Archive for the ‘Kinshasa’ Category

3 pneus

June 21, 2010

Three gigantic tires (“pneus”) were seen a week ago by the narrator, stacked like 3 fat bagels in the middle of a road intersection in Paka 120, a large popular and sandy neighborhood of Pointe-Noire.   Those three stacked truck tires have been in the same spot for the past fifteen years, as a marker or a monument that didn’t cost a dime to taxpayers.  It is a convenient reminder to cars and pedestrians that around here you can create symbols with next to nothing.

Last week friends were meeting in that part of town, and to describe the house, we were told to find it at the “rond-point 3 pneus” (round about or traffic circle).  And during the dry season (our winter) since no rain wets the sandy roads, driving in that area is a bit rough and slow.

The perception of those tires, a black monument in the middle of the road, depends on the identity of the beholder.  To the neighbors they are just there, untouched over the years.  For tourists, visitors or those of us who live here and tend to travel from time to time to Europe, we look at the stack with a smile.  Those “bagels” bring to mind other well-known monuments sitting in famous traffic circles in other corners of the earth, imposing structures with a similar function, but not as down to earth.

Urban landscaping, which is in full sing in the capital, will one day surely find an appropriate replacement for those tired tires.

They shall be missed.


The “Feet Ball” festival

June 12, 2010

These are the days when South Africa becomes center stage for one full month.  The FIFA soccer world cup offers 64 games.  For those who don’t care for soccer I offer facts and opinions.  Soccer made simple.

There is one white ball, tattoed if you will, so that it does not always look like the same white or black and white boring ball.  That ball is kicked around for ninety minutes by twenty two players.  Only two can use their hands, one in each camp, to stop the ball from entering a very open rectangular “veranda” with a net in the back.  Two goal keepers and two teams.  There are times when after a full ninety minutes no team scores.  Nil nil is the result, which means nothing.  Everyone goes home frustrated.

Any recent convert to the game can’t figure out why there is so much excitement in the playing field.   He will be astounded to see grown ups jumping up and down and do very strange gestures to show their joy when a ball goes pas the goal keeper.  Even coaches and technical staff, with coats and ties will show no restraint in their emotions.

The world cup as exciting as it is, is an anomaly.  Once every four years nations bring back famous and rich players from foreign lands to play under their respective flag for a month or so.   During the four years players are married to clubs but for a month they show national loyalties and create temporary bonds with unfamiliar players.

Nations and their flags vs. the realities of a new world.  Go figure.

Chewing gum emotions

June 12, 2010

Everybody in this central African town loves chewing gum.  It is something people do.  It soothes, entertains, satisfies one must conclude, even if does not claim to nourish.  

I for one used to be a chewing gum addict, just as I was a filet mignon fanatic.  But having abandoned the ceaseless mastication of the one, and the chewing satisfaction of the second I find myself in an intolerant bind.  Should I become at my advanced age a militant on behalf of a “no chewing” meat and gum products or should I go into hiding and shut my eyes in fits of jealously as I contemplate my old self.

I never knew that the gum from the latex of the sapodilla (a tropical evergreen reddish wood tree) was the main ingredient in the gum people chew.  That ingredient is of course mixed with other plastic insoluble matters that are sweetened and flavored for public chewing.

So now that I know how gum is made in its innumerable varieties and how popular the product is, as annoying as it is seeing young and old chew in my face, all I will ask short of starting a world movement, is that chewers refrain from chewing from midnight Greenwich Mean time (GMT) time to midnight one second GMT so I can soothe my intolerance  and my chewing gum emotions as I face the ceaseless mastication of the latex of the sapodilla. All I need is a symbol and a one second commitment.

The time has not yet come when gum chewing, like cigarette smoking, must by decree be practiced outdoors or in private worlds.  But then again as civilization goes forward there might be very little one will be allowed to do in front of one’s neighbor in designated areas with the exception of a knowing smile and a satisfying conversation.


June 12, 2010

In Punta-Negra (Pointe-Noire in French being the name used here) Jakartas are becoming popular.  These relatively inexpensive motorcycles look fragile but beat congested traffic.  Most users purchase helmets, but some believe in saving a few bucks.  So-called Jakartas come from Asia, either China or Indonesia, although in Jakarta itself there are probably tens or hundreds of thousands of similar 100-200 cc motorcycles creating noise and pollution but alleviating city transportation.

Around here they are refered to as “aide-moi à mourir” (help me die) , or “emmène-moi au cimetière” (take me to the cemetery).  This brings to mind the days when Antonov airplanes carried passengers between cities within the Congo.  Back then they used to refer to them as « cercueils volants » (flying coffins).

The reference to death is a constant in this part of Africa, as if everyone lived with death on a daily basis. And there is truth to that. 

Motorcycle transportation is new in our Congo, a city where half the vehicles are white and blue cabs.  In other cities, such as Cotonou in Benin, all one sees is a sea of bikes, bikes acting as inexpensive cabs.   Women sitting behind the motorcycle driver require courage and gymnastic skills.

The « jakartas » are Asian imports as are most machines,  tools, accesories, electronics and as a matter of fact most goods sold across the land.  They may be a bit flimsy but they shine for a while and fit into modest budgets.   

And in spite of all the bad publicity and all the references to death, people, as a rule,  don’t die from accidents.  There are still insidious diseases that do the daily damage.

Friday night auctions in Pocatello

June 2, 2010

Vague Memories of living in America (VMLA) (I)

The distance between San Francisco and Pocatello, Idaho, is roughly the same as the distance between the Gem State and Africa.  I vaguely remember that when I told friends in the Bay Area we were moving to Idaho, they looked in disbelief and said: “Idaho?”.  And a year later when we were getting ready for another eastward move, our new friends in Pocatello said in similar disbelief: “Africa?”.  There is a perceived center of gravity in today’s world, and it shifts.

With my highest degree in my pocket there were only three job possibilities in the United States open for someone with my qualifications.  A university position in the department of languages in Birmingham, Alabama; in Austin, or was it Sherman, in Texas; and finally in Pocatello, Idaho.  The state university of Idaho was looking for the ideal candidate, a professor of French, Spanish and Russian.  They settled for my French and my Spanish.  It was a very good year.  Vague memories thirty years later revolve around the university’s credit union, our department chairwoman, the kind evaluations of my students, the one or two short films I managed to shoot, and the feeling of isolation.

Pocatello was a slight problem at the beginning.  We were extremely used to fancy shopping centers in the Bay Area back in the early eighty’s, sophisticated coffee house establishments, great boutiques and frequent festivals.  In the early months of my very short tenure in Pocatello, as I set about looking for Bay Area excitement in Idaho, I decided that the grisly bear and the Friday night auctions would become temporary replacements of old attachments.

We came regularly to those auctions for the togetherness and the bidding.   And we needed some of the purchases to fill an empty house.   That particular Friday night we picked up for $8 a great looking brand new slide projector.  Those were my pre-Africa photography days, when I thought my slides were beyond beautiful.  The love of one’s work is a terrible thing!  The downside of the projector was that it did not have a power cord.  So that was the end of our belief in the potential of Pocatello as our very own future home.

After the auction session we went backstage looking around and I found somewhere on the floor the “misplaced” power cord.  That was not the highlight of my week in Pocatello, but it felt heavenly.  We knew then that Pocatello was to be our future. You don’t find power cords just like that.  I knew then that I was meant to become a new Ansel Adams or more appropriately a new Henri Cartier-Bresson.

But by then we knew that we were “destined” to leave for Africa.  The last quiet weeks in middle America, far from the Baltimore, Los Angeles and  San Francisco days, were times of inner celebration of the bounties mid-western towns bestow on strangers.   I felt the spirit of the founders of a nation before things got big and bigger and a bit out of hand. 

A letter from a former university student of mine a few days ago, out of the blue, brought me back in time three long, full and vague decades to the cordless slide projector days in the Pocatello we thought we knew of the good Gem State.

The blue transformer thief

May 23, 2010

Vague Memories of Small Wars (part II)

This story has the feel of a mild nightmare of the pre-golden age. The thief was a civilian gangster under the guise of a militiaman, dressed cowboy style with sunglasses and an AK-47. Those things are noisy, they work and they hurt, and most of the time they actually kill. But the tough guys were not evil, they were just signs of unjust times and world upheaval.

The aging white four-wheel drive, like an agile old man ready to impress any youngster anytime, received an order for flight. The pilot and co-pilots knew their end was near. The only escape route was somewhere out of the city through crowded neighborhoods of frightened families looking at each other for clues. Small change was needed to pay for “coffee” at villages dotting greenish and reddish landscapes on the way to bluish ones.

The jeep was loaded with goods, scared dogs and scared humans. As the jeep continued on the long dirt road, the sudden sound of machine guns broke the silence as a nervous jeep with four militiamen came up on the left and forced an immediate stop.

The militiamen ordered an inspection. They grabbed a radio cassette, and a black poodle. They did not see the larger scared dogs hiding under boxes, suitcases and rugs. After senseless philosophical discussions they threatened to shoot the tires. When peace was finally brokered the leader insisted on taking the heavy blue transformer.

Two hours later the four-wheel vehicle ran into the same tough guys, as they were busy pumping gas out of an innocent truck to fill up their busy vehicle. With great respect the pilot of dogs and humans, begged to retrieve the dark blue transformer in exchange for a bill or two. The man obliged.

A blue transformer may be a material object, worthless to some. But in these days of 110 volts versus 220 volts, owning it and being allowed to put one’s right foot on top of it in days of peace, reminds one that fighters fighting small wars are oftentimes looting time, while survivors perceive blue transformers in times of small wars as great trophies.


May 22, 2010

A traveler’s art of travel (TAT)

The art part of the traveler’s art of travel is a reactive suggestion to the excesses of tour packaging and the careless and fake custom-made welcomes catering to humanity’s search for thrills.  This has to do with the exploitative nature of an escapist system.  With the added aggravation of insecurity along any route, the frequent crashes of airborne transport, and the expense of it all, the idea of leafing through color pages and printed words becomes an attractive escape.

However since the ties and commitments of interdependent peoples, industries and nations is so fragile, any hiccup in the system has repercussions in the safest of sectors.  Think of the economic consequences if people stopped smoking, eating meat, boycotting alcohol.  Or if we all turned to sea travel.  Or if we stayed home for 3 months.  Anything humanity does could and will send to the grave chunks of itself.  Are we then to keep doing and consuming everything and anything to maintain the economy that keeps us alive? Are we to finance nonsense if nonsense it is?

Be that as it may, I truly wish (not a chance I am afraid, so why say all this) I could just travel untrammeled by the pressing need to establish roots.  Unlike famous lifelong hitchhikers I long for moderate physical moves with an underlying spiritual impulse and impact. To move from here to there to discover, to learn, to bond, and in the end to remain free.

To travel at the speed of the turtle, to avoid the air above, to walk when walking is the healthy way.  And when crossing is to be, then short of walking on the water, and next to swimming, will settle for the slowest pirogue.  If not the above, then I’ll settle for the travel of the spirit, awake or asleep, with the mind’s input, right in my own easy chair in the middle of everywhere.


May 21, 2010

The Weight On Women (WOW)

African women are special in more ways than one.  As a matter of principle men should not talk about women with an air of authority, because after all what do they know about the real inner feelings, joys and sufferings of women?  Men and machos of all shades brag about the fact that they are surrounded by women, on account that they have mothers, wives and daughters, and therefore they understand.  But for heaven’s sake,  does that make me a woman?

As a man I will take a chance and speak my peace, with no authority, nor authorization but from the witness stand.  From observations across Africa, but specifically from the heart of it, it is my humble view that women are charged by invisible forces, and  some visible ones too, with the task of carrying weight for reasons that may be apparent to the initiated.

Carrying a child or ten  before birth is something men will never understand.  I for one declare that on that particular point, women’s status should be an inch higher than men.  I know I sound a bit off the wall; but on those grounds alone women should be entitled to have higher salaries than men, and be honored more than their counterparts.  Wishful thinking says he.

I have seen around the town of Kikwit in the Bandundu region and on the outskirts of the city of Goma in Kivu,  places located in the former Zaire, women going to work very early in the morning, as in a procession, to far off fields carrying on their heads heavy loads, going and coming, day in day out.  By heavy I mean heavy, you need two people to lift the load.

And if carrying before birth, and carrying on their heads were not enough, they end up carrying on their backs their young child, in a well balanced way with a generous piece of cloth, that allows them to manage both child and load and perhaps something heavy in one or two hands. 

If all that physical weight were not enough, let us add the burdens of fetching water, cooking and keeping an eye on households under pressures unbearable to some, and fighting for their belongings when the man is gone and relatives come knocking.

 Any volunteers to show gratefulness, and not just on Valentine’s day and Mother’s day?


May 14, 2010

There are signs one recognizes as specific to locations that bear a name linked to a national label.  A bagel or a croissant could be signs that confirm that you are in this country or that one.  Although these days you may find bagels and croissants in a different continent and everything becomes blurred.

Papayas I identify with the smaller of the two Congos.  The large fruit that looks like an American football originated in Mexico and South America.  To me that fruit is part of my daily life, although I am not certain that for a diabetic the fruit is the ideal one.  But the headache of diabetics is the delicate balance between quality and quantity since that defines sugar control and the duration of life on this earth.

Now Papayas have a yellowish skin, sometimes when not ripe they are greenish, and although most of the fruit flesh is yellow orange, the ones I prefer are reddish.  I know people that can’t stand the taste nor the texture.  But I, on the contrary, can’t think of a fruit that allows you to use a spoon or knife and fork to partake of its more than generous offering.

One of the surprising things about this fruit, referred to as the fruit of the angels by the Conquistadors, is the quantity of its tiny black seeds.  I found today’s papaya near our home, in the stall of one of the fruit and vegetable lady vendors, and I paid roughly 2 dollars.  It was the only papaya left, as if it was the last papaya in the city.  Sometimes it is hard to find enough fruits around.

I cut it in two and was curious about the seeds.  I counted 1070 seeds! I couldn’t believe my eyes.  I was hoping that if we planted all 1070 we could feed so many with just one football fruit.  But I was told that not all seeds become female trees that will bear fruit.  The male ones do not produce fruits.  C’est la vie!

The goodness of this fruit, and every single fruit and vegetable in the universe, is astounding.  They cure so much, and they prevent so much, and I am not sure I can follow what they all do. A good search engine will give you a ton of advice. 

As far as I am concerned, all I need to do is have a piece of the fruit of the angels every day before my evening meal and thank God I live in Africa where I can taste sometimes strange fruits few have ever heard of in distant and more prosperous lands.

The man from the North

May 13, 2010

My friend from the North lives in the South.  He traded the forests for the sand and the ocean.  Westerners don’t get the chance to appreciate enough the rich diversity of African languages and landscapes, nor customs, old and new, for that matter.  In talking to my friend it dawned on me that not only does he speak French, a national language in this Congo, but speaks his own language, the “ngare”, plus two other widespread languages in both Congos, “monokotuba” and “lingala”.  That makes four languages, no small feat!  We jumped from subject to subject, and ended up talking about hunting and the north, and the expanses of land and forests and national parks.  Which reminded me a few years back as I was walking in the capital city and having a coffee here and a tea there, I kept running into a couple that looked like tourists.  I finally decided to approach them and it turned out that she owned a bookstore in Italy and he was either a wine maker or an olive oil maker in northern Italy.  Both were touring the country and were the only visitors to a major national park up north.  Lucky couple to have a whole national park to all to themselves with a custom-made week-long visit when hardly any one in the world is seen wondering about.  Then my friend spoke of elephants and lions gathering in places you could see from protected structures, and he insisted that there was no danger in being close to lions or other wild cats.  As he was speaking I felt I was in dreamland.  But some hidden treasures around these parts are probably close to living in a dream, at least for a while.