World View

World View Editor’s Note: On a rainy Tuesday morning this summer in London, I opened my inbox and found this email by an HBS classmate. I thought to share it with HARBUS readers more or less verbatim as it highlights an experience that many HBSers might go through in their future endeavors. It also sheds a light on the large (and increasing) rift between the developing and developed world as how they choose to live their lives and, as a consequence, “do business.”

Hello everybody,
I just borrowed what resembles a computer with a connection to the rest of the world to say hello from Kinshasa and to share a few anecdotes of these first few Congolese weeks (as you may know, I opted for an exotic summer internship). The project I am working on with two other Harvard classmates is absolutely fascinating: we have been asked by President Kabila, who came to campus last semester with the Minister of Finance and Economy, to come up with an action plan for the reconstruction of the Congolese industry.

We enjoyed a surprisingly high level of autonomy and direct access to the relevant ministers, to the CEOs of the largest companies (scared to death of losing their protection against importers), to ambassadors, bankers, smugglers, and even to the dog of the President’s sister – we are afraid we might have to shelter it at home soon. We have a driver 24/24, a cook, a cleaning person, tennis and horseback riding instructors, a mission ‘attach‚’, and a ridiculously luxurious residence.

Coming back to the Cambridge dorms in September will be tough!
We go from adventure to adventure. Every morning, I wonder if I will end up in jail or with the President in the evening. I am hardly exaggerating!

Here are a few anecdotes that struck me since our arrival:

The African “Football” Triumph
France-Senegal (this is about football, a sport that some of you Americans mistakenly call soccer) – The day of our arrival, Peter (an Australian student with whom I work on the project) and I wanted to watch with the local people a match in which Africa was represented, rather than joining the expatriate community. This game without frontier was a great opportunity for us to immediately dive into the local culture. We went to a bar downtown Kinshasa. The bar was packed with about one hundred avid football fans, all native Congolese.

Amused to see two white faces joining them, they offered us the most comfortable seats (an empty keg of beer dating from the previous century). Each time someone had the bad idea to go and fetch a drink from the fridge, the antenna had to be moved and the image would get lost. Between two moments where we were fortunate enough to get the signal, the Senegalese ‘brothers’ scored. Our hosts, convinced that Peter and I were French (never say that to an Australian, and even less to a Belgian!), turned to us, starting to dance the samba and to sing all together: “1, and 2, and 3 zero,” which is what the French used to sing from 1998 until 2002, after their victory against Brazil in the previous World Cup – a long time ago now. Adorable.

“500 Francs for your first letter, 1,200 for the second”!
The Congolese post office – Congolese Cyber-Caf‚s being slightly different from what we are used to, I decided to write a few letters on good old paper. The first time I bought stamps, the charming post officer lady warned me that she would personally make sure that my letter would be treated properly… if I cooperated, meaning that I needed to pay her a little something. Refusing to corrupt a civil servant during my first week in the Congo, I kindly smiled to her and simply bought my stamps the same one would do it in our ‘old-fashioned’ countries.

One week later, during my next visit to the post office, she recognized the foreigner that hadn’t played the game properly and decided to try another tactic: “500 Francs for your first letter, 1,200 for the second.” I smiled but let her be. Interestingly, stamps haven’t been adapted to inflation, which means you have to cover the entire envelope to put 50 Francs worth of value on it.

She then moved to the second letter and, of course, stopped after having kindly stamped 500 Francs. Puzzled, I asked her why she stopped putting more stamps. Totally surprised, she faked a recount and looking disappointed that I could count above 500, returned the envelope and took a couple more minutes to put a few more stamps on it. Stopping at 800 Francs, she said: “Here you go, boss.” That’s how I committed my first 400 Francs of bribery in the Congo!

The less funny part is that all of a sudden I realized that I didn’t check whether my new post office friend had put any stamps on my letters from the previous week. Needless to say, they never arrived. The one consoling factor is that the money has probably permitted a whole family to have food for a day.

I feel that I now understand why the Congolese are known for their inventiveness, and their ability to survive even in the highly adverse circumstances they face on a daily basis.

Allo Kabila? We have a problem…
A few days later, it is our turn to experience the consequences of these doubtful practices. A sunny day at the central market, we decided to peacefully improve our negotiation techniques by buying some local goods. Shocked by the obvious signs of poverty, we wanted to immortalise the faces of the Congolese around us by filming them.

Kindly, they played the game. Some of them believed we were white witches when they saw their face appearing on the screen of our digital cameras. However, all of a sudden, without any kind of warning, everything slipped.

A member of the military armed with a kalachnikov appeared. Very quickly, six others surrounded us, none of them spoke French fluently let alone English. Despite our inability to have a dialogue, a few threatening gestures made us rapidly understand that this is not a game anymore.
They dragged us a bit further away to what resembled a detention camp. There, the commandant asked us for our IDs and started interrogating us. His conclusion was made clear to us: the pictures we had taken clearly demonstrated that we were… spies!

Our driver, who was supposed to help us get out of this tense situation started raising his voice with the generals. Obviously, this was not the right tactic to approach officials looking for “remuneration.”

After one hour of discussion, and after having shown them our summer internship contract, which indicated that we worked directly for President Kabila and His Excellency, the Minister, they calmed down. We were authorized to place one phone call.

Their face changed color when Emma, our third Harvard fellow, called the Head of Security, with whom she worked, and… Janette Kabila, the President’s twin sister.

Our military friends spent a bad moment listening to the conversation. After a few minutes we were free again!

Two military barrages later, we arrived at home. As a consequence of the missile shots that afternoon in Brazaville, we were temporarily out of electricity. With the help of a few candles, we managed to enjoy some delicious bread that we had bought downtown as well as our local caviar: Belgium pat‚, directly imported from the capital of Europe by the old ladies, and sold three times the regular price to the ‘colonials’. That’s also the Congo…