Arrival in the Congo
Trip Start Sep 27, 2008
13Trip End Oct 22, 2008
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I left Cincinnati last night for Paris: Delta flight 44, in an older 676. The flight was slightly late leaving, but an hour early arriving which was very helpful since I should have had a connection time of just one hour to go through security checks, and change terminals. I've done that before and it's almost a footrace. Arriving an hour early left me time to have a breakfast snack in the Air France Lounge before boarding the Airbus 330 going to Kinshasa.
The flight was uneventful. I had the chance to watch the latest Indiana Jones movie: pretty good, but not the best by any means, it didn't feel as spontaneous as the others. We didn't see much out the windows along the way: the Mediterranean was all overcast, and most of Africa was as well. Even the Sahara, which is usually clearly visible even from 39,000,000 feet, was obscured by clouds or blurred by vapor. We flew over Algeria, Niger, Nigeria, Cameroon, Gabon and the other Congo. There are two Congos - one a former French colony now called Republic of the Congo, and one formerly Belgian; the one where I was going. Belgian Congo started out not as a proper colony but as the personal property of King Leopold I. That was an awful time for the Congolese since the king of the Belgians treated the huge land tract essentially as a cash cow, using horrible and disgusting methods to get the people to provide rubber and other products he wanted. Adam Hoschfeld has written an excellent if gut-wrenching account of that period, called Leopold's Ghosts.
The capitals of the two Congos are commonly used in Africa to differentiate the two countries. Instead of saying "the Democratic Republic of the Congo" which is a mouthful, people here usually say "Congo - Kinshasa" and for the other: "Congo - Brazzaville." The cities face each other on opposite banks of the Congo River. The respective armies have sometimes shot at each other across the water.
As we approached Brazza, as it's often called, and began our descent we hit some pretty severe turbulence. We hit some updrafts and holes impressive enough to make the passengers go totally quiet, before eliciting a few groans and gasps. Thankfully that didn't last long. The air smoothed out, and we could start to see the ground through heavy, dark clouds. Approaching the Congo each time, I can't help but think of Joseph Conrad's book Heart of Darkness, which was set here. The gloomy shadow on the primeval forests, seen through holes in the rainclouds in the fading daylight, emanated a mysterious and slightly threatening feeling. Or maybe it was just me.
It was dusk by the time we flew over Brazzaville; people were turning the lights on in the city. I could still see the river, however, as we flew over it into the Kinshasa area, and then banked left to start the looping approach the airport.
The landing was rough as they always are on this strip. It is the most uneven concrete landing strip on which I have ever landed. Landing here always feels like the plane has had a flat tire. I was sure of it the first time I came in here, and I have seen a plane actually taxi in with a flat tire from the rough landing.
There is no parallel taxiway to the runway, so the planes just stop as soon as they can, make a U-turn and taxi back up the runway to the terminal. There were white UN planes and helicopters visible, and Ethiopian Airlines plane was departing, and there were two Hewa Bora liners being loaded. That airline isn't even supposed to exist anymore its safety record is so bad; it's had so many fatal air crashes it's forbidden to fly to Europe, but there they were loading none the less.
I deplaned with the other passengers and headed for the terminal. As I waited in line to show my passport, a man called my name. When I looked up, he asked in halting English if I was Mr. Meeker. When I responded in French, he relaxed and smiled. He told me his English was not very good. He was an airport fixer, sent in by the people expecting me to expedite my arrival formalities. He is known to the airport authorities and trusted, so he can bend the rules in favor of his clients. He asked for my passport, and though I'm never entirely comfortable with this kind of thing, since he knew my name, and smiled and handed it over. He would take care of guiding it through immigration. Someone else took the suitcase claim check; he would collect that for me. I was ushered to a chair where I could sit while waiting. Even though I had been seated for most of the last 20 hours or so, I acquiesced, this was a favor I was being shown. Jacob was there and so was Kapingamulume Mukendi a long-time church member - close to thirty years - with whom I had been put into contact by Rees Ellis, an elder with a sister fellowship in Belgium. Mr. Mukendi hadn't had a visit from a Church elder in nearly 15 years! Neither Jacob nor he was expecting the other, so I introduced them and we talked to get to know one another while we waited.
My suitcase showed up and then my passport. We checked carefully to make sure the passport had the proper entry stamp in it. If that is missing it can mean trouble (and paying a bribe) later one. Then we headed to the taxi for the drive into Kinshasa to the hotel. We drove through night air thick with ground fog and diesel fumes and through traffic thicker still. It takes 30 to 40 minutes to get to the city center from the airport if there is not too much traffic. There was a great deal, but not enough to really slow us down.
On arrival, I paid the taxi driver the going rate of 20 dollars (gas prices!), and checked it. We agreed to meet tomorrow morning and work out our schedule for what most urgently needs to be done during my 3 days here. Tonight I think I will sleep well.