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D. R. Congo: Back to Lubumbashi, part 2

Documenting my return to the DRC

Travelling Lubumbashi’s expanding network of tarmacked roads is as thrilling as it is uncomfortable. I generally used local transport, with set fares of either 500 Congolese Francs for a shared taxi or motorbike, or 200 (approx. 15 pence) for a knee-crunching, sweaty taxibus.

As in Belgium, here they drive more or less on the right. Taxibuses are often purchased from neighbouring Zambia, a former British colony (then Northern Rhodesia) which upholds left-side driving. As a consequence, this side of the border alighting passengers are obliged to topple out into oncoming traffic.

Travelling in such discomfort has its perks. Packing in with the locals and livestock allows you to slip past Lubumbashi’s infamous traffic police. Their reputation for turning a blind eye to battered Toyotas weaving up pavements; whilst rigorously inspecting the roadworthiness of polished expat vehicles is a bugbear of most foreigners. Corruption and extortion on the roadside is blatant, reflecting the poor and irregular pay for low-grade State employees across the board.

Maison Kimbilio on the city’s fringe is an adventure in itself, once made in a taxibus where celotape replaced long-forgotten windows. Descending at a nondescript point, it’s a further fifteen minute stroll down an uneven track, gorged by the rains of the November to March wet season. Families sit outside their one-room homes, waving as I wandered by, then the scene opens out to reveal Kimbilio's ten acre plot. The boys’ house sits at one corner, nearest the river which trickles through greenery amongst an otherwise baked landscape. The children’s rooms surround a central courtyard, and the main living area is adorned with their art. Meals are shared together, and the vibe is wholly familial.

Builder Papa Davide was keen to lead a tour of the impressive new Maison Janet Bokwa, named in memory of Kimbilio’s carer who died during childbirth. The house will accommodate up to twelve girls, many of whom have been ensnared in the city’s sex trade from a young age. It should be fully up and running by Christmas.

"Whilst this process meanders along like the great River Congo itself, there are often turbulent waters ahead"

Across town, Kimbilio’s two transit houses sit within discreet compounds, close to the Kenya Market, and a painfully slow crawl from Restawhile through one of Central Africa’s most potent fish markets. Kimbilio Transit is a mix of hope and limbo, where children live temporarily whilst waiting for family acceptance.

It can take several months for the reintegration team to locate, negotiate with, and reunite a family. Distances are vast, and many children have travelled days in the back of trucks to reach the city’s misguiding lights. Beliefs in child witchcraft are also common, and take education and trust to overcome. Whilst this mediation process meanders along like the great River Congo itself, there are often turbulent waters ahead at the Transits. The fraternity and freedom of the streets are never far from the children’s minds, and you can see their independent spirits fighting against their deep wish to stay and rediscover family life.

Lifestyle in Lubumbashi can be as rich as it is poor. Hotel Karavia, with its pretentious  lawns down to the lake was once the playground of one time Western ally and brazen dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko; and will set you back well over $120 a night. Being white, and conveying some innate colonial confidence allows you to saunter past guards, butlers and receptionists, to take advantage of poolside sun loungers. Far more low-key is La Riviera, a bar nestled on the far lakeshore, offering the Katangan elite the perfect seclusion in which to woo their mistresses. This is by far my favourite spot in Lubumbashi; the dropping sun tickling verdant palms is perfect accompaniment to good conversation and bottles locally brewed Tembo, Simba and Primus.

Kamalondo, on the other hand, is far from relaxing. In a warren of unlit streets, shadows lurch in front of dancing flames cooking goat. Other goats stand patiently, tethered to the barbeques themselves, whilst bloody racks of ribs swing ominously from the shack’s frame above. This is the real Lubumbashi nightlife, with bars blaring rich African beats. White people have never really come here. Under Belgian rule, this area was the preserve of the évolué - ‘civilised’ natives - who served White Europeans in the city centre. A curfew meant that the évolué scuttled back to Kamalondo before nightfall, returning at first light to tend European homes. Despite today’s edginess, there is also a sense in endearment from locals, who seem appreciative that I had trusted a venture to this unseen side of their city. To be fair, I was accompanied by Ian Mullens and five Congolese colleagues. Together, we watched the Champions League final, streamed live from Berlin - and ate fresh goat.

Like all good Saturday nights in Kamalondo, Sunday morning in Church is probably a necessary antidote. As a guest of the Anglican Church during my stay, I was chaperoned to a different church each Sunday, hidden deep within close-knit suburban communities. Arriving politely late on each occasion, we’d strut to the front seats much to the joy of the congregation. Lasting several hours, the Swahili services went through phases of utter boredom to exuberant singing. Then it was my turn to address the hundreds of expectant eyes, in French. Afterwards, we’d shake a parade of hands outside, then share lunch with community elders in their little sunlit houses. It is humbling that our visit was such a proud occasion for the community; nonetheless it was always a relief to return to Restawhile and relax for the afternoon. Back at the ranch, conversation turned to last night’s gunfire just beyond our compound. There are many sides to this city.

My time in Congo went fast and slow. Progress travels at a crawl here, and achieving anything more than one task a day is overambitious; yet, you never tire of the city’s energy, movement, and unpredictability. Venturing outside the gates was always exciting, and being a part of an organisation making such positive strides to individual children’s lives is uplifting. Kimbilio now has a basketball court, water tower, electricity generator, and stronger links with several similar local organisations. Friendly is an adjective used to describe many world cities, but this is not one. Individually, people are welcoming, but as a whole there is an underlying edginess. This fragility is likely to increase over the coming months, as Congo calls for presidential elections.

After bribing my way through each stage of the airport process, I tucked myself in the corner of the departure lounge. Here, it’s a case of looking outside for your flight, rather than at any departure screen. Suddenly, a ratatatat drew everyone hurriedly to the window. This time it wasn’t gunfire, but drumbeats. In true Congolese flamboyance, a marching band paraded up the runway to welcome an incoming Compagnie Africaine d’Aviation plane. My departure with Kenya Airways drew no such fanfare, yet predictably was not without drama, taking the pilot 45 minutes and four attempts to start the engines. Welcome, to Congo.
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