Kindu, April 2003 – US AID gets it wrong

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“You need Yankee ingenuity and the Russian revolutionary sweep.”  Joseph Stalin

Even if you accept that everybody should do things the American way, there are obstacles you cannot ignore, especially if you work in the Congo.  Not for US AID, which once again proves that if there is the right way and the wrong way, there is also the American way.  This is the story of the Petite Opinion.

A few months ago, a woman with US Aid at the Embassy in Kinshasa paid a visit to Kindu.  She was heart-broken by a group of men who wanted so badly to start a newspaper, that they would handwrite broadsheets, which they then posted on walls, much like the “dazibaos” of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, except not much political here.  You can get shot easily in Kindu for thinking the wrong thing, let alone writing it.

Our heart-broken American decided Maniema Province deserved a newspaper (the last one died nine years ago), so she decided to do something about it.  With six thousand dollars generously accorded by the State Department, US Aid bought the men in Kindu a Compaq (c.) portable computer, a cheap HP (c.) printer and a scanner.  The whole thing was flown in by a UN plane and dumped at the Cargo hold.  This is where Congolese reality over-powered US policy.

The people in Kindu, except for the reporters with the UN at Radio Okapi, have never seen a computer.  I know more about Boeing 747 maintenance than they do about computers and those of you who know me understand that I know nothing about maintaining anything.  You also know I am no computer wizard.  But in the land of the blind, I am the King of the digital world. So naturally, it came upon me to help the Petite Opinion setup the programs and connections.

First problem: If you do not register with Microsoft (c.), the Windows (c.) program you have to install will self-destruct after 30 days. Microsoft (c.), of course, would like to protect their programs from being pirated.  Nothing easier.  All you have to do is register with them on the Internet.  Internet?  In the Congo?  Well, Microsoft (c.) thought perhaps some people might not be able to register by the Internet, so they give you a pay phone number and an endless serial number to register with an operator.  Now, even if these people had money for a phone call, which they do not, there has been no phone service in the Congo for five years.

I managed to convince the UN to look the other way so I could use their phone.  This goes against the UN mandate as they are not to take sides and backing a newspaper could be considered unfair support.

Second problem: I realized as I was installing programs, that the Congolese were paying no attention.  I said: “hey, you guys are going to have to set this up yourselves”.  It dawned on me that they understood nothing about cables, input and output, or even how to use the programs and could not understand if they tried to.  It was as if someone was giving me a class on the mathematics of Quantum mechanics.  The reporters who work at Radio Okapi and who have had access to UN computers for nearly a year, do not know how to reboot, open a program, save in Word, print a document and so on.  They have, however, learned to surf on the Internet and open pornographic pictures.  As for the radio, they are still handwriting their texts.

Third problem:  Even if these men one day learn the basics of a USB plug, or how to open word, or save a scanned document, they will not be able to use the system.  There has been no electricity in Kindu for five years!  Oh, the Americans did send them a small generator in the batch but none of them has any money to buy the stolen UN fuel being sold on the streets at exorbitant prices.  The people at the US Embassy explained that they are not allowed to finance the purchase of fuel by the Congolese, for obvious reasons.  So we are back to the point of departure.

There is still a solution.  If any of you have an old manual typewriter, a few stencils and a hand powered Roneo (c.) printer, like the ones we used in the 70’s for our anti-war leaflets, you could probably help the Petite Opinion a lot more than the mighty State Department.  I imagine the Americans would find it possible to furnish the Congolese with something as old fashioned as paper.

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