Nineteen years ago today, Congo experienced its second liberation of the century. The first was in 1960, when it finally obtained independence from Belgium. Democratic elections were held, and Patrice Lumumba declared the winner. But Patrice wasn’t the favorite of Belgium, who still held financial interests in the region, nor the United States, who considered Africa a strategic proxy for the Cold War. So the powers-that-be made sure that Lumumba didn’t stick around long. In his place, they installed someone they considered friendlier to western interests, friendlier to business interests, an eager young up-and-coming general in the army, someone they thought they would have more influence over in the years to come. His name was Joseph-Desiré Mobutu, and he turned out to be one of the worst dictators Africa has ever seen. It’s because of him and his penchant for pocketing the country’s revenues (not to mention the rich donor countries that stubbornly and foolishly continued to send money) that Congo went nowhere but backwards on every possible measure of economic development, and to this day remains one of the poorest countries on the planet – despite being one of the richest in natural resources.
So the people of Congo celebrated in 1997 when a coup d’état led by “Mzee” or “Papa” Laurent-Désiré Kabila finally dethroned Mobutu, after more than three decades at the helm. The people celebrated because they imagined their country getting back on track with someone in charge who was more honest, more charitable, and less of an egomaniac.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t that easy.
In a country plagued for so long by so much instability, the central government – no matter who was sitting in it – had by then lost complete control. Rebel groups and ethnic tensions continued to undermine efforts to bring the country together. And some say that Papa Kabila was no better than his predecessor when it came to corruption. At any rate, his tenure would be brief, as he was assassinated by one of his bodyguards only four years later.
His son, Joseph Kabila, took over in 2001. The country adopted a new constitution in 2005, with a mandate for democratic elections every five years, and a two-term limit for the president. Kabila is nearing the end of his second term now. Keep your eye on the international news media for how that is going. Especially if you tire of listening to stories about Trump.
Obviously, this is a quick-and-dirty history lesson that is glossing over an awful lot. If you’d like to know more, there are a ton of resources you can find online. Wikipedia is a good place to start, and from there you can just keep clicking.
With the history lesson over, let’s get to the fun stuff, shall we? Being a public holiday here in Congo, I don’t think anybody worked much today. Instead, we celebrated “Liberation Day” by watching a soccer match and inhaling a couple of South-African style hot dogs. Most of our expats were on a team they called the “old guys” versus the “young guys” (their words, not mine). The match ended 2-2 with no “sudden death” to determine the winner, as most of our old guys were on the verge of sudden death already.
Most of us foreign spectators (including Seb and myself) enjoyed sitting in the sun in shorts, while the Congolese were wrapped up in multiple layers of clothing, hats and scarves. I even saw one gal in a heavy fur coat. To be fair, it is the coldest part of the year here. In the mornings, the temperature is near freezing, literally, and there can be frost on the ground. And did you know that the coldest time of day is right after sunrise? Something about sudden evaporation, kind of like the effect of getting out of a pool in Phoenix in 110 degrees. Brr. Or maybe this is a really common thing, I have no idea.
Anyway. Once the sun has been up for awhile, it’s a beautiful 70 degrees in the shade, like always. This afternoon we’re enjoying a beer on the patio before dinner, while contemplating our futures here working for a Chinese company.
Oh yes! Have you heard? One more piece of non-Trump news. Our Phoenix-based headquarters, Freeport-McMoRan, have cut us loose. Not by choice, of course; they just ran out of money and racked up enough debt that several buyers flush with cash have come a-knocking. All of them Chinese. So maybe my next language course will be in Chengdu and my next food-based blog will be all about the ins and outs of sweet-and-sour fried goat.
We’ll see. Technically it doesn’t sound like much is going to change in the next two years. If all goes well with the elections here, we’re actually quite keen to stay and see how things go under new management. At the very least, Seb will have an interesting resume, and I will have more stories to tell.
Chains breaking free all over the place. Happy Liberation Day!