Pastoral Trip to the Democratic Republic of the Congo
and to the Republic of Uganda
June - July 2007
About the Congo
By Hieromonk Peter
As we sat at the airport in Kananga waiting for a plane to arrive to take us to Tshikapa, I had a few thoughts about the Congo that I thought I’d share with you all. I had several hours to kill, and was bored, and I thought that since very few of you will ever have the opportunity to visit the Congo, perhaps you might enjoy some light-hearted and amusing conversation about some of the things we've experienced here.
These are just my ramblings, and I might even be misinformed or outright mistaken about some of these things (my disclaimer); but I thought maybe you might enjoy this. Perhaps it may help you get a feel for life here, and maybe even come to love these people as much as I do.
Warning -- It starts off a little slow.
What prompted me to start writing about this was that I was musing about a Fanta soft drink that we had here. It’s very hot here, and we've been waiting for hours for a plane that still has not even arrived at the airport yet, so Vladika asked the others if we could get some food and something to drink.
Thank God I brought some bread with me for the trip because there was no food available here at the airport, and the only drinks available were some soft drinks that people were selling outside. No Coke. Just some cherry soda that is very popular here, and some Fanta. Now Fanta is probably one of the most popular soft drinks in the world outside of America, but the Fanta we got here was not like the orange drink found throughout most of the rest of the world. This looked and tasted more like a coconut flavored Mountain Dew; and it was very smooth, too. Later, I was reminded that I have seen regular Fanta here, too -- but not before I wrote all this!
The coconut flavor reminded me about the coconut and pineapple they have here. Both are very good here. But let me tell you, the pineapples here have got to be some of the best in the world. Hawaiian pineapple? Forget it. The pineapples we had in the Congo were much better!
They have pineapples here that are 15+ inches tall! And they are so sweet and taste so good... Dole really messed up by selling Hawaiian pineapples. And the cost? Well, lets just say that they are one of the only things we've bought here for a reasonable price. A “small,” i.e. normal sized, pineapple cost us a whopping twenty cents in Kananga! (In Tshikapa, they were two dollars.) You can’t beat twenty cents! And if you want to eat it the way the Congolese eat it, try it with a bit of salt. It’s not bad, but we both still prefer it American style.
What else can I say about the Congo? They don’t have regular postal service. You can send a letter to the capital of the country, Kinshasa; but if you try to send one anywhere else in the country, they’ll never receive it. If a Congolese person wants to send a letter to someone else here, they have a few private agencies that service some of the more major cities. To mail five kilos from Kinshasa to Kananga, for instance, would probably cost somewhere around six dollars. Often, they will send a letter for free.
A more usual way to send a letter, though, is if you hear that someone is going to the area you want to send it to, you just ask them to take it for you. It’s best if you can call your party at the other end and arrange for them to meet him. They even send money this way -- with total strangers. They help each other, I think, partly because they know others have helped them in the past, or will in the future.
Ok, my friends, it looks like I am going to have plenty of time to embark on this next subject, so here it goes.
Supply and Demand
On or first trip here, we were utterly amazed at how much things cost here. In fact, we had to cut our last trip short because we ran out of money. And we even brought extra!
I had some free time the other day with Father Theophile, and I asked him to explain this mystery to me. I’d tried many times before to get this answered by various people without success. But Father Theophile was finally able to clear up this mystery for me.
As a prelude to this, you have to understand that the Congo is an outdoor society, whereas America is an indoor society. We spend most of our time indoors, either at work, at home, shopping in stores, etc. In the Congo, very little is done indoors. If you saw where these people live, you’d understand why. Twelve or more people in a mud or grass hut the size of a small American bedroom, complete with a dirt floor and no windows might give you the beginnings of what to imagine here.
They don’t seem to have any stores like what you would expect to find in the western world. At least we did not see any. Businesses like banks, airline offices, government offices, etc. have traditional buildings. Pretty much all of the rest of the businesses are, at best, a booth in an open air market. Those who cannot afford a booth sit on the sidewalk with their wares, or carry them about the crowd with their products on their head.
For the most part, there is no real system of where to go to buy what. You ask people on the street where you can get what you want. There are, however, some exceptions. For instance, you might find several car parts merchants in one area (as street vendors), and perhaps several apparel merchants in another area. To find something unusual, like say some AAA batteries -- well, this can take some doing!
Then if you are able to locate a merchant that has what you want, then you have to start haggling. You ask them what they want for such and such. They give you their price, and you make a counter offer. Etc.
Now if you happen to be trying to buy a bottle of water or some candles after dark, if they know that they are the only one, or nearly the only one who has what you want, you could find yourself in a difficult position!
But then again, Father Theophile also said that sometimes if he sees that someone has been sitting all day with their bread, or whatever, and they still have not sold all their wares, sometimes he will ask them what they want for it, and will give them what they ask without haggling, just to help them out.
Now how does this apply to us in regards to bigger ticket items?
Take cars, for instance. There are not many cars here in proportion to the number of people needing to be transported -- and “gasoil” is very expensive here -- so that is very much a seller’s market.
They don’t have regular taxi’s or sufficient buses here, either. You have to look around, and ask around, for a car for hire. Then if you find one, you haggle with him... You’d better set the price beforehand, or you’ll be in trouble!
Hotels and guest houses are also in short supply. Decent places to stay are practically non-existent. I’m not sure they exist at all, really. I’m not very picky about these things, and yet we only stayed in one place that I would say was not either dilapidated, or utterly disgusting -- and even it did not have consistent running water or electricity. But besides that, it wasn’t bad, I think.
Now we get to the topic of money changers. Our plane has arrived, but maybe we have time for me to finish this.
Let’s say you want to change some money here from dollars to Congolese Franks. Well, they have lots of people on the streets very willing to do that. If you want a better rate, then you need to go to one of the money-changing districts where they have people with tables on the sidewalk stacked very high and wide with money. Those places have extra thugs standing by to take care of any problems, if you know what I mean.
Now before you come to the Congo, you’d better make sure that any cash you bring, especially in large bills, are crisp, clean, without any tears, marks, or folds whatsoever. Not even a tiny little 1/32” tear. And it better not be more than a couple years old. They look at the series, too, and act like they know more about it than we do.
If you need to pay for anything here that is more than a few dollars, most people here will be more than happy to take your green backs. A lot of business is transacted in them, in fact. Airline tickets, hotels, etc. When one dollar is equal to 500 Congolese Franks, you’d start running into some pretty big numbers otherwise.
We changed a couple of hundred dollars at a Western Union on our last trip here. It took them well over an hour to count the money, and what we got filled a grocery sack!
Ok. If they tell you that something is going to happen at such and such a time, 95% of the time, you can add at least an hour to it, and be perfectly fine. It’s that other 5% that gets you. But don’t worry. This is the Congo. You can (usually) still take your time and not need to worry in the least about it. Our plane tickets, for example, did not even have an estimated departure time on them. No big deal. It would not have left then anyway. No wonder these people are all so patient!
Love / Needs
They also seem to have a lot of love and care for one another. Father Theophile told me that if you watch here, you can see that God knows what everyone needs, and provides for everyone. If a person does not have food, for instance, he said that God will move somebody to give them some food, generally. He said you can really see God’s hands at work here.
We're still waiting to get on the plane, so I might as well tell you about another strange thing here.
It’s their dry season, which translates for us, to their winter. It is noticeably cooler than when we were here last October / November. It’s been in the 80’s - 90’s every day, I think. It does get chilly at night, however.
So imagine my surprise when we arrived here, and there was a Congolese policeman helping us, specifically, to get our bags. (I don’t know why. I thought at the time he might be one of our parishioners, but I don’t know.) I thought the heat was stifling, and this policeman had a heavy sweater on. I looked around, and he was not the only one, either. And we've even seen people here with heavy winter coats on, buttoned or zipped all the way up. Some people will be in shorts, and the next guy might be wearing a jacket or a coat. Not a lot of people are bundled up, but quite a few are.
Vladika just asked me if I told you about how the airports are run here. Well there’s really two different parts to this.
First I’ll tell you about our experience last year when we traveled from Kinshasa to Kananga.
Imagine a gigantic room, stifling hot, with six or eight ticketing clerks, one scale to weigh the bags, and 500 - 700 people trying to push their bags through that one scale. And if a bag was overweight -- which happened a lot -- then the people would have to take stuff from the bag to put it in another bag. And it’s amazing what people travel with here! Oh, and don’t thing most of the bags were traditional luggage, either. Most are woven plastic bags that are taped into bundles. All the while, people are pushing and shoving and shouting -- the noise level was unbelievable.
Now for Kananga.
There’s not much air traffic here, so things are completely different. The pushing and shoving is much more limited, and we've actually been spared most of that this time, thanks to Father Chrysostom the Younger.
There is, however, the strange facet that you have to go five or six different places to get various stamps for your ticket. If you don’t get every stamp, you will have big problems. And of course, there is no way for anyone to know what all strange stamps we need, or where to get them. The various places are scattered all over the airport in partially or completely unmarked areas. By the way -- translate “big problems” to “you won’t get on the plane” unless you're able to somehow get them all accomplished before the plane leaves.
Security here? Are you worried about that tube of nuclear toothpaste TSA is so concerned about in America? I forgot that there is no security whatsoever here. If I would have remembered, I wouldn’t have bothered to put my pocket knife in my checked bags. If I had a couple of AK-47’s, I could have taken them in our carry-on’s. TSA -- you could learn a bit from these folks.
Don’t take a picture in or of the airport, or any other government building -- including unmarked ones, though. That will get your camera confiscated, and you could even find yourself in jail. Public picture taking is limited to non-sensitive areas.
I’m running out of things to say, and I’m getting writer’s cramp waiting to get on this plane, so I’m going now. Ciao. For now.
Buses in Kinshasa
Vladika is dozing in this hot waiting room, and I just thought of something else to write about.
Remember how I said that there are not enough cars to transport the people? And how before, when I was writing about the trip to the Dibelenge Territory, I spoke of the quality of cars and the driver / mechanic situation?
Well, in Kinshasa they only have a few real buses. The rest of the people travel by a network of private buses.
Imagine an old Volkswagen micro-bus that’s been wrecked seven or eight times, all the windows, sometimes including the windshield busted out, all the seats except the driver’s removed, round air holes cut in the side panels for windows, seven or eight rows of wooden or metal benches, and thirty (30) or so people packed in and / or hanging off or out of it. People actually stand on what use to hold the bumper, and hang onto the rain gutters with their finger tips. I’m not exaggerating. Look at the photos from our first trip here if you do not believe me.
They have a network of unmarked bus stops -- areas where people congregate, and these vans stop and yell out where they're going. If they are going near where you want to go, it might cost you twenty cents, or a dollar or so to go there, depending on how far you're going.
We got on the plane in the middle of the bus story. Now I’m in the plane, and thought of something else to try to amuse you with.
I thought you might find it useful / amusing to know to know that if you travel in the Congo enough, you can most easily tell what airport you've just landed at, not by looking at the writing on the airport terminal, so much as by recognizing the wrecked and unserviceable planes that have been abandoned there.
For instance, they have an old Boeing 707 in Miju Mayi. One of the more interesting planes I was to see was in Tshikapa. They had an old wrecked “Guila Air” plane there. I thought the airline name was interesting. It reminded me of the Gila Monsters found in Mexico. They also had, I think, seven biplanes there. Three of them were old airliners that must have been built in the late 1930’s, which were still in service as airliners! I was shocked to find all but one of the biplanes still flew. Only one was a wreck after all. Amazing.
Oh, and we have yet to land at an airport in the Congo that actually has taxiways. After you land, the pilot turns the plane around at the end of the runway, and taxi’s back over the same runway where you just landed. It’s not like they have that much air traffic there anyway, so why bother building taxiways? Right?
‘Very interesting country they have here. I like it; but it is rather interesting.
I really have to go now. This Antonov 24 looks like it is going to be one of our more interesting flights!
(And it was.)