Archive for December, 2008


business trip, pt. three: the good bandit

backing up a bit…

November 12-14, 2008 – Bukavu, DRC

I like shaking hands. I like what it can or cannot tell me, the little bit of human contact, the absurd formality of the gesture. Sometimes when I’m leaving the house, I shake hands with the guards. On this particular occasion, it feels different. I have just told the guys I am going to the Congo for a few days. They look at the ground or just around, but not at me when we shake, and the grip lasts a little longer than usual. Not much, but just enough that I can tell they’re thinking something. I ask about it, and Dieudonné tilts his head and shrugs.

“Muri Congo, hari indwano.”

I am about to ask what ‘indwano’ is when I realize it can only be one thing. In the Congo, there is war. That’s what it was – the handshake felt like a farewell.

I say, “Oya, i Goma hari indwano. Ngiye i Bukavu. Hariya, nta indwano iriho.” No, in Goma there is war. I am going to Bukavu. There, there is no war.

I realize the skeptical looks I get have nothing to do with my Kirundi (because it’s perfect?).

“Urugendo rywiza.” Have a beautiful trip.

And I do.

The drive through southwestern Rwanda is one of my favorite so far. But before I get there I have to revisit the scene of an earlier drama. About four months ago, I crossed at this border with my colleague, Sean. We took a bus together but while Sean had no problems getting through immigration into Rwanda, I had to resort to somewhat dubious tactics. I’m wondering if the issue might resurface so I decide I better preempt the issue.

I walk up to a short policeman who has the familiarity of being someone I should avoid.

I ask, “We know each other, no?”

Good, he doesn’t remember me that well. I tell him that yes, we met a few months ago when I passed through here and he helped me a lot. He likes hearing that, and happily stamps my passport. I make a note to shut up before he really does remember. 

There is very little fuss when I pull up to the border barrier. The guard lifts up the gate for me to pass. Where are you going, he asks. To Bukavu, I say.

“Woooh, courage!”

The Rwandan border post only has one officer present. It also only has one visitor present: me. I want to get going so I can arrive in Bukavu before dark, but the Rwandan officer has invoked Obama. However, unlike every other person so far, the officer is not effusive about Obama being elected. Or it seems so at first. We spend a good 20 minutes going over the possible scenarios for disappointment from an Obama presidency. It’s actually kind of refreshing. At the end, however, the officer reveals himself to be an enthusiastic supporter, just more grounded and analytical than others. The border post is a waste of his talents.

After the border, there is an uphill road that bends  and opens upon a glorious panaorama. The road isn’t too good, which gives me reason to slow down to admire the view. In the distance, I can see a shimmering grey veil of rain moving across the bright green tea fields. The sky ahead gets darker. I speed up to beat the rain so I can get to Bukavu before it gets too muddy. As I increase my speed, I glance in the rear view mirror and notice a gray pick-up truck. It recedes as I accelerate.

I’m zipping along, noticing how much quicker Rwandans are than Burundians to react to an oncoming vehicle when I see the gray pick-up behind me again. It is diligently trying to catch up to. It is somewhat effective. Not quite Nabokov’s darting spider in the rearview mirror – maybe more like a manatee. Then I see the truck’s headlights flash, kind of. They are so weak I barely notice them in the daylight. I figure the driver is just trying to pass me. I slow down a bit and the vehicle keeps approaching until we are almost bumper-to-bumper. He makes no attempt to move around me. The lights wink again. I see an arm reach out the driver side and wave at me. It seems to be making the universal gesture for “Pull the hell over, I’ve been chasing you for the last 10km!”

A young man in a hip black t-shirt and a badge hanging around his neck on a chain gets out of the truck. I ask him who he is, and he says he is a police officer. There are a lot of reasons not to believe him but instead I just register curiosity. Huh, I think, in Rwanda, the police have cars.

The officer instructs me to go back to the border post. I offer to follow him but he says no, he will follow me. The drive back is no less scenic and several times, I slow down so the gray truck can catch up.

At the border station, the Immigration Officer that stamped my passport is standing at the top of the steps and smiling as I pull up. I get out of my car, beaming, like we are sharing some private joke. He must have realized what happened once his colleagues took off in tepid pursuit. He reaches out to shake my hand – no problem, no problem, he tells me, excuse me, I didn’t know you had a vehicle. You need an entry card for it.

When the apprehending officer pulls up, he sees me talking to his colleague, who then explains quickly what happened. The young officer is smirking when he gestures me into his office. No problem, no problem.

In the office, there is an Obama photo that someone printed out. I ask who printed it out, and the officer, my new friend, says he did. I smile. Too easy. I should be back on the road in two minutes. I just hope they don’t notice I had to make a “correction” on my insurance documents.

I’m getting near the Congo/Rwanda border now. I see a sign for Ruzizi I, Ruzizi being the river that divides the two countries. I’m not sure where Ruzizi II is, but remembering that I crossed at II last time, I search in vain for the sign to Ruzizi II. Apparently, you can only get to Ruzizi II if you already know where it is. I thought I would give Ruzizi I a try anyway just to compare – boy, was that a mistake.

I get to the border and walk up to the immigration window on the Rwandan side. I answer all the usual questions: Where are you going? For how long? What are you doing there? Do you have a job for me?

I get back in the car and pass the gates. The moment I am through, it’s like I’ve jumped dimensions. The smooth Rwandan road has been transformed into a broken mud-path. Women with giant baskets on their heads line the roadsides. Porters stoop under sacks that say 50kg on them, staggering one by one up the mountainside. Mud mud, everywhere.

At the Congo border station, the chief, Dismas, invites me into his office and chats a while with me. I soothe his incredulity that I am in fact American. He tells me he likes my name, and then asks if I know where his name comes from. I say no and he tells me the Biblical significance of Dismas. Dismas is the thief who is redeemed at the last moment of his life when he repents and reaches out to Jesus. Dismas means the “good bandit.” I say, I’ve met many Dismas’ in the Congo, many ‘good bandits’. This incarnation of Dismas says, yes, it is a good story, and, do not forget, I am Dismas, the good bandit. I’ll bet you are!

Once I escape from Dismas’ office, I realize “escape” is never that easy. I walk back up the muddy road, everyone stopping what they’re doing to stare at me. I climb into my truck and have just enough time to put on my seat belt when suddenly the passenger side door and the back seat doors pop open all at once and three men climb in. They’re laughing and chatting, like they don’t even notice me.

I barely manage, “What are you doing?!?!”
“We need a ride into town.”
“Good, go find a taxi. Who are you???”
“We work for the government. It is very muddy today so we do not want to walk.”
“No, get out of my car!”
“It is not far”/”You can drop us in town”/(laugh laugh laugh) Repeat five times.
I only relent when I look over to the man in the passenger seat and notice he is cupping a new Barbie-pink plastic cell phone in his hands. Is that your new phone, I ask?
Ha ha, no, it is a toy for my daughter. I think, that phone must get to his daughter. Finally, I say, “Ok, if you think this is a taxi, I am charging each of you 300 francs (about 60 cents).”
The guys look at one another, unsure how to react. Ha ha?

I stay at Hotel La Roche, which could be loosely translated as “The Roach Hotel.” The last time I stayed here with Sean and they stuck us up in an attic double. This time I manage even worse: an attic single with exposed panels of insulation (asbestos?) and a ceiling that makes me reconsider verticality as an evolutionary advantage.


Down in the courtyard, I stand around to admire the lake and the bizarre elephant and bald eagle sculptures the hotel just doesn’t seem to want to get rid of. Total class.


I recall the last time I was here, a helicopter landed on the lawn where I’m standing. Lake Kivu is just amazing.


As I’m admiring the lake view, two other guests start talking to me. Inevitably, we talk about the violence raging in Goma, just across the lake. Remembering that Laurent Nkunda’s rebels briefly took Bukavu in 2004, I ask if that will happen this time. The men give a surprising answer. What is happening in Goma, they say, is the Americans’ fault. And the rebels will kill all Americans. Then they will come here and kill everyone. But not you.
Not me? Just me? But I’m American, I say.
Oh, they will kill you then. Ha ha. Obama! 

In the last six months, I’ve been told I will be killed more than in all previous 27 years combined (junior high doesn’t count). I don’t take most of the remarks very seriously, but no matter how many times I hear it, it still gives me pause; I feel my smile freeze up and become awkward. Dying is not really the issue; it is much more likely I will get flattened by a car/truck/Land Cruiser/motorcycle/cow. Rather, it’s knowing that someone would actually *want* to kill me and also knowing that being killed by people with intent here does not simply mean dying, but something much worse. It’s just not a very happy thought. The conversation ends soon after.

So I’m here in Bukavu to wrap up registration for Heartland. I have a handwritten letter from George in Kinshasa and a phone number for his contact. But first, I give George a call to let him know that I did make it to Bukavu, as promised. He recognizes my voice instantly (I’m still always surprised when that happens). I’m equal parts delight at speaking to George and amazement that the call actually made it across the Congo. Don’t worry, George tells me, you will get registered. It will happen because I am working for you.

Two more calls, several quick meetings, and yes, George, Heartland is registered to begin operations in the Congo. Thank you, friend.

I have one other objective in mind. It’s kind of a long shot given how I only have two hours left in Bukavu before I have to leave to get back to Burundi at a reasonable hour. I have a Burundi driver’s license already, but the Congo requires another one and people are starting to catch on that my Illinois card is not the International License, despite my assurances (“See, it’s in English. And that’s me.”). As Bukavu is the provincial capital, I should be able to get a license here. On the way to the Bureau de Roulage (the Office of Rolling?), a policeman stops me and demands to see my license. I tell him I am on my way to get one. He tells me he can help because his dad works in the Bureau de Roulage. Uh huh. I tell him I like his helmet.

At the Bureau de Roulage, I reach the second floor and find a man sitting at a small desk. I ask him about getting a license and how long it would take. He takes my money and tells me he’ll call in an hour when it’s ready. Even I find that too easy, so I ask again.
Can you do it?
Yes, no problem, he replies. The money goes in the front shirt pocket and I’m relieved. It’ll get done because he’s going to do it himself. It’ll get done because he just got paid.
I’m not surprised when about two hours later, he calls me and asks me to meet him on the street corner. 

The document is far better than I had ever hoped. I had seen the licenses in Kinshasa and they were shiny laminated things, but in Bukavu, they do not waste. My license displays its origins proudly: “Republic of Zaire: Unity, Work, Progress.” It could also read – “Republic of Zaire: Best. Souvenir. Ever.”

On my way out of town, I pull up to the policeman that stopped me earlier. I flash my new license and he says, yes, that is good. It is okay now.

The drive back to Bujumbura is a little harrowing and annoying, not least because I can’t find my way out of Bukavu’s muddy back roads. I also  have to contend with a completely inept policeman who sends me the wrong way. There isn’t too much else I really want or need to say about the rest of the drive. I did take a self-portrait along the way though. It was completely dark when I took the photo but the miracle of flash photography comes through once again. (I realize, maybe this might have been the that photo? The one where, as I’m holding the camera up, I wonder if it will find its way to people that need to see it.)



thanksgiving follow-up

november 28, 2008

I have so many leftovers, I have a second Thanksgiving (eventually a third) with my security guards, Lareunt and Dieudonné. We each have some beer and a heaping plate of rice, green curry, sweet potatos, and brussel sprouts that one of my guests brought the night before but which I didn’t have time to make.

As we’re eating, and as they’re laughing at my Kirundi, I notice they’re occasionally stabbing at one of the brussels sprouts, but not with any real conviction. I love the little guys (and they’re prety small – the brussels sprouts, please, not the guards), so I casually ask Laurent what he liked or didn’t like.

People sometimes say Burundians aren’t very direct in their opinions, but Laurent does not hesitate. “I didn’t like those,” he says, pointing at the only thing left on his plate. And Dieudonné? “No, me neither.”

But Dieudonné catches himself. It’s not that he didn’t like them, he explains, but it’s his first time eating them, and when Burundians eat something for the first time, they only eat a little. Why is that, I ask. Dieudonné thinks for a second: we only eat a little because when it’s something new we don’t know what is going to happen next.




november 27, 2008

Thanksgiving turned into kind of a big deal this year. I guess all the Congo adventures make me appreciate my home a little more (and hungry). As my escapades increase in intensity, so, too, do my domestic activities. I cooked the whole day with my house chief, Léonidas, who also pulled in Emmanuel, my gardener.

The U.N. didn’t import turkeys for its staff this year so there were very few bird-based dinners. I don’t know the first thing about preparing turkeys anyway so I had about 20 people over and made Thai food.

Hummus is not Thai food, but it’s pretty damn good:


I wanted to keep the pineapples to serve other things in. The hordes of fruit flies convinced me I was being an idiot.



business trip, part two: the mamas and the papas

Kinshasa, DRC. October 29 – November 4, 2008 

The drive in from the airport is spectacular, with Mobutu-era monuments rising up to dominate the scenery. From afar, they look magnificent and would fit into any global capital. Take the sports stadium, for example:


(I will post a photo of Bujumbura’s national “stadium” sometime. I believe you can get in by climbing over the wall. You could also just pay the $1.50 ticket price.)

But if Chicago is “the city that works,” Kinshasa is definitely “the city that could have worked.” Whatever it was in the 70’s, it is now a big mess of rolling brownouts, water outages, gigantic craters, devestating poverty and the occasional glimpse of grandeur and bygone decadence.

This is the cavernous post office with a sign on the front that reads: “October 9, 2008 – World Post Office Day. Universal Postal Network – Stay Connected”


Inside, the space is so vast, the electricity so non-functional that I can barely see the one or two workers behind the service windows, heads on folded hands, napping.

There are signs of progress though. On the main road into town, I witness a mob scene: a large crowd is gathered around a car. Two armed soldiers are standing next to it arguing with people while a man is screaming at them, stabbing his finger into the chest of one of the soldiers. Before I can turn to to the woman in the front seat and ask, “Mama, is it always like this in Kinshasa?” She tells me, “Tsssst, it is always like this, everyday.” I think about what I just saw and am actually really surprised. The mama again anticipates my thought, “In the past, you could not talk to a soldier like that. They would just shoot you. Now it is like this everyday.” She laughs. 

You might have noticed I addressed a stranger as my mother. But instead of Monsieur and Madame, that’s just what you say: Mama and Papa. I don’t think it’s a Belgian legacy. I find the practice so endearing I get in the habit of calling everyone, even younger people, ‘Mama’ or ‘Papa’. And, yes, people called me ‘Papa’ right back. Strange!
“Bonjour Papa!”
“Excuse, Papa!”
But it’s not just a parental bond we share – we are one gigantic family – there are also ‘Brothers’ and ‘Sisters’ and ‘Petits’. A Congolese man later tells me how awkward it is to go to a bar to pick up girls that he will call ‘Sister’ the whole evening. (In French, you just can’t do too much with soeur.)

We pass by the Patrice Lumumba statue, which is kind of tragic. It’s massive and shiny, planted outside the town center facing away with vast negelected spaces all around. It’s like he’s holding forth while the country falls apart behind him and no one is really listening. Not just “like” that.

In town now. I am stopped by a fortuitous encounter. 

Larry Devlin was the CIA Chief of Station in the Congo when it first became independent. He just published a book called, Chief of Station Congo, which I recommend highly, especially when read as a complement to Ludo De Witte’s The Assassination of Lumumba. The two accounts overlap but with intriguing divergences. In Chief of Station, Devlin recounts a story of how he acquired and drove a Volkswagen Beetle around Leopoldville (now Kinshasa). I think I found Devlin’s car.

Photo of Larry Devlin’s car, circa 2008:


I am so inspired that I end up buying my own Bug (it comes with a crocodile):


In Devlin’s account, you get the sense that with a little savvy, you can convince just about anyone to do anything in Kinshasa (alternatively, anything can happen despite one’s intentions). I put this vague obeservation to the test when I see a soldier on a stool, slouched against the wall just outside the port area, his rifle on his lap. I slowly walk up to him, looking around like I didn’t expect to see him there. When I reach him, we exchange greetings, I look around some more. I glance down at him and offer him a cigarette. Then I lean against the wall next to him and just hang out for a few minutes. As he puffs away, I get a closer look at his rifle and pretend to be really interested in it. I ask him if he’s scared to have it. He just tilts his head downward to look at the gun. No, it is good. Oh, it’s your friend, I say. I look carefully over the whole thing; I want to know about it, how it works, demystify it. And that there, what is that, I ask casually, pointing at one of the few moving parts. He grins at me, lifts up the rifle and snaps the lever up – safety off. Maintenant, c’est bon. I nod slowly and point over to another lever. Manuel. I see the clip release; I figured that one out already. And that’s pretty much it on an AK-47, one of the sturdiest and most reliable machines man has ever built; it just happens to be a machine for killing. Funny, that.

(HQ – I don’t think I included this part in my monthly report, but don’t worry, this was around 1 p.m., so the lunch hour – ‘personal time’.)

There are probably two main questions on the reader’s mind right now: What is Jeff doing in Kinshasa anyway? And, who is Bahilo Star? I’ll tackle these hard questions in the same order.

Just as I have been doing in Burundi, I also have to register my organization, Heartland Alliance, with the Congolese government so we can begin implementing our project(s). My plan is pretty simple: show up at the Ministry of Justice and…um. In all, I have two and a half days to pull this off before the weekend and then my departure early in the week so I can get back to Bujumbura for an Election Day Party.

I get to the Ministry about two hours after my arrival into Kinshasa. Within a half-hour at the Ministry, my non-plan has already far exceeded expectations. While speaking to….someone (who is he?) who claims to be an officer in the NGO department, I notice a dapper old fellow watching our interaction with some interest. I am explaining why I’m there when the man steps forward and introduces himself as George. He tells me that, in fact, he is the person that approves NGO files at the Ministry. We discuss briefly what I’m trying to do in the Congo and he draws up a list of the documents he needs to process my request. George tells me to come back tomorrow morning with the documents. I go down the list, checking off each one that I already have with me. George is impressed. I get fast-tracked. I don’t even have to mention Obama. Yet. The checklist gets an official stamp and I’m told we could be done by the end of the week. I happily leave the Ministry and go looking for ice cream.

Instead, I find Bahilo Star. Just who is Bahilo Star? This is Bahilo Star (and me, on the right):


White pants in muddy Kinshasa. I love the necklace, the hat, the shirt, everything. Bahilo (or Papa Star, I guess) is the kind of guy that can make someone famous. He has a TV show for music videos focusing on upcoming artists. That makes him a very influential figure. We talk on some street corner for a while and I get lots of music recommendations from him; those recommendations now make my rides around Bujumbura much more exciting. As we part, Bahilo tells me he will give a shout out (“Yo, mon frère, Jeff, heh heh!”) on his show. I never did find a TV to confirm if he did or not, but I’m not taking chances: Hey, Bahilo, ça va, mon frère!

Friday, October 31, 2008

Friday morning now – I’m back at the Ministry of Justice. I bring the documents, everything gets stamped and then I am just hanging out in George’s office. There is no electricity so he had to send out a worker to make photocopies of my file receipt. There are two other men and  one woman in the office. George tells me he has worked for the Ministry for over 15 years. I look at the dingy office without even a computer, just innumerable stacks of files and wonder how he could enjoy this. But he does and I can see why. He and his colleagues joke and tease each other – it reminds me of a barber shop (or the depictions of one). Roaring laughter and thigh-slapping. I am particularly enamored by the little guy in the fedora. As we are wrapping up, George tells me the next step will be to get me the letter of authorization to present to the provincial authorities in my target areas. That would be in Bukavu in eastern Congo (guess what the next post is about). George asks me to come back again – this time on Saturday morning. I don’t understand him at first – working on Saturday – a government bureaucrat in Africa? He tells me he will be there, just for me, because he is now committed to my file and he will see it through. It’s kind of inspiring; I really want to believe it will all be over in just three days.

At night, I attend a pretty wild Halloween Party where there are taffy apples, s’mores, meat-on-a-stick, and…sushi? (I almost forget this part – it reminds me how much there is to say about Kinshasa, how I’m probably leaving out so much more. It’s kind of a shame, but I will mention that what my friend Kate said is right: it really is a privilege to get to see and take in some of this crazy town.)

Saturday, November 1, 2008

The problem with Saturday mornings is that it’s a lot harder to find a taxi. I don’t know this, of course. I also don’t know why the money exchange guy is not around at 9 a.m. so I’m stuck negotiating with taxi drivers using one-dollar bills, which no one would take. Finally, I get a taxi to take me to the Ministry building. I am very clear I only have U.S. dollar bills. The driver agrees. Halfway through the drive, he says, “Ok, 1500 Congolese Francs (just under three dollars). I tell him that I only have American dollars, like we had discussed two minutes ago. More confusion, more explanation. Ok. U.S. dollars.

When we arrive at the Ministry, I get out of the car and hand over the bills. The driver won’t take them. Then the passenger in the front seat (it’s a shared taxi) says the driver won’t accept U.S. currency. I insist firmly on our agreement and also on the fact that I just don’t have Congolese francs. The passenger says, no, if you want to pay in the dollars, the rate is half the usual, so you have to pay more. More back and forth and now I’m really irritated. What I’m afraid of though is that the other taxi drivers and bystanders will insert themselves into the “discussion.” I don’t really feel like dealing with a mob on my Saturday morning. Finally, I just drop the bills into the driver’s hand and walk away. The men in the car start yelling at me but I’ve had enough. The driver starts honking at me. I move closer to the parked cars so there’s no temptation to run me over.

The driver calls out, “Ok, ok, five dollars!” As if almost doubling the fare is a concession to me. I turn around abruptly and walk back to the car, hand over a 200 franc bill (about 40 cents) and leave without another word.

At the Ministry, I find George alone in the office. He tells me we are just waiting for the all-important letter. I say, great, that’s what I’m here for. He leaves the office for ten minutes and comes back to tell me that, um, in fact, his boss refuses to sign this letter. What? But I thought you were in charge. Didn’t you check on this before? It turns out there is disagreement within the Ministry itself about how what the actual procedure is. For some reason, the government (and the boss) is demanding that I establish an office first and implement a project so they can assess the organization’s operations before they will give me the letter of authorization. But, I say, how can I do those things without permission from the government? That doesn’t make sense.
The boss seems taken aback. Well, I guess, that would be logical, he says.

So we finally agree to pass on the responsibility to someone else. George writes me a letter to his counterpart in Bukavu, the capital of South Kivu, and he tells me that I have to go there right away to get the governor’s authorization. (If this is all very confusing and tedious, believe me, it’s much worse than it seems.) George puts the letter in an envelop and tells me to leave for Bukavu as soon as I get back to Bujumbura. I promise that I will.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

With nothing else left to do for the registration for the day, I take a few walks around the town. My guidebook says to generally avoid the Presidential Palace and the Mausoleum for Laurent Kabila, the former president who was assassinated in 2001. It goes on to say that walking around could be fine, but photos are definitely out of the question. Personally, I find the book unreliable and inconsistent in many of its recommendations. But I am grateful that there is a guidebook on the Congo at all, so I can’t complain too much. In this case, I chat with the soldiers a little before I wander off; they are much more interested in stayng in the shade than in what I am doing. Here’s a photo of the Mausoleum:


I’m astonished by the bizarre motif of the four dismembered hands with chains around the wrists. The use of the dismembered hand as a symbol pops up a lot on sculptures, on fabrics, and I’m surprised there isn’t greater sensitivity about it given the history of the Congo and the rubber trade (cf. Adam Hochschild’s gruesome but highly readable account in King Leopold’s Ghost).

The soldiers guarding the actual tomb invite me to take photos as I walk around. I decline. One, I don’t like photographing gravestones and two, what they really mean is, give us a good reason to ask you for some cash for a beer. 

I’m interested in one other feature of Kinshasa: its river. I hear the best place to view it is the Beach.

The Beach is the launching point for boats between Kinshasa and Brazzaville, capital of the other Congo. By now, I have made four or five attempts to get up close to the river. Each time, I am stopped by a port official, a soldier, or a gaggle of security guards. Each time, there are threats and gestures and more threats. It’s all so dramatic.

This time, as I am walking through the customs station, either side of which women sell dried or not-dried fish, corn flour cakes and a vicious looking chili sauce, a man steps in front of me and insists on leading me. I tell him I didn’t ask for his help so he shouldn’t expect anything of me. He says no problem, no problem and continues to guide me (more like walk vaguely in front of me). We go all the way through the port gates while I look around to take in the bustle. We are about 100 meters from the boat launch and the shore when I notice out of the corner of my eye that my “guide” has suddenly veered off without a word. I brace myself; I know exactly what is coming next:

“Toi, là! Arrête! Police!”

A large soldier is pushing his way past the crowd, one hand held out in the universal “Stop” gesture, closing quickly. It’s a farce. Half the people are trying to avoid confrontations like this, walking every which way, while the other half are running up to the new arrivals. Chaos. Whistles being blown, arms swinging in wild gestures, commands, greetings – just as a legendary port should be.

I get a shrill lecture about wandering around at national borders. A goat saunters by. I catch about a third of the lecture before I just turn around and walk out, ignoring the soldier and a customs officer who wanted me to pay some sort of tax for not having crossed the border (despite having arrived at it.).

I never did get to hang out at the river’s edge. There are supposedly three or four observation points but none turn out to be welcoming. I should have just taken a boat across the river to Brazzaville and then come right back. Oh well. Next time.

And lastly, can there be a story about the Congo without a mention of style?

While in the Kenya airport waiting for my flight to Kin, I am sitting near a Congolese couple. The man is in a skin-tight mustard yellow shirt and a newsie’s cap. As if that isn’t odd enough, I notice he still has the price tag on his shirt and it is sticking straight out of the back of his neck, standing up vertically. I walk over to them. I can’t help asking about it.

The man first thinks I’m telling him there is an insect on his shirt and brushes his hand on his shoulder. His companion then looks over but doesn’t seem to see anything wrong. Does she not notice the giant tag poking up from his collar?
I finally just point my finger right at the tag and say, “This thing.”
The man feels for the back of his neck and grabs the tag. The couple have a quick discussion – the woman explains what I was pointing at the whole time, and the man laughs. “That’s the style,” he tells me. “That’s how people dress in Kinshasa today.”
It’s hilarious. I love it. I say, ok.
Standing there, I then kind of look around and say rather loud, “It’s just that if someone saw me with a tag hanging from my shirt, especially in an airport, they might think I stole it because they would say I should have taken off the tag. What do you think?”
The man laughs some more: “No, no, it’s ok, it’s fashion.”
“It’s fashion.” Discussion over. I sit back down.

Some thirty minutes later, I’m poking around my bag, reading about my imminent arrival in Kinshasa (“a nightmare…..a total disaster”) when I notice the couple is having a heated discussion. Not Swahili, so probably Lingala. There’s some French mixed in. I pretend to keep reading. The woman occasionally points to the tag. Something something il a raison something. The man looks hurt but the woman doesn’t stop. The man finally concedes, his shoulders droop, his head hangs. He leans forward, fumbles around the space behind his neck and slowly slides the tag under the shimmering mustard yellow fabric.

I would feel a little remorseful at stifling his style if I wasn’t 100% sure that the tag would be standing proud again even before the plane landed in Kin (correct). There is one other thing that I just don’t get though: how do you wash the clothes?

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December 2008