Monday, December 9, 2013

Mbandka Prison Blues

It’s been nine months since I arrived in the DRC. A bit less for Mbanaka, the capital of the region called ‘Equateur’, right on it (the equator), on the mighty Congo river and surrounded by ‘rain and swamp forest’ – the second largest on the planet. 

Some might have ‘seen’ this sooner than others, but Mbandak and I are not a particularly good match. Initially the environment was a harsh one. What felt like ‘being dropped off’ in a place that has no direct or reliable way in or out to ‘civilization’ (whatever that means), no running water or electricity, and the highest population living below the poverty line in all of the Congo. Things were not exactly easy, also because the ‘middle rage hotel’ we stayed in for two months had flees that loved me, a generator that would make all conversations impossible from 6-to 10 pm, and a ‘born-again’ church going most nights from midnight to 4 or 5 in the morning. The latest was also the time I learned the only song on a guitar I know. 

 Things got better. We moved into the office/home – which soon had a 2 kW solar system, a rain water catching system and mattresses flown in from Kinshasa (sleep is important). Accounting work was substituted by garden work. 9 chickens, 7 rabbits, a dog and cat appeared. We moved from coal to petrol to gasoline (from clear to reddish?). We found people to buy vegetables and fruits. We got toilet seats. And we even have running water now (in-house expertise). 

A propos de mon francais? Bon. Petit a petit. Or Malembe, Malembe how they say here. My improvement rate for finding a job was in line with my French progression line.
Hence, communication with the outside world was – limited. Mbandaka is not known to be the friendliest place either. For what it is worth, other Congolese usually to not want to visit nor live here, as this province is known for their lack of development. Mobuto came from here. In Badolite in the north of the province, he would erect a larger than live mansion, indeed too big for humans to feel comfortable in, with its 6 meter marble walls seemingly ready to crash you. He built a second more modest mansion next to it, and also an extended landing strip, so the Concord could fly in pink champagne from Paris… but beyond the regular hand-outs of cash, he invested little in ‘his’ region*. Very little. Nevertheless the following governments did not look upon Mbandaka and surrounding with understanding eyes, and instead made the people suffer even more (with the centralized structure such a task is easy even without a functioning army). By this time war had broken out and streams of Rwandese (mostly Hutu) were now fleeing from the retaliating Tutsi (of which many had died during the first genocide in 1994). It has been said that Mbandaka grew triple in size since then. 

The equator region, contrary to many other parts of the Congo, does not hold a plethora of mineral resources. No coltan. No diamonds. No copper or gold. Even though there has been a recent rumor of oil, and of course there is huge parts of forest – which projects like REDD+ try to stop from being cut. That is another story. 

So the Mbandaka folks didn’t get much support from any official institutions lately. Schools are few, and expensive. Hospitals the same. No industry. No work. No hope? Especially outside the city. On the way to Birkoro one can see the differences in gender roles. Men seem to have a rough time with the lack of paid employment. Alcohol is popular. The reason why the only manufacturer in town is the brewery? Homebrew is popular too. 

Traditionally the man is responsible for cutting down the trees. The woman makes the fields, than plants the vegetables and is responsible for the rest. As tree cutting only has to be down once a year, there is other time that men have. Seemingly ill utilized. Certainly not by all. But more than by some.
Girls, just like many boys, have to work, helping family instead of going to school**. The average years for school in all of the DRC is 3.5. I am not sure about the region’s average, and on top years of school tell you little about the quality of school. Most women have less time in school on average than men. Apparently men also do not like to marry women that are ‘too’ educated.

In a place where one cannot find toilet paper, one cannot find birthcontrol pills. Condoms are naturally unpopular. Having many children a blessing. 

Young mothers common. Apparently 80-90% of the work is done by the women. This includes all household task, as washing, cleaning, cooking (without running water and electricity mind you), as well as child and elderly care. No wash machine. No dish washer. No stove. No daycare. One does have babysitters though. 

The fields where all food is grown is mostly close by. But if the family is too big, just the task of carrying it all back can be too much. Especially if the wife is pregnant or sick. Some days are just spending cleaning the metal pots that are layered in a hard crust of smoke from the wood that is burt underneath it. 

Employment is seldom. And if it found, it often pays less than what men receive. Maybe your man has another woman. Or three or four. Four seems to be an average in fact. A condition that does not enhance the closeness between women. Domestic abuse heard of, but not challenged. Even though I can only wish that some of the big women here hit back.
… Leopold, the Belgians, Mobuto, and the Kabilas all left their mark. All in different, yet similar destructive ways – destructive physically and even more mentally. Seeing a bright future, from a place this dark, seems like daunting task …  it’s not for the lighthearted. Or maybe it’s only for them.  

Mbandaka is nearer to Frankfurt, than Frankfurt is to New York. Yet worlds apart. A great experienced, but one with a finite timeframe. It time to return to the land of chocolate and hot showers. Only that my passport has been with immigration since July – almost 6 months for a visa that is supposed to take 2 week – if all paperwork is filled out and handed in correctly.
How we managed to transfer our useless über-burocratic way of handling visitors, yet not one single plumber made it to Mbandaka, is beyond me. Either way, a piece of paper was missing over the past six months. Granted it is the registration of the NGO that the lawyer in Kinshasa was responsible for following up on. All necessary paperwork to get the paper of registration where handed in, and Paid for our course, in June. The registration at the time was done by the ministry of environment, but since then the law changed, now the Central Bank is responsible for registering all international NGOs. 

Someone ‘lost the paperwork in between the ministry of environment and the central bank. Hence the NGO is not registered, the paper not given to the lawyer, who couldn’t give it to immigration to finalize our visas…. And now? Well, visitors like us pay again, now to 90 a day visa, so the airport officer don’t hassle you for your expired visa since June that would cost you apparently more than $300 (the 90 days visa that is NOW being processed cost the $300 on top of the $450 for the permanent visa, and this is not counting the initially $500 for the first 6 months visa….)
Congo by the way is not a cheap place. Large parts are poor. But it’s never cheap … and they are certainly always well-dressed.
Hopefully my passport will be handed back to Marcus (the lawyer in Kinshasa that works for us) this week - with A visa in it that allows me to leave my Mbandaka prison - in a smooth and relaxed fashion - with many questions answered and even more raised, so I get to ponder about people from a place which has 20 different kinds of toilet paper (and birth control pills)  .....     and an endless supply of nutella :  )

  *the guy had a troubles childhood and no real ‘clan’ or family up there. He did love his mother, held her in high regards, always. Plenty of reason to still be mad as hell for all the stealing and manipulating he did to his people – ultimately stealing their hope for a brighter, more honest future away.

 ** In Poor Economics they mention that many girls and boys drop out of school in other developing countires, not because they have to work, but because they are not enjoying school, often because they do not perform well. Once they are not going to school anymore the family usually makes them help.

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