Zaireans hunger for a way out of misery: Richard Dowden, recently in Kinshasa, meets a family which is displaying one of Africa's mysterious strengths - survival

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The Independent Online
ONE OF Africa's mysteries is how its poorer inhabitants survive. Ayembe Augustina is one of several million people who stay alive somehow, well below any minimum poverty line you or I could imagine.

She lives in a poor part of Kinshasa, Zaire, and 15 people depend on her. She has 10 children; the youngest are three-year-old twins, and her daughter's three children also live with her. Her husband and her eldest children have no work.

On a good day the family eats - once. She makes a meal of maize porridge flavoured with cassava leaves and a little sugar and salt. But sometimes the family does not eat for two or three days. 'I wait till the children are crying for food before I cook,' says Mrs Augustina.

She is 44 but looks much older. She talks quietly but precisely, and says the most alarming things with the cool common sense of someone who has to live without safety nets. In the good old days she traded in the market, buying a bag of sugar or maize wholesale and selling it retail in little bags at the side of the road. She also had a sewing machine and could make clothes for her family. Her children had shoes and went to school. Last December she caught malaria and was forced to spend all her capital on medicine. 'Thanks be to God I survived,' she says 'and had a friend who was willing to lend me money.'

She now has a debt of almost pounds 3.50 and it troubles her. 'If you have a debt you can be dragged off to prison or arrested and then you have to pay to be let out.' A lot of people around her are in debt and, she says, a lot of families are a lot worse off than hers.

Zaire's money is in chaos - the price of bread can double on your way to the shops, and inflation hit five figures last year. State employees have not been paid for months and when they are they receive joke wages - some less than 67p a day. Mrs Augustina says her husband and her son both look for work but without success. The family depends entirely on her.

Mrs Augustina's day starts at 5am. In the old days she would get breakfast for everyone and get the children ready for school but now there is nothing for breakfast and she cannot afford to send the children to school. She walks to another part of town and tries to buy maize, some for the family to eat and some to resell. Maize is the cheapest and most nutritious food. On a good day she makes about 7p and her family eats. She said that if she makes any money she puts it in a bank which the bigger market traders have set up. She says she does it less for safekeeping against robbers and more because she is afraid that she, or someone else in the family, will spend it if it is kept at home. In the old days she used to make clothes for her children on an old sewing machine but now it is broken and she cannot repair it she so recuts old clothes to fit the smaller children.

So how can her life change? She opens her hands in a gesture of resignation and shakes her head. Most people here just live from day to day without hope that life will get better again. Politics? What does she think of the President, Mobutu Sese Seko? 'Mobutu,' she replies 'is like the father of a family who only looks after himself. He is a father who doesn't care when his children cry. They have been crying for years. He must have a heart like a stone.'

Medecins Sans Frontieres says 1 per cent of Kinshasa's 4.5 million people suffered from severe malnutrition at the end of last year but this figure is expected to double. This means malnutrition is not a calamity by Sudan or Somalia standards but it did not exist in Kinshasa before and now it is growing.

If Mrs Augustina and her family are typical examples of people who are just surviving, the figures should already be far worse. But survival is one of Africa's mysterious strengths. As one diplomat said: 'If the World Bank stats are anything to go by, they should all be dead.'

(Photograph omitted)