Out of Africa

Trip Start Feb 13, 2011
Trip End Mar 14, 2011

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Flag of France  , Île-de-France,
Monday, March 14, 2011

Out of Africa! Yesterday was my last day for this trip on what used to be called the Dark Continent. Joseph Conrad set his fascinating and disturbing novel Heart of Darkness on and around the Congo River on the banks of which I have spent the last 5 days. While I'm happy to visit the people I serve in this region and enjoy certain aspects of travel there, there is always a palpable sense of relaxation once I hear the wheels thud up into the plane and the well doors shut with a final ker-chunk. I’m not alone in this; it can easily be observed in other expatriate travelers as well.

Jacob, Justin and Victor came to the hotel at 09:30 yesterday morning to discuss the needs of the local church members. The economic situation keeps getting worse and worse and every time people there think they have done everything they can to stretch their meager means, they find they must stretch some more. Many people don’t know as they wake up in the morning if or what they will eat that day. Time is spent going from friend to friend and family member to family member to see if anyone has a little, not extra, but something he can share for the day.

After considering the situation, I gave them several hundred dollars to be used to purchase staple grains: rice, manioc and corn meal. They will be able to buy close to a thousand pounds, to be distributed among the families. This will be enough that people will be able to, if not have a balanced diet, at least eat their fill for several months. With these staples provided, they can work to supplement their diet with a little fish or some plant protein from time to time. The three men were very appreciative and on behalf of the members in Kinshasa, thanked the church members in the US who had made my trip and this help possible.

I hope we will be able to set up a Good Works program soon in our new association. There are various needs for assistance in this part of the world, food assistance like this, and well as help to have suitable church halls, and health programs and the like. What is a little for us in the West can go a long way in sub-Saharan Africa.

By the time we finished it was close to lunch time, so I let them go, asking Justin to come back with a taxi to take me to the airport at 18:00. The hotel charges $80 for a taxi. Justin can get one for 20 or 25, although of course up to a point, you get what you pay for….

I spent the rest of the day on my laptop taking care of office work. My "virtual office" follows me almost wherever I go, and there is constantly work to be done. Often I begin the planning for my next trip while still engaged on the previous one.

At 17:00 I showered one last time and then went to check out of the room and settle the bill. I was ready and waiting at 18:00, but as things often go, Justin took more time to arrive with the taxi. We were able to leave at 18:30. We left in twilight and it was soon dark as we rode the 25 km (16 or 17 miles) to the airport. The trip took an hour. Sections of the road out had been improved, but other parts were broken and nothing more than dust and rocks. Traffic was still heavy so there were clouds of dust blowing everywhere, I could feel it in my nose and eyes. To the dust were added clouds of diesel smoke, clearly seen in the headlights as they belched from poorly tuned bush taxis. Along the side of the roads night market stands were lit by dim electric bulbs or just as often by oil lamps.

We arrived at the airport around 19:30 and then began the next set of challenges. Elements of the presidential guard, which don’t get paid regularly either, are allowed to enforce security at the airport and collect whatever they can in the way of money to “facilitate” travel, meaning they will complicate it if one doesn’t pay. Already, taxis don’t like to drive into the parking lot, because there is a flat fee of 6 dollars, a fortune for local people. So the large parking lot sits empty, and passengers pull and tug their baggage all the way across the lot to the terminal building. We did the same. At the gate, the presidential guards refused to let Justin go in which me. He’s a civil servant and had every right to go in, but they wanted money. The exchange was in Lingala, but a got a word here and there and it wasn’t hard to follow the gist: the protocols had just changed (of course) and now he wasn’t allowed to go in. He protested and showed his government ID. The guards were adamant; Justin was too. I stood there absently and projected my best “bored” look, so they wouldn’t think I was “motivated” to bring the affair to a quick close.  Finally the guards mentioned that a solution to the protocol change could be arranged for 2000 Francs. Justin offered to let them hold his ID, till he came back, which of course didn’t interest them. Finally we outwaited them and Justin was able to walk up to the terminal with me. I had to pay the $50 departure tax in cash before entering the building, and then shook Justin’s hand and thanked him again for his help. We said we would keep in touch and that I hoped to be back soon.

Airport check-in is convoluted in Kinshasa. One deals with many more government officials from different ministries than with airline personnel. One must show travel documents at the entrance to the terminal. Then there is a security check during which officials rifle through suitcases. Then at the check-in counter it is not Air France employees, but two security officers (from competing ministries) who check passports and visas before approving passengers to leave. Then one can finally check in, receiving a boarding pass and claim check for luggage. Then one proceeds to another security official who checks passports and visas again before allowing passengers to pass through a door to the immigration desks where yet another agent checks documents and stamps one out of the country. Often these agents make passengers do their work for them. “Find me the visa” they order, and wise passengers have already memorized the page on which the visa is located as well as the page where the entry stamp with the date is located. After this one must wait at yet another door to be allowed into the security area complete with metal detector and x-ray machine. That hurdle past, the Nirvana of the departure lounge has finally been reached. I use the word Nirvana advisedly because there’s really nothing much there but chairs.

Since I’m a frequent flyer I’m offered a free coke and some peanuts in the business class lounge (no expense is spared…). I wait there with the other expats until it’s time to board. We then enter a bus for the ride out to the plane. We must show our papers again and the Air France crew goes through our hand luggage for security reasons. I was happy to be informed that Air France had upgraded me to their business light class, a sort of intermediate class between coach and business. The seats at least were larger and more comfortable, which was much appreciated. I dropped off to sleep almost at once, waking just long enough have a glass of Champagne and eat dinner.

When I woke, the flight map showed we were over Marseilles, an area where my wife and I lived for three years, and where we have very pleasant memories of the Mediterranean coast. We arrived on time in Paris, and I made my way to the Frequent Flyer/Business Class Lounge, where very nice shower stalls are available. I had a shower shave and changed into cold weather clothes.

Now I have a few more hours to wait before boarding for the final leg of my trip which will take me home to my family.
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Rosie Seltzer on

I've followed your trip from beginning to the end. After reading all the good you were able to accomplish with visiting and helping the brethren, and the various adversities you faced, all I can say is, "Well done thou good and faithful servant"! Your writings and pictures have enriched my prayers for God's Kingdom! Thank you Mr. Meeker!

reba walker on

Hello and welcome home, Joel! This was my first time to be able to follow one your trips through your blogs and it was a nice trip, sitting in my comfy chair and reading all your adventures. Thanks for writing and helping us to see a little of what life is like in those parts of Africa. Hope you get some rest and time with your family before your next trip.

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