Thursday, April 24, 2008

District Heights, Congo city form relationship

Cities to work together in trade, cultural exchange

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Brenda Ahearn⁄The Gazette
Gov. Alphonse Ngoyi Kasanji (left) of the Kasai-Oriental Region of the Democratic Republic of Congo shakes hands with William A. Welch Sr. of District Heights on Saturday at the Municipal Center in District Heights. To the left is Kasanji’s interpreter, Mukeba Lufuluabo.
Alphonse Ngoyi Kasanji, governor of the Kasai-Oriental Region of the Democratic Republic of Congo, visited the city of District Heights Saturday on behalf of Kasai and its capital city of Mbuji-Mayi to designate the areas as twin cities.

In addition to receiving a ‘‘Key to the City,” Kasanji received proclamations from County Executive Jack. B. Johnson (D) and the County Council. The designation will allow the cities to benefit each other through trade opportunities and cultural exchange.

‘‘I believe we are the same people despite being separated by oceans,” Kasanji said. ‘‘But the Earth is the same. Men are the same. And we can develop something looking in the same direction. That’s why I want to strengthen Mbuji-Mayi, so that each one can find their benefit.”

The cities’ relationship developed when District Heights Commissioner Jack Sims met Muleyke Mukoko, an executive for Avmark, an aviation consulting firm, in 2005 while working with The Atrium Group, a business development company that tried to form an airline providing direct flights from the U.S. to countries in Africa.

Although plans to develop the airline fell through, Sims and Mukoko of Hyattsville remained in touch. While attending a 2007 brunch for Maryland’s Liberia Sister State Executive Committee, she expressed interest in her native country, Congo, having a similar relationship as Liberia shares with the state.

Mukoko contacted Kasanji’s technical advisor, Ngoy Crispin Tambwe, and arranged for him to meet with Sims. In January, Sims and Tambwe discussed building a relationship between the city and the Kasai region to increase communication among Africans and African-Americans.

Keynote speaker Jim Swan, a deputy assistant secretary for the Bureau of African Affairs in the U.S. Department of State, said the Congo has come a long way through political conflict and finally held its first Democratic elections in 2006 which elected President Joseph Kabila and local officials like Kasanji.

Swan said the area of East Kasai is rich in natural resources such as industrial and gem quality diamonds which could be of interest to the city.

However, Swan said the country, particularly Kasai, is dealing with a population that overwhelms its infrastructure and public services. More than 4 million people live in Kasai compared to 28,000 in 1960 after it declared independence from Belgium. Kasanji said the area needs help providing quality schools, hospitals, housing and roads.

‘‘As an American that is very much interested in Africa—I’ve spent most of my professional life working on Africa, living in Africa—I’m thrilled to see these types of partnerships because a good bilateral relationship between two countries can only be deepened when those two countries come together,” Swan said.

District Heights is looking to help in part by donating surplus equipment. John Herron, CEO of Harbor City Services in Baltimore, said he met Sims about nine years ago and has since shipped off medical supplies donated from Baltimore City hospitals to countries such as Nigeria and is open to sending equipment to the Congo.

Sims also offered Kasanji opportunities for his residents to do business in District Heights on seven acres of land the city is looking to develop in the 6300 block of Marlboro Pike next to the Aldi Supermarket. Sims also offered the city’s surplus housing, which has been difficult to move lately because of a tight economy.

Opportunities for trade between the county and Africa will grow even more with the opening of the county’s first African Trade Office in Steeplechase 95 International Business Park on Ritchie Marlboro Road in Capitol Heights.

Patricia Hayes-Parker, vice president of Prince George’s County Economic Development Corporation’s International Business and Administration, Foreign Trade Zone 63, said the office, opening May 1 will encourage international trading with 22 African countries. Hayes-Parker said Nigeria would be included because it is already one of the United States’ biggest trading partners in natural resources such as oil and a large Nigerian population, many who are business owners, already exists in the county.

William Welch, a 30-year District Heights resident and former executive director for the Prince George’s County Human Relations Committee, said even if an individual lives in a city, he or she is still part of the world system and should try to connect outside of the immediate area.

‘‘Africa has too long [been] ignored by Americans for the most part,” Welch said. ‘‘But certainly it’s been ignored by most people who are from there. We still have some other primitive views on what the continent is.”

E-mail Natalie McGill at