Despite Hard Times, Zaire's Rhythm of Life Goes on in Hard-to-Reach Villages

THE music goes on in isolated villages such as this one. But because of an economic decline in Zaire that is worse than in most of Africa, people are making their own music instead of switching on radios. A young woman returning from a long day in the fields balances a basket of cassava on her head and sings softly as she walks barefoot on dirt paths between mud-brick houses.

Papi Mampuya, 13, and his friend La Kuetusuki, 14, lead some young friends in an animated series of impromptu songs for foreign visitors.

``When there's a marriage, or a religious festival, we sing, dance, and drink,'' says Denise Diavita, a farm woman with five children.

Business used to be pretty good because so many people bought radios to listen to music, explains a radio repairman. But these days, he says, there's not much business.

Hyper-inflation in Zaire has jacked sky-high the prices of manufactured goods, including radios, batteries, and spare parts. It has also sent food prices soaring, resulting in a number of urban food riots and some deaths in clashes with police.

But long before the inflation, there was isolation.

Like so many of Zaire's villages, where some 60 percent of the nation's estimated 37 million people live, Nkuanza is hard to reach. Our trip here, over an unpaved, rough road, took several hours of slow, cautious driving in a four-wheel-drive van. The same trip during the rainy season can take a week by truck, if a truck makes it at all.

And Nkuanza is more reachable than many villages in Zaire. Some sections of the country have practically been cut off from overland travel because the government has neglected road maintenance for years.

But lack of road repair is only one sign of Zaire's decline under a dictatorial government that, by most accounts, has simply failed to provide the people much in the way of basic services, such as health, education, and transportation.

The results show up in World Bank statistics. Zaire had a minus 2.4 percent growth rate in per capita gross national product between 1965 (when President Mobutu Sese Seko took power in a military coup) and 1987. That was worse than any other African country except Uganda (minus 2.7 percent). Sub-Saharan Africa (not counting South Africa and Nigeria) scored a minus 0.1 percent.

In a Monitor interview, N'singa Udjuu Ongwakebi Untube, head of the government political party, the Popular Movement of the Revolution (MPR), says Zaire's productivity is ``practically nil today.'' He candidly agrees that the government had ``often neglected agriculture ... [and] often chosen very prestigious projects for honor, but [ones] that were not economically viable.'' He has promised economic improvements.

Mr. N'singa blames part of Zaire's economic decline on a fall in world prices of copper, a main export, and on cutbacks in foreign aid (due to donor objections to corruption and human-rights abuses).

Bowing to international and domestic pressures for change, President Mobutu last April promised multiparty, democratic elections this year.

While there is a division here over support for Mr. Mobutu, there is agreement on the need for a better road.

``Without a good road there's no development,'' says one villager. Farmers grow groundnuts, beans, bananas, oranges, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, and onions. But many products spoil during the rainy season when few trucks can reach here.

``We work too hard,'' says Kia Luamzai Kitomba, a former local government official. A road, electricity, and even tractors would help the farmers, he says.

Veronique Mameni, a farmer, typically works 11 hours a day in the fields, six days a week. ``I'm tired,'' she says, laughing, smiling, and shaking her head, all at the same time. On Sundays, only the men rest: The women do all the cooking, dishwashing, and other chores, she says.

Some men rest too much - developing alcoholic problems, according to Dokula Makambu, a nurse who runs the local medical clinic.

The clinic serves an important role, but is underequipped. The nearest hospital is several hours away by road - during the dry season.

The village does boast two primary schools and a secondary school that offers commercial courses. Water is available from a spring, where pipes have been installed to make jug-filling easier.

Some residents express a sense of community toward their fellow villagers. ``I work to serve the world,'' says N'kongo Beuetunavanga, a volunteer aide at the clinic. And Mrs. Diavita spends part of her time volunteering on the local health committee.

Maria Claudia Escobar, a United States Peace Corps volunteer earning less than $110 a month, moved into Nkuanza in November to work on health and nutritional education projects.

You can still hear a radio playing in one of the small shops. If you have the money, the shops still offer everything from sandals to underwear, Moroccan sardines to bread.

As for promised political and economic changes: ``We're waiting,'' says Diavita.

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