Saturday, September 16, 2006

Pragmatism wins

The Supreme Court has given the Independent Electoral Commission an extension of 50 days starting today, i.e. up to 4 November, to organise the second round of the presidential elections. This on the grounds that it was not logistically or materially possible to organise the second round in 15 days as per the Constitution. Phew.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Good news, bad news

The good news is that Bemba and Kabila finally met face to face yesterday. We had our share of VIPs visiting Kinshasa over the past week – Thabo Mbeki, Javier Solana and, um, Hilary Benn – and I guess international diplomacy won the day. Top of the agenda for the presidential candidates’ meeting: the diplomats’ proposal that all soldiers, except those helping the UN peacekeepers in the east but including Bemba’s personal army and Kabila’s Republican Guard, be confined to their barracks.

The bad news, potentially, is that the Supreme Court of Justice declared the fixing of the second round of the presidential election for 29 October unconstitutional (“inconstitutionnelles les décisions de la CEI, en ce qu’elle fixe le délai du deuxième tour de l’élection présidentielle au 29 octobre 2006” – Le Potentiel). I refer you to a previous post, where I summarised the problem: The Constitution says fifteen days after the official results are announced, but this is logistically impossible (only 45% of the 60,000 electoral kits have been deployed since August). Unless of course the Supreme Court holds off announcing the official results until 15 October, but that, I would think, is politically impossible. So. Now we wait with baited breath to see how the Supreme Court proposes to solve the dilemma.

With our usual flair for timing, we’re off again, for a couple of weeks. More weddings, friends, family, theatre, music, shopping, dinners, coffee, newspapers and the likes. Cheeky, but welcome nonetheless.

Bas Congo in pictures

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Bas Congo road trip

I’m back from my road trip across Bas Congo. Five days, 1 400 kms, 4 districts, 10 territories, lots of red dust, countless towns, street-side market stalls, faces peering suspiciously through the window, children yelling and waving, old mamas walking along the side of the road doubled over under the weight of mammoth piles of wood hanging down their backs from bags slung across their foreheads, young men ambling ahead laughing and swinging machetes, etc, etc. All work – but this is the kind of work I enjoy.

I wonder if everyone else finds that sitting in a car, watching the world go by at high speed, catching fleeting nuggets of so many different lives, is particularly cathartic; if others, like me, find themselves thinking about their whole life, not in a particularly introspective way, not really judging, just remembering. I get the same way in aeroplanes. And boats. As long as I’m not driving. And on horses. But not bicycles.


Bas Congo is seeped with colonial history. Boma, a couple of hours upriver from the Atlantic in a fast motorboat (rather longer in a man-powered dug-out), was the first capital of King Leopold’s Congo state. You can still see the old church – the first church in Congo, I am told –the old post office, and a number of Victorian mansions with big windows, covered porches and decorated roofs that must have served as government offices or houses for European officials in the late 19th century. Boma is also where the ceremony took place transferring ownership of the Congo from Leopold to the Belgian government in 1908. In exchange, the Belgian government assumed 110 million francs’ worth of debts, agreed to pay 45.5 million francs toward some of the king’s pet building projects in Europe, and paid another 50 million francs to the king himself. You can guess where the money was meant to come from.

You can also see signs of Mr Stanley across Bas Congo – in Boma we had drinks in a place called “le Baobab de Stanley” where you could pay 200 FC for the pleasure to go inside a baobab which Stanley may or may not have touched himself. Boma is where Stanley ended up at the end of his famous two and a half year trip across Africa covering 7,000 miles from east to west after being the first person to chart the course of the Congo River. And here was I complaining about a sore spot in my back after two hours on a bumpy road.

Bas Congo is where the infamous railway line cuts through, linking the port of Matadi with Kinshasa. The project was described by Adam Hochschild (my reference in most matters relating to Congo’s early colonial history) as “a modest engineering success and a major human disaster.” A plaque just outside Matadi commemorates the building of the railway, which took no less than eight years for only 241 miles. It doesn’t mention how many people died. On the positive side, the railway did replace porterage, which by all accounts was gruesome and barbaric (endless files of starving men chained at the neck carrying monstrous loads, that kind of thing). King Leopold had construction workers brought in from China, amongst other places, to build the railway. Today, you can see Chinese men sitting motionless on their haunches all along the road from Kinshasa to Matadi, supervising lines of Congolese workers contracted to help rebuild the road. Un clin d’oeil au passé peut-être.

P.S: Can't seem to download any pictures. Later then.

Friday, September 08, 2006

More about India

As I wait for my colleagues to show up so we can head off to Bas Congo for 4 days – departure time was meant to be almost two hours ago, but I am calm, putting in practice my new Zen resolutions of yesterday – I find myself reading more news from India.

An odd quirk of this quirky country is that the national newspapers publish pictures of dead people whom the police cannot identify. So here you are, having your breakfast, flipping through the pages of the morning paper, and suddenly you are staring at a picture of an individual whose face is missing and whose skull is showing, and another with a tortured, bloody face and swollen eyeballs that look like they are about to explode out of the page and into your tea. Yummy.

And here was I thinking that pictures of missing children on your milk carton first thing in the morning was a bit gruesome!

Thursday, September 07, 2006

How to get free publicity

The latest restaurant in Mumbai is called Hitler's Cross. It was promoted with posters of Hitler and red swastikas. The owners said they wanted their restaurant to stand out. They ended up in the newspaper, and now they're on my blog so I guess their strategy worked.

Apparently they backed down in the end, though, and changed the name.


A lesson from Congo in the Art of Zen

So I hear that Bemba’s soldiers captured an armed Republican Guard soldier outside their camp yesterday evening. Foolish man. Audacious, dangerous. The Republican Guard soldier was promptly taken inside the camp and beaten up. Unhelpful.

For ten days now the two presidential candidates have been under UN mediation; each side has set up commissions of inquiry into the 20-22 August fighting. The idea is that they will agree guidelines to ensure a peaceful second round. Last evening’s events – if they really happened – could easily have sparked another round of fighting. In fact, it’s astonishing that they didn’t. It could be evidence that the UN mediation is working. And that both candidates actually have control over their men. Insh’Allah.

Meanwhile everyone awaits the Supreme Court verdict on the final, official results of the presidential first round. They were meant to be announced earlier this week, but first the Supreme Court has to decide whether holding the second round at the end of October (as per the electoral calendar) is unconstitutional: the new Constitution says fifteen days after the official results are announced. Which is logistically impossible. Unless the Supreme Court holds off announcing the official results until 15 October. Which is politically impossible.

There have also been delays in publishing the provisional results of the legislative election. They were meant to be published last Monday, but instead 10 officials were detained on suspicion of cheating in favour of RCD, the party of one of the Vice-presidents, who did pretty poorly in the presidential election. So instead the provisional results will be announced today. We think.

Luckily, the Congolese are used to waiting and have the patience of saints.

Every time I go to the bank, I threaten to have a full-blown nervous breakdown. No matter how much time I spend here, I cannot get used to or tolerate to be kept waiting for over 2 hours. Especially when all I want to do is draw some cash from a bank that charges astronomical fees for the privilege (1.18% per withdrawal, $25 per cheque regardless of the amount, $5 commission for every transaction, not to mention the taxes…). After 30 minutes in an unmoving queue I start to fidget and complain out loud. After 1 hour I ask to speak to the manager. An hour later I am yelling and shouting and fighting back tears of exasperation. This routine is unshakable. So I visit the bank as seldom as possible.

Not so with the Congolese in the queue who watch me bemused, or is it amused. A few will come to my rescue and confirm to the irate bank manager (whom I’ve dragged over forcibly from his desk) that only 3 people have been served in the last hour and a half. But generally they wouldn’t complain. It always astounds me because usually they are so vocal. Even when some local big shot storms in and unapologetically cuts right to the front of the queue that we have all been standing in for 2 hours, I am the only one to say anything. Of course, the man ignores me, mumbles some excuse about having waited in the queue earlier in the day, and stands his ground. I briefly picture myself biting him viciously, but instead stomp around like a caged animal, swallowing back all this unnecessary anger.

Deep breath. “Weeds only grow when we dislike them”; “This is not mine, this I am not, this is not my self”. Zen sayings from an old calendar come back to me reluctantly. I used to pride myself that I could discreetly meditate my way out of most stressful situations and emerge with a big grin on my face. I would think of a tree and picture every intricate detail of its bark, or I would imagine cold water flowing inside me. Small, clever tricks for a more harmonious life. I’m not sure they’re a match against Congo though, but the truth is I haven’t honestly tried. I’ve got the “I’m-too-busy-to-relax” syndrome.

So this is my challenge for Congo: next time I have to wait 2 hours in a queue I will come out feeling peaceful and rejuvenated. If Bemba and Kabila can chill out for a while, surely I can too!

Mongolia, August 2004

Sunday, September 03, 2006

One for Carol

Introducing our adorable compound squatters.

When we first moved in, the mother had five kittens; four were given away, one remained. Six months later, in July, Mama had another two kittens. Then, almost immediately afterwards, her underage daughter (from the first litter) had two of her own. We came back from holidays to find these two tiny gremlins lurking in the bushes. Most of the time they can be found sleeping huddled together looking abandoned and forlorn, but occasionally one of them tries to venture out to play with his marginally older aunt and uncle.

Three generations: Teenage mother, gremlin babies, and two-month old aunt.

Now the two-month old aunt and uncle are perfectly happy, healthy, playful, mischievous and generally well-taken care of by their mother, the older and experienced Mama. But the tiny gremlins, product of an early teenage pregnancy – and most certainly an incestuous one at that since I’ve only ever seen one male lurking about the compound perimeter – appear to be undernourished and neglected by their uninterested mother who ignores them most studiously. Today for the first time she let them cuddle up to her, but their desperate search for a teat was apparently fruitless, and they eventually just fell asleep exhausted.

A rare occurrence: teenage mother cuddles gremlin babies

On one occasion I noticed both mothers basking lazily in the sun, each with one of the older kittens sucking away enthusiastically, whilst the tiny gremlins were left huddled and shivering in the shade. You’ve got to feel sorry for them!

So in defiance of Darwin I’m looking for suggestions. The aim of the game is to keep the gremlins alive, without making them dependent on humans or letting them into the house. Then I’ll be looking for someone to come sterilize the lot, because if they continue to reproduce at this rate we’ll have another twenty kittens by Christmas, and a hundred by Easter! By the way, did I mention I’m allergic to cats?