In Zaire, Just Getting By Is a Full-Time Career

Where civil servants earn $1 a month, many people are 'on the take'

It's easy to see how far Charles Mulumba has fallen as Zaire's economy has slowly collapsed in recent years into corruption-induced chaos.

He still lives in the concrete-block, four-bedroom suburban house he and his wife helped build for themselves and their five children. Only now the large living room seems a bit echoey with nothing but two tables, a few chairs, and an empty TV stand.

"I had to sell everything in order to survive," Mr. Mulumba says, pointing out where a videocassette recorder used to sit. Even the refrigerator and freezer have been sold as Mulumba struggles each day to buy enough food to feed his family two meals.

Mulumba is chief of his division in Zaire's Ministry of Agriculture, where he has worked 26 years. But soaring inflation has reduced the value of his frozen salary to about a dollar a month, an amount that won't buy a loaf of bread. It certainly doesn't cover the cost of cab fare to the office (Mulumba long ago sold his car), so he just doesn't go.

"Besides," he says, "my job involves teamwork, and no one else is there either."

It's all made Mulumba quite suspicious. In fact, Charles Mulumba is a fake name: He declined to give his real one and wouldn't speak at all until he was persuaded that no one in the government had followed the reporter to his house.

Zaire's tenacious dictatorship is at the root of the country's problems. Since taking power in this Central African nation more than 30 years ago, President Mobutu Sese Seko has made personal use of state coffers. In 1990 President Mobutu bowed to pressures for multiparty government, but elections have yet to take place.

Human rights workers say the president co-opts opponents by giving them a cut of state booty. Meanwhile, the transitional parliament recently ended another session without passing crucial legislation needed for elections, ensuring that its members must meet again and so continue to reap the rare privilege of a decent salary.

In Zaire, "Everyone just looks at things from the point of view of his own personal interest," says Daniel Simpson, the United States ambassador here. "And so, if they don't see some particular angle in it for them, they're not going to do what they need to to move it forward."

At his suburban home, Mulumba has declared his garage an apartment and rented it out. Other state workers sell fruit or cigarettes on the street. Some use skills like translating to find work with foreign embassies.

Then there are the more coercive ways of getting by.

"Corruption has become a kind of culture," says Guillaume N'Gefa of the Zairean Human Rights Association.

"If you go to a hospital, before the doctor will serve you, he'll ask for money," Mulumba says. "If you don't have any, he won't see you."

Human rights workers say poorly paid doctors also routinely sell off medicine and equipment from hospitals. No opportunity is too small to seize. Hotel doormen who signal for a taxi will aggressively request a tip from both the waiting passenger and the taxi driver.

Even government officials on supposedly prestigious postings must figure out how to pay themselves. In Ivory Coast, the floors of the Zairean Embassy are covered with dust balls - no money for a cleaning service - and the telephones were disconnected several years ago.

Visas, however, are handed out within hours, at an exorbitant fee and without receipts: It's assumed that embassy staff, even the ambassador, live off the revenues.

Mulumba concludes that the only solution to such a mess is elections and says he hopes they will give Zaire "more Christian leaders."

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