Monday, April 24, 2006
The madness all around us continues of course, and is likely to get only more frenetic as the elections approach (they continue to be regularly postponed, seemingly for logistical rather than political reasons). But as I grow more accustomed to this astonishing country and its remarkable contradictions, I slowly lose my ability to provide a candid commentary; I witness scenes that would have sent my mind reeling just a few months ago, without even really noticing (or wanting to notice) them anymore.
And so I find myself walking down the road to the supermarket on Saturday, casually calling out “Buenos días!” to the Uruguayan troops in camouflage gear, bullet-proof vests, light blue UN caps and rather large guns (did I imagine the 1970s sunglasses?) who are standing at both ends of the street, protecting what? The supermarket?? Then I unceremoniously side-step a middle-aged man who must have lost his legs to polio when he was a toddler, judging by the dexterity with which he is busily shuffling along the pavement on his hands and stumps, his palms pushing against bright pink plastic flip-flops. I come to the front of the supermarket and am immediately surrounded by six or seven vendors, hoping to entice me with their colourful, plump vegetables from the market before I sell my soul to the Devil and allow myself to be tempted by air conditioning and uninspiring but hassle-free imported produce. Today it’s sunny, it’s the week-end, so I’m all smiles and benevolence. “Hey, I’m just here to buy some cereal,” I say, and have to laugh when a few of them excitedly claim that they can get me some, that if I would only just give them a minute they could get it right now.
On other days though, when I’m tired and hungry, when it’s late and I’ve only just come out of work, those same vendors can make me feel so depressingly claustrophobic as they crowd around the car, calling out, “Madame, madame!” over and over again. When I can’t back out of my cramped parking space because a couple of guys in wheelchairs (or the wooden tricycle-like contraptions people use as wheelchairs here) are blocking my way, asking for a bit of cash. They’re rarely aggressive, I must say, and the tiniest bill will usually make their faces light up with pleasure. But sometimes I’m too drained to give them even that.
In case anyone remembers, by the way, those kids who used our training centre as a classroom are now school-less, as of last Thursday. Temporarily, they say. Until the army accepts to move out of the neighbouring buildings they currently inhabit, so that one of them can be rehabilitated as a school with money from Belgium. Sure, like that’s going to happen any time soon, right?!
Sarcasm aside, I should also mention, finally, that I no longer have Internet access at home. With rare efficiency, the Internet company cut our connection on Friday at 5pm because we hadn't paid the bill – a bill which they brought to us on...Friday at 5pm. Maximum disruption, minimum logic. I almost added, “C’est le Congo”, but I’m in a good mood tonight, so I won’t admit defeat so easily.
Friday, April 21, 2006
Wednesday, April 19, 2006
There are four or five ‘big’ supermarkets here, clean, modern and selling a plethora of imported goods, as well as a few rare local products. For those who followed my first chilling encounters with supermarkets in Armenia, this is incomparable, much closer to the quality found in European supermarkets, except for fruit and veg which are best bought in the market. Of course, the prices in these deluxe supermarkets are nothing like Europe, from where a lot of the stuff is imported. Try multiplying them by two or three! The good news though, is that the pricing system is so complex that you end up shopping blind, happily throwing goodies into your shopping trolley, blissfully unaware of the extortion you are being made a victim of. At least until you get to the cashier and she announces in a monotonous tone, without batting an eyelid, that you owe her some $200 for a measly list of articles that will barely see you through the week.
The pricing system. It’s quite ingenious really, if you’re the manager of a supermarket in a country with a potentially unstable currency. Just very frustrating for the customer. Items are basically given a code that corresponds to their price. For the sake of illustration, let’s say a jar of jam is tagged as B407. Each supermarket uses its own coding system, of course, just to add to the excitement.
So you’ve just pulled off this jar of jam from the shelf, and it’s marked at B407. To have some idea of what this is worth you have to (1) look for one of these bits of paper taped sparingly on the shelves from place to place, (2) make sure you have the right one because the codes don’t all fit on the same sheet, (3) search down the list for your code (B407), (4) find the matching price (83660 FC), and (5) make the complicated conversion to US dollars (divide by 430), then again to your own currency. Then you discover that the example I chose was rubbish, because even in the DRC a jar of jam is definitely not worth US$194.50. Nonetheless, the point I was trying to make remains valid: it’s a crazy, convoluted way of doing something perfectly simple.
Monday, April 17, 2006
Now about those dollars. I suppose the winner has got to be Habibi Dan, whose somewhat incoherent answer is closest to the truth, which is that there is no sensible explanation. No logical reason, no one to benefit even. There is only a ludicrous rationale that exists by virtue of itself, a symptom of the social psychosis that seeps through the seams here, and keeps visitors wide-eyed for months, possibly years.
So, the $20 bill is invalid because of the microscopic tear you can just about make out, top right in the picture. The $100 bill is invalid because it was printed in 1997, an unhappy period for eastern DRC. The $1 bill is invalid because…um, they don’t like $1 bills here. Other possible reasons for having dollars refused: the bill is too old, or too grimy, or it has been folded too many times, or it has one of those tiny holes in it that look like they were made by the thin end of a toothpick, or the picture depicted is a small head rather than a big head, etc. Meanwhile, the local bills, the ‘Francs Congolais’, are invariably accepted even though most of them are ripped through and through, taped together with yellowing scotch tape, sometimes with whole chunks missing…
Maybe it’s pride: if they have to trade in this disgusting, alien American currency instead of their own national currency, they sure as hell will make it as difficult as possible for us bloody ‘mundeles’. Fair enough. If I could at least believe that there was such logical reasoning behind it, it might not infuriate me so much to go through the daily routine of having my money inspected minutely in the sunlight by a cynical salesperson with a furrowed brow. But unfortunately I don’t really believe it. I believe that it is one of many irrational remnants of a troubled past, that little by little I may discover the historical explanation for this or that particular neurosis, which no longer makes any sense but has become so customary that no one thinks to question it.
In the meantime, I try to ignore the short fuse in me that causes me to storm out of shops from time to time, abandoning whatever articles I had planned to purchase and muttering under my breath about the need for nationwide psychoanalysis. I definitely need either a holiday, or a yoga teacher!
P.S: Veuillez adresser tout contentieux a F. svp, the complaints department has been closed since 24 September 2005.
Saturday, April 08, 2006
-- Caskie Stinnett (American writer)
Last night - a FRIDAY - F. and I both worked until 10pm. This morning - a SATURDAY - we got up at 8am to do some more work. Now - at NOON - I finally throw in the towel and remember that only last week I'd resolved NOT to work this week-end, come what may. Off camping, with our new gear that we received at the wedding - YIPPEE!!!
Thursday, April 06, 2006
Libanga lusui chaku, moineau kosekate.
(Something like, "If a parrot can be hit by a stone, sparrow keep quiet.")
-- Lingala proverb
One scribbled on a Post-It, stuck just above the picture of F. grinning at me on my desk (see what a good wife I am?). One that reminds me to keep quiet during certain meetings with certain remarkably undiplomatic diplomats. An important skill, and one which I am learning to fine-tune although it definitely doesn’t come naturally to me. I say no more.
Sunday, April 02, 2006
Here is what is in my wallet today:
Anywhere else in the world, I would be relatively rich. I could buy shoes, a nice meal in a posh restaurant, concert tickets, a painting, fancy champagne, or maybe even one of those Linux-based laptops for children in poor countries. In the DRC, however, these three bank notes buy me absolutely nothing. Not even a loaf of bread. Yet everyone accepts dollars here, just not these particular dollars. Why not?
Saturday, April 01, 2006
Yesterday, I finally became the proud new owner of a gorgeous, sexy, nippy devil of a car. Well, my employer did, really. So here I was, beaming at my new toy, revelling in my newly-found independence, aglow with the freedom of unconstrained mobility…
Good-bye Justin, our first driver, who invariably woke us up at dawn to ask for the keys so he could “warm up the car” – did I mention that it hasn’t dropped below 250 C once since we got here? Dear Justin, who was fanatically keen on the best of days and a complete nervous wreck the rest of the time, who had a panic attack in the middle of a roundabout with F. sitting in exasperated bemusement (or was it bemused exasperation?) beside him, watching him flick all the switches, huff and puff, bang the steering wheel with both hands, lock and unlock the doors, open and close the electric windows, and finally nearly run over the bewildered police officer who had had the misfortune of trying to stop him. Justin, whose neck we almost wrung more than once, but who on his last day (after his employer upped the car rental price to US$74 per day without notice!) told F. that he would come visit from time to time, that maybe the two of them could be friends now…
Good-bye Trésor, our last driver, a sweet lad who made Garfield seem more energetic than Jane Fonda, who lowered all the seats and took off his shoes to take prolonged siestas in the roasting car, leaving a smell so foul that I spent most journeys with my nose tucked inside my shirt. Trésor, who invariably got lost and was too shy to admit that he didn’t have a clue as to where he was going, until he finally confessed that he was a mechanic and that this was his very first job as a driver. I was so chuffed to be rid of him, to leave behind me once and for all the exasperated phone-calls – “WHERE ARE YOU?” – as I sat, marooned, knowing I would be late for my meeting; I was so chuffed that I gave the man a $25 tip (probably over one week’s salary for him) and did a little dance. The one thing I didn’t do, however, was heed his last word of advice to me, which was to buy a fire extinguisher. I should have known better.
So here I am, beaming at my new toy, revelling in my newly-found independence, aglow with the freedom of unconstrained mobility. I’m whizzing back from one meeting, off to another, swerving wildly to avoid the derelict rainbow-coloured windowless minivan to my right which has just stopped unexpectedly to drop off passengers, swerving back to avoid the huge, impatient, white, gleaming Landcruiser with a huge radio antenna on the front, coming straight at me at top speed. And that’s when I see him. Some unidentified guy in a light blue uniform, not the police in their dark blue uniforms, not the infamous “Roulage” (traffic police) in their bright yellow uniforms (also known as “les bras-tendus” for their constant and unashamed hassling), but clearly an official of some kind who has requested me to stop, whom I initially failed to notice and therefore ignored, but whose signal I still have just about enough time to heed... And that’s when I make a series of unforgivable mistakes, a novice’s Grand Slam.
Mistake #1: I decide it is condescending not to stop. I decide it is the typical arrogance of white expatriates who think – who know – they are above the law and have no regard for local regulations whatsoever. I forget that most officials here couldn’t give a rat’s a… about local regulations, and that their sole purpose in life is to extract as much cash from us as they possibly can, and that to do so they must make our lives as difficult as they possibly can. More to the point, I forget that having only just purchased the car, all I have with me are temporary papers, which is perfectly legal, but an open door for them to find some obscure irregularity with which to make my next hour hell. Mistake #1 is that I pull over, against all odds, even though I have already passed the guy, even though there was nothing he could have done to get me. He probably couldn’t believe his luck!
Mistake #2: I lower my window. I actually engage in a conversation with the man. I am even amiable… for all of 1 minute! I forget that most of these people are leeches, that that’s the only possible explanation for them to be sticking with a $10-per-month job. Well. I hate to generalise, and I am still a guest in the DRC, so I feel duty-bound to admit that some may still have visions of providing a service to the nation. But judging from the reaction they get from their own compatriots, I think it is safe to say that the honest ones are few and far between.
Mistake #3: The pride and joy I feel at owning (or not owning) this car have clearly made me lose my mind. Still smiling, I now hand over the flimsy piece of yellow paper (le ‘volet jaune’) I was given to prove that I am indeed the owner, the only evidence I have until I receive the little pink card (la ‘carte rose’), its permanent equivalent. THE GUY HASN’T EVEN ASKED ME FOR ANY PAPERS!! I know that I should never, under any circumstance, give the original copy of my ‘carte rose’ to any police or ‘Roulage’ officer; I know that the minute they have this document in hand they hold you in a corner (not to use a more vulgar expression), and it’s just a question of who snaps first, and they have all day. I know this, and yet I VOLUNTARILY give this man my papers, bursting with misplaced confidence and good-will.
Mistake #4: Here it comes. The guy asks me where is my…….fire extinguisher! Three thoughts come to me simultaneously: (1) Ah, so the light blue uniform is for firemen then; (2) I guess Trésor wasn’t such a lethargic imbecile after all; (3) I haven’t explored every confine of this car yet, but I’m willing to bet that there is no extinguisher here; (4) Et merde. The smile on my face disappears; the one on his broadens by a full inch. He knows he has struck gold. And that was mistake #4, to let my reactions show so plainly, to let him see that not only did I not have a fire extinguisher, but I knew it perfectly well.
Mistake #5: I then start to babble something incomprehensible about this being a new car, and I don’t know where anything is, and I was just going to the garage to get it checked out and fitted with everything required, and anyway I’m in a rush, I have to bring something to the minister right this minute, and anyone who holds me back will be in a lot of trouble so I really don’t have time to discuss such trivia on the side of this dusty road, thank you very much, can I have my papers back now? Ha! If this were a play, this is where all the spectators would be holding their heads in their hands, groaning with embarrassment on my behalf. I start to wave around my diplomatic pass, but it’s too late really. If I had had the presence of mind to keep a poker face earlier on, then I just might have been able to pull a “I’m sorry, but you’re just not allowed to search this vehicle, and since I don’t know where the fire extinguisher is, you’re just going to have to let me go, good-bye.” But now there’s no way he’s going to let me go without some cash exchanging hands. I even make a show of talking very loudly on the phone with ‘the General’, who’s waiting for me to bring this important paper to the minister, of course. But all in vain.
Mistake #6: I start to get cross. Angry. Really angry. Red-rag-to-an-enraged-bull type of angry. I wouldn’t be this furious if I hadn’t been so naïve in the first place, if I didn’t blame myself entirely for this predicament, which is wholly of my own making. All he wants is a few hundred Congolese francs; US$1 will probably do it. Anyone who has been here long enough has learned a long time ago not to get wound up by these things, to think of it as a service tax. But I just can’t bring myself to pay a single cent. I feel like I would be giving up on the DRC altogether, admitting defeat without having really tried, turning my back on everything I’ve ever believed in and advocated, about changing systems and cultures, about endemic corruption being like the rot near the core of the apple, which makes the whole thing inedible. This annoying but unimportant official suddenly becomes everything that’s ever been wrong with this country, becomes every frustration F. and I have had to overcome since we got here to get to where we are – overpriced flats, unreliable banks, protracted processes, fickle colleagues, incompetent removal companies, hopeless drivers, dishonest immigration officials, dysfunctional systems, deceitful car rental companies…and our least favourite of them all, corrupt petty officials whose meanness is in inverse proportion to their relevance in this world.
So I lose it completely. Next thing you know I’m yelling at the astonished guy, telling him that he’s single-handedly responsible for his country’s demise, that he should be ashamed of himself, that he’s little better than a beggar and that unless people like him start to amend their ways the Congo of tomorrow will be just as desperate as the Congo of today, and outsiders will continue to get rich on the back of the Congolese for ever. He is momentarily taken aback, but he never loses his superiority. He clutches at my ‘volet jaune’ with a glimmer of triumph in his eyes that threatens to send me through the roof.
Mistake #7: The ‘fight or flight’ instinct. There is no longer an ounce of rational behaviour in me. The only thing I am still mildly aware of is that I need to calm myself down, that the ‘fight’ route I’ve gone down is at best a dead end; at worst it will land me in deep trouble. I also know myself, and I know that when the adrenalin reaches its peak I will burst into tears – my one safety valve, short of punching the guy on the nose (now that would have really shocked him!). So I escape. I know the man still has my ‘volet jaune’ but at this point I just need to get out of there. As I take off, I look into my rear-view mirror, half expecting to see him running after me (he would have definitely caught up had he tried, since there was a major traffic jam some 20 m further down the road). But he is busy pocketing my ‘volet jaune’ whilst already moving on to his next victim.
It didn’t take me long to calm myself down and acknowledge that I had been a complete idiot. I toyed with the idea of going back there, apologising to the guy for my outburst, and doing what I should have done from the beginning which was to insist that he take me to the station so I could be fined properly, according to the law, with a receipt for my troubles, and so that I could notify the man’s boss of his attempted bribe. Of course it wouldn’t change a thing, except that it would cost me a lot more, but at least I could look myself in the eye that evening. Instead, I called a friend of mine and sheepishly asked him how important the ‘volet jaune’ is. He said it was very important if I didn’t have my ‘carte rose’ yet, but once I had the ‘carte rose’ it is completely irrelevant. So I went to pick up my ‘carte rose’ from the office where it had been waiting for me for a couple of days, asked my friend to get me a fire extinguisher, and made a mental note never to go to the crossing near the fire station ever again. Rage and pride; I wouldn’t make a very good Jedi…
Phew. So that was my lunch break yesterday. What was yours? Marc and Dad (if you’ve read this far), this one’s for you:
Quiz #3: What make and type is my new car??