Sunday, May 28, 2006

Another quiz

How did the DRC get the strip of land that sticks out into the Zambia beyond Lubumbashi (bottom right in the map below) – according to my Congolese sources?

Hint: Once more, as with Lilies of the Nile and voting, it’s to do with English mid-nineteenth century sensations.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Wasn’t me

Last night, the whole of Kinshasa’s jet-set was on the parking lot of the Grand Hotel waiting for Kinshasa’s event of the year: a concert by the world-famous Jamaican dancehall singer Shaggy with his Congolese mate Werrason, aka “King of the Forest”. The concert was meant to start at 6pm, but I had been warned by my friends that concerts in Congo never start on time. It’s a matter of cachet: no self-respecting star will appear before his or her audience until at least four or five hours after the scheduled time. At the last minute however, a rumour went around that this time the Grand Hotel had insisted that the venue be vacated by 11.30pm, so the concert would start within a reasonable delay. At 7.30pm, F. and I were happily watching the penultimate episode of the first series of Lost (despite repeated warnings that we would be left with no answers and a frustratingly unquenchable desire to know how the bloody story ends), when we were called by a friend who warned us that the place was thriving and the concert about to start. Call it lack of experience, but we rushed over.

We spent the first half hour negotiating a table in the VIP area. “Why do we need a table,” I asked naively, “since we’ll be dancing in front of the stage the minute Shaggy comes on?” My friend laughed. At 8pm a few technicians came on stage and unconvincingly played with the connections, tugged on a few cords, moved the mikes around, and disappeared again. Everyone was keyed up, eager for the show to start. At 9pm a sound guy came on and tested the mikes briefly. Already people were beginning to groan – glasses were empty, and at $10 a pop we hesitated to get any more – but the excitement was still palpable. At 10pm the show was ready to start. Phew! For the next couple of hours we watched with decreasing attention a series of Congolese hip-hop and rap bands trying and basically failing to get anyone interested, suffering the usual unhappy fate of a warm-up band: everyone was there for Shaggy. Still, they kept the mood relatively upbeat, and they did their best to attempt to conceal what was only too obvious, that neither of the evening’s stars was anywhere to be seen. We knew we were in trouble when the M.C. embarrassedly recalled on stage one of the early bands; the poor guys clearly hadn’t prepared for a second impromptu appearance!

At this point a Congolese friend of mine, who had definitely dressed up for the occasion, decided that if Shaggy wasn’t coming to her she would go to him. She went inside the Grand Hotel and tried to bribe the security guards $300 to be allowed to knock on his room door. They refused. When she insisted, they said that Mr. Shaggy was sleeping, that they had received clear instructions not to wake him up. My friend was close to tears at this missed opportunity to rub with stardom, and on hearing the tale I started to panic, wondering whether maybe we should go get some dinner. No, come on, it’s midnight; surely the guy will come on any minute now!

To cut a long story short, Shaggy finally came on at 2am. Werrason had made a brief appearance for 3-4 songs, just enough to get spirits soaring once more before letting them drop again like a soggy cracker with an hour-long unsuccessful sound check; an hour of “one, two…two, two…two” and Jamaican accents stating the obvious, “Na, som’ting definitely wrong dere man”. Hey, it’s Congo, som’ting always wrong in da Congo, but that don’t stop the show! So Shaggy the world superstar came on to a screechy mike, correctly judging that after waiting seven hours his public’s patience was at its end, and the ever-forgiving and good-natured Congolese instantly changed their nascent booing into cheering and happy shrieking.

The concert was a good one, complete with enamoured groupies in tight miniskirts clambering onto the stage to steal a quick hug before being roughly chucked back into the crowd by angry security guards five times their size. It’s all part of the show, of course, but I reckon our friend Shaggy got a little more than he bargained for on a couple of occasions: he was limping pretty severely after one guy with a Jamaican flag jumped onto him out of nowhere (suspiciously, I could swear I saw him backstage for most of the preceding song), and the overzealous security guards took Shaggy out along with the guy.

The show was good, and all things considered worth the wait methinks. But for all the excitement it offered, the most memorable bit for me was watching the pick-pocketers in action, working the crowd, sinuously making their way from one pocket to the next, one hand bag, one wallet… One guy in particular (easily recognisable because of a big, ugly lump on his neck) was especially aggressive, shamelessly sliding his hand in the pocket of this huge Congolese right in front of me. Luckily, just as I was building up the courage to warn the man whose pocket was being picked, another Congolese shouted out and a scuffle ensued, with the guilty pick-pocketer shouting angrily that he hadn’t done anything at all. In fact there were quite a few minor punch-ups – and one rather more ferocious one – as people felt something brush against them, realised their money had gone missing and tried to get it back. From Shaggy, “Na, na, na. No fighting here man. Only peace and love.” The crowd started swaying again, and less than 10 minutes later the very same guy with the lump was back in a different outfit – you have to admire the sheer brazenness!

So in short, what do you get after waiting seven hours for a 45-minute concert? A crash course in pick-pocketing Congolese style, i.e. with attitude.

Thursday, May 25, 2006


According to the UK government’s new pension deal, my husband gets to retire – or more specifically receive his state pension – at 67, while I have to wait until I’m 68. Why? Because the cut-off year for increasing the state pension age from 67 to 68 is 2044.

And here was I hoping to retire at 55...

Meanwhile, far from worrying about late retirement, I’ve been toying with the idea of a sabbatical in 2007, since I will have been working for seven years by then.

Isn’t life is hard? (Apparently one of my preferred childhood expressions, preferably accompanied with a poignant sigh.)

Waterskiing at dusk on the River Congo

Thursday, May 18, 2006

In the news: tragedy and comedy

Congo's tragedy: the war the world forgot

“In a country the size of Western Europe, a war rages that has lasted eight years and cost four million lives. Rival militias inflict appalling suffering on the civilian population, and what passes for political leadership is powerless to stop it. This is Congo, and the reason for the conflict - control of minerals essential to the electronic gadgetry on which the developed world depends - is what makes our blindness to the horror doubly shaming. Johann Hari reports from the killing fields of central Africa.

This is the story of the deadliest war since Adolf Hitler's armies marched across Europe - a war that has not ended. But is also the story of a trail of blood that leads directly to you: to your remote control, to your mobile phone, to your laptop and to your diamond necklace. In the TV series Lost, a group of plane crash survivors believe they are stranded alone on a desert island, until one day they discover a dense metal cable leading out into the ocean and the world beyond. The Democratic Republic of Congo is full of those cables, mysterious connections that show how a seemingly isolated tribal war is in reality something very different.

This war has been dismissed as an internal African implosion. In reality it is a battle for coltan, diamonds, cassiterite and gold, destined for sale in London, New York and Paris. It is a battle for the metals that make our technological society vibrate and ring and bling, and it has already claimed four million lives in five years and broken a population the size of Britain's. No, this is not only a story about them. This - the tale of a short journey into the long Congolese war we in the West have fostered, fuelled and funded - is a story about you.”

(The full article can be purchased for £1 from The Independent Online.)

On an aside, the same message was given by Jean Carbonare to the French people in 1993 during a prime time television interview about Rwanda. (Carbonare was a member of the International commission investigating human rights abuses in Rwanda.) Over a year before the genocide of spring 1994, he told thousands of spectators sitting in their couches, preparing or eating their dinners, listening distractedly to this horror story about a faraway land, shaking their heads sadly or shrugging their shoulders at it all, that they could make a difference. He looked straight into the eyes of his interviewer, and told him that he too could make a difference:

“Notre pays, qui supporte militairement et financièrement ce système, a aussi une responsabilité. (…) J’insiste beaucoup, nous sommes responsables. Vous aussi, monsieur Masure, vous pouvez faire quelque chose, vous devez faire quelque chose pour que cette situation change, parce-qu’on peut la changer si on veut.”

Unfortunately, no one wanted to listen, no one wanted to take the time to write a letter that would probably never be read, an article to the press that would not be printed. Would it have made a difference?

Oxfam criticises DR Congo donors

While we’re in the business of kindling guilt, here are some extracts from an article that was published on BBC News sometime last week, whilst I was in France.

“The aid agency Oxfam has criticised donor countries for failing to tackle the humanitarian crisis in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Oxfam says donor countries have contributed only $94m (£50m) to a $682m special appeal launched in February. It says more than 100,000 people have died in the three-month period from diseases that might have been cured. Countries singled out for criticism by the agency include the US, Japan, Germany, France, Italy and the UK. Oxfam says DR Congo is a forgotten disaster zone in which 3.9m people have died over the past eight years.


Oxfam's representative in Congo, Juliette Prodhan, said it was good that donors had agreed to help finance the forthcoming polls, but that the country's problems would not be cured by voting alone. "Rich country governments have a moral obligation to act when 1,200 people are dying every day from conflict-related causes," she said. "The stark reality is that humanitarian needs in the DRC are receiving one sixtieth of what was contributed to alleviate suffering after the 2004 tsunami."”

(Full article)

BBC News 'wrong Guy' is revealed

For good measure, some more amusing news, also from the BBC:

“Guy Goma, a graduate from the Congo, appeared on the news channel in place of an IT expert after a mix-up. But Mr Goma, who was wrongly identified in the press as a taxi driver, was really at the BBC for a job interview.

Mr Goma said his appearance was "very stressful" and wondered why the questions were not related to the data support cleanser job he applied for.

The mix-up occurred when a producer went to collect the expert from the wrong reception in BBC Television Centre in West London. The producer asked for Guy Kewney, editor of, who was due to be interviewed about the Apple vs Apple court case. After being pointed in Mr Goma's direction by a receptionist, the producer - who had seen a photo of the real expert - checked: "Are you Guy Kewney?" The economics and business studies graduate answered in the affirmative and was whisked up to the studio.

Business presenter Karen Bowerman, who was to interview the expert, managed to get a message to the editor that the guest seemed "very breathless and nervous". Mr Goma was eventually asked three questions live on air, assuming this was an interview situation. It was only later that it was discovered that Mr Kewney was still waiting in reception - prompting producers to wonder who their wrong man was.

Mr Goma said his interview was "very short", but he was prepared to return to the airwaves and was "happy to speak about any situation". He added that next time he would insist upon "preparing myself".

A BBC spokeswoman said: "This has turned out to be a genuine misunderstanding. "We've looked carefully at our guest procedures and will take every measure to ensure this doesn't happen again."”

(Watch the video - well worth it!)

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Ode to Heraclitus

Six days back at Les Orangers, time enough to say good-bye to one life, to take a deep breath and watch the present become the past. Hey, if nothing ever changed there’d be no butterflies.

“All changes, even the most longed for, have their melancholy; for what we leave behind us is a part of ourselves; we must die to one life before we can enter another.”

-- Anatole France

For those of you who knew him (and thank you for the various messages of support), Papi died a happy and peaceful old man. I went back to France to celebrate his life, not to mourn his passing away. He himself made it very clear that he did not want to be mourned, banishing (in writing) black clothes and sad thoughts from his funeral. He asked us to read the French version of this poem during the service (a poem which was also read at a much more painful and untimely funeral almost three years ago). I suppose some words say it particularly eloquently.

Death is nothing at all

Death is nothing at all
I have only slipped away into the next room
I am I and you are you
whatever we were to each other
that we still are
call me by my old familiar name
speak to me in the easy way
which you always used
put no difference in your tone
wear no forced air of solemnity or sorrow
laugh as we always laughed
at the little jokes we enjoyed together
pray smile, think of me, pray for me
Let my name be ever the household word
that it always was
Let it be spoken without effort
without the trace of a shadow in it
Life means all that it ever meant
it is the same as it ever was
there is unbroken continuity
why should I be out of mind
because I am out of sight?
I am waiting for you
somewhere very near
just around the corner
All is well

The author of this particular poem is the source of some mystery. In France it is typically attributed to Charles Peguy, but it seems that in fact it was translated from an English poem by Henry Scott Holland (1847-1918), Canon of St Paul's Cathedral.

Monday, May 08, 2006

The hills are alive

A Thought On Death

When life as opening buds is sweet,
And golden hopes the fancy greet,
And Youth prepares his joys to meet,--
Alas! how hard it is to die!

When just is seized some valued prize,
And duties press, and tender ties
Forbid the soul from earth to rise,--
How awful then it is to die!

When, one by one, those ties are torn,
And friend from friend is snatched forlorn,
And man is left alone to mourn,--
Ah then, how easy 'tis to die!

When faith is firm, and conscience clear,
And words of peace the spirit cheer,
And visioned glories half appear,--
'Tis joy, 'tis triumph then to die.

When trembling limbs refuse their weight,
And films, slow gathering, dim the sight,
And clouds obscure the mental light,--
'Tis nature's precious boon to die.

-- Anna Lætitia Barbauld

Rest in peace, Papi. Now you really will grow younger with each passing day, if only in our memories. Already the wheelchair and sluggishness are making way for sailing trips with a little Teckel and an oversized orange life vest, unconventional duet versions of Claude Debussy's Claire de Lune on the piano, long road trips along tortuous mountain roads, and mortifying recordings of Edelweiss in a questionable attempt to give you the von Trapp family. Here's one for you, who loved it best of all:

(Photo taken by Dad)

Thank you for believing in me more than anyone else.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

England’s mid-nineteenth-century sensation

Thanks to my aunt, I now know the exotic name of this delightful flower: Lily-of-the-Nile. Also known, I am told, as Agapanthus Africanus. To me this sounds more like a name Goscinny might have given to a black Roman in the French comic book series Astérix et Obélix. I snapped it some two weeks ago in Bukavu, one of Congo’s more picturesque spots on the southern shore of Lake Kivu, very near the border with Rwanda, in eastern Congo. Same place I observed the referendum from, back in December.

According to my aunt’s sources (an address book containing flower illustrations I believe), this particular African lily blooms in the rainy season, is considered a sacred plant, and was the pinnacle of fashion in mid-nineteenth-century England. Fans can join Friends of Agapanthus (I do wonder what people did with themselves before the Age of Internet).

Speaking of mid-nineteenth-century sensations in England, the count-down has started and the date is set for the first round of the elections: 30 July. This gives the DRC less than two months to print and distribute some 60 million ballot papers – some of which will be as thick as Yellow Pages directories, with a picture and paragraph for every candidate, and up to 700 candidates for a single constituency! – and to deploy election kits across the country – bearing in mind that many places are accessible only by helicopter, bicycle or dugout. Not to mention deploying tens of thousands electoral agents, national and international observers, police officers to provide security on the day, etc, etc. In case you’re wondering where all that tax money that gets spent on the United Nations is going…

Most people who are directly involved in the elections took a two-week holiday between Easter and Labour Day, in the knowledge that the next two months will be Hell. F. and I spent the long week-end in Pointe-Noire again – not quite a two-week holiday, but a very welcome break nonetheless. And another opportunity for a seafood orgy on the beach – this time I took pictures to prove it: