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Congo Then and Now

June 26, 2011

Back in February, I went out in the field with my colleague, Makele, and our driver, Jean Claude.  We went out for about 10 days to do some site visits at pre-natal clinics around Bas Congo, the province to the west of Kinshasa, toward (and slightly touching) the ocean.

Bas Congo Map - Kinshasa, Mbanza-Ngungu, Matadi and Boma are all clearly labelled. Kimpese is marked with "B" and Lukula with "C"

Unlike the state of the roads in the rest of the country, the main route west into Bas Congo is pretty well-paved and seems pretty well-maintained.  It’s an important trade route, as it connects Kinshasa to the ocean.  We made stops at the two main port cities in Congo, Matadi and Boma, along with a few smaller towns, Kimpese, Kisantu, and Lukula.

Me and Jean Claude in Matadi, after a delicious lunch of liboke (roasted fish wrapped in banana leaves)

Ship on the Congo River, approaching the port of Matadi

Lucky for me, it just so happened that both Makele and Jean Claude grew up in Bas Congo, and so they shared with me quite a bit of reminiscing.  The general theme that came up, as it does during a session of reminiscence, was “the way things used to be…”

I was struck by their descriptions of the way things used to be in Congo.

You can see it in the towns we passed on our trip, and all over the place in Kinshasa- the old post office (there is certainly no longer a functioning postal system here)… the old hotel where Europeans used to vacation to escape the heat of Kinshasa (certainly no tourists any more).

But it’s never as poignant as when you see it through the eyes of someone who used to live in that Congo, Congo back in the day, Congo the way it used to be.

Kimpese, looking toward the Protestant University

Makele went to school in Kimpese in 1981 at the Protestant University.  One Sunday afternoon while we were in Kimpese and the pre-natal clinics were closed, the three of us went on a little tour of the campus.

Back in the day, he told me, his school had the best science lab around, even better than the bigger university  a few towns away.  And this was a big deal to a science nerd like him, who later went to medical school and became a doctor.

As we drove around, he pointed out a row of houses where the expats had lived and named which professor used to live in which house…

“Mr. Gary so-and-so, an American guy, lived in this one and he taught chemistry.”

“Mrs. Woodhouse lived in that one, she taught biology.  She was British”

We saw the school buildings, once very grand, now looking pretty run-down, with broken windows and crumbling bricks.

Buildings on the campus of the Protestant University of Kimpese

C’est grave.”  (This is sad/gloomy)

C’est incomprehensible.”  It’s unbelievable

No, no, no.”

Makele muttered to himself softly as we passed each classroom, the dorms, and the building that used to house the lab.

His head was no doubt filled with the rosy memories of his youth and the way things used to be at his old school, bustling with students and teachers, all the buildings bright and new, a school that was considered the academic pride of the region.

What seemed most shocking to both Makele and Jean Claude was the soccer field in the middle of the campus, overgrown with waist-high grass, rusty metal goal posts on either side, decades old white paint flaking off onto a patch of dirt below.  The soccer field had obviously fallen into disuse and disrepair along with the rest of the school.

Soccer field at the university in Kimpese- if you look hard you can see the goal post on the other side of the field

“Back in the day, it was the students who would maintian the soccer field.  They would take machetes and cut all the grass by hand.  It was a very nice field.”

Makele fell silent for a moment.

“Now, it’s all very strange to see the school this way.  I brought my children to Kimpese last year to see where I went to school.  It was the first time I’d been back since I left for Kinshasa 30 years ago.  It brought tears to my eyes to see how much it had changed- how much it had regressed.”

Jean Claude made a poignant reflection.  “Les choses ici descendent, descendent, descendent.  C’est triste que nos enfants ne savent pas quel magnifique pays etait le Congo.”  Things here just go down, down, down.  It’s sad that our children don’t know how beautiful this country used to be.

*********************

On our way back to Kinshasa, I gaped from the car window at the train station in Mbanza-Ngungu, another vivid reminder of how things used to be.  It was eery, like something from a ghost town that had been abandoned all of a sudden one day.

Mbanza Ngungu Train Station- photo taken by Piet Clement. Click photo to view Piet Clement's Flickr set with more photos of the town of Mbanza Ngungu

It was clear from the multiple tracks weaving across the ground, from the big building that once sheltered trains and passengers and goods in transit, and from the skeletons of multiple trains rusting into the overgrown grass, that this used to be a formidable and important train station.  Like the train station in moderately sized European town.

Train at Mbanza Ngungu Station- photo taken by Piet Clement. Notice the white building in the background can also be seen in the old photo below

Train station at Mbanza-Ngungu (Thysville), 1940s?  Notice the 2-story building in the background with the sloping roof can be seen in the recent photo above.

Mbanza-Ngungu, back in the day, was called Thysville and was apparently a popular resort town for people trying to escape the heat of Kinshasa.  The train station was in fact an important stop on the Kinshasa-Matadi line, along with a workshop where trains were serviced and repaired.

I don’t really know if the train on this line still runs between Kinshasa and Matadi.   A few people have told me that it still does, albeit slowly and only sporadically.  But I get the sense that sporadically might mean that the last time it ran was a few years ago now, and that there may be more trains running again one of these days…

*********************

Not long after returning from our Bas Congo trip, I happened to stumble across an amazingly fascinating blog about this exact topic that had so piqued my curiosity after hearing my colleagues’ stories on our trip to Bas Congo.  The blog is called Kinshasa Then and Now (hence, my shameless imitation for the title of this post).

It is packed with photos, history and architectural details about Kinshasa from as far back as the 1800s to now.

As the pages of Kinshasa Then and Now loaded on my computer screen, my eyes became glued to the computer screen, greedily absorbing tidbits of information about the run-down buildings that I pass every day on the way to work, that I’d hardly ever given a second glance at in the 9 months we’ve been here.

What struck me the most were the photos and postcards from the 1950s and 1960s, just around the time when Congo gained its independence from Belgium (1960).  Postcards!?  Yes, indeed.  There were tourists back then that came to Congo for an exotic African adventure.

With beautiful modern architecture (modern for the 1950s, anyway), broad boulevards lined with lush landscaping, you can see how Kinshasa got its nickname “Kin La Belle” (Kin the Beautiful).

Kinshasa Then: Downtown Kinshasa in the late 1960s, image from Kinshasa Then and Now. Click photo to check out the blog

Kinshasa Now: Boulevard 30 Juin, image from Kinshasa Then and Now

*********************

So, why the change?  Most places change over time, that’s not much of a surprise. But normally, if you picture your city 50 years from now, you’d probably imagine progress- new and better transportation, housing, and infrastructure.  Flying cars maybe.

But the opposite has happened in DRC over the past 50 years.  The once functioning rail system-both long distance and urban- is no more.  Passenger ferries up and down the Congo River have all but disappeared.  The postal system is no more.  There even used to be a beautiful system of paved roads connecting this vast country.

Why does it seem like things are getting worse and worse here, like the country is regressing instead of progressing?

I’m no expert, but the people that have shared with me their “the way things used to be” stories have left me with a general explanation.

Basically, most of the infrastructure in DRC was put in place by Belgium in order to manage their lucrative colony, to facilitate the exportation of raw materials and garner as much profit as possible.

When the country gained its independence in 1960, there was little if any transition period in the transfer of power.  Europeans who had been running the government and all the infrastructure just picked up and left, or were chased out.

At the time that the country gained its independence, there were only 30 or 40 Congolese who had been to college in a country of around 50 million or so.

This, in combination with a steady flow of state funds going straight to the pockets of post-independence dictators and crooked politicians instead of into maintaining existing infrastructure, has lead to a steady decline.

And a decade or so of brutal war doesn’t help much either.

This pattern is surely not unique to DRC, though.  I saw the same thing in Sierra Leone, and I imagine many ex-colony countries follow the same formula after their independence.

You could say that both “now” and “the way things were” have their trade-offs, their pros and cons.  Independence vs. infrastructure…

For me though, I just get a kick out of imagining myself going on down to the train station in Kinshasa and buying a ticket for the train to Mbanza-Ngungu, settling into my seat and watching the passing view from the window, and then sending of a postcard to my family when I arrive there…   Maybe one day…

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. frank permalink
    July 25, 2012 7:37 pm

    I enjoyed your blog and I came across it looking for stuff on Bukavu – i had been there in 1994. I had seen the wonderful site on Kinshasa then and now. I never visited Kinshasa but the guy’s site is wonderful – I too live in a post colonial country (S Ireland) – we painted the post boxes green on independence – they used to be red in the British times! Sad to see but great work done

    • Katie R permalink*
      August 5, 2012 6:03 pm

      Hi Frank, thanks for your comment and I’m glad you liked the post! I wish I could find some photos of Bukavu from the 1950s, to do a similar comparison!

  2. Paul M. Matondo permalink
    January 15, 2015 9:11 am

    Hi Katie R.
    I found your blog while trying to find a detailed map of Bas-Congo. The map on top of this post helped me to locate a village (Sama) on the Mbanza-Ngungu “Territoritoire” instead of Songololo “Territoritoire” as I initially thought. Thanks a lot.

    Reading down the entire post, I felt deeply moved and connected to the story….and the vivid pictures….

    I went to school in Kimpese (the now Protestant University, then called “Institut Nzolo” [IPE]) back in 1986-1989….

    Strikingly, your post mentioned the “IPE” lab science being a factor that helped Makele to go all the way to become a doctor. Similar thing happened with me….I’m now an orthodontist (a dental surgeon specialist in braces)….I think thanks to, among others, the IPE science lab.

    Great post. Thank you !

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