5 Minutes in Congo

There are two countries in Africa named Congo. One is the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire) and the other is the Republic of Congo. To distinguish between the two, people generally refer to the former as DR Congo and the latter by the name of its capital, Brazzaville.

On my recent visit to DR Congo, we also scheduled a trip to Congo Brazzaville in order to assist with some of the necessary planning with setting up a new microfinance institution there. Both Congos are desperately poor and HOPE International will be launching a new program in Brazzaville in the near future to meet the unmet demand for financial services there. My assessment is that there will be some challenges (but a forthcoming post will show how to overcome those challenges).

The Congos are separated by the Congo River. It’s quite a large river, about three miles wide at the point where the capital cities lie.
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36 Hours in Kinshasa

As we approached Kinshasa International Airport, I looked out the window at the city of 10-12 million and thought about the last time I flew into LAX at night. I believe we flew over the city lights for roughly half an hour. As we flew into Kinshasa we landed in pitch black dark. This city, approximately the size of New York, has less streets with permanent lights than I have fingers on my hand.

As we step off the plane three things are immediately noticeable: 1) It’s still dark, even on the runway, 2) The 95% humidity and 84 degree heat is a blow even at nighttime, and 3) The smell of burning wood, for cooking and light, is heavy in the air.

Kinshasa is a tough place and not everyone is happy I’m there. On our first morning, we toured a work site that looked like it was from a movie set. Hundreds of men, women and children, were using sledgehammers to break down large rocks into gravel. I asked my Congolese companions if I could take a picture. They said sure and as I pulled the camera to my eye, the men started to go crazy. They were yelling at me.
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En Route to Kinshasa

Have you ever been to Kinshasa? I haven't. And before I started my recent job with the Christian microfinance organization, HOPE International, I'm not sure I could have found it on a map. it is the chaotic capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, formerly known as Zaire.

This year I'll be visiting HOPE's microfinance operations, staff and clients, in Kinshasa as well as conducting a visit to Brazzaville, located in the neighboring Republic of Congo which is is distinct from the Democratic Republic of Congo. This is something I learned last year when I applied for a visa to the wrong country!

Times are tough in this part of the world. Unemployment figures go as high as 97%. The World Bank has named DR Congo the worst country to do business three years in a row. The global economic crisis has caused commodity prices to fluctuate. At the bottom of this economic pyramid and getting crushed are the poor.

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The Economy of God

My wife, Laurie, and I lived in Munich, Germany for several years. When we got there we discovered that Germans, by and large, do not have built-in closets. In place of closets they use schranks, large pieces of furniture that function like a closet, something like an armoire, only a lot bigger.

They are huge pieces of furniture and for novices, as we were, they are quite complex to assemble. After spending hours putting ours together we realized we had made several mistakes. Thankfully, however, the schrank was functional. Breaking it down and putting it back together again was just out of the question. It would be just too much work. But over time the imperfections of our assembly job became annoying. It didn’t look right and the doors were awkward.

A year later, for a wide variety of reasons, we had to move. Moving is always a lot of work and presents many challenges. But we were excited for one reason: we had a strategic opportunity to re-build the schrank the way it should have been in the first place.
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Founder of Russell Media, author/speaker focusing on marketplace, economy and faith. On a journey to live the entrepreneurial life.

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