Welcome to the Congo – Beyond Conflict Stories

Picture you are standing on a road. It is a regular road, maybe going down to the lake, where you can look out over the mountains. It is hard to walk, because the road you are standing on is covered in lava, from the volcano that exploded years before. There is a Chinese construction crew beside you, local workers drilling through piles of rock and crusted cement. People are everywhere, cars are everywhere, and there are a surprising amount of men in suits. The guy beside you is alternating between yelling into an iPhone 6 and a cheap Nokia flip-phone. Somewhere nearby, a loudspeaker is blasting a mix of rumba, P-Squared, and old Mariah Carey. UN trucks rush by, soldiers in blue helmets poised with their rifles outwards. You can see a group of police officers at the end of one road, leaning on their guns, and you’d rather not head down that way again, since you had to pay a ‘facilitation fee’ just yesterday. Young men on moto’s yell out if you want a ride, shopkeepers yell out if you want to buy any combination of phones/eggs/Nike-runners/roadside-strawberries, and children yell out either MONEY or WHITE PERSON. Everything is loud, vibrant, bright, noisy and alive.

Welcome to the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The act of starting to write again is both a personal and public one. I’ve been going back and forth about whether I should be continuing to blog while I travel or not, as it is very hard for foreigners to get this place right, and very easy to portray Congo wrong. On a personal level, writing helps to make sense of the craziness of everyday life here, even through my narrow viewpoint. So, even if it is just one person reading this – hey Mom! – that is fine with me. On the other hand, many of you have expressed questions about what the DRC is really like. This isn’t a place that the average person usually experiences for themselves, and there are many stories here that I think some of you may find fascinating. While there are others who can provide a much better explanation of the history, details of the conflict, current news etc*, what I can provide is an average take on what life is like in an area of the world that is simultaneously overlooked and aggrandized, shoved into narrative boxes that the rest of the world designs.

To briefly recap for those that don’t know, I’m based in the DRC working on a research project examining state-building, taxation and development in conflict affected areas. I was previously based in Kinshasa (the vibrant capital city with amazing nightlife, and the best chicken I have ever eaten), and am currently in Goma, Eastern DRC. I am working with a local Congolese organization, the Marakuja Kivu Research Group, who specializes in research and data collection in North and South Kivu.

Now, the first words out of most peoples mouths when you tell them you are in the DRC, especially Eastern DRC, are either ‘where is that again?’ or ‘you know you are in a warzone, right?’ Bypassing those that can’t place Congo on a map, let alone Goma, I understand why the general impression of East DRC is negative. Most reports from abroad are of militias, rapes, or the ongoing conflict of different armed groups across the Kivus. Even my extremely educated, well-travelled friends have expressed their doubts, kindly telling me they’d prefer to visit Rwanda, Congo’s stable neighbour, rather than come to where I am. One reason I wanted to start this again is to provide an alternative picture. Conflict and trauma are definitely part of Congo’s narrative. I don’t want to trivialize the situation or give the impression that there are not some serious problems. Gender-based violence, human rights abuses, poverty, violence, land conflict, ongoing massacres in the East, corruption…the list goes on. The important thing to remember though is that this is only one part of the narrative. There are many others that revolve around music, dance, art, entrepreneurship, family, friends, those who passionately advocate for hope and prosperity, and those who just go about living their regular, everyday lives in the midst of it all. Take for example my time here so far. Eating at roadside bars with Congolese colleagues, dancing in hidden, smoky nightclubs, exploring pop-up markets, working with some of the most hardworking men that I have ever encountered, who are more dedicated to their research than most of the people that I have encountered back home. This has been normal life. In reality, I’d be way more worried that I will go insane if I hear one more Celion Dion song, rather than any other problems that might occur.

As the amazing Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says in her now famous TED Talk, there is a danger to a single story. Stories are powerful mediums to make sense of our world, but when you only hear one, over and over again, we fall into the trap of thinking that is the only truth there is. When you only read about violence, massacres, conflict minerals, or sexual violence, why would you believe that those may not be the norm? We paint Congo with the same brush, failing to realize how broadly we are generalizing (Congo is roughly the size of Western Europe. Does it really make sense to talk about Poland the same way we discuss Britain? Or France how we talk about Norway?). Yes the conflict minerals you keep hearing about are an important issue. Just as important however is the backlash faced by mining communities when Western-based companies leave due to increased regulations, leaving many with even less economic opportunities than before. Yes, the rate of sexual violence is an extremely dire situation for the women in the DRC, but focusing only on rape in war hides the larger structural problems, of social or economic inequality, that are also just as important to tackle.  There is not just two sides to the story here; there are hundreds.

My point more broadly, is that Congo is dynamic, vibrant, and a very complicated country – one that I certainly can’t claim to know in any detail after only several months. The stories here are breathtaking, and go far below the surface that international media usually represents. Congo is so much more than rape and war; and if I can bring just a small sense of that to you, random reader out there, then sitting here without electricity and swatting away mosquitos while I try to finish this post has been absolutely worth it.

And if anyone wants to visit and see for yourself, karibu – you now know where I am.

*If you’re interested in learning more about Congo in general, Christoph Vogel, Jason Stearns, and Timo Mueller run great blogs. A relatively extensive reading list can be found here. And finally, Radio Okapi is my go to for local news. 

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