The Washington Post
In a city whose geography still reflects segregationist colonial-era planning, where a handful of oligarchs lead gilded lives while the poor navigate systems broken by corruption and neglect, we get a glimpse of what it takes to break inequality’s shackles.
“When I started out I did not have any clients, but now I have a lot. ... I can afford rent ... school fees.” Alain Nzenga, who has moved into the middle class by repairing the car air conditioners of Kinshasa’s rich. He pins his hopes on his children and their education.
In this profoundly unequal world, Africa is often thought of by Westerners as embodying poverty. The Democratic Republic of Congo in particular has a reputation for woefulness: Six decades after independence, only 9 percent of Congolese have electricity at home. Three-quarters live on less than $2 a day. Life expectancy hovers around 60 years.
But poverty is a symptom of systems that entrench inequality. In Kinshasa, Congo’s capital city and home to at least 15 million people, those systems — erected by departing colonizers — are still firmly in place.
The city was built with race and class segregation in mind; only the rich received public services. Successive Western-backed Congolese governments have been preoccupied with self-enrichment, disregarding mounting poverty except during elections and rebellions. Without expanded economic opportunities for the poor, upward mobility remains a long shot in Kinshasa, and the future livability of the city and others like it in Africa will depend on how easy it becomes to follow the path of Alain Nzenga.
Out of a cramped storefront on Loadi Street, Nzenga has achieved the unlikely: He has joined the middle class. He has carved out a solid earning by attending to a necessity for the rich — fixing their cars’ air conditioners — and becoming a “master of the art,” as he puts it.
“When I started out I did not have any clients, but now I have a lot. Because they were satisfied with my service, I kept getting more and more,” he said. “The trust they put in me helps me make a decent living. I can afford rent for my shop and my home and my children’s school fees.”
Nzenga’s workshop is in Kintambo, which Belgian colonizers set aside as a “cité indigène” — a neighborhood reserved for natives. Where you live amid the colonial geography reflects class in today’s Kinshasa.
Areas once reserved for Whites are now inhabited by wealthy Congolese. Areas such as Kintambo are working-class. And vast tracts of land that were undeveloped 60 years ago are now covered with shantytowns, home to the city’s majority who live in grinding poverty.
Along the city’s main thoroughfare, the two worlds collide. Porsche SUVS vie for space with the city’s run-down shared taxi-vans. But mostly, the worlds stay separate.
While designer labels open showrooms in wealthy neighborhoods, millions of the city’s inhabitants break rocks, sell peanuts or carry heavy loads to afford their daily sustenance.
The rich live behind high walls topped with barbed wire. Their estates, which would be at home in Malibu or the Hamptons, are right next to downtown.
Outside the gates of wealthy homes, evidence of the state’s neglect is everywhere.
Those in the middle class haven’t escaped this world of neglect altogether. At Nzenga’s house, the electricity is usually down. The running water is dirty and warm, but the tap is right outside the door.
The house is one room, but it has a television and a tile floor. Nzenga’s gate is rusty and broken, but it shields the family from prying eyes. To leave, you step right over an open sewer.
“When we arrived, the neighborhood was not really good, but it has gotten better, especially compared to other neighborhoods,” Nzenga said. “I think this neighborhood is becoming just like any other. You see less and less puddles. I have witnessed an evolution since I arrived.”
When a reporter met Nzenga, he had just paid a small bribe to a tax collector, instead of paying a local tax.
A poorer man who couldn’t afford such bribes might never have been able to open a business. Nzenga got over this hurdle only with the help of a mentor who trusted him with money.
“Tax agents are kind of a pain in the neck, but I am used to them now,” he said. “When they come here, if I have money, I give it to them.”
Nzenga doesn’t expect to ever get rich. There’s no “Congolese dream,” as he sees it, where a poor man makes it big. Maybe one in a million, he says. But where he’s at now, he has most of what he wants.
He no longer drinks to ease the day’s stress, because now he has a few employees who do the hardest work. Instead, he buys his favorite cigarettes.
On the walk home from work, he picks up half a dozen sweet oranges for his daughters, on whom he has pinned his hopes for the future.
“Today, my wish for my children is that they go to school, complete their degrees, and have a good life,” Nzenga said. “The smarts are there. The question is whether jobs are, too. What future can they dream of ?”