Never a dull moment in deepest Congo

I?ve become an honorary Belgian. Congo's history as a former Belgian colony ensures that the Belgian influence and presence here is considerable. The most convivial and convenient club in Kinshasa is the Alliance Belgo-Congolaise - known to everyone as the "ABC". Perhaps unsurprisingly, membership is only open to Belgian and Congolese citizens. Problem! In an attempt to subvert the bureaucracy, I write "World Citizen", in the 'nationality' box on the application form, and I casually mention to the club chairman that I have a Belgian son-in-law. My membership card duly arrives - on which I am described as a "sympathiser2! I suspect that my second strategem was more effective than my first.

The "ABC" is precisely twelve minutes on foot from my flat and, as such, is a rare opportunity for some token exercise. On my way to lunch, along a quiet side street, a white car containing three men pulls along side me. The man in the front flourishes a battered police identity card and orders me to get into the car "to check my documents." This is the second time this tactic has been tried and I'm ready for it. "This is not authorised out of uniform," I shout at the rather surprised putative police officer, "do I have to use a car for even the smallest journey in order to avoid your attentions?" The man tries to insist, so I produce my mobile 'phone. "I will check direct with my Ambassador," I state with fake confidence, "please give me your names." The car drives off. I enjoyed my pre-lunch chilled beer with a certain extra satisfaction, though, to be honest, it is slightly unnerving.

Even journeys by car are not free from similar distractions. The police are so badly paid - around 15 US dollars per month - that soliciting for bribes is endemic. I am briefed that one should not stop, even if surrounded by three or four officers, but drive slowly through them. "But don't the police shoot?" I ask. "Oh no - it?s not authorised!" is the assured response from my colleague. Well that's all right then!

Actually, I have, by accident, discovered a magic word to deal with this situation. One lunchtime, three police officers tried to stop me just a few hundred yards from my office. "It's a document inspection," they shout, as I edge forward, slightly reluctant to mow down the officer directly in front - whether authorised to shoot or not. I wind the window down slightly and state authoritatively, "I work at the electoral commission just ahead and we have to get the elections organised immediately." The officer jumps back and waves me on!

A colleague always arrives in my office wearing a well recognised Christian badge showing a old testament water pot. For weeks I've therefore addressed him as "Mr Gideon". Eventually realising that this was probably patronising, I apologise and ask his name. "Elvis," he replies, "but I can't sing."

After a week in my flat I ask the owner what one does with the full waste bin liner. "You throw it over the wall," is the reply, as he takes it from me and does precisely that. I tentatively question the ecological implications for the local environment of such direct action. "Oh, it's OK, when it rains the stream rises and carries all the rubbish off." I decide that this is not the moment to ask where the toilet flushes to.

I am invited to go on a Sunday excursion, probably in my capacity as a Belgian "sympathiser". Anything to get out of Kinshasa for a day. Expecting maybe twenty people on the trip I drive across the city to the meeting point. This is accomplished with some difficulty as the lines on the map appear to have little reference to the streets on the ground. To my surprise there are around two hundred people gathered for this riverside picnic, including many enthusiastic African families with lots of children. As so often in Africa, it has all the apparent trappings of detailed logistical preparation. There are three large school buses, each bearing the logo of the host organisation and a large numeral. Only half an hour after the scheduled departure time, the organiser produces a large clipboard on which are lists of names, each one allocated to a numbered bus. He begins with bus number 2, and reads off the first seven or so names, including mine. We head on to the correct vehicle, whereupon a further sixty excursionists just pile on unallocated! Without any apparent annoyance the organiser immediately abandons all his plans.

After another half hour, bus 2 sets out first. After an hour's drive a discussion ensues as to how to find the track down from the main road to the picnic site. The organisers are on bus number 1 which was supposed to guide us, but is, of course behind us. Two accompanying cars arrive but they don't know the way either. Rather than wait for the key bus, a decision is made to follow the arrow on a battered wooden sign and the huge, overfull bus follows the cars down an steep, unmade single track. Part of the way along we see one of the cars coming towards us! We are on the wrong path. Amazingly, still with everyone on board, the bus driver manages to reverse to a tiny clearing and to turn the bus round. At the top of the track, bus 1 is waiting to lead us onward. We pass a pleasant day talking, eating and drinking - not necessarily in that order - alongside the Congo, with the children fishing in riverside pools, and enjoying organised games in the fields. We get back to Kinshasa in darkness, without mishap, but, as ever, very late.

I decide I need a haircut. There are countless open air barbers, each charging around the equivalent of one dollar. One has a single battered slatted wood seat on which perches a small cracked mirror. Fastened to a nearby tree, at a precarious angle, is the beautifully painted sign: "Coiffeur Nelson - Salon." Alas, neither Mr Nelson nor his other colleagues can cut "European" hair. For that one has to go to a very posh emporium - and pay ten dollars. In my case, most of this is by way of being a search fee!

22 November 2004