Thursday, March 02, 2006

My man Congo uses me for my money

My friend Emmet and I exchange care packages. He actually lives in a worse place than Kindu – he is based in the no-cell-reception and not-a-bar-in-site (as-if-they-have-beer) town of Lubutu 150 miles north of me. I sent him some New Yorkers and a Vanity Fair via their logistics department. Can you imagine that these magazines did a two-day motorcycle journey through the jungle? Perhaps I should write the editors. By plane he sent me his Six Feet Under DVDs. Bless him. So today he was on a plane that made a half-hour stopover in Kindu. I drove to the airport and sat outside until the small Cessna plane landed.

Emmet looks like he just stumbled out of the jungle, even though he’d been in Goma all week. Unshaven and ruffled hair. We hugged and I gave him his latest care package of magazines and CD I burned. I also said hello to the Airserv pilot, who I’ve flown with a few times. Congo is a very small world for a large country.

As I drove out of the airport parking lot I noticed a bar/gate that was across the road. Very new. In fact, it hadn’t been down on my way in. After waiting a few minutes for the ever so friendly guy standing next to the gate to clear some motorcycles coming from the other side, this guy lowered the bar back down so I could not drive through. Then he came up to my window and told me that I had to pay the parking fee.

A bit of history about the Congo. One way to earn money – if you have any official or unofficial amount of authority – is to create some sort of barrier and harass people for money that cross it. You can call it a “tax” or “fee” or call it nothing at all. Most give some sort of receipt, which apparently validates the action. At the airport in Kinshasa there are three barriers that are small pieces of rope, each with soldiers. This rope could be cut it’s so thin. But yet our protocol person pays them off a few hundred francs so we can pass.

So now this man stood next to my car with a ticket book and told me I owed 200 francs (50 cents) to the RVA (airline authorities). Now, if I felt that this tax were really going to be used to improve the airport and aviation safety, I would pay. Nevermind that any plane ticket I purchase for civilian airlines includes $40 of taxes. But this money will just go into their pockets. They cannot tax UN vehicles and I told him that unless he showed me a mandate from the governor saying that this tax exists and that humanitarian agencies must pay, I was not paying. When he wouldn’t lift the gate I stopped my car and told him I would be walking back to town. He said I couldn’t leave the car there, so I told him he should open the gate. He eventually did.

He had said that the governor was not the only one who could levy taxes, that the RVA could. I doubt it’s true, but it sums up the mentality here – we can find a way to get money from you. The police invent fake documents you could not have, the immigration people ask with a completely straight face for a $5 entry fee to Kindu, and the health department says you owe them $7 when you leave. And they really hate that us NGOs will fight tooth and nail to not pay – we have the money, we are here to help, they have receipts for us….what’s our problem?

In Kindu I would estimate that 85% of vehicles belong to the UN, 10% to NGOs and 5% to Congolese. If MONUC cannot be taxed, this means that this fee hits NGOs above all others, which really makes me angry. I feel like working towards development in this country is like trying to make a bad relationship work. I want it to work, but my man Congo is just using me for my money.

I am happy that people like my poems.


Anonymous Kurt Wayne said...

Dear Sarah,

I just wanted to let you know that I appreciate reading your blog.

I'm coming at the DRC from an entirely different perspective...I live in Bentonville, Arkansas and am hoping that my town and Kinshasa can someday be sister cities. (I've said a bit more over at "congogirl's" blog.)

Given how fluid the DRC's situation is and has been I'm pretty much putting this all in God's mighty hands if it's meant to be, but regardless if it does or doesn't come to pass I wish you the best and hope you don't mind my lurking at times.


Kurt J. Wayne ((More about my wife and I))

12:14 AM  
Blogger mom said...

Once again, you've come up with a clever anology as you seek to share your insights into the crazy mixed-up world of humanitarian aid in Africa. (I think you should break up with Congo -- he's been treating you bad -- and come home. Your room is always here for you.)

6:28 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth said...

"if you have any official or unofficial amount of authority – is to create some sort of barrier and harass people for money that cross it. You can call it a “tax” or “fee” or call it nothing at all. Most give some sort of receipt, which apparently validates the action."

Well, that just shows how much more advanced in corruption African countries are to Central Asian. No receipts here!

I don't mind giving to beggars, but I hate blackmail. It's like, could you please perform a small service for me for this money?

Excellent post.

12:57 PM  
Blogger Congogirl said...

Hey Sarah, I have some hair product. Now, how am I going to get it to you? And how long will you be there? Maybe you should get in touch with Vondell...I think she knows you better than she knows me!

6:42 AM  
Blogger Black River Eagle said...

If I were to give the DRC a gender it would be female, not male, and a very abused female at that. The males (I won't honor them with the word "men") who create all of the violence and atrocities and continually exploit the country and the people for their own gain are the pimps.

One thing that has crossed my mind a couple of times reading about your experiences and those of other foreigners working in the DRC, if you runup against all of this blatant corruption from federal and local government employees (customs, police, health, etc.), then what happens to the Congolese who defy these same people when asked to payup with money or other favors?

You and 007 and Congo Girl and Anja and Lulu have powerful countries at your backs when real trouble arises, but what happens to the locals and nationals who refuse to be abused by corrupt officials and civil servants?

5:43 PM  
Blogger juliana said...

I have to admit I found your moms comment amusing. I think my mother would say the same thing if I were in your situation (and I do hope to be an aid worker in the future)

I do enjoy your blog and the perspective it gives on humanitarian aid in Africa. It's nice to hear about things from someone who is there. Best of luck.

5:25 AM  
Blogger Sahara Sarah said...

interesting comments, guys. kurt, kinshasa will make for an interesting sister city. if you have penpals, i guarantee you EVERY one of them will ask for money! welcome to congo...

mom, don't worry. congo and i are on the rocks.

elisabeth, loved your aid worker quiz. i think you'll love a post i have up my sleave on child sponsorship (it's more about if all giving is good).

congogirl, you're an angel. will email today. HOP is heading to the states for a week or two - i'll ask him if you can send it his way

eagle- there's definitely a curious gender element to describing the congo. the problem is that abuse comes from within - even though numerous foreign armies have been implicated, there's been amount of conflict/abuse stemming form purely congolese actors. believe it or not, congolese adapt pretty well to this system of bribery and corruption. it's so endemic that they are not nearly as judgemental about it as though of us coming from the outside. they just find ways around it or find ways to get money from their own systems. crazy, hhmmm?

9:03 AM  
Blogger TheMalau said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

4:05 AM  
Blogger TheMalau said...

Sarah, dear Sarah, first I must agree with your mom: very creative analogies.

Now about the endemic corruption thing... you are nicer to my people tan I am. See it is not that people are just adapting to it. In fact many people, especially the unpaid civil servants (like my aunt who works for OCPT since 1989 as a telephone techncian, and has not been paid for 60 months), would actually justify the corruption. And when you dare question them, and the general attitude of "We will find a way to get money out of you", they get offended, as they see it as you trying to rob them of their only means of livelihood. Lack of corruption has become the abnormalilty, and lack of cunningness a weakness. It's become like sheep voting for the wolf to be their town mayor, because the alternative of possibly escaping him and staying alive just seems so unlikely and ludicrous... Ah! Congo na biso!!

By the way, BRE, long time no see/hear/read!!

4:15 AM  

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