NOTE: I must apologize for the length of this entry. But, I can’t help but retell the day as completely as I can.
Where to begin? I cannot explain the sensory overload all of us are experiencing as first time travelers to the Democratic Republic of Congo. Our journey from Kinshasa to Mbandaka completed the overload process. Even after spending a full day in Kinshasa and seeing some of the city, we were not ready for what lay ahead on Day 4 of this amazing journey.
5:30 AM came way too early on this day of travel. After a quick breakfast with our team and Rev. Bonanga, we were ushered back into our minivan and headed for the airport for our flight to Mbandaka. What would be a 20 to 30 minute in Oklahoma was much closer to an hour. It seemed that over half the seven million people who live in Kinshasa decided to come out and see us early on a Saturday morning.
One traffic jam after another met us on the drive. Large transit buses with every seat filled and the aisle packed liked sardines was the norm. The smaller 15 passenger vans routinely held 25 to 30 people; many times passengers hung out the windows holding large bundles of produce or clothing on the roof. Conductors stood in the open side doors hanging off the side and ducking into the van quickly when their van and another vehicle would come within inches of each other. At one point we passed a truck towing a large caliber gun behind it; yet no one but us seemed to notice it.
Hundreds of pedestrians darted across the streets dodging cars and trucks at every turn on our trip to the airport. Men escorting children; women with large trays of fruit or bundles of clothes on their heads; mixed with the Congolese hired by the government to keep the city streets clean. These street cleaners would move a barricade into oncoming traffic seemingly on a whim to shut down a lane and then start sweeping the asphalt roadway with a small kitchen broom.
Quite often our van came to a stop due to the jam of cars, trucks, buses and pedestrians all trying to occupy the same spot in the road. And yet while we were white-knuckling seat backs and the dashboard, looking at the faces of those in other vehicles and on foot told a different story. This chaos was normal to them. This was their life.
These were sights on this Saturday morning. I cannot adequately or accurately describe the sounds and smells that accompanied this early morning drive. A weak attempt is to say that there was an almost symphonic quality to the constant horn honking, along with yelling from those trying to cross the road, the sound of diesel engines, old out of tune engines popping and squeaking their way along, and the intermittent roar of motorcycles as they passed our van.
The smells were unique and yet familiar all at the same time. The acrid smell of pollution from the exhaust pipes of vehicles filled your nose. The smell of burning leaves mixed with trash was on fire along the curbs and in the storm drains. Burning tires and smudge pots continued to burn from the night before.
Even before we arrived at the airport, we were beginning to feel the experience coming at us like a tidal wave moving your way; yet still off in the distance. Police officers and soldiers were everywhere. Standing in the middle of intersections like conductors in a concert hall, the police managed to keep vehicles from colliding. This feat in and of itself was incredibly fascinating to watch.
At one intersection there was a 15 foot tall robot in the middle of the intersection directing traffic. It’s hard to imagine, but the robot would turn and raise its arms showing green LED displays counting down how long until the robot turns 90 degrees to allow cross traffic to flow.
Passing monuments and statues of Congolese leaders and heroes, we finally arrived at the airport. Parking seemed quite modern as we parked underneath blue sunscreens reminiscent of many American airports. And this is where our journey changed dramatically.
Walking past the doors to the international terminal, we proceeded around the corner of the building and right into a gauntlet of police officers and soldiers guarding what appeared to be an alley. In actuality it was the path to the domestic terminal. We were stopped at the front of the alley by a police officer wanting to know where we were going. He appeared rather agitated and his voice quickly got loud. However, the moment Rev. Bonanga appeared at the front of the group, the officer quickly smiled spoke a few words to the reverend in French and saluted as we walked into the alley.
Every 20 feet or so was another officer or soldier and 50 yards down this path stood a solider with an automatic rifle with a bayonet. Coming around a bend we came upon a large blue and white building with hundreds of Congolese either trying to go in or coming out. Once more we were met by a police officer and just as before Rev. Bonanga took charge of the situation and led us into the building.
Inside was not quite what you would expect from an airport terminal. We were in a 160 foot by 70 foot room with a 20 foot ceiling. Painted light blue with a dark, oil and dirt stained concrete floor, the room was the ticketing center for CAA, a domestic airline serving the DRC. Twelve large compact fluorescent bulbs hung some five feet off the ceiling evenly spaced throughout the room. The limited amount of light cast an odd glow upon the din of noise and activity before us.
Protocol officers sent by Rev. Bonanga to handle our baggage and checking us in greeted us and escorted us away from the crowd and into a corner of the room. From this vantage point we were able to observe the many passengers coming into the terminal and leaving with their baggage.
And baggage should not be confused with luggage. Many of the passengers’ baggage was little more than cardboard boxes or large Tupperware containers stuffed with personal items and completely taped up with packing tape. And by “completely” I mean you could not see the actual container through the two or three pounds of tape on each package.
The noise continued to grow louder until such time as it was difficult for us to even hear each other talk when we were standing next to one another. And then the noise would soften for several minutes and repeat the pattern once more.
We stood in the corner for 30 to 45 minutes watching the crowd surge through the area. We also took note of the soldiers standing in formation behind glass windows in the wall next to us. When we first arrived, there were 3 soldiers and an officer. By the time we left there were a dozen standing at attention listening to the officer talk in front of them.
Throughout our drive to the airport and our standing around in the terminal we relied solely on the knowledge and reputation of Rev. Bonanga, his protocol officers, and the Disciples of Christ Church. We were questioned when we had our carry-on luggage weighed and baggage tags affixed to them. We were randomly stopped and asked questions as we went through one security checkpoint after another. We finally encountered an x-ray machine where our carry-ons were inspected. And then we had these items weighed again before we boarded the plane. Each and every time someone wanted to slow us down, Rev. Bonanga and his team stepped in to smooth the waters for us.
As we flew to Mbandaka, we noticed passengers on the plane wearing t-shirts that, even without a strong understanding of French, appeared to be honoring a female politician in some manner. One passenger was a general in the DRC military in full dress uniform. Several of the passengers in the t-shirts moved about the plane talking in quite tones to others.
We then reached the pinnacle of our trip when the plane landed. As we pulled in front of the terminal building, a crowd was waiting. The woman sitting in front of me began to softly cry. Then her cries turned to grief-stricken wails of pain and sorrow. She continued her grieving as we exited the plane and were met by an honor band playing, women dressed in traditional African patterned and matching dresses and singing above the din of the crowd which was watching each and every person disembark.
After walking down the stairs I looked back and saw a mound of floral sprays piled underneath our Airbus 319 from the front landing gear to the rear. We were arriving to a grand reception. Unfortunately, it was not intended for us. It was a gathering honoring a fallen female politician whose body was being returned to Mbandaka.
In addition to the crowd of mourners, the military was also present in large numbers. Soldiers with automatic weapons were walking through the crowd. Two watch towers, complete with sandbags piled three or four feet high on the platforms were manned by armed soldiers as well.
As each passenger came off the plane and down the stairs, government health officials with infrared thermometers were checking people’s temperature as a part of the DRC’s strategy to keep infected west Africans from bringing the Ebola epidemic into the country. Additionally, each passenger entering the terminal building were required to wash their hands with chlorinated water and soap.
We made our way through the crowd, across a muddy road and through the crowded terminal building which mildly resembled the domestic terminal in Kinshasa. Coming out of the terminal building in front of the airport we found ourselves facing a vision of what many Americans probably have of Africa. Vendors were sitting on the sidewalk selling food. Women were walking about with large trays of fruit on their heads selling them to the crowd outside.
The drive from the airport to Rev. Bonanga’s home can only be described as eye-opening. It is the vision many of us have of a third-world country. Shacks with fences made of bamboo and roofs of palm fronds were haphazardly placed along both sides of the rutted once-paved road. Many houses made of concrete and block sat abandoned or never finished; quite often with a shack made of various materials and the same palm frond roof sitting directly in front of the incomplete structure.
People were everywhere. Walking, sitting, riding bicycles and motorcycles seemed to keep the throng moving, albeit in many different directions. Small huts were also along the roadway, which were home to many enterprising Congolese’s small businesses. The odd thing about these huts is that they all sold the same things.
Finally we arrived at Rev. Bonanga’s house. We were greeted there by the Disciples of Christ Church in the Congo’s management team. Lined up in front of the house they burst into song when we pulled through the gate. After another song and a prayer we all passed through a receiving line and then entered the house for a small reception which consisted of Rev. Bonanga introducing his management team to us, and us telling our stories of who we were, what we do for a living, and why we were here.
Before lunch with the reverend, his wife and some of his managers, we drove over to the Church’s guest house to await our luggage. Sitting on the east bank of the Congo river, this house looks out at an island in the middle of a river that is nearly two miles across where we were located. We were told that slightly farther upstream the river is twelve miles wide.
It is now pushing 11:00 PM and I am sitting in my bed in the guest house annex in the incredibly still and hot darkness. Off in the distance I can hear singing, shouts and wailing. At the end of long and enlightening day, sleep will do us all good.
Tomorrow we attend church for the first time in the DRC. Another experience is waiting!