Congo Crossings

It feels like I should stay longer in Brazzaville. It calls to me - the European feel of the city - but there is really nothing more to keep me. The only reason I can think of for not leaving Brazzaville immediately is that it involves going to Kinshasa, on the other bank of the River Congo.

Brazzaville's port is perhaps precisely the opposite of chaos. Everything has its place, and everyone knows what to do, except me. It turns out travelling by canot rapide speedboat requires quite a lot of slow and confused. The confusion continues at the pontoon that is the port of Kinshasa. It lives up to the countryís reputation for pandemonium, with people calling for my attention from every direction and crowds pouring all around me. I'm ushered from one person and one place to another, before being escorted to the immigration office where an officer and I fill out a form. I sit thinking the process is friendly but laborious. After 40 minutes he disappears for 30 more.

Returning, he says: "I'm sorry, but the chief is sending you back. He says your visa from Libreville is not valid because you are not a resident of Gabon." I'm taken back to the pontoon, and there the officer and I wait for a long time, in full sun. I havenít eaten or drunk anything for hours.

I begin to sense a scam when I'm not pushed onto the first speedboat back. From then on I don't really know what is going on for the rest of the day: no one will speak to me for long enough to get the full story. After some time a porter begins talking to me. He seems to think "the situation can be resolved", and in the meantime a speedboat is found to take me back to Brazzaville. "Then in one, maybe two hours you come back and we'll get you through". I don't know who may be in on the scam, seemingly everyone. I don't know who I can trust.

I'm kept waiting for an hour on the Brazzaville side while officials there claim my visa has been invalidated by my short exit, keeping hold of my passport. While waiting, another commuter who knows the process approaches me saying: "Itís your first time to Kinshasa? You give $200 in an envelope with your passport and you get the stamp. Itís easy."

By now I feel like itís all spiralling out of control, both sides of the Congo playing me. I know it, and can do nothing about it. If I do cross again there is nothing to stop Kinshasa returning me whether I pay them the bribe or not. Then I'm back in Brazzaville being told my visa is invalid again. I lose any desire I had to cross to the Democratic Republic of Congo and risk all this again. I don't believe the country deserves my money until its officials grow up and behave like men rather than bullies. All the same, Iím told to buy another speedboat ticket, and cross, being given back my passport.

In Kinshasa, across a choppier Congo and duller sky, I'm hustled off the pontoon, my passport taken, and hustled back onto the pontoon. I'm grabbed and all but pushed on to a speedboat, my passport handed to the captain, not me. I have to ask him where we are going.

Eventually Iím shown the DRC visa page of my passport. It has 'annule, annule, annule' stamped across it. An official says: "What hotel are you staying at?"
"I don't have one. I thought I was going to Kinshasa. Yesterday I was at the Hotel Siringo."
"Okay. Go to the hotel tonight. Then tomorrow, you go to the airport and leave. No Kinshasa; Kinshasa is finished."

I M Packham

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