A Year After Zaïre – Part 2

My DRC adventure continues from the previous post:

Wednesday 15th July, 1998

Awake, and the early sun’s rays are producing that soft pinkish-purple colour on every building and every tree.  Quite beautiful.  …How I was woken up, at 5am, was an altogether different experience.  Someone was yelling over a loud-speaker.  It was awful and it lasted for a good 15 minutes, at least.

It was in fact a Muezzin – calling the locals inhabitants to prayer at the mosque.  It was my first encounter, and first impressions lasted quite some time…

According to Wikipedia

“The professional muezzin is chosen for his good character, voice and skills to serve at the mosque.  The call of the muezzin is also considered an art form, reflected in the melodious chanting of the adhan.”

I don’t think this guy got the memo…  I’ve since heard my fair share of Muezzin whilst living in Mali, Senegal and Oman – and most of them do sound wonderfully melodious.

The countryside surrounding Lubumbashi consisted mainly of termite hills.  These things were often taller than the huts the locals were living in.  Most of the mounds seem to grow up and around trees.  Otherwise the countryside is relatively flat with perhaps a few undulating hills.  However, there was so much scrubby vegetation on either side of the road that the view was quite limited.

The road itself, apparently built 38 years ago (that would have been 1961 – during Belgium’s Colonial era) was mostly in good condition.  Obviously some maintenance was required.  Apart from filling in potholes – it didn’t look as though it had been resurfaced since its construction.  Must have been one heck of a road originally to have lasted so well!  The same can be said for what you see in town.  The basic layout conveys wide boulevards, perfect circular roundabouts and nicely spaced-out buildings and once intricate façades.  Nowadays, the paint is peeling off and it is only the pattern in which the paint is flaking that could be considered intricate.

Likasi streets

Likasi streets

Shopping in Likasi

Shopping in Likasi

Some of the buildings are quite enormous.  With arches upon arches, covered walkways are formed in front of the actual buildings.  Sadly, most of them look derelict and thoroughly unsafe – the victims of war raids and pillaging.  You can only imagine how beautiful it must have been back in the day.  However, maintenance of a colonial past has been de-prioritised in favour of a new BMW/Mercedes for the most recent high ranking official in town.

Covered arched walk-way

Covered arched walk-way

View from the guesthouse

View from the guesthouse

I look back at the photos now and think quite differently – the place looks spick and span compared with many towns and villages across South Africa, in 2013…

Finally, we are at work.  The first thing we needed to set up was the photocopier.  We were clever enough to have our own supply of paper, but it was to no avail: the photocopier had no toner!  Out Team Leader went out to source some toner with the help of Battie.  On his return, US $100 lighter, he took it upon himself to help the technician (that comes with the toner for another US $100, non-negotiable) install the cartridge.  Clearly, neither have much experience with photocopying machines as red toning ink-powder exploded all over the inside of the machine…

I’ve never seen someone wind themselves up quite so effectively.  After ranting and raving at us (who were all trying suppress childish giggles) he phoned his office in Joburg to presumably crap on someone else who had organised the trip.

When travelling and working in Africa, you don’t just check certain things – you check EVERYTHING. You leave nothing to chance and never rely on trying to buy supplies in the bush – unless you want to throw money away, of course.  In the end, it cost US $200 to make sure the photocopier DIDN’T work and another US $40 for a roll of paper to make ammonium copies (yes, we had to resort to really old-school tactics I’d never heard of until then!).  Back in South Africa, the same ammonium paper would have cost only R25 (US $3.50).  Someone around here is doing remarkably well out of us idiots. (Article 15 gets us, again…)

After bringing the second copy machine to life and managing to make copies of only 6 borehole logs (out of thousands) we were asked to stop what we were doing “Immediately” and leave.


Apparently, there was some politics going on higher up the ladder.  The client company (“X” Ltd) had apparently released a press-release, which had the effect of upsetting Gecamines somewhat.  Until the matter was resolved, we could not take any information away with us.  It also happened to be 4pm – I’m pretty sure Gecamine office staff wanted to go home.  The photocopier was duly packed away in the stronghold “for safety”.  I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that they were keeping it safe from us, should we be tempted to carry on working after hours and then smuggle the data out.

Another day wasted.  At least I got to see some massive boulders of malachite!

Malachite boulder

Malachite boulder

I’ve formed some decidedly favourable opinions of the local people.  Everyone we have met, or encountered have been extremely welcoming.  Their manners are impeccable and would put to shame the inhabitants of the so-called civilised countries of the western world.  They are also amazingly happy, when you consider some of the hardships the country has suffered as a whole.  Luckily, they have no qualm with us or the “resident whities”.  The recent hardships they suffer here is all the fault of their own previous head-honcho: Mobuto.

I remember seeing no beggars on the streets.  I’ve since realised that there was no need to beg for hand-outs.  Everyone offers a service of one sort or another – and nothing is done for free.  In fact, everyone forces their services on you then demands payment – whether you wanted that particular service, or not.

We found out later in the evening that our pilot has been refused the paperwork to allow him to land in order to pick us up next week.  It’s a wonder we were ever allowed in to DRC in the first place.  There has been quite a catalogue of disasters in the logistics side of this trip – and this, I find out now, is after a reconnaissance trip earlier in the year!

Thursday 16th July, 1998

No sooner had we pitched up at the Gecamines office this morning that we were told to pack up and leave.  So we did.

I’m now sitting in a hotel room, back at the Hotel Karavia in Lumbumbashi.  Our trip was an utter waste of time – all because of some press release, which we haven’t even seen for ourselves.  The chances of any misunderstandings being cleared up in the next few days are negligible; we could be hanging around for weeks at this rate.  We’re unanimous in our decision to go home. All we can do now is wait for the news that our pilot is on his way to pick us up tomorrow – a few days earlier than expected.

Dinner was at the Park Hotel, which was pretty nicely kept with huge, amazing masks on the walls. Our evening was spent eating and listening to a small band with an excellent trumpeter – Louis Armstrong was obviously an inspiration!

Friday 17th July, 1998

Hurray! We’re flying home – although, we are now minus one fuel cap.  Now I understand why the pilot didn’t want to leave his plane when he dropped us off earlier in the week!  This time, he was forced to show his face before we were allowed to leave the terminal building.  Lo, and behold – the fuel cap on the wing furthest from the terminal building (and the pilot’s view) was misappropriated.  I suspect someone had plans to sell it back to us…

Our pilot had other ideas – out came the Duct tape!  Yes, we flew the entire way home to Johannesburg with the right wing strapped with Duct Tape.  It held the whole way; I made sure to keep my eye on it.

How the pilot managed to get landing permission was an act of cunning that surely the citizens of the DRC would appreciate.  He had to pretend he was collecting passengers on the account of Zambian Express.  How we ever managed to extract ourselves and our luggage from the terminal, I don’t know – it was a hair-raising experience.  By the time we left Lumbumbashi, I think every single inhabitant reckoned they had done us a service of one sort or another; the demands for payment were stacking up.  They swarmed us like flies, trying to pull our bags from our hands in order to be porters.  It was a proper mugging.

It was a sad note to end on, because up until that point – I had enjoyed my, somewhat pointless, trip.

Leaving Lubumbashi

Leaving Lubumbashi

I look back on this experience with mixed feelings.  It was most certainly an eye-opener into how business is conducted (or not) in many African countries.  But, it also taught me how to behave at customs and check-points (polite, but firm – helpful, but not patronising – wanting to get things done, but not appearing to be in a hurry – showing respect to those in authority, because the slightest blip will have an unfortunate consequence thrown at you…) It highlights just how frustrating the simplest task is made, and how infuriating politics can be.  By all accounts, I don’t think it is any easier to do business now in the DRC, some 15 years later.

Spectacular sunrise

Spectacular sunrise

At least I got to witness some of the most breath-taking sunrises…

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