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.