Journey to Kinshasa

Othy and my journey to Kinshasa was an adventure from the very start. Our flight was with Kenya Airways with a stopover in Nairobi. Upon arriving in Nairobi we learned that our connecting flight had been delayed 12 hours for no legitimate reason and instead of the flight departing at noon it would depart at midnight! I couldn’t help but chuckle at the large crowd of frustrated and animated Congolese people surrounding the Kenya airways help desk. They were frustrated for good reason because their flight was probably selected as the one to cancel because the airline would not be obliged to put the passengers on other flights because there were no other flights going to Kinshasa. Othy and I didn’t feel like hanging around the airport for that long and so we inquired about a hotel room. First we had to wait for a form to fill out, and then we had to go into the line for getting the Visa, but no wait… we had to go back and get that form signed, but no wait… the person who was supposed to sign it had disappeared somewhere. He finally showed up again and signed our forms, we waited in line again for the visa, we waited in the baggage claim as they sorted out the hotel details, and then waited again for a bus that would bring us there. What a process! They took us to a hotel called the Tamarind Tree. Our rooms were not ready and so they showed us to the restaurant where we partook of a buffet lunch. The hotel had good food and a nice atmosphere. Finally we were able to check into our rooms. It was a nicely designed suite and so I enjoyed taking a nap, taking a shower, drinking tea, and watching a TV episode to pass the time. We had dinner at the hotel and then at 8pm we caught the shuttle bus back to the airport. We arrived in Kinshasa at 3am only to discover that almost everyone’s bags did not arrive, even though they had twelve hours to make sure they got to the right place! Othy’s friend was there to pick us up and bring us to his place where we would be staying. Few! What a journey!

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First time flying together!

I could not see much of Kinshasa by night and so the next day I got to wake up and discover my surroundings. In the late morning we drove together into the city center. Othy’s friend lives in a neighbourhood called Kingabwa which is a nice spot because it is away from the city center and yet not too far. The first thing to take note of is the traffic. Most of the cars on the road are taxi cars and vans that are painted bright yellow. They stop for people everywhere and so are often the cause of traffic jams. I also learned that they are called “Esprit du Mort” or “Spirit of Death”, likely because of how old and broken down they are, how crazy they drive, and how full many people pack into them. There are also some newer larger buses that were introduced later and were given the name “Esprit de Vie”, “Spirit of Life”. The second thing to take note of is that there is garbage everywhere. It is clear that there is no city infrastructure in place to handle all of the plastic bags, bottles, and steel cans that have been introduced by mostly imported products. The downtown has many interesting buildings that look well designed, though many of them look ruddy from lack of maintenance. Some of the design elements that are common are horizontal and vertical shading, using balconies as a way to offer play and variance in the facade, curves that follow street curves or corners, and interesting uses of concrete which seems to be the most common building material.

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On Monday we went to the office of Othy’s colleague where we did work for most of the day. We also walked to the Kenya Airways office to submit letters of complaint and ask about how to locate our bags (we didn’t want to have to go to the airport until we had confirmation that they were there). The following day we went to the South African visa application center and then to the airport to get our bags. The journey there revealed just how crazy the traffic is in this city! The road to the airport is four lanes wide on each side. Traffic jams are mostly caused by the taxis who stop anywhere, often in clusters, or attempt to do U-turns to go back the other way. Pedestrians criss cross the eight lanes of traffic; large pedestrian bridges were constructed about a year ago, but remain unused. Young men often step up on the back bumpers of the taxis for a ride or sit/surf on top of them. The stretch of road between the downtown and the N’djili airport is the main artery for the part of the city where more than three quarters of the population lives, primarily urban poor who inhabit a vast area of precarious dwellings. It took about an hour to get to the airport. Apparently before the road was widened it could take up to six hours! The airport was also chaotic but somehow our bags were there after arriving on the previous day’s flight! I was so thankful and happy to be able to finally change my clothes! On Wednesday Othy’s mentor offered to take us around to see a few things in the city. He took us to a housing development that seemed to be struggling. The houses were okay but I didn’t think they were worth the money that they were asking. It seemed like it would have been better if they had found a way to target a lower income bracket with denser, more affordable units. After that we visited several buildings in the downtown including a mall. I was feeling light-headed because it was 3pm and I hadn’t eaten lunch, and so we sat down on a terrace in a large atrium and had pieces of cake and Maltinas. From there we went to the main market. It was a maze of stalls and tables selling anything and everything. The place was bustling and I had to concentrate on not losing Othy’s mentor who was leading us. A large part of the market was beneath umbrella-type concrete canopies but also extended beyond them under colourful tarps and umbrellas. At one point there was a vehicle playing Congolese music and everyone around us knew the song and were singing along!


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The following days fell into a rhythm of work some days at the office and other days at the house. I was glad to be able to take time to focus on E4C and IRI work after being distracted during the last week in Beni and then being on the road. For lunch when at the office we had takeout a few times, and walked to two nearby fast-food restaurants. At the house I reheated leftovers a few times. In Kinshasa food is almost the same price as in Toronto. Most things are imported and so the food is not fresh like in North Kivu. Othy’s friend’s girlfriend generously cooked for us many times, and often we would come home at 6 or 7pm and there would be a meal waiting on the table. Near the end of our second week there, Othy’s mentor took us on another small trip, this time to visit a garbage dump that had failed, and a logging port. The “Centre d’Enfouissement Techniques des Dechets” or “Technical Centre of Landfill Waste” is a project that the EU had invested in, but after a time operations stopped and the equipment was pillaged and is now just sitting there and rusting. It was sad to see. This is one example of many large projects in Congo with foreign investment that have failed. The logging port was another site to see. The logs were gigantic and sitting in large piles. The port is on the Congo river and so we walked down to see the water. The trees are brought here on long metal boats and transferred to shore with pulleys. It made me sad to think that these trees are likely coming from unregulated or illegal forestry. I couldn’t help but think of an article I had read recently from Global Witness called Total Systems Failure about how the government is looking the other way while companies, many of them international, are logging illegally and committing social and environmental abuses.

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I discovered during this time in Kinshasa that this city is where all of the challenges that the country faces can be seen in high definition. It also seems that many people are either powerless to make change or have given up in trying. One Congolese person said to me that the hearts of the Kinois (Congolese in Kinshasa) have been replaced with a mechanical survival mechanism that is pumping blood but has no feeling. I was definitely overwhelmed by everything that I saw. We got on the topic when Othy and I were eating lunch with a friend of ours from Beni who was also in Kinshasa for a short time. How can you not be paralyzed by the overwhelming weight of problems and need? The answer is to start small, do the small things that you can, and over time it will grow and maybe even inspire others. I am not sure yet what my contribution will be if we end up settling here in the long term, but a lot of ideas were beginning to brew in my mind about how to turn waste into construction materials, how to build more with the sand that is the main type of soil here, and what kind of funding/construction mechanisms could be used for upgrading precarious dwellings. Despite all of the many challenges I have presented here, one redeeming aspect of the city is how friendly and welcoming the people are. I felt well received by all of Othy’s friends and colleagues. Another positive aspect about Kinshasa is that it is close to some beautiful natural places. In the next post I will write about two such places that we visited on the two Sundays during my stay. I think that I saw a good amount for only a two week visit!

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