Today’s goal was to get to our hotel in Kinshasa in the DRC (Democratic Republic of the Congo). Spoiler alter: we succeeded, but it has been an intense day! Thereby hangs a tale….
We left the hotel on the 08:00 shuttle. The process at the airport was the usual exercise in bureaucratic frustration. We put our luggage through the scanner before entering the terminal. We stood in line to get to the check in counter, but had to have our passports and itinerary papers checked first, ostensibly by the airline. But then at the counter, they have all our flight information in the computer system. So, the logic of checking us on paper before allowing us to go to the counter is….?
We checked our luggage and received our boarding passes. Walking toward the corridor leading to the emigration area, we were stopped by two policemen who wanted to see our passports and boarding passes. We then walked down the corridor, to the area where we had to fill our exit cards, with all the same information we had written on our entry cards. Then we stood in line at the emigration counter where our fingerprints were taken again, electronically, and our passports were stamped. A few steps farther, other agents asked to see our passports and our boarding passes. I can only guess they checked to make sure the previous agent had done her job. We were allowed to make the long walk down the unairconditioned terminal hallway. It had rained during the night, so the morning air was much less warm and humid than in previous days.
We arrived at gate 21A, where we lined up so another policeman could check our passports and our boarding passes yet again. Then we went through the cramped security line. These small departure lounges were not designed for any kind of security apparatus, so the scanner is really crammed in. It was the usual drill for security, laptops, belts phones, watches etc.
We were happy the air conditioning was working in the lounge until the ceiling vent started dripping on Marjolaine. She changed seats.
When the time came to board I found that we were in the very last row of the plane. Later I found that only I was on the last row in the plane. Marjolaine, for whatever reason, was in the very first row of economy class. There were many empty seats, so I don’t know why we were separated in this way.
It was a 90-minute flight back to Lomé. We had to go through another scanner security check before making our way to the departure lounge. There we bought a snack and read for 90 minutes before boarding the flight to Kinshasa. This was a nearly three-hour flight. This time we were seated together toward the front of the cabin.
The flight was uneventful and we even landed a little early, about 17:45. We deplaned and were directed to a health screening zone where we filled out contact information forms and where men in white uniforms checked our vaccination cards. We then walked inside the terminal and stood in line to have our passports checked. That done, we stepped into the baggage carrousel area to the health desk where our yellow fever cards were checked.
Just past this, Jean-Marie, the “protocol” from the Memling Hotel, and his assistant, were waiting holding a sign with our names on it. He would help us negotiate the airport. I remembered him from my last visit. He’s a very large man and could easily be intimidating. I believe that’s one reason he got the job.
When our luggage arrived, Jean-Marie’s assistant loaded them on a cart and pushed them toward the exit. Everything got put through the exit scanner. The agent perked up when the eyeglass suitcase went through. “What is in this?” I was asked. I told them. “We want to have a look!” Uh oh.
They take the suitcase to a back office and tell me to open it. I do. “Why do you have all these eyeglasses?” the agent on duty asks. I explain. She begins rummaging through the obviously used glasses. “There are more than 12 here” she finally concludes. There are at least 200, so her math is pretty good. “And they are prescription glasses!” I say it’s a mix of used glasses donated by people who no longer need them and some reading glasses that have been purchased, but all of them are to be given away to poor people who cannot afford them. I tell her I will not sell any of them. Jean-Marie is doing his best. “Momma, Momma” he said (calling someone Poppa or Momma is a sign of respect for them, they are your elders). “This is a pastor, come to preach the gospel, he wants to distribute these to the poor.” She shakes her head, no! This cannot be allowed! Somehow allowing these glasses in would harm the DRC. She walks away to give us the chance to talk. Jean-Marie tells me this is the customs service, and a little money would grease the wheel so to speak. I knew this was a possibility, and while it would not be legal for her to do so, no one could stop her from confiscating the whole suitcase.
The agent returns. Jean-Marie reasons and pleads with he some more. She looks me in the eye; do I understand what need to happen? I ask Jean-Marie how much. 50 dollars, he tells me. I reach for my wallet. “Not here! he urges, her boss might see!” Just then, the boss walks in, we walk out. Perhaps we will get away.
No, she prevents Jean-Marie from leaving with the bag, she keeps it in the office until the boss leaves. I gave Jean-Marie two 20s. “And the 10?” he asks. I don’t have a 10, “please tell her 40 will have to do.” It does.
At times like this I sometimes have flashes of overview. Here’s a kid from the US heartland, haggling over a bribe with a corrupt official, in the Congo, the Heart of Darkness I read about in my youth, in order to help very poor church members…. Life’s twists and turns.
The money changes hands and the suitcase is released. I hate the corruption, but sometimes, in some places, it’s the cost of being able to work.
We thought for a few minutes that our adventures were over. They were not. There was a van waiting in the parking lot. The luggage was loaded and we started the drive into the city. About halfway in, we dropped the two protocols. We continued on the main road, but soon came to a traffic jam. The traffic on our side of the road was not moving at all. Our driver turned off to the left to reach a parallel road. The pavement was everywhere broken. There were giant potholes and chunks of broken concrete around which to slalom. The air was filled with dust and exhaust.
Everywhere we turned the traffic was snarled. At one intersection, where the traffic lights were not working, I asked the driver if this was the reason for the traffic jam. He said “no, it is the way people drive here.” Cars and trucks and busses passed within inches of each other, Motorcycles darted constantly in between, trusting other drivers to slam on the brakes to avoid them. Pedestrians also ran between vehicles, sometimes holding hands to avoid getting separated. A cacophony of horns blew surreal music, Dante’s first symphony.
The other driver got out of his pickup and stomped around to our driver’s side and pounded on the window a few times, shouting as he did. Another driver in front of us, rolled his window down and added to the shouting. Based on where he was looking, he took our side. I looked back at Marjolaine with raised eyebrows. She had a similar expression.
In the end, it did not come to physical violence. Détente tempered tempers. A few police officers walked by wearing AK-47s and extra magazines. Always yield to a man carrying an AK-47…. Within a few minutes, they had things moving, not exactly smoothly, we were still doing the herkie-jerky, no way to avoid it on these roads, but moving. We had been stuck for over an hour. I wish I had been able to get some good photos, but I found it impossible to document the scene visualy in the darkenss and confusion.
This was the wildest arrival into Kinshasa in all my years of coming here. This is only Marjolaine’s second visit to the Congo. The first was 10 years ago. Because of challenges like this, I didn’t want to subject her to it again, but she’s game and was willing to come here again this time. So, she had an authentic adventure of fairly epic proportions on only her second trip. Some people have all the luck!
When we reached the hotel, around 20:30, and took possession of our clean, air-conditioned room, for some reason we didn’t want to leave. We ordered a salad, a bowl of spaghetti, and some rosé. We are enjoying the quiet.
I believe we will sleep well tonight, but we’re supposed to be picked up at 07:00 in the morning, so we’ll be up early, though we may or may not leave early.