BEST OF 2014 | WELCOME TO CONGOby Christopher Clark / Illustration by Swishyboy / 24.12.2014
Originally published on 5 March 2014
Perhaps it all began with a book. Everything has a beginning, they say. The Congolese immigration officer seemed to need a reason.
The truth was I didn’t know where it began anymore. All I knew was that I had come to expect something significant from it, though I was unsure what exactly. Maybe just a sharp slap in the face that would scream “Hey, fuckhead!. This, THIS, is life as you have never known it before!” It was 2009, I was 24-years old and determined to do something reckless. I had grown dissatisfied with Life as I Had Known It Before.
There was no doubt it was a bad photo. A convict mugshot. It was outdated too. I looked a little Justin Bieberesque, and not in the sweet, cherubic sort of way. The officer looked at the photo, then at me.
Then back at the photo. Then at me.
He seemed dubious.
The walls of his hut were weathered, damp and bare save for a 2009 calendar (open on the wrong month). Directly in front of me, a small, pristine portrait of President Joseph Kabila stared out at me. His deep, dark eyes commanding. “Trust me,” they said, “You can depend on me.”
The immigration officer rolled back in his chair and let out a deep sigh, then patted his round belly a few times like a drum, dum-da-dum-dum, staring off into space, his entire being absorbed in thought.
“Do not leave Goma, it is not safe,” he eventually said, “and do not trust anybody.”
Then he lunged forward with sudden force and began vigorously and repeatedly stamping at my passport with his government stationary as if he was trying to oust a particularly fast moving cockroach.
He finished up, stared at me for a few seconds and with the eruption of a sudden giant smile beamed “Welcome to Congo!” .
I left the hut and followed the red dirt road away from the Rwandan border. Within seconds, a tall, thin man in a long yellow jacket approached me with a twinkle in his eye. He side-stepped slightly, almost crab-walking. He was shifty in his big coat, like a flasher preparing to expose himself. Everything was wrong. The coat was too big and thick for the heat; his head was too small, too bald, too shiny. Well, this is it, I thought, I’m about to see my first real life black penis.
But the man in the big coat had other plans. Instead of his penis, he pulled out a large wad of well-worn bank notes featuring roaring lions on one side and dead presidents on the other from somewhere deep inside his ample coat pockets. Before I knew what had happened, he had punched various numbers into a small calculator with a cracked screen and made thousands of Rwandan francs turn into many fewer thousands of Congolese francs, and like the magician he was, vanished without a trace. I engaged in a bit of excruciatingly slow mental arithmetic and realized I had just been stiffed out of around $40. “Welcome to Congo.”
Not wanting to stick around, I hailed a gleaming red motorbike taxi with a small sticker that said “Jesus” stuck on the back and after the customary haggling process, we cordially agreed a fee at least five times lower than the driver’s original offer and drove away from the shore of Lake Kivu and down into the pulsing heart of Goma.
A veteran of two wars, Goma has seen its fair share of action. The mineral-rich Kivu region (of which Goma was capital), had so often been the stage for the plethora of rebel groups in Congo to play out their well-established brand of twisted farce. The waves of violence that had long consumed Goma were interrupted only by an eruption of the nearby Nyiragongo volcano back in 2002. Many of the streets and buildings still bore the scars. Black volcanic rocks were scattered through much of the city, and the remnants of partially swallowed buildings protruded from them like weeds.
The journey was slow on the potholed surface, and the traffic was heavy; a cacophony of shouting voices and tooting horns. My driver would shout at pedestrians in Kiswahili and then laugh wildly. I guessed he was eager to show off his fare. There certainly weren’t many of my type (tourists) in these parts, though a few trickled across the border every now and again, between the bouts of violence, mainly to go visit the mountain gorillas that cling so precariously to life just beyond the perimeter of the city.
As I got off the bike at the main circle downtown, I could see the volcano ahead of me, its dark body looming over the city like a curse, its summit just obscured by low, brooding cloud. I felt a sudden urge to jump a bus headed out of the city, any one of them going in the direction of the volcano, and then just keep going, as far as I could go. In recent years, so many bad news stories had crawled out from those swathes of jungle that I had first read about in overly-romanticized books by long-dead missionaries and explorers with big guns and stupid names. I didn’t really believe it could all be as bad as the media would have us think. A part of me wanted to see for myself, maybe even to get into the thick of it and then make it back sporting a minor machete wound to the head or something. But I knew that I wouldn’t have the balls if it came down to it. I was a bleeder not a fighter.
Illustrations © Swishyboy
*Tune in for part 2 next week…