Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Kins in Kinshasa

Having crossed 12 countries on the African continent until now, never have we felt more stressed than at the crossing of the Congo River from Brazzaville (Brazza) to Kinshasa (Kin). We were warned beforehand by others and what they said wasn’t far from the truth. At the entrance to “The Beach”, the autonomous river port of Brazza, we were decidedly charged the entrance fee for a pick-up truck, twice the fee for a taxi or even the fee that is paid by heavily loaded trucks, depending on where we tried to gain access. Our joking and bargaining didn’t help much and the atmosphere was tense from the very start. Luckily, the customs officer was friendly and courteous, wishing us God’s blessing throughout the trip. At the immigration office though, things took so incredibly long that we started worrying about catching the last boat of the day, which was scheduled for 3pm. While we were waiting, an official unsuccessfully solicited a “declaration of goods” fee.

With our stamped passports, we hurried to buy boat tickets for ourselves – no way I was going to obtain a student’s discount, but I tried anyway – and for the motorbikes. To determine the price of the bike ticket, an official would need to have a look at them. While waiting for him, we were surrounded by a gang of loud but quite all right youth, which provided a perfect opportunity for one of the many pickpockets to get a grip on our alarm clock in the one and only unlocked side-bag. When the taxation officer finally arrived, the impending departure of the boat made it virtually impossible to protest against the ridiculously high amount that he named.

And still we weren’t done: we had to choose our pick of dockers to load the bikes onto the boat. They too named a way too high amount at first, but we soon had an agreement. And were we glad to have them around… I don’t know what would have happened if these young guys hadn’t fought for us to get aboard. The rush towards the ship, the bags and loads being tossed around, people falling off the boat or being hit by a cart or by an annoyed policeman’s belt… not to name the narrow alley where the bikes had to be maneuvered in… We were melting away in our protective suits in the middle of a burning beehive.

Surprisingly, calm was restored as soon as the boat sailed off. Despite the chaos, most people had been friendly all through the afternoon, but only now we had the opportunity to really talk. And we soon found out that the Kinois are as warm-hearted, open-minded and good-tempered as so many Africans we’ve met before… and because we’re Belgian they welcomed us “home” as real kinsmen. After all, they said, Belgium is the uncle of DRC, isn’t it? Apart from the fact that I wasn’t allowed to take pictures on board and that we had to ride over piles of concrete reinforcement rods to disembark at the Kinois side, everything went fine now.

The immigration officer clearly wanted to make a good impression, but his people were annoyingly thorough and precise. By the time we were officially admitted to the DRC, customs was closed, so we had to leave our carnets de passage behind and come back the next morning. We reached the catholic mission of the Scheutists after dark. The mission proved to be a nice and quiet haven next to the port. The Belgian origin of its religious founders is clear: furniture made in Leopoldville, antique Stella-Artois ashtrays in the bar and “Belgische frietjes” with “frietsaus” at lunchtime on Sunday. And even I got a little sentimental seeing expensive Spa Reine, Cote d’Or tablets and heaps of Colruyt products at the Lebanese-run Kin-mart at the impressive Boulevard du 30 juin nearby. Unfortunately, it is not allowed to take pictures anywhere near the Congo River or near public buildings, of which there are obviously a lot in the city center, so you will have to imagine the ubiquitous potholes, puddles, piles of trash and destroyed pavement. The atmosphere isn’t all too bad even at night, but we don’t take lightly the serious warnings about violent crime in the central areas of town. Anyway, as soon as we can board a boat along the Congo River to Kisangani, or find out that we can’t, we’ll leave this expensive and tiresome city behind.

For more pics, see album "Kins in Kinshasa".

A first visit to three of the many ports of Kinshasa didn’t give us a specific departure date, but it did provide us with some insight about what to expect from boat travel in DRC. There seem to be roughly three categories. The state-run company ONATRA – only a shadow of its former self – operates twice monthly barge convoys consisting of three pusher boats, nine barges and one passenger floater with very basic cabins. It is clearly the most comfortable option. A private company operating from “Beach Rafi” allows passengers to stay on a pusher boat, where there is at least some shade and maybe rudimentary sanitary facilities. The other river transport companies have only large flat barges, providing nothing but a few tens of square meters of metal deck that are going to be packed with passengers. We can call the director of ONATRA tomorrow to enquire about the departure schedule. He announced that the convoy might leave by the end of the week or maybe next…

1 comment:

  1. Net geskypt, tof jullie te zien en horen! Veel succes op jullie wekenlange boottocht naar Kisangani, vanuit Belgie zal ik duimen dat jullie veilig aankomen aan de andere kant van Afrika.Ik zou de waardevolle spullen toch maar waterdicht inpakken en in zwembroek slapen ;.)