The political evolution of Congolese currency

The last time I was in Kinshasa, I bought a handful of old bills from a street vendor.  Evolving currency design turns out to be a pretty good indicator of the country’s political fortunes.  Start with these notes from the Belgian Congo in 1947:

Congo '47

It’s not exactly clear what’s going on in this image – I think the child is reaching down to a beehive – but of course both the figures appear to be white Europeans.

The bills from 1960 are notable for their lovely graphic design.  These are the only bills in my collection until the late 1990s that don’t feature a politician, depicting a young woman instead.

Congo '60

Congo '60

In 1967, the currency switched from the franc to the zaire, which was subdivided into makuta instead of centimes.  By the early 1970s, Patrice Lumumba graced the makuta note, while Mobutu showed up on the zaires.  I didn’t recognize him at first without his later-habitual leopard print hat and abacost.  (Thanks to commenter Eloko ya Masaki for identifying him!)

Congo '70Congo '71

By the mid-1970s, Lumumba’s portrait had been replaced by that of Mobutu.  The Marshal stayed front and center on the currency for the next 20 years.  These 1977 zaires are hopeful about hydroelectricity.

Congo '77

Congo '77

By 1991, high inflation rates had pushed the largest banknote up to 50,000 zaires (which were followed by the 5,000,000 zaire note the next year).  Perhaps no longer feeling so enthusiastic about industrialization, these notes focused on wildlife.

Congo '91

Congo '91

In 1993, the central bank redenominated the currency in a (doomed) attempt to rein in inflation.  The back of the note features the Palais de la Nation, where the president’s office is located today.  (Thanks again to Eloko ya Makasi for this information!)

Congo '93

Congo '93

After Mobutu’s fall, the currency switched back to the franc.  This 500 franc note from 2002 was worth about US$1 when I got it.   In a reflection of the country’s deindustrialization, it features artisanal miners panning for diamonds in a river.  The contrast between the promise of mineral wealth and the obvious poverty of the miners says a great deal about where the DRC is today.

Congo '02

Patriotic Burundi in Hipstamatic

I aten’t dead!  (To quote the great Granny Weatherwax.)  It’s been a wonderful and a whirlwind summer, and I’ve got quite a lot of new material to write about after my travels and especially the Rift Valley Institute course on the Great Lakes.  I’ll ease back into it with some photos from RVI in Bujumbura.  Having left my camera in Ghana, this became the “Burundi in Hipstamatic” series by default.

Flags of many nations at the airport

Celebrating the 50th anniversary of independence with bottled water

The mausoleum of Louis Rwagasore, Burundi’s first prime minister

Loved this colorful map of the region in the classroom

Pres. Pierre Nkurunziza of Burundi at the Wilson Center

Went to see a decently interesting discussion with Burundian president Pierre Nkurunziza at the Wilson Center last week.  (There’s video of an interview he later conducted at the Center here.)  As speeches by politicians tend to be, his presentation was a polished and upbeat discourse on Burundi’s post-war reconstruction, focusing on the country’s provision of free primary education and healthcare, and the success of consociationalism at keeping the peace.  Perhaps due to the fact that he’s not up for re-election any time soon, the questions were considerably gentler than those thrown at DRC presidential candidate Leon Kengo wa Dondo during a speech he gave at SAIS a few days previously.

(Adding to my collection of blurry photos of African politicians)

That said, I was interested to note that the first commentator pre-empted my own question by asking about whether the country’s ethnic reconciliation would be durable.  The responses given by both Nkurunziza and former Special Envoy to the Great Lakes Region Howard Wolpe fit the simplified formula I’m investigating in my thesis very well: powersharing + war fatigue = ethnic reconciliation.  No discussion of mechanisms at all, although I didn’t really expect such in this type of public forum.

Travel Advice for the Developing World: Electronics

Today in travel advice: the care and feeding of electronics.

You don’t need to bring:

  • A mobile phone equipped for international data roaming.  This is the most ruinously expensive thing a traveler can do, and with the proliferation of domestic data networks (and internet cafes) in many developing countries there’s no reason to use international data.  The BlackBerry and iPhone support sites have information about turning off data roaming.
  • A voltage converter.  Generally speaking, any piece of electronic equipment that’s capable of computing of some sort (from a phone to a camera to a laptop) will have a voltage converter build into its charger.  However, if you’re using something simple like a hair dryer, a converter will be in order.
  • Your new $1200 MacBook Pro (and yes, it is ridiculous that Apple has suckered so many of us into buying $1200 laptops).  Dust, rain, and power surges are not your computer’s allies.  If you strongly feel that you need access to a personal computer on your trip, this might be the time to bring an old laptop back into action if you’ve still got it around -  or to consider purchasing a cheap used netbook.  If your expensive laptop is your only option, make sure that everything is backed up and that your warranty is still valid.

Do consider bringing:

  • A universal outlet adaptor.  They’re cheap, they last forever, and they can be unexpectedly useful in regions with a lot of secondhand electronics, where an imported piece of equipment may have a plug that doesn’t fit the sockets used in the country.
  • Waterproof cases for your electronics.  Very useful if you get caught in a downpour or something spills in your bag.  Note that neoprene cases like those from InCase are often meant for padding rather than waterproofing; they’ll soak up water if they get wet and hold it right next to your computer.
  • A surge protector.  Power supplies can fluctuate unevenly, and plugging your electronics directly into a wall socket can be disastrous if there’s a large surge.
  • Extra batteries and chargers.  Spare batteries will serve you well if you need to work through a blackout (or through a long flight).  If you wind up losing your charger or seeing it fried by a power surge because you failed to obey the cardinal rule of the surge protector, it’s good to have a backup.
  • A universal USB modem.  This is a clever little device that will allow you to get online virtually anywhere in the world with a cellular data network.  One need only acquire a SIM card with data service on it and insert it into the USB modem to get online.  The Huawei brand seems to be popular.  Worth considering if you travel frequently and need constant internet access.

Do consider buying upon arrival:

  • A cheap mobile phone and local SIM.  In many African countries, the cheapest Nokia phones run about US$25. Prepaid SIMs can often be purchased, with no formal contract, for less than US$1.  International call rates to North America & Europe are frequently comparable to Skype’s rate of US$0.30 per minute for calls to landlines (cf. MTN’s tariff plan for Ghana).  That said, countries vary broadly in their approach to mobile regulation, and I’ve heard that purchasing a phone in India or some Latin American countries is more difficult than this.

Ugandan media thought of the day

More belated conference blogging, but Maria Burnett of Human Rights Watch offered up an interesting observation about the Ugandan media at a recent OSI event on Museveni’s increasingly undemocratic rule.  As she noted, the degree of press freedom allowed to English-language media is often favorably commented upon – but newspapers and radio broadcasts in local languages are significantly more constrained, and this has largely escaped scrutiny by the international community.  This is really a clever way of controlling information flow to ordinary citizens whilst still maintaining the appearance of openness.  I’d be interested to hear any thoughts readers might have on this observation.

I took this photo in Kampala in early 2009 precisely because I was struck by the diversity of Uganda’s print journalism in comparison to Rwanda’s tightly controlled media.  It’s a shame to hear that this openness isn’t as thoroughgoing as it appeared.

30-second impression of Etienne Tshisekedi

I was only able to attend a few minutes of DRC presidential candidate Etienne Tshisekedi’s recent speech at CSIS (as it started late and I had to leave for an evening class), but came away impressed with his analysis of the political situation in the DRC, which seemed articulate and astute.  I wasn’t quite sure what to expect of the speech, to be honest; even given the political imperative to sound optimistic about one’s own candidacy, the level of certainty he displayed about his chances in this recent interview with Colette Braeckman left me wondering a bit about how accurate his understanding of the overall political context was, but he offered a clear picture of the challenges the country is facing.  Please do share your impressions if you attended or were able to watch the whole thing.  If you’d like to learn more about his campaign, I’d suggest checking out the coverage at AllAfrica, Jeune Afrique, or Radio Okapi.

(Note as of 28 July: This post has been edited to remove a comment on Tshisekedi’s age [he's 78] which many commentators found offensive.  I don’t think it’s illegitimate to discuss a candidate’s age and health as well as his political stances, but many readers seem to have interpreted that comment as a suggestion that age is the primary axis along which a candidate should be judged, which wasn’t what I meant to say.  Apologies to those I offended.)

(Note as of 16 August: Comments on this post are now closed, as it’s received a healthy variety of responses.  Thanks to everyone who wrote in – I’d welcome your comments on other posts as well!)