During the following four weeks (Jan 20-Feb 10 2017) Barbara Carbon, a doctoral researcher at the Institute for Anthropological Research in Africa (IARA) at KU Leuven University (Belgium), will be sharing some reflective notes about her field research in and around the Inga dam. This doctoral project is embedded in a larger research project dealing with technology cultures in the DR Congo.
Blog Two: Matadi – Kinshasa by Car.
I was invited by a friend, a young engineer working at Inga in the Bureau Technique, to attend his wedding in Kinshasa. Since some of his colleagues would also be travelling, I figured out it would be fun to travel with them by car instead of taking a taxi to Matadi first and then the bus to Kinshasa early morning. Papa Landu who happened to be the father in law of a friend of a friend (“l’ami de mon ami est mon ami”) in Kinshasa said there was no problem and that I could join them for the car journey. They asked someone from Camp Kin – the less privileged living area at Inga – to drive us together with myself, Papa Landu and another colleague working with the groom at the level of the drague, a boat specialised in removing the excess sand that risks impeding the water flow into the turbines of Inga’s hydro-electric plant. We were to depart at 9am but since this was a normal working day we left around 10am after completing the daily tasks,thus avoiding his taking a day off. By the time we’d get to Kinshasa, it would probably be 6pm considering road conditions and the traffic jams at the entrance to Kinshasa. But we departed in good faith and hoped for the best. Very soon however, we noticed a problem with the engine. It wasn’t the first experience of engine problems or other mechanical failures with transport I’ve been taking to and from the capital. But every time I’d been suitably surprised to observe the speed and skill by which a range of problems were solved by mechanics who seemed to magically appear at times in what seemed to me to be the middle of nowhere.
Camp Kinshasa. 10.06.2015 © Barbara Carbon
This time it would be different, however. The problem was one with the pompe d’injection. I never quite figured out what this meant exactly, but it really impacted upon our speed and progress and also meant that on three occasions we had to take an hour’s break while a group of men were bent over the bonnet and attempting to get the car fixed. On the first occasion, we went to have some food and drinks in a local bar near the main street of the town where we were stranded. The men seemed thrilled as it was the perfect occasion for them to have some beers and Ntaba, grilled goat’s meat. I have observed this meat on several occasions consumed by SNEL or Regideso engineers en mission in another city or by those who are having their monthly day off for their ravitaillement in Matadi. This is to reload on groceries and other goods necessary for the household, but impossible to purchase in Inga itself. These trips are often combined with some leisure time: a visit, for example, to the two storey bar “la Casa” where they can drink beers and consume the Ntaba prepared on the opposite side of the street. It is expected, however, that a new supermarket will be opened soon on the Inga site itself, managed according to the inhabitants of Inga by the wife of the DPO (Directeur Provincial Ouest) of the SNEL who resides at Inga and manages the site. Previously at this location, an Italian family had owned a shop, but over time, and as most activities at Inga ceased, the shop disappeared.
Inga I with view on bassin de retenue and conduites forcées. 05.06.2015 © Barbara Carbon
During the next stop, we were less excited about having to order drinks to pass the time. We realised it was getting dark and that we probably wouldn’t get to Kinshasa before 10pm. Papa Landu began asking me whether I’d mind to stay over at his son in law’s place. I began to feel slightly nervous for if I remembered well, it had been ages since I’d been in touch with his son in law. I think it’d been a year since I’d let them know anything and would feel really embarrassed if now they’d have to help me out by giving me a bed. In the morning however, I had sent the doctor a whatsapp message, explaining I was on the road with his father in law. Perhaps I had a feeling I’d end up there in the evening and, with some embarrassment, attempt to cover my tracks. I tried to convince my travelling companions that 10 pm wouldn’t be too late for me to take a taxi to rond-point Ngaba, but I could sense that the general opinion was that it was unsafe and thus irresponsible for them to let me go home that late. We walked back to the car, hoping it would be fixed by now but after ten minutes drive we recognised the sound of the dying pump and resigned ourselves to fate: a drive to Kinshasa at 30 kms/h. Papa Landu called his son in law and asked him whether I could stay over. Not a problem. It made me realise what caring and hospitality actually mean and why people reiterate how it matters to remain in good terms with everyone: “you never know”. In the beginning, I used to find this manner of dealing with people opportunistic, feeling somehow offended when people would ask me my number because perhaps one day it may come in useful. I now understood that they didn’t only mean to benefit from this, but also for myself. It’s interesting how doing this research somehow made me believe the entire world revolved around me. Perhaps the extra attention and kindness was received by my too Western approach as an expression of “wanting something from me” while most people were actually genuinely offering their help rather than expecting anything in return. So I finally really understood why it indeed mattered to be on good terms with everyone and even more so in a society where knowing people can really make a difference to your life.
Road from Kinshasa to Matadi. 04.12.2015 © Barbara Carbon
Driving on the road from Matadi to Kinshasa between 11pm and midnight was an unnerving experience. No lights on the road and very heavy traffic. On the opposite side of the road, a bus had crashed on its side; people stood alongside the road, looking confused and shocked by the accident. A little later, a big truck suddenly appeared right in front of us. Had our driver attempted to break a second later, we would have collided. I suppose one of the advantages of drivers not following road regulations is that they remain constantly on their “toes” and are thus able to react fast and efficiently. Unlike myself, when, as a learner driver, I would actuallly accelerate towards an obstacle rather than avoid it. I recalled the sad incident of the Ostend music school director and his son, both killed by a truck as the father attempted to mend his son’s van parked at the motorway’s edge. The poor 18 year old female driver had seen them on the side of the road and drove right into them instead of avoiding the obstacle. The human brain is extremely unpredictable; sometimes I wonder whether regulating everything doesn’t somehow create more danger. We are so often on “automatic pilot” because we assume that everything will go as planned.
Road from Matadi to Kinshasa. 09.09.2016 © Barbara Carbon
Finally, we arrived. The doctor told me what I already knew: “même si tu veux plus de nous, tu es la bienvenue” (even if you no longer want us, you are welcome). I tried to come up with some excuses but the damage had already been done. They were kind and joked about it, but I could sense their disappointment. Certainly they did not understand why I’d chosen to avoid them after having been invited into their home via my friend in Europe. I imagine it was because this was the first time I had returned to Kinshasa after a long time and had been offended by what I interpreted as a hidden agenda. It’s tricky sometimes to navigate this world as a researcher and even more difficult not to judge or to build or break relations motivated by personal and emotional motives. Papa Landu and the others had to go and stay somewhere else; it wouldn’t have been polite for him to stay in his son in law’s house. They left myself and the bananas and tomatoes purchased for his daughter, then went back to the car heading for their final destination. As the labouring car attempted to drive away, it finally gave up entirely. The men would have to go to their respective hotels by motorbike and I would have to wait till dawn to leave this house and the rather socially uncomfortable situation.