· The ‘Democratic’ Republic of Congo ·
“Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the rest.”
- Winston Churchill.
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 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. We talk sparingly, Karl even moreso and 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 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 more dense. This is not the Namibian Zambian border. There are more French speakers in the country ahead of me than there are in French. 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 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. 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 that all men pertain to; 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 just 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 said muzungu had 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. Finally 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 twenty seconds 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 purposefully or not.
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.
Chaos gives way to curiosity and I find my self 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 given way to 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-gray 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. Some 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, and I wonder what 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 it 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. The smell 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 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 in turn are choked with fish and electronics and everything in between. Africa in general, through its in 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 on 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 and 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 lurched from one unexpected event to the next in this bursting ecosystem my experience was indeed tested.
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 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, 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 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 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 falling off 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 corners of the ceiling. 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. 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 may have legal repercussions. 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 that long. Further to this 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 who I will meet during my time and who he berates endlessly about a series of problems which 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 cooker 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 to hire a motorbike for me to use 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, over-landing 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 own boundaries to the capital due northwest, only 1500 kilometres as the crow flies. Kinshasa might as well have been over an ocean. 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 do not want to talk about it.
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. 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 their 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. It feels like 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. 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, oxidized 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 like the plague, made this a more tedious and difficult task. He has taken the Congolese penchant for a quick temper, despite the irony in the adoption, along with a nonchalance inherent in the inefficiency he has made it his own, 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 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 tourists 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 as to whose security 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 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 and finishes the bottle 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
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 that 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. Bet you he can still play basketball. I start wishing I had been stoned 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 stupendously 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 foreigners attention, on the other. African 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, so softly and timidly, 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 solemn set jaw of normality seems to occur exponentially faster than it does for the 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 it.
"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 are often 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, seem to endure struggle beyond pain. The people seemed 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. 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.
I sit here, finally, high as the blazing sky outside that I can see so intimately in the night, and it finally hits me that I’m house sitting an old Japanese man’s abode, in the middle of nowhere taken to the fourth iteration. Africa. DRC. 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 Iwasn’t alone’. It is both true and false; possibly achieved within the day but tinged with an air of inevitable resignation both that it wouldn’t be nor that I would let it. I don’t know whether I’ve ever said that line before, even if I’m sure I’ve felt the feeling. But I knew the isolation was coming, and moreover I came here for it, so I could plumb its depths.
I love the loneliness; it is one of the prices you must pay for knowledge Yet still it stings as it applies its lesson. No matter what Scottie and Karl and David and the multitude of bodies brooding in the streets like a swarm do, I can not seem to shake this all pervading sense of isolation. It is pronounced everywhere but here it is absolutely luminescent. I suppose I just have to make it not matter. Why does it strain of its own accord to matter? Like food or shelter, 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 fate 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. Past that there are only degrees. The Congo seemed to take up one blunt side of the spectrum, and brandish 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.