Thursday, March 13, 2008

A tam-tam country

It has become traditional, now, for all my end-of-posting return trips to have some nightmarish element to them.

When I left Honduras in 2003, my flight to London was cancelled, and I had to hitch a ride back into town, sharing the back of a pick-up truck with the mariachi band F had hired to bid me an unforgettable goodbye. I missed my connecting flight to Nice and had to purchase a new ticket. The next day, I arrived in London to the news that this flight to Nice had also been cancelled. Determined to make it in time to surprise my brother on his eighteenth birthday, I bought a third ticket with another company for the following day. That plane was in turn delayed, which meant I had to sprint across Milan Airport with all my luggage, following a frazzled stewardess in a tight green miniskirt and needle thin, five-inch heels, in order to make the connection. I did make it to the party eventually.

On my last evening in Jordan in 2005, some complete loser spiked my drink, which on an empty stomach and after a couple sleepless nights was absolutely lethal. I spent the next two hours collapsed on the marble floor of a Sheraton loo (having had the presence of mind to lock myself in when I realised something was seriously wrong), before being rescued by my friends, carried home (literally), put to bed, my last unpacked bits and pieces hastily stuffed into my suitcases, woken up four hours later and sent off in a taxi to the airport. I somehow managed to board the plane, but then spent the entire flight vomiting at the back, listening to the flight attendants’ incessant gossip while one of them patiently handed me paper bag after paper bag.

By comparison, my departure from Kinshasa should have been a piece of cake.

After checking twice and being assured that the baggage allowance for my Brussels Airlines flight was of two bags of 23 kilos each, I arrived at the city check-in sometime in the afternoon to be told categorically and unapologetically that, since my final destination was London Heathrow, my baggage allowance was, in fact, one 23-kilo bag. My objection that they were the ones to have misled me and that at this late stage there was really very little I could do (since I was leaving the country definitively) went entirely unheeded, with the unhelpful response that since my connecting flight was with British Airways, this was not their problem (even though I bought the ticket through Brussels Airlines).

An hour of heated discussion ensued, the woman’s uncompromising and rude behaviour working us up into an unnecessary – and ultimately unproductive – frenzy. Pride and anger made us leave in a huff, but in the end I had to go to the airport early to check in there, and pay the excess baggage allowance of $120 after all.

The flight itself was fairly unremarkable, apart from the extraordinary number of babies all around me, but when I arrived in Brussels I was told…that my BA flight to London had been cancelled. So I had to battle my way against the flow of Monday-morning travellers, from the gate back to the departure hall, where I was given a new ticket for a different flight with BMI, then had to queue up for immigration and security all over again. Only to discover that the BMI flight was delayed too.

When, in a small, exhausted voice I asked the BA officer whether there would be any compensation for the cancelled flight, she handed me a voucher for 3 euros, redeemable at one of the airport cafés. When I told her about the episode with the baggage allowance, adding that Brussels Airlines had suggested that BA was to blame, she answered that in fact, BA accepted other airlines’ baggage restrictions when tickets were booked through them, so they shouldn’t have made me pay extra after all. “Vous savez, c’est encore un peu tam-tam là-bas,” she added conspiringly, completely oblivious to my astonishment (untranslatable).

And that, my friends, was the absurd remark that drew the line under more than 27 months of continually unpredictable and surprising life in Kinshasa: c’est encore un peu tam-tam là-bas.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Sexy Love

On recommendation from a good friend of ours, F tried to book a table at this romantic and aptly named Valentine’s Day dinner venue.

Photo by Vikky Bullock

Unfortunately, they were fully booked, so we sat at home and watched Supernanny Jo Frost bully a fiendish five year old into submission instead.

P.S: For reasons too complicated to go into right now, we actually celebrate Valentine’s Day on 15 February.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

All hail buckets and head torches

What should this fact tell you: The Congo River drains more than 1.3 million square miles, and, over a mere 220 miles, it descends nearly a thousand feet..?

Two things, I would suggest:

1. There is no water shortage in the Congo, at least not in the vicinity of the river.
2. There is no electricity shortage in the Congo, given the river’s incredible, unrivalled hydroelectric power.

Wrong, and wrong again.

Today we celebrate a welcome (if overdue) occasion: the return of running water after almost ten days without. Now it’s true that no African experience is possibly complete without its fair share of cold rainwater bucket showers, basin flushes and mineral water teeth brushing, and it certainly makes one more understanding of colleagues who on occasion smell rather less than fresh in the morning. Still, I was overjoyed to come home tonight to the long-awaited news that I could finally indulge in both washing my hair and pooing, without fear of running out of water.

Our 70's style bathtub

But then, just as I was basking in the luxury of lathering my hands under the tap, whilst mentally composing an ecstatic text message to our friends who so kindly allowed us to use their showers when we were reaching desperation point, I heard a frustratingly familiar click, followed by the inevitable pitch blackness. When it’s not one, it’s the other.

So now, there’s only one thing left for me to do: go take a shower while I still can.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Turmoil amongst magistrates

Too much detail for most of you, but some may be interested in the latest instalment in the ongoing tripartite tug-of-war between the judiciary, the executive and the legislature.

On Friday President Kabila announced out of the blue, seemingly without consulting anyone (except presumably the Minister of Justice), the immediate retirement of 92 magistrates (who were either over 65 or had been magistrates for 35+ years), thus making space for the promotion of 26 others. This includes the country’s top magistrate (First President of the Supreme Court of Justice) and top public prosecutor (Attorney General). It is seen by some as an unapologetic political manoeuvre by the President to promote his sympathisers within the judiciary ahead of major reforms due to be voted at the next Parliamentary sitting, thus positioning them for top posts in the new institutional set-up.

Understandably, the announcement has caused a lot of discontent and unrest amongst the magistrates, including those who were promoted (but are embarrassed about how it happened, saying it undermines their authority). After thirty-five years of service, some of the country’s most senior, highly respected magistrates discovered while watching television that they were effectively out of a job, with a pension of $300 per month to live on. Although the Presidency says it is a logical step given the advanced age of these magistrates, the way in which the decision was announced made it look to everyone like they were being sanctioned. Not to mention that there isn’t anyone to replace them, since there hasn’t been a recruitment exercise in over ten years.

At best, this is an example of terrible human resource management; at worst, it is a clear, conscious manipulation by the Presidency of a temporary institutional vaccuum in order to effectively breach the Constitution.

Perhaps this explains why the same magistrates were rushing home in a panic last week claiming that there had been a coup!

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

More from Radio Trottoir

If there is one thing I seem to report on over and over again, it is Kinshasa’s endless rumours and speculation.

After the preposterous story of the impending British invasion, since Friday we have been assailed by rumours of a coup attempt, which then turned into rumours of the President’s death (no less). The failure of both Joseph and his wife Olive to attend last Sunday’s massive celebrations at the stadium in honour of the new Archbishop Monseigneur Monsengwo confirmed the rumours’ truth in many people’s minds, to the point where they started exchanging news of where the President’s remains might be (South Africa).

This morning, the local newspapers (e.g. Le Potentiel) reported yesterday’s vehement denial by the Secretary General of the PPRD, Kabila’s party, who insisted that the President was in perfect health and that the rumours were a shameless plot to destabilise the state. But of course, there’s nothing like saying that something is a lie to set the tongues wagging. Especially when only six years ago, the same country was swayed to and fro for 48 hours with rumours and counter-rumours of the assassination of then President Laurent Désiré Kabila, father of the current President – one rumour that turned out to be true. (See this l’Internaute timeline for the 2001 rumours that became truth.)

“There’s no smoke without fire,” they say. So in this case, assuming the President is alive, what on earth started the fire?

I must admit that, after playing it very cool for days and refusing to be flustered by these absurdly tall tales, even I found myself contributing (modestly) to the traffic of concerned messages today, when I heard that Supreme Court judges were abandoning their offices and rushing home in a panic, calling over their shoulder that “this time it’s for real.” One of them must have wanted to get out of work early!

Sunday, February 03, 2008


Just in case anyone thought that the Kivus hadn’t had more than their fair share of calamity, two earthquakes (of respectively 6.0 and 5.0 magnitude) hit Bukavu (and Rwanda) this morning.

Rumour gone crazy

The peace agreement did get signed, on 24 January. Four days later came the first report of a ceasefire violation: CNDP (Nkunda’s people) accused PARECO and some Mai Mai groups of attacking and robbing villagers. Still, I don’t want to sound too cynical – the agreement surely represents a great opportunity, and I’m certain all those who were present at the Goma conference (starting with MONUC’s new boss, Alan Doss) are only too aware of the challenges that lie ahead.

Meanwhile, Kinshasa, city of rumours and startling tales, has reverted to form, in a frenzy of mobile phone text messages reminiscent of the electoral period.

First came the rumours, starting on Tuesday and escalating on Thursday, that British forces based in Brazzaville were about to invade Kinshasa. Some said the British had received advance notice of an upcoming attempt to destabilise the government: one text message circulating amongst the Congolese in Kinshasa read, “The British have arrived in Brazzaville to evacuate the Westerners living in Kinshasa. We have been told to get out before things get rough.” Others (including, I am told, one local newspaper that I haven’t yet managed to track down) claimed the British troops were there to help their Rwandan Tutsi allies take power in DRC.

Then, on Friday, new rumours spread of a crisis at President Kabila’s office in Palais de la Nation. Some even claim gunshots were heard. It seems that the Republican Guard were protesting because they did not receive their month’s pay. But of course, some leapt to the inevitable conclusion that the predicted British invasion had begun. Whatever really happened, it was enough to keep Kabila from traveling to the African Union summit in Addis Ababa as planned.

The rumours about the impending British invasion of Kinshasa were based on the signing of an agreement between the governments of Great Britain and Congo-Brazzaville, allowing British troops to land at the airport in Brazzaville in the event that an evacuation of its citizens in either Brazzaville or Kinshasa was deemed necessary for security reasons.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

To sign or not to sign?

For more than two weeks, over 1300 participants representing the government, parliament, civil society, ethnic groups and rival armed factions have been talking in Goma. The outcome of these complex, seemingly interminable negotiations is an agreement, announced on Monday but yet to be fully agreed and signed, that is said to provide for an immediate ceasefire, the withdrawal of rebel troops from certain areas due to become a UN-patrolled buffer zone, the disarmament of Nkunda’s men and Mai Mai fighters and their integration into the national army (something that was attempted before but failed), and, in exchange, amnesty on insurrection charges (which would have carried the death penalty) for the rebels. What the rebels didn’t get – which wasn’t in the government’s power to bestow – is amnesty for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

The obvious question is where this agreement leaves General Nkunda, who as far as anyone knows is still refusing to go into exile. On Monday le Soft International mentioned a secret deal whereby the government would nominate him as commander of the 8th military region, which includes North Kivu province. This would naturally piss off the Mai Mai.

The other key point on which the agreement seems to be silent is the FDLR. According to an article in the New York Times, the government and diplomats are quick to respond that the Goma peace agreement should be seen to go hand in hand with the pact signed in Nairobi between the Congolese and Rwandan governments at the end of last year, committing them to disarming and repatriating the Rwandan Hutu militias.

Today, I heard on RFI that after tweaking the agreement all night, the final sticking point was its title and whether the government should appear as a party to the agreement at the same level as Nkunda’s CNDP (CNDP position), or merely as an observer (government position). Let’s hope they come to an agreement soon; while these discussions take place villagers continue to suffer and die, in what some conference participants insisted should be declared a “disaster zone” (AFP).

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Year of the dog?

We’re back in Kinshasa, after a rather lazy holiday, for our final stint here. Yes, it’s official, this is D-day minus 51. On 1 March we will be leaving and heading back to London for a bit; you know, take stock, breathe deeply, recharge the batteries…

So, as is wont to happen in these cases, I find myself noticing all the little things around me that make up this intense world we are temporarily a part of, starting with the inimitable Kinois newspaper.

Newspapers here are sold primarily by street vendors who tempt passing drivers with glimpses of the headlines. So the name of the game is to have an alluring front page. The more popular newspapers usually have a cartoon or an alluring photo, but this paper has clearly chosen to make insipid headlines seem more exciting through using exclamation points.

You may have noticed the toe-curling headline bottom left, which translates to “Kasai Occidental: Women savour dog meat.” According to the article, whilst in Kasai Oriental province only courageous men eat dog meat, in neighbouring Kasai Occidental it is the women and youth who now rush to the street stalls and scuffle for this favourite of victuals. Vendors are searching every street corner for dogs to kill and cook, and unsurprisingly these are proving increasingly rare. The fashion is also spreading to Tshangu district in Kinshasa, where thousands are reported to consume dog meat.