Adventures in the Congo – Part 1

Blogging on a laptop at a bar near the border of Congo and Zambia is not something you expect to do anytime soon, or ever… But every once in a while life waves a left-of-centre opportunity in front of you that, if you’ve got any sense of exploration and adventure, you just gotta grab…So when one came along late last year, to spend two weeks in the middle of Africa training miners in how to use their new intranet, I jumped at it.

After four months of delays and setbacks I’m finally here, at this bar in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by the evening soundscape of blokes chatting in South African accents, the blare of a wide-screen TV broadcasting ‘UK Smash Hits’, and in the background, constant and just loud enough to be heard above the din, the chirp of crickets and occasional crisp snap of a mosquito zapped by an electric mosquito trap. It seems like a hell of a long away from Melbourne… and, of course, it is.

The journey from Perth to Lubumbashi, the regional capital of south-eastern DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo), took some 18 hours in total – 12 from Perth to Johannesburg, followed by a 4-hour wait in the airport for another 2.5-hour flight in a little old SA Express plane. Everything up to our arrival in Lubumbashi was pretty stock standard, then all of a sudden we were thrown in the deep end of crazy. The outside of the vaguely fortress-like building teemed with skinny black dudes in military uniform, clutching their own body weight in firearms and staring at every newcomer with expressionless bloodshot eyes… Enter the building and you’re kept standing in line for what seems like millenia, two fans slowly whirling on the cracked concrete ceiling above you, until you make it past passport control and are promptly ushered into a small room to fill out a questionnaire in French, surrender your passport, show your Yellow Fever card then get introduced to another Congolese man wearing a high-vis MMG shirt. The sight of this familiar bright orange apparel brings some relief, as awareness is dawning by now that this individual representing your company is pretty much the only thing that’s currently keeping you from being helpless fresh meat in a world utterly foreign and removed from your own.

This guy – ours was called Andrey – leads you out of the room to an area that is the epitome of chaos, filled with the stench of body odour and the push & shove of confusion and congestion. He leads us over to our check-in luggage which is on the ground next to three tall government dudes who demand to see our luggage tags… A tough ask given I’d binned mine along with some snotty tissues two hours earlier on the way to the tarmac at Johannesburg airport. Andrey negotiates and we’re let off – this time. “Next time you need luggage tag” he explains. “Otherwise, problem.”

‘Problem’ – pronounced with a French accent, ‘problemme’ – is probably the Congolese’s favourite word. Everything bad is ‘problem’, and everything fine is ‘no problem’. And when dudes with bloodshot eyes and AK-47s are involved, even the most trivial matter is ‘problem’.

Anyway. We’re taken down a corridor and step out the other end into a bustling carpark of sorts, full of dusty, dirt-streaked 4WDs, utes and minibuses. Local Congolese businessmen stand around getting their shoes shined by teenage boys; big oafish expats trundle off to their respective mines whose operation represents the economic backbone of this otherwise starkly undeveloped country. Peter and I – Peter being a SharePoint consultant and my colleague for this trip – make our way over to our own MMG mini-bus, and after waiting half an hour for a mystery third staff member that never arrived, we set off on the 40km drive to Kinsevere copper mine… and an unofficial motorized tour of The Congo, raw and unabridged.

The first thing that struck me was the grass that lined both sides of the road… Thick, lush green grass that’s remarkably similar to normal grass except that it’s around 7 feet high, making it easy to pretend that you and the minibus you’re in have been shrunken to the size of an insect. The road itself is wide, unpaved and littered with potholes full of brown water. Along its edge, locals walk for miles carrying their shopping/possessions on their head… Something you’ve seen many times on SBS News but never expected to be so prevalent in reality.

Less familiar, and somewhat baffling, is the abundance of loose-stacked/cemented-together columns of red bricks – seemingly firsthand and in mint condition – serving no apparent purpose. Interspersed with these are shacks patched together from rags and bits of corrugated iron that look like they wouldn’t survive a strong breeze… Some of them marked ‘Shop’ or ‘Restaurant’, manned at times by a solitary boy or girl and at other times by an entire family, stark-naked children running around a fat matriarch or bored older sister, staring at every vehicle that passes without even a hint of the shyness or uncertainty you might see in a Western or Asian kid.

All of a sudden the National Geographic docco screening outside my minibus window stops. We’ve arrived at a checkpoint – a dude in an MMG vest idles up to the driver, breath-tests him though they obviously know each other, takes a reading and, satisfied, waves him through. Another 20 minutes or so of driving follow… More locals and shanty-town buildings line the side of the road, rusted old bikes loaded up with so much baggage they appear to defy the laws of physics… Then finally a left turn through a gate and there you are: The reception office of Kinsevere mine.

Unsurprisingly, the mine’s first impression is that of a compound – conspicuously surrounded by a tall barbed-wire fence, patrolled 24/7 and with gangs of security guards manning each entry and major building. Outside of this metal parameter is wet soil and dense vegetation that in the daytime looks pleasant enough, with scores of butterflies fluttering among the wildflowers, but at night-time makes you wonder how primitive man ever survived.

Despite the security, this parameter gets breached every so often – most recently just a few days ago, when some industrial lawn-mowing equipment was stolen in an organised night-time raid. It’s no surprise given the impoverished state of the Congolese that theft is common even within the site… When Jenny (the lady who arranged for me to come here) advised me to keep the door to my office closed, “to deter other staff from wandering in & taking something valuable”, I responded with surprise that I’d have to do that. She looked at me with a mixture of amusement and pity at my ignorance. “Mat, welcome to Africa.”

I’d already been given a thoroughly hearty and colourful welcome the night before, when me & Peter made our way to the outdoor bar for a nightcap prior to crashing from jetlag. A group of regulars were already well into an energetic drinking session, and while a few quietly but methodically washed away the day’s pressures with frosty brown bottles of Simba, the local brew, one Safa in particular was only just warming up for his evening’s epic performance of yelling, heavy boozing and assorted antics. When I told Jenny the next day that I’d got dragged into an Olympic-scale drinking session, she immediately knew what had happened. “So you met Darren.”

Darren is one of the ‘characters’ on site, in much the same way Chopper Read was a character in Pentridge in the 1970s. He’s tall, beefy, tattooed and shaven-headed, with a dark goatee, cold blue eyes and a booming Afrikaner voice. If I was to ever make a sequel to The Power of One, I’d cast Darren as the neo-Nazi lead without hesitation… A big, attention-commanding man packed with the sort of unstable charisma that makes you want to get chummy with him but also observe anonymously from a distance.

I knew as soon as we got to bar that we wouldn’t be left to our own devices for long. Sure enough, as soon as Darren downed his current glass of liquor, he strode up to his side of the bar and called loudly for “three drinks – one for me and two for those gents over there!” He’d been knocking back tall glasses of Red Bull & vodka, something neither me nor Peter were keen to partake in as we desperately needed sleep – but Darren would have none of it. “Stop being cunts and come over here!” he eventually ordered, when Peter made the mistake of saying we were “just having a quiet one”… And who we were to refuse such an invitation. Still reluctant to knock back energy drinks, but secretly happy to be incorporated into the drinking session that Peter seemed rather wary of, I got up off my bar stool and ambled over with my newly-served amber-coloured refreshment.

It was like front-row seats to a combination circus/stand-up comedy show. Arm-wrestling, arse-slapping and insult-trading followed, all fueled by and interspersed with an endless succession of beer rounds. Within minutes I was loling away at this group of miners who, for all their gutter language and love of the word ‘fuck’ in all its tenses and conjugations, were incredibly quick-witted with a brilliantly sardonic, tongue-in-cheek sense of humour. They are also generous – I got considerably more drunk than I’d intended to simply because they’d be getting me the next drink before I’d finished the last and had a chance to say ‘That’s enough.’ “Welcome to Kinsevere lad,” announced Darren at one point, raising what must’ve been his 100th RB & vodka. “Here, we work hard and we play hard. You can tell everyone back in Melbourne it’s a hell-hole… For us, it’s a paradise.”

To be continued…

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