The Sky Congo airplane was not just an abandoned and rusting shell, it was also a symbol. To look at it wither away on the tarmac, even before disembarking, the visitor would scarcely find a more potent symbol of the country’s decay. Today there is no sign of either half of it. At the end of October it had been in one piece, one month later in two, and now it is gone. Perhaps the symbolism would be spoiled unless it disappeared.
Kinshasa is still here. Direct from an authentic European winter to this, a furnace. A 40 degree turnaround in eight hours. Passengers ripped off layers but not quick enough to evade the moisture. How many of them were here for the first time, and couldn’t know how much the Sky Congo plane not being there meant?
To the north, in Equateur province, the FARDC (Congolese army) had slain 150 rebels and retook the village of Inyele after months of guerrilla fighting. Now United Nations recce missions to the area were being held up because their helicopters were due for maintenance. To the west the humanitarian community in Goma was on high alert because Nyamulagira had erupted and a stream of lava was flowing ominously towards local villages. Routine emergencies all.
It was once known as ‘Kinshasa the beautiful’, and acknowledged as one of the most prosperous cities in Africa. Today they call it ‘Kinshasa the dump’, a monument to chaos, failure, and dysfunction. It is hard to argue.
It is the type of place that would seem better off dismantled and pieced together again from scratch. Except that it already looks like rubble now.
Candles keep it lit by night, music and drums provide the percussion, which is constant. The darkness, the heat, the beat. If there is one thing that will keep the Congolese from having absolutely nothing, it is the rhythm. It flows from them as naturally as the giant River Congo itself.
At the office the cleaner who has never uttered so much as a grunt is suddenly revelling in the New Year vibe, drowning me with ‘Bon Annee’ but reminding me there will be no ‘feting’ for him this new year’s, what with pay day being a full week away and all. I know what’s coming.
Here, if the place-names are not filled with lies (Democratic Republic of Congo) then at least they’re laced with irony. At the side of Avenue Justice there is a short woman in her early forties with high cheek bones and a beautiful smile. It is the smile, as much as the freshness of her produce, that draws you to her stall rather than one of the two on either side. The Congolese are such poor sales people, they have yet to learn consumer psychology, to grasp the fact that the begging-style technique will turn people away almost every time. If they could just learn to smile like Letishia.
She is a geography teacher, but there is only so long you can work for free, so she locked up the classroom and set up shop here, selling vegetables to ex-patriots on Avenue ‘Justice’. Next time I must chat to her about the children. Should we consider the link between foreigners getting fed and Congolese kids not getting an education? Between the smile that swayed me, saved her, and left the kids without a teacher? Would either of us have the stomach for it?
Back at the office the all-of-a-sudden jovial cleaner is back to remind me that he’s leaving now. I say splendid stuff, bon chance and bon annee, but he doesn’t stir. Then comes the line about his wife and children, and I offer a $5 bill. His thanks are profuse, but I just wonder, now why hasn’t he worked this for the past three months? Apparently he has spurned a low-grade long-term strategy, to be a little nice and courteous every day, in favour of being fraudulently nice all on one day. Couldn’t he see the financial dividends in this, if it’s money he really wants?
But rhythm is spontaneous animal with no sense of past or future. It is the here and now that rules in these parts. Long-term planning is a white-boys past time, that fold around here just don’t do. Now why would anyone provide good service to obtain money when there is a chance one can do so by simply uttering, ‘give me your money’? And why would one repair a car engine efficiently, in good time, every time, and for a fair price, in order to command repeat business, when more money can be made in the short-term by not giving a toss and charging by the hour?
Such things seem trivial, but such things go to the heart of the utter dysfunction of Kinshasa, where science and commerce were most certainly not born, but where music just might have been. To have seen it when it was beautiful would have been such a privilege, because it seems so incredible that this was once true.
Still, there are so many lessons to be learnt among the rubble, there is a privilege in being here now, too. One day soon, it might all disappear.
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