Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Congo Planet

The Earth trembles on this Bukavu morning. Nothing shattering; these are mild but sustained tremblings. Gerry’s white brick bungalow is marked with diagonal cracks and fissures left by previous earthquakes. It’s an old colonial structure, humble and solid, from the 1930s or 40s. But the last serious earthquake knocked his chimney off, and now his high-pitched roof leaks. When such heavy quakes hit Bukavu, newer constructions crumble, landslides destroy roads and whole areas find themselves completely cut off from the outside world until road repairs are completed.

In Congo, that wait can last for years, as the state does nothing. It undertakes no repairs, provides no services—emergency or otherwise—to people affected by conflict or natural disaster. How a country’s government can get away for so long with such criminal negligence is befuddling to outside observers; even insiders get lost in the maze of causality behind dysfunction and crisis on so colossal a scale.

Update on the plane crash in Goma: Congo’s Transport Minister is blaming the tragedy on the volcanic eruption in 2002, whose lava consumed part of the runway, shortening its length. No repairs were ever undertaken to return the strip to its former length; landings and take-offs simply became that much more treacherous. The minister did not stop with the volcano. He also blamed the crash on the war, which effectively ended in 2004, although conflict continues in the eastern provinces. Neither he nor any other Congolese politician ever mentions the absence of an official regulatory body as a probable cause. Yes, aviation is a regulated industry, in the interest of public safety. Does anyone in this government know what such a regulatory body would look like, or how to run one?

Congo continues to sink at free-fall velocity. No vital signs are apparent since elections in late 2006. Popular hopes and expectations were perhaps too high, now people are waking up to their worst fears: plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.

Some Lega masks from South Kivu, about 60 years old. Exquisite up close.

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