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D. R. Congo: In At The Deep End

First published in 2012 on the popular expat blog, Life in Lubumbashi, 'In At The Deep End' follows my first journey to the DRC.

In most people’s eyes, Congo would be an unwise choice of destination, even more so for three students who regularly struggle to make their 3pm lectures. So when our University (much to their credit) gave us the green light to fly out to Africa for 2 months, we couldn’t wait to jump straight in & check out why the dark heart of Africa is so ominously named.
Our pre-departure risk assessment highlighted almost every eventuality as either ‘high risk,’ or ‘extreme,’ so we were honestly quite surprised when we found ourselves chilling in Heathrow airport early May, 2012. Dining on Ethiopian Airways’ finest fish curry, we talked at length about tactics as to how to pass through Lubumbashi’s airport smoothly, & it’s fair to say that, as we swooped down over Katanga’s blood-red roads & waving children, our hearts began to race a little.
"Only in Congo do the passengers stand on the baggage carousel, whilst your luggage sits stationary, agonisingly within sight"
Nothing says welcome to DRC quite like Lubumbashi’s baggage reclaim process: Only in Congo do the passengers stand on the baggage carousel, whilst your luggage sits stationary, agonisingly within sight but strictly guarded by a single chain-link fence – the line you mustn't cross. Yet, after observing local customs (one of our university targets), shuffling the barrier forward slightly towards your purple suitcase was seemingly acceptable. Organised chaos, clichéd as it is, is the only way to describe the performance, yet, a little later we were cruising towards downtown Lubumbashi, complete with belongings. Maybe it’ll catch on.
So why on earth were we in Congo? This question not only baffled us regularly, but many people we bumped into along the way, & especially our parents. Ian – Kimbilio’s founder; trouble-shooter; accountant; translator; chauffeur... – had kindly invited us to lend a hand, and gain some experience in the field. Perhaps, if he’d of been informed prior of the insane levels of banter we were bringing to Congo, he may have withdrawn the invitation, but for us three (studying a mix-match of International Development, Geography, French and Sport ‘Science’) there was no way we were letting this opportunity escape us.
Deliberately or not, Ian threw us in at the deep end. We’d conveniently arrived the week of the re-opening of Kimbilio’s day centre, so at 5am (yes, apparently it does exist) we found ourselves covertly wandering Kenya Market, trying to find local street children before they rose at sunrise & dissolved into the market’s daily bustle. Under the moonlight the shadows & eerie silence were a little unnerving, a few people shuffled about, well wrapped up from the chill; whilst several huddled around fires burning the previous day’s rubbish. Inhaling the smoke felt toxic & the ambiance as a whole was slightly uncomfortable. It’s hard to believe that these rows of semi-sheltered stalls were home to children half our ages, although promisingly we only found a couple of young boys asleep under a rickety stand – so perhaps the numbers of street children had fallen since Kimbilio’s last sortie. We invited them for the following day to Kimbilio, & at the mention of breakfast, footy & lunch, more children, all boys, began to appear from the shadows. As the sun rose, early morning traders began to filter in as if in a well-rehearsed play; our time to leave. The following day, 36 Chegues were excitably waiting at the cathedral gates.
At the crack of dawn every Tuesday & Thursday, we’d weave our way through Lubumbashi’s morning traffic to the cathedral, where we’d be greeted by a wave of smiles, jambos & handshakes. As much as we loved buttering bread & carrying water, for us, the day centre was all about joking around & distracting the kids. I’m still slightly unsure as to whether Ian explained to them that we understood absolutely zero Swahili, as they just talked & talked, but by week four we knew all the tricks to keep them entertained whilst lunch bubbled over the fire outside. Football was central to the morning activities too, exhausting in the African heat & always attracting large crowds from the local community, but it was nice to see the children running around, passing the ball & celebrating together. Dave also brought a frisbee which went down a storm, though it soon sailed into a mob of jumping children & we never saw that again. Walking back, local kids would tag along Pied Piper-esque only to receive a curt slap round the ear by the street children – it was quite clear us three wazungu were theirs, & not for sharing. Finally, after lunch, the kids would wander off back to the market & we’d sip a cold Simba; back to reality. Other days, I’d often tag along with Ian to meetings with airlines, hotels or mining companies to promote the new Lubumbashi Congo website. Alex spent a lot of time researching for his dissertation, & Dave somehow found the energy to coach footy & volleyball to the Kimbilio kids as well as those at one of Lubumbashi’s international schools.
Perhaps most memorable of all was our journey three days west to Katoka. The three of us set off a day ahead of Ian, travelling with two of the kids with hopes to reintegrate them back with their families en route. Cédric’s parents were overwhelmingly happy to see him again, &, although the other lad’s mum took a little more persuading, the following day both kids were off playing so things are looking promising. Surfing pick-ups & braving local buses we continued our journey, & despite daily breakdowns, dusty faces & armed officials we arrived relatively alive, with many stories to tell. Little were we expecting a traditional welcome of dance, songs & flowers, which was wonderfully touching after three days on the road.
Back in Lubumbashi, we put the wheels in motion for a snake & ‘rainy-season’ proof chicken run, so hopefully soon the 11 children living permanently at Kimbilio will have them to look after, as well as fresh eggs & the occasional chicken stew, or even produce to sell.
"nothing after Congo offered that same intensity or intrigue"
The end of our time in DRC quickly snuck up on us, & we were soon leaving the rawness of Congo behind, crossing over into Zambia, down to Vic falls, then back up again taking the train all the way to Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania, & completing our trip on the beaches of the Indian Ocean in Zanzibar. Yet nothing after Congo offered that same intensity or intrigue which we experienced there. It’s hard to pin down exactly what’s so contagious about the country, but Lubumbashi’s decaying colonial facades & generous boulevards certainly set the stage for the vibrancy & spontaneity of the day to day. Combine that with Congo’s turbulent history, & melange of language & culture, it’s truly a unique country to experience.
Our time with Kimbilio led us to the true heart of the city, with its great troubles but fortunately greater smiles. Our helping hand was really just a drop in the ocean, but hopefully Ian & the team can continue to support the children as best they can, in the hope that more can settle back with their families. Oh, & maybe we’ll just have to pop back to check on progress.
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