WHILE Zaire's president rides Concorde jets to international meetings, farmers in many parts of this country are slipping backward into a pre-modern age. Cut off from markets by roads no longer passable because of years without maintenance, the farmers have reverted to subsistence farming. They grow just enough for their families, with a little left over to barter with their neighbors.
Villagers who once could afford tin roofs have had to turn again to thatch. Tin has become too costly to deliver.
Where they still exist, many rural health facilities are rapidly deteriorating and practically nonequipped.
``We have doctors with no medicines,'' says a Western missionary who works in northern Zaire. ``School books pretty much vanished in the 1970s.''
Even where a passable road connects a village with the outside, Zaire's inflation and shortage of foreign currency for imports can isolate people in another way. In one such village, radio news has been cut back. A pile of old radios lies on the dirt floor of the hut of a local repairman. Batteries and replacement parts have become so scarce people can't afford to maintain them.
Though many African economies are stagnating or declining slightly, large areas of Zaire are markedly undeveloped.
``Of the [African] countries without war in the last decade, I doubt if you'd find any place that has dropped as fast [as Zaire],'' says a Western diplomat here. ``My feeling is, it [the economic decline] is 90 percent man-made.''
In Monitor interviews, diplomats, Zairians of various professions, and other experts on this country blamed its economic decline primarily on President Mobutu Sese Seko. Mr. Mobuto has been called one of the strongest - and richest - dictators in Africa.
These sources say Mobutu apparently lacks commitment to development, and they cite widespread reports that the president is enriching himself with state revenues at the expense of economic progress. Some analysts go even further, linking a lack of democracy and accountability, here and in many parts of Africa, to a lack of economic development.
``I don't think economic development or betterment in Africa, including Zaire, will be possible without accountability,'' says William Harrop, United States ambassador to Zaire and not among the diplomats previously quoted. ``You're not going to have development without democracy and choice.''
In Zaire, living conditions are even slipping backward in urban areas, where 40 percent of the people live. Families like that of Mayal Tshiabuila, who has a good-paying job by Zairian standards, are hurting. They are caught between stagnant wages and what some economists here describe as hyper-inflation (now 1,100 percent a year), spurred in part by government printing of money to cover deficits.
``We don't eat meat now,'' Mr. Tshiabuila says, in the TV-equipped living room of his three-bedroom home, where 11 family members stay. A few blocks away, a sports stadium is being constructed by the government, with foreign assistance.
``The adults don't have breakfast anymore,'' he adds.