A correspondent's tale of Africa: Getting there and Kinshasa
Kushan Mitra May 12, 2011Business Today's Kushan Mitra was deputed to travel to Africa with a Ministry of External Affairs delegation and the continent left an indelible impression on him. He writes about his experiences.
Sometimes things tend to work out very strangely. My wife had been complaining that over the past few years I had been going to the United States, and particularly California a lot, which when you consider that I cover technology is not that surprising. In the course of that conversation, or lecture which is the term I prefer, she told me to wait for an 'interesting' trip, somewhere I would not otherwise travel to.
The very next day, my Managing Editor called me up to inform me that I was being deputed to travel on one of the Ministry of External Affairs' (MEA) 'Africa Education' trips to the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Africa and Mozambique in that order.
I had only a week to get everything in order, and that was quite a task since one of the things I needed to get in order was a yellow fever shot. At Delhi's Ram Manohar Lohia (RML) hospital, getting a yellow fever shot, and keep in mind this is a voluntary injection, requires jumping over layers of government bureaucracy. One can get the shot a lot easier at a location near New Delhi airport, but shots are only given out at a particular location every day of the week. Worse, there are only 100 shots given out every day. Bizarre, considering the volume of people who wanted the injections.
But it was not the Indian bureaucracy that almost torpedoed my trip. It was the South African High Commission where my passport got stuck for the weekend. Therefore, I missed the flight that the rest of the delegation took from New Delhi. I had mentally given up on getting to Kinshasa, DR Congo, but thanks to the persistence of the officials at the MEA who were adamant that I get there, on Monday night, armed with my passport, a certificate confirming my yellow fever shot, a Nikon L120 camera and enough clothes for a ten-day trip, I got my wife to drop me off at Delhi airport. And flew straight to Mumbai.
Well, since the folks at the MEA were unable to get me a ticket on the direct Delhi-Addis Ababa flight, I had to travel through Mumbai. And despite the considerable improvements that have been made to Mumbai's international airport, it still is not the sort of airport where you would want to spend a night. From Mumbai, I took Ethiopian Airlines flight ET 611 to Addis Ababa. Now, this airline is one of Africa's success stories. One of the poorest countries in the world runs a very profitable airline. Yes, but their Boeing 767's are old and the seat pitch felt almost criminal. As the flight flew over the Arabian Sea and the Gulf of Aden, I could not even wriggle in my seat. But while landing at Addis Ababa's Bole International Airport, I caught a glimpse of some absolutely stunning landscape from my seat. Bole International Airport is like many airports today, a large cavernous terminal of steel lattice-work and glass. But in one respect it is quite different from other airports across the world. It feels like the 1970's in there simply because there seems to be no restrictions on smoking in most parts of the terminal.
The next flight ET 831 was to take me to Kinshasa via Brazzzavile, in the Republic of Congo. Kinshasa and Brazzaville are the two closest capitals in the world if one does not count the fact that the Vatican is subsumed by Rome. The flight, again on a Boeing 767, this time one with a much better layout and seat pitch took us right across the continent as well as taking me south of the equator for the first time in my life.
As we flew over the continent, I could make out from my rather dirty window, the massive Great Lakes of Africa below me, and an almost endless expanse of green. No sign of human civilisation as we know it anywhere. If you have ever taken a flight across Europe on a window seat, you notice that the aircraft flies over an almost endless number of cities. Here there was nothing. Beside me, a young Chinese gentleman was sitting with a Chinese-to-French dictionary on his way to Kinshasa to work as a manager on a construction project. There were about ten other Indians on the plane, but the Chinese outnumbered Indian passport holders two to one. They are serious about this continent.
And no matter what happens, I am fairly sure my flight between Brazzaville and Kinshasa will remain the shortest international flight I will take in my life. After taking off from Maya Maya's potholed runway in Brazzaville which had chunks of tarmac missing, the aircraft climbed to 3,000 feet, high enough for me to appreciate the size of the River Congo below us. I crossed over the Pool Malebo, a massive widening of the river to 23 kilometers, something I was going to take a boat ride over in the evening, which I wrote about in the magazine.
And just as soon as the flaps had retracted, they came out again and the aircraft glided in for landing, disconcertingly over the wreckage of a Bombardier CRJ-100 jet that had crashed the day earlier. I was later told by the others who had arrived a day earlier that the aircraft was just behind their flight. Fifty souls lost their lives in that crash. There is not much of ground handling and baggage claim at N'Djili. The official from the Embassy who met me made me wait for about an hour as my luggage was manually brought from the plane to the baggage claim. While waiting, I roamed outside to see the massive hoardings and adverts for Airtel, only this time in French. The pace of expansion in DR Congo is one of the major reasons Airtel's bottomline was so badly mangled in the 2010-11 fiscal year.
As for Duty Free? Well, at those prices it is better forgotten, and forget looking for rare Single Malts. That said, over the next day and a half, I enjoyed a couple of local brews - Skol and Tembo. Both excellent beers, particularly the latter which I enjoyed with some excellent grilled jungle chicken for dinner. But before that there was lunch, where one of my colleagues on this trip, Siddharth Varadrajan of The Hindu was enjoying porcupine at a local restaurant.
We stayed at the Grand Hotel Kinshasa, which had the feel of an old ITDC Hotel in India from the 1980's. Large, spacious room, not everything quite in working order but we were told this was the best hotel in town and where ministerial delegations are put up. At breakfast the next morning, we saw a Korean trade delegation led by one of their ministers which must have commandeered every Hyundai car and van in town also at the hotel. And as for internet connections, connectivity is best described as poor - speeds of over 128kbps are difficult to come by and at the hotel a day's connectivity cost $40.
While there I also managed to meet Rashid Patel, an Indian businessman who had spent the last three decades in this country. His story is a rather fascinating one, having moved here with his young wife when he was just 25 and having lived through the nationalisation of all Indian-owned businesses by Mobute Sese-Seko in the late 1970's when African dictators in these neck of the woods tried to drive Indians out of the country. Patel, who survived thanks to his Lebanese friends, helped several hundred Indians flee the country back then. Today, having lived through those times, he is in a whole swathe of businesses today including ground handling at Kinshasa and Lubumbashi airports. In fact, the MEA has even appointed him honorary Consul in Lubumbashi, DR Congo's second-largest city.
Rashid was a great host and at Siddharth's insistence, took us to eat local chicken, even though ironically Siddharth could not make it. After a few meetings, including a very strange one at the Ministry of Mines I went with some of my colleagues on this trip for a boat ride up the river Congo. The river is one of the largest rivers in the world, and like many other students of English Literature I was introduced to the river by Joseph Conrad's brilliant novella, Heart of Darkness. This is the book that inspired Francis Ford Coppola to make Apocalypse Now, which remains one of my favourite movies of all time and the documentary around the movie Hearts of Darkness, which chronicles how the famous American movie director and his star cast almost went mad while doing the movie, much like Kurtz in the original novel.
The crazy part about the river ride was not so much the river but the way to the docks through the streets of Kinshasa. The people here are desperately poor, but boy do they get angry when you take out a camera. There were times I was pretty sure that our bus would be stoned by people who were selling dried cassava and cornflour on the streets. Or maybe they were just scared that we were recording them selling smuggled produce that came on the overcrowded ferries from Brazzaville. If we had been attacked, survival might not have been an option. The streets in the country are narrow and crowded, but as our Patel told us, at least there are roads in Kinshasa. There are almost no roads connecting the rest of the country, and air and river transport are the only ways for people to travel. There was a local railway inside the city, but we crossed the yard on our way to the UN Headquarters in Kinshasa and all one could see were tens of rusted coaches.
The UN Headquarters in Kinshasa looks like a large advertisement for Toyota Land Cruisers, as tens of them are parked outside. Inside, we meet officials who tell us about the recent history of the country and how President Joseph Kabila is managing to hold it together. Later, outside, we run into Major Aman Luthra, a young Indian Army officer posted to Kinshasa. A South Delhi boy from Modern School Vasant Vihar, he is a rarity in the Indian Army nowadays.
And what was even more surprising was the fact that most of the Indian Army soldiers were hanging around beside members of the Pakistani Army. On our way out, we passed the impressive Chinese Embassy which had a long row of Congolese applying for visas.
After the UN mission, we found our way to the Presidential offices in what appeared to be the 'rich' side of town in front of a large lawn and overlooking Brazzaville on the other side of the river. The cities are just the width of a river apart. At the Presidential complex we met some government officials who skipped over half the questions we asked and made general comments on the state of relations between India and DR Congo, "Bon, bon" (good, good), he said.
In front of this impressive building, we saw the mausoleum to Laurent Kabila, father of the current President and an untold number of other children, our guide saying that he might have possibly 100 children. Not quite Genghis Khan, but getting there. Kabila was known as the 'Lion of Africa' and was famous for his girth, a massive copper statue outside his mausoleum makes that rather apparent.
My final act in Congo before boarding the flight to Johannesburg was to visit the Indo-Tibetan Border Police camp on the outskirts of the town. It was nice to meet these soldiers who really seem to enjoy their year-long posting here. Things are better than before they told us, even though the upcoming elections have meant some problems of late, but lately there has been no need to resort to any use of force.
The last part of the journey, I spent in Patel's car, a Mahindra Scorpio, which along with a few Tata Indigo's signals India's presence on the roads. We spoke about the Chinese, and Patel told us about the massive construction projects, the main road in the city and the new highway between the city and the airport.
The Chinese have a $6 billion package of infrastructure building in place in DR Congo in exchange for some of the richest copper mines yet to be excavated in the country. The project is mired in controversy now, but the Chinese are putting serious infrastructure in place in Kinshasa at least.
But now, it was time to fly to South Africa and another adventure. But my one night in Kinshasa had been a lot more eventful and memorable than my recent trips to California. I guess my wife was right.