Life in Congo 5: What a Long, Strange Trip…

Last year at this time, travel restrictions within the city limits of Kinshasa had just been lifted, but no one was fooled since rogue bands of soldiers and police were robbing people at impromptu roadblocks. Midnight to 5 am was the ‘witching hour’ when anyone on the roads in town was declaring themselves to be fair game, and everyone acknowledged this unwritten law. The country and world were spectators to a mental debate as Joseph Kabila was deciding between fulfilling his inherited role as President, or yielding to the cultural temptation to become dictator (like his father did, leading to his assassination by disgruntled bedfellows). The World Bank, the UN, the USA, European powers and private individuals were waiting in the wings with billions of dollars, watching to see which way he went. The Rebel armies in the east were also jockeying for position as he debated, and NGOs tried their best to chip away at the mountain of disorder as national infrastructures stumbled forward under their own bureaucratic momentum. People scratched out a living selling chickens, grubs and puppies on the roadside, stores opened and closed within weeks, businesses popped up and failed overnight, garbage piled up in the streets, villages hunkered down and anyone with any sense at all stayed at home and kept the windows and doors locked.

It was during this time last year that cabin fever hit, and some friends and I decided to get as far out of Kinshasa as fate and the roads would allow. The thought of spending 2 years cooped up in a claustrophobic city was already eating away my sense of adventure in coming here, and I truly wanted to see some of the real Congo beyond the safety of our compound. We found a website for a wilderness park called “Bombo Lumene”, which said it was 120km east of Kinshasa on ‘newly paved’ roads. The website had no date to indicate how current its claims were, so we figured it could mean anything. Nonetheless, the next Saturday, four of us piled into a car and headed east on the only road out of town to see what we would see.

We got an early start and decided to take a shortcut around downtown, and although we had all been on the route before, we were hopelessly lost within minutes. We found ourselves on a tangled web of narrow dirt city roads crammed with thousands of brightly-dressed people, walking everywhere like ants swarming on an anthill. Although poverty is rampant in Kinshasa, people take immense pride in dressing very formally and neatly when they are in public, so there were men in handmade 3-piece suits, women in bright African dresses, and younger men in clean, pressed T-shirts. No adults go barefoot if they can afford not to, and no one wears short pants. There were also lots of less fortunate folks who could not afford nice clothes, wrapped in dirty rags and torn clothing, many of them hobbling along on stumps of legs using pieces of scrap wood as homemade crutches, or with clubs for hands from injuries sustained in the war or from a myriad of birth defects that the civilized world has learned to foresee and prevent. The streets were jammed with broken-down cars and washed-out potholes, and rimmed with miles and miles of open-air stalls selling cell phone cards, shoes, vegetables, furniture, used tires and anything else imaginable. People generally stopped and looked at us as we drove through, so we uneasily locked our doors and navigated using the high buildings of downtown on the horizon as a guiding landmark. Eventually, we found our way past the big stadium where Ali fought the ‘Rumble in the Jungle’, and out to the recognizable main road and were back on our way, feeling relieved and a little embarrassed at our fear.

Within 5 miles of passing the airport on the eastern extreme of Kinshasa, we were stopped by a long queue of parked cars in the road. With no idea of what was causing the bottleneck, we waited until the heat got really uncomfortable, and I got out and walked to the front of the line and inquired of the soldier there. I barely could understand his reply (not being particularly fluent in French at that time), but it had something to do with a bridge that was down. I went back to the car and told my friends, who were by now surrounded by about 50 kids with big eyes, dirty, torn clothes, various sores and deformities, and all with hands out, palms up, saying “Money, gimme money, mun’dali” (mun’dali is Lingala for ‘white guy’). Like money would have done anything for them; they needed food and medical care. Some had climbed up to sit on the hood of the car, and several had pressed against the side windows, leaving smudges of dirt from their hands and faces. The consensus among the women in the car was to turn back for the familiarity of the campus, but the men vetoed, probably in an effort to regain some self-pride after our nervous drive through the urban zone, so we sat in the 100-degree temps waiting to see what would happen.

Soon, the soldier came down the line of cars and when he saw us besieged by the kids, he shooed them off and told us to pull out and move down the road. We edged our way into the masses of people walking in the driving lane and gently nudged our way to the front of the line where traffic was just starting to creep forward. Soon, we were working our way past a huge one-lane dirt bridge that construction crews were building over a wide gulley which had apparently flooded and washed out the road. There were a dozen workers sitting around and several others working with shovels, filling in dirt around a new culvert. Several huge Caterpillar bulldozers and a backhoe stood idle. The causeway was about 200 meters long and 50 meters tall, but the culvert they were putting in was only about one meter in diameter, so it was clear that it was only a matter of time before the road washed out again. We just motored through and continued on our journey, thankful for the air conditioning and open road.

A few kilometers farther down the road, we were definitely beyond the city limit. The buildings were gone and replaced with clusters of bamboo or stick and mud buildings, chickens and dogs digging in hardpan yards, and grasses and patches of trees along the road. We had been encountering some strange small piles of dirt alongside the shoulder with tall green branches sticking up in them. These piles were every few hundred meters, and were clustered about 10 meters apart. Ahead, where the road rounded a bend, one patch of piles progressed their way into our lane, forcing us into the oncoming lane. Fortunately, there was no other traffic on the road as we rounded the bend on the wrong side. When we came through the corner, we discovered that these were the Congolese version of traffic cones, as there was a huge 1-ton truck piled with about 2 tons of sacks, goats, leaves, tree trunks and topped with about 40 people, broken down right in the middle of our lane. The driver and some passengers had the front end propped up on some tree stumps, and the entire front end was on the ground, completely in parts. The people were just sitting there, looking at the pieces and then at us as we zoomed by. A few of them waved, instinctively ending the wave by turning their hands over, palms up. Mun’dali….money.

A few hundred meters farther, we passed some kids rolling a huge truck tire down the road and carrying part of a front end. We had no idea where they expected to get it repaired, but then a few kilometers farther we encountered another broken down truck, the same model, burned out and obviously having been there for several years. There were three guys with wrenches and crowbars, tearing the front end apart. Recycle, repair, reuse. Impressive, but they still had a long way to go.

The road really started getting potholed out now; we were about 40 km out of town and it had taken about 3 hours with getting lost and the bridge delay. On the left, we passed an elegant oriental pagoda, with an ornate arch and colorful paneling, hundreds of windows glinting in the sun. Only the overgrown trees, the underbrush and the grass-choked parking lot gave an indication that it had been abandoned. Probably some sort of Embassy getaway for a far eastern ambassador, back in the good old days. We took a few quick pictures and rolled on by.

The road forked. With no road sign or map to guide us, we decided to follow the left fork, as it looked like the more used. On the left, a few kilometers later, there was a spectacular overlooking view of a fishing village on the shore of the Congo River below, so I hopped out for a quick picture. We could hear drums coming from the village. Within minutes, several dirty children emerged from the brush and timidly held out their hands. I sighed, dug into my pocket and handed each of them 100 Congolese francs, and got back in the car to head back down the road. Behind me, I saw the children waving as we drove off, and then disappear back into the brush.

After about 45 minutes, when the road dead-ended in a small fishing village on the Congo we realized our error and backtracked. There was no sign of the children at the overlook. Once we got back to the fork and were on the right road, we started encountering more and more trucks…the same 1-ton cargo haulers, all broken down. It seemed like there was one every kilometer, each one with the front end jacked up, and a wheel off. There were dozens of people sitting around each one, patiently waiting for the repairs to be done. Later, I heard that people will wait patiently for days and days, since they have paid the driver for transportation and cannot afford to buy a ride on another passing truck. Sometimes, you will see dozens of people standing with their goods, apparently having been evicted for a better-paying shipment of cargo.

After another 50 km, we came to another bridge, but this one was definitely impassable. It crossed a river about 50 meters wide, with two spans joining at a center piling. However, the spans were completely broken off of the center piling, and both sides were dropped 75 feet down into the river, lying surrealistically like two roadways bowing to a monument standing mid-river. Running parallel to the old bridge was a WW2-looking metal ‘tank bridge’, which I had seen in Israel as temporary river crossings for APCs and other war machines. We drove across this structure, rusty and rattly, as the fishermen and washerwomen on the old tarmac looked up at us, and continued on our way. The army guard who had been distracted doing something in the bushes when we arrived came running out of the woods waving his arms at us. We stopped and showed him our passports and registration, then gave him 200CF, the Congolese equivalent of 50 cents, and kept going.

After this crossing, the road began to climb a steep hill with many switchbacks and blind corners. We had grown accustomed to dodging the potholes and numerous broken-down trucks, and were surprised when we came around one corner and encountered a truck that was moving slowly along our lane, surrounded by 20 passengers all jogging alongside. My first thought was that they were walking to take a load off of the truck engine and tranny as it climbed the big hill. However, alongside the road we saw several trucks that had driven off the road, crashing deeply into the woods or off the cliff. I realized that the passengers knew that truck brakes could fail, and it was safer on a hill to be running alongside the slow-moving behemoth than to be riding on top as it careened off the cliff or rolled over from the embankment. All the wrecked trucks had been stripped of front-end parts.

At the top of the rise we found ourselves on the central Congo Plateau. The road ran straight to the horizon, short grass framing the dirt and tar 2-lane road as it disappeared into the distance. There were a few people each kilometer, walking, carrying gigantic loads of firewood or vegetables or lugging 20 gallon water jugs, all balanced on their heads. We passed through a village with a dozen or so stalls set up on the street side with colorfully garbed women selling white flour in burlap bags, grubs, vegetables, liboke, fu-fu or chiquane (a gummy, white Congolese staple food), sugar or honey covered with swarming wasps, Coca Cola, fruits, meat and various canned goods, stacked in neat pyramids. The market was set up for the trucks that passed through, and obviously the people riding on the trucks were supplying the stalls with their wares. On the edge of town, makeshift garages were set up in bamboo huts with welders, compressors, tire jacks and truck parts: the Congolese version of an all-purpose truck stop. Recalling the stripped-down wrecks on the hillside, I had no doubt where the parts came from. Folks stared at us as we rolled through, and I was tempted to suggest stopping to buy something to eat, but didn’t.

Within another 20 miles, we saw a road sign in the distance. Approaching it, it announced our arrival at Bombo Lumene Park, and directed us 5 km down a dirt road running straight across the plateau. We drove down the road and arrived at a small grass clearing with three log cabin buildings that had seen better days. We met the manager who told us the animals had been killed and eaten years before, and obtained a price list for visiting and accommodation, and because of the lateness of our arrival, only had time for a quick hike down to the Lumene River to see if it was fishable. It was, unfortunately, in flood stage, and the thin rope bridge used to cross it was washed out. The manager told us that there were tigerfish in it (little m’boto, not the giant type in the big river) however the best fishing for them was at low water, although he did not know anything about fly fishing. He said that he had maybe three visitors a month, and we promised to come back in the fall, and started our journey back to Kinshasa just as the rain started to fall.

The drive back was uneventful: we rolled through the market town, drawing stares from the people in the stalls again, then rolled down the big hill, mindful that we might encounter people on foot jogging beside cargo trucks. At the fallen bridge, the guard recognized us and waved us through with a smile. Back at the fork in the road, we laughed about our wrong turn, and continued on the road to Kinshasa. About 25 km from town, we approached a two lane bridge across a large river that we did not remember, and slowly drove up to the crossing. The oncoming lanes looked sort of familiar, but our lanes looked unused and it appeared that there was a pile of dirt on the far side. We crossed slowly, saw the policeman guarding the far lanes and remembered crossing over on the outbound leg of our trip because there were some significant speed bumps there. However, some soldiers suddenly stepped out in front of us, and indicated for us to open our window. In broken English, the soldier explained that THIS side of the bridge was closed, and we had trespassed. We explained that we had just crossed over a few hours earlier, but he indicated that we had crossed on the OTHER side, which was under the control of the police, and that they can make whatever rules they choose, however THIS side was controlled by the army and now we had a ‘problem’, and needed to pay them something. We looked at the policeman, expecting him to come over and intervene, but he just watched from his side. Reluctantly, we paid the soldiers a few hundred francs each, and were allowed to proceed.

A short while later, we crossed the dirt causeway, cruised past the airport and were back in familiar territory. The two guys vowed to make the journey again in the fall when the river was lower, and the women laughed and said ‘have a good trip!’

So, last weekend, the two men who had done the trip last year and another new teacher decided to head out and spend the night at Bombo Lumene Park, do some fishing, and see if the situation in the countryside had changed at all. We left on Saturday morning, and again got hopelessly lost making the shortcut around town. However, this time it all felt considerably more friendly and safe. The same people were walking around in the same colorful clothing, the streets were still clogged with pedestrians and broken-down cars, and the roads were still beat up and potholed, but a year had passed and it all felt more familiar to us. We found our way past the stadium and to the main road using the downtown building as landmarks again, and soon were rolling past the airport. We were across the new causeway within minutes, and realized that the road had been freshly paved from town and out at least that far. The new tarmac didn’t last long, however we quickly found ourselves at the pagoda, past the army/police bridge, then at the fork in the road. Amazed at how close it all seemed to Kinshasa this time, we happily headed down the correct road and soon were zooming past the broke down trucks and colorful locals carrying their loads on their heads. Little children ran up to the side of the road when they saw us and waved or held out their hands for money, not very practical at 80 kilometers per hour.

Within a few hours, we were approaching the blown-up bridge, and I was able to tell the story about it that I had heard it at school. Apparently, the army destroyed it during the revolution when the rebels were approaching in an effort to keep them out of Kinshasa. The head of the police in Kinshasa, knowing that the rebels were going to find a way across anyway, contacted the head of the rebel army, Laurent Kabila, and told him of a ferry crossing a few kilometers downstream. He asked for asylum and personal safety when they got to Kinshasa. However, Mobuto heard of his treachery and had him killed that day, just hours before the army arrived and Mobuto fled.

The soldier guarding the bridge did not stop us this time, but instead stood at attention and saluted us as we went past. The same washerwomen and fishermen stared up from the fallen bridge as we crossed, and we again encountered a slow-moving truck as we climbed up to the plateau on the other side, surrounded by its regiment of joggers. Soon, we were rolling through the market town, the same stalls selling the same assortment of goods, but there were about five cargo trucks parked at the edge of town and hundreds of people were strolling about. All the garages were busy with repairs. Another half hour out of town, and we were driving down the access road to Bombo Lumene, amazed at how much the country had opened up and how easy the drive was this time.

We spent the night, I got to sleep in my beloved tent on the edge of the big valley that held the river, staring up through the mesh ceiling at Mars, and the next morning I was casting flies in the swift current to the elusive m’boto. I only managed to hook a half-dozen smaller ones, about 5 inches or so, and to the amazement and amusement of the dozens of local kids who came down to stare at me, I tossed them back. The rope bridge had been repaired, and I made several hair-raising crossings, holding on to the vine handrails as the river rushing beneath gave me vertigo. A steady line of ants had adopted the bridge as their personal crossing, so I went downstream of the bridge and cast a #18 black ant pattern and hooked a few more unsuspecting fish. A local fisherman showed me his catch: m’boto about 50 cm long. I was impressed, but could not match his netting skills.

We left around noon to come back to Kin, and passed through the market town one more time. The cluster of trucks was gone, but on the outskirts of town, several hundred feet down the hill, one of the trucks lie across the road on its side like a dead animal, its cargo scattered. Men were shoveling rice and flour into sacks with shovels and hands, and people were gathering their goods and starting to walk back towards town. One man, holding a young boy by the hand, pleadingly held up a large bunch of overripe bananas at us. The look on his face told an angst-filled story that still haunts me: the Congolese version of Hemingway’s “Old Man and the sea.” I imagined that this guy was taking his son into Kinshasa from the bush to sell some bananas and start to teach the boy how the market worked in this new, emergent economy. I imagined him saving for months, scraping together the double fare, paying it to the driver with hope and expectation for the future, and the boy and him proudly and carefully loading their sacks of bananas on the truck, hanging them from the side to avoid getting damaged from all the riders on the truck. I imagined them waving goodbye to his wife, then starting the long journey across the jungle on the ravaged road. I imagined many times him sitting with the boy on the side of the road for days as the truck driver repaired flat tires and broken front ends, desperately watching his cargo of bananas begin to ripen. Several breakdowns later, they were just a half day away from Kinshasa, and the truck brakes fail on a hill and the truck turns over. Thankfully, the boy is unhurt, but the bananas are destroyed. All he can salvage is this one overripe bunch, worthless at this market town surrounded by banana trees, and now he will not make it to Kinshasa, his crop has ruined, and he does not have the fare for passage back to his village for him or his son. All he has is this one bunch of worthless, overripe bananas.

We worked our way past the truck and sat with our thoughts as we sped back to Kinshasa. About 50 km out of town, we decided to explore an exit and maybe find someplace to buy something to eat or to drink. The exit dumped us onto a main road of a large village that was hosting some sort of festival, with a flimsy stage set up and dozens of beer gardens set up by the local brewery, with colorful plastic tables and seats. People were just starting to arrive, so we joyfully parked, pulled up some seats, and ordered a round of drinks. Several children came and sold us peanuts, still in the shells and lightly baked, so we listened to the rollicky Congolese music, feeling a sense of elation. We bought a bottle of the local palm wine off a small girl, and took turns sipping the sweet liquid and washing it down with warm local beers, feeling the warm buzz start to rise along with our spirits. For the first time in a year, I felt like we were really in CONGO!

I wandered down the street and found some ladies selling liboke, my favorite local dish made from fish baked in banana leaves with palm oil and pilipili, and bought one. I ate it back at the table, enduring some ribbing from my partners about my fearlessness at eating local food. Just then a woman came by with a large basket on her head with what appeared to be black dates. However, these dates were squirming all around: they were palm grubs, each one about the size of your big toe, and pulsing and squirming all over each other. One of the guys dared me to eat one, and truthfully I had always wondered about them, so I bought a pack of three. I asked the lady to demonstrate how to eat them. She first bit off the pea-sized head and spit it out. Then she squeezed the body as she sucked out the innards, leaving the skin behind like a limp wet sack. The skin is edible, but it’s by far the least tasty part, so for the second one I just tossed the skin away. The guts tasted a lot like warm mayonnaise, with a hint of earthy flavor. Not really all that bad, but I prefer the liboke. My friends were satisfyingly grossed out, but I had earned the looks and admiring glances of several Congolese near me who had also bought some.

The table next to us was rapidly filling up with some very attractive women and a few flashy men, definitely from the city, and all covered with gold jewelry and consuming cases of beer. One man in particular was paying for everything, and we wondered what the story was, as he was not at all who I would have guessed was the flashy ‘alpha male’ of the group. However, the others kept calling him ‘Chef’, and eventually one of the women saw us looking at their group and started chatting with us. She said that he had just taken over as chief of their tribe that day, and this was his girlfriend and her friends that he was treating to a day on the town. I went over and congratulated him, shaking his hand, and she translated that he wanted to buy our table some beers since he had seen me eat the grubs and knew we were “real Congolese mun’dalis”. We happily accepted, and proceeded to get rather hammered at the kind generosity of the Chef.

A short while later, in that giggly lighthearted drunk mindset, we started strolling around the festival, which by now had gotten into full swing with hundreds of partiers, rocking rhythmical music and wonderful smells of roasting mystery meat. We were the only mundales there, and some dressed-up clowns spotted us and encircled us, putting on their really funny and occasionally obscene act. One clown, in whiteface, had a lit cigarette and kept flipping it into his mouth, making funny faces, then flipping it out again, still lit. Another had some sort of stick in his belt under his shirt, and wiggled his hips making his belly look like it was wiggling all over the place. I wiggled my own middle-aged white guy belly, and he and I made fun of each other for a few minutes for the mirth of the people watching. A pair of other clowns did a Michael Jackson-style dance, in perfect synchronization, then fell down on their butts at the end, leaving the crowd laughing. The clowns eventually worked their way off, a few franks richer for their time, and we decided that we were plenty buzzed and needed to start heading back to the compound before dark. Just then, another pair approached us. One was a huge Congolese man, dressed sort of similarly to Uncle Sam, with a stovepipe hat and overcoat, carrying a bicycle wheel. The other was a midget, no more than 3 feet tall, with short arms and bowed legs, dressed identically. Wordlessly, the midget stepped in front of us, held out a hand to stop us, then did a perfect handstand, his little legs sticking up in the air. The giant spun the bicycle wheel and perched it on the midgets butt, leaving it spinning like a gyroscope. The midget kicked his legs and started singing a song. In a fog of surrealistic amazement and bewilderment, we fell backwards and groped our way outside the crowd and decided that it was time to get out of town. Finding the car, we paid off the kids who had decided to wash it then guard it against other kids who would want to wash it again, and headed back to Kinshasa and the school, wondering what direction the country would be headed in the year to come. It had been a weekend to remember.

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