I seem to remember saying that I’d write about my time in Central Africa, way way back and long ago… I’ve been wanting to get to this for ages, but somehow day after day I find myself without a single second to spare for creativity. Shame on me. But in my defence, it’s a bit tricky to get wrapped back up in the emotion of travel that took place so many years ago. I have so many great memories, and I will never forget what it was like when I first opened the door of our aircraft and looked out at the little airport in Kisangani, but I’m struggling with the best way to translate that feeling to these words.
Here we are now, though, ready to zip back through the years and across continents. I was 22 years old when I first arrived and completely unable to contain my excitement of the adventures ahead of me. I was so naive to the struggles the Congolese population has had to endure, starting out entirely enamoured with my own thrill of the unknown. I brushed off the well-meaning concerns from my family, friends, and colleagues; now with a little more maturity I feel bad about the way I handled that. Remember the invincibility of youth?…. I’ve mentioned in previous posts how I used to be a flight attendant, well that’s also what brought me to the Congo. The charter airline I worked for won a contract with the United Nations, flying support for the World Food Programme. (Want to learn more? Follow this link: WFP in DRC ) So we brought a little propeller airplane from Calgary to the Congo – a four-day journey and quite the story on its own! – and took up residence in a local motel compound in the city.
The Democratic Republic of the Congo is a stunningly beautiful country. I remember dense forests and jungle, massive rivers, mountains and volcanoes and lakes with shimmering water in jewel tones. And actual jewels. The country has so many natural resources, including diamonds and gold, that we would joke about wandering the riverbanks in hope of “accidentally” collecting gems in the tread of our shoes! One thing absent from my memories of the Congo are wildlife sightings. The first couple weeks I was there my I had my eyes constantly scanning the forest along the sides of the road hoping to see some of the animals Africa is famous for, but without any luck. A long history of hunting has meant that very little wildlife remains anywhere near the cities.
As a crew, isolated from our families and the familiarity of home we became close over the months we lived in the same compound. Most of the time two other crews were also living there; I remember crews from South Africa and also from the Netherlands, and we became our own little community inside the high walls of our home motel. We would have our meals together outside under a thatched roof in the centre courtyard, often sitting around and sharing stories until late in the evening. I remember one ‘art vendor’ that would come by each Saturday night who must have been friends with the gatekeeper – he was the only one ever allowed to come in and show his wares to us. We bought paintings and carvings, bracelets and earrings, but drew the line and all gasped in horror the one time he brought us an animal skin. He seemed genuinely surprised that none of us wanted to buy the leopard pelt he unrolled with another painting. That really wasn’t at all what I meant when I said I wanted to see animals!
The city of Kisangani is visually fascinating as well. Home to roughly a million people, give or take by a wide margin, history is a part of daily life as old Belgian-style buildings from the Colonial days stand scarred by bullets and rocket grenades from the decades of conflict. Take a turn down a side street and you’ll find traditional clay and thatch structures housing modern businesses or families each speaking on cell phones.
And now, while I’m happily reviewing photos, here are a few more of my favourites. I’m pretty sure these images are more interesting than any words I have left anyway.
Looking back on it all, I can’t quite believe I got to live life in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a place so few Westerners are able to see. I remember the military, and how we would need to stop everything we were doing twice a day to show respect during the Flag Ceremony, when the country flag was raised in the morning and lowered at night. I remember seeing small pickup trucks full of young men and machine guns. I remember kind and generous individuals just happy to show me their home, and being amazed that so many people just seemed to exude happiness in a way I was unaccustomed to. I remember having to require our passengers, mainly ex-guerrilla soldiers we were bringing to the city to start new lives, to place their guns in the cargo hold of the airplane and my UN provided security/translators trying to explain why an AK-47 couldn’t stay on their lap for the flight. I remember the friendships I formed during my many months living there.