Gentillesse is my favourite French word. As far as I understand, it means more than mere ‘kindness’. Gentil embraces the scope of the far blander English ‘nice’, while encompassing a range of more chivalric qualities from ‘good’ and ‘courteous’ to ‘noble’. Plus “Vous êtes très gentil” rolls off the tongue like a benediction, always sounding gentle to my ears.
Well, we have been blessed by true gentillesse this week. Firstly the incomparable Olivier at L’Hippocampe not only donated 45L of used cooking oil from the hotel kitchen, but refused to take more than half of the money for the 250L of brand new refined palm oil he had ordered in for us, thereby reducing the cost to less than that of diesel. We thank him from the bottom of our hearts for his generosity, and for giving us the difference in dollars to keep as an emergency breakdown fund. The comments in the overlanders’ Livre D’Or prove that this understated, softly spoken man has an unwavering sense of compassion and a heart of pure gold. We wish him and his family all the good karma they deserve.
After a trial run around town in the truck on Tuesday, we finally left Brazzaville last Wednesday morning on L’HUILE DE PALME! We felt extremely proud and are pretty sure that this is the first time ever that a vehicle has been run on palm oil in Africa. Officials at roadblocks are beside themselves with amazement. That’s a good job, because we hit five in the first hour. Just when our patience was wearing very thin, at the last two, policemen recognized us from the previous time we passed them, greeted us warmly and waved us through. The cheery toll people also let us pass for free again 🙂
The first day, we had an immediate issue with the exhaust brake sticking on – the same problem we had in Namibia. We decided to stop only 35km out, in Kinkala, before the hills got any steeper. We parked outside the police station and they kindly made enquiries for us about a mechanic. The music from the market and taverns along the main road played till 3am and recommenced at 6am. I was so grateful that the tunes were all excellent – it was like listening to Richard Nwamba’s African Connection on SAfm.
Monsieur Claude the mechanic turned up promptly as promised at 7.30am and was wonderful. As quiet as his mate Brelly was loquacious, he calmly dealt with all of Sampson’s anxious arm waving while we got on with school work. Brelly’s English was good, having spent years studying in South Africa. Before we left, he insisted we come see his aunt’s hotel, where he revealed that he was the son of the former Prime Minister Bernard Kolelas whom, he told us, greatly admired FW De Klerk. Brelly’s favourite city is Port Elizabeth, with NYC as close runner up (honestly) – he aims to die there – and he swears that cola-nut given by Congolese people is what got Madiba out of hospital. Ruby’s continuing upset tummy wasn’t bad enough for her to consider trying the bitter medicinal fruit.
Though I’m not sure of the truth of all of Brelly’s tall stories, there is no doubt about the authenticity of Bernard Kolelas. I did a Google search and found out he was responsible for much of the Ninja banditry in this Pool region that the Lonely Planet warns about. No wonder Brelly said no matter where we go round here, we’d be safe with him…
Everyone I spoke to before we left Brazza said it takes 2 days to get to Pointe-Noire, but I don’t think any of them had ever driven there themselves. People who can afford it fly to Pointe Noire. And for good reason. Knowing the capacity of Big Reg compared to a Land Cruiser, I had planned food for 3 days. It took us 6.
To be fair, stopping to fix the exhaust brake took an extra half a day, but we must have averaged 10-15kph the next two. Our hearts sank as we pulled out of Kinkala onto a road similar to the one from the border in Angola. It’s not so bad when you’re prepared for it, but we’d been expecting potholes and dirt, not drifts of dust over stone. The mournful strains of Morrissey that Sampson had picked for the soundtrack of the day seemed entirely appropriate.
The road to Pointe Noire was littered with dead lorries. We stopped counting after the first 20. The brutality of the conditions breeds a particular camaraderie of the road. Passing drivers salute each other as fellow survivors, leaning out with faces and hair orangey-yellow from the constant clouds of dust. The Big Green Truck was mostly in 4WD and we have no idea how the taxi cabs and combis manage to get through. Never mind the guys just hanging on to the tops of loaded lorries. It’s Mad Max vrai.
As we pulled out of Kinkala, an old man came and begged us to take a fan belt and give it to “the yellow vehicle just before Mindouli”. When I agreed, he looked relieved, smiled toothily and said “Vous êtes très gentile”. We stopped to ask five different yellow lorry drivers if they needed it before leaving it hanging from the mirror of an abandoned yellow taxi just before the town. I sincerely hope it was the right one.
Mindouli was a blessed relief, providing fresh veg at a fraction of the cost of Brazza, and a bonus frog chorus overnight. We resigned ourselves to not making it to Pointe Noire by the weekend, and got into the (bumpy) rhythm of the journey. It was the final week of term, so we did our last lessons orally – it was completely impossible to sit at the table and write – and spent the afternoons strapped firmly into seatbelts listening to old radio dramas Sampson had previously downloaded for us like PG Wodehouse and the Navy Lark.
Around Loutete, we started to see where the way had been cleared for a three lane highway and the beginning of bridges, very like Angola. Usually there were one or two Chinese guys with traditional wide straw hats on machines overseeing a Congolese working party. It’s quite mean to display a lovely wide flat highway next to the rutted track you’re trying to traverse at 10kmh. At one point we were diverted because one of the thundering lorries piled high with huge logs had lost its load and Sampson had to negotiate a rather terrifyingly steep drop – he’ll post the GoPro footage on YouTube later. At least it wasn’t as bad as the road from the border to Boko had been.
I woke up on Saturday with whiplash. There’d been two particularly nasty bumps the day before where my whole head had been thrown back; it made me feel quite weird for a few days, but not as unwell as the doxycycline. I’ve been off the pills for a week now and slowly starting to feel myself again. I’ve pretty much resigned myself to getting malaria – I’m just going to work on keeping myself as strong as possible to handle the coartem when it comes to it.
Thinking we were parked in the middle of nowhere, I allowed Ruby to go outside in her short shorts for a little pre-breakfast play with Zola, while we did yoga. A lorryful of workers passed and her legs got a barrage of hoots of enthusiasm. Her face didn’t know what to do with itself, flipping from embarrassment to appreciation of the appreciation – when she got back to me she burst into tears. She said she was frightened and wanted to go home.
Gently I held her and told her that, sadly, it wasn’t the place that was the problem. If she walked past a group of blokes on the Kommetjie Road now she’d be getting the same reaction – she’s growing up and there’s nothing we can do to alter that fact. I told her “This is why I’m glad that right now I’m next to you every step of the way to reassure you it’s not your fault”. I’m also relieved I don’t have to worry about her taking the bus to school in that plaid mini-skirt Fish Hoek chose for their new uniform…
I continue to feel humbled by the constant parade of women and girls walking along with huge baskets strapped to their foreheads: impossibly heavy loads of timber or manioc. It seems the men chop, but it’s always the women who carry. Sampson pointed out how an apparently morose muscley man with a panga walking by the side of the road will crack a smile of absolute delight in response to a wave. We always wave.
Day four’s soundtrack was singalong favourites from Frank Sinatra to Bob Dylan. The midway town of Madingo was a pleasant surprise, bigger than expected, and we were able to buy fresh bread as well as veg. This greatly improved our mood: tempers were becoming somewhat frayed, with the children picking up on weariness of the parents and bickering constantly. This context gives a whole new perspective to the refrain “Are we nearly there yet?”
In the end, I invented an alphabet game called “When we get to Pointe-Noire I’m going to…” (swig a cold bottle of Libby’s concentrated orange juice being my dream). All those days at L’Hippocampe cleaning the truck seemed a bit silly now as Big Reg was as dirty as ever. Worse in fact, as everything inside was covered with an extra layer of fine dust, even with every window closed – the newly washed sheets, pillows and towels included. Sigh.
On Sunday morning, somewhere off a side road just after the town of Nkayi, a small crowd of people appeared from nowhere to watch Sampson do his stretching exercises. When I emerged, a spokesman stepped forward to offer us a bucketful of groundnuts. This custom of offering gentillesse and hospitality to complete strangers is one of the things that continues to astound me about rural Africans. While I searched for a small token to acknowledge the gift (a Von Zipper wallet, one of Sampson’s sponsorship perks) his wife arrived with a Pastis bottle full of roasted peanuts and insisted we took those as well.
A little walk to see their home turned into a two hour journey of discovery. M. Rinel took me on a tour of their fields, demonstrating the process of digging up the cassava tubercule (which, raw, tastes a little like dry coconut) to peeling and soaking it for three days, then splitting and drying it on wooden racks. The manioc is sold like this for grating and cooking, or to be milled to a flour to make foufou. The variety they had just harvested takes 18 months to grow, though they vary from 6 months to 2 years. The kids were gobsmacked at the amount of groundnuts the villagers had collected from one harvest, which happens every 3 months. They were all bagged ready to be sold in Pointe-Noire.
I found out from M. Caprice – trained in IT but unable to get work due to the lack of industry in Congo – and M. Daniel, a teacher, that access to this land had been given to them as part of a government initiative, but they have no machines and have to work it by hand, making it very labour-intensive. There is no large scale farming happening here yet, hence the inflated price of food. I explained that although we have plenty of machines in SA, most people don’t own land due to the ongoing effects of the 1913 Natives’ Land Act and are in an equally untenable position.
My French is slowly improving. I was able to explain that we are travelling around the continent because all you ever hear on the news about countries like the Congo is about wars and politicians, never about the people, and that we wanted to come and see for ourselves. That inspired spontaneous applause, and I was quite pleased myself that I’d managed to find the words!
Ruby and I had to trek another kilometre to visit the last of the four homesteads in the community because it belonged to M. Raphael, the elder. His wife was delighted to see me and demonstrate how she wraps kwanga in leaves and twine, but the younger women of the household ran from the group photo Monsieur was eager for because of ‘honte’ – the shame. After a while I asked them if they might reconsider. Because I never take a photo without asking, so far I have no pictures of Congolese women to demonstrate just how elegant they are. Even in the middle of the fields M. Daniel’s wife was dressed like a queen. She graciously conceded.
On the return walk, Stella, wife of M. Daniel, explained that they had come here during the three-month school holiday to work the fields in order to supplement his meagre salary to be able to afford to kit out their own four children for la rentrée (which here in Congo is in October). It was such a privilege to meet and chat with Caprice and Daniel and appreciate just what a lottery is the accident of our birth. These very intelligent men are far from ‘happy sons of the soil’: the education they worked hard to achieve has not freed them; they are still trapped in poverty, forced to labour in the fields.
I felt transformed by both the walk and the company. The generous insight they had given me into their lives made the hard slog of the journey so far totally worth it, and turned the tide of the trek.
The nearer we got to Dolisie, the more finished the neighbouring highway became. At last we saw cars driving on it and pulled up by the next barrier to enquire. A soldier armed with a machine gun helped explain that “for a consideration” the guard employed by the Chinese to prevent vehicles from entering was prepared to risk his job to let us through. Sampson was so desperate for a break, we paid up and joined the queue.
It seemed to be an army scam, as there were young blokes in fatigues with rolls of notes in their pockets overseeing each boom gate. Of course, it wasn’t a one off payment all the way to Dolisie as assured – we had to repeat it four more times – but for R50 all told, it was a toll well worth paying to save a couple of hours of that back-breaking, bone-shaking, neck-twanging road. Our average speed doubled to 30-40kmh and it felt almost scary!
The last barrier guard was delighted to see Zola and told us he was also adopted, by a Swiss family. An orphan, he had had his education paid for, went to university in DRC and had hoped to study hotel management in Europe. But his benefactor had died, which is why he now finds himself on the side of the road. Regarding adoption he said “You white people are so gentil, you always do that, black people never do”. I wanted to point out that white people had raped and pillaged his country and carried out the most appalling abuse of his ancestors (such as cutting off the hands of men who didn’t bring back enough rubber to warrant the return of their kidnapped families), but it seemed cruel to burst his bubble. It is the privilege of the traveller to be granted this perspective; to see, in the condition of the present generation, the brutal effects of a selfish history laid bare before you.
At Dolisie, tar was returned to us, and, surprisingly, became a Chapman’s Peak type road through the Mayombe mountains. Like Hogsback in the Amathole region of SA, they have their own climate, and it was a treat to feel a cool damp breeze and a light rain. We woke to a Gorillas in the Mist backdrop, without the gorillas; I had to put on my HiTec waterproof jacket for a walk before setting off to drive down into Pointe Noire.
There’s no map for the city in either of our guidebooks so we followed our noses to the sea: into the centre of town, through narrow streets around a huge market and down a grand boulevard. Tucked behind the Gare du Nord, there was the beach. Enfin. The day had been gentil to us in the end.