Welcome to Congo
Updated: Apr 8, 2019
City life in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
On day two of the first annual Computers for Congo trip to the Democratic Republic of Congo, I found myself in the capital city - Kinshasa. This large city is sprawled on the banks of the Congo river, directly across from the neighbouring capital of the Republic of Congo (also called Congo-Brazzaville). It has a population of over 11 million and the same geographical size as Melbourne. The CBD of Kinshasa boasts some tall buildings and modern style living, along with smooth bitumen roads. However, once the CBD limits are exited, the roads quickly turn to pothole-ridden packed earth with only sparse sections of bitumen. Even then the quality of asphalt is shocking and most has eroded away. Once you've driven 30 minutes through the traffic to get out of the centre, you can forget about going faster than 30/40 km/h as car travel becomes more like a defensive drivers course, dodging massive holes, debris, people, carts and everything in between. Below is an excerpt from my trip journal detailing one such car ride going into the city from the outer slum districts…
"We left the house for the day and got into our Nissan Fuga 250 XV. I was very glad that we had a driver who was able to navigate the Congolese city streets with impressive efficiency and thankful that I wasn't the one driving. We started into the chaos of Kinshasa traffic and if I thought yesterday was busy, it was nothing compared to the pre-lunchtime craziness we had to go through today. Busy traffic in Kinshasa doesn't mean the same thing as Melbourne traffic, where everyone just waits patiently in line. Here, the busier it was, the more people literally did everything they could to get their vehicle moving forward, whether that's into the oncoming lanes, up on any available vegetation or space next to the road or even through markets and shops. No care is shown for others; people’s sole focus is to get yourself moving towards your destination at any cost!
I wanted to get some footage of this district as we drove along, and taking advantage of our snail pace made for some good shots. One of the first things you notice driving through the streets is that there are a large number of people moving around on the road, just walking in between the cars. Many of them pushed or pulled carts, which were regular-sized trailers similar to the ones you can hire from U-Load in Australia, except these have larger wheels, are in much poorer condition and have big, circular handles on either end. These carts are used to push all kinds of loads: rubbish, wood, food and other goods, and mingled with all the other cars and motorbikes on the road without hesitation. There were also a mind-boggling number of hawkers selling food, water and various small-goods in and amongst the traffic. Imagine, if you would, the high-vis-wearing money-tin shakers you see at some stop lights in Australia, but carrying all their equipment on their heads; and then imagine there are 30 times the number of tin-shakers, completely ignoring the lights (which more often than not were broken anyway). These hawkers drew attention to themselves by either sucking their lips together to make a high-pitched noise, like a bat or mouse; or they had two small, empty glass bottles on their fingers, which they clicked loudly together.
Above is footage from the streets of Kinshasa in the outer suburbs
We moved through the streets at a crawl, going slower than the Monash Freeway at peak-hour. There were no road rules other than try to stick to the right-hand side of the road, otherwise everything else was fair game. I was filming with my GoPro, sitting in the front seat, with my host in back and our driver Moses navigating us through the melee. If you've ever seen movies about war in the Middle-East where a convoy of American soldiers in Hummers are driving down a narrow road with tall, shanty, concrete buildings on either side, scanning the windows and side alleys for bad guys, that's what it felt like as we drove along. Except instead of a mounted machine-gun, all I was armed with was a camera! Everywhere we went, people just stood around (a by-product of the mass unemployment and incredibly low socioeconomic situation of the majority of the city), staring at us with looks of hostility and intrigue as we drove past. Before long, there was a car on my left, crammed with young people, all yelling at us (not surprising because most conversation between people involved yelling or raised voices). These people were waving their hands at me and the camera and pointing in certain directions ahead of us. Their driver reached out his window and banged on the bonnet of our car with his clenched fist. This drew the attention of a random man walking among the traffic on the other side of our car, who then started yelling at the car on our left. The driver yelled back at him in Lingala (one of over 450 languages used in DRC and one of the four primary national languages) and this man (the walking man) started yelling and pointing at me, even banging on the front of our car with a stick. He stooped down to read our number plate, then took off into the traffic ahead and we didn't see him again. I gave the car on our left a firm and loving smile, then turned off my camera and wound up my window. They eventually wound up their windows and returned my smile with angry looks.
There is a lot of security in Congo but not in the way we imagine security. Australian security means lots of protocols in place to protect people and to maintain normality and decency. However in DR Congo, the main focus is on keeping people out of the way, breaking up chaos, restricting activity, suppressing action or enforcing personal interests… Two different methods for achieving a similar goal. There are many different kinds of people enforcing security in DRC. There are policemen and women who may be armed or just have a baton;there are army soldiers, decked out in green camo and red berets. Then there aresecurity forces who aren't necessarily police or army but have badges, black uniforms, body armour and a weapon. In Australia, cops carry a presence of authority, which instils respect and fear to uphold the law (i.e. makes you buckle-up and sit up straight). Whereas the presence of security in DRC instils fear of the individual themselves and doubt in their commitment to upholding the law, due to their readiness to bend or even ignore the rules for cash, behaviour or influence.
When I say that some security are armed, the standard is an AK-47, which is carried with a strap over the shoulder and held in front of the body. Other options are varying types of sub-machine-guns, which are shorter than the AK-47 and shoot a lot faster. Most of the regular, unarmed (except for batons) police have to hitchhike to the location where they are working for the week (normally a street corner or busy intersection). These police, like the rest of the country, earn barely enough to survive, with the government pay being either minuscule, inconsistent or non-existent. Which is why most of them resort to bribery and extortion to get food on the table – a sad reality that the majority of us Australians are blessed to not have to face.
Once we had driven down the road a bit further, we were surprised by several policemen who tried to stop our car; they stood in front of us, blocking our way and banging the car with their batons. We had to slow down, and even though our driver tried to plow through them, we were eventually stopped. Immediately there were about ten security personnel surrounding the car, most of them with guns. They were speaking in Lingala, which I couldn't understand, but noticed that they were making camera and film symbols with their hands while pointing at me. The doors of our car were automatically locked whenever the engine was on and my window was wound up, but my host and the driver’s windows were down and they began talking in animated tones to the men gathered outside. My host, a politician’s wife named Delice, was saying that she was a minister's wife and showed them her credentials and papers. This went on for about 5-10 minutes and several different men, some in plain clothes, took turns in either attempting to talk to me by leaning in the windows or just arguing with Delice and Moses. I remained silent the whole time and had placed my GoPro under my leg on the seat, out of view as soon as I sensed trouble. Some men tapped on my window with their guns, but I didn't engage them or make eye contact and just continued to watch the exchange happening out the back window. By this stage, some guys had placed a "spike strip" in front of the car, which meant we weren't going anywhere until they were satisfied. Eventually some agreement was reached about making payment next time, as the men’s general complaint was that they all wanted payment for me to hold a camera. They took the spike strip away, waved us on and cleared the large crown that had gathered around us. We all had a good laugh as we drove off! This was to be just the first in a series of similar adventures which occurred almost every day for the 3 and a half weeks I was in the country."
This experience was recorded on the 1st of December whilst on the annual Computers for Congo trip and helps to give an idea of the current climate of culture and lifestyle in DRC. More articles like this will be released each week on the Computers for Congo website found at: www.computersforcongo.com.
Overlooking the valley which forms the border of DR Congo with Rwanda.
Written by Tom Cecil - Founder of Computers for Congo.