Last week, after I finished doing my round of the embassies to double check all our visa application details, I ended up at the SA Embassy. I just popped in to find out the right email address, but was treated as if I was someone important. After being welcomed by the first secretary (political) Mbulelo Toli, presently I was ushered in to see the Ambassador himself. Dr Genge was touchingly interested in our adventure, and immediately directed his team to make enquiries about cooking oil and media coverage on our behalf. I subsequently discovered that the SA Embassy in Luanda had warned their Brazza counterparts of our imminent arrival – bless you Nuria!
To show our appreciation, Sampson did a show for the embassy staff on Wednesday afternoon. Not an easy gig from where I was sitting – only 5 South Africans out of a staff of 18, who mostly speak French, in a chilly air conditioned room, without a mic. But old pro Sampson soon had them rocking in their chairs with his observations on cultural idiosyncracies such as how the Congolese take French cheek-kissing to the next level: here men greet by gently touching foreheads, temple to temple each side, where your horns would be. He demonstrated that in Britain, where he grew up, this was done in a less friendly fashion and is known as a Glaswegian kiss.
As we sat there, the third downpour of our stay began hammering on the roof. Poor Ruby, who had been too sick to go with us, managed to get out of bed and close the heavy hatch by herself, thank goodness. The rainy season is well and truly underway and you see people carrying umbrellas even on the hottest days, just in case. Our guide to all things Congolese, Achille the Hippocampe security guard, tells me that this early start is a major effect of climate change: the rains never used to begin before October. What amazes me is how quickly the streets flood, and how unprepared the city seems to be – luckily we were whisked home through the puddles in a VIP SUV, ironically ‘Waster’ style.
It’s been a big media week. On Tuesday, Sampson did a Cape Talk interview – a rambling caller cut his time from five minutes to three, which seemed somewhat inadequate to respond to Kieno Kammie’s question: ‘Tell us about the journey so far then Mark’… On Thursday, we did an interview with Les Depeches de Brazzaville http://www.lesdepechesdebrazzaville.fr/flex/php/simple_document.php?doc=20130916_DBZ_DBZ_ALL.pdf I’d spent the morning pounding pavements missioning for visas – collecting from the Nigerian embassy, and applying at Cameroon’s – and just got back in time, rather sweaty. I wasn’t expecting the Ambassador to be part of the delegation! He came to have a look round the truck, and sat and laughed his head off at Sampson’s silliness while simultaneously retaining his dignity at all times. I love this man and he makes me proud to be South African. Somehow I can’t imagine the British Ambassador behaving in quite the same way.
I found out by Googling afterwards that Dr Genge did his PhD on the part played by female leaders of Swaziland in resisting colonial power in the late 19th century – what a guy! He was Ambassador to Sudan before being posted to the Congo and gave us some very good advice on handling malaria. We are very grateful to him, as we suspect that if he hadn’t come, the journalists wouldn’t have either. Apparently, the press don’t come unless they get paid – it’s standard practice to have to donate in the region of R200 to each hack just to pitch up.
That morning I was able to get up and do Tai Qi and yoga for the first time since starting the malaria medication, as I’d switched the timing of the dose. A lady called Beatrice was quite enthralled and decided to join in, despite being hampered by her straight skirt – so you’re spoiled with another photo of me, sneaked by Sampson through the truck window.
Women of Brazzaville dress superbly. From the standard two piece skirt suits in block prints with scalloped neck lines, tucks and flounces, to turquoise trouser suits for the business woman, they are flamboyantly, defiantly feminine. The style is so flattering: big women look gorgeous, scrawny birds like me look fuller. They even transform jeans into something sexy with sparkly pumps and bling. And ruffles with everything. And yellow, red and purple hair extensions. I’m feeling even more scruffy than usual…
That’s a shame cos I’ve met some rather lovely young men with fabulously appropriate names in visa offices this week. I’d already added Espoir and Destin to the list that began with Parfait; now there was Juste, a Gabonese-Congolese lad studying in Colombia, USA, and Providence, a up and coming businessman in the petroleum industry off to Nigeria to get a Saudi visa. He told me he was the son of a teacher, youngest of eight, and he wondered how his father had managed to educate them all on his meagre salary. It was most interesting to chat with these youths, and witness their appreciation of their opportunities, and their focus. They made me feel very positive about the future of this continent.
We had another interview on Friday with local television station MNTV for their 7pm news broadcast. This was even more of a trial than the previous one because not only did I have to answer questions in French, I had to do it on camera. This was most cruel: Sampson is the performer, not me. Plus I’m having a Bad Hair Month. We needed to appeal to viewers for cooking oil, so I just had to bite the bullet and comfort myself that no one who knows me would be watching… Thanks to reporters Leonce and Christelle for being so patient and coaching me through it!
I went to the Benin embassy and was cheered to find that, like Gabon and the Republic of Congo, in a recently achieved reciprocal arrangement, Benin offers free visas for 30 days to South Africans. THANK YOU BENIN! As a result, we will be able to afford to buy refined palm oil (40% more expensive than diesel) if the media appeal for donations doesn’t bear fruit. Phew.
The Benin embassy is not in the CBD, but in an area called Poto-Poto famed for its street markets. I walked back down Rue Mbakas, which, rather delightfully, turned out to be the street for clothing. The words ‘kaleidoscope of colour’ are utterly inadequate for how it hit me. I was surrounded by a riot of prints, like Jackson Pollock’s entire oeuvre just splashed itself across the pavement. I felt incredibly blessed to be here to see it, experiencing a dramatically different day than I would have at home.
So, on Friday evening we were celebrating being sorted for the next four countries – with visas or exemptions for Gabon, Cameroon, Nigeria and Benin – as well as celebrating Ruby being well enough to get up and leave the truck for first time this week. We went and got exquisite ice cream from La Mandarine.
I’ve been shocked, again, at the price of food. Colonialism might be officially over but economic colonialism remains – most packaged food is imported from France or Belgium with correspondingly inflated costs. We are grateful once more to our host Olivier giving us a bargain basement price on a bulk buy of Thai jasmine rice, half what we’d pay in a supermarket here. It’s so delicious, you can eat it on its own – which is what Ruby was doing for several days this week.
On our budget, it is too expensive to eat anything except vegetables. We splashed out and bought our first carrots since Nambia; scarcely bigger than my finger, they were two rand each. Cheese or meat is out of the question; no wonder locals are getting their protein from alternative sources. Zola and I saw a range of mind-boggling maggots for sale by the basketful at the Marché Total in Bacongo. One worm looked exactly like a dead digit from the Hammer House of Horror with a redblack fingernail of a head; the other type was fat and white and oozing. I’m usually up for trying new foods, but I draw the line right there.
Sampson has been doing truck maintenance, painstakingly weather proofing the roof again with silver tape and varnish. Yesterday we drove out on the Ave du Djoué past the rapids and found Monsieur Da Sousa at Techno Omega who runs a project teaching metalworking skills to vulnerable youth. Moulaisse and Kimbembe fixed the box that got crushed trying to get on to the Luozi ferry, and they’re also making up some extra clips for the solar panels, which keep getting shaken off. In the workshop, surrounded by lathes and piles of parts, Sampson was transported back to his Dad’s garage and was wreathed in smiles.
Brazzaville feels very safe. Walking around this city, I’ve never seen so many dozing security guards. The only downer here is the mossies, who don’t seem to know that they’re only supposed to be active at night. I’d say we’re getting bitten on average 10 times daily. Thanks this week go to our friend Dr John Parker for his patience in advising me about malaria meds, and to Chris Edington of Get Green webhosting. I couldn’t send email for days, and he sorted it out in seconds via TeamViewer. What a thing, to have your computer remotely operated by a bloke five thousand kilometres away. And dare I say thanks to Facebook for cheering my daughter up when she was sick, and enabling me to take part in a group conversation sharing news of a dear friend’s pregnancy LIVE! It felt very 21st century. And to think the last time I went travelling, in 1992, I used to write home every week and my Mom would send letters to the Poste Restante…