Map of the Democratic Republic of Congo from Wikipedia
*In addition to my reports, please be sure to read Nancy Myers blog–she is a wonderful writer! Also, if you are on Facebook you can see additional pictures and notes on the Congo Cloth Connection Facebook page.*
We arrive in Brussels around 9:30 am and depart the plane with that glassy-eyed, post-slumber party look on our faces. The airport is confusing (especially since we are sleep-deprived) and the personnel aren’t very helpful. We find our way to the next flight and we sit in the same row this time with an empty seat so we can stretch out some.
Again I am curious about the people around me. Directly across from me is a youngish white woman reading a stack of documents with titles like, “Detangling the Congo,” etc. She alternates reading these papers with a novel with a Flemish title. I am intrigued with her as I continue to have idealistic (and somewhat sentimental) images of people doing international relief and development and expats in general: “Who are they? Why did they choose to dedicate their life to relief and development? What motivates them? Is it challenging for them to travel so much and to be separated from their families and friends?” I project onto them noble motivations and categorize them as both exotic and persons of the world.
We arrive in Kinshasa late in the afternoon and disembark via the stairs pushed up to the plane. As I exit I am hit with a blast of heat and humidity plus the acrid smell of fire and smoke which reminds me of both Haiti and the Dominican Republic. The airport is small with a few aging buildings colored with dingy yellow paint. Adjacent to the buildings are dozens of aging planes that look like they were left there “to die”—rusty, without names or logos, and decrepit. It’s like a junkyard but for airplanes.
We are herded into a large cement room for immigration. There are signs proclaiming “Diplomats, expats, nationality” and we queue up according to the sign and ropes indicating lines—although we are not certain we are in the right aisle. On the other side of the ropes are dignified-looking African men wearing suits arguing with the policemen about their own line and insist they should be in the more prestigious lines to go through immigration. These men look like what I imagine African intellectuals look like—somber, glasses, suits, and leather valises. Of course, this is a romantic notion—I truly know nothing about these men. But again, I project onto them noble motivations.
There are policemen everywhere and, in my opinion, very officious. They don’t seem very effective and will randomly direct people in one direction only for another policeman to direct the same people in another direction. I watch these machinations as I melt in the heat and humidity and begin using my passport as a fan. At one point, my eyes meet one of the immigration officials and I make a facial gesture of “heat” with my tongue then smile. He looks quickly away and I realize that my attempt at friendliness was received as an inappropriate sexual gesture. “Great,” I think, “I haven’t been in the country for more than a half-hour and I’m already making culture faux pas.”
We are directed to the luggage claim which is another cement-block room with five carousels for luggage. There are no signs identifying the flight number with the luggage heading onto the carousels. But there were a number of flat screen televisions on cement columns advertising high-end hotels and Hollywood films.
I am feeling overwhelmed by the disorganization and chaos—the noise is high with people yelling, jostling, and pushing one another while trying to grab suitcases. We take turns watching our carry-on luggage while grabbing our checked luggage. At last we exit the building to more officious police officers creating more confusion rather than creating some order.
We are greeted by Monsieur Apollo who leads us to Suzanne Lind who leaps and jumps when she sees us. Suzanne, Mennonite Central Committee country co-director and one of our hosts, has been waiting for more than two hours for us! We are all happy to be together and to begin our journey “in-country.”
We climb into Suzanne’s SUV, leave the airport, and travel to the capital. And, we experience the first of many Kinshasa traffic jams! The road into Kinshasa can have four, five, or six “lanes” of vehicles heading the same direction with a constant cacophony of tinny car horns. Additionally, people are streaming alongside the ride or in the road itself with small fires burning to illuminate the way as there are no street lights. The road has potholes and the cars and trucks stir up dust which mingles with diesel exhaust. I cover my mouth with my tee-shirt to help me breathe.
As we enter downtown the roads become asphalt with street lamps. Suzanne tells us that the Chines government is creating roads—providing the supplies and labor—in exchange for land and mineral rights. So many countries and international corporations want land and mineral rights in DR Congo, especially in the eastern part of the country. (A mineral used for our electronics is mined in DR Congo . . . what makes my life easier creates turmoil in Congo. Am I willing to give up all of my personal electronics? Not today, I confess.)
Nancy Meyer and Suzanne Lind on the balcony at Suzanne’s home with papaya trees in the back. Photo by Nina B. Lanctot
After our very loooong day of travel, we arrive at Suzanne’s home where we stay for the next few days. After talking with Kevin via Skype, I go to bed weary and ready for sleep.
I wake up sick with nausea and diarrhea and I nibble on pepto-bismo tablets all day. I decide to not attend the gathering of Congolese women theologians—an event I’ve been anticipating for several weeks. I am annoyed and frustrated with myself for getting sick on our first full day in DR Congo. I hope to be better by tomorrow!
The women theologians who met with Nina, Nancy, and Suzanne. Photo by Nancy Meyers (I think–maybe it was Nina!)