Running on empty down to the poll booths
Even though there are no cars passing through, the little mining town of Kamituga, on the fringes of Southern Kivu and Maniema provinces, is full of noise as soon as the sun is up. The hubbub comes from the market, where people hurry to buy cheap goods imported from China: radios and cassette players playing […]
14 Feb 07

Even though there are no cars passing through, the little mining town of Kamituga, on the fringes of Southern Kivu and Maniema provinces, is full of noise as soon as the sun is up. The hubbub comes from the market, where people hurry to buy cheap goods imported from China: radios and cassette players playing at full blast.

The young men who deliver the gold to Bukavu rev their gleaming motorbikes to warm them up – and to show off. And nagging away in the background, like the obstinate jingling of cow-bells, from dawn to dusk there is the steady tap tap of the mallets wielded by the women. They have replaced the machines that long ago rusted away; all day long, seven days a week, the women of Kamituga, who have given up farming and abandoned their fields on the edge of the forest, break stones brought to them by the diggers.

They reduce them to little heaps of grey dust which will then be sieved and washed until the gleaming specks appear: the much sought-after gold dust that is at once the wealth and the misery of this region. These women are paid by the diggers on whom they depend; their pay is no more than US$1 a day.

But they don’t complain, explaining that at least by staying in the town, they enjoy some level of security and are not at risk of being carried off or raped by the Interahamwe, the Rwandan Hutus still hiding in the forests of Maniema province.

But once across the parish boundary the noise of Kamituga gives way to an atmosphere of study. Beside the office of Father Jean-Claude, the parish priest, women get together several times a week with Dévote. It is not a catechism class or charity work, even though these women are often single mothers who have nothing and, just to survive, have to work at breaking stones like everybody else. The reason for the meetings is at once simple and ambitious: they want to learn to read and write as quickly as possible, explains Dévote, in order ‘to be able to do their electoral duty to the best of their abilities’.

Dévote, who works as a nurse at the nearby hospital, one that international charities seem to be unaware of and that continues to run on voluntary contributions from patients, is happy to explain what her fellow-citizens have to say. These women have no identity papers, their births were not registered and they know that if they can get themselves onto the electoral register they will be able to get identity papers.

But above all, these women have come to understand that the elections will allow them for the first time in their lives to choose who is going to govern them. That applies at every level: local, national and presidential. ‘Here, in the east,’ they stress, ‘we have known occupation, exploitation, looting. The people responsible for all our misfortunes are still there and tomorrow they will put themselves forward for election.

But we know that there will also be other candidates, people from the basic levels of society, former trade unionists, patriots, people who personified the idea of resistance. We want to be able to choose, to be able to act as observers in the polling stations and to prevent electoral fraud.’

They were already watchful when the electoral roll was being drawn up and made sure that ‘non-Congolese’ – foreigners smuggled in from Rwanda or Burundi – were not able to register as nationals. They scrupulously monitored the electoral rolls displayed outside the polling stations.

Father Jean-Claude is simultaneously running literacy courses for the women and the preparations for the elections. He has loaned the parish school premises to the Independent Electoral Commission (CEI). His optimism is based on determination: ‘In the capital Kinshasa and even more so outside this country, people underestimate the ability of the Congolese to mobilise. The people want to vote and they got organised a long time ago to make sure that this election would happen, and that means in the most remote areas as well. People also tend to forget that this ability to organise goes back a long way, all the way back to the time of Mobutu who abandoned us.’

To underline the ability of his flock to mobilise, the priest talks of the Justice and Peace groups that have been set up in all the parishes, of the constant presence of grassroots Christian communities, of ‘diaconates’ all over the country. He speaks with pride of the high level of collaboration between all the religious denominations: ‘When our Protestant neighbours were short of teaching materials we passed on to them the leaflets that Justice and Peace had given out to us, which had been printed thanks to funding from Belgium.

These little brochures explain, in a very practical way, how to go about voting and how to spot any cheating. They used them for their own educational meetings.’ The funds that support the grassroots organisations in the Congo were raised in Belgium by a campaign led by the Flemish Catholic organisation Broederlijk Delen, by Justice and Peace and by other Christian NGOs.

On the ground, the agreement between Catholics, Protestants, Muslims and the ‘revivalist churches’ – the sects that are springing up all over the country – has become a reality: all religious denominations have agreed to abstain from efforts at conversion and to devote their energies to educating their followers in readiness for the elections. An agreement of this kind is of prime importance in a country where every citizen, almost without exception, would lay claim to some kind of religious affiliation.

It seems likely that this determination on the part of grass-roots organisations will be maintained despite contradictory messages from parts of the hierarchy. Indeed, relations between the president of the CEI, Father Malu Malu, who has a powerful grass-roots following, and the bishops’ conference have been somewhat strained.

Father Malu Malu, a small man with eyes that twinkle in an expressive face, has become a central character in Congolese politics. He originates from Butembo in the Nande area of Eastern Congo. After his doctorate in political science from Grenoble University he was appointed rector of the Graben University in Butembo, an institution that is 100 per cent privately financed and regarded as the best in the region.

After his appointment as head of the CEI, he maintained his links with the grass-roots Christian communities and, working on the fringes of the state and of international organisations, can call on an impressive network of contacts at parish level. This popular power base means that he can take a philosophical attitude to any sideswipes from the episcopal crosiers.

What has actually happened is that the Congo Bishops’ Conference, under the chairmanship of Monsignor Monswengo, formerly head of the Supreme National Conference (1991-1992) and a man who has retained his taste for active politics, has remained somewhat aloof from the president of the CEI, ensuring that Malu Malu could not involve the Church as an institution.

This sort of reluctance has worried Western governments which are spending large sums to finance the electoral register and the eventual election – for the EU alone, the bill comes to US$149 million – and discreet pressure has been exerted on the Congolese hierarchy through the Vatican to persuade it not to withdraw its support from the electoral process.

The registration of 20 million electors, which took place across the country despite all the logistical problems and calls to boycott the process issued by certain parties such as the UDPS (Democratic Union for Social Progress) led by Etienne Tshisekedi, also shows the extent to which the people have managed to stand their ground, in spite of the breakdown of the Congolese state. Ordinary citizens have maintained their desire to become a nation; they have organised themselves to survive and to resist foreign aggression, and the vast majority of them are determined to go and vote. For many, their only frustration has been that they could not get to the electoral registration offices in time.

This ability of the Congolese people to organise themselves is often beyond the control of UN organisations and humanitarian teams, who are not happy about it: they would prefer to feel that they were dealing with a clean slate, starting from scratch and rebuilding from the ground up.

On the ground, for example, teams from Médecins sans Frontières turn up intending to hand out medicines and offer medical aid free of charge to an extremely poor population and find themselves clashing with the Congolese health workers. The arguments offered by both sides make sense. MSF argues that the policy of recovering health costs prevents the vast majority of the population from having access to dispensaries, whereas the ‘local’ doctors and nurses point out that the only reason why the shaky health provision, which dates from the Mobutu era, has survived in spite of there being no official support, is that the local population got into the habit of being self-supporting.

In the dispensaries and health centres, including those dependent on religious institutions, patients are asked to make a contribution, even if it is no more than symbolic. Many of these are worried that by reintroducing a free system, foreign aid will destroy this long and deeply-established sense of self-reliance.

It is true that the citizens of the Congo long ago learned to do without the state. The Mobutu regime, which had been in an economic crisis since the end of the 1970s and which was principally concerned with holding onto power and lining the pockets of its ruling class, had long since handed over ‘social care’ to foreign voluntary organisations. It was the more easily able to disregard the needs of the people since there was no free, democratic election that might hold it to account.

From the beginning of the 1990s, the regime, which was in its end phase and disgraced, was penalised by Western governments which, by withdrawing all their direct aid were, in effect, leaving the population to their own devices. After the collapse of the Mobutu regime, the Congolese suffered five years of bloody warfare and then, after the 2002 Sun City peace accords, a two-year transitional period in which social affairs were the least of the worries for their leaders, who had won their positions by force of arms.

Despite all this, and even though they sometimes have the feeling that they have been abandoned by God and Man, the Congolese have faced up to adversity. Right across the country, whether in the bush or in the townships, if you ask them, ‘How’s it going?’ their reply, clear yet evasive too, will be, ‘We’re still here. Things are going sort of OK, just sort of OK.’ You can take this to mean, ‘Times are hard but we’re hanging on, we’ve stood firm, we’re hoping that things will go better.’ In other words, they are trying to get through their difficulties.

The key to their resourcefulness is family solidarity, the support of relatives who live in the town or, better still, have managed to move abroad, from where they send back money to their relatives who have stayed behind in the country. It is impossible to put a figure on the sums transferred in this way but they far exceed international aid budgets.

Church networks have also played their part and, despite the fact that foreign priests are aging, the mission circuit has remained intact, with all that this implies: the dissemination of news, which, when re-transmitted via the Missionary Service News Agency has often been the first to expose the massacres committed in the east of the country, the possibility of collecting funds abroad, unseen networks enabling the transfer of capital, the distribution of aid outside official structures and so on.

The Congolese have also helped themselves by developing professional associations and committees of all kinds to an extraordinary extent. Even in the most remote villages, you are fooling yourself if you think that you can talk, without further introduction, to market women, to the cyclists who act as taxis (the tolekas of Kisangani) or the young people who walk around listening to their transistor radios: all of them are members of a committee or an association and will require any stranger to talk first to their ‘representative’ or their ‘chairman’. Such a person will speak on their behalf, sum up general feelings and, without further ado, will present the visitor with ‘the list of requirements’.

Whilst the Catholics, Kimbangists and Protestants have set up major support networks, which long ago replaced non-existent international aid or the bankrupt state, the so-called églises de réveil – the revivalist churches – have also become established on a huge scale. Katanga, for example, is now home to the Kitawala, a variant of the Jehovah’s Witnesses that came from Zambia; prayer groups have sprung up in large numbers throughout the country.

In the large towns it is noticeable that one of the effects of the crisis has been the disappearance of the ngandas (cafés or restaurants) and their replacement with little local churches set up with massive publicity efforts by their pastors, who have found them to be at one and the same time places for contemplation and a means of getting rich by asking for financial contributions from the faithful.

These revivalist churches are also linked to the appearance of the new phenomenon of ‘child-witches’. Families become convinced that the source of all their problems is a spell cast on them by one of their children. Sometimes the child itself is convinced that s/he has supernatural or malign powers. Breaking the spell is the job of the pastor, who is paid by the family, and it can happen that the ‘guilty’ child is thrown out of the house and joins the hordes of street children, or is taken away by the preacher, who will not hesitate to use physical violence and abuse.

This explosion of ‘cults’ and religious magic reflects the fundamental social breakdown as a result of the years of war, the flight from the countryside and the uprooting of entire populations. If the country manages to find the road to development, we can only hope that the Congolese will succeed in preserving the best of their religious practices and the ‘solidarity economy’ while getting rid of all such deviant practices.

Colette Braeckman is a journalist with Le Soir, Brussels. She also writes for Le Monde diplomatique. Among her publications are Rwanda, histoire d’un genocide (1994), Le dinosaure, le Zaïre de Mobutu (1991) and Les Nouveaux Prédateurs (2003) all published by Fayard, Paris. This article was first published by Enjeux Internationaux and was translated by Mike Routledge. It appears in issue 3/2006 of Index on Censorship, In Their Own Write.

By Rohan Jayasekera

Rohan Jayasekera is a journalist, editor and online free expression advocate, tracking human rights, digital media, cultures of change and the conflict zeitgeist.