The Democratic Republic of Congo is often represented as an isolated “Heart of Darkness”. Its booming cross-border trade nonetheless represents a powerful answer to state collapse and armed conflict and introduces new, surprisingly liberal, forms of government.
It is 5.30 on a Saturday morning in Lubiriha. One of the numerous églises de reveil (newborn Christian Churches) has just concluded a three hour mass of prayers and music. From a nearby mosque the local mouezzine calls its adepts to prayers. Although it is still pitch dark, flocks of people run back and forth feverishly on the high street to the official border post between Congo and Uganda.
Saturday is market day in Lubiriha. Many of the peasants walking the high street have gotten up in the middle of the night to carry their weekly produce of bananas, palm oil and manioc roots from the surrounding villages. At six o’ clock the first vistors start pouring in on the town’s main parking lot, which simultaneously serves as a haphazard market place. Some passengers have joined Lubiriha by minibus from Beni and Butembo, respectively a three and a four-hour drive from the border market. On the market square, Ugandan women are busy buying palm oil, bananas and other food crops from the Congolese mamans for a few thousand Shillings. They will sell them for several mutwaros (10.000 Shillings) on the neighbouring markets of Mpondwe, Bwera and Kasese just across the Ugandan border. Most vendorsprefer to wait, however, until the big poko poko buses start pouring in from Kampala, stuffed with cheap Chinese household equipment and dried fish heads from Lake Victoria.
A few years ago, Nile perch fishing on the Victoria Lake caused international outrage because of its highly environmentally damaging methods as well as reported links to arms trafficking networks. For the mamans from Lubiriha however, these are the only fish they can get. They buy djoro djoro in great quantities across the border at Custom (the nickname for Mpondwe market) and then transport these further onwards to Beni, Butembo and other inward markets to earn a few bucks. In return for a small bribe to immigration authorities, Congolese can cross into Custom on market days to provision consumer goods and foodstuffs coming from Uganda. Tonnes of goods will be towed today between Congolese and Ugandan customs either on people’s heads, boda boda motorcycles or the chukudu push carts that run back and an forth on Lubiriha’s dusty high street.
Making a living, but a life?
Parallel to this agricultural trade, another, more hidden traffic unfolds during the day on Lubiriha’s numerous cross-border pathways. From dawn till dusk, Congolese women carry empty bottles on their backs through Liburiha’s backstreets to reach the river. On the other side, Ugandan commissionaires await them in their warehouses with full crates of soft drinks and beer, to carry back into Congo. This traffic goes on the whole day. Lines of women wade through the river and over the hills like ants on a heap. They have to move fast and with attention for the red mamba, the Ugandan anti-fraud police. If they get caught hands on, they risk loosing their goods and they have to pay a serious fine in order to be released. But then again the chance is worth the risk: on a crate of beer or soft drinks smuggled from Uganda, one can easily earn 80 percent the value when sold in a city like Butembo. Most of the time a few bribes to Congolese and Ugandan soldiers are enough to pass the border without problems. Further north and south of Lubiriha similar traffics are going on. When night falls, people start emptying the small huts on the border to smuggle coffee, ivory and drugs, coming back with boxes filled with soap, batteries, household equipment (and sometimes weapons, too) that arrive in truckloads just across the Ugandan border in Kasese. Stored in the different warehouses on the side of the market, they will be completely empty the next morning, as if the goods have evaporated.
Lubiriha has been my ‘field site’ throughout 2006 and 2008. This is a term ethnographers use to indicate locations where they ‘deeply’ hang out with people, distilling thick descriptions of this participant observation in their written or visual work back at home. Personally I could not hang out more than a week at a time in Lubiriha. Being located on the border, the place is filled with garbage, not taken care off, and the stench odour of burning plastic reaches one’s nostrils throughout the night and day. I wasn’t the only one having that feeling. In a bar on the side of the parking lot (which was, not unsurprisingly, called, Maman Transit) a truck driver told me “we are all in transit here… Nobody really lives here,” they just come for the business. Although the place was bustling with movement, many people I met during the day repeatedly complained about the absence of life on the border. “On vivotte ici,” another man told me, referring to his faltering import-export commerce he tried to keep active. In Lubiriha people don’t come to live but just try to make a living. I found that distinction altogether revealing and decided to dedicate some more time to it. I discovered that locally, this form of keeping oneself alive is associated primarily with cross-border commerce in Lubiriha, or fundura (in Kinande). Other words people used for their activity were coop, match, la lutte, or magendo. These words meant different things to different people. For example one day I met Jaguar, a young guy of more or less my age who presided an association of disabled soft drink traders. Just like his companions. Jaguar’s main activity consisted of smuggling bottles across the border in his makeshift vehicle. His association was called ‘Umoja Unaleta Nguvu’, or ‘There is power in the Union’, as the Billy Bragg song goes. On the sight of it, it was anything but that. While meeting his friends in a dark depot room next to Lubiriha’s marketplace, an army soldier suspiciously kept an eye on us while arguing that Jaguar and his friends still owed him money. A few days earlier, another soldier had thrown one of Jaguar’s friends in the ditch, telling him “for you only death remains”.
There is no (one) law
Not unsurprisingly, people practicing cross-border commerce in and around Lubiriha repeated to me that fundura meant “looking for life (c’est cherchez la vie)” but was also highly enmeshed with the political difficulties Congo went through as a country at the time. “La fraude, c’est la politique,” one state official snorted to me over a warm Primus beer one afternoon, while watching his colleagues driving around in big Pajero jeeps they had recently imported from Dubai and the Far East – the plastic sheets still covering the driver’s seats. The comments one often hears about such agents is that they have stolen well (“Il a suffisamment volé”). Jaguar confirmed all this later on when he said that “all this” (he pointed at a couple of women who carried bags of bottles in a great hurry over the dirt tracks behind his house) is the fault of the customs office.” Jaguar complained that customs charged him 1 dollar for each crate he carried over the official border crossing. What he didn’t mention was that none of this money ended up in state treasuries, let alone the bribes women were forced to give to moonlighting police and customs at the side of the river each time they crossed at dawn. So in a way fundura also indicated the highly fluid relationship between state and non-state, legal and de facto authorities governing the border in this African border town. The intrinsic interconnection people kept referring to between the state’s historical neglect, violent political competition as well as “informal” forms of resistance is indicative of a more profound political reconfiguration in Congo’s geographic margins that had hitherto been unaccounted for in mainstream policy and academic analysis. During the long war between Congo, Rwanda and Uganda, for example, Lubiriha had become increasingly globalized as a regional marketplace. In 1996, and again in 1998, rebel forces backed by the Ugandan army invaded Congo’s Eastern provices of North Kivu and Orientale where they installed several parallel governments (or transboundary political complexes) composed of private economic agents, Congolese rebel forces and foreign military as well as various other non-state authorities. During the war, businessmen from eastern Congo increasingly made use of this globalization of local governance arrangements to establish contacts with suppliers eastwards, starting with Kampala and Bujumbura, Dubai, and finally ending up in Hong Kong, China and Southeast Asia. Most of the household equipment and clothing that is now sold on eastern Congo’s markets are shipped from China and the Far East through Mombassa and Dar-Es-Salaam. Moreover, the occupation of the Semliki region by the Ugandan People’s Defense Force (UPDF) between 1999 until 2003 also contributed to a rather peculiar trade relationship between Congolese and Ugandan traders. One could describe this relation as military commercialism to reap the benefits of globalized trade. Eastern Congo has no industrial facilities, so everything from beer to soap has to be imported from Uganda and Rwanda. In turn, Uganda processes primary imports from Congo to re-export them as Ugandan products. This includes coffee (a prominent Ugandan export product) and furniture made from Congolese hardwood. Truckloads of Congolese timber, which is exploited illegally in its national parks, pass the border regularly and under the inspecting eye of the Ugandan army (at a certain point the bridge over the river even collapsed under the weight of one of them). Ugandans rarely travel to Congo themselves though, but rather send Congolese commissionaires to traffic wood and other goods over the border.
One Ugandan truck driver who became stuck on Congo’s potholed roads expressed the dominant view that reins people’s imagery of Congo’s ‘Heart of Darkness’. He said, “The difference with my country is that in Congo there is no law.” This image of Congo as a black hole characterised by destruction and despair is also functional of the deep structural imbalance and unfavourable trade relationship this country maintains with its neighbours, who basically continue to treat its Eastern fringes as a colony. Eastern Congo actually functions as an entrepôt state where the application of legal principles are not taken too narrowly by violent operators who are active in the lucrative economy of natural resource exploitation and cross-border commerce. In this sense, Uganda has actually contributed quite actively to the current economic quagmire its neighbour finds itself into, despite its own lofty talk about development goals and democratic state building. The stark imagery of lawlessness and deregulation that characterizes analysis of Congo’s problems in fact fails to uncover the true nature of political and economic governance in this African frontier town, which is characterized both by conflict and overlap, collaboration and resistance to state rule.