Saturday, February 25, 2006

And the winner is...

Thirty-six suggestions (a third of which were provided by Nicole alone), and not a single one correct!

The correct answer is: a stalactite. More precisely, a stalactite taken from below in one of the Mbanza-Ngungu caves in Bas-Congo.

Since no one found the correct answer, first prize goes to creativity. And the winners are:

§ Carole and the polar bear footprint! Carole’s full answer was: « L'empreinte de la patte arrière droite d'un ours polaire qui, dans un effort désespéré d'adaptation au réchauffement climatique, a pris des vacances dans un Club Med Congolais où il s'est enfoncé profondément dans la boue en essayant d'apprendre à parler l'Hyppopotame local. »

(One of five who live in our courtyard)

§ Close second is Dad and his bicentennial tree-cum-cheese platter: « C’est la coupe (section) d'un arbre katangais bicentenaire qui a vu passer Stanley lorsqu'il recherchait Livingstone dans le coin, et qui sert aujourd'hui de plateau à fromage »


(From Madagascar)

I know, I know; the Congolese way is clearly seeping slowly through my skin and into my veins, and already I am handing out prizes to members of my immediate family. Worse, I set up a so-called ‘committee’ to bring a semblance of neutrality to the proceedings. We even have a name, le Comité des Loups-Garous, after a game a group of us played well into the night during our week-end trip to the Mbanza-Ngungu caves.

So in an attempt to redress the balance somewhat, I have introduced another prize category:

§ The prize for cleverness goes to Damien and his helicopter’s view of an open-cut mine.

Prize: A detailed, independent investigation into resource exploitation and conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Thank you all very much for being so responsive!

Monday, February 20, 2006


What is this?

There will be a prize for the first one who guesses correctly, and a prize for the most creative suggestion.

Friday, February 17, 2006

Elementary, my dear Watson

The mystery of the living room bugler is resolved. Yesterday morning, as I walked through the courtyard to get to my office, I noticed the poor devil (a little old man lost in a uniform he no longer fills out) getting ready, shining his antique bugle vigorously and generally making himself look a lot busier than he needs to be. I asked him kindly if he could please aim his instrument away from the houses behind him, and towards the police building. He gave me the vigorous nod and “Oui Maman, merci beaucoup!” so characteristic here (people call each other ‘Maman’ and ‘Papa’).

Thirty seconds later, the now oh-so-familiar insufferable notes began, and I realised that the sound was coming from the back of my office near our house, not from the front of my office near the police building. I stormed out of the building and sought the man out. He was standing in the small space between the building where my office is and the outer wall of our flat, quite contentedly aiming his bugle towards our living room window and playing the damn thing with all his heart. No wonder Fred and I thought the man was in our flat! He didn’t even notice me approaching with a deep frown on my face and my hands on my ears.

I tap him severely on the shoulder, and he turns to me with a large, proud grin.
- “Excuse me, what are you doing?” I ask.
- “Practicing my bugle for when the General arrives.”
- “Excuse me, why are you aiming your bugle towards this particular window?”
- (still beaming) “So as not to disturb the other policemen while I practice my bugle.”
- “Excuse me, do you realise that this is a house? That people actually live here?”
Suddenly a look of deep distress creeps onto his face as it dawns on him that I may not be here to congratulate him on his exceptional musical talents, but rather to proffer some kind of criticism. You have to feel sorry for the poor sod.

So I explained, more gently than intended, that there had been complaints from the people who lived there. I asked if he could please practice his bugle elsewhere, particularly on Saturdays and Sundays. “Oui, oui, bien sûr Maman, je ne le ferais plus, c’est promis!”

This morning, no bugle practice under our windows. Ah, the quietude. The only time I heard the bugle was when the General arrived, and it was even worse than usual. I couldn’t help wondering if our friend had decided to skip his practice altogether, now that I’d given him a good excuse. This may yet return to haunt me.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

With a little help from my friends

Celui qui, tout au long de la journée,
Est actif comme une abeille,
Est fort comme un taureau,
Bosse comme un cheval,
Et qui le soir venu est crevé comme un chien,
Devrait consulter un vétérinaire,
il est fort probable que ce soit un âne !

(Cheers, Marc S.!)

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Home Sweet Home

Finally, I can give the long awaited news that we have moved in, properly this time, to our new flat. For once, I’m not writing from the terrace of a restaurant, or from a stuffy hotel room, but from the comfort of my own home. Specifically (since that seems to be what is requested of me), I am sitting at a big wooden desk in the guest room, under a window that looks out onto the small swimming pool we share with our neighbours, and plants, lots of plants everywhere.

The landlady’s obsession with plants, with which she has filled every corner of the flat and garden, is one of the main redeeming features here. The pool is surrounded with greenery, making the small terrace, complete with bar and barbecue, into a tropical haven, somewhere I can happily imagine coming home to in the evening to relax after a day’s work, hopefully catching the last rays of setting sun. Similarly, our flat has this otherwise quite ordinary internal courtyard, a glorified entrance really, but with the help of some twenty lush plants it is transformed into a verdant oasis of tranquillity……………………. In every respect except the revolting smell of overflowing septic tank that sometimes wafts over from our neighbours’ on the other side of the wall.

Our neighbours. The one factor inexplicably overlooked when signing the contract. I am absolutely, wholly to blame since I work there. A welcome twist of fate that allows me to nip home at a whim, not least for a bite to eat at lunch. But living next to Kinshasa’s police HQ definitely has its down sides as well.

Dawn on Saturday. Our second night in the flat, but last time we had to get up at 5am to catch a flight. We are both physically and mentally exhausted after two weeks in the field, Fred in Rwanda discussing how to prevent genocide, me in Kisangani and Goma experiencing first hand some of the crazy contradictions of working in a country like the DRC. We are both thrilled to be back home with some space to breathe, but mostly desperate for a good night’s sleep. Dawn on Saturday, sometime between 6.30 and 7am…

Rev-eil-lee! Rev-eil-lee is sounding.
The bugle calls you from your sleep; it is the break of day.
You've got to do your duty or you will get no pay.
Come, wake yourself, rouse yourself out of your sleep
And throw off the blankets and take a good peek at all
The bright signs of the break of day, so get up and do not delay.

Get Up!

Or-der-ly officer is on his round!
And if you're still a-bed he will send you to the guard
And then you'll get a drill and that will be a bitter pill:
So be up when he comes, be up when he comes,
Like a soldier at his post, a soldier at his post, all ser-ene.

We woke up with a start, opened our eyes wide and burst out laughing: “Oh, shit!” I’m not sure how much longer we will find this amusing though! Every morning, lunch and afternoon, without fail, except possibly on Sundays, an old, rugged, rusty bugle is brought out and played slowly, painstakingly, loudly. Every time there is a long pause and you prepare to take a deep breath of relief, the bloody thing starts up again even more loudly than before, so loud in fact that at one point Fred and I both jumped out of bed in disbelief, convinced that the guy must be standing in our living room.

Now I lived 6 months right next to a mosque in Jordan, and I was frequently drawn from sleep by the call of the muezzin – in fact, I learned to really like it. But nothing, nothing could have prepared me for the agony of a badly played bugle first thing in the morning. If ever motivation was needed to support a country in reforming its police, this would be it. I hear that France is getting rid of its famous gendarmes, subsuming them slowly to the national police to make a single civilian police force. Civilian force. No bugles. Great idea.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Mile-high broccoli

Because the UN are so omnipresent here, and because I am so dependent on them for technical and logistical support in doing my job, this week has basically been a crash course in UN peacekeeping operations for me. Apart from dispelling some of the stereotypes I had about the military and brushing up on my Spanish with the Uruguayan and Guatemalan contingents, I now have three helicopter flights under my belt. All very exciting, really!

I’ve now gotten to the point of feeling pretty unfazed about the actual flight, but I still find taking off and landing to be a lot of fun. Especially take-off, where the pilot tests the helicopter by spinning 360o, then tilting from side to side. And the hovering is just so completely different to flying in an aeroplane, it makes me feel like I’m sitting on the wings of a mosquito. Of course, I was careful to conceal any childish excitement from my features lest my weathered colleagues from the military think I was inexperienced in this kind of thing…

The truth is, flying in a helicopter sends me straight to sleep – something about the dim, engulfing roar that permeates through the noise-reducing headphones. In my defence I will say that the view from above in the north of Province Orientale is really pretty monotonous. From time to time, the numbness in my bum (hard, metallic bench) and stiffness in my neck (after my head had dropped forward for the hundredth time) would cause me to lift an eyelid and peer out the window, and all I could think about was broccoli. Mile after mile of broccoli; broccoli that stretched unchallenged to the horizon and beyond.

I hope this picture helps make my case, but I have the sinking feeling that no one else will think these greens tufts of thick treetops look anything like broccoli. Nonetheless, in a moment of rashness I will admit that as I dozed off again, the thought did cross my mind that this was probably what a mosquito flying over a stock of broccoli would see.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

$2 showers

Still in Kisangani, although due to head east very shortly. I’ll post a map of DRC soon, so you can follow my movements more easily!

I’m currently sitting in pitch blackness, the power having been off for most of the evening. From time to time there is a welcome clicking sound, and then the neon lights briefly flicker on. Sound suddenly returns, as television, radio, refrigerator and air conditioning all simultaneously turn back on amidst sharp, irate beeping. But count to three, and you can be sure it will all rumble off again.

I’m told that the situation has improved considerably since Kisangani received a second turbine, yet a day hasn’t gone by since my arrival one week ago without the power being cut at some point during the day or night (usually both). The truth is, I haven’t really minded so much, but of course I’m only visiting here; I haven’t had to deal with the food in the fridge/freezer going bad, the clothes in the washing machine staying soapy, the meal being only half-cooked, my computer running out of juice just as I was about to click Save, etc. I have, however, suffered from lack of running water.

It’s my own fault, really. On the first day I got here, there was running water – even a semblance of hot water – so I showered happily and ignored the large, ominous bucket in the bathtub. The following day, there was only a dribble, so I laboriously filled the bucket (it took almost 2 hours!) then absurdly used almost all of it to wash. I guess I assumed that in a $65/night hotel, water would not usually be an issue. I spent the next 5 days washing with bottled water!

Come on, if I didn’t include at least one tale of woe about lack of electricity and water, you wouldn’t believe I’d really gone to Africa!

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Okay, okay!

The feedback from my tiny but precious fan club suggests that high-browed literary discussions are all very well, but what they really want to know are the juicy details of my daily life. I give you births and funerals, the search for identity and the circularity of time, and you want to know what colour our living room is painted! Not easy when I am – naively no doubt – trying to maintain a certain degree of anonymity amid a surprisingly small network of people...

The truth is, the reason I haven’t talked about our new flat yet is because we’ve barely had time to appreciate it. Officially, we moved in on Saturday one week ago. In fact, we barely took the time to drop off a couple of bags before whizzing off to a place called Bombolameri (or something similar), a campsite near a small river in the middle of a forest a couple of hours away from Kinshasa.

We were taken there by an Anglo-Belgian friend of mine from school who grew up in the DRC. Before leaving he made us promise, grudgingly, to “do the big one by night”. We only had a vague idea of what we were signing up for. Since we’d left quite late in the day, by the time we arrived the sun was setting. We set up camp, which in the absence of our belongings (still stuck at customs) meant spreading a thin blanket borrowed from the hotel onto the hard dirt floor, and putting up a mosquito net above it (clever Fred). Luckily, we met up with a number of other people there who were rather better prepared than we were and provided us with more substantial meals than the half-hearted bean salad we had arrived with. We then changed into our bathing suits and waited until it was dark enough to venture blindly upstream through the bush.

So there we were, a whole group of us, half-naked, barefoot, no flashlights, following a badly marked path through tall grass, clapping our hands to keep the snakes away (whatever!) and heading towards…the launch pad. The aim of the game is to launch yourself into the cold water and let the strong current zip you down the river in total obscurity until you reach a makeshift hanging bridge which you must grip with both hands, then giggle and shriek as the current almost tears off your bathing suit as you hang from the bridge. From there, it’s a relatively easy swim to a small sandy beach nearby. That was a lot of fun, and pretty safe really. That, however, was the small one.

After this brief initiation, three of us found ourselves cautiously following Mr. Intrepid and his friend, also a veteran of this place, through more tall grass, even further upstream. We should have known, really, when the friend put on some knee pads that the venture would not be as straightforward as Mr. Intrepid was keen to make it sound. But for now we followed on. It was only when we entered the forest and suddenly the darkness was taken to a whole other level; it was only when we found ourselves with arms outstretched, feeling our way through the trees, our feet sinking in the soft, warm earth, inching our way towards the increasingly loud rumbling of what could only be rapids, that we began to have serious doubts about the cleverness of this particular enterprise. When we finally waded into the water, we could feel the indomitable power of the river tugging at us, and hear the nearby roar of water tumbling over rock.

At that point, I like to think, had either Mr. Intrepid or his friend taken the time to allay our fears, to explain to us exactly what we could expect and what we should do, we might yet have been convinced to ignore every instinct and throw ourselves mindlessly into the water. Instead, however, just as one of us novices started to stutter, “Um, so, what is it exactly that, um…” we heard a cry and a splash from our right as the water pulled Mr. Intrepid in, then another from our left as his friend decided he didn’t want to be left behind, and next thing we knew it was just the three of us standing huddled with water to our knees and the choice between the vortex in front of us, or the steep climb back up the sheer banks of the river in complete darkness. We chose the climb.

Something amazing happened then that completely vindicated our choice: we found the ground lit up with something phosphorescent that we hadn’t seen on our way down, and which basically showed us the way back out of the forest. When recounted later around the campfire, this particular detail caused general hilarity and disbelief, not least because when telling the story in French, Fred tried to explain the word ‘phosphorescent’ by saying, “You know, like fairies.”

That, by the way, was the middle one, which we did do the following day, when we could actually see what we were getting ourselves into. We enjoyed it, but we were very glad we hadn’t gone in at night. As for the big one, after trying in vain to rustle up some interest from the rest of us happily napping in the shade, Mr. Intrepid dejectedly went up and did it on his own.

So coming back to our flat and the very specific questions of my beloved fan club, we did manage to sleep in it one night after returning from Bombolameri, but both of us then had to fly off in different directions, so we have left it alone and abandoned for now, only to return to it next week. Voilà!

Friday, February 03, 2006

Heart of Darkness

What I remember most about this novel, which like many people I studied in high school, is the image of the river snaking its way through the country: "an immense snake uncoiled, with its head in the sea, its body at rest curving afar over a vast country and its tail lost in the depths of the land." In particular, I recall the lengthy discussion we had with the teacher about the phallic symbolism of the river penetrating the forest in this way. I also remember distinctly the subsequent conversation I had with some of my classmates about whether Joseph Conrad had really had all these veiled, deeper meanings in mind when he told the story of Marlow and Mr. Kurtz, or whether he was simply recounting in fiction his own terrifying experience of the Congo in the late nineteenth century. Cynical teenagers that we were…

Years later, I am reminded that most of the gruesome details in Conrad’s novel were based on true facts – not least the collection of African heads decorating Mr Kurtz’s fenceposts, which actually decorated the flowerbed of a certain Captain León Rom some hundred years ago, just a stone’s throw from where I now sit typing this post.

For a few days now I have been in Kisangani – Conrad’s "Inner Station" at the head of the rapids, the very centre of the African continent, the heart of darkness where dreams of grandeur and the inebriating, irresistible lust for ivory caused more than one head to turn and unimaginable horrors to ensue. Kisangani is also the setting for another novel: "A Bend in the River" by V.S. Naipul, although interestingly neither book explicitly names the town which provided its inspiration.

Written in 1979, "A Bend in the River" is about a young Indian from the Eastern coast who buys a shop in a town near some rapids on the bend of the River Congo in an effort to prove himself away from his family. As he slowly builds a successful business, the Big Man (the country’s president) consolidates his power and embarks on an 'Africanization' campaign of which the hero soon falls victim. In the end, the reader is left with the image of a country collapsing into political and social turmoil.

It is fascinating, if disturbing, to read a book written in 1979 and to find it all so eminently recognisable. In Naipul’s book, foreign mercenaries are sent in by the central government to save the town from rebel forces. After they successfully quell the rebellion, they are portrayed hanging out at the terrace of the biggest hotel, having inadvertently caused a massive inflationary bubble and stirring a complex mix of anger and relief in the local population. They are bizarrely reminiscent of the UN forces omnipresent here in Kisangani, their white jeeps and trucks by far the most visible vehicles in town bar an extensive collection of 'tolekas' (taxi-bicycles). Most of the buildings described in the book are still standing, derelict and forlorn after years of war. It makes one wonder what our children will read about the year 2006, what twist of fate will make this or that event more significant than the others.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

A Bend in the River

"The red dust of the streets that turned to mud in rain, the overcast sky that meant only more heat, the clear sky that meant a sun that hurt, the rain that seldom cooled and made for a general clamminess, the brown river with the lilac-colored flowers on rubbery green vines that floated on and on, night and day."

-- V. S. Naipul