A Road Map To Modernity
As Congo's Ambitious Project to Connect Mining Cities and Ports Nears, a Village Offers a Glimpse of the Promise and Peril
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.