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.