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Radio Free Congo

Mabele2-400x229

Still from “Our Land.”

In Petna Ndaliko Katondolo’s film Mabele na Biso (Our Land) we meet a radio transmitter which has been rigged to run on Palm Oil.  This is extraordinary to be sure, but there is much more to the story. And recall: Africans are necessarily ingenious, while Europeans are brilliant.

The transmitter is part of a larger foreign and local aid initiative undertaken by several organizations in the Isangi territory of the Democratic Republic of the Congo: France Expertise International (FEI); Radio France International (RFI) Monde, and the regional Groupement des Organizations Villageoises pour l’Auto-Développement (GOVA). The film documents this partnership and also gives a very subtle critique of it. The filmmakers’ uncertainty arises from the nature of foreign aid in general, especially when it comes from countries such as Belgium and France whose prior gifts were ultra-rightist coups and outright genocide. How will these agencies dictate the use of funds? What price will be paid for their guilt or their nostalgia? Which projects will be junked because they aren’t as trendy or ‘clever’ as the transmitter project?

In IMF and the World Bank loans, structural adjustment programs (SAPs) are an integral part of aid packages to countries such as Congo and Haiti. These ‘adjustments’ are really the shifting of debt onto a population ravaged more and more by the destruction of social services and other forms of austerity mandated by the creditor in order to ‘balance’ what is essentially a phantom budget. The target country is then forced to sell off its national resources in order to pay off foreign bondholders or face total collapse, with the attendant threat of civil war, coups d’état etc. In many cases the cash never gets there in the first place, but the debt never fails to arrive.

This is hardly just Africa: swarthy nations like Latvia and Greece are also the recipients of this kind of full fiscal dominance. Nations who accept this ‘aid’, by hook or by crook, are forced to return again and again to the Brussels-Paris protection racket that put out the debt leverage hit in the first place. If for some reason a true nationalist or socialist gets into power, there’s always the CIA or NATO to correct the situation. Development and good old hard work… after all, we’re not only good liberals but also good Calvinists.

Aside from the transmitter, GOVA has instituted less modish but even more far-reaching programs: a communal college trust, management of village funds and a plebiscite on their use (details and balance sheets are broadcast live on air, name and amount, to ensure transparency), health care projects which also train local people to become medical practitioners.

The really ‘ingenious’ (brilliant) part of the film is how GOVA manages to work the situation. I wouldn’t doubt the sincerity of at least some of the foreign aid workers involved. Perhaps they are all utterly sincere, but even saints are subject to unintended consequences and the kismet of company portfolios. The same is true of Congolese social workers from the cities, who are often out of touch with the rest of the country and marked by an uneasy relation to the state, like all social workers. GOVA has created a system of communication between the intellectuals and the masses, town and country, agency and subject, which concerns ways of doing as much as it does ways of spending. One of the many fascinating things in the film is how this actually works in practice and how GOVA manages to dance among systems of finance, social custom, and DRC central power.

At the end of Chérie Rivers Ndaliko’s penetrating account of the making of the film and its inherent problems, she raises the possibility of continuing the story in another film as well as the lack of funds to do so. I’d say they’ll figure out a way, after watching this initial installment. She imagines a sequel as a criticism of the original, a pretty fascinating idea for an anti-film as partial remake, a sort of ‘comedy’. The Académie française might even chip in if Alkebu suggested the late Alain Robbe-Grillet at the helm, but probably not.

At any rate, after watching Mabele na Biso, it is obvious that the United States and Europe could use some Congolese aid. Maybe we too could navigate the crowd of sociologists and ‘experts’ who manage only to increase poverty by their scrutiny, all intentions aside.

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Martin Billheimer lives in Chicago.

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