Streets of London

“So how can you tell me you’re lonely,

And say for you that the sun don’t shine?

Let me take you by the hand and lead you through the streets of London,

Show you something to make you change your mind.”

Some evenings, as the famous song goes, I too walk the well-trodden streets of London. My journey starts in a forboding dark tower, black steel framing blacker glass, basalt watchtowers climbing skyward, bats circling above. It is a gatehouse, flames tickling the reflected half-light, guarding a gaping chasm where the devil himself is trying to claw his way out. So far, the Central Line, several huge gas pipelines, and enough reinforced concrete to line Purgatory looks to be keeping him at bay, but I seem to manage an escape through the back door most days.

Having slipped away, like a Dickensian street urchin, from the clutches of my employer, I twist through the alleys and emerge on Holborn Viaduct, where I am abruptly thrown back to the kerb by a Hackney Carriage, diesel horse and outspoken reinsman pulling his well-to-do passenger past a mud-splattered delivery boy. I emerge, tired, hungry, in need of education and stern discipline, at Greyfriars Monastery, as orphaned children had done for 350 years, gifted a future by a Royal Charter from the boy king, Edward VI, in 1553.

The school at Greyfriars, Christ’s Hospital, moved out for cleaner air over a century ago. But once a year, the streets of London are closed down, and the children of the school form up in neat lines and march through the City, still wearing the yellow socks that have scared away the rats for nearly half a millenium.  Accompanied by the beat of the bass drums and the shrill piccolos, faces proud and stony as the reverberating walls, they march to the City’s ancient town hall at Guildhall, where they receive a newly minted coin from the Lord Mayor of London.

My own march takes me under the imposing dome and giant’s handiwork of St Paul’s Cathedral, glancing up at the empty niches to catch a wink from the missing statues. If I look back, flipping disinterestedly past the pages of Fleet Street, leaving the Masons stuck in their ceremonies at Temple Church, higher even than the Royal Courts of Justice, just sometimes, the great dome is framed by a sunset so glorious that I wonder if Mr. Wren ever sat on top of his magnificent creation and decided to move to the countryside.

Turning my back to the sun, I find myself reciting a well known medieval nursery rhyme:

“Oranges and lemons” say the Bells of St. Clement’s,

“You owe me five farthings” say the Bells of St. Martin’s,

“When will you pay me?” say the Bells of Old Bailey,

“When I grow rich” say the Bells of Shoreditch,

“When will that be?” say the Bells of Stepney,

“I do not know” say the Great Bells of Bow.

The City of London is, little known, the heart of English church bellringing. On the march eastwards from the bells of St Martin’s in Trafalgar Square to the bells of Stepney, you can hear the mathematical art practiced in its highest form. Some of the country’s heaviest bells swing full circle in the south-western Tower of St Paul’s Cathedral, whilst the other churches en route – St Andrew’s Holborn, St Sepulchre’s Newgate; St Michael’s Cornhill, conceal their gift in their conspicuous urban hiding places. Half way down the ironically-named Roman street of Cheapside, the Bow Bells ring out, that welcomed Dick Whittington back to London in 1392, that once signalled the start and end of the working day in the City, that were destroyed by a bomb in World War II, and that have been celebrated by centuries of children who didn’t have to look up the nursery rhyme on Google.

At the bottom end of Cheapside, I arrive at the geometrical absurdity of Bank Junction, guarded by the impenetrable stone walls of Mansion House, the Royal Exchange, the Bank of England, seat of the Lord Mayor of London and the traditional and corporate power wielded by the livery companies and the City of London. The buildings, monolithic tributes to financial superiority, were built progressively through the 18th and 19th centuries, designed by architects who plied their trade around the British Empire. At the feet of the Duke of Wellington’s bronze horse, I can almost feel I am standing on the bathplug, imagining the slaves, cotton, sugar, men and women of Africa and Asia pouring down the radial streets into Bank Junction.

Onwards, under the great Gherkin, modern day monument to London’s global influence, I hear the muezzin’s melodious call to prayer. It takes me by surprise, an abrupt end to the world of commerce, faces of glass, steel and stone, and transports me overseas, to Pakistan or Qatar, where these serious, artful and devoted recitations are a familiar, everyday sound, waking you up in the morning and chiding you if you are still at work when the sun goes down. Next door to the mosque, is the ancient lettering and weathered yellow door of Whitechapel Bell Foundry, where the Christian call to prayer is born for residents of our small island.

Further on, through the cyclists yelling at pedestrians, pedestrians yelling at drivers, drivers yelling at cyclists, all self-righteous in their vehicular identity of the minute, I am tempted by the Blind Beggar pub, famously frequented by the Kray brothers, and outside which a beggar, so intoxicated as to be blind, rolls around on the floor. I find myself musing on criminality – wondering if the comparison is fair between the Kray brothers, with their violent history, political connections and “fucking untouchable” celebrity status, and the educated men in ivory towers up the road, whose crimes may be so distant as to be unknown even to themselves.

On the final stretch home, a chirpy “God Bless You”, much more commonplace in East Africa, is a slightly more effective pitch from the next pavement dweller, bunkered down amongst the saris and samosas, bangles and beards, pomegranates and pashminas of Whitechapel Road, cheap end of the Monopoly board. Turning left up to Bethnal Green, through the Victorian workhouses and space-age council estates, I stop under the railway arches to check on my car, waiting for a white Caribbean mechanic and his Kenyan employee to finish their heated negotiations with a moustachioed and mistrusting topi-topped Pakistani office worker.

I suspect the inexorable march eastward, through London’s history towards Mile End, Vladivostok, World’s End, contains much of what the fence-builders and neighbour-blamers of today will never understand: As fraught with frustrations and misunderstandings as cultural interactions can be – every time, I would take those who take the considerable leap of faith to learn and grow with people outside their own narrow mindset, over the culturally moribund, historically ignorant, and self-important foolery of those who think that money, power, home, security and happiness is best protected by isolationism and building walls.

The Golden Road

The Golden Road

The deathly silence of the minibus gliding along the pristine surface of one of Doha’s arterial roads, ruler-straight Roman road of modern-day emporers.  Blacked-out windows the sign that no slaves ride here.  Occasionally, a jovial slap on the thigh for the sleeping passenger in the front seat, Amit’s way of staving off the creeping solitude of cash-weary and computer-worn.  Eyes barely roll as another expensive cruiser steams past between the fast lane and the central barriers, with the ignorant confidence of some untold immunity.

Weaving between the rumbling trucks, corrugated hulks of refuse and rock, water occasionally dripping from rusting tankers driven by faceless brown arms, our spacewagon swings off the highway into the desert.  On through avenues of towering pylons, steel trees lining a dusty boulevard to an unknown purgatory.  Over the boulevard, a single bleached white hut with a single tree shading a water tank, offering cool and prayer.  Beyond this last outpost, bunded oil pipelines chase the horizon into the haze, imaginary canals where rocks are reeds and dust is all that floats.

Some miles further on, out of the haze, a city emerges – a district of identical portacabins four stories high, a clutter of buses parked askew between the rocks and debris hewn from the foundations.  Some nights, at dusk, it is framed by the aura of a deepening orange orb, the most unbroken of sunsets anyway in the world, across an unblemished sky and spirit-level horizon.

Beyond this nameless city, huge mounds in the desert.  Sometimes a row of trucks sits atop a ridge, an excavator’s crooked elbow silhouetted, as if ready to haul its hidden body back from greater depths.  In one place, a clear blue lake, an engineer’s mistake, an over-excavation exposing the high groundwater somehow irreverently laying bare nature’s determination for privacy in these parts.

And the city?  A road is being built in the desert. A vast road, a marvel of modern engineering and project management, where genius and innovation share the same breath of cock-up and mismanagement, in a land where only pipelines and pylons can bear to make their home. An army of engineers, some clever and CAD-savvy, some bossy and bullish, all literate and articulate, sit in air conditioned cabins, slaves to their screens and their deadlines.  Here, in these desert libraries, a good joke falls like a drop of rain in spring.

At the end of day, back in the spacewagons on the thundering truck route, our engineers will sneak a glance at the uncooled desert towers half a mile away, populated by workers from the furnaces of Sindh and Punjab, who have probably never lived in a cooled room. There is no public transport into town, no prospect of hitching a ride, no internet, the same meal every day.  Rumours abound of shootings on the tracks or riots in the camps. But are only rumours, for few know the locals and fewer know the camps.

For these men, and it is largely men, who live and work on construction sites in Qatar, there seems to be an unwritten rule of pride – they come to Qatar to earn their way in the world, and they ask no pity, want no pity, expect no pity.  Nor is Qatar a land they will come to know intimately – it is just a place, a land of mystery and money and madmen, ticket to a dream housed somewhere else.  For me – one day, when the dust has settled once more, maybe I will return to Qatar, and ride my bicycle by the great superhighway, a fool’s Golden Road, and smile, if only to myself, for those whose dreams chased us here.

 

Mirrors in the Sky

Mirrors in the Sky

Last week, in Dubai, the world watched as an eagle soared from top of the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building, rising head and shoulders above the surrounding skyscrapers and pointing bold and razor sharp into the clouds, as if to puncture the sky above. The view from the eagle’s eye, seen by all who fly beneath the shining buttresses or stand on the giants’ shoulders, is truly spectacular. It begins with the emerald green sea, broken by the quiet specks of resting ships or the white arrowheads of forging tankers. Isolated oil rigs and terraced islands, half-eaten or half-baked, rise from the sea, excavators and graders crawling around their rippled leaves for the next bite. Weaving lazily beside the coastline, the last remnants of the desert shelf, with a flurry of speckled life clinging to the rocks, plunges away in long brush strokes of deep blue.

Sweeping inland over the sandy plains, and the eagle surveys a geometric marvel. A whole kingdom of carefully crafted spiders’ webs and reassuringly consistent grids, all connected by thick arteries and meticulously calculated curvature. All seems to be in balance, with no corner tangled or clamouring for breath – drawn from the sky as if the god who scribbled the Nazca lines had replaced his youthful art with a refinement of geometry, order and organisation.

When the eagle lands, the view is no worse. The great Burj itself rises from an artificial lake, where thousands of fountains dance an exotic choreography on so vast a scale as to obscure the sleeping tower cranes and the night sky behind. The Burj’s pointed spear surges upwards, with the surrounding skyscrapers following as boldly as they may, willing distant cities to follow their path, their glass mirrors daring to reflect the future.

Dubai pushes the boundaries. It is an engineering and architectural marvel – a glorious testament to the best on a vast scale, the brightest of minds collaborating to break through the limits of human achievement. Of course, it is not perfect – there have been failings – a lack of public transport and connectivity for walkers and cyclists is one example, contributing to an isolated and miserable existence for some – but even that seems to be increasingly addressed with a forceful will.

Sweet and golden under the Arabian sun, those in need of money swarm to Dubai, flies to a global honey pot. Many are labourers, taxi drivers, tea boys, attracted by recruitment agencies to the promise of quick wins. Many are qualified experts, engineers, teachers or doctors, whose salaries can frequently be twice as much as they might receive at home. Others are executives, drawn to the honey pot for a richer taste of profit and power.   Most have their reasons, some more pressing than others – but all start off hoping that a mouthful of honey will sweeten their lives.

But as flies have found since bees were born – honey can be sticky, hardened, even deadly. In Doha and Dubai, many find a bitter taste all too quickly. Rent is expensive, with few short-term contracts available, and employees are usually tied into long contracts, often with company loans to pay rental and living costs.   Maybe you can’t cross the road where you want, maybe you use pills to keep awake at the wheel of your truck or through the long days at the office, maybe you miss your family, maybe, if you are one of the lucky few who can get a visa for them, there is no-where for them to play, maybe you can’t afford to go out, or maybe you are too tired to do anything.

And if you want to fly away, you may find your feet stuck. You cannot legally leave until your debts are paid, nor until your company provides you permission to leave. I have met many trapped this way, from qualified Europeans to West African taxi drivers, lured by the promise of a $1000 each month that turns out to be 1000 dirhams ($270) minus accommodation and fees.

Dubai marina has everything that the eagle’s eye promised – a creekside promenade under the blue glass skyscrapers, packed with lively restaurants and palatial penthouses, and emerging onto a golden sand beach. One on end, in front of the gantries and cranes of the industrial dock, the jet skis flip and dance in the waves. In the middle, the sunbathers throw Islamic caution to the wind in pursuit of image, some showing off their tanned legs and gym-toned bodies, others for whom simply being present is sufficient. Further to the north lie the exclusive hotels and villas of Jumeirah, where there may be flies may be trapped in a different way – by the taste of their gold, modern day King Midases, rendered unable by their own greed to swallow to a more frugal and accountable existence in their home country.

Three thousand miles away, in the oil-rich forests of Eastern Congo, I read of the bullying, intimidation, and infighting amongst official and unoffical factions scrabbling in the dirt for their slice of the oil pie. The situation is complicated: “You, Europeans, you have eaten all your animals, and now you ask us to turn our backs on money the country desperately needs, the people desperately need, to protect animals?”. But somehow, in Congo, at least people know about the dirt, live with it, work with it. In Dubai and Doha, perhaps the dirt is swept under, washed away, ignored as everyone looks up to the future – I find myself wondering what colour the sky mirrors would turn if they chose to reflect a little more.

Sports Day

Sports Day

Picture the Champs Elysées in Paris in late July.  The crowds line the wide boulevard as far as the eye can see, and a long rainbow of helmets stretches round the corner under the vast shadows of the Arc de Triomphe.  Leaning into the curve at improbable angles, a speck or two shoot off in the crash barriers, sparks before the fire.  On the long straight, each rider straining to keep the wheel in front, and the peloton comes back together.  As one lap turns into another, this giant spear-headed fish starts to madden, fleeing an imaginary harpoon, flailing and fighting as the riders duck and dive for position.  On the final straight, fuelled by the explosion of noise from the crowd, it bursts into flame.  The sparks stand on their pedals and dart around for the right wind to follow – some fade into the flame, their work done, others may collide and fall, and those remaining hope to fly off into the stars.

This is the aspirational scenario for Doha Corniche, sun-drenched and sand-blown Champs-Elysées on the emerald sea, for the finale of the Tour of Qatar, hunting ground for the sprinting elite, and where the early blows are struck in the professional cycling season.

No-one prepared me for the silence.  As the peloton hauled its way up and down under the palm trees, barely a word was spoken. With each lap, the concentration on the riders’ faces and the strain in their muscles intensified as the spring wound up.  All I could hear was the whirr of the chainwheels and the rush of the wind, and a momentary silence rolling away down the road.

Nor, in Paris, would I be able to stand on the finish line, my camera lens thrust over the white paint on the tarmac, looking into the commentary box.  Walking around in my lycra shorts had made me feel like I was turning up to high tea in my underpants, and I was relieved when a few other cyclists began to lean their bicycles on the railings and shout into the road. The atmosphere gradually built, and the adrenalin began to flow – clearly it will take a while to reproduce the Champs Elysées here – but to witness a sprint finish at close quarters was as electrifying as I had hoped.

The Tour of Qatar is not the only sporting event happening in Qatar.  In fact, there are more than I can keep track of – there are global sailing, tennis, athletics, driving, handball competitions all happening in a short space of time: Qatar is now a prolific host of high-profile international sporting events, and a sought-after investor in sports teams and tournaments. Qatar’s recent National Sports Day was a public holiday, a traditional day of games and glory as ancient Olympians would have known.

Honouring the occasion at our site office in the desert, I consumed fries and a club sandwich at my desk and endeavoured to fill my coffee breaks with occasional nightmares about past school sports days.  Even the roads respected Sports Day, the only day I had seen them running free, as if playing themselves.  Clearly, if Qatar is serious about sport, health, and a more attractive urban environment for Doha, much deeper solutions are required, starting with the sort of long-term sacrifices many cities have made for public and non-motorised transport over private cars.

Racked with guilt from my no-show on National Sports Day, I was persuaded to go dragon boating.  I imagined that it would involve fire, flying, impenetrable scales, a close brush with death in treacherous waters, and a glorious redemption with a spear to the vulnerable underbelly as the dragon draws breath for his final onslaught.   Needless to say, it is in fact much like rowing, only simpler.

The process of learning a new skill, and possibly my Sports Day guilt, made me ask, why do we play sport?  Games are for children, right?  Riding the dragon’s back as I was, beating the poor creature through the water so inelegantly, I began to wonder how foolish I was.  However, as the dragon tired, I found myself returning to technicalities I was familiar with: discovering that the same metronome keeping a peloton riding inches from each others’ wheels also makes a longboat glide through the water.  Similarly, the same precise awareness and control of dynamics that a court player will use to strike the ball is useful to a rower placing a paddle.

Surely it is no coincidence that life and work are sometimes referred to as a game, for sport teaches us to know our body and mind – to gauge our limits and pace our efforts, to know false hunger and real hunger, to shrug off defeat, and to know how long and hard a skill is won.  And perhaps sport has lessons for society and economy as well – in a boat or in a peloton, everyone gets to the finish line quicker and enjoys it more if they pull together, look out for the weaker riders or rowers, take the time to support, educate and train them.

Still feeling like I was condemned to physical education purgatory for my Sports Day sleight, I turned up to a squash club, to find a former Egyptian national player training – he could have wiped the floor with me and still not have cleaned all the corners.  Instead he gave me a few tips and enthused about the game, and I stayed to watch his deft flicks and dancing feet, the time-old magic of observing a craftsman who had truly mastered his art.

Perhaps you think you’ve never been very good at sport. Perhaps you’re too busy or prefer other skills.  Maybe you’ve had a bad experience.  Sport is certainly not the only skill or art worth knowing, and most of us will never sprint down the Corniche or play squash for our country – but, like a car that seizes up when it is not used, our bodies are designed to be active, every day of our lives.  And there are more sports out there than most of us will ever have the chance to play, and more reasons to enjoy each one than we will ever know.  So go on, grow up: explore outdoors, learn something new, play a game.

The Road to Kibeke Uru

The Road to Kibeke Uru

 

After six months of convincing Punia that we were not miners, we could finally start to rehabilitate some of the dilapidated health centres.  In some cases, we decided, there was nothing to improve upon, and we would have to start afresh.   We had fought for funding for construction projects, having been told that Punia was a lost cause – a logistical nightmare with inaccessible villages, mistrustful locals and endemic thievery.  From our 28 health centres, all of which would have benefited from works, we settled on Kibeke Uru, a small staging post on the way south to Kindu, and where we now staked our reputations and promises.

Kibeke Uru was a mere three hours away from Punia.  The first hour could be covered in our aging landcruisers, forest mosses already staking their claim to the bonnet, and springs girder-straight under the weight of cement.   When the cars were finally defeated by a fallen steel bridge, our team would mount the line of steel horses for their daily charge southwards.  Maintaining the route access became a major commitment – over the many river crossings, a broken log or plank could lead to major delays in the provision of construction material.  A rapid response team quickly developed for such eventualities, of saw, generator, welder, and a community motivator to provide the entirely non-mechanical machinery for transporting the logs from where they were felled and lifting them into place.  After the first six months of operation, our greatest success was in persuading the Sparky the welder to dispense with his flip flops and don shoes, trousers and sunglasses.

Upon arrival in Kibeke Uru, where we were about to construct the village’s first brick structure, our first port of call was a palm leaf-shelter in a small opening next to the track, where the village chief held court, cowboy hat in his lap and children running between the feet of his committee.  One committee member who was frequently absent, with the rare privilege of a motorbike, sometimes fuelled sufficiently to travel to Punia, Kindu or further afield, was a toothless old pastor.  Samuel had a broad grin, a firm leathery handshake, and a childlike enthusiasm, an unparalleled force in motivating his committee, by energy, charm and example, to dive headlong into the hard days of work required in chopping wood, digging sand or transporting water for the new health centre.  As a young pastor, Samuel had travelled to Sudan, one of very few Punia residents to have travelled abroad, and had a smattering of English that he had not uttered for forty years.

After several months, a mountain of 20,000 bricks had been fired in the centre of town, a smouldering monument to the efforts of Samuel and his community.  Hundreds of hardwood planks and beams lay drying, hewn bamboo ready for the scaffolding, and 80 cubic metres of sand from a dry river had been painstakingly sifted and lifted into a golden mound in front of the new foundations.  Those who had taken part would be sharing their stories of these months for years to come, and I hoped it would mean that the health centre would be well used and well looked after for years to come.

With the community working so hard, I felt a lot of pressure to fulfil our side of the bargain.  I had secured 200 bags of cement in a deal sealed with a bone-crushing handshake from supplier Benz, soundless and speedy Mercedes of Punia’s businessmen, too professional to join us on the football pitch.   The cement was to arrive from Kisangani in the north – after reaching as far as possible on broken long-nose trucks, labourers bouncing on top of the cargo between the high wooden sides, covered from head to toe in the alkaline white dust.  When the murram road came to a halt, and a winding motorbike track disappeared into a thicket, the trucks could go no further – the cement was bagged in polythene, and strapped to bicycles for the final few days to Punia.  A long line of 70 laden bicycles, pushed by muscly tolekistes, stretched out through the ruts and bamboo thickets, accompanied by the hum of insects, the monkeys having been long ago hunted out in this part of the forest.  At the river, a wide tributary of the Congo to the west, the tolekistes skied barefoot down the deep brown embankment, piled their timeless Indian frames away from the lapping water, and skidded under a leaning tree to receive maize flour and greasy goat sauce from a verbose mama and her meek daughters.

On the opposite bank of the river lay the rusting hulk on an old Belgian ferry, hull pointing skyward, the victim of an unwise mooring and a long-forgotten flood.  Apart from the thick metal sheets of her superstructure, anything of value and portability had been spirited away, and the humid sun had long since stripped any sign of paintwork from this central African Queen.  On each riverbank, lower down the shoreline, were several ranks of long wooden pirogues, dugout canoes hand-chisled from the straightest tree trunks, and locked in place by the long pointed oars of their bare-chested captains, wedged into the mud to prevent the ranks of pirogues cutting loose and escaping downstream.

Whichever way you are travelling out from Punia, a journey overland will eventually necessitate a river crossing by pirogue.  First, motorbikes, or in this case bicycles and motorbikes are wheeled on, in a careful art of balance to avoid overturning the thin hull, with the rider seated on his haunches and taking care to stabilize his machine: one of our own drivers had nearly drowned when his motorbike overturned in a rain-filled river further into the bush.  Very few Congolese can swim – in Kindu, overloaded boats seemed to overturn every year, with inevitable fatalities, passengers old and young trapped by the collective need for a cheap crossing. With this in mind, in order to keep the gunwales above water on our own river crossings, we would have to hire the pirogue at the luxury of a greater expense, and then fight off the crowds wanting to benefit from a free ride.

Cargo loaded, and passengers seated amongst the polyester sacks, bunches of bananas, bicycles and boxes, the captain, ankle deep in mud, would cast off and leap onto the stern in one smooth movement.  He stood astern, with a young oarsman on the prow, both alternating deft strokes with the long paddles, to the left, to the right, two to the left, three to the right, keeping the boat on some unknown line. Each stroke was short and sharp, with a noiseless flick and twist at the end so that only a few drops of water disturbed the brown water.  The pirogue glided forward, the captain hugging the shoreline to avoid fighting the stronger current mid-stream, and the commotion of the landing bay quickly disappeared into a silence and the easy rhythm of the long paddles.   After a long run next to mangrove roots, the captain turns into the river, curving a long arc upstream – rhythm unchanged, both men begin to work a lot harder.  By the middle of the river, the boat travels backwards against their efforts, such is the force of the current flowing downhill to Kinshasa.  Only as their muscles relax in the lazier currents at the edge of the river do the passengers begin to chatter, curious about the homes and onward destinations of their fellow journeymen.

Back in Kibeke Uru, where the snaking peloton of skin and steel had finally deposited their dusty cargo, work began in earnest, led by engineer Patrick from Kisangani, who had barely used anything more technical than his battered mobile phone, but who, like many from the province, carried no baggage of false ceilings of learning, and was soon managing multiple projects and large supply chains on the computer.

A month and many more motorbike rides later, I took a step back with our team of contractors and village workers, paint covering their vests and trousers with tears from ankle to underpants, and admired the new health centre: a humble 15m long, seven rooms, small veranda, airy tin roof, resplendent in a fresh coat of green and white paint, and smelling of the new hardwood furniture that stood in the rooms.

Later in the week, Punia District descended on Kibeke Uru’s narrow jungle opening for the commissioning ceremony.  A palm shelter had been quickly erected, a collection of chairs scrambled from across the village, and a few goats slaughtered. The district health officials arrived late, still, despite funding and guidance, unable to organize themselves to repair and fuel their motorbikes. Samuel’s flock arrived late, used to church services that lasted the whole day.  The fearfully named Administrator, highest political authority in the land, owner of one of Punia’s two cars, was the last to arrive, with a tardiness befitting his elevated position.  On the whole, he had been supportive of our activities and had helped to resolve local political disputes that hindered progress, but he had tasked his two government intelligence men with keeping tabs on our movements.  To add to the combat fatigues of the local military men and their entourages, he arrived with three Kalasknikov-carrying policemen, who wasted no time in asking for my sunglasses.

I need not have worried about the speeches – far from the rambling lists of misplaced thanks and dubious metaphors that I had expected, these local leaders were skilled orators.  We were all well aware that the construction was even the easy part of the job – keeping a health centre stocked and staffed and trusted is a much more difficult prospect in rural Congo.  But here, we had an opportunity to thank the community the magnitude of what they had achieved, and to instill in them an enthusiasm for the work that their nurses would carry out and the education that they would provide.  The shrill calls and applause of the seated villagers told of an enthusiastic community.  When it came to my own turn, responding to Monsieur Administrateur, I had a careful internal debate, and eventually decided not to comment on the historical duty posed by the green Robin Hood hat perched atop his head.

Finally, hand greased and stomach full with goat and ugali, and the clapping gospel melodies of Samuel’s Congolese mamas in their riotous Sunday dresses bidding us farewell, I returned to the motorbikes for the long return journey home.  Either of Sunglasses 1, 2 or 3 had stolen the ignition keys.

Premier League

Premier League

 

The stands filled to the brim, football mad African crowds singing and dancing, the glorious victory run back through an admiring team.  That is how I imagined my international debut.

Our footballing campaign in Punia was inspired by the World Cup.  In the usual morning conversations about the previous night’s matches, which I had occasionally watched in the bar across the road (a TV on a plastic table under the palm trees), I was desperate to hide my ignorance.  So, before the motards realized I only knew three international footballers, I would turn the conversation to their own footballing exploits, and soon discovered that, at least according to their own judgement, there was a pool of untapped talent.  I plotted with Yusufu, head mechanic and undisputed captain of our humble band, who fixed a debut match against a team of local businessmen.

On match day, I arrived at the allotted time at Punia’s main stadium, hoping for a few minutes to gaze into the stands, soak up the atmosphere and elevate my mind to a glorious match-winning mentality.   The stands I had dreamed of were there – a concrete structure the size of a small house, with the remnants of peeling paint from yesteryear, and faded black letters spelling out the name, M’piala.   From the stands, the pitch ran out into town – looking straight across to the winding track that formed the main highway, left to the crumbling offices of the electric company, and right to the back side of a palm fence behind a cluster of mud huts.  The pitch was a mix of bare earth and tufted grass, with a large stagnant puddle covering much of the left approach to the southern goal.   I shared the turf with a few grazing goats, and began to stretch off.  An hour went by, maybe more – I retired to the stands to study the pitch and chew grass.

Eventually, a cacophony of horns and chanting erupted over the hill, and two pickups bounced into the stadium.  Yusufu and his boys leapt onto the pitch, followed sedately by our opponents, climbing gingerly from the truck bed, as if not wanting to burden their aging joints with the full weight of their rotund forms.  And clearly, the match had needed no publicity, for word had got around town, and the spectators started to trickle in from all corners of the stadium – football teams, barefooted schoolchildren, passing motorcyclists, shopkeepers from the town centre – the stands would be full after all.

The match itself passed in a whirl of heat and excitement – although far quicker with the tongue than the ball, the businessmen turned out to be a passable opposition, but no match for the accelerations of barefooted whippet Djavu up the wing.  Defensive lines and midfield strategy never featured – Yusufu, rock of the central defense in a weightlifter’s vest, would twirl and twist the full length of the pitch before scuffing his powerful shot into the long grass.  However, none got the crowd roaring as much as Rashaz.   Old diabetic Muslim Rashaz, who had been relegated from the long motorbike rides to the short journeys which could be achieved with the landcruiser, and whose steering wheel he struggled to squeeze behind.  When the ball headed for Rashaz, when he made a pass or began a lumbering few paces, the crowd went wild – and, a few steps later, doubled over with a wide grin on his panting face, Rashaz would raise his hand in bewildered appreciation, and the crowd would fall about laughing.

After our victorious debut, we carried on working out way through Punia’s footballing ranks – we played the local bicycle mechanics, who turned up with black oil on their hands, and then our local health authority partners, sliding on a waterlogged pitch under the warm rain.  With each passing game, the transfer market became dirtier, as each team began to pull in ringers, local footballing superstars who might have worked as a ‘journalier’ driver once upon a time.  The pre-match preparations evolved to include team introductions, and a surreptitious clarification of the cover story was required, in order to face the inevitable complaints from the opposition.  One player who was assured a spot in every team however, was gladiatorial Rashaz, who had won the hearts of the M’piala Colosseum.

This, I felt, is the beauty of 22 men pointlessly chasing a bladder around the grass: On a pitch, we were equals – there were no nations, no white and black, no Muslim and Christian, no workplace hierarchies.  Yusufu had learned his game chasing a ball between the mud huts in central Congo, I had been schooled 10,000 miles away on the pristine pitches of a boarding school in village England.  The games did more for our local safety and the success of our projects than any official meetings or security strategies.  My own salvation arrived with a left footer, soaring through the empty posts past the bemused cement merchant.  I had finally returned to the glorious level of my teenage years, as star runner for the school 6th XI, a position I had won by virtue of being the only non-smoker on the team.  More importantly, in a community suspicious and paranoid of outsiders, I had a strong sense that this was when we had really begun to break down Punia’s defensive barriers.

Phoney Tales

Phoney Tales

 

Logisticians, like children, should only be seen when something goes wrong.  The old adage is that logisticians should make everything run smoothly behind the scenes – if logistics is noticed, then it is because something has gone wrong, something isn’t in place that should have been.  In Punia, our team of logisticians were responsible for keeping the vehicles and generators running, for stocking the warehouse and arranging the monthly medical deliveries, for managing construction projects, for anything that needed buying, for security, and for keeping the base in touch with the outside world through satellite internet and HF radio.  To keep up any level of functioning internet, I had to embrace the role of pornography policeman, marble polish for our pillars of the churchgoing community.

In the early morning, I shut my domestic concerns with our stray animals behind the bamboo fence, and wave a cheery greeting to guard Philippe, who hurriedly puts down his schoolbooks to man the gate.  The half mile walk took me past the empty brick warehouse, Punia’s largest building, where the last fleeing army sheltered, and where children sometimes congregate after school.   I share a wink and a joke with the local policemen leaning on their round-less guns and refuse the peanuts for sale at the gates, where I am usually greeted by our head of security.   Moussa is a barrel of a man, with a shaved head, flat cap and meticulously styled beard.   He has a childlike laugh that carries all the way to our house, and his chosen ringtone is a baby crying.  On first hearing of a security incident, he will run to my office like an oversized penguin and squawk through a gabbled version of events, sneaking worried glances up at me between sentences in search of reassurance.

It was a good day if I made it past Moussa’s small shack at the gate without being dragged off to the mechanics’ hut or the warehouse.  On one occasion, I arrived to find much of the base flattened by an overnight storm.  Bamboo fences toppled, torrents eroding away the foundations, warehouse floor flooded, motorbikes and benches collapsed under a pile of wood and palm leaves that had protected them.  Another morning, having succeeded in a long campaign to start my days with more than sugary water, I sat down to find a dead rat in the middle of my desk, next to an overturned coffee pot – I hoped this drug-fuelled mystery would help improve my credibility as a some sort of logistical shaman for Punia’s health sector.

Finally, we would sit down to face the day.  Usually the morning would be filled with meetings – working out medical programmes and strategy, managing delivery priorities, checking progress from the field, and most crucially, talking to local suppliers, political and community leaders, and health authorities.  Meetings would invariably start an hour or two late.  Usually, essential representatives would either not turn up or bring two or three additional delegates.  Then begins the most important ritual – each delegate reaches in the folds of his colourful matching trouser-shirt suit combo, and extracts his mobile phone, placing it carefully on the table in front of him.  For a man of slightly higher status, he reaches in another pocket, and takes out a second phone, placing it on top of the first.   For the men who arrived by motorbike, a third phone.  For men of true political clout in Punia, the ominously named ‘Administrator’ or our boy-racer Hospital chief, a fourth handset is added to the Pyramid of telephonic pharaohs.  The meeting begins, with a prolonged ritual of thanks and introduction, and just as the critical point of business is arrived upon, the crucial member will pick up their mobile phone and shout loudly into it for several minutes.

Sometimes in the meeting, when a particularly nuanced issue needed to be communicated, one of the older men, wisened into their 40s or 50s (there a few in Punia much older), would pick up his pile of telephones, tug his shirt downwards on his rounded belly, and rise from his plastic chair.   The room would fall silent, and he would launch into a warm and well-received anecdote from years when he possessed a smaller number of telephones.   Finally, the story coming to a close, it would be summarized with a wise proverb: “the monkey with no tail cannot swing in the branches” or “coconuts will bounce high under a blue sky”.

The assembled delegates would all nod or chuckle knowingly, presumably soaked in such meaning from a young age, and I would join them, not quite understanding, but appreciating the wisdom of one of Punia’s own.  After a few such meetings, I began to lean across to my neighbor to try and find out more.  On every occasion, he would shrug ‘je sais pas exactement, Papa’.  Made up off the cuff, albeit a slightly more colourful one than those in most boardrooms.