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But at Least They Had an Election

The opening vignette in this New York Times piece describes the truly harrowing conditions of families living in the Congolese capital:

The Berboks are practicing a Kinshasa family ritual almost as common here as corrugated metal roofs and dirt streets: the “power cut,” as residents in this capital of some 10 million have ironically christened it. On some days, some children eat, others do not. On other days, all the children eat, and the adults do not. Or vice versa.

The term “power cut” — in French, délestage — is meant to evoke another unloved routine of city life: the rolling blackouts that hit first one neighborhood, then another. […]

“If today we eat, tomorrow we’ll drink tea,” said Dieudonné Nsala, a father of five who earns $60 a month as an administrator at the Education Ministry. Rent is $120 a month; the numbers, Mr. Nsala pointed out, simply do not add up. Are there days when his children do not eat? “Of course!” Mr. Nsala answered, puzzled at the question. “It can be two days a week,” he said.

Has the international development bureaucracy turned a blind eye to Kinshasa’s woes? Perish the thought. As astute readers of Via Meadia will recall, foreign NGOs spared few expenses in preparing and monitoring the country’s recent (rigged) elections. How refreshing to see western do-gooders finally focus on the real problems in Africa.

The Berbok and Nsala families must have been thrilled to know that helicopters were ferrying paper ballots to remote villages for a fraudulent election.  What a shame it would have been to throw that money away on food.

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  • Larry, San Francisco

    One question I always have when reading this is why do these people have 5 (or more) kids? He is obviously not illiterate. Seems to me that he could support 2 children with out forced starvation.

  • Anthony

    WRM, the harrowing conditions and civil strife in many African countries post independence speak to overall failure of various economic/social policies – with help of NGOs. But hasn’t new global economic arrangements (shift away from Fordism) exposed the fragile political and social stability of places like Kinshasa? And, yes the money spent on ferrying paper ballots certainly ought to have been better utilized.

  • Jacksonian Libertarian

    I wonder if the African cultures would be better off now, if they had never been colonized, or living in even more primitive conditions. I certainly feel they would have benefited from a couple more centuries of exposure to western culture. It seems evident that the longer a culture was exposed to British culture, the more successful it has been, with actual British immigrant cultures of America, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, doing the best.

  • Y.


    This is a typical and arguably reasonable behaviour of a poor population in a third world country which hasn’t any pensions or social security. The couple wishes to have a child of theirs survive, both for biological reasons and since this is the only way someone takes care of them in old age. The survival of a small number of children is uncertain in a violent country with poor healthcare. Ergo, make lots of children so that some survive (and take care of you).

  • Luke Lea

    I’ve just been listening to biologist Garrett Hardin on these sorts of issues. He argues that each sovereign nation needs to take responsibility for the welfare of its own people, and that it only makes matters worse when one country tries to bale another out for the mistakes it has made. That includes taking in excess population from countries that can’t take care of their own.

    Hardin says that political correctness prevents us from facing these issues squarely in terms of their long-term consequences. Instead we blindly continue to undermine the foundations of our own society under the banners of immigration, free trade, and multicultural diversity.

    The only beneficiaries, he maintains, indeed the only people who speak out in favor of these policies, are the ones who have no fear of being harmed by them. Those would be our “meritocratic” elites — small minorities who test smartest on paper but lack all patriotic feeling and have no concern for the welfare of future generations of their own fellow countrymen.

    You may not agree with Hardin, yet the case he makes against “cosmopolitan egotism” deserves to be listened to.

    Here is a series of video interviews.

  • Luke Lea

    I guess I should have mentioned the banner of “foreign aid” along with free trade, immigration, and multiculturalism. Hardin doesn’t actually address the problem of trade, which had not yet emerged at the time of this interview.

  • teapartydoc

    Let the missionaries stay and get the ngo’s the [heck] out. Otherwise you might just as well line people up against a wall and start shooting.

  • Leahcim

    @Jacksonian Libertarian

    Here’s the answer:

  • John Skookum

    Africa wins again.

  • Hillbillygeek

    Geez, Larry from San Fran: this is the most common knee-jerk reaction I get from liberals (and other small-minded people) “why do you have so many kids if you can’t support them?”
    Mr Nsala might have been a wealthy businessman with a good income when he had the five kids. Then hard times come: who knows, the government might have seized his business? Now what is he supposed to do: retroactively abort? this is on the same level as asking “Why doesn’t he buy some more food?”
    Mr Nsala and the millions like him need the corrupt government and NGOs to get off his back.
    [snorts like grumpy old man]

  • F

    The benefits of colonialism vs. no colonialism. The question is debated in every international affairs class. Congo was colonized by the Belgians, and not even by the nation, rather by King Leopold (hence Leopoldville, now Kinshasa). When independence swept the African continent in the sixties, Leopold decided rather abruptly to get out and the deed was done in six months with a bare minimum of advance preparation. The results were sad and are still being felt to this day.

    In Kenya, OTOH, the Brits spent years developing indigenous government officials, education, health services, telecommunications, roads, etc. Admittedly, the two situations were not equal: Congo was a colony to be stripped of its riches while Kenya was a settler colony where thousands of Brits settled with every intention of living for generations. Many did. When independence came it was with trained cadre ready to take over. The results were dramatically different from Congo, and it would be a prosperous and stable country now but for a few big men who treated it as their own personal treasury; i.e., like Leopold treated Congo.

    Even so, Kenya is still a much better place than Congo today (I lived years in both) and were it not for street crime I might even return to live in Kenya again.

    The colonial experience was dramatically different across the continent, and when I last lived in Kenya (1995) Kenyans yearned for the old colonial regime. I never heard that sentiment expressed in Congo.

  • Robert

    Alright guys, let’s give Larry a break, it’s not his fault that he, like everyone else here, is a Westerner and has a poor grasp of life in a 3rd world country. The real reason that Mr Nsala has five children is closer to what Y said, but it really breaks down to infant mortality. Life expectency is a lot lower in 3rd world countries, likewise the infant mortality rate is much, much higher. Mr Nsala’s might have five children right now, but that’s no guarantee they’ll all make it to adulthood. In fact odds are that by the time they’re fully grown only three of his five children will still be alive. In the same vein his wife could have given birth to seven or more children but only five survived this far – sounds outlandish and cruel to a westerner but to someone from an impoverished country like Mr Nsala it’s a fact of life that if he wants to see his family continue to grow and thrive then he and his wife have to have enough babies to make it to adulthood. THAT is why they have five kids.

  • gazzer

    Oh, that’s why the whole continent has such large families – they were wealthy businessmen when the kids were born!! Come on!!!

  • boqueronman

    Perhaps it is worth pointing out that during the past 15 years the DRC, or Zaire, or whatever the territory is called now has been the main battlefield for the Great War of Africa, the largest military conflict since WWII.

    This selection from an article at The Warehouse sums it up:

    “The DRC has been consumed by conflict since 1996 as The First Congo War (1996 to 1997) and The Second Congo War (officially 1998 to 2003, though hostilities continue to this day) combined to form the largest war in modern African history (otherwise known as Africa’s World War or the Great War of Africa) and the deadliest conflict since the Second World War. More than five million people have died to date [estimated total population of 70 million in a territory 2.5 times that of Western Europe], the equivalent of a 2004 Asian Tsunami every six months or a World Trade Center every two days. While the country is home to the largest U.N. peacekeeping force in operation, MONUSCO is still not large enough to provide adequate… security… given the size of the country and the extent of the instability, including 2.7 million deaths mainly from disease and starvation since 2004 (more than half of which are children under the age of 5 years old), as well as more than 8000 rapes and nearly a million displaced persons in 2009 alone.”

    And the readers ask “why do these people have 5 (or more) kids?” Har, har! For a coddled and pampered SanFran leftist perhaps the question ought to be “why do these (he left out ‘poor, benighted brown) have any kids?”

    In a short, and largely fruitless, posting as an official managing bilateral assistance projects there, I can personally testify to the immense actual poverty and the enormous potential natural riches. The obstacles to its development, however, are numberless. For example, the “nation” is home to approximately 250 distinct dialects and 4 separate primary languages. It’s history, culture, ethnicity, and geography all conspire to make this one of the world’s most difficult social and economic development challenges.

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