Make Way for the General
Carrying fish from Lac Kivu in Bukavu, DRC.
Below is an excerpt from the trip journal of my last visit to DR Congo (DRC) in December, 2017. This was day 3 - Saturday in the capital, Kinshasa.
"We made our way back into town, headed towards the immigration office to finalise my visa. Moving through the crowds, I noticed that everyone, hawkers and people who didn't even look like hawkers, held their money in their hand. I assume this was for convenience but it was obviously the done thing. You hold the small wad of notes folded in half longways and then tucked between your three middle fingers. This made some sense because the entire country was a cash society and dealt in cash only.
As we got closer into town, we drove down a street with high walls, topped with barbed wire. We came to a stop in front of big double gates, where soldiers were halting traffic and clearing the road. There were armed guards everywhere, watching the traffic carefully. Delice, my host in Kinshasa, said this was the army General's house and it was clear that he was preparing to leave the premises.
I has asked Delice about the state of public transport in Kinshasa and she said there were lots of buses and taxis, but no trains at all. Buses were a mixture of big, full-sized buses like in Australia, smaller 13-14 seater buses which were painted many different colours and often covered with dints. Then there were regular sized people-movers or vans, like a Toyota Hi-Ace, which normally had no side door, no paint and people hanging out the top, side or back. Taxis were normally either small hatchbacks, somethimes with a "Taxi" sticker on them, sometimes not, or they were just postie bikes which can carryu up to five people on them at once. These postie bikes made me think that someone was dropping off the mail every 30 seconds as they drove past our house! This all made the "Sounds of Congo" something that no video or photo can ever do justice to; instead you have to simply close your eyes and experience it yourself: blaring horns going non-stop, people yelling, hawkers advertising their goods, brakes squeaking and bikes sputtering along.
After a few minutes, a dark green Toyota Landcruiser Ute with a bench-seat-filled back tray came rolling out of the gate. There were about six troops sitting in the back and the cabin windows were tinted so dark they looked like they were painted black. You could tell that these soldiers in the back meant serious business, because unlike the usual plebs getting around, these guys had sunglasses on - gold-shaded aviators that looked awesome with their red berets! As soon as the Landcruiser drove out onto the road and headed in the same direction we were going, everyone started making room for the General at all costs. The Landcruiser was hard on his horn, demanding that people move over. It was a narrow street and cars were in single file in each direction, without much room on the sides. But the General's Landcruiser just drove straight down the centre of the road, carving a way through and forcing cars on each side to move into the dirt.
Travelling with a minister means travelling with protection. This soldier's name was Sadam.
The cars closest to the gates then took off, hot on the heels of the Landcruiser, trying to make use of the new found gap in traffic. Like water rushing into a channel, many cars fell in behind the General, so that now there were three lanes of traffic! We followed at breakneck pace, trying to not leave any gaps between us and the car in front so no one would cut in, but they were trying! There was barely any room for a motorbike, let alone a car. We made it about 500 metres or so before we hit trouble. The street rounded a corner and narrowed so much that while the Landcruiser was somehow allowed to pass, everyone else had to merge back into one lane. There was a truck just in front of us which Moses (our driver) should have tried to fall in behind but he kept trying to squeeze in front of the truck by going in between the truck and oncoming traffic. However, we just wouldn't fit, because there was a bus coming the other direction and now we were stuck, and the entire section of traffic ground to a halt. There was much horn blasting and people were gathering around us, yelling and pointing, mainly at Moses, but no driver seemed willing to relent their position.
Eventually, an armed soldier came up to our car and joined in the yelling, first at Moses and us, then at the other drivers, just trying to get traffic moving again. Delice called him over and asked him something. The discussion went on for a short while, then the soldier started making room behind us so that we could reverse. When we had enough room and backed up, he stopped the traffic which was moving in our direction so that we could merge and be on our way. The soldier walked past Delice's window as we were driving off and she placed something in his hand as he said "Oui, Mama", assumingly payment for his help.
You very quickly get used to the amount of guns that so many people carry. It's easy to lose a healthy respect for them because unlike most Western countries where they are concealed, here the Police wield them openly and with intent. The policeman at the house I was staying at brought his AK-47 out one night and sat on his chair across the road with it, keeping watch. It just became part of life and after only 3-4 days into the trip, I was getting used to it."
This experience was recorded on the 2nd 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.
Written by Tom Cecil - Founder of Computers for Congo.