Arrival in the DRC

Trip Start Jan 18, 2017
Trip End Feb 05, 2017

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Where I stayed
Memling Hotel

Flag of Congo - The Dem. Repub.  , Kinshasa,
Thursday, January 19, 2017

It's always hard to believe that a new Roman year is beginning. The pace of time accelerates as I age, I’m sure of it.

As usual for 21 years now, I start a new year of writing in Africa, the Congo to be precise. This should be a not-quite three week trip which will take me to the Congo, Cameroon, Togo and Côte d’Ivoire, with a last stop in Montreal on the way home. Clothing for the Montreal stop, though only lasting one full day and two partials, take up half my suitcase. Winter in Montreal requires an overcoat. That’s one of the challenges of visiting the tropics and the far north in a single trip.

I left home at 9:30 on Wednesday morning after arriving home at 01:00 am that same morning from a trip to Saint Louis to visit my parents and grandmother. It was wonderful to see them and have our conversations about books, and ideas, and history, and the Bible. I value our conversations more with each passing day.

My 11:55 flight to Minneapolis left on time. I was happy to receive a free upgrade to first class. Last year, for the first time, I just barely qualified for Diamond status on Delta Airlines. That requires traveling 125,000 miles in the year, among other hoops. One advantage of that status is frequent free upgrades on domestic flights, which I have already begun enjoying.

From Minneapolis, I caught a flight to Paris Charles de Gaulle, the northern of two major airports in Paris. We arrived in the pre-dawn hours and made our final approach on a clear night. The lights of Paris twinkled down below.

On arrival, after clearing security again, I waited in the lounge for 90 minutes before boarding the flight for Kinshasa. Boarding required a long bus ride from Terminal 2 to a remote location where the Air France Airbus 330 was waiting. Congolese passengers grumbled that they’re always the worst served: the worst planes, the worst stand locations, the worst service etc. "We have the second to the last plane in the line" they muttered, “we must be the second worst country in the world. That last plane must be for Eritrea”. They laughed with dark humor.

Grumbling is a Congolese specialty, I have learned, and there is often good reason. It’s a sort of national pastime, which is understandable when one comes from such a difficult place; a failed state due initially to grievous imperial trampling of human rights (for more on that read King Leopold’s Ghost), to colonial mismanagement and almost unimaginable corruption in the eras that followed (read, In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz, and Blood River - A Journey To Africa's Broken Heart).

We left Paris an hour late, due to a passenger who checked in, checked luggage but never boarded the plane. This requires going through the cargo hold to retrieve the suitcase before departure. That happens with bizarre regularity on such flights, though I can’t easily imagine a scenario that would lead to that occurrence. The flight was made much longer by a child who whined and cried almost the whole flight. As is often the case, his parents made no effort to quiet him; he was just left to cry. I was thankful for my in-ear headphones.

We finally arrived at N’djili airport 19:30, an hour late, were bused to the new airport terminal (I don’t miss the old one), and waited in line to have our passports checked, and our Yellow Fever cards verified. My suitcase was one of the first out. I rolled it to the security checkpoint and ran it through the scanner (one must do this on arrival in many African countries) then rolled it out into the heavy tropical night. The humidity was palpable. 

Hundreds of people waited behind a fence, some holding signs with names on them, most not. I spotted Justin in the crush and we signaled each other with a nod of the head, which in Africa goes from chin down to chin up, not the inverse as we do in the West. André appeared at my side, and took my suitcase as we walked to the car. We exchanged greetings and handshakes before arriving at the little unmarked taxi. We were happy to see each other after a longer than usual separation. At the lot gate we were made to pay eight dollars for parking; they had waited an hour, but eight dollars in a country where most people live on less than one a day, is highway robbery. Still, the market appears to support it, and the people living on a dollar a day never come to the airport, so….

As we started down the road to Kinshasa, I asked if everything was calm in town. I wondered about the election unrest. “Everything is very calm” was the reply: “very calm.” The drive in was a study in the unexpected and unusual, as usual. Decrepit cars, vans, busses and trucks wove back and worth belching clouds of diesel smoke. Passengers risked their lives running across eight lanes of traffic, or at least what should have been eight lanes. In reality this is usually reduced to two lanes going either way. The two outer lanes on both sides are usually taken by taxis of various sizes which stop regardless of lanes whenever a passenger beckons. The remaining lanes are clogged by vehicles weaving back and forth, at various speeds, looking for an open way. Most windscreens are scarred from the grit in the air, compounded by dust from the Sahara. This makes it more difficult to see in the dark, oncoming headlights make giant blinding halos, and the grungy dark clothing worn by pedestrians camouflages them and makes many nearly invisible as they run in protective groups to cross the road.

We came to a pedestrian overpass, constructed especially to protect people on foot from doing the Congolese version of the running of the bulls. But few pedestrians are willing to walk up the ramps for safety’s sake; it takes too long and too much energy. So they still prefer to run the gauntlet in the dark. The driver had to break hard to avoid hitting a group of runners. “Ohh!” my fellow passengers complained. “Why do people have to be complicated?” one lamented. An excellent question, why do they?

We drove through dark streets into the old center of town to the Memling Hotel, first opened in 1937, the original Belgian hotel built by Sabena Airways. It’s still one of the better hotels in town. It’s not my usual hotel, it usually costs more than I like to pay (as of course they all do in Kinshasa) but they had a special promotional Internet price this time and with the current risk of social unrest (more on that anon), I felt it worth paying a little more for the extra security. Places like the Memling would be protected in the event of unrest, which my usual hotel would not. I checked in, gave Justin $40, in US dollars, for the taxi which is a very good price here, and we agreed to meet tomorrow to visit some new people attending services.

The Congo is first on this trip because of the complications of receiving a visa this time. I had requested one for my pre-Feast- of-Tabernacles trip in October. But the visa was very late. The authorities seem to be issuing with an eye-dropper these days because of the civil unrest in the country. The president’s term, his last allowed by the constitution, ended last month on December 20th, and elections were to have been held in November, but they were cancelled, officially due to difficulties in establishing the voter rolls. Elections have been rescheduled for December 2017, and the current president announced he will stay on until then. There have been opposition demonstrations, of course, and at least 17 demonstrators have been killed. I didn’t get my visa until near the end of November, and it is only valid for three months, so I had to act fairly quickly.

Unrest could boil over at any time, so care must be taken, but things have likely settled into status quo until the next benchmark dates arrive. The US government travel advisory says:

“The Department of State warns U.S. citizens to avoid unnecessary travel to the DRC. On December 23, 2016, family members of U.S. government personnel and non-emergency personnel were allowed to return to Kinshasa. This replaces the Travel Warning dated December 2, 2016.

There is ongoing instability and sporadic violence in many parts of the DRC. Very poor transportation infrastructure throughout the country and poor security conditions in eastern DRC make it difficult for the U.S. Embassy to provide consular services anywhere outside of Kinshasa. All U.S. citizens should have evacuation plans that do not rely solely on U.S. government assistance.”

In the event of trouble, it’s sort of every man for himself…. But sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.
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Bernard on

What an adventure! Thanks for the update. We are praying for safety and that your trip will be blessed.

Clyde Kilough on

All the best on this trip. Looking forward to reading your blog as always. Greetings to all the brethren from us here.

mary hendren on

Thanks for the update and mention of new folks that will be attending services. We will keep you in our prayers and trust that everyone will be encouraged by your visit.

Beverly Lofty on

May God be with you every step of the way on this journey and keep you safe always :-) Thank you for taking us with you to visit our brethren in such away as we stay safe and can actually feel as though we are there :-)

Karen C. on

At the beginnings of these trips you always sound more like an adventurer than a minister. Though, I suppose if you're not *seeking* adventure it just comes with the territory, doesn't it? Thank you again for sharing the minutiae of your journeys. They are fascinating!

Cecil Maranville on

Hey Joel. I was able to get & read In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz. A tragic story... I am thankful God is calling some people to understand His government and their potential!

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