In the powerful travel-writing tradition of Ryszard Kapuscinski and V.S. Naipaul, a haunting memoir of a dangerous and disorienting year of self-discovery in one of the world's unhappiest countries.
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ANJAN SUNDARAM is an award-winning journalist who has reported from Africa and the Middle East for The New York Times and the Associated Press. His writing has also appeared in Foreign Policy, Fortune, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, The Telegraph, The Guardian, the International Herald Tribune, and the Huffington Post. He has been interviewed by the BBC World Service and Radio France Internationale for his analysis of the conflict in Congo. He received a Reuters journalism award in 2006 for his reporting on Pygmy tribes in Congo's rain forest. He currently lives in Kigali, Rwanda, with his wife.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Excerpted from the hardcover edition
I was already feeling perturbed. There was something perhaps about the bar’s large parasol umbrellas, lit starkly by the hanging naked bulbs. Or it could have been the figures flitting behind them, beyond my view.
I had sensed his presence, his curt movements. But they did not seem malicious. Then he lunged for my table, and I found myself running in the night. I ran with all my force. And I would have said I was faster than him. But I might have imagined my own speed from the people who passed me by like pages in a flip-book: mamas with bananas on their heads, vendors carting cages of birds and monkeys, the crocodile-leather pointy-shoed bureaucrats. They turned to stare at me, the whites of their eyes stabbing the darkness and piercing my face, my side, my back. Who are you looking at? He’s the thief, stop him!
I squinted to keep sight. His form was like an illusion—feet leaping off the earth, driving up plumes of dust. His hands pulled at his falling shorts; and when he looked back to see I was still running he screamed in surprise, showing dull teeth, and turned into a narrow passage.
We regressed from the city. The alleys amplified the darkness and my shallow breaths filled the spaces between the walls that rose on either side—gray walls high and long between which I ran blindly, without thinking—until we came to a field. And for a moment I lost sight of him.
I turned sharply, feeling a panic rise.
“You!” He appeared, empty-handed—and jeering at me, almost as if he wanted to play. A sickly chicken of a boy, with limbs extending like antennae from his belly. “You have my phone!” I yelled. “Té! I refuse!” The ground was wet and yielding, covered in waste, cans, wrappers. The smell was rotten. It was like nothing I had known. A landfill in the middle of the city. Of what was I afraid?
“I’ll give you money.”
“How much?” He wiped his shoulder over his mouth; his face was covered in sweat.
A group of children skipped toward us. I reached into my pocket for my notebook and wallet. The boy turned, and I saw a wound on a hairless part of his scalp.
“Keep the phone”—I pointed into my palm—“I only need the numbers inside.” He smiled, as if smelling a trick. I felt frustrated at my carelessness. I didn’t have money to hand out, and those numbers were precious. I was new in the country and had few friends. Most meetings had been gained by chance, in the street, at the odd conference, in a waiting room or at a bar; they had not been planned, necessary, or even particularly friendly. And yet they had taken on, in my mind, a great importance.
Kinshasa, when I first arrived, had felt giant, overwhelming. The scenes on the roads, the people moving from here to there, the languages, gestures, stares—the smallest rituals had seemed imbued with meaning and purpose, and the city appeared as a collusion of secrets only the locals shared. But these strangers I had met—journalists, businessmen, minor politicians—had become bearings from which I navigated the confusion. With them I constructed a sense of place, and for moments felt part of the mystery. So the phone contained my personal map; and without it I felt lost, as though I had newly arrived for a second time and was again without connection. The bewilderment was now greater. And having exhausted the initial excitement of the new place, I now found the city distant, hostile.
My sigh came out heavy and sharp; it startled the boy. Already he was stepping away. I half tripped forward and yelled, “How do I find you? What’s your name?”
And, making a cackling noise, he ran behind a mound. I felt suddenly strained.
I could not tell the way by which I had come—so I picked a nearby narrow street and followed it for a mile or two. The walk was not unpleasant. We were in the middle of a brief rainless period, in the summer; and there was a slight breeze. But even in this season the climate was humid and hot, and in such conditions everything grew quickly: the nails, the hair, the plants and insects. All attained giant or copious proportions. I stopped to inspect a falling banana tree. Its top was sappy, and crawling with red ants.
The city also grew daily. It was a center of migration for the region, like São Paulo or Calcutta, and already black Africa’s largest capital—a collapsed metropolis, unable to assure even the survival of its nine million people. But still the dispossessed came in floods from the villages.
I passed some women sitting on their porches, washing down their children from canisters of soapy brown water. They looked up. Bonjour, I said. Slowly they repeated the word, as though they had not expected it.
The main road was unlit and cars streamed past. People stood in packs, frantically waving their hands and rushing to each slowing taxi. I made a circle with my forefinger pointing at the ground and twenty minutes later found space in a minibus going north. My house was to the south, but it was the end of the working day and I was commuting like the masses. This was my way of finding a free seat.
I trembled incessantly—as did the bus’s plywood floor. The metal chassis around me was covered in the dents of countless collisions. The driver took us to the city’s commercial area, cruising along the street edge and gathering passengers. A man hanging on the back of the bus constantly yelled our route. People swelled toward us like a sea. We sat in an old Volkswagen whose twelve cushioned seats had been pulled out and replaced with wooden benches; soon we were more than thirty inside, cramped side by side, hands between our knees. We squeezed more for the woman who brought in her drooling infant. The windows were sealed shut, so there was no breeze, and inside it was suffocating. The human smells engulfed us. But I looked through the glass and saw the movement; and this perception of the wind gave some false relief. We came to the harbor, with its broken heavy machinery. And the two- and three-story buildings stained with long black stripes: algae, rising from within the cement and blooming in the open. One imagined the decomposition that lived hidden within. The city seemed to be falling apart, building by building—structures crumbled so slowly they seemed almost to melt. At a roundabout we circled a brick monument—black, as though burned. The statue of the Belgian king had long been toppled, leaving two pillars framing an empty space. Lining the roads were heaps of garbage, glowing like embers and giving off black smoke.
The collapse, the crisis. It is how the world knows Congo. Death is as widespread in few places. Children born here have the bleakest futures. It is the most diseased, the most corrupt, and the least habitable—the country heads nearly every conceivable blacklist. One survey has it that no nation has more citizens who want to leave.
And now we come to the mouth of the Boulevard, the city’s artery. The bus, shivering, accelerates in the wide lanes. On both sides old trees with majestic green crowns and high-rises pass quickly. They still inspire awe. Not far away is the Congo River, opening into a pool and curling around us. One is reminded that this place, even in Europe, was once called the Beautiful, La Belle.
The Boulevard is soothing in a way—this part of the city, one feels, has a certain vision, and was made with care. Buildings eighty and ninety years old are still intact, with porches and pillars and triangular eaves. Walls show traces of ocher. Old floors are of fine red and black oxide. The city is well planned, and traffic is congested only because wear has thinned the roads’ drivable widths and because of modern neighborhoods, haphazardly constructed. The boulevards are enormous, like in few African cities. The lampposts are tall, solid, evenly spaced. And the railway station has a monument in Latin, declaring the colonial project for which this city was made: “Aperire Terram Gentibus”—“To Open the Land to the Nations.”
Congo was then opened like a wound. And the world, continually seeking modernity, still consumes the country. A Belgian king committed genocide during the automobile revolution to pillage Congo for rubber—the world needed tires then. Mid-century, the Belgian state initiated a war over Congo’s copper, to wire the world for electricity. Congo’s recent conflicts were heightened by the world’s growing demand for tin, to make the conductors used in almost every electronic circuit. We currently live in what some say is the Fourth Great Pillage—others call it the Fifth or Sixth. The world now needs cell phones, and Congo contains 60 percent of known reserves of an essential metal called tantalum. It is the curse: each progress in the world produces some new suffering. And a succession of Congolese leaders have tried, in their ways, to reclaim their land—first Lumumba by expelling the white man and gaining independence from Belgium; then Mobutu by reviving the old Congolese idea of kingship; and finally the father Kabila, with his half-Marxist ideas of liberation. But even now the country gives the impression of being possessed by outside powers. Kabila’s son, the president, seems himself overwhelmed. Much of the country is without government. The wealth has brought out the worst in man: greed, corruption, great violence.
These four men had defined Congo’s history. Patrice Lumumba, the fiery politician who united the Congolese and remains the country’s only true hero. Then Lumumba’s onetime secretary, Joseph Mobutu, ruled as dictator for more than thirty years, with Western help, after having Lumumba assassinated in 1961, just six months after Congo’s independence. The rebel Laurent Kabila—the father Kabila—in 1997 toppled the cancer-afflicted Mobutu. And when the father Kabila was himself assassinated four years later, it was his son, the relatively unknown Joseph Kabila, who was installed, and still presided over this naturally rich but ravaged country.
A Congolese legend has it that God, tired after creating the world, stopped at this part of the earth and dropped all his sacks of riches. Gold, diamonds, oil, silver, uranium, zinc, cobalt and tungsten. Such is the wealth—they say you only have to dig and you are sure to find something, though you may not know its name. And it seems somehow significant that this wealth, which another culture might have interpreted as a divine reward, is described in Congolese legend as an accident. God only happened to be at this place.
The minibus turned in to the Avenue des Huileries, the Avenue of Oil Works—we were now only a few miles from the journey’s end—where the bus had to share space with the pedestrians, and slow to their pace. As we shed the colonial structures, the past, buildings on the roads grew small and clustered, reflecting the country’s anarchy. And against this backdrop the sluggish walkers appeared almost magical, like the survivors of a cataclysm. Men wore suits and fat-knotted ties, yellow and pink; women frilly fancy dresses. The shoes stepping in the mud were well polished, of fine leather. Rings of wetness showed under their arms on the satin. So laboriously beautiful—the people had an air of character, defiance.
The north and the west of the city were affluent, particularly along the river. As the bus plunged inland, on every side opened up slum-like neighborhoods, vast, featureless, without light. We moved through one of these murky areas, and entered a busy market, with roaming figures. The sides of our bus began to be thumped. We were gently rocked. Suddenly our bus was mobbed. Children’s wide-eyed faces pressed against my window. I drew away. “Give me money,” said the shapes of their lips, round as an O. “Pesambongo.” But it was useless—our windows were fixed, and they could not even sell us their cool drinks, shoe shine or melting candy. Their desperate small hands stained the glass with wet palm prints. And they passed by like slow-motion pictures, glaring at us.
We at last arrived at the roar of Victoire, my neighborhood—and one could feel the chaos become acute. It was a place of raw cement. Few buildings were even whitewashed. Occasionally a low wall would be made of brick, adding a touch of color. But Victoire was legendary in Africa—revered, almost as a site of pilgrimage. Already, at this hour, from all parts of the city people would be coming; and beginning at 11:00 p.m., when Kinshasa’s lights had mostly extinguished and the regular families had retired, here the vitality would resurge, creating an experience of almost pure pleasure and excitement. The music and meat grills would go all night. Saxophones would sound from terraces. Dancers would move like water: slow hips, tempting. The city would live a second life.
But now it seemed to oppress: the street of wooden stalls lit by kerosene lamps, where I alighted—the stalls crooked, winged insects gathering around their glows, the earth pushing against their walls in chimneyed piles. The feeling, I knew, had something to do with the house, around the corner. I tried to delay getting back by running some errands.
The shop I made for was just down the road, but people and cars flowed incessantly: I was forced to move, and often against my intention. To be still anywhere was to be in the way.
And at the center of this disorder, beside a pile of garbage being eaten by dogs and shrouded by flies, I arrived at a table of electrical goods. Shops in Kinshasa, especially in this part of town, had moved into the open to escape rents. The vendor was reading a stained small-format magazine, and looking disconsolate. I said I needed a fan. “I have a new ventilator,” he declared. “High quality. I give you the best price.” Best price meant there were other prices and I should negotiate. A large pedestaled machine with blue blades was produced.
“I don’t want Made in China.”
His salesman demeanor vanished. “Okay, I know the fan is no good, but you pay only thirty dollars. Made in Japan I have no stock. And why should I? The fans last too long and no one buys again.” I relaxed. Now we could talk freely. Outbursts augured well in Congo—one only had to expose the initial theater, I found, and people were generally up-front.
We agreed on the terms of sale, including a one-week guarantee, which the vendor scribbled on the receipt and signed. He meticulously wrapped the fan in cardboard, while I observed the people, the street. Near me danced a stout man, alone, holding a portable radio to his ear; in front of him a butcher massaged a block of meat.
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