Archive for November, 2008


business trip, part one

October 28, 2008 – Nairobi

The logic of the Congo goes something like this: As I live in Bujumbura in Burundi, just 20km from the eastern border with the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), I must fly east all the way to Nairobi, Kenya, before I can catch a flight west across the continent to Kinshasa, the capital of the DRC.

Flights to Nairobi and to Kinshasa are both morning flights so I have to overnight in Kenya on both legs. That gives me a little time to check out Nairobi. The first thing I notice about the Nairobi Kenyatta International Airport is that it has electricity. Not only does the airport have electricity, but it uses an outrageous amount even during the day, mostly on advertising devices. It feels disorienting, a little intrusive – I suddenly miss Burundi.

In the taxi into town, Bernard the driver asks if it’s my first time to Kenya. I say yes. Just a few minutes out of the airport, we pass a wide open field on the left. Bernard turns his head in that direction and says, “Look over there. Giraffes.”

For some reason, I hear “cows” instead so I glance over quickly and mumble my assent.
Bernard is surprised I’m not surprised so he repeats himself.
I look up.“Oh my goodness! Giraffes! What are they doing there? Is that a park? How did they get there??”
“No, they are just there.”
Giraffes. Just there. My. Goodness.
Bernard slows the car slightly, and I stare. They’re beautiful. Their necks, they crane them, smooth and slender and strong. And they are just there, chomping on grass, watching the cars go by. It’s a little overwhelming; I’m not sure what to say. 

“Are there elephants, too?”

I end up spending a good deal of my time in Nairobi in an internet café, repeatedly jamming the printer with all the documents I have to create for the Kinshasa part of my trip. Other highlights include seeing Obama’s mug everywhere and feeling very anxious inside a 24-hour supermarket. The superabundance, the flourescent lights, the squeakiness of tiles, metal racks and too many colors. It makes me think of the Clash song, “Lost in the Supermarket.”

I’m all lost in the supermarket
I can no longer shop happily.
I came in here for the special offer
Guaranteed personality.

What else? There’s also fabulous Indian food and decent coffee in Nairobi. One of the more interesting things for me was walking around the city and noticing parallels with Hong Kong, where I was born and lived for seven years before moving away. Kenya, like Hong Kong, was a British Colony before gaining independence in 1963. For me, they both have the same feel. The ultra-urban landscape and patterns, the similar signage, the suffocating pollution, the streetside newspaper stands – it all added up to a feeling of familiarity, of…Home.

These photos could be of Hong Kong, too (with a little imagination):



But probably not this one:


October 29, 2008 – Kinshasa

I was warned that Kinshasa’s Ndjili Airport is a “nightmare.” My Bradt guidebook (yea, a guidebook on the Congo – good luck!) says it can be “a harrowing experience” and to be prepared for “a shock of the senses the moment you depart from the aircraft.” Such dire warnings – I was totally curious. How bad could it be? What could they possibly do? It doesn’t take long for me to find out.

Congo’s air industry does not have a good safety record at all. I’ve been on planes where people applaud after we have completed a safe landing but Kinshasa is the first airport I’ve landed in where people start clapping before all the wheels have even hit the tarmac. Small victories indeed.

When we disembark, I notice it’s very hot, very humid, and I don’t recognize any of the insignia on the planes. Air Zimbabwe? Really? The airport itself is a Mobutu-era artifact, meaning it’s large, dysfunctional and crumbling. It’s also mustard yellow with sky blue trim – the national colors. As the passengers walk together toward the terminal, everyone is watching. And there are lots of ‘everyone’: policemen, soldiers, baggage handlers, guy with a bicycle – just people everywhere. At the entrance to the terminal, there is a mass of policemen and women blocking the way, checking everyone’s passport and vaccination cards. Other police are nudging the passengers along, yelling out contradictory instructions, messing up lines. Chaos. When I hand over my passport, a hulking policeman with sleek sunglasses and a beret takes it, flips through the pages, then snaps it shut and says, “You wait over there. We have to verify your passport.” There are no computers anywhere. Verify how? Oh oh, “verify” it. I enter the terminal and wait by the side.

I’m not exactly sure what to do next because I’m the first one they’ve held up but within five minutes, an impressive group of obvious foreigners are waiting with me. There’s an Angolan, a Middle Easterner, an Eritrean, a group of Chinese, others. Slowly, each person or group is escorted off after a few questions. And suddenly there I am again, alone, with no passport and a host of soldiers and police circling. All the other passengers have cleared and left. In no time, about eight or nine police and plain clothes security agents have surrounded me. They start interrogating me about my trip, accusing me of this or that. I say I am there to meet with government officials about my organization working in the Congo (true). I say I am the regional head of mission of an American NGO (partially true – I am the only representative in the region at the moment). They respond by asking where my invitation is. It goes on and on. I think I do all right answering them but sometimes the questions are just so ridiculous, I’m not sure how to answer. I make a small mistake by looking at the wrong eye of an officer (it was damaged) and kick myself for it. Things are looking kind of grim and I wonder if I will ever get out of there.

And this is how Barack Obama saved my life.

There are two things I congratulate myself for bringing with me to Africa: my Arsenal soccer jersey and my Obama ‘08 button. I have the button pinned to my shoulder bag so it often hangs behind me. This time at the airport, the bag is hanging to my side. With so many police around, one of them was bound to see the pin. That is what I was hoping for and that is just what happens. It turns out to be the policeman with the damaged eye.

“Eh, Obama! You like Obama?”

I launch into an explanation that I would repeat many times over the next week: I voted for Obama. Barack Obama is a Senator in Illinois and lives in Chicago. I’m from Chicago. Obama supports my organization (true, and so does Senator Durbin, but that’s not relevant right now).

The now very excited policeman is telling his colleagues how much he likes Obama. He is thrilled I support Obama, too. Some of his colleagues are still skeptical; I even have to pull out my license to show them that I lived in Chicago. But soon after, the excited officer vouches for what I say and says, “See, he is from Chicago, he likes Obama. Oh, I like Obama so much! It’s ok, he is an American and he voted for Obama.” My new friend.

He guides me to the passport check point. An officer behind the counter takes my passport. He picks up a pair of glasses and unfolds the one remaining arm to put them on. He uses both hands like the glasses have both arms. They sit on a slant.

The officer tells me it is very difficult in the Congo. I mentally roll my eyes – it’s really awful of me. He is right that it’s miserable there, but I am so innured by the phrase now because I’ve learned that it’s an opening to an overture for money. The officer then asks me what I do and I use the French word for aid worker: “humanitaire.” He leans back and says, “Oh, you work for humanity, but you don’t even help out those are most in need. You only work for Humanity, but you really should help human beings, like me.” I tell him, “I’m so sorry, but unfortunately for you, I’m the kind of humanitarian who only helps women and children, and you’re neither, I believe.” The friendly officer has a good laugh at his colleague and grabs my passport back for me. He doesn’t leave my side again and says he will help me find a taxi because some of the taxi drivers are bad men who cheat. I quietly accept my fate and we move on.

Thirty minutes and several checkpoints later, I have my bag and am looking for a taxi. Turns out the policeman is not much help getting a taxi. How about that, right? The drivers pull out tattered photocopies of a list of prices and destinations. They are asking for $50 to go into town. I tell them the paper looks a bit old, so that must be the old price. What’s the price today?

I finally find a guy who will take me for $20, the right price according to several people in the baggage claim area (people who also couldn’t believe I would take a taxi in the first place). In the front seat is a woman who is also headed into town. I chat a few more moments with the officer, then slip him two one-dollar bills. Is that a bribe? A bribe would have cost much more and would have come earlier. And he would have asked for it. He didn’t, and he really was quite helpful. I would call that a tip (or ‘backpay’). You can decide. Meanwhile, I am getting the hell out of that airport.

As I am about to get in the taxi, a man calls out to me. He points at my Obama button and says, “That, I need that.”
I look at the button, then up at him and smile. “No, friend, you, you want it – I need it.”

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November 2008