“This is not sustainable,” I kept thinking during the two weeks I spent recently in the largest city in the poorest country in the world. Nothing about life in Kinshasa, DR Congo, fit any reasonable definition of sustainable.
The food I ate came either from another country or from the surrounding countryside, hauled in by overloaded, crumbling, fuel-consuming vehicles over crumbling roads. Every sip of water I swallowed was from a plastic bottle. Every excursion—to visit new friends, attend a church service, check in on a job-training workshop, attend a funeral, go out to dinner—required getting in a vehicle and crossing varying lengths and breadths of this sprawling city over roads that ranged from dangerous to impossible and, more likely than not, encountering horrendous traffic jams. People, people, everywhere, were busily walking, riding, finding a hustle through the day—only 3 percent have regular employment. The population is exploding. Six or seven children per family is still the norm.
The heat at the coolest time of year was tolerable (for me, a Northerner) only if the electricity was on, powering a fan or air conditioner. My requirement for natural beauty was met only on a sunset walk by the Congo River and a day trip outside the city into the gorgeous countryside. Little remained of the tree-lined grace I remembered in parts of this city that I had known in the 1970s. No wonder my eyes turned hungrily to the stunning fashion parade—Congolese women create their own beauty—which you can see on any ride through this dirty, trash-strewn, polluted city.
I could not live in Kinshasa for long. And yet I still love this impossible country, perhaps even more than I did when my husband and I lived and worked here (in other cities) for three years when we were very young. And, after this belated return visit, I find myself wanting to go back. Why?
As an environmentalist, I see the bad news and the worse news to come. I see, even, a snapshot of our own future—if not ours personally, for future generations of widening swaths of the world. But I also see something else. I see that people are, nevertheless, living in Kinshasa and will live there for some time to come. And many manage to do so with an enviable vigor and grace.
I see that in focusing on the unsustainability, the wars, the suffering, and all the bad news so readily visible in Congo—as we environmentalists and the international media can’t help doing—we miss something. I am trying to define what it is that we miss, without romanticizing what I observed about the human spirit that still operates among the poorest of the world’s poor. I must qualify that. My conversations were not really with the poorest. They were mostly with people whom I would consider peers—well-educated professionals (with or without employment) and fellow members of my faith community.
What struck me was that they were all doing their absolute best. They were operating at the edge of their capabilities and the opportunities available to them. They were doing what they could, both to provide for their own families and to take care of others and the greater society. They were scraping together all available resources—monetary, spiritual, human connections—to survive, to do well, and to do good. And they did so with the extraordinary grace that comes with their culture’s appreciation of joy, affection, and hospitality. Can we say the same about ourselves, with all our advantages?
Life in Kinshasa is not sustainable, but it will continue for a long time. And it may hold lessons for all of us about how to live in difficult times.