River Congo

River Congo


I write this month’s update under a straw shelter in Kindu, the small town on the banks of the Congo river where there are at many different kinds of destructive ant, and where I am relieved that you can still get Primus beer, whose colourful dancing girls adorn the Sunday best suits of the churchgoers.  Here, you can walk the streets at night, and even the soldiers seem to have a smile instead of a scowl.

Kindu is the logistical hub for our 145 health centres in Maniema province, central Congo.    The work is long, and there are simply not enough hours in the day – we are a handful working with a multi-million dollar budget, supporting clinics that are sometimes days away through the jungle. The tired fleet of 20 motorbikes and 7 landcruisers, constantly battered by the daily journeys into the jungle, needs a regular supply of parts and mechanical inventiveness.   In addition, there is a warehouse and monthly distribution schedule of 300 medical line items to be managed, with the procurement for the medicines, vehicle parts, construction supplies down to pencils and toilet paper, and a team of warehouse keepers, guards, nurses, mechanics and drivers to be managed.  I notice a stark reduction, in comparison to Goma, in the experience and ability of these teams.   Systems to make sense out of the chaos, to track materials and supplies and plans, are desperately needed, and the implementation of which is in constant battle against the firefighting tasks of the day.

But I do not work alone – indeed, there are some quick learners here, and I discover that time spent working with and training staff has quick rewards here.  My weekly meetings turn into an entertaining line-up of misfits and eccentrics – so much so that my standards of normality for Congolese worker bees are quickly readdressed.  There is the willowy, drunk fleet manager, swaying in the wind, who has no concept of planning and organization for the management of a large fleet, but who does have an uncanny knack for sucking through blocked fuel hoses.  His partner-in-crime, seeking to usurp him from his lofty throne, tries to steal vehicle parts or fuel to sell, often with the most comically see-through stories.  Standing in his way is the surly warehouse manager who guards his store like the Bastille. The two items  that most often pass through, and are most often stolen, are fuel and cement. Ironically, he is chronically allergic to both of them.  At the head of the team, commanding a simple intellectual respect from his children, is the professorial figure of the head logistician, man of meticulous academic nature, scrupulous honesty, and the longest working day of all.

The only other force with the power to unite the professor’s squabbling children, is the expatriate engineer in charge of construction activities.  Rudolfo is a an die-hard Chilean communist who bears a passing resemblance to Father Christmas, and spent two years in jail under Pinochet.  He shouts, swears, accuses everyone of corruption, and calls all his interns ‘Maria’.  He took in a young Congolese who approached him in the streets of Kinshasa, housed him and funded him through university, and watched him become an advisor to the President.  All of the staff fancied their chances as Rudulfo impressionists, uniting the mechanics’ yard in uncontrollable waves of laughter, and immortalizing his rants in Kindu folklore.

Rudolfo believed strongly in young people – in investing time, money and energy in their training, and expects them to do the same for others.  He spent three days in front of a flip chart teaching me the principles of construction in the bush – but he seemed unable to extend that trust to the national staff.  He remained convinced that foul play abounded at every turn, and would refuse to sign any documents for procurement, for release from the warehouse, or for anything that would see work go ahead on the ground.  I think he was tired of Congo’s way, of the game played by its own rules – I was quickly learning that the game was played by the unofficial acceptance of a five percent rule – that, for the sake of getting a good job done at all, of walking before running, a blind eye is turned to a small loss.

After the trials of the day, I sometimes go down to the airfield.  During the day, it is a lifeline for Maniema, the only access point from any of the other major towns in Congo.  Working under the midday sun to offload supplies from medicines to chickens, the muscled labourers are witty and untroubled – once a shipment is loaded, they sit high on the truck swigging home brew and shouting rude comments at passers-by, unknowing participants in a global habit.

As the activity dies down, and the runway transforms into a place of relaxation – an empty hole in the jungle, where we escape to run and play football undisturbed.   At the far end of the runway, only the sunset is visible over the leafy canopy, usually broken by clouds , which covering the sky in spectrums of different colours, and often explode in powerful lightning storms.