Since we arrived in central Africa, there has been an increase in the frequency of the appeal ‘On souffre’: ‘We’re suffering’. This is usually underscored with the unsaid ‘Give us something; assuage your colonial guilt’. I’m not about to argue the premise. It brings to mind the classic track Suffering and Smiling by the immortal Fela Kuti, with the refrain “Suffer suffer suffer suffer suffer for world; na your fault be that”. If you’ve never heard it, check here http://www.downloads.nl/music/Fela+Suffering+And+Smiling– you can probably read this blog quicker than hearing the whole song. Fela wasn’t a believer in the old adage ‘less is more’.
On the way into Pointe Noire in late September, we stopped in the middle of the market on the outskirts, having learned from experience that food is always much cheaper there than in the CBD. The women vendors were surprisingly nosey after the nonchalance of their peers in Brazza, bombarding me with a range of questions about everything from my kids to my hair. The oldest, most philosophical of them opened with an “On souffre”, but when I pointed out that, in my experience, most of Africa suffers, including the majority of South Africans, she cheered up a bit. On the way out, a month later, by complete fluke we pulled in at exactly the same spot! They were all so pleased to see me, I felt like the prodigal daughter, being greeted with an array of whoops and the raising of hands.
After Jérôme’s wonderful mechanic – the aptly named Honey – had tracked down the source of our fuel power problems to one clogged non-return valve which was cheaply remedied by replacing a 2m length of pipe, we set off. It was a slow crawl back through the Mayombe mountains, as Big Reg seemed unhappy with the brand new fan belt and kept overheating on the steep hills. On reaching Dolisie, our opinion of the third largest town in Congo was transformed by the smiling welcome we received, pulling up outside bush mechanics’ Rio and Maling at 4pm. When I explained that Sampson would like to ask them to oversee his attempt to change the fan belt himself, they were delighted. As they sat on the bumper watching him sweat and chuckling at their role, Maling declared that Sampson was “Un bon éléve.” When I asked him to set a price for this service, Rio said: “South Africans and Congolese, we are one – you give me what you think.” Their attitude was so un-grasping. They even gave him a super useful tool, a cornered spanner especially for adjusting long bolts. We had to force 10000FCFA (R200) on them.
Meanwhile a woman arranged her face in mask of torment and approached me with an “On souffre” before asking me for “something”. As she was better dressed, with a more expensive hairdo than mine, she quickly amended that to “take me with you”. Next came her sister with outstretched hands suggesting “Un bière?” I told her that even on my husband’s birthday we couldn’t afford drinks. Sampson suddenly jumped out in front of her from behind the truck with his hands outstretched: “Give me, give meeeeee!!!” They were flummoxed. He gestured to her earrings, showing his ears were lacking. They were completely bemused, and when he progressed to boob gestures, being without those as well, they dissolved into raucous laughter. It’s amazing how leveling a laugh is. We were all mates then, all humans united by smiles and silliness. They insisted I take lots of photos of them, with their dear old Dad who took our Facebook details.
Before we left Pointe Noire, I spent nearly the whole day loading photos on the Africa Clockwise Facebook page with a painfully s-l-o-w internet connection. Cross-eyed, I bumbled down to the beach afterwards to get some fresh air and write my diary. After a few minutes, I was interrupted by a tall feller who asked me “if I was writing?” Sigh. It takes a lot to recover from that. But this unpromising beginning turned into the most interesting conversation I’ve had on this journey so far.
Abu is an artist who sells his work at the Pyramide’s boutique, and he’s the first person from Mali I have met. When I told him that he said “Ah, there’s lots of us here, but they won’t speak to you.” He told me that North and West Africans are looked down on by the Congolese, and it’s worse in (Angolan) Cabinda “where we are treated like dogs”. So, xenophobia is alive and well in central Africa; I was perhaps naïve to assume otherwise. He feels Mali is too dangerous for us or him right now, as outsiders and artists of any description are at risk from jihadist Touareg loyal to Gadaffi who have come down from Libya seeking a new power base.
Abu has travelled to many of his neighbouring countries – Senegal, Guinea, Côte d’Ivoire, Burkina Faso – and he reflected that the difference between us and them, “us Africans and Afro-Americans, us and Europeans” is the profound difference between those who have suffered and those who have not. But for Abu this was a strength: “We know how to suffer. We have made of it an artform.” I agreed and added that with climate change coming, Africans will be hit harder but may manage better than the Americans and Europeans who are not in the habit of having to cope with suffering piled upon suffering. Mentally the latter will be floored; things will fall apart.
Africans are used to constant challenges; they have no choice but to take them one and a time, and keep on going. This may also be naïve, but I am walking through a country which only a few years ago was devastated by brutal civil war and talking to people like Alphonso from Liberia who’s looking forward to going home, Xavier who chose the Congo after Cote d’Ivoire, Champion who is looking forward, planning and saving and dreaming. Suffering and smiling.
Back on the dirt road, happily heading north again at long last, Sampson and I continue to be amazed by ‘The power of the smile’. Each day as we trundle through tiny villages, just a handful of one or two roomed clay brick buildings, with tin or palm thatched roofs and a clutch of children and skinny chickens scurrying about, the women pounding, washing or sweeping, the men lounging, they all look up at this green apparition. All that ever passes by here are long trucks loaded with ginormous logs, never tourists. They stand and stare, then we smile and wave and their faces break into grins, which transform them from strangers to friends in an instant. We love the Congo.
Waking up on Sunday outside one of the last villages before the border reminded Sampson of that scene in The Life of Brian where the eponymous hero throws open the window in the morning starkers, only to be greeted by a crowd of 2000 outside who’ve been waiting all night to see him. Wary kids he’d entertained with a spot of magic at dusk the night before had told their friends, and they were all there at 6am. They stayed for the full show: Sampson’s back exercises, my T’ai Chi, and a spot of oil filtering…
At the frontier town of Ngongo, we had to go through five posts: customs, immigration, police, gendarmes, and the border guard. Some of them were charming, some were jobsworthies, but the guy from immigration let me down. We have had an overwhelmingly positive time with the vast majority of Congolese officials, experiencing zero corruption, until the very last check point in the very last village.
After stamping our passports, he suggested that he would “only” charge 5000FCFA each for Sampson’s and mine, and gave me back the children’s like he was doing me a favour. As I didn’t leap at this, and just sat without responding, he changed tack and tried the “There’s a payment for each vehicle and here’s the official form” option. He should have known better than trying to mess with veteran of a hundred roadblocks and queen blagger Pearce… I flourished our big yellow International Carnet book and explained that there was no need for that as we’d already paid thousands of rand to the AA for our truck to go all over Africa and this form had been stamped in and out of Congo by customs already. Too late, he tried to backtrack to the passport charge but I’d scooped them up while he was scrabbling for his form, and now waved our Official Letter of Authority adding breezily that the South African Embassy had not mentioned any charge would be necessary at the border, but I could phone them and check? He knew when he was beaten and backed down. I thanked him and left.
What I couldn’t get out of my head was the fact that half an hour before, as he was taking his time reading through our passports and writing the details laboriously into his ledger, I let a tired-looking woman with a toddler go ahead of us as I could tell this was going to take ages. I watched as he asked for 20000FCFA from her to give her back her laissez-passer, how she drew the notes painfully from her purse, and how he secreted them in his bottom drawer. On souffre.
Written on 27th Oct