Magazine article Insight on the News

Africa's Misery Index: How Low Can It Go?

Magazine article Insight on the News

Africa's Misery Index: How Low Can It Go?

Article excerpt

Should the U.S. Army arrive in Zaire this month (see Symposium), GIs will find conditions remarkably (and depressingly) like those I found when first arriving there 24 years ago this month. Beginning a two-plus year stint in Zaire in 1972, my wife and I were briefed at the American Embassy, where she was to work (while I conducted research on local religions).

The American experts briefed us with conviction: Zaire had plummeted awfully since independence, when it was known as the Belgian Congo. The country was near bankruptcy and in total ruin. Its leader, President Mobutu Sese Seko, couldn't last long as he had mercilessly plundered the mineral-rich country. Rebels within and refugees from neighboring states were making Zaire's plight yet more dismal. So beware: The breaking point was near.

We figured Zaire had hit rock bottom. Little could we imagine how far down the bottom would go. This same embassy briefing surely has been given to scores of newcomers since 1972-- with greater conviction, in graver tones using ever-lower statistics and evoking evermore heartache. Whether the Army enters Zaire as part of a Canadian-led international rescue force hinges on refugees' mass movement around Kivu. Regardless, Kivu, Zaire and, indeed, all of Central Africa have become little more than heartache. Rwanda, Burundi and Zaire--the only three former Belgian colonies, all losers -- have lived down to what Joseph Conrad called "the heart of darkness."

Now lying on my desk is a dollar-sized, finely printed bill for 5,000,000 (5 million) Zaires, the name of the national currency. When we arrived there, 5 million Zaires was worth $10 million. Now it's worth a cup of coffee--if there's any coffee left in Kinshasa.

Mobutu is afflicted with cancer, marking his time left rambling around his sundry European chateaus. In better times, he was portrayed on television as descending from the heavens, dubbed "The Savior" and "Redeemer." In recent years though, he hasn't dared enter his nation's capital. I'm unaware of any other head of state and/or head of government who remains "in office" while never entering the nation's capital. Zaire, at least, establishes that record.

Zaire's potential always exceeded its conditions. The country possesses some of the richest deposits of copper and cobalt, as well as diamonds galore. Yet hosting the 1974 world's heavyweight championship fight -- the "rumble in the jungle" between George Foreman and Muhammad Ali (for whom I then translated) -- was the country's high point. …

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