In the Congo, you can't survive without a family
Every country faces a challenge in raising the next generation – but some more than others. Gaston Asitaki, the president of the Congolese Association for the Family, is optimistic about the future of the family in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
MercatorNet: There is an enormous range of social circumstances in the DRC, with a huge gap between rich hand poor, war in outlying provinces, and scores of different ethnic groups. But can you generalise about the main challenges faced by the institution of the family in the DRC?
Gaston Asitaki: Most people in the Congo believe that the family is an institution founded upon the union between a man and a woman, with many children and with strong bonds within extended families. Difficult social circumstances and even the serious political crises caused by civil wars have strengthened the family ties.
Both for economic survival (of ordinary people) and for political or economic survival (of politicians and businessmen) Congolese of different social levels find their main support and help in big families. This is very positive for all concerned. But on the other hand, it is regrettable that tribal and ethnic ties are also strengthened to the detriment of national feeling. We feel more like members of our own ethnic group than citizens of nation.
MercatorNet: With nearly half of the population of the DRC under the age of 15, the formation of children is clearly an urgent task. Is the family structure in the DRC strong enough to pass on the values of the parents to their children?
Asitaki: The Congolese family has been made very fragile by the economic crisis and social situation which the country has been through over the past 25 years. The government doesn’t have the means to ensure the education of children. Despite declarations and the good intentions, the government is not trying to do what it can to support the family in its role as the educator of children. At moment, family support per child is set at US$1.58 per month. The salary of a civil servant, a policeman or a solider is only $50 per month. A Congolese family has an average of six children, with at least four attending school.
Primary school and secondary school are, in principle, free and compulsory, but in public schools the parents have to pay at least $100 each term per child. Where do they get the money? Everyone is resourceful. Everyone is a businessman. Corruption in the public service has become commonplace. Where parents and extended families are weak, there has been a big growth in child prostitution and the phenomenon of children living on the streets. Despite a great attachment to the family and love of children, the Congolese family suffers badly from a lack of minimum resources to ensure that children are educated.
MercatorNet: You have observed family life in both Europe and the DRC. What are your impressions about the positive features of family life in the West?
Asitaki: Despite the instability of the structure of the family, which is characterised by a large number of separations and divorces, I admire the great sense of commitment and solidity in the life of European couples. Where they are committed by the bonds of marriage, there is a rich experience of married life. In Congo, people marry very early. You see many people embarking upon marriage and beginning a family without really knowing what they have committed themselves to.
But divorce is still considered shameful. Even when things don’t go well it is very difficult to separate. The weight of tradition and ties with the extended family do not allow divorce. There can be endless arguments without really solving problems. Thus, you often see that a couple are living under one roof, but unfortunately there is no true married life. They stay together for the sake of the children because they cannot separate.
MercatorNet: And what do you think African families can teach Western families?
Asitaki: First of all, unselfish love, then patience and finally, openness to life. I believe that it is important to remind European families that the family should not be a place to search for one’s own satisfaction. The greatest happiness is found when everyone works for the happiness of everyone else. Difficulties are natural and normal in life. It makes no sense to question the great commitments of life because difficulties crop up. One must learn how to be patient and wait for the hard times to pass. It is equally important to fight against egotism and the individualism by highlighting the happiness of remaining open to life, of accepting the children which are the true fruit of the authentic love of husband and wife.
MercatorNet: The birth rate in much of Europe is far below replacement level and many couples have only one child. But in the DRC, the birth rate is about 6.4 and families are very large. How do parents cope?
Asitaki: The informal economy and particularly small business are quite developed. In general families are supported by the commercial enterprise of the mother. The women are basically involved in small scale farming. They get involved in small business and in all sorts of middleman operations. In the big cities, night trading is very common. Since most men earn their money from day to day, it is at the end of the day that you know what has happened and that’s when you do the shopping. For example, in the working-class districts of Kinshasa, people eat one meal a day, and quite late at night. The men are largely involved in public works and government businesses where salaries are quite low. The struggle is to sell all kinds of small services from day to day to earn something. The surroundings in the airports and other customs posts are very typical.
MercatorNet: Many families are very poor. Is it responsible for parents to have such large families?
Asitaki: The people of the Congo love children, but they have many reasons for having large families. Many people think that they must have many children so that if some die young, some will remain. And since social security here hardly works at all, some parents think it prudent to have many children so that they will have someone to care for them in their old age. Anyhow, my feeling is that the number of children isn’t the reason for the difficult social situation here. With a bit more organisation, many people would have enough to look after their children. We are a big country that is almost empty. We need human resources to develop it. Solidarity supports many families when they strike problems. It functions well because families are large. I believe that limiting the number of births will hurt solidarity and will lead to even more serious problems.
MercatorNet: Is there much pressure from Western NGOs and the government to cut down on family size?
Asitaki: Yes. Congo has been under enormous pressure to promote contraceptive practices and even to legalise abortion. All the nasty pressure on our parliament to ratify the Maputo Protocol [an international agreement which guarantees women’s health and reproductive rights] is one example. We continue to say that we need a model for development which is consistent with our identity. We don’t need to copy Western society and paste it onto the Congo. Our people have their own soul and their own history and they should be respected. .
MercatorNet: The long-running war in the DRC has left many children orphaned or separated from their families. How many are there? At one point it had the largest number of child soldiers in the world. Can much be done to help them?
Asitaki: Nearly 3 million people have died in the recent civil wars. There are hundreds of thousands of orphans. The war lords have abused children. Since 1996, almost 30,000 children have been enrolled in the army and the militias, voluntarily or by force, in massive recruiting drives. Children are taken from the streets or from classrooms, or snatched from refugee camps and camps for displaced persons. Often, the militias come just to look for them. They have guns and their desolated parents watch helplessly. Many children have told how they were taken while playing in their front yards or walking in the street. Some children sign up voluntarily, but they are basically vulnerable children who have been separated from their family or children living in extreme poverty on the streets, completely marginalised.
Once recruited, the children are sent to training camps where they are subjected to violent treatment and systematically indoctrinated. They are taught the ways of the army and trained in combat and they learn how to kill without blinking an eye... The conditions are so harsh that many take their own lives even before entering combat. At the end of their training, these children are sent out as cannon fodder. Exposed to enemy fire, they are used to find the enemy lines, to serve as bait, to be bodyguards or to be sex slaves They are forced to commit atrocities, especially rape and murder of enemy soldiers and civilians. To force them to obey and to be emotionless, they are given drugs and alcohol. Some have killed the members of their own family, while others have been forced into sexual servitude or acts of cannibalism on the dead bodies of their enemies. Most female soldiers can be sure that they will be raped and exploited sexually by the soldiers or militias.
There is a lot to be done for this group of children. Therefore, we must continue to demand and support their demobilisation and help them integrate themselves into society and organise the necessary professional training. One they have learned a trade, they will be able to sort their lives out and avoid the temptation to turn to crime.
Gaston Asitaki Lisiki is the president of the Congolese Association for the Family. He is lawyer and is married with three children. He lives in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where he is a frequent contributor to local newspapers.
This interview was translated by Isabelle Laville.
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