and Hutus. Congo needs to go through a process of national reconciliation.”
I can hardly believe my ears. Is he, the ruthless tyrant, suddenly going to play the great conciliator? Is he trying to use this talk to cuddle up to the West, or what? Rational discourse in order to hold off a robust intervention force? In any case, he makes masterful use of the international disillusionment with Kabila. “I know Kabila. He is incapable of debate. He destroyed both Bemba and Bundu-dia-Kongo. This country has the right to be liberated. This country has never been independent. This country should finally be able to profit from all its opportunities, otherwise the Congolese people will turn against Kabila the way they turned against Mobutu.”
At the height of his fame, he has clearly tweaked his ambitions. He is no longer concerned solely with protecting the Tutsis, or even with the fate of the Banyarwanda, but with nothing short of liberating all of Congo. “There will not be a Tutsi territory in Congo. The CNDP is not a Tutsi rebel army, because Tutsis make up only 10 to 15 percent of our movement. We are a Congolese rebellion. The West condemned the genocide, but not its perpetrators. They are still here. And it’s unacceptable, after all, that foreign troops are operating within our country’s borders and are even armed by our government! Normal countries do not tolerate illegal aliens, but here we give them guns!”
Nkunda, liberator of the nation: it takes some getting used to. He, in any case, seems ready for the role: “I set up the CNDP as a sort of core for the national army of the future.” Well, do tell. “It was sort of an experiment: I wanted to prove that with very little funding you could set up a disciplined army that would not pillage the surroundings.” Excuse me? “The violation of human rights is something you rarely see within the CNDP. We have a clear code of conduct. My soldiers don’t receive salaries. They receive rice, beans, and corn—that is their salary. But we’ve showed them that there is a future. They live for that dream.” With all due respect, I object, but your army is hated throughout the rest of Congo. “That’s because the only voice that is heard is that of the MONUC. They claim that we are rapists and that we massacre people. They claim that we are an armed Rwandan division. But those days are past! It was not a happy time, back when Rwanda and Uganda were here.” But you were there yourself, weren’t you? You led the Rwandan troops in Kisangani! “That’s right. I defended Kisangani. That made me the most popular officer in the city.”
Wait a minute, it occurs to me, he’s still hated there, even today! Under his reign of terror in 2002, dozens of young people from the poor neighborhoods were murdered. At the bridge over the Tshopo, two hundred policemen and soldiers were slaughtered and thrown into the river. They were tied up and had a gag stuffed in their mouths. Some of them were shot and killed or decapitated, others had their neck broken or were bayoneted. Their stomachs were cut open so that they wouldn’t float to the surface after a couple of days. Nkunda was there. He supervised the operation, with Rwandan support.38 And now he’s trying to claim that foreign interference is a bad thing?
“When Germany threatened England, didn’t Churchill call on his people to resist? They applauded him for that. So why should we have to accept that the FDLR occupies this place, like the Germans did back then?” Churchill was chosen by the people, general, you were not. “In times of war, that doesn’t matter. Hitler was an elected official, and look what happened. De Gaulle wasn’t chosen by the people, but he freed France, didn’t he?” For a moment, I’m dumbstruck. Is he trying to claim a comparison with the most important French statesman of the twentieth century? “Yes, I am the General De Gaulle of Congo!”39
DAZED BY THIS ADVANCED COURSE IN RHETORIC, I squeeze into a jeep with René and seven others. Crammed into the baggage compartment is a child soldier with a Kalashnikov. It is almost midnight. We drive east through the wet, dripping hills and hope that we don’t run into a Mai-mai patrol. I’m scared and confused. What I don’t know is that, at that moment in New York, the finishing touches are being put to a UN report demonstrating Rwandan participation in the CNDP. What I don’t know is that Human Rights Watch is preparing a report on Nkunda’s atrocities.40 I have arrived at the point where history is still warm, fresh, and elusive. I can’t see the big picture. No one can see the big picture.
All I know is that I would rather talk to normal people than with politicians, that I learn more from anecdotes than from rhetoric. All I know is that I once sat in Grâce Nirahabimana’s plastic hut at the Mugunga refugee camp, block 48, number 34; it was too small for me to stand up. Grâce was a beautiful twenty-three-year-old woman with two children, Fabrice and David. Her two brothers, twelve and sixteen, had been taken by Nkunda, her two sisters died of dysentery, she was raped by three soldiers. She left everything behind. Her sisters died in the camp—too little to eat, no toilets—and were buried among the banana plants. It was cold, sitting on her bed. A harsh wind was blowing across the lunar landscape of lava and rattling the plastic walls of her little hut. “I don’t feel safe at all,” she sobbed. “I’m afraid, very afraid. Afraid of Laurent Nkunda.”41
After what seems like an endless drive, the jeep stops at an old colonial-style house. “This is the Ugandan border,” René tells me, “this house once belonged to the chief customs official. There, where those trees are, that’s where Uganda starts.” The place is called Bunagana, it is a safe place to spend the night. But to René’s surprise, the house turns out to be full of child soldiers, at least twenty of them. They are sleeping in the armchairs, on the floor, in the kitchen. There is neither water nor electricity, but a bed is arranged quickly enough.
I get up early the next morning. Shirtless, I go out onto the patio to read through my notes. A thirteen-year-old boy tells me that his rifle is called a Chechen. Around eight I walk into the village with René to get some breakfast. He did not sleep well. “Gastritis,” he sighs, “I worry too much, it’s just the way I am. Nkunda suffers from it too, alongside his asthma. The war is not good. It’s the worst thing there is, but it’s all we can do.”
We arrive at very normal-looking house. It turns out to be the civil headquarters of the CNDP. There I meet all the dignitaries I saw yesterday as well. Nkunda’s sister is there too: two peas in a pod. The courtyard is an open-air garage. There, a half-dozen Humvees captured from the FARDC are being fixed up for the rebels’ war effort. For the first time in weeks I eat cheese, Kivu cheese, a Tutsi specialty. The rebel leaders discuss the news of the day. Desmond Tutu and Romeo Dallaire, former UN commander in Rwanda, have just called for a large-scale intervention force to be sent to North Kivu. “What a bunch of hooey,” René snorts. “Now that they don’t have any more political arguments, they bring in the moral heavyweights. Humanitarianism is being misused to cover up military domination.” The others chime in in agreement. “We’ll all be going to the International Court anyway,” he jokes, “so we might as well rape and murder, otherwise we’ll be there for no good reason.”
That intervention force never arrived. The European Union had no desire to act on UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s appeal, and the African Union, the South African Development Community, and Angola didn’t feel much like coming to Kabila’s aid. That morning in Bunagana I concluded that Nkunda might very well go on ruling his territory for a long time to come. The Uganda border was officially sealed, but I saw a truck full of flour come into Congo. Who’s going to stop him anyway? I thought. Congo has no army, the MONUC won’t intervene, a more extensive intervention force is not going to arrive, and besides, he has food and he collects taxes. Maybe he’ll keep up this bush war for as long as Laurent-Désiré Kabila did.
But I was wrong. One month later, in January 2009, what no one dreamed would happen actually did: the Congolese and Rwandan armies, those sworn enemies, joined forces and arrested Nkunda. A totally unexpected move, but they had little choice: Kagame had lost a great deal of international credit after the appearance of that UN report detailing his support for the CNDP, and Joseph Kabila was cutting a bad figure with his worthless army that no one wanted to help. Strange bedfellows in pursuit of a common cause, they even tried to put the FDLR out of commission. They only succeeded in part, but Nkunda ended up in custody in Rwanda and has been awaiting trial in Congo ever since. The CNDP was handed over to war criminal Bosco Ntaganda and simply “fused” once again with the government army.
The joint Congolese-Rwandan operation became known under the name Umoja wetu (in the first half of 2009) and was followed by the operations Kimia II (2009) and Amani Leo (2010), proactive campaigns against the FDLR by the national army (in fact by former CNDP forces, led by the scoundrel Ntaganda) in cooperation with the MONUC, which resulted in more civilian suffering than glory.42 By 2010 the FDLR numbered six thousand men, no more than a homeopathic residue of 1994’s 1.5 million refugees. Less than three hundred of them were suspected of crimes of genocide.
If Rwanda is overmilitarized, then Congo remains undermilitarized. The country’s armed forces are still more an apparition than any real force to be reckoned with. And that is clear to see. The FARDC is unable to stop Ugandan rebel leader Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army from sowing unrest in the northeast, let alone effectively defend more than seven thousand kilometers (over 4,300 miles) of national borders. And that at a moment when geopolitical tensions are rising: with Uganda concerning oil in Lake Albert, with Rwanda concerning methane gas in Lake Kivu, and above all with Angola concerning oil concessions in the Atlantic—sometimes resulting in skirmishes. The army cannot even keep order within Congo itself. In the course of a quarrel over fishing rights in a few ponds in Dongo (Équateur) in November 2009, at least a hundred people were killed and ninety thousand fled. The will to change seems minimal.43 With an army, Kabila could assert himself more; without an army, however, he need fear no putsch.44
AND LIFE FLOWS ON LIKE THE RIVER. On the other side of the country, in Nsioni, people are walking up and down the red, dusty main street of the village. I watch them from the terrace where the music has been turned up deafeningly loud for me and two other customers. Think away the cell phones and there is little difference between today and the 1980s. The same soft drink bottles, the same cars driving around, the same rickety market stalls selling slices of dried fish. The only thing that has changed is the size of the slices; today they are little more than cubes. But across the street it looks as though a UFO has landed. Towering above the dull barracks and the faded housefronts is a pristine white building that gleams on all sides. Neatly parked before the door are four brand-new motorcycles with sparkling chrome. Their seats are still covered with protective plastic. Beside them are ten men’s bikes, bound together, their handlebars turned parallel to the frames and still packed in cardboard. The glistening rod brakes are a glory to behold. From inside the building comes the flickering blue glow of a plasma screen. Hanging above the door is a sign that explains a lot: CHINA AMITIÉ COMPANY. In Nsioni, the first Chinese traders have touched down.
I go in and say hello to a wary-looking Asian couple who speak not a word of French or English, but whose merchandise speaks for itself: a horror vacui of flashy sports shoes piled up to the ceiling next to TVs and clocks and racks full of perfume. The China Amitié Company creates the same impression of luxury and comfort for the people of Nsioni as the supermarkets did in the farming villages of Europe in the 1950s. What a contrast to those sorry market stalls where you went to buy razor blades or candles one at a time! What luxury when you compare those perfumes to the homemade bars of soap you’ve been scrubbing yourself with all your life! What easy comfort when you realize that you no longer need to go to Boma or Kinshasa to buy such products! And affordable as well!
The shopkeepers even sell paintings in gaudy frames, showing mountain landscapes and alpine pastures. Asiatic merchants coming to the African interior to sell European landscapes: this, I believe, is what they call globalization. The world as marketplace. It reminds one of the ingenious graffiti sprayed on the old railroad trestle at Matadi, less than a hundred kilometers (sixty-two miles) from here. That bridge from the 1890s, when Nkasi’s father and Chinese workers built the rail connection to Kinshasa, today serves as canvas for an act of vandalism that brilliantly summarizes this third millennium: www.com.45
From the late 1990s, more and more Chinese began coming to Africa. They arrived not only to sell their wares, but much more frequently to buy raw materials. The formidable explosion of the Chinese economy, as a result of Deng Xiaoping’s controlled experiment with capitalism along the country’s coastlines, enormously boosted the demand for mineral riches. In 1993, for the first time, China imported more oil than it exported.46 The first African countries with which it established intensive ties, therefore, were the oil states of Nigeria, Angola, and Sudan. Zambia and Gabon entered the picture later as well, because of their copper and iron ore. As “geological scandal,” and despite the war and the grim business climate, Congo also caught China’s eye. In Katanga Chinese adventurers soon caught scent of a golden opportunity and swooped down on the wreckage of the once-prosperous mines. In 2003 Gécamines, at the insistence of the IMF and the World Bank, had fired eleven thousand superfluous miners.47 They received severance pay, but most had spent it all on cars and TVs. Many of them then were creuseurs, artisanal miners. Like in Kivu, they were prepared to use limited means to scratch away at the old mines and fill sacks of ore that they then sold to Monsieur Chang or Monsieur Wei.
In February 2006 I had the chance to visit the mine at Ruashi. There, hundreds of creuseurs were digging for heterogenite, an ore that contains both copper and cobalt. I saw children clamber down into poorly shored-up wells of up to twelve meters (thirty-nine feet) deep. I saw a five-year-old boy covered in dust, wearing a “Plop the Gnome” T-shirt. If they were lucky, they received five dollars a sack. Sometimes a group of friends would bring up as many as ten sacks in the course of a day. It was strenuous, dangerous work, they said, but they could live from it. What a contrast with my visit later that day to the enormous spic-and-span Luiswishi cobalt mine owned by Belgian businessman Georges Forrest, where I saw no more than a few dozen Congolese at work. They all wore safety helmets and operated excavators with hubcaps bigger than a human.
The Chinese buyers were private entrepreneurs and received no support from the Chinese government. Some of them began their own makeshift foundries, in order to export ore in more concentrated form. Their Congolese day laborers worked under ghastly conditions. They were badly paid, they breathed in noxious fumes, and they had no work clothes, let alone any collective labor agreement. Take Jean, for example. He went to work for Jia Xing, one of the larger copper-processing companies with a depot at Kolwezi and a foundry in Lubumbashi. The concern employed two hundred people and Jean received a permanent contract: he was an experienced smelter. A day worker, therefore, could sometimes work his way onto the payroll—although the contracts were often written only in Chinese. Jean’s shifts lasted twelve to thirteen hours a day with an ultrabrief lunch break, seven days a week. The company worked with a day shift and a night shift. There was no protective clothing, Jean’s tools were worn-out, the heat from the blast furnace was unbearable. Jean earned $120 a month, plus a $100 bonus if he ran the blast furnace: with that, Jia Xing was the best-paying Chinese employer in Katanga.
One morning he and twelve colleagues arrived a few minutes too late for work: they had been held up by a traffic accident. For punishment they were locked in a container, where they sat from seven in the morning until five in the afternoon. At the end of the day they were all fired. There were, after all, plenty of others waiting to take their places. And so Jean went to work as a creuseur. He sold his sacks of ore to his former boss, but the spots where artisanal mining was allowed were limited. Perhaps he should hook up with the teams that trespassed in the middle of the night on the big mining companies’ concessions? It was dangerous, working in the dark. Some workers drowned or suffocated on the job, others were shot by the security guards. He could always go to work at the Emmanuel Depot in Kolwezi, but the workers there always got drunk during their lunch break because they had to process radioactive ore without gloves or a mask.48
Katanga became home to a rough capitalism reminiscent of that in the 1920s but the 2008 banking crisis caused forty of these private firms to pack up and leave. The copper price fell from almost $9,000 to $3,600 a metric ton (about $9,900 to $3,960 a U.S. ton) and the province imposed stricter conditions. Tens of thousands of artisanal diggers were left without work. Suddenly, Katanga was looking more like it did in the 1930s.49
Chinese state-owned companies started moving in; not hit-and-run fortune hunters but mammoth concerns with virtually unlimited funding. The road from Kinshasa to Matadi was rebuilt, as was the road from Lubumbashi to the Zambian border, raced along now by trucks filled with ore. CCT, a Chinese telecom company, became one of the country’s major cell-phone operators. And yet another Chinese company began laying a 5,600-kilometer-long (3,500-mile-long) glass-fiber cable to open up Congo to the digital revolution.50 Relations between Mobutu and Mao had been hearty even as early as the 1970s; in those days, the focus was on cultivating ideological comradeship (the single-party state, the abacost, and the parades in Congo were the result—no mean feat for a pro-American country), but now it was about business. Congo became one of China’s newest trading partners. In 2006, President Hu Jintao organized a crucial Sino-African summit in Beijing attended by no less than forty-eight African heads of state. During that meeting, $2 billion in contracts were signed and China promised up to $5 billion in loans and a doubling of its aid efforts by 2009, while purging the countries’ outstanding debts and lifting a whole slew of import duties on African products. With an eye to trade relations, Chinese dignitaries visited almost every country in Africa. Beijing stuck rigorously to its policy of noninterference in domestic affairs and championed the principle of fraternal South-South cooperation, as opposed to paternalistic North-South meddling. It all sounded lovely, but the gist was also that China apparently had no objections to doing business with unsavory characters like Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe and Omar al-Bashir in Sudan. The new China was businesslike, efficient, and pragmatic. All it asked in return from its new trading partner was that it state the opinion—once each year, during the UN General Assembly meeting—that Taiwan actually belonged to mainland China.
In September 2007 Minister of Infrastructure, Public Works and Reconstruction Pierre Lumbi announced that Congo had closed a megadeal with China. The country would set up a joint venture under Congolese law with three Chinese state-owned enterprises (a bank, a road-building company, and a general contractor). Through Gécamines, Congo would maintain a 32 percent share in the enterprise; the remaining 68 percent would be Chinese. The joint venture would be allowed to excavate 10 million metric tons (11 million U.S. tons) of copper and six hundred thousand metric tons (660,000 U.S. tons) of cobalt in Katanga—gigantic volumes, when one realizes that only eight million metric tons (about 8.8 million U.S. tons) of copper were mined during the entire colonial period and that the country’s total reserves were estimated at 70 million metric tons (77 million U.S. tons).51 In return, the new partnership would invest $3 billion in restoring the country’s mining infrastructure, and $6 billion in the construction of paved roads (34,000 kilometers, or 21,000 miles), unpaved roads (2,738 kilometers, or 1,700 miles), railroads (3,215 kilometers, 2,000 miles), houses (5,000), polyclinics (145), hospitals (31), hydroelectric plants (2) and universities (2). Investments, all in all, of $9 billion. And because the joint venture had no revenues as of yet, the People’s Republic of China would advance the funding for these major works: the venture would simply pay it back over time. Kabila was elated: “For the first time in our history, the Congolese people will see the usefulness of all its copper, its nickel, and its cobalt!”52
It was, indeed, an impressive agreement. Only seven pages long, shorter than a normal rental contract, it was the most important document concerning Congo since the ten-year plan of 1949. Congo would become a construction site unlike anything seen there since the 1950s. In the Western press the deal was often depicted as a “loan” from China, while in fact it was a tradeoff: ore for infrastructure. An exchange of that sort did not imply a return to a precolonial economy, but was a handy way to skirt around corruption: a hospital, after all, is not easy to slip into one’s pocket. But it was very much a tradeoff, with a crucial clause attached. Should the deposits fail to produce the quantity of ore hoped for, Congo would be obliged to meet the terms of contract by other means.
As soon as the announcement was made, the West began screaming bloody murder. Neocolonialism! A new scramble for Africa! Rapacity disguised as win-win gobbledygook! To some, the contract seemed a twenty-first-century variation on the agreements Stanley had asked the village chieftains to sign. The Congolese had let themselves be hosed! It hadn’t even been discussed in parliament! It wouldn’t generate any jobs! Rumor had it that the Chinese were flying in their prisoners to do the work! Et cetera, et cetera.
Some of these reservations were justified, but others were pure panic; panic in the face of this complex, up-and-coming world order, a world in which China was rapidly acquiring superpower status. It reminded one of the skittishness at the time of the Berlin Conference or at the start of the Cold War. Congo has been drawing the attention of foreign powers for a century and a half, and that has often led to tensions—between European and Arab traders around 1870, between European nation-states after that, between America and Russia during the Cold War, and now between China and the West. Every time a newcomer claims a position on the Central African chessboard, it results at first in suspicion and nervousness.
But was it true, had the Congolese government been taken for a ride? It is hard to say. Inherently, there is no objective standard in trade by barter other than the mutual satisfaction of the trading partners. China was pleased to gain access to raw materials; Kabila was pleased with the promised reconstruction of his country. In any case, the contract had not been forced down his throat, but followed upon two months of vigorous negotiations in Beijing.53 Attempts to nevertheless quantify the fairness of the deal are doomed to fail as well. Whether 10 million metric tons (11 million U.S. tons) of copper for $9 billion in investments is a fair deal depends, after all, on the international price of copper. In light of the pronounced fluctuations on world markets in recent years, it may amount to $14 billion, but it could amount to $80 billion. Yet one thingis clear: China is not out to plunder the Katangan substrate in the short term, for the simple reason that China’s economic policy is characterized by gradualness and planning. Beijing had absolutely nothing to win by depleting and destabilizing Africa. On the contrary. The view of China as a quack physician offering a deathly ill patient a family pack of vitamin C in exchange for, say, a kidney and a lung, does not apply. China has started on a long, structural presence in Africa that will change the face of the world in the century to come.
How democratic that presence will turn out to be is, of course, still very much the question. The Sino-Congolese contract was negotiated behind closed doors, without consulting parliament. And even though the Congolese parliament has, by now, had the opportunity to comment on it, its say in the matter has remained very limited. What’s more, the generous trade relations that China maintains with Zimbabwe and Sudan demonstrate that for Beijing human rights are no sacred criterion; no more, after all, than in China itself. For China, commercial interests currently take precedence over humanitarian ones. Although a permanent member of the UN Security Council—which gives it a great deal of power—China is, for example, too dependent on high-grade Sudanese oil to take exception there to al-Bashir’s regime. That sounds opportunistic, but it is no more or less opportunistic than the way France, Belgium, and the United States kept Mobutu in the saddle in the 1980s. Among Western regimes, respect for human rights dates only from the 1990s. And even then . . .
The most stubborn opponents to the Sino-Congolese contract were the international financial institutions. The IMF and the World Bank were not pleased with the clause that stipulated that, should there be too little copper or cobalt in the ground, Congo would have to meet its obligations by different means. By putting up such collateral, Congo ran the risk of accumulating even greater debts . . . and it already had such a staggeringly huge pile. There was something to that. The country still drags along behind it the debts acquired during the Mobutu era, and by 2010 the deferred payments and interest accrued on them totaled an astronomical $13 billion. That equaled one-quarter of the country’s spending each year, more than 90 percent of its GNP, 150 percent of all exports, and more than 500 percent of government revenues (not including foreign aid).54 The horse trading with China now added a potentially huge slab of debt on top of all that.
What the IMF and the World Bank did not say, however, was that they were in a position to do something about that burden. Year after year they continued to insist that it be repaid, even though Erwin Blumenthal had roundly stated in the 1980s that it would never happen. The unfairness of weighing down a newly elected government with the twenty- or thirty-year-old squandermania of a former dictator dawned only gradually on the Bretton Woods institutions. It was, to be sure, a huge sum of money and it would set a bad example to erase outstanding liabilities all too readily, but $13 billion effectively crippled all attempts at reconstruction. It was as though the new inhabitants of a tenement apartment were being charged for the exorbitant phone bills of the former tenants, who had hung on the line all the time. Rigobert Minani, a Congolese intellectual, once rightly claimed that the international financial institutions were “holding the national economy hostage.”55
The reason the IMF clung to its demand that the debts be repaid was that the obligation was the only thing still providing the rich Western countries with a toehold in Congo. The IMF is international by name, yet it awards votes according to the financial contributions from member countries. That means that the United States and the European Union, as the major contributors, control almost half the votes; China, home to one-quarter of the world population, has only a 4 percent vote.56 Diplomatically speaking, the West had little voice in Congo’s affairs once the elections were over; the IMF, however, whose president is by statute always a European, acted as the ultimate big stick in posing conditions regarding anticorruption measures, fiscal matters, and monetary and economic policies. The debt might be allowed to dwindle, but not to disappear completely.
As part of a large-scale aid program for “heavily indebted countries,” the IMF stated its willingness to forgo claims on $9 billion out of the total of $13 billion if Congo complied with a series of strict conditions. Those conditions included a revision of the contract with China. At first Kabila was unwilling but in early 2009 the government found itself so strapped for cash—due to the war against Nkunda and the low price of copper as a result of the world economic crisis—that it had hardly enough funds to finance two or three days of imports. Scattered across the bottom of the state coffers was only a measly $30 million. The IMF and the World Bank reacted with lightning speed and a donation of $300 million. Since then, the authorities in Kinshasa realize that it is prudent to continue the dialogue with those institutions and that China is not the country’s sole source of redemption. It is better for them to make sure their bread is buttered on both sides.
In December 2009, after months of renewed negotiations, a deal was struck: the collateral clause was scrapped and in return China would lower its investments from $9 billionto $6 billion. The IMF promptly coughed up $150 million and announced that Congo was now much closer to remitting its debts: of the original $13 billion, the country now had to pay back “only” $4 billion.
Meanwhile, India too is poised to enter into a business partnership with Congo, a cooperative arrangement on which the IMF is sure to keep a close eye.57
BEHIND THE HIGH WHITE WALL I could see the colossal machines for mixing asphalt: on October 17, 2008, I drove around the perimeters of the Chinese Railway Engineering Company (CREC) in Kinshasa’s outlying riverine district of Kinsuka. The CREC is one of the Chinese state-owned companies in the consortium with Congo and one of the biggest construction concerns in Asia, with one hundred thousand workers on its payroll. Kabila had given the company a huge terrain close to the riverside quarries and two other concessions in the city. Rumor had it that the CREC fired Congolese workers if they refused to obey orders, even when those orders were given in Mandarin. Their monthly wages of $150 are paid out at an extremely low rate of exchange, which means they actually take home only $70.58
But there was no way I would be allowed in, I soon discovered, let alone carry out interviews on the grounds. All I got to see were those high white walls around the concession, hundreds of meters long. Driving around them to the rear, I saw that the concession bordered on a working-class neighborhood. There was only a sandy path leading to it. As I climbed toward the houses, a little boy of about four came running up to me. He looked at me, pointed his finger and said, loud and clear, because children like to name the things they know: “Chinois!”
A generation is growing up in Kinshasa today for whom a European is more exotic than a Chinese. In Congo there are once again children, just as there were in the late nineteenth century, who have never seen a white man in real life. One finds them even in the working-class neighborhoods of Kinshasa. On any number of occasions I have noticed toddlers running away and shrieking at my monstrous appearance as I walked through their alleyways.
Congolese adults, however, waver between East and West. Europe and America are still admired for their know-how, but many people wonder why they see so little of that, while the Chinese carry out one ambitious project after the other. They have the impression that the West is no longer interested. Still, the election of Barack Obama brought new hope. Old Nkasi couldn’t believe it when I spoke to him that first time, the day after America had elected its new president. At six in the morning after his historic acceptance speech, young people gathered at the busy Kintambo Magasin rotunda in Kinshasa and cheered: “He’s one of us! He’s one of us! He’s a Mutetela!” Because the president’s surname begins with an O, people thought he was a member of the tribe belonging to the Batetela, where names like Omasombo, Okito, and Olenga are common. But even those better informed about his lineage were convinced that a new chapter in African American relations had begun. And indeed, Hilary Clinton came to Goma, the first American secretary of state to visit the country since 1997. That she visited Congo and not Rwanda, which after all borders on Goma, made people hope that America would alter its uncritical pro-Rwandan policy. A special U.S. envoy was appointed for the Great Lakes region, and during his Nobel Prize acceptance speech in December 2009 Obama explicitly referred to the sexual violence in Congo. Yet in actual practice, the new American government has as yet developed no coherent vision for Central Africa.59
So then what about the Chinese? During my conversations I noticed that the Congolese often speak in ambivalent terms when it comes to the Chinese presence. Their view is a mixture of admiration and suspicion, a paradox that often expresses itself in mild mockery. In their social dealings, they see the Chinese as aloof, stiff, and uncongenial. They don’t smile much, many people feel; they don’t mix with us; thirty of them occupy the same house and they forget to live! The language barrier and the huge cultural differences, of course, do little to promote contact. Those who work for a Chinese boss adopt a subservient attitude, but laugh about him (not her, for there are no women) a little behind his back—an attitude no different from that with which European men were received a century ago. That does nothing to detract, however, from many people’s admiration for the speed with which the contracting companies go about their work. “Bachinois batongaka kaka na butu,” a humorous popular song says: the Chinese always do their building at night, and when you wake up in the morning another floor has been added.
It took awhile for the actual work to get rolling, but people were impressed when the CREC—less than a year after the banking crisis—began renewing the sewers and the surface of Boulevard du 30 Juin in the center of Kinshasa, even if all the trees did have to be cut down and the arterial reduced to a four-lane road where many fatal accidents occur. The Congolese realize all too well that Kabila has farmed out his celebrated cinq chantiers to the Chinese in order to mask his own immobility, just as he has farmed out the war to the Rwandans and the MONUC. After all, he needs to have something to show before the 2011 elections arrive. Cinq chantiers? More like Cheng Chan Che! Whenever young people see a Chinese on the street or a Congolese woman wearing an Asiatic blouse, they will roar: “Cheng Chan Che!”
IF THERE IS ONE PLACE IN CONGO where the awe for China becomes almost tangible, it is along the walk in front of the Chinese embassy in Kinshasa. Three mornings a week, long rows of Congolese crowd together here in the hope of obtaining a visa. Some of them arrive as early as five in the morning to be sure of a spot. Others pay one of the boys hanging around to save their place in line. Early one morning I myself once stood in line there for three hours. Most of the applicants turned out to be young women, applying for a Chinese visa not to settle there permanently, but to buy things: after all, if the Chinese come here to buy up our ore, we might just as well go there to buy their products straight from the wholesaler. What the China Amitié Company did, they could do too.
It was an exhausting morning, but a fascinating one as well. The Chinese embassy is located right across the street from MONUC headquarters. The long row of applicants paid little heed to the white tank, in which a Pakistani blue helmet with an impressive handlebar mustache was guarding the entrance to the compound. He stood bravely at his machine gun, behind a wall of sandbags and thick rolls of barbed wire that the street children used as their laundry line. These women, however, had literally turned their backs on the United Nations and were putting their hope in the new savior, the People’s Republic of China.
As I stood in line, I started up a conversation with Dadine and Rosemonde. Dadine was an unemployed, twenty-seven-year-old actress. She had heard about other women who went to Guangzhou, the big industrial town in southern China that in Cantonese is simply called “Canton.” In 2007 she tried her luck for the first time and spent a week there buying trousers, shoes, wigs, and body stockings. Back then it had been easy to get a visa, but after the Beijing Olympic Games in 2008 the procedure had become much more stringent. She had left with only her handbag and come back with sixty-four kilos (140 pounds) of baggage. The sandals she had bought there for three dollars a pair she was able to sell in Kinshasa for nine, sometimes even fifteen dollars. She didn’t have a shop of her own. She simply went by the homes of friends or to the student hostels in the city. “My customers are able to buy original articles that are a lot cheaper than they’re used to, and suddenly I’m earning some money. It’s been good for my morale, I’ve become independent. A hundred dollars is no longer such a big deal for me. I still don’t have a husband, but there are definitely a lot more candidates these days.”60
Rosemonde, an impish twenty-six-year-old, cherishes even greater ambitions. She and her younger sister have been going to China since 2006, to Guangzhou too. Their parents have died, she has a child. None of the people waiting out on the pavement went to Shanghai, Hong Kong, or Beijing; Guangzhou was the place to be. “I buy plates and glasses for restaurants, I buy ice makers, plasma screens, and computers. The trick is to find things that other people don’t already import, so you can demand a higher price. Every time I go I fill a sea container with merchandise, all on my own. The container comes in by ship to Boma, Matadi, or Pointe Noire. A shipment like that costs twelve thousand dollars, which is a lot of money, but in two years’ time I’ve earned fifty thousand dollars, and so has my sister. We’ve both been able to buy our own homes.” Young women with the means to own their own property in Kinshasa: that is an absolute novelty. Just as women found new opportunities in the informal economy of the 1980s, today the globalized variation on that economy is offering new prospects as well.
The Congolese market is being flooded with inexpensive Chinese goods. That has actually put an end to the local textile industry, one of the country’s last remaining process manufacturing industries. A wax chinois (a dyed fabric from China), the women tell me, can’t compare to the legendarywax hollandaise from Vlisco with which they once made their best clothes. “But what do you expect? A wax hollandaise cost $120, and a wax chinois only $5.” Because the clothing, televisions, and generators that are “made in China” have a strikingly short product life, the Lingala language now has a new adjective: nguanzu. It comes from Guangzhou and means “not particularly durable,” or “unreliable.” Meanwhile, a woman who cheats on her husband is now also said to be nguanzu.
Rosemonde wore a jumper printed with the words Dior, j’adore; no, what it said was Dior, j’adore—after all, with so many ideograms of his own one can hardly expect a Chinese factory worker to master the Roman alphabet as well. On the streets of Kinshasa, women who frequent China as often as they do clearly go dressed differently too. More flamboyant, more extravagant, almost like pop stars. They stand out in a crowd. A young woman in a miniskirt or white boots is almost certainly a Guangzhou trader. “Elles sont ‘guangzhouifiées,’” they’ve become Guangzhou-ified, people say. But Rosemonde has adopted the real hallmark of the new Congolese female. She rolls up the sleeve of her Dior, j’adore jumper to show me her bare shoulder. There, hard to see against her dark skin, is the pride of this third millennium: a tattoo. “They’re so good at it over there. You should really go and see for yourself.”61