By: John Soleanicov, KF8 DRC

Since the mid 1990s, war in the eastern regions of the Democratic Republic of Congo has taken more lives than any other conflict since World War II.  Started in the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide, the war involved 7 African countries and more than 25 armed groups.  By some estimates, more than 5 million people lost their lives, many from illness and malnutrition.  As a result, eastern DRC  has also become notorious for the widespread use of rape by various parties as a weapon of war.

One of the main epicenters of the struggle, and site of several key battles was Kisangani, the town in which Joseph Conrad’s tragic hero, Kurtz, lost his sanity and his soul.  Last week, I made a trip out to Kisangani to see the “Heart of Darkness” for myself and to help kick-start Kiva lending there.

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Kisangani is about 800 miles (1,200 kilometers) northeast of Kinshasa.  It's kind of like going from New York to Chicago.

Kisangani is about 800 miles (1,200 kilometers) northeast of Kinshasa, about the same distance from New York to Chicago.

The first difficulty with working in Kisangani is just getting there.  Despite being the third largest city in the DRC, Kisangani has no road links to the capital or to most of the other regions of the country.  The safest way to get there is via the daily flights operated by the UN, which allows NGO staff to fly at no charge.  Unfortunately, neither the time of the flight, the itinerary, nor the availability of a seat can be confirmed until right before departure.  Luckily, I had no major issues with my flight, save a brief stop to drop off a UN hot shot and his sizeable entourage in Mbandaka, a regional capital on the equator.

Rainforests in Eastern Congo - The view from my UN plane

Rainforests in Eastern Congo - The view from my UN plane

Peering out my window upon arrival in Kisangani, all I could see were endless rainforests in all directions.  Once off the plane, the all-consuming tropical heat began seeping through all my pores.  This is definitely not Kinshasa. The local language, as in most of East Africa, is Swahili, as opposed to the Lingala spoken in Kinshasa.  The city’s isolation has left it with very few cars, mostly owned by foreign agencies and mining companies.

The preferred methods of transport are bicycles and motorcycles, which zoom by dilapidated and bullet-holed buildings, eerie reminders of the recent war.  It is here that some of the bloodiest fighting between Ugandan and Rwandan troops took place in 2000.

But in spite of its violent past – or maybe because of it – Kisangani, now essentially stable, exudes a surprising aura of tranquility and peace.  The hassling and aggressiveness of Kinshasa are noticeably absent.  Whenever I tried probing Hope’s borrowers about their experiences in the war, I always felt them dodging the question, or bringing the discussion back to their businesses.  They didn’t want to talk about the past; they were too busy preparing for the future.

One after one, Hope’s clients spoke to me about the importance of microfinance, how it is helping them grow their activities and send their children to school.  They also spoke of the tremendous need for more lending in their communities and of larger amounts to help them expand.  I had clearly fallen into the all too common trap of focusing on African tragedy and misery, rather than on its hope and ingenuity.  Despite its terrible past, Kisangani’s future is bright.  With its newfound stability and construction of road connections, activity is picking up.  The demand for microfinance, meanwhile, is huge.

Hope is currently the only functioning MFI in Kisangani, and one of its largest employers.    Its key constraint to growth continues to be funding, and with Kiva coming on line, the organization will be able to reach more borrowers and lend larger amounts.  The first Kisangani Kiva loan was posted last Friday.  To see a list of currently fundraising DRC loans for both Kisangani and Kinshasa, click here.

Unlike Kurtz, I left Kisangani with my sanity intact.  As for my soul, it came out not only intact, but transformed by a newfound appreciation for the human spirit, and its amazing ability to overcome and persevere.

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