Certain African airports can be terrifying. Or maybe it’s not the airports. It’s the descent. It’s knowing what lies ahead. Once the plane starts to tip towards Monrovia or Lagos or some dirt airstrip in Sudan, my stomach tightens.
At the end of May I flew to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. After years of civil war, a power-sharing government in Kinshasa was on the verge of celebrating its first anniversary. I went to write about peace and reconciliation. Two weeks later I fled to Uganda having been stifled by Congo’s unique brand of corruption, being chased through the streets by a mob, narrowly escaping a train wreck, and watching looters burn down the headquarters of the Red Cross. When even the guard at the front gate of the Catholic church in Kisangani was spitting in my face, I knew it was time to get out.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The abandoned planes littering the side of the runway in Kinshasa make it clear that the rules here are different. Hot sticky air and a crowd of men swarm around our South African Airways 737 as it rolls to a stop on the tarmac. At the bottom of the plane’s steps hustlers wait for their prey. They ask where you’re from. They promise to “speed” you through immigration. They can’t understand why you won’t give them your passport. There’s plenty of jostling as you try to shuffle towards the faded arrivals terminal and fasten down the straps on your hand luggage at the same time.
I’d been warned about the hazards of the Kinshasa airport, so I’d hired Mukila before I even got there. Mukila is a private “protocol officer.” His job is to shepherd businessmen, aid workers, journalists and anyone else who can afford him through the corrupt bureaucratic maze of Congo’s largest airport. Mukila is mad at me because I’d admitted to an immigration officer that I’m a reporter. “Humanitaire!” he says forcefully in my ear. “Humanitaire!”
The immigration desk looks like a fortified theater ticket booth. The two officials inside the vertical bars are demanding 10 or 20 dollars from everyone coming off the plane. Sometimes it’s 10, sometimes it’s 20. Passengers who speak absolutely no French or are quite good at playing stupid pass through for free. Apparently they’re more trouble than they’re worth.
I refuse to pay, and the immigration officers seize my passport. Mukila is alternating between screaming at them in Lingala and screaming at me in French. Finally he announces that we have no time for these fools, and we are going to get my bags before they disappear from the turnstile. I don’t think the bluff of abandoning my passport is really helping our cause, but he’s the professional.
At the turnstile he curtly reminds me, “Humanitaire!”
I’m opposed to bribes. It’s a weird thing to say. After all, who isn’t? But in parts of Africa it’s an issue reporters face on a regular basis. Some of my colleagues say, “Oh come on! Throw a few greenbacks around. You’ll get right through.” But I find bribery offensive. Not just because I’m being relieved of my money but also because I see how it destroys a place. I see how it makes almost everything grind to a halt. I see how people who could be spending their days doing something productive instead spend hours shaking victims down. And the victims who get hit hardest tend to be from neighboring African countries. The Ivorians are particularly hard on the Liberians. The Liberians put an extra squeeze on anyone from Sierra Leone. Nigerians get hit up by everybody.
Once, in the Ivory Coast, a “customs” official seized my $15,000 satellite phone, an ISDN unit that allows me to feed real-time broadcast-quality audio from anywhere in the world back to Washington. He had been refusing to release it for a day, saying that it wasn’t properly “licensed.” I had a flight to Liberia in an hour, and he was demanding the equivalent of two dollars for his “lunch.” I threatened to call the U.S. Embassy. He threatened to have me arrested. It was unclear how long I’d have to wait for the next flight to Liberia, but it was at least going to be a couple of days. Eventually I buckled. I paid up. As soon as I got out of his office, his boss showed up and wanted money for his lunch. The first guy had disappeared.
And that’s one of the other problems with paying bribes—when does it end? How much is ever enough?
That’s why in Congo it’s useful to have a professional handling the kickbacks. Back at the Kinshasa airport, Mukila is waving a fistful of Congolese francs at the immigration officer who has my passport. It seems to me like the wrong technique. Bribes, I always thought, should be slipped covertly into the extortionist’s hand. None of this drama. None of this waving cash around and yelling. But this is Congo, where things are different.
The theatrics worked. Mukila grabbed my passport, hurled a few insults over his shoulder, and rushed me through customs declaring, “Humanitaire! Humanitaire!” He waved his arms furiously to clear a path. He was quite proud that he’d paid the equivalent of just five U.S. dollars to get my passport back. He’d saved me 15 bucks, he beamed.
Reporting Difficulties in Africa
Congo has never had it easy. There was the brutal Belgian colonial period followed by three decades of one of the most corrupt regimes imaginable under Mobutu Sese Seko. When Mobutu fled into exile in 1997, Laurent Kabila seized power. Kabila soon faced an insurrection from the east of the country. Eventually seven different African nations were fighting over parts of the vast Congo. In 2001 Kabila was assassinated by his bodyguards, and his son Joseph took over. Last year, when the 29-year-old Kabila struck a peace deal with the country’s largest rebel factions, it was the Congo’s first chance at stability in years. But on the ground peace, stability, normalcy all feel a long way away.
Negotiating the airport in Kinshasa is just the first journalistic challenge of the Congo. My plans to tour an unfinished monument to Patrice Lumumba (Congo’s first prime minister who was brutally murdered) were blocked by police who said I needed a permit to visit what’s supposed to be a tourist attraction. My interviews in the main market were disrupted by pickpockets burrowing repeatedly into my pockets, and efforts to report at Kinshasha’s docks were scuttled by bickering bureaucrats.
The most surprising bit of bribery came when I was trying to arrange a meeting with the general manager of Cobra Tyre, a major rubber producer in Kinshasa. His assistant wanted to know how much they were going to have to pay me to run this article about them. If National Public Radio’s audience was really as large as I claimed, he figured it would be worth a couple of hundred dollars to them.
Bribery is just one of the issues that make reporting in parts of Africa difficult. There’s the crumbling infrastructure, the lack of electricity, the rebel roadblocks and, in some of the poorest countries on the continent, incredibly high prices. N’Djamena, the capital of Chad, has only a couple of hotels. The Novotel offers filthy motel-style rooms for $175 a night.
Plus traveling in Africa can be dangerous. Flying often involves hopping abroad an aging twin-propped Antanov 24 with its Soviet-era interior, depressed Ukrainian pilots, and backfiring engines. Automobiles and dilapidated roads make one of the most deadly combinations on the continent. And during my most recent trip to the Congo, I was stuck for two days deep in the jungle after the train I was traveling on crashed. Fortunately I had gotten off a few minutes earlier to interview people. All of the nine men of the crew of the single-engine train were injured. It took two days to get them airlifted out.
Eventually my trip to the Congo deteriorated into complete chaos with riots in the streets, buildings burning down, and U.N. peacekeepers shooting into mobs. The problem started after a renegade commander in the Congolese Army launched an attack on the city of Bukavu on the Rwandan border. I’d just arrived in Kisangani, in the heart of the country where the Congo River starts to curve south towards the Atlantic.
I walked out of a restaurant not knowing that Bukavu had fallen and not knowing that the Congolese blamed this turn of events on the United Nations. A crowd of young men surrounded me in the street, which isn’t that unusual in Africa. I was about to ask what was going on, but then I saw the man with the stick. The crowd began to constrict, and I knew it was time to run.
Stones started to fly. The security guard at the restaurant where I’d just eaten was waving at me frantically as if ushering me across the finish line. It was only 40 or 50 yards to the gate, but the men were close behind me. As I ran I had visions of a rock hitting the back of my skull and my body collapsing face first into the dusty street.
I stuck around Kisangani for another day but things only got worse. The entire country was erupting in riots. The Congolese were furious at the United Nations for not ordering its peacekeepers to block the renegade troops from taking Bukavu. All the flights out of Kinshasa were cancelled. Most Westerners had been evacuated from Kisangani as soon as the riots began. I finally left with a planeload of aid workers who were flying to neighboring Uganda.
This is the thing about covering places like the Congo—things can be incredibly unpredictable. As a reporter you wander in alone. You may have some contacts, some cell phone numbers, but in the end you’re on your own. And so your best-laid intentions of doing an upbeat story on a country rebuilding, reconnecting and moving forward, can unravel incredibly quickly.
Jason Beaubien has reported on Africa for National Public Radio since September 2002. When he’s not on the road, he lives with his wife and son in Johannesburg, South Africa.