Kananga, April 13, 2003

‘…we whites…By the simple exercise of our will we can exert a power for good practically unbounded…Exterminate all the brutes!  Joseph Conrad in Heart of Darkness


For those of you who followed my descent into Hell from Kisangani to Kindu, and like the dark side of adventure, Kananga, in Western Kasai, may be a let down.  For me, it is a trip to paradise much deserved.

 Kananga is a Southern city of over one million people in the government zone, on the West side of the ‘demilitarized zone’, as it is called. The government soldiers have nice new green uniforms and black leather boots, a big step up from the heteroclite uniforms of the RCD troops with their silly rubber boots.  They are also much better disciplined and do not look angry all the time.

There is nobody shooting at you here.  The Senegalese soldiers, guarding the gate at HQ, are not armed, when there is a guard at all. Even the wall around the complex of buildings is not complete; a big gaping opening on the front street side is only protected by some barbed wire.

My first impression of Kananga was the twenty-five degrees: ten to fifteen degrees cooler than Kindu at its coolest.  There is always a slight breeze.  I am staying in a very lovely, large house with a charming Sudanese doctor working with the UN.  The UN supplies electricity twenty-four hours a day, filtered water, and fourteen bottles of purified water per week.  The house has a garage and two big gardens in the front and back. There do not seem to be any mosquitoes.

I sat on the stoop the first night enjoying the ‘chilly’ air.  I wondered what that strange smell was and looked to my right to see … flowers!  The roads are paved, and believe it or not, the potholes are being repaired by the local government.

The city is full of very big and pretty one story colonial houses, mostly built by the Belgians, before and after independence, and, of course, in bad need of repairs, paint and windows.  The city center is lined with shops in two story concrete buildings with covered arcade sidewalks and very busy with people.  The market is full of food from piles of white manioc flower or yellow maize meal neatly piled and hand patted smooth, to basket fulls of grilled caterpillars and dried fish.  People sell bread, bananas, eggs and other foodstuffs along large boulevards separated by an esplanade with rows of trees. Goats run free everywhere. There are privately owned cars and trucks operating and even a couple of petrol stations.  Kananga is a city with an economy, albeit running at slow speed.

If the people in the RCD-Goma controlled zones could only see life here, they would rise up and unseat their tormentors.  Alas, as I have stated in previous reports, they are too hungry, tired and beaten than to do anything else but die in protest, and die they do.

But wherever you go in the Congo, you seem to come across death and disease.  On my first day at the Kananga job I had to go see the pieces of a woman who managed to fall under the freight train she was trying to jump off of.  Yes, there are trains running from Kananga to Lubumbashi.  The tracks are in such bad state, it takes two days to make the trip but, nevertheless, the trains are running.

The General Hospital is a series of three story buildings with 500 beds, laboratories and surgery.  There are seven permanent doctors and 100 staff from nurses to administration to cleaners.  Parts of the hospital are getting fresh pink and yellow paint and plaster on the walls. Except for the vaccines donated by the WHO I saw sitting in the sun, waiting to be taken to the countryside where, after spoiling in the heat, will certainly do more harm than good, I must say the hospital seemed decent by African standards.  When the Belgians built it, it was, of course, segregated.  Now whites have to share wards with Blacks.  I assure you, I saw no whites at the hospital.

But Kananga has its problems.  The Congolese soldiers steal from the population and beat those who have nothing to give.  A journalist named Caniche, tried to file a suit against some soldiers.  A year later, he has heard nothing.  When the Zimbabweans were here, the people had no problems getting around,” he says.  But the Zimbabweans left. The Congolese soldiers and the police only make about ten dollars a month if they are paid at all.  Their only motivation for joining up is to be able to rob with impunity to make ends meet.

The state run power plant electrifies only the upper classes of Congolese society, that is those who can afford to pay.  Hey, but it functions.  Given that for the moment I have few horror stories to tell, I will take advantage of the lull to address a couple of other questions concerning the UN mission to the Congo.

Many of those in technical support, the vast majority of whom are white with a few Arabs thrown in, despise the Congolese and talk to them like shit.  As I said previously, there is this strange habit on the part of many Congolese to say ‘Thank you” when they are spat upon.  Maybe it’s the UN money the Congolese employees enjoy.  Money is certainly the motivation for the Internationals with the UN.  And the Internationals do make very, very good money.

One South African in Kindu (we’ll call him Alpha-Oscar-One), somewhere in his forties, with untrimmed, curly, blond hair over his ears, sucking on a water pipe and wearing those silly fluffy imitation animal slippers despite the heat, bragged of how he ran guns during the embargo on his country.  Now I’m flying in hospitals and bull dozers.  Hey, I’ll do anything for money.”

In great part this could be excusable.  It is very hard to believe that the UN mission here has any chance of success.  The ink is not dry on the paper and they are fighting again in the East.  In Maniema, where I was last week, they never stopped fighting.  The RCD-Goma people are looking for every excuse not to sit in on the transition government and run the risk of losing all the money they are making by stealing the country’s natural resources with their Rwandan masters.  Every day there is a new massacre and if it is not corrupt ‘armies’, it is ethnic hatred and rivalry.

But another cloud is descending upon the UN personnel in the Congo (they see it as a ray of light).  Many are waiting for offers to work with the UN in Iraq.  I’ll go in a minute,” says Ivan, a heavy-set young South African.  I’ll make double there what I’m getting here.”  It has not crossed their minds that the very future of the UN could be now in question, given the American attitude on who should run the world.

There is another problem.  TI am told they recently tested a contingent of Tunisian soldiers returning home after a tour of duty in the Congo.  Seventy-percent of them tested HIV positive!  Nice for Tunisia, which up till now has had no Aids problem to speak of.  It is the same thing for the Moroccans.  The South Africans are having trouble filling their contingents because you have to be HIV negative to get the assignment.  That’s why the contingents are overwhelmingly white,” says Alpha-Oscar-One.  An average thirty percent of the South Africans who come here clean go back with the virus.

When I asked how the Senegalese contingent perform in comparison to crack troops like the Uruguayans, Michel B., a Canadian career man with the UN responded: “I don’t know but the Congolese women in Kananga are very happy with their performance.”

Some of the Senegalese (Muslims) say they would take a Congolese wife but that “the Congolese are so immoral.”  This drives the Sudanese doctor up the wall.  She yelled at one of them saying “and it is not immoral for you to take advantage of their poverty for sex?”  The logic, she says, escaped her interlocutor. 

I had been warned that the people of Kasai were very efficient, intelligent and well educated.  Those at Radio Okapi here seem to confirm this.  They work well and produce stories in a town where basically not much ever happens.  They are very confident and love to chase down corruption stories (something that would get you shot in a minute in the rebel zones).  The Kinshasa regime respects Okapi and the freedom of its employees. The reporters here exploit this freedom to the fullest.  That, at least, is enough to spark some hope for the future.  Of course, corruption is still widespread.

They’re afraid of us,” says Caniche who used to work for the state run RTNC.  The thirty-one year old Caniche is tall and very slim with long thin hands, not at all the kind of guy who could frighten anybody.  They don’t dare refuse to answer our questions because they know we’ll tell the story all the same.”

Andre is a more heavy set man with a potbelly and a doctorate in French and Latin. Needless-to-say, he writes quite well.  But I do make some corrections transforming his prose into journalese, but not much.  Basically, I’m the driver as I am the only one who has a license.  Oh, I did not tell you I have a nice big four-wheel-drive Toyota with stereo, AC, radio transmitter-receiver and you-name-it.  I hope I don’t have anything more exciting to tell you in my next report.  I’m enjoying the vacation.


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