'They Are So Rich, and They Are So Poor'
Sunday, October 22, 2006
KAMPONDE, Congo -- Louis Anselme Kasamba dreams of becoming a doctor, yet he is dirt-poor by conventional Western standards. So like many Congolese determined to scratch out a living, Kasamba devised a shrewd plan of action.
The 18-year-old saved some money, then rode his bike down a dirt road to a town 100 miles to the south, where he purchased a cellphone for $63.
Back in this central Congo village, which lacks telephones, running water and electricity, Kasamba now sells phone calls for about 50 cents a minute. He charges the phone battery when the parish priest gears up his oil-fueled generator. Today, his college fund stands at about $100.
Villagers come and shout into the phone, which is tied to a bamboo pole in the one spot that sometimes captures a signal. When the connection is down, they sit under a mango tree and wait.
They sometimes call to wish someone happy birthday or offer congratulations on a marriage, but mostly they plead with relatives for money or food, keeping their calls to under a minute.
"I need to hustle and find ways to make money if I want to be a doctor," said Kasamba, who earns only $20 a month as dormitory monitor of the local boarding school. He's typically paid only every few months, and never the full amount.
Still, the public university in the provincial capital 100 miles to the north charges only $200 a year. Kasamba may one day fulfill his dream, like thousands of Congolese who are turning to cellular telephones to make some money. The demand for such phones in the Congo -- which has fewer than 25,000 conventional land lines -- is now among the highest in Africa.
Kasamba is a rare example of what would be considered a member of the middle class in this Equatorial African nation, where the very rich keep getting richer and the poor grow ever more despondent.
Travel northwest to the country's capital, Kinshasa, and you can dine alongside well-coiffed European madams and local politicians with their mistresses, sipping imported drinks on the terrace under a beautiful banyan tree at Chateau Margau.
Dinner and drinks at the old colonial mansion can easily cost $100 -- the average annual income for a Congolese, lower than when the country gained its independence from Belgium in 1960.
Electricity and running water are spotty in the capital of 7 million people, most of whom live in tin-roofed shacks enveloped by exhaust fumes, open sewage and heaps of garbage. Hotels, restaurants and the upper class often must light their premises using oil-fueled generators.
Yet there are markers of progress. The country has its first 24-hour ATM machine, where people drive up in their imported BMWs and Mercedeses, furtively withdrawing wads of $100 bills. They can withdraw up to $1,000 -- with a $2 fee and 3 percent interest on top of the amount of the withdrawal -- with a Visa card.