(Synopsis of part 1: Congo has been ravaged for 200 years, and now is completely destabilized with officials on the take, few westerners, and the only info available to the outside world are horror stories about beheadings, rampant pillage in the streets, officials out of control, and no rule of law. I’m landing at the airport with huge butterflies in my stomach, and all my worldly possessions in the hold of the plane waiting to somehow get through customs.)
Everything I had read and heard about DRC said that the airport was the worst. The customs agents and passport control are so corrupt and inefficient that you were bound to get fleeced alive getting through. There is apparently some sort of ritual and rules to paying ‘matabiches’ (bribes). Never pay the first person who asks for one, as he is certainly just a peon, and when his supervisor inevitably gets involved, he will be insulted that you paid a peon a bribe, and will demand a larger payoff for himself. When you inevitably have to pay off HIS boss, the cycle starts again.
Instead, its best to avoid paying the first or second person, and wait until you are taken to some office somewhere where the person with the bloodshot eyes and flat stare is obviously ‘the one’. I had no idea of the amount of a respectful bribe, and was told to keep my large bills hidden and only pull out smaller bills at the appointed time. All this was new to me, and I was not looking forward to figuring it out, in French, at the airport. While sweltering in the 100-degree temps and 99% humidity. Hopefully, the school had sent someone to help me with all this. Hopefully.
As we approached Kinshasa, I could see the landscape below. To my surprise, there was no rainforest as I was expecting; instead it was flat, dry savannah scrubland. The largest trees were in isolated pockets in small river gulleys, while most of the flatland between the gulleys was open dusty fields with scattered clusters of square bamboo huts. Occasionally there was a cinderblock hut, unpainted, often with several bamboo huts around it. Footpaths and dirt roads spiderwebbed across the grassland, and one long, paved road tracked across the ground and wound its way out of sight into the haze. There were few cars on the paved road, and many people walking. I could not see the big Congo River, as it was on the other side of the plane.
Just as I was wondering where Kinshasa city was, the runway appeared below and the plane touched down. Because of the high temps and thin air, flights land at a VERY high speed: much faster than any plane I had ever been on. We raced down the runway for miles once we were on the ground, brakes grinding and engines screaming in reverse. I later found out that the airport in Kin is (or once was) the longest commercial runway in the world, as Mobutu had it extended so Concorde could land there whenever he rented it. I also learned that planes often have blowouts from the high-speed landings, the hot tarmac, and poor maintenance.
We rolled up to the terminal building, and I got my first real view of a deep African airport. The building is a long, two-story cinderblock structure. Unpainted, no fancy windows, no big ‘Welcome to Kinshasa, get your bribes ready’ sign, no fancy anything. Just a big, unpainted, military-looking building surrounded by red-bereted guards holding AK47s. After almost twenty minutes sitting in the closed aircraft, air conditioners off and doors closed, an old-fashioned gangplank was rolled up to the plane and the door was opened. The air that rushed in was cool and moist!! I was shocked, and in fact, when I got to the door to get off, it was incredibly pleasant. Relief #1.
At the bottom of the gangplank were several well-dressed people with signs or colored vests. Protocols. In order to get through the gauntlet of officials, incoming dignitaries are provided with Protocols who ‘grease the skids’ for them and take care of the immigration and bribe details. My seatmate, a local businessman’s son who had grown up in Kin, was genuinely surprised that his Protocol was not waiting at the airplane, and said that it was a bad omen. He started walking toward an entrance labeled “VIPs” and several AK47-wielding guards descended on him and aimed him at the “Estranger” entrance. He argued unsuccessfully for a few minutes, then sidled back next to me as the guards gave him the hairy eyeball, which made me uncomfortable. However, as we approached the terminal building, his protocol came running out the building, took his arm, and they went in a side door and I never saw him again. Now I was alone, which made me even more uncomfortable.
When I entered the hot and steamy entrance hall, there were 2 long lines leading up to the Passport Control windows, each manned by a bored-looking, well armed soldier. Several other soldiers with different uniforms were strolling along the lines looking everyone over, occasionally taking a passport and thumbing roughly through the pages. I avoided making any eye contact with them as I waited, hoping my protocol would come find me soon. Different protocols were coming in past the Passport Control, picking their clients out of line, and taking them through with a cursory smile or a few words with the Guards. Apparently, there are ‘levels’ of protocols; the highest level ones can come right out to the planes, the next level can meet you on the tarmac, but not at the foot of the gangplank, the next level meets you in the line and takes you through, the next level meets you immediately after Passport Control, and the last level, I suppose, meets you in the parking lot or your kitchen or something. Still no sign of mine.
Eventually, after 2/3 of the people had been plucked from the line (and one poor Lebanese man had been yelled at, pushed against the wall by the soldiers, then dragged off through a green door to god-knows-what), a man caught my eye through a side window that looked on to the baggage carousels. It was my Protocol, who apparently did not rank high enough to get through to the passport control window. Relieved, I passed him my baggage claim tickets (all 35 of them) and gestured for him to come to passport control and assist me. He looked at the guards nervously, and shook his head to indicate that he didn’t have the rank. I looked stern and insisted, yes dammit, come help me through this. He decided that appeasing his client took priority, so he boldly walked past the guard, who completely ignored him. His relief was apparent, and I learned another lesson: hired locals will do whatever you insist in order to make sure you are satisfied with their efforts. An artifact from years of white domination that I’m not sure is such a bad thing.
The passport control guard asked me a few questions in French, (name, country of origin, passport) which I managed to handle, but when he asked something unintelligible, I did not know what to do. My protocol tried to translate, but I could see that the guard was starting to see $$, so I started wondering how to handle this. I pulled a piece of paper out of my pocket, expecting him to write a number on it, and slid it to him. It turned out to be the business card of the school where I was working, and the guard looked at it. “TASOK?” he asked. “Oui, je suis en professeur a TASOK.” Suddenly, he smiled. Through my Protocol, he said his cousin worked at the school, welcome to Congo, have a nice day, go on through, next person.
Wow. Welcome to Congo. Have a Nice Day. Relief #2.
The protocol grabbed me, hustled me through the next guards, and took me to the exit door. He said he’d take care of my bags and to wait in the van that he pointed out in the parking lot. When we passed through the last door to the parking lot, we were suddenly swarmed by dozens of men in green jumpsuits grabbing towards me saying “Patron! Patron”. They are baggage handlers, all begging for work. My protocol pointed out 5 or 6 of them, dragged them inside, and left me alone outside. I pushed my way through the handlers and went to the shade of the van and waited.
An hour, another hour.
Eventually, I started seeing my boxes coming out on the heads of the porters, like a scene from the start of an 18th century safari. One by one, my boxes were hauled out and deposited in a pile behind the van. As a crowd of curious onlookers started gathering around this treasure, I got nervous and told one of the porters to stay and guard my boxes. Suddenly, there were 4 porters forming a human shield, pushing people away, yelling for folks to give way and make space. I realized that, as a white guy, these folks were ready and willing to do whatever I asked. Cool.
I started counting the boxes and checking them off on my inventory. One porter took the clue, and started digging through the pile and yelling out the inventory numbers in French as I checked it off my list. It was great, I felt like a real Bwana organizing the crew, and this guy slipped right into the role of head porter, and between us we counted and located every single box. Nothing was missing, although many had been opened and gone through. Later I found that not one thing had been taken. The porters cheerfully helped load the van and truck that came along (with my boss, who is an old friend and who was WAY impressed with how fast I seemed to have gotten the hang of the airport), and before we knew it, we were on our way. I gave the porters a few dollars each, which I later discovered was a small fortune for them. It worked out well, because when I came through the airport again a few months later, the Head Porter guy remembered me, shook my hand and carried my bags for free. The Protocol told me he had to pay about $100 in bribes to get my stuff through, which the school covered for me.
The drive from the airport to Kinshasa was a real eye-opener. I was feeling freshly relieved at the weather, and that getting through customs was so manageable, and certainly feeling a bit out-of-body about actually being there. But my senses were overwhelmed. The road was beat; potholes and dirt patches all over, and packed with cars everywhere. There are no road rules, and cars swerve in and out, cutting each other off, horns blowing and hands gesturing wildly. The majority of vehicles are old, beat up VW vans packed with 15 or 20 people hanging from doors and windows, or giant 10-wheeled trucks (in theory; often 4-wheels in practice) loaded sky-high with hay or bamboo and covered with people riding on the hood, the bumpers, the fenders, buried 2 or 3 deep in the back, or hanging off the side. Passenger cars are older Mazdas and Toyotas, all looking like they had been salvaged from an auto wrecking yard, with broken windshields, missing doors and fenders, and all dented and bashed up. I still marvel that these cars even run, and the roadside is littered with them on jacks, axles and drivetrains in various states of repair as the owners go off in search of parts.
The sides of the roads were packed with people walking; thousands and thousands of people, all in colorful, clean clothes, carrying baskets or bunches of plants or folded up reams of cloth on their heads, dozens of school kids in matching brown uniforms, groups of women in beautiful wraparound dresses or men in fashionable sport coats or t-shirts emblazoned with sport team logos. Market stalls lined the road almost nonstop for the entire 20km drive to the school, and people were selling everything from fruits and veggies (pineapples, mangoes, sugarcane, papaya, spinach, tomatoes, cucumbers…) to clothes, furniture, auto parts (rusted and probably picked up off the road), drums, tapes, and anything else you can imagine. Article 13 in action. The overall effect was of a busy, busting city of clean, cheerful people doing their daily business at market stalls.
Every tree shaded a group of people talking, laughing, or just relaxing. I thought of English country folk in London in the 16th century, and wondered where all the poverty was.
Everywhere we went, hoards of people would stare at the van, point at me, and say “blanc” or “Mun’dali” for “look at the white guy!” I definitely stood out, but never felt threatened.
The city itself actually looks kind of modern, but run down. There are several large building (over 20 stories) and many blocks of 3-4 story buildings. Most look a bit bombed-out at first, and there is a feeling of trash everywhere, but in actuality, its just that the streets are so beat up, the sidewalks are dirt, the trees all need trimming and the buildings need painting, so the place has a very unkempt feel to it, but over time you stop noticing it and it actually feels rather somewhat normal. I had the same feeling the first time I wandered through a rural Alabama town in the summer once, with the lawns overgrown, the trees hanging down on the road, and the fences and houses in need of a coat of paint.
As we drove down the main drag (“Avenir du 30 Juin”, named in commemoration of the day the CIA-murdered president was elected in the early 60s) and crossed a small bridge over a gully, I saw to the right the Congo River for the first time. It was not as big as I expected, being only about 2 km wide there, and on the other side was Congo-Brazzaville on a low bluff. But even from the car I could see how fast the river flowed. There were large grass mats from the jungle upstream covering the water in vast patches, and they were cruising down the river faster than the car I was in was going. Near shore, several pirogues were working their way upstream or drifting down with the current, and I caught a quick glimpse of a fisherman tossing a net over the side of his pirogue. Then the river flashed out of view and we headed inland up a hill. Off to the right was a huge fence with cages inside. I was told that it was a presidential zoo during Mobuto’s time, but when the pillage came with the fall of the government, the guards ate all the animals.
Then, a short wall appeared on the left side of the road, and a gate appeared that said “The American School of Kinshasa, gate 5.”
I was home.