I rushed to get my visas for Equatorial Guinea, DR Congo and Gabon. The visas for DR Congo and Gabon were straight forward, but the Equatorial Guinea guys suggested I come back tomorrow. Then it was a case of twiddling my thumbs for the day, discovering that one of my hard drives had died (with all the footage from Cuba to Malta on it!) and then finding somewhere to while away the evening eating and drinking.
Yaoundé has a nice climate, it’s up in the hills, so it’s surprisingly cool. But as a city, it’s very very 70s concrete office blocks, which is never going to turn me on. But they have a cracking boulangerie called Calafata’s which supplied us with disgracefully tasty chocolate éclairs, so it gets a gold star and a jellybaby from me.
Today is Angolan Heroes Day, so the Embassy was closed. Looks like I’m going to be here for the weekend…
Not that I’m complaining. I need a few days of R&R after last week’s shenanigans. So today I watched a disgraceful number of DVDs and then went for a stroll around Kinshasa. I found a little old brick church and sat for a while, enjoying the cool silence.
I’m so fed up of Africa, it’s almost funny. I’m fed up of the smell, the litter, the hassle, the open sewers, the poverty, the horrific state of the roads, the awful, over-amplified music, the terrible food and (most of all) the constant state of paranoia that I’ll get arrested again for no reason. It’s no fun.
Later on, Michael and I went for a beer. DR Congo is jaw-droppingly expensive – you’d be lucky to get a meal for less than a tenner, and if it wasn’t for couch-surfing, I’d be staying in a grotty, health & safety-baiting room for which I’d be paying fifty quid a night.
As DR Congo is one of the poorest countries in the world, you may well find this surprising, but this pattern is repeated in many, many African countries. It would be hard enough living on a dollar a day in South-East Asia, but at least you could afford a beer. Here, I just can’t conceive how people manage. Well, in truth, they don’t. The kids on the city streets in Kinshasa are skinnier and more malnourished than I’ve seen anywhere else in Africa so far.
But then there is no manufacturing here. Or farming industry for that matter. At all. Everything is imported. And is there a good road or a decent rail line linking the capital (or the country for that matter) to the port? Ha!! No chance. They have to fly everything in. Let me make this quite clear – this is not a landlocked country, they are incredibly poor and have a ‘growth’ rate of around 1% in a good year. And they fly everything in.
The madness of the situation makes my head spin.
But you’ve got to see things from the Vogons point of view. They’re in charge, right? There’s no road? You can fly. There are no television transmitters? Buy a satellite dish. There’s no electricty? You’ve got a generator. There’s no post? You can courier. There’s no phone lines? Get a satphone. There’s no streetlights? Don’t travel at night. There’s no decent shops? Hmm… fancy a trip to Paris? We could charter Concorde if you like. They have been lining their greasy pockets for years with their country’s money. Money that was meant to help develop your nation. Money that could have saved millions of lives.
Vogons have no shame. They have no compassion. They are in charge of the lives of nearly a billion incredibly impoverished people and yet they buy luxury yachts, fleets of German cars and golden chandeliers to adorn their palaces.
You remember the drop the debt campaign? A noble cause, I agree, but where exactly are those untold billions that western banks lent to the horrible corrupt? I’ll tell you where they are: in bank accounts in Switzerland.
Now, explain this to me. Since 9/11, if a bank account is thought to be used to fund terrorism, the international community can shut it down and confiscate the money.
The Act of Terrorising Civilians.
If causing the deaths of MILLIONS of your fellow countrymen through poverty, disease and ignorance is not terrorism, I don’t know what is. Can we just do what we should have done back in the 1970s and freeze these scumbag’s accounts?
Here’s the situation: we can smash and grab the ill-gotten thousands that British drug dealers squirrel away in the bank, but we can’t touch the BILLIONS stolen by African dinosaur leaders (and their grotesque yuppie offspring). Just to remind you: Gabon. Population 1.4 million. One of the Poorest Countries in the World. The Late President Bongo. 42 years in office. One of the Richest People in the World.
Do the maths.
And the horrible thing is that every bribe I pay is propping up the status quo – helping to maintain this revolting system in which everybody but the powerful (i.e. the ***tards with guns) is prone to live a life that is brutish, nasty and short. The Leviathan is not here to protect the people – it is here to consume them entire.
Here’s an idea: take the money out of Switzerland and build a Pan-African highway, hospitals, vaccinate the people and set up a good secondary school in every village and a university in every city.
Give the people of Africa their damn money back. They need it MUCH more than the nasty, heartless Nazi-gold hoarding gnomes of Zurich.
Actually – if we declared war on Switzerland, would it remain neutral? Hmm…
So…after two days, I finally got to the Angolan Embassy and found out that there was a chance – an outside chance – that I could get a new visa, since I already had one issued in London. But I’d have to return on the Monday. Well, you didn’t think it would be easy, now did you?
I hate it when people (idiots, mostly) say that the visa requirements in Africa are reciprocal for the difficulties an African faces in getting a visa for Europe. Don’t be so bloody stupid. Europeans don’t need to get an advance visa for anywhere in the Western Hemisphere – and is Bolivia currently flooded with economic migrants from the UK? I don’t think so.
Pretty much everyone that I meet in Africa is desperate to get the hell out of this infernal place (understandably). What would happen if we removed the visa process for entering the UK? We’d have 50 million Nigerians arriving at Heathrow the following day. The same cannot be said for Brits coming to Nigeria, can it?
As I explained in my blog entry ‘The Brain Drain’, Africa needs skilled workers more than we do, and the unskilled? Christ, do me a quaver – bleeding hearts aside – what on Earth are we meant to do with an illiterate taxi tout from Liberia? The visa situation in Africa is just stupid, and like a lot of things around here, self-defeating. Once again, it’s the people that suffer.
In my time here, every dime that I’ve spent (except for bribes) has gone to local people. People selling meat at the side of the road, people operating bush taxis, local cafés, hotels and bars. Without me and nutters like me who navigate the barriers (geographic and bureaucratic) to enter these damn places, there would be even less money entering the economy than there already is. If the visa situation was relaxed (or say, you just needed one visa to enter every country in West Africa) then the number of tourists would rise by thousands of percent.
When a visa to go to some war-ravaged country you’ve barely heard of, costs more than a week’s holiday in Spain, whatchagonnado? Eh?
But even Sao Tome, an island that can only sustain itself though the thin trickle of tourists that visit each year (20 a week!), you need a bloody visa to get in. It’s madness. Cape Verde, another island group completely dependent on tourism, pulls the same idiotic trick. You want a Cape Verde visa? You have to send your damn passport off to The Netherlands.
Why would you bother?
We don’t – the number of tourists visiting The Canaries (no visa required!!) dwarfs that of Cape Verde by a ratio of over 1000 to 1.
The horrible thing is that countries like Equatorial Guinea and Angola positively discourage tourists. Why? Because the Vogons make all the money they need (and then some) out of the billions of barrels of oil they sell. They don’t give a monkeys’ about the people down on the ground, they are just some nuisance that gets in the way of the really important stuff an African politician needs to be getting on with – like making a fortune raping their nation’s natural resources.
There is something else – these governments are terrified of what a tourist represents – freedom. Even though most African states currently purport to be ‘democracies’, in reality they are anything but. There have been just SEVEN elections in the whole continent of 53 countries in which the opposition has won and the incumbent has peacefully stood down. The standard operating procedure here is simply ‘kill the opposition’.
The people are cowed, intimidated, bullied and under-educated by the political elites. I am not. My country has enjoyed the supremacy of the law since 1215, a two-party parliamentary system since 1688 and universal suffrage since 1919. Do you think perhaps that I and others like me have some special secret wisdom to impart as to why much of Africa is nothing but a sick joke? Do you think that being here, travelling through these places I give a glimpse, however lost in translation, that life does not have to be this way. That Africa does not have to be this way.
Many Africans that I’ve spoken to, have – sadly – taken the belittling and despair-inducing opinion that there is something ‘wrong’ with Africans. That’s what 50 years of living in crap will do to you. That’s what you’ll think if you see the rest of the world with its cars, its rollerblades, its swimming pools and its iPods and you look around and there is a strip of dirt where the road should be, litter piled high, children using the streets as a toilet, your home is a single tiny room with a rusty metal roof, four of your six children have died before the age of five, half of your friends are HIV positive, there’s no clean water, your life expectancy is 43 and there’s no chance of escape. If you stand up, like a nail you will be knocked down.
I’ll tell you what I tell them. Bullsh–. There is no difference between Africans, Europeans, Chinese, Indians, Americans, whomever – they’re all as hard-working, lazy, open-minded, prejudiced, stupid, smart, good-looking, ugly, happy, miserable, mean, generous, funny and serious as any other large group of people. Your skin colour is as related to your personality as your eye-colour. I’ve been very careful in this blog to not tar everyone with the same brush, because you can’t. For every bastard Vogon who has gone out of his way to make my trip here miserable, there have been a hundred people I’ve met on buses, in cafes, on the streets who have gone out of their way to make me feel welcome and appreciated.
But the oppressive regimes of Africa want people here to think there is something wrong with themselves – it stops them thinking, “ NO,THERE IS SOMETHING WRONG WITH THE GOVERNMENT”.
There is something very wrong with the Government.
Back in the heady days of 2003, I pitched this idea – The Odyssey – to The Guardian newspaper. They were kinda interested, but they didn’t want me to go to Burma, lest it encourage tourism there. I understand that the leader of the opposition to the brutal military regime in Myanmar has asked for tourists not to visit, but again, I believe this to be self-defeating. You don’t know you’re in a cave until you leave the cave. Tourists (backpackers in particular) not only bring in money which is spent on local services, they also bring with them a Window to the West – yes I come from a world where I can say what the hell I like and I don’t have to worry about being executed for saying it.
Every day here, I have to overcome the urge to shake the person sitting next to me and scream that IT DOESN’T HAVE TO BE THIS WAY!!
It really doesn’t.
Now where was I? Oh year, Kinshasa. Later on in the day, I was invited to a barbeque at the British Embassy. Woo, I thought – free food, put on courtesy of John Q. taxpayer in the UK. But ah, I guess the days of an Embassy posting being all wine and red roses are over – I had to pay.
Parul was out with her friends, so I was hoping to meet with Holgar or Terrence, whom I spoke to on the phone when I was in the clink. But they didn’t seem to be there, so I perched myself on the end of a table and started stuffing my face with as much food as I hadn’t eaten last week.
Then I got a call from Laure, the beautiful French girl that we had made contact with through couchsurfing. Are you wearing a hat? Yeah. Ah, I can see you. She had come to the Embassy to meet me (and possibly grab some BBQ) along with her husband, Alex. Laure is one of only two female pilots in DR Congo (how cool is THAT?) and Alex works for Medicins Sans Frontiers and owns exactly the same compass-watch as me. I liked them immediately. They dragged me (oh so reluctantly!) out for a night of irresponsible drinking in the dives and grottos of Kin-La-Belle. I met a stack of people all working for NGOs or charities and probably had one too many glasses of obscenely overpriced lager (don’t look at me like that, they were placed in my hands).
Ah, the Beer Vortex, give it a spin and see where you end up. Michael was working until late and would be working again tomorrow so he didn’t join us, unfortunately, but he left a key out, and after a quick ride around town in an MSF 4×4 (MSF employees are not allowed to go anywhere on their own; understandable, you know what medics are like), I finally found his flat. Not bad considering that I could barely find my legs.
A great lie-in was interrupted by my desire to watch as many of Alex’s DVDs as possible before I had to leave. So I camped on the couch and watched about seven films back to back. Ah, what bliss. Sorry Kinshasa, but you just ain’t got nothing I really want to see.
That night, I was invited out to a house party with Alex and Laure. Michael had a business dinner he had to attend, so it all worked out quite well. We sat out in the garden of Alex’s friend’s house talking, drinking and eating (there was a great spread!) until the wee small hours. On our way back to Alex and Laure’s at the MSF compound, we stopped off at another friend’s house and promptly indulged in a bit of why-not-drunkenly-throw-yourself-in-the-pool shenanigans. It was FREEZING, but fun. I slept the night on Alex and Laure’s floor.
Today was another DVD-fest, a Hitchcock triple-bill (The Trouble With Harry (Crap), Topaz (Good) and Marnie (Okay)) culminating in Michael and I watching James Dean chew the scenery like a starving billy-goat in East of Eden, which is nicely shot (mmm… Dutch Tilts) but is, quite frankly, as boring as hell. I think we both fell asleep at various points. Gimme Bruno any day.
Something got me thinking about the most idiotic character in the Star Wars universe; no, it’s not Jar Jar, it’s that little bongo-brain, Jedi Master Yoda. From the word go, that grammatically-challenged frog is a Class-A fool.
First up, he separates some powerful Jedi kid from his mum, and then leaves her IN SLAVERY for ten years. What? Why?
Then he decides that space wizards aren’t allowed to get it on with the opposite sex. Even though (it would appear) that Jedis breed Jedis. Just cos he’s got the voice of Fozzy Bear and all of the sex-appeal of the crazy dwarf from Don’t Look Now, doesn’t mean that he has to spoil everyone else’s fun.
Then he has two light-sabre fights with a couple of old-age pensioners, both of which he loses. Because, let’s face it, he’s a terrible Jedi.
But his biggest failing is during Luke’s training. First up, why does he wait until Luke is 21 years old? And then why does he give him such terrible advice? You’ve got to kill your dad. Can’t I talk him round? No, apparently a Jedi that would make you not. Eh?
But his dumbest line is the one that goes:
This one a long time have I watched. All his life he has looked away; to the past, to the future, never his mind on where he was, what he was doing.
What a pleb.
Everyone should have one eye on the past, to learn from one’s mistakes, and one eye on the future, to prepare for what lies ahead. You know what you get if you follow Yoda’s stupid philosophy? Africa. Here there is no learning from (or even acknowledging) the past and the future is an undiscovered country. Everyone’s mind is narrowly focused on where they are, what they are doing. If they’re alright until midnight, then all’s well here, chuck.
This live-for-today attitude accounts for yesterday’s war criminals that have not been brought to trial and tomorrow’s decrepit and defunct infrastructure.
It also means that there are unhealed social wounds which can only fester and become infected (Rwanda, Sierra Leone) and that governments can get away with gross under-investment in roads, sewers, railways, schools and hospitals.
I can see why this attitude is so prevalent: why plan for the future when you probably won’t be around to see it? I just wish it wasn’t so. And sociopathic lizards like Jedi Master Yoda aren’t helping.
Okay. Today was my DAY OF ACTION. I headed down to the Angolan embassy first thing in the morning, armed with my passport my old visa, my letter of invitation, my onward flight ticket (don’t worry – it’s just for show), photos, photocopies, vaccination certificate and a nice, shiny new $100 bill.
There was no rhyme or reason as to who was ‘served’ first, so I just stood in the middle of the room full of people looking a little lost until somebody came to help me. They looked at my stuff and said that I needed a letter from my Embassy saying that I wasn’t an escaped serial killer or something. So I jumped a ‘taxi’ (a private car, but there are no real taxis in Kinshasa, so that makes every car that isn’t a 4×4 a taxi) to the Embassy and asked Parul very nicely to sort me out with a letter of introduction, which she did. I said my thanks and headed back to the Angolan embassy. Eventually, somebody came and rescued me again from the crowd. I was taken into the back room, handed over everything and crossed my fingers. They told me to come back in the next day.
I headed over to see Alex at his workplace. He does logistics for Medicins Sans Frontiers (MSF) and had agreed to help me fix my virus-ridden laptop.
Luckily, VERY luckily, I had backed up all my files onto a separate hard-drive the night before I left for Brazzaville, so once the decision was made to wipe my entire hard-drive, all I needed was a new copy of Windows, Office and Adobe Premiere. My little laptop (still going strong!!) hasn’t an internal DVD drive but Alex dug out an old external drive from some dusty cupboard somewhere in MSF HQ.
Are you sure you want to delete this partition?
After a few hours, Little Lappy was almost back in business. I just needed a few more drivers and a copy of Office that wasn’t in French.
Hurrah for Alex!
Alex and Laure were going out for dinner with friends so I headed back to Michael’s and (predictably) rifled through some more DVDs. It was like a Blockbusters specially built for me but only with films that I always meant – one day – to get around to watching. Which is pretty amazing considering (as Danny Alexander will no doubt testify) that when I visit a real Blockbusters, I’ll have annoyingly already seen every film they have.
Hurrah for Michael!
I returned to the Angolan embassy, fingers and toes crossed. I hung about for an hour or so before somebody came to help me. I was taken into the back room again and – miracle of miracles – was given my passport back with a shiny new ANGOLAN VISA IN IT.
It was only a transit visa, and I had only been given five days, but my word THEY SAID IT COULDN’T BE DONE. But someone up there likes me. I headed back over to MSF HQ waving my golden ticket around like Charlie Bucket. I’m sure everybody was duly impressed.
The bus to the border leaves very early, so I missed the one for that day. No worries – Alex, Michael and I headed out for a meal (we found a great little Chinese restaurant – mmm… I haven’t had Chinese food for months!) and a few drinks, which Alex shouted us for – what a guy! Later, I said my goodbyes to Michael (and his excellent, excellent DVD collection) and headed back to Alex’s for some shut-eye. Alex arranged for an MSF 4×4 to pick me up in the morning – I’d be leaving on the first bus at 5am.
5am! Are you having a laugh? The bus didn’t leave until nine!! I could have had a good lie-in, although this will form the pattern of the next week of travel.
The trip to the Angolan border was fairly uneventful, but I was happy that I got a seat all to myself, I wasn’t squished like a sardine, three people to a seat. And – shock horror! The driver’s mate gave out sandwiches and Cokes to everyone on board! How cool is THAT? Must be the first time that has happened since I was in Central America back in February.
At the border. I didn’t have any of the hassles alluded to in the Lonely Planet. It did take them an hour to stamp me out (the ‘chief’ wasn’t there!) but apart from that, I got over the border without any problems, and (amazingly) no bribes. Happy days.
I crossed into the Angola village of Noqui, which I guess translates as Nowhere. I was literally in the Middle of Nowhere – or at least that’s how it felt. With no real public transport to take me the 400km to Luanda, the capital, I had to take a truck-taxi, like in Congo, laden with people in the back. It took the truck about five hours to clear the border, and by the time it arrived in the village, it was already 9pm. I managed to snag a space in the cab. The driver wanted an astronomical $100.
Forget Norway or Japan. Angola is THE most expensive country in the WORLD. A can of coke is £2, the cheapest, grottiest hotel is at least $80 a night, a piece of chicken from the side of the road will set you back €4. Wow. And I thought DR Congo was expensive.
I haggled him down to a (still a rip-off) $70, and I thought we were on our way.
Don’t be silly, Graham. T.I.A.
We parked up and went nowhere. I fell asleep in the cab, the poor thirty-odd people in the back of the truck had to sleep under the stars.
Nothing is ever easy is it?