Thursday, March 24, 2011

"This place is a dump." "You're telling me? I live here."

Daniel and I intended to get an early start on Monday morning on our gala Kinshasa tour, but our plans were thwarted somewhat by an absent minded tour broker whose altogether predictable response was "You meant THIS morning?" We spent the morning schmoozing and embarked a few hours after our requested start time. Our goal was to spend the morning "seeing Kinshasa", something that my host, with few exceptions, had not done over his first year in the Congo, due to workload, overeager security restrictions and - possibly most relevant to our discussion - a lack of things to actually SEE in Kinshasa. Our tour guide, John, was charitably a novice, but since he is apparently only one of only three nominal tour companies in Kinshasa, and the one recommended by the Embassy at that, it was unlikely that we were going to do any better.

Grande Boulevard... Le Meh
We arrived at the Kinshasa Botanical Gardens, newly refurbished for the 50th anniversary of the Congo. I need almost constant reminders about unrealistic expectations, and this provided yet another. The gardens were about the size of a city block, with a few hand labeled trees. Various characters sat around doing nothing in particular. We appeared to be the only tourist-type visitors. Confirming this dearth of attendees, two tour guides appeared to attend to our needs. Neither had much to say (and nothing to say in English, the tour was in French) except to read the labels on the trees around us to us. In the middle of the park, stood what from the outside looked like a somewhat modern conference call, but inside was a dim, whitewashed warehouse with a stage and hundreds of plastic chairs stacked up against the wall. At the far end of the empty expanse was a posterboard with images of the park before and after renovations. To be clear, renovating this park brought it up to the level of a park in DC which desparately requires renovation. We set out into the garden, and immediately stopped before a small fenced area of grass with a non-descript sapling. We were informed that this tree was a small baobob planted by President Kabila in honor of Congo's 50th anniversary. My reaction was "It's a foot tall tree..." to which the response was "planted by the PRESIDENT!". This reverential thing is not up my alley.
As we approached one tree, one park guide began to scrape the bark off of the tree for us to smell. Color me crazy, but I expected more card for the trees from the actually employees of the garden. She explained that this was the "Tree of Good Times". It smelled remarkably like cinnamon, and Daniel quickly confirmed that it was a cinnamon tree. We inquired why they gave it another name, and our tour guide explained in English, "Because it is an aphrodesiac and you eat it before you have sex." That's what we get for asking. We circled the dingy lot for a few more minutes, noting that the din coming from over the surrounding wall was from one of the larger open markets in Kinshasa, which explained the trash thrown over it an into the botanical gardens. I asked how many people work at the park, whose renovation (and likely ongoing expenses) was covered by the European Union, and I was told "We don't really know how many people work at the park headquarters off-site, but on-site there are seventy-three employees. My jaw dropped. Seventy three employees standing elbow to elbow could easily span the park. That explains why we got two park guides. As we departed the park, I caught out of the corner of my eye an informal gratuity paid to our park guides by our tour guides. This was in addition to our entrance fee. This would become a recurring theme throughout our day.

We hopped back into the car. Daniel had requested the guide to provide us with a view of the Congo river so that we could take pictures of Africa's fasting running river, but had not specified a location. We drove for a long while, and Daniel seemed somewhat alarmed when we passed the airport, taking him out of the "approved zone" for American diplomats. The majestic Mount Mangengenge (good luck with that) of the Crystal Mountain Range loomed over us as we meandered along the road. We kept driving until we abruptly pulled off the road onto a dirt path and parked. Disembarking, we found ourselves in Kincole a "small" "fishing" "village". Some explanations for my overquoting... in Kenya I saw crossroads which technically counted as villages even though they were not populated by more than a few families. Compared to this, Kincole was far from small, with uncountable people streaming in every direction. It was certainly on the river, but I didn't see any actual fishing going on. In fact, save for the rickety kiosks set up along the path to the river, I didn't legitimately witness any sort of commerce going on, just a lot of milling about and sitting around. And as for a village, the housing that was in site was even more primitive than the norm here, with thatched roofs tentatively teetering on crooked wooden beams. We crossed a small creek by way of two broken dugout loosely chained together to make a small footbridge. The anonymous bridge-keeper at the end of the second boat accepted a small gratuity from our guide to let us pass. I inquired with our guide as to whether there was any progress being made here, whether any technology or technique had found its way into these simple fisherman's lives in order to elevate them to something more than a mere subsistence existance. His reply was that "Here they live the same way as in Jesus's time." and it was clear this was not out of any religious nostalgia. He said the only innovation they've experienced is plastic, and even that is used sparingly.

I took out my camera to take some pictures of what was for me a bracing and new vista, and was immediately challenged by our tour guide. You see, photography is basically illegal in the Congo. The desolate, dirty, teeming riverbed where we stood is "of strategic value", don't you know. And anyone with a camera is immediately suspected of espionage. Although there were no police visible, our guide informed us that many people there are in informal contact with security forces, and would be more than happy to inform on any white person they saw. And by the looks of it, my pigmentation was not a common sight in these parts. As Renna put it, "We are Martians to them." Never one to leave a dumb rule unchallenged, I took out my Flip video, which does not per se resemble a camera, makes no noise and barely lights up, and started filming the scene around us from my palm. Please excuse the orientation and blurriness of the shots, it was the best I could do under the circumstances. We returned to the car, crossing back over the bridge, our guide compensating the bridgeman once more. Looking back over the scene behind us, I said "This place is a dump." to which Renna responded "You're telling me? I live here."

Once back to the car, we found it locked with our driver nowhere to be found. At this point commenced a game we would play for much of the rest of the day called "Where The Heck Did Our Driver Go?" Play along if you like... first, get dropped off in a remote location. Then walk a while to your destination. Conduct whatever observations you want to there, then return to either an absent driver and a locked vehicle, or a missing vehicle altogether. Then wonder, either to yourself or aloud, "Aren't we paying this guy to drive us around?" Then sit tight as the driver eventually emerges from whatever side alley, local store or other personal endeavour he is pursuing on your already truncated tour time, and shake your head slowly from side to side while exhaling. Try it, it's fun!
Small "village" along the road

I challenged our guide on the way back regarding what exactly he was during as a tour guide. He had brought us to two completely unremarkable places, and prohibited us from taking pictures once there. His explanations could generously be described as minimalist, but he was basically ignoring us. I said, "Why would somebody want to come to the Congo", and he replied "It's hard." As we discussed, Congo has none of the necessary infrastructure for luxury travel, and even adventure travel is limited by the hostility of the government and the meager budget of its adherents. The photo thing was clearly frustrating to him as well, and he said that he is constantly trying to explain to Congolese that people want to take pictures of where they go, it's a basic premise of tourism. He said that the Ministry of Tourism had proposed a law which would permit photography, but even that would be restrained by poorly enumerated "strategic areas". In fact, he told us that he had been thrown in prison on numerous occassions for escorting tourists, taking pictures and arguing about it afterwards. I'm no expert, but I'm going to go out on a limb and say that your tourism industry is unlikely to take off if you reguarly arrest one of its sole facilitators. The whole enterprise - the unattractive attractions, the random restrictions, the occasional incarcerations, had an amusing neo-Soviet flavor to it, but that was just the beginning.

Our next stop was the presidential palace and the mauseleom of Laurent Kabila, the rebel leader cum liberator who overthrew the longtime dictator of Zaire, Mobuto Sese Seko, and was then killed by one of his bodyguards in his office in 2001. His son Joseph has run the country ever since. We drove through a passel of large government buildings including the Central Bank, Ministry of Budget and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs up to the gate of the mauseleum. There, some ill-tempered red-beret guards informed us that this was not the proper entrance (though the gate was ajar and lead directly to our destination) and that we needed to make a large loop through their internal revenue service office around to the other side. Our driver must have had a doctor's appointment or something, because as we turned around to catch a lift to the other side of the plaza, he was already gone. It was quite toasty by this point of the day, but we hoofed it through some parking lots and past some crowds of people, and a couple of lackluster vendors by the side of the road. Finally, we ran into a second set of ill-tempered, red-beret guards, these with a small card table set up in front of them. They demanded identification, which we had not been told would be necessary, but fortunately I had my passport and Daniel had his DC Drivers license. They argued with our guide for a while about a variety of topics in rapid fire French. Once again, some francs flew back and forth, one guard rose, toted his automatic weapon over his shoulder and started to lead us around to yet another side of the plaza, while his buddies "held onto" our documents, i.e. left them strewn on the card table. Our guide asked him how long this would all take and the guard barely shrugged. Helpfully, our guide turned back to us and also shrugged. Confidence was brimming by this point, and I had one of those "Am I doing something extraordinarily stupid right now?" moments, but I was too amused to turn back.
We then made it to what must have struck them as a security checkpoint, but to me was a guy in a concrete booth with a magnetometer wand. Mind you, we were going into an empty plaza. The guards wanded and frisked Daniel, stymied by the beeping from every metal snap on his shorts. They went through every compartment of his camera bag, examining the camera, video camera, tripod, and tiny metal disk that connected the tripod to the camera, scrutinizting each item with extraordinary interest before challenging us as to it nature, purpose and justification. The whole transaction almost came unraveled over a cinnamon protein bar that the guard apparently mistook for a single serving package of plastique, because he started mashing it up even after Daniel and our guide insisted it was just food. Daniel offered to eat it right on the spot if that would end the confusion, but the guard brusquely motioned him away. I thought I had this transaction figured out, so I held the three things on my personage out to one side, passed the body wanding without incident, immediately turned on the video camera, showed it to the guard to his satisfaction, used the camera to take a picture (which was ironic, of course, because pictures of guards are prohibited, and the sample picture I took was of a guard), and then passed my wallet under the wand to show that it contained no metal. Unimpressed by this attempt at efficiency, the guard proceeded to go through my wallet, which contained all of my remaining currency. I objected briefly on the grounds that there was no metal in it, but only began to protest more strenuously when he began to walk away with my cash! I snatched it back without incident, and our guide began negotiating our entry from scratch once more. A few hundred francs later we were on our way into the plaza with a guard accompanying us as a minder. We verified with the guard that here we would be able to take pictures and he confirmed that we were.
Dead Guy Under Glass
We arrived at the center of the plaza to the mausoleum itself, the flag draped casket encased in glass, in front of a stone obelisk emblaoned with a lion's head over a motto that roughly translates to "Don't Mess With The Congo". This is sheltered by a large stone tent, held up by four massive fists, each with broken shackles and chains around their wrists. A large standing statue of Kabila stands vanguard in front of it, flanked by lions. At no point did our guide attempt to enlighten us regarding any of this, but as we happily snapped away on our cameras, a new guard who is stationed at the crypt itself rousted from his plastic throne and demanded to our guide that we stop taking pictures in this strategic area. Heated words, greased palms, crisis averted. See a pattern forming? The monument was impressive, but utterly abandoned and I contrasted it with the traffic that even the most insignificant memorial receives in DC given the accessibility that Americans rightly demand to their public grounds. Our curiousity sated, we returned, retrieved our documents without incident or bribe, and proceeded back to where one might have expected our driver to be. Alas, the hunt continued. Our guide called him, but got no answer. We meandered around and finally spotted him at the end of one road. The guide immediately challenged him as to why he didn't pick up, and they determined after a short back and forth that our guide had the wrong phone number for the driver. 

We proceeded home to the Rennas for lunch and to join Adela who had worked the morning shift at the Embassy. The Rennas instinct was to simply dismiss the jokers for the afternoon and guide our own tour, but they insisted that this was a package deal, and they insisted on taking us around in the afternoon. We had some quick leftovers for lunch and planned what we wanted to do. Our first destination was nearby and very familiar to the Rennas... the Bobuto College of Art which also doubles as a large, civilized souvenier shop. We selected this over the thieves market, which is not quite as dastardly as it sounds, but involves haggling and hassling, which I wasn't particularly in the mood for. Bobuto was organized, price tagged and low pressure. I found a couple of attractive and not outrageous pieces to bring home, and then checked out the Rennas' special "back room" where they buy their authentic African Art, not the tourist crap that caught my eye. These pieces had price tags ranging from the hundreds to the thousands, and all looked like they would be ideal additions to the emerging Renna collection, whose contents I will no doubt visit in the Smithsonian once Daniel has completed his Ambassadorship in 2030. In the interim, I wouldn't let either Renna in there with a wad of bills that I ever intended to see again.

The peaking rapids of the Congo River
My loot procured we proceed to try to actually go find the river that I had heard so much about all this time. Rather than the Rennas recommended destination, the guide informed us he was taking us to Le Tin Tin. This completed the set for the day, in that the only place in the entire itinerary that Daniel had ever visited before was the art school. Everything else, now including Tin Tin, was brand new.  I assumed it was just a coincidental designation, but it was actually a small riverside cafe named after the old racist comic world traveler, with statues of all the cast members to prove it. We bounded down onto the rocks by the rushing river, Africa's fastest and one of it's longest, where shirtless Congolese using sledgehammers chipped rocks away from the exposed riverbed to sell for construction by the side of the road, and where the 4 foot high rapids looked close enough to reach out and grab, although it would certainly be the last thing you ever grabbed. As we started snapping away pictures here, we were joined by - wouldn't you know it - another soldier, who promptly informed our guide that we were not permitted to take pictures here. This scene, viewed from afar at the cafe, was what caused Adela to facebook that "Dan and Dave were just arrested" when in reality, our tour guide had simply yet to apply the legal tender lubricant to the palm of the solider who quickly became our "attendant" defending our rights to take pictures in this place. (I should just stop calling him a tour guide at this point and opt for the French term bribeaur or extortionaire instead...) I marveled for a while at the unnavigable, but also completely unexploited, power of this massive natural resource before me. It seemed a parallel for so much of the Congo, where untold natural wealth serves as a backdrop for people eking out the same fragile, subsistence living that they and their families have endured for generations.
Breaking big rocks into smaller rocks to sell for a pittance

A Cloudy Congo River Sunset
We ended the day by heading to the more typical sheltered diplomatic dwellings along the tranquil portion of the river across from Brazzaville. One of the Renna's Embassy colleagues Jan was kind enough to host us on her roof for a glance at the sun setting over the river. The gated neighborhood was akin to what I saw in Girgiri outside of Nairobi - a world apart, with smiling  white people jogging with their tiny dogs on boulevards bordered with grass of uniform height, living an existence drastically apart from the country in which they represent their nations' interests. The Rennas choice to live in a synagogue accessible location has not exactly put them in direct contact with the population either - they still have a large stone wall with a heavy, solid metal gate manned 24 by 7 guard and in Gombe, the chi-chi-est of Kinshasa's communities, but I get the sense that even their brief forays into the streets constitute more exposure to "Real Congo" than the majority of the sheltered diplomatic community gain over the course of an entire posting.

The level of surreality of the whole Congo experience was an 11 on a 10 scale. I have tremendous respect for what Daniel and Adela are doing in that they forgo on a daily basis so many of the communal and societal benefits that we enjoy in service of our country and its interests abroad. And certainly while they are at post, they do enjoy life on the upper crust of local society both as diplomats, Americans and individuals living on a first world income. But seeing the degree of community interaction that they enjoy here, understanding how limited we would feel versus our context, borne out of communal plenty, of extreme societal customization where only people of similar outlook, life status, religious observance, economic level and language qualify for our inner social circles, and projecting that onto life with children, I don't think I would be cut out for the life they have chosen.

I described it to Daniel in the context of a short story whose name I forgot almost as soon as I read it many years ago. The two characters interact throughout the story in both their daily life and in their dreams, but only in the fullness of the piece does one realize that their reality and dreamlife are disjoint... one is in a dreamstate while the other is in reality and vice versa. I feel as if visiting Congo was my dreamstate and the Rennas' reality, whereas their visit to Washington is hosting their dreamstate in my reality. In any event, we look forward to welcoming them as warmly as I was welcome by them when they arrive in DC this summer for breeding season.


  1. Whew!!!! What a packed few days. Again, incredible experience, glad you are back safe & sound. Thank you to the Rennas for their wonderful hosting.

  2. Thanx Dave! We did have an AWESOME time with you! Looking forward to seeing you guys in August!