Mbandaka, July 13, 2003

 Despotism is a legitimate mode of government in dealing with barbarians, provided the end be their improvement.”  John Stuart Mill in ‘On Liberty 


Mbandaka is in the government zone.  It is just one big military base with what seems to be tens of thousands of troops.  I drove forty-three kilometers out and came along at least six company sized army bases with trenches and machine gun nests and all ready for combat.  The airport is completely surrounded by trenches and troops at the ready.  The troops are all here with their families, and like the Indians around the forts in the Old West of the US, people have collected in and around the city bringing its population to over five-hundred-thousand people. 

As elsewhere in the government zone, all the soldiers have been issued new all green uniforms and black leather boots.  This is a sign that the government is getting financial backing for its military, which the rebels are not.  I have no idea where this backing is coming from yet but I intend to find out. 

Inside this giant military base are the Bolivian and Uruguayan contingents (roughly 500 troops in all) to protect the United Nations installations.  The UN here is completely military as well.  It is the base of operations for all of the North of the Congo.  There are no female UN workers here.  The only women are the handful of lucky Army ladies with the two contingents. 

boat-house-people-1.jpgThere is no economic activity in Mbandaka.  None.  I suppose when the Belgians founded the town, it was to collect the rubber they exported to Europe.  Before the war, there was a European owned saw mill, which has now fallen to ruin.  Once again, the only economic exchange is the UN.  But because it is purely a military base, the UN has not created much employment for the locals. 

Much of the town is composed of big brick and concrete colonial buildings.  Many of them got a fresh paint job for the June 30th Independence day celebrations when President Joseph Kabila came here to announce the formation of the transition government, but nothing was done to repair the roads.  The two cell phone operators, Vodacom and Celtel, have also painted part of the town in their company colors: blue and white for the former, orange and blue for the latter.

 The Big River Keeps on Flowing 

The port, if it can be called that, is divided into two parts.  Across from UN HQ is the Congolese Navy port with empty brick warehouses and a few flat bottom river boats converted into small-arms gun-boats tied to the bank.  There are a couple of unused and useless cranes standing against the mostly gray sky.  There is absolutely no activity here except for the Uruguayan Rivarine River Patrol company, which took over one of the brick warehouses and gave it a fresh blue and white paint job. 

About three hundred meters down river is the civilian port.  Barges and their tugs are tied to each other four or five deep and moored to the river bank.  There are no docks and the impression is that of pictures from the 1800s of boats tied to the banks of the Mississippi or the Missouri rivers.  

Six of the barges were supposed to leave for Kisangani with a UN escort over a week ago.  They are to be the first commercial boats to go from the government zone to the RCD-Goma zone in five years.  The barges are still waiting for a seventh to join them before they leave, if they can leave.  The authorities have impounded the boats because they have gone over the 48 hour limit barges are allowed to stay docked here.  I suppose they will have to pay a hefty tax.  In the meantime, passengers and crew who expected to be in Kisangani by now have run out of money and provisions.  This is largely the fault of the UN.  They should not have waited for the seventh barge and left at the agreed upon date. 

All along the river front road is the market where people sell what ever has come off the boats from Kinshasa.  This week it was badly made but very colorful towels, soap and articles of clothing.  Along with that you have villagers bringing in the boucane (smoked) fish, antelope and monkey, which apparently will keep for weeks until you break the still furry skin to get to the meat.  It is all laid on the ground. 

Behind the sellers and on either side of the paths going down to the river is waste, both jetsam and human.  The stench of sewage is hard to take without becoming nauseous.  There are no latrines and there is no such thing as trash collection.  NGOs want to build some latrines at the city’s markets but they decided first they had to teach people how to use them and maintain them, i.e. keep them clean and functioning.  People usually use latrines to discard everything thus blocking them up and they often miss the target and they do not bother to flush or clean and so on.  So, to teach the population, NGOs thought it best to begin by teaching the city’s officials.  We are still a long way away from public latrines.  

There is some electricity during the day in Mbandaka.  The power plant is a fuel burner and because it is so hard to get fuel here, the power usually goes out at 8 p.m.  I am told that when President Kabila was here, they had power 24 hours a day.  There is nothing to do anyway and only three bars in town, so the electricity serves little purpose, unless, of course, you want to read.  But who reads in this country?  The internationals and soldiers can stay in their offices or barracks where UN generators keep the power going.  Mbandaka is a quiet town where nothing happens. 

The excitement for us is the pizza and beer party the Uruguayans throw on Saturday night.  They took over the only big hotel in town, which gives them a very comfortable and barracks style life. Officers and enlisted men in civilian clothes mingle with the internationals while the eight or nine Bolivian and Uruguayan women soldiers, who are far from beauty queens, have great success on the dance floor and could not possibly drink everything the young soldiers want to buy for them.  Salsa music blares.  I am happy just sitting there watching the Uruguayans behind the bar hustle to serve drinks, a far cry from the foot dragging Congolese who take five minutes to come for your order and another five to bring you your beer before they go back to look for the bottle opener and they probably forgot to bring you a glass any way. 

Proud Mary Keeps on Going 

I am staying at the convent Notre Dame.  The nuns are very nice to me and are also very discrete.  My room is so small I can touch both walls at the same time but I sleep wonderfully.  On the little shelf over the sink, I have a plastic Virgin Mary with a broken crown holding a big and pudgy five-year-old Jesus with a big King’s crown.  On the wall I have a cardboard cutout of the Virgin Mary; a cross over my bed; palm leaves over the door.  Breakfast is served in the guest dining room after the six-thirty prayers.  They also serve good lunches and dinners, a sort of Afro-Belgian mix.  But I have to stay away during the day for a week because they have colleagues here for some sort of seminary.  

My biggest problem this past week was finding a toilet clean enough to use.  I finally found one at UN HQ:  a Italian made prefabricated mobile unit the UN brought in for personnel and which was set up behind the HQ building, not far from supply.  The toilets in HQ are insufferable.  The toilet at the Nunnery is sickening.  Now, you may laugh, but toilets are an important and major part of my life, not only because of the problems I have following my operation, but also because so much of what I eat here makes me sick. 

Despite its size, Mbandaka is just one big country village.  The big excitement this week concerned two buses.  When President Kabila came to town, he brought with him seven buses, which he said he was giving the town so they could have public transportation.  Two of those buses are now on a barge to go back to Kinshasa.  The people were in an uproar, students threatened to demonstrate (there are students although the University has been ‘temporarily’ shut down), people went to see the mayor and governor and Radio Okapi followed the events daily, making life even more uncomfortable for the authorities. 

The governor assures us the President only gave the city five buses and that the other two were for official use and have to go back to Kinshasa.  But the President promises to send another five buses” giving the city a total of ten.  The bus toll is the same as the Tolekas (bicycle taxis): 100 Congolese francs or about 20 US cents. That is high for the Congolese and four times more than in Kisangani or Gbadolite. The governor insists the “soldiers have to pay like everybody else.”  Of course, this never happened in real life.  With the buses full of soldiers, no paying travelers can get on.  I suspect the bus company will not make the money it needs to maintain the buses, in large part due to military and official abuse and appropriation, and in three months they will all be idle and needing repairs and spare tires.  It is more of the same.  An economic experiment and public service, which should succeed, will go under because of near sighted profiteering.  Unless the Army brass really do make the soldiers pay for their rides.  And where do soldiers who do not get paid themselves find money to pay for a bus ride?  And since when has a soldier in this country ever paid for what he takes?  No, the new bus company will go under, I am sure. 

The people also expressed their anger over 250 mattresses, which the president had brought for hospitals and which were loaded onto barges.  In this case, the inhabitants were wrong.  Half the 500 mattresses the President brought were destined for hospitals deep in the province and not just for Mbandaka. 

Let it be said that the public outcry and open demonstrations of discontent are new and promising for the future.  It shows there is greater liberty in the government zone.  In the RCD-Goma zones, as in the others I am sure, some of the people would have been shot, many others arrested and mistreated.  There is no democracy in the government zone, but there seems to be a benevolent despotism that could take the country in the right direction, and at the very least, respects some freedom of expression. 

In the village of Wendji, 20 kilometers down river, I saw the perhaps the biggest crocodile I have ever seen.  It took four strong men to carry the three-meter-plus monster only a few yards.  The beast had got caught in their nets and they killed it with a machete.  This meant a big feast.  They usually just cut the crocodiles in strips and cook them.  I suggested they skin it and find somebody to sell the skin to in Kinshasa.  I told them about shoes, belts, purses and wallets and the prices they can go for.  This was all new to the villagers who asked me if I wanted to buy the skin.  I said: “I don’t make shoes.”   

I do not know what got into me.  If the villagers discover they can get lots of money for crocodile skins, then they will kill them all off as they have done the elephants and the hippopotami.  The other troublesome thing is you have these monsters right where the children play in the water.  I wonder how many people are eaten by crocodiles? 

You may laugh.  There is an unfounded rumor a Uruguayan soldier near here was recently eaten by a python.  They say a group of the guys got drunk one night and in the morning they could not find their comrade.  They came across the giant snake digesting, killed it and cut out the body of their friend.  Although this one case is not true, whenever I stop to urinate on the roadside, the first thing I do is take out my knife.  There are certain levels in the food chain I refuse to be.  Welcome to the jungle.


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