30.10.2011 30 °C
The area of the DRC I have been traversing on my never ending Easter egg style hunt for UXO is in the remote North West corner. It is a charming little part of the world, the people are friendly and they see few enough white people up here that it appears to still be a kind of novelty. In fact at our recent campsite in Budjala I was attracting quite a following. I even saw one parent holding his child up, pointing at me and chatting rather animatedly about what I was. Now I am quite certain as to what it feels like to be an animal in a zoo. I even draw a crowd when I go to shower, as the screen is only high enough to cover me from the shoulders down. They sit and happily watch me apply soap to various parts of my body and scrub and rinse myself down. They will stare riveted and watch me do the most mundane things. This is, I suspect, what life was like before television. Thankfully I have never had to make the choice of either sitting around talking or going down the road to watch a scruffy white man take a shower. The only thing that is missing in this zoo actually is a decent breeding program, now that would draw the crowds.
The one part of the local character that I have come to recognise is what I like to call the Congolese scowl. They will regard you in the most disturbing manner upon first spotting you. It isn’t a look that I would call pure hatred, but more like the one that people in Wild West saloons give you just after you have casually waltzed through the door and the piano player stops. The kind of “I don’t know what you think you are doing here but you are clearly not welcome and I rather liked that tune the piano man was playing his name is Bert by the way and I bet you didn’t know his name was Bert and that’s because you are obviously not from around here and Bert only plays to people he has known since pre-school and that clearly isn’t you and he won’t start again until you leave so you’d better go now or I’ll blow your fuckin’ head off” look. The thing is though, that if you smile and say hello the look instantly changes into something quite pleasant. It is honestly the most startling transformation and just another quirk of the local population.
We arrived into a town called Akula to find that the local ferry had broken down. Having just endured 12 hours of Richards driving to this point I was a little fragile to put it mildly and not really in the mood for this kind of news. “How long will it take to fix” I enquired rather optimistically, though knowing deep down that a manned mission to mars was most likely to happen first.
“Oh should be back in action by March I reckon” came the reply from the rather helpful ticket salesman, though no mention of which year that March might be in. Why he was manning his booth to sell tickets to a non-existent ferry is another question altogether. At least it was until he added rather hopefully “Would you like a ticket?”
The Congolese are not in the same league of capitalist fever that the Sudanese are under but they give it a go. If they think they can make a buck they will try. One method is to find a piece of road in a rather shoddy state of repair (not too taxing so far) and then spend a couple of days filling in all the gaps until it is somewhat passable and erect a toll booth. Another is to try and sell ordnance to people like me.
After our disappointment with the ferry we were fortunate enough to be put up in the Police compound for the night before we had to turn around and commence the 4 day journey back the way we came. A prospect I was not relishing. Anyway the chief of police invited me in for a chat which is always entertaining considering I don’t speak French, and mentioned that he had taken some stuff off the locals and was keeping it safe. Now his idea of safe and mine are obviously two different things for the small collection of large mortars and RPG’s was piled up against the wall in the kitchen. The huts in Akula are built mainly of palm fronds, easy to replace and surprisingly waterproof. It also makes the entire structure rather flammable, and they cook on open fires. When I asked what was on the other side of the wall I was informed that it was occupied by a school, “Young children are eager to learn” he added, accompanied by a big smile.
“I see” came my reply as I further investigated the pile of doom and running the scenario through my head.
“Ordnance kicks off for one of a dozen reasons (fire, lightning, someone hitting it with a hammer) kills a room full of kiddies who are eager to learn and then goes where?” I mused to myself as I stuck my head through the far wall of the school. Want to guess what I found there? I know what you are thinking and no, it wasn’t a room full of puppies. It was in fact a road, on the other side of which was a rather large fuel storage facility. If you got that going and you could take out the whole side of the river.
So I explained all this to the Police chief and he looked at me solemnly for the duration of my speech and then stated “So how much money will you give me to take it away?” He is obviously a man who treasures his children and puppies. (OK I know the puppies weren’t there but it makes the story more relatable for people without children). He seemed genuinely disappointed when I told him that we didn’t pay to take things away. So disappointed, in fact, that he looked at me sternly and stated “Well you can’t have them then.” (He is speaking in French by the way so say it with a sneer and an outrageous accent to get the full effect. Something like “Vell you can’t have zem zen”)
“No drama” I replied quite cheerfully. “Just sign here for me then.” I continued pointing to a document that I had already prepared. It basically outlined what he had, where he had it and what would happen if it went bad. It then carried on and said that I had offered to dispose of it for him but he had refused on the grounds we wouldn’t pay him, and so when it finally did go bad then the fault was his. He balked a bit at that, grumbled for a while, gave me a proper scowl and handed the pile over to us for free.
I disposed of it the next day in a single demolition outside of town. A rather satisfying explosion, in more ways than one. The police chief insisted on coming and was rather excited by the whole affair, as most people are when they come to a dem. I should have charged the bastard admission.