Kinshasa Week One
I’ve been asked by a number of people what Kinshasa is like and what my experience has been so far. It’s difficult to say to be honest. I’ve been so tired from running around and dealing with the fall out of a year at Oxford that I haven’t really had a chance to internalise the experience. So far, I’ve slept a great deal, trying to recuperate from a month of teaching some of the brightest 14 – 16 year olds I’ve ever encountered. Those kids kept me on my A game for almost an entire month – to be honest that’s the hardest my brain has worked this entire year. And everything just sort of backed onto each other as well – the end of term, the teaching, the planning and the leaving of Oxford. I have no clear conception of what’s going on in Kinshasa.
Still, I have had some interesting things happen in Kinshasa. First of all, don’t fly Ethiopian Airlines if you’re given the option. Honestly, it’s dreadful. Probably the most chaotic and over -rated airline I’ve ever flown – even more so than Royal Air Maroc. No wonder Kenya Airways is such a big deal. It has no competition on the continent. None whatsoever.
Secondly, what’s Kinshasa like? Kinshasa has places of solace, which in my mind, makes everything else ok. Its not fabulous. There are very few tarred roads and except for the two big ones, they all have ridiculous amounts of potholes. Its massive. There are so many people everywhere all the time. Today I went to Mass and I couldn’t even see the front. It was so bad. Well I guess in some ways it’s good because it means that there are so many people seeking out God. I arrived during the cold season so its a bit chilly and I forgot to pack a sweater which was not a good idea because it’s genuinely cold. Not Nairobi cold, but still cold enough that I miss my sweater.
This city is also pretty unequal. On the drive from the airport we saw so many fancy cars – a convertible lexus, a chrysler so many SUV’s. And yet you have to wonder. Where do these people live? Where do they park these cars? How can they afford the petrol when everything in the city – including petrol – is so expensive? Kinshasa seems to me to have the same problems as other African cities that are plagued with so much inequality. There is still a bit of a big man culture here. Paintings of the president and his dad are EVERYWHERE. The Church thanks him on the occasion of the ordination. The schools thank him on the occasion of their holidays. Its a little mad actually. You kinda feel like Joseph Kabila is watching over your every move. Pretty creepy.
The extension of this is that the moment people realise that you are foreign or have some kind of wealth (or that they think that you have some kind of wealth – I’m broke!) they immediately defer to you in a ridiculous manner. Up to and until that moment, they treat you like crap but the moment they sense that you could have some financial benefit for them, they start to suck up to you. The weakness in my life is that I have this terrible accent when I speak English that makes people think that I am American or British or something.
People at my office don’t believe that I’m African. I mean, they know I’m African but they don’t believe it. They think that I’ve lived in England for so long and they keep trying to protect me from this big bad African world. I’m not “allowed” to take public transport (I do). Its so bizzarre. I almost ended up in a house paying $600 p.c.m in rent when I could have stayed in a house for $260 p.c.m. because they thought the smaller house was too “local”. I found it amusing and a little insulting. When I visit my grandma, I sleep on the floor on a mat, in a room shared by chickens, chicks and cats. When I was growing up, we didn’t have running water for almost 11 years. I grew up bending over a basin and washing clothes by hand, taking bucket showers, studying often times in candle light – so just because I flew in from Oxford doesn’t mean that I’ve lost sight of my roots.
Not to mention the roaches the size of my thumb in a metal roofed hut in Burkina Faso, or the sharing of the beds while backpacking in Ghana, or sleeping on the floor in Malawi for lack of a hotel room, or the bucket showers and hand washing in Togo. These are all just as much a part of the narrative of my life as having dinner with the British High Commissioner, or going to school with children of the rich and famous in Kenya, or living in England for the better part of the last 5 years.
Its one of the things I hated most about being at Oxford this year. I felt like that part of my life was being subsumed by a mandatory pretentiousness – that I had to learn to enjoy things that I ultimately thought were meaningless in order to fit into this mould of what it means to be successful. People in Oxford love the posh KT, the one who speaks English and reads fancy books and makes music, but very few people seemed to have space in their lives for the KT who has had to fight and struggle to allow her to enjoy this lifestyle.
What does this have to do with Kinshasa? Well, Kinshasa to me feels in one week more real than one year in Oxford. It feels to me that good or bad, here, both faces of my life can find acceptance and can be respected. It has many problems, many many problems, but for the first time since March when I was in Nairobi, I feel that I can breathe.