It’s another typically untypical morning in Congo, where no day ever goes quite as planned. Today, our driver isn’t with us, as he had to take his child into hospital overnight with suspected malaria. So MT has taken the car to work with him, and I’ve hitched a lift with our neighbour to drop the kids off at school. He too has gone off to work now, and I haven’t managed to catch any of the other neighbours dropping their kids off to beg a lift home. But that’s OK – I have a taxi voucher* ready in my pocket.
Outside the school gate, there’s the usual snarl-up of traffic, as SUVs are aggressively maneouvered out of parking spaces, and nudged into non-existent gaps between crawling cars and trucks, until the road must surely look like some kind of herringbone stripe from above. There are a few taxis in front of me, idling patiently, but they’re all occupied already. I decide to walk the length of the block to the next junction where the traffic will be unsnarled.
By the time I’ve reached the junction I’m thinking maybe I’ll walk a bit further before I hail a taxi, just for the novelty of it. Then the really radical idea comes – I could walk all the way. But I couldn’t do that, because surely…but there are no reasons not to, of course. And now that the dry season has begun it won’t get too hot too quickly. So I decide to, yes, walk all the way home.
Although my feet are in the flip-flops I threw on on the way out the door, meaning I’m having to pull my feet from soft sand with each step, I’m buoyed by the idea of such free, autonomous movement; just me and the pavements. Well, the randomly surfaced edges of the streets anyway.
I have a wide, busy carrefour to cross first, where traffic takes a liberal approach to any highway code that may or may not exist here, so I might as well too. No point standing waiting for a gap while one road lets the other pass – nothing is that predictable. I take my chances and dodge between the cars, holding my hand up to claim my turn, just as drivers wave and signal at each other from the steering wheel with a code I’ve yet to decipher.
As I pass our gleaming new supermarket (oh yes, it is ‘ours’), with the shutters still down, I grumble inwardly with renewed frustration at the staggered start to the day. At work, meetings in some departments start as early as 7am, and the school bell rings at 7.45am. But no shop is open before 8.30, so there’s no handy option to do a quick grocery stop on the way home after drop-off: either wait around for half an hour or more, or factor it in later in the day, between the sometimes multiple school runs, paying bills in person, bank visits, not forgetting yoga classes, coffee mornings, and other mundélé preoccupations.
I approach the busiest junction downtown, where the side of the road is clogged up by cars whose drivers have popped into the bank, or across the road to pick up food at a popular café and takeaway, but most likely to pick up phone credit from one of the many yellow-tabarded sellers who populate the area. They wave a fluttering ribbon of cellophane-wrapped scratchcards, or when the cards are out of stock they can send the credit straight to your number from their own phone. In most parts of town, if you unexpectedly run out of credit you need only turn your head to find someone who’ll take your money and keep you connected.
There’s a large petrol station at this junction too. The school is on a route straight into town from the northern quartiers, and here is where it meets the main commercial road which runs from the market area inland to the railway station by the coast, so there are always dozens of vehicles jockeying for position – there are no traffic lights, and no streams of traffic, just vehicles facing off against each other from four directions until they can force their way onward. I can taste the pollution invading my lungs. Normally here we’d cross the traffic but I decide to conserve the mental energy it would take to weave my way across and instead turn down the main drag to take an alternative route.
I pass more western-style shops: a sports equipment place, and a fancy interiors and stationery shop opposite. Since almost everything is imported here, everything is expensive – in this sleek store even more so. But wealthy Congolese need their Alessi kitchen accessories just like everyone else. Of course they’re closed at this time anyway, so no temptation for me. I’m keeping half an eye on the traffic, trying to gauge a moment when the vehicles are stationary to dodge between them before the next turn-off at the end of the block.
I approach a point where a cluster of dark blue minibuses have stopped. These are the cheaper public transport option, bringing people in from the quartiers to work downtown. They go around constantly beeping their horns, somehow signalling to potential passengers the route they’ll be taking, and seemingly stopping whenever someone needs them to. So I’m surprised to notice for the the first time that there is a designated stop here, with people actually waiting, as if the next bus will actually arrive as anticipated.
Groups of schoolchildren are alighting in their distinctive khaki shirts with navy blue shorts or skirts – the uniform of all schools. I find myself walking behind a trio of a girl – 8 or 9 ? – each hand holding that of a much smaller child of 4 or 5, all with backpack on both shoulders and hair neatly braided. A hard-working parent has sent them off on a packed, precarious bus journey into a busy town, and they unquestioningly go straight to school. It’s a common sight, but every time I’m awed by the picture of vulnerability and resilience, and think about how to make sure my own little schoolboys in their padded car seats and lofty 4×4 don’t take it all for granted. It’s at this point that I notice that the office tower we’re passing has its car park surrounded by barbed wire, at pavement level, even though there’s an ungated opening for cars, and a long-legged person could easily step over it. Luckily none of us trips over the uneven pavement into it.
With the buses pausing here, it’s a good time to weave between the stationary vehicles and cross before the next turning. A man just ahead must have got off the same bus as the children, because he turns to see if they need to cross too – the school is round the corner. I’m moved and relieved to watch him guiding them through the cars, holding up a hand to keep them safe from drivers who may not otherwise see the children from their elevated positions. But we all have to stop and wait as three camouflaged trucks filled with armed military roar past on their way to the coast. The president will soon be in town and these guys don’t stop for anyone, not even diligent schoolchildren.
With the children safely on the other side, we all enter the side road, the samaritan presses on to his workplace, and the children take another turning towards school. I’m in a quieter area now, with a few small office blocks, as well as businesses that occupy former colonial houses and residential plots. Another neighbour’s driver passes and stops his car to wave and offer me a lift back. I reply with a grin and an exaggerated pumping of my arms to signal that I’m happy walking. As he drives off I immediately feel self-conscious; happily no one’s paying me any attention.
The streets in this area are gridded so I zigzag my way through more shaded streets to make my way home. I find I’m passing a very familiar address – the home of a friend who’s recently moved on, as is always the way. Used as I am to the expat turnover, I’m surprised by how affected I am by the sight of work going on on the property as it’s being done up and prepared for a new tenant. The gate’s been left open and I glance in, faking nonchalant curiosity. Some stranger will soon be using those rooms, sitting on that terrace by that pool – or, who knows, perhaps a future friend.
As I pass the guards of the neighbouring properties, who are gathered together on plastic chairs to chat, they greet me cheerily, ‘Bonjour Madame!’ I promptly respond with a bright smile and ‘Bonjour! Ca va?’ as I realise that, of course, they recognise me. They’ve seen me coming and going; our driver has often joined them in the shady spot under the tree to wait for me. I console my guilt at not recognising them personally with the thought that my very blonde whiteness marks me out. White guilt was never more ironic.
Now that I’m away from the busier streets I have my phone in my hand ready to snap some pics, although it’s still important to be careful – locals are suspicious of foreigners taking pictures in a hangover from Congo’s communist past. I’m always trying to capture the colour of the sky here, but the image usually falls short – even cloudless blue skies seem hazy, so the effect is more a slate-indigo blue, rather than the azure most people associate with tropical skies. Today the sun is starting to peek through clouds above and heat the side of my face more fiercely than I expected, while dark skies ahead over the Atlantic suggest we could still get rain, so either way, it’s worth picking up the pace as I get closer to home.
Since the president’s local residence is not far from ours, it’s wise to put my phone away again, rather than attract the attention of the increased police presence. At a large roundabout, next to the French consulate and the Lycée, the recently tidied-up central reservation has an inviting path across it, which leads me on to a narrow street where there’s a cluster of vendors that serve the local collège as well as many ménagères (housekeepers) and chauffeurs who work for families in this area. There are the ubiquitous phone credit sellers, stalls selling beignets and coffee, ‘fort’, the same French-style espresso which is the only kind of coffee you can order around here, and even a makeshift restaurant: a food stall on the street with tables and benches set up behind the wall of a vacant lot. Outside the collège, khaki-and-navy-uniformed teenagers are gathered by the entrance; as I pass I hear them calling for my attention with ‘Mère!’ rather than the more usual ‘maman’, which seems like a strange outburst of formality.
I’m crossing the railway tracks now so make sure my bag is well-buckled, but with the intense police presence around today there’s less need to be cautious. An engine with its bright Congolese flag livery starts up just as I’m crossing. There are no barriers, just a man with a flag who jumps off the train to warn drivers. To be walking on open tracks, with a train, albeit stationary, in close proximity, is a precarious thrill for someone who’s always had an irrational fear of level crossings.*
Then, I’m momentarily facing the Atlantic at the end of the short road in front of me and there’s the soft clean breeze of the sea in my face before I turn along the road to our compound. Living on the other side of the tracks here means living in what is probably, I realise now, the nicest part of town. The downtown area of colonial houses has its charm, but wealthier locals and other developers don’t always recognise this, rather associating status with newness. So vintage houses are left to decline while a large development of modern houses, a large proportion of which are taken by expats, continues to grow near the old port. But beachside living never goes out of fashion. Although we’re in a compound of staggered concrete apartment blocks, we’re surrounded by grand, well-maintained houses with expansive leafy gardens.
I pass into the green (for now, until the dry season kicks in) open space of our compound, where the sea breeze sometimes touches, where a driver is washing a car, where a neighbour is just finishing her tennis lesson. 45 minutes from the school gate, I climb the stairs of the middle concrete block to our Congo nest, where the AC greets me like a cold drink of water, and I can make my own long, strong coffee, the way I like it.
*That is, a 1000cfa note – about £1.30 – which covers a taxi journey of any distance across town. Officially, it’s actually a little less, if you’re a local, but it would be bad form for a privileged mundélé to ask for change.
*Thank you, British public safety broadcasts of the early 80s.