Sunday, January 28, 2007


So this morning I wake up at 8am, rush out of bed, have a quick shower and start getting dressed for work. I’m already thinking about this new assignment I have to start today, and wondering if over the week-end I’ve been sent all the background documentation I’m supposed to read this week. Secretly, I’m hoping not since I haven’t quite finished the stuff I was supposed to do on my previous assignment, and I could do with an extra day’s work. F. is still sleeping, and I figure I’ll wake him up at 8.15 – the luxury of living across the street from your office! Then he wakes up of his own accord and asks me if I’m getting up. Well, yes, of course. He asks if I’m getting ready for our outing on the river. Um… Um… It takes me a full 30 seconds to click that it’s not Monday today, it’s Sunday! (Whereupon I thrust both arms in the air and leapt onto the bed singing, “Yeah, it’s not Monday!!”) Now that, I can safely say, has never happened to me before!!

The reason for my confusion is quite simple really: our good friend Federico, who established the popular Sunday evening expatriate institution Cine Grosso (i.e. a film projected in his garden – needless to say, the name was given after the World Cup), is about to disappear for a few months on paternity leave and decided to alter the routine and host cinema night on Saturday. An electricity blackout cut the movie short, and so instead we huddled around the garden table eating pizza and comparing notes about Kinshasa’s latest eccentricities and horror stories.

We launched into the topic with stories of ridiculous arrests. My favourite was this guy who was arrested recently for calling up the chief prison warden and imitating President Kabila’s voice to demand the immediate liberation of four of his mates. The warden didn’t believe him, and since the man’s mobile phone number had appeared on the warden’s mobile phone screen, it wasn’t too difficult to track down the cheeky culprit.

This reminded us of another funny story. During the President’s inauguration speech, when he made his now famous and widely-repeated statement “recess is over”, he also warned that the prison doors were open to everyone – meaning, I suppose, that even high-level politicians and businessmen were no longer exempt from the law. Well it seems that prisoners in Mbuji-Mayi understood this statement differently and simply walked out of the prison. As you do.

Unfortunately I can’t remember all of last night’s stories (I’d had a bit too much rosé wine by then). I do remember F. doing an impersonation of traffic etiquette in Kinshasa: squeezing through gaps, cutting left right and centre, stopping suddenly for no apparent reason in the middle of the road (irrespective of the car behind you), swerving violently to avoid potholes (irrespective of the car alongside you), driving at top speed on the wrong side of the road to avoid the traffic jam on your side (irrespective of the cars coming the other way)… And I remember that I was called upon to contribute with the string of cat-related horror stories we have been privy to, and with the story of my marooned car, and then I volunteered a few references to my infected Christmas abscess. And I proudly showed off, in the candlelight, my latest weird ailment, on the middle finger of my left hand: it looks and feels like the blister from a burn, except I don’t recall being burned there at all!

Finally, I told the story of my favourite Congolese eccentricity of all: the aesthetics of facial and chest hair on women. Just to whet your appetite.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Chimanuka and his family

In the words of my friend Marc, “the softer the currency, the harder the toilet paper and the slower the Internet...”

Back in Kinshasa, here are the promised pictures.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

The achievement of a resolution

Damn, you have to be REALLY motivated to post anything from here - this is taking me FOREVER!! The trials and tribulations of blogging from the middle of Africa, I suppose. I'll add the photos tomorrow, when I'm back in Kinshasa with a better connection. If you're reading this, I'm doing a little jubilatory dance in the hotel cybercafe!

While I was busy making unreasonable New Year’s resolutions about buying property, taking time off work to go travelling the world (who said resolutions had to be compatible?), unearthing the Fun in Kinshasa, and buying myself a digital SLR (who said resolutions had to involve some measure of self-sacrifice?), F.’s resolution was of far more practical nature: to go see the mountain gorillas in the east.

Well, the Forces that Be were clearly on his side: eight days into the new year, a mere 24 hours after returning to Kinshasa, our friends call us to ask if we want to join them on a six-day expedition to the Kivus, to climb the volcano near Goma, and to go see the eastern lowland gorillas near Bukavu. Having only just come back from a wonderful safari in Malawi, we didn’t feel we could justify yet another indulgence – goody goody two shoes that we are – and we declined the invitation, preferring instead to work throughout the three-day bank holiday (to commemorate, respectively, the deaths of Cardinal Etsou, Kabila Father and Patrice Lumumba – January is a bad month for Congolese ‘heroes’). Thankfully, the Forces that Be decided to give us a second chance: just a few days later I came home from work with my monitoring plan for the next few weeks, Goma and Bukavu top of the list, and F. countered with the news that he had to go register some equipment in…Goma and Bukavu. Too good to be true.

So we hopped on a plane, and we hopped on a boat, and after setting up our meetings for the next few days, we made our way to the entrance of Kahuzi-Biega National Park, some 50kms west of Bukavu, near the border with Rwanda and Burundi. By mid-morning on Sunday we were trekking single-file through the bush under curtains of rain, following an elderly tracker as he hacked a passage through the undergrowth with his machete, only turning from time to time to show off his single tooth in a broad grin aimed at no one in particular, and accompanied by a handful of armed park guards. We walked like this for about an hour, with the guards pointing out the different places where the gorillas can usually be found: “This is where your friends saw them last week, and this is where the visitors saw them yesterday, and look here is some gorilla dung that shows they were here this morning.” Still we trekked on, seeking the gorillas as they sheltered from the rain. And suddenly there they were. Meet Chimanuka and his family.

The 250 kilo silverback was sitting under a tree some two meters away (yes, that’s right, TWO meters away), and after a half-hearted attempt at intimidating us with a bit of chest-pounding and a pretend charge, he went back to munching greedily on his lunch. I was a bit worried when the elderly tracker insisted on hacking away the tall grasses around him so we would have a better angle for our cameras, but Papa Gorilla didn’t seem to mind in the least. Meanwhile, a couple of child gorillas stared at us intently from the safety of a nearby tree. But where was Mama Gorilla? One of the guards pointed nonchalantly behind us, and sure enough one of the females was sitting just there on the path we had made, cuddling a small baby close to her and looking at us suspiciously. We must have passed right next to her without even noticing.

When the female realised that we weren’t moving out of her way, she came towards us, then leapt effortlessly into the tall grasses beside us and promptly disappeared. The silverback followed, and so did we. We found him sitting regally a few metres away, like one of those fat Buddha sculptures with the big belly and hanging tits, and two of his kids (twins, we were told subsequently) playing together just behind him. One of them promptly skipped over to examine us more closely, while his papa warned him with a few grunts to keep a safe distance. The kid then skipped back to his brother and did a little performance: a cartwheel, a wave of the arms, beating of the chest, and then he energetically jumped on top of his brother who promptly toppled him into the tall grasses. Okay, I’ve kept it in long enough: SOOOOOOO CUUUTE!!! F. took a short video.

We stayed maybe half an hour altogether, and the experience was unforgettable. Gorillas are such stately, majestic animals. I never thought we would get that close, that they would be so unperturbed by our presence, while still making clear their imposing superiority. Right at the end, as we were turning to leave, we spotted Mama Gorilla and her baby hidden in the tall grasses just to our right, within touching distance. Such a big animal, and we had failed to notice her altogether. I still wonder how humans ever made it to the top of the food chain.

Monday, January 15, 2007

The making of a resolution

We’ve been back from Malawi since last week-end, but work took over almost instantaneously on return. As F put it so elegantly the other day, “Work, work, work, sleep, sleep, sleep, work, work, blaaaaaaghghghgh!!!” Still, we shouldn’t complain because Malawi was fun and restful and fresh and stimulating, if all too short as holidays invariably are.

We were there for two weeks and enjoyed ourselves tremendously, if only thanks to our Mad Hatter friends who kept us thoroughly entertained throughout, with parties and Christmas carols galore, mountain hikes in Zomba, windsurfing lessons at the lake, and a grand finale at a bijoux lodge called Mvuu where I was converted to the clan of the Land Rover worshippers. Even the fact that we chose the peak of the rainy season to visit failed to dampen our spirits. It was a great success all round, despite a slight cramping of style due to the infamous abscess, which the Belgian doctor in Kinshasa chose to cut open the very morning of our departure to Malawi. Exit bathing suits, needless to say.

Christmas beetle

Malawi is a great place to go on holiday if you live in Kinshasa, because I can’t think of anywhere more different. It is typically referred to as the warm heart of Africa, when almost every article about the DRC makes reference to the heart of darkness. The Lonely Planet guide says something about Malawi being “Africa for beginners” – a condescending statement perhaps, but if I had an 18 year old kid who wanted to do volunteer work somewhere in Africa, I’d prefer for him/her to go to Lilongwe, which is more like a pleasant, green, leafy, spacious suburb than a capital city, than to sprawling, congested, dusty Kinshasa.

Before we left, I sent what I thought was a joke remark to my friend that we were landing at 1pm and expected to be out in the lobby 10 minutes later, having passed immigrations, collected our luggage and received the customary welcome Malawian cocktail. Well, we didn’t quite get a cocktail, but the customs official did greet us with a broad grin and a friendly, “Welcome to Malawi, enjoy your stay!” The fact that I should be so amazed by this is evidence that Kinshasa is successfully altering my frame of reference.

Sure enough, on return to the DRC last Sunday, I was almost relieved to find the usual mayhem that characterises N’djili Airport. First, the inescapable Sunglasses Committee blocking my entrance to the immigrations area, demanding gruffly to see my passport, almost ripping the pages as they flipped through the visa section impatiently, sweat pouring down their foreheads from their frayed black berets, and a general air of profound dislike and ill-contained rage about them. Second, the utter chaos that is the luggage conveyor belt, which conveys nothing at all since most of the luggage is snatched before it even reaches the belt by hyperactive baggage handlers – or so we assume since they rarely carry any visible identification – who can be seen jumping incessantly in and out of the hatch to get to the luggage the second the little wagon arrives. Third, the over-zealous porters in their bright red Celtel overalls who nod earnestly as you explain to them that thank-you very much, but you really don’t need help, then grab the bag from out of your hand regardless. Fourth, the Fleecing Committee who physically tussle over who gets to check the mundele’s (white people’s) bags, then greedily eye up your Christmas shopping. And finally, the only ones I secretly quite like, ‘les Petits’, who huddle around you and follow you to your car grimacing flamboyantly and clutching their stomachs, then burst out laughing when they think you’re not looking.

Oh dear, I’d promised myself not to do this, not to compare the DRC with Malawi, and not to make Kinshasa sound so unpleasant. See, the good things about Kinshasa, the things that make me feel attached to it at heart despite the grumbling and apparent aggravation, are so much more difficult to pinpoint and describe than the far more evident annoyances, that it’s often easiest to play the part of disgruntled expatriate. So perhaps I will dedicate this first part of 2007 to a better awareness of the energy, enthusiasm and creativity with which Kinshasa is so evidently overflowing.

Happy new year.


Hippos watching the sunset in Mvuu

P.S: More pictures of Malawi and DRC on my FlickR page.