The Congolese Diaspora

Meeting with representatives of the Congolese community in Paris

Paris   Several times in the meeting of the ACORN International staff and leadership in Paris, Mathieu Ilunga Kankonde, a member of the national board of the ACORN/Alliance Citoyenne in France and locally in Grenoble, had raised the question of how we might expand to help develop organizing in his home country, the Democratic Republic of the Congo. We had always answered briefly about the level of resources required and the long term commitment necessary, but mainly we had postponed the question until we attended a meeting he was organizing with leaders of the Congolese community in Paris before we were to leave the city.

The meeting took a while to come together, but before it was over, there were ten men who came to hear about ACORN and discuss their issues and interests for work both in the Congo as well as efforts to connect Congolese in what they called diaspora. I was interested in these connections. Recently, I had met several of our members from Ottawa at the ACORN Canada convention who were from the Congo as well as Gabon, on the western coast of Africa. They had been willing to tape videos for our members and leaders in France and Cameroon of their great experiences with ACORN Canada. Even before the meeting began, Mathieu texted a close friend who was now in Chicago for additional ACORN information. A quick Google search indicated there were over 200,000 Congolese in France now.

Mathieu Kandonde, an ACORN/Alliance leader from Grenoble prepares to start the meetiing

Several of the men had come by at various times during the weekend meeting for several hours to listen and get a better idea of ACORN. Others were interested in learning more for the first time. After Mathieu gave an opening introduction based on his experience over recent years, and I briefly outlined where we worked and some intersections of interest to the diaspora, like our campaign to lower the cost of remittances or money transfers, I solicited questions and comments from the group.

There were a range of opinions. Some were concerned about the political situation in the Congo and erosion of what they saw as democratic principles, including the fact that the President was still in office though his term had ended. Many were bothered by the level of self-interest and corruption in public life that had alienated so many people from participation. Some thought there needed to be new political parties or that existing parties needed to be reformed. I wondered if these men saw themselves as Lenins at the Finland Station at this room on top of a cafe along a Paris boulevard.

pictures at the end of the meeting

Others commented with anger over the exploitation by transnational companies from the France, Britain, and the United States of the Congo’s wealth and natural resources. They felt there was a trail of blood and bodies on their history that also clouded their future. They seemed more desperate to find a megaphone that could channel their voices and speak to their grievances than an organization that could empower them, but the dialogue was frank and open.

No decisions were made, and none were expected. There are probably a lot of names for conversations like this, but in organizing, we have always called it “testing.” These meetings open some doors, and close others, but under any circumstances they are necessary, and they point directions to the future, even if not taken.

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Out of Cameroon, the Rest of the Story

Douala traffic jam

Douala traffic jam

Washington   As one of our veteran participants wrote me when he got home, “I didn’t think any Organizers’ Forum could beat Egypt, but Cameroon did!” In Cairo we could feel a revolution slipping away, less than a year after it began. In Cameroon, we could feel that change was inevitable, even as we often bumped against the hard edge of the state.

Cameroon is not an easy country. Douala is a low slung, large sprawling city buzzing with activity from the predawn to the wee hours with taxis honking and motorcycles and cars clogging every piece of pavement. When I say Cameroon had hard edges, I’m not talking about the fact that our hotel had no hot water, occasional internet, and usually no toilet seats. People just shrugged and said “C’est Cameroon,” and we did, too. Nor am oblivious to the fact that even as we stood around the airport with no seats on the concourse that locals commented on how much things had improved in recent years with fewer police and the removal of the 10,000 franc exit fee. I’m really talking about how arbitrary and capricious state power in an autocracy can be, because that’s what’s important to people in Cameroon.

Eels for sale in the market

Eels for sale in the market

Every day of our meetings we had between 15 and 20 organizers with us from all over Africa, the USA, Canada, and France, but as importantly to us were the organizers that were turned away without reason at the airport. Two ACORN Kenya organizers flew in from Nairobi only to be turned back at customs despite all the expense of yellow fever shots, visas, and plane fares. The same happened to our organizer from Sierra Leone. Amazingly, a fourth organizer who had flown for days from Cambodia was also turned back, as the police said, “it’s another one for the same meeting,” as he was rebuffed. All of this was after excruciating study of the websites, discussions with embassies and countless government officials in Yaoundé, the capital, and Douala, to ensure that we had crossed every “t” and dotted every “i,” these four organizers were simply denied entry to the country once they had arrived.

The procedures in Cameroon indicate that if there is no embassy in your country where you can apply online or in person, a visa is available at the airport. There are some additional letters of invitation required, but nothing that seemed exceptional, until they arrived and suddenly heard the claim that weekend that an official signature was required from someone in Yaoundé. Not only was this sudden requirement seemingly fabricated at the last moment, but since it was the weekend, it was impossible to fulfill, and there was no flexibility as our people were deported immediately. Sure this was expensive and cost us thousands, but even worse, these organizers were not allowed to participate in this historic meeting.

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Another episode at the airport involved a row with the police when they were part of a random tourist show and swarmed two of our delegation to seize the cellphone, and force a lengthy argument to finally get it returned. Or, take the security guard that would not allow bags to go on the concourse without a bribe.

People talked to us in meeting after meeting about a transition coming in central and western Africa from the generation of dictators, and we were all optimistic as we met so many people and were inspired by their work and courage that change was coming, and it would be soon. At the same time it was impossible to ignore that people still lived with one eye always looking over their shoulder at a government that used state power without regard for rules or whatever. In one meeting after another we were told that fear was the one “given” in every public interaction, as well as being the cloud over the coming elections and all facets of everyday life.

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In Cameroon, we could never forget that every time we brushed up against the state, we came away bruised. Change can’t come fast enough.

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