Congo: News headlines don’t tell it all

Daniel Socha, ‘14, ‘17

(The writer recently completed a master’s degree in Communication Studies and covered thousands of miles as a Kent State student, from Korea and China to Congo and Ghana. Here, he reports on both the turbulence of the Congo and the hopefulness of the Congolese.)

The Democratic Republic of Congo doesn’t make international headlines very often, but when it does, the headlines are saturated with talk of violence and political upheaval. And, in many ways, it’s true. Since the onset of colonialism, the country has been plagued by unimaginable tragedy, fueled by power struggles for Congo’s seemingly limitless amount of natural resources.

Congo, also known as the DRC, is a vast country that sits in the heart of Central Africa. During colonialism, King Leopold II of Belgium committed horrendous acts against enslaved Congolese while harvesting rubber and other natural resources. After gaining independence from the Belgians in 1960, Congo was ruled by Mobutu Sese Seko for over 30 years. Mobutu established an authoritarian regime that sent the country into massive economic turmoil, fraught with inflation and currency devaluation. Then, in 1997, Mobutu was overthrown as civil war ravished the country. Since 1997, Congo has endured multiple wars and conflicts, resulting in millions of deaths and displaced Congolese citizens. Today, the country continues to experience an immense amount of instability, especially in its eastern provinces.

In the fall of 2016, Congo was scheduled to hold a presidential election as the current president, Joseph Kabila, finished his constitutional two-term limit. Yet, no election was held in 2016 and Kabila’s desperate efforts to hold onto power have sent the country into a political purgatory.

However, this information paints only part of the picture, so let me back up.

I first became interested in Congo while working at a refugee resettlement agency in northeast Ohio. When I used to hear the word “refugee,” I imagined people fleeing wars in places such as Syria and Somalia. I wasn’t aware that, in Congo, civil wars and internal conflicts led millions of Congolese to flee their homes.

During my time at the resettlement agency, I worked closely with many individuals and families from Congo. I spent a great deal of time listening to their stories and insights on the tenuous political situation. When I would ask about the causes of the country’s instability and poverty, their responses varied and I began to realize the insurmountable complexity of the situation. Yet, one question ran through everything I had heard:  How is it that so many citizens in Congo, one of the most mineral-rich countries in the world, struggle to earn $1 per day?

These stories and first-hand accounts captivated me, and I began to scour books and articles to learn more about Congo’s horrid colonial history and the many subsequent violent convulsions the have shaken the country.

Being There

From hearing these stories, I started to paint a picture of Congo in my mind. I began to imagine what it looked like, how ordinary people lived and the ways that political catastrophe played out on a daily basis. I had never been there, yet, my imagination of Congo was cast with an apocalyptic shadow of abject poverty and senseless fighting.

Then, in the summer of 2016, I traveled to the province of North Kivu in the eastern part of Congo through the Kirotshe Foundation and the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. A friend of mine from the resettlement agency, Makorobondo “Dee” Salukombo, returned to Congo after fleeing the country as a refugee 11 years prior. He returned to Congo to start a running program for the youth in his home village, Kirotshe, outside of the eastern city of Goma. Dee invited me to come to Congo to visit and report on the running project.

The eastern part of Congo surrounding Kirotshe is magnificently beautiful. Each morning, Dee and I would wake up just before sunrise to meet the youth for training. We ran in the forested mountains that look out over Lake Kivu, an enormous body of water that straddles the rift valley. The students were jubilant and dedicated to their training and education. They told me of their dreams for the future. The youth in the program wanted to become doctors and nurses and teachers. They want to use their education to improve the situation in their country.

Throughout the week I spent in Kirotshe, most community members expressed that they are hopeful about a better future. As people recollected torment from years of fighting and war, they noted that through it all the people in Kirotshe, and in Congo, remained resilient and determined to change. Although I had painted an image of Congo in my head as a place of despair, this image only turned out to be a small part of the picture.

One of the people I had met in Congo who made a lasting impression on me was Dee’s uncle, Faustin, whose last name will remain anonymous in this blog. Faustin is a professor and researcher at the University of Goma. Faustin and I spent time talking about his research and the political situation in country. While many others were wary to talk in depth about politics, Faustin was open and said he believed a storm was soon to come to Congo.

Faustin believed that Joseph Kabila would refuse to step down at the end of his two-term limit in the fall of 2016. At that time, elections had not yet been scheduled and Faustin believed that Kabila would indefinitely delay any vote for a new president. Kabila’s power in Congo stretches far and allows him to holds stakes in a massive amount of economic enterprises in the country.

Waiting for Change

From afar, a dictatorial president refusing to leave power is an abstract idea that is beyond anything that I have ever experienced. When Faustin first told me about the rogue president, I asked him what consequences that might have for him and everyday life in North Kivu. Faustin’s response was bleak.

He told me that outside of Goma, the province was controlled various rebel groups Corruption and a lack of economic resources prevent the Congolese government and army from maintaining control over the vast territory covered by mountains and jungles. (For a more detailed picture of rebel groups in eastern DRC, follow the link at the end of this post.

Faustin feared that Kabila’s imminent refusal to step down would destabilize the country economically and politically. He forecasted that the political instability would slow the already weak economy and the Congolese franc would be devalued. He told me that he believed rebel groups would become both emboldened to expand their reach and pressured by economic hardships. Faustin explained that in times of economic hardship, rebel groups rely heavily on poaching, ransom payments for kidnappings, and recruiting young boys to join their ranks.

In 2012, one of these rebel groups, M23, took control of Goma and fought the Congolese military for over a year. Faustin was anxious that a delayed election in 2016 would further weaken the government’s ability to maintain control of the eastern region and that rebel groups would again wreak havoc.

In the early part of 2016, the Catholic Church attempted to mediate negotiations between Kabila and opposition parties. During these negotiations, Kabila and his government agreed to hold elections before the end of 2017, and for Kabila to renounce any attempt at an unconstitutional third term. However, elections have yet to be scheduled and many are skeptical the agreement will be upheld.

Just a few days ago, Faustin messaged me that his fears about political unrest were coming true. His message, translated from French, read: “We are not doing well. Severe inflation has devalued our currency, $1 is now worth 1600 Congolese francs. It’s been three months since I’ve gotten paid. The politics are very bad in the country. Yesterday, there were eight assassinations in our city, Goma! The kidnapping system and others are on the rise… God is our only solution.”

It’s worth noting that when I was in Congo in the summer of 2016, $1 was worth approximately 1000 Congolese Francs. Many of the individuals I met there expressed that they struggled to make 1500 francs per day, barely enough to feed their families.)

At the same time, I have also exchanged messages with students from Kirotshe, and they tell me that they continue to run and work on their studies. They remain resilient and often send me pictures of them smiling and laughing.

In writing this post, I am not attempting to paint a holistic picture of life and politics in Congo. Rather, I strive to purport the opposite—Congo is a diverse nation characterized by various events, histories, and people. My experience is merely a glimpse into one small part of a much larger story. I feel that it is easy to read headlines—or even parts of this story—and imagine the country as a dilapidated place of barbarianism. Yet, what these sensationalized stories fail to depict is a Congo is full of people like you and I—people who hope and pray for a better future for themselves and their children. People who face insurmountable struggles, yet maintain faith in God and each other.

Every country has a history. When we visit a country, we are surrounded by that history. When I visited Congo, the people I met and the kindness I received shattered my preconceived notion of a place full of despair. Although war and poverty are an important part of Congo’s story, it is only one part of the story.

POSTED: Tuesday, August 22, 2017 - 6:12pm
UPDATED: Tuesday, April 2, 2019 - 2:07pm