Posts Tagged 'Kinshasa'

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!

Changed lives

I joined my colleagues around dinner time, straight in from the airport of Kinshasa. I arrived just in time to say hi and bye to two physical therapists from Zimbabwe and Kenya who had accompanied the advanced training in wheelchair fitting. They were leaving, tired and content. I would have been too if I had so directly changed the lives of several families with severely disabled children and some adults as well by providing them with a chair with all the supports to let that would allow them to participate a little more in ordinary life.  One boy of about 9 with cerebral palsy spent most of his waking hours in a room; and because he couldn’t sit without support he would squirm on the floor and look at the ceiling. When his mother left the house she put him on his back, as if he was still a baby. I watched her with the boy on her back, his movements uncontrolled and jerky – but she remained still and straight. It was another one of those moments where I counted all my blessings.

I learned from my colleagues who did the training that the mother rarely took him out as she was fearful of the comments, gossip and disdain from her neighbors. He was lucky that he had been selected to be fitted with a chair – a win-win arrangement for all: the students got to practice their skills and the boy and his family would be able to experience a more normal life.

Wrapping up and going home

My last few days in Kinshasa flew by – being a single facilitator of a process that usually takes two, kept me busy and on my toes. My colleagues stayed with the process till the end and produced their learning plan – an accomplishment that surprised them. Once again I am amazed how little of the facilitation techniques and methods that I use to get people to talk in groups about things that are important to them, gets out to the various corners of the world, whether Mongolia or the DRC.

In the closing session people indicated that they will incorporate some of the things they experienced and learned in their own sessions with people out in the health zones. I wish I could be a fly on the wall.

After Mongolia where I could not understand the language, nor read its (essentially Cyrillic) script it was wonderful and easy to be able to both read, understand and communicate with my colleagues without the interposition of an interpreter. But being alone I did not probe and question enough, I realized, as I was putting together the various sections of the plan they produced. Some entries now puzzle me. I suspect there will be several rounds of review and revision. The Afghanistan plan, after all, took about 6 months to finalize.

My exit from DRC showed me some of the chaos and ‘pagaille’ that I had been spared living in a luxury hotel and being driven to and from the office each day. The travel agent hired to get us in and out of the country, the one who didn’t show up on time when I arrived, took me through all the phases of the exit process, which was a good thing as little is obvious for a newbie like me. One can be denied boarding at the very last moment, when one is already checked out of the country by the Congolese officials, if proof of a particular tax cannot be produced. Luckily all my papers were in order and I got my seat in a jumbo that was filled to capacity with families, crying babies, missionaries, and God knows who else.

I had a short wait in Paris, enough for a shower, a more substantive breakfast than the one given on the plane and time to review a consultant’s report from Nigeria. That too showed that we have a long way to go from telling people what to do to having them draw on their own wisdom and wishes. They do this when we are not around but then we come in. We shake our heads about everything that is not up to our standards. And then we tell them what to do.

The last leg, although long, was easy with a coveted economy comfort seat and an open middle seat and a series of good movies. Watching three movies in a row makes a 7 hour flight easy.

Learning and writing

So far nothing has changed my positive impression of the DRC. I spent most of Saturday and Sunday preparing for the next event, taking a few naps and on Sunday afternoon a break at the pool. There was a soft breeze and the temperature was perfect. As soon as I sat down a waiter appeared with some snacks without hassling me about what I wanted to drink. I volunteered a local beer which came in an enormous bottle (Primus), plus more snacks. Of course nothing is free and I pay a premium for everything I consume in this posh hotel. A nine dollar beer and a 60 dollar tab for my evening meal that includes a buffet and a glass of South African wine is the going rate.

On Monday morning the driver from the office, Ali, picked me up and addressed me in perfect English. Unlike Cote d’Ivoire where there is great reluctance (and inability) to speak English, here many of the people I have met so far speak English. Ali’s English came from educational escapades all over the region. I asked how he got himself in, for example, the business school of Makerere University in Kampala. “I just managed,” he said. So this is the famous système ‘D’ ( for débrouillard) that I had heard so much about. When one lives in a situation of constant turbulence, and one where at one point (when I set foot across the border from Goma into what was then Zaire, 23 years ago) a few millions of the local currency bought nothing more than a small tube of toothpaste, one learns ‘to manage’ as Ali had done. He was used to be kicked out of one country and try his luck in another. He has degrees in business administration and mechanics – yet here he is our driver. I found similar underemployment in the assistant who has been assigned to help me – she has a degree in international law but is an office assistant.

Everyone is very eager to learn which omens well for the Learning Organization workshop. A group of professional staff took advantage of my presence and called an impromptu meeting to pick my brain about writing papers and proposals for conference presentations. I know how intimidating this kind of writing can be as I have been there myself. I suggested to start small and write for each other small pieces and then use Louise Dunlap’s process for providing feedback, the most positive and encouraging way I know of to help people get comfortable writing. Axel used her materials extensively in Kabul at SOLA while working with high school students on their essays.

Our office is in a very nice 5 story building where everything seems to work and the workspaces are clean and airy. Again, I had expected something not quite as together and am constantly surprised in a positive way. I am welcomed warmly by everyone and found everything ready for the workshop which starts today. I am glad this trip didn’t get canceled.

A new place

It doesn’t happen very often that I arrive in a new place, but this trip had two of them. My mind is swirling with first impressions. I wondered about my father’s experience some 60 years ago when he first arrived here as part of a 3 months Africa-breweries trip in 1954. I got his diary and postcards from that journey. The pictures are of a different time and place, colonial Léopoldville with its wide empty streets, clean colonial buildings, a few quaint looking buses and the occasional private car.

The company supposed to pick me up was not waiting for me as I had been told. After all that luck I could have expected some things not quite going according to plan. The Congolese were very solicitous of me, seeing that I had no one waiting fore me. I don’t think I have ever been to an airport were people were so friendly, concerned and where security was loose enough that people could act like people rather than officials assuming the worst in everyone. There was much laughing and joking. I took an instant liking this place.

Eventually my handler showed up after a friendly airport worker named Coco called his company on his cellphone. The driver had some lame and incomprehensible excuse about the delay having to do with problems with the MSH logo for the sign with my name on it. By that time traffic had picked up and the 30 kilometer ride to the hotel took another hour, adding two very long hours to my already 30 hour journey. I got my first taste of infamous Kinshasa traffic.

The first few miles after the airport is a smooth ride on a four lane highway with every 10 meters someone sweeping the sand and dirt off the road. A posted sign indicated that this was part of the Clean Kinshasa campaign. But as we got closer to the city center the roads narrowed, and the task of these cleaners got more and more overwhelming. No longer sweeping up light dust from the road, a few workers in their yellow reflective jackets had gotten the more daunting assignment to clean up an enormous pile of garbage heaped on an unpaved sidewalk with thick black sludge next to it. I think the clean-up campaign will take a while and will only make a difference is it includes educating the people so that everyone is responsible.

All along the road are the usual giant billboards of cellphone company enticing potential customers with promises of easy access to all of Africa as if it was free. In between are smaller ones from various companies competing for a dominance of the market of skin lightening products, targeting African women who believe black is not beautiful.

My hotel is quite posh, belonging to the Kempinski chain. It is situated on the banks of the wide Congo River, next to the President’s compound. I am on the 10th floor and have a nice view on this lush and green ambassadorial part of the city. The hotel was built by the Chinese. There are many Chinese business men in the restaurant making me forget for a moment I just traveled 1000s of miles from where they hail from. I could be in Ulaanbataar. Many signs are in English, French and Chinese. The gas masks in my room are exactly the same as in my Ramada room. I have never had a gas mask within reach and I wonder why now. There are no metal detectors or any other form of obvious security in this hotel (or for that matter in Ulaanbataar).

I checked in and then had breakfast, having missed all meals on the night flight as I was too busy sleeping. I wolfed down a large plate of greens, my body acting autonomously in piling salad greens on my breakfast plate rather than eggs and the more traditional breakfast fare. It is clear that I have been missing some important nutrients the last 2 weeks.

April 2019
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