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Despite Hard Times, Zaire's Rhythm of Life Goes on in Hard-to-Reach Villages

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THE music goes on in isolated villages such as this one. But because of an economic decline in Zaire that is worse than in most of Africa, people are making their own music instead of switching on radios. A young woman returning from a long day in the fields balances a basket of cassava on her head and sings softly as she walks barefoot on dirt paths between mud-brick houses.

Papi Mampuya, 13, and his friend La Kuetusuki, 14, lead some young friends in an animated series of impromptu songs for foreign visitors.

``When there's a marriage, or a religious festival, we sing, dance, and drink,'' says Denise Diavita, a farm woman with five children.

Business used to be pretty good because so many people bought radios to listen to music, explains a radio repairman. But these days, he says, there's not much business.

Hyper-inflation in Zaire has jacked sky-high the prices of manufactured goods, including radios, batteries, and spare parts. It has also sent food prices soaring, resulting in a number of urban food riots and some deaths in clashes with police.

But long before the inflation, there was isolation.

Like so many of Zaire's villages, where some 60 percent of the nation's estimated 37 million people live, Nkuanza is hard to reach. Our trip here, over an unpaved, rough road, took several hours of slow, cautious driving in a four-wheel-drive van. The same trip during the rainy season can take a week by truck, if a truck makes it at all.

And Nkuanza is more reachable than many villages in Zaire. Some sections of the country have practically been cut off from overland travel because the government has neglected road maintenance for years.

But lack of road repair is only one sign of Zaire's decline under a dictatorial government that, by most accounts, has simply failed to provide the people much in the way of basic services, such as health, education, and transportation.

The results show up in World Bank statistics. Zaire had a minus 2.4 percent growth rate in per capita gross national product between 1965 (when President Mobutu Sese Seko took power in a military coup) and 1987. That was worse than any other African country except Uganda (minus 2.7 percent). Sub-Saharan Africa (not counting South Africa and Nigeria) scored a minus 0.1 percent.

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