In October 1974 many of the world’s eyes were focussed on the city of Kinshasa in what was then known as Zaire – now the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) – when the celebrated boxer Muhammad Ali fought George Foreman in an historic bout which was dubbed the Rumble in the Jungle. Well, yesterday for my evening dessert I had apple crumble at my hotel in Kinshasa, which in 2012 I’m calling the Crumble in the Jungle. And yummy it was too.
That occasion in 1974 was perhaps the only time in history when the world has looked upon the DRC with positive sentiment. The country has had numerous name changes over the past 130 years, including Zaire, Belgian Congo, Congo Free State and Congo Kinshasa, and is currently trying to get back on its feet after many turbulent decades. During the 52 years of colonial rule by Belgium from 1908 the Belgian Congo fared well (by African standards), achieving social and economic progress. By the time independence was gained in 1960 the country was in a strong position in Africa, considered the most industrialised nation after South Africa. Cracks then started to appear and the swearing in of President Mobutu in 1965 saw things start to fall apart. Although backed by the West for much of his 32 year tenure, the anti-Communist Mobutu used a cult of personality to create a one party nation which resulted in problems of widespread corruption and hyperinflation which all but destroyed any previous economic progress. In 1971 he renamed the country to Zaire (the capital Léopoldville was renamed Kinshasa in 1966) but problems continued, with perhaps the 1974 Rumble in the Jungle boxing bout the only plus point.
After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 the West loosened their ties with Mobutu’s regime and matters worsened. In 1996 the civil war occurring in Zaire’s tiny neighbour to the east, Rwanda, spilled over the border and spiralled out of control eventually leading to a revolution in Zaire and rebel forces expelling the president from the country. Zaire was then renamed the Democratic Republic of Congo but the situation worsened further still in 1998 when rebel movements caused the outbreak of the Second Congo War. Nine African countries became embroiled in this second conflict and by 2003 – the ‘official’ end of the war – it has been estimated that over five million people lost their lives, making it the world’s deadliest conflict since World War II. As a result of these troubles much of the DRC was left on its knees. Foreign investment dwindled and in 2011 both the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund ranked the DRC bottom of global lists of countries by GDP per capita, ten times lower than its neighbour, the Republic of Congo (ROC). In 2011 the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) also ranked the DRC last out of 187 nations in its Human Development Index.
I recommend the book Blood River by journalist Tim Butcher which chronicles his travels through eastern DRC and along the Congo River in 2004, after the Second Congo War. It gives an unsettling insight in to the hardships of life in this part of the world. Rebel activity and attacks are still a major problem in the east of the country today and many of the up-to-date security reports I read on the country before my visit were not the most optimistic. So, with all this in mind, it was with some trepidation that I crossed the two kilometres across the Congo River by boat from Brazzaville in the ROC to Kinshasa. The two cities are the closest capital cities in the world but getting from one to the other is not as straightforward as you might imagine. Most foreign visitors to Kinshasa have a pre-arranged service with a sponsoring company in the DRC to help with custom and immigration formalities. The service is called ‘protocole’ and it seems essential if you want entry to the country to be as smooth as possible. Thankfully, the process did go smoothly for me, with the help of my local sponsors, the Heineken subsidiary Bralima brewery.
With a population of nine million people Kinshasa is the third largest city in Africa (after Lagos and Cairo) and is the second largest French speaking city in the world behind Paris (although it is expected to become more populous than the French capital within the next ten years). On the short trip to my hotel I was surprised to see through the car windows a rather sedate cityscape. I was expecting chaos and danger at every turn but the business district of Gombe is not like that at all. Away from this area things are rather different but all my data collection was to be carried out in Gombe as it’s where pretty much all the expats live, work and shop.
Still, I had a decision to make as to whether I would venture out onto the streets on foot or hire a driver to take me to all of the shopping outlets. I opted for the former but within ten seconds of leaving my hotel I was beginning to regret it. I was approached by a policeman with a huge gun strapped across his chest and he babbled something in French. “Sorry, English”, I said. “Gimmie fifty”, came the reply. “What? Press-ups?”. “No, dollars”. So it appeared the reports I’d read of corrupt policeman were true! As I was so near to the hotel entrance I felt brave enough to tell him ‘no’ and start to turn away. Relief came over me as he raised a smile and let me on my way. A couple of hours later, though, down a backstreet, I was approached by a man in rags who appeared to be under the influence of alcohol or drugs and he leaned forward and whispered some gobbledegook in my ear before reaching for my pocket with my camera in it. I immediately leapt in to the nearest shop, which coincidently was an LG electronics shop on my ‘list’. He soon disappeared but I have to say some of the streets do feel a bit edgy and I found myself constantly keeping my eyes peeled for any potential trouble.
Collecting the prices of the goods in the supermarkets was a rather strange experience. I’ve visited around 200 locations worldwide researching prices and in all shops the prices are either on the goods themselves or displayed on labels beneath the products but here in Kinshasa I was faced with a new system. All of the products have code numbers on them which correspond to a price in Congolese francs. There are lists throughout the stores with these code numbers and their corresponding prices so I had to take dozens of photographs of these lists in order to convert the prices – not ideal!
Aside from the couple of ‘confrontations’ I had to start off with, after my first day roaming the streets of Gombe, my fears eased. The main road through the area, Boulevard Du 30 Juin, has been upgraded in recent years and is as good as any major urban road in Western Europe, and I felt relaxed walking around and snapping photos. The upgrade is one of many ambitious projects which are in the pipeline following the elections of 2011. President Joseph Kabila wants the country to finally turn its back on decades of trouble, and signs of hope are starting to appear with his plans for a ‘revolution of modernity’. Priorities are to improve infrastructure and social conditions and revise business practices to help attract outside investors.
The DRC is the second largest country in Africa and has huge natural resources within its borders. It is thought that it contains 80% of the world’s cobalt reserves and 30% of the world’s diamond reserves; with total untapped raw minerals thought to have a value of over 20 trillion US dollars (it is these valuable resources which escalated much of the violence in the two Congo Wars of the late 1990s). With emerging industrial strength from the likes of India, China and Brazil showing interest in these deposits the country has huge potential. If these can be managed properly then maybe the ‘sleeping giant’ of Africa can rise again.