Tuesday, July 21, 2009

In memory of Michael Jackson (Radio Trottoir Mix)

I was in Kananga when I first heard that Michael Jackson died. There was someone from North Carolina staying in Tshikaji who mentioned it somewhat flippantly in passing. My reaction was, like that of many people around the world, literal disbelief.

I returned to Kinshasa on that Friday evening and my friend’s nephew Patrick, who is in his 20s, picked me up to take me to campus. One of the first questions he asked me was, “Is it true that Michael Jackson has died?” As an American, he expected me to have some sort of privileged insight or authority. I responded that I thought it was; I heard the same thing as him. We spent a couple of minutes commiserating about how great he was and how sad we were. Through our conversation, though, I sensed something else happening. His sense of disbelief was different than my own sense. For him, there was real uncertainty that this was the truth whereas for me it was disbelief as a result of shock and sadness. So I asked him, when and how he heard the news. He told me that late Thursday night (around 11pm, which would be 3pm in California), radio announcers started talking about it. This is the way that news spreads in Kinshasa. It is through rumor, only some of which ends up being truthful. The newspapers and other conventional media often report unfounded rumors. There is even a name for such grapevine reporting, radio trottoir (sidewalk radio). There is a lot of irresponsibility in the media in Kinshasa, though I do admire the public’s sense of skepticism of sources that folks in the US so often accept as beyond reproach.

The story does not end there.

On Sunday, a friend told me that Tabu Ley Rochereau, perhaps the greatest living Congolese musician, also died on the same day as Michael. Here he is with the great Mbilia Bel, his former wife.

I was shocked that I had not heard more about this. Tabu Ley has been sick. He was revered, and served as a governor of Kinshasa until recently. I asked a couple of other people who confirmed it too. Eventually I met some skepticism and, within a couple of days, it was revealed to be a false rumor. You can read about in French. Apparently there was a similar rumor a couple of years ago.

Then, there were reports that the most famous Congolese actor known as “Sans Souci” (né Mateya Matondo) has died as well on the same day as Michael Jackson. Sans Souci was only in his early 50s and starred in many popular television comedies. You can read an obituary here and see a tribute featuring some of his work:

This turned out to be true, but also passed through the rumor mill. When I was with a friend toward the end of my trip, he received text message on his phone that had been making the rounds. It said, in effect, that Michael Jackson was not really dead, but that his death was staged to overshadow the passing of Sans Souci. My friend, like nearly everyone else I imagine, laughed it off.

Throughout the city, there were many memorials for Sans Souci. As with Michael Jackson, the overwhelming sentiment in Kinshasa was deep sadness. Being there really enabled me to appreciate the incredible adoration of Michael Jackson throughout the world. I had a student who told me that he was so sad he did not speak or eat for two days! There was a memorial held for him at the Académie des Beaux Arts, which you can see here:

Friday, July 17, 2009

Archival Research

I thought I posted this last week...
I did some research at a small library in Kinshasa. It is actually a remarkable place, located at a seminary very close to where I was staying. There was Belgian priest who taught history at the university for many years. He passed away about five years ago, and his personal library remains one of the best places there (perhaps in the world?) for doing research on Congo. It includes lots of standard books, but also unpublished theses and dissertations and lots of pamphlets and smaller documents that are not available widely. For example, I found, quite remarkably, a 1906 publication from a Belgian rubber concessionary company responding to critics of its human rights record. (William Sheppard, an African American missionary in the area, was one its most outspoken opponents. The company later sued him.)

When I was last there, this library was not regularly open because there was not anyone there to staff it. I was really excited to learn that the situation has been remedied and it was now open regularly. By regularly, I mean you call the priest who supervises it or the student intern and they can open it up for you. (Unfortunately this situation is about to change as the student is graduating and the priest is traveling and there are no replacements.) The catalog is a 200+ page binder listed roughly alphabetically; there is no electronic catalog or anything.

An electronic catalog would be limited anyway since there was no electricity for the time I was there. The seminary actually has a big generator but they don’t turn it on until after the sun sets. (They run it from 6 or 7pm until 10 or 11pm). So I requested the books and then set up a chair and table outside in the parking lot where I was able to work under the light and heat of the sun. It was a bit surreal. Me with my laptop taking notes from 100-year-old Tshiluba dictionaries while, at the other end of the parking lot there is always a crowd of people filling up large 5 gallon containers with water from one of the only reliable taps in the area.

The seminary campus is quite lush and pleasant. Unfortunately, there are a ton of mosquitoes as well. Even though I wore long sleeves, my typing hands were exposed. After my first day there I noticed several bites on my hands where they were feasting while I was working.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

A Picture of Inga Dam

This is the dam and hydroelectric plant I mentioned in a recent blog post. 100 Congolese francs=0.13 US$

Friday, July 10, 2009

Class Photos

Here are some pictures that probably belong with my “final examination” entry below. These are my students and our classroom. They seem much happier in the photo which I took (and was not in). But I do like Shabani’s dictionary-reading pose in the one with me. There was one woman in the class who did not attend that day (or most other days). Most of the students in the department are male, but many of the strongest are female. Of three recent appointments to the position of graduate student assistant, the two in literature (the third is in linguistics) are women (and former students of mine).

The art of making a bed

Manny is a young man, probably in his early 30s, who works at the guesthouse where I stayed in Kinshasa. He cleans up the house, which includes making up the beds. His work is amazing because of the 300+ nights I have stayed in this bed since 2005, he rarely repeats himself in this task. It is really incredible because he keeps coming up with something different nearly every day. It is only a top sheet but he has a ton of creative ideas. I think I have always appreciated it, but probably not enough. Now as I realized in the few days before I left just how wonderful it is, I thought it would be nice to take some photographs as examples of his work.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

The View from Kananga; or, Hydroelectric Power

With a million people, Kananga is the largest city in the world, I have been told, without electricity or running water. The city is cut off from the rest of the country because the trains run rarely and there is no intercity road transport, or efficiently passable waterways. While there I stayed in Tshikaji, which is a village about 10 miles from downtown. It is also the site of a small dam and hydroelectric plant, so it is the place in the region with electricity. In 2006, it had water too, but there was very little this year. (There was a discolored trickle that could be used to fill up a bucket, but not enough to get pressure through the shower.) Tshikaji is also the site of the region’s hospital because of the electricity and water supply.

During the trip, I went out to the dam, which was small but efficient looking. However, I was most struck by something else off site. In the distance, about a mile away, was an enormous hydroelectric cable from the Inga Dam that runs clear across the country. Inga has the capacity to power much of the continent. But instead it runs right beside the largest city in the world lacking electricity and heads out to Lubumbashi, the mining center of the country. It is truly one of the most dramatic things I have ever seen.

Of course, I was wondering how this can be justified. I was told the government has some excuse about the excessive costs in using this line to provide power to Kananga (which did at one time have power though I am not sure until when and from where). Then I asked about sabotage and was suprised that there have been no incidents that anyone I asked knew to tell me. The cable is in plain view, near a major city, and does not appear to be protected. In Nigeria, when corporations try to extract oil resources, the people organize militantly to prevent it from taking place.

The politics of infrastructure investment can be pretty disturbing, especially when it is used to isolate people. (Think about the ways that roads were paved in many southern towns in the early twentieth century—they often systematically avoided black-owned land and businesses to create new “main” streets through white-owned areas, which insured that the most lucrative commercial establishments were owned by whites.) Most of the recent international discussions taking place about expanding Inga are focused on the export of its energy to Nigeria, South Africa, and north Africa, rather than servicing citizens in places like Kananga.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Final Examination

Greetings from Kenya, where I am on a 24-hour layover en route back to Egypt. I have a bunch of random blog entries which I wrote in RDC but was not able to post immediately. I spent very little time online; internet access was hard. Anyway, I will be posting some of these in no particular order over the next couple of days.
I am typing this blog entry in the classroom at the University of Kinshasa while my students are taking their final examination. The scene is somewhat unusual because there is no electricity on campus. I had printed out a copy of the examination, but since the photocopiers are run by enterprising students (more on this in a moment) so I wanted to wait until immediately before the exam to make copies. Well, my plan was foiled. Without electricity, my colleagues offered me some carbon paper. That is oftentimes how things work here. Instead, I started writing the examination including instructions on the board. The exam requires the students to identify and analyze a series of quotations from works we read this semester. I had to shorten a couple of them, but otherwise it seems to have worked out. I won’t blog too long; I need to conserve my battery.

The course, by the way, is modernism, and the exam quotes are from Hughes, Rich, Hemingway, Kincaid, Moore, Faulkner, Lahiri, and Ives.

As for the photocopiers, people plug them in independently in classrooms, college hallways, in dormitories, or running cables into the road. They are all older desktop models. They make some sort of arrangements with people who let them store them in offices or supply closets overnight. It has always been this way since I have been here, but recently I was surprised to learn that two of my students own photocopiers. They buy them, hire someone to operate them for them, and collect the revenue. One of my students seems to be doing pretty well with it (and I don’t know what pretty well means other than that he seems satisfied) and another doesn’t like his location in front of some of the dormitories. This is one of the most Kinois things I can imagine. There is this incredible spirit of creative entrepreneurship here—everyone is always doing something to try to make some money. (I need to blog more about entrepreneurship too, but for now I am going to save my battery.)

Tuesday, July 7, 2009


One of the regular occurrences I quickly got relatively used to when I lived here—to the extent that you can get used to such a thing because you never do get used it—was being pulled over by the police. I blogged about it then and don’t want to repeat myself, but the roulage (traffic police) are terribly underpaid and extract their income by harassing citizens (and occasionally non-citizens like me). I am not sure what if any changes there have been here in that regard, but my initial impression was that things have become more professionalized. Their uniforms were nicer...plus I made a few trips without being stopped.

That changed. I was going downtown yesterday (Thursday) and got pulled over on Boulevard Triomphal in front of the stadium. It is a notorious spot. My friend who was driving got out of the car, showed his documents (which were in order) and had a long conversation outside of the car. He is very calm and has a great demeanor for this sort of thing. The way you handle these things are with patience. There was nothing that the cops could hassle us with, but the ways things work here are that once you hand over your license and carte rose (owner’s card), you are held hostage. Sometimes, you need to give some money to get them back. This is pretty standard. Back in the day (i.e. 2006), we were sometimes able to handle it sometimes without paying. If we did pay, it was usually a couple hundred francs (less than $1).

The recent experience had an amazing twist. My friend who was driving spent 20 to 30 minutes talking and refusing to pay anything. Apparently, the cop was asking something exorbitant, like $30. The cop then handed the license and carte rose to an old man who was sitting by the side of the road fixing shoes. The old man put them down his pants and the cop walked away. My friend, steamed, came back to the car, got 3,000 francs ($4 US) and gave it to the cobbler. He counted it, as if he was collecting money for a bill, and pulled the documents from his pants and returned them. The older man was a strange bagman—not too threatening or intimidating.

Bizarre. There are a couple of explanations. First, there has been some crackdowns from some supervisors against this kind of thing. This way, no money exchanges hands between drivers and police. Some supervisors (perhaps the same ones?) also shake down the traffic police who work under them, so they get a better rate by sharing with the shoe repairman than they do sharing with the boss.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

More on traveling to Kananga

Our airport departure to Kananga went pretty smoothly. All of the other travelers in the group had sent their bags to the airline’s central office a day in advance. This is standard practice here to avoid everything that can happen when checking in at the airport. Due to the reasons mentioned in my previous blog entry, I was not able to do so.

There are tons of fees, and it is sometimes hard to determine what is official and unofficial. All of those fees that are added to tickets purchased in the US (when you see a ticket that lists at $200 + $200 various airport fees) are paid separately at separate windows. Usually, you get a receipt. There was a protocol assistant there to give our group a hand with all of this; typically his job is to handle all of the money. Everything, despite the chaos, was pretty straightforward.

After we arrived, my bags had been carried into the terminal by two porters as is standard practice. Before I could tip them, one told me it would be $5 per bag. Since $5 is an average daily salary in Kinshasa, I respectfully laughed at them, knowing a proper tip to be to be more like 500FC (Franc Congolais) or about $0.60. They were surprisingly insistent and unwilling to negotiate, so I told them that they could talk to the protocol who was helping us and ask him for $5. (He was in line waiting to pay one of the taxes.) At first they said, no, they were asking me. I said, he is the boss. They said, no, you are the boss. Anyway they refused what I was offering and went to wait for the protocol. At that point, two police officers asked them to step outside of the terminal. They refused, since they had not been paid, and were physically thrown out by the officers. Nobody was hurt or anything, but then they were outside banging on the window.

My bags—one of which I was carrying for someone else—were overweight. This involved being weighed at the check-in counter. They wrote a bill for the overcharge of $8US. The protocol took the bill to another office in the airport and paid it. Then he returned to the check-in counter with a receipt stamped paid was able to check the bags. This process took about an hour and the two porters were waiting for us on the other side of the terminal, where we were about to pass through security. I reminded the protocol to tip the porters, which I am sure he did.

After we passed through security to enter the departure lounge we were called into a small office. I was selected the head of the group because I am the only person who speaks French. No problem. I understand enough about these things that I am comfortable to be by myself with two airport officers and our 9 US passports. I could tell that what they are doing is official—they are entering our names, passport, and visa numbers by hand into a ledger. No computers (even though this is the main airport in a city of 10 million people). This is required for domestic travel. As he was copying the information, the power went off so I borrowed a flashlight to help him copy down the numbers. Throughout the entire process, I made the appropriate small talk. At some point, however, another member of our group realized that the officials were from the Kasai and came in speaking Tshiluba, which is usually charming. So the one guy started speaking to her in Tshiluba, asking for money, which he had never mentioned it to me. It seemed like she agreed, but I couldn’t follow the conversation. (The man asking for the money seemed to be some sort of a supervisor; a different uniformed man was copying our information into the ledger.) Another member of the group outside of the office was getting a little bit nervous, but I assured her that everything was on the up and up and that we would not pay anything additional. So after the information was entered into the book by flashlight, the supervisor took our passports and escorted us into the lounge. I was thanking him and trying to politely get our passports back—the sooner the better and the less chance he would ask for any kind of money. Through a combination of insistence and politeness, I get them back and he still never mentioned money to me. He then goes to speak to the other woman with our group and I think she gave him some money (though I never found out), but at that point I think she realized that she was not paying an official fee.

When we arrived at the airport in Kananga, we deplaned on the tarmac and there were a bunch of people standing around. One guy was pretty insistent that we needed to give him our passports and go to the office. In fact, he was so insistent (je suis ici pour vous) that I quickly realized that he was not there for our group, even though he told me he was. Anyway, we walked to the terminal and met the others who were there and really waiting for us.


OK—I really haven’t explained much about what I was doing in Kasai and promise to explain a little bit more later in the week. Briefly, I did see a sewing school for single mothers, a Jesus film dubbed into Tshiluba, a former colonial hotel (ironically called PAX) that has been turned into a medical clinic, and a university named for a 19th century African American missionary.


Yesterday was Independence Day and my mother’s birthday! Happy Birthday Democratic Republic of Congo and Mom. The former is 49 years old.

Leaving for Kananga

Electricity and Internet access have been extremely limited. I will try to post a couple times, but most likely you will need to wait for my return to Cairo for more news.
I had plans to travel to Kananga last Saturday but didn’t know what time exactly, so I made tentative arrangements for someone to pick me up early Saturday morning. On Friday I went to the campus to teach at 8am with plans for an afternoon meeting and then to visit a friend downtown. I got a call, however, from my fellow travelers who told me the van was leaving from Ngaliema to the airport at 6am the following morning. It would be impossible for me to make it down there on time from the campus that morning. My ride was an hour away from campus and campus an hour from Ngaliema. Leaving time for possible late-night roadblocks meant that he would need to leave before 3am...not feasible.

So I went ahead with my plans to visit friends and sometime later in the evening I would go back to campus to pack my things. I would spend the night with friends and then they would be able to take me to Ngaliema where I would meet the other travelers and the van. Thankfully my friend was able to borrow a car, without which this would have been impossible.

I met my friend at the high school where he teaches at about 5pm. We spent about an hour there. Then we went to the home of a couple of friends in the Kasavubu neighborhood, which is near the school. We ate and spent some time looking at photographs and I got to watch the video of their wedding last year. We left Kasavubu after 8pm and headed to the university where I was staying. By the time we got there, I collected my things, and we made it my friend’s place in Cité Mama Mobutu, it was close to 11pm. We hung out for some time with my friend and his wife. We had some wine, ate some food (including caterpillars), and looked at photographs. Shortly after 12, my friend’s wife went to sleep. I was tired, especially knowing that I needed to get up at 4am, but excited to see my friends. Then my friend wanted to watch the dvd of my wedding. And then after the wedding video ended, the tv came on and it was “le catch” (pro wrestling), which is incredibly popular and nobody in Kinshasa want to miss.

Through those last few hours something strange was happening. My friend’s wife went to bed around midnight. She was sleeping in a separate room (their current place is quite spacious). My friend was undressing down to boxer shorts and an undershirt in the room where I was going to sleep. That bedroom also had the television and dvd player, so we were watching the wedding and le catch from the bed. At some point, I am not sure when, I began to get the distinct impression that my friend was planning to spend the night in the same room (and bed) with me. I am still completely stumped as to whether or not it was so as not to disturb his wife by coming to bed so late (1:30am) and getting up so early (4am). Or perhaps, I wonder, is it a form of hospitality, him staying with me? As confusing as it was to me, I could tell that for him it was very normal, and not something that demanded any sort of explanation. I suspect sharing a bed with another man is not that unusual here, a place where extended families are large and space limited. So why not share a bed with an adult friend? As I reflect, it is probably not unusual in most cultures. But here, there was no space issue; his wife was one room away. I didn’t want to embarrass him by asking, or do anything that would hurt his feelings. But the mystery remains. He was being extremely generous in helping me out.

In retrospect, I think I was probably staying awake as late as I did because I was waiting for him to go to the other bedroom before laying down. He, on the other hand, was waiting for me to get ready before going to asleep. Both of us thought the other wanted to stay up. I couldn’t imagine that we were going to share a bed, and he couldn’t imagine that such an arrangement would be unexpected to me.

I finally announced I was going to sleep. So without discussion he got in side of the queen-size bed opposite from me. He slept with his feet at the head of the bed, opposite from me. And that was that. We woke up at 4am to get ready to go out.