The phone calls started coming in that morning. Children from school calling their mothers working at HOPE, “Don’t eat the bread!” they said. Slowly, gradually and then with a quickening pace the rumors spread on the dusty wind throughout Brazzaville. Don’t eat the bread! It’s been poisoned! The story went something like this: at a bakery in the district of Talangai, a Kinois – someone from Kinshasa, DRC – had slipped in poison into the bread dough while it was being mixed. People were in the hospital already. The bread could be anywhere now, they said, people send it to all parts of the city.
I decided to eat an omelet and bread for lunch.
This is the most recent event in a series of mounting tensions between the Republic of Congo (Brazzaville) and the DRC (Kinshasa). Politics and personal relationships have grown tense over the last few weeks, and there have been some changes in the city. For the last month, Congo-Brazzaville has been initiating a sweeping campaign to chase out undocumented foreigners in Brazzaville. Brazzaville is a city of over 1 million – but that approaches 2 million with foreigners, most of whom are undocumented. Massive deportations have been taking place with the vast majority of them to Kinshasa. There are many circling theories on what ignited this movement to get rid of foreigners. One is that there was a particularly nasty killing in the north of Brazzaville in which a man and his pregnant wife were killed. They haven’t caught who did it, but it’s assumed to be a Kinois in the latest of a series of violent robberies. Others say that President Sassou has been politically embarrassed by European powers on a recent trip to Belgium and is showing he can control his borders. A third theory is that it was a campaign originally started to clear out gangs and prostitutes from Kinshasa that had taken up residence in Brazzaville, but has since spiraled out of control to include everyone from DRC.
Police have been knocking on doors demanding papers. Neighbors have grown suspicious and informed the police that families next door are from DRC. Early every morning, I see them: mothers and children. Young men. Old women. Those first few days, hundreds of people were crowded outside the DRC embassy. All of them bringing what suitcases or goods they managed to collect before being rounded up. From there they would be shipped across the river to Kinshasa where many without remaining family or homes and being placed inside the Cardinal Joseph-Malula stadium. Hundreds of people, waiting to be sent back. The numbers have dwindled in the early mornings, but still they come in buses and taxies, weighed down with their belongings. Over 40,000 people have been deported by boat to Kinshasa.
Whether or not they should be sent back is a complex issue. On the one hand, people should have legal documents in another country. On the other- that can be a long and tedious process in Brazzaville were corruption is common, and many people fled DRC hoping to make a better life for themselves and their children. Whatever the right answer, I find it hard to believe that this is the way to go about it. One Sunday I found myself in a cab headed through the district of Ouenzé. I always stare out the windows in taxis, soaking up the sights of Brazzaville, but the particular sight that greeted my eyes as we came to a halt amidst traffic has stayed with me:
It was a black police van. The back had open windows with metal bars across them. Through the bars a young mother sat on a box holding an infant in her lap. Her eyes lifted to meet mine through the bars and I couldn’t look away. Even as our taxi pulled away I stared behind me. That can’t be right, my mind seemed to shout. I don’t know her story, but it’s all to easy to imagine that she might have come to Brazzaville in search of a better life, started a family, and is now being sent back, rounded up, placed behind bars and shipped off.
Both sides are proud. I’ve slowly discovered this overarching mentality regarding business in Brazzaville that the only jobs seen as worthwhile typically involve an office. Menial labor tasks are looked down on, seen as unworthy of education- let the foreigners do it. Now people are starting to complain of garbage not being taken away. Street remaining un-swept. Markets loosing vendors, and business declining for buses, those selling phone cards, food and all other daily business. Guess where those missing people are?
Here in Brazzaville the Kinois are seen as untrustworthy. They are portrayed as thieves, violent and capable of anything. Some rumors are true- people have come over from Kinshasa and robbed homes, but so have the Brazzavillois. I’ve heard elaborate stories of how even if you’ve been friends with someone from DRC for 10 years, they will still come steal from your house. Prejudice. It comes right back from the other side of the Congo River where those in Kinshasa look down on the Brazzavillois.
Fingers are pointed in both directions, never believing their own side could possibly do such things. New rumors fly around daily. Apparently after the deportations started, those in Kinshasa retaliated by beating up Brazzaville students at universities in Kinshasa. Students took refuge in the Congo-Brazzaville embassy in Kinshasa and just came back into this country last week, missing all of their exams they had studied all year for. Poisoned bread. A flag burned in Kinshasa. The truth of what has really happened is still foggy.
As for me, I might not have all the facts or the right responses, but I can try to do my part to continue conversations and reveal that these two people groups have so much more that unites them than separates. I listen to rumors and pose questions. I publically ate my omelet sandwich, and no, I did not get sick. People all too easily believed that a Kinois would do something like poison bread. I think differently.