Congolese Town Is Wilderness Again
Oct. 25, 1999
INGENDE, Congo (AP) _ Asked what he misses most, Jean-Guy Bongo stares at the kerosene lamp that lights his home, perched over a silent expanse of the Ruki River and hemmed in by equatorial jungle.
``Mail,'' the genial regional administrator says finally. ``We haven't had any for 20 years. Maybe 15 years. I can't remember.''
This used to be someplace. But not anymore. Ingende, like so many other Congolese towns ravaged by decades of government neglect and corruption, has returned to the wilderness.
There are no cars now in Ingende, no phones, no electricity except from a couple of small generators. The closest thing to a road is the dirt track that leads into the jungle, growing narrower with each passing mile until it looks more like a hiker's trail than the traffic artery it once was.
A few decades ago, a driver could go the 90 miles from Ingende to Mbandaka, the nearest city, in just a few hours. Now, when the drive can be done at all, it can take five days.
Follow the road in the other direction, though, past the government offices, the broken-down buildings and the path to the hospital. At the bottom of a steep trail is the real highway _ the quiet, fast-moving ribbon of water that links Ingende, a northern Congolese hamlet of a couple hundred people, to the rest of the world.
``The only way to travel is on the river,'' says Dr. Aime Loando, a regional medical official who moves everything from doctors to medicine to motorcycles on the Ruki.
A half-mile across and 75 miles long, it is the Ruki that keeps this sliver of Congo functioning, long after the man-made infrastructure has disintegrated.
All day and long into the night, hundreds of boats, from hand-carved canoes to rattle-trap ferries, traverse the river, slipping past the 75-foot-high walls of jungle that crowd down to the banks, avalanches of green so thick they choke out the light.
Fishermen and traders, farmers and smugglers, all work the river in a region lost on maps amid a spiderweb of tiny roads and a sea of emptiness. This is the Africa of fiction, a place of endless jungles, of crumbling colonial compounds, of nomadic pygmy camps hidden in the forests.
It is so isolated that distances are measured in boat journeys. The trip to the nearest telephone from Ingende, for instance, takes at least four days by canoe.
Bongo says his region stretches over 6,800 square miles, but just 2,000 of that is dry land. The area needs ``means of transport, means of communication,'' he says. ``To be honest, it doesn't work yet.''
That is obvious. This is a region, and a country, that has become a victim of its own history.
Congo was founded in the late 19th century as the personal property of Belgium's King Leopold II, who built a fortune on the backs of Congolese slaves. Later colonial Belgian rulers constructed a network of roads and telephone and electric lines.
Then Mobutu Sese Seko happened.
Mobutu seized control of Congo in 1965, five years after independence, and later renamed it Zaire. He wrung the life out of the country, robbing the treasury while the nation rotted. Phones stopped working. Power lines broke. Soldiers went unpaid. The roads were swallowed by the forests.
Mobutu hung on until 1997, when current President Laurent Kabila overthrew him, promising democracy and the rebuilding of a shattered nation.
But Congo has seen little change. Instead, Kabila banned political activity and alienated his main sponsors, the neighboring nations of Rwanda and Uganda, which then backed a second rebellion _ this one against him. A year into the civil war, Congo is desperately broke.
Officials blame the rebels for stopping rural development, insisting the government's good intentions have been thwarted by the war.
But in the small fishing villages along the Ruki, many built on stilts so they won't flood when the rainy season brings high water, little appears to have changed. Ever.
These are places where most people live on less than a couple hundred dollars a year and barter for many necessities. Other than clothes and a few plastic buckets, nearly everything they have is made by hand.
``We fish, as our ancestors did before us. That's what we do,'' says Bwanda Bongando, a 25-year-old from the village of Ikenge.
He lives well by local standards, in a four-room mud house set on a hill filled with bamboo furniture and hand-woven reed nets he uses to pull in his catch. About the only store-bought things inside are mosquito nets that hang over each bed.
Bongando has already seen one of his three children die of malaria _ ``the fever,'' it's simply called here _ and fears the mosquitoes that spread the disease may get the others.
But Bongando is happy with his life on the river. He loves to fish and looks forward to teaching his children to follow him onto the water.
Still, he longs for the day when things are easier, when maybe he'll be able to buy a motor for his boat. He wishes that there were more doctors _ there is only one for every 100,000 people in the region now _ and that they were easier to reach.
Ask about the government, though, and he turns quiet.
Politics are seldom spoken of openly in these villages. These are places for the powerless, the people at the fringes of Congolese life for whom the government in far-off Kinshasa is, at best, a negligent master. They see no point in risking what they have by talking about an entity they can barely conceive of.
``The village is still the village,'' Bongando says, ``no matter what happens.''