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Field notes

Research in and around Inga – Part 3.

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

I woke after spending a short night in the room of my friend, a lady heavily pregnant, expecting very soon. I’d travelled from Inga to Matadi the day before and had suffered from severe belly cramps, requiring several visits to the small toilet cubicle behind the house despite the heavy rain, the absence of electricity and the cockroaches climbing in and out the toilet hole. I took some pills and hoped they’d get me through the day I’d mainly be spending on board the Trans Rénové bus. I met the friend who’d be travelling with me at the agency and gave him our tickets while I was trying to concentrate on my belly ache. I was in two minds whether to board or not but forced myself since I really wanted to attend my other friend and SNEL colleague’s wedding in Kinshasa the next day. We left Matadi around half past seven in a crowded bus full of people. The bus had two passenger seats on the left aisle, three seats on the right and at least 15 rows of people but no toilet. We departed and I bit through the pain, trying to keep my belly as calm as possible and avoiding to have to go to the toilet too often. I wasn’t able to engage into much conversation: my friend understood that I wasn’t pretending. In front of me, at my right, I saw one of the men working at the SNEL (dragage) with whom I shared the car during my last trip to Kinshasa. Perhaps he was also invited to the wedding. In front of me on my left, I saw the chef who’d taken me on board his team during my placement at the Regideso in Matadi. I somehow felt more at ease knowing that I knew at least three people on board the bus. I trusted that at least they would understand if I had to make the bus stop to go to toilet. It was about to be an embarrassing journey, but when the pain is strong and the need is high somehow all shame goes through the window.

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View from Matadi onto the road to Kinshasa. 25.04.2016 ©Barbara Carbon

There are several bus agencies operating the journey from Boma/Matadi to Kinshasa. They generally depart around half past seven to arrive at Limite 7ieme Rue in Kinshasa around half past three. The buses generally stop twice – once at the first péage, where you can also have a toilet break and once at the big market of Mbanza Ngungu where people generally buy vegetables, fruit and kwanga to take to the city where things, especially in Kinshasa, are generally more expensive. The products of agriculture that reach Kinshasa are generally bought up by the mamans manoeuvres upon arrival who make a lot of profit when they resell the goods. In reality this makes the life of the farmers really hard as they firstly struggle to get their produce to Kinshasa and then have to let go of it at an extremely low price. The mamans manoeuvres are generally perceived as having no compassion and to be very powerful business women. By the time our bus reached Mbanza Ngungu I had to stop the bus three times. At some point I received the key to a private toilet and heared the other women of the bus righteously complain about this difference in treatment I was receiving as a white woman. The boy cleaning the toilets in Mbanza Ngungu commented so many could hear “aaah mundele asalaka toilette kitoko hein!” (aah the white person goes to the toilet in a clean way ha!). Paying for the use of toilets happens before going; 100FC  for peeing only, 200FC otherwise.

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Bus Kinshasa to Matadi, NewTrans. 03.06.2015 ©Barbara Carbon

In Mbanza Ngungu I couldn’t do my usual shopping and actually thought I wouldn’t make it to Kinshasa. The pills I took before departure had stopped working and I had no others left. The belly cramps were getting worse. But an angel from heaven, a Canadian doctor of Congolese origin told my friend (who’d by now also bought me a 200 FC placket of Metrodinazole) he had some tablets that should relieve me from the pain and enable the journey to Kinshasa.  The only problem was the driver, as he didn’t want to open the luggage compartment at the back of the bus. I insisted, saying to the doctor that if the driver didn’t, the bus would have to stop every twenty minutes from now on. They negotiated for a while and opted to open the bus. The doctor gave me three magic pills from a glass jar and taking one pill indeed helped me to be comfortable until my arrival at home. I never knew what pill he gave me but to him it seemed of better quality than the metrodinazole my friend had bought me. I remember he looked at the metrodinazole with disdain and mistrust. He told me he doesn’t believe in the medication people produce here. I felt uncomfortable towards my friend when I heard the doctor’s response. It again confirmed that people here are somehow doomed to live with products of lesser quality. I nevertheless took the metrodinazole and whether or not I had amibes, the diarrhea never came back and the next day I was at the wedding as planned.

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Religious wedding , Kinshasa. 29.11.2016 © TouJet

This mistrust for local products is something I found with many of my expat friends at Inga, Lebanese friends in Matadi and even Congolese friends who have come to trust supermarket items more than the things produced and sold in local shops and pharmacies. It includes a fear of the water locally produced in plastic bottles, locally produced medication and even cakes and crisps. The fact that banana crisps are sold in a Lebanese, Indian or European supermarket somehow gives people a guarantee of quality. When similar bags are sold on the street they loose their credibility. A friend of mine says they are produced and preserved under better conditions there. It was in the supermarket, however, where I found several packets of badly preserved oat flakes and not in the smaller shops where they experience regular electricity cuts. But somehow the higher price and the seemingly clinically clean environment gives people an impression of better quality. It may of course be true, who am I to say, but like most fears, I have a feeling that this fear is also at times unfounded; especially when we consider that not everything produced in Europe is necessarily good for one’s health, whether we talk about processed food or medicine. But it’s more expensive, and the price is all too often used as an indication of quality. Of course there is a truth also in the fact that many products sold in the D.R.C. are of dubious quality:  mobile phones, safety boots, jewelry sold at ridiculously low prices and of short longevity. Often these items have come from China and contribute to the production of waste which in turn pollutes the rivers, the soil and begins to impact also on people’s health.  

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Walk with Chef Coutumier Papa Vangu Pila (Van Pilar) to delineate his ancestral lands by gps. This land also harbours herbs used for traditional medicine. It will soon be flooded for the construction of Inga III. 21.01.2016 ©Barbara Carbon

Being here, I realise, can also impact upon my own health. I probably took six doses of anti-biotics in the year I’ve been coming here.  In Europe I would generally try to heal myself using more natural treatments. But here I didn’t know where to go nor whether I could really take the risk since so many of my friends discouraged me by accentuating the dubious quality of non-Western medicine. Perhaps its a matter of laziness as well. Natural treatments generally take more time and effort than tablets – their side effects however are considerably less severe. But our society demands us to recover fast and remain productive. I have treated parasites before now by using onion, garlic, camomile, papaya and a herbal drink made for me by a herbalist in the UK.  I wonder why so many people manage to put blind faith in big pharma products and tend to mistrust alternative options. But here I also feared to try it out, perhaps to avoid further complications and indeed to recover as speedily as possible, despite the side effects of which gastritis was really the most uncomfortable. I don’t really know why I get more ill here, I imagine it’s a combination of encountering different viruses, parasites and bacteria conflated with a weakened immune system due to the foods I eat, stress and a lack of exercise and sleep. Adjusting to the sleeping and eating patterns of the families where I resided wasn’t always easy but it was worth the sacrifice as it made my life on other levels so much easier. But the excess in fat, sugar and the limited intake of vegetables in some families make all humans more vulnerable to health problems. But it’s hard to change habits, especially when the alternative options are limited due to a lack of means or availability of products. I at least had the luxury of choosing to challenge my body. But this luxury of choosing not to be healthy is not something everyone can “enjoy”.

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