My lasting memory from my previous visit to Congo was being led down a dirt track at gunpoint, in the middle of the Congolese brush. Now I’m back.
I first visited the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Kimbilio, in 2012. Three years on, now 23, graduated, and working for Kimbilio as the UK Project Manager in Manchester, I found myself back at Heathrow with a ticket to one of Africa’s most captivating countries.
This trip was more than a second dip-of-the-toe into a country I'd studied so much about. As a representative of the Congo Children Trust, I was there to assess our work on the ground, and introduce a number of new initiatives and infrastructural projects.
I was already one week late, due to visa complications. Kenya Airways’ gleaming Dreamliner was luxurious, so anyone cautious of flying with an African carrier need not worry (from London). Through Nairobi's dawn mist we slammed onto the runway, which was when the Kenyan experience turned recognisably 'African'. I had a six hour layover, but paced myself and made it to the gate on time - unlike the plane, which was still in Mumbai. For armchair travellers fortunate enough to have never visited the old half of Nairobi airport, picture your corridor at work and just sit there for 10 hours with the lights off and water dripping from the ceiling. But fear not, four hours after the six hours and a free stir-fry later, we were invited back to board another fabulous plane.
With Congo being a popular tourist hotspot, each passenger had about 12 seats to themselves, so the next leg to Ndola, Zambia was a veritable joy. Only a twenty minute hop over the border and I’d be in Congo. Refuelled, door closed and well and truly briefed on where to find my lifejacket for another landlocked flight, I closed my eyes and waited for the thrust of the engines. Ping-Pong. You have got to be kidding. With darkness falling, the captain informed us of a problem. Despite only a handful of passengers on-board at this point, KA’s confidence in their own aircraft meant one of these poor souls was a company engineer. He disappeared up front and concluded it was probably a faulty light in the cockpit. With everything crossed we roared off again, into the burnt African sun.
With a population approaching two million, Lubumbashi is the second most populous city in Congo. Yet, as one descends into Lubumbashi at night, something is starkly apparent: there is no city; just darkness. It is only when descending through the final few thousand feet that you see the flickering fires and wandering headlights, that the city unravels beneath your seat.
Bwana Asifiwe. BWANA ASIFIWE. I stirred from my creaky bed in the big house. Choir song drifted in through the open doors, which led out to the shady retreat of Restawhile guest house - a leafy compound, a world away from the bluster which lay beyond the spiky perimeter wall.
The evening before, Chef du Projet Jean Bosco and volunteer Ian Mullens greeted me through the prison-like bars which form the exit to Lubumbashi airport. Understandably, my welcome party at the Anglican Diocese had dwindled due to my late arrival, yet a few colleagues had waited in the darkness to give me warm greetings, complete with traditional Belgian Pistolet rolls and bottled Coca Cola. We travelled back to Restawhile through the pitch black, roadside fires burning and headlights catching figures in the night.
Floors in Congo are often painted; reassuringly cool on the soles of my feet as I pattered around the big house, relocating belongings I had lost in last night's power outage. Bwana Asifiwe (Praise the Lord) continued to rise above the hubbub of traffic. Ian’s bungalow sits at the far end of the drive, and he wandered up, clearly adjusted to the pace of life. I was keen to get out and find my bearings amidst this sprawling city.
As the watchman swings back the gate you enter the real, edgy and vibrant Congo. The energy is audible. The car made its habitual scrape of the exhaust as we mounted the road.
We headed across town to Centre Kimbilio, first stop for street children in need of help, and first stop for me. Held at the Anglican Cathedral, a couple of dishevelled boys were washing their clothes outside. Within, around 30 kids were enjoying a rhythmic clapping game. A few turned, radiating cheeky smiles and giving furtive little waves. Surprisingly, I recognised a few; their childhoods spent living under ramshackle market stalls, with Kimbilio the only constant in a life of unknowns.
I had often wondered the whereabouts of one boy in particular. On my last visit he had clung hopefully to my side, and was visibly downhearted when I walked away from Congo and its problems. I was heart-warmed to see him sitting there, exactly where I left him. I flicked to one of my favourite pictures on my phone from last time, of me and him broadly grinning on the Cathedral steps. He wasn’t bothered. He had clearly climbed the street-child hierarchy and was now image conscious - far too cool to be seen with his arm around me looking young and lost. Now, his muscles were defined by years on the streets; years unloading lorries for a few hundred francs. Markets bring opportunity, and perhaps he had carved out a half-decent life here.
Meal times began with a prayer, and consisted of basic cuisine such as rice and beans, accompanied by a cup of sugar with tea. Food was scoffed, shared, stashed, swapped, and swept. There seemed to be an honour in sweeping the floors after meals. Meanwhile, others play-fought downstairs. For street boys, pride is everything.
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