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