Cafe society in downtown Kinshasa

The kidnap
It's the middle of the day on Kinshasa's busiest street, just a couple of days after my arrival. The pavement is full of potholes and so I'm walking at the side of the road towards a cafe. Suddenly an old banger pulls directly in front of me and stops. There are four men inside. The one in front shows me a battered card which purports to be a police ID. "Do you live here?" "No," I reply, "I've just arrived here on a project." "Where are you registered." "At the main hotel nearby." "Get in the car and we will verify your registration." "Oh no!" "Why not?" "Because I'm frightened!" I reply - truthfully. "You must get in so that we can check your registration." "No, I don't want to." At this point one of the men in the back gets out and stands alongside me menacingly. The man in the front passes a pair of handcuffs to him! I say to the man in the front of the car, "If you want to verify my registration, then please accompany me on foot to the hotel." "You are not in a position to give orders - we could force you to get in." "I know that." "Then why won't you get in the car?" "Because you are not in uniform." "Everyone knows that there are plain clothes police." I try to play a trump card: "Of course I know that - I am a former Member of Parliament." The man hesitates for a moment, then, "In which country?" "Great Britain", I reply. At this point I decide to risk leaving and I turn to go. The man in front nods to the man next to me who gets into the car and they all drive off. There must be few countries in the world where the concept of being a former British MP has such a salutary effect. There are hordes of people passing but no-one dares to come to my aid. As I continue towards the café a young man attempts to pick my pocket!

The child
Step outside a car anywhere in central Kinshasa and one immediately has a number of children clamouring for money. I have learnt over the years that, even though it is heart rending, it is counter productive to give money. The local Red Cross have a better idea: they have teams of street boys who have a corner in each of the main hotels where they do shoe shines for a dollar a time. A child follows me down the road, imploring me, in French, to give him a few francs for food. When he finally decides I am not going to yield, he tells me to "F*** off." I compliment him on his grasp of English. However, another child is different. At the end of our non-communication he stops in front of me and says, very seriously, "Vous êtes égoist." You are selfish! I agree with him.

I need to buy an extension lead with a plug board. My driver takes me into the little streets just behind the city centre where there are hordes of small electrical shops and where the pavement is crowded with traders. I get out of the car next to a man who has plug boards. Instantly there are twenty traders pressing plug boards of every conceivable size and style on to me. It resembles a loose scrum at Headingley - with me as the unfortunate referee caught up in it. I decide that it is impossible and I get back in the car and we drive off. Six of the traders race down the road after the car. After a hundred yards or so we are caught in traffic and the leading athlete cum trader catches up. He wants 12,000 Congolese francs - around thirty euros - for his de luxe, impeccable, wonderful plug board. My driver tells him he's crazy and off we go again, before the less athletic traders can thrust plug boards by the score through the car window. After another hundred yards, the Olympian again catches up. The price is now 8,000 francs. Again my driver tells him he's crazy and off we go again. This bizarre relay continues until, perhaps half a mile from the starting point, I buy the plug board for 2,500 francs. My driver is very happy. "They think all whites are millionaires," he comments. I assure him that it's certainly not true in my case! I reflect that perhaps the determined trader is Kinshasa's equivalent of Michael Marks.

The cyber café
Congo has virtually no infrastructure. Decades of civil unrest have ensured it. No passenger railways, few roads, no licensed taxis, not even that African staple - the bus service. And certainly no fixed telephone network. Mobile 'phones work very well but, without a local server and an access telephone number, I cannot get my usual direct access to the internet. Even the electoral commission's network is unreliable and, in any case, to send and receive e-mails requires an account with Yahoo. I've heard of Yahoo but its intricacies are a mystery to me. But, one must always be open to new experiences and I am duly guided through the complicated path to my free Yahoo account. To my surprise it sort of works, albeit desperately slowly. And I can now venture into one of those dimly lit emporia called Cyber Cafes. Forced by desperation I enter and a very helpful young man shows me how it works. Just as I am about to "access my mail box" my neighbour complains to the young man that his mouse has stopped working. At this very moment a mouse runs across the floor in front of the computers. I point out to my neighbour that he has a live replacement immediately available.

The wine list
I am in Goma in the east of the country for a week of workshops on the electoral process. This is the region of the Congo where dissident and rebel military forces still contend for supremacy. Indeed, the workshop participants from Bukavu to the south have to come to Goma by boat on Lake Kivu as the road is unsafe. I pretend to be nonchalant at the prospect of a week in bandit country. And then we arrive at the lakeside hotel where three of us have reservations. A wonderful luxury tourist haven, just 100 metres from the Rwandan border, but somehow cut off from the trials and tribulations of the area. My Congo mission has been pretty well teetotal thus far and the sight of dining room with A Wine List is like a veritable oasis in the Sahara. One of our trio is a strict Muslim. Great! Only two of us for the wine. The days at the workshop are long and arduous, but, each evening we carefully select a wine to accompany our choice of main course. After a few days we notice that the wine list is getting progressively shorter each evening and that the flashy stand with, we thought, one example of each wine, is beginning to look rather forlorn. We realise that the hotel has precisely one bottle of each wine! We quickly do the arithmetic and regret that we cannot stay another nine days and finish it all off. Truly a hardship post.

Current problem
I arrive first at the electoral commission office and duly unlock the building. Without thinking particularly I switch on the lights as I drift along the corridor to my own office where I plug in the computer. Hmm .... odd, no power. I check my colleague's room directly across the corridor. No problem, everything working. By the time I get back to the offices by the front door two colleagues are working at computers in an unaccustomed location. No power in their rooms, only in the commission secretary's office. With typical European logic, or naivety, as it turned out, I conclude that a fuse must have blown and enquire as to who is responsible for dealing with this apparently minor problem. "The engineer," is the response. And where is said engineer? "He has to be sent for."

Clearly Yorkshire practicality is needed and I set off in search of the fuse box. The cleaner helpfully leads me outside to the rear of the building. There is a massive, electric-looking, box - securely padlocked! Direct action having fallen at the first hurdle, I return to my colleague?s office and begin the daily struggle with what is euphemistically termed "the network". At this point the power is cut off. I return to my room - which now has the computer and photocopier lights winking cynically at me! Along the corridor the two former squatters have switched back, with the current, to their own base. Shortly afterwards power is restored to the whole building. It was, after all, an "outage" by the electricity supplier. "C'est le Congo," is the only comment.

Musing on the implications of this curiosity, I comment to my colleague that the Congolese electricity company is clearly far more modern and sophisticated than its British counterpart, as its officials are able to decide whose individual office will have power. He agrees.

15 September 2004