February 16th and 17th, 2006
We fly from Kananga to Dekese in an Antanov plane from the 1950s. The dials are in Russians (with translations in sticky tape below), duct tape on the dashboard, and a small modern GPS. The old clock says 8:30 when it’s really 10:30 which makes me wonder whether the rest of the equipment is quite accurate. But in the air, the plane feels quite sturdy though a bit slow.
There are an impressive number of Russian pilots in Congo who have found a cosy niche market: poor air regulations allow the import of old Antanovs, and the complete isolation of most villages with short stretches of earth once being tiny airstrips make them particularly useful to independent airlines. We are a crew of 9 passengers with assorted bags and three large plastic bags full of Congolese francs for teacher salaries. We fly 2500 feet over the Congo, passing a thin undulating river called the Sankuru, than the larger Lukenie river. We fly for an hour-and-a-half over dense dark forest and fresh green planes with clouds casting their timid shadows over them. The other passengers are slumped over asleep in the back, in the claustrophobic, oppressive heat of the plane. It's at times like these when I am transported by an inexplicable feeling of joy and love for what I am doing.
The guy who owns the little airline (let’s call him Santos) is of Portuguese origin but born here. He is married to a Congolese woman and has a 2-year old daughter. This is a typical case of another lost expat in Congo who is unable to get the citizenship though he feels that he is more Congolese than anything else. To get the present plane from Lithuania into the country, his partner had to fly it over 18 days, stopping and going in various airports along the way. He claims that the combination of all the airport fees was more expensive than the airplane itself. Since this is a new business, he is eager to have new clients and exclaims that he can take our cargo anywhere. After several minutes of bantering over the price, it seems that he can indeed take us anywhere in Congo. In his enthusiasm, he invites over for breakfast at his house the next day.
Santo's Daughter. Young...but already camera friendly.
We arrive in the little village at 12:00, and since we are accompanied by an important official, there are hours of greetings, ceremonies and meals. We finally start work at 3:00PM until 9:00PM, all of us feeling near exhaustion. I sleep curled up like a little baby.
Despite having to wake up early to work some more, we have a wonderful breakfast of honey from the forest (it's dark and liquid, sweet without the usual thick sticky feel that American honey often has), guayava, marcacuja fruits, papaya and coconut. When I explain to my hosts how expensive all these fruits are in the states, they laugh giddily at the oddness of the other world.
Two of the sisters of Spanish and they’ve been working in Congo for as long as they can remember (30 odd years). The third one is Congolese but she has spent some time in Spain. The cook/gardener shows me around the vegetable garden: the eggplants, green peppers, Ngay-ngay from Cameroon, flowers that grow to keep the insects out of the garden. In the back he shows me the papaya tree, guyavas, an old wet log where edible mushrooms grow at an alarming rate. Without this garden, the sisters would be eating just like the villagers: fish, rice and pondu (manioc leaves) every day for the rest of their lives.
Yum! Dekese mushrooms.
The end of the morning finishes off with a rush of activities: meetings with various officials and village chiefs, fighting against bribes imposed by the immigration authority, paying our various rooming arrangements, loading the plane with bushmeat, freshly caught river fish with whiskers, various letters and packages for family members of the villagers living in Kananga.
Predictably, we are way behind schedule and when we finish with the community, we have to hop on motorcycles and ride like the wind to the small airstrip. A little less predictably, there are not enough motorcycles to take all of us there and, in the shuffle, I get left behind. I have to borrow the sisters' old motorcycle with only a lick of fuel left in it. My driver rushes through mud puddles and shouts at people to get out of the way. I run to the main passenger cabin only to discover that my legs, shoes and pants are full of mud.
For once, I am incredibly relieved though deeply saddened to leave the population behind. Though I have vowed never to talk about work in this blog, I must admit that the work is hard and sometimes…well solutions just can’t be found.
Today is my birthday.