Kin la Belle, the Congolese call their capital, and I’ve looked for Kinshasa’s beauty. The Congo River, pulse of a planet, fifteen miles wide as it courses past? Abdim’s storks wheeling overhead, hippos lolling in the rapids below the café where I had lunch under the gaze of giant orange-headed lizards? All beautiful, I thought, but was gently corrected. Beasts and crawling creatures don’t really belong here. Kinshasa’s belle is human, and modern, the unquenchable, rowdy hustle in this city of 15 million souls. Never mind that its vast shantytowns are the only option for most new arrivals. They still come. Every year, Kinshasa absorbs 400,000 more people, roughly another Miami.
I’m a country mouse, easily overwhelmed by humanity on the scale of cities, even those much smaller than this one. On my last trip to Kinshasa, in 2019, I sweated out my days in the back seat, cataloging things a person could buy through a car window: shoes, ice, mosquito netting, fuels of every kind, photocopies (the machine is on the sidewalk), herbal aphrodisiacs. Books, arranged in a porcelain tub on the seller’s head, spines out. Eggs, also head-balanced, in a towering pyramid stack you’d have to see to believe.
Street commerce is practical in Kinshasa, where all travel involves traffic jams of boggling immensity. Twenty vehicles wide, inscrutably directed, the metal river eddies and stalls while ant trails of pedestrians file through it, disappearing down side lanes into tin and tarpaper infinities. Smashups are scenery. Five blocks’ progress in an hour is normal. Our driver, Jeremie, navigated this with utter composure, occasionally hailing a vendor to purchase something on my list of supplies (shovels, extra gasoline, food) for a journey into the interior. My husband and I hoped to visit the village where I spent part of my childhood more than fifty years ago. Jeremie was bemused by my prepping. I told him if we made it to Kikongo, we’d be the first passenger vehicle to do so in more than a year. Jeremie had a beautiful laugh.
I’d hired him through an agency that helps NGOs with logistics, and Jeremie was game. As our road left the city and dwindled to a dirt path, he helped dig out our mired tires uncountable times. He directed the rafts of children who materialized whenever we needed to cut a new track around fallen trees. But a half day in, he confessed he’d never been outside Kinshasa before. When we finally reached Kikongo, his composure fell apart. No cell service? No electricity, no running water? No beer?
None. The people of Kikongo don’t interact much with the cash economy. What they have, they make: mud and thatch houses, manioc from the fields. Drums, fire, fish traps, music. A soccer ball, made of I don’t know what, by the most resourceful little boys alive. It’s a strenuous existence. Any wildlife we saw—monkeys, gazelles, sizable birds—ran the risk of being eaten. A year after our visit, COVID-19 would sweep through this village; no one died, friends reported, “because nobody here is obese or old.” A mixed blessing.
Year by year, fewer of us are left to see what’s lost as our species abandons the land.
Our hosts shared music and palm nuts and nsafou fruits that gobsmacked me with childhood memories. I bathed in the river with girls who sang to their laundry. We walked forest paths with men who knew every bird by its whistle, and where it nested. We watched for those storks that meant nothing in the city, but everything here, as their arrival reliably predicts rain. People back home were worried about me. I’ve never felt safer anywhere. Every day, Jeremie asked, “Can we leave tomorrow?”
Our deal was five days. No man was ever happier to go home. He never planned to leave Kinshasa again, and would not tell his wife or children what he’d seen. It struck me that the culture gap between city and country mouse might be wider than any other I’ve known.
A decade or so from now, half of all Africans will live in urban areas. The rest of the world already passed that mark, sometime in the late 1990s, with more humans now in cities than in rural areas. The shift accelerated in the last century as modern nations urged their populations toward a cash economy, away from land-based production. The civic advantages involve taxation and monetized trade. (You can’t tax products grown and consumed on the spot.) Sometimes relocation is forced, but mostly it’s pressed by financial incentives and stigmatization of country folk as an ignorant, ruggling caste, still in transition toward bona fide human existence. It’s a pressure rural people feel the world over. Southern Appalachia, where I live, is known to many in the U.S. as nothing more than “flyover country.”
Urban life has inarguable rewards. An efficient collective can conserve resources and produce innovations that might yet save a planet—if we ever agree to put that goal ahead of other appetites. But year by year, fewer of us are left to see what’s lost as our species abandons the land. In human-built environments shared only with other humans, where else can one seek beauty but in the human spirit and things of our own making? Rain storks are immaterial. The fruits of the land come wrapped in cellophane. The news of a collapsed apartment building breaks more hearts than a million-acre forest fire, because “nature” is an abstraction. In a monetized economy, other measures of wealth and poverty are forgotten: the multitudes or dearth of other species one meets in a regular day. The rich or spare capacities a person may have for feeding and sheltering a family. When “need” and “want” are utterly commingled, and detached from any process of growing or creating, consumption becomes an unbridled race, with endless costs to nonhuman lives and habitats unseen.
A living fabric of a trillion interconnected species is a hard miracle to believe in, or fight for, if we’ve only known the one of them who’s us. Not impossible, but it’s a project, getting harder all the time. We can only love what we know.
Orion‘s Summer 2022 issue is generously sponsored by NRDC.