Kinshasa — This weekend, Kinshasa hosts the 14th Francophonie Summit. While leaders from French-speaking countries will meet to discuss political issues, the two-day event is also giving young Congolese the chance to meet fellow Francophones and be reminded of their world citizenship.
No doubt this will be a weekend of festivities for students from the Kinshasa Higher Institute of Commerce. Thesis defences have just ended and they are looking forward to entertainment at the Francophonie village in the Stade des Martyrs. As early as Thursday evening, some could already be seen hanging around the stadium, trying to get a glimpse of the installations, which were built specifically for the summit.
"We had fun. There was music; it was nice," says Emmanuel, 27, who studies accounting. "As a Congolese citizen, I wanted to be part of [the summit]. I am proud to see people visiting us from all over the world."
For the occasion, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo got quite the facelift. The road leading to the airport was completed and various streets in the city centre were freshly renovated. Every day, sweepers relentlessly toiled to keep Boulevard du 30 Juin clean and unroadworthy taxis were instructed to stay away from Gombe, the neighbourhood where most of the celebrations are taking place. Street lighting was also upgraded for the occasion. In short, Kinshasa is sparkling.
Providing an opportunity to meet and interact with other young French-speaking people, the summit represents a small victory for the residents of Kinshasa. The 1991 edition of the summit, which was scheduled to take place in Kinshasa, was cancelled because of the repeated human rights violations by the dictator Mobutu Sese Seko and his regime.
"For our country to have hosted a big summit - it's a step forward," says Emmanuel.
To Chanel, 24, national pride is at stake. "It makes our country known around the world. I am proud to welcome French, Senegalese, Canadians and many other citizens," she says.
But Andy, an IT student, is more sceptical. "The government went through lengths to renovate the city. But such efforts and dedication should not only be for the summit," says the 24-year-old.
He also questions what advantages the event gives the host nation. "What are the economic benefits for us? Is it going attract investors in our country?" he wonders aloud.
The staging of the summit has not been free of controversies.
The attendance of Francois Hollande, for example, was not confirmed until one month before the summit. The French President was hesitant to take the trip and thus recognize a government that was put into power by dubious elections. Although Hollande finally accepted the invitation, in a media statement on Tuesday he said that the situation in the DRC was totally unacceptable with regards to civil rights, democracy and recognition of the opposition.
"We find it hurtful when a man who has never set foot in this country makes such statements," says Yves, a lecturer in economics. The 35-year-old academic continues: "I love the French language; it's our heritage and the language through which we integrate into the world. But when I hear our partners not supporting us, I don't feel like staying."
Another cloud hovering in the skies over the summit is the strong competition from other languages. For youth, in particular, Francophonie is a legacy that is becoming less and less important. The growing significance of English, as pre-eminent global language, and Swahili, the language of East Africa, can no longer be ignored.
Sill, French holds a special place in some people's hearts and minds.
"I would like my children to learn French like I did and my parents before me," says Tina, 26, while rushing to the summit with friends. "Francophonie represents joy in Congo," she adds, with a bright smile that seems to reflect the golden sequins on her shoulder.