This is IT, people
25.08.2008 -17 °C
Preface: As you probably read in my last entry, I'm leaving for the states tomorrow, c'est-à-dire, I have concluded my 2-month stay in the DRC. Unlike most of my blog entries, this entry is written purely for myself. Basically, I needed somewhere to process and organize all that is going on in my head about everything that I've learned and experienced since I've been here.
So here we go. Here are my thoughts, reflections and musings on......
Poverty: Before I came here, I had never been exposed to extreme poverty. Sure I’d seen it on TV, newspapers, documentaries, movies, or whatever, but I hadn’t experienced it. Until you sit in the dark at night, unable to do anything, you don’t understand what it is like to live without electricity. Until you have poured water down the toilet after you pee, or dragged jugs of water up a steep hill so that you can take a shower, you don’t understand what it is like to live without running water. I only had to experience these things maybe once or twice during whole time here, but it affected me greatly. Even the poorest people in developed countries have access to running water and electricity, even if they cannot afford to pay for it. In the DRC, however, only the super, super rich (mostly expats or high-up government officials) can afford to own generators and water pumps. Most people living in developed countries (and I’m being careful to not single out the US when I say this) are so unaware of this that they frankly cannot conceive of how so much of the world lives. I know this because my initial reactions upon witnessing the extreme poverty of the DRC were confusion, horror, shock and disbelief. I was constantly thinking to myself, “This can’t possibly be real.” Conclusion: You have to see poverty to believe it.
On Corruption: In my opinion, governmental corruption is the greatest problem that the DRC faces. An NGO (that shall remain nameless) recently reported that the government lost 1.3 billion dollars due to corruption, which is more than half of their budget (although estimates as high as 4 billion have been reported). The agencies and businesses implicated were supposed to be providing everything from electricity and water to overseeing Congo's chaotic aviation and insurance sectors. No wonder the government cannot provide the bare minimum to its citizens; half of its money is going into the pockets of ministers. Furthermore, the loss of billions of dollars due to corruption leaves the government unable to pay the salaries of its teachers, doctors, engineers, or gestionnaires, resulting in multiple strikes a year and general economic chaos. How can a government even attempt to function properly when it puts more effort into stealing from it than running it? How can people trust a government that is making itself rich at their expense? And how can people believe in democracy when their democratically elected government is screwing them over? Conclusion: Until the problem of corruption is aggressively tackled, the DRC will remain a failed state.
On the Congolese (very generally speaking, of course): In my opinion, the Congolese are amazing. The fact that so many of them are able to survive and even thrive in a country that 1) is infested with malaria-carrying mosquitoes, 2) overrun with political and economic turmoil, and 3) lacks basic infrastructure and primary education, is absolutely incredible. On top of all of it, the Congolese are some of the most hopeful/religious people I have ever encountered. I suppose that is because they can only hope that things will get better and tend to look to God for strength and guidance in order to stay sane amid chaos. Some expats here complain that the Congolese are incompetent, corrupt and overly dependent. And surely it is impossible to ignore that a white person can’t walk down the street without getting jeered at, cat-called or harassed. But it is clear to me that that is a function of extreme poverty and political turmoil, and not a reflection on the people themselves. People become incredibly desperate and pathetic when they have less than nothing and know they are going to stay that way for a long while. All I can say is that you would be like that too if that were you. Conclusion: The Congolese are awesome and unique and I will miss them greatly.
On Aid and International Development: I’m very conflicted about what I think about aid and development. I’m pretty sure that before I came to Kinshasa, I thought it was a good thing. Why not, right? Now I’m leaning toward the view that perhaps the ridiculous amounts of money and countless efforts by government development agencies and NGOs aren’t doing a damn thing to speed up development. The situation in the DRC is frankly pretty hopeless, and these organizations are barely scratching the surface. Conversely, I think it is in fact the private sector that has the potential to significantly impact the speed and breadth of development in the DRC. Some have estimated that it could take as much as 20-40 billion dollars to build the infrastructure that the DRC needs. Unlike government agencies and NGOs, the private sector actually has that kind of money. It may be hard to believe, but many companies with billion dollar investments in the region have business incentives to develop the region where they’ve invested for the long-term. In particular, I’m thinking of the copper companies in Katanga that are planning on mining there for 80-100 years. They aren’t just going to build crappy roads and then peace out, if you know what I mean; they are in it for the long haul. Conclusion: The U.S. government should spend more time working with the private sector on development issues.
On the Olympics: Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt are awesome. The Chinese cheated in gymnastics, which was lame. Conclusion: China is taking over. Brace yourself.
On the Foreign Service: I know that Kinshasa is supposed to be a ‘special’ post in some respects, but from what I can tell of my experience here with the foreign service, it is a career of extremes. There are really incredibly awesome people, and really quirky and/or obnoxious/pretentious. Foreign service types tend to be either super social, drinking/partying all the time, or self-isolating, staying at home all the time and developing bizarre hobbies like painting egg shells. They also tend to be obsessed with travel/learning about other cultures/learning other languages/living abroad, or totally have an aversion to anything non-American and create ‘American bubbles’ at whatever post they are. Whether or not the FSOs in Kinshasa are representative of people in the foreign service as a whole, I do not know. I must say, though, that it takes a special kind of person to be able to live and thrive at a post like this. All in all, the large number of incredibly amazing people that I have met here have totally overshadowed those few who have not exactly tickled my fancy. And it is those people who made my summer truly incredible. Conclusion: I have definitely not ruled out the foreign service as a career.
On the Hilarious: So many crazy/hilarious things have happened here that I can’t even count. There was a crocodile in my bathtub. I ate a caterpillar. I saw a goat slaughtered and gutted. I held a cobra. I swam in the Congo River. I took a private jet. I socialized with diplomats. I played the djembe. I spoke with Congolese government officials. I’ve investigated the extent of child labor in the mines. I’ve had an allergic reaction to every malaria medication that I’ve taken. I met an NBA player. I laughed for hours with my roommates. I’ve been mistaken several times for being Chinese. I stayed up til 5 in the morning watching the Olympics. I ate at KFC (Katanga Fried Chiken). I turned 21. ….Conclusion: A lot of crazy/hilarious things have happened to me here, and I’m not going to forget them anytime soon.
On Myself: While I generally think it is lame for people to pour their heart out on the internet, it is impossible for me to talk about/reflect on my experience in Kinshasa without acknowledging that I’ve changed quite a bit in the two short months that I’ve been here. To avoid long-winded ranting and self-reflection, I will detail these changes in list form: I’ve become extremely grateful for all the opportunities I’ve had, yet I feel horribly guilty for having everything handed to me in life. I now know how to use a can-opener (and a bottle-opener). I’ve finally learned how to be at ease when working with and talking with people 10, 20, 30 years older than me. I feel much more self-assured and confident in my abilities to succeed after I leave Brown. I worry less. I've fallen in love with Africa. I’m happier. I’ve realized I’m more interested in development and economics than I thought I was. I’m no longer scared of the unknown, nor am I terrified to leave Brown and go into the real world. Most importantly, I’ve started to believe what everyone has been telling me all along, that I’ll be just fine. Conclusion: If you want an unintentional personality makeover, spend time in a developing country.
Final thoughts: Since the DRC is the first truly developing country that I’ve been to, I know I will always have a special place for it in my heart. I won't ever be the same after this experience, and I know I've changed for the better. All in all, I'm not sure what the future holds, but I'm sure whatever happens is going to be awesome.
Go to a developing country! It will rock your world!
That's all folks!!