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

THE medieval monastery was church, school, hospital, farm, hotel and refuge in time of war - which is exactly what the procure, the Roman Catholic diocesan office next to Kisangani Cathedral, has become. It is a huge red-brick square of cloisters built round a courtyard with a forbidding entrance that looks as if it should have a portcullis.

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.

(Photograph omitted)

News
Netherlands' goalkeeper Tim Krul fails to make a save from Costa Rica's midfielder Celso Borges during a penalty shoot-out in the quarter-final between Netherlands and Costa Rica during the 2014 FIFA World Cup
newsGoalkeepers suffer from 'gambler’s fallacy' during shoot-outs
Arts and Entertainment
Sydney and Melbourne are locked in a row over giant milk crates
artCultural relations between Sydney and Melbourne soured by row over milk crate art instillation
News
A scene from the video shows students mock rioting
newsEnd-of-year leaver's YouTube film features playground gun massacre
News
Two giraffes pictured on Garsfontein Road, Centurion, South Africa.
i100
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Environment
View from the Llanberis Track to the mountain lake Llyn
Du’r Arddu
environmentA large chunk of Mount Snowdon, in north Wales, is up for sale
Travel
travel
Voices
A family sit and enjoy a quiet train journey
voicesForcing us to overhear dull phone conversations should be regarded as an offensive act
News
Kenny Ireland, pictured in 2010.
peopleBenidorm, actor was just 68
News
people
News
i100This Instagram photo does not prove Russian army is in Ukraine
News
Morrissey pictured in 2013
people
News
i100
Life and Style
The director of Wall-E Andrew Stanton with Angus MacLane's Lego model
gadgetsDesign made in Pixar animator’s spare time could get retail release
News
peopleGuitarist, who played with Aerosmith, Lou Reed and Alice Cooper among others, was 71
Environment
Tyred out: should fair weather cyclists have a separate slow lane?
environmentFormer Labour minister demands 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists
News
people
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Hydraulic Power Pack Design Engineer

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: I recruit for contract mechanical design...

SQL DBA/ C# Developer - T-SQL, C#.Net

£45000 - £55000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Working with an exciting ...

SCO Supervisor Electrical

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: My client based in the Midlands is looki...

Ecommerce Executive

£20000 - £24000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Ecommerce Executive Working with an...

Day In a Page

Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

In grandfather's footsteps

5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

Martha Stewart has flying robot

The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

A tale of two presidents

George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

The dining car makes a comeback

Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

Gallery rage

How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

Eye on the prize

Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

Women's rugby

Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup
Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices