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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