Picture this. Throngs of people lining the streets, leaning out of windows, balancing precariously on scaffolding, all dressed in lively, sunny colours, waving flags, dancing, chanting, clapping, and generally making a lot of cheerful noise. Literally thousands of them, a remarkably disciplined mass of humanity, tightly pressed together, not a single one spilling out onto the street despite the absence of metal barriers such as we would have at similar events. Further afield, a parade with people dressed in flamboyant tribal costume, hopping forward with legs wide apart to the beat of a deep drum, pumping their stomachs in and out vigorously in the way of the tribal dance. But the drumbeat is all but drowned by the loud chanting coming from my right – a group of fun-loving youths, swaying down the main avenue, swinging dreadlocks from side to side and brandishing a yellow flag with the mention “Association des Rastas du Congo” on it. (Note: I was since informed that my fun-loving youths were not quite as innocent or peaceful as I had assumed. In my ignorance, I suspend all judgement until further research.)
This was the scene upon my arrival in Bukavu, a provincial capital on the other side of lovely Lake Kivu from Goma. I could be forgiven for thinking that it was carnival time in Bukavu, similar as the atmosphere was to the Notting Hills and Santiagos of this world. The reality, however, was even more exciting; I had unwittingly timed my arrival to coincide exactly with that of President Kabila – his first visit to Bukavu since 1997, I am told. What a welcome he received! All afternoon the town resonated with cheering and applause, and by the evening, when ministers (but not Kabila) poured into my otherwise discreet and quiet hotel, they were literally glowing with excitement.
Meanwhile, I had been having a very peaceful day with my laptop by the lake – all the more enjoyable that it was completely unexpected; clearly, with the president in town, my interlocutors tended to be otherwise engaged. As a result, I was able to witness, from 11am when I arrived to 4pm when he closed shop, a day in the life of a Bukavu fisherman. It went something like this:
11am to 2.30pm
2.30pm to 2.45pm
2.45pm to 4pm
As I sat there in the sun, watching this young man tirelessly fishing from his little wooden pirogue, utterly immobile for hours on end except for the regular recasting of his rugged piece of pink, plastic string, to all intents and purposes completely oblivious to the cheers that could be heard from the other side of the hill, I wondered what he made of all this referendum palaver. And yet, I would be willing to bet that he voted yesterday.
It’s hard to express from afar the strange mix of excitement and apprehension everyone feels here, myself included. There is so much at stake. And as I learn to appreciate this country and its gentle, kind-hearted people more and more every day, I find myself wanting desperately for everything to work out. I feel something akin to the powerless spectator watching a nail-biting thriller unfold, heart racing as he waits to see if his beloved heroine makes it or not. Fingers crossed.
I’m sitting at the terrace of the hotel in Goma, enjoying the refreshing breeze that blows from the vast, eerily tranquil Lake Kivu. Yesterday morning at dawn I flew over 1,000 miles east from Kinshasa, to the land of the great lakes and what should be gorilla territory but is, instead, guerrilla territory. As I look up from my terrace, it is Rwanda that I see, just a stone’s throw away. Looking across, I am reminded of the excitement and awe I felt the first time I saw the lights of Jerusalem from the hills above the Dead Sea, on the Jordanian side. I felt as though I was being propelled into history, as though this place that I had read and heard so much about that it had taken an almost fictional quality was now proving its veracity, thus bringing to life all the events which until then had been but daunting images on a TV screen.
Here, as in Jerusalem, war and its aftermath remain tangible realities, ones that permeate through all aspects of life, not least the upcoming constitutional referendum on Sunday. Here, the lingering TV images lose their remoteness, but also to some extent their intensity, their fascination. Because the truth is that life continues, people just carry on. Only a few years after the terror and bloodshed, while people continue to live in an atmosphere of insecurity and fear, the vibrancy and dynamism in the town is rampant, an optimism and eagerness born out of sheer determination and the burning desire to live in peace. To me, this ability to simply pick up the pieces and start again with such energy and good will is as mysterious a characteristic of human nature as the propensity for perpetrating the kinds of horrors that people here and elsewhere have suffered and continue to suffer. (Note: Picture courtesy of UNDP.)
As a consequence, I find myself lifted also by the enthusiasm all around me. Those of you who have talked shop with me will know that I can sometimes be quite demoralised and sceptical about the amount of energy and effort, not to mention money, that seems to go into achieving little more than sustaining a caste of idealists and do-gooders through an interesting, and often pleasant, career. But here, in the midst of preparations for the referendum, I am absolutely astounded at the level of mobilisation there has been both from the international community and from local organisations.
As I sit here typing away on my laptop, the tranquillity is regularly disturbed by low-flying planes and helicopters, most of which are white UN aircraft carrying vehicles, radios, election kits, as well as international observers who have volunteered from all over the world to come monitor the elections. And then there are the tens of thousands of Congolese who are being deployed throughout a country four times the size of France, with absolutely no road infrastructure whatsoever, to make this referendum happen: 52,000 election agents, over 40,000 police officers, some 50,000 domestic observers, all travelling on trucks, motorcycles, horses, by boat, on foot… It’s unimaginable.
One of my previous blog entries elicited responses from an astounded US contingent who understandably couldn’t quite believe that flats in the Democratic Republic of Congo could go for the same price as flats in some of New York City’s finest neighbourhoods. Yet, I can now confirm that the majority of flats going for US$1,500 per month in the Gombe are not even worth looking at. So far, all the ones I saw at that price were, without exception, dark, dingy flats in desperate need of a coat of paint, with broken and/or mouldy furniture, located in dilapidated buildings with dysfunctional elevators. In fact, the only thing of any (dubious) value in these flats was the television, which was invariably a huge, top-of-the-range, flat-screen TV that took up the entire length of the living room – clearly an important selling point by Congolese standards!
Now, I realise that it’s somewhat contradictory to choose a career in international development in the hope of contributing somehow to poverty alleviation, then insisting on coming all the way to Africa – and one of Africa’s poorest countries at that – only to start whinging that the housing on offer is not quite up to my exacting standards. Granted. Furthermore, I realise that the reason the prices are so artificially inflated is precisely because of people like me whose housing is paid for by an employer for whom security is paramount, and who therefore won’t let us even consider living outside the cramped downtown area of Gombe. Agreed. Still, I can’t help but feel that the rates being charged are truly extortionate, and that if I am to pay these prices I should at least feel happy to come home in the evenings.
And I haven’t even given away the best nugget of mind-boggling information yet!
In order to secure one of these precious, priceless flats, it turns out you are expected to pay anything between six months’ and one year’s worth of rent up front, and give the owner a deposit equivalent of three month’s worth of rent, and, if you were lucky enough to benefit from the invaluable services of an estate agent or ‘commissionaire’, you are also expected to pay these delightful people an additional one month’s worth of rent for their trouble. I should mention, in passing, that these are the people who will ring you up excitedly in the middle of the day to tell you that an exceptional flat has just been made available with an absolutely amazing view of the river, that you absolutely have to rearrange your entire day to come visit it now, and when you get there it turns out to be just as squalid as the other flats you’ve seen, and the view is of the port’s scrap yard. And now they’re asking you for US$5 to cover their transportation costs from the office.
So, in desperation, I upped the stakes, and the last flat I saw was going for US$3,000 per month, no less! Nice flat, just the right size, very secure location, entirely renovated, very light and this time with a decent view of the river, brand new furniture…but what furniture! Kitsch par excellence, shiny, white and gold plastic everywhere, definitely better suited to a brash hip-hop video than my relatively simple tastes. In fact, appropriately enough, this time the 150-inch television was accompanied by a mammoth stereo system. I cringed visibly when I entered the living room, but was still thinking, “It’s okay, I could just about deal with this” when I stepped into the bedroom. I keep hoping my memory deceives me, but I do believe the beds had heart-shaped ends – made of shiny white and gold plastic, needless to say – to match the heart-shaped mirror on the dresser. YEEEEEEEEEEEAAAAAAARRRRKKKK!!!
Well, at least now I know where the Grand Hotel Santas would be happy!
My struggle with the Grand Hotel has just taken a definite turn for the worst. They’ve put up their Christmas decorations, and they’re simply excruciating!
I’m walking down one of the many empty corridors in this labyrinth of a hotel, the only sound is the click-click of my heels on the polished marble floor (yes, it’s that kind of hotel), when suddenly this mechanical voice booms out at me from nowhere a 1980s rock-and-roll rendition of “Santa’s Coming to Town”. My heart leaps to my mouth in fright, my legs end up somewhere around my ears as I turn to face my aggressor and find myself confronted with a child-sized all-singing, all-dancing plastic Santa clad in bright red velvet, frantically wriggling his booty left, right and centre, and grinning at me in an apparent thrill of ecstasy.
(Did I mention that it’s forbidden to take pictures in public places in DRC? In case you’re worrying about my photographic abilities…)
Breakfast has become a real chore, as all the different Santas compete for attention and their badly tuned songs resonate loudly across the atrium. To add to the cacophony, the unshakeable pianist continues to play monotonously his daily set of lacklustre standards, oblivious to the hellish rock and roll echoing all around us.
So now every morning as I walk out of the hotel, and every evening as I walk in, I am greeted by the unmistakeable motorized booty shake, not to mention the lime-green plastic Christmas trees, laden with huge, oversized, bright silver, plastic bells, etc, etc.
Oh Saint Nicholas of our childhoods, why hast thou forsaken us?
My first impressions of Kinshasa are cluttered by the whirlwind of activity I have found myself seeped in since Wednesday – trying to understand what is expected of me at work and how to get the support I need to achieve it, looking for a flat, trying to decide whether to rent or purchase a car, getting a phone, opening a bank account, etc.
Everything appears to be slightly more complicated than it needs to be every step of the way. For instance, when I went to the bank to open an account, I was informed that I had to make an initial cash deposit of US$10,000, no less! When I explained that all I needed for the moment was an account into which I could make a transfer from London, the woman flashed me a sadistic smile and repeated slowly, as if I were a distracted child, that the deposit had to be made in cash. When, allowing a tiny note of sarcasm to creep into my voice, I asked whether I was expected to bring the US$10,000 cash in a suitcase from London, she replied, straight-faced, that I should get it wired from my bank in the UK to a Western Union money transfer office, then transport the cash from there to the bank… in a suitcase or bag, yes. I can just see my boss’s face when I explain that one to him!
Other than that, most of my energy apart from work seems to be going into trying to escape from the Grand Hotel. I can’t complain – there’s nothing wrong with it really – it’s just like every other big hotel everywhere else in the world…which is precisely the problem! What I thought would be a couple of educational nights in a historical landmark of Kinshasa are slowly turning into a full residency. Perhaps I wouldn’t be so concerned about what is only, after all, a few nights, if it weren’t for the fact that I am surrounded by people who came for a few days and have been here weeks, months, years! Only today I discovered that one of my neighbours has lived here, in this hotel, for the last fifteen years… “You can check in any time you like…”
On a more positive note, logistical annoyances aside, I actually do like Kinshasa, which has a really good vibe to it. Or I should say Gombe, which is the area around downtown Kinshasa where all the expatriates and wealthy Congolese piled into after the two rounds of looting in the 1990s, and which is the only area considered safe to live in by the embassies. Result: exceedingly overpriced real estate (it’s hard to rent a decent flat for less than US$1,500 per month, and most go for substantially more than that), major traffic jams heading downtown (the 1960s road infrastructure being utterly unable to cope with the explosion in vehicles that accompanies any major influx of humanitarian and development organisations), many good quality but expensive restaurants, and super pricey sports clubs. But what I like about Kinshasa, even though it may drive me crazy in the end, is that it retains a village atmosphere despite the madness and expatriate invasion it has incurred in the past few years. It remains friendly and relaxed.
So this is a place with no cinema (don’t tell Fred!), but… a full-scale, eighteen-hole golf course right there on the main boulevard!!
I couldn’t believe my eyes the first time I saw it. There it sat regally, behind its iron gate: a vast expanse of pristine, bright green lawn, undulating languorously, dotted with palm trees and lakes, completely aloof of and at odds with the mundane hustle and bustle of dusty Kinshasa, yet smack in the middle of its busiest part. Extraordinary! And so yes, as it happens, I played golf on Saturday.
But the real secret gem of Kinshasa is not the golf course, or even the horses or tennis courts, alluring as they are. The real gem of Kinshasa is the river – vast, dark, enticing, mysterious by day, simply breathtaking beyond belief at sunset.
There was a moment there, when I sat huddled up in a motor boat, my heart racing as we flew back towards the city at top speed after a lovely day of water-skiing, picnic and pétanque, watching in awe as the river burst into flames and the sky lit up with gold; there was a moment there when the gold turned to purple, a purple so intense it made you want to cry for the sheer beauty of it, and laugh and dance and sit still and inhale; there was a moment there when the sky and the river merged into one and I felt as though we were flying through space and time, and nothing would ever be so real again as this precise moment, now. And then we reached the port; I exhaled deeply and shook the feeling off, and thought, “Wow. Welcome to DRC.”
There was a moment there, as I cycled to work at some unpleasantly premature hour of the morning, all clumped over in a vain attempt to protect myself from violent gusts of arctic wind; there was a moment on this exceptionally icy November morning as I screeched to a sudden halt to avoid a grumpy, middle-aged woman who stepped out unexpectedly onto a pedestrian crossing, then turned to glare at me pointedly; there was a moment there when I noticed angrily that all it took was a drop in temperature for moods to plummet and the world to turn grey and cross, until I was forced to acknowledge my own knotted brow and clenched teeth as I pumped my legs up and down vigorously, shivering and cursing under my breath.
Then an unlikely smile spread slowly over across my face: DRC awaits! Hot, colourful, messy DRC, with its legendary music, tropical heat, its reputedly friendly people and lush vegetation. And of course, its tumultuous history and the promise of a fascinating year ahead.
On Monday morning, by 8am, after a week of relentless and hectic packing and organising, after a late finish and an inhumanely early start, I was sitting, completely conked out, in the plane to Brussels. My first intimation of Africa occurred in Brussels Airport: loud, happy shouts of recognition, full, unembarrassed laughter, and even some singing. And sure enough, there it was, the SN flight that would take me to Kinshasa after a short stop-over in Douala, Cameroun. (Ha!) I felt vindicated; here was the Africa I’d assumed, the image of Africa I’d built in my mind based on the many stories I had heard from homesick African friends, then corroborated during my short experience of Ghana and South Africa (not Namibia, which I found weirdly Germanic and un-African). I couldn’t wait to get to Kinshasa.
There was a moment there, as I sat for the fourth consecutive hour in an airless airplane in the muggy heat of Douala Airport, sweating profusely as mechanics tried desperately to fix “a small technical glitch that shouldn’t keep us more than half an hour”; there was a moment when, having finally been told that the small glitch required a piece to be sent from Brussels, which meant we couldn’t leave Cameroun until midnight the following day (i.e. over 24 hours later) and no, we would not get our luggage back so we would have to face the heat and humidity dressed in our winter bests; there was a moment when, the SN crew having legged it at the first sign of discontent (by this time plenty and loud and increasingly aggressive), we were left with one, poor, incompetent, junior airport official who insisted that we leave our passports overnight at the airport, then made us queue messily to be told which third-rate hotel we would be put up at, then made us wait for our luggage which had been erroneously taken out of the plane only to pile it back up on a cart that would take it straight back to the plane; there was a moment when, having spent 8 hours witnessing incompetency in its purest form, it suddenly dawned on me that this posting in Kinshasa may not be, after all, pure panacea.
Nonetheless, when we finally did land on Congolese soil, 24 hours later, I clapped along with everyone else and joined the general euphoria of having arrived at last.
I had been warned to brace myself for Kinshasa Airport, but the experience was unexpectedly straightforward, even if I did witness more rolled-up clumps of cash exchanging hands within ½ hour than ever before. In fact, my very first transaction with a Congolese official was the immigration officer asking me whether I was going to sweeten his day. I played dumb.
Just when I thought the adventure was over and my bed seemed alluringly close, I discovered that the Grand Hotel – which I felt I had to stay in at least 1 or 2 nights given its central role in Kinshasa’s recent history as the refuge of choice for all the Congolese “Big Vegetables” who went into exile after the collapse of Mobutu’s regime – was severely overbooked. The room they initially gave me turned out to have someone in it, a fact that became clear to me only after I’d entered the room, noisily knocking the walls with my luggage: “EH!” Eventually, however, a room was found, and I was able to collapse. Only to be woken up at 9am by my employers, who rather unapologetically asked whether I could please be in a meeting by 10am. But that is a whole other story.