Churches Commit to Congolese Development Process

Back yard processing of palm oil in village of Ikengo. Until gifting of Congo’s palm oil plantations to administration cronies in the 70’s, the country was one of the world’s leading producers.

Where is a church digging wells for clean water, organizing microcredit loan programs, educating the community in AIDS prevention, and training women and youth in productive, profitable agriculture? Why in the Congo of course where the role of the State in the economic and social development process has been limited to non existent in the fifty seven years since it became a new nation in 1960. Those who are disturbed about government involvement in the economy and even basic services in the U.S. might consider the effects of a “hands off”/”laissez faire” approach to governance in the Congo. One of the richest countries on earth in terms of natural resources ranks 176 out of 185 nations in the world in the most recent UN Human Development Index. The UN development study further figures that 77 per cent of the Congolese population live on the equivalent of less than $1.90 a day.
As a newly “autonomous”, self governing and self sustaining church body in 1965, the Disciples of Christ of the Congo included in its mission the economic and social development of its primarily rural membership in the poorest province of the country. Cattle raising in the fields of the Church’s first mission station, a youth agricultural training farm in the village of Ikengo, a cement block and sand dredging small business, training in sewing and tailoring had all been started and were managed by church staff and volunteers by the late 1960’s. In the early 70’s the Disciples churches had changed the landscape of the provincial capital Mbandaka with the house building program in the Bokatola quarter of the city. With the assistance of missionary couple Millard and Linda Fuller, over one hundred new houses were built using the “sweat equity” approach that became Habitat for Humanity in the U.S. and world wide.
A recent article by the Disciples Church’s Director of Communications updates us on more recent development projects and emphases of the Church’s Development Department. (read the article and others in French at http://natana.tumblr.com/ ) M. Nathan Weteto reports that the former Director of the Ikengo Agricultural Training Center M. Celestin Engelemba now serves as Director of the Department. Assisted by advisors M. Desiré Safari and Disciples missionary Paul Turner, M. Engelemba’s success in restoring and growing the training at Ikengo in the early 2000’s is likely to be duplicated across the vast reach of the Disciples’ churches.
What follows is a photo display depicting some of the current development programs of the Disciples of Christ in Congo. It should also be noted that the Disciples’ contributions to economic advance in the communities they serve has been supported by the Development Department of the Church of Christ of Congo. The Disciples are one of over 60 Protestant church bodies or “Communautés” (Communities) making up the union of Protestant churches in the country.

Lights in the Heart of Darkness

The Equateur and Tshuapa Provinces on the map are the heart of Congo's Equatorial Rainforest
The Equateur and Tshuapa Provinces on the map are the heart of Congo’s Equatorial Rainforest

At the end of 2016 two separate investigations revealed the extent to which Congo’s President Joseph Kabila and family have profited from business dealings and bribes during the Kabila administration. In a country where the average daily income was figured to be $1.90 last year, its President has wielded his authority to build a lucrative business empire managed by his wife, his children and siblings. Recently released reports confirm that the “kleptocracy” under Mobutu’s 32 years as the executive head of Congo’s government has been preserved by his young successor.

The first source of evidence of massive corruption focuses on bribes paid out to officials of the Kabila administration. In an agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice signed the end of September 2016, the Och-Ziff Capital Management Group corroborated the payment of over $100 million in bribes between 2008 and 2012 to Congolese officials and the U.S. based hedge fund accepted a fine of $413 million for violation of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. Further, the legal document detailing the agreement reports on $10.75 million paid out to a “DRC official 1” who NYU’s Congo Research Group reports is “most likely Joseph Kabila”.

The second source results from extensive research by staff of the Bloomberg News on the Kabila family business holdings in Congo. In the December 2016 article titled “With His Family’s Fortune at Stake, President Kabila Digs In”, three Bloomberg reporters write, “Joseph Kabila and his relatives have built a network of businesses that reaches into every corner of Congo’s economy”. Based on review of court filings, company documents and interviews with Congolese business persons, the Kabila family now own at least 70 companies in Congo.

One of the first actions of the new U.S. Congress was to help hide future deal making by the Congo President and the rest of the Kabila family. Less than two weeks after the Trump inauguration, the House struck down the Cardin Lugar Section 1504 “Transparency Amendment” of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform Act. This means the payments by U.S. companies, such as those made by the hedge fund Och-Ziff, to foreign officials would no longer have to be disclosed. Should the Senate approve repeal of the Cardin Lugar measure aimed at helping protect countries burdened by the “resource curse”, bribery by U.S. multinationals of Congolese officials would remain business as usual.

While doubt rises regarding the Kabila administration’s commitment to the President election agreement of December 31, 2016, we take a tour of one of Congo’s poorest and most remote regions with Théodore Trefon. The tropical rainforest, our earth’s second largest, in Tshuapa and Equateur Provinces is where schools and health clinics maintained and supervised by staff of the Disciples of Christ Community of the Church of Christ of Congo offer the only social services.

With the photos below, we are again led to marvel at the resourcefulness, resilience, strength and beauty of the Congolese people. In spite of mounting evidence of Congo’s rule by a government dedicated to the most abject greed and self dealing, the people carry on their lives in what is one of the richest, most awe inspiring environments on the planet. For 25 years, Trefon has focused his research on Congo and now this U.S. born political scientist works at the Museum of Central Africa in Tervuren, Belgium. The photo gallery below is from pictures displayed at
http://congomasquerade.blogspot.com/
which is also the name of his latest book.

For a larger view of the photos in a slideshow format click on the first picture and scroll horizontally

“Give Us the Ballot”

Lines of voters waiting to cast ballots in  the DRC's 2011 Presidential election
Lines of voters waiting to cast ballots in 2011 Presidential election


Paul Turner, the author of the following article, serves in Congo as a Consultant in the development projects of the Church of Christ of Congo’s Disciples of Christ Community. His latest message reports on progress in preparations for a presidential election in Congo before the end of this year. His title “Give Us the Ballot” refers to the 1957 speech by Rev. Martin Luther King at the Lincoln Memorial which focused on voting rights for all citizens of the United States.

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On December 19th, DR Congo witnessed large protests in several major cities such as Kinshasa, Lubumbashi and Goma, in response to the opposition’s call for demonstrations against President Kabila’s refusal to relinquish power. Police and military personnel were well-organized and out in force. The government went so far as to shut down social media throughout the country to slow the opposition’s ability to organize and share information concerning the number of arrests and detainees.

Riot police march on protestors of the 2011 Presidential election results
Riot police march on protestors of the 2011 Presidential election results

In the midst of this tense situation Catholic Church Bishops began facilitating negotiations between the government and opposition groups. An agreement was reached whereby President Kabila would leave office at the end of 2017 following elections, and there would be no attempt to change the constitution to allow for a third term. This agreement was a welcomed development because it kept the peace and solidified the importance of holding elections in 2017.

There is another piece of the story that has not been widely reported. At the same time protests were happening throughout the country, Congolese were also signing up to register to vote and receive their voter identification cards. Perhaps this was another form of protest expressing the people’s eagerness for democracy and elections. It was an encouraging sight to see men and women lining up to receive new voter ID cards at Nouvelle Cite Parish. In fact, five churches affiliated with the Community of Disciples of Christ in Congo (CDCC) are hosting National Independent Electoral Commission (CENI) Enrollment Centers. Rev. Eliki Bonanga, President of CDCC, was asked why the CDCC partnered with CENI to help boost enrollments, he said, “it is our will and hope that people will register and participate in elections so that government will one day respond to the people’s needs.” He also mentioned that the church is a member of civil society and must do its part to secure a hopeful future in DR Congo.

The CENI Enrollment Centers are not operated by the government. As the name implies, it is an independent institution designed to be an objective agent in the electoral process. A recent visit to one CENI Center in Mbandaka revealed that this particular enrollment center had distributed 200 new voter ID cards in the first two weeks. Half of the folks coming through were issued voter ID cards for the first time, suggesting these would be new voters who didn’t participate in the last election in 2011. The other half were older people seeking to replace their old and worn voter ID cards because they are used for identification in the same way a driver’s license is used in the US. The enrollments will continue through March and end around the second week of April. This time frame suggests that elections could take place by the end of the year.

A voter searches her name on the voter registry during election day 2011.
A voter searches her name on the voter registry on election day 2011.

Pro-democracy advocacy is a key strategy for establishing the long-term benefits of good governance, anti-corruption and full citizen participation. In the past few weeks Congolese were making sure their voices were being heard in the streets and at the enrollment centers as they walked away with new voter identification cards. When Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his famous “Give Us the Ballot” speech, he was addressing voting rights and the suppression of the vote in the American South. Yet, the same sentiment of empowerment that comes from exercising the franchise of voting ring true in DR Congo.

Celebrating Women in Leadership

150 Congo Disciples women began their gathering this month with a march from the headquarters chapel to the cathedral Mbandaka III church. The meetings’ theme: “A wise woman takes action for development” (Prov 14:1) Photo by Nathan Weteto

Across Africa today, major change is taking place as a result of women in leadership.  While Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s election and re-election in Liberia captures the headlines, it is grassroots women leading community development projects in rural and urban settings that signals significant change throughout Africa.  In Liberia, the election of President Sirleaf followed in the footsteps of the hundreds of women who marched for a peaceful resolution to thirty years of civil war in the country.  Elsewhere, it is often the women who lead in organizing the water projects, microcredit groups and agricultural programs that are saving communities from the ravages of climate change across the continent.

It is no different in Congo where the Disciples of Christ Community has made the education of women pastors a priority and recognized the traditions of patriarchy (polygamy among them) as a drag on the country’s development.  There is no more hopeful sign that God is indeed “making all things new” in Congo today than the emerging of women leaders in the Church and in Congolese civil society.  This blog celebrates the work of four Disciples women and the contributions they are making to healthier, more peaceful and more prosperous communities.

But first here’s a little history. A strong women’s movement characterized the newly “autonomous” (African led and governed) Disciples “Communaute” of the 1960’s.  Led by Mama Leale the women of the disciples Mbandaka parishes met regularly to celebrate

1969 Disciples women outside Mbandaka III church including Mama Leale, l. of center woman in blue, and Mama Entombodji to her left.

and support each other’s work in their respective parishes.  Disciples President Rev. Dr. Paul Elonda (later Elonda Ifefe) involved the women in the women in a two year process of theological dialog on polygamy.   As a result, Disciples called for monogamy as a requirement for pastors and church employees and defended the rights of women, and wives in particular, to assume active roles in the economy, civil society and church of the new nation

Revde. Christiane IKETE

Building on the legacy of strong women’s leadership embodied by her predecessors, Revde. Christiane Ikete has in recent years served as Director of the Disciples Office of Women and Family. Mama Christiane has helped organize the micro credit groups among the women of several Mbandaka parishes and most recently in the rural posts of Monieka, Boende, and Boyeka.  In the isolated, impoverished villages around Boyeka, initial distribution among 25 women of $2,159 after six months of loan activity provides a powerful incentive for organizing more micro credit groups.

Dedication festivities last year for the new Restaurant Entombodji

The sale of purses with cap made by Congolese Disciples women at the 2010 Women’s Quadrennial helped fund the initial phase of the Restaurant Entombodji next to the Disciple headquarters in Mbandaka.  Revde. Ikete envisions the Restaurant as providing training in food service and business management as well as tasty food for Mbandaka visitors and residents.  Several small shops behind the headquarters  have been leased to women entrepreneurs for years.

Revde. Janette Bafalanga

One of the first Mbandaka micro credit groups was organized at the dynamic Nouvelle Cite parish where Revde. Janette Bafalanga provided crucial leadership as Assistant Pastor in the parish. Women of the parish have also led in the parish’s aid programs for orphans, in organizing a highly successful preschool and in participation in the literacy classes at Nouvelle Cite.  (See  https://lokoleyacongo.wordpress.com/?s=nouvelle+cite                                             blog for more detail on the parish outreach programs)

In addition to her work at Nouvelle Cite, Mama Janette has also headed the Disciple headquarters’ Outreach and Service Department (“Diakonie”). That Department’s corn and manioc field on the outskirts of Mbandaka models for other parishes a profitable income generating project.  Mama Janette in 2010 hoped to fund new fields and service projects through purchase of a mill to process others’ produce as well as that of the Department’s field.  In 2011 Revde. Bafalanga became Senior Minister at Nouvelle Cite so the current status of the Diakonie projects is not known.

Revde. Madeline Bomboko

The first woman ordained by the Disciples in Congo, Revde. Bomboko, dared to reach out to women fleeing the catastrophic violence and mayhem in eastern Congo.  Meeting one woman who had walked one thousand kms. to what she hoped was safety in Mbandaka was the genesis of her Woman to Woman Listening Ministry that served over 50 refugee women.

Although most of the women had returned home when I met Revde. Bomboko in 2010, she introduced me to a woman whose entire family had been killed in the warfare and who considers Mbandaka her only home now.

(For more of the story see https://lokoleyacongo.wordpress.com/2010/10/)  The pain and suffering of Marie Sauve Vie and other refugee women had deeply touched Mama Madeline and the courageous openness and compassion of Mama Madeline’s response recalls W.H. Auden’s definition of Christian faith:

To choose what is difficult to do all one’s days and make it seem to be easy that is faith.”  (from For the Time Being )

We can celebrate that Revde. Bomboko now serves the Disciples parish next to the Mbandaka headquarters.  And she remains a good friend to Marie Sauve Vie.

Revde. Antoinette Bailu

With an outstanding academic record behind her, 2010 graduate of the Theology Department of the Protestant University of Congo, Revde. Bailu follows a large vision in her call to ministry.  Not only does she fill the traditional roles of pastor as Assistant Phe astor of Mbandaka I.  Revde. Antho has started agricultural projects in both the parishes she has served.  She reported in a recent email, “the pineapple field has begun producing but we need to hire a sentry and enclose the field as our produce continues to be stolen”.

In another recent email, she wrote, “In Equateur Province, our leading natural resource is the rainforest and we must take more advantage of it.”  She sees herself as a spokesperson for the importance of agriculture in the region’s economy and continues “to exhort my friends and fellow pastors to place more importance on developing projects in their parishes”.  She summed up her vision with these words, “I will hold to my mission of struggle against poverty through agricultural development and I know that in spite of difficulties I will achieve this goal”.

NOTE TO READER: This is the final lokoleyacongo post for the time being as Doug Smith and Kate Moyer complete preparations to begin a two year mission assignment with the Disciples and Congregational churches in Mexico.  To follow their work and commentaries on Mexican culture and society and  Mexican Protestant churches’ witness   go to their blog http://erasingborders.wordpress.com/ .  

To follow news of the Disciples of Christ Community in Congo, subscribe to the Community’s blog authored by Director of Communications, and micro credit trainer!,  M. Nathan Weteto at  http://natana.tumblr.com/

Tribute to a Friend

Newly married Thomas with wife Eyenga and sisters after lunching in their home June 1969
Newly married Thomas with wife Eyenga and sisters after lunching in their home June 1969

Before closing this marathon of blogging begun with my return to Congo in June, 2010, I want to pay tribute to a good man I sorely missed seeing on my return.  Rev. Thomas Bosai was the Director of the Youth Department to which I was assigned as a “Fraternal Worker” – now Global Mission Intern – in 1969. Without his trust and friendship so readily offered on my arrival, this blog writing would not have happened.

Back in the mid-1990’s Thomas wrote the last letter I was to receive from him.  He asked if I could help arrange for support of his son to continue his studies in medicine in the States.  Eric had nearly completed his course in medicine at the University in Lubumbashi by then.  In a time of job transition and divorce, co-parenting two primary school daughters, my response was feeble and discouraging.

Now standing out among my memories of the 2010 summer in Congo visit is lunch in the Mbandaka home of son Dr. Eric Bosai and

Dr. Eric, wife Nicole and children with Grandmother Eyenga Bekana
Dr. Eric, wife Nicole and children with Grandmother Eyenga Bekana

family where I was again able to greet Thomas’ widow, Eyenga Bekana.  Eric, now Director of the Disciples hospital/clinic at the old mission post of Monieka, cast no blame in his account of his father’s death.  In his mid 60’s, Thomas was making the long trip by pirogue from the Mbandaka 2003 Disciples’ biannual Asembly when he was hospitalized in Ikela following a severe stroke.  Just before his Eyenga, “Sunday” in English, would arrive from Opala, Thomas died.

Thomas had served the Disciples as a pastor in several settings after his term as Youth Department Director.  Opala, a remote extended village in Orientale Province, was one of the Disciples new posts when Thomas was sent as the “missionary” there. It was the first Disciples post in the province to the east of Equateur. Today there is a growing Disiples presence in Opala, with primary schools and congregations in outlying villages among the fruit of my friend Thomas’ labors.

Those are some of the facts of Thomas’ life but had I been able to give testimony on the occasion of his passing I would have thanked him for taking me under his wing like an older brother in 1969.  In a vastly different culture, with multiple reasons to suspect and distrust this young white man from the States, there was little Thomas did not share with me – about his past, his education in Kinshasa and his joy and hopes in marrying the beautiful, young Ekana. While it was I who had the title of “Counselor” to the Youth Department, Thomas’ earnest advice on maintaining a respected image as a young, single “mondele” male still rings in my ears though it was not entirely heeded.

Rev. Thomas Bosai next to M. Jean Lompala, r., first Ikengo Farm Director
Rev. Thomas Bosai next to M. Jean Lompala, r., first Ikengo Farm Director

Thomas’ propulsive energy and faith quickly persuaded me that the vision of a Disciples farm project at Ikengo would become reality.  I hope that if that Projet Agro-Pastoral d’Ikengo continues to expand, the roles of Disciples President Dr. Paul Elonda in shaping the vision and Rev. Thomas in carrying it out will some day be honored and celebrated by the Disciples Communaute in Congo.  In the meantime, Thomas, this blog’s for you!

A Faith Without Borders

Members of my home congregation get up close and personal with the python skin
Members of my home congregation get up close and personal with the python skin

A recent visitor to our home prompted me to take out for the first time in twenty plus years the python skin from Congo.  It was brittle and a few of the scales fell as we rolled the skin out on the living room floor; forty years out of the rain forest in our relatively dry atmosphere will do that. We took out the tape measure and no one marveled at the length more than I: eighteen feet.  I had estimated it to be between eight and ten feet.

The python skin along with pre-ban ivory figurines are among the tangible possessions I carried away from two years in Congo 1969-71. Rarely in the forty years since have I stopped to admire the delicately carved ivory figurine of a woman’s head or the design on a three foot iron “executioner’s” knife. But the tangible artifacts from Congo serve as occasional reminders of the lasting impact on my life of those two years. And their display in my home represent a public testimony that the Congo experience shaped my life in decisive and indelible ways. They are clues to who lives inside the house and who I am.  They help others get to know me as they help me understand myself.

What a joy to find on my return to Congo that my presence forty years before had not been

Joseph and Mrs. Ikete at daughter Christine's home
Joseph and Mrs. Ikete at daughter Christine’s home

forgotten by the Congolese.  Joseph Ikete, the bright, dignified youth leader of 1969, met me at the airport in Mbandaka and we laughed about the photo I had taken of him and his wife at their home in 1971.  A couple of weeks after my arrival in June, 2010, we dined in his home again, but this time daughter Christine and husband joined us.  She now serves as the Director of the Women’s Department of the Disciples of Christ community.

What a joy it has been to share the 2010 experience in Congo with you readers of this blog.  That I have continued these postings for two years has helped me understand the place of Congo in my life, how it has shaped who I am and especially its role in shaping my faith. If we accept Augustine’s definition of theology as “faith seeking understanding”, theology has been the overarching theme/tag/category of every posting.

So as wife Kate Moyer and I prepare for a two year assignment with Disciples and UCC churches in Mexico, beginning this fall, I want to wrap up my lokoleyacongo blog postings with some questions that have guided and will guide my future theological reflections on what is going on in Congo.

How could the richest nation in Africa with an incomparable wealth in strategic minerals and other natural resources rank at the bottom of the world’s nations on the UN Development Index (number 187 out of 187 countries ranked)?

How could the nation considered a priority for African development aid by the United States have failed so miserably at the task of nation-building and forming a government which is held accountable by the people?

What is the responsibility of the Church in the U.S. and in Congo in upholding the human rights of the Congolese people? When will the unified Protestant Church, the Church of Christ of Congo defend the fundamental right of one person one vote and the nation’s right to hold free and fair elections?

When will the weak and corrupt regime in Kinshasa be seen as the primary source of continued conflict in eastern Congo – which an article in the National Geographic called the richest tract of land on earth? And when will Congo be permitted to form a government made up of persons committed to serving the people?

At the 10th Congo Independence Day celebration Mobutu’s political party provided dresses for the occasion with the slogan: “To Serve Oneself: No! To Serve Others: Yes!”

There is little doubt that Congo is a tough assignment.  The questions above will perplex and bedevil anyone who goes there.  But I hope this blog has succeeded in highlighting some of the rewards awaiting anyone who makes the effort to live and celebrate life alongside the Congolese.  One of those rewards comes from the insight that Congo and what happens there is at the front line of African and, indeed, of human liberation.

Since my return to the States in 1971, we have celebrated the end of Portuguese colonial rule in Africa and the end of apartheid rule in southern Africa. There has even been progress in Sudan with the formation of an independent South Sudan in 2011. Among the new nations of Africa, only in Congo has there been retreat from the people’s aspirations in 1960. Only in Congo has the government failed to protect and further the rights of the people to such an extent they now proclaim the Mobutu era as the good old days.

At the same time, the Protestant churches of Congo have carried out ministries we in the States have had a hand in and can be proud of.  Among the sixty plus Congolese Protestant denominations, the Disciples of Christ played a leading role in the creation of the unified Church of Christ of Congo and the Disciple Rev. Itofo Bokambanza Bokeleale served as its first President for 30 years.  In many areas of the country, Protestant churches are the lone providers of health, education and community development services.  While the government often fails in its promise to support these services in urban and rural areas, the churches and its leaders help raise the funds to keep them going.  In the fields of public service, the churches both Protestant and Catholic lead the way.

In the midst of the decline in the country’s roads and other infrastructure, the growth of the Protestant movement in Congo challenges our imaginations.  The Disciples community has grown from around 25,000 members in 1960 to more than 650,000 today.  With missionary zeal, Congolese Disciples have planted new churches throughout Congo and the neighboring Congo Brazzaville.  The honor and respect accorded the U.S. missionaries who first planted the seeds extends to those fortunate enough to visit and represent the U.S. Church in our day.

To those who might consider a longer visit to Congo in a missionary assignment today, I can assure you that your presence there would be answering the Congolese Disciples’ prayers. It has been many years since someone from the U.S. served with the Disciples in Congo in a longer term assignment.  For several years, the office of Global Ministries (www.globalministries.org) has been seeking to fill the two fully funded positions described on the website.  The need for French skills and the high humidity in Equateur Province have ruled a Congo assignment for Kate and me but I would welcome contact with anyone considering the call to serve there.  You may reach me at dsmithy1@verizon.net

What Makes Kinshasa Tick

One man pushes 18 empty oil drums on a "pousse pousse" cart down a Kinshasa street.
One man pushes 18 empty oil drums on a “pousse pousse” cart down a Kinshasa street. Photo by Cindy Shiner.

For most travelers to the Congo, the dusty, chaotic capital city of Kinshasa will shape their first impressions.  This is unfortunate on many counts but foremost for the reason that Kinshasa can overwhelm in ways that threaten to challenge appreciation of the overall Congo experience, including the experience of life in the more serene settings in the interior.  A similar challenge would be faced by those entering the country via the war torn cities of the eastern Congo, Bukavu and Goma.

The following article on Kinshasa by journalist Cindy Shiner represents an attempt to describe how ten million people survive the degraded economic and environmental conditions of the capital city. It will, I hope, serve the reader in facilitating understanding of the order underneath the chaos and perhaps enabling an appreciation of the courage and vitality of a population struggling for a better life for themselves and their children.

By Cindy Shiner from All Africa. Com  11 June 2012 “Staff Blog”

Titled “Congo-Kinshasa: A City’s Modern March of Hope”

Kinshasa — It begins at twilight, just as the roosters begin to crow, before the sky reclaims the overnight rain. At first there are only a few hundred – the earliest risers, the ones hoping to get ahead of the traffic, those wishing for a jump on the competition. By dawn, the steam rising from the rain-soaked ditches and potholes, the people along the Boulevard Lumumba number in the thousands.

Once the mini-buses, trucks, motorcycles and car taxis have jammed the road, the masses of people heading into town have swollen to the tens, if not hundreds, of thousands: walking, jumping into trucks, tying things down, hoisting them up, holding them in place, limping, carrying, balancing, navigating, shifting a baby on their backs, holding a child’s hand, peering through the cassava leaves bundled on top of their heads, urban cowboys yelling from taxi buses, cash blooming in their fists, a man dressed up in a chartreuse shirt and polka dot tie, carrying a portfolio, another holding an umbrella in case there is an afternoon thunderstorm. Footsteps sound on pavement; mud sucks at shoes.

Twenty years ago, a pro-democracy demonstration called the March of Hope brought thousands onto the streets of Kinshasa. Now, a march of a different sort plays out six days a week in this city of 10 million, as masses of people head downtown to earn a living or seek a means to do so.

It is, in a sense, another kind of march of hope – one that has nothing to do with politics and everything to do with survival. To a returned visitor, however, it has everything to do with politics. Because it is poor governance – the lack of urban planning, corruption, neglected infrastructure – that is responsible for Kinshasa’s millions of poor people and the state they’re in.

I first came to this capital city in January 1992, a few weeks before what was formally organized by church leaders as the March of Hope. I lived in the city for five months and then returned intermittently throughout the 1990s while based in Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire, as a freelance journalist. My last trip to Kinshasa was in 1997 for the end of Mobutu Sese Seko’s 32-year despotic rule. Known as Zaire under Mobutu, the country became the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

I recently had the chance to return to Congo, on assignment for AllAfrica to do a story on maternal health, and I jumped at it. I wanted to see how much had changed in the past two decades. Demonstrators in 1992 were marching for democracy and the better life they thought it would bring. Where, I wanted to know, was Kinshasa’s hope now?

I didn’t find the answer on the rehabilitated Boulevard 30 Juin – an eight-lane highway that drivers treat like a speedway. (Just ask the head of the emergency department at the main hospital.) I didn’t find it in the many new hotels and high-rises in the city or in the brand new western-style supermarket downtown. I didn’t find it on the giant billboard advertizing the new Justice Ministry offices that are to be built with the help of foreign aid. I didn’t find it with the recognition that all the calendars I saw in government offices were for 2012, unlike previous visits when they were often out of date, serving mainly as artwork. I didn’t find it discussing the most recent, problematic elections. And I didn’t find it around the new fountain downtown or the one near the stadium, as aspirational and refreshing as they looked.

On the "shoulder" of Kinshasa's Boulevard Lumumba on the way to town from Ndjili Airport
On the shoulder of Kinshasa’s Boulevard Lumumba on the way to the city center from Ndjili Airport

No, the hope I found was in an unlikely spot: on the Boulevard Lumumba.

The morning bustle on the boulevard is the audible manifestation of se débrouiller – the French word that means “to get by” or “to manage”. The Kinois, as the residents of this city are known, are experts at it. And as these things go, it is both their greatest strength and their greatest weakness. Perhaps if they hadn’t been so good at getting by and making do, they would long ago have gotten rid of the corrupt leaders who forced them to rely on theirdébrouillardise, or resourcefulness.

Eighty percent of the country’s workforce labors in the informal sector. Ask them how they deal with the many problems they face – joblessness, conflict in the east, endemic malaria, scant running water, poor sanitation, health and education they can barely afford, the rising cost of food and transportation – and they’re like to say, “Je me débrouille.” I get by; I manage.

But it’s more than that isn’t it? I get by wearing 10-year-old sandals. I manage the household budget (or I’m supposed to). Kinois, I thought, must have a unique idiom – possibly a local word, a Lingala word – for what they do. There is one term, Article 15, which encompasses ingenuity and state-sanctioned graft. But I was thinking of something a little different, something more physical, because being a Kinois is downright hard work. Ask the man hauling 18 oil drums on a wheelbarrow down the street.

These efforts are not “managing” or “getting by” they’re much more than that. So I asked my Kinshasa assistant, the efficient and pragmatic Emery Makumeno, if there was a Lingala term. And, he said, to some degree, there is:kobeta libanga. It is literally translated as “breaking stones” from the time of forced labor under the Belgian colonizers. It is often used to refer to Congolese in the Diaspora who will work any job to send money home. It is also used to describe the work, efforts and challenges Kinois will undertake to survive in their city. Je me debrouille rolls off the tongue easily, but kobeta libanga is worthy of a ballad.

Kobeta libanga plays out the length of the Boulevard Lumumba as more people are forced to walk several kilometers into town because of frequent traffic gridlock caused by road works. Named after independence leader Patrice Lumumba, the boulevard is the main artery leading to Kinshasa from beyond the international airport, Ndjili.

At the end of the runway, and visible from the air, is the city’s version of a potter’s field. There’s no telling how many people have been buried there: headstones are broken, stolen, grown over. It is one of the cheapest places around to inter a body. There’s another cemetery, downtown, that has been taken over, the precious soil now used as a community garden for people to plant subsistence crops or a few surplus vegetables they can sell at the market. I asked Emery if people had much success hawking vegetables nourished by decomposing bodies. “I don’t think they tell anyone,” he said.

Passing the airport on the right, the same side as the Congo River, the boulevard abuts the neighborhoods Masina I, II and III. I don’t know why these impoverished quartiers weren’t given distinct names. Perhaps by the time people had reached that far from the city center, they just plain ran out of ideas.

Health workers I visited at the Roi Baudouin I Hospital Center in Masina I, said the Masinas are

The UN's funding of nearly 20,000 soldiers, the largest peacekeeping force in the world, helps keep the current Kabila administration in power
The presence of nearly 20,000 UN soldiers, the largest peacekeeping force in the world, helps keep the current Kabila administration in power

among the poorest and most densely populated neighborhoods of Kinshasa. Wikipedia says Masina (it didn’t say which one, or all three) had “recently become a desirable area in which to live and has a large, growing population”.

I think someone should tell the Wikipedia editors that just because a lot of people live in a place doesn’t necessary mean it’s desirable. Much of the Masinas are on a wetland. Malaria is endemic. The disease is the DRC’s biggest child killer, claiming the lives of some 180,000 children under the age of five per year, according to Unicef. A wet, warm, overcrowded environment is prime for malaria transmission.

Further down, the Wikipedia listing says this: “The urban area reaches population densities comparable to those of other municipalities in the heart of Kinshasa (about 50,000 inhabitants per square kilometer).” To get a perspective on just how many people live in the Masinas, take into account that New York City has a population density of about 27,000 people per the equivalent of one square mile, or 2.6 square kilometers, according to the city’s official website. So, for those of you who are math challenged like me, that means nearly double the number of people in Kinshasa live on less than half the equivalent area. And most don’t have running water, proper toilets or trash disposal.

If that wasn’t daunting enough, the United Nations estimates that between 2010 and 2020 Kinshasa’s population will have grown by 46 percent. That means the challenges for Kinois, the competition for resources, the pressure on an already overburdened infrastructure and the sheer effort it will take to get into town will become that much greater. The government of President Joseph Kabila deserves credit for making improvements to Kinshasa’s main arteries, such as the Boulevard Lumumba and the Boulevard 30 Juin. But little work has been done in the most populous neighborhoods, such as the Masinas.

Much has been written about DRC’s resources – it’s gold, copper, diamonds, rubber, forests – and how transparent use of them could turn the nation around. The Congo River – the world’s second largest river by volume – has enormous hydroelectric potential. But as it is now, DRC ranks near the bottom of United Nations indicators for human development.

It is true that the country could be an economic giant in sub-Saharan Africa and that it holds enormous promise. The World Bank predicts an annual economic growth rate of seven percent over the next two years. But growth cannot reach its full potential without the work of the Congolese people – the nation’s greatest resource, its best hope.

As I wrapped up my stories from Kinshasa I was also finishing up some of the escapist reading I had bought to pass the many hours spent on planes and in airport terminals. I found this passage at the end of “Sole Survivor” by Dean Koontz.

“Only the human spirit can act with volition and consciously change itself; it is the only thing in all creation that is not entirely at the mercy of forces outside itself, and it is, therefore, the most powerful and valuable form of energy in the universe.”

The government in Kinshasa should take note.

NOTE:  Photos in this and all lokoleyacongo postings are by the editor/author, Doug Smith, unless otherwise noted