Zaire takes heart from daily ritual: Structures may have collapsed, but Richard Dowden in Kisangani finds the state still exists in the minds of the people
Wednesday 23 February 1994
Just up the road the Bank of Zaire has been closed for two years and nearby are the defunct municipal offices. The post office has been shut for months and there are no telephones working. Many shops are boarded up in the middle of town and the famous Congo River ferry from Kinshasa, a collection of barges lashed together to form a floating city of 5,000 people, has not come for three months. The procure is the only functioning institution in Kisangani and as the state has disintegrated, the church, once suppressed by the state, has filled the gaps.
It serves as bank, post office, school and hospital. A satellite dish stands in the middle of the chicken run in the courtyard and a radio mast competes with the square grey towers of the cathedral. The diocesan office is one of the few means of contact with the outside world. One side of the courtyard is a fully equipped repair garage and depot with hundreds of oil drums. With the river traffic drying up and roads to the capital impassable, supplies come from Uganda and Kenya. Lorries can be delayed for up to four months because of poor roads. The diocese feeds scores of villages and parishes, giving medical supplies and other essential goods.
When the town was looted by the local garrison in 1991 and 1992, all the shop owners and traders, particularly foreigners, lost everything. But the procure, like the medieval monastery, was not touched. The foreign priests and brothers here have been left alone.
The death of government has not created a catastrophe. Last night I stood on the steps of the ugly, grey-cement cathedral watching the sun set, pale and colourless over the huge sweep of the river. Inside, the choir were practising. Their snappy high-pitched hymns backed by a soft drum beat floated out across the river where dugout canoes were punted endlessly back and forth across the river, ferrying as many 30 people at a time. At the bottom of the steps I watched the comings and goings of the small bankside market which sells dried fish, vegetables, maize, rice and cloth. Not only has the lack of government brought no catastrophe, it has encouraged one of Africa's great talents: survival.
I had thought that maybe Zaire was breaking up, that its borders would dissolve and it would become a collection of autonomous power centres based on former towns, dioceses, mining companies, trading centres, and perhaps old chiefdoms. The borders are certainly weak but they and other institutions are still manned. Although it has faded and its essential structures have collapsed, the state still exists in ritual - and therefore perhaps, in people's minds.
On my way here three officials asked for money. The first two I refused politely and they let me go. The third took my passport and would not return it until he was paid. This personalised tax gathering is inevitable, especially when you know the man is paid less than a pound a month. But it shows that officials still turn up, wear uniforms, fill in forms and stamp papers. And people accept them.
The other incident that convinced me that Zaire still exists was the extraordinary event I witnessed in town earlier in the day. At 7.30am precisely a white-helmeted policeman directing traffic blew his whistle and stood to attention, one hand pointing stiffly skywards. All the traffic stopped and pedestrians stood still for two minutes. This was the daily ceremony of the raising of the national flag and playing the anthem; a remnant of the days when President Mobutu Sese Seko tried to instil a form of nationalism into Zaire. Each day began with a salute to the flag, the national anthem and half-an-hour of songs and speeches from party bosses.
Cynics say it survives because it gives policemen a way to make money by fining people who do not stop. But the daily praise for a state which has ceased to function means it has not ceased to exist.
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