My first field visit after coming back from a vacation in the States feels like a serious mental shift; less than a month ago, I’m browsing through specialty food stores at the Ferry Building in downtown San Francisco, trying to decide if I wanted Ciao Bella’s Bartlett Pear or Dulce de Leche flavored gelato; fast-forward 23 days, and I’m lurching along the roads in Masisi territory, the southern end of North Kivu province, making my way through thick clouds of reddish-grey dust. Moments like this, the distance between Congo and home feels every bit of the 10,000 miles it actually is. Challenging though it may be to come back, at least the scenery is beautiful- Masisi has some of the most stunning landscape I’ve seen my life; bright green hills, carved in geometric plots of potatoes and corn crops along the steepest hillsides, Eucalyptus trees, plump cows, and a cool breeze, all thrust against the shores of Lake Kivu. The view here reminds me of the shores of Lac Léman in Lausanne, Switzerland- if Switzerland went on a tropical vacation, was the size of Western Europe, and had no roads.
As beautiful as eastern DRC is, it was tough to come back from my vacation this most recent time, much harder than I remember it being in the past. I’m not really sure why though; I have a more comfortable life than I’ve ever had working in Africa, I have a good job, and for the most part work with great colleagues. I think at least part of it is the realization of time; sounds cliché, I know, but I’ll be 30 in less than a month, and maybe seeing a milestone just around the corner is a good time to stop and reassess. When I was just home, I met three friends’ new babies, two newly married couples, and others who’d just gotten engaged; all this, and I’m here. I am absolutely aware of how privileged I am, that I get to see things that most people from my world will never experience, fly around to exotic places, take vacations every 3-4 months, and have a generous salary. I have very, very little to complain about. Taking off from San Francisco on the way to Amsterdam, Nairobi, Kigali, and finally Goma was hard though, really hard. Everyone has heard the expression about the grass being greener on the other side- actually though, it’s greener here in Congo, literally.
The green grass along the side of the ‘road’ in Masisi is mostly the color of rust this time of year. I’m traveling with Made, one of the Program Managers I supervise on an education project; we’re building schools in a few communities in Masisi territory, including two in Ngungu, the place I visited a few months back for one of our Water and Sanitation programs. I’m coming along today not only to see how the construction is progressing, but also because it’s my job as the boss to deliver bad news. The news actually isn’t that bad, but it’s one of these things that will sound a lot better coming from me than from Made; whether fair or not, as the mzungu, my words tend to have more impact when explaining policies. Basically, I’m here to explain to the construction workers building our schools that with the Congolese government having changed their policy, we’re required to take 15% of the salary we owe them to pay as taxes to the state. Considering that we’re paying the masons, carpenters, and laborers anywhere from $3-5 per day, this feels absurd, but it’s the policy, and in order to remain in good standing as an organization, we have to follow it.
“If I tell them, they’re going to assume that I’m just putting the money in my pocket,” Made says, when he explains the situation to me the other day. “You should go, and tell them- they’ll believe you more than me.”
We have four school sites to visit today, and four groups of workers to whom I have to deliver the bad news, that although we’ll cover the taxes this time, next time, they’re only getting 85% of what they originally thought they would be. Not a fun message, but it has to be explained. Our first stop is in a village called Kanyabikono, a short detour off the main road that eventually will take us up to Ngungu. We bounce along past yet another incredible mountain vista, passing by the remains of a coffee roasting plant, until we arrive at the construction site. Six new classrooms and a director’s office are quickly taking shape; off to the side a group of kids, looking bored, watches as the carpenters hammer and the masons mix pyramids of cement and gravel. I walk around with the director, asking deeply probing questions like, “How many students do you have here?”
Everything looks like it’s moving along on, or even ahead of, schedule, a relief. Now it’s time to deliver the bad news. Made and I ask all of the laborers to join us, and we sit on benches in an old classroom the new school is replacing. Made speaks with them in Swahili, while Janvier, one of his assistants, sits next to me and whispers the translation into French in my ear.
“I’m very impressed by the work you’re doing here- it’s going very quickly, and you deserve a round of applause,” he says, clapping his hands for them. Oddly, the workers clap as well. Made explains the schedule we expect things to finish on, and again repeats that he’s very happy with how things have been going. He continues to speak in Swahili, but I see him turn to me, gesture, and I hear mzungu- they’re playing my song.
“Vous avez la parole,” Janvier whispers to me. You have the floor.
I quickly introduce myself- I speak in French, as my Swahili is limited mostly to ‘hello,’ ‘water,’ and ‘mzungu.’
“On behalf of our organization, I also want to thank you for all of the work you’ve been doing, we’re very impressed,” I say. “I know that this work is very difficult.”
“Très difficile,” one of the workers agrees.
“I came here today to see how the work was going, but also because we needed to talk with you about something important,” I continue. “As you know, we’re an organization registered with the Congolese government, and because of that, we have certain obligations. One of those obligations is to pay taxes to the state. What this means is that today, we’re going to give you the whole amount of the money we originally agreed on.” I stop and look at the contract we prepared- $800.
“Today, we’re going to give you $800. The next time though, Congolese law requires us to take 15 percent of this back as taxes for the state.”
The workers don’t look happy about this; I can’t blame them. Even though we pay them a decent wage by rural Congolese standards, their take home pay suddenly going from $88 to $75 is a hard pill to swallow. Many of these guys are likely the only ones with any sort of job, even a temporary one, and too many of them support too many people on too little money. Not only this, but paying taxes here is about as useful as putting a pile of Francs in a barrel, adding kerosene, and setting the whole thing on fire.
In the States and in the West at large, we have issues with corruption, of course, but at least in theory when we pay taxes they have some useful purpose, like roads, schools, and police. In Congo though, the road are a volcanic-rock-strewn, potholed and muddy mess, NGOs like ours are responsible for building schools and paying teachers, and the sole job of the police seems to be to stop people for meaningless violations to demand money and/or cigarettes. Given this, I can understand why these guys aren’t enthusiastic about giving up a portion of their pay for nothing.
Suddenly, an idea hits. People around here are big on expressions and proverbs, and one pops into my head. Maybe this is a good way to get the message across.
“Here is an American proverb,” I say. “Dans la vie, il n’y a que deux choses qui sont certaines. La mort, et les impots,” I tell them. In life, there are only two things that are certain; death, and taxes.
At first, I’m not sure if the message makes it through. Made looks at me for a second, pauses, and translates what I just said into Swahili. It works. The workers laugh, and I hear at least a few of them repeat the saying in French.
I still don’t think they’re happy about it, but at least they seem to understand that this is something we have to do, not that we want to do. After they sign a receipt, I reach into my backpack and pull out a stack of $20s and $100s, which I count out slowly as they watch. We hand the money to the supervisor, climb into the cars, and head to the next site. We have the same conversation three more times during the day, and each time, it’s a similar response. Nobody is happy about losing money, but after we make it clear that this is the government policy, and there’s nothing we can do to change it, the workers seem to accept it, and we move on.
I can’t remember who said it, but to paraphrase, it’s been written that the taxes we pay are the price of admission to have a functional society. Without taxes, the police don’t come when you call, the fire burns down your house, teachers don’t come to work because they don’t get paid, and the roads fall apart. Without taxes, you have eastern Congo.
The next time the Tea Party set feels like they’re throwing money away for the government, I’d suggest a visit here. Yes, money gets wasted in the US; the difference, however, is that in Congo, there’s rarely even a transparent attempt to make people believe that the state is serving their best interest. In my mind, that’s the difference between a state, and a failed state. Failed state or not, taxes are taxes, and as four groups of laborers in Masisi territory can now explain, few things are certainties in life, but this is one of them.