by Arthur S. Lezin
In 1997, Arthur Lezin, a retired senior U. S. AID officer, published a book titled Afghanistan to Zaire: Reflections on a Foreign Service Life. (The nation of Zaire in 1997 had been named once again the Democratic Republic of the Congo.) Segments of his volume were republished in the Foreign Service Journal, but not the following excerpt. It documents well Foreign Service life in a Third World underdeveloped country. —Ed.
I first learned of my assignment as deputy director of the USAID mission to Zaire in the fall of 1982. The reaction of my Africa-wise colleagues was, “Better luck next time.” In their view, hardship pay—reserved for posts that were dangerous or unhealthy—was fully justified. Further, the government of Zaire had a reputation for corruption, deviousness, and indifference to the plight of its people that was unusual even by African standards. Rumor had it that the State Department and USAID were so anxious to fill long-vacant positions in Kinshasa, the capital, that the usual rigorous physical examination for assignment to tropical Africa was waived. I found this rumor not completely divorced from reality.
What my consoling friends could not have predicted was that a change in the political climate at home did wondrous things for U. S. economic assistance to Zaire. The Carter Administration’s critical view of Zaire was based on the dictatorship’s unquestioned human rights abuses. For the Reagan White House, however, Zaire was uniquely and strategically placed to support U. S. interests in the Cold War. The second largest country in Africa borders nine other states. It was useful to have a base in the center of Africa to deal with rebel movements and unrest in Angola and Mozambique. To show our appreciation, U. S. economic aid expanded many fold during the 1980s. The USAID mission had the pleasant task of carrying out projects that could make a lasting impact in the lives of Zairian citizens. Sadly, much of what we accomplished has been obliterated in the breakdown of order and the ongoing civil war.
I was accompanied to Zaire in February 1983 by Alice and our fifteen-year-old son, Benjamin. Katya, our middle child, was studying at a Lycee in Valenciennes, France, and planned to join us in the summer before going to college. Nicole, our oldest, was a sophomore at Yale.
Prepared for the worst, we were amazed to find that life in the American or European enclave of Kinshasa was not hard to take. We opted for a modern apartment in the center of town and lived there quite happily for the rest of our four-year assignment. Food prices were high, but the assortment of French cheeses and charcuterie flown in almost daily from Europe was mind-boggling. The official exchange rate was something like six zaires to the dollar, but everything for sale reflected the black market rate of thirty zaires to the dollar. Forcing American embassy staff to trade at the official rate would have meant living under house arrest and a likely mutiny. The solution, worked out by a wise and understanding ambassador, was this: employees paid in dollars had to exchange a minimum of $150 per month at the official rate. For the balance, discrete trading for exclusively personal use was allowed. We were lucky enough to work for the ambassador in question, Peter Constable, at two posts, Pakistan (where he was the deputy chief of mission) and Zaire. He took his work seriously, but not himself—this a style and philosophy that is all too rare.
Most of what we had been told about the government was true. Nevertheless, we and other donors were able to accomplish a great deal by working outside the official structure. Hundreds of private entities were scattered throughout the country providing health care, teaching classes, growing food, even building roads. Many of these voluntary groups were supported from abroad and had been in place for a generation or more. They needed the kinds of resources that USAID could make available.
A word about the USAID mission: As mentioned above, Zaire was not a sought-after post for USAID employees in the early 1980s. One consequence was that there were unusual opportunities for younger, less experienced individuals. Many of these were ex-Peace Corps volunteers who wanted to stay in Zaire. They were led by a small but competent USAID senior staff. I thought this was a highly desirable state of affairs. It was a pleasure to be part of a working environment where the watchwords were hard work, good humor, informality, and enthusiasm.
Finally, our stay in Zaire was dominated by an amazing stroke of good fortune. Alice had some misgivings about giving up a good job in Washington, but little did she know. Shortly after we arrived, she applied for and was hired as the secretary/administrative assistant to the head of the German Technical Aid program (GTZ) in Zaire. Germany was a major donor in Zaire by virtue of President Mobutu’s friendship with Franz Joseph Strauss and succeeding administrations in Bonn. Alice’s boss was more interested in collecting ivory and sampling expensive restaurants than in running a large aid program. He left under fire. It was no secret that Alice had been doing his work; the German Ambassador urged her to apply even though she was not a German citizen. A few months later she was officially appointed directrice of GTZ, a wonderfully interesting and challenging job. For the next three years in Zaire, the term “donor collaboration” took on new meaning.
Here are some of the people and events that made our assignment memorable. First, a brief look at recent history.
From Stanley to Mobutu
Not counting Hepburn and Bogart in The African Queen, Henry Morton Stanley, journalist and explorer extraordinaire, brought the Congo to the world’s attention. His momentous meeting with David Livingstone on the shores of Lake Tanganyika in 1871 was followed by his exploration of the Congo River from its head waters, the Lualaba. In the annals of Africa exploration this ranks as a monumental, not to say heroic, accomplishment. In February 1877, he made this diary entry:
Livingstone called floating down the Lualaba a foolhardy feat. So it is, and were I to do it again. I would not attempt it without two hundred guns. The natives, besides being savage, ferocious, to an extreme degree, are powerful and have means by land and water to exercise to great lengths their ferocity. I pen these lines with a half feeling that they never will be read by another white person. . . .
King Leopold of Belgium then entered the scene, personally assuming control and the rights of exploitation for this huge part of central Africa. The brutality of his overseers in extracting the country’s wealth led to world-wide condemnation. In 1905, Mark Twain did his part to publicize the atrocities by writing a satirical defense by King Leopold of his Congo stewardship, “King Leopold’s Soliloquy.” The Belgian government then took over, but there was little cause for rejoicing in the Congo. Belgium ruled with a mixture of paternalism, rigid authority, and force. When the pressures mounted for an end to colonialism in Africa after the Second World War, the Belgian Congo was totally unprepared. Educated and skilled Africans were in extremely short supply. Education and training of the local populace definitely were not priorities of the colonial administration. Predictably, independence in 1960 was followed by chaos. Colonel Mobutu vanquished his rivals and emerged as Zaire’s strong man.
Few dictators manage to stay firmly in control for a quarter of a century. [Note: Mobutu remained in power until ousted in a coup in 1997.] The accomplishment is particularly notable when one takes into account Zaire’s volatile mix of tribal, ethnic, and linguistic diversity. Mobutu was the son of a cook. Expelled from school at age nineteen, he joined the notorious, repressive Force Publique. This was a white-officered, black army the Belgians used to intimidate the natives. In the early years of the Cold War, Zaire’s location and mineral wealth got the attention of both East and West. The infighting was murderous, but our man, Mobutu, emerged on top. The United States supported him over the years with varying degrees of enthusiasm, depending on who was in charge in Washington. The low point was the Carter administration, given that president’s emphasis on human rights. (One did not mention Amnesty International in official Zairian company). The Reagan State Department took a different view of that part of the world. They believed Zaire was an excellent place to prevent further communist inroads in Africa. Ambassador Oakley, a holdover from the Carter years, was taking a hard line on the Zairian Government’s non-compliance with agreements to restructure and reform the economy. He was replaced. Even the highly-skilled public relations firms working for the Reagan White House could not portray Zaire as a bastion of the free world. Nevertheless, Mobutu was invited to meet Reagan on several highly publicized occasions in the middle ‘80s. U.S. aid levels shot up dramatically.
How did Mobutu, self proclaimed father of the country, manage to stay on top of the tiger all these years? (His official name, repeated ad nauseam on radio and TV, is Mobutu Sese Seko Nkoku was a Banga. A literal translation in the local patois is: “All conquering warrior who goes from conquest to conquest.”) He did it by brilliantly orchestrating rewards and punishments for his friends and enemies. Jail, exile, and a large security apparatus to keep tabs on all those of questionable allegiance reflected the down side of the regime. As for the carrot, licenses, import permits, foreign exchange—largely under his direct control—offered huge money-making possibilities to the lucky recipients. Appointment to the senior levels of government could also represent a windfall of bribes. However, selection for a cabinet-level position was no reason to relax or rejoice. The favor of the maximum leader was a sometime thing. Every few months the international community buzzed with rumors of which ministers were about to be replaced. The remaniement or restructuring was then announced with great fanfare. One consequence was that donor-financed activities dependent on top level Zairian involvement came to a halt.
Zaire is a country where the average, annual, per-capita income for roughly forty-five million people is under $200. The government has been either unwilling or unable to provide even the most basic health care, education or roads for most of its citizens. Why, one asks, did they tolerate Mobutu’s incredibly luxurious life style? Certainly there was no secret about his countless villas and chateaux in Europe and in the city where he was born (modernized at great cost), and his frequent parties for hundreds where the food and chefs were flown in from Belgium. On the contrary, his trips and parties received maximum publicity. (His visit to Disneyland with an entourage of eighty and a tab of a million dollars did not sit well with the U. S. press.)
Perhaps the explanation could have been traced to the Africans’ view of their tribal leader or chief. They expected such an exalted person to live it up. They may even have derived satisfaction from the demonstration of Mobutu’s enormous wealth in comparison with other European or African heads of state. A related argument was that since Mobutu already had siphoned off billions, any replacement would have to start from scratch. University students and other Zairians who did not share these views expressed their dissent at their own peril. The security police kept close tabs on “agitators”.
Mobutu’s reign came to an end in May 1997. Laurent Kabila, head of the Angola-Rwanda-Uganda backed rebels, succeeded in toppling the dictator. Mobutu’s prostate cancer certainly played a role in his decision to leave the country rather than fight to the finish. Historians will not treat his thirty-plus years of absolute control kindly. The country is in shambles: the economy is near bankruptcy, the transport and communications system is beyond dysfunctional, and the basic institutions of government are either weak or non-existent. There is nothing in Kabila’s background that inspires confidence he will be able to deal with these monumental problems. A new chapter is about to begin in Zaire, but it is clear that the ordeal for its long-suffering citizens will not end soon.
The Scam as an Art Form
It does not take long for the new arrival to Zaire to appreciate the fact that the entire population appears to be on the make. The prevailing philosophy can be expressed this way: “You (the foreigner) are well-heeled and anything I can do to separate you from some of your money is O.K.” One does not have to look far for the origin of this kind of thinking. It has been the dominant guiding principle of the rulers of the country in dealing with foreign donors since independence. And it is certainly not unique to Zaire.
The Traffic Police fit into this entrepreneurial mold. Any driver without diplomatic license plates is likely to be waved over to the curb. Papers are requested and produced but they are invariably deficient. This is true even when it is clear that the official inspecting them can’t read. To minimize the delay, one quickly learns to include a ten zaire note (about ten cents when we arrived) as the documents are presented. They are returned quickly and you’re on your way.
To make a long distance phone call you must first get the name of an “arranger” in the Ministry of Communication. In the event he is successful in getting you a line, he’ll show up in your office later to collect. None of the payment ends up at the ministry, which is one reason why the equipment is approaching antique status and why a working line—even for calls within Kinshasa—is a sometime thing. Most businesses and embassies are forced to use their own radio networks. (There are variations to the phone scam. Someone shows up and claims to be an employee of the Ministry, with identification to prove it. For a small advance payment he promises to keep the line in good order and to place long distance calls tout de suite. Needless to say, the first time anyone tries to take advantage of their new-found arranger, they discover that no one at the Ministry has ever heard of him).
For many companies and diplomatic legations, telex communication with Europe and the States is even more important than telephone contact. Accordingly, a reliable telex line requires someone on a permanent retainer at the Ministry. Alice’s office telex went down at a particularly hectic time. Repeated efforts to get the line back were unsuccessful. It took several days and many visits to the ministry before the full story was revealed. Her contact had died suddenly. Since there was no one on the payroll of the German Aid Office there, the line was sold to a Lebanese businessman for $1,000. An important delegation was due to arrive from Germany. She threatened to let the prime minister know that the loss of her telex jeopardized the upcoming negotiations. Service was restored on her old number that afternoon. Chances are that there was a very unhappy Lebanese businessman in Kinshasa that day.
An enterprising Zairian also could parlay fake injuries to servants and employees into extra income. The success of this scam was due to the fact that employers knew several things about daily life in Kinshasa for most of the population: serious bus accidents were common and the major hospital, Mama Yemo (named after the President’s wife), would not treat anyone, no matter how seriously injured, without payment in advance. Someone arrived at Alice’s office with the news that a guard expected at work later that day had been badly injured and needed an immediate blood transfusion. He generously offered to return to the hospital with the money, but was not enthusiastic about Alice’s offer to drive him there. He managed to hop out of the car at the first opportunity. The guard in question showed up later in the day in perfect health.
Friends bargained with a street vendor over the purchase of a colorful tropical bird. The salesman explained that he would only sell a pair, the male with blue plumage and the female with red. “They would be heartbroken if separated,” he maintained. A few days later our friends discovered that the female’s feathers were losing their red sheen. The color had been painstakingly painted on.
The streets were filled with small boys ever alert to money-making possibilities. For them, the Mercedes’ four-door locking system held no secrets. As the driver prepared to lock the car, he or she would be engaged in conversation, perhaps an offer to guard the car while shopping. While the driver was distracted, another boy would quietly open a rear door, just a crack, on the other side of the car. The driver would shut his door and lock, unaware that the system wasn’t activated because all four doors were not closed when the key was turned. The kids would then clean out the contents at their leisure. Another well worn but productive trick was to let the air out of one tire while the owner was away. When the owner returned and started to replace the tire in question with a spare, there often was an opportunity for the boys, working together, to lift something of value—a handbag, the shopping bags, or a tool.
I received an expensive lesson in this kind of local ingenuity a few weeks after we arrived. Alice and I were making our first shopping trip to the fascinating, humming central market. In a four- or five-square-block area, one could buy anything from a live crocodile and monkeys barbecued whole to jewelry and watches. It was my watch, a Rolex, that I was worried about. Heeding advice that the crowded market was a high risk area, I took it off and placed it under the seat of our locked car. I don’t know how, but someone must have seen me do it. When we returned with our vegetables, I was frustrated to see an old car parked behind ours, blocking our departure, with no owner in sight. I managed to move it out of the way, but in the confusion neglected to relock our car. This must have been the plan, because when I finally was able to back out I discovered my Rolex was missing. The usual reaction when I recounted our experience was, “Join the club!”
On a more official level, the need to make a payoff (“l’enveloppe” in the local patois) was ubiquitous. For any Zairian lucky enough to be employed there, the customs office was an excellent spot from which to improve one’s standard of living. The extensive number of required permits, licenses, and stamps, even for the simplest and most straightforward transaction, was designed to spread the wealth. Following independence, the Belgian government and then the European Economic Community placed large teams of experts in the Customs Ministry itself in an effort to sanitize the operation. These expensive, long-term projects temporarily reduced the extra-official take, but they never achieved the sought after basic reform. Shortly before we left the country, a French consultant working at the airport on the EEC-financed Customs Reform Project noticed a plane unloading highly dutiable electronics. When he asked to see the papers, he was told to mind his own business. The adviser, known as the “terror of Marseille” for his zeal in catching smugglers in France, did not consider this reply satisfactory. The minister of finance had jurisdiction over Customs. He also was in the midst of negotiations with the World Bank and other donors over additional levels of aid for Zaire. Since the government’s determination to eliminate such shady practices was an important element in donor willingness to provide more aid, the Minister gave in. The imported merchandise belonged to the governor of the Kinshasa region. He paid duty and a fine of $300,000. Who knows where that money came from!
An international mining company desperately needed spare parts for a pilot project that promised to be an important source of foreign exchange for Zaire for many years to come. Despite the fact that (or perhaps because) the company already had invested millions of dollars, they were unable to obtain the necessary signatures on the import documents. In a last effort to avoid closing down, they asked for Alice’s help. By virtue of her position running the German aid program, she was able to get an interview with the senior official in question. After explaining the urgency of the situation, Alice added that once the papers were signed, she would like to invite the official for champagne to show her and the company’s appreciation. “I don’t touch champagne,” he said. “Well, how about a glass of mineral water?” she asked. “I never refuse mineral water,” was his response. The meaning of this exchange could not have been clearer. The papers were signed and the necessary payment made.
Pierre the Incomparable
In the United States, servants are associated with great luxury or the heyday of the British nobility. Overseas, they are something of a necessity, even for a middle-class household. Labor is relatively cheap and job opportunities are in short supply. For the Foreign Service family, there are a lot of extra tasks—official entertaining, soaking vegetables in iodine, boiling water, negotiating in the bazaar—that require help. Thus a family with a reliable, honest, and intelligent servant elicits the sin of envy from those not so fortunate. Pierre, our only servant during four years in Zaire, certainly was honest. It was his deficiencies in virtually every other department that tried our patience and continually placed him in danger of looking for other employment.
He tried to pass himself off as a cook, telling us that he had prepared wonderful meals for a Belgian family. It took us only a few days to discover that the family either had expired from severe malnutrition or had lost their taste buds during the Second World War. To say he was a “klutz” seriously understates his lack of hand/eye coordination. Pierre had a knack for breaking dishes and glassware (carefully selecting the most irreplaceable) and then hiding the evidence. After a series of such incidents, Alice told him to be particularly careful with a large, attractive serving dish that we had been carting around the world. This was a mistake. One evening during a dinner party we were waiting for the main course to be served. Katya, who was visiting, went into the kitchen to see what was wrong. She returned to the table and whispered in Alice’s ear: “You had better talk to Pierre, he’s sitting on the kitchen floor, sobbing.” The serving dish was in pieces and so was Pierre.
He never did grasp the difference between 220 volts and 110. One by one, our U.S. appliances bit the dust, until he was forbidden to touch anything electrical. For added safety, I insisted he not even enter the room where I had installed my computer. The windows of our fifth floor apartment were made of special, imported glass. He opened the door after work one day with the exciting news that a huge bird had flown into a window, cracking the glass. We soon figured out that it was a broom handle, wielded by him, that had caused the damage.
On occasion, Pierre had to be reminded about the basics of a servant/employer relationship. If a conversation with guests interested him, he would stick around. He was extremely proud of his patron’s rank and missed no opportunity to lord it over other servants in the building or help that came in for special occasions. A fifth child, a son, was born while he was working for us. We tried to look appreciative when he informed us that he had named the baby “Lezin.” Needless to say, “Lezin” expected unusual favors from his namesake patron, especially on his birthday and at Christmas.
Our son Benjamin brought Pierre a camera on one of his visits, and Pierre asked if we would develop the roll of film. None of the pictures came out. When we relayed the news to Pierre he began to cry. He had the pictures of many families in the quarter and asked payment in advance. Naturally, the money had long since disappeared.
We wanted to do something for him and his family that would be of lasting benefit before leaving Zaire. Alice arranged to buy the shack where he was living and put the title in his name. We hope this has helped him and his family weather the turbulent times his country is experiencing.
Fly Salvation Air
The best and often the only way to do business in the interior of Zaire is to fly. The choice of plane pilots was meager. Air Zaire, the official airline, was highly unreliable. A large portion of their fleet was grounded at any one time because of lack of spare parts, and the Belgian pilots were hardly a contented work force. The airline was a year or more behind in paying the foreign exchange part of their salary. Finally, the president had no hesitation in commandeering a plane at the last minute for one of his jaunts or state visits, leaving helpless, stranded passengers in his wake throughout the country.
Occasionally we would have to hire private planes and pilots in situations where the odds for completing the flight in one piece were not good. Depending on the location and timing, there was a better alternative. It was called the Missionary Air Force, or MAF. The MAF consisted of about twenty planes (single-engine Cessnas or Beechcraft) and pilots, each sponsored by a different U. S. church. Planes were located at various remote spots throughout the country. The pilots also were trained mechanics, responsible for the upkeep of their planes. From the standpoint of the passengers, this was a highly desirable and reassuring way of doing business. The MAF was established to provide some kind of contact, albeit sporadic and unscheduled, with the hundreds of missionary groups in the interior. A central office in Kinshasa kept track of the logistic needs of the various church-run clinics and schools in the bush, and scheduled flights accordingly. (Parenthetically, Zaire is the only country in my experience where most of the health care and schooling is provided outside of government by private, often church-sponsored organizations.) Many of the USAID projects were managed by missionaries, the preferred way to go because of their commitment, incorruptibility, and continuity. When we needed to make the essential on-site inspection, our first call would be to the MAF headquarters. We would arrange our schedule to take advantage of this unique transport assistance. Inevitably, arrival of the MAF plane created a lot of excitement locally.
When a particular trip could not be delayed—e.g., a delegation visiting Zaire for just a few days—we would be forced to contract with a private company. Once, three USAID employees flying to Mbudjimai in the center of the country had a close call. The pilot miscalculated the distance and head wind and they did not reach their destination before nightfall. Landing strips in the interior are not equipped with lights (chances are there is no electricity in the region) and the pilot could not find the dirt runway. They also were running out of gas. He circled the town a few times and miraculously, someone realized they were in trouble. Several cars drove to the landing strip, illuminated it with their headlights, and the plane was able to get down with the twin engines on the last reserves of fuel. “Ask not what your country can do for you. . . .”
The neighboring Congo-Brazzaville was a popular place to spend a few days. Despite glaring and persistent mismanagement by the Marxist-dominated government, vestiges of the French colonial tradition (read good restaurants) remained. The only problem was getting there. It required a ferry ride across the Zaire River (the Congo) to Brazzaville, the capital, and from there a Congo Airline DC-3 to Pointe Noire. The ferry took only twenty minutes. However, obtaining the necessary documents to leave Zaire and enter Brazzaville was never easy, even with a diplomatic passport and embassy assistance at both ends. Boarding the ferry was an experience—a frenzied, chaotic mass of passengers, merchandise (a large proportion of which was smuggled) and police trying to sort everything out and make extra income on bribes.On one trip, Alice and I managed to fight our way up the gangplank and find a place for our bags. One of the crew then told us that we would have to move to the ferry tied up alongside, since it would leave first. We picked up our stuff, climbed down a ladder and up another on the next ferry. I needed both hands to hold the railings and thus was not able to protect my carrying bag which held our money and travelers checks, passport, and identification. I recall being jostled while we made the move and looked for my wallet once we got settled.
It was gone. The crew were casting off the lines when we shouted to the police on shore that we had been robbed. Next thing we knew there was a tremendous commotion in the water next to the dock. Police were after a man swimming away from the boat. A Zairian appeared with my wallet. It had passed through several hands in a matter of seconds and all the money had been lifted. At least we had our identification and were able to continue our trip, albeit a trifle shaken. Miraculously almost all the money was recovered and it was presented to us when we returned a few days later. I hate to think what was done in the name of law and order to find it.
A Truly Diplomatic Reception
Diplomats and aid officials spend an awful lot of time saying good-bye to colleagues who have completed their tour in country. The guest list is pretty much the same for all of the farewell cocktails, national days, and assorted receptions and dinners. The rationale for this rite of diplomacy goes, I imagine, something like this: relations with country X would suffer irreparable damage if you, the representative of country Y, left without thanking all the local officials who have made your stay so productive and satisfying. There probably is another reason for attendance at such affairs, no matter how boring. If you don’t make the sacrifice, chances are that no one will show up when you leave to tell you what a superlative job you’ve done. For those who stay behind, the whole process has to be repeated to introduce the new arrival to the same hapless guests.
The reader will now understand how we happened to host a cocktail party to introduce to the local community the newly arrived German ambassador. He was in the pleasant but formal mold. The ambassador wasn’t quite sure where I fit in matrimonially, but knew I was connected with the U.S. aid program. “Tell me,” he asked pleasantly, “how are relations between the German Economic Development Assistance and USAID?” “They have never been better,” I told him. “I sleep with your Directrice.” We later became good friends and laughed whenever we recalled our first meeting.
In the summer of 1983, the Africa Sub-Committee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee decided to visit Zaire. Howard Volpe, Democrat of Michigan, and his staff were the most vocal critics of Mobutu, largely because of the dictator’s sorry record on human rights. Their visit coincided with the emergence of a weak opposition in parliament to Mobutu, called the Group of 13. They sent a fifty-two-page letter to the president denouncing one-man rule. Since the dissidents could not move about freely, and since they had no access to what media existed in the country, they had no means to create a significant opposition movement. Recognizing that a meeting of the group with the congressmen spelled trouble, Mobutu approved the congressional visit with the proviso that the Group of 13 not meet the delegation together. One did not have to be clairvoyant to see that neither the Congressmen nor the Group of 13 would find this restriction acceptable.
As a first show of defiance, the Group of 13 tried to meet the delegation’s plane at the airport, but were prevented from doing so by a large contingent of security forces. In case there was any doubt about their feelings concerning the regime in power, they showed up wearing coats and ties. This was strictly forbidden by the “Maximum Leader” on the grounds that such garb was an offensive reminder of colonialist subjugation. (Only an abacoss or Mao jacket met the government’s sartorial standards.) Thwarted at the airport, the Group of 13 drove to the Intercontinental Hotel, where the delegation was staying. A junior embassy officer was guarding the elevator in an attempt to comply with the government’s prohibition against a meeting of the Group of 13 en masse. He was not up to the task, particularly since both sides wanted to get together.
The embassy had asked Alice to interpret for the Group; she spent the next several hours translating the group’s specific charges of abuse and wrongdoing by the regime in power. When the dissidents left the hotel late in the afternoon, the Congressional delegation was eyewitness to a small riot. The 13 were beaten up by the police and, for good measure, their cars were trashed.
One of the group, Etienne Tshisekedi, continued to seek democratic reforms over the years. In an effort to win time, Mobutu appointed him prime minister in the spring of 1997. He was fired a week later (replaced by an army general close to Mobutu), but refused to step down. One hopes that he will be able to play an active political role in the post-Mobutu era.
In contrast with the USAID mission, which featured a large resident staff of technical experts, economists, and managers in Zaire, most donors followed the principle of lean permanent offices supplemented by frequent visits from abroad. The visitors—from the World Bank, German Aid, or the UNDP, for example—would depend on their local employees to brief them on the latest developments in their field. Normally their stay in Zaire was brief and they would require extensive care and feeding, from being met at the airport and guided through customs, to appointments with government officials, transportation, and, occasionally, translation services.
Thus it was that Alice found herself with a delegation of German agriculturists at the Agricultural Credit Bank. The visitors had asked for an appointment with the Bank’s director to seek his support for a dairy project in eastern Zaire. The director was new and Alice had never met him. A secretary ushered the group into a well-furnished room, where a distinguished and friendly Zairian rose from the table. Alice made the introductions and suggested a member of her delegation explain the purpose of their visit. It was rare that a German expert was not fluent in French, but this was one of those times. He struggled, but finally managed to cover the main points he wanted to make. They all then waited for the director’s reaction. It was hardly what they expected. Without saying a word, he gathered up his papers, smiled, and departed. Alice was mystified and the delegation crestfallen, particularly the advisor who had made the pitch. He was convinced that a more polished exposition would have elicited a favorable response.
In any case, there was nothing more to be done. They picked up their briefcases and left the room. The secretary asked Alice where they were going. “The director has gone, so there is no reason for us to stay,” she replied. “Oh, that wasn’t the director,” the secretary explained. “That was just a client like you. The director will be here shortly.” They never did get the bank to support the project, even though the advisor did a much better job making his presentation to the actual director the second time around.
The Country Club
Kinshasa is not the kind of place that has a list of weekly events, shows, gallery openings or plays. The choices for spending leisure time were limited. That is one of the reasons why the Golf and Tennis Club, in the center of town, was so popular with the European community. For us, it presented a frighteningly accurate picture of what the country must have been like when the Congo was owned and controlled by King Leopold. Most of the members were Belgians who had been in Zaire before independence, either in the colonial administration or in private business. There was a smattering of Indian, Lebanese, and Greek members, all made to feel they were there at the sufferance of the Belgians. Many of the latter had tried to reestablish themselves in Brussels or Antwerp, but soon realized that life in the metropole was not for them. They missed the tropics, the more relaxed pace of life, and the availability of servants. This did not stop them from complaining, however. The favorite—one could say inescapable—topic of conversation over a beer after the afternoon’s tennis or golf was “Paradise,” otherwise known as the Belgian Congo, when they were in control.
There also were a few Zairian club members (the Belgians had no choice), although the Zairians couldn’t have been too comfortable there. We got to know one well—Christophe Engombo, I’ll call him. He was an excellent tennis player, a confidant of Mobutu at the time the dictator took over, and, for a time, a senior (read highly paid) part of government. He had a falling out with his patron and had to leave the country. Shortly before we arrived, he had been reinstated and had returned to Zaire with his family. We found him amazingly and dangerously outspoken about the shortcomings of the current leadership. The Belgians did not exactly extend themselves to play tennis with him (or, for that matter, any of the other first-rate black players). A loss would have shaken their most comforting conviction of white superiority in all things. A tournament, though, paired Engombo against one of the more vocal and prejudiced Belgians. The match was tense and close, but for the predominantly white crowd there appeared to be a lot more at stake than the quality of tennis. They made no effort to hide their enthusiasm each time the Belgian won a point. It was as if they were saying: “Take that, all of you Zairians, for destroying our wonderful life.”
Maureen Reagan Pays a Visit
It isn’t every day that a member of the President’s family heads a U. S. delegation to a country where you are assigned. One person who doesn’t need to be reminded about the importance of the visit is the United States ambassador, whose appointment hangs on the thin thread of continuing presidential approval. Once it had been announced that Maureen Reagan would represent the United States at the twentieth anniversary of President Mobutu’s accession to power in Zaire, there was no question what part of the embassy’s business demanded the highest priority. Virtually the entire staff was mobilized to ensure that, insofar as it was humanly possible, there would be no glitches during the visit. A task force was assembled, schedules drawn up, assignments of responsibility made, cables drafted, and innumerable meetings held under the ambassador’s watchful and critical eye.
Maureen Reagan’s modest visit involved a supporting cast of forty-six: plane crews, Secret Service agents, interpreters, and secretaries. Despite D-Day-like planning and attention to detail, the visit was not a success. Part of it was due to Ms. Reagan’s conviction that Zairian sovereignty was a myth and that the U. S. State Department controlled events in Kinshasa. When she spent two hours on a reviewing stand in the fierce heat, even before Mobutu arrived to initiate the speeches and parade, it was, without any question, the embassy’s fault. That was not as bad as the indignity she suffered at the official banquet that evening. Instead of being seated with the other heads of delegations, she was banished to the all-female spouse table. This was not the way to win friends with a red hot feminist. Nothing that transpired in the remaining twenty-four hours of her visit changed her thoroughly negative view of that part of the world, along with her unflattering assessment of those of us unfortunate enough to be there that weekend. As far as I know, no one’s career suffered, although it would be difficult to tell for sure.
The Japanese Make a Call
Meetings, courtesy calls, and exchanges of information between the various donor organizations were a frequent and necessary part of our professional life. The Japanese aid official in Kinshasa convinced Tokyo that Zaire was a desirable spot to unload some of the country’s expanding surplus of foreign exchange. A delegation of six officials from Japan called on us at USAID to explore possible joint undertakings. (Wonder of wonders, these actually came to pass a year or so later.) One of their group was passing as a French translator, but those of us on the USAID side of the table found his French not significantly more intelligible than his Japanese. Things couldn’t have been much better for them. It was slow going.
Desperate to find a way out of our communication impasse, I avoided the “translator” and asked the head of the delegation, “Do you by any chance speak English?” “Of course,” he replied, in a manner that chided me for even posing the question to a Japanese diplomat. Our business was concluded quickly and amicably, although the translator looked as if he missed being the crucial, albeit far from perfect, go-between.
Republished by permission of the author and publisher.