Kisangani Comes Back to Life
KISANGANI is our home. It is a city that is undergoing a rebirth. Formerly known as Stanleyville, after the famous explorer, the city straddles the wide river Zaïre, the larger portion being on the northern side. Lying not fifty miles from the equator, in the middle of the vast Central African rain forest, it has plenty of sun as well as rain.
The large city that grew here became a white man’s paradise—only whites lived in the city center, and Africans were not allowed into the city center after dark without a special “chit.” There were wide boulevards with modern shops and offices, topped by luxury apartments, also residential areas lined with graceful palms shading beautiful villas or spacious bungalows. Electricity was supplied from the city’s own hydroelectric scheme. With a good river port and a modern airport, the town was prosperous.
The last decade, however, saw disaster come to Stanleyville. There were rebellion and uprising on three different occasions in just four years. The once-beautiful city was left in ruins, many of her menfolk were slaughtered and most of the white population fled for their lives. Nearly all businesses were in tatters. But since the last trouble in 1967, a rebirth has taken place.
Out of the Ruins
Renamed Kisangani by order of the president of the Republic (this being the original name of the place in Swahili), the town began slowly to get over its mourning. In 1969 the Europeans who had fled began to filter back to see what they could salvage of their homes and businesses. Here and there houses began to be patched up. At the end of the same year some friends of ours, Jehovah’s witnesses, arrived, and we joined them a few months later.
Almost every day we would see new faces in town and notice another building back in use or another shop open its doors to customers. At first one could cross the street without first looking both ways, but soon this was not possible, as the number of vehicles increased very rapidly. Today, the wide streets teem with life—the traffic is quite dense and fast moving. There are modern city buses (referred to as “mammoths”), supplemented by smaller commercial vehicles known as “taxibuses.” The shops are well stocked. There are good hotels and restaurants. A textile factory is under construction, as is a new international airport. A truck-assembly plant has started work. A modern sawmill exports wood cut from the great rain forest. If one did not notice the occasional bullet hole in the window of a shop or in the windscreen of an old car, one would never imagine that this bustling metropolis of a quarter of a million people had been the scene of so much destruction a short time back!
Who is behind this astonishing rebirth of a city? Africans, the men of Zaïre. What kind of people are they? On the whole, they are easygoing, friendly and pleasure loving.
At the top of the list, socially and economically, is the businessman and/or politician, together with certain high-ranking government executives. He lives in a big, beautiful house on the outskirts of town—usually one of those previously reserved for white people in preindependence days. He speaks good French and always wears an “abascos,” the national costume for men. He works in an air-conditioned office, and has his own car or goes everywhere by taxi (60 cents to cross town one way). He views the white man very much as an equal, not usually as an enemy. He has one or more of his fellow Africans working for him in his home as servants, known as “boys.” His wife or “girl friend” is richly dressed, and sometimes with an exotic hairdo or a wig. A problem is that he often has wives (two or three, all legal) and “girl friends.” As an example, one has three wives and twenty-two children and still “goes out” in the evenings in his Mercedes.
Next on the social and economic scale come the government workers, the clerks and office men. They sometimes live in once-beautiful houses that have been abandoned and are now in ruins, but, for the most part, they live in small dwellings in the African communes. Their dwellings are often not well kept. With the African tendency for large families, it takes all their cash just to stay alive. One qualified electrician (who has opened a pharmacy to try to supplement his income) has twenty-seven children by his three “legal” wives.
To help feed the hungry mouths, the wives often engage in a little commerce. They buy goods wholesale and sell retail, or they cultivate fruit in their gardens to sell at the market or from house to house. These are the real hard workers, the women of the market. They get very excited when haggling with you for the sale of their wares and will pretend to be most offended when you offer too little. They are usually good natured in reality, though, and their friendly rivalry is often a source of amusement to observers. These are working mothers, and usually the youngest child goes everywhere with mother, on her back, while the next child toddles along holding her hand. Breast-feeding is done anywhere, anytime.
With these little ones to cope with, how does Mum carry the things she wants to sell, to and from the market? On her head. The women are very skillful and graceful despite the burdens they bear. One will have a wide bowl of pineapples; another, a bucket of fish. They have such a sense of balance, these women, that they can carry anything this way—from a sewing machine to a bed! At home they have all the chores to do, yet they still have time to till and plant—or they stay at home and make doughnuts or little cakes to sell outside their front door.
Then there are those men—usually the younger ones—who do not have regular jobs. Many of them, however, display good initiative. Those with a little capital set up small shops. Africans love to have their photo taken, so there are at least five photo studios operating in Kisangani. Some have got hold of an old treadle sewing machine and become tailors. It is simpler to buy a crate of soft drinks and a block of ice and sell cold drinks on the street corner, making a quick two cents profit on each bottle of Coke—this is thirst country, where the afternoon temperature often goes over 35 degrees Centigrade (95° F.).
If you have goods to transport economically and there is no great hurry, you can hire a “pousse-pousse,” which is a little cart that a man has to “push-push”—that is what the name means. The men ‘who push or pull these carts really work hard. They may take a load of 300 pounds across town for a dollar or less, and it is not all level ground. The carts vary in construction, but most are metal, welded together from scrap, with a single wheel on each side—often not exactly the same size!
On the other side of the river there is the railway, which by various links takes goods to the east of Zaïre. How does one cross the river? Take a pirogue. It can be quite an adventure.
A pirogue is a dug-out canoe, made from a single tree trunk. They range in size from small to enormous—the biggest being capable of carrying up to fifty people, although since a couple of fatal accidents the law limits this to thirty. Each pirogue provides work for two men—one to drive and one to take the fares. Drive? Yes. They are equipped with outboard motors, which propel these spearlike craft across the nearly half mile of water in about five minutes! Besides people, everything goes in—bicycles, chickens, manioc, bananas—anything you happen to have with you. Each person pays four cents for the one-way trip, plus four cents for each bike. There are plenty of these fast boats.
You can, of course, take the car ferry, powered by twin Diesel marine engines, but it is not so much fun, although it is free. You can also take your life in your hands and hire a pirogue without a motor, and have the fishermen battle against the strong current of the mighty Zaïre with just their paddles.
Here, then, is a vibrant community of courageous people who are transforming a ruin into what has now been declared by President Mobutu Sese Seko to be the third city of Zaïre.
In spite of the material prosperity and modern conveniences, the majority are still superstitious. Ancestral customs are still slavishly followed, even by those in the higher income bracket. Even here in the residential area of the city, if someone dies, they hold a “wake,” with ceremonial wailing, dancing and drinking to the early hours. If someone has a baby, the child is “protected” from the evil spirits by having its wrists and ankles and waist tied with black cords from which are suspended small bones, pieces of bamboo or stones. If someone is ill, efforts are made to find out whose “spirit” is attacking this one, and there is a consultation with the local fetish doctor, who will often prescribe a small pouch to be worn next to the skin, slung around the neck of the patient on a black cord. Ancestor worship, fear of the dead, black magic to cause death, enchantment to make friends or lovers—all these things abound in modern Kisangani. The majority will tell you that they are Catholic, but many, especially the women, cannot read or write, and thus have never been able to study God’s Word the Bible for themselves. True, the Protestants have done good work in Bible distribution and even in the translation of the Bible into Swahili and Lingala—but they have not followed through with systematic and regular Bible study.
But here in Kisangani two African witnesses of Jehovah began to call on the people in 1965, offering them personal help in Bible study, and Jehovah blessed their work. Now there are four congregations of Jehovah’s people actively preaching the good news of God’s kingdom. The attendance this past year at the Lord’s Evening Meal was nearly 500. Here are happy, Bible-loving souls. They have put away their secondary wives, quit prostitution and braved the fury of family and acquaintances when they refused to continue pagan practices. They have taken a courageous, nonpolitical stand for true worship. They come from a variety of backgrounds: medical auxiliary, university student, chef, post office executive and others, but all have one thing in common—their devotion to the true God, Jehovah. We are truly happy to be living among them in Kisangani, this fascinating place that is experiencing rebirth.—Contributed.