In a trend that will no doubt continue for the rest of the month, I got up at 5am only to find that there was no transport to the Congo border until much later. At about 7am, I hopped into a shared taxi, which was apparently heading to the frontier, but spent an hour driving errands around town and then kicked me out – he wasn’t going to the border after all.
I waited by the side of the road for an age before a bush taxi finally turned up. Squished in (as always), it would be 10am before we actually headed towards Congo, only 50km away. Three separate border stamps to get out in three separate offices. A combination of bureaucracy and a bad (well, non-existent) road conspired for it to take HOURS to get to the border.
At the final checkpoint before I escaped Gabon, and after I got the fright of my LIFE as the BIGGEST SPIDER I have ever seen scurried inches from my hand, I got chatting to a Spanish guy who was crossing the other way. Javier worked for Medicins Sans Frontiers and at the end of his latest stint, he had decided to ride his motorbike all the way from South Africa to Spain.
The Gabonese customs guy was giving him a hard time, saying that the border was closed because of last week’s election. Javier was quite used to this transparent horseplay and, like me, had no intention of giving these damn chancers a rotten penny.
It was great meeting Javier at the border. It felt like I had met a kindred spirit – someone else who had been through the emotional gambit that is overland travel in Africa and somebody who still had a long way to go. We were meeting half-way, one going up and the other coming down.
We swapped good road/bad road and visa obtaining advice – worryingly, Javier had originally wanted to travel up through Angola, but just couldn’t get a visa. Apparently, they’re as rare as chicken teeth and unfortunately for me, my Angolan visa expired the previous month. Then, after the border guards had checked through my bags and discovered that they stood no chance of obtaining a bribe, we said our farewells and headed out in our respective directions.
Once I had finally cleared the border shenanigans on the Congo side, I hopped a motorbike to the first town over the border, arriving at about 3pm, and hopeful of getting some kind of bush taxi down to Dolisie that day.
Ha! No chance. There would be transport tomorrow morning at dawn. It had taken me an entire day to go 50km.
You know I said yesterday that I was in a one-horse town? I’m sorry. THIS was a one-horse town. With nowhere to buy hot food, I had to make do with a fly-covered stick of bread and a five-year old tin of sardines. I managed to find a room for the night around the back of the general store; it was pretty basic but the gas lamp (the electricity supply got cut off at night) gave it a little bit of old world charm. Plus the smell reminded me of happy days caravaning, scouting and playing MacGuyver in the field over the road with our Alex. Powerful thing, smell.
I settled down in the only bar within which, I was the only customer and I wrote and drank and drank and wrote.
Whilst I beavered away, the helpful owner of the bar set up his home-made speaker system and put his favourite African-warbling-and-Casio-keyboard CD on MAXIMUM DANGER OVERLOAD setting. The result of which – like ALL amplified music in Africa – was that it was distorted to hell, which to a music affectionado like me, is the equivalent of fingernails down a chalkboard. Or water torture. I stuffed my one working iPod headphone in my lughole and turned it up as loud as Steve Job’s lawyers will allow.
Setting off again at dawn, I found the shared truck for Dolisie (the junction half way to Congo’s capital city, Brazzaville) actually left early. I had to run to clamber on board the back as it pulled out. The truck was a fifty-year old cattle truck with open sides. It was carrying a staggering 73 people, their luggage, 14 live goats, several chickens and right by my feet, were two cow legs, still with their skin, blood oozing from the wounds beckoning flies like an open latrine.
But that wasn’t the worst thing.
The worst thing was the dust.
The ‘road’ (typically) was little more than a rudimentary track peppered with potholes, and corrugated, so it made your teeth shake. It was also the dustiest road I have ever seen, and I was sitting at the back of this damn truck trying to deal with the cloud of dust covering my bags, my hat, my clothes – and coating my lungs. Just to make things that extra special African brand of unpleasant, the truck was also rigged to blow its filthy black exhaust in the faces of those unfortunates (including your humble narrator here) sitting towards the rear of the truck.
This had to be the most unpleasant journey so far, worse than the wooden fishing boat to Cape Verde, worse than my hellish two-day journey from Mali to the capital of Guinea, worse than the terrifying ‘Mauler’ rollercoaster ride across Nigeria, worse than the wet, muddy mini-Glasto of entering south Cameroon.
What I really couldn’t fathom out was why it was so. I was charged €20 for trip – I did the math – €20 x 73 = €1460. And that doesn’t include the luggage. They had the monopoly on this route and could conceivably make this trip twice a day – there and back. That’s €3000 a day. Over a MILLION EUROS a year. The truck was older than Methuselah, petrol in Congo is not excessively expensive – the economics of Africa just boggles the mind, I just cannot for the life of me suss it out.
WHY CAN’T THEY BUY A DAMN COACH? With WINDOWS. That you can CLOSE. You know, so it’s possible to BREATHE.
Forget guys, T. I. A. Logic and Africa are queer bedfellows indeed.
I made do with a wet-wipe held over my mouth until it became too dirty (which took about ten minutes), and then I fished out a new one. Have you ever sanded a wooden floor with one of those sanding machines? You know how dusty everything gets and you have to open all the windows and wear a face mask? That’s what this was like.
And there were children, babies on board. And they didn’t have masks on. The dust mixed with the filthy black bellowing exhaust, would be doing untold damage to their lungs. For Christ’s sake, is not malaria, AIDS and the lack of clean water not killing enough African children? Do Africans REALLY have to come up with new and inventive ways of murdering skip-loads of infants every single bloody day?
Then again, even if the government built a road, the locals would no doubt see it as an invitation to drive like raving maniacs and all it would do is move the bubble on the badly-hung wallpaper that is this undeniably messed up continent.
Typically, given the ancient nature of the vehicle and the dreadful state of the road, the truck broke down and we were left a couple of kilometres north of the town of Kilbangou. There, I decided enough was enough (I was also fed up of having to hold all of my bags off the floor which was fast becoming a cesspit of goat’s urine and faeces) and set off on foot to see if there were any other transport options. I was accompanied by a guy named John. He was a teacher in Dolisie and was wearing a suit, which would now need several dry-cleans to get rid of all of the dust.
We walked for a couple of kilometres until a bush taxi came along and we flagged it down. The driver had heard about the truck breaking down and had come to poach some customers. So we were driven back to the truck and joined by another five passengers, who had also elected to jump ship.
They did actually manage to get the truck going before the taxi left, but we soon overtook the damn thing and I’m sure it would have broken down a few more times before it reached Dolisie (if it ever reached Dolisie?).
We reached Dolisie in the afternoon. Before the civil war nobody knows about (ten years ago), Dolisie was the retreat of the moneyed elite, a leafy town with beautiful old buildings. The war saw the end of that. It’s still leafy, but the main buildings have been reduced to rubble. John and I headed over to the train station (a dilapidated single-track affair, the main route from Brazzaville to Pointe Noire, the country’s only port) to find out when the next train left for the capital. Not today, not tomorrow, the day after tomorrow. At 7pm. I would get into Brazza on Saturday morning (if the train didn’t derail!). Three days to go 200km. It was time to look for Plan B.
There were no shared taxis all the way to Brazzaville, but some that stopped at the next town along the way, Nkayi. So after a pleasant dinner with John, I wished him well and headed east, once again crammed into a bush taxi designed for x but carrying 2x. I managed to taxi-hop at Nkayi and making it all the way to Modingo, where I spent the night.
I found a little hotel that was listed in the Lonely Planet. It was a little expensive, but I managed to haggle the room down to €15, and then enjoyed three – yes three – showers and then treated myself to a hot bath. It still wasn’t enough to get rid of all of the dust.
I then spent a few hours backing up all of my files on my laptop, just in case it got stolen the next day. Everyone had warned me that the road from Modingo to Brazzaville is notorious for banditry. As events planned out, this would turn out to be an incredibly savvy act.
Let me tell you about Vogons.
“Vogons have to be just about one of the most unpleasant races in the galaxy. Not actually evil, but bad-tempered, bureaucratic, officious and callous. They wouldn’t even lift a finger to save their own grandmother from the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal without orders signed in triplicate, sent in, sent back, queried, lost, found, subjected to public inquiry, lost again, and finally buried in soft peat for three months and recycled as firelighters”.
- Douglas Adams, The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy
Since I started this stupid, impossible journey I have been consistently battling Vogons. Curiously absent from Latin America and Europe, they bogged me down in the Caribbean, treated me like a dog on the Greyhound, imprisoned me in Cape Verde and have made my trip through Africa a non-stop cavalcade of misery and paranoia.
Now I don’t want you to be fooled into thinking that everyone in Africa is a Vogon. Nothing could be further from the truth, but there is a sizable minority that is currently employed for the sole purpose of tormenting the helpless wayfarer with their incessant (and usually armed) demands for money. This is with the blessing of their evil little Vogon governments, thieves and liars to a man.
You can spot a Vogon a mile away – most wear some kind of uniform (possibly found in a jumble sale) and all will be armed with Mr. Kalashnikov’s infamous 1947 model of semi-automatic rifle.
As they flick through your ‘papers’, desperately trying to find even the slightest inconsistency so that their disgraceful brand of highway robbery can be guilded in the false pancia of earthly justice, your heart pounds, your palms sweat – are they going to ask for one dollar or one hundred? Or will they just throw you in stinking jail cell for a week?
“There are places in this world where the safety net is suddenly whipped away, where the right accent, education, health insurance and foreign passport – all the trappings that spell ‘It Can’t Happen to Me’ – no longer apply, and your well-being depends on the condescension of strangers”.
- Michela Wrong, In The Footsteps of Mr Kurtz
And DON’T give me that crap about them not being paid. The shoeless crippled orphans on the city streets aren’t getting paid – they don’t relieve me of my cash via the barrel of a gun. These Vogons are scum, just utter scum – there to line their own pockets at the expense of their country, their families, their neighbours and at the expense of foolhardy tourists like myself who, once over those border lines, vow never to return.
It was shaping up to be a long day.
I had risen with the lark and jumped a shared taxi to the next village (there was no direct transport link with Brazzaville). I would repeat this process twice over, in two different shared taxis, hopping from town to town until I managed to find a shared truck that was heading all the way to Brazza.
I had been warned of banditry on the road, so I bought a couple of bandages and strapped my video tapes and my hard drive to my legs, just in case. It was actually a relief when a friendly soldier clambered onboard, complete with AK-47 to ward off any would-be Dick Turpins.
Luckily, I managed to bag a seat in the cab; yesterday’s ordeal of sitting in the back of the truck held little adventure for me. I just wanted to get to the capital before dark, because that’s when the Vogons are at the height of their powers.
We bounced around for hour after hour, a single, hobbled, dust track marking the main road from the capital to the port. We arrived at the city of Kinkala at dusk. Kinkala is the last big town before Brazzaville, the capital of this wretched place.
At this point, the dust track gives way to a brand new road, with TARMAC (fancy that!), drainage (DRRRRRAINAGE!!!), white lines, road signs – the lot. It even had a couple of roundabouts.
It wouldn’t do to have built their own road, even after 50 years of ‘in’dependence, so the Vogons got us daffy Europeans to build it for them, possibly on the back of a promise that they (no doubt) intend to break. Hell, one day they might even have a road that goes from the capital city all the way to the main port, Pointe Noire – wouldn’t that be a fine thing?! Although at the current pace of road building (50km in 50 years), the fine people of Congo can look forward to the damn thing being completed around Stardate 2453.
I have to say, after four days of roughing it over the dustiest tracks in the universe, it was a blessed relief to be back on tarmac – I even got out of the truck and gave the road a little cuddle.
A major problem with Vogons is that they generally start drinking at around 6am and continue drinking all day. The result of which is that the roads in Africa get VERY dangerous at night. Not because of bandits (who thankfully didn’t appear), but because of drunken officers of the law who have no scruples in fleecing one of the few (very very few) tourists, of everything he or she has got.
RULE 1: KEEP SMILING
We arrived at the Vogon roadblock outside Brazzaville at around 8pm. It all seemed quite straight forward until they asked me to get out of the cab so they could rifle through my belongings.
My crime? Not to smile at the horrible bastards. I was tired and I was looking forward to meeting my couchsurf contact Christophe, and going for a beer. This was quite possibly the 200th roadblock that I had come to since Rabat and after four days of the most arduous bit of overlanding so far, I just wanted to relax as soon as possible.
Hell, I was cordial enough. But after they kept me waiting by the roadside for an hour, it didn’t take Sherlock to suss that the game was afoot. They had captured a whitey. At night. Entering Brazzaville. In a truck!
They were drunk and as frisky as a bunch of Hitler Youth who had caught a Jew attempting to escape Nazi Germany in a haycart.
The fact that there is no bus, no coach, and no shared taxi from the west to the capital and the train would not be getting in until Saturday (maybe) didn’t figure much in their tiny, uneducated minds. I was possibly the most exciting thing to happen to them since puberty.
Now we’ve got him, how do we keep him? How do we make his trip to Congo a complete misery that he will never forget? How do we ensure that he tells everyone he knows and everyone he meets never, ever to go, invest or give aid to Congo, this most fetid basketcase of basketcases?
My passport was somewhat problematic for them – it was genuine, valid and had a stonking great visa in it for Congo, as well as my four separate entry stamps. So they decided that they wanted to see what was on my tapes. So I picked one at random and played it to them. One of the thick idiots decided that Steve, the lovely Nigerian guy from Port Mole, was in fact Ali Bongo, the new president. Quite what I was doing in a fishing shop with the President of Gabon is quite beyond my capabilities, but there you go.
Before I knew it, I was being stuffed into a sequested car with four Vogon ‘policemen’ (me and three others in the back, all armed) and being taken to see ‘The Chief’.
As I was to later discover, this guy was one of several ‘Chiefs’, each one seemingly as impotent as the last.
So I found myself hauled into a police station and sitting before a (typically drunken) Vogon ‘chief’, accompanied by ten armed officers in the room gauping like a bunch of schoolboys who’ve found a dead animal and are wordlessly trying to estabilish who will have the honour of poking it with a stick.
Luckily for me, I had managed to get a call out to Christophe, my couchsurfing contact, and he headed down to the cop shop to bail me out.
Only, in Congo, there is no such thing as bail. Or human rights, habeus corpus, rule of law, lawyers, judiciary or even a real police force – all they have are some illiterate morons with guns given the task of making everybody’s life a misery.
Christophe’s flatmate, Max, also came down to help me out, but I wasn’t going anywhere. By now, it was past midnight. The ‘chief’ pulled out the whiskey and offered me a tipple. I was told to make myself comfortable on the couch.
I managed to get through to the British Embassy in Kinshasa and explain the situation. There’s no British Embassy in Bazzaville, only an Honourary Consul. The guy at the British Embassy, a wonderfully posh guy named Holgar, said they would do all they can to get me out as soon as possible.
According to the ‘chief’ (who would not give me his name, but I have a feeling it was Mr. Utter B**tard), it was all a matter of ‘procedure’ and I’d be released the next day. Which brings us to…
RULE 2: NEVER TRUST A VOGON
I awoke on the little couch in the ‘chief’s’ office. Gone was any chance of me submitting my visa application for Angola this week. Max returned and was helping translate the situation. Then they took me outside and tried to stuff me in a 4×4. I resisted on the grounds that they wouldn’t tell Max where they were taking me. In the end, Max said he’d follow and not to worry, they say they’ll let me go soon.
So off I go with the police. Are they just going to take me out to the sticks and put a bullet in my head? Who knows? Why am I here? Why are they doing this? Are they crazy or just blitheringly stupid?
I was taken to another police station – this one much larger (and even more horrible) than the last. I was taken up to see another ‘chief’, who didn’t give his name or ask me any questions, just told me to wait and be patient.
I was then taken downstairs and left in a room. The police had taken my mobile from me for good measure, but I had a spare phone and my laptop, so I could get the word out about what these scumbags where doing to me.
Conversations would go around like this:
“Why am I here? What have I done?”
“It’s a matter of procedure.”
“So you do this to all tourists then?”
“It’s a matter of procedure.”
Kafka would have loved it. As the day dragged on, it became increasingly clear that they had no intention of letting me go, even though I was told repeatedly that I had not committed a crime, my visa and passport were in order and that I was – apparently – ‘free’. Not free to walk out the door though.
Around 7pm, my camcorder, tapes and mobile phone where plonked down on the desk beside me, so I dug out my mobile and called Mandy, my girlfriend in Australia.
Mandy and I were discussing the saddest song in the world: we have various candidates, of which Bless His Ever Loving Heart (Nick Cave), Me Ne Quitte Pas (Jacques Brel), Another No-One (Suede) and Exit Music (Radiohead) usually come out near the top.
I brought up the possibly of The Guillemot’s track, ‘If The World Ends…‘
At this point, seven policemen charged into the room, ripped the mobile phone from my ear, proceeded to violently relieve me of my hat, my shoes, my socks, my belt, my T-shirt and everything in my pockets.
They tore my glasses off my face, which given my prescription is a little like taking the white stick off a blind man.
I was then violently frog-marched into a cell that I can only describe as a room you might wake up in if you found yourself a victim of the Jigsaw Killer.
This was possibly the most traumatic moment of my travels so far, if not my life. There in that filthy, stinking, mosquito-ridden cell, sans spectacles, the world nothing but a blur, I broke down and wept.
I hate this place.
I hate these people.
I’m sick of being treated like a dog.
Once this bloody stupid journey is over, I doubt I will ever return to sub-Saharan Africa. I’m not a battered wife who goes back for more, and Africa and the Vogons contained therein have fallen over themselves to make one thing very, very clear: white people are about as welcome here as a dose of the clap. Tourists, travellers, investors: look to Asia or Latin America.
There’s nothing to see here, move along.
RULE 3: VOGONS HAVE NO EMPATHY
“The only way to get a drink out of a Vogon is to stick your finger down their throat”.
- Douglas Adams, The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy
Most children learn about empathy at an early age. The Vogon brain, being hardwired for bureaucracy, selfishness and greed, never develops the necessary range of higher-level emotions that are necessary to successfully gauge the suffering of others. Therefore, there is nothing to prevent a Vogon brain’s owner from locking them up in a stinking cell and wondering why the victim might not enjoy the experience. Similarly, there is nothing to stop Vogon leaders from stealing everything, absolutely EVERYTHING (including the future), from the bottom billion poorest people in world. The man, as Super Furry Animals once sang, don’t give a f**k.
With no watch to tell the time, I measured the day by banging on the cell door and screaming at the top of my lungs to let me the hell out. My cell mate, Omar, a guy from Mali who had been caught without any papers, tried to get me to calm down, but I wasn’t having any of it.
At this point, I thought sod you, you horrible little ***tards, I’m not eating. I didn’t eat anything other than a croissant the previous morning and I reckoned that I could go a couple of days on hunger strike. Not that they would give a damn, but it would make me feel like I had some power over my situation. Plus, it would mean I wouldn’t have to use the toilet (a prison squatter with no shoes or socks on? You’d have to be mad). I didn’t want to catch the plague, leprosy, ebola or whatever other medieval horrors are still lurking in Central Africa.
Late in the afternoon, after being ignored for hours, three Vogon pigs came to the door and said that if I calmed down I could speak to yet another chief and then they’ll set me free.
So I settled down, carved WELCOME TO THE HEART OF DARKNESS on the blood-smeared cell wall and waited. An hour later, they took me out. Don’t forget, they had taken my glasses so I couldn’t see anything. I was taken to one of their filthy little offices (does EVERYTHING in Africa have to be filthy and wretched?) and sat down with this new ‘chief’. He asked me a progression of amazingly stupid questions which included my name, date of birth, place of birth etc. All of this information was available in my passport, but it had to be slowly and painstakingly written down by the powder monkey in the corner. Ten policemen looked on, gawping like yokels who had caught the moon in a bucket. There’s obviously not much crime in Brazzaville. Well, none that would make these pigs a fast buck anyhow. What was also available in my passport was what I was doing in Congo – I had a valid transit visa, a stamp out of Gabon and a visa for Democratic Republic of Congo – a twenty-minute ferry ride away. It would appear that I was transiting through this mess of a failed state.
The Vogon then told me that he had looked at my website and knew I was travelling all over the world. This is where Vogon logic just defies all reason. WHAT THE HELL DO YOU THINK I’M GOING TO SAY ABOUT CONGO? That it’s a wonderful rainbow island of a place full of wonderful sunny people?
Or maybe I’m going to say that it’s a disgusting dirty little hole of a fascist police state, ruled over by the flotsam and jetsum of humanity. A place where people are treated like animals, have no money, no clean water, no human rights and have been terrorised by their own hilariously inept government for the last fifty years. A place where you become president by murdering the last guy. A place where the life expectancy is what it was in Britain in the Stone Age. A place that has managed to snag Cape Verde’s unenviable position at the very bottom of my League of Nations.
After the ‘interview’, I asked if I could go. The ‘chief’ said he had to speak to his ‘chief’, but I should be out within a couple of hours SINCE I HAD COMMITTED NO F***ING CRIME. I was taken back into the wretched cell.
Two hours passed.
Then another two.
I guess they were lying.
RULE 4: VOGONS ARE UNFEASIBLY STUPID
You cannot reason somebody out of a position they haven’t reasoned themselves into. Appealing to my captors on the logical grounds that I was a tourist, had a valid passport and a valid visa, had no contraband in my luggage and that as quite possibly the only tourist in Brazzaville, their actions where no only bad for me, but also bad for their rotten hellhole of a country, got me nowhere.
Sunday passed VERY slowly. It’s hard to mark time without a watch. Nothing to read, nothing to write…just me and my thoughts. To mess with future inmate’s heads, I marked the entire Periodic Table on the wall.
My daydreams centred on two things – a new Indiana Jones movie set in Africa called Indiana Jones and the Heart of Darkness; and the possibility of escape, slim though it was. I tried all of the bars on the windows, but they weren’t going anywhere and I didn’t have Andy Dufrayne’s quantity of time. There was a missing bar in the window above the toilet, but it would mean I would have to climb over the stinking pile of shit that was spread out all over the floor. Don’t forget…I was barefoot. I’d bandaged up John McClane-style to stop the mosquitos biting me, and without my doxycycline pills, I was a sitting duck for malaria, the biggest killer in Africa. I also couldn’t see anything further away than a metre, so the plan was only to be enacted if things became really desperate. Luckily, the pigs had missed two things when they stripped me of my possessions – my little penknife and my emergency wallet. I had eighty Euro on me. That should be enough to get a fisherman to take me over the river Congo to Kinshasa. I had it all planned out. I had even worked out the way to the river by observing the shadows as the sun passed overhead.
The police station was empty as everyone was at church, apparently. This gave me the opportunity to use the line “God left this place a long time ago” and to spend the afternoon politely kicking the hell out of the cell door.
I did that much damage that the next day it took them over half an hour to get the door open. Hee. Omar wasn’t that impressed. He really wasn’t the shouty type. I am though. Christ, if shouting was made an Olympic event, I’d be bringing home the ‘Yellow Metal That Make White Man Crazy’.
One thing that I tried not to think about was food. To be honest, I didn’t have that much of an appetite, and if you had to stay for the weekend in a tiny room that smelled like a rotting corpse, I guess you wouldn’t feel like eating either.
RULE 5: AVOID AFRICA
I’m sorry. I’ve cracked. The wars (all 47 of them, want a list?) may be over (kinda) and I was desperate to blaze a trail from Rabat to Cape Town and declare Western Africa (finally) re-opened after 50 years of rampant corruption, stupidity and ineptitude, but I can’t. Not in good faith. The horror is still here, still alive and kicking. Oh yes, there are wonderful people here and yes, there are wonderful things to see, and yes, the people here need your money, they need you here desperately…but mark my words, the Vogons will go out of their way to ruin it for you. IT’S NOT WORTH THE HASSLE.
I can deal with it in Egypt and in India – there are Vogons there for sure, but not ones that will steal your things and throw you in jail for no reason. It just doesn’t happen. Here, for the hapless white tourist, jail is an occupational hazard of BEING ON HOLIDAY. And while stupid, thieving Vogons continue to run these countries, the Vogon police continue to have no scruples about breaking international law, the UN Charter of Human Rights and the Geneva Convention; you can never breathe a sigh of relief; you can NEVER relax.
Wouldn’t it be nice just to relax?
When the police eventually got the cell door open, I was taken to another filthy room, this one with a bunk bed in it. I was told to WAIT. Yeah, West Africa Indiginous Time.
The day dragged on like the last three, but at least I had the guy who was watching the door to annoy. I was finally given my glasses back, so I could see the grotty police station in all its dreadful glory and finally see the nasty little Vogon bastards who were holding me there. I was taken to see YET ANOTHER F—ING ‘CHIEF’. By this point, I could see what the problem was – nobody here had any authority, power or intelligence.
We sat in this horrible man’s office for a couple of hours, fast-forwarding through every single one of my tapes that I had filmed over the previous month, the Vogons looking on, wide eyed waiting for that one frame out of a million that would justify their actions – a shot of a policeman, perhaps, or a government building, an airport or border post.
I’m not that stupid. In fact, I’m not stupid at all, unlike these thick, miserable Vogon bastards, who after watching ALL my tapes, possibly frustrated that I had not shot a single illegal thing, sent me back to the room with the bunk beds to sit out the rest of the day.
An officer came in with my ‘paperwork’ – FOUR copies of a 16-page report of what was in my bag and why I was in Congo. VOGONS, I TELL YOU…VOGONS. I had to sign every copy in several different places. The fact that it was all in French meant it could conceivably say pretty much anything, but I just wanted out, so I signed it. He said I’d be out in a few hours.
Around 4pm (I guess), the pleb guarding my room came in to tell me that everything was sorted and that I’d be leaving tomorrow. TOMORROW? You bastards. I screamed, “NON! JE DEPART ICI AUJOURD-HUI” with such venom and ferocity, the guy leapt out of the room faster than a startled gazelle.
It did me no good, though. Eventually, a white guy came into the police station (if I climbed up on the bunk bed, I could see the main door). I shouted over to him to help me, please, somebody help me.
The man and his wife came to see me and explained that they were going to be back the next day and that they were going to do whatever it took to get me the hell out of there.
Apparently my situation had been through that many chiefs, it was now in the hands of a government minister and the PRESIDENT had been informed!
Ygads. Imagine the conversation:
Er, Mr. President, we’ve caught a white guy and we don’t know what to do with him.
What did he do?
Is he here illegally?
No. He has a valid visa and all the necessary paperwork.
So why are we holding him?
Well, because he’s white. It confuses us.
Very good, carry on.
The man let me use his mobile phone to call home, and Mandy, and then he gave me the greatest thing in the world – a couple of copies of National Geographic to read. It was like a starving man being given a feast fit for a king.
Talking of starving, I hadn’t eaten since Friday morning. Being a bloody-minded sort, I wasn’t going to change my stance on this matter. All that I was worried about is the fact that the official ruling on Steve Biko’s death was that he died on hunger strike. The fact that he had been beaten black and blue by the racist police of 70’s South Africa didn’t really figure much in the investigation.
The man assured me that he’d be back the next day first thing and that he’d made sure that I would not be sleeping in that damn cell tonight – I would have the bunk bed. That night, I stayed up for hours with a little light that the man had given me reading the Nat Geos from cover to cover.
RULE 6: NEVER EXPECT AN APOLOGY
I woke up before dawn to find that my guard had gone. I went for a walk around the station – it was empty. I was strongly tempted to leg it, but since The Man had given me his word that I’d be out today (and he wasn’t a Vogon), I returned to my bed.
By noon, I became despondent. The Man was nowhere to be seen. Where the hell was he? What the hell? They had held me for SIX days, without charge, for no reason other than being white. My usual Shackleton-like endurance was wearing thin. I decided that the next morning, I would wait until 5am, and then make a break for it. There was a low roof adjacent to the compound wall with a car parked beneath it. I reckoned that I could climb onto the car, over the roof and drop down the other side, which looked like a coach park. Get a boat to Kinshasa and claim political asylum from the mental asylum over the river. Shoes would have made the plan more straight-forward, but I didn’t have that little luxury.
It was late afternoon when The Man emerged. He had been in with YET ANOTHER ‘chief’ all day arguing for my release. Eventually, whatever rusty cog of justice that needed to be turned, was oiled and they were coming to give me my damn stuff back.
After ONCE AGAIN cataloguing everything that I had with me (good job I travel so light), I put on my shoes, grabbed my bags and headed for the door. Did I get an apology? Did I hell. This is Africa, Graham.
THIS. IS. AFRICA.
As I crossed the threshold, I donned my kanga hat. I jumped into The Man’s car and was whisked away to his house where his wife was waiting to greet me with a bottle of Baileys by the swimming pool. It was like crawling through a sewer and finding yourself at a cocktail party.
I had my first shower in almost a week, changed my clothes and finally went to the toilet. I then stuffed my face with biscuits and drank copious amounts of tea before I was taken out for a second pizza of liberation (the first being with Piran and the British ex-pats in Crap Verde). There, we met with Christophe and Max, my CouchSurf buddies whose couch I never got to surf. Embarrassingly enough, I couldn’t finish the pizza. I guess after five days of no food, my stomach had shrunk. The beer was more than welcome, though.
That night, I slept in a proper bed in The Man’s house. I was the sum of all bliss.
The Vogon police violated my human rights, trawled through my private things (what if they had ‘found’ something eh? How could I prove that it had been planted?), took the shirt that I was wearing, my shoes, my socks, watch, even my f—ing GLASSES, and kicked me into a filthy, stinking mosquito-ridden cell for five days while they faffed around filling out paperwork.
They stole one of my mobile phones with my British SIM in it and THEY TOOK MY SPORK. The rotters. I can’t say enough bad things about them and their wretched slag of a country.
They even put a bloody VIRUS on my laptop.
I had been advised not to say anything about this until I got the hell out of this infernal place, hence why this blog was so late getting online and why some names have been removed or changed to protect the innocent.
First thing, I headed off to Kinshasa over the River Congo, escorted on and off the boat by British Embassy Officials.
I’m taking no chances.
Now in Kinshasa – “The Democratic Republic of Congo”, formally Zaïre, country 110. I guess “The Autocratic Dictatorship of Congo” hasn’t got the same ring, but at least it would have a whiff of honesty about it. Vogon avoidance has taken precedence over mosquito avoidance. I haven’t filmed a thing since I got here – far too risky. Been told it wouldn’t be a good idea by pretty much everyone I’ve met. Which is sad, there’s a lot that I would like to show you, but these unbelievably paranoid Vogons truly believe that spies come from Europe to steal their… – their WHAT? WHAT THE HELL IS THERE IN THESE COUNTRIES TO STEAL?? Nuclear secrets? Cutting-Edge Hyperspace Technology? A cure for cancer? HIGGS BOSONS???
There’s no ELECTRICITY, never mind High-Tech Laser Weapons Facilities.
The upshot of which is that any white guy, no matter how scruffy, disheveled and well-travelled, is working for the CIA. WHY ELSE WOULD YOU BE HERE?
In a weird way, I can see their point – in the four months from Mauritania to here I have met – wait for it – TWO backpackers. And they were banging their heads against the wall trying to negotiate the vastly over-complicated visa process in Benin. Everyone else that I’ve met, travelled with, or stayed with, is working for a charity or is working here. West and Central Africa have dug themselves a pretty trap – there are no tourists because there are no tourists. When a tourist turns up, it seriously blows the minds of the Vogons and they don’t know what to do with them so they treat them like crap.
Can I make a suggestion ?
STOP TREATING TOURISTS LIKE VERMIN.
in a shared taxi heading through your dreadful little country over your dreadful bloody roads, take it as read that they are not there to commit acts of terrorism or unspeakable acts of genocide. We’re happy to leave that to you, we’ve got better things to be getting on with.
All of this goes to show is that Africa is just as messed up as you all think it is. The wars may be all but over, but the corruption, depravity and jaw-dropping stupidity of the powers that be, is still here in force and it wants the good people of these lands (and you) to be as miserable as Vogonly possible.
Which is an ‘Arthur-Fowler-crying-in-a-jail-cell-on-Christmas-Day’ level of misery!
Being escorted through immigration by Embassy officials meant that I did not have to suffer the indignity of having all of my stuff rifled through AGAIN or have to fork out a bribe for each of the seventeen different entry stamps that I invariably need to enter a country around these parts. In fact, it was possibly the easiest border crossing since I left Europe. Which was surprising considering DR Congo was the scene of the biggest (and most under-reported) war in the world since WWII less than a decade ago. Plus the fact that the war is still being fought in the far North-East. The country that I am in is officially a war-zone – it’s a weird feeling.
But it’s not like I can hurtle through DR Congo’s pan-handle and continue with The Odyssey – I have yet ANOTHER hurdle to clamber over with all of the elegance of a drunken sumo wrestler.
A visa for Angola.
Angola is possibly the most difficult country in Africa to get a visa for. I had one in my passport, but after Cape Verde, Sao Tome and Congo holding me up for three months, it had well and truly expired. So I needed to get a new one. Unfortunately, everyone tells me that they are about as easy to get as the plot of Inland Empire.
Unfortunately, the Angolan Embassy had closed early, so I’d have to return tomorrow to try to get the visa that everyone is telling me that I won’t get. However, that meant that I got to hang out with Parul, the lovely Vice-Consul. As the walls around me finally regain their original shape and form, we grabbed some Nando’s and then watched a screening of Bruno at the Embassy.
That night, I was picked up by Michael, my couchsurf contact for Kinshasa. He’s a Belgian working for ‘Operation Damien’, which works with lepers and TB sufferers here in Africa. With a stack of brilliant English-language books on Africa and five DVD folders stuffed-to-the-gills with the best of European and World Cinema, I decided there and then that I was going to enjoy my time in Kinshasa.