August 21st 2005
We arrive in Mbuji Mayi after a short, uneventful flight. The view from the air reveals shallow clay canons, a sprawling city with corrugated iron roofed dwelled interspersed by palm trees. Once again, I register the wonderful greenness of it.
Navigating through the airport proves to be a little too much for me, with officials coming in and out of the waiting area with my passport (making me very nervous) and a long discussion about why I had to pay the special $50 + Fr 2,000 fee: for all first-time foreigners there’s a special fee, but since I am working in the humanitarian sector, the official would be willing to reduce the price considerably. Would I be able to pick up the passport tomorrow to fill out paperwork? No? Well then I could just pay him right here and now and all would be over with.
When we explained that the fee hadn’t been budgeted in our planning and that we needed to call our boss for confirmation, the affable official says that he can waive the fee this time around but I would have to pass by the customs office located in the middle of town.
I am fuming but trying hard not to show it. It’s so discouraging to be asked for a bribe each and every time I arrive in a new airport; it’s enough for me to want to go home and say “screw it, I’m going to help no one but myself”.
The drive from the city of Mbuji Mayi to Mwene Ditu is very pleasant and I have time to notice striking differences with my trip to Luiza. The road is 130 km and it takes us only 2 hours to get to destination! Compare that with the 150 km of the last trip to took about 8 hours to complete. The road is quite nice, actually paved all the way with a few tricky spots that involve having to drive around the potholes.
There are businesses everywhere and you can really get a sense that the city somewhat prosperous. I learn three things about the region:
-it is renowned for its diamonds and cookies. The diamond trade is prevalent with large drilling machines along the river bed and dozens of diamond cutting shops. Foreigners are not allowed to buy them of course. The city, though better off than its Congolese counterpart, should be a lot wealthier when you consider all the diamonds that are harvested there. The biscuits are produced in a factory close to the diamond club;
-the beer here is not Skol or Primus, it’s called Turbo King. Despite it’s name, it has the reputation of being watered down;
-one a hillside by Mbuji Mayi live the “refoulés de Katanga”. These are displaced peoples from Katanga during the time when Mobutu wanted to divide a state into two warring zones (?). The displaced have adapted quite well to the town as the people who fled were primarily highly skilled and educated who fled to the city where the only skills revolved around diamond harvesting and trading. They now own shops, training centers and technical industries (mechanics, welding, iron gates—useful when you consider how many places need to secure their diamonds).