The Tolekist: Kisangani, Oriental Province MP Candidate #48

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“Quarante et huit! Quarante et huit!” the mixed mob of motorcyclists and bicyclists chant as they cruise through the streets of Kisangani and its surroundings. “Le tolekiste! Le tolekiste!” Just days after campaign season for the general election began in D.R. Congo, the city of Kisangani has remarkably rallied behind an educated, but poor bicycle taxi operator.

Awenze Makiaba Alphonse  is the tolekist, which is a general term referring to a bicycle taxi driver (from the word toleka, for bicycle/bicycle taxi). So far he has managed to remain independent and incorruptible, despite attempts from various political parties to scoop him up under their banner – offering vehicles, money, and other gifts as incentives. Instead, candidate No.48, is managing to up-end everything the Boyomais consider “normal” for Congo’s pseudo democracy.

For example, after being forced off the road by a parade of No.48 supporters yesterday, this time all on foot and mostly children, my interpreter exclaimed, “He doesn’t deserve all this. It’s so funny.” Afterward, we engaged in a heated discussion about what democracy should be and what democracy has actually come to mean. Here, as in most places (including the US and Europe), democracy means that the educated elite run for office and get to make all the decisions.

Yet today, in Kisangani, one poor man has decided to challenge the system and remarkably, he is gaining support. Even though Awenze is educated, lack of employment opportunities left him with few options other than engaging in Kisangani’s second-most popular form of transport (after walking).

I’m not sure whether the tolekist will make a significant impact on the contest for MP in Kisangani, or specifically whether his support will survive the upcoming round of campaigning from the gift-bearing big men. (The tolekist can’t afford to nor is willing to give gifts in exchange for votes.) But there are already reports that some candidates are pretty worried about ce petite homme.  Unconfirmed rumors in Kisangani indicate that the UN mission in DRC, MONUSCO, is providing additional security around his residence.

Will he be able to challenge the accepted patronage norms in Congo and win using his progressive ideals? Who knows? But for the time being, at least he is making an impact on the overall atmosphere in Kisangani and forcing the Boyomais to change their thinking about the status quo.

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