First Impressions

My deepest apologies to Madame Massicotte for never paying attention in French class. At the time it seemed more important to snip Laura Toth’s split ends or play poker with Scott Berry. Now I find myself in a French-speaking country with the vocabulary of a dumb six-year-old. “Il fait chaud” (it is hot), “Il fait froid” (it is cold), “Je suis fatigue” (I am tired), “Je suis confiture” (I am jam—I want jam, but I can’t remember the word for want).

 I can decipher a menu easy enough, and often the translations have already been made. At the oldest hotel in Lubumbashi, Chantal and I had a real roar over the menu. She had never bothered reading the translations, naturally—but when I questioned her about the croque madam that was described as a “cheese sandwich served with human” I really wasn’t sure what to think. After all, this is the Congo, and as the media paints it, ordering a cheese and human sandwich wouldn’t be out of the ordinary. I was slightly disappointed to learn that the human part was actually an egg. And the “pancakes with comedy” turned out to be crepes with ice cream. Not funny at all! Next time we lunch there I will order the “skewers of beer” and the “ship’s buoy of chocolate.” How can you go wrong with a ship’s buoy?

Wanda actually wonders if I am in Africa at all with my detailed foodie descriptions of dinners involving gruyere, Chambly and brie cheese platters, buttery pastries and dark chocolate. It is the Belgian Congo after all, and when in Congo, one must do as the Belgians do! Undoubtedly, I will return to Canada with gout, which will be a better fate than the Ugandan shigella I had from eating street goat a la flies and grasshoppers laced with fecal matter.

The Congolese response to mizungos is what has surprised me the most. It’s not as ecstatic (i.e.–barely noticed) in comparison to the Ugandan welcome. In Entebbe, kids mobbed me like a red carpet star, yelling “America!” “Obama!””Mizungo!” and more commonly, “Mizungo, give me money!” Here, there is the occasional stare, but the Belgian presence over the years has created an obvious difference of awareness and acceptance. The copper mines in Lubumbashi are largely Asian owned, and there is a sizeable Greek and Lebanese population as well, making the Congo more multicultural than Abbotsford. The excited response usually comes from other whites, surprised to see a familiar face in the crowd.

Living here though, is similar to life inside a vacuum canister, the dust penetrates everything. Lip balm and skin lotion double as adhesive tape for the dirt. My eyeballs are on fire at night, and my eyelids are like sandpaper closing over them. I have underestimated my supply of Q-tips and overestimated on the protein bar front. Instead of pink grapefruit body butter I should have packed cans of lemon-scented Pledge and Swiffer cloths to dust myself.

Most of the roads are paved (thanks to the Asian mining companies), but not-so-paved where the potholes are as big as bathtubs. Drinking a 750 ml Simba beer midday is a challenge in itself, let alone enduring the drive home along the pock-marked “roads” that test the strength of your bladder walls. Cars constantly appear to be driving head-on, but it’s all in mutual avoidance of breaking an axle, which happens frequently. Vehicles are simply abandoned in the meteorite-sized holes for non-existent tow-trucks to remove. At one intersection, if you turn too sharply to the right, your whole vehicle could be lost in a hole that is over six feet deep and as big as the Landcruiser.

There are no traffic rules, occasionally working stoplights—and few fender benders. When there is an accident, everyone dies, and the number of deaths can be shocking. The minivan taxis, “fula fulas,” often carry over 30 people. There are seats in the front, a metal bench for about seven (or thirteen) directly behind it, and then, cargo space in the back where everyone else piles in—sometimes in the middle of the intersection. Chantal tells horrifying accident stories that are commonplace here. A few weeks ago, a fula fula overtook her on the road and collided head-on with a truck—35 dead. But one must keep driving to get out alive. It is a true hit and RUN scenario.

We pass several police officers on a daily basis, called “canaries” for their yellow uniforms. There are random “toll booths” where the suggested payment is 500-1,500 francs. The officers earn about $130 US a month, but pad their wallets with these friendly stops. Oddly, there are no coins in the Congo, and only three bank notes (100, 200 and 500 francs). Your wallet can easily be as thick as a NY sirloin, but contain about 10 bucks (500 francs= $1 US). Yawning men in cowboy hats and rubber boots sit ‘downtown’ with stacks of cold hard francs, ready to exchange for US dollars. This is completely acceptable, and recommended versus a bank exchange with a pocket-gouging rate of return.

In other criminal matters, due to vocal protest from mizungos last year who were infuriated with the frequent stops imposed by police asking for documents and visas, the governor implemented a “Courtesy Month” that will take place every July. For this month, no arrests can be made, and officers are not allowed to ask for any documents. Frankly, paying out a few francs has to be worth the officer’s courtesy in non-courtesy months. The road dotted with canaries and AK-47 armed security that passes by the President’s summer house comes with its own unique regulations. You can’t overtake another car, the speed limit is 40km/hour and there is absolutely no honking permitted. Try to tell that to the one-year-old chimp riding shotgun!

Street kids need to be kept happy as well—and this is achieved by slipping them the police toll booth payment of 500 francs. They are territorial, and can be found at most street corners taking turns running out to vehicles with Cheshire cat grins, rubbing their flat bellies to indicate hunger. Chantal tells me that when the President is in Lubumbashi, the road to his house (which is a major throughfare) is closed, and the street kids are taken about 50 km out of the city for the duration of his stay. I imagine Vancouver will use the same tactic to beautify East Hastings during the Olympics. Bus to Abbotsford, all aboard!

The streets are consistently loud and lively with aggressive vendors hawking eggplants and avocadoes as big as footballs, small birds, wooden ashtrays and mandarins. If you park your car, odds are that when you return it will be washed by entrepreneurial street kids hoping for another 500 francs or so. Chantal told me that in Zambia, the same creative money-making spirit is witnessed along the highways where young men will fill potholes to improve the roads—then stop drivers and demand money to compensate for their selfless road improvement work.

Many vehicles belch diesel, but gasoline is sold in dusty plastic jugs at makeshift lemonade-type stands along the roads, often mixed with fillers. Much like the local hooch derived from maize (corn) which is topped up with methanol for kissy-cool breath and a really cheap date. Overall, there is a great feeling of uselessness here as there is someone to unload the Landcruiser, someone to iron my clothes (there are flies that lay eggs on clothing which can turn your skin into a worm hatchery), someone to empty shopping cart items on the conveyor belt , direct you as you parallel park and even someone to feed the cats and guinea pig at the house I’m staying at. Chantal explains that if you do these things for yourself, somebody is out of a job.

This is life in cosmopolitan Lubumbashi, a city of four million with one fax machine, one vet, a Greek restaurant with a basketball court (that serves tasty garlicky goat testicles and greasy frog legs) and a zoo that is the most popular place to get married and/or take a date. Not exactly the Congo I imagined. Surprisingly there are fewer guns here than I expected. However, my arrival at the airport just one week ago was like film footage for Midnight Express. Chantal was waiting with two “protocols” who whisked me through the crush of locals and armed airport officials like I was a celebrity. The men flanked me and in a fast exchange of US money, passport, visa and immunization card, I was pushed through to the other side of Immigration. The hired men grabbed my bags and ensured that I myself wasn’t grabbed. With such beefed-up security and feverish chaos, I worried for a brief moment about what I had signed up for.

Only days later, as I ran around the leafy Belgian school grounds under a tangerine sky with the smell of roasted corn heavy in the air, the chorus of crickets out-singing The Killers on my iPod was testament to the peacefulness I feel here. Sure, there is clear and present danger if you invite it. For example, homosexuality in the Congo? Totally acceptable if you want to sit in a jail cell for the rest of your gay life. On the other hand, if you wish to have somebody killed, homosexual or not, this can be executed in exchange for twelve beers. They don’t even have to be cold, street kids will happily do anything for beer.

And in this same civilized, quirky city, the local brewery is holding a contest with generous prizes under the bottle caps. There are new cars (that no local could afford to drive due to gas prices), 25 pounds of wheat (that’s what I’m gunning for) and cans of corned beef (which the Belgians feed to the dogs, but the Congolese eat as a meal) that are up for grabs for lucky drinkers. My image of Congo was irregularly shaped by two Australian women, Andrea and Kirsty, who took over floor space in the Jane Goodall office in Entebbe after being evacuated from Goma by the UN last November. But, if you were to play a word association game and the words “war-torn” or “civil war” came up, Congo would probably be an educated match. It has been war-torn to bits, and the stories of countless Congolese women who have been raped by the militia and army in the north bleed true.

The early 90s were savagely turbulent, and the ugly scars of war were most pronounced in a widespread famine that saw the decimation and extinction of many wild animal species. Elephants at the zoo were slaughtered by locals and the wild rhino, giraffe, hyena, okapi, zebras, warthogs and buffaloes were wiped out completely. Gone forever.

Chantal was born in the Congo, and her serene childhood image is one of slithering snakes, fluttering butterflies (now obsolete) the heady scent of coffee plantations, abundant birds—and now, the coffee is imported from Kenya and eerily and few birds sing. The once booming copper mines are even feeling the extended reach of the recession that slammed America last year.

In the same breath, the serenity pales when Chantal tells me of the militia imposed curfews—and how she watched an elementary school classmate at the Ecole Belge killed in front of her young eyes, for opening the gate to the school after the 4:00 curfew. My jaw doesn’t drop as far as it first did, as I am becoming sensitized to the stories. Like the time Chantal and her twin sister were thrown in jail for a day for not producing official identification at age 10. Or, of the vivid memories she shares of the militia invading her home and firing rounds of bullets into the ceiling to ensure that her family wasn’t hiding any mercenaries. Apparently her father was jailed on a regular basis, and this was normal.

I eagerly listen to her Congolese stories as we drive to the chimp sanctuary. The billboards along the main roads advertise all the essentials in Lubumbashi life: cooking oil, Nokia cell phones (there are no land lines here), and skin-lightening lotions because apparently white is the new black. White skin = power. I laugh to think that in North America we strive to be the colour of a Coffee Crisp bar, and in the Congo, they’re trying to achieve the reverse. What an upside-down world.

 In the theme of an upside-down planet of confused cultural values, the strangest sight so far has been the hearse that motored by blaring what would be associated with ice cream truck style-music. I could hear it before I could see it—then the truck blurred past, towing a coffin enclosed in glass, much like a large aquarium. It was gussied up with white=ribbons and bows that seemed more suitable for a wedding, with the god-awful music pumped out over a loud speaker. Although, truth be told, the music was almost a refreshing change from the daily assault of Michael Jackson tributes blasting from the discotheques. Billy Jean, Beat It, Thriller, et al.

And this is the part where I leave you hanging, like a chimp. The chimps that lured me here will hog most of the space in my upcoming blogs–but I had to introduce you to the sandbox landscape I have settled in first. And now I plan to settle even deeper into my bed that feels like a pile of lumpy banana skins.

 This is the only time I am clean, when I am sleeping. Goodnight, bon soir. Je suis confiture. I am jam.

Categories: Congo Line: Once Upon a Time in Africa | Tags: , , , | 7 Comments

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7 thoughts on “First Impressions

  1. This is terrific, Jules–vintage you. So many distinctively whimsical turns of phrase (e.g., the bed like lumpy banana skins). And I loved the Congolese menu writer’s way with English. I’m left hanging like a hungry chimp!

  2. Great read! Jan Arden passed your blog on to me on Twitter and so glad for that. I’ve done a lot of traveling in third world countries and your descriptions are brilliant. You’ll be forever changed by this experience.

  3. Jen

    Wow. Thank you so much for writing about your experience. I look forward to your future blogs. Je suis confiture!

  4. Virginia

    Ah Jules, I am green with envy. My life long dream….the only real thing on my “bucket list” is to be able to look into a chimp’s eyes and see what he feels. Possibly the only real obsession I have had.

    I loved the pictures, kiss one of those magical beings on the lips for me.
    You are brilliant Jules.
    Love and wishes for a safe and satisfying journey,

  5. Joanne Hannan, San's sister

    I was totally immersed and entertained. This is Jules at her best when she is writing.
    Her humor and wit entertain and educate the reader.
    It never ceases to amaze me how Jules can look at any given situation and create such colour.
    Never stop writing Jules!
    Keep safe.

  6. John Wright

    that was a great read. i felt like i was there. i can’t keep up with your jetset lifestyle.

  7. kim vanderlee

    hi jules. thanks for transporting me to your part of the world, for sharing what must be a wicked experience. hard to believe where life can take us eh, good on you for experiencing everything life has to offer (and more) and then selflessly & skillfully sharing it with all of us.
    thanks. have fun. xo

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