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Something about the Congo

It must have been essential years that I spent in the Congo. Coming back 4 years later, everything feels too familiar. First and foremost Batiment Losonia, the building where UNDP still has its offices. The corridor on the eigth’s floor that leads to my former office has exactly the same heavy, humid and dusty smell and gives me a homey feeling. My arms seem to still know the exact distance from one pole to the next in the staircase. I am quite touched when my dear former colleague Aimée shows me items that belonged to me, such as a bamboo flower vase, and that she has keep “in memoriam”. Overall, the welcome of former colleagues is overwhelming and moving.

The court yard and parking are still filled with the same kind of trash that was there 4, 8 and presumably 10 years ago. It is a graveyard of ambitions of numerous UNDP operation managers who upon arrival announced that they will clean up the entire compound but soon drowned in never-ending batteries of “signataires” being deposited on their tables, and in unprecedented operational challenges. Such as the question how to pay the salary of 90,000 electoral agents distributed over the entire territory of the Republic, in the absence of a well-established banking system. That was the challenge back in 2006, and as it happens, procurement and finance colleagues are having a meeting on exactly the same subject 5 years later, in the office of Yahya, the new Operations Manager at 8.30 in the evening.

There are some changes in the city, especially the new boulevard of metropolitan dimensions and traffic lights which count down the seconds before changing color and that are by-and-large respected. It is a pity for the amazing trees that were lining the sidewalks of the former boulevard and that have been sacrificed. But the new boulevard does improved the traffic a la Gombe in major ways. Two brand-new street cleaning trucks of German fabrication are driving along the boulevard in the morning. What a surprise, that they are existing in the first place, and also that they are not Chinese.

Matonge and Bandal, however, do not seem to have changed at all. The power cuts come and go as before. Many outside bars and their waiters are the same, and “la chèvre” and “la chiqwange” has quite the same taste.

In fact, Kabila’s “5 chantiers” – manifestation of his vision for the future and key object of his campaign for the presidential elections – seem to be the same than they were 5 years ago. “Ching Chan-tieng” should it be pronounced as Michel explains, since they are proposed, funded and executed by Chinese. I still remember how pissed off the Ambassador of the European Commission was back in 2007 when the Chinese made the deal. Understandably so, since the European Commission had not managed to do in 4 years what the Chinese did in one. Arguably with less national ownership, even though I am not fully convinced of this, and certainly with significantly more funding. And I also remember the reaction of the former head of the Independent Electoral Commission, Abée Malu Malu, and his chief of staff Flavien. The two had invited me – great honor – for lunch on my before-last day in Kinshasa in August 2007. When I asked them about their opinion, they unanimously said that it was urgently necessary for the population to see some visible change, the bigger the better, and that that was what the Chinese were bringing.

Arriving in Kinshasa back in 2003, I must have been an enthusiastic, inexperienced person with quite some ambitions and probably a tendency to overestimate my own capacities. In fact, I recognize these traits in the behavior of the some of the current international staff of the office. But there is one key difference that – i believe – saved me at the time from making too many serious mistakes: The desire to be close to my Congolese colleagues and to integrate into the office that was at the time dominated by national staff. And the curiosity to understand the country and its dynamics, less so through books and scientific analysis but rather through the interaction with their families, with street children, with the waiters and girls in the infamous “3615”, with cigarette and kitsch art vendors in Bandal. I do remember that I was totally overwhelmed by all their stories and various impressions, to the point that I felt almost numbed for the first 2 years of my stay. I must have left something, I realize when the very street children and small vendors that are still posted on the same spots along the avenue de la Justice recognize me and welcome me warmly.

There is something about the Congo. It definitely triggers strong reactions in people and tends to push you to explore your limits, whether emotional or performance-related. This does sound like a Cliché, but I don’t think it is. As a matter of fact, I have met very few people who have left the country indifferent. And as it happens I do not like the ones who did. Trying to think about what might be the common denominator of these people, acquaintances some of which I know better and others that I don’t know so well, it seems to me that they mostly came with a purely career-related agenda, with ambitions that were overpowering any interest in the human story of the Congo. Coincidentally, this description fits also quite well to other acquaintances and colleagues that I met later in Somalia and Haiti and that are now probably in Libya, following the spotlight of international attention – fine, fair enough – and unfortunately oblivious of any interest for the people that make the country – except perhaps the ministers.

I have also known quite a few people with a very strong negative reaction against the Congo. People that felt threatened and that were constantly besieged by the horrors happened and happening in the Kivus and Ituri. Mostly, they were very principled people, the kind that also refuse to give a little money to the street kid that proposed to guard the car or the (unpaid) police man that helps you to cross a street “because that would mean to support corruption.” And as it happens, I cannot feel very close to these people either, even if I otherwise like them.

The people I feel closest to are those that are trying every day to strike a balance between speechless desperation about and heart-felt endearment with the Congo. Something tells me that this is the attitude needed if you want to trigger change. Make a difference.

A propos difference: I did manage to meet with Michel, one of the most extraordinary foreigners I know in the Congo, and a friend I daresay. He has in fact given up quite a comfortable UN job and a common life with his wife and children – at least temporarily, which is 6 years by know – to make a difference in the Congo. He is one of these people that I believe have managed to strike and are constantly maintaining a balance between desperation and endearment. I must ask him one day what he believes has triggered his attachment to the Congo. But I am certain that it has to do with the attraction of almost insurmountable challenges and the amazing warm-heartedness and liveliness of the people on the one hand, and the incredible horrors of their past and their current suffering on the other. And most importantly with a genuine interest in the people.

Arriving at the N’djili airport on my way back to New York I am exhausted. As a matter of fact, totally drained out, and this state is not only coming from the truly horrific traffic jam that had kept us hostage between the échangeur and the marché de la liberté for almost 2 hours. Fortunately though I am not leaving indifferent.

As it happens, I meet Jason and his radiant wife in the airport in Nairobi on my way back home to New York. I know him back from Kinshasa times, and was always quite impressed with his in-depth knowledge of the Congo. He recently published a book that is covering the last 20 years of war and humanitarian misery and that is mostly based on first-hand accounts that he has carefully researched and presented. I found it a terribly moving book, perhaps even a unique attempt to describe the recent Congo history through the eyes of its witnesses. He does look very tired, I realize. That actually does not surprise me. And he is in fact planning to go back to Kinshasa next year.

Nairobi however has surprised me today, namely with the feeling of nostalgia that I felt when smelling the fresh high altitude air while descending the plane. I am indeed nostalgic when thinking back of the year I spend here where I met Isabel and the totally different vibes of Kenya as compared to the ones of Kinshasa. I realize I would actually love to spend a couple of weeks here with my family now, perhaps one week at the coast and one week driving through the interior. Instead, to do some minimum justice to the feeling of nostalgia, I am buying lots of Java House coffee and get ready for the next flight.

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