Addis Ababa, Ethiopia – 04/07/09
I began my last journal entry with the phrase, “…one of the most important lessons [I have learned over the course of this Fellowship] has concerned perserverence and patience; with enough of each, everything will turn out beautifully.” Looking back on this statement, I can’t help but laugh; it seems to have been a premonition of sorts, regarding the myriad challenges that would befall me once I arrived in Central Africa. My patience has been tested, I’ve perservered to the utmost, and once again, I’m amazed to see how – when one’s plans seem to have been completely shattered – the pieces can be put back together in utterly ingenious, unexpected and fortuitous ways.
Case in point: only two days ago, I had my wallet stolen, along with both of my credit cards, my debit card and the only American dollar bills left to my name. Still in my pocket were my passport, my Ethiopian Airways ticket and about US$20 worth of Ethiopian birr.
Now, two days later, I am sitting in the home of Mrs. Jocelyn Kinnear, a very generous Canadian friend who works at the Canadian embassy, and whom I’d met earlier this year while attending the Rift Valley Institute course in Djibouti. My credit cards have been cancelled (without any unwanted payments having been made on them), my flight to Kigali has been rescheduled and I’ve managed to orchestrate a wire transfer from my family in Canada via Western Union. Most incredibly of all, I had the great fortune of being able to experience the interior of a Canadian embassy for the first time in my life (it even housed pet tortoises)!
But before I get too far ahead of myself, I should probably tell you a little bit about my departure from the Netherlands. By and large, it was quite uneventful. Having finished all of my work for the Prosecutor, I allowed myself to be a little bit more social with my colleagues at the Court. We went out for drinks a couple of times, which reminded me once again of how shamelessly antisocial I had been during the previous three months, of how much I had missed in not getting to know these extraordinary personalities better. But I suppose this is simply a lesson to be borne in mind for the future.
I departed Amsterdam for Brazzaville on April 26th, with luggage that weighed significantly less than that which I brought to Somaliland. I suppose I’m becoming better practiced! On the way, I had a six-hour layover in Casablanca, of which I seized every second. With my heavy backpack and camera bag in tow, I caught a rickety old train from the airport to the city centre, and spent the afternoon exploring Casablanca’s shambolic and exciting medina (i.e., old quarter). Environments like this never seem to get old for me, no matter how much I travel. And I find this strange; in spite of being an avowed introvert, the mad crush of the Middle Eastern souq or the frenzied transactions of the African market never fail to remind me why traveling is so beautiful. I don’t know why.
With approximately an hour left before I had to catch my train, I left the medina in search of a turn-of-the-century Moroccan café that used to be frequented by Antoine de Saint-Exupery whenever he stopped over in Casablanca during one of his trans-Sahara mail flights. Though maps are never very intuitive to me, I managed to find it without much difficulty. The interior was sparse, with a wooden bar, Formica tables and a single television screening a show about zebra migrations to a gruff-looking, all-male clientele. I ordered a beer and a small plate of chickpeas, and soaked up the atmosphere as much as I could before it was time to leave.
My troubles started when I arrived at the airport in Brazzaville. For those of you who don’t know, Brazzaville is the capital of the Republic of Congo, a small country whose eastern border is the Congo River, that lives in the shadow of its gargantuan and similarly named neighbour: the Democratic Republic of Congo (also known as Congo-Kinshasa). Confusing? You’ll get the hang of it.
My intention was to stay in Congo-Brazzaville for nine days before making my way east to my final placement. According to my guidebook, all that would be required to secure a 15-day traveler’s visa was a single photograph, a yellow fever vaccination card and about US$70 in cash. A word to the wise: in matters of entry requirements, never trust a guidebook.
I was quickly told by immigration that if I did not have a letter of invitation into the country, I would not be permitted a visa. Petrified and instantly assuming that I would be sent back to Europe, I asked if there was anything I could do to help the situation. The immigration officer simply asked for my passport and then told me to sit and wait. This is exactly what I did for the next four hours.
About an hour into this waiting game, I was approached by two Congolese men, one tall and muscular, and the other small and mousey. In French, I was asked where I came from. I told them that I was Canadian (a declaration that I would later learn saved my hide completely; they had initially thought I was Lebanese, and if that had been the case, they would not have helped me at all). They asked me why I was sitting around like this, and I reluctantly told them my story, still unaware of what their intentions might be. When I finally got around to the part about the letter of invitation, they perked up and said, “We can get you a LOI, no problem. All we need is twenty dollars.” I instantly assumed that I was being asked for my very first Central African bribe, but at the same time, I felt I had little to lose in seeing what they might be able to do for me. So I handed over the twenty dollars and they disappeared.
An hour and a half later, I was sitting in the exact same chair without having spoken to anyone. The men returned, saying that they needed another ten dollars to obtain the letter. At this point, I was feeling even more desperate; the immigration officers had paid literally no attention to me whatsoever, while these guys, whom I had already given twenty dollars, had opted to return, rather than simply run off with my money. They were to be trusted, right? Though I still wasn’t sure, I handed over another ten bucks. And then I waited some more.
After what seemed like an eternity, my two new friends returned, brandishing a letter of invitation forged by the bribed receptionist of a luxury hotel that was far too expensive for my budget (though the immigration officers didn’t need to know that). With my beautiful new LOI in hand, I was shuffled from the office of one intimidating colonel-cum-airport bureaucrat to another, only to discover that nobody, for no particular reason, wanted to deal with me.
I decided it was time to employ some of the “negotiating with stubborn officials” techniques that I’d been taught at my security course back in the Netherlands. In the office of one steely-eyed colonel, I noticed three or four empty 750ml bottles of Ngok beer scattered around his desk. I struck up a conversation about local brews, asking which was best: Ngok, Primus or Turbo King? Delighted to hear that I’d done my research, the colonel launched into a lecture about the merits and demerits of each: Ngok was proudly Congolese, while Primus was the best blonde lager and Turbo King the best dark. I laughed and told him that I was excited to try them all, to which he responded with an invitation to his thumping Brazzaville nightclub (yes, this was a colonel-cum-airport-bureaucrat-cum-nightclub-owner; welcome to the bizarre occupational arrangements of Central Africa). At that very moment, he changed the channels of a television that had been playing in the background, and happened upon an episode of Animal Planet, featuring a troupe of chimpanzees breastfeeding and having sex. He looked at me with a massive grin, and started to mimic the primates, laughing so hard that he attracted inquisitive secretaries from neighbouring rooms. His military carapace had been cracked, and now we were just two friends talking about beer and laughing at silly animals. My passport was stamped five minutes later.
Things got even stranger once I had collected my luggage and left the building; to my surprise, I had arrived in Brazzaville at the exact same moment as French President Nicolas Sarkozy. The airport parking lot had been inundated by thousands upon thousands of Congolese, all wearing t-shirts bearing Sarkozy’s face and all keenly listening to the dozens of half-naked drummers who had been hired to greet the President’s motorcade. As I made my way through the crowd, people shouted at me, “Sarkozy! Sarkozy!” Definitely the strangest reception I’ve ever received in a country (even if the reception wasn’t actually for me).
When I finally reached the taxi park, I was greeted by the two men who had secured my fake letter of invitation. Simultaneously thankful for what they had done for me and nervous as to what might happen next, the two of them asked me whether I needed a hotel. Criticize my trusting nature if you will, but I said yes. We hopped into a taxi and sped off to the Eclipse Hotel. For the next week and a half, these two brothers – Kevin and Serge Ayoulove – would be my honest guides and best Congolese friends.
Truth be told, I didn’t actually do all that much in Brazzaville, largely because there isn’t much to do in Brazzaville. Kevin and Serge introduced me to all of their friends, to their favourite restaurants, to nightclubs in every quarter of the city, to their father (who, surprisingly enough, spoke fluent Chinese on account of being the former Congolese ambassador to Beijing). I don’t have anything particularly exciting to tell you, but I can confidently say that I garnered a much more intimate and local appreciation for the capital than I would have ever expected if I had been on my own.
Kevin and I did attempt one adventure: we went on a 600km road trip up north to a small town in Congo’s Plateau Province called Gamboma. I knew already that Gamboma had absolutely nothing of interest for a tourist like myself, but this was beside the point; the journey, through the Republic of Congo’s endless rolling grasslands, was the goal itself. To get to Gamboma, we were forced to take a minivan crammed full of no fewer than twenty people (which broke down after 100km), a huge lorry crammed full of no fewer than forty people (which broke down after another 100km) and a garish taxi wrapped in Christmas lights that was crammed full of no fewer than ten people (which took us the final 100km into town). We arrived about an hour after sunset, and I confidently say that it was one of the most gorgeous drives I have ever taken in my life.
In Gamboma, Kevin and I stayed at a hotel owned by his older sister. We ate a delicious dinner of fish and fou-fou (a maize or cassava-based starch with the consistency of Play-Doh), and spent the rest of the evening at an outdoor nightclub, watching everybody else dance.
The following morning, after having spent about half an hour playing with a caged monkey named Marcel (and who I later discovered would be eaten that weekend), I asked Kevin what the plan was. He told me we were going to visit a pygmy village. So we each rented a motorbike taxi and off we went.
My visit to the “pygmy” village (I quickly learned that the word “pygmy” is considered a racial slur among the Batwa people; something I was embarrassed to not have known beforehand) turned out to be both inspiring and uncomfortable. I say uncomfortable because Kevin made the terrible mistake of introducing me as a “wealthy Canadian who would like to study your village and see whether he can make investments in it when he returns home”. To this day, I cannot decide who was more callous and cruel: Kevin for having made a promise that he knew I couldn’t keep, or me for having come to this village without the slightest interest in inquiring about it for anybody’s sake but my own. But here were those Insight buzzwords – interest and inquiry – popping up in an utterly new environment. This was why the experience was inspiring: unexpectedly, it added texture to words that I thought I had already come to understand fully. I learned a lot about myself that day.
Once I had been so introduced to the village chief and its elders, I sat down within the circle of people (all men; the fifty-some women and children watched from the outside) and started fumbling through an impromptu list of development-related questions: where do you find your water? How is it transported? How many hours a day are spent finding water? Do you treat it in any way? What ailments do your children suffer from most often? Where is the nearest hospital? Do you use anti-malarial bed nets? Where is the nearest school? How many of your children attend it? Do they pursue the national curriculum or have the Batwa designed their own course of study? Have any of your children managed to progress into secondary school?
The fascinating thing was that as I asked more questions, the more genuinely and unselfishly interested I became. Or rather, I should say that I became more confident. It wasn’t that I had arrived in the village feeling uninterested, but when Kevin suddenly cast me as a Western aid prospector, I became self-conscious and distracted. Inquiry, it seems, can help one overcome self-consciousness and distraction. Instead of focusing on oneself, one is obliged to focus on the problems at hand. Soon, I got the sense that it didn’t really matter who I was; I and the rest of the villagers were simply sitting around and having a very good discussion about development. They were learning, insofar as I had asked them to prioritize their interests; and I was learning, too (that much should be evident). We spoke about the crippling structural violence that was being directed against the Batwa community by the state, about the high cost of transporting goods to and from the village to other major commercial centres, etc. It was fascinating.
About halfway through our talk, Kevin asked me whether he could borrow five dollars. He slipped away for about ten minutes and returned with what appeared to be a twenty-litre jug of gasoline. But it wasn’t gasoline; it was palm wine. We passed the jug around, and by the end of the discussion, everyone was cheery-eyed and laughing. We departed with the address of the chief, and I promised that I would do my best to send a box of pens and empty notebooks when I got back to Canada. This, at least, is a promise I should be able to keep.
In the chaos of the two weeks of transit to my final placement in Bukavu, I’ve completely forgotten the date I left Brazzaville. What I will never forget, however, is how I left Brazzaville. Ever since I was a little boy, I had dreamed of crossing from Brazzaville (the capital of the Republic of Congo) to Kinshasa (the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo) via the Congo River. It seemed an impossibly romantic adventure, even if the journey only takes three minutes (Brazzaville and Kinshasa are geographically closer to one another than any other two capitals in the world). It was something I simply had to do.
Kevin generously volunteered to accompany me to Kinshasa, claiming – as so many Brazzavillois do – that it’s a psychotic city filled with greedy people, and that white people need to be protected when they’re there. Though I certainly didn’t find this to be the case (at least, not with respect to the awesomely friendly civilians of Kin), it was nice having him come along. We spent about an hour at “The Beach” (what locals in both Brazz and Kin call their docks), taking care of customs paperwork and watching huge barges load and unload goods and people. Again, this was a sight that I had wanted to see for just about fifteen years; it was a revelation to finally behold the jubilant activity of the Congo River with my own eyes.
We then took a speedboat to Kinshasa. Though it may sound silly, it sort of felt like we had been thrown up in the air – that we were forming a gentle arc in the sky, between the bustle that is Brazzaville and the full-on seizure that is Kinshasa. They were a sunny, peaceful three minutes of gentle coasting, and I held on to the memory of them very tightly when I found myself embroiled in yet another immigration fiasco a few moments later.
This time around, there should have been no problems. I had already purchased a three-month multiple entry DRC visa while I was in Brazzaville (easily the most expensive one I’ve ever come across), I had a letter of invitation from Search for Common Ground, I had the address of my accommodation in Kinshasa, I had my yellow fever vaccination card… And yet: welcome to the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Immediately upon arrival at Kin’s Beach, I was whisked into the office of a stubby middle-aged man whose suit was two sizes too big and whose glasses looked like something culled from the 1970s. He was my first introduction to the world of Congolese (that is to say, DRC) government officials, and in a word, he was a bastard. He began by ignoring me completely for an hour, choosing instead to berate a mother sitting next to me for not being able to silence her babbling child. When the cell phone of another one of his “victims” rang, he asked him to hand it over, and promptly disassembled it into its constituent pieces and spread them out upon his desk, in a quiet display of power. When he finally got around to me, he asked that I call someone from Search for Common Ground to come over and collect me. In spite of the fact that SFCG had already done this (they had sent one of their Congolese chauffeurs to pick me up from the docks), this official demanded that someone white be sent over. So, in spite of knowing that I would be interrupting someone’s busy day of work, I called SFCG and asked for someone white.
While waiting, the official then asked me to show him all of the paper money that I was bringing into the country. Unfortunately (or fortunately, considering the fact that he probably would have fleeced me to death if I’d had more), I only had about US$30 in CFA francs on my person. Displeased, he sent me to his superior’s office, who also demanded to see my money. When he saw that I had so little, he asked me how I expected to get by here in Kinshasa, to which I responded that I had credit cards and debit cards to tide me over. This cheered him up – if I had credit cards, skimming off my US$30 would not cripple me in any serious way. I was promptly sent back to the office of the man with the 1970s glasses, and was relieved of my thirty dollars.
To cut this interminably long story short, I was finally released from immigration when a Belgian woman from SFCG came to collect me. They did not ask her any questions; the instant they saw that a real white person with a real NGO badge had arrived, I was kicked out of the office. I apologized profusely for what must have been a total inconvenience, and she simply shrugged, quoting the expression that was made so popular by the movie “Blood Diamond”: TIA. This is Africa.
And now this journal entry is entering its sixth page… I should probably wrap things up. I guess the long and the short of this installment is frustration. After two weeks of forged letters of entry, initially uncomfortable discussions with village chiefs, rampant bribery (I didn’t even get around to telling you about my departure from Kinshasa’s N’Djili airport; God, that was terrible) and a stolen wallet (I wish I could have filled you in on that experience in greater detail, too), I’m feeling exhausted. It’s certainly been an adventure – and I wouldn’t trade my new friendship with Kevin or our road trip together or the speedboat trip across the Congo River for the world – but I am slightly worried about whether I’ll be able to muster the gut to start my final placement in the eastern DRC with a bang. I’ll be sure to let you know. My next update will be from the Search for Common Ground office in Bukavu, the capital of the DRC’s war-torn South Kivu province.