Kipushi, The D.R. Congo
Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the rest.
– Winston Churchill.
I’m finally on my own again, in a region devoid of tourists, a region devoid of prospect for tourists. I am beyond weary as the bus begins to hit unsealed roads and the small children to my north, south, east and west in the enclosed space continue their cries. The sun is blazing overhead in the midday sky, my legs have not been straight since getting onto the bus seven hours prior in Lusaka, and I had begun to reach that stage where my own body odour was beginning to become apparent to me. I actually started my transit in Livingstone the night before, sixteen hours in the rear view, and a sighting of the end of the tunnel was not forthcoming. We are on the doorstep of Chingola, the last town before the border, and by this stage I am acquainted with the two burly middle aged men on my right. They are Congolese, their English nigh on understandable, and they are stoic while my body starts to shred. The bald one is strength personified like a father, a father to my growing isolation; gives the right answers badly. Scottie Pippen. The bearded one is stoic in that he reveals little, brevity being his sword and his armour; whether for effect or for nonchalance, I cannot tell. Karl Malone. Both wear three layers of increasing thickness while I struggle to wear one. Scottie tells me thirty percent of Lubumbashi, our final destination, speak English. I don’t believe him but tell him that I do. Karl glowers. The three of us talk sparingly, particularly Karl, and when we do it’s with Scottie as a mediator. I’m going to have to work for their companionship.
The bus finds its spot in town and we fall out of the front door. A throng of people surround us and I am barraged with a uniform attention. The luggage hold won’t open until someone fetches a crowbar from the mechanic down the street, and so the three of us strike a deal with a cab driver to take us the rest of the way to the frontier in the meantime. Fifty minutes later we start to see some big tankers in front of us, lining the road, and I assume that we must be near. Another three kilometres pass, and the semis are still in their line while the mass of people slowly gets denser. This is not the quiet ease of the Namibian Zambian border. There are more French speakers in the country ahead of me than there are in France. As we slow down boys start banging on the boot of the car and tapping on the glass, not raucously, but with intent. Our driver is not happy and as the boot opens our bags fly out in a sea of arms, men trying to play porter with fees that will inevitably rise after a given deal is struck, if it were to be struck. I steel myself for the conversation.
I’m waiting in line at the customs office, having already both signed two forms at two checkpoints and acquiesced to a further three passport examinations. A horde of people behind me are crowded into an office, no regard for the distinction between employee or traveller. Three wooden desks are sat on by whomever got their first while everyone stares up at a common point and a multitude of children run around ankles. A hundred men, or more, rammed into a tiny office. It’s football, that one common denominator to which all men pertain; Congo versus Central African Republic on the lone television in the distance. Where are all the women? There is one counter open, ten men facing one on the other side of the glass. Four officials have a chin wag behind him until one sees my skin and smiles. I smile back tentatively and he waves me in. I might be more green than I have been for a long time, but I am not green enough to think that this is a going to go well for me. He’s going for the kill. It’s been rehearsed. He starts to process my passport and softens me up with words like ‘mate’ and ‘kangaroo’. Then he frowns, and hands it to the chap whom has recently and serendipitously rounded the corner. This one takes his time, before asking me very kindly to follow him.
Inside an adjacent office, we sit, and we say nothing over the course of the next ten minutes, while he flicks through my passport back and forth and I try and retain composure through my growing frustration. I knew I was going to find myself here but I just want to know the damage. At least at that point I can make myself useful and begin the fight. Upon his third time up and back, staring at each stamp as if it were dissolving in front of him, hoping that they would, he realises I’m not going to crack anytime soon and settles on his angle. He looks up and informs me that because I got my visa in Namibia, not Australia, my country of residence, he is within his rights to refuse me entry. The shot across the bow. I counter. ‘No’. He looks at me, surprised and expecting more, and I tell him how much it cost already, legally. He fights for a while but I think I have him beat. There is tacit approval for his measures across the board in this place but sending the only white person within forty kilometres backwards into Zambia once more might be too conspicuous, given the ‘muzungu’ in question has his affairs in order. I wasn’t going to go down meekly if I was to be proven wrong, in any case. Eyes flicker, looking for a way to be discreet. He frowns and hands me a form to fill out, standard details I’ve already completed, and I take up the pen.
I pass back the completed form to him and he studies it for an eternity. Eventually he says, “Okay, the form costs twenty dollars, you give me this and then you go”. Incredulous, I raise my voice in a steady ascent. It doesn’t help and I’m getting nowhere; this will have to happen. I’m angry. Do they not realise that this is tightening the bottleneck that suffocates them? As with many third world countries, the myopia is astounding. Surely they see at least that something has to change? But I then also realise I am very much the pot calling the kettle black, rich white kid from a prosperous polluting country that I am. I resign myself to the notion that this might be fair – or perhaps not fair, but understandable – and then try to rally some at least a fitting conclusion. A knock on the door interrupts my preparations. It opens and Scottie stands there, resplendent. I have both figures in my periphery, and then in my gaze, and then in my crosshairs. They touch temple to temple three times like northern kisses, smile and shoulder clap. I am either perplexed or amused, I’m not overly sure. I’m told as Scottie leads me out two minutes later that he knows the officer. Apparently they took some classes together in university. I absentmindedly leave my passport pouch with my vaccination card inside the room just in case I didn’t have my fill of bureaucracy, and it sends five people looking for it in a scramble. In retrospect I’m not quite sure whether I subconsciously forgot it on purpose.
I’m sitting in our next taxi, which will take us an hour and a half up to Lubumbashi. We aren’t moving and I’m already cramping. There is a small but vocal man driving, a Rasta my age riding passenger, and I am stuck between Scottie and Karl in the back. I had been surprised when my two new friends had allowed those kids to take their bags through customs for them whilst I had held my ground, but I certainly wasn’t surprised at the eventuality playing out in front of me. Both of them are fighting multiple battles with the kids that ring the car, the Baggage Handlers & Associates. The Rasta is playing with his phone while Karl and Scottie try and give money to guys whom refuse to accept, unhappy with the count. I don’t know what the drivers issue is, but he’s got three fronts at play too. Shouting surrounds me. A motorbike rides past parallel and in front of the taxi, directly in my line of sight. The third grown man out of the four that reside on that one bike seat looks at me the same way I look at him, and all I can do is bury my head and smile. Pandemonium. I never feel unsafe though. I am always amused when, after I tell people I am from Australia, they exclaim that they would never go there because it’s too dangerous Snakes and spiders and Australians. My standard response is that there are twenty-five million people in the country who get along just fine. And while I realise that this is not quite a parallel, it is enough of one to forego any issues I might have. Call it naiveté if you will; I feel like I’ve been doing it for long enough to satisfy my own concerns.
Chaos gives way to curiosity and I find myself on a relatively well sealed road streaming up the highway. Dust is everywhere. I had thought it would have been mud, but the drought has thinned out the dirt, which is nevertheless determined to cake your body, one way or another. A van passes with twenty people inside and one live goat on top, strapped down and sun tanning, Out the window we pass monoliths of earth, termite mounts enlarged ten or twenty fold. I don’t know what they are. Scottie informs me. Where other countries would have brick houses, here those abodes have dissolved into mounds of dirt and they dot the landscape. Usually they seem to centre around a tree, as if it were a full but upturned cup. They are either chopped and moulded into crude bricks, or hollowed out and actively lived in. This is new to me. We come up to a barrier and the guard does not acknowledge us we approach. Once we stop he turns, and sure enough the taxi driver begins a terse and stentorian riposte to his ambivalence, irritated at this waste of time enough to waste some more. Ah, the little things…
As we continue on the smell of smoke imbues the air. Wrecks dot the roadside like a graveyard that’s never been tended to, the angles of the steel seemingly becoming part of the road where the colour of the trucks and vans and sedans all find that similar black-grey at the end of their decay. Most wrecks are older than this decade, and all are shelled out completely for any worthwhile equipment that might be had. It makes me wonder about whether the inside of the mind decays with the same discolouring. A living, breathing wreck in every person. Some of the vehicles around us have people around them, waiting for what, I couldn’t say. We pass a zoo, I’m told by Karl gleefully, which sports a broken down section of twenty-inch-thick wall, as if it had been hit by a cannon. I imagine what sort of animals were once kept in that enclosure, and how long ago. We begin to enter the township preceding Lubumbashi and there are people on top of people in a jigsaw puzzle that will, seemingly, never be resolved. One has an Australian Rules Football league guernsey on, my brothers team. Most people engage with the afternoon, but some just stand or sit, effortlessly whiling away their time as if time itself had come to stand still; I forever take this as a tough sight to behold, en masse as it invariably is. I am now the lone creature in the zoo, the only white person in a traffic jam of people, save the albinos that occasionally cross my sight. As an aside, I find it strange, and sinister, that I never see autistic or down syndrome folk in third world countries. I am diverted from my thoughts by the smell of the next scene, which pre-empts the sight, and I burrow down.
Everything looks the same as I try to get my bearings in attempt to recover my independence. The same primary colours adorn every surface, shelled with specks of khaki and grey where the concrete chips or the corrugated iron rusts. God seems to be mentioned everywhere, presumably in the vain hope that He might appear and rectify the slights that have been unceasing since this people’s forefathers were forced to believe in Him. It reminds me of Montaigne, who once said that religion’s surest foundation is the contempt for life. Little boxes on the side of the road act as either cash exchange points, which offer better rates than the banks, or phone charge stations, powered by a series of cables which run into three separate alleyways, which are in turn choked with fish and electronics and everything in between. Africa in general, through its inexorable political quagmires, its pap and its ugali, its bureaucracy and inefficiency, its assumed lack of education and therefore opportunity, its healthcare and disease, all make you struggle to see its nuance, but in this place the uniformity appears exceptionally stark.
There is something inherently beautiful yet darkly ominous about arriving in the most foreign of places. You have no conception of the aroma, the taste on your tongue, the sounds that inflict themselves upon you, the visions that frame your thoughts, the feel of wind on your skin. Everything is new, and you soak it up as if nothing could ever be enough. It is beautifully unfiltered, infiltrating. Yet, logistically, especially when you have your entire life strapped to your back, especially at night, and especially in the Congo, priority dictates that you must keep all non-biological (and biological) materials on your person without fail. It’s such a bipolar feeling; intense wonder with a furrowed brow rather than a wide gaze. I rarely struggle to keep my composure in these situations, but as we lurch from one unexpected event to the next in this bursting ecosystem, my well of experience is put to the test.
In the centre of town Scottie asks for my email as we part ways in a friendly gesture of goodwill, and Karl simply walks the other direction. Apparently they don’t actually know each other. I would be surprised in the coming months when Karl found me on Facebook and began soliciting me to sponsor his moving to Australia. For now, though, I need to get my affairs in order. I am surprised to find a cash machine that not only spits out money but spits out dollars. More than that, a western pizza chain lies next door, and I cannot resist the guilty pleasure. As I eat, a man walks up and I realise it is the Couch Surfing host that I am looking for. ‘David?’ I enquire, and he turns. Beady eyes, wiry frame, and clothes which are made for practicality, something which I would find out to be one of his key traits and a bane to common sense. David is somehow a Francophile version of his Japanese name of Yoshiharu, and he assesses me with a mind which you could tell instantly had seen some things that had skewed his vision.
Our first conversation slowly begins to confirm this suspicion, and I’m wondering as I follow him to the minibus whether this was a good idea. It turns out that in order to get to his house, we must travel thirty kilometres southwest, back to the border, but on the other side, to a town called Kipushi. A drunk soldier has the twenty of us inside the van in a state of fearful, faux amusement as he threatens his aggression upon us in a mountain of slurred words. We exit the van in the shadow of an old cobalt mine that retains none of the grandeur it never had, and jump on the back of motorbikes, backpack strapped to backpack strapped to back, and ride into the night. I still flail against my desire to triangulate my position in the country. Africa is one of the places where you can navigate during the day only, and even then it’s a struggle. Perennially and simultaneously endearing and maddening.
The house is big but hollow. Cracks are forming in the cracks, and the furniture is uniformly bent and burnt and blistered. Girl posters adorn his walls next to maps and odd pieces of steel, all overseen by the spiders in the ceilings’ corners. Every turn of your gaze asks you, simply, ‘Why’? I have never seen so much water in a house in things outside of pipes and swimming pools. The man has eleven buckets for cleaning, for the toilet during the hours before the water comes on, for the garden, for his washing, and dozens of water bottles for cooking and the dishes and his pets and for drinking. Everything in this house is old as if to match his 71-year-old frame. I realise, though, and not for the first time, that everything in this country is old, quite literally. The money. The infrastructure. The politics. The food. The sense of living. Only the median age of the locals seems to be young and getting younger. There is a school next door which David dutifully informs me I’ll be woken up by in the morning in the form sound of singing, singing in idolatry of their politicians. I try to get behind the façade, the wall, that David puts up (accidentally or otherwise) through his age, his nationality, and/or his experience. He is one of those people whom I cannot seem to get a read on, no matter the question. If you were to ask the man for the time, he would either enigmatically say nothing at all or teach you how to build a clock. In French. And, despite having dated a French woman for a number of months once, my command of the tongue remains only an opportunity to improve my body language.
From what I can gather David is the head of an inefficient or, frankly, useless NPO. He is a born again Catholic, but it feels like that is a smokescreen for the real reason he is here, which I sense may be legal. He spent thirteen years in Algeria during their war, and has a Spanish wife whose name I cannot extract from him, perhaps because he hasn’t seen her in so long. There are two daughters by her whom have residence in countries he’s not sure of. When you wash the dishes, he will stand over you and tell you to use the other side of the brush. He has an adopted 24-year-old Congolese son whom I will meet during my time and whom he berates endlessly about a series of problems, problems that he won’t illuminate to me but which I am left in no doubt are serious and debilitating. Yet despite these eccentricities he proceeds to cook a mean piece of chicken even though his stove malfunctioned halfway through, and he invites me to his guest room, free of charge, where a comfortable bed awaits, one that remains comfortable even after it splinters, crashing to the floor at four the next morning. He translates my requests, albeit with mildly disguised annoyance, to the letter with the locals, whether it be in the interests of hiring a motorbike or to determine my departure from the south in the coming days.
David spends a half day leading me around town forty-five minutes away, from one place to another, engaging three extremely genial local fixers, while I try and figure out my next move. Unfortunately, overlanding in the D.R.C. remains the preserve of those with longer term visas and the calmest of dispositions. Lubumbashi retains the extraordinary ball park figure of one month to get from its southern boundary to the capital due northwest, only 1500 kilometres as the crow flies. Kinshasa might as well have been over an ocean. In the thirties. I would even try the United Nations through David’s guarded patience to see if I could catch a carrier flight, but we are wilfully turned away by a stern and unequivocal figure before we even get past the door. As ever, the UN does not do much. David moans the whole day about being tired until it seems his existence is his biggest issue. We climb up the stairs to a one room travel agent in a residential building with a decommissioned elevator and leaking pipes, a travel agent whose sole employee tries to charge me an extortionate rate for a flight next week, and David looks at me in such a curious way that makes me think he’ll either pass out or take a swing at me. Congo has one and a half airlines; CAA, whose office I resided in, and Korongo, which announced not three days prior that it would be liquidated. As such, a two hour flight in a weeks time cost USD$470. I bargain down to something more palatable, but only in contrast; I don’t want to talk about it. I get myself a printed ticket, as if I were flying in the glory days of Pan Am and the internet had not even been envisaged.
Afterwards we visit a religious mission, where I sit listening to an argument with a priest about David’s son. I try to keep the jokes to myself, and soon find myself wandering around the outer suburbs of Lubumbashi while they conclude, where relative peace and quiet pervades. I carry my camera on me, and the reaction is interesting. I certainly don’t feel comfortable raising it to a subject yet, even as I do. Some kids will come up and touch you to see whether you’re real, having rarely if ever seen a Caucasian, while some presumably think it’s a weapon and turn heel and run as soon as I raise the lens. With adults it was harder still; the women are embarrassed if they’re young and either petulant or angry if they’re old, while the men are just angry, simmering or vocal, it didn’t matter. I was finding that, particularly in the crush of town, wide angle photography (smaller lenses) shot from the hip would probably yield less conflict and more photos for the time being. We go to a district where David’s son now lives, and the father unleashes mercilessly on him as I again wander and take in the sights of the World Vision camp he resides in. Girls pumping on a well for water giggle at me as my gaze approaches them on every second turn, and a cop tries his luck at extracting another bribe. If I make it out of this country with my arsenal of dollars intact I will be impressed with myself.
I’m exhausted as I fall into a chair back in Kipushi. I may have travelled extensively, but here in this place I feel something akin to culture shock, and so in its unfamiliarity it is something like how I would assume a high school reunion would be. It took me all day to find some semblance of ease, and I am spent to the last dime. Seven hours walking the streets completely exhausted me, and I feel my every joint, my every muscle. I am, however, granted a mental reprieve when David hobbles in. David tells me he has to go to Lusaka to pick up his passport over the next couple of days, and so he instructs me on how to feed his cats and run the water amongst other errands, taking an hour and a half to do what should have taken ten minutes. He is truly integrated into African time, and acclimated to Congolese mentality too. I think he has a heart of gold under there somewhere, oxidised by experience, black with decay, and which struggles eternally with the laissez-faire attitude of youth which abounds in this country, ultimately only submitting to it with a permanent scowl and utter truculence. I am finding that this place, not unlike but perhaps more extreme than most others, is all about how you approach it. It can place a strain on you if you allow it the time to burden your shoulders, but if you adapt it will slide off like the wavelength of your voice.
In David’s company his overt racism, which often afflicts expats in similar positions as his like the plague, made this a more tedious and difficult task. He is the typical old dude that has spent too much time in his own company, resolutely untroubled by the eccentricity of his eccentricities. Among his quirks, he has taken the Congolese penchant for a quick temper, despite the irony in the adoption, along with their nonchalance towards (and inherent in) inefficiency, and made it his own. All this while aggression typifies his gestures and belies his eyes. Africa seems to be the place where the contradiction in these traits – a short fuse combined with the casual air of indifference – somehow retains the ability to function, and he has perhaps unwittingly aligned himself to the object of his unceasing derision more than he knows. He was the the typical old timer that has achieved too much time only with himself and so has obtained some heady mix of not knowing how to act anymore or not caring. I don’t quite know whether to feel empathy for the man or not. Perhaps it would be too presumptuous. I asked him whether he got lonely once, and I think his response meant ‘no’.
I am up early to take advantage of the morning light. I roam the streets, offering a ‘bonjour’ and then a forlorn expression to anyone who might attempt to engage me. I buy myself a drink, and as I exit the hole in the wall store, two men with shades and camo caps on seize upon me. I am led to the office next door, despite the vociferous misgivings I communicate to them. Three rungs up, explaining my story to each through an admittedly accommodating translator, and I sit in the big wigs office, filling out what I think is the same form as last time. Here we go again. They don’t seem to comprehend why I am not carrying ‘my documents’, even after I tell them that very few countries would take two hours out of a tourist’s day for this, nor would the said tourist carry his passport in these sort of surrounds. In Russia they tell you to do so, but you still don’t. The translator tells me that the chief is doing it for security; ascertaining whose security he is referring to falls on deaf ears. My eyes are in a constant state of revolution at this point, but I am silent through pursed lips. Yet the translator tells me to calm down, at which point I shoot him a look that tells him that the best way to achieve that end is by omitting that phrase from his vernacular. Eventually one of the initial two mugs and the translator are made to escort me back to the house to sight the passport and visa, a fifteen-minute walk away. It actually runs smoothly and we part with the translator getting my Facebook details, although the cop asks for some Fanta, finishes the bottle, and then has the audacity to ask for money for a motorbike ride back. I laugh, see them off, then forego the rest of the day shooting, given the sun is now high and I’ve had my fill of bureaucracy. This will happen twice again tomorrow, and once on Thursday, in nearly identical circumstances, just in case I’d underestimated the size of my appetite.
Taking advantage of my isolation, I spend the rest of Tuesday doing administrative errands from the house for my future days, weeks, months. Although, almost as if this latest experience were the last straw, I come to realise that I can’t travel here without my simple presence being an ultimate insult to the people around, even on the occasion that they don’t feel it. I begin to question my decision to be here, in this context, differently, a decision that only I, in contrast with the vast majority of locals, have had the choice to make. I feel like a tourist more than I usually do, affluence gaping at the other side in wide eyed wonder. I grab my computer to write and see that I have gotten an email from Scottie. He asks me how I am, whether I am okay. His name is Elie Nodkawi, apparently, and I laugh. I start wishing I had been high for this revelation, and so I decide to make a joint without a paper and rectify the situation. This is a place where Rizzlas are worth more than what you put in them. While I smoke a decision is made to read what I had written back in 2008, on my two-day jaunt into the D.R.C. from Uganda, for contrast:
“I sat there, on the balcony of a dirty and spartan guest house with a view of the largest mountain slash volcano in the country, and it occurred to me that I was having the most quintessentially African tourist experience, or what we believe to be so before we get here. After having just done something ridiculously reckless and stupid, I was now smoking a cigarette in front of another extraordinary natural landscape, surrounded by a plague of a variety of insects, watching a dog get held back from attacking a herd of goats ambling by on one side, and a group of malnourished kids playing, vying for the foreigner’s attention, on the other. Central African tribal music played raucously from a building nearby, nearly drowning out the sound of the motorbikes whizzing by, and I was motionless there, reading another sorry account of how the continent was in peril.
“The Congo is country whose farthest horizon has always been tomorrow, and within its borders is a submissive appeal for forgiveness for a set of acts that weren’t their own, a plea for consolation which is lost to the void. The people, from their look of their eyes, from the way they hold themselves, and the manner in which they speak, vacillating between soft & timid and hoarse & angry, are a defeated race, and it seems as if some only continue to live because habit dictates that they should. The process by which the smile from a mirthful moment turns into that steady and solemnly set jaw of normality seems to occur at a rate faster than in the expressions of citizens of other countries. Even the smile itself was an achievement in ingenuity; though on their exterior they were smiling, you could sense something troubled and wounded beneath, disappointment and loss glossed over with the veneer of good humour. They look at the name of their country no longer even perturbed of the irony splashed in bright lights all over and throughout.
“Cold efficiency to survive goes hand in hand with in implacable and impotent resentment towards the situation they were born into. It is often true that the best qualities in human nature are quickly called up in crisis but hard to find in a prosperous calm, as if all the contours of our virtues are shaped by adversity. Africa seems to defy the convention in this regard, at least when its governments are concerned. The people, however, appear to endure struggle beyond pain. The people seem to see hardship in the same light as they saw the sun; its existence undisputed, its harsh radiance tolerated at arms length instead of warded away by stronger forces. The normal laws of development are inverted in the Congo. The forest, not the town, offers the safest sanctuary and it is grandfathers who have been more exposed to modernity than their grandchildren. I can think of nowhere else on the planet where the same can be true. It is a country with more past than future.”
Phew! Heavy stuff. Don’t take that guy to a party with you mate. Jesus Christ. A little bit haughty too, I begin to think to myself as I put the computer down. I always tend to look at my past writings with a certain level of tender contempt. How black and white did I see things then? So resolute. Did I not perceive the children’s laughter and the quiet stoicism? Was I too afraid of contradicting myself? Surely that’s the way one should describe the Congo. Or yourself. The contradictions are imperative in mixing up the colour to the inevitable grey that pervades the human condition. There is, however, truth to what I wrote. The people are in dire straits, particularly at their eastern region, from where I wrote that evening, when the sun was setting on the jungle behind me, them. They flee a country at war where the West resists any major military or political engagement, outside of covert business operations which contravene any UN led efforts to stabilise the country. There are too many conflicting interests here which result in what seems to be a perpetual status quo; old wars don’t end, while new ones get worse. Even when the populace becomes displaced, would be refugees have nowhere to go, in lieu of a complete lack of infrastructure combined with defunct bilateral arrangements between neighbouring countries which act to prohibit movement.
The next morning greets me in a flurry. It is the final straw. I snap. Two of them, ‘officials’, escorted by the gardener, have woken me up at seven in the morning on a Friday by rapping at the front door loudly and continuously. Disgruntled and semi-unconscious, I open the door to find them wielding immigration ID’s. Internal security, check, police, check (three times), but I naively only thought I would have to deal with immigration when immigrating. At any rate, certainly not at my front door with me half naked. Clearly I should have known. They don’t have uniforms or ID’s, but they have aviators on and in Africa that’s enough, apparently. I start getting yelled at because I am visibly pissed off, which just makes the entire start to the day even more appetising. It seems the only conclusions I can draw from my week here are that if you’re white and especially if you want to take photos, you must have a) money and/or Coca Cola, b) patience/no plans, c) a business card for ‘pest’ control, d) your passport, e) French language skills, f) a smaller camera, g) a little bit of venom for the end of the exchange so as to annihilate their asking price, having done away with the ceaseless smiling and waving you initially assaulted them with. Last time I was here I crossed illegally; thank the gods I didn’t then stray far from from the chief I paid to get in. To think that this has all happened in a town of maybe 20,000 people. Kipushi is small potatoes; I shudder to think of what living in Kinshasa would be like. When he finally returns my passport to me, he steps back from the door to make sure I have to walk out of the house to get it from him. Just to be an arsehole. I remind myself at this point to go regal: smile and wave. It is all one can do.
I am by this stage reticent to the thought of taking a motorbike around the place. It just seems like too much hassle. I have always struggled to shrink away from these sort of things though, and so I neglect my better judgement. Bad decision, almost immediately. First, I’m not going to get to go it alone. I am to have a minder. Blessing in disguise, potentially – I’ll most likely need him for mediation – but all the same. Second, the clutch feels like putty. It’s so malleable that you need to know where it takes up, because you sure as shit aren’t going to feel it. Cue motorbike doing a wheelie at first movement. Third, gears work in opposite direction; foot down for gear up, not just for first but for all of them. I get the hang of it quickly enough, though, and within twenty minutes I’ve got this little Chinese piece of shit trundling through dusty villages. It’s all very much the Africa of the Hollywood dramas that get middle aged American housewives to feel guilty at the surface of their moisturised skin. Dust everywhere. Cambios in little tin shacks, just waiting for a middling wind to push them over. Similarly styled charging booths, where groups of men congregate to plug in their ten-year-old Nokias, unable to get electricity at their homes twenty metres away. Scrap metal and plastic wrappers creating informal mosaics on the brown roads. Children yell ‘muzungu’ as ‘Junior’ and I pass, and I smile and wave, or stop if a potential photo catches my eye. No one speaks a lick of English, and so we muddle through with vast silences interspersed with one word questions, statements and answers. Most people just laugh at the sight, particularly the old. The children are equally as likely to not know what I am than to come towards me to play; some look at me as if I were Michael Jackson before he went weird.
We ride past a big group of kids and a few straggling adults. I don’t know what’s going on, but a dozen of the twenty kids are wearing naught but feathers and underpants, and one has a machete, so to my mind it’s worth a look. After all, I never saw Lord of the Flies growing up. As soon as I’ve got two feet on the deck I am a blade of grass standing in the way of a flood. Children. Fucking. Everywhere. Watch the machete. Everyone is having a splendid time, perhaps with the exception of Junior, who’s trying to tell a hundred different people a life story he doesn’t know. And then, as ever, someone sees an opportunity to make money and kills the fun. I’m not too sure why, but it seems everyone who tries to extort me is middle aged. To put this in perspective, 61% of the population is below 25. Do people get to thirty, feel lonely, and decide to be a fucking arsehole? I’m only half kidding. They are difficult. Perhaps it is more because their age has meant they have been consigned to a more violent past, the (official) war having only ended in 2000, where security was an issue always in the periphery at the very least. In any case, my photography jaunt gets stopped dead in its tracks, half an hour is lost, this wretch tries calling the police in (who won’t come, because by this stage every cop in town knows me), and nothing happens in the end. Junior, I assume in order to avoid repetition, starts trying to keep me away from people the moment we leave the surly chap’s presence. The poor bastard. Eventually I find myself having a drink with his parents, watching some horrific French soap opera. Go figure.
I say goodbye to Junior and go for a wander, still looking for photos. I hear singing and am attracted like a moth to flame in the direction of the Methodist Church; it is a beautiful sound and it fills me. At the entryway to the parish a man sits there, as a steward would collect tickets at the theatre. His English is flawless, and while I would normally be irritated at the sound of his voice clamouring the choirs, this fella is full of zest. He tells me the choir is practicing for a funeral later on today, and then asks whether I should like to come. A funeral in the Congo? Why not, I say. Three hours later, and I am surrounded by hordes of women and select groups of men who are laughing and singing while a dead man lies prostrate in a casket ten feet to my right. There is no sense of mourning here. The clothing matches the mood. Full of colour. I hope it’s not just because the deceased was disliked. Children run around with abandon, and it seems the service and the wake have been rolled into one. I do not stay too long, for it felt that I was both stealing someone’s thunder and just generally out of place. Nonetheless, it imbued in me a sense of beauty in the community here. In that moment, I am beyond grateful that I had landed in a small town rather than the bigger commune of Lubumbashi. The motorbike taxi drivers outside the house who I saw every morning, the cobbler on the corner, the young chap who ran the cyber cafe next to the school, even the cop who drank my Fanta; in less than a week, I felt like all of them kept an eye on me as if it were a blanket, and it was warming.
I sit here, finally, high as the shimmering sky outside that I can see so intimately in the night, and it finally hits me that I’m house sitting in an old Japanese man’s abode, in the middle of nowhere, taken to the fourth iteration. Africa. D.R.C. Lubumbashi. Kipushi. Four. I have two cats for company and they’re fucking weird cats. Outside are men speaking French and dogs howling in the wind on unilluminated streets. I walk into the kitchen and make myself a triangle cheese sandwich, and I find that my day old bread has mould; even it is refused its youth. There is scratching at the door of the room in which David has seen fit to lock his pets in, the cats jumping at the handle trying to turn it. Everything seems coated in a veneer of dystopia almost, and my eyebrow seems constantly raised in curiosity and apprehension both. Out loud, spontaneously, I mutter ‘I wish I wasn’t alone’. It is both true and false. Perhaps I achieved some semblance of solitude within the confines of the day, but it is tinged with an air of inevitable resignation that it neither could remain nor would I let it even if it could. In any case, I don’t know whether I’ve ever said those words before, given my proclivity for withdrawal, even if I’m sure I’ve had the feeling. Yet, here and now, I knew the isolation was coming, and indeed that I came here for it, here to this part of the world, so as to plumb its depths.
On the way to the airport, I stop again at the pizza place in as a tribute to symmetry before catching a cab at an agreed rate of ten dollars; I was pretty happy with this and given I had more than enough time before my flight, I willed the distance to be longer, just to feel good about getting one over the locals for a change. I afford myself a laugh in private when I see the road leading into the airport; two lanes each way, mint condition, the best road I’ve seen in the country bar none… and completely devoid of traffic. We get to the front gate, and the guards demand twelve dollars. We start the carousel. They think I’m tricking them as a defence ploy when I tell them I can’t speak French, I think they’re trying to trick me, full stop. Only one of us is right. You can take a guess. When I ask, seven times, what the fee is for, there is only silence and a feigned look of confusion. I just don’t get how they assume I will gladly pay for a service that does not exist. Eventually I just tell them I will walk the rest of the way and to my surprise this works. I give my driver ten dollars’ worth of francs and suddenly the word ‘twenty’ enters his vocabulary, the first English word he’s said in half an hour. I laugh and get out of the car while he shrugs, as if to say ‘I tried’.
Ten minutes walk and I am confronted with the most archaic (and needlessly boisterous) airport I’ve seen since I was eight years old and in India. The place is filthy and the names of airlines bankrupted years ago still adorn the walls. I try to figure out where to situate myself, but it’s futile. Apparently computers have not been invented here yet, nor signage, so I find someone who speaks my tongue and he begins to give me a walkthrough. This fellow, who as far as I can tell is not employed by the airport, tells me that I need to pay ten dollars for my ‘Go Pass’, which I assume to be my boarding pass, and another five in taxes; he says that Congo and the Philippines are the only two countries in the world where they don’t include this in the flight cost. I look around at other passengers’ hands to confirm the rumour. Then, given the check-in ‘counters’ are an infestation of smells and shouting, and because, apparently, I can, I go through the immigration rigmarole in the entry hall. It’s only a domestic flight, but apparently immigration has a broader job description in this country, as I learnt a couple of days ago. While she’s writing my name by hand in a log, the Congo gives me another first; never before have I had the power go out for an entire airport. Not that it was running any essential systems, to be fair.
To help offset the pain of the cost of the flight, and of not seeing more of the Congo, I reasoned to myself that catching this flight, on one of the world’s most dangerous airlines, should at least be an experience. So far I have not been proven incorrect. Grown men look out the window at the plane prior to ours taking off. Security is not a thing; there are no x-ray machines, nor any impediment to running out onto the runway – I get twenty paces out and take in the stars before realising that whatever point there was in doing so, if one ever existed, I had fulfilled it. At this stage the plane – our plane – is nowhere to be seen, but predictably no-one’s ire is raised and so I settle in. This is the way of Africa; yell when someone serves you, meekly accept when nothing happens. It’s like waiting for a loaded gunshot to explode, not knowing who is holding the trigger or where it’s pointed. Speaking of which, if ever you were to try and bomb an airplane, this would be your best bet. Your cabin luggage is checked, on the runway, by hand, extremely briefly. This would happen in six hours, in the early morning, and there was no public service announcement, of course, to let us know that there was a five hour delay.
If there is one thing I hold dear about flying in the third world, it is that you’re not looked upon like you have two heads as you are in outside the confines of the airport. Or not as much at the very least. And I am quite literally the only white person on the plane, which is another first. Although this tolerance is diluted somewhat by possibly the most French thing about this country; their indignation at the fact that I don’t speak a lick of French. Colonialism really did work. By this stage I’m on the plane, and while no English is spoken (or shown) in what I assume to be the safety preamble – I don’t remember this ever happening either, although I’m sure it must’ve – I’m reading a placard in the pocket in front of me, which they have in this instance deigned to translate: “flyCAA is pleased to inform its passengers that they now have the possibility to make their booking and pay by credit card for their tickets directly on its website.” How wonderful. I take a picture and am promptly rewarded for my insolence with a bone in my boneless beef. A Christian ministerial delegation gets on the plane. They are the best dressed by a mile. It says everything you need to know about organised religion.
I love the moment you breach the clouds in a plane. And then the landing over an African city, roofs of corrugated brown teeth and roads running like flash floods, seas of brown filth engulfing the lush green of the forestry trying to recover its turf; the city creates a camouflage in its colour in its attempt to fend it off. Though this last moment took some further tribulations. Only in Africa, it seems, will the airline tell you it’s rescheduling for an hour and a half earlier, leave five hours later, and make an unscheduled stop in the country in the other direction. While sitting on the tarmac there, in line on the runway in Lubumbashi, a shepherd herded his goats out the window on your left, crossing the strip at the corner. Having finally made my scheduled stop, I’m six hours late, have missed the connection I didn’t know I had, and end up spending a night in Zambia until the next flight to Kinshasa the next afternoon. It seemed like there was a line not just getting in to the Congo, or even while being there, but when you left too, even when you didn’t want to. Fifteen hundred kilometres of flight, nearly two day’s of travel, door to door.
I sleep at the airport on the other side to avoid tramping around fully loaded at night, and the next morning I’m getting yelled at on all sides by people wanting my business. I know it’s cheaper on the highway outside, thirty down to fifteen dollars, but even upon my arrival there the noise does not subside. And fifteen dollars is still outrageous. The longer I think about it, the more I come to the conclusion that the D.R.C. is not a place where cause and effect exist in any substantive way in the context of the willpower of the individual; it only works in a more natural setting, where forces happen because they happen. And how could it work, when the foresight is so limited? The entire country is geared towards a hand to mouth mentality. They cannot afford to plan for tomorrows when poverty stricken children ceaselessly nibble at their feet; the present is too pressing. Although, in a country as expensive in this, one can wonder at the contradiction. In the main, I reason that people must resort to crime when a taxi-ride the distance from city centre to airport costs twenty dollars, or even ten, while the average wage is twenty-five a month. It puts things into perspective. Corruption is not chosen by the destitute, it is enforced. Which is part of the reason why the well-off have an obligation to lift the rest out of the mires. The taxi driver, for his part, still only has fifteen dollars. It won’t exactly get you to Europe.
“I’ll be the tall white dude,” I tell my next host over the phone as I sit on the street in the vicinity of where I think he lives, and then shoot the shit with a middle aged Belgian and the two guards outside his expatriate apartment block while I wait. It has been an interesting twenty minutes. Kinshasa has a bad reputation. I get it. Crime-ridden, grimy, walls in a state of humidified decay, not altogether personable. But if you can look past your ingrained concept of comfort, it can be stunning. If you can look past what you see in front of you, and understand it, you will find a denominator, a plane of reference, that you can commonly stand on in line with the environment. There was, I would later find out, a golf course not twenty metres away, behind a wall, unseen. Seems an apt metaphor, replete with some sort of sinister levity, just like all the bribes I was being asked to pay. I think that you can grow to love chaos; thinking of all the stories revolving around me in the masses circling my own mind makes me salivate. It excites me to contemplate all the personal dramas, the episodes of peoples’ lives in this contrarian existence. I’m like a pig in shit; dirty yet comfortable.
Flex is just a big kid. He’s in his early fifties and has a very unperturbed disposition. He does what he does, has a few rules he places in the areas of his own orbit, but otherwise, he will let anything hit him in the way that it was intended to. It’s cool to see, even when I don’t agree with his sense of self. There is always something innately alluring about someone who is unapologetic with who they are, perhaps because it is difficult when we realise the truth of ourselves, but Flex manages it. He will help you in any way he can, unless he doesn’t want to. Could be the French part of his Belgian upbringing. He is interesting too, quite articulate and insightful about his positions on topics ranging from politics to love to violence. His friend Patrick, same age and nationality, whisks me away to a bar on a tributary out of town near a very picturesque village within the first two hours of my arrival into town, and he is much the same. A core of knowledge bound in a ball which has a propensity for spontaneity.
The Marché Centrale, the main market in Kinshasa, is a behemoth, both in geographic size and in pure degree of mayhem. I am enthralled. It is a mass of people sliding alongside one another, friction having its consequence. Kinshasa is an overgrown slum, and this is the epicentre of it, a dense microcosm. My feet, bearing only flip flops, quickly turn a colour that I revel in. There is something purifying about coming back with dirt up to your knees and mud flicked as high as your back, your face caked in residue and your hair adamantly resolute in the face it was presenting to the world when the wind changed. The roads are never empty enough to maintain, and so potholes obscure a quarter of your view of the cars that go through them, and the cars in turn splash brown water and filth onto their own windows, obscuring another quarter. The sides of the roads are small trenches, with bridges going over at indeterminate spacing sizes, and a putrid green sludge underneath acting as the biggest deterrent to the crossing. Wires comes from places humans can’t get to and illuminate single light bulbs in the street for its vendors, vendors selling products not exceeding twenty in number. Boys echolocate their customers by clinking metal together. People gullet fish, bargain, move their wares, laugh, yell, gesticulate, communicate.
I feel alive in this space. I don’t have long standing or involved relationships with many people, given my lifestyle, and as such the best way to set me alight, outside of a beautiful conversation (verbal or otherwise), is to show me humanity in all its diversity being expressed in all its diversity. It can come with a depth of relationship too, and one day I assume and hope it will, but for my current headspace and experience, variety in volume is the way. I travel because I need to stay in the space where I can explore different mentalities simultaneously or consecutively, but quickly too. I know this contradicts the idea of depth in a relationship. But it is easier to my mind to explore the depth quickly, in a shorter time frame, than it is to put up with the boredom of one country’s collective mentality, even if it’s diverse. My brother said it best. I’m a stimulation junkie. Give me all the information you can give me through all the pores at my disposal. This market, I think, is perhaps my favourite market I’ve been to in ten years of travel. I struggle to process this thought.
I’ve tended to avoid shopping in developing countries. In this part of the world the exchange of goods and services is reversed. In the Western world, it is assumed that you won’t have to pay anything unless you say something, unless you initiate. Here, you are constantly chaperoned, and it becomes a tour. You can’t enjoy the tour in the first place because you know the question at the end is coming, and you can’t get rid of him in the meantime; if you tell him you’re not going to pay him money, he will say it’s okay, then ingratiate himself upon you even further. This doesn’t change the probability of the question coming, which remains at 100%. However, I find myself walking into a store with my lens at the ready, a lens which has needed a bit of work for a while, just because I see the store. While seeing it, I must say, was a pretty impressive feat – no sign, small door, no space to stand – going inside was certainly not. I’m talking to a guy in a suit, a circumstance which sets the alarm bells ringing straight away, and he says the technician can tighten my lens for twenty dollars. I agree to this much too quickly, given I know the work would be in the order of three digits in the western world, and they smile quicker still. I’m in Kinshasa. Of course I get conned. After unsuccessfully imploring me to go for a wander while he works, he simply takes the rubber zoom ring off, apples a finger of light adhesive, and then replaces the ring. It takes him five minutes. However, although I have no idea how, it does fix it. For two weeks.
Shooting with your camera here is sort of like using film. You really have to pick your moments if you want to avoid trouble and expense. My old trick of shooting from the hip is also encouraged. So it proved in here, where I was brought in for questioning and my now customary cup of tea three times in the space of two hours. This gives you a further idea of the size of the market. It was bigger than Kipushi, certainly in populace, and most likely in geographical terms too. In any case, I didn’t receive it well, men without ID’s literally grabbing me and forcing me to a cop shop just so they could get paid off for the bounty, and so I made it worse by ignoring them as best I could. It was an attempt in vain though; they got the attention of uniformed policemen and I could no longer claim ignorance.
During the last episode, we go through the procedure, I cite the cops down the street in curt responses, and to my utter surprise I elicit an appeal for forgiveness from the chief, in lieu of standards he didn’t set. He was genuinely contrite about the way his country functioned, and he wasn’t looking for anything from me. A nice dude. It didn’t bother me too much that I couldn’t photograph the market, or Kinshasa in general, I suppose. Nothing that translates in only one sense, as photographs tend to do, could do the experience justice. This was a place that needed to be felt. The cops sitting around, incidentally, are a defining sight, as ever. I’ve just never been able to get the idea of expecting progress, or even desiring it, while you simply while away the time, sitting or walking from an arbitrary place to another arbitrary place. It was faffing of biblical proportions. It saddens me more than almost anything else, in these countries, the almost complete refusal to reach for the attainment of one’s potential by the majority of a populace. Yes, opportunity is often not immediately available, or visible, but why don’t they dig?
Nothing creates apathy for global issues outside of your remit more than a barrage of stories about Africans dying or fighting or both, except for when you see this sheer waste of human potential. Show me a child breaking ranks and becoming the first Ethiopian astrophysicist, a world leader in the field, and I shall feel a compulsion to get involved. We feel the same impulse when, in a job, we are surrounded my people who are brilliant and diligent. As it stands, we tend to only pay attention when conflict arises, when the third world is under a duress not their own, perhaps because at least then they are forced into some sort of action. Though I have to concede that, as a species, we analyse what goes wrong more than what goes right. It is an amazing gift, but it has its drawbacks. Not least the manner in which we interact with those outside our own light bulb. A fundamental restructuring of society is in the offing.
The lethargy I perceive here has not just come about by chance. Allow the people their autonomy and they will use it. Poverty stacks the odds the other way because a person cannot consider what will happen to him next week, let alone in ten years. As I alluded to, how can one hope for foresight without the opportunity to indulge the thought? How can one expect the utilisation of potential if the very next day the dreams and hopes you would drive it with are crushed by forces outside of your control? What if that was your experience, and your father’s experience, and his father’s experience before him. It becomes like roughshod town planning. Everything is scattered, morsels are torn apart at first sight, there is no structure to anything in the present nor a future which scarcely can be envisioned. But if you allow for education, healthcare and infrastructure, and the boil will burst, bloody at first but changed, irrevocably changed, moving forward.
I contemplate whether I am committing the quintessential sin of the white saviour. Living on the periphery of this and seeing how people think, I have to wonder: is our way better than theirs, really? How does one measure it? It’s all in the psychology you employ and in the psychology you perceive, especially in those places diametrically opposed to the thinking of your own, which informs you as to just what is possible. How can I really empathise with that? Do base statistics, infant mortality rates and university graduate numbers and the like, allow me my judgements? I don’t know. I just see what I see. Everyone, when exposed to a thing, will make a judgement on it. Never believe someone that tells you they don’t judge. It’s an impossibility. Judgement begins before awareness of the judgement. People simply do not announce their observations, out of fear, kindness, social preservation, self-awareness, naiveté, a myriad of things. My thoughts suggest that this is often intellectually, even morally, dishonest. How can we truly care for others if we cannot even point out the things that harm them? Besides which, the first way to address a problem – or to conclude that a problem does not exist – is to admit its existence. And, here, I see a country not just in stasis, but one that is unreeling what little national dignity it has left.
Perhaps he D.R.C. needs that defining war, a massive reset button, because currently it is ungovernable, much like how Bolivar said northern South America was at the end of his life, after decades of attempted consensus building. Joseph Kabila, the son of an assassinated president who led a coup to establish his own power, is merely a mob boss who can’t control his lieutenants when they go for their sojourn in the reaches of the nation. Not only is his power, such as it is, built on a foundation of fear and insecurity – both in himself and his constituency – but the country is too unwieldy. It is too large, there are too many disparate interests, and there is not enough infrastructure to link them. Dictatorship may indeed be the most expedient method of instituting law in a country of this size and with this variety of ethnic groups. It is like the Middle East in that respect; simply not conducive to democracy. This does not have to be as wholly depressing as it seems. Dictatorship, like colonialism before it, does have its benefits. Everyone has nothing, but at least there is equality in that. There is the possibility for a robust stability, in a sense. Pick the best of evils. You can either have roaming marauders destroying you economically or worse, or one guy subject you all to a common guise, but which at least has a known and predictable future.
The problem is, the D.R.C. has proven time and again to be impervious to any type of system. It is the impossible country. Impossibly rich, impossibly beautiful, impossibly impoverished, impossibly decayed, impossibly ungovernable. I almost feel sorry for Kabila. In the end, it is always the people’s fault for their own circumstance, given their mass, despite the weight of external influence. How much can one judge Kabila, or anyone else, without first being of the mindset that he is both part of and contending with? It’s a tough gig, I’d imagine, outside of the outsized luxury he enjoys. Wait. I trawl through the strongman president’s Wikipedia page in order to rectify the uneasy beginnings of this sentiment. I am intrigued to find that it is skint on detail. Isn’t this always a telling sign for a tyrant in a forgotten African country? Perhaps the most tangibly revealing facet of the page, which is corroborated by the numerous other examples dotted around the country in stores, airports, municipal buildings, anywhere, was in the expression on his face in the accompanying picture. Most of the portraits of Kabila all over the Congo showed him smiling, though he never looked less reliable, or less amused, than when he was smiling. His smile – and this may be true of all political leaders – felt like his most sinister feature. Another picture of the palace he resides in is below, the one I tried without success to approach earlier in my stay here. The army barracks surround the sprawling presidential complex for five blocks on three sides, with the river laying sentry for the fourth. I’ve rarely seen such a concentration of guns outside of the United States, and even there, there weren’t anti-artillery munitions. I wonder whether Kabila wished he weren’t alone, just like me. I wonder whether the collective conscience of country wished for some solidarity. I wonder whether they took any value out of plumbing the depths of their own seclusion, as I always have.
I love the loneliness, in my own dark way; it is one of the prices you must pay for knowledge. I feel like every day here is an experience, whether it be by getting introduced to the chief of security or changing David’s kitty litter or by getting followed by a copper-plate-selling merchant for two kilometres. Yet still it stings as it applies its lessons. No matter what Scottie and Karl and David and Flex and Patrick and the multitude of bodies brooding in the streets like a swarm do, I can not seem to shake this all pervading sense of solitude. It is pronounced everywhere, in my life, but here it is absolutely unmistakable, luminescent and distinct. I suppose I just have to make it not matter. Why does it strain of its own accord to matter? Like food or shelter or a desire for children, I need to beat this innate instinct in me that holds my hand, that always keeps that all-encompassing liberty just out of reach, even though I am simultaneously resigned to the fact that the attempt is futile. It is an insecurity I cannot dislodge. I try to reconcile the issue in my mind. Insecurity has a single but impossibly impossible and inevitable benefit, I reason. You are defined by your struggle, by its rigours, and without it there is only arrogance. It is an act of humility. But then, the act itself is one in which you have no say, which begs the question – does it remain humility when it is forced? What can be said of anything when it is forced? Only that it is not a wilful choice, it seems, insofar as that concept even exists. Past that there are only degrees. The Congo seems to take up one blunt side of the spectrum, at which point it brandishes it to the world as if a flare fired on a desert island by its lone occupant.
Democracy is not much of a thing here. Though is it anywhere?
I finish writing. I think.
Much more by this author on his very excellent photography website.