A Travellerspoint blog

Democratic Republic of Congo

A year in the life

sunny 30 °C

I have put together a short video of 2011.

Hope you find it interesting, it looks a lot better when viewed on full screen.

Posted by Dangermouse 07:04 Archived in Democratic Republic of Congo Comments (0)

We are the angry mob

storm 26 °C

We are the angry mob; we read the papers every day. We like who we like, we hate who we hate but we’re also easily swayed. The Kaiser Chiefs, look them up they are an awesome band.

So why am I shamelessly plugging the Chiefs?? Well that song was running through my head recently for reasons that I am going to tell you about now……..

This is what an angry mob doesn't look like.

I have been extremely happy of late; I have been blowing stuff up again. It had been a while since I had to det up and to be honest I missed it. What’s more, the noise is amplified in the jungle which makes it even more fun. The last couple of weeks have been quite productive and we have been getting on with the business of making the world a little safer with the proper application of high explosives. Finally I have gotten out of the office, where well meaning people whose whole life revolves around paperwork tried to school me in the finer points of filling out request forms and asset registers. No more do I have to nod in understanding as someone drones on for what seems like forever on a subject which I care little about and I am not really paying attention to anyway. Finally I am out doing what I am good at, blowing stuff up. It is such a pity that I am only here for a month, I quite like working here. Still I will have to make the most of it.

Generally the items that we find are safe enough to move so we can take them with us and destroy them all in one big demolition, called a bulk demolition. These are my favourite as, let’s be quite honest here, the more explosive present in a demolition the bigger the bang. I may have been a little spoilt in Sudan as nearly all of my demolitions were of this bulk variety and going back to doing single items can be a bit of a letdown. But still it beats working for a living and I am still enjoying myself so life is good. Occasionally we will come across something that is not safe to move so we have to deal with it where it is. RPG’s are in this category for me, as is anything that is fuzed and has obviously been fired. Most explosive ordnance has safety devices built into the fuze to stop them detonating when you don’t want them to. They are usually a pin or something similar. If these safety pins are not in the fuze then it can possible function, generally not something you want to happen. This possibility can be increased if it is in the back of a ute being bumped along poor dirt roads. So being a big fan of safety first, I will destroy these items either where they are, or in a suitable site nearby if they are safe to move a short distance.

So on todays occasion we found a 60mm mortar nose down in the ground in a village. So long as nobody played with it the chances of it detonating by itself were pretty remote, however I carefully extracted it from the ground to find that it was fuzed and there were no safety pins present. Other things indicated it had been fired and as such I didn’t really want to take it with us. So I decided to destroy it where it was. The mortar was in town, but thankfully in a field that gave me enough safety distance on all sides to do the job there. It was also in an area that was easy to control access to, the last thing you need is to have someone wander through your dem site. So in order to minimise any fragmentation hazard I dug a decent sized hole, placed the mortar and disposal charge inside, covered it up and destroyed it in place. Nothing got damaged (except for the mortar of course) and everything went nice and smoothly. Then it started to unravel….

I will give you the following in a timeline so you can get an idea of how fast this moved.

1 minute after the detonation - A crowd had formed that was curious and wanted to see what we had done. The mood of this crowd was quite neutral and even thankful that we were removing the dangerous items from within their midst. They came running in from everywhere to have a look. So we packed up quickly, more so they couldn’t steal any of our stuff than for any other reason, and headed back to the car.

2 minutes after detonation - As I was approaching our car the mood started to change. Members of the crowd were starting to make loud noises about something and the general attitude of the group began to sway.

2 minutes 30 secs after detonation - The mood turned decidedly ugly. The previously happy and thankful group was being overrun by an angry mob, being spurred on by a man with a megaphone. They crowded around our cars and started yelling and hitting the vehicles.

3 minutes after detonation - A man reached in and grabbed me by the shirt front. Now I don’t appreciate people touching me at the best of times, and I appreciate even less being grabbed. So I took hold of his arm and pulled it forcefully into the car, causing him to smash his head into the door frame rather hard. I then pushed him away and started to wind up the window.

3 minutes 30 secs after detonation - Richard looked at me and said quite matter of factly “We go now” before gunning the engine and taking off, scattering people like 10 pins as he went, and grinning like a madman.

It all happened so fast it was hard to comprehend. So what turned this crowd so violently?? Well it is coming up to election time here in the DRC and the main protagonist was a local man who was running for office, the man with the megaphone. He started telling people that we hadn’t in fact destroyed the grenade like we claimed (it was actually a mortar but never let the truth get in the way) and we had only made a noise to scare everyone and get away with our prize. We were going to then sell it to the rebel army that is still holed up in the east of the country so they could start a campaign of terror on the good people of the DRC. That was all it took, a far-fetched story given by a ranting lunatic almost got us into serious trouble. The people of the DRC, it seems, do angry mobs quite well. People have been killed by such mobs for things as simple as traffic accidents that leave someone seriously injured. The police in general are either part of the mob, or do little to stop it. The favourite method of dispatch for the poor recipient it what’s called a Congolese necklace. A tyre is wedged over the victims shoulders and set alight. Not pretty at all.

The interesting part of this story is that we had to go back through this town on our way back to our campsite. I was a little reluctant about this however there was nothing to worry about. We were not greeted with any hostility on coming into town, at all. We even stopped off to get something for lunch and not a harsh word was said. There were no signs of aggression at all. It’s as if the entire thing didn’t even take place.

They may be quick to form, but the mob seems even quicker to disperse and the locals, thankfully, don’t seem to hold a grudge. I on the other hand would like to find that bastard with the megaphone. He certainly won’t be getting my vote.

Posted by Dangermouse 03:26 Archived in Democratic Republic of Congo Comments (0)

Not the puppies

sunny 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.

Posted by Dangermouse 03:21 Archived in Democratic Republic of Congo Comments (0)

Don't stop until the spoon stands straight up

storm 30 °C

There are some things in life you should try. Undoubtedly there are some things that will make your life so much richer. Obviously the list is quite personal; skydiving for example will give you an experience that is hard to forget. However throwing yourself out of a perfectly good aircraft only to hurtle towards the earth, putting all your trust in the fact that a small backpack filled with string and silk will magically arrest your descent, can be a bit much for some people. Still I am sure everyone has a list of things that will make their life more interesting, and these things should be pursued with all the vigour that can be afforded to them.

Equally there are things in life that should be avoided at all costs. These are the things that are not only guaranteed not to make your life better but actually shorten it by a considerable amount. Things like drinking anything in a blue bottle kept in the laundry, sleeping on a freeway, juggling chainsaws or watching Meg Ryan movies. Congolese cooking is in that category. For as rich as the culture and as delightful the music may be, the Congolese are the worst cooks I have encountered thus far. In fact on the list of things not to do in your lifetime I would put eating Congolese food somewhere between ramming your head against a brick wall and having your fingernails pulled out with pliers. It won’t kill you but it certainly won’t be pleasant.

“How bad can it be??” I hear you ask. Well for a start they love oil, just love the stuff. And then they also seem to have an affinity for salt, can’t get enough of it. Most meals come out so heavily salted that upon taking one bite your head goes a bit fuzzy and you can see through time. The basic rules for cooking go as follows; take one perfectly good piece of meat, deep fry it, then boil it for an extended period of time adding more oil, add “flavour”, then toss in so much salt you would think it was being prepared for a 6 month sea voyage onboard the Endeavour. Serve with homemade dough type substance that is so full of sand and grit you could use it to rub the paint off your car. The only way to describe it is quite foul, though in fact one particular meal topped the lot for grossness. It was pork. It looked OK, like any other meal in fact, until I took a bite. The only way I can properly describe it is to say that it tasted the way that sewerage smells. Quite possibly the most disgusting thing I have ever put into my mouth and the only thing besides avocado that made me want to throw up immediately. (I know lots of people love avocado but I just can’t stand it. I am thinking of starting a group.) As I looked around in horror I noticed the other members of my team munching away quite happily. One can only presume that the excesses of salt over the years has destroyed their taste buds.

Oh and before I leave this alone to pursue other matters of great interest let me share with you the recipe for Congolese coffee. Take one decent sized mug and add 1-2 teaspoons of coffee. Not too bad so far right?? (Though I still can’t understand how people drink coffee either but that is for another time.) Into this add 2 tablespoons of milk powder (milk is almost non-existent here) and then add 5-6 TABLESPOONS of sugar. That’s right tablespoons. This would be the equivalent of 20 teaspoons of sugar. I guess you don’t stop until the spoon can be stood on its end in your drink. The result no longer has a real fluid form, more like slurry. So for all you coffee lovers who would like to give this one a go I would really be interested in hearing the results.

During my travels I have had time to ponder one of lifes great riddles, and it involves chickens. No not the which came first thing, the answer is obviously the egg, as dinosaurs were laying eggs for millions of years before chickens came along and birds are an offshoot of these magnificent creatures. No this one has to do with their fascination with crossing the road. I have been witness to this for the last few weeks and feel it is time to put my thoughts down on the record. Firstly I am starting off by declaring chickens to be the dumbest creature on the face of the earth, hands down. Were the Dodo alive today it would not only beat a chicken in a round of University Challenge, but no doubt get all the points. The Dodo actually wasn’t a dumb bird, but did have a compulsion to respond to calls from other Dodo’s. This coupled with their inability to fly made them exceedingly easy to shoot. European explorers have a lot to answer for. Chickens on the other hand seem to have a compulsion to throw themselves into traffic.

As we go hurtling through rural DRC I have been witness to this compulsion on a number of occasions. Every other animal we may come across tends to run away from the car, and quite rightly too as Richard doesn’t brake for anything. They will often take refuge in the long grasses or other things that will give them a sense of cover from the great white mechanical best that is bearing down upon them. Chickens, on the other hand, will wait until the last minute and then launch themselves from the long grasses they had previously been hiding in, and run madly across the road just in front of the vehicle, in order to hide in the grass on the other side. There is no reasoning to their suicidal habit. Mother hens will abandon their chicks and take off, leaving the hapless chicks to either try and stay put or, more likely and far more disturbingly, try and follow their mother. It often doesn’t end well. I have even seen chickens run close to 50m in order to throw themselves in front of the vehicle.

So to answer the old adage “Why did the chicken cross the road??” The answer can only be one of two things. Because they are either monumentally stupid, or they are the worlds most dedicated adrenaline junkies. You decide.

Posted by Dangermouse 03:15 Archived in Democratic Republic of Congo Comments (0)


Some things just require a story of their own. Some things are just so incredibly incredible that to place them into another piece of prose is doing them a grave injustice. So for this tale I am not going to bother you with any of my more obscure ramblings. Things like Jason Segals actions in Forgetting Sarah Marshall for instance. I mean I honestly have no idea what it is that women find attractive about the naked male body. Women are beautiful, have curves and breasts among many other fine attributes. Men on the other hand are rather straight, sharp and have an extra appendage not unlike a short tail on the wrong side. In fact if the man in question is happy it will wag for a bit before turning into a hat rack. But as for nice to look at, well I just can’t agree. If I need any further backup here I challenge you to try and name me 5 famous nudes painted my masters……of men. So Jason, mate, you are a funny bugger but please put the mouse back in the house.

My driver, Richard, is a nice bloke who used to drive for Mobutu. In fact it is hard to find someone working for MAG who didn’t do something for Mobutu. Anyway the cagey old African dictator must have enjoyed motorsports because Richard has two speeds, Mach 5 and stop. On normal roads this would be exciting enough, however on severely deteriorated dirt roads, and some of which most 4wd enthusiasts would love to tackle, it can be downright scary. Richard tends to shoot off at warp speed, then brake heavily 5m before an obstacle so we sort of crash and bounce through it before mashing the accelerator to the floor and repeating the process. Ever hit a speed bump a little too quickly? Try doing it at 1000kph and then do it again another million times a day. I have never been more worried in a vehicle in my life, and I once actually kissed the ground after alighting from one of my friends cars on completion of a hair raising and rapid tour through Sydney.

Anyway on some of the straighter pieces of road that are in a decent state of repair, Richard will barrel along as fast as the vehicle will allow him. The only warning you get of his arrival is a blaring of the horn and the sounds of a 2.0 litre Hilux engine imploring him to back off. The grasses on these stretches are right on the edge of the road and as such you tend to go ripping through them as you progress as speeds close to g-loc. If your window is not wound up all manner of things then get flung into the cabin, branches, ants, a rather impressive praying mantas, caterpillars, grasshoppers and ………. a spider.

This spider was smallish; the abdomen was maybe a bit smaller than the size of an Australian 5c piece, and quite wonderfully leggy in a way that only spiders and giraffes seem to do well. Now normally I quite like spiders, I think in fact that they have been given a rather bad rap. But I love Australian spiders because I know which ones will kill you (fewer than you think) which ones are poisonous and will just make you sick (most of them) and which ones are harmless. African spiders, on the other hand, I have no idea about and this one was now dangling on a thin strand of web from the rim of my hat, which made it look at least a thousand time bigger and leggier than it actually was. So I turned and casually asked my driver if it was at all dangerous. His immediate response was to take one look at the offending arachnid and slam on the brakes. This caused the spider to sway first towards the windscreen, dangle briefly at the far extent of its pendulum before swinging back in a graceful arc and landing on my face.

I have to admit that getting bitten on the face by an unknown spider is not high on my list of things to do. If I am really honest I would have to confess it would not be on the list at all. So whilst I paused for a moment to consider my options regarding this new predicament Richard sprang into action and began enthusiastically, one might argue a little too enthusiastically, slapping me in the face in an attempt to kill the spider. The spider meanwhile, no doubt a little confused about what was happening, started reacting as most reasonable creatures do when they are under attack and started running around wildly trying to avoid this unprovoked assault. To be honest I was doing my share of ducking and weaving as well and for one brief horrifying moment, I thought the spider was contemplating taking shelter inside one of my nostrils, a prospect I did not at all find to my liking. So I hurled myself out of the car, as much to get away from the beating I was sustaining as anything else, and started shaking my head in the manner of a dog who has just returned from a swim. The spider, realising thankfully that a tactical withdrawal is often a winning move, released its grip on my face and made a daring launch into thin air before landing on the ground and scurrying off to seek shelter under a rock. I am sure it was looking back at me suspiciously, no doubt a little shaken, and wondering what the hell that was all about.

Not the actual spider but a great photo anyway.

As I got back into the car Richard was looking at me quite expectantly.
“So was it dangerous or not mate?” I enquired.
“OK” beamed Richard before giving me a big smile, a thumbs up and mashing the accelerator to the floor, taking off once more in pursuit of the Road Runner or some other rapid creature. If Wiley Coyote had Richard on his side he could have saved himself a lot of personal trauma.

So crisis averted I resumed my task of hanging on for dear life and wondering if I had remembered to update my will. And as for the spider, well I think in future I will keep my bug discoveries to myself.

Posted by Dangermouse 03:04 Archived in Democratic Republic of Congo Comments (0)

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