Yangambi – A symbol of Congo’s past, potential future

This past weekend, I traveled with several colleagues to visit Yangambi, which is a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. Yangambi is situated about 90 km from Kisangani. The drive itself involved about 3 hours of travel across a good, but bumpy road. We also had to take a ferry crossing just outside of Kisangani. Once we finally arrived in the reserve, the heritage of the place could be seen everywhere.

The majority of the activity in this bush town revolves around two major institutes established during Belgian colonization – IFA University and INERA research institute. In its heyday, Yangambi hosted over 400 expatriates and staffed 2000 Congolese. The area is still dotted with elaborate villas where expatriate families used to live. Around the club house, I could almost hear the echoes of Belgian children laughing as they played in the pool or bowled in the one lane alley.

Of the two institutes at Yangambi, the university has fared much worse in the post-colonial days. Relics of what the place once was still linger in the hallways of the university buildings. Little funding has reached IFA since the Mobutu era. The university has essentially ceased operations in Yangambi and relocated to Kisangani.

INERA is a different story. Currently the research institute receives a variety of funding from various European governments. The institute is conducting trials with cocoa, coffee, and oil palm. In addition, INERA is digitizing some 150,000 plant samples that it collected as far back as the 1890s.

Most of Yangambi still does not have electricity, and those portions that do rely on solar power or generators. There is no running water. In the past, the university and INERA had water pumped from the Congo River and then purified at a facility on campus. However, the water facility is now in disrepair.

What’s most striking about the Yangambi experience is that the place is so well-preserved. Shelves still hold samples collected in the early 1900s. Some machinery is old and rusted with age and the climate, while others have sat brand new from the manufacturer for decades. Laboratories still have full shelves of chemicals and wares. How did IFA and INERA manage to keep their respective institutes from being pillaged during Congo’s wars?

Some say it has to do with a large tree growing several kilometers into the jungle outside of Yangambi proper. This “Tree of Authenticity” is supposed to posses special powers that grant a long life to anyone who eats its bark. However, the tree is also thought to host evil spirits – as it was once visited by Mobutu and is the throne for the Yangambi witchdoctor(s). Perhaps this fear of bad spirits is what kept civilians and military alike from pillaging Yangambi’s research facilities.

What’s more likely is that Yangambi is fairly remote and holds no real strategic importance.

Today, however, Yangambi represents both D.R. Congo’s glorious past and its potential future. The research trials and preservation that INERA is currently conducting are both impressive and important for the progress of agriculture R&D in the D.R.C. IFA University possesses a wealth of knowledge about agriculture in central Africa and the potential for renovation is still alive. However, without outside funding and resources, neither of these institutes will make it far – as is indicated by the general state of conditions there today.

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