Thursday, December 20, 2007

Merry Christmas


Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Death of a tumbu

My more faithful readers will recall a little incident involving a writhing maggot, my left bum cheek, Vaseline experiments and a badly infected abscess, all ending rather unhappily with a scalpel incision and a Christmas holiday spent changing dressings. Well, almost a year to the day, the Christmas worm came back (or, more likely, a cousin of his).

Here is a picture of the fiend, after F. laboriously (and painfully!) squeezed it out of my right shoulder blade, where it had elected temporary residence. The Q-tip is for scale.

The procedure involved a Congolese product called Ichthammol, a sulfur-based ointment which looks and smells like tar and is meant to help draw out infections. The doctor recommended it after assuring me that I didn’t have a tumbu (also known as putzi) in my shoulder, just an infected boil (different doctor, same erroneous diagnosis as last year).

So F. innocently dabbed my shoulder with the stuff, and next thing you know there’s a little white head bobbing repulsively in and out. Clearly our little squatter did not appreciate his lair being suddenly flooded by a toxic ointment, nor his air hole being blocked. So much for ‘no tumbu’!

I would rather not recall what happened over the next fifteen minutes – a lot of Eeeweughs! from F. and Yeeowwaas! from me – but the outcome was a swift, unsympathetic eviction, followed by a quick photo session and final drowning by Johnny Walker (yes, the thing was still alive and squirming when I took the picture!).

Bon appétit!

Friday, December 14, 2007

Interlude: from Bali to Kakamigahara via Mount Rushmore

According to the radio this morning (RFI), the UN climate change conference in Bali isn’t really going anywhere. The hope was that by now (11.30 GMT), delegates would have mapped out a two-year process to agree a set of emissions cuts to replace the current Kyoto Protocol targets. The Times reports that “the proposal, supported by the EU and Brazil, would have set out in writing an ambition to cut greenhouse gases produced by industrialised countries by up to two fifths in the next 13 years. The emissions cut would have been non-binding and subject to future negotiation, but even this was too much for the US, which opposes any reference to specific numerical goals in advance of more detailed negotiations next year.” So it appears that the best we can currently hope for is a compromise that would keep the US at the negotiating table just long enough for Bush to be replaced in 2009 by a more environmentally-conscious president.

Teaching my Suzuki how to swim
The rains in Kinshasa have caused the roads to deteriorate severely

Meanwhile, the Telegraph used the Carbon Footprint calculator to estimate how many trees would have to be planted to offset conference carbon emissions: 136,987.

According to a report from IBM Global Business Services, picked up by Environmental Leader, sixty-seven percent of consumers polled across six countries (Australia, Germany, Japan, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and the United States) would be willing to pay more for eco-friendly energy. True, most of these would only be willing to pay 5 percent more, and cost and quality were still considered more important than environmental concerns, but the Americans, surprisingly, were the most willing to pay a sizable premium, up to an additional 20 percent or more.

I remember seeing one of the Diesel “Global Warming Ready” ads in the US last year, and, while admitting that it was clever, also thinking that one day our children would be amazed at how oblivious, even insensitive, our generation had been. Imagine if at the beginning of the 20th century, Coco Chanel or the Tirocchi sisters had launched a “World War Ready” advertising campaign showing women carrying bayonet-mounted rifles over costly garments designed to show off their tightly corseted torsos.


(For a full discussion of whether Diesel meant its satire of global warming to be sarcastic or to raise awareness, read this Washington Post article, in which I also discovered that Ben & Jerry's ice cream has been pushing a campaign to "Lick Global Warming".)

Finally, in case you’re feeling guilty about how much energy your Christmas lights are consuming this year, here is one idea: at the Aqua Toto Gifu aquarium in Kakamigahara, Japan, the Christmas tree is powered by…an electric eel! According to the Mainichi Daily News, each time the eel touches a conductive copper wire installed in its tank, a surge of electric power lights up the globes in the tree.

As for me, I was embarrassed to discover that my Carbon Footprint for 2007 is estimated at no less than 17.250 tonnes of CO2! By comparison, the average for the DRC is 0.04 tonnes, for the world is 4 tonnes and for industrialised nations is 11 tonnes. I look forward to the day when planes will be flown on renewable energy. In the meantime, I better get planting…

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Solution, anyone?

The DRC is now firmly in the mainstream international press. This article in NY Times provides a good update of the ever-evolving situation in North Kivu.

Following the early army successes, many people in North Kivu dared to hope that a swift victory was at hand and some were already preparing a victory march. Humanitarian workers feared for Tutsi civilians, in whose name General Nkunda claims to be fighting. But now the tables have turned again, and Nkunda’s men have retaken Mushake (only 40km from Goma) and Karuba, while Sake had to be defended by the UN. If the army fails, it would be a disaster for President Kabila, whose popularity in the east is in freefall.

“Humility is the only certain defence against humiliation,” they say.

It is hard to imagine what a solution might look like: Nkunda wants to retain his little fiefdom in the hills of North Kivu, which understandably Kabila is unwilling to allow, if only because it would anger other ex-militia leaders who agreed to integrate their men into the national army.

Meanwhile, the UN is in (too) deep, with 4,500 blue helmets fighting alongside the national army in North Kivu. Other partners fighting alongside the Congolese army include the FDLR (ex-Rwandan Hutu militia), which some fear will provoke the Rwandan government to invade the DRC. Meanwhile, the army Chief of Staff General Kayembe is on a five-day visit to Angola to discuss “cooperation in the military field,” according to Angola Press.

Painted sign on the wall of the Provincial Inspectorate in Goma,
commissioned in 2006 by the ex-Provincial Inspector for North Kivu,
who has now been moved to some backwater post
(the sign may have been painted over by his replacement)

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

A bad year for gorillas

Unless you have privileged access to UN situation reports, it’s very difficult from Kinshasa to know how the situation is evolving in North Kivu. In my hunger for information, I started to read some of the blogs, such as this one from the rangers at Virunga National Park.

I discovered that this really hasn’t been a good year for gorillas in Virunga:

· In January, two gorillas were killed and eaten.

· In June, alongside guarantees that Brad did not cheat on Jennifer with Angelina, the Daily Mail published a heart-wrenching article about a baby mountain gorilla called Ndakasi who’d been found clinging to her ‘executed’ mother. A nearby trail of blood suggested that a second gorilla had also been shot.

· In July, four members of the Rugendo Family were killed, as reported (and eloquently photographed) by Paulin at Wildlife Direct.

· In August, the BBC reported that the remains of a female gorilla called Macibiri had been found, and that her infant had undoubtedly also been killed or died alone.

According to a journalist reporting in the Daily Telegraph, a total of ten gorillas were killed this year.

North Kivu update

The first day of fighting seemed to go Nkunda’s way, but since yesterday the tables have started to turn back in the government’s favour.

While F. waited patiently in Masisi for a UN helicopter to take him to relative safety, I was privy to an hour-by-hour account of the slow but steady advance of the Congolese Army from Sake (30 km northwest of Goma) to Mushake (40 km from Goma, on the road to Masisi). The heaviest fighting today was in Mushake, and when it was confirmed this afternoon that the town had been taken by the Army, I started to wonder how long it would take them to get to Masisi. Thankfully, F. is now back in Goma.

News from the other main axis to Rutshuru, 150 km north of Goma, is far more opaque. On Monday, Nkunda’s men had taken control of Army positions in Kikuku and Nyanzale, including their vehicles and ammunition. I haven’t heard whether or not those positions have been taken back, which suggests they haven’t, since the government is quick to proclaim its victories.

In Kinshasa, speculation continues about whether or not Nkunda is being protected by influential members of the government, whether or not he is backed by Rwanda, whether the conflict has unofficially escalated to become a regional – some even say global – affair…

International coverage, however, remains patchy. Whilst the Guardian and others picked up an AP report on Condoleeza Rice’s ‘unease’ about the deteriorating security situation in several African hot spots, no mention seems to have been made of the DRC.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Hard and fast

Last week I was temporarily distracted by London, where I went on a whirlwind visit to speak at a conference about the DRC. It’s the second consecutive year that I attend this conference and make a presentation on the DRC, and it’s the second year that I return home to turmoil. For now I will continue to focus my attention on ‘the troubled eastern province of North Kivu’, as it is regularly referred to by reporters.

For the last few days, everyone has been saying that after weeks of preparation, the Congolese army would finally attack on 5 December. Someone jumped the gun. Probably the rebel leader, General Nkunda. This morning there was heavy fighting north of Goma, with tanks shooting at the hills, and the hills shooting back at the tanks.

The numbers:
· 1 rebel leader
· 4,000 insurgents loyal to the rebel leader
· 20,000 government troops
· almost 400,000 displaced civilians since the end of last year
· 800,000 displaced civilians altogether

According to one of my Congolese colleagues, whenever there is conflict in the DRC, the three big players are not far away: USA, Belgium and France. The US is going very public, ahead of Condoleeza Rice’s visit to Ethiopia on Thursday, with calls for Nkunda to surrender and go into exile. Belgium and France are very silent. The UN is even more definitely siding with the government than before.

The recurring refrain amongst the Congolese I speak to is, why on earth wasn’t Nkunda taken out before? I remember when I was in Goma six months ago, driving past a hotel and being told by a fairly senior UN representative that this was where Nkunda regularly came to eat and meet with his collaborators…

Meanwhile, I look back wistfully at my pictures from election-day in Sake, and remember with sadness the tears of joy in an old man’s eyes as he danced down the steps of the voting centre for whence he had just cast the first free vote in his life. I wonder where these kids are today.

P.S: Extra Extra, aka F., travelled to Masisi on Saturday to look into stories like this one. He had some misadventures on route, involving sleeping in a truck, which I’m sure he will blog about in due course. He is now in Masisi, which remains quiet.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Looking grim: North Kivu

The talk over the last few weeks has been about the fighting in North Kivu (what marks the boundary between fighting and war?). The deadline set by President Kabila for General Nkunda to reintegrate his forces into the national army passed more than a month ago, and everyone expected a major army offensive. Then a series of unexpected events provided a small measure of skeptical hope:

- the Rwandan foreign minister Charles Murigande showed up in Kinshasa in a bid to avoid an escalation of the crisis into a broader conflict;
- President Kabila visited the White House;
- the US State Department suddenly became concerned with the situation, and dispatched a senior advisor for conflict resolution to North Kivu;
- the Congolese and Rwandan governments signed a pact in Nairobi to deal with Rwandan Hutu rebels in DRC.

Now, after a new upsurge in the fighting, General Kayembe, head of the Congolese Army, says war is inevitable. The UN military commander calls it a phase of "constraint". The UN is in a tight spot: it has a mandate to support the Congolese army, but as a result it is seen to be taking sides, and will therefore become a target itself.

Meanwhile, the number of IDPs in North Kivu has reached 800,000, of which 375,000 since last December alone.

Saturday, November 17, 2007


Soon it will be two years since I first arrived in Kinshasa.

The first year and a half was a roller-coaster emotions and experiences. Since July, however, I seem to have reached some kind of neutral zone, a sort of gentleman's compromise, with Kinshasa: I will never love it, and it will never love me, but I have learned to appreciate the good bits and to live with certain reliably frustrating aspects, and in return it allows me to feel almost at home here, to carve out a tiny, temporary niche for myself where I can relax into a pleasant, if sometimes tedious, routine.

The politics in this country provide material for endless discussions, and I sometimes even muster the energy for outrage. Meanwhile, the seemingly bottomless pit of crazy, outlandish stories that appear to be a daily occurrence here – from hypnotized goal keepers to people with frogs in their legs to the devious Chinese who work only at night so the Congolese don't steal their technology – provides welcome entertainment.

Typical scene in Kinshasa - an overwhelmed traffic cop

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Just another day in Kinshasa

The main victim of our move to ‘the suburbs’ has been our tennis. So on Monday evening, full of good resolutions, we made our way to the nearby Cercle Portugais, a sports club that has seen better days, for our first game in almost 3 months. The lights were pretty rubbish, making for a bit of a blind game, but hey, we were having fun, it was all good.

So we’re halfway through our first set, and I’m about to make an extraordinary come-back, when suddenly I’m stopped mid-serve by what sounds like dozens of mangos or coconuts falling to the ground. We all look uncomprehendingly towards this great big tree right next to the tennis court, which is shaking and shuddering, and for a second I wonder whether, incongruously, there might be a family of monkeys in there. And then the tree comes thundering down, taking the floodlight with it in a spectacular explosion of glass, obliterating the net and plastic chairs, and covering about half the court.

The manager and a couple of his mates, who’d been enjoying a quiet drink at the bar, sauntered over to look at the damage. “Lucky you weren’t playing at the net,” he said to me impassively, before heading back to his drink.

While we retrieved our effects from underneath the branches, a handful of Congolese stood about, arms crossed, staring mournfully at the fallen tree, and commenting that it had been ‘foutu’ for a while now, that just earlier that day the manager’s friend had predicted that it would fall. Except it then turned out that he had meant a different tree altogether, one in the car park. When I asked what type of tree it was, I got three completely different answers, but eventually all agreed that it was a Flamboyant. “These trees never last more than five years, no, never more than five years,” declared the elderly ball ‘boy’ knowingly.

Extra from Extra Extra: As we recounted this story at dinner yesterday, F. reminded me of the best part. As we were leaving the club, we commented that the manager was bound to be cross about the damage caused by the tree. Not so, said the tennis coach, the manager didn’t give a damn because his lease was about to expire. And that’s when the coach turned a hopeful, eager face towards us: “Don’t you want to buy the lease?” “This used to be an amazing place,” he added wistfully.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Post-holiday blues

Cape Town was absolutely fabulous – I highly recommend it to anyone missing bookshops, live jazz, affordable meals, fantastic wine, walking through the streets unhassled, shopping, cinemas, decent newspapers, ice-cream, metered taxis, roads without potholes, art galleries, and pampering in general. Not to mention, of course, the ocean, whose scintillating blues kept us in awe for hours on end, particularly further afield around the lovely fishing village of Aniston and de Hoop Nature Reserve.

From this (de Hoop Nature Reserve)...

In fact, the only people I don’t recommend Cape Town to are England fans during a rugby World Cup final pitching England against South Africa – a lesson we learned the hard way, being naïve enough to show up in a bar to watch the game wearing red and white and carrying a (small) Union Jack (and I’m not even English!). In fairness to South Africans, most of the people there were very friendly, and some even bought us drinks; but it only took one idiot determined to burn our flag to ruin the evening. An isolated low point in two weeks of pure bliss.

The return to Kinshasa, by contrast, was more unpleasant than usual. It was raining and grim; our pool was black; our house had been flooded and all our books (which we stupidly kept on the floor) were waterlogged (i.e. ruined); we had no power or running water, and when the water finally came back on, I brushed my teeth and got a mouthful of disgusting reddish brown water. Harrumph. this (driving home from N'djili Airport)

A couple of mornings later, I sat in the glorious sun eating a delicious mango and papaya salad prepared for me by our housekeeper, listening to the birds sing and watching the pool man painstakingly turn the grimy waters an inviting shade of cool blue. Later, I drove to work, as usual trying to circumvent the rush-hour traffic by taking the long way through the friendly (if muddy) backstreets, steering around stalls of brightly coloured fruit and vegetable held by mamans dressed in brightly coloured pagnes, peering into open yards full of women braiding each other’s hair, tiny children bathing in buckets, and an incongruous number of confused chicken. And just like that I was reconciled with Kin.


Friday, November 02, 2007

Light comic relief

Call me childish, but this recruitment ad made me laugh out loud.

Friday, October 26, 2007

From the grey zone

Last 36 hours of our holiday. I can't say we're particularly looking forward to going back to Kinshasa, but nor will we have to be dragged back. Two weeks is just about right.

Hanging out in Observatory, aka Obz, the Brooklyn (or dare I say, Camberwell) of Cape Town. After the luxury and playing grown-up, we're back to our old backpacking ways, which means we get to crash in the bohemian, racially mixed part of town - a so-called 'grey' area in capetonian speak. After spending ten days in areas that, despite the end of apartheid, remain predominantly white, this is refreshing.

It is striking, to us as naive visitors, how much colour is still an issue in South Africa, even among people of our generation and younger. On several occasions we found ourselves unsure how to react to openly racist comments being made to us unapologetically by white South-Africans. Of course, there is a huge amount of racism in our countries as well, but we are used to at least some level of political correctness, however hypocritical.

According to Allister Sparks, whose book I am currently reading, foreigners make the error of equating the end of apartheid with the civil rights movement in the US, when in fact it is closer to the struggle for nationhood between Israelis and Palestinians, or between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland. As such, we should be amazed at the level of cohabitation that there is, not criticizing how slowly it is happening.

Nonetheless, sixteen years after the Group Areas Act was repealed (the act that assigned races to different urban areas and the cause of the infamous forcible relocations of non-whites) and thirteen years since Mandela became president, it is still shocking to drive through posh white areas - akin to some of the nicest suburbs of Los Angeles - then turn a corner and find yourself in front of a huge expanse of derelict shanty town - poorer and more shoddy than anywhere I have seen in Kinshasa.

According to our (self-defined) 'coloured' taxi driver yesterday, all eyes in South Africa are turned towards the ANC's elective conference in December, which promises bitter in-fighting. The current ANC leadership has secured its own comfort and forgotten about the blacks in the townships, he said. If the wrong politics are used, South Africa could yet go the way of Zimbabwe.

Thankfully, this seems as yet unlikely from where we are today. Tonight, we hope to visit one of the black townships.

Friday, October 19, 2007

The Angelina Effect

Over the past few days, my uncle and I have been exchanging e-mails trying to figure out which celebrity would be most likely – and successful – in taking the DRC under its wing and bringing it forward on the global radar. You know, mention that the war in DRC has killed most people since World War II, and hope that statistic sticks. Maybe even boost tourism, who knows?

Our thoughts naturally turned to Paris Hilton, the woman whose most selfless thought to date is that she wants to be frozen with her pets, Chihuahua Tinkerbell and Cinderella, when she dies. I could already imagine her posing with the bonobos, all giggly and blond, while the cameras flashed frantically around her. Unfortunately, it turns out she’s already booked for Rwanda. Damn.

Many call it the Angelina Effect, which seems a bit unfair on Bono. Whoever is responsible, celebrity star power has never shown so brightly on Africa since “We are the World” and Ethiopia: Angelina and Brad in Namibia, George Clooney in Darfur, Madonna in Malawi, Don Cheadle in Uganda, Ralph Fiennes in Kenya, Mia Farrow in Angola (and Darfur), Oprah in South Africa…and now, Paris Hilton in Rwanda.

For five days in November, Paris will visit clinics and schools. She claims that she is determined to change her ways and “leave a mark on the world” – but she will be followed by cameras, and the film will be sold as a reality TV show titled The Philanthropist. Puke.

So, who does that leave for DRC?

A quick look at Forbe’s top 100 celebrities reveals that Tom Cruise is still #1 (really?). I’d rather have the Rolling Stones, or even the cast of the Sopranos, given the choice!

Under da sea

Today we spent the day spotting whales.

Yesterday, t'was the penguins.

Small useless fact: The testicles of the right whale are the largest of any animal, each weighing around 500 kg (1,100 lbs).

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

On the road again

Yesterday, from the terrace of a beachside cafe where we were having lunch and cocktails at 3.30pm - so civilised - we saw on the horizon a whale leap clear into the air. Just like that.

Oooh, I really like Cape Town - a mix of the Med and California, with a touch of New Orleans, a city nestled between amazing beaches and superb mountains, with funky shops, organic cafes, great jazz, and oozing history. I'm pleased that it's twinned with Nice.

So after four days of pure indolence in Cape Town, we're off to explore. First stop, probably Cape of Good Hope, then Hermanus from where we hope to see more whales.

Heading off - from Two Oceans Aquarium

Monday, October 15, 2007

From a safe distance

Today is the deadline President Kabila gave dissident general Laurent Nkunda, the rebel leader based in North Kivu with an army of some 5,000 - 6,000, to reintegrate his forces into the national army. Nkunda says he will ignore the deadline. Kabila says he will attack. MONUC has a mandate to support the Congolese armed forces and will probably have to go in alongside them. Watch this space.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Carine is...

...basking in capetonian luxury.

F punched and growled his way out of Kinshasa, and I crawled and gnawed my way out. Only fellow Kinois expatriates can really understand.

There was a minute yesterday morning when we thought that extra, desperate hour of work may have cost us our flight out, and we both knew that would really have been the straw that broke the camel's back.

But here we are, and WOW! So far we've spent the morning giggling like lunatics, slightly disjointed and not fully able to interact normally with civilisation yet, but absolutely loving every minute of it. Cape Town, watch out!

Our hotel room

Our breakfast spot

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Les dieux sont tombés sur la tête

I got no less than five phone calls checking whether I had been obliterated by the airplane that crashed in Kinshasa on Thursday. The answer, clearly, is no.

Yet another Antonov fell from the skies over DRC. That’s at least six since my arrival in November 2005, and another four had crashed just before I arrived, making a total of ten dead Antonovs in less than two years. Not bad!

Fortunately, this one was a cargo plane (although confusingly, it appeared to have as many as 20 passengers on board); unfortunately, it crashed in a populated area of Kinshasa called Kingasani. The latest death toll appears to be over fifty.

Ten years ago, another Antonov hit a Kinshasa market, killing 300.

Another particularly memorable accident happened in 2003 when the rear door of a cargo plane burst open at 33,000 feet, sucking some 150-200 passengers out of the plane. Others survived by clinging on to bags, ropes and nettings as the plane returned to the airport in Kinshasa. One survivor explained that the plane had taken off with the door improperly fastened, then flung open after three failed attempts to fully shut it mid-flight (BBC).

The DRC has accounted for over half of all air crashes in Africa over the past decade, and last year the European Union put all but one Congolese airline on a blacklist. In August, the government suspended the licences of several private local airlines after an Antonov carrying three tonnes more than the recommended cargo capacity crashed in Katanga province. However, my cynical Congolese colleagues suspect that this was little more than an excuse to extract bribes, and that the Minister for Transport has spent the last couple of months signing exemptions from the ban. All be it, he is now fired.

At the risk of being tiresome and repeating for the zillionth time a now-familiar rant, what amazes me is that Kinshasa’s implosion last March registered with absolutely no one outside DRC, and yet this plane crash, the last in a long list of similar but unreported events, has suddenly made the news.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

A true story

Dieudonné was one of Bemba’s guards. Unfortunately, Dieudonné was caught by the Republican Guard during the fighting in March and taken to some field to be executed. Fortunately, Dieudonné managed to escape, and after running through the fields, he eventually made it to the road, where he came across a man to whom he was able to tell his woes. Unfortunately, the man turned out to be a Republican Guard and immediately arrested him. Fortunately, the Republican Guard had some urgent shopping to do before taking Dieudonné back to the camp. So now Dieudonné and the Republican Guard are strolling down the street together, while the one shops and the other helps him carry his wares. Fortunately, this must have softened the Republican Guard’s heart, and once the shopping session is over Dieudonné finds he is offered a lift home instead of being taken to be executed. Unfortunately, Dieudonné’s wife is furious with him, calls him stupid for letting the Republican Guard know where he lives, and sends him packing. Fortunately, MONUC agrees to take Dieudonné in. Unfortunately, MONUC now doesn’t have a clue what to do with him and others like him. But Dieudonné is alive, against all odds.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Kiss of death

Catching up with what’s going on outside my little world.

The big news about DRC appears to be the return of Ebola, which in 2005 killed 250 people in Kikwit and is now suspected to have killed some 180 people in Western Kasai, with a further 200 or so possible cases. Our friend from Reuters reports that people from the affected area no longer kiss each other or shake hands. Fair enough.

Here in Kinshasa the news has barely registered, however. The talk is mostly about the east, where the conflict remains unresolved and threatens to escalate. President Kabila has given dissident general and self-proclaimed protector of the Tutsi minority Laurent Nkunda 21 days to send his men to “brassage” – the process by which they will be integrated within the National Army. It seems unlikely that he will agree, and the question remains whether or not the Rwandan government will get involved, despite assurances that they will not. Watch this space.

Meanwhile, J.P. Bemba (remember him?) is still in Portugal, and the opposition in disarray. Those of Bemba’s guards who gave themselves up to the UN after the events in March are still in the MONUC compound, learning Spanish with the Uruguayans. The UN doesn’t have a clue what to do with them.

Sunday, September 23, 2007


Well, well, well.

Needless to say, I have rather neglected Nayembi these last few weeks – well, months really. The sign of a fuller life? To some extent, perhaps. Really it’s the sign of an all-absorbing working day.

I often used to indulge in blogging just after lunch, when my brain rebelled against work, and I could just about convince myself that there were still enough hours left in the day to allow such a short, harmless distraction. Of course, I invariably brought work home with me to finish in the evenings…

These days I have reinvented myself as a trainer, which is a lot of fun, but leaves no time for distractions. These days, after lunch is the time for energizers and practical exercises, because the sexagenarian magistrates whom we train also find it hard to engage their brains whilst digesting. So most days you will find me dressed in a ridiculous disguise, demonstrating through role-play some of the concepts we developed in the morning. You’d think it might put off our reputedly stuffy, conventional and old-fashioned students, but they absolutely love it.

I dare not illustrate my words with a few choice photos of Supreme Court presidents wearing harlequin hats and fake mustaches, but you get the gist.

Last night we finally had our housewarming party, coupled with F’s birthday and a friend’s leaving do. Our house has been nicknamed Ipanema, which gives you an idea. Some say we have the perfect venue to shoot a porn movie, and indeed, the evening ended with two scantily clad ladies wearing nothing but a bikini bottom and a wet, see-through blouse (this being after everyone threw each other in the pool fully dressed) dancing together in the candlelight as the boys unimaginatively urged them to kiss. Worryingly, they claimed to be heading to a local nightclub when they left our party at 4.30am.

Dure dure, la vie en Afrique!

Saturday, September 15, 2007


We're off to Zongo this week-end. Sneak preview:

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Virtual tour


Tuesday, August 28, 2007


Ten days later...

Saturday, August 18, 2007


Anyone who’s seen the Godfather knows that “a lawyer with his briefcase can steal more than a hundred men with guns.” We should have known better than to rent a house from a lawyer.

Twenty months on, finding a decent, affordable house in Kinshasa has proven just as difficult as the first time. And combining house searching with starting a new project, transforming a dark, dusty corner of a Congolese ministry into pleasant offices, preparing to train 120 senior officials, and jealously guarding the week-ends for fun excursions and friends, is virtually impossible. So when we finally found a house that we both liked, a nice, clean, spacious, white house with big windows, a lovely garden and a pool, we decided to downplay the fact that (i) it was in Ma Campagne, an area that has the distinct advantage of being green and quiet, and the distinct disadvantage of being on the other side of a one-hour traffic jam into and out of the town centre (where I work), and (ii) it was, as yet, entirely unfurnished.

When we first arrived in Kinshasa we decided to get a furnished house because we thought it would be too much of a hassle to furnish something for only a year or two. Now, twenty months on, with only four months to go, we get an unfurnished house. Impulsive.

So we negotiated at length a win-win deal with the landlord (ssssssssss): we would pay an extra $500 per month rent, and he would furnish the house entirely. We get our hassle-free furnished house; he gets new furniture, and the possibility of keeping the rent high henceforth. Simple, no?

The following day, we were in his lawyer office (ssssssssss), reading his lawyer contract (ssssssssss) and discovering that a number of points we had agreed had conveniently been overlooked. We insisted, the contract was amended, and $12,000 were handed over (deposit + 3 months’ rent). That was ten days ago. This morning, we arrive at the house with our boxes and clutter, and find…one small lime green table with a broken leg, six matching lime green straight-back chairs, a half-decent desk, and one double bed only just long enough for F to lie in with head and feet touching at each end, and a mattress so thick I don’t think we’ll ever find sheets to match. Plouf.

I know, we should have seen it coming. The contract stipulates that the landlord is responsible for furnishing the house to the tenants’ specifications, but of course a contract is only meaningful in countries where trials are meaningful.

We called up the lawyer (ssssssssss), who claimed that he had never agreed to furnishing the house beyond the bare minimum, that the extra $500 per month were for water and electricity bills (which cost about $160 per month), but don’t worry, he’ll get the leg on the decrepit lime green table repaired. If we buy furniture, he may or may not buy it back from us at the end. Thanks a lot. We then called the agents who had initially put us in contact with the landlord and who had witnessed the deed, and luckily both of them concurred with our version of what had been agreed. And then we spent our well-deserved Saturday afternoon locked in heated discussions with the lawyer (sssssssssss), with the agents acting as mediators, back and forth, back and forth. Exhausting.

By the end of the afternoon, though, Ssssssssss had finally if very grudgingly agreed to honour the contract, and one of the agents was going to help him find cheap but nice furniture to keep us happy. In theory we should be able to move in on Tuesday-ish. Suite au prochain numéro!

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Press talk

The talk in Kinshasa is about the prospect of war in the east, as soldiers, tanks and helicopter gunships are sent to North Kivu with a view, one supposes, to squashing the Tutsi rebel leader Laurent Nkunda. Peacekeepers glumly shake their heads, expatriates raise their eyebrows, while the Kinois shrug knowingly: “What do you expect, it’s the east.”

The talk in the local press is about whether or not Jean-Pierre Bemba will return to DRC. The opposition leader and defeated presidential candidate has been in Portugal since April, when he fled the country after the fighting in Kinshasa between his men and the national army. He was supposed to return by 31 July, but he has now told the Portuguese press that he would return by 15 September.

The talk in the international media is about last Wednesday’s train crash in Kasai Occidental: the brakes failed on a derelict, colonial-era train, seven carriages overturned, and official estimates are of 100 dead and another 200 injured. If trains in Kinshasa are anything to go by, people would have been travelling on top of the train, hanging on to its sides and squeezed inside.

Picture by Fred

Some passengers are still trapped beneath the wagons due to lack of equipment to lift or cut through them. The first people rescued were transported by foot or on handmade wooden bicycles to the 22-bed hospital twelve kilometres away, but now a major UN medical and rescue operation is underway. The government has proclaimed three days of national mourning: the flags are at half-mast, and the television and radio stations are playing religious music. President Sarkozy sends his condolences.

As our journalist friends hurriedly leave for Kananga to cover the story, the rest of us are left wondering about the arbitrariness of news. Last July journalists flocked to the DRC to cover the elections, which cost the world so much money, then immediately flocked away again when the crisis erupted in Lebanon. Needless to say, the elections didn’t make the cut. In March, the fighting in Kinshasa which had us all holed up like rabbits for 48 hours and killed some 600 people barely registered with the international media. The fact that hundreds of people die every day here as a result of malnutrition and preventable diseases is not newsworthy, but this latest train crash is. Go figure.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

New order in Kinshasa

Well, next time is now: we’re back in Kinshasa, full of the energy and naïve excitement with which we always return. Coming back to Kinshasa after almost 3 months away feels a bit like crossing into a very similar but parallel universe – everything is remarkably familiar, yet disconcertingly different. For starters, we surrendered our house, in favour of a serviced studio-flat further removed from the Police HQ. Second, we changed jobs and therefore workplaces. And third, the city has changed, in small but noticeable ways.

Our arrival at the airport was a far cry from the usual chaos with which we have been greeted in the past: the lecherous Sunglasses Committee lined us up neatly, checked our passports efficiently, and one even welcomed me to Kinshasa! Our bags were opened and checked with astonishing expeditiousness, and altogether the noise levels were several decibels below the N’djili norm. Disbelief turned to suspicion as we drove into town and found the streets eerily deserted, the traffic unusually disciplined (even stopping at the red lights!), pedestrians waiting patiently on the side of the road instead of darting madly through the traffic as usual, and, most disorienting of all, no one hanging out the side of the derelict minivans, or balancing precariously on the broken bumper of a taxi.

The next morning someone ran up to me at work to congratulate me on what a great job the international community had done reforming the police (when I left in April, they had just had a major two-day seminar to discuss how to shift from military to civilian policing, as envisaged in the new Constitution). Finally, my interlocutor assured me, order was returning, with the help of a new Inspector General (ex-leader of the air forces, brought in by the President), and with the help of the “chicotte”, a vicious whip made out of raw, sun-dried hippopotamus hide, infamously used against the Congolese in the days of King Leopold, and now resuscitated by the police for use against undisciplined taxi drivers. The guy couldn’t understand why I looked so horrified and was at pains to explain why this was a good thing, really.

So welcome to the new Kinshasa. I’ve heard some diplomats admit in hushed tones that a few whippings here and there was a price worth paying to restore order in a city so often referred to as anarchic by the international press. Cédric’s latest post shows pictures of the signs in town proclaiming a “change of mindset.” The next chapter will be fascinating, as ever.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Hurdling deadlines

Final stretch. I broke into a sprint a bit too early, so now I’ve got a stitch and a cramp, and I’m struggling against the urge to spend 24 hours in bed to make up for the many late nights and early starts. Less than a week to go, cheer me on! We haven’t even thought about packing up the house yet. Poor Kinshasa – I haven’t really given it much time or energy this year. Next time.

Here are some pictures of DRC refugees from the BBC News website. Lovely shots, but just too stereotypical in my view. I wish someone would do a series about the everyday madness and frenzy and fervour and energy of Kinshasa. Now that would be a real challenge – you could more readily film it, but I reckon it’s all too much to capture on still. Lionel has the best selection of DRC pictures I’ve seen so far, but even he hasn’t cracked Kinshasa yet.

P.S: The reason I was browsing the BBC News website was to see if this story, about a misguided man who cut off his penis with a knife in a London restaurant called “Zizzi”, was genuine or not. French speakers will understand my scepticism – a gruesome late April Fool’s joke perhaps? I eventually found the story under the ‘most e-mailed’ category.

Friday, April 20, 2007


Here is a version of the meal we have been eating every lunchtime for 15 months. The choice is between overcooked rice and lentils, overcooked rice and beans, and potatoes accompanied by an anonymous, ochre, boiled-beyond-recognition vegetable mush. Maman Espe may be a heroine, but she is certainly no cook.

It’s entirely our own fault, of course. When we first got here, we thought we’d indulge in a maid two or three times per week. Enter Maman Espe, who tearfully begged us to let her come every day in exchange for a 33% increase in salary. In order to justify a daily presence, both to her and to ourselves, we asked her to prepare lunch every day. Decent lunchtime eateries, where you can quickly grab a sandwich or salad for a few bucks, are few and far between in Kinshasa, so we rightly concluded that it would be far easier to come home each day. But we forgot a key element: we forgot to test Espe’s cooking skills.

Since then, every day at about 11am, as the first pangs of hunger make themselves felt, I groan inwardly at the idea of ingesting yet another tasteless blend. By 1 or 2pm, when starvation finally gets the better of me, I drag myself home apathetically to find an equally unenthusiastic Fred staring doggedly at his plate. The truth is, once we are sufficiently hungry and with the help of an impressive array of condiments, we just about manage anything. It’s not so much that Espe’s dishes are so dreadfully bad, it’s the sheer repetition which we find untenable.

You’d think that by now one of us would have taken the time to teach her a few basics.

Friday, April 13, 2007


Bloody power cut made me miss the day. But it’s still Friday the Thirteenth in Adak and Adamstown, so this one is for them.

So how many of you claimed paraskavedekatriaphobia to skive off work yesterday? I would have, but I only discovered this astonishing word last night, courtesy of Your Dictionary.

“It's been estimated that US$800 or $900 million is lost in business on this day because people will not fly or do business they would normally do,” reported the founder of the Stress Management Centre and Phobia Institute in Ashville, North Carolina, to the National Geographic in 2004. Note the annoying Lexus advert to the right of the article – I wonder if it purposefully aims to demonstrate the concept of stress by repeatedly masking the article whenever my mouse inadvertently wanders anywhere near it, in the most exasperating way.

In the highly unlikely event that someone who actually does suffer from paraskavedekatriaphobia reads this post, the CTRN Phobia Clinic guarantees lifetime elimination of the disease for only US$2,497.

Happy Saturday the Fourteenth to them!

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

For Lorraine

A translation of the lyrics for Awa Y’okeyi, courtesy of Maman Espe:

"And now you are gone.
We cultivated a field,
If you go away who will take care of what we have sown?
You leave with my heart.
In the world we are made two by two,
If you go away who will take care of our child?
Who will raise our child?
My heart, you go away,
Our flower of love,
You abandon my heart,
The flower of our love."

From Bukavu

Sunday, April 08, 2007

And Fidel Castro

Wednesday’s short concert merely whet our appetite, so yesterday we went to another Papa Wemba gig. More accurately, we crashed an invitation-only VIP event at which Papa Wemba was playing, to celebrate his new marketing contract with Bralima and the local beer Mützig – incongruously pronounced ‘Meetsing’ by the Congolese.

So there we were, sitting centre-stage at a small plastic picnic table, being served free beer and soft drinks, surrounded by a handful of Kinshasa’s rich and famous. Tonight the King of rumba had discarded the fancy suit in favour of a more typical outfit for him: bright red, baggy tracksuit bottoms, cream-coloured high-top Converse trainers, a severe black jacket – too small for his jutting belly – with a Nehru collar and a double line of gold buttons down the front, and the centrepiece: a funky, feathery, black, rimmed hat.

The first half of the concert was usual Papa Wemba stuff: seven musicians, more than ten support singers, a myriad of dancers, fantastic music, flamboyant style. When he sang his softest song, “Awa Y’okeyi”, a gentle, emotional piano and voice number, it raised the hair on the back of my neck and gave me the shivers. It’s always been one of my favourite pieces, but it was particularly magical to look around and see the Congolese sitting with their eyes closed, swaying melodiously and singing along to every word.

Then came the break, and the launch of what the Mützig marketing team dubbed “le concept Mützig” – a participatory concert where guests were invited to fill out a card that had come with their VIP invitation, asking Papa Wemba for a song and making a financial contribution (“une petite motivation quoi”). The bolder guests could even ask to perform a duet with the star himself. Luckily, Fred and I didn’t have an invitation so we held onto our cash. Not so for Fidel Castro.

When the very first envelope was opened, the MC gleefully read out, “Mr Fidel Castro!” I naturally assumed it was a pseudonym, but apparently not; it’s the name of some hot shot from Angola. The sceptics will say the organisers chose his envelope on purpose, because they knew him to be a particularly rich man. Inside the envelope was a US$100 bill, and a request for two songs. “Wow,” I said looking at the wad of envelopes in the MC’s hand, “imagine if all those envelopes have US$100 bills in them.” Little did I know.

Unlike me, Papa Wemba was not impressed by the US$100 bill. Affecting a small pout he agreed to perform only one of the two songs for that price. “Only one song for US$100!” exclaimed the MC to the spectators, as the concert increasingly took on the air of an auction. A hand shot up in the air from the far corner. “Ah, Mr de Castro is increasing his bid!” Tense pause. “Four hundred dollars! Mr de Castro is increasing his bid by US$400 to hear Papa Wemba play the two songs!” To which announcement, the world famous star, who must surely have a lot more money than that in his bank account, grinned broadly, did a little skip, punched the air with his fist, and shouted, “Yeah! Yeah!”

So Papa Wemba played the two songs, and Fidel Castro, a middle-aged man dressed in a two-tone, silk, cream suit and donning wrap-around sunglasses, came regally up to the stage with his young wife or girlfriend to stick five US$100 notes on Papa Wemba’s forehead as he sang. He then retreated to the dance floor, where he was soon joined by dozens of other couples in ball-gown dresses and smart suits (Fred and I were rather underdressed, it must be said.)

But that was not quite the end of Fidel Castro. To thank him, or perhaps because he knew what was likely to ensue, Papa Wemba brought on stage all of his back-up singers, and they improvised a song in the Angolan man’s honour. Next thing you know, Mr Castro, perhaps inspired by the redistributive policies of his Cuban namesake, comes up on stage once more and ceremoniously walks from one musician to the other, distributing US$100 bills to every one in the band. From where I was, I saw him hand out at least twenty US$100 bills, which together with the initial US$500 made for a rather expensive evening, by my standards at least!

The Congolese loved it, even as they tutted and shook their heads in mock disbelief. Although no one else was able to match Mr Castro’s lavishness, the MC conscientiously opened all the remaining envelopes, most of which seemed to contain between US$200 and US$400 – pretty good in a country where over 70 per cent of people spend less than US$200 per year!

At the end of the evening we got to shake Papa Wemba’s hand. “La musique adoucit les moeurs,” he told us philosophically. “Elle nous permet de dire tout bas ce que les politiciens n’osent pas dire tout haut.” I wish I’d had the courage to ask him how the kind of unabashed racketeering we’d witnessed that evening softened morals, but I didn’t.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Papa Wemba

Papa Wemba (real name Jules Shungu Wembadio Pene Kikumba) is back in Kinshasa. It feels strangely circular since his was the very first concert we went to on arrival here 16 months ago. And now we think we may be leaving at the end of the month, packing our stuff and heading to London for a bit, although we reserve the right to return later in the year.

So last night we went to see the King of Congolese rumba receive the title of Ambassador Against Mines and sing the song which will henceforth be associated in DRC with mine risk education, “Show me the way” (initially a duet with Peter Gabriel). Dressed to the nines in a dapper suit, Papa Wemba, famous for his flamboyant style, grinned broadly when he was offered a lamp fashioned from a recycled rocket, with his name and new title on it. “Maintenant, c’est fini Papa Wemba… Son Excellence!” he exclaimed, much to the delight of the Congolese in the audience.

Picture kindly donated by Fred
I've temporarily given up taking pictures, until I buy myself a proper camera with decent battery life.

Although disappointingly short, the concert was good fun, and Papa Wemba’s dancers were amazing as ever.

For those who are interested, the mine risk education project is run by a British NGO called MAG (Mines Advisory Group) and funded by UNICEF. It aims to raise awareness about the risk presented by mines and unexploded ordnance (UXO): in DRC over 850 people have been killed and more than a thousand wounded by anti-personal mines since the end of the war in 2003. During the same period, 30,000 UXO were destroyed.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Poisson d'avril!

At some point in the 16th century, Pope Gregory XIII ordered a new calendar, as you do. Enter the Gregorian Calendar, introducing New Year's Day on 1 January – instead of 25 March or 1 April, depending on the source. The new calendar was adopted the same year in France. According to one popular explanation, those who didn't follow the new calendar were called fools and sent invitations to fake parties and the like. Hence April Fool’s Day.

Today, French children trick their friends by taping a paper fish to their backs, crying “Poisson d’Avril!” when the prank is discovered. Why a fish? Some say it's because the sun is leaving the zodiacal sign of Pisces at this time.

My all-time favourite April Fool’s Day prank remains the famous BBC Panorama report of a bumper spaghetti crop in Switzerland.

And yes, my last post was a joke.

Astonishing news

Yesterday we heard that Bemba was being flown to Portugal where he owns a house and where he will continue to receive medical treatment for his broken leg. He was not given asylum and would be there as a tourist, according to what the Portuguese Ambassador told Reuters. For those who haven’t been following, this is after Bemba’s private militia was routed following a two-day battle with the national army last week, Bemba himself took refuge in the South African embassy, and the government ordered his arrest for high treason.

But today comes with astonishing news: At the last minute Kabila sent a message to Bemba, admitting to premature and disproportionate use of military force and asking Bemba, in the name of democracy, to remain in Kinshasa as leader of the opposition. To show his goodwill, Kabila will launch later this month a National Dialogue with opposition parties and civil society. Moreover, he has promised to take strong disciplinary measures against any Republican Guard or FARDC soldier found guilty of looting.

In response, Bemba has ordered what remains of his personal guards to present themselves to the military authorities for immediate integration into the national army. He has not yet said how soon he will return to Kinshasa, but he has promised to donate some of his personal fortune to reconstruct the buildings destroyed in the fighting.

Friday, March 30, 2007


IF you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don't deal in lies,
Or being hated, don't give way to hating,
And yet don't look too good, nor talk too wise:

If you can dream - and not make dreams your master;
If you can think - and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you've spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build 'em up with worn-out tools:

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: 'Hold on!'

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings - nor lose the common touch,
if neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds' worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,
And - which is more - you'll be a Man, my son!

-- Rudyard Kipling

Monday, March 26, 2007

The aftermath

As I drove around town today, I kept having to shake the feeling that the shooting had all been a particularly vivid nightmare. Everything looks remarkably the same. With a few notable exceptions, there is so little destruction, it’s almost eerie. People said the same thing after the fighting in August, sparking speculation that soldiers on both sides had shot in the air.

The main difference with the August fighting, and proof that the fighting was real, is in the body count. The official verdict is 60 dead, but on Saturday the BBC was already claiming 150, and a police general told me today it was likely to be at least twice that. One of the most widely read Congolese newspapers, Le Potentiel, called Thursday and Friday the “craziest and most murderous days in [Kinshasa’s] history.”

The question now for many is how to interpret and respond to the events.

The government position is that Bemba committed treason in using the armed forces for his own ends, and they issued an arrest warrant for him on Friday. In an interview with Le Soir, Bemba denied plotting military action to overthrow the president and claimed he had been attacked. His supporters point to the fact that no effort has been made to disarm Ruberwa, another former Vice President with his own personal security force, as evidence that the last few days were a personal vendetta by Kabila against Bemba.

No one really knows for sure what sparked the actual fighting. Despite the increasingly explosive situation, both sides were still negotiating. Some say that, feeling encircled, Bemba ordered a pre-emptive attack. Others claim that Kabila was determined to rid himself of this problem once and for all and purposefully sent in the army to provoke Bemba’s guards.

MONUC issued a statement on Saturday reproduced by Extra Extra saying it “deeply regrets the fact that force was used in order to resolve a situation that could and should have been settled through dialogue,” and adding that “the Government will have to restore confidence in its judgement by the way in which it treats the defeated militia.”

Some diplomats take a tougher stance, believing these and the events in Matadi last February to be evidence that Kabila has no intention of allowing real political opposition. The EU certainly didn’t take kindly to the fact that the army shelled the BIAC building, which houses the Spanish and Greek Embassies and UNICEF.

For others yet, notably the French, this appears to be business as usual. The French Minister for Cooperation signed a €200 million partnership agreement with the Congolese government no later than Friday, in the midst of the fighting. I wonder how the French Parliament will react.
Bemba is now in the South African Embassy, we think, although I have also heard rumours that he had been moved to MONUC. His party, the MLC, is about to meet to analyse the situation and take a position. Some of its members have already fled. The party may choose to detach itself from its leader in an attempt to salvage its position in parliament.

And meanwhile, does anyone know where President Kabila is?

Close-up of the BIAC building from Dany Masson's blog

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Good morning

9am, all okay. No soldiers came to visit us during the night. It turns out last night was pretty quiet on the looting front. Of course we still jumped at every noise outside, convinced that someone was prowling around.

After a few final bursts of heavy artillery near N’dolo Airport and the river at dawn, everything now seems to be over. The minivans and taxis are on the roads again, our landlady’s gardener came into work this morning, and the French Ambassador has given the green light for parents to go fetch their kids at the school where they have been stuck for 48 hours.

Meanwhile we have just received a phone call to confirm that the rescue convoy is on its way. The irony.

Friday, March 23, 2007

The snail reflex

For someone who claims she’s not really into this blogging business at all, I was remarkably pleased to find that Fred and I, along with a couple other addicted Kinshasa bloggers, made the headline on the Global Voices website.

Fred and I are now posting from the most inconspicuous room at the back of the house, behind locked doors and windows, curtains drawn, lights out, AC off (pretty hot, yes), ensconced in a single, stuffy room with our kettle, two sachets of powder soup, a couple of bottles of water, a bottle of champagne (style before reason) and our laptops. The aim of the game is to pretend we’re not home, lest our ‘friends’ who came a’knocking yesterday and took several thousand dollars’ worth of money and jewellery from our landlady and neighbours come back for more. This afternoon Fred spied FARDC soldiers helping themselves quite nonchalantly to some goodies across the street.

To be honest, there’s not much I would mind losing – my mother’s pendant, our Syrian carpet and the pictures on this laptop, basically. Even my wedding ring is replaceable – after all Fred lost his in the Bombolomeni rapids six months into our marriage. But I don’t particularly want to meet a Republican Guard or FARDC soldier face to face after dark, merci beaucoup.

Needless to say, the convoy never came. But I was relieved to hear about the 8pm curfew, and I like to think that MONUC APCs will be patrolling our area regularly throughout the night.

Some good pictures on the BBC site.

Final Act?

All is quiet. The last bursts of sporadic shooting are so distant that Fred optimistically questions whether they could be thunder. The first reports of friends escaping the office in which they spent the last 30 hours and making it home down the Boulevard have just come in. I am told the buildings still stand (except the Spanish Embassy); the main victims are the trees. Of course we don’t yet have any real idea of the body count.

The main concern now is looting. Meanwhile, we still await our elusive rescue convoy.

More drama

As I said, I slept surprisingly well in our little cocoon. Except when someone gave us a fright by knocking loudly at our window, then refusing to answer when Fred called out, "C'est qui?" I’d virtually forgotten about the event altogether, but just now when I ventured out to feed the kittens, I was informed by our heroic housekeeper that during the night a Republican Guard soldier came through the 'parcelle' we share with five other households, looting our neighbours and trying to get into our house. She warded him off, swearing that no one was home and that she didn't have the keys to our place (the woman will get a raise!). Apparently he is still outside our gate terrorising our guards, but hopefully our proximity to the police will finally come in handy.

The morning after

The shooting and shelling continues, but it seems appreciatively remote and infrequent after yesterday’s close call. From time to time our police neighbours fire a round from the roof to keep their opponents at bay, but we hardly notice anymore. We can hear tanks firing from the Boulevard, so it must be pretty tense up there.

The Spanish Embassy was hit, the Nigerian Ambassador is hurt, and a number of shops and offices were looted during the night. AFP reports that a container holding 2,500 cubic meters of fuel was hit near N’dolo, which explains the column of smoke observed by fellow bloggers. Bemba has been ensconced in the South African Embassy for the night.

I slept surprisingly well in a little cocoon we put together on the floor of the spare room.

Rumour has it that an armed convoy is being organised to rescue the schoolchildren stuck overnight at the French (and Belgian?) school(s). We may be invited to join. Having got accustomed to my makeshift bunker in the now relatively quiet zone, I am somewhat loathe to join an armed convoy taking me in the direction of the front line, even if it is to the safety of the embassy compound.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Too close for comfort

Yesterday I received an e-mail from a friend of mine living in Sri Lanka. He’s just been offered a job in Kinshasa and was asking whether it was safe. I wrote back saying that despite the occasional spark of tension, the security situation has been pretty stable on the whole, particularly since the elections. Famous last words.

First sign of trouble today mid-morning: we witnessed people fleeing en masse down our road towards the ‘cité’, where most of them live. When the Congolese traders leave their post, it’s a sure sign something is amiss. The shooting started at 12.45, just as I was about to leave the house for a meeting, having received the green light from Security (I won’t say whose). Instead, we took cover in our corridor, the only space in our house without windows, and spent the next 5 hours crouched on the floor, listening to heavy gunfire outside, juggling radios and mobile phones in a frantic attempt to quench our voracious thirst for information.

Note to self: Never again rent a house that shares a wall with the police HQ lest it come under attack.

If I’m totally honest, I will hesitantly admit that I was ever-so-slightly disappointed that we’d ‘missed all the fun’ in the last three shoot-outs in August and November – the first two times because we were out of the country, and the third time because we were safely ensconced in the embassy compound. I was a nincompoop and I take it all away. It’s terrifying. Fred recorded some of it for Extra Extra.

The 6pm ceasefire appears to be respected, more or less, and the fireworks have reduced to just a few sporadic and distant bursts. Negotiations start first thing tomorrow. Fingers crossed.

We’ve been here before. The issue remains that opposition leader Jean-Pierre Bemba refuses to disband his personal militia, despite a government order to do so by 15 March. He understandably feels that the mere 12 policemen planned by decree for his protection are not enough. President Kabila understandably feels that allowing a few hundred armed men who respond to his rival reside smack in the centre of town is unacceptable. So he sent in the military. But rumour has it that the Seventh Integrated Brigade mutinied and joined forces with Bemba, which would explain why his men seem to have taken so much of Gombe (the downtown area where we live). And then there’s the mysterious story of the motorcyclist who may or may not have tried to kill Prime Minister Gizenga today, an event which is said to have sparked the clashes. More tomorrow.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

L’Abbé Pierre

I am aghast to find that I entirely missed the death of a much cherished compatriot, the Abbé Pierre. This man was probably one of the most famous and well-liked public figures in France; he was voted « personnalité préférée des Français » seventeen times, from 1989 to 2003. He was our Mother Teresa, in a way. At eighteen years old he relinquished all his worldly possessions and joined the Capucins. His real name was Henri Grouès; Abbé Pierre was his code name when he joined the French resistance in 1942, and he kept it ever since. After a short stint in politics, he returned to his first calling as chaplain and founded a secular NGO called Emmaüs to help the most vulnerable. Anyone in France who has ever given away clothes or objects to be sold in a second-hand shop will know the name Emmaüs.

I don’t know why the Abbé Pierre was so famous in France. Some say he captured people’s imaginations because he was the perfect embodiment of the apostolate, this scrawny man with his big beard always wearing the same black cassock, given to him one day by a fireman. Some say it was because of his frequent provocative public statements, against homelessness mostly, but also quite frequently against the French government. My generation liked him because he was so much less turgid than most of the public figures we grew up with (most of whom are still around). They say he twice told Le Pen, “Ta gueule”. « De temps en temps, faire ce qui ne se fait pas, ça fait du bien, » he said. He was once booed on television during a show about HIV/Aids when he said that the best remedy was fidelity in love, but he also made public statements in favour of condom use. All in all, few would deny that he was a good man.

« Il ne faut pas attendre d'être parfait pour commencer quelque chose de bien. »

-- Abbé Pierre

Monday, February 19, 2007

News update

Wow, the last two weeks have been just crazy. It’s always the same when a team of consultants is brought in: they have just a week or two to do everything, they have dozens of people to meet every day, and they are expected to come up with novel ideas that people on the ground doing the job day-in, day-out haven’t thought of. Of course, since the days are filled with meetings, we are expected to work in the evenings, and if by some miracle we have a few workless hours one evening or on the week-end, we feel obliged to entertain, show the visitors around town, take them souvenir shopping, etc. So park your private life for a couple of weeks, there’s a mission in town! I’ve been in their shoes many a time, so I really can’t complain. Still, call me a bureaucrat, but I look forward to the next ten days of quiet, in-my-own time report writing. Insh’allah.

So what’s been going in DRC since I took my eye off the ball?

The new political leadership has been emerging slowly, for starters, with a happy outcome for the President. The new government was finally announced on 5 February: sixty state ministers, ministers and vice-ministers, no less! And the country now boasts eleven new provincial assemblies, seven pro-Kabila and four pro-Bemba; a new senate with a comfortable majority for the presidential coalition and quite a few dinosaurs from the Mobutu era reappearing as senators; and, since Friday, a confirmed list of governors and vice-governors, with only one province going to the opposition. Bemba has accused Kabila's camp of buying votes for governors and senators, elected indirectly by members of the provincial assemblies. But the real losers are the women: only four ministers and four vice-ministers out of sixty, and only five senators are women – not much in a country whose Constitution promotes gender parity!

A funny story from this week: following the announcement of the new Cabinet, three people with the name Kasongo Ilunga showed up at the Prime Minister’s office to claim the post of Minister of Commerce. The newspapers claim that even the Prime Minister’s office wasn’t sure which of the three men Gizenga (the PM) actually meant to make minister, so the mystery continues – only in DRC, vraiment!

The other big story of the past couple of weeks is the shootings in Bas-Congo. During the election of governor and vice-governor of that province, the newly-elected members of the provincial assembly voted for the PPRD candidate (the party close to Kabila), despite an MLC majority (Bemba’s party) in the assembly and amid suspicions of corruption ($10,000 per vote). The spiritual leader of the Bundu Dia Kongo, an anti-government political and religious group which many qualify as a sect, was on the lists as an MLC candidate and was therefore not elected. The violence started when the police in Matadi, Bas-Congo’s capital, searched the Bundu Dia Kongo headquarters and found weapons. The Bundu Dia Kongo organised demonstrations in several cities throughout the province, during which some twenty people were killed. In the town of Muanda, an angry crowd ransacked a number of public buildings and killed four police officers and two soldiers. The police then called in the army, and hundreds of soldiers opened fire on the crowd without summation. They then pursued the Bundu Dia Kongo followers into their church, which was subsequently burnt down. According to the UN mission in Congo (MONUC), 134 people were killed in the clashes, or ‘massacre’ as more and more people are now calling it. The Minister of Interior has since been confirmed as one of six ministers of state – a vote of confidence from the President and Prime Minister at a time when some might have expected his resignation.

I'm cheating. This picture was actually taken in Katanga a few months ago,
but the riot gear was standard issue and would have been the same in Bas Congo.

MONUC will shortly publish a report on what happened. In the meantime, it has been busy discussing its future. Its mandate was supposed to expire last 15 February, but many both within and outside DRC called for an extension: a recent Oxfam report entitled 'A Fragile Future' (which I haven’t yet read) argues strongly that premature withdrawal of the UN from the DRC could see a return to all-out fighting and a humanitarian crisis. For now the Security Council has extended the UN’s mandate in DRC by two months, but most people expect it to be extended by at least two years. Except perhaps President Kabila, who seemingly deliberately chose to underplay the January visit of the new UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon: the poor man, who had specifically chosen the DRC as his first ‘southern’ country visit, arrived in Kinshasa unheralded and was made to travel all the way to Kisangani to meet the President.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Des histoires...

… à dormir debout !

First Mama Cat was eaten by our neighbours the Police. Then, the exact same day (suspiciously) a large sofa was dropped on her orphaned kittens. Three sprang out of the way, but two screeched heartbreakingly and looked like they were maimed for life. Thankfully, just as I tearfully told the guards they would have to put them out of their misery, they hobbled away and have since made a full recovery. Then we went on Christmas holiday leaving piles of cat food and strict instructions to care for the kittens, but when we returned we found them looking mangy and unwell, tufts of fur missing, and one of them in particular had strange black marks all over him. When I asked what had happened, I was told that the kittens had fallen in break fluid. Break fluid?!?

Now what you need to know is that at that point the only vehicle that had been inside the compound for the last four weeks was my own. The day before going on holiday, I received a panicked phone-call from my landlady informing me that some road workers had suddenly and without warning decided to dig a massive hole right in front of our gate. At that point I was sitting in the world’s most tedious meeting, shifting painfully in my seat because of that damned abscess, sweating from the fever caused by the infection, and slowly turning an ugly shade of green. The prospect of rushing home to argue interminably in the hope of rescuing my car was simply too much to bear, so I figured it could just stay there until we returned from leave. You see the workers promised that the hole would be filled within the week, and sheer fatigue made me choose to believe them. Unsurprisingly, on return from Malawi three weeks later, we found the hole exactly where we left it, and to make a long story short, my car remained marooned in there for six weeks.

So back to the kittens, you can see why the notion that they had fallen in break fluid when the only car in the vicinity was my own was rather preposterous. Still, our housekeeper stuck to her guns through threats and cajoling, and at least the kittens were still alive, so I decided not to pursue the issue any further. Since then their health has been steadily improving, and they have become entirely tame and accustomed to humans. So now I am busy scouting for potential adopters before the well-fed kittens become too big and appetising and irresistible for our uncouth neighbours. Not to mention before they reach puberty and start having kittens of their own – this being the fourth litter in less than 12 months!

Saturday, February 03, 2007

One for Aaron: Sum 41 in the DRC

In May 2004 the Canadian punk band Sum 41 travelled to Bukavu to film a documentary about child soldiers and the impact of war on Congolese children. Now I’ve never heard of this band before, but I’m told they’re pretty famous. The lead singer, Deryck Whibley (aka Bizzy D), was dating and is now married to Avril Lavigne (whom I have heard about).

Anyway, so this band of twenty-something year-old celebrities from Ajax, Ontario decides it wants to do some good in the world and starts to research different charities. They select the NGO War Child Canada. They can’t decide whether to donate money or do a concert, but then War Child shows them documentaries of bands actually going to war-torn countries. “We thought that was really cool”, says bassist Jason McCaslin (aka Cone) in an interview recorded in EnoughFanzine. Next thing you know, they’re on a plane to the DRC with the President and the Executive Director of War Child Canada, and a camera crew. “I’m dangerous, so I’m not afraid to go,” boasts the guitarist, Dave Baksh (aka Brownsound), who has recently left the band I understand.

The first thing that happens on arrival is they see lots of drunken soldiers in the airport. “They were drinking beer and one guy was past out on a rocket launcher,” says Cone. Then some more soldiers stop them at a road block, ask for cash and threaten them with a machete when they refuse to give it. Unlucky, but not entirely unexpected. But then the band's journey takes a real turn for the worst when Bukavu erupts into heavy fighting between dissident soldiers and government troops. The violence claims some hundred lives over two weeks, causes tens of thousands to flee the country, and jeopardizes the country's fragile peace process. And Sum 41 find themselves cowering in their hotel to the sound of mortar shells exploding close by. “I’m in some kind of pickle here,” announces the drummer Steve Jocz (aka Stevo) to the camera.

Meanwhile, over in the UN compound, there’s this guy called Chuck. Chuck is a UN volunteer and ex-military sergeant from Canada who is responsible for managing the UN camp in Bukavu. Apparently, Chuck is best known among his colleagues for making the cleaning staff – poor mamas dressed in light blue boiler suits whom I’ve usually seen dolefully moping around the camp with a broom in tow – do fire drills every morning at 6am. When the fighting breaks out Chuck starts to pile sandbags around the camp. At this stage, most of the UN staff is up day and night taking civilians to safety, and when one of them, exhausted, irritably questions the logic of putting sandbags up just outside his office door, Chuck clamours loudly, “While you guys are busy boozing and whoring, some of us are trying to save lives here!” Chuck is not the most popular guy among his colleagues, it seems.

Several hours into the fighting, Sum 41 are still stranded in their hotel. As Bizzy D recounts after the event, “One bomb came too close, hit the hotel and the hotel just started shaking. Everyone dove and was lying on the ground. Things were falling off the walls, mirrors were breaking. That's when we all kind of realized that this was really going bad and we're probably not going to make it out.” At the prospect of losing her beloved, Avril Lavigne pulls every string she can think of: her manager is on the phone with the American Ambassador to the DRC, then with the Special Representative to the Secretary General of the UN. Ok, admittedly this part of the story is pure hearsay, and I should add that the person who told me the story (ex-UN staff) also said that the fighting was at least 2 or 3kms down the road from the hotel, and the band was really in no danger at all – relatively speaking of course.

All be it, the crackling of gunshots and mortar sounds remarkably close, and the band is understandably terrified. Until Chuck, who happens to be staying at the same hotel, enters the scene, sending for armoured personnel carriers to rescue his compatriots and the other 40 or so civilians stranded, shaking, in the hotel. The band’s dramatic evacuation by Chuck and the UN is captured on film, the ensuing documentary ‘Rocked: Sum 41 In Congo’ is aired on MTV, and our friend Chuck becomes a hero. Not only that, but Sum 41 name their next album after the retired sergeant, much to the ill-covered resentment of Chuck’s UN colleagues.

Sum 41 with Chuck and album cover from Wikipedia
Confusingly, however, none of the songs on the album have anything to do with DRC, not even “We’re all to blame”, most of which was written the very day the fighting started: “That song was being written while we were in the Congo, so it doesn’t really have anything to do with the Congo,” explains Brownsound enigmatically in an interview for Gasoline.

Other events documented in ‘Rocked: Sum 41 In Congo’ include Sum 41 visiting Eckabana House, an orphanage for girls banished from their homes, allegedly for witchcraft, and a music therapy camp where the band did an impromptu rendition of “Hey Jude”, supposedly because it would be easier for the kids to dance to than Sum 41’s own music. If you’ve ever heard Congolese music, you’ll understand why the kids weren’t inspired to dance to “Hey Jude” either.