Three weeks in the Congo

The fan overhead whirled slowly… Way too slowly to make any difference in this stifling humidity. In front of me stood two big white guys, obscuring my view of the rest of the queue, sweat patches already forming on the back of their shirts. They were chatting in Afrikaner and I couldn’t understand a word they were saying.

I was in a place I never thought I’d find myself in: Lubumbashi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Specifically, I was at the airport – a big brick fortress surrounded by black dudes with machine guns. As I’d walked towards them across the cracked, sun-baked tarmac, they looked bored… Perhaps a little too bored. It struck me that being that really bored with high-powered weaponry could be a recipe for disaster.

This big old room I’d stepped into was the customs area. It had a high ceiling, orange walls, uneven tiled floor and a couple of unhealthy-looking potted palms… Nothing like your modern airport with cordons, beeps and electronic gates. I was part of a long queue of expats and contractors sent here to work in the mines that dotted this minerals-rich, but otherwise dirt-poor, part of the world.

Next to me was the only person I knew for thousands of kilometres around – Peter, an IT consultant hired by my company, MMG, to accompany me into this heart of darkness. Our mission: to spend the next three weeks rolling out an intranet at Kinsevere, an isolated zinc mine some 50km away from where we were standing now.

After half an hour or so we made it past passport control and were promptly ushered into a tiny room to fill out a questionnaire in French, surrender our passports, show our Yellow Fever cards then get introduced to another Congolese man wearing a high-vis MMG shirt. The sight of this familiar orange apparel brought some relief, as it was dawning on me by now that this guy was pretty much the only thing that rendered us anything other than helpless fresh meat in what might as well be another planet – one with a fearsome reputation for crises and violence.

Andrey, as our man was called, then led us into another area – luggage pick-up. Suddenly there was yelling and shoving and body odour and confusion all around us: absolute madness. No gently whirling carousels showcasing the latest luggage haul… This was like a Black Friday sale from hell, except you’d already bought all your stuff and now needed to get it back.

I noticed that for whatever reason, my and Peter’s luggage had already been collected – by three very tall government dudes who were now standing beside it, demanding to see our luggage tags. “Ah, so that’s what those things were,” I thought, recalling how I’d thrown mine into a bin in Johannesburg airport. Andrey was not delighted with this information and proceeded to negotiate in French with the government agents. After some discussion they let us off, and we made haste for the door. “Next time you need luggage tag,” Andrey explained, sweating from a mixture of humidity and Encounter with Tall Government Dudes. “Otherwise, problem.”

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

Outside it’s comparatively quiet again. The air is hot but once again fresh. Andrey leads us across a carpark full of dusty, dirt-streaked vehicles. Congolese businessmen stand around getting their shoes waxed by teenage boys; big oafish expats trundle off to the respective mines which they’ll call home for the next fortnight, month or even longer.

Andrey puts Peter and I into an MMG mini-bus then returns to the airport to retrieve a third person. Eventually he returns with neither the person nor an explanation. “Maybe they lost their luggage tag one too many times” I thought, as he ignited the engine. And so began our long drive to Kinsevere mine, my own workplace and home for the next three weeks.

It was a bumpy ride, as tends to be the case on unpaved Third World roads. Along its muddy edge, locals walked with possessions stacked on their heads just like in National Geographic. Every now and then we’d pass a shanty-town; dwellings made of corrugated iron with rags for curtains and hand-painted signs indicating ‘hairdresser’, ‘restaurant’, even ‘first aid’… Something I guess you’d need in this part of the world. Just hours ago, in the pre-dawn quiet at Johannesburg airport, a TV was blaring one disturbing report after another about a rapidly-spreading Ebola outbreak in west Africa. “Perfect timing” I said to Peter as he watched, chewing his lip.

After some 40 kilometres of potholes and poverty, we turned into what looks like a high-security prison: MMG Kinsevere mine. As at the airport, armed guards man every entry point, and it’s hard to know from their demeanour whether they’re there to kill you or protect you. I have to say, in the daytime, the outside world they’re guarding against seems pretty harmless, even idyllic… An ocean of 6-foot grass dotted with wildflowers and fluttering butterflies. At night-time though, it transforms into a lawless pitch-black abyss, and you’re pretty happy you’ve got something between you and that unforgiving wilderness.

Even so, the barbed-wire parameter gets breached every so often. As luck would have it this happened on our very first night, not far from the dilapidated ‘governor’s house’ where we were staying. Some locals cut through the fence and stole several thousand dollars’ worth of industrial lawn-mowing equipment, as you do.

It was probably for the best that Peter and I slept soundly through this midnight raid. We’d had more than enough excitement already that day, what with flying halfway across the planet, losing luggage tags, meeting people and getting shown around this vast, strange new world… Then finally, upon sundown, being given reprieve to either catch up on sleep or go have a few drinks.

Naturally, we headed straight for the bar.

Oh, how well we’d come to know that outdoor boozing area. It was evident as we approached it for the first time that a solid drinking session was already underway. Jeers, yells, clinks and cackles cut through the steady chirping of crickets around the camp. Most of the men, still in their mining apparel, were just washing away the day’s hard yakka with frosty brown bottles of Simba, the local brew. But one Safa stood out immediately with his booming voice and presence. The next day, when I told a co-worker that I’d been 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 or Charles Bronson are characters. Tall, beefy, tattooed, goateed and shaven-headed, Darren strikes an attention-commanding figure 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 Peter and I perched on our stools that we wouldn’t be left alone 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 steadily knocking back tall glasses of Red Bull & vodka, and now decided these newcomers were to do exactly the same.

Neither me nor Peter were keen to accept Darren’s gifts as we desperately needed sleep – but Darren insisted and the barman began to pour. When Peter mumbled something about “having a quiet one” his joviality finally snapped. “Stop being cunts and come over here!” he barked – so all of a sudden, yes sir, of course, we’d love to make company of your good self and your band of merry men! In truth, I was secretly happy to be incorporated into my first authentic miners’ piss-up – unlike Peter, I felt – and joined the group with my complimentary albeit obligatory refreshment.

It was like some sort of testosterone-fuelled, audience-participation redneck cabaret. Arm-wrestling, arse-slapping and insult-trading formed the crux of the show, interspersed with regular intervals of Simba rounds. No-one kept track of whose round it was exactly: if you reached for a beer and there were bugger-all left, you got the next. “The spice must flow” on the planet Dune… and at Kinsevere, the zinc must flow by day and the Simba by night. At one point – it must’ve been close to midnight by now – Darren raised the ubiquitous RB & vodka in his hand and declared in his Safa accent, like some tribal warrior-chief:

“Welcome to Kinsevere, lad! 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.”


The next morning I had diarrhoea. This was to become simply a part – indeed the very first part – of my day for the next three weeks: wake up, go to bathroom, take a liquid dump, then battle with the shower taps. I realised a few days in that this was being caused by the ice I was having with my whiskey every night, which also explained why everyone drank nothing but Simbas… Everyone, that is, except myself and Darren, who I later learned was single-handedly responsible for having Southern Comfort permanently removed from the bar menu. What a night that must’ve been.

I didn’t mind the daily squirts to be honest. But having to get up in the dark every day was brutal. Being a mine site, the shift at Kinsevere started early – me and Pete were expected in the IT building at 7am every morning, breakfasted and ready to go. The sun would just be easing out of its bed on the horizon as I stepped outside, adorned in fluorescent-orange apparel that reeked of anti-mosquito spray… A smell that stayed with you day and night in this godforsaken place, because there was one thing no amount of razor wire and weird-grinning machine gun-toting “security” could keep out: the mosquito.

The fear and loathing this tiny harbinger of disease inspires is evident all around the camp. Along the ceiling of the outdoor bar, blue halos of death glow 24/7, zapping any unlucky critter that comes into contact. Most afternoons, around sundown, a tank-like vehicle rumbles around the campground belching plumes of sweet-smelling citronella. And then there’s your standard-issue personal handgun in the war on mosquitos: fat green cans of Baygon Multi-Purpose Insect Spray, responsible for that smell which I’ll forever associate with the Congo… And which would probably be strong enough to fend off any more lawnmower robbers if, for some strange reason, there was no dude with a machine gun nearby.

Oh yeah – critically, there was also preventative anti-malaria medication. Everyone is issued these pink pills prior to visiting Africa and instructed to take one per night, or help you God. I quickly found that they caused insomnia and violent dreams about being crushed in rock-grinding equipment – which, after gruelling, 12-hour days of teaching uninterested, French-speaking, technologically illiterate miners on how to use SharePoint, made the whole experience slip from “out of my comfort zone” into “sanity breakdown incoming”.

So, I stopped taking the pills… And by George, you’ll never guess what happened next.

One lukewarm night as my second week merged into my third, I called it a day at the bar, flicked on my torch, and began walking towards my accommodation at the unlit far end of the camp. Suddenly, I plunged right into an ice bath – or that’s how it felt. I began shivering so uncontrollably I could hardly walk, and had to stop several times to squat, cradle myself and give myself little “you’re nearly there mate” pep talks.

I didn’t know it yet – and I think I was too mentally fatigued to really consider it – but sure enough, one of the little fuckers got me. I had malaria.

I survived, obviously. Exactly how I’m not sure, but there are different strains of malaria and while I never got proper medication (the pink pills aren’t much good once you’re actually infected), I did spend my return stopover in a luxurious five-star hotel, was miraculously upgraded to first-class for the flight home, managed to suppress my chronic cough and lie my way through the Zambian and Australian airport checks (“What, any of the symptoms on this form? Nope, never felt better! I’m not flushed, that’s just a bit of robust African sun on my pasty face…”).

Somehow I kept myself together until I got all the way home, then promptly collapsed into bed. I stayed there for literally an entire week, getting up only to visit the toilet… Or so I presume, since I don’t actually remember any of it. Six days of my life literally vanished in a fog of sleep and feverish delirium, before the sickness finally passed and normality resumed. Pete, I later found out, had contracted it too and was hospitalised two days after we got back.


On one of my final days at Kinsevere, I volunteered to be part of a group that was heading into town to host an Easter party for local orphans. We got there nice and early to unload presents, blow up balloons and distribute Easter eggs around the sports field/gardens/play equipment at the back of the restaurant. Then we waited until finally, in quick succession, three buses showed up.

I had no idea what to expect. Life outside the mine was pretty rough, after all, and these young’uns counted as among the most underprivileged of all. But as they stepped out and formed lines I was pleasantly surprised to see well-groomed teens and infants, with funky hairdos, clean colourful clothes, and – perhaps most surprisingly – remarkable discipline and manners.

Someone gave a brief welcome speech and then, without further ado, a bell started clanging and the Easter egg hunt was on! I had my camera ready to capture the joyful, manic shrieking and running around… but bizarrely, the kids didn’t move. We had to wave our arms and yell encouragement for them to break out and start scouring the ground for treats – which they did more like cats than dogs; carefully, uncertainly – quickening their pace only once they’d found a few and, of course, wanted more.

It was all a far cry from my Aussie childhood. I helped destroy several Pizza Huts and their immediate surroundings back in the day, but when the egg hunt was over and it was time for lunch, these kids didn’t so much as throw a cupcake or dunk it into their Fanta. Some actually broke up their cupcake into pieces for sharing, while others tucked away their soft drink cans for later. Thinking about it now, maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised after all – food and drink are things to be savoured in a place like the Congo, not frivolously wasted.

The teenage girls were particularly funny and full of character. Both Peter and I were propositioned for marriage several times, and took part in many a “pich” – apparently the Congolese pronunciation of “pic”. These young ladies were sassy, lively and in as good shape as anyone you’d see in Lubumbashi or, for that matter, Melbourne. The orphanage matriarchs, meanwhile, sat under the cool fans inside the restaurant, knitting quietly and letting their ducklings have their fun.

The Easter day out, and the Congo experience in general, really brought home that cliched but undeniable truth – be grateful for what you have. As I sat in the taxi on the way home, looking out at all the lights of Melbourne CBD, I felt excitement and gratitude to know I’m back in this world-class city with endless fresh, delicious food options and miles of sparkling beach and ice cubes that don’t give you diarrohea. Best of all, I had opportunity and freedom from having to worry about whether the things I need to enjoy life, let alone stay alive, will still be there for me tomorrow.

So yes, the Congo was definitely an experience out of my comfort zone… and for that very reason, a unique and rewarding one I’ll never forget.

1522993_10152067880607058_5479901256314757392_oPete with some of his new wives.

1932594_10152067890427058_1421210177115795000_oMe with one of mine. Vanilla Ice got nothin’ on that hairdo!

10255160_10152067878997058_6461473518193513908_oCan’t believe I’ve already forgotten this guy’s name… A mine engineer and veteran volunteer who’s helped brighten many an Easter for these kids.

10256568_10152067877787058_5324547541166441120_oThe laydeez.

10269263_10152089185962058_8448930324007471294_oLubumbashi, regional capital of Katanga Province, south-eastern DRC.

Shanty-town along the road to Kinsevere.

10264064_10152064360392058_5568483471758676732_oTo be fair, some of the mining machinery was probably responsible for those violent dreams too.

IMG_1104Lifesavers. Quite literally.

10003708_10152054332052058_846381331_oAs much as I loathed the early mornings, the sunrises could be undeniably beautiful.

1979914_10152054329137058_1643385113_oThe big first night. Uncle Darren in centre.

1079009_10152064356202058_6636337269904821155_oMoi, sometime in the final week. The fatigue and sickness were starting to show – as was the lack of a razor – but I was happy to be having such a unique experience… and to be going home soon.


What 2014 taught me (Part 1)

With the new year just a couple of days away, I thought I’d look back on 2014 and try to capture, tangibly in written words, some of the things it taught me. There are two things that made this year unique for me: it was the first time I’d been in a serious relationship, which ‘became official’ in March and fell apart at the end of November, and it was a year of travels – some for business, some for pleasure, all enjoyable and eye-opening in some way. It’s this latter aspect I want to focus on, so I’m going to break up this blog entry into a series of mini-chapters – one for each trip – and hopefully draw some kind of lesson or insight from each.

February   |   Century mine, Queensland, Australia

The travel motif started not long after the year did. When I returned to the office in January, the main thing I had to get working on was a research piece examining how MMG’s intranet could be improved – i.e. made more practical and user-friendly – for our blue-collar employees. (In case anyone reading this doesn’t know me, MMG’s a mining company whose head office I work at.) It was soon decided that this project called for a visit to one of our operations, and that I was to accompany the two consultants we’d engaged to help facilitate the consultation, build relationships within the company and get a taste of Life on Site.

We decided straightaway on Century, one of MMG’s three Australian mines and the biggest open-pit zinc mine in the country. It’s located in a very remote part of Queensland somewhere near Mount Isa, which is somewhere in the Gulf of Carpentaria which is that top bit of Australia that juts out trying to touch Papua New Guinea across the sea. To get there I had to fly up to Townsville from Melbourne, spend the night there then catch a charter flight with about 50 miners at some ungodly hour the next morning, the radio in the taxi already preparing me for what was to come…

“God made the sugar cane grow where it’s hot,
And teetotal abstainers to grow where it’s not.
Let the sin bosun warn of perdition to come;
We’ll drink it and chance it, so bring on the rum…”

I made the rookie mistake of getting all jacked up on coffee at Townsville airport, unlike the miners who lumbered onto the plane, exchanging g’days after a few weeks of R&R apart, then as soon as the thing took off, slumped their heads back on the seat or against the window and promptly dozed off for the next 1.5 hours. I didn’t regret it though. While these blokes had obviously seen it all before, it was my first time ever seeing the Great Australian Landscape from a charter-flight altitude, which is substantially lower than a commercial aircraft and gives you an amazing view of what’s passing by below unfettered by clouds or excessive distance – an abstract painting of red and brown hues with patches of dark green, veined blue with little rivers and creeks… At points, breath-taking sights like this shimmering opal-like lake:


As I watched this topographic artwork roll past below me I felt genuinely moved; the primeval grumble of didgeridoo began playing through my head, overlaid with the lilting flute melodies of those early Anglo-Irish settlers who explored and set up industry in this wide brown land… Industry which I was about to witness on a truly colossal, mechanized 21st-century scale.

An open-cut mine the size of Century’s is an impressive sight to behold, a man-made Grand Canyon so vast you can’t actually see the whole thing from any one vantage point. Beyond this Titanic crevice on the earth’s crust, from the top of the pit where the yellow trucks below look like Micro Machines, you see the same Martian terrain stretching out as far as the eye can see – flat, red-brown, barren… Epic.


It’s not the most interesting or original revelation, but I guess this little trip reminded me how damn big the world is. I hadn’t even left Australia, yet in less than 24 hours I’d travelled roughly 3000 kilometres into a completely different climate and environment – from temperate Melbourne to tropical Townsville then north-west into Queensland’s semi-arid gateway to the Outback. But I’m not so much talking physical scales and distances as the fact that even around this colossal hole in the middle of nowhere, hundreds of people toil like an army of bull ants every single day – 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, for weeks on end before catching that charter plane out again… Driving trucks, taking tea breaks in ‘cribs’, necking beers post-shift before showering and settling down in little jail cell-like rooms called ‘dongas’, perhaps calling their partner and kids on Skype before passing out on a creaky bed that was someone else’s just a week or day before…

“The world turns, but we don’t feel it move.”

This quote from Gangs of New York kind of sums up the sentiment. As individuals we tend to get locked inside of our own little reality, our awareness confined to the immediate place and present. But the world is incomprehensibly bigger than that, and that’s something worth remembering. Every single second there are billions of people on this planet doing something: chopping up vegetables for soup or sipping wine on a plane; weeping at funerals or celebrating as a newborn baby’s brought home from the maternity ward; fulfilling lifelong dreams or beginning an endeavour or adventure or relationship that will change their lives, even if they’re not aware of it yet…

This is a good thing. Whatever you’re feeling or going through, be mindful that you’re not alone in it, nor is it the end of the world. Life goes on. Important and valued though we are in our own little spheres, we’re just a tiny part of an incredible production that spans many continents, cultures and centuries. “No man is an island,” as John Donne wrote, so take heart: If life’s a roller-coaster, there are many others on the ride along with you, experiencing the same ups and downs, thrills and spills.

I left Century mine after three days. I’d ridden around in a truck the size of a house, in a hole the size of a meteorite crater; pigged out nightly on choc mousse and jelly at the all-you-can-eat dessert buffet (see my first-ever food pic below); and joked freely, discussed seriously and drank heavily with people whose lives are very different to mine and with whom I’ll probably never cross paths again, but I’m glad I did. Because realising the world is a busy and enormous place that goes on regardless of you, peppered all over with individuals from all walks of life, each carrying their own reality and story inside of them… This is a humbling, even calming realisation that helps put things in perspective. Indeed: Even as I’m writing this, somewhere out there right now, hundreds of people in orange vests are digging up ore from the ground and transporting it and putting it through a processor, and that big beautiful world I saw from the plane keeps turning slowly but surely without end…

And yes, the mousse. Ohh the mousse.

“We sleep, but the loom of life never stops, and the pattern which was weaving when the sun went down is weaving when it comes up in the morning.”

Henry W. Beecher


April   |   Kinsevere mine, Katanga province, Democratic Republic of Congo

The second trip brought this home too. It sent me to a part of the world that, as remote as Century is, made it seem like your local corner milk bar by comparison. This was the Congo – a place where you see more machine guns than computers, in a continent known to us mainly through grim stories on the evening news… This year of course it was Ebola, its resurgence wiping out almost 8000 Africans since March.

The outbreak hit the mainstream media around the same time Peter and I (Peter being the consultant I was dispatched with) landed in South Africa at the start of April. The first I heard of it was when we were sitting in the lounge at Johannesburg airport, trying in vain to connect to the wifi, when an alarming story on the TV above us caught my attention: Ebola was spreading like wildfire through west Africa. I knew three basic things about Ebola: it was highly contagious, it killed quickly, and it originated in exactly the place where me and Peter were heading: the Democratic Republic of Congo.

I didn’t end up catching Ebola, although I did develop something nasty during my final week which turned my three-week absence from the office into a four-week one. (Peter himself ended up being hospitalized, with what doctors said was “either pneumonia or malaria” – probably the latter, and probably what I had as well.)

As I wrote in previous blog entries, the Congo wasn’t necessarily what the imagination conjures up. There’s little jungle or gorillas, at least in the south-east where I was – in fact there were very few trees at all, since poor people everywhere have cut them down to get charcoal for either fuel or money. You see these same people trudging down the long dirt road between Kinsevere and Lubumbashi, the regional capital, where they head daily – huge sacks on head or on an old bike bent under the strain, alongside which they walk for up to 20 kilometres a day… A scene that correlates a lot more closely with the Africa we see on TV.

Like I said, this trip definitely impressed upon me how vast and contrasting the world is too. There’s nothing like chilling in the business lounge at Perth airport, sipping scotch & Cokes next to some polo shirt-clad dude, deeply tanned from his ’business meetings’ at the golf course with Sharon Stone-esque wife in tow… then roughly 24 hours later, finding yourself in a mini-van bouncing along a sometimes-paved road past shantytowns full of half-naked black kids sitting on barrels staring in to what you realise is an equally exotic sight for them: a pale white Westerner with hay-blonde hair and denim jeans.

DSC_0531 v2

It made me realise how lucky I am as one of those Westerners – lucky, above all, to have opportunity in my life. Of course there’s food and water and shelter to be grateful for too, no doubt, but even in these shanty-towns people have that – which, not to belittle their situation, I’m happy to say, ’cause it would’ve been heart-breaking to pass malnourished or hopelessly crippled people, especially on the way to a place where food and medical attention are available 24/7.

What’s awful though is that even though these people have things to eat and drink, and some rudimentary roof over their heads – even self-styled shanty medical clinics – what they definitely don’t have is opportunity. They’re doomed to eat more or less the same shit and carry sacks twice their own body weight up and down that endless road, half of it made of dust or mud depending on the weather, forever, like Sisyphus and his rock. Without education, without welfare, without a relative who can loan them some money or do some hustling to get them a job, these shanty-town inhabitants have virtually zero chance of improving their lot in life or getting some lucky break.

It’s unpleasant to even think about but in another life, that could be me or you staring into the windows of that white mini-van as it whizzes past a few times a day, carrying people with their well-paid jobs afforded by their education afforded by their parents afforded by their citizenship in a country where these things are ‘rights’, not hopes and dreams. I distinctly remember sitting in the taxi on the way home from Melbourne Airport, after three weeks of tough meat and lukewarm veg, and being excited – literally excited – about the prospect of eating a ramen: hot and buttery with a Japanese-style boiled egg. Having the opportunity to do, back in this city with all manner of cuisines ready to be served up in front of you, delicious and affordable and fresh, felt like winning Tattslotto… And indeed, all of us who live here have.

“I have a very good life – I’m lucky enough not to be deprived.” – Meryl Streep



May   |   Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Like Century, Sydney was just a three-day thing, a short trip to attend an intranet conference at a big posh hotel in the CBD (the Amora, if anyone cares). It’s hard to articulate or even understand in concrete terms what the ‘meaning’ of this trip was, but I felt it very intensely – walking along King St Wharf the first two nights, eventually settling on one of the harbourside restaurants for dinner, ordering a table-for-one and a beer, and soaking up the ambience of this dazzling world-class city so close yet so different to Melbourne… Then wandering aimlessly some more, before returning at around 10pm to my little room at the Ibis hotel, with its window overlooking a highway and a bunch of high-rises.

There was a sort of intense, uplifting loneliness to this stay in Sydney, and looking back on it, it seems distinctly longer than three days – as if three days doesn’t seem long enough to generate that sort of intensity. I felt it too at Kinsevere, of course – in that miniscule dot of light in a vast, pitch-black ocean of grassland-wilderness at the bottom of the Congo. But I was there with a consultant who practically became a buddy of mine, along with dozens of expats whose faces and names I got to know either through the training room where I spent most of my day or, more commonly, at the bar afterwards where most of us wound down for the night. Even a total stranger doesn’t feel like a total stranger when he’s wearing the same bright-orange shirt with the same familiar red logo as you, not to mention his full name.

In Sydney though, once the conference concluded at 4 or 5pm each day, the hours afterwards were all mine and mine alone… And so I’d go wandering, along George St and King St and Pitt St, through glitzy shopping centres and past waterfront casinos the size of ancient wonders and bars busting at the seams with people, the smokers and drunks noisily congregated outside… And towering over all this, when you step back far enough from the music and traffic and humanity and look up, you see looming over you like a mountain range clusters of skyscrapers adorned with hundreds of tiny lit windows and crowned with neon signs, spectacular and silent in their glory… And high above even them, hundreds more tiny lights that form the equally spectacular and silent night sky.

”You are alive. And you stand up and see the lights on the buildings and everything that makes you wonder… And in this moment, I swear, we are infinite.”

– Stephen Chbosky, The Perks of Being a Wallflower

Vivid city 3


Dining at the waterfront and exploring the city by myself after my day at the Amora was done felt like a Hemingway short story at times: the meaning is far from obvious; it’s much more about the atmosphere and that strange, deep, bittersweet feeling you’re left with…

I remember messaging my girlfriend at the time, ‘Wish you were here’ and all that stuff… and I did, very much. I had my own hotel room in this gorgeous part of town, dinners and taxis paid for… And as I strolled for hours along that King St boulevard past all the parked boats and fancy restaurants with people wining and dining, conversing and laughing, I wished she could be there with me, so that together we could be like so many of the other young people I passed – hand in hand or arm over shoulder, perhaps sitting on the wooden decking by the water, taking in the magical ambience during pauses between make-out sessions.

Again, it’s a hard thing to describe, and kind of a paradox – because although I was yearning for romantic company, I loved that being so alone – this tiny atom of consciousness in this awe-inspiring metropolis with all of its grit and glamour – gave me such power of introspection, allowed me to dive right into my core and nurture and embrace this yearning, and use it to imagine what could be and in doing so, perhaps manifest it and relish it all the more if and when it does… If that makes any sense.

For many of those young (and not-so-young) people I passed, it was probably just another night, the same way I march down Southbank boulevard at half past 5 every weekday to catch the train from Flinders St station. But for me, on those three nights, it was like a conversation took place deep inside me between me and the world, and everything seemed intense and full of beauty like a van Gogh painting, there was soul in everything, and the entire evening glowed with a vibrant magic that I learned will make itself quietly apparent to you if you just tune into the right frequency.

“That’s the day I realized that there was this entire life behind things, and this incredibly benevolent force that wanted me to know there was no reason to be afraid, ever. Video’s a poor excuse, I know. But it helps me remember… I need to remember… Sometimes there’s so much beauty in the world, I feel like I can’t take it, and my heart is just going to cave in.”

–    Ricky Fitts, American Beauty

Adventures in the Congo – Part 3

I’m writing this from the comfort of my living room, having been home for about a week. This is no longer Mateusz Buczko reporting live from the ground at Kinsevere, coordinates: bar. Although my intent was to wrap up my journal while still over there, a debilitating cold & cough meant I lost the willpower to do so… So here’s my belated, final dump of thoughts & impressions from this wild African safari.

An easy way to structure this might be to actually examine what made me sick – coz there were a number of factors, I think, that came together to tear down the walls of my immune system and keep me bedridden for days after arriving back in Melbourne. While my sickness is hardly the point, they serve as interesting stepping stones for one last literary tour of the Congo.

An obvious starting point is the weather. I landed in the country at the end of the wet season/beginning of the dry season, and I gotta say, for metereological schizophrenia, Congo aces Melbourne hands down. One moment things can be dead calm & still, then nek minnit – not rain, but a torrent of water bucketing down from the heavens, like standing over a waterfall. This colossal downpour doesn’t just pitter away like normal rain either – it vanishes in a flash, literally like a tap has been abruptly wound back. It’s incredibly sudden, and on several occasions I was caught out by what seemed like the second coming of the Great Flood, unable to see more than a couple of metres in front of me.

In drought-prone Oz we’ve been ingrained to appreciate rainfall – “it’s good for the farmers” and all that – but the mining sector hates it. Wet weather turns dirt roads into mud slides and pit bottoms into swamps, bogging down vehicles and making work doubly difficult. Several people remarked to me out of the blue that they’re happy the wet season’s nearly over… Not only do dry conditions suit mining activity much better, at the end of the day it also means less puddles which is where Public Enemy Number One – the mosquito – hangs out and spawns.

Sickness cause #2 would be the long, regimented days of mine life. A mine’s much like a prison in many ways – you wear standard-issue bright orange garb, eat meals at particular times of the day in a mess, wake up early and go to bed early, have to wear identification at all times, and at Kinsevere, you’re even surrounded by a barbed wire fence guarded by uniformed security. Out of these, it’s the waking up early that got me… Coz at a mine, ‘early’ doesn’t mean 7am, it means 5am, and that’s 7 days a week. There are no weekends here; shifts at Kinsevere are generally 6 weeks on, 3 weeks off, with occasional ‘fatigue days’ granted for when a miner’s had a big night and probably won’t pass breath testing the next morning.

If you’re not an early riser, it’s a brutal regime and it really puts the ‘severe’ in Kinsevere when you’re dropped in and put to work jetlagged after 20+ hours of flying and airports… The final iteration being a concrete Pac Man maze filled with wild-eyed machine gun-clutching ‘authorities’.

But wet weather, jetlag and early mornings aren’t all that uncommon, especially for work trips… What really did it, I think, was the training itself, the whole rationale for my being there.

This was probably something to mention way back in Part 1, but the purpose of my going-over to Kinsevere was to oversee the launch of, and train people in how to use, ‘Magnet’ – Magnet being MMG’s global intranet. For those familiar with this kind of stuff, it’s a SharePoint 2010-based thing split up into a number of mirrors – one mirror per mine site – and it’s a heavily customized, incredibly complex beast – part website, part applications portal, part document and multimedia repository, part collaboration workspace, part news channel… You get the idea.

Training people in how to use it, even the basics, isn’t easy. Training people who need to know how to create and manage content is considerably harder… And that’s still assuming they speak English, are well-versed in computers and possess, shall we say, Western sensibilities vis a vis training and professional development. This assumption is fatally wrong on all counts at Kinsevere.

The problem isn’t simply the language barrier. Most of the Congolese, in addition to their native Swahili and French, do have a reasonable command of English. But this means nothing if the desire to learn isn’t there, and that’s an issue I wasn’t expecting but which certainly made its presence felt – like the mosquito bite itch you wish would go away but it won’t, and you just gotta suck it up and deal with it.

There’s that joke, ‘If all else fails, read the instructions’. We’re all guilty. But at Kinsevere it’s beyond a joke – it’s an excruciatingly frustrating reality, with trainees refusing to refer to the step-by-step guides that I painstakingly put together for weeks prior to the trip. They’d simply sit there and click aimlessly at the screen or just stare at it blankly like a cat, a behaviour I found difficult to comprehend… But like so many things, it’s easy to forget the cultural divide that gives rise to such misunderstandings – in this case, the fact that most of these locals did not attend a First World school followed by six years of university, and do not understand in the way I do the value of referencing information or sharing it…. Which yes, made training them in a fairly user-unfriendly IT/communications platform – designed for storing and sharing information – one of the most challenging work experiences of my life to date.

The happy and bizarre upside though is the kids were completely the opposite.

On one of my last days at Kinsevere, a bunch of MMG volunteers including myself travelled into town to host a ‘day out’ for kids and teens from three local orphanages. I had no idea what to expect, but I know I was pleasantly surprised… Far from being an anarchic bunch of delinquents, these kids were well-dressed in bright clean clothes, with funky, carefully styled hairdos and gentle manners. They lined up diligently upon arrival and even when the call was made to commence the Easter egg hunt, and we waved our arms to get ’em to start scrambling, it was not at all the Pamplona Running of the Bulls that I expected… Just a calm, measured search of the grounds for whatever tinfoil-wrapped treats they could find.

This is of course a far cry from Aussie kids. I helped destroy several Pizza Huts and their immediate surroundings in my childhood, yet these kids didn’t so much as throw a cupcake or tip a Fanta onto their leftovers… Instead they instinctively broke their cupcakes into pieces which they then shared, and some tucked away their soft drink cans into their handbags for later consumption. It wasn’t what I expected and thinking about it now, I shouldn’t have been surprised – food and drink are not things to be frivolously wasted in a place like the Congo.

The girls were particularly funny and full of character. Both Peter and I were asked to be husbands and on several occasions I was requested to take part in a “pich” (I eventually figured out they meant ‘pic’)… Most of which have been lost as whoever did the honours didn’t know how to operate my camera. But these young ladies were chirpy, sassy and in as good shape as anyone you’d see in Lubumbashi or, for that matter, Melbourne.

Nevertheless, the orphan day out and the DRC trip in general brought home that old adage that’s so easy to forget – Be grateful for what you have. It’s yawn-inducing to read or hear but when you go overseas to a place like the Congo, boy do you remember and recognise its truth. Being a First Worlder isn’t all fun and games either, as we all know – commuting to work and sitting in an office all day isn’t most people’s cup of tea either, but at the end of the day, when you’ve done your sitting and you’ve caught that crowded Metro carriage back to suburbia, you’ve got your own nice neat home with nice neat stuff and plenty of food and clean water and heaters and soft beds and Medicare and the option to go to a restaurant or a movie or the beach or pretty much whatever the hell you feel like. Right? Spare a thought for how awesome that is coz speaking for myself, right now, as I’m finally getting over my sickness and can feel my energy returning, I could pretty much make myself high just reflecting on how lucky I am to be in this world-class city with all this stuff and all these opportunities just waiting for me, without ever having to worry about whether the essentials will still be there for me tomorrow.

So yep – it was an adventure. It was a lesson. It was a workout. Like all travel, well worth doing and an excellent reset button for one’s perspective on the world at large…. as well as appreciation of the precious little world you get to call your own.