Adam Graber, Brad’s son, wrote the following about his arrival in Congo:
Debarking the plane at the airport in Kinshasa spilled us onto the tarmac. The sun was hot here, just south of the equator. The concrete was brown with oil and grease. I wondered if it was sticking to the bottom of my sandals. We followed the other passengers toward a building marked “Aeroport de Ndjili.” We formed two lines at the doors. Uniformed officer were reviewing passports and yellow cards. Unlike the States, diseases like malaria, yellow fever, and typhoid are realistic dangers. We had to show that we had taken precautions. They handed our papers back and stepped aside to allow us up the three steps into the building. Inside out of the sun, we stood in a second line in front of what looked like an old-fashioned theater box office, wooden with a plate of glass and a slot for papers (and cash, if it came to that). Behind it were the immigration officers. At that point, the first set of officers seemed to have no clear purpose, quite unnecessary in fact.
My dad’s first piece of advice to me before we left the States was “Be ready to flex and punt.” In Congo, standards and protocol are ad hoc. Authorities are ad hoc. Roads are ad hoc. Plans are ad hoc. Meals are ad hoc. In that sense, Congo was a bit like college. Actually, a bit like being a bachelor, too.
The immigration officer questioned me in French, and I muddled through as best I could. “Stupid American” can be quite useful when used appropriately. Traveling through the country in a week’s time required showing my passport to four or five more authorities. Each time I simply shrugged when they interrogated me en Francais. Not wanting to hassle with my stupidity, they signed the papers and let me on my way. It was for the best.
Before I knew it, two Africans were directing us past the baggage claim. I’d been informed ahead of time that we would need them in order to get our luggage without much hassle. Men stand around soliciting ad hoc employment from arriving travelers. For a fee. No uniforms. No organization. No corporate structure. No management. Each is his own employer.
They led us around to a door. Locked. They turned and appealed to the apparent gatekeeper nearby—the current “authority.” At the same moment, a third African appeared holding a piece of notebook paper. My last name was scribbled on it in large letters. That was enough validation for us. This was our prearranged contact. We simply hadn’t known that. When Pascal showed up, our two interceptors knew they were out of business. But they wouldn’t give up without making Pascal’s job more difficult. They harassed him for the next hour while we retrieved our luggage. They shouted and gestured, burned and sweated.
The baggage claim would’ve been a pretty sedate place—that is, like most baggage claims—without these vultures. I wondered, Who in the world decided one day, “I think I’ll go to the airport today and help people do something they could manage to do themselves but I’ll charge them exorbitant fees to let me do it for them”? Whoever he was, he’d created a monster. This was the first business venture I saw in Congo.
After our first run-in with the police, we drove from the airport to our hostel. I got my first glimpses of Congo’s capital city, Kinshasa. There was trash everywhere. It was like living downwind from a landfill. I also saw a second business venture: public transit, ad hoc. While carpooling may be trendy transport in the U.S., it is a way of life in Congo. Nonetheless, the congestion and pollution in Kinshasa were stifling. Much more than suburban Chicago. Volkswagen Buses from 40 years ago and foreign subcompacts serve as much of the city’s public transportation. I estimated in one VW Bus to be carrying 18 passengers in four rows behind the driver. In the back of every Nissan, there were at least 3 passengers. Only once did I see a vehicle with only one person in it, a few with two, most with five, six, or thirty. I doubt that’s an exaggeration.
A day later we walked to a nearby market. There, I saw a traffic jam. Subcompacts were backed up for half a block. The drivers stood next to their driver’s side doors shouting at one another. At the front of the jam, two or three drivers seemed to be arguing with one another over what must’ve been a fender bender. I stood watching the exchange. I was surprised at the vitality of it. Every car in Kinshasa had its fair share of scrapes and dents.
“That’s a taxi rendezvous point,” one of my companions said, pointing at the traffic snarl. “This is a hub. The drivers pick people up and bring them here. Then the passengers switch to cars heading toward their destinations.”
I looked again. The chaos took on a new dimension. It was a taxi hub. Instead of arguing drivers, I saw a manager directing passengers and coordinating cars and drivers. People were constantly shuffling and moving, climbing into and exiting cars. Mass confusion was actually a highly developed and somewhat efficient taxi system. (Again, ad hoc.)
There are few sidewalks in Kinshasa. The city is lucky just to have paved streets. Kinshasa is probably the only place in the whole country to have them. For this reason, foot traffic and vendors clutter the streets and dart in and out of traffic. The mechanics shop is wherever the truck, bus, or car breaks down. And that may be the inside lane. Cars whiz past beeping exhausted horns at endangered pedestrians while mechanics fix flats, troubleshoot engine problems, and fill empty oil pans and radiators. Neither the oil nor the water will last long in those engines. They will either burn off or drip out over the next few days. Then, they will be refilled. Every driver is a mechanic, finding and fixing whatever the current problem is. The Congo probably has more mechanics than it has running vehicles.