Survival in the Congo: Not for the faint-hearted

In the year 2000 or thereabouts, I was chatting with a Congolese opposition politician by the poolside of a local hotel in Kigali when he invited me to accompany him to his home village in Kasai, right in the middle of DR Congo.

In the year 2000 or thereabouts, I was chatting with a Congolese opposition politician by the poolside of a local hotel in Kigali when he invited me to accompany him to his home village in Kasai, right in the middle of DR Congo.

I had been in the Congo several times before, covering the wars, but had neither ventured right into the heartland of this diamond–rich region, nor was I prepared for “the other Congo”.

It was obvious that Lusambo was at one time a prosperous town. The only evidence that remained were collapsed buildings and metal street lamps peeping out from the centre of a tropical jungle- a sign that the forest had gobbled up the main street.

The vestiges of the past were even reflected in the welcome committee who set up an elaborate affair to receive their own long-lost son. Dancing troupes immediately began singing praises of my friend, who, as a sign of exuding authority, had quickly changed into army fatigues just before we landed at a makeshift bush airstrip.

The people in charge of protocol could have matched anyone from the big cities. Even though the day’s program was meticulously typed out on the reverse side of recycled government documents- birth certificates, land titles, etc- ‘borrowed’ from the government archives.

Salt, I was told, was about equal its weight in gold. It took enterprising traders weeks to ferry in a 50 kilo sack of salt which would then be bartered by the spoonful for essential commodities or minerals.

There was no sign of farming no matter which part of town I visited, but there was food aplenty- in the forest. This was a place where anything that flew, crawled or slithered was fair game—even the enticing Sombe was laced with caterpillars and other creatures.

Dog meat in that region is a delicacy reserved for only the most important visitors as a sign of reverence and esteem. They called it “nyama ya wakubwa” (important persons’ meat) and was on the menu of a grand feast in honour of my politician friend and his entourage, yours truly included.

I had to dig deep into my large stock of excuses to avoid passing near the steaming pot that contained the culinary remains of man’s best friend and possibly offend my hosts by refusing to dip in my spoon.

The gullibility of the population became obvious when- after all the pots had been wiped clean- they gave a thunderous applause to the politician’s promise to give all school teachers mopeds (50 cc motorcycles) even though there were no gas stations within a radius of hundreds of kilometres.

They were a politician’s gold mine, ready to believe anything. To them, even pipedreams were worth holding on to.

This was a population who confessed not having seen any official from the central government in Kinshasa since the ‘70s. The aging civil servants even claimed never seeing a pay check during this period.

Therefore any promise, however far-fetched, was better than none.

All the ingredients of a failed state were visible to all. The Congolese have, for decades, learnt the art of wading through the maze of survival and live to die another day.
A few weeks after my return from Kasai, I found myself in another part of the Congo that was paradise compared to where I had been.

This was Masisi in North Kivu , the (conventional) food basket of the Congo.

In the early 1920s the Belgian colonialists then began a policy of transplanting people from current day Rwanda to Masisi, Rutchuru, even as far as Shaba in the south as a source of much needed manpower.

The historical connection to Rwanda, the abundance of food and natural resources made it the ideal retreat for the former Rwandan government army and Interahamwe militia who are responsible for the 1994 Genocide in Rwanda.

The remnants of these forces, now grouped under the FDLR rebels, have in the past been accused of targeting Congolese Tutsis in a calculated extension of their genocidal agenda- and they were not the only ones.

Over the past few years the Kivu region has accommodated a myriad of armed groups from neighbouring countries, some with the tacit support of the Congolese government.

Warlords erupted overnight with the sole purpose of controlling mining concessions, and in some cases, acting as a fifth column for some obscure political powers.

Congo is a story of survival, but for the Kinyarwanda speaking Congolese, surviving has taken on a new meaning because they are caught between the hammer and the anvil.

They are tracked on one hand by elements of the Congolese army who see them as a base of support to rebel leader General Laurent Nkunda.

On the other hand, they have been the subject of attacks by remnants of the former Rwandan army, Interahamwe and the Mai Mai militia.

The 40-year old general has refused to merge his men, estimated at 4,000, with the government forces and instead taken to the hills of Masisi to end what he terms ethnic cleansing of his people.

Not only has Nkunda managed to hold his position against a far better equipped and numerically superior government force, but he has also proven to be a canny field commander who occasionally regales in giving the government side and the interahamwe a few bloody noses.

Conventional wisdom makes it imperative to take Nkunda’s claims seriously, otherwise the conflict risks spiralling out of control and lighting up the region.

“Survival’ in the Congolese dictionary has taken precedence over ‘Ndombolo’ and ‘Sape’ (fashion). In the Kivu, it is not about which unfortunate animal will grace the day’s table. It is a matter of life and death.


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