Friday, October 4, 2013

my charm is enough to grease the wheels of corruption

my last day in kinshasa certainly wasn’t the best.
the night before i was awoken very late by the my project surveyor, steve, who has been stuck in brazzaville with the plane for the past few days. It goes like this. The plane we were supposed to use for our project crashed in malawi (steve was on board and survived and told me the whole crazy story), so the backup plane was doing a job in congo brazzaville and was going to pop over when it was done. Just needed 2 days. Easy peasy. Right in time for our press trip. Well as it turns out brazzaville doesn’t have the right kind of fuel, and so the plane was popping over to kinshasa to refuel – stopping at n’jili international airport and going through customs (2 hours), paying fees and then hopping, literally 5km away to N’Dolo domestic airport, paying more fees and refuelling, dealing with the crummy authorities there (3 hours). So one day they happened to be delayed until night and they couldn’t fly through the fog so got stuck in Kinshasa and the pilot never got a stamp in his passport (had a visa, just no stamp!) and this meant another 2 day delay being stuck at immigration, poor guy wearing the same overalls and underwear the whole time. 
So steve calls me and says they don’t have the right permit to land and that they won’t get it for another week and i need to pull some strings. I can pull strings! I look into the stack of business cards from the previous week and woohoo - There is patrick, assistant to the important someone who will sign our permit! At our meeting he held my hand a little too long when he told me he would do whatever it would take to help our project but anyway. I call him first thing, 7 am. He says he’ll call so-and-so and get me a meeting with another so-and-so in 2 hours. I call omba, my slowest driving chauffeur/go-to civil aviation ministry guy. We plan a strategy and we’re there.
Before you go to any of these ministries though, you better arm yourself with hard and soft copies of whatever it is you already sent them. In this case, a signed letter of support from the former president of DRC (yes, our project has been delayed since 2011) and all the stuff that accompanies the permit application. We’re kind of in a hurry, got stuck in a big traffic jam on the way to the office. i quickly send everything to the printer and when i go to pick it up there’s a crowd standing around like someone just got into a bike accident. I push in, Let me through! As if I am a paramedic. But i am, I am the emergency personnel because my office mates cannot ever seem to comprehend the printer.  They’ll open and close the compartments, and lift and press buttons when the screen clearly says „insert paper in tray 2.“ And then all the print jobs they each sent a million times because they weren’t coming out pile up and delay everything. My letter comes out sideways. Someone messed with the manual tray. Gah! I send again. Low toner. The letter is barely visible, the map doesn’t look so hot but f it, this is DRC, come on.

So we go the Civil Aviation’s second office in my best congo dress– i have been to the fancy one on the boulevard, this is a whole other story. We are on the same crazy street i bought my fabric. Blaring music, handicapped children, madness. People selling sneakers, and locks and police everywhere. I climb out of the truck and instantly someone is showing a plastic bucket in my face, 1$! I feel like i’m part of an undercover drug deal movie where someone is following me in their sniper viewfinder. Shday dealings here. We meet some guy on a crowded sidewalk and shake hands, he leads us into a dank alley where people are reparing motorbikes and cars. I have to step over oil cans and pumps and machines. We go up a back stairway and see a paper stuck to a door that says civil aviation. Inside is a maze of chairs and tables and offices in closets. The fact that it is indeed the civil aviation office is proven by heaps and heaps of dusty old binders with titles like Air France/1989-91. Documents everywhere. They are piled on the stairs, against doors, and even a huge mess on the balcony. A man sleeps on a desk, he has a very fancy suit, but neither shoes or socks. There are 2 computers, maybe, for the 11 people crammed in one office.  Every so often I want to take a picture but i recall how much edouard had to pay in fines so i slink back. They instruct me to sit on some antique chair which is totally broken, i sink through it and spend the next 10 minutes picking out splinters from my dress. A gust of wind comes and blows documents around- receipts, xerox copies, the kind that printed in purple. Some of the documents swirl out the window and land like falling leaves in the chaotic street below. 

They finally invite us in to an office which is about, 2.5 feet by 14 feet. It’s more like a corridor, with a big closet at the end. Everyone sits side by side, but all look to the guy at the desk all the way at the left. I explain in my utmost polite french our situation, the plane wants to come here, we just want to move things along. I hand over the letter. The director guy reads it, beginning to end, at the pace of about 1

Then he reads it again. Even slower.
This letter is from the time of the other Kabila! Yes, i know…he is super nice. He says he’ll give us a permit for whatever we want. But this letter, it seems to lack toner and is it printed sideways? Please go to a cyber cafe and make me a better copy. He did just read it in his entirety, but the hue of the text is now not to his liking. This letter is also in the dossier that is sitting open on his desk but i won’t argue. So we go to an internet cafe, which is a whole other fiasco. I need to get into my email and get the files. They ask me if i want to use aol or yahoo? Really? Aol?

Neither, i need the internet. I want to print.
You want to game or chat?

The computers are from the 80s and there are far too many plastic chairs to fit in this room, people keep bumping into them.
Uhhhh. I am starving. This place is owned by lebanese, there are tons of cats lounging on windowsills, and they serve schwarma. Not so bad. We finally manage print our stuff and go back to hand over the docs. Omba says i can wait in the car, he will run in. He comes back, with the dude from the street, who gets in the car, sits right next to me and wants to ask me something. I have my phone in my hand, my mind is back in the sniper movie…i should record the conversation i am about to have…but i can’t seem to do it not obviously, he’s already talking to me. Omba and his driver trainee or whomever it is, tune out. this is my business. The guy says that to bring our file to the next office, you need to pay for transport and i say, no need for transport, we will take you now, buckle up! And he’s all no, not just that, you have to pay a fee, for the delivery and i say, no problem! I’ll pay any fee as long as i have a receipt! And so he’s all nooo, no receipts madame and everything is in slow motion, i have papi’s voice floating in head „smallll biiillls!“ there’s a man knocking eagerly on my window, he has 50 brooms and wants to sell me one. What do you want me to do with a broom?? How on earth does one man carry that many brooms? My mind flashes to my wallet, which i recall i emptied to pay for the internet cafe and only has a 100$ bill left in it..yeah, i’m certain this guy will give me change …woah hold on, wait a minute, i’m being asked for a bribe! Cool!

But wait, guy, i’m broke, without a receipt i pay out of my own pocket and sorry but times are tight. I need to pay my rent, my 50$ go pass, and the hotel bill of my mindless colleague who skipped out on us! So, no can do, really. So why don’t you do what you usually do and take a bus and call me when you get there. he grumpily leaves the car, and omba drops his head into his hands, shaking his head.
What, i was supposed to pay the guy? Really? How do i know he’s not going to just pocket it? We kinda have a policy against this stuff, ya know.

Aurelgrooves, you are so congolese, but you are not entirely congolese.
So we drive off. Omba is quiet. i’m trying to justify my morality but he just turns up the music. He is very disappointed, all this work for nothing.

I get back to the office and poll my colleagues. My assistant elvis (whom i’ve recently bummed money off of) is all, man, you gotta play by the rules! Cyril uses the analogy, „well I hope you left a door open, you have to stick your foot in before it closes.“ My logistician Serge comes in, almost angry, why didn’t you call me?? I tell him the predicament, that our permit might not arrive at all now, and he shares omba’s disappointment. When will you learn, aurelgrooves? He looks at his watch, he makes a call, he has a plan. I am now ranting about my principles, my finances, the fact that this country is so fucked up, yet it actually has a mandatory insurance rules for employers! Government shuts down every day but they have affordable health care! I gotta pay my go-pass! Serge asks me what i think i should pay. As a moral employee of my orgnization, i did not answer „ok, less than 50$ but maybe more than 25$,“ i did not hand him cash and he did not provide me with a mystery receipt 4 hours later….and i did not receive a call later from patrick saying „we have expedited your dossier, it is now with the security authorities and will be approved first thing tomorrow morning!“     
when i reach my bed, i am deflated. in the end, Congo prevails, nothing will change it. the next morning Serge comes to pick me up, and he asks me how the dossier is going. i thank him for his wizardry and tell him as expected our application is all in order will be ready later that morning, by the time i am boarding my flight to nairobi. but he says, "i still have your money, i was about to drop it off with the guy now!" no way! you mean i did this on my own! with my congolese charm! still got it! 

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Finalement comme deuxième carrière, je pense que tu devrais faire un petit film comique sur le thème de la corruption (surtout l'épisode du bordel des bureaux et feuilles volantes) et comment arriver à ses fins en gardant ses principes.