Kisangani, July 6, 2003

tolekas-3.jpg This week the Boyamais (inhabitants of Kisangani) celebrated the forty-third anniversary of Congo’s independence, the Kisangani Fair boged down in mud and beer and another case of witch-craft led to the premature death of a white rabbit. 

A country?  What country?

June thirtieth marked the forty-third anniversary of the end of Belgian rule and the continuation of the horror under Black faces.  It was also the day President Joseph Kabila announced the composition of the Transition Government in which all the war-lords got the most coveted positions as the just rewards for their roles in mass murder and the total destruction and looting of the country.

It was the first time since the beginning of the war that the people of Kisangani turned out in large numbers to attend the official celebrations put on by the RCD-Goma.  The economic operators also turned out to be seen with the authorities who have impoverished and terrorized the population while filling their pockets.  But the two social groups turned out for different reasons.

As is typical of the Congolese, they really want to hope someone will do something to end the mess. The naming of a transition government is all they needed and so the Pirogue men marched with their oars high in the air, the workers at the Bralima brewery, the only factory still operating, marched in their company colors cut into men’s shirts and women’s pagnes, along with various women’s auxiliaries of this and that and other elements with an official name from the old days that was supposed to give those who have nothing a sense of sharing in the wealth of the country, not to mention the military and police who were brought out in force.  They all pretended for a day that they are the members of one big happy and united Congolese family, despite the stepped up fighting only a couple of hundred kilometers away.

Even the Okapi reporters were enthusiastic.  Fidel came in beaming, telling me “this is the anniversary of our country’s independence.”

What country?  You don’t have a country.”  I said ruining his day because he was forced to agree.

The businessmen, however, seem to think the authorities will have power in a new government and it is time to be seen rubbing elbows with the officials if they are to get a piece of the cake. They understand that as things are, if a government is formed, it will be the same as before, as always: favoritism, corruption and nepotism.

It is hard for me to comprehend the high spirits.  Nobody has been paid in five years; neither the soldiers and police, nor the workers, nor the employees, all of whom are obliged to show up at their work stations.  Everybody lives off of ripping off the next guy and there is no indication anywhere that this is going to change.  But then again, hope is all the Congolese have.  Unfortunately, it is hope somebody else will do something for them.  Those at the bottom are doing nothing to change their ways and those at the top are making much too much money to want to.  But this hope is also a good reason to party much to the delight of the Brelima breweries.

The Fair was supposed to be a showcase that the future is upon us.  Except for a stand by the UN, one from the Red cross, one from the SOTEXKI textile works (see below) and a couple of cigarette makers’ booths, there is no economic activity on display.  All the rest of the stands are Bars, over forty of them, each with a terrible speaker system blaring at full blast what may have been music in the beginning but now comes out as competing and deafening noise.  However, the bars are full and the Primus beer is downed by the cubic ton.  This orgy of male public intoxication is to last a month.  Women are not allowed to consume beer in public.

Making matters worse is the dry season has been marked by heavy rains transforming the fair ground rented out by the Palm Beech hotel at forty dollars a stand into one big mud bowl.  Of course, officials insist on coming in with their four-wheel drives, get stuck, spray people and bars with the sticky earth and make the mess even worse.  As an aside, the Palm Beech is owned by a high-ranking RCD member.

Drinking Culture; The Economy on Hold

Palambi Kumute Kindu is the Head of the Culture and Art Division, a sort of Minister of Culture here.  He was wearing bright purple trousers, a yellow and blue RCD shirt and an unkempt graying beard. There are three rooms in his dark and dusty ministry, two of which are lined with shelves full of musty and rotting hand written archives.  The third is  Kumute Kindu’s office which is full of artifacts: masks, spears, statues, earthen works and so on.  When asked why he organized a fair for public drunkenness and not for economic prosperity, he said: “We want to give people a chance to celebrate their independence.”  He insisted there will be cultural activity although the program had not been drawn up and he listed the three companies present at the fair, one of which is the Brewery, as proof it is an economic fair too.

During the whole interview he watched me eye his small museum.  As we left he said: “What do you want to buy.  All of this is for sale, just name your price.”  I asked him how he could sell state property to which he answered, “It’s all mine.”

Well, one man who does not agree with Mr. Kumute Kindu is Raymond Mokeni Ecopikani, a very active man who is one of the few to have rebuilt his house after the destruction of the war and who tries to keep his economic activities going.  He is short and a cripple in both legs but beams with energy.  The office in his house has three computers with internet access, the television with its satellite channels plays in the next room, his yard is well kept and clean.  Whether in Swahili, Lingala, French, English and I suspect Greek, Mr. Ecopikani, President of the Federation of Economic Operators, explains there are no businesses at the fair “because there is absolutely no economic activity in Kinsangani and the authorities are doing everything to prevent any.”

raymond-mokeni-ecopikani.jpgRaymond Mokeni Ecopikani

Mr. Ecopikani holds out great hope for the arrival of the first barges to be allowed up the Congo River from Kinshasa.  Four or five are expected to arrive in about two weeks, that is, of course, unless the RCD-G change their minds again.  But Mr. Ecopikani is proof that there are still people here ready to bring Kisangani back to life and the fact that he is (mostly) White has not dampened the confidence his Black colleagues have in him.

I visited the SOTEXKI textile works this week.  They are at the fair trying to sell off stock.  The company was set up as a joint venture with a French company called Beaujolain (?).  Before the war it employed 2500 people and gave work to countless others as it threaded the cotton it bought locally.  Today less than 100 people keep the place up waiting for the day when the war ends and they can get back to work.  According to one manager, what little they do now is with the financial and material help of the French mother company.

All the machines are in tip-top shape, the buildings are intact, the gardens are spotless and near the administration building is a pasture created by a French paysagiste which looks just like Normandy and the lemon trees in the back could pass easily for apple trees.  I said the only thing missing are the cows. “They were stolen by the soldiers,” as were the sheep.  So, why is SOTEXKI still intact?

The story goes the employees, mostly at the top of the echelon, welded shut the gates and told the soldiers they would have to kill them if they wanted to pillage the works.  This is a mystery because these so-called soldiers have never stopped at killing anybody to pillage.  But the factory is there, ready to spin tomorrow, if only there was a market and an environment which would allow them to harvest their profits.

The first commercial flight from Kinshasa since the beginning of the war arrived in Kisangani Friday.  This coincided with the appearance in Kisangani this week of about eight high-class, brand-new, luxury Cherokee Jeeps and Toyota Prados.  They were not driven here.  There are no roads to speak of.  All gas, which is not stolen from the UN, is flown in.  Another mystery.

Also on the plane was the American Celtel man  whose Rwandan based Lebanese operator landed the contract for the local monopoly in cell phones (see previous report).  He brought along about forty Congolese sporting orange CelTel tee-shirts, including reporters and the RCD, after the luxury car motorcade from the airport, hosted a street speaking event to cut the blue ribbon that officially opened CelTel’s Kisangani headquarters.

Meanwhile

On Thursday I went to see the body of a 17 year-old girl shot in the back of the head by her husband’s brother, both of the latter RCD soldiers.  The brother was cleaning his Kalashnikov and decided he did not have to take out the clip.  The bolt slipped forward and the shot went off killing his sister-in-law who was having breakfast with her young brother and husband.  This is further proof of two things:  the thugs are given weapons but no real training and the Congolese do not project, they cannot foresee the consequences of their actions.  That is why, as soon as pedestrians see a vehicle coming they run, not walk, for cover.

The Brazzaville quarter of Kisangani, like all the others, is a poor mud housed village where people believe in witch-craft, like all the others.  At four in the morning Thursday, Mangaza Shabani took her crying child out for some air.  She saw a white human figure come out of the hole of the garden toilet and move towards her.  She cried three times “in the name of Jesus Christ.”  By this time her husband Felix and the neighbors had come out to see what was going on, there, near the outhouse, was a white rabbit.  The specter had been transformed.  The villagers decided the best thing to do was burn the creature.  The village chief says their community has been the victim of many curses recently, such as the half buried duck, which, when they came back, had become a snake.

The UN is trying to fight the belief in witchcraft.  There has been a sharp rise in the number of (unwanted) children being killed because they are accused of being sorciers.  But not just children, adults as well are being killed for sorcellerie.  In many cases, as I have written about, the witchcraft is accompanied with incidents of cannibalism.  It is a good way to get rid of a nagging wife or an insolent neighbor.

Our problem was the Okapi reporter who covered the story also believed it.  Getting him to write it correctly, and not as a factual report like the girl shot in the head, was an arduous task.  Why cover the story at all?  For the people of Kisangani, the ‘event’ was important.

Peace and Transition

What about peace and transition?  Fighting is intensifying in the East.  There are further reports of Rwandan troops being massed for attack.  Of course, unconfirmed by the UN.  RCD-Goma troops have also advanced into MLC territory.  Given the track record of the Congolese signing everything they are asked to sign and then copiously ignoring the paper, I doubt sincerely peace is at hand.  But something is happening here; barges are coming, a flight arrived from Kinshasa and this just as an American takes over as the head of the UN mission to Congo and President Bush sets off on a five-nation African tour.

My analysis is that the US thought carving up the Congo was a good idea in the beginning.  It would be easier to get to ‘our’ resources through Uganda and Rwanda, both backed by the US and Britain and the Congolese were not doing a good job of managing ‘our’ resources in the first place.  But then came 9-11.  It became clear that the war-lords would do anything in exchange for money and people like Ben Laeden have plenty.  So, Washington has decided that having loose guns and anarchy here is not such a good thing.  I expect US pressure on Rwanda to get out of the Congo and this would mean the end of the much hated RCD-Goma.  I was informed of a top secret CIA team coming through town a couple of weeks ago to check up on reports of Rwandan combat helicopters attacking pro-government and UPC positions near Butembo.  Something the UN has been unable to confirm.

Meanwhile, dogs continue to feed on human cadavers. I was wondering why they always eat the feet, legs and arms first so that when you pick up the decaying, and often headless, body it has these sticks protruding from where the limbs used to be?  National Geographic taught me the wolf always eats the tongue and liver first.  So, what is the matter with African dogs?  It is a mystery.

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