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.
Pete with some of his new wives.
Me with one of mine. Vanilla Ice got nothin’ on that hairdo!
Can’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.
Lubumbashi, regional capital of Katanga Province, south-eastern DRC.
Shanty-town along the road to Kinsevere.
To be fair, some of the mining machinery was probably responsible for those violent dreams too.
Lifesavers. Quite literally.
As much as I loathed the early mornings, the sunrises could be undeniably beautiful.
The big first night. Uncle Darren in centre.
Moi, 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.