you're reading...
Field notes

Research in and around Inga – Part 4.

During the following four weeks (Jan 20-Feb 13 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 Four: Matadi – Kinshasa by train

The rain on the metal roof woke me. I felt like turning over once more as I lay so peacefully with the cooling temperature and my spirit more at ease. I checked my watch and realised it was much later than I thought. I woke my Congolese “brother” and told him we had to get ready to go. He didn’t seem to worry and said the train would probably not leave in time because of the rain anyway. I thought he may be right but wasn’t convinced so I nevertheless aimed to arrive by half past seven (departure time) despite having been told to get there by quarter to. After eating porridge and preparing some eggs I said we really had to get to the Marché Thoulouse to see if we could catch a cab or a motorbike despite the rain. I realise now that I made it sound pretty dramatic, elucidating that it would be a disaster if we had to walk with my suitcase. With hindsight it now seems ridiculous to have entertained such a lack of faith. In the end, everything unfolds exactly as it should. I am grateful for the calm with  which people had responded to my nervousness at times. I noticed that my friends and the families where I stayed really took the time to observe, read and interpret my responses and in that way avoid conflict. I wonder who is really observing who in this situation of “immersion”. Little attentions, surprises and verbal responses made me realise how well people I was supposed to be observing actually understood me. Through them I learned a lot about myself. People weren’t shy to share their views and reflect back to me my weak points. Despite my personal experience, these same friends confided in me that in general they only have a very few number of friends. There seems to be a lot of mistrust between people and a difficulty for those I shared with to actually make friends. It seems that most of them had been dissapointed by what they described as one way friendships, friends they couldn’t trust or those who’d be nice in their face but talk behind their backs. The fear that people’s business will be shared in public is a big fear that inhibits the construction of trust, I realised. This lack of trust in turn was also what made it hard for some of my friends to work together or invest in small enterprises succesfully even with those they considered to be their closest friends.



Train Journey Matadi – Kinshasa. 20.11.2016 ©Barbara Carbon

We came out of the house and by miracle there was a motorbike waiting there. We didn’t even have to go to the market square. But since there was only one I had to go alone to the train station. The driver attached the suitcase on the back of the bike behind me with two rubber strings and off we went. No time for sad goodbyes or to exchange the bike for a car at Buima. It was a matter of getting to the station as soon as possible now. And indeed, despite the rain and the reasonable distance from the house in Thoulouse high up one of Matadi’s mountains to the central station in the city centre, we arrived just in time. The train hadn’t departed yet but the staff had to rush me through migration and get me on board quick. The train left only ten minutes past departure time. The porteur had put my suitcase on the luggage carrier on top of the seats inside the wagon – the train attendant didn’t seem too happy about that but when I offered to move it he refused. Instead he reiterated how dangerous it was and that we’d see how we would arrive in Kinshasa. The security officer also commented on it and seemed to make similar comments to other people bringing in luggage. I laughed inwardly and thought that apparently train staff are the same all over the world. I remember the time I forgot to pay for the diabolo commission for the railway between Zaventem and Brussels and the response of the train conductor. She shouted at me as if I was a 7 year old girl who’d just put her hands on a hot surface. I never understood why giving a fine always has to be accompanied by anger, as though we did some personal wrong to the person fining us. Perhaps nobody likes handing out fines.


Train Journey Matadi – Kinshasa. 20.11.2016 ©Barbara Carbon

The views from Matadi to Kinshasa were absolutely astounding. Clear rivers, lush green landscapes like oases amidst burnt patches of savanna and old railway stations were greeting us as the locomotive pulled us through the valleys. Each time the train took a sharp turn we could admire the front of the bright blue train with its horizontal red and yellow stripe declaring the colours of the Congolese flag. There was something very special about viewing the usual route we’d take by bus or car from this new distance, this perspective, and see the actual expanse and detail of the land and the places we’d normally only see from the highway’s point of view, typically hidden by the line of shops, stalls and small restaurants to attract those passing by. The sight we got from the harbour when leaving Matadi was also fascinating – I’d seen the harbour from the river’s eye as a passenger on a boat, from the buildings of the Regideso along the shoreline and now from the train, departing and driving through the ONATRA enclosure and then riding through what appeared to me like a stone corridor. In my mind’s eye I sensed we had cut straight through a mountain but I have a feeling that this may be what my imagination made of it. The ONATRA is the government institution which is exploiting the harbour and the rail line. Along the journey my eyes caught view of the white pipelines that I had regularly observed when traveling by bus. They are supposed to be transporting petrol between Matadi and Kinshasa but I am not sure whether they are already in use. It somehow seemed dangerous to me to have them laying on top of the earth’s surface like this, unprotected. Perhaps I was reminded of the extent to  which the water pipes are damaged in Inga and Matadi as a reaction to the difficulties people experience in accessing water.


Train Journey Matadi – Kinshasa. 20.11.2016 ©Barbara Carbon

This train leaves Kinshasa on a Saturday to return from Matadi on the Sunday. Many people told me not to take the train because it’s only been operative again since 2015 and to their belief, unsafe. But those who’d actually taken the train ensured me that it was safe and comfortable, toilet facilities on board. I was surprised by how clean the toilets were. People didn’t really speak much with one another during the journey, all immersed in their own thoughts, observing the passing landscapes through the open windows. At some point the rain came, first a strong wind blowing in a lot of dust, then the rain. We closed the windows until the wind would change direction. The wind blows hard when the rain comes through the valleys and the huge electric pilons stood still and strong as if nothing could disturb them in their mission to bring electricity to Kinshasa. Indians recently build a second line which has been operative for a couple of months now. Electricity problems however persist  since there aren’t enough cabines with appropriate transformers to distribute energy to everyone, something the World Bank didn’t consider when it approved the rehabilitation projects. Even when all the turbines in Inga will be producing electricy,  there will still be a shortage if nothing gets done to fix the distribution side of things. When the second line was built, the team leader of the diving company PAM in Inga drowned. He accepted the request of the Indian company building the line to take a cable from one bank to the opposite bank of the river by canoë rapide. The current was so strong that it made the boat capsize, the diver hit his head against a rock and drowned. Later it was said that this happened because the ancestors were not consulted. It was near the place where Philippe de Dieuleveult lost his life in 1985 during a rafting expedition.


Overhead power line Inga – Kinshasa, near where the diver Jean-Robert Emaka, chef d’équipe of PAM would loose his life on the 9th of August 2015. 18.06.2015 ©Barbara Carbon

Before I realised, the hypnotising journey came to an end. Gradually, I began to notice a change of scenery; we were approaching the big city. The landscape I observed through the window became one teeming with crowds of people, stalls and detritus. It had been raining, and we arrived in a very muddy Matete. It was there that I was welcomed by an old friend who had been suffering from severe varicose veins; despite the pain in his legs, wounds healing with great difficulty, he had come to meet us.  As I left the train, I had suddenly heard a voice calling my name. I looked behind me and saw one of the friendly Spanish expats who worked at Inga standing high up and proudly on the metal buffers that hook up between the carriages. He was wearing a hat and suit that seemed to evoke the hosiery of a classy 1940s movie, looking geared up to hit Kinshasa’s clubbing scene. I think he had travelled in the most expensive carriage of the train where tickets, if I recall, cost 74 000 FC, or perhaps the part of the train they call “Matonge”, since I heared music blasting out through its windows. My friend Artemis had told me about this particular carriage where people can dance and drink. The Spanish expat seemed happy and I was glad to see him in this state. A friend of his, a work colleague, had confided in me that he had recently been married to a Congolese woman from Kinshasa, and to his great disappointment been divorced again. In Inga, the people work hard and get very stressed, so a more hedonistic escape to Kinshasa can alleviate the pressure of life;  certainly the required remedy or preventive medicine against losing one’s mind.  It is also where men can meet women without the entire site of Inga’s or Matadi’s knowledge. The Spanish guy looked at myself and  my friend with a glimmer in his eyes. Perhaps he thought I had just been reunited with a lover, also. He surveyed the local area of Matete then asked me with not a little surprise and a certain sense of admiration “is this where you stay?”. It bemuses most of the expats, but for myself it has become completely normal. I had always felt more at ease anyway with my host family near Rond Point Ngaba than in Kinshasa’s city centre,and I guess that as creatures of habit we always find it easier to return to that which is familiar to us.


About Congo Research Network

The Congo Research Network (CRN) is a community of researchers working on DR Congo and its diaspora across the Humanities


No comments yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: