The Democratic Republic of the Congo by Kahwit Tela, Photos by Kahwit Tela

When I first took on this assignment, I admit I thought I had a general idea. My plan was, I thought, all figured out and would have gone as such: start off with the history, talk about the current situation at hand and end with what could happen within the near future. However, describing a nation in one article is like (insert an idiom that’s about how impossible something is): Impossible. That’s what it’s like to describe a beautifully complicated country such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo. So, I thought perhaps the easiest (and most efficient) way was to conduct interviews with friends and family members who lived in the Congo and ask them what the D.R.C. means to them. However, due to lack of time and being busy due to certain events (It was my grandparents’ 50th anniversary so the family was occupied) that never happened.

Unable to interview people, I was a bit discouraged. With no one to turn to, I concluded that I wouldn’t be able to do this article. Luckily for me, there still was a way. There was one person I neglected, more like avoided to ask their opinion on the D.R.C.: Myself. Although I’m the son of two Congolese parents, I spent most of my life in the U.S. since I was born and raised here. While I couldn’t speak Lingala (one of the main languages in Congo) let alone speak fluent French, I’m still able to comprehend due to my years growing up in a French-speaking household.

The first time I went to the D.R.C., I was ten years old. There’s always something magical that first time you enter a lifestyle completely contrary to your own. The hustle and bustle of the streets, the way the sky appeared whenever the sun set or rose, and the atmosphere around the people. I think what enchanted me the most at ten years old, aside from the fact that Africa was some savage jungle that foreigners came to “tame”, was that there were people that looked like me. Unfortunately, how you see something at twenty years old isn’t necessarily the magical thing you encountered at age 10. When you’re older, you begin to pick up on things that flew over your head back when you were a kid like adult jokes in kids shows.

When I arrived at Lubumbashi (where my mom’s side of the family lives), I noticed coming off the plane, there was a billboard near the top of the airport, with former I mean president, Joseph Kabila saying “Ne Jamais trahir le Congo” which literally translates into “Never Betray the Congo”. If this big brother-esque warning doesn’t freak you out, I don’t know what will. Even after his long-awaited boot from office, you can still see how he holds power in the Congo in the aftermath of his political term even while his successor/marionette, Felix Tshisekedi, is now in charge. (To paint a better picture, think of it similar to how Dick Cheney wore the pants of the political relationship while George “Dubya” Bush was smiling cheek-to-cheek like Alfred E. Neuman from MAD Magazine).

Infrastructure in the D.R.C is poor and there’s no greater example of this than the city of Kinshasa, which can literally be a dumpster fire. There are little to no roads in Kinshasa and without the lines, people are driving willy-nilly. This ends up causing unbelievable traffic and cramped areas. There’s trash everywhere throughout the city!! People are hustling left and right to selling stuff from food like bread & candy to other things like cigarettes or clothes. What sadden me the most was that Kinshasa wasn’t always in this sorry state. My dad told me about how the Kinshasa that he lived in growing up is a lot different than what it is now. It was the place to be, now it’s just a place haunted by its own ghost with nothing but filthy, unsanitary trash and decaying buildings around it. What had to be the most heartbreaking part of my trip was what I saw when I was travelling to the city of Kikwit. Huts with straw roofs and the sudden swarm of vendors who would stop you to sell you something as simple of a vegetable just so they can have some money to live. I would be lying if I said that I did not feel guilty about how good I have in the U.S. whenever I saw the little village kids, who would play soccer in the sand barefoot or take care of their younger siblings. Also, one thing that I noticed now that I must have been oblivious to when I was ten is the vast number of foreigners in the Congo, especially those from China. Now, you’re probably asking: “Wait, why are there Chinese people in Congo?” to which I answer “I’ll explain soon enough, dear reader”

Believe it or not, The Democratic Republic of the Congo is one of the richest places in the world, thanks to all the minerals it holds, particularly Coltan (which is often used for electronic devices such as cellular devices and gaming consoles) or Cobalt (used in electric vehicles’ batteries). So if the D.R.C. is one of the richest places in the world, why does it seem like nothing is getting better, whether it be with infrastructure, the environment or politics. The reason can be called many things: greed, selfishness, power. I, however, call it as it is: business. Think about it: if you have something that has the potential of making you rich, chances are you’re going to sell out to exploit it. This can also explain the reason as to why many foreigners are in the Congo. While some might be there for vacation or even live there, most come for business. Let’s say for example, you work for a tech company such as Samsung or Apple. Your company makes phones and you need to find the minerals to make the phones. So, you high-tail it to Congo to get them. Now, the way you get them may not be ethical (i.e. at the expense of forced child labor) but hey, you get what you needed. And to show that your generosity, you give the Congolese some of your things like mediocre wi-fi provided by Huawei. To put it simply, work smarter, not harder.

I’ll end the article with this little tidbit: My grandfather is a lawyer and has many books in his library at his and my grandmother’s home. One book I borrowed from his library was “Heart of Darkness” by Joseph Conrad which, in case you’re unfamiliar with it, tells the tale of Charles Murlow who goes up the Congo river in search of the mysterious ivory trader, Kurtz. It’s a novel that best illustrates the horrors of imperialism and if there’s one thing that the book mentions a lot is the resources in the Congo with the spotlight being on Ivory. While I greatly detested Marlow’s character and the melodramatization that often appear in books of that time, I understand why this 19th century book is critically acclaimed. I believe the reason to its acclaim is to how eerily similar this to present day Congo. Heart of Darkness is filled to the brim with people who come far and wide just to exploit the resources in the Congo. The Congolese or “savages” as they often referred as, are both metaphorically and literally tossed aside in the novel. Sometimes much, much worse than simply being “tossed aside”. The environment is just torn apart with little thought of consequences. Despite all that I mentioned in this article, the Democratic Republic of Congo is still a beautiful place filled with extravagant people. However, you would be ignorant if you only thought about this and brush aside all the issues at hand. If you don’t look into history, you’re doomed to repeat and it’s horrifying when a 120-year-old book such as Heart of Darkness is still able, after all these years, to predict how fiction can turn into reality...

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