Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Pleasant parting thoughts

Well, embarrassed as I am to admit it, it turns out I don't have a maggot living in my bum. And it turns out that this is definitely BAD NEWS. What I have is a very, very badly infected abscess, and in hindsight I can’t help but wonder what possessed me to write a post about my ailment in the first place. Having an unusual tropical disease is one thing to write home about, but when it turns out that it's simply a misdiagnosed boil – probably inflicted by that incredibly stealthy travelling fungus I mentioned – a boil that became an angry fiend the day I tried to extract it from my body – flying wildly in the face of all medical advice – in short, a self-inflicted ordeal, then it becomes a rather more embarrassing story altogether.

So now my bum is the colour of a ripe tomato and the consistency of a rock, I’m unable to sit down since the old-fashioned Belgian doctor I went to pulled out a razor blade and cut through my skin (no anaesthetic, needless to say), I've had two penicillin injections, and I'm on a horse's dose of antibiotics for the third time this year. Welcome to Africa.

I’m told that abscesses are a natural defensive reaction caused by white blood cells flooding to the area and healthy cells building some kind of protective wall. Since most of my knowledge of human biology is based on those cartoons I used to watch as a kid where white blood cells were depicted as friendly guys in a carpenter’s uniform rushing around the body to fix things, I now have visions of these guys busily knocking and drilling away inside me while singing, “C’est la vie! C’est la vie!” (I watched the French version).

I suppose I should be grateful that my body is reacting so swiftly and thoroughly. I suppose I should be grateful that this is by far the single most protracted and unwavering pain I've ever suffered. And I should definitely be grateful that I can afford proper medical care – read what one traditional Congolese doctor did to this unfortunate soul.

Tomorrow we’re off to Malawi for the holidays. I desperately welcome the change of scene, although I can’t quite face sitting in an aeroplane for 2 days (we’re going via Ethiopia).

Meanwhile, just to distract you from my embarrassing ailments, here’s another pleasant parting thought. Do you remember Mama Cat? Well, last month Mama Cat had another litter of adorable kittens (five). And on Monday, Mama Cat was found missing in action. Turns out Mama Cat made a nice Sunday brunch for our neighbours the Police. Nice, eh? And this was after I made a total fuss when one of our guards inadvertently dropped a sofa on one of the kittens, almost killing it in the process – they must have thought I was mad to care so much.

So off I go to feed the kittens. Good night!

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Reality bites - part II

Warning: This post is not for anyone with a weak stomach.

Some of you may have read Fred’s recent post about a nightmare encounter with a slow, writhing maggot which had elected residence in his upper arm. He tried to elicit my sympathy and concern at the time, but I must admit that apart from suggesting a plethora of creams and lotions from my vast (but invariably expired) first aid kit, I wasn’t wildly alarmed.

Plenty more gruesome pictures from where these came from:

You see, I’d had my own all-absorbing selection of unusual African ailments recently, starting with some kind of travelling fungus that went from my thigh to my arm to the inside of my nose (making it swell up and redden in a caricature of drunkenness, and causing much hilarity at work), and finally to my eye where it died a slow and ugly death (slow, protracted swelling followed by explosion of white puss – hey I warned you!).

So when Fred came home with his tale of writhing maggots I was mildly relieved that the episode was over, but thought little more of it. What I didn’t do was immediately instruct our trusted housekeeper to turn up the iron and blast our clothes with it. And that’s why today you find me utterly unable to sit down without a shot of excruciating pain running up my spine, followed by a dull, throbbing soreness in parts of my body whose existence I never consciously acknowledged before.

Yes, that’s right, my own personal (and clearly intellectually superior) maggot has elected as its favoured place of residence…the soft, cushiony flesh of my left bum cheek.

Picture from

Now you’d think that between the research Fred did, his own experience, and the comments left by various friendly souls on his post, I’d be able to zap the beast quite effortlessly. Ha, but this bugger is particularly resilient! So far he’s survived smothering by Vaseline twice (all I got for my efforts was a baffled, hurt look from our churchgoing housekeeper when she saw the Vaseline pot on my bedside table yesterday morning), drowning in 90o rubbing alcohol, suffocation with cello tape, and two different people trying to squeeze it out with varying degrees of violence.

To the point where I’m beginning to wonder if there really is a live organism in there at all, or if my aggressive administrations have simply turned what was a harmless boil or cyst into a swollen, throbbing, angry, red, infection. All I can say is OUCH! So my question is, are tumbu flies meant to hurt this much?

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Les chaussettes de l'Archiduchesse

Un peu d’humour pour alléger le ton.

On dit que la langue française est compliquée, que dire de l'anglais...?

"Trois sorcières regardent trois montres Swatch. Quelle sorcière regarde quelle montre Swatch?"

Et maintenant en anglais:
"Three witches watch three Swatch watches. Which witch watches which Swatch watch?"

Maintenant pour les spécialistes :
"Trois sorcières suédoises et transsexuelles regardent les boutons de trois montres Swatch suisses. Quelle sorcière suédoise transsexuelle regarde quel bouton de quelle montre Swatch suisse?"

Et en anglais (accrochez-vous!):
"Three Swedish switched witches watch three Swiss Swatch watch switches. Which Swedish switched witch watches which Swiss Swatch watch switch?"

Elles peuvent aller se rhabiller nos chaussettes sèches de l'archiduchesse!!!

Friday, December 15, 2006



Rwandan children looking in, taken in February during a short visit from Goma

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Tit for tat

Yesterday evening I had an hour to spare before dinner with some friends, and I thought I’d do a quick post about a funny story that happened to us recently. A nice change from the focus of my recent posts about the news in DRC, something a bit more personal and cheerful, I thought. Ha!

I then got distracted reading the news online, particularly an article discussing French involvement in the Rwandan genocide. Yesterday, two Rwandan women who had sought refuge in the French camps during the 1994 genocide testified against their French ‘saviours’; one said she had been raped by a French soldier, and the other said a French soldier looked on as she was raped by a Rwandan man.

These are only two of a string of testimonies heard by the Rwandan Commission of Independent Enquiry since April when it started investigating French involvement in the Rwandan genocide. Some of the more damning testimonies were made by ex-Interahamwe militia returned from the DRC after years of exile, who said they had been trained and armed by the French.

The controversy is essentially about ‘Opération Turquoise’, a military operation run by the French from June to August 2004. In an interview with RFI, the operation’s commander Christophe Boisbouvier assured that France had been mandated by the UN and remained impartial throughout the operation. He said that the Hutus received no ammunition from the French, and that the only fighting between France and the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) occurred immediately outside the “secure humanitarian zone” and was marginal.

Boisbouvier then went on to allege that the RPF could have intervened sooner to stop the genocide.

To the charge that the French troops helped the ‘génocidaires’ to escape, Boisbouvier said that on the contrary they tried to stop them from escaping but that at the time they only had 150 soldiers and couldn’t do much. About the charges of crimes against humanity made against some of those soldiers he says that the accusations are a political manipulation. « L’Opération Turquoise a été complètement conforme au mandat de l’ONU et réalisée dans un esprit humain de la part d’exécutants remarquables. »

To add to the controversy, France’s leading anti-terrorism judge Jean-Louis Bruguière recently issued international arrest warrants against nine of Rwandan President Paul Kagame’s key aides, and in an incendiary report recommended that the President himself face trial by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR). The accusation is that he ordered the shooting down on 6 April 1994 of the plane that was being used by the then President Habyarimana, an event which the judge says triggered the genocide. “The final order to attack the Presidential plane was given by Paul Kagame himself during a meeting held in Mulindi on March 31st 1994,” the report charges. The judge had been seized in 1998 by the parents of the French pilots who died when the plane crashed.

Paul Kagame responded angrily that there was absolutely no foundation to the judge’s allegations, and that he would never accept to face trial on the indictment of a country which was seriously implicated in the Rwandan genocide, not even to prove his innocence. Rwandan Foreign Affairs Minister Charles Murigande subsequently told Reuters that “the French are trying to appease their conscience for their role in the genocide and are now trying to find someone else to hold responsible for their acts here.” And Rwanda recalled its Ambassador in Paris, broke off all diplomatic ties with France, while in Kigali 25,000 people demonstrated against France.

Judge Bruguière says he has some seventy pages worth of documentary evidence proving Kagame’s guilt. On BBC Hard Talk last week, Kagame responded that those were seventy pages worth of trash, based on the testimony of people indicted by the Tanzania-based ICTR, people whom the Tribunal has not been able to bring to justice because they enjoy France’s protection. He said the French judge was trying to pin the genocide on the assassination of Habyarimana, when in fact there were months of preparation: “they bought arms, they trained the people, they got arms from France, money paid by the French government to the government of Habyarimana to prepare for the genocide,” none of which has anything to do with bringing down a plane, he believes.

When the BBC’s man Stephen Sackur confronted Kagame with the challenge that Rwanda could not move on until the real responsibility for the assassination of the President of Rwanda in 1994 was established, Kagame’s response was, “I’m not responsible for Habyarimana’s death, and I don’t care”. Rwanda is moving on irrespective of not knowing who killed Habyarimana, he said, because Habyarimana’s death is inconsequential compared to losing one million people to genocide – a genocide in which France is indicted, he added.

More damaging to Judge Bruguière’s report than Kagame’s unsurprising response is the accusation by Emmanuel Ruzigana, one of two key witnesses quoted in the report, who wrote a letter to the magistrate to complain that his testimony had been distorted. He said he had been read a text which he was asked to confirm or deny. He added that sometimes he didn’t understand the question.

On BBC Hard Talk Kagame asks why Judge Bruguière doesn’t investigate the involvement of French officers and government officials in the Rwandan genocide. He says it is public knowledge that the French authorities were actively involved in the killing of one million people in Rwanda: “they supplied arms, they fought against those who were trying to stop the genocide, they supported a President who was leading a section of his people to kill another section of the people, they trained the militia who committed the genocide…” So, will the Rwandans indict the French authorities, asks Sackur? Kagame is adamant: If a French judge can indict the Rwandan Head of State, why can’t the Rwandan judges indict, say, the current French Prime Minister, who at the time was the Foreign Minister’s Director of Cabinet? “We will play on the same field with France. What [the French] did to us, we will do to them,” said Kagame in an interview with i-TELE.

The Commission of Independent Enquiry resumed its public hearings yesterday, and will eventually take a position on a possible procedure against France in front of the International Court of Justice. The saga promises to be riveting; let’s hope it sheds a bit more light one way or the other on this murky part of France’s history.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

The carrot, the stick and the missing man

This morning, the Congolese woke up with a new, democratically-elected president, the country’s fourth ever president, but the first to be elected by universal suffrage. Yesterday was Joseph Kabila’s big day. Unfortunately, our personal invitation to his swearing in ceremony having most certainly been lost in the post, we missed the whole thing. We also failed dismally to watch any of it on television, which is rather less excusable.

Today I have been asking my Congolese friends and colleagues about their impressions of the President’s speech. Most roll their eyes: “Empty politician promises,” they say. And indeed, it seems that Kabila may have bitten off rather more than any President – even with the unquenchable energy of a thirty-five year old – can chew: re-establishing the state, unity and national cohesion, functional institutions that preserve the balance of powers, an independent judiciary to “fight against the power of money and friendship”, public administration reform, reenergising the Congolese youth, and a programme of action that spans roads, agriculture, education, water, electricity, health, habitat, the fight against poverty, social injustice and child protection.

Wow, and I thought my to-do list was unmanageable!

Most roll their eyes, but some were inspired. Particularly with the second half of Kabila’s speech, which sounded tough and uncompromising. He called an end to the ‘recess’ (« à partir d’aujourd’hui, je mets fin à la récréation pour que tous les Congolais se remettent au travail dans la tranquillité »), promised to fight impunity and corruption and said that the prison doors were open to anyone who broke the law. In this respect, today’s issue of the Congolese newspaper Le Potentiel raises the question of the UN report on Illegal Exploitation of Natural Resources and the investigation by the Lutundula (parliamentary) Commission. So, Mr President, will your prisons soon welcome the 17 senior politicians and corporate bosses who have been accused by of fraud, theft and other charges with respect to illegal mining?

The most entertaining pondering of the day, however, is where is Jean-Pierre Bemba? He didn’t attend his rival’s ceremony yesterday. Sore loser? Exhaustion? Some of his supporters say he didn’t want to steal the President’s limelight – allow me to be a tad sceptical. Some, including the international press, say he is in Portugal, taking a long overdue break with his wife and kids. Others, including several local radio stations, say he is in Equateur province, nursing his wounds. Meanwhile, I heard that Kudura Kasongo, the President’s spokesman, made a faux-pas by audibly muttering something to the effect of, “Bemba can just stay in Equateur and attend to his potatoes.” Woops!

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Belated birthday in the blogosphere

It appears that yesterday last year was my first ever post. Common practice amongst bloggers seems to be that on the one-year anniversary of their blog they celebrate by sharing their stats: average hits per day, number of posts written per week, number of comments received, favourite picture, favourite post, etc. This is on the basis of the, um, eight blogs I check regularly. Ahem.

It says something that until a few days ago I didn’t have a clue how to check stats. And of course it says something that I missed Nayembi’s birthday altogether. My schizophrenia about blogging is exposed: is this simply a convenient way of sending news and photos to friends and family, is it some kind of semi-private journal for posterity (i.e. the illusion that some bored grandchild of mine will one day want to read about my life), or am I secretly hoping to be allowed in the big pool with the big kids whose blogs all link to one another, who have several dozen regular subscribers, and who sometimes get quoted by online news sites?

It’s a strange addiction this blogging business. There are times when my mind starts to compose a post at the slightest occurrence, and I have to force myself away or you’d end up with an hour-by-hour account of my day. There are times when I’m vaguely conscious that I haven’t posted anything in over a week, and I only drag myself to the computer and force myself to think something up out of some obscure sense of obligation. There are times when I get cross at myself for staying up late to post an entry, and there are times when I regret all the clever things I’d thought of posting but never found the time. I’m horrified at the idea that anyone other than my forgiving family and closest friends ever reads my insignificant words, but on the rare occurrences when a stranger or fellow blogger posted a comment I lit up with embarrassed delight.

And last week I sheepishly asked my mentor (after months of merciless teasing about his own Internet hobbies) to show me how to set up Statcounter so that I too could find out how many people read Nayembi. One week of statistics confirm that I’m not really in the ‘big boy’ league, but at least it means I can be unapologetic about rambling on about my life (you reap what you sow, you’ll tell me). Amongst other things I found out that Nayembi was worth $1,693.62. So I think I’ll stick to the day job and let Fred attend to our cyberpopularity for now (Extra Extra is worth $12,419.88).

Thursday, November 30, 2006

One year in the Congo

This morning I had to go to the Grand Hotel to pick something up, and low and behold, what was I greeted by if not the tacky, plastic, booty-shaking Santas of yesteryear full of their usual vigorous Christmas cheer and cacophonous song. I stopped in my tracks and grinned broadly at them. For a second there I felt bizarrely touched, as if the Santas had come out of their own accord to salute me and remind that I’ve been here exactly one year. I felt something akin to the holidaymakers who stay on in the same hotel a second week running and watch the newcomers arrive with a slight feeling of superiority mixed together with early regret that they will be the next batch to go. An early and unexpected indication that I will one day look back on these days in the Congo with some measure of melancholy. I’ll probably bore my kids witless with tales of Kinshasa: how amazing it all was, how lucky we were to be here at such a fascinating and historical time, how stunning the river was at sunset, how much fun we had camping, how exciting it was to travel to the interior… conveniently forgetting the daily frustrations and often uneventful routine. Still, it’s hard to live somewhere for a year and not feel some emotional attachment to the place – ironic, though, that it should be the despised Santas of all things that triggered it in me.

One year on, though I have become way more confident about taking pictures in public, I still don’t feel comfortable whipping out my camera in the Grand Hotel lobby. You’ll have to make do with last year’s blurred, surreptitiously-taken photo.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006


« Au nom de l’intérêt supérieur de la Nation et dans le souci de préserver la paix et d’épargner au pays de sombrer dans le chaos et de la violence, je prends aujourd’hui devant Dieu, la nation et l’histoire, l’engagement et la responsabilité de conduire désormais, en communion permanente avec vous tous, ce combat pour le changement dans le cadre d’une opposition forte et républicaine »

-- Jean Pierre Bemba, in a televised address last night

Monday, November 27, 2006

Breaking news - part II

The Supreme Court just made it official: Joseph Kabila is declared the new president. All eight complaints filed by his challenger Jean-Pierre Bemba were declared unfounded. Unfortunately, Bemba's lawyers boycotted the court hearing. Who knows what that means. I'm feeling pretty optimistic, but maybe it's the distant buzz of the pro-Kabila party-goers that's getting to me.

So yes, I made it back to Kinshasa - wouldn't want to miss all the excitement now, would I?

The TV on which I watched the historical announcement

Friday, November 24, 2006

On the brink

I was flown in to London this week to participate in a conference about the pros and cons of scaling up aid: will a big influx of cash finally solve poverty in Africa? My session was about conflict and development, and one of the presentations was a bitter indictment of the ‘post-conflict reconstruction cycle’: conflict – heavy-handed international pressure – tenuous peace accord – big UN peacekeeping mission – early elections – rushed DDR – half-cooked security sector reform – quick withdrawal of UN troops – continued poverty – and more often than not, a return to conflict. The solution: focus on human security rather than poverty, a new campaign to “Make War History”, Millennium Security Goals, and at country level, more economics, less politics. In particular, elections before jobs are a recipe for disaster. Hmmmm… As usual, the case for why things don’t work is made compellingly, the one for what should be done about it rather less convincing.

Now it’s my turn to talk, and I’m supposed to be saying something about the lessons from DRC. So, does it work? The world’s largest peace-keeping mission, 17,500 troops, an annual tab of some US$1,2 billion, $500 million spent on the elections alone, development money pouring in from all sides, the embodiment of the current favoured paradigm among proponents of intervention… Well, what say thee – is it peace for our time, or the onset of yet another round of fighting in the region? Can we pat ourselves on the back and remind everyone self-righteously that whatever the cost, whatever the inefficiencies of the UN and international community, it is always, always cheaper than war (sixteen times cheaper, says a World Bank economist confidently – I dare not ask how one measures such a thing lest my ignorance be exposed)? Or is it time for ‘mea culpa’, time to let the academics in to explain condescendingly exactly why we got it so wrong once again, why our sequencing was off from the start, why the writing was on the wall but we were too damn arrogant to read it?

The DRC could still turn out to be the biggest success story of the decade, or it could turn out to be the biggest failure. The problem is, the truth is, I don’t know. Oh, it will be easy afterwards, once we know the outcome, to explain the whys and wherefores. But today, as the Supreme Court judges convene in someone else’s office to deliberate the complaint of election irregularities filed by Bemba, three days after a riot outside the Supreme Court turned ugly and the building was shot at, then burnt and ransacked, in the last hours of a 48-hour verbal ‘ultimatum’ from Kabila to the UN to get Bemba’s troops out of Kinshasa or else the national army will do it, with the army already taking position near Bemba’s house – but then let’s not forget that the army itself includes well-placed generals who used to fight for Bemba – I simply don’t know.

The UN say disarmament of armed groups in Kinshasa is the responsibility of the Congolese, that they don't have a mandate to disarm units in Kinshasa. Kabila says the UN is not doing its job. But I understand that the whole ‘ultimatum’ thing was somewhat overly dramatised by the media; the national army will not attack Bemba’s house today. Bemba says he will follow the legal route, but then his people wreak havoc and destroy the records and documents in the Supreme Court. So what will Bemba do if the Supreme Court rejects his complaint? And do the more extreme members of his Union pour la Nation still listen to him anyway?

Meanwhile, I await instruction from Kinshasa about whether or not to return tomorrow.

Photo taken by a friend, cropped beyond recognition by me.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Breaking news

The provisional results are out: Kabila has won with 58.05% of the votes.

« Ayant recueilli la majorité absolue au deuxième tour des élections présidentielles le 29 octobre 2006, est déclaré Président élu Kabila Kabange Joseph » announced the President of the Independent Electoral Commission.

Meanwhile, Bemba’s television channel CCTV was showing the football.

Photo from www.deboutcongolais

Now the real fun begins, at the Supreme Court of Justice, where any disputes will have to be deliberated before the final results can be proclaimed.

Rumour turned news

Anxious calls from London drew my attention to this Guardian article: Congo faces danger of new civil war as opposition rejects election result.

Apart from a rather sensationalist headline, it seems to confirm most of yesterday’s rumours, painting them in a bleak light. Yes, all the ingredients are there for sparks to fly, but somehow the naturally glum Congolese are displaying the most cheering optimism, and this morning life continues as normal.

Photo accompanying Guardian article: A Congolese soldier loyal to presidential hopeful Jean-Pierre Bemba in Kinshasa. Photo: Jerome Delay/AP

If you read between the lines, the big unknown is Bemba’s position. So far he has not subscribed to the accusations made by his political allies, but nor has he refuted them. I was also interested to read that “diplomats say Mr Kabila has already offered Mr Bemba the post of prime minister but he turned it down”. Another one for my rumour vs. news ponderings of last night.

“Rumour does not always err; it sometimes even elects a man.”
-- Tacitus, Agricola (IX)

Here are some more pictures from the media – since I haven’t been able to take my own!

If you look in the background, you see a police officer being man-handled, while in the forefront his colleague runs away!

Notice the 'mundele' (white guy) taking cover.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Chinese whispers

In pure ‘Radio Trottoir’ tradition, Kinshasa is buzzing with rumour tonight. Nothing is swifter than rumour, they say (Horace, apparently), but I think Kinshasa may hold a world record. I’d love it if someone could invent a ‘rumometer’ to measure and chart the amount of noise generated by rumours at any one time: word of mouth, phone conversations, text messages, e-mail traffic, blog posts... I reckon we’d be off the charts, but probably I’m just new to the game. I wonder – if information is power, then what is rumour? Perhaps the more interesting question is, at what point does rumour become information, and information news?

So today’s jumble of news and rumour is this:

§ News: Following the trouble on Saturday, Bemba agreed to send his troops outside Kinshasa, and to accept UN protection instead. His troops were due to leave this afternoon.

§ Rumour: Throughout the afternoon, people witnessed lorries arriving full of FARDC (state army) soldiers and leaving empty, sparking rumours that soldiers were being deployed around the capital.

§ Rumour: Bemba’s soldiers refused to go.

§ News: The Independent Electoral Commission has been publishing results by constituency as and when they become available. Today they published the results of the final remaining constituencies. The press (along with the government, the opposition, embassies, observer missions and anyone else with a keen interest and/or time to spare) has been carefully compiling the published results, which show a Kabila win by some 60%.

§ News: In an interview with Radio France Internationale this morning, Cardinal Frédéric Etsou, Archbishop of Kinshasa, questioned the extent to which the elections in DRC were free, fair and transparent.

§ Rumour: The interview may have been leading, the editing sensationalist, and the Archbishop’s words consequently misrepresented.

§ News: This afternoon Bemba’s Union pour la Nation issued a statement claiming that there had been massive fraud and that their own compilation of the results given to them by their party witnesses showed a Bemba win by some 52%.

§ Rumour: Rumours that Bemba would appear on television at 7pm to proclaim himself President (and potentially spark the worst fighting yet) turned out to be erroneous. Current rumour has it that Bemba is distancing himself from the statement made by his political allies.

§ Rumour: Dozens of UN tanks line the road in front of Bemba’s residence.

§ Rumour: Ambassadors are currently ensconced with Bemba, and probably the other Usual Suspects.

§ Rumour: Bemba has made a secret deal with Kabila – Money? Ministry? Diplomatic immunity from an impending ICJ court case?

§ Rumour: Close Bemba allies, such as his spokesperson and party secretary, may break rank and denounce the deal he made with Kabila, despite having won the election.

§ News: Before proclaiming the provisional results, the IEC must respond to five counts of irregularities made by Bemba’s camp. Yesterday, the IEC claimed to have responded to two of these already.

§ Rumour: Bemba claims that he has received no response from the IEC.

§ News: Between 3 and 5 am on Sunday, the police rounded up 337 ‘shegues’ (street youth), including 35 women (and their 3 babies) and 87 minors. On instructions from the Minister of Interior, these people were due to be sent on Monday to national service camps in Katanga (men) and near Kinshasa (women), where they would be made to work in the fields and taught a trade.

§ Rumour: Following concerns expressed by different human rights groups, the minister subsequently agreed to let the minors and women at least remain in Kinshasa and, if charged with a crime (which none of them have been yet!), be tried according to normal judicial procedures.

“I cannot tell how the truth may be; I say the tale as 'twas said to me.”

-- Sir Walter Scott

P.S: A few more jumbled thoughts about rumours: I’m willing to admit that in this environment they can sometimes keep you out of trouble, but I also can’t help but feel that there’s something a bit sleazy about it all. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but I know the way my heart accelerates excitedly when I am privy to a particularly juicy piece of information, unsubstantiated as it may turn out to be, and the distressing amount of self-control I have to exercise to stop myself from spreading it as quickly as possible, such is the lure of having two seconds’ worth of someone’s undivided attention, and the feeling of power that goes with it. And I have learned to recognise the sign in others – a pink flush on the cheeks, a twinkle of excitement in the eye… It is human nature, you will say, but I can’t help feeling uncomfortable at how eager some of us can seem as we transmit rumours of impending gloom to one another.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Eleventh hour

The eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. Today at 11am, people in Europe and the USA commemorated the official end of the First World War, taking two minutes of silence to remember the eight million who died in this tragic war. Today at 11am, two loud blasts echoed up the hill towards our peaceful haven, confirming the reports we’d been receiving since the morning of gunfire in downtown Kinshasa.

It is still unclear exactly what happened, and in what order. We already have a plethora of contradictory rumours, and I’m sure by Monday we will have just as many competing ‘official’ versions. What we do know is that people in Kinshasa mostly support Bemba , that for the past two weeks they have been fed misinformation about a confirmed Bemba win, that partial results now show Kabila in the lead (although not by much), that Bemba’s camp is alleging massive fraud although the man himself has remained quiet on the issue, that for the third day running ‘shegues’ and Bemba militants have been demonstrating, throwing stones and burning tires on the main downtown boulevard, that the intervention police were called in today to disperse them. Then it all becomes more confused. The police may or may not have shot in the air; Bemba’s private guards may or may not have retaliated with mortar-fire; the military may or may not have intervened; the Republican Guard may or may not have fired their tanks towards the river to keep Bemba’s men away from the Presidential house.

The truth is, apart from sporadic crackle from afar, and the obligatory radio monitoring and agitated text message exchanges, we have been happily sheltered from it all. I did have my first ever ration-pack meal today though.

“War does not determine who is right – only who is left.”

-- Bertrand Russell

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Butterfly wisdom

« I embrace emerging experience. I participate in discovery. I am a butterfly. I am not a butterfly collector. I want the experience of the butterfly. »

-- William Stafford

I'm trying to remember what it's like to be a child.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

The Truth, by Mr T

Privileged expatriates are often mocked for thinking that the views expressed by their drivers and household staff are representative of the views of the local working class. I don’t claim that the following represents anything other than the views of Mr T, therefore:

  • Jean Pierre (Bemba) will win the election.
  • If Jean Pierre doesn’t win, it will be because “les Blancs” want Joseph (Kabila) to win.
  • But if Jean Pierre wins, investors will accrue to DRC by the thousands.
  • Jean Pierre with the West behind him can make Congo take off for real.
  • Jean Pierre is very rich so he won’t pillage the Congo.
  • Joseph is not Congolese.
  • Joseph is not Laurent Désiré Kabila’s son.
  • Joseph’s mother had him and his twin sister with another man before she became Laurent Désiré’s concubine. This is why Joseph leaves his half-brothers and sisters to starve and sweat it out in the Cité when he could give them houses to live in.
  • Joseph is Tanzanian and used to be a taxi driver.
  • Joseph was part of the plot to kill his father, who is not his father. Otherwise he would have avenged Laurent Désiré’s death properly, not sent the killer to prison.
  • MONUC (UN mission in Congo) was also part of the plot.
  • Joseph is not very smart; he is selling Congolese uranium to Iraq for only $40,000.
  • Joseph’s wife is smarter than he is.
  • Joseph may have helped achieve peace, but he has done nothing else for the DRC in five years.
  • The only reason Joseph held elections was because Bemba pressured him to do so.
  • Mr T has seen results from the East, and Joseph is not doing so well.
  • If Joseph does well in the East, it will be because half the people there are not Congolese.
  • Joseph only did well in the first round because the Angolans and Rwandans smuggled boxes full of ballots pre-marked for Kabila into the Congo.
  • The Congolese intelligence services have stopped such smuggling during the second round, but if Joseph wins then it will prove that some boxes got through anyway.
  • Antoine Gizenga (the octogenarian candidate who came third place in the first round and aligned himself with Kabila for the second round) is not very wise. He told everyone that Joseph was a cockroach during the first round, and now he says that he is a human being after all.
  • All of Kinshasa is behind Jean Pierre.
  • Jean Pierre will win.
  • If Jean Pierre doesn’t win, it will be because of cheating (“tricherie”) by “les Blancs”.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Simple pleasures

Few things make me feel more serene than sitting curled up in a comfy chair, reading a novel on a breezy terrace, preferably with a view, a gin & tonic nearby, some music and lively chatter in the distant background, and the quiet companionship of my husband.

This week-end of indolent inactivity, ensconced with a highly entertaining and unexpectedly moving novel, the title of which I am too embarrassed to reveal (hint: I’m a sucker for romantic tales of mother-and-daughter reconciliation), is exactly what I needed – a balm on my soul, without wishing to sound too melodramatic. Combined with long, lazy meals with our friends, idly discussing anything from the odd timing of recent US asset freezes to the First Lady’s true identity, fooling around like kids in the swimming pool of our new, temporary (and very lovely) home, and dancing untamed in the tropical rain, it is enough to reconcile me with Kinshasa, for now.

“Breathing is the greatest pleasure in life.”

-- Giovanni Papini

I don’t often put up links, since I know you’re all so busy, but this is quite a good one to keep in your Favourites for a particularly stressful day at work: Slow Down Now.

A Congolese bonobo, demonstrating the forgotten skill of Slowing Down.

Bonobos, whose DNA is more than 98% identical to that of Homo sapiens, also have a lot to teach us humans in the art of conflict resolution: their preferred method is sex, thus embodying long before the Vietnam War, John Lennon and David Allyn, the popular axiom "Make love, not war".

Are you listening out there, Messieurs Kabila and Bemba?

Friday, November 03, 2006


« Si vis pacem, para bellum. »
If you want peace, prepare war.

Who said that? Julius Caesar?

It seems to be the motto here these days, or perhaps it’s simply that prevention is better than cure. All be it, it’s very strange living in this limbo, planning for conflict, wishing fervently for peace, and no one really knowing what the outcome will be.

Incendiary material and fake documents are being distributed by militants from both sides every day. The latest is a note, supposedly from the Belgian observers, proclaiming a Bemba win. Previously, a letter dated 24 October, on ‘official’ letterhead from the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC), declaring the results 5 days before the elections. All fake, all dangerous. Since Sunday, there have been parties in the Cité, organised by militants to celebrate the victory of their candidate. The IEC, amongst others, desperately organises press conference after press conference to denounce the publication of early results and deny the existence of parallel, unofficial compilation centres. But if our drivers are anything to go by, this doesn’t convince the population. Both sides believe in victory, but one side will have to lose.

Meanwhile, we have temporarily moved out of our house and to a safer area.

In Obelix’s version, the saying goes: “If you want peace, prepare menhirs”. Maybe what we need here is a wise, ageless druid with a long beard and a bit of magic potion.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Demise of Halloween


I awoke this morning to the news that after ten years of unexpected popularity, Halloween is now disappearing in France. According to Le Monde, some supermarkets exhibited a handful of carved pumpkins to the general indifference of their customers, but none indulged in the lavish orange and black displays of Halloween paraphernalia of yesteryear. A friend of mine informs me that the association “No to Halloween” has wound down its activities this year, perceiving that Halloween was dying its own natural death in a country that likes to reject on principle all things American. It made me giggle – only my fellow countrymen would bother to set up an association, with all the hassle and paperwork it involves, to combat a harmless holiday, a celebration, an American one granted, but basically an excuse for a fancy-dress party.

How misguided of me! After a little amused/incredulous research (today is a bank holiday for my project so I am indulging in a slow morning), I discovered that far from being the harmless holiday I thought it to be, Halloween is an ideological menace to everything France stands for. Under the pretence of innocent fun and frolics, and cunningly targeting our vulnerable and innocent youth, it deviously infiltrated French society, promoting American hegemony, cultural uniformity, a McWorld society, the triumph of money over spirituality, and all things similarly un-French.

Okay, so maybe that is taking it one step too far...

Halloween may have some spiritual significance in Ireland or the USA, but in France it is an artificial construct, contrived for purely commercial reasons. Surprise, surprise. Halloween was first promoted in France by the costume company Cesar – a real coup, its turnover rising from less than 90,000 euros in 1996 to 4.5 million euros in 1998 and 9 million euros in 1999. Then France Telecom – the traitors! – marketed a mobile phone called Olaween and placed several thousand pumpkins around Paris.

Worse yet than being a money-making enterprise, Halloween tried to substitute for our own celebration of the dead, All Saints Day. Ignorant French children confused this pagan holiday of derision and morbidity, bordering on Satanism, with our own pious day of Christian commemoration and communion with the enlightened souls of the departed. Such a crime did not go unrecorded, however, and for the last few years, French journalists, sociologists and politicians alike have been theorising on the whys and wherefores of the inexplicable success of Halloween.

Phew, therefore, that it is apparently dying the death it deserves. Now on to Saint Valentine’s Day.

“Halloween n'est pas une étape d'un parcours ascensionnelle. Mais elle nous introduit dans un monde sinistre. Elle n'a aucune légitimité religieuse, ni communautaire. Sa signification ne dépasse pas les intérêts commerciaux qui y sont liés et le seul calendrier où elle trouve sa place est celui de la société de consommation. A cela s'ajoute le plaisir morbide qu'éprouvent certaines personnes à célébrer la mort - et par-delà toute destruction-, le crime, le laid et le monstrueux. Sur ce sujet, il y a lieu de s'interroger avec inquiétude sur les ressorts psychologiques d'un tel engouement. Quant aux impulsions spirituelles qui peuvent animer cette célébration, nous pouvons facilement constater qu'il n'y a dans Halloween aucune élévation, aucune libération, aucune espérance, aucune lumière. Dès lors, il est évident qu'elle véhicule, et amplifie par les énergies réunies de tous les participants, des influences qui abaissent, avilissent, et enferment l'être humain dans un monde ténébreux.”

-- Christophe Levalois

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Peace and a job, please

Hurrah for a successful second round on Sunday. The world’s most expensive elections, somewhere between US$500-700 million, I am told. A logistical nightmare, but this time everyone knew the drill.

In the remote district near Kisangani where I observed the elections, voters had learned their lesson from the last round. Instead of rushing to the polling centres at dawn, they went to church first, and showed up nonchalantly mid-morning. In most cases, they queued up obediently, under the watchful eye of a bored policeman. In a few places there was still some pushing and shoving, but considering that voters were standing for hours under merciless sun and in sweltering heat, they once again showed boundless patience.

Once inside the polling station, the relatively straightforward presidential ballot, reduced from 33 candidates to two, was dealt with expeditiously. Not so with the ballot for provincial representative, which featured close to 300 candidates spread over 7 pages, and caused endless grief among the illiterate or those with poor eye-sight. “These are the first real elections in our history, and everyone wants to be a candidate,” explained an election official after I commented on the number of trees that must have been cut down to make the ballots.

In Kinshasa, where people woke up on Sunday morning to the biggest storm of the year, voting was extended into the night, to make up for the morning’s wash-out. Participation rates for Kinshasa were lower than during the first round, but considering that people often don’t show up for work on a rainy day, and considering that many polling centres didn’t provide shelter for those waiting in line for their turn, it’s a tribute to voters that they braced the storm and showed up at all.

As I went from polling centre to polling centre, I asked people what brought them there. Their duty, of course. When I asked them what they hoped to get out of these elections, the answer was always the same: peace, and a job.

Now everyone is hoping for a substantial margin between the two candidates, of at least 10 percent so that the loser cannot challenge the result.

P.S: I just heard on Radio Okapi that the ballot papers will be recycled into loo paper.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Low batt

Phew, I’m exhausted. And I don’t know where the last two weeks went. Time for Sunday to just happen already – the elections, for those of you who are blissfully unaware. Although I guess none of us will dare to feel the same euphoria we did the day after the last round, now that we’ve all been reminded the hard way that it’s the results that count, and the losing camp’s willingness to accept defeat.

Last time I was in Kisangani, it was three weeks before the elections, and the place was literally buzzing from the campaign. The excitement was infectious as throngs of yellow-clad Kabila supporters danced their way to the airport to greet their hero, chanting and laughing all the way, only to be greeted halfway by truckloads of animated blue-clad Bemba supporters returning from the airport where they had just said good-bye to their own beloved champion. Astonishingly, particularly in the light of subsequent events, this did not lead to clashes of any sort, but rather to good-humoured jeering and laughter from both sides.

This time, the campaign is reduced to a handful of students shouting slogans from the top of a truck. The big men themselves are too scared to leave Kinshasa, and rumour has it that neither of them has any money left to do much anyway. So instead they send their emissaries – wives, parents, advisers – to do their campaigning for them. And the result is pretty uninspiring.

Yesterday, we all waited with baited breath for what was going to be the highlight of this tepid campaign – a head-to-head debate between the two remaining presidential candidates. But as most of us had predicted, the debate was cancelled, officially because of disagreement over modalities, officiously because the two candidates couldn’t agree whether to sit side by side or facing each other or some such nonsense, and of course the real reason is that neither of them – or certainly not the less charismatic Kabila – wanted this debate in the first place.

Last round, I was fully engaged. In the daytime, I allowed the campaign thrill to seep through me and went around my job in eager anticipation. In the evenings, alone in the hotel, I dug deep in the recesses of my brain where remnants of my political science lectures gather dust, and kept myself busy with high-browed thoughts about what strategies each candidate was choosing, what different outcomes might mean for the future of Congo, and more generally the pros and cons of democracy. This time, my brain is numb. The job at hand – mechanical as it is – commands all my attention and energy, and I can’t think ahead to the afternoon, let alone to the elections on Sunday. All that is left is a vague notion that in a couple of days I can finally put my head down on a pillow and sleep to my heart’s content.

Let’s hope the Congolese are more enthused.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Unexpected perks of the job

This morning I woke up at dawn, put on my best lilac shirt and drove 50kms out of Kinshasa to go visit a police training centre where some 200 drivers were taking their off-road driving exam. To pass the test, each driver had to successfully drive 2.5 kms along the rough, battered, narrow, crevasse-filled, muddy 20 km circuit that runs around the centre. The instructors explained to me mournfully that some parts of the circuit had become so bad in the past few years that even they had difficulty getting the vehicles through.

Next thing I know, I’m the one driving the police 4x4 pick-up truck with some twenty amused, sniggering trainees in the back, taking the circuit the wrong way around (at the insistence of the main instructor) so that the impassably steep and crevassed downhill bits have become impassably steep and crevassed uphill bits, and wondering more than once if the whole vehicle isn’t just going to tip over entirely. Considering that the last police officer who crashed a police vehicle is still rotting in jail two weeks later, I wasn’t feeling particularly relaxed, and in fact my left leg was trembling uncontrollably every time I pushed in the clutch.

Against all odds, however, I did pretty well – except for one point where the trainees had to get down and stood on either side of the trail shouting contradictory instructions as I desperately tried to get this monstrous vehicle up an almost vertical track with a massive ravine down the middle so that there was virtually no road for the tires to grip onto. Still, I made it through, and I am soon to become the proud owner of an off-road driver’s certificate from the Congolese Police. Can’t wait to put that on my CV!

My lovely lilac blouse didn’t do so well out of the experience, however.

This was the easy bit, coming back down!

Wednesday, October 11, 2006


Still struggling to find the time to post new entries, so here’s another few from the ‘best of Africa’ series, in the meantime.

Work is pretty intense, in typical post-holiday, pre-election fashion, but the disappearance of all free time is also due to a new, strict and highly enjoyable sports regime. My aerobics instructor is back, with a delightful mix of girls-only classes with little in common except the word ‘body’ in the title (Body Pump, Body Balance…) and the guarantee of an hour’s worth of heat, sweat and noise. She even does a pseudo yoga-and-tai-chi combo which is meant to be a more relaxing and spiritual experience than the other classes, but she still somehow manages to turn the Sun Salutation into a military drill.

In addition, after 9 months of stubborn resistance, F. and I were finally lured with the promise of regular tennis doubles and the pleasure of an Olympic size swimming pool into becoming members of Elaeis Sports Club – not nearly as exclusive as the Golf Club, but certainly much more so than the rundown, mosquito-ridden, neighbourhood tennis courts we frequented until now. To make membership worthwhile, however, we have to go there at least twice a week on average – a good way to ensure we don’t let the blogs take over our lives.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Toilet giggle

Here is an exact transcript (spelling mistakes and all) of a notice posted inside the ladies’ toilet in a building where I had a meeting today. It was a print-out of an e-mail that appears to have been sent to everyone in the firm, from senior partner to messenger. I laughed so hard I couldn’t pee.

« Chers camarades,

Nous avons remarqué, avec désolation, le non respect des normes de propreté dans les installations hygiéniques du bureau. Aussi, nous avons enregistré des plaintes de beaucoup de collègues ainsi que de certains membres de la Direction qui ont constaté que certaines personnes ne pensent pas chasser leurs urines et d’autres encore laissent carrément des gouttes des urines sur les latrines après utilisation.

Ayons à l’esprit que pour le maintien de la propreté dans les installations sanitaires, il faut ceci :

  • Prenez soin de soulever les deux battants chaque fois que vous voulez faire pipi ; ou bien soulevez un seul battant si vous voulez voir comment le roi marche à quatre pattes ;

  • Tirer légèrement la chasse d’eau et assurez vous que l’eau a tout emporté ;

  • Vérifier qu’il n’y a pas de gouttes d’urines aux alentours des latrines ou des traces de la matière fécale collée sur la cuve ;

  • Si oui, nettoyez soigneusement avec la brosse dure déposée à côté de la cuve ;

  • Aspergez de temps en temps les toilettes avec le désodorisant afin de chasser les mauvaises odeurs ;

  • Pensez simplement à la personne qui vient après vous.

Chers camarades, rappelez-vous que nous passons près de la moitié de notre temps aux toilettes et que sur cette base, nous devons maintenir le bureau ainsi que les installations hygiéniques dans un état vivable.

Merci pour la compréhension de tous. »

And to follow on the ‘notice’ theme, here is the second picture from my ‘best of Africa’ series mentioned yesterday.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

In absentia

Predictably, this week is crazily busy. So until I find the time to post some news, here is a little selection of my favourite pictures from Africa – not, unfortunately, by me. This one is meant to be from Uganda, but could so easily be DRC.

Monday, October 02, 2006


"Working hours are never long enough. Each day is a holiday, and ordinary holidays are grudged as enforced interruptions in an absorbing vocation."

-- Winston Churchill

This is why I will never be Prime Minister. I LOVED my holiday, and have come back feeling so much happier with life and the Congo that I spent most of today skipping around in childish merriment.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Pragmatism wins

The Supreme Court has given the Independent Electoral Commission an extension of 50 days starting today, i.e. up to 4 November, to organise the second round of the presidential elections. This on the grounds that it was not logistically or materially possible to organise the second round in 15 days as per the Constitution. Phew.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Good news, bad news

The good news is that Bemba and Kabila finally met face to face yesterday. We had our share of VIPs visiting Kinshasa over the past week – Thabo Mbeki, Javier Solana and, um, Hilary Benn – and I guess international diplomacy won the day. Top of the agenda for the presidential candidates’ meeting: the diplomats’ proposal that all soldiers, except those helping the UN peacekeepers in the east but including Bemba’s personal army and Kabila’s Republican Guard, be confined to their barracks.

The bad news, potentially, is that the Supreme Court of Justice declared the fixing of the second round of the presidential election for 29 October unconstitutional (“inconstitutionnelles les décisions de la CEI, en ce qu’elle fixe le délai du deuxième tour de l’élection présidentielle au 29 octobre 2006” – Le Potentiel). I refer you to a previous post, where I summarised the problem: The Constitution says fifteen days after the official results are announced, but this is logistically impossible (only 45% of the 60,000 electoral kits have been deployed since August). Unless of course the Supreme Court holds off announcing the official results until 15 October, but that, I would think, is politically impossible. So. Now we wait with baited breath to see how the Supreme Court proposes to solve the dilemma.

With our usual flair for timing, we’re off again, for a couple of weeks. More weddings, friends, family, theatre, music, shopping, dinners, coffee, newspapers and the likes. Cheeky, but welcome nonetheless.

Bas Congo in pictures

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Bas Congo road trip

I’m back from my road trip across Bas Congo. Five days, 1 400 kms, 4 districts, 10 territories, lots of red dust, countless towns, street-side market stalls, faces peering suspiciously through the window, children yelling and waving, old mamas walking along the side of the road doubled over under the weight of mammoth piles of wood hanging down their backs from bags slung across their foreheads, young men ambling ahead laughing and swinging machetes, etc, etc. All work – but this is the kind of work I enjoy.

I wonder if everyone else finds that sitting in a car, watching the world go by at high speed, catching fleeting nuggets of so many different lives, is particularly cathartic; if others, like me, find themselves thinking about their whole life, not in a particularly introspective way, not really judging, just remembering. I get the same way in aeroplanes. And boats. As long as I’m not driving. And on horses. But not bicycles.


Bas Congo is seeped with colonial history. Boma, a couple of hours upriver from the Atlantic in a fast motorboat (rather longer in a man-powered dug-out), was the first capital of King Leopold’s Congo state. You can still see the old church – the first church in Congo, I am told –the old post office, and a number of Victorian mansions with big windows, covered porches and decorated roofs that must have served as government offices or houses for European officials in the late 19th century. Boma is also where the ceremony took place transferring ownership of the Congo from Leopold to the Belgian government in 1908. In exchange, the Belgian government assumed 110 million francs’ worth of debts, agreed to pay 45.5 million francs toward some of the king’s pet building projects in Europe, and paid another 50 million francs to the king himself. You can guess where the money was meant to come from.

You can also see signs of Mr Stanley across Bas Congo – in Boma we had drinks in a place called “le Baobab de Stanley” where you could pay 200 FC for the pleasure to go inside a baobab which Stanley may or may not have touched himself. Boma is where Stanley ended up at the end of his famous two and a half year trip across Africa covering 7,000 miles from east to west after being the first person to chart the course of the Congo River. And here was I complaining about a sore spot in my back after two hours on a bumpy road.

Bas Congo is where the infamous railway line cuts through, linking the port of Matadi with Kinshasa. The project was described by Adam Hochschild (my reference in most matters relating to Congo’s early colonial history) as “a modest engineering success and a major human disaster.” A plaque just outside Matadi commemorates the building of the railway, which took no less than eight years for only 241 miles. It doesn’t mention how many people died. On the positive side, the railway did replace porterage, which by all accounts was gruesome and barbaric (endless files of starving men chained at the neck carrying monstrous loads, that kind of thing). King Leopold had construction workers brought in from China, amongst other places, to build the railway. Today, you can see Chinese men sitting motionless on their haunches all along the road from Kinshasa to Matadi, supervising lines of Congolese workers contracted to help rebuild the road. Un clin d’oeil au passé peut-être.

P.S: Can't seem to download any pictures. Later then.

Friday, September 08, 2006

More about India

As I wait for my colleagues to show up so we can head off to Bas Congo for 4 days – departure time was meant to be almost two hours ago, but I am calm, putting in practice my new Zen resolutions of yesterday – I find myself reading more news from India.

An odd quirk of this quirky country is that the national newspapers publish pictures of dead people whom the police cannot identify. So here you are, having your breakfast, flipping through the pages of the morning paper, and suddenly you are staring at a picture of an individual whose face is missing and whose skull is showing, and another with a tortured, bloody face and swollen eyeballs that look like they are about to explode out of the page and into your tea. Yummy.

And here was I thinking that pictures of missing children on your milk carton first thing in the morning was a bit gruesome!

Thursday, September 07, 2006

How to get free publicity

The latest restaurant in Mumbai is called Hitler's Cross. It was promoted with posters of Hitler and red swastikas. The owners said they wanted their restaurant to stand out. They ended up in the newspaper, and now they're on my blog so I guess their strategy worked.

Apparently they backed down in the end, though, and changed the name.


A lesson from Congo in the Art of Zen

So I hear that Bemba’s soldiers captured an armed Republican Guard soldier outside their camp yesterday evening. Foolish man. Audacious, dangerous. The Republican Guard soldier was promptly taken inside the camp and beaten up. Unhelpful.

For ten days now the two presidential candidates have been under UN mediation; each side has set up commissions of inquiry into the 20-22 August fighting. The idea is that they will agree guidelines to ensure a peaceful second round. Last evening’s events – if they really happened – could easily have sparked another round of fighting. In fact, it’s astonishing that they didn’t. It could be evidence that the UN mediation is working. And that both candidates actually have control over their men. Insh’Allah.

Meanwhile everyone awaits the Supreme Court verdict on the final, official results of the presidential first round. They were meant to be announced earlier this week, but first the Supreme Court has to decide whether holding the second round at the end of October (as per the electoral calendar) is unconstitutional: the new Constitution says fifteen days after the official results are announced. Which is logistically impossible. Unless the Supreme Court holds off announcing the official results until 15 October. Which is politically impossible.

There have also been delays in publishing the provisional results of the legislative election. They were meant to be published last Monday, but instead 10 officials were detained on suspicion of cheating in favour of RCD, the party of one of the Vice-presidents, who did pretty poorly in the presidential election. So instead the provisional results will be announced today. We think.

Luckily, the Congolese are used to waiting and have the patience of saints.

Every time I go to the bank, I threaten to have a full-blown nervous breakdown. No matter how much time I spend here, I cannot get used to or tolerate to be kept waiting for over 2 hours. Especially when all I want to do is draw some cash from a bank that charges astronomical fees for the privilege (1.18% per withdrawal, $25 per cheque regardless of the amount, $5 commission for every transaction, not to mention the taxes…). After 30 minutes in an unmoving queue I start to fidget and complain out loud. After 1 hour I ask to speak to the manager. An hour later I am yelling and shouting and fighting back tears of exasperation. This routine is unshakable. So I visit the bank as seldom as possible.

Not so with the Congolese in the queue who watch me bemused, or is it amused. A few will come to my rescue and confirm to the irate bank manager (whom I’ve dragged over forcibly from his desk) that only 3 people have been served in the last hour and a half. But generally they wouldn’t complain. It always astounds me because usually they are so vocal. Even when some local big shot storms in and unapologetically cuts right to the front of the queue that we have all been standing in for 2 hours, I am the only one to say anything. Of course, the man ignores me, mumbles some excuse about having waited in the queue earlier in the day, and stands his ground. I briefly picture myself biting him viciously, but instead stomp around like a caged animal, swallowing back all this unnecessary anger.

Deep breath. “Weeds only grow when we dislike them”; “This is not mine, this I am not, this is not my self”. Zen sayings from an old calendar come back to me reluctantly. I used to pride myself that I could discreetly meditate my way out of most stressful situations and emerge with a big grin on my face. I would think of a tree and picture every intricate detail of its bark, or I would imagine cold water flowing inside me. Small, clever tricks for a more harmonious life. I’m not sure they’re a match against Congo though, but the truth is I haven’t honestly tried. I’ve got the “I’m-too-busy-to-relax” syndrome.

So this is my challenge for Congo: next time I have to wait 2 hours in a queue I will come out feeling peaceful and rejuvenated. If Bemba and Kabila can chill out for a while, surely I can too!

Mongolia, August 2004

Sunday, September 03, 2006

One for Carol

Introducing our adorable compound squatters.

When we first moved in, the mother had five kittens; four were given away, one remained. Six months later, in July, Mama had another two kittens. Then, almost immediately afterwards, her underage daughter (from the first litter) had two of her own. We came back from holidays to find these two tiny gremlins lurking in the bushes. Most of the time they can be found sleeping huddled together looking abandoned and forlorn, but occasionally one of them tries to venture out to play with his marginally older aunt and uncle.

Three generations: Teenage mother, gremlin babies, and two-month old aunt.

Now the two-month old aunt and uncle are perfectly happy, healthy, playful, mischievous and generally well-taken care of by their mother, the older and experienced Mama. But the tiny gremlins, product of an early teenage pregnancy – and most certainly an incestuous one at that since I’ve only ever seen one male lurking about the compound perimeter – appear to be undernourished and neglected by their uninterested mother who ignores them most studiously. Today for the first time she let them cuddle up to her, but their desperate search for a teat was apparently fruitless, and they eventually just fell asleep exhausted.

A rare occurrence: teenage mother cuddles gremlin babies

On one occasion I noticed both mothers basking lazily in the sun, each with one of the older kittens sucking away enthusiastically, whilst the tiny gremlins were left huddled and shivering in the shade. You’ve got to feel sorry for them!

So in defiance of Darwin I’m looking for suggestions. The aim of the game is to keep the gremlins alive, without making them dependent on humans or letting them into the house. Then I’ll be looking for someone to come sterilize the lot, because if they continue to reproduce at this rate we’ll have another twenty kittens by Christmas, and a hundred by Easter! By the way, did I mention I’m allergic to cats?

Thursday, August 31, 2006

TV magnetism

Our housekeeper’s five-year-old daughter was almost raped last week. She and her siblings used to go to some neighbour’s house to watch television, since they don’t own one. One evening the little girl went alone while the rest of her family went to church. I guess the neighbour didn’t go to church either, and his intentions were clearly not saintly. Thankfully, his four-year-old son walked into the room while he was busy ripping off the girl’s underwear, having already removed his own. When the boy asked, “Daddy, what are you doing?” the man let the girl go, and she was able to escape home.

Our housekeeper asked me whether we would lend her US$100. I thought she wanted the money to take the neighbour to court, and was surprised and impressed. I’m not sure the case would get very far in Europe – no actual crime, testimony of a five-year-old and a four-year-old… – but in Congo! But no, silly me. She wants the money to buy a television set because she’s worried her children will go to the neighbour’s house despite her admonitions.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Emergency box

So what would you include in the box if you were told to pack four days' worth of food that doesn't need cooking?

Monday, August 28, 2006

Radio Trottoir

I had a moment of panic at dawn this morning when I thought it was later than it was, and that the customary Monday morning bugle had not occurred. I wondered with a start if the bugler was among the six-to-twelve policemen (depending on who you talk to) who were killed during last week’s gunfight. At that point, I didn’t yet know that a further twenty (?) lie wounded in hospital. But no, about an hour later the familiar tune – if you can call it that – began. Mixed feelings, if I’m honest, but the silence and its significance would have been far worse than the tinny sound of the bugle, even at 6am.

I am told that a number of policemen were kidnapped and tortured by Bemba’s men (increasingly referred to as Bemba’s militia). Is this true? But why? Because they are seen to be at Kabila’s service? I am told of a disturbing AFP report according to which some of the policemen killed were found to be wearing a black Presidential Guard uniform under their blue police uniform. If this is confirmed, it will spell big, big trouble for the police who will become targets themselves. I am told that Bemba’s men have tapped into the police radio system and are constantly sending messages of hate and death threats. It’s surprising that the under-paid ($10 per month), under-valued police bother to show up for work at all!

On a lighter note, I am also told that Chalupa, the only white candidate to run for deputy, who distinguished himself for his original campaign slogan: “Why not?”, has been elected in his Kinshasa constituency. The long-term, weathered expatriates are very chuffed – see, the Congolese don’t hate us ‘mundeles’ (whites) after all! So they vote for a white deputy, but reject Kabila because he is not Congolese enough. One of the many ironies that make this country.

As you can see, in the total absence of reliable news from either the national or international media, I am reverting to the time-tested, well-known Congolese favourite means of information: Radio Trottoir (Radio Sidewalk), more prosaically known as gossip.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

“Ça a bardé!”

It’s ironic to come back after two weeks away to find the title of my last, pre-departure post: “Fleeing the chaos”. I think I meant counting the votes, and going camping in Bombolomeni. But I could just as easily have meant going on holiday to France, and the fighting that occurred whilst we were away.

The French news kept us blissfully unaware, and the irregular text message reports we received from our friends here in Kinshasa were charitably understated. I suppose most of us predicted demonstrations on and immediately after results day, and some looting by opportunistic ‘shegues’ (street kids) – mainly shops, possibly a few homes. Many of us worried about the trouble Bemba’s private army would cause if Kabila won outright. But few predicted how much trouble Kabila’s Presidential Guard would cause when Kabila didn’t win outright. As the office driver explained when we questioned him on arrival last night, “Oh la la, en tout cas, ça a bardé!”

So, what did we miss? A five-day, impromptu, most-expenses-paid, bring-your-own-food holiday in the embassy compound, for starters. The catch? You have to share the tarpaulin with your colleagues. An accomplishment in team building, perhaps, but I’m pleased that we spent the week-end partying with our mates in Paris instead. Meanwhile, our friends who live downtown, inside the “security zone” (where all of the fighting occurred) were cowering inside their houses, in the only room without windows, eating through their supplies and wishing they’d included more beer in their contingency planning. Apparently, waiting out a gunfight is more boring than it is scary (presumably when you know that those with the guns aren’t after you!). Those who ignored the security advice and chose the pleasant, leafy, spacious and more affordable suburbs found themselves rather smugly watching Sopranos, listening to the birds chirp while keeping an eye on their mobile phone for the regular text message warnings of impending doom in town.

As for our ambassadors, they spent an unexpected five hours last Monday hiding in Bemba’s cellar when the Presidential Guard attacked his house. The ambassadors were there to negotiate a ceasefire - a diplomatic faux-pas for Kabila, I should think! We couldn’t help but wonder what the ambassadors found in Bemba’s cellar…

So welcome back to Kinshasa. As our guards pointed out with genuine delight, we timed our holiday well. Everything is calm now, they assure us; everything is completely under control. Let’s hope they’re right and it stays that way. It’s hard to get a feel for the damage that’s been done. The best hope is that people will refuse to join in the fighting, that they won’t be roused by the hate talk coming from the different radio channels, that the army won’t take sides, and that the conflict will remain confined to the two candidates’ private armies.

Wimereux, France

Monday, August 07, 2006

Fleeing the chaos

After praising last week’s remarkably peaceful election, scenes of chaos like this are understandably causing alarm amongst national and international observers. Most acknowledge that the mishandling of ballot papers is the result of poor organisation and terrible logistical planning rather than some sort of generalised conspiracy. But any opportunity for claiming the election was a fraud is bound to be exploited by those who lose out.

Meanwhile, a group of us decided to sneak away from it all and reclaim our week-end: picnic, barbecue, camping, invigorating moonlight swims in the fast-flowing river, lounging in the hammock with a book, mid-afternoon snooze… Dure, dure la vie au Congo!

Saturday, August 05, 2006

A week in the life

Introducing the one and only Dieudonné, gardener and handyman par excellence.

(If you're wondering about the picture he's holding, don’t miss these scenes from Fred’s life – until Monday, after which you’ll have to find him in the archives.)

Friday, August 04, 2006

Disenfranchised youth

In the little mountain village where I observed the elections, by 3pm most people who wanted to vote had already done so. By law the polling stations had to stay open until 5pm, but the queues had dwindled to naught, and there was no one left outside. No one except these kids, who half-jokingly, half-seriously insisted that they too wanted to vote. The youngest one could barely talk, but when I asked in very broken Swahili who he wanted to vote for (“President, wapi?”), he answered loud and clear, “Kabila!” Then it turned out that the oldest ‘kid’ in the group, whom I estimated to be no more 15 years old at a push, was in fact 22, had a voter’s card, but hadn’t yet built up the nerve to vote. So to my gentle encouragement and his small friends’ boisterous teasing and cheering, he shyly fulfilled his civic duty, shuffling into the polling station timid and embarrassed, and coming out again some 10 minutes later with just the widest grin in the universe. Welcome to democracy.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

The trigger of Africa

Perhaps it’s election euphoria, perhaps it’s the excitement of an impending holiday to France, but this morning I am in love with the Congo.

All the more reason to fret. All of us who worked so hard for the elections climaxed too early. Like the high school graduate who throws a party and burns his notes when he passes his exam, only to discover that he needs those same notes at university, we all breathed a huge sigh of relief and skipped a little dance of jubilation on 30 July. Now we are finding it hard to rekindle the motivation to work long hours all over again. And yet, without wanting to sound too melodramatic, we are at the brink. This country is at the brink. It could still go either way.

In Kinshasa, Jean-Pierre Bemba has already announced that he is in the lead, whilst Kabila supporters are convinced that their man will pass first round (i.e. that he has received more than 50% of the national vote). The most likely outcome is that Kabila will be in the lead with less than 50% of the national vote, and that there will be a second-round stand-off between Bemba and Kabila. This will incense both sides. It will also mean a clear chasm between the west (with Bemba said to have received 60% of the votes in Kinshasa and Bas-Congo) and the east (where Kabila is said to have received up to 90% of the votes), and a second-round debate focussing even more intensely on issues of ‘congolité’ – who is and isn’t ‘properly’ Congolese, and who is therefore more entitled to choose the country’s future president.

But for the time being, although the individual results of each polling station have been posted outside the station, the official provisional results will only be available in three weeks, after electoral officials have compiled the results. Heads of polling centres and policemen are busy transporting millions of ballot papers from centres all over the country to 62 compilation centres. These are then dumped rather irreverentially in big piles of sealed and unsealed black plastic bags, to the horror of election observers and the exasperation of election officials who have to sift through them to find the all-important results sheets. If there was ever any doubt, it is now clear that any recounting of the ballots in the case of a dispute will be virtually impossible. Still, the counting in each polling station happened in front of political party witnesses and observers, so what really matters is the compilation of the 50,000-something results sheets.

Meanwhile, the biggest security threat today is the thousands of electoral agents and police officers who worked tirelessly from 5am on 30 July to the morning of 31 July, often without food, drink or sleep, and who haven’t yet received the pay they were promised. A rather unfortunate glitch in an election that has cost well over $400 million.

Several people have been asking me, over the past few days, if I have heard the expression, “Africa is shaped like a gun, and the DRC is its trigger.” Kinshasa is wrought with tension over these elections and their results. And yet the crazy irony is that people outside Kinshasa flocked to the booths because they thought it would bring them lasting peace. I watched one bowed old man in Wellington boots dance triumphantly as he walked out of the polling station after casting his vote. Isn’t that more important than winning or losing? Isn’t that more important than politics?

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Elections in pictures