Tuesday, September 7, 2010

33 - The Horror! The Horror!

Boulevard du 30 Juin
OK, I'm in Kinshasa, on Conrad's side of the Congo River, a couple of miles or so from Stanley Pool, the ante-chamber of the Heart of Darkness, but I'm not actually going to follow in Conrad/Marlow's footsteps, or rather wake, up the mighty river, 1,500 or whatever miles into Kurtz-land at Stanley Falls. It would take forever, or at least three weeks, I'd get bored, and it would mean passing through the M'Bandaka region where they've been having a little bit of a blood-letting population control exercise recently between rival tribes over access to land and water.

Instead, I'll do in reverse, and purportedly in eight hours by bus, the more than month-long journey Conrad/Marlow did by foot to Kinshasa from Matadi, where rapids preclude up-river navigation. As for 'The Horror! The Horror!', Django the taxi driver says the Pacha hotel where I’m booked might qualify, even though it's just across the road from the Memling, the best hotel in town and an institution in itself. As we pass by he seems to have a point – the dark passageway into it looks dirty, gloomy and is swarming with suspicious types, dismissed by Django as 'little thieves and bandits.' We proceed on by to the nearby Ave Maria which, despite ongoing dust-producing restoration work, has large airy rooms at the same price - $85.

Side street in downtown Kinshasa
The Schnorrer! The Schnorrer! Thank God for the Yiddish word for beggar to provide the neo-Conradian rhyme. Kinshasa is full of beggars, thieves, and other ne'er-do-wells; and everybody from diplomats to hotel staff to sundry well wishers tell you to leave all your valuables and money, apart from small change for minor passing needs and deterring muggers from further violence, in the hotel safe when you walk out during the day - and not to walk about at all at night.

The city is in a terrible state, buildings in various stages of disrepair, the broad avenues crumbling, broken, often no more than sand. But the centre, when it was still Leopoldville, was built on a grand scale, and it must have been pretty attractive. To move on from the awful hoary old dowager cliché to an awful boxing one: in its prime it must have been a prize fighter, could've been a contender, but now it's battered, nose-flattened, punch drunk, slurring, staggering with dementia.

Behind the Memling and Pacha in Downtown Kinshasa
A visit to the Pacha shows that once you pass the gauntlet of the corridor and stairs, it's not that bad, even if pokey. As for security, people have been mugged in broad daylight right outside the Memling.

On the broad dusty Boulevard 30 Juin beggars, many of them women with little children, sit in the dirt outside massive official buildings, one of which would be a credit to gigantic communist-type architecture. Definitely worth a picture, and I've been happily snapping away despite being assailed by dozens of shouting passersby, telling me 'it's not authorised.' This is especially true when I wander round La Cite, the vast crumbling true Africa centre of the metropolis with its long broken roads, dirt alleys, and jumbled shacks.

Street in La Cite
Begorrah! Begorrah! OK, I haven't yet found an Irishman here to say that, but it's too good a pun to miss, and Kinshasa produces plenty of cause for surprise. It's an enormous chaotic place, a huge swarming ant hill, with a population of 9, 10, 13 million – all estimates are given – and a kaleidoscope of implausible sights along its dust-filled, pot-holed, rutted mud streets. A policeman on a pedestal at a crossroads, his arms outstretched in prefect imitation of the crucified Christ before bringing them smartly up above his head to direct the traffic, repeating the gesture to the four cardinal points; evangelical shop front churches in the slums – 'With the Rev. Apostle Leopold;' Golgotha hand bag store shack; El Shaddai (God Almighty) pharmacy shack; Kaka's cold storage shack with the sign 'One never fights Israel' from some Biblical reference; Labiotec Gen. Med. Laboratory shack with a red cross on its dirty front; markets and stalls selling peppers, fruits, everything; sewing machine shack; unisex hair salon shack; Vision of Heaven manicure and pedicure shack; cyber cafe shack; Christians for Public Health health centre shack; billboard with a family – AIDS has no face; total street pandemonium with mini-van buses crammed beyond the possible; dark blue uniformed police with reflecting yellow vests, looking for bribes according to Jacques, my taxi driver; lamp posts keeling over double or lurching drunkenly in every which direction from the impact of crashing cars and trucks, even in the richer neighbourhoods with walled mansions; the rough and ready night club quarter of Bon Marche, full of shack-like dance and drinking halls, shaking to the wee hours with women and booze; three-hour long traffic jams; the huge walled complex of palaces built by former dictator Mobutu; the quarter he named after his mother – Maman Mobutu.

Another street in La Cite
And all this against a beautiful backdrop of lush green hills with palms and other full canopied African trees. Ah, of course, no photos in slums and markets if stuck in a traffic jam – the locals might become aggressive, seek money, steal camera; snap only when the car's moving to make a quick getaway, that's the street gospel here according to my St. Jacques.

And, again of course, the Chinese rebuilding the roads. Let's only hope they do a better job than in Angola. And... And... And...

The Dollar! The Dollar!  Back in the hotel cafe drinking tea and watching South Africa clobber France. The front desk man approaches. There's a woman in a business suit waiting for me at the desk. She tells the receptionist I invited her up stairs. I did no such thing, quoths I, I don't know her from Adam – or
Eve. She continues to try to whore herself out on poor ancient me. What people will only do for a dollar! Wham bam, NO thank you Ma'am, and it's back to watching the game.

At the entrance to La Cite
Kinshasa's 'stalinist' buildings
As the ball goes flying over a goal post, a psst comes flying over my shoulder. Ma'am is sitting at the table behind. I smiled at her earlier, quoths she, quite indignant. Evidently a gaping of my lips, cheering on some South African play, was taken as a come-up-stairs invitation. No, Ma'am, you have it totally wrong, quoths I. But Ma'am won't take no for an answer. She floats over again and drops a piece of paper on my table – Helene, with a 099 cell phone number. Well, Helen of Troy she ain't, and I beat a hasty retreat from overheated hen to the air-conditioned coolness of my chamber.

The Squalor! The Squalor! Not here, anyway! After watching Maradona doing his Danny De Vito (with hair) antics at the Argentina-Greece match last night, we are walking in Gombe, the leafy river-bank quarter hosting the monumental domed presidential palace and countless resplendent embassies, verdant oases of wealth, luxury, peace and calm behind their high walls and guards. This neighbourhood is definitely a garden city.

In front of the palace rises a large bronze statue of Laurent Kabila (pere), assassinated by one of his guards in 2001, and a large mausoleum. Some think current president Joseph Kabila (fils) is better and more serious than Dad. Army tents are planted here and there along the bank under beautiful full-leafed and canopied trees - along with the occasional termite castle - guarding against the appearance of any undesirables aboard a pirogue from the other Congo. And of course, photos are verbotenissimo; don't even think of it.

There are still out-of-character dirt pathways, including one alongside the Iranian embassy, and the grand tree-lined boulevards are run down, rutted, dust-covered but still beautiful, impressive. The whole area is flag-bedecked with workers speeding the face lift (paid for by the European Union, according to St. Jacques) for the golden jubilee independence celebrations.

The embassies – British, US, German etc. - are large and their grounds are well manicured; pedicured too. A beautiful blue bird relieves himself on one of Her Britannic Majesty's branches. Nearby are the enormous National Bank and a few casinos, endowing those who have with a choice of where to play with their wealth.

Tintin presides over Congo rapids

We continue the drive parallel to the river and on to the rapids. A woman cop directing the traffic is deep in conversation on her cell phone. No wonder there's a massive jam. Another woman cop has her foot firmly planted inside an open-doored car; the driver is dutifully counting out his little 'donation' in 500 franc (50 cent) notes. We arrive at a grassy cafe with the sign 'Welcome to Tintin; when Jesus says yes, nobody can say no.'

Overlooking the rapids, a statue of Tintin sits on a log, reading a book that proclaims 'Jesus Christ is our God;' his cartoon friend, the captain, stands nearby, as does another character on horseback. Less amusingly, three beautiful monkeys – a large female and two babies - wander aimlessly around a small cage. Why the hell would anyone do that to them?

Meanwhile the Congo flows on majestically, rippling, bubbling, spraying, boiling over the river-wide rapids that halt any further navigation downstream.

Congo rapids

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