Passing the Time in Congo

Kananga to Lac Mukamba

Kananga had enough distractions to keep me occupied for a couple of days – a quiet hotel, a small restaurant across the road selling good local food and beer, and an internet café. The first day I spent drinking. The second day I spent searching the town for my map which I lost while drinking. The map turned up in the internet cafe and so the third day I left, safe in the knowledge I was heading in the right direction.

Lac Mukamba at sunrise

Lac Mukamba at sunrise

A good day cycling to Lac Mukamba. 100 kilometres. Half way between Kananga and Mbuji Mayi. There used to be a village here, but 120 years ago the land collapsed and filled with water. Now there’s a lake. Enquiring if I could stay by the lake, the police directed me to the catholic mission. But I wasn’t allowed to camp and the only free room was outside my budget. Being white, I was immediately taken to meet the other white person at the mission. Smith, a pilot, was sipping at a Skol. I ordered one too and contemplated which bit of bush to go and pitch my tent on. Halfway through the beer, a small dinghy pulled up on the shore. ‘Wait a minute, I know that guy,’ says Smith. Soon I am being introduced to Charly and his friends. Charly has a small hut just around the lake – I can camp there. Problem solved.

Mosquito nets and Music

In the cooler hours of the day, early morning and late afternoon, the shores of the lake are lined with women washing clothes Small children bathing and older ones fishing.

Mosquito net fishing

Mosquito net fishing

The lake, onca a holiday resort in Belgium days gone by. You could spend the day fishing and the evening grilling the large fish you’d caught. Now there are few fish left. Girls wade in the lake with empty wine bottles with a hole in the bottom. The fish swim inside and are trapped. Unable to get back down the funnel. Young boys work together and use nets to catch the small fish. If only UNICEF-funded mosquito nets were used for their designated purpose, and not for catching fish and birds, there would be less deaths by malaria and more wildlife. If only there was some regulation, this lake would be teeming with aquatic life. As it is, the locals scrape by on the dwindling remains. Soon there will be no fish left.

Music and the Congo are synonymous. You will never go a day here without hearing music, or the beating of a drum. And where you find music, you will find people dancing. In the evening the lake is turned into a huge drum. Girls cup their hands and skilfully beat the surface of the water. The deep rhythmic beat resounds round the lake for all to hear.

Lac Fwa to Lusambo

From Lac Mukamba, my plan to cycle the next day to Mbuji Mayi and then on towards Kalemie on Lake Tangayika changed. I found myself going with Charly and his friends to Lac Fwa by 4×4. There are seven lakes in this region that are all supplied by the same underground water source. Lac Fwa is the most beautiful. With it’s crystal clear waters that change the lake’s appearance as the sun moves throughout the day. From deep blue to turquoise to pale green. There is not a single building by the lake or road to it. Unfortunately we couldn’t stay long. The local chief thought we are there to look for diamonds, or at least to fish. The concept of tourism is unknown here.

Clear waters of Lac Fwa

Clear waters of Lac Fwa

The following day we drive towards Lusambo. Lusambo used to be the administrative centre before Kasai province split into two. From a thriving town on the Sankuru river, it is barely a shadow of it’s former glory. Large colonial buildings, still inhabited, are not repaired. Where once there were beautiful gardens and tree-lined avenues, the space is now used to grow maize. Everywhere else, the forest is slowly but surely reclaiming the land.

But before reaching Lusambo we are stopped at the river. We had been driving all day, along rutted tracks through remote villages. Children shouting ‘un-ni’ and waving as we pass by. The only white people they see here drive white Toyota Landcruisers with ‘UN’ initialled in black on the side-doors. Where there are no schools and most of the children are uneducated, these are the only letters of the alphabet that they recognise. We are white and so must be with the ‘un-ni’ also. It’s a nice change travelling at a speed where you can outpace screaming children!

When we arrive at the village on the river, we camp at the chef du village’s compound. A projector has been put up in the yard and a group of people are watching a film in French. One young man with a microphone translates into Tchiluba, the local language, so that all can understand. The following morning, sitting in the shade of some bamboo trees, sitting and waiting, I watch schoolchildren parading down the road. Marching single-file, hand on the shoulder of the person in front, they look more like convicts than kids on their way to class.

Passing Time

There’s not much to do in Lusambo. Sit and wait. Sit and drink. Sit and watch the world go slowly by.

Travel by dugout canoe on the Sankuru river

Travel by dugout canoe on the Sankuru river

We take a dugout canoe down the Sankuru river to Kondue. There’s not much to do in Kondue either.

Fishing at Kondue

Fishing at Kondue

But there are many ways to pass the time where there’s nothing to do… Sit. Relax. Eat. Fish. Eat fish. And watch the sun rise and the dark clouds gather and the rain fall in heavy drops and the clouds dissipate and the blue sky return and in the setting sun watch the mirror-image reflections on the calm river of the trees and sky turning from blue to pink to purple and watch the fishermen pole canoes up the river and down the river and throw nets over the side and collect fish and eventually the stars come out and the mosquitoes too and then it’s time to take refuge beside a fire on the sandbank wrapped in a blanket and when you have seen enough for one day and your eyelids are heavy then is the time to crawl into your tent and fall asleep to the symphony of crickets. And that is how one day passes into the next so that you don’t know what day it is because each day is only subtly different from the last and you only know the time of the day by the position of the sun and colour of the sky and for me the rumbling of my stomach.

Waiting to cross the river

Waiting to cross the river

A few days later we take a dugout canoe back up the Sankuru river to Lusambo. There’s still not much to do there. The main distraction is drink. You can drink palm wine or Tchichampa or the more expensive but palatable bottled beer. You can drink at any time of the day. So we sit and talk and sit and drink and then drink some more and laugh a while until we can take a dugout canoe back across the river to the 4×4 and the road back to Lac Mukamba.

From the lake it is a day’s ride to Mbuji Mayi, the main town in Kasai Oriental. A town built on diamonds. People come here in search of a fortune. And so from the modern centre the town has spread outwards into a sprawl of rundown dusty streets where the hopeful hopelessly eke out a living any way they can.

A Living Saint

I have an address to go to – Chez Dieu Soit Beni. The home of Marie-Louise. She welcomes me like a long-lost relative even though she has no idea who I am. I am welcomed into her home, supplied with refreshments (Skol) until it’s time for dinner.

Me and Marie-Louise

Me and Marie-Louise

Marie-Louis is getting old now. Over thirty years ago her husband died, leaving her childless. Marie-Louise vowed never to marry again but instead devout her years to children who have no home. With the profits from the shop she owns in the market, she feeds all the children who come or are brought to her. At night, she sleeps with the children on the patio. She eats what they eat. The only time she buys something a little more luxurious is when she has someone to give it to. Her home is decorated with posters of the Virgin Mary and statuettes of the crucifixion of Jesus. But for all the religious regalia, it is Mary-Louise who is the living saint.

Le Blanc

It takes two long days to cycle from Mbuji-Mayi to Kaniema, a small town on the edge of Katanga province. I rest overnight in Mwenu Ditu. Stopping for a beer at a roadside bar, I am soon surrounded by a group of teenage boys. One is mixed race, lighter-skinned with blondish hair and green eyes. He is called ‘le Blanc’. Until I arrive. His friends tease, saying they will have to give him a new name. And that’s how it is here. For those with a redder complexion, it’s ‘le Rouge’. I find myself doing the same. I see an albino and I think ’Mutoke’. That’s ‘white’ in Tchiluba. That’s what I’m usually called as I pass through a village. If I go to the town market a second time, people recognise me. I’m then called Kapinga. A friendlier term for ‘white’.

Passing Time

I arrive in Kaniema in darkness in the midst of a lightning storm. I am covered in mud and soaked to the skin. I don’t know where I’m going. I just have a name. I ask a local if they know the name. They take me to the right house. ‘Ah, you have cycled from London! Come, come!’ And once again I am welcomed into a strangers home to be showered, fed and refreshed with beer.

Too much Tchichampa

Too much Tchichampa

There’s not much to do in Kaniema. But as in Lusambo and Kondue and Mbuji Mayi, as week passes quickly. We sit and talk and drink at the house and then walk into town and do the same in the shade of a paillote (open-sided thatch roofed hut) and wait until dinner. Then we eat fufu and fish or fufu and chicken or fufu and duck or guinea pig or snake or any other animal that a few hours earlier was living but ended up in the pot. We sit outside under the stars and drink beer late into the evening and talk and laugh and when we start yawning go to bed and sleep deeply until the sound of the rooster wakes you up and then lie half-awake half-dreaming until my stomach says it must be time for breakfast and we drink coffee and talk and sit in the shade of the house as the sun heats the dusty earth and the children go to school or play in the fields absorbed in their games and then it’s time for beer so we drink some more and soon realise that another day has passed and wonder which day the train will arrive.

A Train Ride and Toilet Stop

Going nowhere - Waiting at the station

Going nowhere - Waiting at the station

The train goes to Lubumbashi in the south-east. The first half of the journey is fast. The train is being driven by South-Africans. The second half of the journey is much slower. Now powered by the Congolese. When the train is moving, things are good. Most of the time the train is stationary. Either stopped in the bush because there is not enough power to pull all the passenger carriages up the slight incline. So the carriages must be separated and moved to the next station in relay. Fortunately the cabin I was in was not left in the bush. I got to wait at the station. That meant time to use the toilet and wash. On a five day journey – much needed.

Still waiting

Still waiting

I walk to the small building that is the toilet. There is a queue of women waiting. When I get to the front, I squeeze past the large black naked soapy bodies of the women who are scrubbing themselves thoroughly in the walkway to the toilets. The toilet is a hole in the ground. The door is glass panelled. Some of the glass is missing. I squat down. No-one can see in though because a large naked butt is blocking the holes. That is, no-one can see in except the owner of the large naked butt blocking the hole who occasionally peers through her legs so I am suddenly confronted with a big smiling face. ‘Am I ok?’, she enquires. Privacy is not something people understand here!

Lubumbashi is a large modern city and comes as something of a shock after two months on the road and in the bush. There are supermarkets and electrical imported goods and good restaurants and a large ex-pat community.

After Lubumbashi, I eventually and reluctantly leave the Congo. Arriving in Zambia comes as something of a shock. Now I have to cycle on the left hand side of the road. But this is easy, simply for the fact that there really is a road. A smooth pot-hole-free tarmac road with markings and signposts.

7 Responses to “ Passing the Time in Congo ”

  1. Awesome piece of writing Mrs,

    Wish I was passing time instead of wasting time….

    Shane

  2. Once again, lovely fluid writing. Not sure if you’re planning on writing a book about this trip, but you should consider it.

  3. Hiya Helen,
    As always great to read about your ongoing adventure and of course see your brilliant pictures!
    I hope you managed to have an enjoyable christmas where ever you were, and wishing you all the best for 2011.
    Take care and keep writing!

    Martin

  4. Once again Helen, inspiring writing and this just serves to whet my appetite for a trip from Kinshasa to Kananga by water in 2012..

  5. It’s so good to have you back with us. You have obviously been working hard with the new computer.(During your sober moments?)What about the bike? Is that wobbly back wheel any better, or worse? The diamonds do not seem to be helping the African. They still need a lot of help to get organised and benefit from whatever is available.(The African I mean) You have not dwelt on the illness you had. Here’s hoping that’s over and 2011 will bring good health and happiness.
    With prayers and wishes for you.
    Clive.

  6. […] above taken from “Passing the Time in the Congo ”http://takeonafrica.com/updates/passing-the-time-in-congo/ and manipulated with Photoshop filters. Share […]

  7. Hi, just read your blog. I love the bit about Lac Mukamba. I worked in Mbuji Mayi 1996-1998 and we used to head there for weekends. absolutely stunning place. The fish were small then too, I never saw anything longer than about 10cms. it was quite a hub of missionary activity back then. you also got a flavour of what it would have been like at the peak of the colonial times.

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