"Africa is, indeed, coming into fashion." - Horace Walpole (1774)

3.27.2006

kinshasa la poubelle

My flight on Sunday was supposed to leave Goma at 2:30, so, as Tom put it, we left right on time at 4:15. Here's a lovely picture of the remarkable variety of goods that were unloaded at Mbuji-Mayi, where we sat for an hour. That's corrugated aluminum sheeting, which was apparently on top of the mattresses and various bags of grain and boxes of medicine. The airline used the first-class cabin as a cargo hold - it was really somethin'. Anyway, we waited at Mbuji-Mayi for another hour, which would have been okay, except it meant that we arrived in Kinshasa after dark, which is Not A Good Thing. After carrying someone else's child down the stairs off the airplane (hey, she weighed less than her mother's suitcase!), I actually made it through the airport with no trouble whatsoever. My hotel was supposed to send a taxi to wait for me, and had said it would be $50 to ride into town.

This did not make me any less suspicious of Victor, who claimed to be my taxi from the hotel. When I asked him how much it would be into town, he said, "You can pay at reception." It was dark, and I didn't really have much of a choice, so I got in the car. And Victor calmed my suspicions some when he prevented a theif from coming anywhere near the car in an attempt to rob me. But it seems that this may just have been because he wanted to be sure I had money for him. We weren't halfway into town before he pulled into a gas station and demanded $100. I telephoned the hotel, had the manager fuss at him, and we finally got to the hotel, where I paid him $50 at the front desk.

Thus began my introduction to lovely Kinshasa, a huge city of ten million people that is mostly known for its corruption, greed, and dishonesty. The hotel is nice, which is good, because this city is not safe. These are the beautiful flowers that they left in my room yesterday (and I LOVE that they left them by a plastic placemat with a map of Africa on it!). But the minute you step out the door, it's unbelievably bad. Everywhere you go here, everyone asks you for "l'assistance" or a "sigrette" (no idea how to spell that), the euphemisms for bribes. It is unbelievable. Due to the debrouillez-vous (help yourself) mandate of the Mobutu era, people just have a different code of what constitutes morally acceptable behavior in the name of survival. I am getting around most of it by pretending that I think they are asking for a cigarette and then saying I don't smoke. It's hard to keep a straight face when you see the looks of disgust on soldiers' faces, though.

Kinshasa also has the unfortunate privilege of being one of the most expensive cities in the world. American diplomats living here have a higher cost-of-living allowance than they would in Tokyo. You can't get anywhere in a taxi for less than $10, the cheapest thing in the restaurants is at least $15, and we're not even going to discuss how much I paid at the grocery store for water, bread, cheese, and diet coke. That said, there are so many diplomats and businesspeople here that Kinshasa has a huge market in luxury goods. If you can afford it, you can buy almost anything here. My taxi driver this afternoon (not my normal guy) told me that he has a patron who deals in diamonds. I was like, "I don't even want to know about it." Ugh.

After my introduction to the city, I had my doubts, but the hotel's taxi driver I hired to take me around to my interview and errands yesterday is just great. John is from the east, has a brother who lives in Dallas, learned English by listening to the BBC, came to Kinshasa in 1974 to see Foreman fight Ali, and, as he put it, never left. After my interview, he took me to see the stadium where the fight took place. I asked him if he'd gotten to see the concerts that surrounded the famous "Rumble in the Jungle" and he said, "Yes, but the only one I remember is James Brown." It was a great little tour. John thought it was a bad idea to get out of the car to take pictures ("They will think you are a spy"), so he slowed down long enough for me to take these. So cool! It's where the rumble in the jungle happened! Madness!


(And if you haven't seen When We Were Kings, it's time.)

After that, John had an appointment to take someone to the airport, so I had lunch and got a ride with his friend Joseph, who was just as nice a driver. Joseph found out that it was my first time in Kinshasa and decided I needed to see all the government ministries and ambassadors' homes along the riverside. It's really lovely, although a bit disconcerting when you reach the end of the road and there's a tank sitting there.

(This photo is the new stadium, built by the Chinese. John told me that he thought it would be nice if the Americans left a present like the Chinese left a parliament building and a stadium, and the Belgians left a military camp. I asked what would be a good souvineer, and he said, maybe a hospital, maybe a university.)

But John also pointed out the mausoleum of Laurent Desire Kabila, known as Kabila-pere, the father of the current president who took over the country in 1997 and who died under mysterious circumstances a few years later. I wanted to get out and see it, so John parked the car, talked us past the security checkpoints, and took me to see it. I couldn't take pictures, so all I can say is WOW. And WOW. Something else. Entirely. That's Kabila in the picture at the stadium above. There are statues of him all over town. He looks like a Buddha.

After that, I was invited to dinner at the home of my old boss Tom and his wife Christine. Tom was my boss in Cameroon and he and I get along just great. I will write more about that tomorrow; it was so great to see familiar faces and be in a real home. I'm stuck in Kinshasa until Thursday. Awesome. I can't wait to spend 6 dollars on a bottle of water again...

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