All the paranoia about getting through the airport proved to be ill-founded. My clever concealment of various camera lenses inside pairs of socks buried deep down in my suitcase had been for nothing. I felt like a rookie – I was embarrassed at myself.
But as we walked to the exit and spotted our driver, it was swiftly forgotten. The realisation that we’d made it hit me like the heavy, humid air that enveloped us as soon as we stepped out of the air-conditioned airport building. I drew a sharp, hot breath and felt something I hadn’t felt for a little while: the surging elation of a decades-long dream becoming reality.
We were in Kinshasa.
With the sudden benefit of hindsight, it was so much easier and so much closer than I’d imagined.
We got in the car and I turned to face Kim, my travel companion, and I saw my own excitement reflected in her face.
As we pulled onto the highway away from the airport, there was the sound of police sirens and we moved off onto the pavement, as did all the other cars on the road. Policemen on motorbikes sped past, taking up all three lanes, and a hundred metres behind them was a long line of black SUVs with tinted windows. The entire motorcade must have been close to 500 metres long.
“President Kabila’s going for a drive,” said our driver, Constant.
Constant added that in the days immediately after anti-Kabila protests erupted in Kinshasa in December (met with violent crackdowns that killed at least 40), the president’s motorcade had also contained a number of tanks. Entire roads were closed down for hours just for him to move freely about the city.
With Kabila’s entourage past us, we carried on into the pulsating heart of the city. The Congolese football team, known as the Leopards, was due to play against Ivory Coast in the African Cup of Nations that evening. There were Congolese flags everywhere. The mood was festive. People hurried into overcrowded, battered minibus taxis to get to a television screen or radio set.
We gradually navigated through the heavy traffic. After an hour or so, the city began to thin, and dense verdant forest took over as we continued on towards Lola ya Bonobo sanctuary, our home for the next two nights and our first story lead for the trip.
Run by an eccentric and adventurous French family, the sanctuary had ridden the wave of decades of conflict and political and economic instability and continued to stand firm. Lola provided a safe haven for approximately 70 bonobos, a profoundly intelligent species of great ape found only in the Congo and severely threatened by poaching and habitat encroachment.
The main house on the property had once been a holiday residence of former dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, and the well-maintained grounds on the edge of one of the Congo River’s many tributaries seemed a million miles from the madness of the city.
After two days at the sanctuary (more on this coming soon on other platforms), we returned to the city. I’m a rural child, but something about a massive sprawling metropolis excites me tremendously, perhaps precisely because it is so very different to the place where I grew up. While our time with the people at Lola and with the bonobos themselves had been special, I couldn’t wait to get a little deeper beneath the surface of Kinshasa.
However, our accommodation in the city, arranged through a relative of Kim’s boyfriend, could not have been more disconnected from the reality of the vast majority of the 11 or 12 million people who called the city home.
We were staying in a luxurious house in the enclosed compound of UtexAfrica, home to Kinshasa’s wealthy expat community, with a sprinkling of Congolese politicians. Congolese nannies pushed prams with white children in them around the clean, tree-lined streets, young couples took tennis lessons on the clay courts, and middle-aged men with bulbous paunches sat at the poolside bar exclusively reserved for residents.
We were alone in the enormous house, save for our own personal chef, Didonier. Meals would miraculously appear on the table every now and again, but Didonier was generally invisible. Kim and I tried to pick out a bottle of wine from the well-stocked bar, but there was nothing that seemed cheap enough. We feigned exaggerated colonial accents to diffuse our discomfort with such comfort.
I was much happier when we left the complex and had our first real exploration of the city that night. We sat down for beers on the terrace of a busy bar near the Grand Marché, and I was strangely reassured that we were the only white people there. A sapeur, the Congolese equivalent of a dandy, posed for a companion to take pictures on his phone. Vendors walked around the plastic tables and chairs selling anything from cell phone chargers to grilled grasshoppers on a stick. The music was much too loud for the ageing distorting speakers.
We moved on to a nearby club, and watched Congolese men watching themselves dance in a large mirror that took up an entire wall of the venue. According to Andrew, a contact of Kim’s and our chaperone for the night, these mirrors were ubiquitous in Kinshasa’s clubs.
The next morning we rose early and joined UNICEF for a two-day trip to Mbanza Ngungu, a town in the Bas-Congo region about four hours south of Kinshasa. It rained incessantly for the whole drive and the undulating green hills were covered in mist.
The town itself had been a former colonial outpost for Belgian railway workers. Today, most of the grand colonial properties had been taken over by multiple Congolese families and had fallen into varying states of disrepair, though they still retained a certain charm. The railway hangar was full of old abandoned trains, which were slowly being reclaimed by the dense vegetation.
We met with community health workers, nurses, doctors, pregnant mothers and children, all of whom shared their insights into the impact a UNICEF health project has had on dramatically reducing previously high levels of maternal and infant mortality.
We were looked after by the Head of Communications for UNICEF DRC, Yves, a Belgian with an unusually sunny outlook on the prospects of the country, and a great way with people. His Congolese co-worker and companion, a doctor named Thierry, laughed freely and abruptly, without warning.
We returned to Kinshasa feeling buoyed by Thierry and Yves’ dedication and energy, and by the resourcefulness and resilience of so many of the Congolese we’d met during the previous couple of days.
We had three more days in the city, and filled them as much as possible, looking to take home as many stories as possible to make back some of the extortianate amount of money it had taken to get there. I became almost annoyed that no policemen asked me to produce the $250 media accreditation I’d been advised to get in case I was stopped for taking pictures. It had been just one of the many expenses.
I met up with foreign correspondents, local investigative journalists, musicians and leading members of the country’s bizarre and massively popular wrestling scene. I spent hours crisscrossing the city with the chauffeur that had been provided for us by our hosts, travelling from the wide, free-flowing boulevards near UtexAfrica all the way to the impassable muddy lanes and rampant poverty of Matete, then back to the air-conditioned halls of the Grand Hotel.
Much of this time was spent sitting in traffic jams, but even then I was constantly enthralled by the chaos and vitality of the city, which seemed to be constantly changing shape around me.
For our final afternoon, Kim and I rejoined Yves from UNICEF to visit another of their projects focussed on what they term “child participation”. Among other things, this programme trains teenagers to be child reporters. These children make short documentaries about issues in their communities, told from their own perspectives.
We met a number of the children involved with this UNICEF programme. Their intelligence, passion, determination and sense of social responsibility was astounding – it was suddenly easy to see how Yves seemed to remain effortlessly optimistic, in contrast to the jaded humanitarian workers I’ve met in so many parts of Africa.
The next morning before our flight home, we took a trip out of town to Chez Tintin, a bar with an expansive lawn perched on the banks of the Congo River and with rather worn-out Tintin memorabilia scattered around the premises. Brazzaville was just visible through the haze on the opposite bank.
We took pictures and bought beers for a few young local fishermen sitting on the rocks, and contemplated the long and turbulent history connected to this vast, snaking body of water.