Archive for March, 2010


congo down in history

A shake of the head and a grin: “That is so Congolese.” Oft repeated and never gets old. And yet, it’s never just comical; always, there is a backdrop of politics, social tensions and acrobatic logic that one can tease out from even the most benign situations. Add it all up and you get tiny explosions of spectacular insanity. Take this story, for example, from ESPN’s World Cup coverage and an article on the biggest mistakes in World Cup history (

“Ilunga Mwepu’s free-kick – Zaire vs Brazil (1974 group stage) This Zaire right back made his name when, as the referee blew his whistle for Brazil to take a free-kick, he broke from the wall and kicked the ball to the other end of the pitch. He later appeared on TV programme Fantasy Football League to recreate the moment in comic fashion (“I can’t believe no one’s thought of it before. I’ll go down in history. This will become known as the Ilunga Mwepu manoeuvre”), but he has also said his actions came after threats of violence from the country’s president if they went down to a heavy defeat. “I panicked and kicked the ball away before he had taken it,” he said. “Most of the Brazil players, and the crowd, too, thought it was hilarious. They didn’t understand the pressure we were under.'”

That is so Congolese. Or Zairois, if you like.


jeffrey gettleman’s article about conflict in africa

Jeffrey Gettleman, the East Africa bureau chief for the New York Times, wrote this article in the March/April issue of ‘Foreign Policy’ (,0) about the trajectory of conflict in Africa.

I have so many problems with this article, least of all because it is irresponsible to portray Africa as an endless and lawless battlefield. The article seems to rest on a primary assumption about the connection between soldiers and statesmen that renders it immediately untenable. Gettleman seems to be saying that because today’s soldiers are no longer interested in becoming presidents and ministers, conflict will continue, as long as the rebels do not formulate longer-term military and political objectives. Is it really possible to stretch a link from field-based military objectives (or lack of) to ideas about post-conflict governance? Meaning rebels of our nostalgic yesteryears with more “class” are supposedly better administrators because they were fighting for clear ideas, like independence?  The Zimbabwean independence movement sounded pretty classy, but how did that work out? The Zimbabwe situation may not involve “forever” conflict, but it has been a pretty long history of oppression and suffering.

The examples Gettleman cites to support his claims don’t add up for me. The photo at the top of the article, for all I know, could be of rebels from eastern Chad. In the last five years, they have made at least two attempts in jeeps to cross the width of Chad to sack the capital. Burundi, where I am based, just saw the last rebel group come into the fold after negotiating for ministry slots and a place in this summer’s upcoming elections. What the heck is Gettelman talking about? And what does he mean by “un-war”?? Wouldn’t that be peace? He may be better off defining ‘war’ first before he un-does anything.

I liked that he mentioned the “well-educated” John Garang though. Garang attended Grinnell College for a while before returning to South Sudan. It’s enriching to know my alma mater produces clear-headed charismatic rebel leaders with ideas!

Let’s take an example closer to Gettleman’s purview. He covered the Nkunda story personally. I thought his articles highlighted Nkunda’s well-structured political vision of governance, the CNDP’s attempts to win over the populace in order to consolidate their control over vast swathes of territory. Isn’t that a clear sign of a political agenda? At the least, it’s a first step to destabilizing a national government that sits on the other coast. Who knows where Nkunda was headed? So is Gettleman really saying that rebel leaders are not politically-motivated or not politically ambitious?

One other Congo-related point – is he equating Mobutu with a functional state? Does Mobutu fall into his category of “classy” leaders who knew how to govern?

The golden era of Congolese statehood that Gettleman alludes to never existed. Mobutu’s ascension was framed by the U.N.’s first peacekeeping mission in the Congo (50+ years!), a secession of an entire province, the murder of a legitimately elected leader and international actors playing out a proxy war with boatloads of foreign currencies.

This article is just not very well reasoned and each case example is underpinned by Gettleman’s own intervention, whether meeting Nkunda or olive oil merchants in Somalia. I take especial issue with his thought that conflict in Africa is moving toward the intractable fighting we see in Somalia. All over Africa, regional alliances are being created that increase cross-border investment in both the politics and the economics of neighboring countries. It is in this context that Burundi was able to achieve a peace accord with support (and pressure) from its east African neighbors. Somalia only has neighbors that aggravate the situation and little political will from within. It appears to be an isolated case, on several levels, rather than a harbinger of Africa’s future.

I think what Gettleman dances around but can’t outright say is that while creating a state is a legitimate goal, there are some really awful governments out there right now that were created by more structured independence movements. State institutions and the structures for good governance are not yet strong enough in the countries he’s named, and war is one of those things that would be somewhat regulated by a functional state. How the U.S. prosecutes its wars in Iraq or in Afghanistan and how it deals with their consequences in being able to demand accountability is an indication of its government’s institutional health.

It is not that this generation of rebels (god, I feel like I’m talking about disaffected ruffian youths of the newest generation of whatever era – very paternalistic) is aimless or moribund or not goal-driven – it’s that they probably recognize that existing state structures are not worth their effort. The decision to not control all the functions of government but only those nodes of power that distribute resources and benefits – that seems like a very calculated political move to me. The groups named may not be rebelling against current governments, but they are rebelling against the establishment with the caveat that in this case, the establishment can’t even provide clean water, reliable electricity or basic medical services. Who would want to take over something like that? The best rebellion in this case would be to stay out of the mess. Government is not considered a “necessary evil” here but an unnecessary good in the pursuit of happiness.

This article reads like another desperate effort of someone who’s been too close up to the violence to make sense in the face of a rationality that is not based on Western traditions or assumptions. Gettleman is the New York Times bureau chief for 12 countries. Are there any 12 countries in any region of the world where one can reliably extrapolate overall trends about political motivations, demographics, resource management, etc etc?

Perhaps Gettleman’s own coverage that is heavy on sensation and anecdotes gives greater impetus to these rebel leaders to grab the spotlight. Maybe his hypermedia coverage narrows his vision and he doesn’t see that political objectives take years, even decades to formulate, modify and achieve. Just because he didn’t understand each groups’ motivations in a couple weeks for what they might want to do with a territory as large as the Congo doesn’t mean clear objectives don’t exist. I don’t mean to berate Gettleman’s efforts to provide informative coverage of Africa, especially in the Great Lakes region where I am based. He is at least doing his part to learn more and to be informative. Having been here for a speck of two years, I can certainly appreciate the challenge of obtaining reliable data and constructing straightforward political narratives. This blog avoids more in-depth discussions for that very reason – the information would not be reliable or theoretically sound (and I’m strongly considering journalism school!). But this article does not really address endless conflict in Africa, it only follows an endless line of irresponsible journalism about “Africa”, not African nations.


international women’s day – continued but abridged

I had been expecting the festivities to rumble on into the night for International Women’s Day, but Aristide, our Project Coordinator, explained to me that the women absolutely had to get home by seven or eight p.m. He said it was to avoid trouble. My first thought: okay, it’s a bit unruly here, maybe not safe for women on the streets after dark with so much beer already consumed. But Aristide, with the help of the female staff, explained differently: The problem is that if they didn’t get back by then, there’ll be trouble at home.

‘8 mars’ is synonymous with female emancipation…for a day. The thinking is, women get their day and men will put up with it to an extent. So men will tolerate the “desordre” of ‘8 mars’ for a while. They’ll let the cries for equality and female empowerment ring out as long as they stay on the street. They’ll permit the dancing and parading as a necessary antagonism, so long as the women come back home and remember to cook dinner. So women who stay out a little too long, who drink a little too much on 8 mars are pushing it – they’re taking the whole liberation idea a bit too far. If they “se vengent” against men that way and if they try to repay the men for the other 364 days of inequality, then there would be hell to pay the night of ‘8 mars’. Better for the women to return home early and show their obedience to existing power structures – on this, both sides generally agree – “saving face” takes on a very literal meaning. So while ‘8 mars’ is a daylong party for women, it’s also a node for the paradoxical nature of women’s rights in the Congo, both its celebration and its negation.

I’m especially curious about the bellicose tone of these conversations. Of course, many discussions about gender roles and the sexes take on some edge of competitiveness, but I consistently sense that it takes on the dimension of a combat here. Women are either up or down, have to be shown their place or beaten back. Men have to show their dominance, must always be superior and they really are in control anyway but they talk as if their place is forever in doubt in this familiar contest. This is strange. Women remain overwhelmingly the principal victims in conflicts all over the world. In the Congo, it’s spawned a new vocabulary of inhumanity. Has the international community so inundated eastern Congo (and the world generally) with rhetoric about women’s empowerment that there is a defensive backlash from men? Probably, but that wouldn’t be a problem if real solutions to promote women’s livelihoods accompanied the flashy posters. More on this point another time, I think.

The next day, I gathered the staff to talk about the previous day’s events and what it meant to them. Inevitably, we talked about notions of respect and equality, women’s progress in obtaining rights such as inheritance in the DRC and the evolution of a women’s role in a family or a couple. It’s so interesting – I feel like we make a lot of progress. The men are at times disenchanted, at times threatened, at times just flummoxed. I was really impressed by how even-handed the women’s arguments were – not at all in line with the fervor of the day before and not based on some UNIFEM slogan. It sometimes makes me think there isn’t really a dialogue going on, not yet. The men, maybe out of politeness to me, clearly had things they wanted to say but always found some quirky way of framing their real thoughts to make us all laugh. Right before I returned to Bujumbura, one of them said, “Yes, of course we respect women, but sometimes they are just so proud (orgueilleuses)!”


international women’s day

march 8, 2010. uvira, south kivu, drc

“Huit mars”. International Women’s Day. It’s a festive occasion – huge parade, endless speeches, mid-morning drinking, especially on the Congo side, which is where I am to march with my Congolese colleagues. Everyone wants a good seat.

Uvira, South Kivu Province of eastern DRC, about 15 kilometers over the Burundi/DRC border at Kavimvira. A U.N.-backed holiday celebrating women (in the Congo!) could only mean one thing: giant block party. This day affirms my quaint belief that any backwater hub in the Congo could out-party and no doubt outdrink any Big Ten campus. Don’t believe me? Then you must see what happens when any vehicle, spilling over with too many passengers, rolls by blaring a local tune. From above, I’m sure you could see the ripple of dancing and chaos and screaming children that would follow the music source.

I’m with my new colleagues that we recently hired for a project against human trafficking. We are nine marching behind our Heartland Alliance banner.

That is the why. This is the wow:

After a two-hour delay under a crushing sun, we get moving, just as the sky ahead darkens. I’m suddenly relieved to find us near the head of the procession. When we get near the endpoint, there are crowds lining both sides and somewhere a rabid announcer (in huge plastic sunglasses and purple velvet top hat, no doubt) is screaming out the name of each organization and congratulating them. When we get near the spectator stand with local dignitaries reviewing the march, I hear Heartland Alliance’s name being blared out. “Ouais ouais, felicitations, Heartland Alliance! Ouais ouais!” Then I hear “Ouais, felicitations, Jefferson Mok! OUAAAAAIIIS!!!”

What? Sweet.

“Ha ha ha, tu es connu ici!”

Evidently. It’s a small community and all, and I do stick out quite a bit. But it never ceases to surprise me when I am stopped on the road, in shops, at the borderpost, at one of Uvira’s three nightspots or in the middle of a city-wide parade by hearing my name called out to me from a wall of strange faces. I love it.

Just as soon as we finish our part of the parade, the sky splits open and thick drops come plopping down. We run for it. Actually, everyone else runs for it, and I get distracted by this woman’s elegant headpiece.

Then I run for it, only I have no idea where everyone else has gone (ever travel with me before? Sound familiar?) Luckily, my team sends back one of the guards to find me and we all pile into a little bar tucked behind another little bar, which is most of what Uvira is.

We sit down, order some drinks – I have to restate the no-beer-during-workhours policy but I lose the no-bottle-caps-on-the-floor battle. We order meat on sticks and are treated to some Congolese classic tunes, which apparently everyone knows exactly how to dance to, because that’s what half the bar is doing. There is a guy dancing, Capri-cut Dickies denim, olive t-shirt. Very nice movements, short, round but lanky, too.  All of a sudden, he stops boppin’ and runs over to the grill to berate the hapless worker stationed there. I’m not really following the action. Then the dancer picks up the tongs and starts flipping around hunks of meat. Uh oh. Oh my god, he’s the cook! Except, he’s also the resident dancer! But, of course, he’s not stopping either task for the other.

There are many moments when I can see a disaster gathering with the speed of a drunken pig. This is one of them. Maybe I’ve had practice, but I see these moments very clearly now and yet I know I have no possibility of getting out of the way. As I’m typing this, my stomach is a lead-brick on coke. It’s rumbling and tumbling, with intent. Did I not see this coming when I speared the first of four or five pinkish meats that also managed to be incinerated black on the outside, while happily watching the dancing cook. There was a piece that was so unchewable, I had to pause and prepare myself mentally to not choke. Like a pissed off hippo, It did not go down easy.

It’s been about 15 minutes since I’ve managed to pull myself into a sitting position to type this. This is not the first time that I’ve been struck down by mega-sunstroke and a stomachache in Uvira. Somehow, in the span of 20 km, Uvira manages to be about four times hotter than Bujumbura. It’s really just the other side of the lake, but we’re a world away here.

Click below to receive an email notification when I post a new entry.

Join 36 other followers

March 2010