2006.09.27: September 27, 2006: Headlines: COS - Congo Kinshasa: Return to our Country of Service - Congo Kinshasa: Houston Chronicle: Congo Kinshasa RPCV Beth Duff-Brown writes: Congo Middle Class Struggles to Emerge

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Congo - Kinshasa (Zaire): Peace Corps Congo Kinshasa : The Peace Corps in Congo - Kinshasa: 2006.09.27: September 27, 2006: Headlines: COS - Congo Kinshasa: Return to our Country of Service - Congo Kinshasa: Houston Chronicle: Congo Kinshasa RPCV Beth Duff-Brown writes: Congo Middle Class Struggles to Emerge

By Admin1 (admin) (ppp-70-129-41-31.dsl.okcyok.swbell.net - 70.129.41.31) on Tuesday, October 31, 2006 - 10:05 am: Edit Post

Congo Kinshasa RPCV Beth Duff-Brown writes: Congo Middle Class Struggles to Emerge

Congo Kinshasa RPCV Beth Duff-Brown writes: Congo Middle Class Struggles to Emerge

Travel northwest to the country's capital, Kinshasa, and you can dine alongside well-coiffed European madams and local politicians with their mistresses, sipping imported drinks on the terrace under a beautiful banyan tree at Chateau Margau. Dinner and drinks at the old colonial mansion can easily cost $100 _ the average annual income for a Congolese, lower than that at the time of independence from Belgium in 1960. Electricity and running water are spotty in the capital of 8 million people, most of whom live in tin-roof shacks enveloped by exhaust fumes, open sewage and heaps of garbage. Hotels, restaurants and the upper class often must light their premises with oil-fueled generators.

Congo Kinshasa RPCV Beth Duff-Brown writes: Congo Middle Class Struggles to Emerge

Congo Middle Class Struggles to Emerge

By BETH DUFF-BROWN Associated Press Writer
© 2006 The Associated Press

KAMPONDE, Congo — Louis Anselme Kasamba dreams of becoming doctor, yet is dirt poor by conventional Western standards. So like many Congolese, who are shrewd in their determination to scratch out a living, Kasamba devised a plan of action.

The 18-year-old saved, then rode his bike down a dirt road some 100 miles to the south, to a town where he purchased a mobile phone for $63.
Click to learn more...

Back in this central Congo village with no telephones, running water or electricity, Kasamba now sells phone calls for about 50 cents a minute. He charges the phone battery when the parish priest jacks up his oil-fueled generator. Today, his college fund stands at about $100.

Villagers come and shout into the phone, tied to a bamboo pole in the one spot that sometimes captures a signal. When the connection is down, they sit under a mango tree and wait.

They sometimes call to wish someone happy birthday or congratulations another on a marriage, but mostly they quickly plead with family for money or food, keeping their calls under a minute.

"I need to hustle and find ways to make money if I want to be a doctor," says Kasamba, who earns only $20 a month as dormitory monitor of the local boarding school. He's typically only paid every few months, and never the full amount.

Still, public university in the provincial capital 100 miles north is only $200 a year. Kasamba may one day fulfill his dream, like thousands of Congolese who are turning to cellular telephones to make some money. The demand for cellular telephones in the Congo _ which has fewer than 25,000 conventional land lines _ is now among the highest in Africa.

Kasamba is a rare example of what would be considered a member of the middle class in this Equatorial African nation where the very rich keep getting richer and the poor grow ever more despondent.

Travel northwest to the country's capital, Kinshasa, and you can dine alongside well-coiffed European madams and local politicians with their mistresses, sipping imported drinks on the terrace under a beautiful banyan tree at Chateau Margau.

Dinner and drinks at the old colonial mansion can easily cost $100 _ the average annual income for a Congolese, lower than that at the time of independence from Belgium in 1960.

Electricity and running water are spotty in the capital of 8 million people, most of whom live in tin-roof shacks enveloped by exhaust fumes, open sewage and heaps of garbage. Hotels, restaurants and the upper class often must light their premises with oil-fueled generators.

Yet there are markers of progress. The country has its first 24-hour ATM machine, where people drive up in their imported BMWs and Mercedes, furtively withdrawing wads of 100 dollar bills. They can withdraw up to $1,000 _ with a $2 fee and 3 percent interest on top of the amount of the withdrawal _ with a VISA card.

ProCredit Bank, which operates the cash machine, isn't just for the well-heeled.

The micro-credit establishment that opened last year offers small loans and savings accounts to individuals who cannot afford the big banks. It's the first in Congo to offer VISA cards for a $50 annual fee and no big deposit down.

"There are some people who just don't believe that there is such a thing in Congo," says Tamaris Ngandu Mwabala, the 32-year-old branch manager of ProCredit Bank. "I believe some people want the VISA cards because it just makes them proud; they just want to show off."

Mwabala says the bank _ whose backers include the International Finance Corp., an arm of the World Bank _ hopes to branch out to other Congolese cities as the country stabilizes and expands its devastated road grid, of which only some 300 to 400 miles are paved. Since opening last year, ProCredit Bank has more than 20,000 customers, all members of the country's middle-class minority trying to pull themselves up.

Yet most Congolese are villagers who farm small plots of manioc, corn and beans and typically grow only enough to feed their families.

Congo is dripping in diamonds, gold, cobalt, copper, tin and coltan _ the essential ingredient of the cell phones that now rule communications in the country. It is also rich in coffee, palm oil and the rubber that colonial ruler King Leopold II of Belgium once exploited so ruthlessly on his personal plantations.

But in virtually every corner of the Congo, nearly a decade of turmoil has run the common man into the ground. At least 4 million people died during six years of armed rebellion, leading to hunger and disease, and making it the deadliest conflict since World War II.

"The contradiction is that it's one of the richest countries on the planet," notes Mario Zamorano, a spokesman for the largest and most expensive U.N. mission ever assembled, one that is desperately trying to maintain peace during the first democratic vote for a leader in 46 years.

"All the elements are there: copper, gold and diamonds," Zamorano says. "They are so rich and they are so poor."

Though civil war officially ended in 2002, some 1,200 people still die each day due to the remnants of that violence, half of them children, one in five of whom will die by age 5.

One of those who is soon likely to die is Kabuanga Marie Mutanga, who lies emaciated on a rattan mat in a dark mud hut in Kamponde, the village where Kasamba sells his cellular calls.

Her mother says she has tuberculosis or parasites, but the Catholic nun who runs the village clinic says she's beyond help, dying of the "four letter word," or AIDS. Her husband has long gone, her three children now in the care of their grandmother, once the village prostitute.

"We're on our own," says the mother, Kamilongo Kamukenji, propping up her daughter's bald head to better see a foreign visitor. "The village has done nothing for us. People are just more concerned about struggling for a living."





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