DRC – Spencer Conway (Issue 13)

In Luanda, the capital, I once again found the Angolan people to be welcoming and had no problem wandering out at night to experience what the city had to offer. My biggest regret was my lack of Portuguese, but the sheer enthusiasm of the locals to try and break down this communication barrier, made this a very special experience for me and up to this point it is unequivocally my favourite country in Africa.

This was in sharp contrast to what I was going to find in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo. The area was made famous by the exploits of Henry Morton Stanley in the 19th C as he attempted to track the source of the Congo River. This piqued the interest of the insane King Leopold of Belgium and subsequently created the ‘Scramble for Africa’. From this point onwards DRC has probably suffered more than any country in the world. But I still had to get there to see it for myself.

Instead of taking the ‘traditional’ route to Kinshasa through the border at Matadi, I decided to take a gamble and test myself by taking a secondary road through such exotic sounding villages as Maquela de Zombo, Banza Sosso and Ngidinga. My Michelin map marked it as a passable road, just not in the rainy season. It proved to be a remarkable decision, as I was thrown into the centre of a tropical jungle with no cars, bicycles, people, electricity or buildings of any kind. And to be honest, no road.

What Michelin called a road turned out to be a track with ruts metres deep, rivers and puddles as high as my waist and bordering the path in a thick wall, the lushest tropical forest I had ever seen. Tarzan would have been proud to hack through it but it was so dense there is no way he would have been able to swing from tree to tree. The sound of the forest, created by the monkeys, birds and God knows what other creatures lurking in the undergrowth, was deafening.

It was a punishing ordeal for me and the bike. I fell often, getting caught up in the dense undergrowth or slipping in the mud, and was drenched to the bone with sweat, my vest glued to my skin and my bike trousers beginning to chafe and rub in uncomfortable places. This was the hardest ride of my life and I had to change my maxim from border by border, to day by day, to kilometre by kilometre and eventually to a 100m by 100m.

The first day I covered 30kms in eight hours, at times having to hack a path with a machete. This was totally draining as I had to park up the bike and cut through 20 metres of tangled branches, lianas and dead wood that had taken over the route. I then had to retrieve the bike and negotiate the track, paddling with my feet to stop myself from falling over. It must have been thirty degrees, but I had to keep my protective gear on to prevent myself being cut to shreds. I kept slipping and getting snagged on branches until I eventually got the bike through. I then had to repeat the process over and over again. Obviously this was not the thoroughfare my optimistic mind had conjured when studying, what I now realized, was a seriously out of date map. On the second day I managed 40kms in nine hours, and on the third I completed 120. I felt incredibly proud of my achievements as I had to work really hard to gain ground. For the first time I really felt I deserved the rather pretentious title of Adventure Motorcyclist rather than just a tourer. This was compounded by the fact that the border was really just a clearing in the jungle with three dilapidated huts, one of which I assumed to be official, judging by the bent flagpole outside it, sporting a filthy half torn Democratic Republic of Congo flag. I removed my helmet, wiped the sweat and flies off my face and out of my eyes, and approached the customs, reaching into my rucksack for my passport. The official, in a ragged dirty, dark blue uniform with torn lapels, was asleep on a grey plastic school chair. When he woke and saw me, he nearly fell over backwards and his eyes widened in astonishment.

I queried, “Is this immigration?” In Pidgin English he asked, “How do you come here, where are your friends? This road is finished. How do you come here?” I pointed back in the direction I had come from and said, “I am travelling alone, from that direction”. He was astonished, stood up, looked me up and down, whistling at the same time, and told me, in French, that no foreigners had been here for four years. He informed me that even the locals don’t use this route. “It is finished, this road bad road, no good.” I felt great. I loved that comment.

I think he may have been a bit out of touch with border procedures, not surprising really, considering the heavy traffic passing through, and he spent a full five minutes studying my passport upside down. When it came to getting an official stamp, it was just wishful thinking on my part. The Border Guard stationed himself behind his desk, and motioned me to take a seat, pointing to an upturned breeze block with a piece of hardboard balanced on top of it. He made a futile attempt to appear organized, fiddling in the two broken drawers of his desk, and shuffling a few papers around. He eventually pulled out a stamp with a flourish, but it was not to be, as the ink had obviously dried up on the cracked pad many years earlier. I made do with some of his unintelligible scribblings, but not before half-heartedly arguing that I would not be able to get into the next country without a stamp. I realized that it was futile and cut myself short. I thanked him for his help, gave him some left-over corned beef and a handful of chillies. He shook my hand enthusiastically and said, “Merci beaucoup, Monsieur Le Blanc, et bon chance, bon journee.”

He followed me out to the bike, whistling again when he saw it, and proceeded to look at himself in the rear view mirror, pulling all sorts of faces, while holding on to the handlebars. I drank a litre of water, trying not to cough it up through laughter, as I watched his poses, then kitted up, shook his hand again, and headed off waving and laughing to myself. I wondered if he would still be sitting there, in four years’ time, still on the government payroll, patiently waiting for the next lunatic on a motorbike to pass through. I was in adventurer’s heaven and I sang Bob Marley songs at the top of my voice until my tunelessness started annoying me. After a tough couple of hours riding, where I had to maintain exhausting concentration, I finally emerged from the jungle and reached the junction that freed me from this punishing path, as it miraculously turned into the asphalt road leading to Kinshasa. I felt euphoric.

My mood changed completely though as soon as I hit the outskirts of Kinshasa. It was undoubtedly the hottest, dirtiest, most unsafe and least friendly place I have ever had the displeasure of driving in to. As the jungle gave way to sprawling shanty towns, I stopped at a scrappy one-pump petrol station, staffed by a large woman, in a torn Esso uniform which revealed half her grubby bra. I asked directions to the centre of the city but was met with a blank expression, as though I was mad. No wonder, as I subsequently found out, it was going to take me two more gruelling, boiling, traffic-jammed hours to get into the centre and she had probably never ventured that far in her life.

Kinshasa has an estimated twelve million people and is incredibly poor. The majority of people survive by selling what they can on the streets, like small 200 gram plastic bags of water. The whole city is covered layers deep in these bags (the inventor of plastic has a lot to answer for). Others mill around holding twenty pairs of sunglasses in each hand in some octopus imitating act, while others carry an exceptional number of baguettes on their heads and are armed with a knife and a tub of margarine.
Jostling for space are the food sellers: chicken in peanut sauce, fish wrapped in palm leaves and caterpillars and crocodile meat (the oysters and caviar of Kinshasa’s culinary scene), or chikwangwe, the leaf wrapped blocks of fermenting cassava paste that to the uninitiated resembles warm carpet glue. That is being overly polite and even my culturally adapted taste buds struggled to keep chikwangwe down when being watched enthusiastically for a reaction. Then there are the fruit, mobile phone, cigarette and soft drink sellers, balancing ridiculous numbers of products on their heads. Needless to say all the brands are fake. Sellers have all sorts of demonstrations to show you how genuine they are; varying from displaying the “original” sunglasses case as proof, to burning the lens with a lighter to show you it is real glass.

Standards do drop though, believe you, me. One particularly enthusiastic salesman tried to sell me a pair of sunglasses with one arm missing. Do I look like Van Gogh? I also had a less than normal thief, halfway inside my rucksack, before I noticed a slight tugging on my shoulder. He had managed to completely open one of the zips and was just about to relieve me of my belongings when something must have got snagged. I turned round to confront him and he just fell into the road and rolled around laughing manically. He had obviously lost a few marbles as he was filthy beyond normal standards and was dribbling. There were three Algerian UN troops standing on a corner, smoking cigarettes and ordering coffee from a street seller standing behind his two-wheeled portable stall. They just looked over and shrugged. They had seen it all before and worse, I suppose. I transferred my rucksack from my back and strapped it to my front. That would be the last time I would ever wear it on my back.

Adding to the mayhem are the ubiquitous yellow and blue taxis and mini vans, careering around with their sweating human cargo, bouncing along the potholed roads. On every street corner are the Cheges, or street children (named after Che Guevara for some odd reason), who are feral and intimidating; demanding money and calling you “Le Blanc” or worse if you don’t oblige.

Seated on rickety wooden stools dotted around the city street corners are the money changers who are always well fed women (I’m being polite), in bright floral dresses with huge wads of Central African Francs, a thousand of which might buy you a soft drink.

Everywhere there is French and Lingala simultaneously machine gunning out of hundreds of mouths as people try to make their life heard. Among all of this are the occasional fat cats with brand new American 4 x 4’s, immaculate suits, mirror-shiny leather shoes, RayBans and mobile phones, scornfully ignoring the masses surrounding their trucks trying to sell their wares. Finally pushing, jostling and dragging themselves around the capital are the disabled and deformed and the cart pushers with their unfeasibly heavy loads, muscular bodies and shaved heads glistening with perspiration.

It was a scene at the port that distressed me the most. I went to check on tickets for the ferry to the capital of Congo, Brazzaville which was visible on the opposite bank of the famous river, when a scene unfolded in front of me straight out of a horror film. The disabled traditionally travel across on the ferry on hand or foot pedalled tricycles (depending on the nature of their disability) and load up their contraptions to snapping point with goods to sell for a meagre profit in Brazzaville. In the past they were allowed to travel free but this privilege has been taken away as they are suspected drug runners. However, the police refuse to physically touch them or search them as they are believed to have special powers. So the disabled have been forced to run the gauntlet of beatings as they disembark. A man with hideously shrivelled legs was dragging himself across as the police beat him about the head with batons. It was so vicious that his eye immediately split, and swelled to the size of a tennis ball. Others had their heads split open with rifle butts while the lucky ones got away with a few whippings from cut off pieces of heavy duty hosepipe being wielded by these despicable police. It made me feel nauseous and I could not stay any longer to find out about my ticket. It was too much for me.

This article first appeared in Issue 13 of OVERLAND magazine.