It’s during trips to the field that I get to know my colleagues really well. I am in Kisantu, not really the field as this is considered a pretty large and organized town, but it gives us time in the evenings to talk about things other than the office. This guy is the most cheerful Congelese I know, which doesn’t mean much in a population of dead serious old men. But he looks about 20 years younger than his mid-forties, is perpetually making jokes and his eyes are constantly half-mooned and mischievous. Most people don’t know how to react to his joking and his perpetual smiling. Just last night, he was joking with a nun, who reacted to his words, looked at his suspiciously for a few minutes and finally smiled when she understood he wasn’t being serious.
Over dinner, we discussed the time of Mobutu, a perennial favorite as far as conversation topics go. He reiterated what other people have told me before, which is that at the time of Mobutu, there were spies everywhere. According to him, while the road and the telephone systems were deteriorating bit by bit every year, Mobutu left things go to the wayside, convinced that a stronger road system and telephone lines would allow people to rise against him. My colleague exclaims “and now we have cell phone. Are we revolting? No! We just have more and better information. It really makes our everyday lives easier”.
Back in the day (“à l’époque” as they say so often), one would never talk about politics in public. You never knew who was sitting next to you, who was one of Mobutu’s secret spies (who would have radio systems to report suspicious activities). Even when you figured out who was a spy, you pretended you didn’t notice lest you get in trouble.
On April 24th 1990, when Mobutu was pressured into allowing democracy in Zaïre, people felt a huge weight off their shoulders and could speak a little more freely. Today, it is heartening to be able to talk to Congolese freely on any topic, especially politics which gets them talking for hours.
He also told me of being a Displaced person from Katanga.
In simple terms, this is the background:
-Gécamines (a mining company) was set-up by the Belgians in the South of Katanga to harvest copper, followed by Cobalt and other minerals
-The Belgians found that people in Katanga (yellow province in the South East)did not have the right skills to work in the mines and recruited, in the late 1800s people from the two Kasais (the middle provinces in purple and pink) to work in the mines
-Around 1960, to summon support in Katanga, politicians blamed the lack of jobs in Katanga on the Kasaians
-Gécamines owners asked for Katanga to become an independant country to maintain stronghold and their interest when Congo became independant
-Tensions grew and Kasaians left Katanga to return to the Kasai where their ancestors had lived 100 years before. They had no family left there nor did they know the area
-In 1992 again, Mobutu pitted Katangans against Kasaians in Katanga and a slew of Kasaians where again made to leave the area. People who could afford it settled in Mwene Ditu, in Kinshasa and in South Africa (see August 25th 2005 post here)
-All the experts of Gécamines left their positions. Little by little, the company fell to disrepair due to lack of skilled professionals and politicians using Gécamines revenues as their personal cash reserve
Forced to leave Lubumbashi, my colleague decided to work for 2 years in an isolated rural area to practice medicine. He is now working in Kinshasa, one of only cities in Congo which has jobs for well trained professionals. Though he is endlessly in a good mood, he often laments about Lubumbashi (in Katanga) and how ordered and beautiful it is there. He laughs about his situation (his parents are still in Lubumbashi) and calls "Kinshasa la poubelle" ('Kinshasa the trashcan') referring to the piles of trash in and around the city.
Kinshasa was once called "Kinshasa la Belle" in the 1970s.