Thursday, September 9, 2010

35 - The Holler! The Holler!

Downtown church with Congo River and mountains
Muggins is in not too good a mood this morning, getting up so early after watching the Germany-Ghana match last night (the Kraut coach looks like Hitler with a face-lift and a shave) and then channel surfing - full of screaming evangelical preachers in French and Lingala - The Great Miracle Crusade, Christonomy etc. On top of that the TV has informed us that today is National Fish Day, though what the significance of that is remains somewhat elusive.

It's barely daylight but the mud streets of La Cite, the African heart of Kinshasa, are already alive, more than can be said for one of its resident; a coffin lies on a platform under a canopy with rows of chairs already filling up with women. We pass a vast stadium and arrive at the bus 'station' – a dirt road with a dirty great black clapped out bus drawn up for the trip to Matadi, a perfect picture in decrepitude.

Interior courtyard of Metropole Hotel
St. Jacques offered to drive me down there for a couple of days. On the way he'd show me the diamond, gold, cobalt, manganese and Gawd-alone-knows-what-else estate of an Israeli who was born in the Congo. I call him Papa Georges, quoths he, he's an old Papa like you. Thank you very much, St. Jacques! It'll only cost $500. I declined - and not just because he called me old. I'm fine with paying him $50 for a day round Kinshasa, but $500? The $15 bus will do very nicely, thank you very much. Meanwhile, St. Jacques provides the usual entertainment. I hear that Michael Jackson is really alive, quoths he; can you confirm his death? Well, Your Sanctity...

 The Holler! The Holler! And a-hollering indeed they are aboard our bus; a-whooping, a-cheering and a-clapping too. An evangelical preacher has just beamed up onto our roadship, and is energetically helping us to travel with Yahweh – in French and Lingala. It's last night deja vu all over again. The passengers, mainly portly women, are amen-ing and halleluya-ing for all they're worth, whooping in praise of God as if at a sports match. The reverend gentleman is now praying against 'crashes, sorcery and satanic attacks' on our journey. Amen! Amen! Halleluyah! Halleluyah!

Matadi port
Now he leads in singing a rousing hymn in Lingala that sounds suspiciously like 'she'll be coming round the mountains when she comes,' with many Yahwehs thrown in. He's bouncing up and down, repeatedly raising his right hand in a Heil Hitler salute. All the hands are energetically clapping for the Lord, the whoops for Yahweh are travelling up bus and echoing on back down bus. His Holiness is thundering; the passengers repeat after him what sounds like the Lord's Prayer in Lingala. Now comes a prayer in silence, eyes closed. And now comes the piece de resistance; His Holiness declaims 'I bless you, I bless you, and thank you, thank you,' fleecing his ad hoc congregation of 50, 100, 500 franc notes (5, 10, or 50 cents) before alighting in a halo of sanctity to bring the Lord closer to some other poor travelling flock.

Church square at sunset
Apocalips Now! No helicopters, like huge insects, hovering overhead to Wagnerian music in a Coppola update to Conrad; but to a blaring African beat on the tape deck our driver is trying to overtake a massive double Maersk tractor-trailer on the major highway – called a narrow country lane anywhere else. As he draws parallel at about 60 mph with continual horn blasts, the tractor trailer speeds up; we speed up, the lane bends in a blind curve - and we're heading for an apocalyptic full frontal with whatever may be coming round the mountains when she comes.

It is at this moment that my seat mate, a portly, aristocratic looking lady with enormous pouting lips and huge false eye lashes, starts a mutiny. The huge lips form a determined, elongated O and she lets fly at our driver, telling him to stop playing chicken with our lives. She is clearly a leader of men - and women - because everybody else is now screaming blue murder. We have a riot on our hands. The driver is finally prevailed upon, we drop back, Maersk draws ahead, and in a flash another Maersk comes swinging along in the opposite half lane within half a hair's breadth of our flank.

But Hot Lips is not yet done. We're speeding along nicely across savanna, up-hill and down-hill, mountains rising on the horizon, when a truck draws across our path. Our Jehu promptly overtakes him, forces him to stop, jumps down, and we have a new Congo war on our hands. Curses start reverberating, fists start flying, arms start straining to restrain the incipient country lane-side reprise of the Rumble in the Jungle – the 1974 Mohammed Ali-George Foreman bout in Kinshasa – and Hot Lips decides it’s time to show some more leadership.

Night falls over Matadi port
She hauls up her impressive bulk, descends the bus steps with dignity and deliberation, her giant lips forming a remonstrative 'no.' The Ali-Foreman wannabes cringe back to their corners. Ah, the role of women! It is often said that if women were in charge of the continent there would be no wars in Africa. That's, of course, excluding Alice Auma who sowed the seeds of Uganda's Lord's Resistance Army, Winnie Mandela and H. Rider Haggard's sorceress.

We move on, the crew giving us free soda, rolls and tins of sardines as we pass rough and ready towns, an overturned van and sundry other wrecks. At every stop little children run up and down the road selling packets of small paper hankies to mop our sweat. The bus arrives after eight hours – hot, dusty, uncomfortable, but still progress on Conrad/Marlow's more than a month, even if without the evocative poetry of their slog through forests, over mountains and past indigenous villages.

View of Matadi from right bank
Apocatips Now! Everybody in Matadi is asking for a tip. A guy near the decrepit station, the terminal of the railway built to circumvent the rapids on the way to Kinshasa, tells me I can take photos, and asks for a tip. The policeman closer to the station tells me I can't take photos and asks for a tip. The security guard at the Metropole Hotel escorts me to the lift, and asks for a 500 franc (50 cent) tip to buy some aspirin – he's feeling poorly. At least the kids in a courtyard near the station are too busy playing some pretty good football to ask for a tip. Not so a policeman by a house, who has just shouted verboten at my camera. He calls me over; he wants to talk with me. Thanks, but no thanks, quoths I, I'm going back to the hotel.

Matadi neighbourhood as seen from right bank
Matadi, Capital of the Bas Congo region and founded by Stanley 130 years ago, is fairly large, clambering up and over a good deal more than seven hills at a splendid site where the Congo narrows as it thrusts its way through high cliffs and mountains. It was here that Conrad met the British consul, Roger Casement, famous for his denunciation of King Leopold II's brutal regime of atrocities, before going on to greater fame and the gallows as an alleged traitor for his 1916 Irish Rebellion role during World War I.

A bridge and the country itself move north to the right bank, the left one becoming Angola. Matadi must once have been very pretty town, with a Tyrolean type church near the water front in the lower town, and the massive Moorish style fort that is the Metropole Hotel, a venerable institution that is now more venereal, if a building can be so afflicted - cracked, peeling, chipped and much else; it has a/c and decrepit little balconies but no hot water, and no water at all in the evening, all for $60 a night. But with its grand staircase, lofty lobby, exceptionally high ceilings, Moorish arches, and more than a little imagination, it is still impressive. In fact both hotel and city have real character, even if deadly election riots in 2007, and the wreckage they left, haven't exactly helped.

View of part of Matadi from Metropole window

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