This guest post is from Nathaniel Houghton, a friend I made during last fall’s Congo Week. Nate organized the Cornell University observance that week in Ithaca, NY, and invited me to speak. He told me at the time he was planning a trip to the DRC during his winter break and I asked him to keep me appraised of what he saw. I was delighted to receive this message about conditions outside the war zone:
My parents, not surprisingly, were the first to ask, “Why the heck are you going there?” when I informed them of my plans to travel to Kinshasa between semesters this year. My explanations of the leadership development program for high school students that I hoped to discuss were, for them, grossly inadequate. This scene – me forcing a smile while I watched the confusion build on their faces – was to repeat itself many times with many people in the buildup to my trip. Always, the follow- up question was, “Well… isn’t there a war there right now?”
As most of you reading this blog regularly undoubtedly know, there is indeed a war in the Congo. The war in the east, though, has very little if any effect on life for the citizens of Kinshasa, which is far from the dangerous battlegrounds in the Kivu provinces. When the lack of transportation infrastructure in the Congo is considered, these miles become even longer. Psychologically, the citizens are similarly unaffected. When I asked whether the war had an impact on the daily life of Kinshasa, my host Patrick simply responded “Ils sont habitués.” Sadly, the residents of Kinshasa are so used to wars in their nation that they pay them little attention unless true danger is imminent.
This is not to say that there is no poverty and hunger in Kinshasa. There is, and it is impossible to miss. Truly, the city has fallen into a state of disrepair that will take years to amend, and I only hope that the work I am doing in Kinshasa’s schools makes a difference in this way. Nevertheless, there are enclaves of affluence. For instance, I visited a wealthy friend’s house and was served a wonderful meal after swimming in a pristine pool and watching a DVD in an air- conditioned living room. I might as well have been in Florida (see the picture).
So, in many ways, my trip was a learning experience beyond what I expected. I was happy to at no point find myself in a state of danger, and the people I met were all accommodating and friendly. The Congolese certainly can have a bright future, if only we help them take steps to bring it about.
–My thanks to Nate for this enlightening contribution.