No territory on Earth has been plundered so long and severely as the land that is now the Democratic Republic of Congo. The first thefts were of human beings. For hundreds of years, slave traders from the Arab and Islamic world raided what’s now the eastern part of the country, bordering several of Africa’s great lakes. From its west, the Portuguese shipped huge numbers of captive Africans to Brazil.
In the late 1800s, Europeans began eyeing other riches. First came ivory, tremendously valued because it could be carved into everything from statuettes to piano keys to false teeth. By the century’s end, the territory was the privately owned colony of King Leopold II of Belgium, and one of the world’s largest sources of rubber. The king made a fortune estimated at well over $1 billion in today’s money by turning much of the male population into forced laborers to gather the rubber that grew wild in the rainforest.
After 1908, when it became the Belgian Congo, the colony’s economy diversified, but its wealth largely flowed to the outside world. Foreign corporations reaped immense profits by exploiting copper, palm oil, cotton and uranium — which went, among other places, into the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs. In recent years, the cornucopia of exported Congolese raw materials has included gold, diamonds, manganese, timber and coltan — used in cellphone computer chips. But Congo’s resource wealth hasn’t benefited the more than 70 million ordinary citizens, most of whom live on less than $2 a day.
The seldom-acknowledged debt that the United States owes Congo is greatest for the period since 1960, when the country gained independence. Together with Belgium, the U.S. successfully plotted the assassination the next year of the first democratically chosen prime minister, Patrice Lumumba. Both Washington and Brussels saw him as too determined to make his country economically independent. Then, from his seizure of power in 1965 onward, the United States heavily supported the dictator Mobutu Sese Seko. By the time he was overthrown in 1997, Mobutu had bilked his country of even more money than King Leopold — helped by more than $1 billion in U.S. aid. Many of the troubled nation’s current problems have their roots in Mobutu’s 32 years of kleptocracy.
Knowing that background, it’s encouraging today to find Americans involved with Congo in far more constructive ways. A few weeks ago, for instance, the two of us visited a coffee farm on an island in Lake Kivu. The prized Arabica strain of coffee has long been grown in the fertile highlands of East Africa, but Congolese production had fallen dramatically due to plant disease and two decades of intermittent warfare. However, on this particular land, owned by families who have lived on the island for generations, coffee is back. While supplies last, you may be able to find it at your local Starbucks.
Production on the farm was restarted with the help of both private American technical expertise and the U.S. government’s foreign aid agency, the United States Agency for International Development. President Trump has proposed deep cuts to foreign aid, questioning whether it’s worth the investment. But in Congo, we saw evidence over and over of the positive impact U.S. foreign assistance is making. Thankfully, for years this has been well understood by both Republicans and Democrats in Congress who continue to believe in, and fund, USAID.
In shantytowns ringing the hills above the dusty lakeside metropolis of Bukavu, we visited a chain of neighborhood clinics, each paired with a small concrete building surrounded by faucets.
In many countries such as Congo, both medical care and water are dangerously unreliable. Faith healers, charlatans and people with little training hang out signs for clinics. And the drinking water sold to the poor from tanker trucks is often drawn from polluted streams and treated inadequately, if at all. Now, a group called Asili, a local partner of the Minneapolis-based American Refugee Committee, has created a well-thought-out alternative system, again with help from USAID.
Each clinic is staffed by carefully vetted doctors and nurses. And the faucets next door to the clinic get their water from a mountain spring — filtered and delivered to different neighborhoods through an 18-mile system of pipelines. Since no electrical grid reaches most of these locations, the clinics are solar-powered, and the water pipeline and filtration system, thanks to mountainous terrain, is run by gravity. Users pay a small charge for being seen at the clinic and for water. But the whole system is set up so that, after each clinic and water distribution point has been built, it is entirely self-supporting.
Despite having a weak and sometimes dysfunctional government, Congo is a hotbed of civil society activism. A particularly impressive group of younger people is called LUCHA — Lutte pour le Changement, or Fight for Change. Lobbying for the guarantees of fair elections and social justice in the country’s constitution, the group uses strictly nonviolent tactics, including sit-ins and a telephone tree that mobilizes people to flood a provincial governor’s cellphone with calls when someone is unjustly arrested.
News from Africa generally focuses on war and tragedy. But positive change is happening, too, some of it aided by the work of individual Americans, our ongoing foreign aid program and private U.S.-based groups. Our country owes a debt to both Congo and the entire continent, and we need to keep paying it.
Director, actor and two-time Academy Award winner Ben Affleck is co-founder of the Eastern Congo Initiative, which supports Congolese-led economic and social development projects. Adam Hochschild is the author of “King Leopold’s Ghost” and other books.