Wednesday, December 31, 2014

A Visit to the DR Congo, Part Un

I'm catching up on blogs I meant to write but never had the chance to put into words the past few months. I've found that I don't have quite the amount of blogging time I had in my Peace Corps days ;)

We’re presented with a lot of stereotyped images of Africa in western media. Perhaps the country whose image has been reduced most is the Democratic Republic of the Congo, or the DRC. News coverage of the DRC in the west inevitably focuses on four things: poverty, conflict/conflict minerals, rape and gender-based violence, and the Heart of Darkness. Every single time. Each article, no matter the source, reads something like “the DRC… the poorest country of the world….sexual violence….militias….the Kivus…. Mr. Kurtz…maybe mention the country's former dictator Mobutu for good measure.

It’s not that those things aren’t important to report on, but when that’s the only thing that’s ever written about, you begin to automatically, and often unfairly, associate those things with one another. The fourth most populous country in Africa, with 242 spoken languages, the size of Western Europe is suddenly reduced to poverty, conflict, rape, and some European guy travelling up the Congo river. 

In the words of Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in her excellent TED Talk "The Danger of a Single Story":"If I had not grown up in Nigeria, and if all I knew about Africa were from popular images, I too would think that Africa was a place of beautiful landscapes, beautiful animals, and incomprehensible people, fighting senseless wars, dying of poverty and AIDS, unable to speak for themselves and waiting to be saved by a kind, white foreigner...The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story."

I remember the first time I set eyes on Congo, on my way to my Peace Corps site two and a half years ago. Given the single-story news reporting on the DRC and its place as second to last on the UN's Human Development Index, I expected to see the Congo side practically in flames. I was surprised instead to see huge mansions and big boats across Lake Kivu. My curiosity with Congo had begun. 

I spent my service staring at the Congo mountains at my Peace Corps site, forbidden by Peace Corps rules from crossing over to the country formerly known as Zaire. Since my town was in a border region, many people would go to visit friends and family in the city across the border, Bukavu, and lots of people from my village had spent time in Congo in refugee camps after the genocide. My current house is just minutes from the border. When I finished my Peace Corps service, I knew I wanted to see it, even a tiny piece, for myself. When my roommate, who started a youth center in Bukavu with her husband, offered to show me around the city, I jumped at the chance.

I exchanged some Rwandan francs for Congolese francs. The bills were dirty and sometimes torn; I asked for different bills at the currency exchange, but the owner laughed at me and said all of his bills were like that. I crossed the border easily on a rickety wooden bridge over the Rusizi River, and the differences between Rwanda and Congo were readily apparent. Strict litter laws and a ban on plastic bags keep Rwanda’s rolling green hills pretty pristine. Right across the border, empty bottles and biscuit wrappers covered the dusty roads. Congolese police and soldiers, in their worn bluish-grey fatigues, often stood around smoking a cigarette or chatting with other soldiers.

The border was bustling, with sturdy women carrying pounds of tropical fruit in woven baskets on their heads and a mix of languages—Kinyarwanda, Kiswahili, French, and others I didn’t recognize in the air. The line on the Congolese immigration side was incredibly long, and seemed to be moving at barely a snail’s pace. I asked the man in front of me in line why, and he responded that the immigration officials didn’t have any pens, so they couldn’t sign anyone’s documents. We waited and waited.  I seemed to be the only person tremendously annoyed by the fact that no one seemed to be in any rush to find a pen. Eventually someone brought a Bic and the three immigration officials inside shared the one pen, and the line inched slowly forward. 

After getting my card stamped, I found a shared taxi outside the immigration office that would take me to meet my roommate, on one of Bukavu’s many peninsulas that protrude in Lake Kivu. The road through the streets of Bukavu was thrillingly different from riding through Kigali, and it reminded more of Kampala. Vendors lined the streets, selling their wares, music blared, and stores were often brightly painted with images of the contents of their store and featured French writing. 

I met my roommate at the Bukavu Cathedral, a beautiful old church that serves as an easy landmark. A wedding was happening inside the blue-roofed church, and a few people were praying outside in the garden overlooking the lake. It was a peaceful oasis in the midst of the bustling city. It was hard to imagine from the calm of the garden that eighteen years ago the Archbishop of Bukavu was assassinated and left for dead in the streets during the Congo Wars that killed millions.

Lora and I took a walk near Lake Kivu, which separates Rwanda and the DRC. I marveled at the houses that seemed to be built right on top of each other. We wandered through twisting dirt streets and sometimes cut in between properties to get where we wanted to go. Cars that passed us were frequently white Land Cruisers, proudly bearing their NGO's logo on all sides, UN vehicles shepherding groups of blue helmet soldiers around the city, and crammed minibuses and taxis pausing often to collect more passengers.

Eventually we arrived at the youth center started by Lora and her husband Chris, inside a massive but crumbling post office. Unlike Rwanda, which was first a German colony and then a Belgian colony but lacks many lasting visible vestiges of the colonial regime, several large, dilapidated buildings in Bukavu including schools, private residences, and government buildings constantly reminded me of Congo's brutal former colonizer.

The post office was gigantic, the size a football field or larger with a central courtyard in the middle. Rows of empty metal postal boxes lined the outside of the building; the post office hadn't functioned in years and the small metal doors to the boxes had been stolen in the idle period.

We climbed the stairs to the second floor, where several different businesses including a radio station, a recording studio, and a law office had been established in various wings. Lora and I passed by a portion of the building that had been boarded up because of a fire and then paused at one of the corners. Below us was a grand entrance hall to the post office, its greenish paint and a bit of art deco ornamentation still visible under a patina of dust. Though some of the windows had been shattered, but the building still retained a sense of elegance to me. It was like being in a real life museum. I tried to imagine what the post office must have looked like when it was first built: people waiting in line for their letter from far away, mail clerks in the back room sorting through newly-arrived packages. I wondered when the post office had finally closed, and when it would re-open.

Lora and I proceeded on to the youth center, where a music concert was about to begin. Some youth were already sitting on the wooden benches when we arrived. Eventually all of the seats were filled, with teenagers and some families who had come to watch the performance. The theme of "Women" was set in advance, and the artists and musicians had tailored their pieces to match the theme. In French, Swahili, and a couple other languages I couldn't discern, the musicians sang so beautifully I got goosebumps. Unlike the audience in most concerts I've been to in Rwanda, the attendees cheered and whooped and clapped enthusiastically throughout the show.

There was one performance that still stands out my head: a young Congolese girl of perhaps fourteen came in with several sisters and her mother, each one dressed to the nines. Her mother was regal, with smooth skin and a colorful outfit. When she smiled, a gap revealed where one tooth had been removed. Her teenage daughter was wearing a cobalt blue dress and glasses. While the family sat together in the audience waiting for her turn, the girl played nervously with the hem of her dress and tapped her feet, while her mother rubbed her back assuringly. When it was the girl's time to sing, she removed her glasses, took her place on stage, and transformed from awkward teenager to queen diva. Her voice was strong and confident. There was so much energy in that little room you could have bottled it.

It was my first day spent in one city, in only one of the DRC's eleven provinces, South Kivu. It would be like visiting only Brooklyn in the U.S. I'm the furthest thing from an expert on the country. But I felt that in the smallest of ways, I began to see something other than the Single Story of Congo presented to Americans. There was beauty on those crowded peninsulas sticking out into the blue waters of Lake Kivu and on the bustling streets and in the peeling walls of the cathedral. There was an energy in the Congolese rhumba blasting out of taxis and shops and a vibrancy in the beautiful kitenge fabric fashions worn by women on the dusty streets. It would be only a few more weeks before I made my second visit to Africa's second largest country.