There is an Afrikan proverb that says until the lion learns to speak, the tale of the hunt will always glorify the hunter. This statement is partially true of Afrika as the lion is beginning to tell its story, but sadly, only a few can share their stories with the world.
The impact of colonialism on Afrikans is yet to be fully understood. The remnants of oppression are all around us and sometimes we do not encounter them. I found myself packing my backpack and heading out to the Democratic Republic of Kongo to resolve a dire emergency. It involved marauding rebels in Likasi, a mining town in Haut Katanga. This piece is not about this harrowing experience but rather the journey from Kitwe, Zambia via Kasumbalesa border to Kipushi.
I found myself trekking through a border post that is notorious for unpredictable events such as shooting of truck drivers and unrelenting corruption on all levels of public services. I had no reference point nor an idea of where my journey would start once I crossed into Haut Katanga. A gentleman I met in Kitwe told me that if you want to visit Kongo you have to behave like a crook, as this is how Kongolese are. I disagreed unequivocally with him on this. He sniggered as if to say, I was a naïve Zimbabwean coming from South Africa.
This account is not about rebels, or a corrupt government. Its neither about a broken judicial system nor the slithery benefactors of lucrative and illegal mining deals. It is not even about the hidden world of long haul truck drivers who literally spend weeks negotiating this complex world of border life. Nor is it about the court system that fuels corruption and encourages rouge policing and judicial malpractice. This account is about the people who traverse the border fence every day to purchase goods from Zambia. They are determined survivors of a chronically weak judicial and economic system that continues to fail its citizens and feed those that feel it’s their time to eat. Most importantly, it’s about the youth, the young ones whose only point of reference is the blended culture of Kasumbalesa. They will grow up without knowing that their country is blessed with natural resources that could catapult it into prosperity.
I observed, from the back of a taxi, the sheer number of traders swarming down on trucks that snaked for 20 kilometers in unbearable heat.I was in unfamiliar territory and add to that, I could not converse in French. The taxi driver fought his way through the congested traffic, cursing at traders and truck drivers who straddled the road with their mighty wheels. The driver was visibly agitated and constantly wiped sweat from his eyelids. He hammered down on his hooter and swore at every trader that walked past. I asked him to drop me off on the side of the road. “Moneni uko!”, he shouted, as he made a sharp U-turn and drove off, back to Kitwe. The sun blinded my eyes and perspiration broke out into orbs of sweat trickling down my back. I stood in the middle of a huge market, congested with people, bicycles and all types of goods.
A young girl dressed in a colourful Pagne dress rushed to meet me with a basket full of a variety of soft drinks, cigarettes and roasted nuts. I declined with a nod and a smile. She stood there with defeat in her eyes and I had to part with 200 Francs.
As I began my walk through the throngs of traders shouting loudly to potential customers, I came across individuals carrying on with life despite compounded difficulties. These are people we rarely come across but sadly they represent a majority of Afrikans in small towns who either perform hard work or con work to keep the dream of a better tomorrow alive.
Ravaging corruption and war has turned these children of Kongo into traders, selling anything from water, quonga, tabac or dried fish. Young men spend the day trolling the walkway between Zambia and Kongo, searching for opportunities. A young man sold me a bottle of water for 500 Francs. His daily grind is to sell as many bottles of water as he can and if he is lucky, he can buy food for his family. Here is an Afrikan child assuming the role of a bread winner when he should be learning and exploring his potential. I was saddened by the dreams that this young person has deferred in order to spend countless hot days at this border post earning a living.
Border posts on the continent are a hive for trading. Like most cash economies, making money sometimes requires selling money. The bustling scene at Kasumbalesa caters to traders coming from Haut Katanga who require conversion of currencies. Street economists are dime and dozen here and they keep a keen eye on fluctuating currencies. A falling currency means one can make a bit of profit. The men who chose this business have mastered their trade and are unapologetic about how they try and bargain with customers and extract an extra Kwacha or Franc with each transaction.
Its not everyday that I come across simple genius that carries a border town’s economy. Two words: modified bicycles. These modified bicycles are on every street in Kasumbalesa, Chilabombwe, Lubumbashi, or Kipushi.
Queues of Kongolese men can be seen lazily leaning on their bikes, waiting for their loads at countless grain grinding factories. Instability in Kongo has resulted in the country relying on neighbouring countries such as Zambia to supply them with goods. On any given day, hundreds of bicycles can be seen crossing the border carrying loads of supplies for trading in Haut Katanga.
They say creativity is born out of a need and at most times, adversity can be the igniter of creative thinking. This statement is personified in the”bicyclettes modifiées”. Traders have found a way to carry heavy loads on bicycles and walk kilometers from Zambia to Kongo. The modification is simple: a short stick or pole is attached underneath the handle bar at 60° angle facing towards the right. Another stick or pole is attached underneath the saddle at 60° angle facing to the left. In some instances, the back controlling pole is firmly tied to the passenger carrier seat, this time, at 90° angle. These poles allow for ease of balancing. The load is then placed on the top tube. Two handlers then control the bike and its load by using these sticks to steer the loaded bicycles. It’s a brilliant way to turn an otherwise simple cycling apparatus into a multi-purpose tool for business. I was blown away by this invention and watched in awe as these traders moved large sacks of goods with ease.
This creation is a solution to overcoming the problem of late delivery and wholesale bargaining. A long line of trucks endure the agonising wait to process documentation at the immigration offices. As a result, traders do not get their goods on time to keep up with demand. The trend nowadays can be seen at Kasumbalesa (Zambia) flea market where small truck drivers park and sell their goods to commerçants du Kongo. Popular goods include beans, maize meal, and Irish potatoes. Bargaining happens at this point and most traders are always prepared to transport their purchases back to Haut Katanga on their modified bicycles.
I met a young lady in Kipushi, a small town located in Haut Katanga. I noticed her the first time I went past her store and wondered what her story was. After an enduring and harrowing time in the hidden networks of this mining town, I managed to find my way back to Kasumbalesa. I stopped to talk to her. I asked her why she was not playing with other kids.“Look around here Monsieur,”she said, in a thick French/Lingala accent.“Other kids are also working”. I looked around and indeed all the boys and girls were either selling soft drinks, or like her, peanuts. Our conversation affected me profoundly.
Its not that I’m unfamiliar with this story. I see it in most townships in my country. I guess it might have been my shattered sense of hope that made me think that maybe the same story was not being re-played elsewhere in Afrika. I jokingly asked her if she enjoyed being a business girl. Her answer was a firm, “NO”. I could see she was getting agitated and I apologised for asking too many questions.“My father died because of les méchants who wanted money from him. I take care of my chère mère who is sick”, she spoke softly, with pain in her voice. I changed the subject quickly and offered to buy her peanuts. She smiled widely and offered me a cup full of roasted nuts in exchange for 200 Francs. Her story runs deeper than what I had learned. Each boy and girl on these streets shared a similar story; profound and sad in their narratives.
Despite the adversity surrounding them, ladies of Haut Katanga and the Copperbelt appear to keep in tune with fashion trends. Colourful garments are common in the DRC and on these border back streets, striking young ladies walk with grace in their steps. Some, of course, display the ratchet look purported by music videos.
The bicycle men get excited when these trendy girls walk past. In this moment, the ‘garçons à vélo’ forget their worries and dream about love and beauty.
Hustling in this small town is unrelenting. Who needs stores when you can sell furniture in open spaces to people passing by. I spoke to the owner of a couch business, a brother called Jean-Louis, about making a living in a border town. He did not hesitate,“ if we do not make a plan we starve. Comprendre monsieur?”Such is the story of Africa, wherever there is a glimmer of an opportunity, brothers like Jean-Louis can be seen using their enterprising minds to fulfill a dream.
They say it takes a village to raise a child. In Kasumbalesa and other similar small border towns on the continent, the village is relying on young boys and girls to bring home money and food. These kids are looking for an opportunity to acquire any goods be it through hook or crook. Sadly, some of them are addicted to a drug called ‘Chanfre’. I had to navigate my way through countless boys who nagged me for 500 Francs. I shared with them what I had and wondered why the honourable Moïse Katumbi Chapwe, governor of Haut Katanga and indeed, Hon. Mwenya Musenge or as of late, Jean-Claude Kazembe Musonda were not doing all they could to provide a path to prosperity for the young ones. As one begins to understand the machinery of Haut Katanga, one realises the snake’s head encompasses the political and social system.
A poem by Pratiksha sums up my time in this region: Underneath a democratic shield / beneath the enticing charm / lies an autocratic exterior / revealing cursed ideas, cruelty and harm / in a coalescence of evil / where the good man stands…/
I meditate for the people of Haut Katanga to find their worth one day. It cannot be found in a dollar bill/franc nor the sound of an AK.47 but in unity, creativity, transparency and hard work. Afrika needs to look inwards and focus on creating an environment where equal opportunity is a right and where its people can flourish without fear of war, rebellions or corrupt leaders. Kasumbalesa taught me that in adversity, new ideas are born and that one day these ideas will become the engine of a Pan African-centred economic emancipation for all citizens. Pouvoir aux hommes et aux femmes Kongolaise!. Je vous rappeler gloriouse Kongo!
Sneaky Phone Images by Charles Nhamo Rupare