Kim Gjerstad in Congo
Monday 08 December 2008

The best of this (closed) blog

The carpet of forest, south of Salonga National Park in the province of Equator.

This blog has ceased, but here are a few popular posts that you can jump straight to:

Sunday 14 January 2007

One Month Ago My Mom Passed Away

My mom, Chantal, and I in Mozambique over 20 years ago.

It was expected, but she never talked about dying. Cancer had its way in the end, but it never won her over. The battle is a draw: the cancer won the physical, Chantal never lost the spirit.

We only have one, and damn, it’s sad to lose her. I don’t really know what to write. A tribute or an essay, maybe an open letter. In the end, all I want to say is that I miss her already.

I don’t believe in another world, but I know she is somewhere, and that’s in my heart. The one she gave me too. It’s still pounding real hard and aching at times.

We played three songs at the ceremony we held for her. I think they're quite nice and wanted to share two of them. The Circle Game by Joni Mitchell and Song for the Soul by Cris Williamson.
Keywords: Personal

Thursday 11 January 2007

Five Things You Probably Didn't Know About Me

Around the blogosphere, people are tagging each other in this time of year. This is how it works: a blogger writes five things about himself that no one would know about. Then, he asks five other bloggers to the same. A chain like effect that my friend Philippe Martin passed onto me.

So here we go:

  • I'm right handed and left handed, but not ambidextrous. This means I write, play badminton, punch with my right, and with my left, I’ll play hockey and throw a ball. I’ve met one person like me throughout the years with the same condition.
  • I had my first barber shave at the age of 27 (photo). Puberty came so late in my case and takes so long. I think it will be finished in my thirties.
  • It took me three hours to get out of my mom’s belly. Since, I’ve always been in a hurry.
  • I think I have ADD, attention deficit disorder. My sister is convinced of that. So when you talk to me, make sure you sound interesting.
  • I once slept 18 hours straight. It happened after travelling on two planes and one train. I woke up in the darkest of rooms. And I simply freaked. I didn’t know where I was, what time it was.
Keywords: Personal

Saturday 02 December 2006

Taking A Pause From Congo

Dany and Héritier on the back of my car helping me move some stuff to a depot.

I'm taking a pause from Kinshasa and Congo for a while. I have family business to attend to in Montreal. So if you know me and you're in Montreal, give me a shout and you'll get the chance to pay me a beer. In return, I'll show you around.

Getting ready for my first winter in 6 years... ouch!
Keywords: Personal

Friday 01 December 2006

A Suspected Alien, I'm Kept in Custody At Kinshasa's Central Police Station

Turbo Kim. Thanks to Kris at Pygma for converting his creation to this nice souvenir. Now, on with this week's story...

The last month has been hectic. Turbo charged. Lot's of work because I was learning from Tim, my partner in crime. This hasn't been helped by the intense pressure in town due to the political transition coming to an end.

This week things started alright and on schedule. But I managed to get myself arrested by the traffic police (rouleage) early last Wednesday. After yelling excessively at their outright corrupted methods and asking incessently for what law I actually broke, they managed to bring me in at the police HQ. I was drawing too much of a curious crowd for the authorities.

In about half an hour at police HQ I had charmed every one around. I had prepared my "gift" as they wished. Decision witheld, they decided that I needn't to bother, they liked me too much. I should go free.

I even managed to meet famous Raus, the big chief. He was too happy to let me go when he realized I was no one. But then, a Major at his side noticed my Visa was expired. Damn! My current Visa is being renewed in my other passport at Immigration's. Fuck. In custody, for real.

The best part at this moment in time: I didn't have ma phone. No contact with the exterior. So they decided I should write a letter to who ever was taking care of my Visa. A policeman turned mailman was sent off on foot. An hour later, things started sorting out, worried people started to find out where I was.

Now an experienced suspect, I had yielded off attempts by several (but not most) policemen of all sorts to bribe my way out. Everyone was nice to me, albeit you can't really trust anyone's intentions using the following algorithm: Authority + Tiny Wage = Desperate Measures².

It's now noon and my primary activity is killing mosquitoes flying by sitting on white plastic chair in Major's office. And wondering why Major's computer, the only one in the station I saw, was neither plugged to the wall or to the screen. The little attention he gave to me was reminders not to wear my cap in his presence. Back in the principal's office.

Unfortunately, by the afternoon, I was still an illegal alien until proven otherwise. Solution arrived at around 4pm: someone backshished my escape. Cost: 250$. I was proven innoncent. You know who you are, so thanks a bunch for keeping out for me. With my newly claimed innocence, I had my share of farewells with about a dozen officers.

That sure put an end to my Turbo Speed. At the other end, Major, I know you'll have a fantastic week end. Enjoy it, it's your first democratic one.
Keywords: Personal, Kinshasa

Tuesday 28 November 2006

The Supreme Court Confirms Kabila Is Congo's New President

"It's the sound of the police, you hou, it's the sound that I miss, you hou!"

These fellows are probably going to be busy tomorrow with the same guys who burned the Supreme Court last week. Fortunately, they follow orders from the guy who won.

Mob control is always exciting to watch. From afar, that is.
Keywords: Kinshasa, Politics

Monday 27 November 2006

A Third Of Kinshasa Blacks Out, A Building Beams 24/7

The electricity company always shines in nightime Kinshasa. Not strong

Congo’s national electricity company, known as SNEL, has its headquarters fully lighted at night. Every night, all floors. Unless of course there is a power failure. And recently, there’s been many.

Like Sunday. Instead of our usual activities we played Skip-bo, a card game, all day. Of course, you have so much time to think about why there’s no juice. Ideas pop up like a bulb above your head. Such as “why the fuck isn’t SNEL privatized yet?

A third of Kinshasa is suffering from the strained grid. In some neighborhoods, they alternate the power between different blocks of houses to fit everyone's needs. Some people get it at night, the others in the day. Some accidentally die trying to wire their homes. In rain, avoid puddles, since electric wires are often dugged out.

The technical director turned to the donors for an explanation: they have been delaying a new power line in the projects. The donors, again. A Financial Times article from today, one can clearly sense that the world powers are ambiguous about what kind of help this country needs.

Incidentally, the same administration has been helping itself, donors or not. SNEL has been selling guaranteed power to industrials as of the recent. “Fast and easy money. But they are so on the edge of not maintaining their current demand, it's a disaster in the making" a business partner to SNEL told me. They’ve been so cash strapped, another source told me this month, they even secretly considered selling their biggest asset: Inga dam. Damn, that's right.

A missed opportunity? I don’t know the subject well enough. One thing is for sure: the people in power have the opportunity not to give you any.
Keywords: Kinshasa, Politics

Tuesday 21 November 2006

The Inevitable Political Storm Has Missed Kinshasa, Democracy Names Kabila

My "papa" says: the politicians can do whatever, but only God decides when it rains.

For the last few weeks, we have been bracing for mass protests in the capital. These never came. Foreign journalists are now eager to leave "dull" Congo.

The majority of the "Kinois" support the guy who failed to win the elections, the first in over 40 years. Speculations were high of unrest in the capital. Especially since last August downtown strife which killed a few (we never get accurate figures in this country).

Now, the last chance for chaos is when the Supreme Court validates the elections. The sun is shinning although the clouds are still on the horizon. Better keep positive, I say.

A lot of people really want this photo. Here's the bigger version. If you publish it, let me know, so I can have a semblance of fame.
Keywords: Kinshasa, Politics

Tuesday 14 November 2006

Beating the path, Congo’s Only Tourism Company Will Be Profitable in 2007

The mighty Congo River is opened for tourism.

The best vacation I ever had was a boat trip on the Congo River”, an American once told me. That was three years ago in Mozambique in a five star beach resort (I was on the UN payroll). I had escaped the peacekeeping mission on R’n’R while he was on a reconnaissance trip for his multi millionaire clients.

More than hundred years since Stanley navigated Africa’s great water way, the Congo River is simply a no go for tourists. Or so I thought until last week. I got to meet Michel Van Roten who, with his wife, runs the only tourist company in the country.

Our six planned boat trips on the Congo River are fully booked for 2007”, the entrepreneur tells me with a big smile. The mythical boat trip might just make his company, “Go Congo”, profitable for the first time since 2002.

The biggest fight, he admits, was the bad press Congo suffered from. Four million dead from war, Ebola, malaria, you name it, it is here. Last August, a bunch of Poles had to cancel their visit with Go Congo due to gunfights in Kinshasa. In such circumstances, many would be fast to rename their venture “Don’t Go Congo”.

The risks are there, but Michel won’t budge. He repeats to me what his website states on the homepage: “If you really need 5 star lodges, whisky on the rocks and your 20-channels television, please go somewhere else.” That is definitely more marketing than warning.

Only a few years ago, Congo had flocks of visitors looking for the “real Africa”. “People want to see it, to live it” says the Belgium of his wealthy eco tourists. Congo’s paths have definitely become unbeaten.

The once profitable tourism industry will eventually wake up after more than a decade of hibernation. Michel and his wife are eager to seal their head start. Critical contacts are already made and they have the full support of the Tourism Ministry. To my question about his problems with governmental institutions Michel simply replies: “none”.

Early next year, Go Congo is going to prospect in Eastern Congo for a future package tour. Volcanoes, gorillas, pygmies, it sounds like a promising adventure. Maybe the Congo Rangers (my previous post) could team up with Michel’s clients?

My heart trembles at all the potential. Doesn’t it sound like Congo has a future? We’ll wait and see if Michel and his wife get more than sixty clients a year.

Here's a link to Go Congo's website. Otherwise, you can find one updated guide to DR Congo, but it's only in French: Le Petit Futé, which came out this year. For photos, try Hundred Years of Darkness.

My own top five Congo attractions (never did the river trip)...

  1. Ruwenzori, the Mountains of the Moon, snow in Congo, third highest on the continent, the weirdest plants ever. Photos.
  2. Nyiragongo volcano, the third largest lava lake in the world, stare in a hole twice the height of Eiffel Tower and look at fountains of lava. Post.
  3. Mountain gorillas, take on the huge Silverback male with his harem full of fluffy babies. Damn, you only wished you could touch them. Photos.
  4. Pygmies of the Ituri forest will take you on a rush in the forest. Survival never looked easier. Photos.
  5. Itombwe Plateau, off limits area, unfortunately, simply picturesque landscape, highly interesting ethnic mix (or un mix), you could be the first white a whole generation will see. That is, on the condition you’re white. Photos.
Keywords: Nature, People

Sunday 12 November 2006

Foreigners Speak About Their Experience of Chaos in Documentary Film

Image from the documentary "The Last Colonials".

Only yesterday, Kinshasa got in trouble again. Shootings cracked the air just before noon. A typical surge in short phone calls began almost simultaneously. People check up on each others’ safety. A time also to swap info.

After a three day battle in August, tension has been building up since in Kinshasa. As we await the final results of the presidential elections in the coming week, some talk about a climax of instability. So many questions about the future, few answers. No one really knows where we are all heading.

We foreigners don’t feel at ease right now since the international community has shown preference for one candidate, Kabila, over the other, Bemba. Consequently, we keep a low profile these days since Kinshasa’s majority supports the underdog candidate.

As to reassure everyone, the French Cultural Center projected recently a documentary on European foreigners in Congo. Only, the filming took place in the aftermath of the first lootings in 1991 or the second in 1993. These two events pretty much destroyed the entire formal economy.

In “The Last Colonials”, Thierry Michel, the director, asks different figures about their fears and their love for the Congo. Why did they stay in this failed state? At the time of independence, in 1961, the Europeans were in every corner of the country. The Greeks themselves were numbering above 50 000.

There we were about fifty foreigners and a few Congelese looking at a scenario that could possibly happen in the next two weeks. Interviews with distressed people, some yielding guns, others reaffirming they will never leave. Dialogues orbits around fear, greed, freedom and love. The dream turned into a nightmare.

The image above is taken from a sequence where this Belgian retells the events as they happened. He managed to hold off looters using his automatic rifle. Suddenly his skinny old papa (house employee) shows up in the frame himself armed. The director then moves the conversation cleverly:

Interviewer: And your papa (house employee), you can count on him?
Belgian: Oh yeah, I can count on him.
Interviewer: And you like him?

Pause at the odd question.

Belgian: Sure, I like him (laugh).

The Belgian turns around to look at the papa who comes closer in the frame.

Belgian: I hope he likes me. I think he likes me (chuckles).
Papa: Oh yes! My boss, I like him. My boss is like family.

In Congo, you are ultimately free”, said another European in the film. “You’re free, but your shadow is chaos, and it will always be there by your side” reflected my flat mate when we discussed the movie. Anarchy and freedom still cohabitate in Congo, definitely.

In a country with looted archives, no real museum, where modern history is written mostly by foreigners, I wanted to get a copy of the documentary. Thierry Michel, the director, stubbornly refused to give me a DVD.

After a conversation with Arnaud, the BBC correspondent, I came to a conclusion on the refusal. Victimizing rich white foreigners in Africa is not en vogue. But when will we start considering foreigners or migrants as Congolese? Even my friend Frédéric, a third generation Belgian in Congo, tells me that he never felt like a colonialist or a migrant. But he surely doesn’t identify himself as Congolese either.

With the current political and economical situation, both foreigners and Congolese have little pride of being associated to this land. The great Zaire is but a souvenir. I found real Congolese nationalism only in the diaspora communities abroad. That’s what happens when you leave your country: you come to realize your true origins and keep faith in it.

Other note worthy documentaries from the same director: Mobutu, Roi du Zaire (classic) and Congo River. Reviews of these two in 007's blog.

Photos of yesterday’s shootings on the BBC.
Keywords: Cultural, Kinshasa, People

Sunday 05 November 2006

In Kinshasa, You Know It's Election Time When...

My roomates and I survival stash. There was a huge Nutella jug there too, but I couldn't resist spooning in it.

I have totally ignored the elections these past weeks, but with the imminent final results to Congo's first democratic poll in over four decades, I thought I'd share what it's like around town, in DR Congo's capital.

It's election time when…

  • canned goods are selling crazy in the super markets. Btw, who the f*** bought the last jar of pesto at City Market? Arghh... I can't live without the thing.

  • all the white kids left town. The Americans’ travel warning is pretty clear on the subject: you stay, your problem.

  • your friends have new phone numbers in Brazzaville. The city across the river is actually another country and also the main escape route for all of us. Message for Nahalie: don’t go tiger fishing without us! Read a funny article on this activity here, especially the chopper attack on Brazza paragraph.

  • bloggers talk about their "go bags" and forget to update their blogs (Afro Voltaire, come on, you're on the list too).

  • the independent media watchers close down the national television for supporting a single candidate. Fred reports on it here.

  • the two candidates promise not to bash each other up after the results come out. Their promise on the IRIN website. Democracy, I tell you.

  • everyone who is neighbor to Bemba (presidential candidate) is asked to evacuate the area. Aha, you thought it was the safest place when you moved there, didn't you? See a map of the closed area.

  • European choppers incessantly fly over.While the drones resumed after two fatal incidents.

Unrelated to the list but funny, I saw this photo of electoral staff working by an oil lamp which made me think of this joke:

What did the Congolese use as lighting before the oil lamp? Click here for answer. Electricity.
Keywords: Kinshasa, Food, Politics

Thursday 26 October 2006

Conservationist Uses Blog to Get Attention on Troubled Virunga, a World Heritage Site

Robert Muir's "Congo Rangers" blog.

Virunga National Park is home to some of the last mountain gorillas. But it also has an amazing assortment of other animals and plants. Conservationists use words like “rich biodiversity” when they talk about the place.

Only, Virunga is also home to a common Congo specie: the guerilla. This politically classified ape has mastered the basic tool for hunting: the a-kay. Roaming the park in rather large groups, it is out playing the other animals, even the national army at times.

Because of them, in Africa’s oldest national park, the shit is currently hitting the fan. The recent scale of slaughter has rarely been seen. For example, the hippo is nearly extinct in the park. There used to be some 30 000 back in days. Makes a young guy like me nostalgic of times I didn’t know.

All hell broke loose in the last month. Alarm bells are ringing all over the conservation community right now. Even the peacekeeping mission has been asked to save the animals. Unfortunately, it’s already having a hard time saving the Congolese from themselves.

I’ve been able to follow the situation in Virunga thanks to Robert Muir’s blog, a conservationist in Goma. He’s in an odd position himself: he holds the key to halt some of the slaughter, but one problem stops him from doing it. I’ll get to that later.

Robert has brought together and trained an elite force of guard parks. Forty men ready to tackle poachers and other no gooders. I’m talking “I’ll gun your sorry ass down if you touch Fifi my pet gorilla” gun ho blokes. Take a look at this photo, you’ll understand.

When I met Robert late last year, all he talked about was this project. Like a boy talking about WWII heroes, Robert charmed me with the personal stories of what was becoming an elite corps of “Rangers”.

Compass to his belt, the young Englishman has the looks of boy scout who failed to mature entirely. Half geek, half adventurous, 110% passionate, he even flies a zebra striped Cessna (photo on his blog). When he has fuel. On top of it, he works for ze Germans. Well, the Frankfurt Zoo. His girlfriend even helped me release a monkey once and made me feel like a good person.

Anyway, the Americans and Europeans donors bought into the guy and funded his initiative. With the cash, he hired mercenaries, got a vehicle or two and took hold of a deserted tourist resort on the shores of Lake Edward. Most importantly, they released the best potential within the ICCN's (park management) park guards.

A few months later, the squad was ready for action and ultra motivated. They only needed a mission to match their vision, and unfortunately, it has come. Trouble is, they lack funds.

Nothing new in Congo. But this time, the extent is such that Robert sounds like he’s begging in his last post. Unusual of him to write:

Please help the Congo-Rangers to protect Virunga’s exceptional wildlife from […] poachers. The rangers desperately need basic supplies such as rations, medical and field equipment, and transportation.

Reading between the lines, other than the white space, it means that the situation has gotten ugly. Coming from conservation myself, I know it’s urgent.

Ironically, in this case, the Congolese have the capacity and competency to deal with the problem themselves. But again and again, money goes to the wrong elite. Will this be another training that served no purpose?

You like watching gorillas or other likes on Animal Planet? And your stash of cash has seven digits figures? Then I recommend funding Robert’s honest project. If you’re poor, too bad for you.

Just kidding, of course, all you gotta do in that case is link to his blog. Generate interest to an endangered World Heritage Site. Because after all, it belongs to all of us. And it's priceless.

Good photos, goos stories, good cause. Here's the link again.

Thursday 19 October 2006

Old Foes Unite Through Their Sons, Congo's History Repeats?

The two gentlemen sitting here are the sons of Congo’s last two rulers. Their fathers account for almost four decades of leadership in majestic Congo.

On the right, young Mobutu, son of the late famous dictator who ruled for over 30 years. On the left, young Kabila, son of the rebellion leader who deposed Mobutu in the nineties. The Lion chased the Leopard, but their cubs are playful to one another.

Historically opposed pedigrees have joined forces just this week. Mobutu Junior aligned himself with Kabila Junior’s bid for presidency later this month.

Not such an ironic twist, many people are fast to point out. I keep on hearing frightened opinions that make parallels between the corruption of the two regimes. Example to follow.

When asked to comment on the current sudden inflation this week, the Central Bank’s governor explained that the elections are burdening the budget. The IMF has another explanation: the presses have been busy printing extra hard currency.

Same new old really. While one printed his face on bills, the other chose billboards. The spigot is thrusting full force again, like the Congo River in this season of rain. The question remains, is history repeating? Hush hush, take a look at the photo and ask yourself: “Who’s your daddy?

David, once again, thx for sharing a good snapshot
Keywords: Kinshasa, Politics

Sunday 15 October 2006

Congo's Advent On Flickr, Yahoo's Photo Service

One of Brian Becker's excellent photos found on Flickr.

I noticed recently that Congo is finally getting onto Flickr, the free online albums service offered by Yahoo. Considering the proportions, Congo is still not a hot keyword in the pool of 5 million searchable images.

Not too many images, but nonetheless some noticeable ones. If you're on Firefox, ladies and gents, I invite you to Ctrl-Click frenzy on the links below.

Brian Becker, apparently stationed in Kisangani (the middle of the forest), has this not so pretty, but very interesting photo of a political rally on pirogues. Damn, only in Congo.

Still from Brian, this pretty low light shot of two people talking, or this balcony shot of a corner in Kisangani (read the comments and mouse over the image), or this typical group photo at a wedding. Love the shirts and note how no one smiles.

A friend, Christelle, also put her nice photos online, and some of Congo too. Take a look at climbing the volcano, from last year. I also liked the funky feminine hairdos that we see outside Kinshasa.

Otherwise, I liked this photo of cops playing trumpets from an unknown person or this old SABENA poster for Congo and, finally, one of the few landscape shot of pretty Eastern Congo I could find.

That's it for now. When are we going to see your Congo photos on Flickr?

Hot and Sweaty, the Rainy Season Comes Back

Wind sweeps Kinshasa’s dry season dust as the first shower comes in late for this year’s rainy season.

People started to wonder about the delay. But the rainy season arrived last week. Kinshasa is sweltering again, the “frigoristes”, the air conditioner guys, are getting their jobs back. They sweat so we stay cool.

The big tree in the photo premeditated the arrival of the wet season. Three days before I took this photo of the first rain, leaves grew at an astonishing rate. It greened back to life, while only a few weeks ago it looked dead.

Rains will occasionally disrupt street life in the next six months. Flowers will make the trees pretty again and food falls from the sky, in the form of grasshoppers. My favorite fruit, the mangousta, will be available for sale on people’s heads again.

The Congo River River will rise gently and pour some 80 000 cubic meters of water in the Atlantic Ocean. That is second only to the Amazon.

Which makes me think, did you see the movie Congo River? I didn't get a chance myself, so if anyone has the DVD, let me know.

The metamorphosis has begun in this part of the southern Equator.
Keywords: Kinshasa, Nature

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