Monday, February 9, 2015

1. Inside the ‘Heart of Darkness:’ The quest of two adventurers for street cred in the Democratic Republic of Congo.



Democratic Republic of Congo. For most people the name brings to mind civil war; genocide; mass rape; cannibalism.

Not us. Whenever I came upon a map of the Democratic Republic of the Congo -- the winding path of the deep Congo River and “Heart of Darkness" -- my only thought was “forbidden fruit.” During my three month backpacking trip around East Africa in the spring of 2011, as I zigzagged through Ethiopia, Kenya, and Uganda with my childhood pal David, both of us felt as though mysterious Congo was calling for us, begging us to come say hello.


We asked the few other western travelers in Africa we bumped into if they’d been to the DRC or had any information about traveling there.

“Nope.”

“Wouldn’t dare.”

“Are you crazy?”


The information in Lonely Planet was scant. Online travel message boards were virtually non-existent.

We were not deterred. Rather, the curious itch became a burning desire, the only cure for which were authentic DRC entry and exit stamps on our passports.


Still, it wasn’t an inherent attraction to danger that propelled our desire to visit the DRC. It was the appeal of visiting a country completely off the tourist trail, a place almost completely unknown to outsiders. An opportunity to have a real adventure. We were 25 year old single men lacking any real life responsibility. This was our chance to get the ultimate traveler “street cred.”

What intensified our obsession was not knowing if we’d even be let in if we tried. The US State Department’s website said that tourist visas to the DRC could only be received in one’s home country. Slightly discouraged but feeling we had nothing to lose, David and I dropped by the DRC’s embassy in the Ugandan capital of Kampala one afternoon towards the end of March.

Inside the embassy’s stuffy non-air-conditioned waiting room, about a dozen quiet, lethargic Africans of different nationalities sat waiting to be called up to the main window. The smell of dried sweat and body odor permeated my nostrils and made it difficult to concentrate. Deodorant is not common in East Africa.

I sat silently next to David focusing on breathing solely out of my mouth. A small sign in English outlined the prices of a Congolese tourist visa by nationality.

“Citizens of USA and Canada: $300.
Citizens of the European Union: $180.
Citizens of all other countries: $50.”



David and I were raised in Cincinnati, Ohio, but we both held multiple passports. David immigrated with his family to Australia after high school and I immigrated to Israel after finishing up university.

When we were finally called to approach the consular desk to submit visa applications, we hid our American passports and presented our second passports.

The middle-aged woman sitting behind the consular desk had no expression when we walked up to her. Her lips didn’t move and she looked as though she was seeing straight through us.

When she picked up my Israeli passport and flipped through the pages, her eyes grew wide and her face became animated.

“You are a son of Abraham!” she shouted in awe. “You are holy!”

Evangelical Christianity of the extremely pro-Israel bent is wildly popular in East Africa, Uganda in particular. It's common to see Israeli flags drawn or painted on the walls of shops. Many African Christian organizations profess solidarity with Israel. People often became very excited when they found out that David and I were Jewish.

When I told her that David was also a “son of Abraham,” she could barely contain herself.

“You sons of Abraham must come to my country! You must bless my people!” she insisted. When we informed her that we planned on staying in the DRC for around ten days and would be exiting the country via Rwanda, she offered to issue us two-week transit visas for only $35.

“I promise your visas will be granted immediately!”

Either she was lying or she had a very different idea of what “immediately” meant. The visas ended up taking over a week. We checked in at the embassy three days in a row to see what the situation was.

“There is no electricity here right now. It is impossible to issue the visa until it returns,” she told us each time.

That seemed to make sense. David and I had many colorful visas in our passports that had to be printed out. Not having electricity meant the printers didn’t work.

When we finally received our passports we discovered simple ink stamps that didn’t require any printing at all. Oh Africa.

David and I spent another week and a half exploring western Uganda before arriving at the tiny border town of Mpondwe on April 1, 2011. We decided it was in our best interest not to tell our parents about our Congo travel plans. They would have worried incessantly (and rightly so). The only person who knew what we were doing was David’s older brother, also an avid adventurer who sympathized with our yearning to explore. We told our folks we were heading out on a hiking trip in a remote region of western Uganda where we wouldn’t have phone or Internet access.

“And when will we be able to communicate with you again?” my Dad asked during our last muffled phone call.

“April 11th,” I replied. “Mom’s birthday.”

“Great! It will be nice for your mother to hear that you’re alive!”

“Yeah, it will be.”

Gulp.


We received our Ugandan exit stamps on our American passports from a fat Ugandan border official who’d made small talk with us when we filled out the immigration forms. His name was Fanta – a silly acronym that he said stood for “Foolish Arabians Never Take Alcohol.” He stamped us out and only then asked where our Congolese visas were.

“In our second passports,” David answered coolly.

As soon as he heard David’s response, Fanta gave a sinister smile, exposing his brown, rotting front teeth. He knew he had us.

“African countries do not recognize multiple citizenships,” he said slyly. “Your DRC visas are no good if they are not in the passports you left Uganda on. They will refuse you at the border. You will come back here and you will pay me $50 each to return to Uganda.”

David and I had a feeling that if he was right and we did have to return to Uganda, it wasn’t the Ugandan government that was going to profit $100 off us. It was Fanta.

“Countries everywhere recognize multiple citizenships!” David protested.

“Not African countries!” Fanta barked back. “I will say thank you for your cash donation in advance.”

We scoffed, lifted our bags, and began the kilometer-long trek through no-man’s land until we reached the Kasindi border crossing on the Congolese side. 


  Me at the Kasindi border crossing.


Congo. Just saying the name gave me an adrenaline jolt.


The Ugandan and Congolese no-man’s land is separated by a bridge that crosses a narrow river. As soon as we crossed the bridge, the paved road from the Ugandan side disappeared. It wasn’t even replaced by a gravel or dirt road. Just dirt and lots of garbage.

We approached the run-down brown building that served as the DRC’s border crossing and quickly made our way inside. Two male guards inspected our bags. The office was manned by female military officers with shocking amounts of facial hair. Female military officers with beards growing on their clearly feminine faces. This was turning into an adventure already!

Unlike Uganda, where English is widely spoken, the Congolese lingua franca is French. Neither David nor I had a good command of French, but we did know some of the basics.


Just as Fanta predicted, the short, pudgy female military officer with orange-tinged hair and a disturbing chin beard analyzed our visas and communicated to us in French that they were invalid. Although we understood her message, we sat still and played dumb to see if we could feign ignorance well enough to have her pass us across the border anyways.

She didn’t budge. We argued with her for a while using the wee French and Swahili we had at our disposal.

“Impossible!” she uttered over and over again. “Vous devez retourner!” You must return.

But we remained persistent. Finally, she suggested a compromise. She communicated that if we returned to the Ugandan border crossing and received Ugandan exit stamps on our Israeli and Australian passports, she would recognize our transit visas.

“No, no it is impossible!” Fanta explained gleefully when we told him our predicament after walking the full kilometer back to the Ugandan border post. “African countries do not recognize multiple nationalities!”

“These young white men are very naïve,” he told a group of border officials standing nearby. “They do not know where they are in the world. The white man does not control Africa anymore. We must help him to understand this.”

“We don’t control Africa anymore?” I repeated quietly to myself. My grandparents were Jews from Poland. What part of Africa did the Jews from the Pale of Settlement colonize?

This wasn’t the first time we’d experienced Africans enjoying exerting power over us just because we were two white men. Still, we let his comments pass.

“So what will you do?” Fanta asked us. “You will come back to Uganda and purchase new visas from me?”

David and I looked at each other and we instantly knew we were thinking the same thing.

“Absolutely not,” we said together as we stormed out of the office.

Africa suffers from widespread corruption. We knew that. But we decided if we were going to pay anyone off, it was going to be a French-speaking bearded chick, not Fanta.

“You will be back here and you will pay me what I am owed!”

“You’re such an asshole!” David burst out in anger. “You know what Fanta really stands for? ‘Fuck Africa Never Trust Anyone!’”

We arrived back at the DRC border crossing without the exit stamps we needed. We begged the bearded female officer for some other way. We couldn’t go back to Uganda, we said. It was like we were refugees.

The officer pulled out a pencil and notepad, wrote down the number 50, and gave us a wink. We would have to pay her $50 each for new visas in our American passports.

David picked up the pencil she placed on her desk and wrote “50 minus 35 = 15” to convey that we already paid $35 for our other visas. If the new ones cost $50, we should only have to pay $15 each. When David was finished, he extended his hands as if to show a sign of respect and to indicate that he was trying to be fair.

The bearded female officer stared back at us seemingly impressed with our polished negotiation skills. She whispered something to one of our associates, glanced over at us once more, and tipped her hand towards her mouth to imply she was thirsty.

She was basically saying, “$15 each and we’ll give you your visas on your American passports. Just throw in a few beers and we’re square.”

One short mini-market visit later and we were officially inside Kasindi, Kivu Province, Congo.

Next post: Inside the Democratic Republic of Congo


  David Maze at the Kasindi border crossing 






  Me near the Kasindi border crossing: note the name of the Institute on the sign!

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