Congo Sketch – Balls to the Wall

Another Sunday, another trip up the coast for some beach time.  After a couple of years of African living I don’t always stare out of the window on every road trip, like I did at the beginning.  But I still do it often.  There are moments where the thought presents itself – I‘m living in Africa…we’re driving on African roads… – and it’s still amazing and foreign and different.  Today, I’m staring out the window.

The road out of town is lined with, first, the marché des ouis, a tidy network of stalls, spots reportedly reserved for those who supported the president in last year’s referendum. Then, there is the usual series of shacks housing tiny enterprises that are probably each supporting, as well as they can, scores of family members.  They’re all selling familiar goods and services, but many of the names are less recognisable.  Espace la Grâce à Dieu appears to be a local bar.  Not much happens here without invoking God or Jesus – even beers with the boys.  There’s a boutique (we hope) called Depot the Best Girls, and a couple of minutes further down the road, Depot the Best Girl’s II (sic).  Is it a franchise, we wonder?

We pass approximately 500 plastic chairs being pushed on a barrow, briefly ponder the story behind it, but are interrupted.  We’ve crossed a junction favoured as a stopping point by the traffic police, probably because of the vagueness of the road markings, which allows them to accuse everybody of having done something wrong.  After we’ve been pulled over the patroller comes to MT’s window with a smiling-yet-steely ‘Bonjour Monsieur’, hand outstretched for the permit.  While he studies it, MT is trying to extract from him why we’ve been stopped.  But this terse exchange, too, is interrupted, as our car continues to be a magnet for people in need.  A man comes barrelling across the road to ask us for money.  The patroller’s granite expression crumbles: no longer able to concentrate on how he can convince us to pay a fine, he sends us and the man away with angry, exasperated gestures, as if we’re the ones who’ve been wasting his time.  This is one of the highlights of MT’s day – it’s hilarious.  He wishes he could go back and give the interrupting man some money after all, just for so successfully foiling the traffic patroller’s efforts.  At least begging is honest.

We’re still on a busy section in the outskirts of town.  We hit a queue of traffic and the vague delineation between road and sandy pavement is abandoned as one lane becomes two for a short time, then three, then a staggered melee of cars determined to find their own magic way out of the jam, getting stuck halfway through a manoeuvre, trying to nose back in.  It’s easier just to wait.  Eventually the traffic starts to move and the jockeying for position becomes more confident again until one taxi comes racing up our inside, nosing in between two cars in front so fast we’re sure he’s going to plough into them.  But he stops in time with precision judgement.  ‘That is a balls to the wall move!’  MT is full of admiration.  He actually enjoys driving here – it’s liberating to just let everyone proceed according to their needs, each junction a negotiation, no wasted inches of tarmac without vehicles on them, and everyone gets where they’re going.  Moves that would render the reasonable driver irate back home are standard practice here.  A more honest form of driving, he thinks.  But it makes for a nerve-wracking first day or so back in the UK while he’s adjusting.

Radios playing rhythmic music or football commentary doppler in and and out of earshot.  We pass the familiar landmark of the Christian Impact Centre, a big busy church, always noticeable by the crowds of shiny, happy people gathered outside, in their colourful, perfect Sunday best, standing out in the grey dust like an advert for washing powder.  Worship is a glamorous affair.  But here, all aspects of life continue busily on the day of rest – rest is a luxury that not all can afford.  So we pass more shacks, all open for business.  A disproportionate number of them seem to be quincailleries – ironmongers or hardware stores, depending on which version of English you speak – along with depots de ciment (cement) as if everyone is building something.  When we were in Uganda, the majority of shacks seemed to be selling paint.  This often strikes me as a metaphor for the different levels of development in these two countries – there, people were ready to add a colourful finish to their properties; here, they’re still working on the structures.

And yes, as the buildings and businesses thin out on our way out of town, it seems that on every other plot of land there stands a half-built structure.  They look abandoned, but it’s more likely that someone’s plans for a forever home are being realised in stages.  Each time a little more money comes in, they can buy more concrete blocks for the structure, or the ornate gate and fencing to mark the land, or the grecian-style portico that frames the entrance (even though there’s no roof yet).  Even before it’s finished, there can be evidence of the owner’s spending power.  One house has a ground floor and the suggestion of an upper floor, with laundry strung between concrete struts marking potential walls, each with jagged points of the steel skeleton sticking out.  There’s an instinct to view these structures as sad, empty carcasses, but they’re also monuments to yet-to-be-realised ambitions, full of hope.

Old Whisky Billboard
We pass our favourite billboard, for ‘Old Whisky’.  But how old? 12-year-old?  15-year-old?  But where’s it from?  No need for elaboration – it’s whisky and it’s old.  Then there’s another sight we’ve seen before.  The first time, MT wondered aloud why there were such smartly-dressed young white guys climbing out of a taxi in ‘this part of town’.  Then I spotted the backpacks: ‘Mormons.’  Always an impressive sight.  I can’t imagine how overwhelming their vocation must be in this French-speaking catholic country.  Balls to the wall indeed.  But I’ve seen ‘The Book of Mormon’ so I can’t help but laugh as well.

As we leave town there’s no more tarmac and it’s time for ‘Bumpy roads, daddy!’  Potholes are so deep they need to be avoided, and so wide that avoiding them means crossing the traffic.  So we swerve like a slalom car, forming figures of eight with the taxi in front.  My pen careens across the notebook’s page.  Today’s obligatory African overloaded vehicle is the best yet: a truck piled at least two storeys high with sacks of cement, which teeter above the edges of the truck so that they are barely contained.  Yet several people are perched on top of the sacks, peering down at us from on high; I can’t imagine how they even got up there, and what the walk must be like if this death-defying journey is the alternative.  Soon, we pass the toll station and turn towards the beach.  The balls-to-the-wall moments are behind us, for a few hours at least.

A worthwhile destination


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