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Yesterday I Went Home

 

May 27 2006


19 years after setting out for far and distant lands, I finally once again set foot on the soil of Nyankunde, the town of my birth and home for the first 9 years of my life. It was somewhat saddening to see what has become of this once idyllic little town in the intervening years. In September 2002, Nyankunde was attacked and pretty much destroyed as a result of tribal conflicts and jealousies in this unstable part of the world. In the intervening 3 1/2 years, progress has been made, reconstruction has begun, the hospital is once again open for business, and the locals are beginning to return to their homes. But it is sad to see the many homes still without rooves (the tin rooves having been removed by looters) and the generally unkempt nature of what I remember as being such a tidy, well-kept little town. Unfortunately, we didn't have long, so I didn't have time to visit the whole town, but at least managed a quick tour of the hospital and a visit to our old home. The whole experience, though, was highly surreal, as if I'd passed into some darker, dirtier alternate universe. My mind recognized old shapes and forms, paths and buildings, but everything was shabby and forlorn, run down and ruined. Almost like some bad dream from which you hope you'll soon wake up.

 

The hardest part, I suppose, was coming to terms with the fact that the old Nyankunde, the Nyankunde of so many happy memories, no longer exists. The old Nyankunde of lessons in the morning with mom and running wild in the bush in the afternoon with friends and roasting whole pigs by the swimming pool and bonfires at the end of the runway and going down in our white and blue minivan to meet the MAF airplane; the Nyankunde of going for hikes in the bush and climbing trees and church outside under the eucalyptus trees on Christmas morning... The old Nyankunde which I can still picture so clearly in my head; every house, every path, every tree (well, almost)... A place that was once home, a real, honest, true-to-goodness home, where we had our very own house, with my very own bedroom, now no longer home at all. The story of my life, I suppose. Old homes left behind, now strange places inhabited by strangers. Starting anew in new places, with new friends, new ways of living, new rules, new customs... Such is the life of a nomad like myself...

 

The other interesting part of the trip was observing the general state of affairs in this part of the world. Everywhere along the road between Komanda and Bunia, UN troops are everywhere, barricaded behind barbed wire in various camps along the road (and government troops at various spots in between, asking for "tolls". Fortunately they leave us wazungus alone). One gets the feeling that if these UN troops were to leave, this part of the country would very quickly once again fall into lawlessness and anarchy. The truth, I think, is that at this point in time, the Congo (or parts of it) consists more or less of fedual fiefdoms ruled by various warlords, and the UN is the only thing currently holding it together. One can come up with various theories for why this is, but my theory is that there are various stages a country must go through on its way to becoming a nation-state and various prequisites for each stage. For example, maintaining control over an area as large as the Congo requires good communications and good roads (both of which are fortunately rapidly improving, thanks to cell phones in the case of the former and foreign aid in the case of the latter). And building a modern, democratic nation requires an atmosphere in which people perceive greater benefit to themselves through peaceful trading and commerce than armed aquisition and conquest, and a sufficiently robust economy that young men are able to make a better living through good, honest work than looting and pillaging as part of a roving militia. We in the west forget that it took over 1500 years to progress from the tribal conflicts of the dark ages, to the feudal kingdoms of the middle ages, to modern, industrialized, parliamentary democracies. The big question, of course, is whether the Congo can catapult itself into the 19th century with the upcoming elections at the end of July. I think the Congo has already done amazingly well to go from the stone age to the middle ages in just 150 years, but perhaps a parliamentary democracy is pushing it just a bit too much? One remains cautiously optimistic, but we shall see what we shall see...

 

The good news, though, is that at the end of it all, Congo will belong to the Congolese. Ask any Congolese whether they would prefer to return to colonial days and they will quickly tell you that no, they would far prefer a little chaos and disorder to being under the rule of a foreign power. I've just finished reading English Passengers by Matthew Kneale and he very powerfully portrays the plight of the native aborigines as they were completely wiped out from the island of Tasmania. (They weren't treated much better in mainland Australia either, from what I've read). Likewise the native tribes of North America seem to have ended up with the short end of the stick. But though there will likely be more birthing pains along the way, at the end of it all, the Congo will be owned and run by and for the Congolese people.

 

Jeremie Wood