By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, May 2, 2008
KILONGO, Congo -- Not too long ago, the 30-mile journey from this village to the nearest city was virtually impossible by car. It took at least 14 hours walking from dawn to dark, an odyssey in flip-flops through woods, over fallen trees, along a bumpy red-dirt road with potholes the size of ponds.
Then came a crumbling stretch of 1960s-era pavement to Lubumbashi -- a distant promise of markets, jobs, doctors, generators and mattresses invisible on the horizon.
"People wouldn't go," said Darton Mwamba, 31, the assistant chief of Kilongo. "They'd just go as far as the main road, and they'd look at the asphalt, and they feared."
But two years ago, a mining company graded the dirt road to 40-mph smoothness. The journey shrank to an hour's jaunt, setting off a chain reaction of change in this sparsely populated village at the road's end.
Taxis and other cars started coming, carrying friends and relatives, prostitutes and thieves. Mostly, though, the road brought an array of stuff: Coke and beer, more medicine, the occasional armchair, and a less-quantifiable sense of connection to the world in the form of "Rambo."
"Now I have a TV and DVDs," said Kalobo Boduin, the village chief, who is partial to the sagas of Sylvester Stallone and Jean-Claude Van Damme. "I watch films every day."
The story of Kilongo offers a glimpse into the potential impact of the most ambitious road-building project since Congolese independence in 1960.
As part of a $10 billion deal between the newly elected government and the Chinese, to be signed in coming weeks, the Chinese will build major routes linking south to north and connecting mining cities to western ports, mostly in exchange for lucrative mining concessions. Here in the mineral-rich province of Katanga, projects for secondary roads such as the one to Kilongo are being undertaken by foreign mining companies that need to get minerals to market.
All told, however, the multibillion-dollar plan will address only about 3 percent of the need.
Congo, a country the size of Western Europe, with vast natural resources, has less than 3,000 miles of paved road. Virginia, by comparison, has about 70,000 miles.
Some villages are so remote that government officials have not visited in 20 years. Colonial-era routes left by the Belgians are choked with forest, hyphenated by lakes, broken and pounded into uselessness.
At the moment, the Congolese government is so ill equipped for the task of road-building -- the country does not produce enough asphalt or have enough trained employees, engineers or heavy machinery, for starters -- that it is largely dependent on outsiders to do the work.
"Congo has fallen apart," said Godfrey Mayombo, the country's vice prime minister, who noted that even he cannot reach his home village by car anymore. "It's in a deep pit."
Meanwhile, thanks to the newly graded road, Boduin was selling beer the other day in Kilongo, a village of scattered mud houses and vegetable fields in a bushy pale-green landscape.
The village sprang up in the late 1970s, when people came to work on a farm nearby. The nearest road was a three-mile trek away, through the woods. About 1,600 people live there now, farmers, moonlighting miners and others who have salaried jobs with Anvil, the mining company that improved the road.
People occasionally have money to buy extra things, Boduin said, but for years, there was nothing to buy.
Before the road, he explained, it was almost impossible to bike a case of brown-bottled Simba beer to Kilongo without losing the investment. "To take even one case was very difficult," he said. "They'd fall and break."
Now he can hail a Dubai, as people call taxis imported from the Middle East, and get to Lubumbashi and back with six cases in a couple of hours. He sells each bottle for about $2.20, and he can sometimes sell 30 bottles in a day.
With some of the extra cash, he bought the television and DVD player, which draw villagers to his house for film nights and news, when the antenna is working. With the rest, he's started growing corn and potatoes, which he sells in the next village or in Lubumbashi "because of the cars," he said, sitting in the shade of a grass-roofed gazebo.
A white Toyota sedan drove through the village then in a cloud of red dust, the first of at least four taxis that came that day.
Unemployed men sat on a log, women washed clothes and Alexi Fwamba got in the taxi and zipped, relatively speaking, away.
He had come to the village with money for his parents, as he now does at least three times a week, instead of a couple times a month. For a $4 fare, he was headed back to the university in Lubumbashi, where he works.
These days, people come and people go.
Prostitutes have starting coming to Kilongo from the city, along with diseases, and recently thieves came barreling in a truck and stole Mwamba's generator.
"So these are bad things," he said, walking through the village.
On the other hand, Mwamba counted perhaps a dozen people who are alive because the road brought the taxis, and the taxis were able to drive people stricken with cholera to the city for treatment.
Those people included his son, Teddy, 2, and his daughter, Vianie, 4. "They are going to help me when I'm old," Mwamba said.
They also included Veronique Yav, cooking lunch for relatives, and a man working in Lubumbashi to make money that he would soon bring back to the village and perhaps use to buy something at Mwamba's pharmacy.
Its shelves were once fairly barren, but because Mwamba has made money selling Simba to the Anvil employees and taking vegetables to the city, the shelves are stocked with Paluxin for malaria, Coldrin for flu, Koflyn for coughs and Domi to stop vomiting.
"Before, you would see someone who has money, but there was no medicine," Mwamba said.
He's making several hundred dollars a month now and has bought a plot in Lubumbashi, where he's built a house that he rents out for another $50 a month. He helped a cousin pay for nursing school last year, and the cousin recently built a small health clinic in Kilongo.
It was afternoon, and Mwamba walked across the village to the clinic, Chez Johnny Phar, but Johnny was not there. He had taken a taxi to the city to buy medical test kits.
At the edge of the village, a new restaurant -- an orange tent with a few tables and a dozen or so plastic chairs -- was almost bustling with aid workers, Anvil employees and others who'd driven there for a rare lunch of roasted chicken that one of the owners, Guilainne Ngoiemwilambwe, had bought in the city that morning.
She has a generator now, Ngoiemwilambwe said, an item she didn't buy before because it was too difficult to transport.
"Imagine walking with a generator on your head," she said. "It was very difficult before. . . . You would load things on your head and walk from Lubumbashi to here. It was very hard. When you got here at night, you were so tired."
In addition to the tangible benefits of the road, she and others said, are the less tangible benefits of a soft mattress instead of sack-covered grass, or a new Nike warm-up suit.
"Now people know what it means to go to town," Mwamba said.
He had an e-mail account in Lubumbashi before the road was improved, but it was canceled because he could get there to check it only once or twice a year. Now he goes regularly, checks for news from relatives and generally sees how things are going in the city that was once so distant.
He sees that unemployment is high there, he said, and that most people have no running water or electricity.
He sees wealthy Congolese and foreign businesspeople driving shiny sport-utility vehicles through town, and planes landing at the airport.
Then he comes back to Kilongo, and life looks different.
"There is a change in mentality because of the road," Mwamba said. "Now I'm thinking about the future."