Earlier this year, my wife and I enjoyed a Los Angeles Off-Broadway kind of production called: “Witness Uganda,” dubbed a documentary musical. The play challenged the audience to reconsider “mission” work in Sub-Sahara Africa by questioning whether those infrequent and short visits have any true impact, other than a few “feel good” emoticons for the “missionaries.”
This hit close to home. In 2006, I spent two weeks in Goma, Congo, a city of 500,000 in the eastern province of North Kivu, bordering Lake Kivu and Rwanda.
Having recently retired, friends Judy and Dick Anderson invited me to experience Goma firsthand. The Andersons have devoted their adult lives to Africa, the previous six with a Christian mission, HEAL Africa, based in Goma, Congo. HEAL is an acronym for Health, Education, Community Action and Leadership. The organization is run by Africans. Judy and Dick traveled there twice a year in an advisory capacity.
Before my trip, Judy insisted I read five books, including “The Poisonwood Bible,” “Things Fall Apart,” “King Leopold’s Ghost” and “We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families.” I earned an A for Accomplishment.
The trip to Goma spanned 40 hours, the last three via car from Kigali, Rwanda. The driver, Deo, a Christian and a Tutsi, bore an uneven, dented skull, the work of a machete-wielding Hutu. Just 12 years earlier, the majority Hutu tribe massacred 800,000 Tutsi, the minority tribe. Rwanda was reportedly 85% Christian. But, in much of Africa, tribes trump religion. Complicit in the massacre were both the French and the Catholic Church.
The Hutus murdered Deo’s father and three sisters. He played dead in a heap of lacerated bodies. He believed God had a plan for him.
The Democratic Republic of Congo, a “shithole” country according to our president, has its own, sordid, horrifying past. Colonized by Belgium’s King Leopold in the late 19th Century, an estimated 10 million Congolese lost their lives while working as slaves extracting rubber to enrich Leopold.
Once freed by Belgium, a young, CIA-championed Army officer named Joseph Mobutu gained control. He renamed the country Zaire. While Mobutu’s early years were promising, power and greed eventually consumed him. When his dictatorship ended in the late 1990s, the Congolese were less educated, poorer and less wealthy than pre-Mobutu times. In 1997, Mobutu fled to Morocco and his stashed billions, and died soon after from prostate cancer.
During the Hutu reign of terror, a young Tutsui officer, Paul Kagame, and his rebel band, seized control of Rwanda. Two years later, Kagame helped Congolese rebel leader Laurent Kabila invade Zaire. It only took Kabila seven months to seize control of a land the size of mainland Europe. Kagame, having designs on eastern Congo, severed ties with Kabila in 1998. To Kagame’s credit, Rwandans enjoy a much improved economic status since he became president. The trade-off — Kagame, like too many strong-armed African leaders, will be president for life.
As I entered Goma in 2006, eastern Congo power-players included Rwandan soldiers, remnants of Hutu Power, raiding troops from the bordering countries of Uganda and Burundi, Congolese tribal rebels and the Hutu Interahamwe, which means those who stand together. All factions had money-grubbing eyes on the rich resources of eastern Congo, especially cobalt, used in electric car, laptop and cell phone batteries. A fledgling and underpaid Congolese Army garrison provided porous defense and policing power.
Just to make life more heated, glowering over Goma like an angry pagan god sits the world’s most dangerous volcano, Nyiragongo, spewing its wrath every 30–35 years. Goma, in the aftermath of Kagame’s rise to power, doubled in size with fleeing Hutus. In 2002, Nyiragongo vomited again and blanketed half of Goma with molten destruction. Among the destroyed were the hospital and offices of HEAL Africa. They began rebuilding on top of eight new feet of lava.
The Congo, like so many third-world countries, is preyed upon by the world’s most powerful countries under the guise of aid. In the preface of his best-selling book, “Confessions of an Economic Hit Man” John Perkins writes, “Economic hit men are highly paid professionals who cheat countries around the globe out of trillions of dollars. They funnel money from the World Bank, USAID and other “aid” organizations into the coffers of huge corporations (like Bechtel, Halliburton, Brown & Root). Their tools include fraudulent financial reports, rigged elections, payoffs, extortion, sex and murder. I should know; I was an economic hit man.”
Perkins’ primary mission was to forecast annual double-digit growth, as far out as 25 years, to justify huge loans; “the larger the loan the better.” His second task was to maneuver the debtor nations into bankruptcy, making them beholden to the lenders. Perkins wrote, “By 1990, developing countries had accumulated more than $1.3 trillion in foreign debt.” As such they became “easy targets when we needed favors, including military bases, UN votes or access to oil and other resources.”
In the 1980s the World Bank and International Monetary Fund began lending money under what were called “Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPS). The programs sapped the debtor countries by agreeing to what became known as “conditionalities.” Perkins wrote, “The countries that agree to such conditionalities are called upon to privatize their health, education, electric, water and other public services — in other words, to sell those services to the corporatocracy.”
Does Africa receive billions in aid? Yes, but little of it trickles down to the poor. Economist Jeffery Sachs wrote, “In 2002 the United States gave $3 per sub-Saharan African. Taking out the parts for U.S. consultants, food and other emergency aid, administrative costs, and debt relief, the aid per African came to a total of six cents.”
As for the abundant resources in eastern Congo, cobalt is often mined with child labor, so very little of the cobalt riches stay in the Congo. It should come as no surprise that the riches of the land and resources in third world countries does not trickle down. It rises upward and outward.
Congo remains the heart of darkness.
Today, China has replaced the United States and others in economically hitting on African countries. Meanwhile, most sub-Sahara countries remain third world countries.
In my next blog, “They will eat the crumbs,” I will share my personal experiences in Goma in 2006.