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.