Into the Congo
Trip Start Feb 13, 2011
30Trip End Mar 14, 2011
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I checked out and got a hotel taxi at 06:00 for the drive to the airport. A marked contrast from yesterday, it only took about 15 minutes to get to the airport in the cool predawn darkness. Check-in and departure formalities went quickly, so I had time for a cup of coffee in the airport before boarding the flight to Kinshasa, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. There are actually two rival Congos across the Congo River from each other. The DRC is a former Belgian colony that under Mobutu used to be known as Zaire. The Republic of the Congo is a former French colony, quickly arranged by the French to prevent the Belgians from completely dominating central Africa. The stories of both nations are sad, but the Belgian side had it worse. Adam Hochschild’s engrossing book King Leopold’s Ghost tells the wretched story of the beginnings of the Belgian Congo. This is the area that was the setting for Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness as well.
A glimpse of national frustration and character was available on the ride out to the plane. At the departure lounge, we had to board a bus to take us to the plane and for once the trip was long enough to merit using motorized transportation. But on the way out a loud and animated argument broke out between two groups of female passengers sitting on opposite sides of the half-empty bus. It turned into a shouting match in Lingala, and went on almost all the way to the plane. I thought for a moment they might come to blows, there was threatening body language, but other passengers interposed themselves and managed to keep the lid on. We took off on time and as I had a window seat, I could follow progress on the ground when there were no clouds.
We flew over Mt Longonot a huge dormant volcano in the Great Rift Valley. Both were stunning in the air which had been cleared by a rain.
Later we flew over Lake Victoria, a very large body of water. With a bit of mist on the edges, even from 36000 ft I couldn’t see the shores when we were over the center. Then I recognized Lake Muhazi in Rwanda and could even pick out the approximate area where the village of Giti is located, the place I visited one of our congregations a few weeks back. I could spot the Virunga volcanoes on the border of Rwanda, Uganda and Congo, this is one of the last areas, if not the last one on earth where the gentle mountain gorillas live a precarious existence.
Then we flew over the endless sea of the rainforest jungle of central Congo; tree canopies for as far as the eye can see. It is impressive and a bit frightening due its immensity. Then we hit clouds and I could see no more.
The flight took three hours and went without incident. The landing was hard and jolting as usual on the uneven runway.
Formalities went quickly. I talked to Jacob Pembelongo on the phone briefly. He had a business trip to make and was actually flying to Nairobi on the plane on which I arrived, but we arranged to meet at a door and talk briefly (these things can be arranged). He’ll be back for the weekend and we’ll talk more then. Justin Tshikuma-Manenga and another member were waiting for me with a taxi, Jacob told me as soon as I came out.
As I wanted for my bag, yet another argument broke out between passengers waiting in the area. It escalated into another shouting match before uniformed officials intervened and calmed things down. I get the impression things are tense in the Congo…. After collecting my suitcase which came toward the end of the line of bags, I walked passed customs without being stopped and stepped outside.
We finally arrived at the Grand Hotel, one of two hotels sure for foreigners in Kinshasa. There has recently been an assassination attempt against the president which means things might be on edge in town. I have looked for other hotels, but I haven’t yet found one that inspired confidence or would save any money. At the Grand Hotel I had reserved one of the huts behind the pool. They’re old and moldy, and certainly need refreshing, but they’re half the price of the overpriced rooms in the main tower.
Plans have been made for leadership seminars to start tomorrow. I was happy to learn that nothing more had been planned for this day. I needed to rest and prepare for the activities ahead, there will be three busy days.
So the rest of the day I’ll spend on "office" work, and recuperating a bit for the last days of the trip.