Democratic Republic of the Congo: Exploring, learning, overcoming...

At lot has happened here in this bustling city over the past 11 days. I’ve been able to see some of the local night life, to take in a bit of the somewhat bizarre expat lifestyle that exists here, and to experience the fear that almost suffocates all other senses. The latter is not meant to be sensationalist, but I don’t know how else to describe what I was feeling as I was thrown to the street… I’ll begin by talking about work before I dive into the details of my unfortunate run in with the desperation of Kinshasa. Work has really gotten off with a bang. As I explained in my previous post, the focus of my work here is trying to capture an idea of the consumption patterns of the clients currently being serviced. This translates into creating a sample from DRC’s 90,000 or more clients. It’s been a great exercise in recalling all the details of econometrics that I worried so much about for most of the last semester at Fletcher (thankfully, I seem to have retained many important aspects of those 48 hours of cramming!). In addition to that, I had been asked to give a presentation to the local marketing team on FINCA’s approach to research. I will be the first to tell you, as I told the team here in Kinshasa, I am not an experienced researcher. I am familiar with the generic process and how to approach a problem that I’d like to solve, but give a presentation about best practices? In French? To a team of presumably very experienced marketing professionals? Sure. Why not. This is a great example of how most of the development field works. I hate to be another cliché that could be discussed in Peter Uvin’s class, but I must confess that I played that role. I did my best, and all said I did a good job, but I just couldn’t help but feel that there was a class somewhere at Fletcher frowning down upon me from afar.

Besides my brief stint as a trainer, I do think I’ve been getting to do good work. My experience with project planning and management have helped a lot here in my attempts to juggle the various different departments that need to come together to help realize this research project. One of the more hands on activities that my colleague and I needed to accomplish last week was an investigation into local market prices for a list of food items that we’ve determined represent a relatively average combination of food items that households eat here in DRC. I absolutely loved getting back into an African market. I’ve missed so much the tanties and mamans who so precisely prepare their vegetables into small piles; their presentation perfectly displaying the pop of reds and greens, oranges and purples, even the rare fleck of silver from the fresh fish waiting to be turned into a delicious stew. These markets once again brought out the other persona that lives within me. If only I had been back in the grand marché of Bobo-Dioulasso; the joking, the bartering, the instant bonding. I miss living through the version of myself who came to be known as Siriki Sògòsii. The “tubabu” who carried himself like a true Julacè. But here I’m just another foreigner, often mistaken as Belgian or French, but definitely not one of the crowd. I miss that feeling of being able to break through the color of my skin by the simple act of stringing together a few simple words. It was such a rewarding feeling. The physical change in people’s faces that I could see as I kept chatting was something that helped make me feel like I really belonged. All the same, being back in the markets was a breath of fresh air compared to the “fancy” office setting I had been living in since arriving.

In stark contrast, the next weekend I was introduced to the expat lifestyle here in Kinshasa. It was so bizarre. I don’t know how exactly to describe the harsh dichotomy of stepping off the sand covered sidewalk so connected to the pulse of Kinshasa to entering into a compound that much more resembles the gated communities of Orange County. You feel guilty just being able to walk in there, or at least I did. How can you live a life that constantly reminds you of the enormously unequal distribution of wealth in the city/country where you live. Being completely honest at first I felt very special and quite enjoyed the feeling of stepping into an otherwise off limits neighborhood. But as the night continued, I began to feel more and more out of place and had an overwhelming sense of guilt. Guilty because I was able to take part in these nice restaurants and compounds and clubs, but even more guilty that I liked feeling like part of the upper crust. I believe it’s only natural for us to enjoy feeling special but I didn’t expect that I would like it so much. Luckily, I was quickly reminded that I am not part of that crowd when I was driven back to my apartment that again had no electricity or water. At last, I was home. Back to being one of the masses…but could I have just one more grey goose soda?

Unfortunately we’ve arrived to the other side of Kinshasa. The gritty and ugly reality that emerges in a country who’s weighed down by corruption, poverty, and constant struggle. I knew that in coming to Kinshasa I was exposing myself to many things: another new culture, a fairly pleasant dry season, a reprise of 75cl beers and skewered meats, but also to the dangers of a large city full of crime and danger. My first encounter with this less glamorous side of urban life was on a dully light afternoon last week. After having two wonderfully productive days of work and heart full of motivation and determination, I took a step out of the FINCA office and walked right into the arms of the complex and far reaching network of Kinshasa police. I was called over to a young man sitting in a plastic chair who was standing guard outside of the police courtyard. I was informed that I had broken a law and that I needed to go to the colonel and face the consequences. One can imagine my shock as I not only didn’t do anything, but I couldn’t even have a conversation with this man. Within seconds, like a group of sharks closing in on an unfortunate injured animal, other police men appeared and began adding their voices into the hurricane of noise that had begun to envelop me. I was taken by the group to their boss and made to listen to a confusing speech about the Bible and Europeans that left me more confused than before. The mess resulted in me handing over all my cash and walking away trembling like a leaf. Sadly, this wasn’t the end of it.

Walking home three days later from the grocery store I was attacked by three young men on the street, half a block from my apartment. It all happened so fast that I barely remember how my body went from vertical to flat against the pavement. I remember feeling like there were 20 different hands grabbing at all my pockets at once. I was confused and scared and clinging to these men with all my strength in an attempt to keep them too close to get a good swing at me. It’s hard not to panic when the months leading up to moving here all I heard were warnings of violent attacks and desperate youth. I had no idea to what extent they were going to take this attack. I couldn’t help but fear that this was going to end very badly. Luckily, after only a few punches and violent groping they broke free and fled with all my belongings. Somehow they weren’t able to remove my chucks, an amazing detail since they were only slip ons and I could feel them desperately trying to take them off. The affair ended when some police men drove back with two of the three assailants and my wallet. We drove together to the police station where they heard my story and interrogated the two men until they were able to locate my cell phone. I was driven back home and I sat in a state of shock on my bed. I closed my eyes and sat in silence. When I opened my eyes I was elbow deep in my suitcase; half my clothes had been packed and I was frantically pulling out other clothes from the closet. How did I get here? What am I doing? I was lost in a frenzy of fear, frustration, and a desperate desire to return home. I’ve ultimately chosen to stay in Kinshasa. I wavered back and forth, back and forth, over and over again. Should I stay? Should I go? Of course I should go, what the hell am I thinking? No calm down, take a step back. The continuous inner monologue was exhausting. I told everyone I knew and who knew about my internship what happened. I solicited advice from all involved parties. I’ve chosen to let this be a lesson rather than the conclusion to my time in Kinshasa. I’ve chosen to not let the desperation and lack of livelihoods be the lasting memory of Kinshasa. I’ve chosen to stay so that I can find the stories of hope. That is indeed the reason I want to work in this field. I want to find these stories of determination and overcoming hardship, no, I want to be a part of these stories. Violence can find us anywhere and letting that violence stop us from living our lives is allowing that violence to imprison us. I will take the necessary steps to lower my vulnerability – using a driver, changing apartments, not walking anywhere alone – but I refuse to go home feeling like society has lost. These next six weeks will show me that there is still hope.

I'm enjoying reading all the other Fellows' blogs! Keep up the good work everyone.


Keith Mangam