The Washington Post

Kinshasa, Congo:

- CONGO

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 ?”

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 ?? PHOTOS BY LEY UWERA FOR THE WASHINGTON POST ??
PHOTOS BY LEY UWERA FOR THE WASHINGTON POST
 ?? ?? Source: NASA’S VIIRS satellite
Source: NASA’S VIIRS satellite
 ?? MUHAMMAD SALAH FOR THE WASHINGTON POST ?? Men rest their feet in the waters of the Nile in Khartoum. The city has provided a refuge for the displaced as a succession of wars, famines, droughts and floods have ravaged Sudan’s countrysid­e.
MUHAMMAD SALAH FOR THE WASHINGTON POST Men rest their feet in the waters of the Nile in Khartoum. The city has provided a refuge for the displaced as a succession of wars, famines, droughts and floods have ravaged Sudan’s countrysid­e.

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