A school has no textbooks: the teachers are told “débrouillez-vous,” use the notes you took as a pupil. The pickup truck breaks down and will go no further: the passengers realize they will have to find another way home— “débrouillons-nous.” A resourceful man, who has learnt to turn his hand to a variety of things in order to survive, gives his job description with a smile as “débrouillard.” In the Democratic Republic of Congo the phrase “se débrouiller” has entered the realm of myth, joke, and national identity. The French words even puncture conversations in vernaculars. Congo has suffered from a long history of colonial oppression, economic mismanagement, political dictatorship, and most recently violent internal warfare.
The Congolese know that they must learn how to manage on their own, to sort things out by themselves, to cope somehow, to get by. Such is the necessity of being able to deal with the unexpected or the unfortunate that Congolese joke—and many sincerely believe—that “débrouillez-vous” the “golden rule of resourcefulness” is written into the constitution. In a difficult situation they will remind each other of “Article Quinze.” Congolese people understand themselves as those who endure hardship, but have the resilience to rise to whatever comes their way, to cope with the unexpected. Indeed, so often does the unexpected occur that managing events as they happen rather than planning ahead for events that might not happen often seems the most effective way to cope with life.
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