Thursday, November 30, 2006

One year in the Congo

This morning I had to go to the Grand Hotel to pick something up, and low and behold, what was I greeted by if not the tacky, plastic, booty-shaking Santas of yesteryear full of their usual vigorous Christmas cheer and cacophonous song. I stopped in my tracks and grinned broadly at them. For a second there I felt bizarrely touched, as if the Santas had come out of their own accord to salute me and remind that I’ve been here exactly one year. I felt something akin to the holidaymakers who stay on in the same hotel a second week running and watch the newcomers arrive with a slight feeling of superiority mixed together with early regret that they will be the next batch to go. An early and unexpected indication that I will one day look back on these days in the Congo with some measure of melancholy. I’ll probably bore my kids witless with tales of Kinshasa: how amazing it all was, how lucky we were to be here at such a fascinating and historical time, how stunning the river was at sunset, how much fun we had camping, how exciting it was to travel to the interior… conveniently forgetting the daily frustrations and often uneventful routine. Still, it’s hard to live somewhere for a year and not feel some emotional attachment to the place – ironic, though, that it should be the despised Santas of all things that triggered it in me.

One year on, though I have become way more confident about taking pictures in public, I still don’t feel comfortable whipping out my camera in the Grand Hotel lobby. You’ll have to make do with last year’s blurred, surreptitiously-taken photo.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006


« Au nom de l’intérêt supérieur de la Nation et dans le souci de préserver la paix et d’épargner au pays de sombrer dans le chaos et de la violence, je prends aujourd’hui devant Dieu, la nation et l’histoire, l’engagement et la responsabilité de conduire désormais, en communion permanente avec vous tous, ce combat pour le changement dans le cadre d’une opposition forte et républicaine »

-- Jean Pierre Bemba, in a televised address last night

Monday, November 27, 2006

Breaking news - part II

The Supreme Court just made it official: Joseph Kabila is declared the new president. All eight complaints filed by his challenger Jean-Pierre Bemba were declared unfounded. Unfortunately, Bemba's lawyers boycotted the court hearing. Who knows what that means. I'm feeling pretty optimistic, but maybe it's the distant buzz of the pro-Kabila party-goers that's getting to me.

So yes, I made it back to Kinshasa - wouldn't want to miss all the excitement now, would I?

The TV on which I watched the historical announcement

Friday, November 24, 2006

On the brink

I was flown in to London this week to participate in a conference about the pros and cons of scaling up aid: will a big influx of cash finally solve poverty in Africa? My session was about conflict and development, and one of the presentations was a bitter indictment of the ‘post-conflict reconstruction cycle’: conflict – heavy-handed international pressure – tenuous peace accord – big UN peacekeeping mission – early elections – rushed DDR – half-cooked security sector reform – quick withdrawal of UN troops – continued poverty – and more often than not, a return to conflict. The solution: focus on human security rather than poverty, a new campaign to “Make War History”, Millennium Security Goals, and at country level, more economics, less politics. In particular, elections before jobs are a recipe for disaster. Hmmmm… As usual, the case for why things don’t work is made compellingly, the one for what should be done about it rather less convincing.

Now it’s my turn to talk, and I’m supposed to be saying something about the lessons from DRC. So, does it work? The world’s largest peace-keeping mission, 17,500 troops, an annual tab of some US$1,2 billion, $500 million spent on the elections alone, development money pouring in from all sides, the embodiment of the current favoured paradigm among proponents of intervention… Well, what say thee – is it peace for our time, or the onset of yet another round of fighting in the region? Can we pat ourselves on the back and remind everyone self-righteously that whatever the cost, whatever the inefficiencies of the UN and international community, it is always, always cheaper than war (sixteen times cheaper, says a World Bank economist confidently – I dare not ask how one measures such a thing lest my ignorance be exposed)? Or is it time for ‘mea culpa’, time to let the academics in to explain condescendingly exactly why we got it so wrong once again, why our sequencing was off from the start, why the writing was on the wall but we were too damn arrogant to read it?

The DRC could still turn out to be the biggest success story of the decade, or it could turn out to be the biggest failure. The problem is, the truth is, I don’t know. Oh, it will be easy afterwards, once we know the outcome, to explain the whys and wherefores. But today, as the Supreme Court judges convene in someone else’s office to deliberate the complaint of election irregularities filed by Bemba, three days after a riot outside the Supreme Court turned ugly and the building was shot at, then burnt and ransacked, in the last hours of a 48-hour verbal ‘ultimatum’ from Kabila to the UN to get Bemba’s troops out of Kinshasa or else the national army will do it, with the army already taking position near Bemba’s house – but then let’s not forget that the army itself includes well-placed generals who used to fight for Bemba – I simply don’t know.

The UN say disarmament of armed groups in Kinshasa is the responsibility of the Congolese, that they don't have a mandate to disarm units in Kinshasa. Kabila says the UN is not doing its job. But I understand that the whole ‘ultimatum’ thing was somewhat overly dramatised by the media; the national army will not attack Bemba’s house today. Bemba says he will follow the legal route, but then his people wreak havoc and destroy the records and documents in the Supreme Court. So what will Bemba do if the Supreme Court rejects his complaint? And do the more extreme members of his Union pour la Nation still listen to him anyway?

Meanwhile, I await instruction from Kinshasa about whether or not to return tomorrow.

Photo taken by a friend, cropped beyond recognition by me.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Breaking news

The provisional results are out: Kabila has won with 58.05% of the votes.

« Ayant recueilli la majorité absolue au deuxième tour des élections présidentielles le 29 octobre 2006, est déclaré Président élu Kabila Kabange Joseph » announced the President of the Independent Electoral Commission.

Meanwhile, Bemba’s television channel CCTV was showing the football.

Photo from www.deboutcongolais

Now the real fun begins, at the Supreme Court of Justice, where any disputes will have to be deliberated before the final results can be proclaimed.

Rumour turned news

Anxious calls from London drew my attention to this Guardian article: Congo faces danger of new civil war as opposition rejects election result.

Apart from a rather sensationalist headline, it seems to confirm most of yesterday’s rumours, painting them in a bleak light. Yes, all the ingredients are there for sparks to fly, but somehow the naturally glum Congolese are displaying the most cheering optimism, and this morning life continues as normal.

Photo accompanying Guardian article: A Congolese soldier loyal to presidential hopeful Jean-Pierre Bemba in Kinshasa. Photo: Jerome Delay/AP

If you read between the lines, the big unknown is Bemba’s position. So far he has not subscribed to the accusations made by his political allies, but nor has he refuted them. I was also interested to read that “diplomats say Mr Kabila has already offered Mr Bemba the post of prime minister but he turned it down”. Another one for my rumour vs. news ponderings of last night.

“Rumour does not always err; it sometimes even elects a man.”
-- Tacitus, Agricola (IX)

Here are some more pictures from the media – since I haven’t been able to take my own!

If you look in the background, you see a police officer being man-handled, while in the forefront his colleague runs away!

Notice the 'mundele' (white guy) taking cover.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Chinese whispers

In pure ‘Radio Trottoir’ tradition, Kinshasa is buzzing with rumour tonight. Nothing is swifter than rumour, they say (Horace, apparently), but I think Kinshasa may hold a world record. I’d love it if someone could invent a ‘rumometer’ to measure and chart the amount of noise generated by rumours at any one time: word of mouth, phone conversations, text messages, e-mail traffic, blog posts... I reckon we’d be off the charts, but probably I’m just new to the game. I wonder – if information is power, then what is rumour? Perhaps the more interesting question is, at what point does rumour become information, and information news?

So today’s jumble of news and rumour is this:

§ News: Following the trouble on Saturday, Bemba agreed to send his troops outside Kinshasa, and to accept UN protection instead. His troops were due to leave this afternoon.

§ Rumour: Throughout the afternoon, people witnessed lorries arriving full of FARDC (state army) soldiers and leaving empty, sparking rumours that soldiers were being deployed around the capital.

§ Rumour: Bemba’s soldiers refused to go.

§ News: The Independent Electoral Commission has been publishing results by constituency as and when they become available. Today they published the results of the final remaining constituencies. The press (along with the government, the opposition, embassies, observer missions and anyone else with a keen interest and/or time to spare) has been carefully compiling the published results, which show a Kabila win by some 60%.

§ News: In an interview with Radio France Internationale this morning, Cardinal Frédéric Etsou, Archbishop of Kinshasa, questioned the extent to which the elections in DRC were free, fair and transparent.

§ Rumour: The interview may have been leading, the editing sensationalist, and the Archbishop’s words consequently misrepresented.

§ News: This afternoon Bemba’s Union pour la Nation issued a statement claiming that there had been massive fraud and that their own compilation of the results given to them by their party witnesses showed a Bemba win by some 52%.

§ Rumour: Rumours that Bemba would appear on television at 7pm to proclaim himself President (and potentially spark the worst fighting yet) turned out to be erroneous. Current rumour has it that Bemba is distancing himself from the statement made by his political allies.

§ Rumour: Dozens of UN tanks line the road in front of Bemba’s residence.

§ Rumour: Ambassadors are currently ensconced with Bemba, and probably the other Usual Suspects.

§ Rumour: Bemba has made a secret deal with Kabila – Money? Ministry? Diplomatic immunity from an impending ICJ court case?

§ Rumour: Close Bemba allies, such as his spokesperson and party secretary, may break rank and denounce the deal he made with Kabila, despite having won the election.

§ News: Before proclaiming the provisional results, the IEC must respond to five counts of irregularities made by Bemba’s camp. Yesterday, the IEC claimed to have responded to two of these already.

§ Rumour: Bemba claims that he has received no response from the IEC.

§ News: Between 3 and 5 am on Sunday, the police rounded up 337 ‘shegues’ (street youth), including 35 women (and their 3 babies) and 87 minors. On instructions from the Minister of Interior, these people were due to be sent on Monday to national service camps in Katanga (men) and near Kinshasa (women), where they would be made to work in the fields and taught a trade.

§ Rumour: Following concerns expressed by different human rights groups, the minister subsequently agreed to let the minors and women at least remain in Kinshasa and, if charged with a crime (which none of them have been yet!), be tried according to normal judicial procedures.

“I cannot tell how the truth may be; I say the tale as 'twas said to me.”

-- Sir Walter Scott

P.S: A few more jumbled thoughts about rumours: I’m willing to admit that in this environment they can sometimes keep you out of trouble, but I also can’t help but feel that there’s something a bit sleazy about it all. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but I know the way my heart accelerates excitedly when I am privy to a particularly juicy piece of information, unsubstantiated as it may turn out to be, and the distressing amount of self-control I have to exercise to stop myself from spreading it as quickly as possible, such is the lure of having two seconds’ worth of someone’s undivided attention, and the feeling of power that goes with it. And I have learned to recognise the sign in others – a pink flush on the cheeks, a twinkle of excitement in the eye… It is human nature, you will say, but I can’t help feeling uncomfortable at how eager some of us can seem as we transmit rumours of impending gloom to one another.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Eleventh hour

The eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. Today at 11am, people in Europe and the USA commemorated the official end of the First World War, taking two minutes of silence to remember the eight million who died in this tragic war. Today at 11am, two loud blasts echoed up the hill towards our peaceful haven, confirming the reports we’d been receiving since the morning of gunfire in downtown Kinshasa.

It is still unclear exactly what happened, and in what order. We already have a plethora of contradictory rumours, and I’m sure by Monday we will have just as many competing ‘official’ versions. What we do know is that people in Kinshasa mostly support Bemba , that for the past two weeks they have been fed misinformation about a confirmed Bemba win, that partial results now show Kabila in the lead (although not by much), that Bemba’s camp is alleging massive fraud although the man himself has remained quiet on the issue, that for the third day running ‘shegues’ and Bemba militants have been demonstrating, throwing stones and burning tires on the main downtown boulevard, that the intervention police were called in today to disperse them. Then it all becomes more confused. The police may or may not have shot in the air; Bemba’s private guards may or may not have retaliated with mortar-fire; the military may or may not have intervened; the Republican Guard may or may not have fired their tanks towards the river to keep Bemba’s men away from the Presidential house.

The truth is, apart from sporadic crackle from afar, and the obligatory radio monitoring and agitated text message exchanges, we have been happily sheltered from it all. I did have my first ever ration-pack meal today though.

“War does not determine who is right – only who is left.”

-- Bertrand Russell

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Butterfly wisdom

« I embrace emerging experience. I participate in discovery. I am a butterfly. I am not a butterfly collector. I want the experience of the butterfly. »

-- William Stafford

I'm trying to remember what it's like to be a child.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

The Truth, by Mr T

Privileged expatriates are often mocked for thinking that the views expressed by their drivers and household staff are representative of the views of the local working class. I don’t claim that the following represents anything other than the views of Mr T, therefore:

  • Jean Pierre (Bemba) will win the election.
  • If Jean Pierre doesn’t win, it will be because “les Blancs” want Joseph (Kabila) to win.
  • But if Jean Pierre wins, investors will accrue to DRC by the thousands.
  • Jean Pierre with the West behind him can make Congo take off for real.
  • Jean Pierre is very rich so he won’t pillage the Congo.
  • Joseph is not Congolese.
  • Joseph is not Laurent Désiré Kabila’s son.
  • Joseph’s mother had him and his twin sister with another man before she became Laurent Désiré’s concubine. This is why Joseph leaves his half-brothers and sisters to starve and sweat it out in the Cité when he could give them houses to live in.
  • Joseph is Tanzanian and used to be a taxi driver.
  • Joseph was part of the plot to kill his father, who is not his father. Otherwise he would have avenged Laurent Désiré’s death properly, not sent the killer to prison.
  • MONUC (UN mission in Congo) was also part of the plot.
  • Joseph is not very smart; he is selling Congolese uranium to Iraq for only $40,000.
  • Joseph’s wife is smarter than he is.
  • Joseph may have helped achieve peace, but he has done nothing else for the DRC in five years.
  • The only reason Joseph held elections was because Bemba pressured him to do so.
  • Mr T has seen results from the East, and Joseph is not doing so well.
  • If Joseph does well in the East, it will be because half the people there are not Congolese.
  • Joseph only did well in the first round because the Angolans and Rwandans smuggled boxes full of ballots pre-marked for Kabila into the Congo.
  • The Congolese intelligence services have stopped such smuggling during the second round, but if Joseph wins then it will prove that some boxes got through anyway.
  • Antoine Gizenga (the octogenarian candidate who came third place in the first round and aligned himself with Kabila for the second round) is not very wise. He told everyone that Joseph was a cockroach during the first round, and now he says that he is a human being after all.
  • All of Kinshasa is behind Jean Pierre.
  • Jean Pierre will win.
  • If Jean Pierre doesn’t win, it will be because of cheating (“tricherie”) by “les Blancs”.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Simple pleasures

Few things make me feel more serene than sitting curled up in a comfy chair, reading a novel on a breezy terrace, preferably with a view, a gin & tonic nearby, some music and lively chatter in the distant background, and the quiet companionship of my husband.

This week-end of indolent inactivity, ensconced with a highly entertaining and unexpectedly moving novel, the title of which I am too embarrassed to reveal (hint: I’m a sucker for romantic tales of mother-and-daughter reconciliation), is exactly what I needed – a balm on my soul, without wishing to sound too melodramatic. Combined with long, lazy meals with our friends, idly discussing anything from the odd timing of recent US asset freezes to the First Lady’s true identity, fooling around like kids in the swimming pool of our new, temporary (and very lovely) home, and dancing untamed in the tropical rain, it is enough to reconcile me with Kinshasa, for now.

“Breathing is the greatest pleasure in life.”

-- Giovanni Papini

I don’t often put up links, since I know you’re all so busy, but this is quite a good one to keep in your Favourites for a particularly stressful day at work: Slow Down Now.

A Congolese bonobo, demonstrating the forgotten skill of Slowing Down.

Bonobos, whose DNA is more than 98% identical to that of Homo sapiens, also have a lot to teach us humans in the art of conflict resolution: their preferred method is sex, thus embodying long before the Vietnam War, John Lennon and David Allyn, the popular axiom "Make love, not war".

Are you listening out there, Messieurs Kabila and Bemba?

Friday, November 03, 2006


« Si vis pacem, para bellum. »
If you want peace, prepare war.

Who said that? Julius Caesar?

It seems to be the motto here these days, or perhaps it’s simply that prevention is better than cure. All be it, it’s very strange living in this limbo, planning for conflict, wishing fervently for peace, and no one really knowing what the outcome will be.

Incendiary material and fake documents are being distributed by militants from both sides every day. The latest is a note, supposedly from the Belgian observers, proclaiming a Bemba win. Previously, a letter dated 24 October, on ‘official’ letterhead from the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC), declaring the results 5 days before the elections. All fake, all dangerous. Since Sunday, there have been parties in the Cité, organised by militants to celebrate the victory of their candidate. The IEC, amongst others, desperately organises press conference after press conference to denounce the publication of early results and deny the existence of parallel, unofficial compilation centres. But if our drivers are anything to go by, this doesn’t convince the population. Both sides believe in victory, but one side will have to lose.

Meanwhile, we have temporarily moved out of our house and to a safer area.

In Obelix’s version, the saying goes: “If you want peace, prepare menhirs”. Maybe what we need here is a wise, ageless druid with a long beard and a bit of magic potion.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Demise of Halloween


I awoke this morning to the news that after ten years of unexpected popularity, Halloween is now disappearing in France. According to Le Monde, some supermarkets exhibited a handful of carved pumpkins to the general indifference of their customers, but none indulged in the lavish orange and black displays of Halloween paraphernalia of yesteryear. A friend of mine informs me that the association “No to Halloween” has wound down its activities this year, perceiving that Halloween was dying its own natural death in a country that likes to reject on principle all things American. It made me giggle – only my fellow countrymen would bother to set up an association, with all the hassle and paperwork it involves, to combat a harmless holiday, a celebration, an American one granted, but basically an excuse for a fancy-dress party.

How misguided of me! After a little amused/incredulous research (today is a bank holiday for my project so I am indulging in a slow morning), I discovered that far from being the harmless holiday I thought it to be, Halloween is an ideological menace to everything France stands for. Under the pretence of innocent fun and frolics, and cunningly targeting our vulnerable and innocent youth, it deviously infiltrated French society, promoting American hegemony, cultural uniformity, a McWorld society, the triumph of money over spirituality, and all things similarly un-French.

Okay, so maybe that is taking it one step too far...

Halloween may have some spiritual significance in Ireland or the USA, but in France it is an artificial construct, contrived for purely commercial reasons. Surprise, surprise. Halloween was first promoted in France by the costume company Cesar – a real coup, its turnover rising from less than 90,000 euros in 1996 to 4.5 million euros in 1998 and 9 million euros in 1999. Then France Telecom – the traitors! – marketed a mobile phone called Olaween and placed several thousand pumpkins around Paris.

Worse yet than being a money-making enterprise, Halloween tried to substitute for our own celebration of the dead, All Saints Day. Ignorant French children confused this pagan holiday of derision and morbidity, bordering on Satanism, with our own pious day of Christian commemoration and communion with the enlightened souls of the departed. Such a crime did not go unrecorded, however, and for the last few years, French journalists, sociologists and politicians alike have been theorising on the whys and wherefores of the inexplicable success of Halloween.

Phew, therefore, that it is apparently dying the death it deserves. Now on to Saint Valentine’s Day.

“Halloween n'est pas une étape d'un parcours ascensionnelle. Mais elle nous introduit dans un monde sinistre. Elle n'a aucune légitimité religieuse, ni communautaire. Sa signification ne dépasse pas les intérêts commerciaux qui y sont liés et le seul calendrier où elle trouve sa place est celui de la société de consommation. A cela s'ajoute le plaisir morbide qu'éprouvent certaines personnes à célébrer la mort - et par-delà toute destruction-, le crime, le laid et le monstrueux. Sur ce sujet, il y a lieu de s'interroger avec inquiétude sur les ressorts psychologiques d'un tel engouement. Quant aux impulsions spirituelles qui peuvent animer cette célébration, nous pouvons facilement constater qu'il n'y a dans Halloween aucune élévation, aucune libération, aucune espérance, aucune lumière. Dès lors, il est évident qu'elle véhicule, et amplifie par les énergies réunies de tous les participants, des influences qui abaissent, avilissent, et enferment l'être humain dans un monde ténébreux.”

-- Christophe Levalois