I’ve seen a few stories in the news the past few years that proclaim the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to be the worst country in the world for fill-in-the-blank. Indeed, in 2011 DRC ranked last in UNDP’s Human Development Index (though taken on its own, it rose between 1980 and 2012).
While Congo certainly has major problems, some of these proclamations are based on data from only the most troubled provinces (or even highly specific locale) and extrapolated to apply to the whole country; and most of them are made based on or in conjunction with preconceived notions about DRC — in search of sensationalist headlines and/or donations.
Since I moved to Bukavu, the provincial capital of South Kivu in the DRC, about five months ago, it got me thinking about some of the ways in which Congo — well, actually wins.
Here are six ways Congo, in my humble opinion, is the best.
People don’t just re-use things for pragmatic reasons (like plastic shopping bags, which they do). The whole system of buying soft drinks and cases of beer is based on re-using. You don’t just buy the beverages, you also pay for the glass bottles from the “depots” or outlets of the company. Most re-sellers won’t sell you bottled drinks unless you have an empty bottle to exchange for it in addition to paying for the drink (unless you ask nicely and they trust you to return the bottle in mint condition). Re-using bottles doesn’t just eliminate that much waste, but also eliminates the cost of recycling.
2) Giant beers
In the US, you might order a 12 or 16 ounce Budweiser at a bar. In the UK, you might order a pint of ale, at 20 ounces compared to the US’ 16 ounce pint. But in Congo when you order a beer, you receive a beautifully grand bottle of Primus or Tembo or Simba or Nkoyi — at 72 cL, or a whopping 25.34 ounces. And usually for about $3.50 (less than £2) at an upscale restaurant. $1.80 if you know where to go. Cheers!
3) Fresh food
In South Kivu if you want food, you go to the market or a street stand where the bread was baked that morning or the tomatoes were grown not more than a few miles away. In the restaurants when you order fish for dinner, it’s likely it was caught that very afternoon in Lake Kivu or Tanganyika. And if you want chicken, there are no refrigerated, shrink-wrapped packages in the grocery store. You find the lady on the street with a sack of live chickens on her back, buy one, let it walk around your garden for a few days, and hope you can find someone not as squeamish as you to cut its head off and pluck it. Then there’s the pilipili. Flavorful pepper that packs just the right amount of heat, whose juices you squeeze over your lunch or make into a tasty dipping sauce.
4) Christian-Muslim harmony
In a place where politics are explosive and ethnic identity a contentious fulcrum around which violent conflict turns, religion is by comparison a complete non-issue. And it’s not because people here aren’t devout — in fact, religion plays an enormously important role in people’s lives. Yet on a day to day basis I see Christians and Muslims mingling in shops as though their religions were invisible. Mosques and churches coexist in the same neighborhoods and no one seems to think much of it. The few people I’ve asked: “So, are there any problems between Christians and Muslims here?” have basically answered me with a statement along the lines of, “Not really. Why should there be? They believe what they believe and God loves us all. It’s the same God.” When I wrote the Freedom House report for DRC in 2012, I had to improve the religious freedom score because after days of research I could not find any reports of religious discrimination. In day-to-day exchanges, anyway, the DRC beats the United States and much of Europe in terms of Christian-Muslim harmony.
5) Music and fashion
While in the UK and US I hear new and re-mixed crap being played everywhere, here people actually have good taste in music. From the latest regional dance hits to the always popular Bob Marley; American hip-hop; Swahili hip-hop (for example, this); and love ballads, the mix that drifts over the lake into my apartment on Saturday nights is melodic and pleasant and often includes some old school rumba tracks. The latter is considered perhaps Congo’s most significant contribution to world culture. On top of that, people have a keen sense of fashion. Whether donned in smart business casual, the bright patterns of kitenges/pagnes/kangas, or a touch of vintage 90’s grunge — people here know what they like and being well-dressed is important even for a quick trip to the market to pick up some onions.
You hardly see anyone smoking cigarettes here, at least in Bukavu, Uvira, and Baraka. It’s sometimes associated with militants or armed groups; occasionally with intellectuals. But mostly, it’s an expat thing. That is to say, Americans and Europeans smoke. But rarely Congolese. Billboards fifty feet long may grace the border advertising the local brew, but you will see no such advertising space allotted for tobacco. After being here for a time, it’s almost startling to see someone smoking on the street.
DR Congo is certainly a country that is dealing with a lot. From a dismal colonial legacy that left the country with (among other things) 19 college graduates at independence, a government structure dependent on patrimonial networks, and citizenship policies that are still the source of conflict today; to the assassination of their first democratically elected prime minister with help from Belgium and the acquiescence of the United States; to decades of mismanagement by an authoritarian regime propped up by Western-funded lending institutions and diplomatic and military support from the West; to media censorship; flawed elections; violent conflict complicated by lack of sufficient security sector reform and the presence of some 30 local and foreign armed groups — and that’s just the tip of the iceberg — the DRC has a way to go before it gets to the point where it is truly flourishing the way it should be. But they will get there.
Considering all of that, it is a country not only rich in natural resources but rich in human capital; with a population that is clever, hustles to get by, and works hard to make ends meet despite all the challenges. I so far have not met one illiterate person, even in remote villages. Indeed, according to a study by the African Economist Magazine, Congo’s literacy rate stands at 67.2% (ranking 25th out of 52 African countries surveyed), relatively impressive compared to other countries with similar assessments in terms of indicators like PPP and insecurity.
And as a recent article in The Guardian was headlined, “Telling countries they’re the worst doesn’t help them.”