Thursday, March 30, 2006


The butterflies (in my stomach) are still fluttering, mind bogglingly; they came to me during the night of the storm and although by day they mostly rest and leave me in peace, by night they have a party and I am left feeling all jittery in the morning. I have a sneaking feeling that this nocturnal agitation, and subsequent unease in the mornings, may have something to do with the novel I am currently reading, about a man whose twin is a schizophrenic and has just been sent to a high-security asylum-cum-prison for hacking off his own right hand with a jagged World War II pocket-knife in protest against Operation Desert Storm.

According an article in The New York Times (23/01/96), the reason for ‘butterflies in the stomach’ is that the body has two brains: the familiar one in the skull and a lesser known but vitally important one found in the human gut. I prefer the explanation given by a Blackfoot Indian to a student of butterfly symbolism: “You know that it is the butterfly who brings us our dreams – who brings the news to us when we are asleep. Have you never heard a man say, when he sees a butterfly fluttering over the prairie, 'There is a little fellow flying about that is going to bring news to someone tonight.'? Or have you not heard a person say after the fire burns low and the people begin to make up their beds about the lodge, 'Well, let us go to bed and see what news the butterfly will bring'?”

Monday, March 27, 2006


Crazy storm last night. I kept waking up through the night and thinking, in a half-sleep, that this was it, any minute now we would be washed away. The skies ripped open and unleashed a torrent of rain such as I have never had the displeasure of experiencing before. And I usually like storms! When I was little, whenever there was a storm in the summer, I used to rush upstairs, put on my bathing suit, and run to the garden to dance in the rain under my mother’s amused gaze. And at night, the sound of rain hammering against the roof always makes me feel snug and protected, as in a cocoon. But something about the intensity of last night’s downpour made me nervous, and I woke up feeling quite unnerved despite the sunshine, with butterflies in my stomach that only went away after a long, impromptu yoga session in the living room.

For those of you who didn’t read F.’s blog on the subject back in January, did you know that the DRC gets struck by lightning more than anywhere else in the world? And did you know that in 1998, there were unconfirmed reports that all eleven members of a visiting football team were killed by a bolt of lightning which left the other team unhurt, just when the two teams were drawing 1-1? Voodoo, some said, and considering that this happened in Mbuji Mayi – one of the places that has suffered the most from outsiders, a soulless city with soulful people and the heart of the country’s diamond mining, a typical frontier post reminiscent of the Wild Wild West, and one of the more obscure and complicated places I have visited in DRC – I am only mildly surprised.

Mobile phone ad and diamond counter in Mbuji Mayi

All be it, the other night a group of us witnessed a most unusual phenomenon: every couple of seconds the whole sky would light up as if the gods were having a party and had set the strobe lights too strong. It was beautiful, mysterious and disquieting all at once. I was quite pleased not to be in an airplane for once.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Yes Sir!

Instructions are clear: more regular, but less wordy posts.

Well, today (Saturday) I am working – rather tediously – to make up for having spent most of yesterday afternoon lounging in a hammock by the pool, reading a novel about love and war in Azerbaijan. My excuse: yet another power cut, one of many this week, and no juice left on the computer. Once you learn not to mind about ‘wasting time’, such unexpected setbacks can turn out to be quite pleasant really.

“…the last stage wisdom, that gradually unheeding playfulness.”

-- Kurban Said, in Ali and Nino

Côte Sauvage beach on Pointe-Noire

Thursday, March 23, 2006


I am very, very cross indeed. I just noticed, purely by chance, that someone hacked into my last post about Pointe Noire!! And with Portuguese poetry of all unlikely things! Now, normally this might amuse me, and even be the cause of another Sherlock Holmes investigation (following the unqualified success of Operation Buglechoke). I could almost allow myself to wonder whether the poem was actually meant for me, from some secret, heartbroken admire. But in this case the poem was unforgivably posted at the expense of the second half of a rather lengthy piece about my week-end in Pointe Noire, complete with witty anecdotes about seafood orgies, caipirinhas on the beach and the unparalleled excitement of a motocross championship. Of course, I could try retelling the whole thing, but that’s just not how inspiration works now is it?

His Excellency

Yesterday, F. and I had the honour of being invited to a "Town Hall" meeting with Mr. Koffi Annan, and being addressed as bona fide members of the UN family (well, F. more so than me). The highlight, however, turned out to be when the master of ceremonies introduced the guest of honour as Secretary General of... the United States! In England most people would have giggled gently, then graciously avoided mentioning the awkward incident ever again. In DRC the room was roaring with laughter and whoops of delight for several minutes, and I have little doubt that the unfortunate man will hear of nothing else for weeks, even months, to come.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Pointe Noire

A couple of weeks ago, a friend mentioned in passing that he was chartering a plane to Pointe Noire on the Atlantic coast of the Congo Republic (DRC’s neighbour on the other side of the Congo River) for a motocross competition he and a couple of other guys were participating in. So another friend and I decided to play groupie, and on Friday afternoon we found ourselves getting ready to embark a rickety thirty-seater Fokker F-27 from an obscure company called Air Tropiques.

I can’t quite remember if the nervous giggles started when we saw the ominous cupboard with “OXYGEN” written on it in big red letters, or when we noticed that the only emergency exit was little more than a glorified hatch through the toilet right at the back of the plane. However, we were soon reassured with the welcome news that our pilot had the honour of being the one with the most experience of flying a Fokker F-27 in the whole world.

The good thing about chartering a plane is that you pretty much get to sit anywhere you want. The bad thing about chartering a plane for a motocross competition is that the only ones who get to travel first class are the motorcycles. The good thing about chartering a rickety, old Fokker F-27 is that it really doesn’t make any difference: the seats don’t hold upright anyway, and the ones in front of you fold over, allowing you to stretch out in lounge-like luxury, a feeling reinforced by the poker game we started soon after takeoff.

And that set the tone for the entire week-end. Fred joined us on the Saturday morning with some more friends, aft

Abraçou-me / Como se abraça o tempo / A vida num momento / Em gestos nunca iguais / E parou / Cantou contra o meu peito / Num beijo imperfeito / Roubado nos umbrais / E partiu / Sem me dizer o nome / Levando-me o perfume / De tantas noites mais / E uma asa...voa / A cada beijo teu / Esta noite sou dono do céu / E eu não sei quem te perdeu.

(Pedro Abrunhosa)

Quando falta o mais...

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

The river that ate all rivers

The first time I saw the Congo River from above, just before landing at N’djili Airport, I was convinced it was the ocean.

For a while we had been following a wide, sinuous river, thick and heavy as it twisted and turned through the lush vegetation. I thought, “Ah! So this is the famous Congo River!” and was suitably impressed. Then we reached the mouth of the river, and for an instant I was bemused to find that we had gone as far west as the Atlantic Ocean (Kinshasa is some 400 kms from the ocean)! Moreover, I couldn’t understand how I had missed the famously impassable rapids, or indeed the port of Matadi, nor why there were so little waves.

It quickly dawned upon me (I don’t want to make myself sound like too much of a dumbbell) that the broad river we had been following all this time was nothing more than a minor tributary of the Congo, and that the vast expanse of water that spread before me as far as the eye could see was no ocean, but the legendary, awesome Congo River. I was momentarily overwhelmed with a sense of wonder and incredulity, and immediately fished for my camera, but the pictures just don’t give the river justice. This one was taken later, from a helicopter above Kisangani, where the river is narrower than near Kinshasa.

Quiz (I’m beginning to like these): For nearly four centuries after its discovery, the Congo River posed a geographical mystery:

“Besides its enormous size and unknown course, the Congo posed another puzzle. Seamen noticed that its flow, compared with that of other tropical rivers, fluctuated relatively little during the year. Rivers such as the Amazon and the Ganges had phases of extremely high water and low water, depending on whether the land they drained was experiencing the rainy or dry season. What made the Congo different?”

-- Adam Hochschild, King Leopold’s Ghost

Hint: Got a map of DRC that shows where the equator is?

The Congo is quite simply gigantic. In pre-colonial days it was known as the Nzadi or Nzere – the “river that swallows all rivers”. In retrospect (and with the help of the map that hangs above my desk), I believe that the tributary which I initially mistook for the Congo was the Kasai, which Hochschild informs us carries as much water as the Volga and is half again as long as the Rhine. Little wonder I was deceived!

Other crazy facts Hochschild tells us about the Congo River:

§ It drains more than 1.3 million square miles, an area larger than India;

§ It descends from the Congo River basin, nearly a thousand feet high, to sea level in a mere 220 miles, giving these 220 miles as much hydroelectric potential as all the lakes and rivers of the United States combined, and the Congo one sixth of the world’s hydroelectric potential.

So I’ll stop moaning about having an electric rather than gas cooker then, shall I?

The Congo has meant many different things to many different people. To the villagers living on its shores and on some of its four thousand islands, it has been a source of food for centuries (with more than five hundred species of fish recorded). To the early twentieth-century European entrepreneur, the Congo and its tributaries meant a ready transportation network of more than seven thousand miles of interconnecting navigable channels. Subsequently, rivers in the Congo became synonymous with forced labour and long columns of exhausted men, be they porters, railroad workers or unfortunate rubber gatherers during the ‘rubber terror’. To me, “le fleuve” as people here call it has become a favourite Sunday destination and welcome respite from the muggy heat of Kinshasa and the temptation of work.

“Kinshasa’s secret” I called it in one of my first posts. I have yet to see as extraordinary a sunset as the one I had the privilege of witnessing on that first outing back in December. Nonetheless, sunsets on the river are invariably spectacular, and the increasingly familiar return journey at dusk, after a healthily exhausting day of waterside fun and frolics, is always especially soothing.

A typical day on the river involves waking up late, getting picked up by one of several friends (on average one hour after the agreed time), and rushing off to one of two tiny, smelly ports where the expatriates dock their boats. The ports are nestled in among a jumble of rusting old ferries used as living quarters by the unfortunate poor whose unhappy lot it is to live amidst such squalor and who use holes cut out at the far end of the ferries as toilets. Quick to get away from such unpleasant reality checks (but still, I hope, not completely oblivious to them), we then speed away upriver, avoiding the treacherously hidden sandbars and clots of hibiscus, and making our way to our own favourite spot – or more accurately, the spot for which our friends’ parents (remember Mr. Intrepid?) have a particular predilection – a sandbank quite far upriver, away from the other Sunday river picnic spots, with fine, silky sand akin to the most sought-after beaches in the Caribbean or Indian Ocean.

From there it is really a question of which order things happen in: lunch – an unexpectedly lavish spread of salads and pies, fresh cossas (large prawns) grilled with garlic, freshly baked cake and wine – cooling off in the enticing water, floating downstream, or for the more energetic ones, trying to swim upstream (near well impossible), several rounds of waterskiing, pétanque on the beach… A hardship posting they say… Still, I try to ward off any nagging feeling of guilt I might have for this elite lifestyle with the conviction that these short, welcome getaways are the only way to ward off the fatigue and frustration that invariably come with being so involved in our work, even during supposedly ‘off’ times – the kind of weariness, in fact, that some of you correctly read into my last post about tediously regular disappointment. The indomitable Congo got the better of it all!

I sincerely apologise to those who have already made it crystal clear that the study of this particular novel traumatised them deeply, but no tribute to the Congo River would be complete without a reference to…yes, the Heart of Darkness. One last quote then, to contrast with my own relaxed, fun, carefree, sunny perception of the river:

“Going up that river was like travelling back to the earliest beginnings of the world, when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were kings. An empty stream, a great silence, an impenetrable forest. The air was warm, thick, heavy, sluggish. There was no joy in the brilliance of sunshine. The long stretches of the waterway ran on, deserted, into the gloom of overshadowed distances. On silvery sandbanks hippos and alligators sunned themselves side by side. The broadening waters flowed through a mob of wooded islands. You lost your way on that river as you would in a desert and butted your head all day long against shoals trying to find the channel till you thought yourself bewitched and cut off for ever from everything you had known.”

-- Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness

And finally, as I was waiting for the pictures in this post to download (rather slow at times), I had a peek at Fred’s blog, only to find that his last entry of two days ago was all about a new Belgian film that’s just come out called…Congo River! Keep an eye out for it, therefore, and find out for yourself what the fuss is all about.

Sunday, March 12, 2006


Monday, March 06, 2006

Predictable disappointment

“There’s something particularly crushing about predictable disappointment,” said Fred the other day, making me laugh at this particular nugget of dark – but spot on – cynicism. This came after a phone call Saturday last week from the company that was meant to deliver our belongings, to say that they were no longer coming. The fact that we had turned down an offer to go camping, then woken up at 8am on a Saturday, then sat twiddling our thumbs for 5 hours before finally being told the news was of no avail to them. Nor was the fact that by then the stuff had been sitting in the customs office of Kinshasa’s N’djili Airport – not, you will understand, the most reassuring of places – for 7 weeks while we were going through hell and high waters to try to get it out. Not to mention the fact that we'd been living with our 20kgs luggage each for two months.

I will spare you the full rendition of the mind-boggling bureaucratic rigmarole – not to mention the dispensation of quite substantial sums of money for such obscure things as ‘parking taxes’ – we had to go through to actually get hold of our things; let it just be said that by the end of it all there were a few dents in the wall where I had bashed my head in frustration every time I received an e-mail from the shipping company in London.

Nonetheless, by Monday we had three quarters of our stuff and were eagerly setting about putting books on shelves, frames on the wall, replacing frilly white pillow cases with their multi-coloured Iranian and Sri Lankan equivalents, and generally making this flat our home. On Tuesday the rest of the boxes finally arrived... all but one. The long-acclaimed projector, which we had been talking about excitedly for weeks, was 'disappeared' at some point in the process. The Congolese swear the container was sealed shut and the box was never put in the plane in London, and the British shipping company quite simply doesn't have a clue. My father's advice is to go to the local market and let it be known that we are interested in buying a projector to the same specifications, and see how long it takes for ours to make it back out of the woodwork...

One week later, I find myself sitting here, twiddling my thumbs, waiting for someone to bring me a car I wish to test drive. He is only 4 hours late. Finally there is a knock at the door. It is our guard, come to tell me that the gentleman just drove by to say that he hadn't managed to get the paperwork done in time and couldn't get the car out of the garage - a car that as far as I knew belonged to him already! A dodgy story under the best of light, but just so commonplace here that already I forget to be amused.

It's time for a break, methinks, time to start organising a long week-end somewhere. Anyone have any tips on Pointe Noire? A paradise for surfers and petroleum exporters, I believe.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

At the risk of incurring my brother's wrath...

(He strongly disapproves of my making up for long periods of silence by throwing in a quote or two.)

« Toujours des saluts enthousiastes de femmes et d’enfants à la traversée des villages. Tous accourent ; les enfants s’arrêtent net sur le rebord du fossé de la route et nous font une sorte de salut militaire ; les plus grands saluent en se penchant en avant, comme on fait dans les music-halls, le torse un peu de côté et rejetant la jambe gauche en arrière, montrant toutes leurs dents dans un large sourire. Lorsque, pour leur répondre, je lève la main, ils commencent par prendre peur et s’enfuient ; mais dés qu’ils ont compris mon geste (et je l’amplifie de mon mieux, y joignant tous les sourires que je peux) alors se sont des cris, des hurlements, des trépignements, de la part des femmes surtout, un délire d’étonnement et de joie que le voyageur blanc consente à tenir compte de leurs avances, y répondre avec cordialité. »

-- André Gide, Voyage au Congo (1927)

Note that he was actually talking about French Congo (today’s Republic of Congo), and not Belgian Congo (today’s Democratic Republic of Congo). Confusing, I know. Nonetheless, it could have been here, and it could have been today. I am always amazed at how friendly African kids are, in the rural areas in particular, always waving, smiling, running out to greet us. This one here was one of several dozen kids who ran alongside our taxi, trying desperately to keep up while waving hello and good-bye and asking for an empty bottle of mineral water. According to our taxi driver, it gives them prestige at school, an explanation I accepted dubiously for lack of a better one.