Tuesday, 22 May 2007
No.82: The Democratic Republic of Congo
No Shrinking Violeta
Alex Horne – 22nd May 2007
I never thought I’d be in a position to write this but I was just beginning to lose faith in the Democratic Republic of Congo. After our Starbucks misunderstanding on the first attempt, our D.O.C. contact had had to pull out of our second meeting at the very last minute, so I arrived at our third appointment not entirely confident that she would ever actually materialize.
I should never have doubted Violeta. She turned up on the dot of two (and yes, I was there already, thank you very much) and over yet another coffee she told me why she’s not exactly a typical Congolese young person living in London.
First, a quick warning – there will probably be a bit more gushing in this entry. I didn’t expect or want this to be a particularly sentimental blog but quite often I’ve come away from meeting people with the hairs on the back of my neck standing to attention and a smile set fast on my face (i.e. moved, in a good way) – and it’s hard to express that without sounding a little bit soppy.
The only one of her siblings to have gone to university, Violeta has her finals looming next week. I tried to console her by saying that the feeling when you finish is one of the best of your life but mostly I think I just kept saying, ‘Oh my God, finals, they’re horrible, I hated them, so stressful, so glad I don’t have to do that any more’, which probably didn’t help. Luckily, I’m sure Violeta will be able to cope with my added pressure. She’s just about to finish a course in Hispanic Studies and Film at Kings College, a subject she became interested in whilst living in Argentina when she was little and she now exudes the sort of confidence we’ve come to expect from people who’ve spent large chunks of their lives living abroad.
Of course, one of the few basic self-imposed rules to this project is that we’re not allowed undergraduates spending a year of their course in London so at this point I was worried that having finally found our Democratic Republic of Congo Representative, I’d have to send her away on a technicality. Again, though, there was no need to worry. Violeta was born in the D.R.C. and grew up in the capital, Kinshasa. ‘It’s enormous (with a population fifty percent larger than London) and I was lucky. I lived in the small affluent area of Mbinza. Apart from that it’s mainly just shanty towns.’ But, after a spell living in South America, her family were forced to flee the ongoing conflict* and arrived in the UK in 1998. She hasn’t been back since and as far as I’m concerned there’s no doubt she warrants her place both in this project and this city.
She now lives in Barking (‘it’s very nice, very east London’) where, she’s proud to tell me, she definitely feels like a Londoner. ‘It took me three years to feel like this was home’, she says, ‘now it’s a dream come true.’ Right on cue, a police car wails past the café. ‘Ah’, she sighs wistfully, not missing a beat, ‘the soundtrack of London.’ We both laugh.
‘I love it here’, Violeta continues, smiling. ‘Even things like the TV. Back home when Mobutu was in charge, the telly just played songs praising him all day. Here you get Desperate Housewives!’ – and very few paeans to Blair or Brown, I say. We laugh again.
‘I mean, at first it was very tough – money, the political situation, everything. Absolutely everything was a shock. The culture, everything. It was so cold (Violeta saw snow for the first time during her second year here – ‘that was quite cool’, she said)… But we had to learn to embrace it. We had to go with the flow. And now it completely feels like home. I even get the sense of humour!’
‘Back in the Congo I’d read books about London (an odd concept, I think to myself) but it really is something else to be here. I thought everyone drank tea at 4pm and wore suits’, she giggles. Carlos from Paraguay had said exactly the same thing – ‘I was expecting twenty-four-hour smog, umbrellas and manners’ – he’d remembered. ‘But in reality there’s so much more than that’, says Violeta, not actually denying the stereotype. ‘It genuinely is an honour to live here. It’s such a tolerant place. That’s why I feel such comfort – it’s this mix of different people with one London identity.’ I scribble down these positive thoughts and try to reconcile them with the twenty-four-hour grimaces, grunts and bad manners that I normally encounter when traveling round the city.
‘There have been thirty two years of corruption in the Congo’, she says, sensing the need to show me the bigger picture, ‘and it’s still going on. It’s in the infrastructure of politics and it’ll take a very long time for anything to change. But the time to act is right now.’ Violeta may well be at that point of life where anything and everything seems possible, but her enthusiasm is infectious and inspiring. Perhaps everything is possible, I think. ‘I want to work for an NGO in Africa next’, she tells me. ‘I feel it’s my duty as an African. With things like climate change and poverty you have to do something to help when you’re so privileged to live here.’ It’s a good point. By ‘you’, I know she’s referring to herself, but I can’t help thinking it should perhaps be my duty too.
Thankfully, Violeta then told me she first wanted to have some fun after her exams, thus easing the feeling of guilt that was creeping up my spine (for me, the route guilt takes is: feet – knees – spine – head – eyes). ‘I’m going to have a bit of a break’, she said, ‘go to some festivals, hang around with my friends, relax – then get on with doing something constructive with my life like applying to work for charities or taking acting classes’. Acting classes? I say, slightly taken aback. ‘Yes’, she smiles, just a tiny bit shyly. ‘I’d love to be an actress – but my parents say it won’t put bread on the table on a regular basis’.
This is clearly a serious concern for Violeta. She takes her future seriously. Typical Congolese people her age, she told me, don’t go to university. ‘They rarely finish school. They chase after designer goods – clothes, houses, wives – and often get involved in crime. I think the problem stems from an identity crisis. After the regime change, Congolese people want to renounce. That’s why they want to flash around their new wealth’.
She told me that most young African males aspire to be footballers, her younger brother included. This worries her. ‘African mothers see these players earning thirty grand a week and think that’s a way out – but obviously that’s so rare – they can’t all play in the premiership’. But with Violeta’s evident grounding, I think it’s probably ok for her to have a couple of acting lessons. It can’t do too much harm, I say. She agrees.
But before long, the discussion comes back round to the D.R.C. and the corruption that is stifling the country. ‘It grows and grows – you can’t get rid of it’, she protests. I ask her if she thinks there are any honest politicians. She shakes her head. ‘It’s down to the young people - the artists and the musicians - to change things through words. It’s tough but anything’s possible.’
With people like her about to set forth into the world, I’m fairly sure she’s right.
But first, those finals. And it’s time for Violeta to return to the small matter of Don Quixote’s interpretations on screen. I really am so glad I don’t have to do that any more.
* “This I know – that I know nothing”, said Plato. And the more countries we meet, the more I’m realising just how much I don’t know either. I think I blame education – maybe. Or the media. Well, no, probably it’s my laziness and lack of curiosity. Perhaps it’s a combination of all these things. Either way I was embarrassed again by how little I knew about this horrendous war that grumbled to life in 1994 and is definitely not over yet.
Here are the basic facts:
Mobutu Sese Seko had established a one-party system in 1971 which was finally overthrown by Laurent-Désiré Kabila’s rebellion twenty six years later. The county’s name was changed back from Zaire to the Democratic Republic of The Congo-Kinshasa. A Rwandan and Ugandan-backed rebellion then challenged his rule the following year and troops from Sudan, Chad, Namibia, Zimbabwe and Angola were all sent to support the new regime.
Despite a cease-fire in 1999, Kabila was murdered in 2001 and his son, Joseph Kabila, became president. Since 2003, the country has ‘enjoyed’ relative peace but the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda are still active and dangerous and the Ituri Conflict has meant the east of the country is still particularly unstable.
About four million people have died as a result of the fighting in what amounts to the bloodiest conflict since World War II. The UN says that a thousand people are still dying every single day as a result.