Long wait for the train in DRC

2011-12-06 19:50

Kinshasa - One of President Joseph Kabila's campaign billboards for last week's elections in the Democratic Republic of Congo showed him smiling next to three trains, each with a label in the Lingala language.

The first, lobi loleki (yesterday), is rusted and crumbling. The second, lelo (today), is a newer version with shiny blue carriages. The third, lobi (tomorrow), is a sleek, ultra-modern bullet train.

But at Kinshasa central station, the train of today looks a lot like the train of yesterday.

Several of Kabila's shiny blue cars are there, but they are hooked to their rusted-out siblings, the sky visible through holes in the roof.

A crush of passengers, mostly young men, is packed inside, sitting in the windows, hanging out the doors, clutching their 39c (euro) tickets to the outlying neighbourhoods around N'Djili airport, on the southeast side of the capital - a sprawling city of 10 million people.

The locomotive, a Krupp diesel, is the only working engine on Kinshasa's three rail lines. Another is sitting in a repair shop along the tracks. Mechanics have been working on it for a year.

"We suffer a lot," says Flory, 34, an unemployed man taking the 17:00 train home to Masina.

"There are lots of delays. It even leaves at 23:00 sometimes. We've bought our tickets, people are ready, but the train doesn't leave."

As the country endures a tense wait for election results - the winner of the presidential race will be named on Tuesday (today) - the gap between Kabila's campaign promise of "modernity on the march" and the country's grim realities looks wide on the 15km train ride to N'Djili.

Ranks last

The polls are seen as critical for stabilising the vast and fractured central African nation, which bears the scars of back-to-back wars from 1996 to 2003 and is still terrorised by marauding rebel groups in the east.

Almost two-thirds of the country's 67.8 million people live on less than $1.25 a day, and despite a wealth of cobalt, diamonds, gold and other minerals, it ranks last in the world on the UN's Human Development Index.

Kabila, who is from the other side of the country and doesn't have much support in Kinshasa, isn't a popular figure on the train.

"If he can leave tonight, that works for me," says a National Office of Transportation (Onatra) employee, a father of 12 who doesn't want to give his name.

"I earn $300 a month. It's miserable. We're abandoned," says Dieudonne, a security guard on the train.

"If we had good leaders, we could earn our daily bread, but we haven't had any since independence," says Fefe, another disaffected Onatra worker.

Railways were once a vital part of the economy. Back when Kinshasa was Leopoldville, in the Belgian Congo, the 1898 rail line connecting the city to the port of Matadi was the backbone of the rich ivory and rubber trade.

But after decades of brutal colonial rule and kleptocratic dictatorship under Mobutu Sese Seko followed by seven years of war, the city's rails are falling apart.

Ballast stolen

In some spots tracks have turned into streets with businesses spilling out onto the barely visible rails. In places they have crops planted over them.

The N'Djili trip, which costs about half as much as a mini-bus, draws 12 000 passengers a day, carrying bundles of maize, peanuts and wood. But service is scant.

At its first two stops, the train doesn't stop.

"Too many fare-jumpers," says Dieudonne.

In many places, locals have stolen the stones from the rail bed to build houses. The government has responded by posting soldiers armed with AK-47s to Onatra.

Years of vandalism and lack of repairs limit how fast the train can go.

"The railroads aren't good," says driver Inunu, 52.

"Instead of going at high speed, we go 20km/h."

He blows his horn to clear some pedestrians from the tracks.

There were 25 locomotives operating across several lines in the late 1960s. Now there's just this one.

It, like the 12 shiny blue carriages, was donated by Belgium.