DRC Part 3: Back to Kinshasa
It was both liberating and disappointing to start cycling again when I left Monkoto. I had been hoping to catch a boat downstream, but after more than a week of waiting I gave up and started pedalling, even though I still felt weak. I got caught in a thunderstorm by early afternoon but meet a friendly man with a big family (he had 18 children with two wives) who gave me roof over my head. They insisted on warming water over the fire before giving it to me for cleaning. I realized that I had not had a warm “shower” in ages, and when I was standing there slowly pouring the hot liquid over my skin using a small bucket, I could not think of anything in the whole world that would feel better. The women went to kill a chicken for dinner and it tasted delicious. These chickens are not the same as the ones you get back home. Western farms produce chickens that can go from hatching to slaughter in a few months. But here, it takes well over a year for them to reach the same size. Obviously the meat is not as tender, but the taste is much better!
While walking through the jungle a couple of weeks earlier, I one night dreamed about meeting someone who with open arms would take care of me and feed me well. At a later stage, I had even fantasized about that person being a beautiful Swedish doctor or nurse. And guess what happened, if not exactly that!
When I came to Lokolia, the epicenter of the Ebola outbreak in the DRC (separated from the epidemic in West Africa), I met white people for the first time in one and a half month. They were part of a group from Doctors Without Borders running an Ebola treatment center that had been set up in response to the outbreak a few months earlier. In contrast to in West Africa, this isolated outbreak was considered a minor one and “only” left 50 people dead. The staff were close to declaring the end of the epidemic and therefore rounding off their work, but they were still surprised to see me and probably thought I was crazy to pass by here. The last victim was encountered three weeks ago, but since then – nothing. I had of course verified before I left Monkoto that the road was open and all, but when I met the responsible for the site they thought I might have difficulties further on coming from here, so together we walked over to the UN tents and I got a government-sent coordinator to write an authorization letter that would allow me to pass and avoid being put in a three-week long quarantine.
I had some infected wounds on my legs and feet that were not healing and was told that the doctors on-site could have a look at them. It felt wrong, but I ended up sitting on a chair in an Ebola treatment center full of white protection gear getting my wounds disinfected by a Spanish doctor. She told me that the bacterial infection had been going on for too long and I would lose my big toe nail, which given the environment I was in felt very ironic. I was given a set of antibiotics, iodine disinfectant and extra bandages to keep off flies and dirt.
It was also not without a doubt that I accepted the invitation to stay overnight in Lokolia, but I’m happy I did! I took a bath using heavily chlorinated water before pitching my tent inside one of the other tents. A lot of food was prepared and I got to speak some Swedish with the nurse I had dreamed about. I have to say that it made a strong impression on me to see this organization in action. All credits to Doctors Without Borders, they are the real heroes!
I came to Boende the following day and installed myself at the catholic mission where I met a Belgian priest. Believe me or not but just before I arrived, my last tube burst around the valve. Ever since Nigeria, I’ve been looking for tubes with presta valves without any success. But here, a Belgian priest in the middle of the DRC had one for me! Unfortunately, it was 28” instead of 26”, but I reckoned that if I didn’t pump it too hard, it should at least take me the last bit to the airfield and then to the hotel when I reached Kinshasa.
Once at the airfield, I had my hope set on a UNHAS flight bringing WHO supplies plus a friend from Kinshasa working as a press photographer. But unfortunately the plane was not allowed to bring civilians on board, so I returned to the mission for a second night. The following day I returned and had better luck. But it didn’t last long. First, I noticed that my $400 emergency money that I had hidden inside the bicycle frame in Morocco were in a bad condition. But finally they agreed to let me pay for the ticket and the bike with them. Then, after I had bargained my way through the corrupted immigration officials I waited several hours before hearing the sound I had been waiting for. A small propeller-driven bush plane landed and two plastic chairs were quickly placed underneath the wings. The pilots stepped outside and sat down to relax in the shade while the plane was loaded from the floor to the ceiling with sacks of dried larvae, dried mushrooms, and a parrot in a cage.
After another hour or so, me and three other passengers boarded the plane but the engines didn’t start. The battery was dead. They decided to try and charge it using a generator, and in the meantime the first pilot went to grab a beer. An hour later we did a second try. Nothing. Then they decided to charge it overnight, and the pilot saw his opportunity to go barhopping in town. I installed myself in a tent working as the airports waiting hall and embarked on another (culinary) journey by opening a 1.5 kg “combat ration pack” given to me by the UN.
The next morning, I woke up and found the party pilot having a very bad hangover. Apparently, he had been out all night and later brought two women back to the airfield to keep him company. The man was a wreck, literally, and I even saw him grab a beer to get back on track. With red eyes and a sweaty forehead, he then climbed into the cockpit to fire up the engines. But the battery was still dead. We now had to call for another plane to bring us a new battery, and I was just happy about giving the pilot time to sober up.
We were more than 30 hours delayed when finally the new plane arrived and helped us get the engines running. However, our load had not only been limited to dried food and a parrot, but also fresh goat meat. With a plane standing for such a long time in the tropical heat, the meat had start to rot. And the parrot was dead, too. The smell was awful, but at least I was now on my way back to civilization. As soon as we took off, a sea of green stretching all the way to the horizon revealed itself. The trees looked like small broccoli heads, and the town we just left and the traces of neighboring villages disappeared in an instant. Brownish rivers cut through the flat landscape like snakes and it felt like I was looking at the same satellite maps I had studied so much before heading into this part of the country. It felt weird that six weeks of invisible tracks and villages passed underneath us in just 1 hour and 40 minutes.
When the 9-million city of Kinshasa came into view, we were directed to another airport because we came from the Ebola-area. Here, a medical team drove out to the runway and aimed infrared thermometers ar our heads to check if we had fever. Then they used chlorine to disinfect parts of the plane before letting us leave again, this time for an extremely short but scenic 3 minute flight looping over the Stanley Pool and taking us to the right airport.
It felt good to be back in Kinshasa, a city that is chaotic and dirty but also a bit charming. I was fortunate to find a great place to stay through some of the new friends I had made, and ended up staying there for three weeks with access to swimming pool, gym and sauna! Our collective consisted of Sophie the diplomat, Rey the press photographer, Mia the UN volunteer, and of course me, the cyclist. I don’t know how to thank you guys for everything! It almost felt like home with all the lazy movie nights, dinners and parties. I even gained 10 kg’s!
The people at the Swedish embassy were excited about my return and apart from collecting my new passport we also had a pizza lunch together where I showed pictures and talked about the situation in the remote areas I had visited. I enjoyed sharing my hands-on experience to an interested audience working with development assistance etc.
Next thing on my list was the visa to Angola. The infamously difficult-if-not-impossible-to-obtain visa to Angola (and the reason for why I stayed three weeks in Kinshasa).
Their embassy only handles visa matters once a week, on Wednesdays. The first day I went there, I was told that it was forbidden to ride a bicycle in Angola and a lot of other bullshit. However, I managed to hand in all the necessary papers, including what I thought was my trump card – an invitation letter from the Swedish embassy in Luanda. The following Wednesday, a big group of people were waiting outside of the embassy in the rain, and an hour later a guy came by and said it was closed due to a party last night. So I went there the following day only to be told that I have to come back next Wednesday. The third week, after a lot of waiting, I finally got the response: “visa refused”. When I asked why, I didn’t get a good answer. So I cycled straight to “my people” at the Swedish embassy, where Annika our ambassador had promised to help me out. She managed to get someone on the phone who said I didn’t have enough empty pages in my passport. I needed 3, but I actually had 4, so apparently they had not checked it. Moreover, if they would have told me I could have given them my new passport. Instead Annika wrote another letter that the following day was delivered straight to the embassy together with my new passport. It didn’t take long before the consul wanted to see me in person. So I jumped on the bike again and met him within one hour. Just like the first man had told me, he said that it was forbidden to ride a bicycle in Angola. So then I said that I would take a bus. There are no buses, he said. Then what if I strap my bicycle to the top of a car was my response, to which he replied that I was not a Congolese citizen. The fighting went on and on, up to a point where I almost had given up and was about to leave. I was sitting with my arms crossed looking down at the floor while he was going through some other papers on his desk. We stayed like this for a minute or so, before I changed tactics and with a sad voice told the man that I had cycled all this way with my bare legs and now I would have to take a flight and miss out on a country I was looking forward to visit. I tried to make him feel pity for me. And then, all of a sudden he started listening for what felt like the first time in our whole meeting. He asked a few questions about my trip (as if he had not understood what I was doing) and then called for another man. I could hear them speaking in Portuguese about how much time I might need to cycle through Angola, and so I realized that they had changed their mind! The following morning, after almost three weeks of waiting, they called and said that my visa was ready. YESSS!!! The next day I turned 30, and this was the best present I could have wished for.
I celebrated the now even more celebratable weekend with a great concert by the Congolese band Jupiter & Okwess International, an Italian dinner, dancing at Kwilu and finally a swim in rapids of the Congo River at Chez Tin-Tin. What a weekend!
Before setting off again, I had to see after the bike that had suffered a bit in the jungle. The front-hub with already replaced bearings was now completely worn out and actually spinning on the axle itself. The cones I needed to replace could not be found here, and the number of spoke holes on the local Chinese hubs didn’t match with my rims anyway. Instead, I found a local mechanic at the big market who replaced all the internals in a typical African ad-hoc way. I told him that it wouldn’t last until South Africa. He smiled and assured me that it would, but already on my way back home it all fell apart.
Fortunately, a friend’s friend working for the UN was about to fly down from Europe and could bring a new hub + quality spokes! This time I decided to do the job myself and try what I think most touring cyclists fear the most: wheel building. Creating the right pattern was quick, whereas truing, dishing and tensioning took some time, but it was fun to learn!
At the same time I also replaced the rear sprocket, which after more than 20,000 km’s had taken on a new look. I’m happy that I was able to get it off because some of the teeth were sheared.
This is how it looked compared to a new one:
The old name of the Congo River is Nzere meaning “the river that swallows all rivers”. At some point, the Portuguese transformed this word into Zaïre, which was the name that Mobutu renamed the country to when he got to the power (but ironically given his commitment to “africanization”, he seemed unaware of the original Congolese name). One time, I met a very old man sitting in the shadow of a tree and we started talking about different things. He told me his interpretation of the name of his country: “ZAIRE – Zone Africain Intérêts Réservée Étrangers” translating into “African zone reserved for foreign interests”, which in a good way describes its history.
The DRC, or Congo as the locals simply refer to it, has left me more affected than any other country I have visited. It has left many traces. Both physical scars and mental imprints. The constant attention I received, and the expectation that I was there to give things away or help out on a higher level, will stay in my mind forever. So will the lack of infrastructure and the thousands of kilometers of tracks that gives a unique cycling experience. It’s not surprising that the DRC by many is regarded as a “failed state” and that the country has had and still has so many problems. Leopold II’s obsession to make a territory the size of Western Europe his own private property planted the ideas of corruption, bribes, lies and violence into the minds of its people. Claiming to be committed to philanthropy and ending slavery, he manipulated local chiefs to give him the right to their land, after which he stole natural resources and ended up taking the lives of around ten million people. His agents and their soldiers enslaved, punished, raped and killed people in the cruelest ways imaginable. It takes time to recover from such a troubled past, but I can only hope that one day change will come, ideally from the Congolese people themselves.
I would like to thank everyone who helped me in the DRC by bringing in equipment, transporting things back home, helping in the visa process and providing roof over my head. Thank you all so much! With regained energy I felt very motivated about hitting the muddy road to Angola.