Just trying

We stayed in a comfortable hotel, with good beds, a pretty good kitchen and a shower that worked exactly as intended. My ride from the airport, to our training center each day and then to the airport again was easy and rather painless, considering Kinshasa’s traffic reputation.  Things worked as good, or better than in most other African cities I have visited recently.  I was spared all these experiences fellow travelers to the DRC complain about. I guess I was lucky. But on my way to the airport I got a glimpse of that other Kinshasa.

Just before we were supposed to leave with two physical therapists who were heading home to Lubumbashi, my colleague M who hands out per diem was called out of her room to sort out a problem with paying the bill. Then I got to see the effects of our per diem policies: we give people several hundred dollars to cover their expenses: meals, laundry, drinks and incidentals. It was probably a month salary if not more, and all that given in hard currency. Everyone went on a shopping spree. Then, when the hotel presented one of them with her bill of nearly 200 dollars there was panic. She didn’t have that money and was looking expectantly at my colleague M. to sort it out. I told M to remover herself from the scene as it was not her problem. Besides, the Congolese are very good at ‘se debrouiller’ a wonderful French term that basically means ‘figure it out.’ It took a good 45 minutes for things to be sorted out, eventually with the help of a friend who had come to the rescue. Even then, already past departure time, there was a disputed laundry charge. I vowed never to share an airport ride with local folks who haven’t paid their bill. And then, when we were ready to leave the other fellow traveler had wandered off. It was good we had calculated a large safety margin to get to the airport.

On the road we were stopped by two policemen in orange vests and the words ‘Police’ written on their caps and uniform. One walked over to the driver’s side and demanded that our driver open the window. The policeman indicated with his hands that he wanted to see the driver’s papers. I am glad I was not driving as I would have rolled down the window – I learned early in life to obey people in uniform, or else dire consequences await me. But our driver completely ignored the policeman, staring straight ahead as if he wasn’t there. Then the policeman started knocking on the window but our driver kept looking straight ahead, waiting for the lights to change; and when they did, he pulled away. To my surprise there was no angry reaction from the policemen. They probably stopped another car and tried again. I suppose this is how they supplement their no doubt meager police salary. Just trying, I suppose.

Traffic on the busy congested road is like a modern ballet of cars. There are no lanes, although the occasional mid-road barrier does create some left/right traffic order. But 180 degree turns across the length of the road are common and all the sides of busses and camions are scratched and dented. Our driver expertly wove in and out, making swift turns to occupy any small opening and crawl forward.

The last few miles to the airport is different: a six-lane highway with very little traffic; beautiful empty sidewalks, sun-powered lights and no sign of the petit commerce, the little stalls, shops, moto-taxis and pushcarts that fill the sides of the earlier section of the airport road – I assume it is banned in this modern part of the city. I could have been in the US. I suppose it is possible to modernize roads but it looks weird; soulless and cold, uninviting, un-Congolese. The airport is also brand new; yet the architects forgot about electrical outlets and Wi-Fi. One wonders how this is possible in a country that runs on cell-phones?

There are taxes to be paid at the airport. I know the drill: 50 dollars for this and 5 dollars for that. But the clerk asked for another 20 dollars. He used some complicated reasoning when I asked him how that figured into the 55 dollars I had already paid. The taxes are in Congolese francs, he said, and because of the exchange rate I had to pay more. Yet the receipt was in dollars. Luckily I knew the exchange rate, 900 francs to the dollar; for an extra 500 Congolese francs (= a little more than 50 US cents) he wanted 20 dollars. He told me he was patient and could wait for me to fork over what had, in the meantime, become 10 dollars. It was his bad luck that I was also patient and could wait as my flight wasn’t leaving for another 3 hours. When I mentioned to him that we were really talking about half a dollar he accepted my single dollar bill, stamped my receipts and I was cleared. It was a win-win of sorts: I paid and had my receipts for the 55 dollar taxes and kept 19 of my 20 dollars, he pocketed 50 US cents, and we both stayed within the laws of the land. Not as much as he had hoped, but still – these ‘tips’ can add up I imagine, with hundreds of foreigners coming through in a day. Just trying may be worth the risk of getting caught, if such a risk exists.

The airline employee who checked in a passenger next to me also accepted a handshake containing some bills– for what, I wondered? An upgrade? After the transaction she checked the bills and, showing no sign of surprise or disappointment, slipped them into her uniform pocket. I wondered what the take was after checking in several hundred passengers each day, and whether business class would be full.

By the time I arrived in Kinshasa the technical training was done and the capacity and coalition building began: for one day representatives from relevant government agencies, organizations of disabled people, local NGOs and representations from international NGOs and donor agencies came together to learn about the importance of appropriate wheelchairs and start thinking about how to get policies and supporters in place to advance the (signed and ratified but not implemented)  UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities here in the DRC.

The last two days of my short visit were dedicated to imparting the principles and practices of managing a rehab center where wheelchair services are either already provided or will soon be provided. The purpose was to make sure that these centers would run according to the international standards for such a service as developed by WHO. We co-trained with Congolese colleagues who are also in the senior leadership program that we work on with Yale University in parallel. They were fabulous and much better than us, foreigners for obvious reasons – they know the context, they have years of experience running a rehab center, they are trained in proper wheelchair fitting and they are passionate about advancing the agenda of wheelchair provision in the DRC. I told them they could run this program on their own, without outsiders, and I meant it.  Not only did they know their stuff, they also managed the sessions within the prescribed time; the participants were also very disciplined, a good start for a management training. Each day we started and ended exactly as planned. This doesn’t happen very often in my experience; and here we were in the DRC!

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