|Today we saw a glimpse of the dark
side of Africa: unadulterated chaos; unashamed corruption; blatant
volatility. Much as it was a day we will look back on as long,
stressful and frustrating, we won't regret it as we were shaken
from the somewhat sterilised view of Africa, which we experience
through our car window, and launched headlong into the mania of
public transport and all the Africanisms that go with it.
The only way from Brazzaville to Kinshasa, the two capital
cities of the two Congos, is to cross the mighty Congo river, which
separates the two. A bridge would be nice, or a tunnel.
Unsurprisingly, neither of these exists and so there is only one
option – the dilapidated ferry. And believe me, this is no Dover to
We arrived at the port at 7am, not having slept particularly
well in anticipation of today's challenge. On arrival we were told
that nothing would open for another hour or two and the ferry
wouldn't leave until midday at the earliest.
To be honest, these first five hours of the day were not
stressful, just slightly tedious. All the officials were friendly
and helpful, offering us places to sit in the shade and assuring us
that we would make the ferry, even when the Customs official turned
up an hour late.
We did eventually complete all the formalities and secure
ourselves a ticket - we still had two hours to wait. This was
probably the best part of the day as we got to sit in the
car and people-watch. Fortunately watching, or staring at, other
people is a national pastime in Africa so we were in no danger of
offending anyone. We were also offering a public service with the
Land Rover, which provided many people with a leaning post, a beer
mat and an opportunity to check themselves out in our mirrors.
As we waited, the boat arrived from Kinshasa and utter bedlam
ensued. Our nice tidy image of numbered vehicle bays beneath a
passenger deck with seats and a bar so we could sip a Fanta whilst
enjoying our leisurely cruise across the famous Congo, was cruelly
People began to pour through the gates, pushing, shoving and
climbing over each other to get out. Most were carrying huge,
awkward loads. At the same time hand carts laden with produce were
being rolled out of the vehicle gate. This continued for almost an
hour. Either this was an enormous ferry or the Congolese are not
particularly fussed about capacity regulations.
An interesting point to note were the very high numbers of blind
people carrying large loads, holding on to the shoulders of someone
and being led into the crowd. We knew that there must be a reason
for this and have since discovered that, as they get reduced fares
on the ferry, they go back and forth trading goods at low prices.
Watching all this offered an interesting, if slightly disturbing,
insight into the lives of the physically disabled in Africa. It is
dog eat dog out there and even the weak and vulnerable have to
fight for themselves. Physical disability certainly isn't
sanitised, 'dealt with' or accounted for like in the West. It is in
your face and in everyone's reality. The up side of this is that I
genuinely believe that people are more ready to help their brother
here, rather than waiting for an institution, a law or some experts
to intervene. Watching dozens of blind people being led into the
angry chaos of the port, their faith and security placed solely in
their guide, we certainly got a glimpse of raw humanity – its
challenges, its trials and the prevailing perseverance of the human
spirit. Most of this bypasses us in the West. I hadn't realised it
As people continued to tumble out of the doors the scene in the
port became more and more chaotic. The police would sporadically
stop and interrogate people, whilst others dodged and dived through
the crowds to avoid them. Above the voices you could always hear
the kissing call of the boys selling water and the tapping call of
the shoe shiners. For us this felt rather like a show of 'Real
Africa' being put on for our benefit but we had to remind ourselves
that this scene is played out every day.
Finally it was time for us to get on to the ferry. It was every
man, woman, child, wagon and Land Rover for themselves. We had to
drive down a steep, rickety ramp through crowds of people and on to
the boat, which was basically one enormous platform, crowded to the
nth degree. We were the only vehicle on board and so felt just
slightly conspicuous as we sat in our gold fish bowl being stared
at by the Congolese world and his wife.
The crossing took half an hour and we arrived by 1.30pm, which
made our average speed for the day 700 metres an hour.
Even more mania awaited us in Kinshasa. As we were waiting in
the car for the mobs to get off the boat, a policeman came, took
our documents and demanded that I go with him to immigration,
leaving Neil to negotiate getting the Land Rover back on to dry
land. I was led by the policeman, who had a very firm grip on my
arm, through the volatile crowd. At one point he had to shield me
from one guy hitting another with a stick – something we had
observed several times so far in this process. He pushed me through
the gate at the top where I found myself in the relative calm of
the border formalities. At least I was out of the pulsating throng
on the other side of the gates. I could only be partially relieved
though as, looking back, I could still see Neil on the ferry and
wondered how on earth he was going to get off.
I was taken to an office where our documents were given to a
friendly young man who spent an age asking me irrelevant questions
and writing down my answers on a blank sheet of A4 paper. There was
still no sign of Neil but I had gratefully accepted the chair and
the tissue which had been offered to me when I arrived looking red
and flustered, with sweat dripping off my nose.
To the credit of the DRC, the immigration and customs officials
were thorough and helpful. We were helped by various different
people, none of whom asked for money but all of whom were friendly
So we thought we were done but alas, our biggest problem was yet
to unfold. We were cornered by a man wearing a suit, who introduced
himself as a Health Official and told us that we had to pay $60
to have our car disinfected. We couldn't believe it and it was just
about the final straw for us on this never-ending border crossing.
He disappeared for a couple of moments telling us we must get our
vaccination records and meet him back at the car.
At a loss to know what to do, we spotted the United Nations
Travel Unit and saw it as immediate place of refuge and common
sense . Looking back, it was more like a child running to hide
behind their mother's skirt, or someone being at base during a
game of catch. I really have no idea what we thought the UN were
going to do to help us. They do,
undoubtedly, have more serious matters to attend to in the
DRC. However the very sight of the words United Nations were as
close we could get to having a good cry and someone giving us a hug
and telling us it was all going to be OK. Besides, there are 20,500
UN stationed in the DRC so we figured that they could surely lend
us one for a few minutes.
Sure enough, inside the little port-a-cabin all seemed calmness
and serenity. We explained what we had just been told and asked
them for their advice. Then Mr Health managed to track us down
(doesn't he know the rules of catch, we were on base for goodness
sake) and all hell broke loose. Nothing to do with us, I hasten to
add, but between the Mr UN and Mr Health. Our UN friend basically
gave him a battering, telling him that he should be ashamed of
himself for such a ridiculous charge and leave us alone. I couldn't help but conceal a smile.
Despite the UN's best efforts (who are now up there with the
Chinese in our list of Very Helpful People To Come Across in
Africa) we did get screwed. I won't go into the long, depressing,
angry, corrupt details of the next hour's debate. Suffice to say it
was just plain robbery at a government level that we had no power
to fight although, believe me, we tried.
So by 4pm we finally left the port, $60 poorer but that's OK as
the wheels of our car had been sprayed with something – probably
washing up liquid – so that we wouldn't be a danger to the DRC. We
were tired, thirsty, hot and angry but amidst it all we had to
acknowledge that this was out first experience of this kind at out
13th African border crossing so we must not, for any reason, be
tempted to tar all African nations with the same brush.