On a recent morning in this river town in Zaire, a local businessman decided to fly to the capital, Kinshasa.
There were a few problems, however.
He couldn't go outside because soldiers who hadn't been paid for months were shooting in the streets on a pillaging rampage.
The businessman called for help from the provincial governor - on a cellular telephone because the phone lines don't work. But the governor said there was little he could do because he was scared to venture outside himself.
Eventually, the businessman bribed some soldiers to protect him en route to the airport. They demanded dollars, arguing that the local currency was worthless.
"Nothing works. Yet anything is possible," were the businessman's parting words as he took off for the airport in a heavily guarded convoy.
That could well be the slogan of Zaire, the giant lying at the troubled heart of Africa.
The state of anarchy has become so advanced that the country has become a bench mark of what happens when central authority collapses.
Highways, courts, and health clinics barely function. Many civil servants earn $1 a month and survive by collecting bribes for their services.
Zaire is endowed with diamonds, copper, and gold, yet the banks have run out of money.
Despite all this seeming confusion, Zaireans continue with their daily routines. The institutional layers of the modern state are stripped away, but something else continues in their place.
"We talk about an informal economy, so why not talk about an informal political system also?" asks Richard Cornwell, a political analyst at the Africa Institute, a think tank in Pretoria, South Africa.
"What seems like anarchy must be working on some level," he adds. "How else would you have such a high population growth rate? How else could [so many] people survive?"
He notes that people manage to eat and work. They sell shoes and buy bread. Banks do not operate, but there are always moneychangers on the streets. Shops may close, but chickens are sold in the markets.
In the vast underground economy, people fill jobs that technically do not exist.
Life amid chaos
The central government may have eroded, but Zaireans still plant new crops, dig new ditches, and punish pickpockets themselves since local police haven't been paid in months.
Two provinces, East Kasai and Shaba, are virtually autonomous and have thriving economies funded by their mineral riches. East Kasai even has its own currency.
The nation-state of Zaire is "fictional," according to George Ayittey, a Ghanaian economic professor at American University in Washington.
He maintains that its collapse is partly the legacy of Belgian colonizers, who introduced a central government to an area accustomed to a loose federation of kingdoms or clans that enjoyed substantial autonomy.
"There are two Africas. There is the traditional Africa, which is struggling to survive," Mr. Ayittey says. "Its people go to their farms and markets. Grafted on to that by the urban elite is the modern Africa.
"All this chaos is in the modern Africa. The nation-state, the modern state of Zaire, has collapsed. But the traditional system is functioning," he says.
The disintegration of Zaire as a nation-state shows no signs of slowing, especially with the capture of a 400-mile-long swath of eastern Zaire by Rwandan-backed Zairean rebels. Zaire's Army put up a sorry defense, beating a pathetic retreat while looting towns and terrorizing citizens along the way.
The man everyone looks to to solve the problem actually may be one reason it occurred. During 31 years as dictator, President Mobutu Sese Seko has done his best to siphon his country's riches into his personal coffers and divide any potential opposition, his critics charge.
The result has been government bankruptcy and no successor to the aging dictator.
Mr. Mobutu reneged on a 1990 pledge to transform the country into a multiparty democracy, placing Zaire into one of the world's longest transitional periods.
The decision also cost him the financial support of his Western backers, which in turn sent Zaire into further economic and political decline.
While his Army was being humiliated by rebels in East Kivu Province, Mobutu was in Europe seeking medical treatment. He returned to a rudderless Zaire Dec. 17, claiming that he was ready to handle the crisis. He appointed a new Army head and a new Cabinet whose main goal is to deal with the rebels. The Army launched a counterattack against the rebels Dec. 30; so far, rebels claim to have repulsed the troops.
But, after just three weeks in Zaire, Mobutu returned to Europe to seek continued medical treatment Jan. 9, again leaving the country leaderless. Mobutu's quashing of his opposition and squabbling among politicians makes a smooth transition to a post-Mobutu era unlikely.
Western governments hope that elections promised for this year will be held and some order restored. But many Zaireans doubt that alone can undo a deeply entrenched culture of bribery and institutional paralysis.
While political analysts such as Cornell and Ayittey note that life goes on even amid the chaos, they don't deny the dangers of Zaire collapsing from within.
Such an implosion could send thousands of refugees streaming across borders. It could also lead to rival warlords carving out their own fiefdoms, such as in Somalia and Liberia.
With Zaire bordering nine countries, the potential for destabilizing its neighbors is great. Four neighbors - Sudan, Uganda, Burundi, and the Central African Republic - are each grappling with either civil wars or uprisings.
Meanwhile, Angola is tentatively emerging from civil war. And Rwanda, which is still struggling to deal with the aftermath of its 1994 genocide, is trying to integrate about 1.2 million refugees who recently returned from Zaire and Tanzania.
A collapsing Zaire is a recipe for even more trouble.