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Published: March 31st 2011
Crossing from Brazzaville to Kinshasa on the slow boat
“I was born lost and take no pleasure in being found.” – Steinbeck
Everyone I had met or read about told me that crossing the 2500km route southbound through the DRC would be either too dangerous, due to regional conflict and corrupt officials, or simply impossible, due to bad roads and lack of vehicles. Walking came to mind as a possible solution to the latter problem, but then I met a military major who had walked the entire route from Lubumbashi to Kinshasa (at the time Mobutu was chased from power); It had taken him seven months. In order to cross the country in time with my one-month visa, I would either need a miracle, or a flight (southbound via Angola was ruled out after a quick glance at their visa procedure). Needless to say flying felt too much like a cop-out, so I went with the miracle.
Passing the airport to inquire about hitching on a UN plane, I was offered a place on a cargo flight for next to nothing. However after an odd series of events I found myself at the nearby military camp being rather extensively questioned by the colonel regarding my motives, with hints
come on MSF, you can do it
we thought they were quite brave taking on this mud in their little 4x4s
thrown in of suspicion of involvement with the coup attempt on the presidency a few days earlier. The whole thing was amusing and informative, included a nice lunch, and also served as the glimpse of hope I needed to send me on the overland route southbound – the military said the road was passable (this was the first and only time I had been given even a smidgen of optimism). ‘Adventure!’ I thought.
Well, it has been an adventure, but not the extent I had expected. I was hoping to get lost, in Steinbeck’s sense, like Graham Greene, even more so than I was on the footpaths of the Fouta Diallon in Guinea. I wasn’t so much looking for Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’ as for the first-rate adventure and excitement of Stanley and Livingstone. Unfortunately, unlike the routes of those two great explorers, the Kin-Lubum path doesn’t touch the thick jungles of the Congo’s equatorial provinces that make up our Earth’s second lung. My road would take me through the rolling hills of the grasslands, beautiful in their own way, but not the heart-stopping, mysterious, lose-yourself greenery of Africa’s deep jungles.
The other factor that turned out less
personally, i couldnt get quite that comfortable on the backs of the trucks
exciting than anticipated was the Congolese officialdom. I had believed all the hype about these being the most corrupt police in Africa, and thought I would be in for some challenging arguments refusing bribes etc. Yes, I am sure some of the nice military and police I met have their moments of deceit, but hanging out with them gives the situation another perspective. Take the example of Charles. He is a ‘special interventions’ police officer recently posted to an area just outside a Tchikapa, a diamond mining town, whose surrounding roads had been described by every person I met as the “most dangerous” in the region, where “bandits kill many people” in attempts to steal diamonds. Getting a hold of a good quality diamond, which can be bought here around $70 and marked up until it is put on the European market at $70 000, is a tempting incentive for poverty-stricken villagers to turn to banditry. However, when I passed through I was assured all was calm even for people on foot, thanks to Charles and this new police presence (although a few hundred kilometers up the road, out of this district, things can still be bad; while I was
talking with Charles a returning trucker reported that the day before “a mama was killed” near the next city). Many people, including myself, question and complain about the effectiveness about Africa’s armed forces, but the facts in this case are that before many locals were killed in this region (not foreigners, who don’t travel by road), and now they aren’t. The problem then becomes that the police are not paid; and the irregular times when the government does give them something its only $50 a month – not nearly enough to even rent a single bedroom in the city. So police ask everyone who pass – the few vehicles, motorcycles, bicycles, even pedestrians (if they are men) – for help. And although it looked pretty obligatory to me, Charles claims that “the money they give us is optional, they want to give because we protect them.” Of course I have also heard many people (the ones paying) complain about these “bribes,” but at the same time, in a country where almost no official taxes are collected, and those that are generally end up in politician’s pockets, supporting the police and other public services directly might just make some sense. All
often you couldnt buy beer or bottled water, and the coca cola test always failed. But there was always Tchichapa, good old Congolese corn whiskey, ranging from 35 to 50%, depending on your luck
over Africa I have spent time with police, military etc and seen how hey live, and except for the overfed members at the top of the food chain, their lives are kept pretty simple. The soldiers at the military base I visited in Kinshasa are housed in old rugged tents; Charles and his crew sleep in huts that are in general less well-built than those of the neighbouring villagers. Sure they often have a few extra pieces of meat in their dinner bowls and a little cash to buy beers, but spending seven days a week, months on end sitting at a remote checkpoint in the bush, always with the same small group of soldiers for company, you would ensure a little extra money for beers too. Call them ‘bribes’ or ‘taxes’, public service in many African countries would fall apart without them. I am not saying I agree – I still have never given in to a demand for money from an official – but blaming Africa’s problems on corruption of the armed forces’ lieutenants and foot soldiers is focusing on the symptoms of the disease instead of a cure.
Pushing conversations to try to find out more
about this ‘disease’, I was surprised to hear an unanticipated public opinion of one of Africa’s most infamous despots. “We liked Mobutu. People listened when he talked, he did things for us. He was a good president, except that he was a dictator…he built things: a stadium, bridges, hospitals…yes he took a lot, but here governments always take a large share for themselves, and he gave too.” This was told to me by a shop owner over a few shots of Tchichapa. Another local vendor added “everyone ate, and there was peace with Mobutu.”
Of course, this is the same Mobutu who took a country with one of the most developed infrastructures at the time of independence and effectively un-developed it. In his book, ‘The Graves are not yet full,’ Bill Berkely explains how Mobutu exponentiated ethnic differences and profited from the resentment that resulted; how his government didn’t differentiate between state and his personal expenses, such as his European villas and his largest scale publicity stunt – 1974’s ‘Rumble in the Jungle’; and how in the early nineties when the cold war had ended and he had lost his American backing, he used the military to instill fear
among the Congolese so they wouldn’t support democracy. That last point also helps to explain why the uneducated, ‘regular folk’ still don’t talk negatively about the government. A trucker I rode with told me “we can’t focus on what the government doesn’t do, we have to be happy with what we get.” A submissive attitude, yes, but when a government makes it a policy to open fire on protestors and make anyone who doesn’t censor their political ideas ‘disappear’, that mentality is understood. And although on paper things are better than during Mobutu’s time, in reality people feel they have gotten worse. An educated Congolese friend I stayed with, whose experiences abroad have given him a considerably more objective view than other locals I had talked to previously, told me he understands why many of his compatriots think positively of their ancient dictator, “they compare their lives during Mobutu’s time to their lives today with Kabila, and relatively, they lived better.” Kabila brought wars that are still ongoing, lost significant amounts of foreign investment (and therefore jobs), and is doing worse than Mobutu did in the department of paying regular wages of public servants. Not to mention the majority of
another 6 hours, blocked
the truck ahead of us wasnt packed tight enough for the mud
Congolese seem to believe he isn’t even Congolese, meaning his interests are not set on developing this country. When things go from bad to worse, thinking of the bad brings on nostalgia.
All the hopeless politics aside, I had fun in the Congo. The people were far too accommodating and hospital to let me lose myself walking along the back roads solo, so instead I found myself hitching rides in the big trucks that are the only vehicles who have a hope to pass the deep sand and rainy season mud that make up hundreds of kilometers of the southbound journey. I was on the road everyday, sometimes taking 24 hours to make it just 10 or 20 kms. We slept in the cab and under the stars, and ate many meals of cassava foufou with cassava leaf sauce for dipping. In tranquil Kananga, the town that marks the halfway point of the journey, I had a much needed two day rest with my friend Jim and his crew. The highlights were Happy Hour at the UN, a delicious homemade Indian curry lunch at a friend’s house (my only cassava free meal for weeks), and being the guest at
then the mud turned to clay
its a little disconcernin bein in a huge truck when its slippin out of control on the side of a ravine
a local ‘Breakfast Club’, where James, part of the crew, provides daily breakfast and playtime for ten or so of his neighbourhood’s less fortunate kids.
I had planned to leave Kananga on the road, but Jim, impressed by seeing a single female overland ‘tourist’ in his isolated town, helped me out further by getting me on the train southbound, where I met the friendly and fun railway employees who cooked me up some dried python (meat dried in the sun can be preserved over two months) and then insisted I stay on all the way to Lubumbashi, provided I didn’t mind sleeping on the floor of the kitchen. So after of 11 days of broken down locomotives, sharing my 5’5 by 1’ “bed” of steel floor, plantains and sacks of corn flour with a 10 year old child, guarded against the chilly nights by the number of people packed into the compartment, we arrived in Lubumbashi.
Although my trip through the DRC, officially the poorest country in the world, hasn’t been the adrenaline pumping, lose-yourself adventure I was hoping for, it has been a hugely rewarding and essential part of my trans-African voyage. Just goes to show once
again, that a low GDP doesn’t have a negative effect on the hospitality and kindness of the population.
Now its through Zambia, hopefully to Mozambique – it’s been too long since I’ve seen a beach
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