Friday, 26 March 2010

Congo into Democratic Republic of Congo

I've been editing most diary entries but this one is coming to you untampered-with - partly because I don't have much time or energy, but mostly because each entry is so fascinating (well, I think so!).  So take your time - maybe you won't read it all in a one-er (it's rather long) - and enjoy it.

Angola will follow in hot pursuit and I can confirm that Andrew has already passed through Namibia into South Africa today having hand-fed a wart hog last night and been within 4 metres of a cheetah - he said he's "in heaven'!  He is less than a week from Cape Town and the finish at the Cape itself.  I'm flying out to meet him next week (!!) and so the final diary entries will probably be posted from out there...but the story's not over yet!  So stay with us and enjoy the last few countries of his epic journey! - editor.

7.3.2010 – Day 78 – Brazzaville
It was an easy 70km into Brazzaville this morning on good tarmac (thank you European Union and French for building it). The locals don’t see to like the French ex-colonial power – but they have just built them the best road in the country. Brazzaville represents the start of the last major hurdle in bureaucracy between us and Cape Town. OK – so we are in Congo, we have a DRC visa (next country – just across the river), we have no Angolan Visa. We don’t need a Namibian or South African visa. Brazzaville’s Angola Embassy doesn’t issue Angolan visas. They tell you to get a transit visa in DRC. DRC won’t let you in unless you have an Angolan visa! Catch 22.

So tomorrow we start the battle to get from here, across the Congo River into DRC, get an Angolan visa, transit Angola (quickly) to get to Namibia, South Africa and the Cape. The big problem really is that the Angolan visa is the hardest to get in Africa.

On the way into town we scoped out the Angolan Embassy ready for Monday morning. Just as we were pulling over a landrover pulled up beside us. It was a French couple, Luke and Miriam, who are living in Brazzabille. Luke is in Congo training the Congolese Police force. At home in France they are keen motorcyclists and within minutes of meeting they had invited us to stay at their home for the night. They were both heading out for the afternoon, but first they escorted us into centre ville. The town (capital) was almost devoid of people and traffic – it was Sunday and shops were closed, but the whole place seemed weirdly devoid of life. The French left us at the boat club on the banks of the Congo River. It’s an enormous river – perhaps 3 mils across. On the way into town we passed some rapids, which with this amount of water flowing, looked truly intimidating.

The Boat Club is an ex-pat playground – there’s a restaurant with tables overlooking the river, a constant stream of new 4x4s training in and out and bunches of mainly-Europeans, Arabs and North Africans playing about in power boats and on jet bikes. There are a few people in Congo with masses of cash and millions of people with nothing.

We spent all afternoon at a table in the shade watching the comings and goings of this little oasis of wealth. Just next to the landing ramp, outside the Boat House land, local men hung around in the shade of trees, dug out fishing boats came and went with perhaps 3 people paddling, standing up with long pointed wooden paddles. The difference between the poverty of the locals and the wealth and decadence of the Boat House customers was extreme – it was about the biggest contrast and contradiction I think I’ve ever seen.

This evening at Luke and Miriam’s house Luke was telling us more about Congo. He said that during the civil war there was no food, electricity, transport, roads – nothing – except … beer! A strategic decision was made to distribute beer throughout the country to keep a constant supply to the people. The thought was that if people couldn’t buy beer, they’d defect to the rebels! Since the official end of the war there has been an arms amnesty. For each AK47 handed in, 150,000 francs was rewarded to the giver. The problem is, people started buying AK47s from the DRC at a cheaper rate than the amnesty pay out – so a mini arms trade developed! Luke also spoke about the roads. West of the capital is a fantastic stretch of new road for 75km, heading toward the ex Ninja Rebels’ strong hold (the route we came). The road stops just 5 miles from the capital and deteriorates into a dusty dirt pot-holed mess. The thought is that if the Ninjas attack Brazzaville, the bad road should slow the rebels down enough for the Congolese army to react (read – wake up and sober up).

8.3.2010 – Day 79 – Brazzaville

We headed out to the Angolan Embassy first thing to be told we couldn’t get an Angolan visa in Congo. We next headed to Congo immigration to see if we could get a Congo visa, so that we can show the DRC immigration our intent to exit their country, to avoid being turned back at the border. We were told we couldn’t get another visa, but the chief of immigration gave us his mobile number and told us to call him if we had trouble entering DRC and he would explain to them. We went down to the port to buy tickets for this afternoon’s crossing by ferry over the Congo River to DRC. It turns out that it’s ‘International Womens’ Day’ and the ferry won’t be running! So we try again tomorrow.

This afternoon was spent buying food, drinking coffee and trying to find decent internet, which he did find in the end in the ‘Centre Cultural Frances’. Two observations about the people in Congo … as well as the women wearing beautiful printed dresses in bright vibrant colours, many women also wear wigs. I knew that hair is a big thing in Africa, with plaiting, braiding, combing, dyeing and extensions all being popular - but I didn’t realise how popular wigs are. At first you don’t really notice, but when you get your eye in you start seeing them everywhere and in all sorts of styles. The wigs are really quite convincing. The men are also well dressed, with some of the richer men looking particularly dapper. Some of the outfits look like they come straight out of the 1970s and 80s American gangster movies. Some of the clothes worn include: pastel coloured slacks and jackets, flat caps, big sunglasses, cold jewellery, black and white shoes (spats), white suits, sequined hats (trilby and wide brimmed). It may look quite odd to our European style of dress, but I think they look particularly cool.

So, the 3 things that could create a Congo clichĂ© are: good beer, good music and good clothes. By the way, there is a common belief here that most of the world’s music originates from the slaves that came from Congo. This includes Blues, Jazz, Rhumba and Rock and Roll.

This evening we had a recommendation for a restaurant in Brazzaville “Madam Momos”. The taxi couldn’t find it, which isn’t surprising as Madam Momos is just Madam Momo’s house, down a dark dirt residential street. She has no signage outside. Her garden is full of trees from which much of the food you eat comes from. Candlelit tables are beneath the trees on the compacted earth. Madam Momo welcomes you with a kiss on each cheek, then proceeds to fill your table with endless dishes of traditional Congolese food. Absolutely delicious. We had salad, peanut chicken, fish (Capitan) with sauce, fried rice, fried banana, bread and fruit that was similar to lychee but larger. She then comes and sits with you to make sure you’ve eaten enough like any good Italian mother would do – what a treat! After the meal she walked us down to the main road and hailed a taxi home for us – what a wonderful lady.

9.3.2010 – Day 80 – Kinshasa, DRC

Well, I’m in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The ferry across the river to Kinshasa is supposed to leave at 12 noon from Brazzaville, but crossing and the bureaucracy at each side is said to be an all-day affair, even though the crossing only takes 30 minutes. We set off from Luke and Miriams house at 8.30 for the port. There, we met the “Oasis Overland” truck on their journey through Africa on the Western route. There’s now only 2 companies who do the full Africa trup – Oasis and the Company I met in the Presbyterian mission in Yaounde, Cameroon.

We got out passport stamped by immigration, carnet stamped at customs and had a police check with more stamps. We couldn’t buy tickets until the ferry arrived from Kinshasa so we just hung around undercover, watching the rain get heavier – it never stopped all day. The ferry is a small roll on, roll off flat bed affair, which unsurprisingly looks worse for wear. As soon as the ferry docked, hundreds of people came running off onto the portside in what can only be called a stampede – totally frenzied with screams of delight and running, jumping people. It seemed like almost 1/3 of the passengers were blind, being led by a helper. Were they travelling looking for miracles and medicine? Or was it a scam – disabled people travel for free?

Many of the people transporting goods were polio victims with large handcycled wheelchairs full of sacks of materials being pushed by able bodied porters. There are virtually no vehicles on the ferry – all the goods are ‘run’ on and off the boat by a fleet of porters, who I swear must have been on drugs. Boarding, like everything else today was predictably chaotic and for a long time after, goods were still being run off the ferry. When it was time to leave, a line of police lined the gangway to the ferry. They had battons at the ready. As porters continued to try to take goods off, they would give them a beating with the battons.

The intensity of the experience is hard to convey – we even thought it was manic after months in west and central Africa. Unfortunately you can’t take any pictures as the officials would be more than happy to confiscate your camera. On board was money changing, gambling, arguments, dancing and selling, but mostly shouting. We had already decided between us what ‘our story’ was going to be for the immigration in DRC. We have heard of people being turned back to Congo because they haven’t got an Angolan visa (like us). We had arranged simply to say we were “going back to Congo!” after a weeks stay in Kinshasa.

The Kinshasa port was hectic until we got into the immigration office where we had the first hour’s wait. The office was 7 feet x 7 feet with 2 desks and 10 people inside. The guy in charge was wearing a pinstriped suit, blue shirt, pink tie and loads of gold jewellery – I wonder why? Young women occasionally walked in and the official handed them money, or an envelope from his desk – perhaps they were a mixture of family, friends and mistresses. We had the full question and answer thing, with all details written down by the admin guys on pieces of A4 paper. The passports were taken away, our thankfully came back eventually, with stamps, but the oasis team leader, with 23 passports was told their DRC visas they bought in Yaounde were invalid because the Embassy used the wrong visa number sequence! That visa cost them 100 Euros each. The obviously corrupt official told them that they would have to buy new visas as $60 each or be deported. Asked if they could phone the Embassy in Yaounde, he obviously said no!

After a carnet stamp and a yellow fever check we were told we had to pay ₤20 to get our bikes disinfected before we could leave. Somehow I don’t think the locals pay this fee! We’re now in the Catholic mission in Kinshasa. The room looks like it is from an old sanatorium. In fact, tonight I’m sleeping on a hospital bed. So – now only an Angolan transit visa separates us from the Cape.

PS – well I headed out this evening 100m down the road to a supermarket for a meal in the cafĂ© there. Even going this far at night has a risk of mugging, so we emptied our pockets prior to leaving. We left the mission with its 12 foot perimeter wall decorated with razor wire to an unlit mud road. Only 2 teenagers approached us, and when we ignored them they told us to ‘F*!k o*!’.

The supermarket is such a huge culture shock from the port and mud streets and poverty. Some of the Kinshasan elite were there buying premier cru classe Bordeaux, $50 boxes of chocolates and $12 boxes of Kellogs Special K. You could buy an iPhone or a home cinema centre, but it would cost the earth. This is the crazy thing about Africa – most people have no money and go hungry while the elite have more money than sense. I’ve only just arrived in Kinshasa with its 14 million people, but at first appearances it looks like a possible future image of Africa. A huge city with a growing population, it has great wealth but more poverty, where the people with nothing are excluded and the only way to aspire is through crime. The rich live in luxury prisons, paying huge prices for the privilege and the poor live a disenfranchised life in the streets and slums. The have nots are the locals, whereas the elites are the black politicians, North Africans, Middle easterners and Europeans.

For your interest, this is what the Lonely Planet says about the DRC and Kinshasa:

“More of a geographic concept than a fully fledged nation. The nation’s history reads like something out of Dante’s Inferno – from the brazen political folly of King Leopold in Belgium, to the hideously corrupt kleptocracy of maverick meglomanic Mobutu and the blood stained battle grounds of Africa’s first world war … (Kinshasa) built upon the banks of the Congo River and infested with shabby shanty towns and myriad opportunist con merchants masquerading as street salesmen, this polluted megalopolis couldn’t be called pretty by anyone. Kinshasa could be worth a brief if tentative visit by the brave and well-travelled explorer armed with a close eye on security and a true sense of adventure”. Sound nice? Let’s see what tomorrow brings!

10.3.2010 – Day 81 – Kinshasa, DRC

Well, one more day in Kinshasa and I haven’t been mugged yet. I’m starting to treat this city like any other African city now, with a few changes – notably not carrying anything but cash on me into the streets. NGO scare stories are always too full of fear it seems. The one thing you can’t do very easily here though is take photos – as soon as a camera comes our people start shouting and police will come running, so I’m afraid no photos of Kinshasa either.

This morning’s job was to collect letters of recommendation from the Swiss and German embassies for Rouven, Christine, Daniel and Andrea. I was outside the German embassy waiting for Rouven and Christine in the leafy tree-lined street. It was relatively quiet bar a few land cruisers and the odd pedestrian. 3 ladies dressed well, one with a child on her back walked by carrying bags in their hands. A young lad of about 10 was walking next to them, intent on stealing. One of the women swung her handbag and hit him. The next thing I saw was a young man walk up and punch the boy twice straight in the face. I don’t know whether the young man was helping out hoping for money, or just helping out, but it was vicious. No one even batted an eyelid. Violence in Africa seems so close to the surface, just waiting to bubble over. In the UK that young man would have been arrested. Here, the incident was hardly noticed and certainly no one cared. I’ve seen more aggression and violence on this trip than I ever have before; I don’t know what to make of it. I can’t help but think about the 3.8 million people that were killed in the recent civil war here. Maybe one of the reasons many people enjoy travelling through Africa is that they just don’t understand it. I certainly don’t understand the inequality, violence and the apparent disregard the elite and authorities have over the rest of the people. It seems people just need to fight to survive – I don’t know really.

Well, we’ve eventually submitted our Angolan visa applications at the Angolan embassy after being told that we could have to wait 6 more days before we could submit. Christine used her French language and charm to convince the Angolan official to let us submit today – thank god! So we were told to come and collect our passports tomorrow at 12 – let’s hope they have the visas in them!

So Kinshasa isn’t as dark and scary as it first sounded – and this part of town is surprisingly pleasant. But you still have to have your wits about you to avoid being got by the muggers or the police (sometimes one and the same). That said though, this corrupt system can work both ways. I met a biker in town who is stuck here for a couple of weeks while his bike is fixed. He told me he got stopped by the police on his bike in town. The office charged him ₤100. After ½ an hour of chatting and negotiation he got the fine down to 2 cold beers, which the police man drank whilst on duty, by the side of the road. Could be an alternative to 3 points and a ₤60 fine back at home?

12.3.2010 – Day 83 – Kinshasa, DRC

Today was dominated by trying to get /collect the Angola visa. We were told to arrive at the Embassy at 12 noon – so of course arrives early at 11.30. We were almost immediately told that we should come back at 1.30. So we sat around in the shade by a few shops picking up bits of street food for lunch. We were joined by the other 2 tourists in town trying to pick up Angolan visas – 2 cyclists – Hans from Switzerland and Rob from the UK. Hans has been cycling for a number of years and has already cycled Asia and the Americas and now wants to cycle all the African countries. He’s a funny guy who’s a bit dower – not helped by him suffering from malaria, but this doesn’t stop the swearing.

Rob is a Ben Fogle/Mark Beaumont cross. He sports a terrific 5 month beard which has has grown during his extreme triathlon through Africa. He cycled from Cirencester to Gibraltar, swam (6 ½ hours) to Morocco, he’s now cycling Africa and will finish with the famous Comrades Ultra Marathon in Durban, South Africa.

Street food is sold from the heads of the vendors. Each type of ‘head shop’ is advertised by a sound. The baguette sandwich man taps his knife against his plastic bowl on this head. The grocery store on head man twangs an elastic band. Even the shoe shine boy clicks 2 pieces of wood together to let you know he’s coming by. We just sat and waited for the right food and drink shops to arrive. At 1.30, we sat outside the embassy again and we were soon ushered out of the mid day heat to the VIP reception room. White skin, for better or worse, still sets you apart, giving you privileges in this case. We sat on the white leather sofas watching French news on TV in the comfort of AC for the next tense 2.5 hours. Eventually we were called into an office and to our enormous relief got given our passports back with 5 day transit visas for Angola. If we couldn’t get these the trip would have been over!

The cyclists will struggle though to cover 1900km in 5 days!!

Next we searched for motor insurance – we ended up at the HQ of DRC’s only insurance company (I’m told). We got shifted between people – 6 in all, going up the ranks until we were sat round the board room table (big enough for 20 people) with the head of international insurance, the vice president and the president of the company. Each told us in turn during our visit that they couldn’t help us, but again, just the skin colour gave us IP treatment. Not quite sure what to make of it when some people in the street shout “Imperialist!” at you, whilst others treat you like VIPs – odd really.

13.3.2010 – Day 84 – Sonongolo, DRC

The 5 of us left Kinshasa this morning at 6.30 to beat the rush hour. The drive out was quiet and easy. I’ve been here a few days, but Kinshasa I’ve seen doesn’t equate to the 14 million mega-city I’d expected. We headed down a good road through grassy rolling hills toward the Angolan border. After a couple of hours we pulled over by the3 side of the road for a stretch, water and toilet stops. As we were getting ready for off again, I put the key into the ignition of the bike, turned the key, pressed the starting switch. Immediately a small puff of black smoke blew from under the ignition and the bike wouldn’t start. There was a clear smell of an electric burn. In an instant my mind flicked through the probable future – burnt out electrics, say goodbye to the others, find a truck to Kinshasa for the bike, go to Yamaha garage, get diagnosis, fly out parts, deal with customs, get bike fixed then start out for Angola again in a couple of weeks time. Nightmare!

I pushed my bike under a tree and talked about it to Rouven (mechanic) and Daniel (an electrical engineer). They told me to try and start the engine again. Miraculously it started once, started twice and didn’t smoke. Unbelievable! It must have been all the rain affecting the ignition causing a one-off spark. What a relief!

This part of the DRC has much more in common with the rest of Africa than Kinshasa - bustling little market towns: friendly, colourful and loud. Tonight we are staying in the small Catholic Mission. We spend the afternoon sleeping under a tin roof shelter, shading ourselves from the sun. The village is small and spread out with a network of muddy dirt roads connecting all corners. We found the bar later in the day which a lad opened for us to get warm cokes. We couldn’t find shops apart from the tiny mobile phone credit shop in a 2m x 2m reed shack. Everything in Africa is micro-distributed – coke is delivered to slums by hand cart, water is sold by the bag from the side of the road, fuel is sold by the bottle, electricity comes from generators, photocopying is done from a photocopy machine ON the street, a public phone is a mobile phone on a table under a parasol, a taxi is just a shared car, laughing cow cheese can be bought by the slice and hotels can be rented by the hour.

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