Saturday, September 11, 2010

37 - Apocablips Now

Children coffins at roadside funeral directors
 Blip no:1 - I've just started a real riot photographing a pavement coffin shop in Matadi, with lots of little coffins covered in golden satin to keep up with the infant mortality rate. And Didier, damn him, has just lost his zip. A sad photo op, thinks I, but not so the group of husky men gathering fast. They start shouting and waving their fists menacingly. Now they're charging the car. They're grabbing at my arms and demanding money. I dash back into the car, but they keep on pulling the door open, arms flailing, screaming for moolah. I lock the door. And Didier, the great zip-meister? He's become catatonic. He just sits behind the wheel like a zombie. Get a freaking zip on, screams I. At last he engages the motor and we pull away, barely, unscathed.

We proceed to the Belvedere, the highest point in Matadi from where the surveyors took the lay of the land for the railway to bypass the rapids to Kinshasa – a magnificent panorama of the now
house-cluttered hills and the soaring rock mountain beyond.
More coffins - before the angry charge
Blip no:2 – I go to the office of Filair airline at noon, as told, for the bus to the airport for the 1330 flight to Kinshasa in a tiny Russian 19-seater turboprop. They now say the bus will leave at 1300. At 1230 when I ask what time the plane takes off, they say 'Oh, haven't you been told? It's broken down and won't leave till Monday.' It's Friday and my plane for Addis Ababa leaves Kinshasa tomorrow.

Blip no:3 – Gabriel, the very sweet little middle-aged receptionist at the Metropole rushes me across to the office of another air company, Kinavia. Oh yes, they have a plane leaving at 1330. Great, says I. Oh but it's full, says they. Perhaps it's just as well; Congo air companies have about as good a reputation as those in neighbouring Angola.

Blip no:4 - All buses for Kinshasa have already left for the day, so now we have to look for a taxi to Kinshasa.
A Matadi neighbourhood from the Belvedere
Un-blip: Gabriel, who really is an archangel, tells me not to bother with Didier, who wants $200 plus fuel (the plane cost $120, which they at least returned). He takes me by taxi to the departure point for the group taxis, negotiates with a driver called Victor and I pay $80 for the whole taxi plus another $20 for the drive from the outskirts of Kinshasa to my hotel.

Another Belvedere view
Apoc-eclipse Now! - Victor is a speed devil. But he doesn't take risks on blind curves. We pass lorries carrying huge logs (damn those Malaysian timber companies) round the Congo rapids for re-embarkation; we curse Mobutu (since the departure of the Belgians we Congolese have done nothing, built nothing, the balance sheet is zero, quoths Victor); we laud Mandela and lament that there are not more like him in Africa; we pass through Mbanza-Ngungu, called Thysville in Belgian times, a cool hill station that is now – you've guessed it – incredibly run down and rotting; in fact we're having a regular great time until we reach Kinshasa in the dark after a five-hour drive.

This is a whole new phantasmagorical experience. Vast areas are blacked out, others have a few scattered, exceedingly weak bulbs in an occasional building, or the odd flickering oil lamp. Virtually no street lamps, but there's no lack, of course, of the usual huge traffic jams due to a slow-moving lorry or huge heaps of sand left for road works. And overwhelming everything are vast armies of humans at every turn, selling food and other wares, walking in unending columns on the side of the rutted roads way out from the centre to where they can get transport; or worse, darting in and out of the traffic. Many come from a protest demonstration, marked by the huge presence of Darth Vader riot police, at the funeral of a recently assassinated human rights activist.

Road to Kinshasa
A huge column of a different sort rises in the heart of darkness, a square phallus erected by Mobutu in honour of the martyrs of independence. Away to the right, weak lights illuminate a statue of Patrice Lumumba, prime minister at the time of independence, erected by - who else? - Mobutu, the man who betrayed him in the struggle that led to his murder in 1961.

It takes nearly three hours to cover the last few kilometres to the hotel.

Apocaloops Now! - Oops! For lack of anything better to do, I've just looked at the guidebook again and it says: 'The DR Congo still requires anyone photographing anything to have a photo permit... Permits sold in Kinshasa that are valid for the whole country can be as much as $50.' So all those people asking where my authorisation was were right and I was wrong? Well, I got through the country very nicely without it, thank you very much. And have a nice day!

Apocollapse Now! - After all this month-long swanning around equatorial Africa muggins is somewhat bushed and in need of a true holiday. So I'm off tomorrow to the other side of the continent to Djibouti at its hottest, which everybody else tries to escape at this time, and Somalia - which everybody else tries to escape at any time.

Further along the road to Kinshasa
Apocahips Now! - OK, one last Conrad/Coppola pun. At Kinshasa's N'Djili airport, there's an enormous American couple with hips from sea to shining to sea. They've come here to adopt two children, which is all very nice, but what is of immediate significance is that they're planted right behind me in the queue, acting as a great wall of China in preventing anyone from pushing in front – and there are several over-enthusiastic passengers who are trying their best with elbows and knees and boompsie-daisy.

There are four separate baggage searches; you got something for us 'to drink', ask the officers at three of them. Let's just forget the long lines, the three different immigration officials checking the passports even before you get to the one who stamps them – and now the computer system's gone down. Let's just say that despite the apparent total anarchy everything does get done.

Past immigration control and through a door, and yet another search; an imposing man sitting on the metal detector conveyor belt says: 'Mr. Arkus, I'm the police commander. I see you're going to Djibouti.' Gawd,called by name! What's going on? 'My younger brother who lives in Djibouti is suffering from a very serious illness – sexual impotence – and he needs our traditional medicine,' quoths he. 'I have here a little bottle of the stuff and I wonder whether you could take it to him as a humanitarian gesture.' Sorry, old chappie, quoths I, as much as I am in favour of promoting humanitarian causes, I am not authorised to take photos - or anything to anybody. Was this some entrapment attempt, with some cohort down the line ready to pounce at yet one more check point, find the bottle (drugs?) and extort a huge bribe to let me proceed?
The departure lounge is in a pretty sorry state. Sticky brown binding tape holds a dirty toilet cistern together. The woman attendant asks for something 'to drink.' Madam, quoths I, I've just left a whole lot of something for you to drink.

 The Ethiopian Airlines flight is fine, but Addis Ababa airport seems determined to cede the crown to no one for worst arrival reception. We wait for well over an hour as a single immigration official slowly goes through the inexplicably long process of stamping you in. An officious official comes over to move some of us to the line for airplane crews, which moves even more slowly. Then a second official joins in the process for the original line, though you'd hardly notice, and some of us move back. Everybody is muttering complaints. Time for muggins to hold forth: Every country should hold up Ethiopian officials for three hours at their airports, though not the ordinary people of course, quoths I. Naturally, as I get more and more radical, the immigration booth becomes vacant, the immigration official is gesturing furiously and my audience is shouting at ME to get a move on.

No comments:

Post a Comment