Like London and the rest of the UK, you can’t really say you know a country if you only stay in the capital. That is how I feel in Congo. Outside of the capital Kinshasa is what truly represents Congo. It is also the reason why we are here working towards better development for the whole country and its population, the majority of whom live in mud brick houses with little access to electricity, running water and transport. Having the chance to see the rest of the Congo therefore makes you realise that the multi-story buildings and tarmacked roads of the capital are only a myth for most Congolese.
Fortunately with my job working for the private sector development programme ÉLAN RDC ***link*** I was given the opportunity to travel to a province I have never visited: Katanga. This is the mining province so like Kinshasa its capital is rich and there are many international companies present in the region. Sadly however most of the Congolese inhabitants rarely see any of the wealth that these companies reap from Congo’s vast natural resources and most survive on agriculture.
ÉLAN RDC is a private sector development programme that aims to improve how systems work in order to benefit more poor people and help increase their incomes. We run several projects with communities in Katanga assisting with rice and maize production. Last month I was given the opportunity to accompany my colleagues on a monitoring visit to two different projects in the province and meet the farmers we are working with. A plane took me from Kinshasa to Lubumbashi (the capital of the province) but from there it was a 4 hour drive to our first destination, the town of Bunkeya.
This was home to 28,000 people with many shops, buildings and even a large church, so it was hardly the village in the jungle I had envisaged, yet still only a handful of houses had electricity and no one had running water. We stayed with the parson who rented out rooms for $10 in his guesthouse which consisted of a bed with a foam mattress, a mosquito net and a plastic chair. In the town there was one restaurant where we could get a typical Congolese meal of chicken, fish, rice and fufu (cassava-based accompaniment which to me takes like cardboard and has the equivalent nutritional value) and a bar which sold one type of beer and owned a television which was constantly on despite the deafening music system that also blasted out Congolese tunes throughout the evening. The lack of audio for the television did not stop groups of local children crowding around the window of the bar peering in to watch a chat show.
The countryside surrounding it was vast fields of rice and maize where farmers toiled in the fields from 9am-12pm then again from 4-7pm to avoid the relentless midday sun. I was able to speak with some of the farmers, including many women, who had been trained in better agricultural techniques thanks to our programme and were hoping for higher yields at harvest time. Some had formed associations where they supported each other and saved money together in order to invest in better equipment and increase their outputs.
Our next stop-off was Kashobwe, a further 6 hour drive away. Here however a grand hotel awaited us which was apparently owned by the governor so we were greeted by a splendid building right on Lake Mweru bordering Zambia with decking, a swimming pool, electricity, bar, and beautiful bedrooms. It was quite a shock after the previous night’s accommodation! Even more so when exiting the grand gate to visit the village 500m down the road where everyone lived in mud huts and children ran around in dusty clothes and no shoes.
Here we received a grand welcome too. It seemed the whole village had come out to tell us about the progress of the programme. Sat on chairs, benches and a big plastic sheet on the floor were men and women and also children in a semi-circle. Men and women sat separately and the men tended to be more vocal, but when I prompted the women to answer some of our questions too, they certainly made their points clear.
Our way back to Lubumbashi was long and not as smooth as the outbound journey. We had not one but two flat tyres! We only had one spare but luckly the second blew only half an hour from the city so we were picked up by another driver. The adventures continued!
Back in Lubumbashi I had a few hours spare and was encouraged by my colleagues to go and see the zoo. Zoo I thought? I could not believe there was one in this part of the country and imagined it to be just a few sad-looking monkeys in cages, but my friends informed me it was worth a visit. So I went along with a colleague and was pleasantly surprised. There were birds, crocodiles and monkeys all in decent looking cages. There was also two lions and two tigers! Congo continues to surprise me.
I didn’t get to explore much more of Lubumbashi as I had to catch my fight back to Kinshasa but from what I saw it certainly had a more international private sector vibe than the NGOs and embassy feel in Kinshasa. I heard lots of people talking English, both ex-pats and Africans as with its proximity to Zambia, a lot of Zambians have come across the order to live and work in Congo. The hotel I stayed in was even owned by a Zambian couple.
For me this trip brought it home that as the second biggest country in Africa just moving province can leave you feeling like you’ve stepped into another country. Different people, different atmosphere, different experiences. Yet what doesn’t change for the most part is the level of poverty, something that many programmes like ÉLAN RDC is working towards eliminating.