Democratic Republic of Congo? I was going to Africa? Really? That was a little more than I had bargained for when I started a job that would provide some college money for my three sons. I racked my brain to recall why DRC had been in the news lately. Then I recalled that the United Nations had recently released their annual Human Development Report for 2011. The report ranks 187 countries according to income, education and health based on information from the IMF, UNESCO, and the WHO. DRC appears at the bottom of the list on this index at 187 out of 187.
I tried to imagine what this ranking meant. The report divided countries into four categories. Western European countries and the United States, of course, are listed in the very high category. Honduras, which I had visited in September, was listed at 121 in the medium category. There I had seen people living in shacks and roads in poor repair. What would the least developed country on the planet look like? What did this mean for the children, the most innocent victims of poverty?
As our plane approached N’dgili Airport in Kinshasa, I began to get my answer. Kinshasa has a population of 10 million. That’s 2 million more inhabitants that New York City. I looked down expecting to see the bright lights and linear patterns that mark the location of a bustling city. Instead, diffuse lights dotted the landscape in random patterns. Brighter lights flickered prettily here and there. A single lighted road crossed the landscape.
Despite $24 trillion of known mineral deposits, most people in DRC live on less than $1.25 a day. In Congo, the life expectancy at birth is 48.4 years compared to a life expectancy of 78.5 in the US and 73.1 in Honduras. The under-five mortality rate in Congo is 199 per 1,000 live births compared to 30 for Honduras and 8 for the US.
Only 10% of Congolese citizens are formally employed, translating into an 80% unemployment rate. Due to war and poverty the city has very little infrastructure. Just about anything can be found for sale along the roadways in Kinshasa to enable its residents to try and make a living. We saw a man selling a single pair of wrinkled khaki pants, another man balancing on his head 15 or so bottled waters wrapped in plastic walking between lanes of a busy main road trying to sell water to thirsty drivers. We saw barbers setting up shop on street corners. All these sights and sounds demonstrated the poverty of this country and the resulting children who are left orphaned as a result.
Despite the hardships of living in Kinshasa, the residents we met were warm and friendly. Smiles spread across the faces of the beautiful children we met and we were greeted often with an inviting “Bonjour”. We found the people of the Congo to be inspiring and filled with hope. We could all learn from their courage and resilience in the face of adversity.
At the end of our trip, we traveled back along the road from our hotel to the airport. Night was falling. I could now see and smell that the lights I had seen flickering prettily when we had landed were fires of burning trash, a task which residents of Kinshasa are left to accomplish on their own.
I boarded the plane at N’dgili airport with my eyes opened to the disparities of this world and a fuller understanding of what 187 means. A further understanding of the great need of adoptive families for orphaned children in DRC, estimated to be 5 million. This city opened my eyes to the strife in DRC and I fervently hoped that I will be able to return one day and explore Kinshasa and its people even further.