Giving something back
Children in Lukolela © Ollivier Girard, Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR)
In the 21st century, the Congo colonial project has come full circle – what was originally seen as an escape from the continued quagmires of their African colonies became a point of blame for the European powers that carved up the continent in 1886. In those days, it may have been unclear as to what exactly the colonial future had in store for the Congos; yet, in many ways, their current existence is a direct by-product of the pretences from which they originated.
Congo Free State has become a true meeting of international organisations; King Léopold’s vision of a free trade zone in the middle of Africa has, in a roundabout way, come true. It may not have manifested itself into the glorious semi-nation that the Belgian monarch had initially sold to those at the Berlin Conference; indeed, its purpose was obfuscated and manipulated deliberately by anyone who cared to be involved.
Yet nowhere else has there been such a perpetual and persistent meeting of international non-governmental organisations (NGOs) as in the DR Congo. This may extend from the fact that the ‘nation’, per se, was so badly managed by the Belgians. Or, it may extend from a sense of purpose by Western nations to correct the errors of the colonial agenda.
It is, nevertheless, ultimately a fitting present for the current DR Congo. Bad French is spoken as often as English in Kinshasa. The media broadcast in any number of tribal languages. French is still the current lingua franca of the nation, yet it is changing, slowly, surely, as the nation coalesces as a whole.
This may seem unlikely to the continued efforts of NGOs who have been in the region for decades, as it may be to the casual newsreader who observes that it all seems hopeless. Corruption is a by-product of poverty; the destruction of one’s natural history, and disrespect for one’s country, are the by-products of corruption. And corruption in itself is the by-product of an ineffective governmental system.
The DR Congo was never meant to exist into perpetuity as a national entity, yet we perceive it as such. This is the colonial legacy, and the Congolese must live it. Their duty is to make do, at least, with the institutions given to them while building new ones on their own. It is the obligation of Western governments, and aid organisations across the globe, to guide them along a path of order out of their current chaos.
The tourist should also make a contribution, one as critical to the nation’s well-being as that of any other individual. The tourist can make known the great value that the DR Congo’s cultural and natural institutions are to the world at large. Respect for their significance, in this case, flows from outward to inward. Only if the Congolese perceive their natural history and wildlife to be valuable will they ensure they are protected while the rest of the nation develops. It is a parallel development that needs to take place – all the more critical, since once animal populations and wilderness are significantly decimated, they can never be fully recovered.
Much of this carries over to the Republic of Congo. Long a forgotten footnote in history, barely noticed as a nation with its own troubles when a monumental neighbour with the same name lives beside it, the Republic of Congo has a long road ahead of it. In some ways it is in a better position to promote tourism and development, and in other ways it is still far behind. Central African practices such as corruption and bribery for even the simplest tasks are tolerated far more than they deserve to be. Infrastructure is still a shambles. It is an incredible irony that in Pointe Noire, the oil town that it is, there can still be shortages of fuel that will bring the town to a halt for several days.
We all play a part in the preservation of a global heritage, and the promotion of a global culture where one can respect their origins, their landscape and their language. Amidst the usual chaos and madness that can punctuate a visit to the Congos, try and envision these nations and people for what they could become; and, if you see a way in which you can assist them to that goal, then the world at large will be a better place for your participation.