For the impoverished Congolese, the UAE is the impossible dream

The chukudu is a low-tech Congolese solution to providing transport. Photo: John Henzell
The chukudu is a low-tech Congolese solution to providing transport. Photo: John Henzell

America, the aphorism goes, is as much an idea as it is a place – somewhere one’s success is determined primarily by skill and hard work, rather than connections and cronyism.

Even if reality in the United States seems increasingly at odds with that idea, for a century or more the country has reaped the rewards of being a magnet for aspiring entrepreneurs from across the globe.

And when the Burj Al Arab suddenly appeared on a television screen in the midst of my journey on Lake Kivu in the conflict-blighted eastern region of the Democratic Republic of Congo a few weeks ago, it struck me that a similar dynamic applies to Dubai.

I was on a speedboat, the existence of which exemplified the improving security situation after decades of warfare and insurgency. It reduced the journey from Goma and Bukavu, the respective capitals of North and South Kivu provinces, to just two hours instead of the 12 hours it took the ancient, slow and rusty ferry that had been plying the lake since long before the DRC gained independence from Belgium in 1960.

After being frisked for weapons as part of the boarding procedure – security might be improved but there are still good reasons why most developed countries have do-not-travel advisories for this region – a crewman turned on the widescreen television and began playing a decade-old documentary about the construction of the Burj Al Arab.

In this country, most of us are desensitised to developments of this kind and the Burj Al Arab, a landmark in Dubai’s development when it opened in 1999, has long since been eclipsed by the Palm Jumeirah, the Burj Khalifa and similar megaprojects for which the city has a global reputation.

But to those trying to eke a living amid the abject dysfunction of the DRC, the documentary must have seemed like a science fiction movie.

This was illustrated by the city we had just left, Goma, which is dominated by three forms of transport. One is big new 4x4s belonging to the United Nations or the dozens of NGOs trying to restore order in the city. Another is the chukudu, a crude home-made wooden bicycle that looks like something out of The Flintstones and is used to transport goods. The third is the fleet of underemployed young men touting for business on boda-boda motorcycle taxis.

But the presence of opulent and heavily-fortified mansions on the lakefront showed that some people were doing very well in the midst of the grinding poverty experienced by the vast majority of Goma’s million residents. More than half of them are former rural people who abandoned their lands for the security and stability of the city. The legions of young men plying the streets selling cheap leather belts and sunglasses spoke tellingly about career prospects for the young.

Life seemed no easier or fairer when we disembarked in Bukavu at the southern end of the lake. The potholed streets reflected decades of near-constant conflict and complete neglect by the central government in Kinshasa, more than 1,500km away.

Although the most basic amenities – water, power and sewerage – worked, the roads were more pothole than tarmac. The packs of young people hanging around on the street with nothing to do reflected a generation denied opportunities to make the most of their abilities.

To them, seeing the story of how the Burj Al Arab was conceived and then built must have reflected a sense of boundless possibility that was completely at odds with their day-to-day reality.

Is it any wonder that, in this context, Dubai – and to a lesser extent the UAE in general – has the same appeal America does in the dreams of the poor huddled masses, yearning to breathe free? And unlike the modern US, the UAE still welcomes people from nearly all nationalities who have the skills to help develop this country.

There was always a spark of interest when the Congolese I met heard I lived and worked in the UAE. Their next question was nearly always about the prospects of working here themselves and even if they were shocked by how much I paid in rent, it was obvious that many of them saw the UAE as a place where success really was directly related to ability and hard work.

The US has been richly rewarded by the skilled and motivated people who were attracted by the potential to prosper. For those in central Africa and far beyond, the UAE still offers that promise and this country will reap the benefits.

Published: September 2, 2015 04:00 AM


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