I’m really not sure if the man next to me is the one who hasn’t taken a shower in a week, or if the woman who walked down the aisle blew my own sweat into my olfactory. Looking out over the wing of the vintage McDonnell Douglas, the South African pilot doesn’t seem to mind the blistering sun as he walks across the runway for a smoke. I might want one too if after every landing, the engineers have to pour water on the brakes to cool them down. The engineer and a couple baggage handlers fly with the plane everywhere so that the rural Congolese airports the airline flies to, sometimes just once a week, don’t have to duplicate their staff. I never thought about just how solitary it might feel to be a pilot in a big western airline. Often you arrive at a different gate, a new crew shows up, and your co-pilot is still delayed from her earlier flight, so the fill-in is a new face.
Flying south along the Congo River, one of the world’s most notorious and largest countries looms off the port side, King Leopold’s Democratic Republic of Congo. Off the starboard wing is the oil wealthy Republic of Congo. Less than a century ago, explorers were trying to go deeper and deeper into the forests, extracting as much rubber and ivory as possible. Now the explorers flock to the small Atlantic coastlines where they hope to find oil and a lucrative deal with the government.
A stewardess who says little, pulls out three drinks at a time and holds them out for the passengers to choose from. My guess is that her food-cart just has some cans of juice and Coke. In Congo you don’t ask for a “Coke”, but “Coca”. Luckily I grab a Coca. The canned juices have as much sugar as any soda, but lack all the carbonation. In South Africa the Coke comes in small cans and big ones. I think a Pepsi can once called it the Afri”can”. In Congo the only difference is that the writing is in French, usually on recyclable glass bottles. On the plane is the first time I’ve seen a can of soda.
The plane is turning. Out the window the river looks more like a lake. We’ve reached the “Pool”. Going farther south we would see the river turn into a series of “Rapides” that lead to the ocean. The Pool is where the world’s two closest capitals are flanked on each side of the river. The same pool is where Conrad writes about starting his journey up river one hundred years ago in the search of Kurtz.
The plane circles on approach. Across the river is a city bigger than New York, Kinshasa, the capital of Democratic Republic of Congo. With ten million inhabitants, it outnumbers Brazzaville, below the plane now, with a population barely a tenth the size.
Pollution on the ground and in the air surround the center of Brazzaville, seated on the river’s edge. The amount of development since the country’s civil war is a literal sign of “development”, but the number of completed buildings don’t come close to the amount of construction cranes set up around town.
The plane makes its final approach, flying over the sprawling quartiers which the majority of Brazzans call home. To the untrained eye, it’s easy to write off the scene as the signature of the “third world”. Tin roofs cover the residential areas, interspersed with the occasional shop painted the colors of the cell phone companies; yellow for MTN and red for Airtel.
Even the rickety plane and smell of my neighbors can be a negative reality of travel in Africa, but I think it’s exciting. Three airlines now fly to Impfondo once a week. A few years ago, there was just one flight a month. Before that, the only route to the country’s capital was by river, as there still is no road.
Looking at Brazzaville from the air, it’s hard not to appreciate the ingenuity. Train tracks have been turned into sidewalks, since they’re clear of traffic most of the time. Certain hills have become well known workout lanes. Boulevards with street lights and grass are the places to find students studying under the illumination at night.
The plane’s approach brushes the roves of a famous suburb, Bacongo. Since at least the 1950s, a group of men and women written off as “dandies” have been dressing in brightly colored suits. Known now on both sides of the river, “les sapeurs” cherish their $1,000+ outfits and get together to see who is the most chic. Dancing to old Congolese Rumba and Afro-Cuban tunes, sometimes imbibing in Coca or beer, the Sapeurs and Congolese alike often smile, laugh, and dance. Life in what we consider “the slums” can be lived as refined as one along the Seine.
In a recent song, “Les Jours d’Après”, Belgian-Kinshasan rapper Baloji revisits the hope the nation had at independence in 1960. Using parts of the well-known song in Congo-Kinshasa from the days when Kinshasa’s first black Prime Minister, Patrice Lumumba inspired hope, “Independence Cha Cha Cha”, Baloji asks what happened? Lumumba was killed less than a year into the nation’s independence. Is Baloji suggesting happiness in Congo equates to living in the past? It seems to me that Baloji wants to inspire the sort of positive energy from the days of independence once again.
Though years of war, corruption and numerous other problems have struck Congo(s) hard, it’s hard to ignore the peoples’ resiliency, ingenuity and progress. Not everything is good, but it’s not all bad either.
A trash bag comes down the aisle and I take a final gulp of the Coca. Sure, some things in Africa aren’t “good”, but the Coca-Cola here is brewed with real sugar, not fructose syrup. It’s always better in Africa.