WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Democratic Republic of the Congo is riddled with negative media attention. In the midst of virtually persistent conflict in eastern Congo since 1993, what goes on far away in Kinshasa, the capital of this massive country?
Economic reforms, health care developments and a culture of music and creativity are providing support to the capital and possibly laying strong foundations that can someday help not only people in the capital but also in the rest of the country.
Congo is the largest nation in sub-Saharan Africa, as big as all the land east of the Mississippi in the United States. As the turmoil in the east flares anew or abates, with the M23 militia fighting the Congolese Army as the United Nations provides increased protection to civilians in the form of a new offensive brigade, life in Kinshasa rolls on. Huge buildings and roads are being developed in the capital, while multinational corporations make deals there to buy such minerals as coltan, a key element used in cellphones and other ubiquitous electronic devices. Coltan and other vital minerals are mined in the east, offering the country a source of revenue but also feeding the conflict.
Congo has two halves. Kinshasa sits at the far west corner, geographically detached from the east, but it is the base for the country’s economic, trade, foreign affairs and health policy matters. Last May, during intense fighting with the M23 rebel groups in the east, I flew to Kinshasa from Washington, D.C., for my job as an associate analyst for Abt Associates, a research consulting firm, to work on an international development project and to support a financing plan with Congo’s ministries of health and finance to prevent mother-to-child transmission of HIV/AIDS.
On the drive from the N’djili International Airport to the hotel near downtown Kinshasa, I quickly experienced the unpaved dirt roads, where men, women and children were weaving through what was one of the main routes into the city without even a wince at oncoming traffic. It was as if Kinshasa’s residents were desensitized to the slew of taxis, vans and trucks without a single traffic sign or light in sight.
Despite its poverty, the city is a busy place, dotted with UN vehicles and a robust international presence, including the World Bank, Unicef, the Belgian Development Cooperation, United States Agency for International Development, GAVI Alliance, the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria and Chinese development organizations.
I was also in Kinshasa to find out about its health systemsfor my job, so I visited the Kinshasa School of Public Health, which has been supported by various universities — including Johns Hopkins, Harvard and Tulane — as well as various donors like the US Agency for International Development and the European Union. Since the 1990s, the school has been training students in health work for master’s degrees and Ph.D.s, so they can be cultivated as leaders to help improve the health of Congolese as well as the overall medical system.
In the last five years, at least 42 Congolese students have earned master’s in public health scholarships at the Kinshasa school and gone on to work as faculty members or in other leadership positions there, at the Ministry of Health or as consultants for international organizations like the World Bank. One doctoral student completed her degree and has joined the faculty as a full-time professor. This increase in human capital is certainly part of what the Congo needs, a generation of leaders who can steer the nation’s health system in a better direction.
Kinshasa has also begun to carry out economic reforms by encouraging entrepreneurs to use banks more, or “guichet unique,” one-stop shops that enable businesses to be set up by paying a single fee, thus weaning businesses off a cash-based economy and limiting corruption, says a BBC report.
On a cultural note, the Kimbanguist Symphony Orchestra was started in 1994 and now has 200 female and male volunteer musicians and vocalists who perform around the capital. The orchestra says it is the only all-black orchestra in the world, started by a Congolese, Armand Diangienda, a former commercial pilot. He taught himself how to read music and play instruments, and eventually fulfilled his dream of creating and leading an orchestra in Kinshasa.
Each member from the orchestra comes together after work to play the tuba, viola, saxophone and other instruments. They play pieces by composers such as Dvorak, Handel and Beethoven, blended with African musical influences. For years, the orchestra was a best-kept secret until a documentary about it was released in 2010. This year, Diangienda became an honorary member of the Royal Philharmonic Society in Britain, prompting an article in The Guardian.
Despite the constant corruption in Congo, the sharing of knowledge, innovations and even the power of music resonate in the capital. While these developments cannot fix the deep-rooted conflicts plaguing the eastern half of the country, they promote hope in a place that is beautiful yet starkly unmaintained. It is important for international groups and those in Kinshasa to continue to promote the local economy, local infrastructure and local health system for Kinshasans.
When I returned to the N’djili International Airport to fly back to Washington, struck by both the good things going on in Kinshasa but also the dysfunctions (severely dated infrastructure, a big divide between Congolese and the expat community), I went into the single gift shop in the quiet, nearly barren airport for a look around. I saw African garb and artwork. Then I inched closer to what looked like postcards, only to find a couple with pictures of safari animals on them. The cards were photographs of South Africa.
Someday, Congo will have its own identity, including postcards with a national monument pictured on them instead of animals from another African country 1,700 miles away.