Congo 2005

From an e-mail shortly after my return from The DRC in the Summer of 2005
I’m back in the States and have somewhat passed the jet-lagged
stage…at least I’m not waking up at 3:00 in the morning now!

Of course, when one returns from a trip like this, everyone either

  1. asks for every detail or
  2. doesn’t realize I’ve been where I’ve been and continues on as if I’ve been hidden in a closet for the past month.

I’ve thought about sitting down and writing a synopsis of my trip; however, it’s going to take some time to digest what I’ve witnessed. The people who want every detail can’t really comprehend the nature of what I’ve seen (I can’t imagine what it’s like for people coming back to a peaceful land after witnessing war…or maybe I can a bit better now). The people who don’t know I’ve been away tend to grate on my nerves; On the flight from Washington to Philadelphia, the person sitting beside me asked if I’d heard Michael Jackson got away without charges. I wanted to scream. I’d just returned from a country where more than 30,000 people are killed by violent acts each month and the world’s attention (or, pardon, America’s attention) is focused on a perverted rock star.

In a sense, it would be easy to write about the specifics. I could write several pages describing malnourished children, corrupt governments, and generally unstable societies. But you’ve probably read all that already. (And, I’m sure some of you have witnessed it as well.)

With my eyes I’ve seen things people in the “civilized” world don’t wish to concern themselves with or don’t know to. The Democratic Republic of the Congo is a giant disaster and, it has to be considered, there may be little hope for improvement. In the 1990’s and early this century there was a war (or, a series of “conflicts”) in which millions of people died. During this time, many aid groups pulled out of the country leaving the already tattered infrastructure bare (as there aren’t really any taxes, there also isn’t really any governmental structure for medicine, education, or…anything. Basically, everything comes from outside aid groups). During the conflicts, most hospitals and schools were looted. Teachers and doctors fled and the aid groups supporting them left. So there is now a generation of Congolese growing up without education. There is one doctor or nurse practitioner for every 100,000 people in the country. The unemployment rate is somewhere around 90 percent. The average ANNUAL income has just been revised to $120 USD. The country is as big as the United States east of the Mississippi River with about 56 million people (this population, barring epidemics or genocide, could double in the next 40 years). Police aren’t paid; they are expected to make their income off bribes and harassment. We saw truckload after truckload of tropical hardwoods on their way out of the country (giant ancient trees easily sold for sometimes $60,000 on the world market). The Congolese who sells the tree off his land may get paid $100.

The history of the country since Belgian colonization 1 in the late 1800’s has been one of constant brutality, blood, enslavement, and destruction. I have never seen a place of such desolation.

I could go on; I heard harrowing stories from the missionaries about safety (the missionaries in Kinshasa live under the protection of US Marines), about massacres (the former president went on the radio one day and declared all Rwandans enemies of the State; he then called for the people to kill Rwandans. The missionaries have pictures of bodies lining the streets of Kinshasa), about having family meals and singing hymns under live fire, about despair.

We visited several hospitals on this trip (the American Baptist mission work in Congo is in partnership with USAID, the US government’s humanitarian aid organization). I spent a morning in a surgical ward watching a cataract surgery, an ovarian cyst removal, and a prostatectomy — all done under local anesthesia in a room that looked much like a cross between an old garage and the laboratory of Dr. Frankenstein. We saw patients two to a bed with every kind of tropical illness (many of the people we saw are already dead; all the patients with HIV/AIDS will be dead in 2-5 years. There is no way they can afford treatment). Even people with easily preventable diseases will most likely die from them; there is just no medication readily available for them (I had to have about $400 USD worth of vaccinations to travel “safely” in Congo plus the $100 of anti-malarial medications prescribed for me; there is no possible way for the vast numbers of impoverished peoples there to afford such medicines).

On and on and on…

This month, the government was supposed to hold elections. There is absolutely no way this is going to happen. All the countries surrounding Congo have dibs on adjoining land and are agitating rebel groups and the general population. One of the missionaries said the markets are already sold out of machetes. [Last Friday, the US Department of State issued a travel warning for US citizens to avoid travel to DR Congo and for Americans in the country to be prepared to evacuate.] Congo could, in the next couple weeks, descend into complete chaos. Or not. Hopefully not; but in a place of such desperation, it just takes a little bit to tip the scale one way or the other (note: there were no elections and, other than some street unrest and a couple riots, the situation calmed fairly quickly; however, it remains tenuous as the parties in control loose legitimacy. Their central claim to power is that they will usher in a freely elected government. This will be all but impossible in a country with little communication infrastructure and no census. Also, the government barely has control over just the capital city {there is a frontier around the city that is closed at night to lessen the chance that rebels will overrun it}).

A representative of the United Nations says Congo is the worst unspoken humanitarian disaster in the world. 2 I don’t even wish to recount some of the documented atrocities I’ve read and heard from the missionaries. (Currently the Pygmy tribes that live in Northeast Congo are subject to an unspeakable genocide. There is a bush legend that Pygmy peoples have special prowess in the jungles and are able to perform superhuman feats. Various of the rebel groups are hunting Pygmy, killing, and eating them to gain these powers. This was, unfortunately, not the worst of the stories that were recounted to me).

We have no idea. It’s hard to complain about minor issues here when there are millions of people living in houses made of dried dung who could at any moment be overrun by the military of their own government or militias from the country next door, whose crops and forests are sold for nothing to make houses in Japan or sugar for Chicago.

I’ve never had people stare right through me; we drove into Bas Congo in a USAID SUV (US Embassy plates, we weren’t stopped or harassed because we could call in a bunch of Marines with big guns). People looked at us with empty desperate and sometimes hateful eyes. Simply, I was white and obviously had some sort of connections and protection. People on the street had none of this, not even the protection of the law. Nothing; they are completely exposed and have to fend for themselves in one of the most hostile environments on earth. I had never understood where the title Heart of Darkness came from. I have some understanding now.

Despite all this, there are people there doing good; I have never been so impressed with people working as missionaries. They do so at great personal risk. They also sacrifice a lot concerning their families. There are doctors working there in bad conditions; they could easily work in pristine well-equipped hospitals in Europe or America and make large salaries doing so. Instead they work with just a little to make what difference they can. It’s very touching. It is a small shimmer of hope though on a otherwise dark place.

1 For an excellent laymans commentary on the history of colonization in The Congo, read King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa by Adam Hochschild. It’s published by Houghton Mifflin.
2 United Nations emergency relief coordinator Jan Egeland speaking before the UN on humanitarian aid issues.

Here is a journal entry from Dr. Bill Clemmer concerning our trip to Congo. Dr. Clemmer is the coordinator of the medical aid program we were documenting.
Also see the BBC’s ongoing country profile and stories concerning The DRC (and just about everywhere else, for that matter) on their website.