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.