Arrival in Kinshasa
Trip Start Jan 15, 2009
34Trip End Feb 15, 2009
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I spent about an hour hours in the Kenya Airways lounge, had two cups of coffee and several glasses of water, and read, I was at the end of the Dorothy Dunnett book and couldn't put it down. The flight announcements are so exotic in Nairobi: while I waited flights were announced to Antananarivo, Guangzhou, Dar-es-Salaam, and Bujumbura. Signs point to gates for Mogadishu, Lamu, Arusha, and Zanzibar. It doesn't get more exotic than that.
My flight to Kinshasa left at 8:15. It wasn't completely full as the previous one had been so I had an empty seat next to me which was very nice. I flew back over the center of Africa and landed in Kinshasa on their very bumpy runway at nearly 10:00.
I was toward the front of the line so I made it through immigration fairly quickly. But as I entered the baggage claim area, it was clear that no one was there to meet me. There must have been a communications problem. I sent the schedule out a month or more ago, and several follow-up e-mails but sometimes e-mails don't make it everywhere. That seems to be a growing problem. I'm going to have to start telephoning everyone before I leave on these trips.
Kinshasa is not a good airport in which to arrive unaccompanied. One doesn't want to look like an easy mark or a number of things can happen: hassles by police or customs people who want a bribe, or worse with an unknown taxi driver. So I talked to the hotel agent holding up a Grand Hotel sign and asked if there were transportation arrangements for the Memling. He said no, but that he could arrange transport for me, which I accepted. I'd pay for the service of course, but now there was someone the airport people knew who had "taken charge of me" so I wasn't unaccompanied any more. All the same I called a local church member and told him with whom I was leaving, and made sure the hotel man heard me on the phone. Now someone else knew I was with him; just another precaution.
We chatted a bit as we waited. He filled me in on the local news: the situation is calm in Kinshasa, there is still trouble in eastern Congo around Goma, the economy is not improving, and the manager of the Grand Hotel just died of sorcery.
My suitcase was one of the first out. I even got to skip opening my suitcase for customs.
The hotel agent walked me out to the highway, since the car he had called couldn't drive into the airport parking lot. Someone decided the parking fee should be very high, the driver told me later it was $20, which is astronomical here. So a large parking lot sits virtually empty, and taxis and busses line up on the highway outside the airport compound. And people arriving have to drag their suitcases several hundred meters through the parking lot and out a police checkpoint to reach transport. My taxi was an older model Mercedes Benz with bright red velour seat covers. It was a Huggy Bear kind of look. The older driver started the fairly long driver into town. We chatted as we moved slowly on the mangled road.
He told me the local news too: when President Obama was elected there was dancing in the streets, literally. And lots of drinking in the streets too, apparently.
He also told me that the manager of the Grand Hotel one of the two good hotels in Kinshasa had died unexpectedly. I asked what had killed him. "Sorcery", was the answer. "He was poisoned" said the driver. "Someone wanted his job, so they poisoned him" he went on, "there is too much poisoning going on now. When Mr. Mobutu was President, that didn't happen, but now, all the time." I let him talk: "the Americans [who own the hotel - it used to be an InterContinental] refused to let the next man in line be the new manager because they think he is guilty. We slept outside for three days as part of the mourning [le deuil]. He was a very good man, with young children, he was generous with his employees, always willing to help, and now they killed him. And what do they get? Nothing. They killed a man for nothing."
Such stories are not uncommon. Someone told me again recently "there are no natural deaths in Africa, if you die, even if you're old, people assume someone must have killed you." Did someone really poison the manager? I don't know. But this man is convinced that it happened. You hear stories like this all the time.
The roads had gotten worse even since my visit in October. The quality of fuel has apparently gone down too. The Mercedes abruptly stalled and the driver coasted over to the side of the road. "There is water in the diesel" he said "they don't maintain the fuel tanks anymore at the gas stations, so water accumulates at the bottom, and if you happen to fill up when the tank is nearly empty, you get water in your fuel." Something like a choke had been installed in the Mercedes (do you need a choke with a diesel engine?) In any event he was turning the key and fiddling with something on the left side of the steering column and finally got the motor to start again. We pulled back out onto the road and continued. This happened four times on the way into Kinshasa.
It's the rainy season now and that always degrades the roads. Some potholes or just gaps in the entire surface were so deep that the car scraped it's bottom as we went in or out. It took an hour to get to the hotel. As we got close, the taxi driver said the fare would be $100. Last time I was here it was $50. "This is the new price" he said. I negotiated him down, until we split the difference. It was still highway robbery, but only in a figurative sense. This was better than risking it in the literal sense....
After checking in and settling in, I called my local contacts and they said they'd come to the hotel as soon as they were able. I worked in the room until they came. Jacob came right away, apologizing for not meeting me at the hotel. He hadn't checked his e-mail in the last days, and never had received my origional messages. Kapingamulume Mukendi came by later on as well. We discussed our plans for the next days and the local situation, so I could get up to speed. The main goal of this short visit is to take some steps toward getting these folks organized and recognized by the state so they can safely and legally meet.
I'll make an early night of it tonight.