Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Peace and a job, please

Hurrah for a successful second round on Sunday. The world’s most expensive elections, somewhere between US$500-700 million, I am told. A logistical nightmare, but this time everyone knew the drill.

In the remote district near Kisangani where I observed the elections, voters had learned their lesson from the last round. Instead of rushing to the polling centres at dawn, they went to church first, and showed up nonchalantly mid-morning. In most cases, they queued up obediently, under the watchful eye of a bored policeman. In a few places there was still some pushing and shoving, but considering that voters were standing for hours under merciless sun and in sweltering heat, they once again showed boundless patience.

Once inside the polling station, the relatively straightforward presidential ballot, reduced from 33 candidates to two, was dealt with expeditiously. Not so with the ballot for provincial representative, which featured close to 300 candidates spread over 7 pages, and caused endless grief among the illiterate or those with poor eye-sight. “These are the first real elections in our history, and everyone wants to be a candidate,” explained an election official after I commented on the number of trees that must have been cut down to make the ballots.

In Kinshasa, where people woke up on Sunday morning to the biggest storm of the year, voting was extended into the night, to make up for the morning’s wash-out. Participation rates for Kinshasa were lower than during the first round, but considering that people often don’t show up for work on a rainy day, and considering that many polling centres didn’t provide shelter for those waiting in line for their turn, it’s a tribute to voters that they braced the storm and showed up at all.

As I went from polling centre to polling centre, I asked people what brought them there. Their duty, of course. When I asked them what they hoped to get out of these elections, the answer was always the same: peace, and a job.

Now everyone is hoping for a substantial margin between the two candidates, of at least 10 percent so that the loser cannot challenge the result.

P.S: I just heard on Radio Okapi that the ballot papers will be recycled into loo paper.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Low batt

Phew, I’m exhausted. And I don’t know where the last two weeks went. Time for Sunday to just happen already – the elections, for those of you who are blissfully unaware. Although I guess none of us will dare to feel the same euphoria we did the day after the last round, now that we’ve all been reminded the hard way that it’s the results that count, and the losing camp’s willingness to accept defeat.

Last time I was in Kisangani, it was three weeks before the elections, and the place was literally buzzing from the campaign. The excitement was infectious as throngs of yellow-clad Kabila supporters danced their way to the airport to greet their hero, chanting and laughing all the way, only to be greeted halfway by truckloads of animated blue-clad Bemba supporters returning from the airport where they had just said good-bye to their own beloved champion. Astonishingly, particularly in the light of subsequent events, this did not lead to clashes of any sort, but rather to good-humoured jeering and laughter from both sides.

This time, the campaign is reduced to a handful of students shouting slogans from the top of a truck. The big men themselves are too scared to leave Kinshasa, and rumour has it that neither of them has any money left to do much anyway. So instead they send their emissaries – wives, parents, advisers – to do their campaigning for them. And the result is pretty uninspiring.

Yesterday, we all waited with baited breath for what was going to be the highlight of this tepid campaign – a head-to-head debate between the two remaining presidential candidates. But as most of us had predicted, the debate was cancelled, officially because of disagreement over modalities, officiously because the two candidates couldn’t agree whether to sit side by side or facing each other or some such nonsense, and of course the real reason is that neither of them – or certainly not the less charismatic Kabila – wanted this debate in the first place.

Last round, I was fully engaged. In the daytime, I allowed the campaign thrill to seep through me and went around my job in eager anticipation. In the evenings, alone in the hotel, I dug deep in the recesses of my brain where remnants of my political science lectures gather dust, and kept myself busy with high-browed thoughts about what strategies each candidate was choosing, what different outcomes might mean for the future of Congo, and more generally the pros and cons of democracy. This time, my brain is numb. The job at hand – mechanical as it is – commands all my attention and energy, and I can’t think ahead to the afternoon, let alone to the elections on Sunday. All that is left is a vague notion that in a couple of days I can finally put my head down on a pillow and sleep to my heart’s content.

Let’s hope the Congolese are more enthused.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Unexpected perks of the job

This morning I woke up at dawn, put on my best lilac shirt and drove 50kms out of Kinshasa to go visit a police training centre where some 200 drivers were taking their off-road driving exam. To pass the test, each driver had to successfully drive 2.5 kms along the rough, battered, narrow, crevasse-filled, muddy 20 km circuit that runs around the centre. The instructors explained to me mournfully that some parts of the circuit had become so bad in the past few years that even they had difficulty getting the vehicles through.

Next thing I know, I’m the one driving the police 4x4 pick-up truck with some twenty amused, sniggering trainees in the back, taking the circuit the wrong way around (at the insistence of the main instructor) so that the impassably steep and crevassed downhill bits have become impassably steep and crevassed uphill bits, and wondering more than once if the whole vehicle isn’t just going to tip over entirely. Considering that the last police officer who crashed a police vehicle is still rotting in jail two weeks later, I wasn’t feeling particularly relaxed, and in fact my left leg was trembling uncontrollably every time I pushed in the clutch.

Against all odds, however, I did pretty well – except for one point where the trainees had to get down and stood on either side of the trail shouting contradictory instructions as I desperately tried to get this monstrous vehicle up an almost vertical track with a massive ravine down the middle so that there was virtually no road for the tires to grip onto. Still, I made it through, and I am soon to become the proud owner of an off-road driver’s certificate from the Congolese Police. Can’t wait to put that on my CV!

My lovely lilac blouse didn’t do so well out of the experience, however.

This was the easy bit, coming back down!

Wednesday, October 11, 2006


Still struggling to find the time to post new entries, so here’s another few from the ‘best of Africa’ series, in the meantime.

Work is pretty intense, in typical post-holiday, pre-election fashion, but the disappearance of all free time is also due to a new, strict and highly enjoyable sports regime. My aerobics instructor is back, with a delightful mix of girls-only classes with little in common except the word ‘body’ in the title (Body Pump, Body Balance…) and the guarantee of an hour’s worth of heat, sweat and noise. She even does a pseudo yoga-and-tai-chi combo which is meant to be a more relaxing and spiritual experience than the other classes, but she still somehow manages to turn the Sun Salutation into a military drill.

In addition, after 9 months of stubborn resistance, F. and I were finally lured with the promise of regular tennis doubles and the pleasure of an Olympic size swimming pool into becoming members of Elaeis Sports Club – not nearly as exclusive as the Golf Club, but certainly much more so than the rundown, mosquito-ridden, neighbourhood tennis courts we frequented until now. To make membership worthwhile, however, we have to go there at least twice a week on average – a good way to ensure we don’t let the blogs take over our lives.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Toilet giggle

Here is an exact transcript (spelling mistakes and all) of a notice posted inside the ladies’ toilet in a building where I had a meeting today. It was a print-out of an e-mail that appears to have been sent to everyone in the firm, from senior partner to messenger. I laughed so hard I couldn’t pee.

« Chers camarades,

Nous avons remarqué, avec désolation, le non respect des normes de propreté dans les installations hygiéniques du bureau. Aussi, nous avons enregistré des plaintes de beaucoup de collègues ainsi que de certains membres de la Direction qui ont constaté que certaines personnes ne pensent pas chasser leurs urines et d’autres encore laissent carrément des gouttes des urines sur les latrines après utilisation.

Ayons à l’esprit que pour le maintien de la propreté dans les installations sanitaires, il faut ceci :

  • Prenez soin de soulever les deux battants chaque fois que vous voulez faire pipi ; ou bien soulevez un seul battant si vous voulez voir comment le roi marche à quatre pattes ;

  • Tirer légèrement la chasse d’eau et assurez vous que l’eau a tout emporté ;

  • Vérifier qu’il n’y a pas de gouttes d’urines aux alentours des latrines ou des traces de la matière fécale collée sur la cuve ;

  • Si oui, nettoyez soigneusement avec la brosse dure déposée à côté de la cuve ;

  • Aspergez de temps en temps les toilettes avec le désodorisant afin de chasser les mauvaises odeurs ;

  • Pensez simplement à la personne qui vient après vous.

Chers camarades, rappelez-vous que nous passons près de la moitié de notre temps aux toilettes et que sur cette base, nous devons maintenir le bureau ainsi que les installations hygiéniques dans un état vivable.

Merci pour la compréhension de tous. »

And to follow on the ‘notice’ theme, here is the second picture from my ‘best of Africa’ series mentioned yesterday.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

In absentia

Predictably, this week is crazily busy. So until I find the time to post some news, here is a little selection of my favourite pictures from Africa – not, unfortunately, by me. This one is meant to be from Uganda, but could so easily be DRC.

Monday, October 02, 2006


"Working hours are never long enough. Each day is a holiday, and ordinary holidays are grudged as enforced interruptions in an absorbing vocation."

-- Winston Churchill

This is why I will never be Prime Minister. I LOVED my holiday, and have come back feeling so much happier with life and the Congo that I spent most of today skipping around in childish merriment.