Lois on the Loose

Book Extract

Riding through Congo to Brazzaville had been eventful enough, but the ferry journey to Kinshasa across the great Congo River set my nerves jangling harder than ever… 

In Brazzaville port the usual hoo-hah involving small men with big rubber stamps was particularly drawn out and painful, requiring a constant stream of cash and an industrial scale of photocopying. By the end of it even Ricky, my self-appointed helper was starting to look a bit stressed, and we lost his friend Kevin somewhere along the way when he got roughed up and thrown out of an office by angry hulk of a man in a grey uniform. Eventually Ricky beckoned me to follow him on board the ferry, and I rode up the rickety gangplank, clanking my way on to the boat. It was a rusting old iron heap that comprised no more than a covered deck and a few rows of seats for passengers. I parked my bike facing out towards Kinshasa and stared over the water, feeling more apprehensive than ever before on my journey.

There were plenty of men and women coming aboard, carrying enormous sacks of grain on their heads, several men who were already drunk at nine in the morning and a surprisingly large number of cripples dragging themselves around on their withered limbs, or being pushed on board in homemade Heath Robinson style wheelchairs. I asked Ricky why there were so many of them and he sneered distastefully.

‘They are trouble, big trouble. They can travel cheap on the ferry, so they go back and forth, selling and buying between Brazzaville and Kinshasa, they sell cheaper then everyone else, and they smuggle things too. They are trouble, very aggressive when they are all together like that. You must not talk to them’

Oops!

I watched them arranging themselves and their strange collection of wheelchairs and tricycles, piled up with goods. Africa is probably the worst place in the world to be disabled, but they were getting on with it, survivors making something of their pitiful lives. But they all had the look that I now knew so well, the cold, empty eyes of the Congo.

A few able-bodied chancers were diving off the wharf into the brown swirling water and swimming round to the other side of the boat, where they clambered aboard to avoid paying for a ticket. One of them was even carrying a sack of rice while he carried out this manoeuvre, holding it on his head and swimming with his free arm. Then a burst of shouting and banging drew my attention away to the top of the gang plank where an elderly woman and one of the deck hands were in the midst of a fist fight. She punched him in the chest, then he shoved her up against a bulkhead, her skull making a dull clanking sound as it came into contact with the rusty iron wall, fortunately she was wearing a large and elaborate head-dress which hopefully softened the blow. But she was not to be deterred and came back at him with a right hook in the face, which he returned immediately. It was the Rumble in the Jungle for the twenty-first century; Ali and Foreman had nothing on these two as they continued to batter each other, sometimes rolling on the floor but always coming up for more. It was turning into quite a commotion as more passengers boarded the ferry, pushing their way past the scrapping couple. In the end some of the heftier looking males on board, including Ricky, steamed in and successfully pulled them apart.

‘What was all that about?’ I asked Ricky when the excitement had died down. The elderly woman was sitting alone, perched on a sack of rice, her face clouded with fury.

‘Oh nothing, she is his mother, they are always fighting’ he explained with a shrug.

Ricky bid me farewell, he had other business to attend to, more scams and fixes to take care of, and no doubt, more fights to break up.

‘Good luck in Kinshasa’ he said, shaking his head.

Now that Ricky had gone and the drama of the fight had subsided the attention was turned towards me and I was soon surrounded by a curious crowd. They formed a circle around me and the bike and stood there staring, except for one particular man who was steaming drunk and insisted on lurching towards me and draping his arm round my shoulders. Each time he did this I would hop round the other side of the bike, but he always followed, staggering and slurring after me, sending me skipping off back to the other side until I was trotting non-stop around the bike with him in hot pursuit. It was straight out of Benny Hill; the only thing missing was a novelty theme tune. This ridiculous carry-on continued for some time until one of the young men in the crowd hauled him away with a few choice words and a look of disgust. Drunks, the disabled, old women; there was no respect for these weak, lowly members of society in the Congo. It was survival of the fittest, quite literally the law of the jungle.

I thanked the man for coming to my rescue and this dialogue prompted a wave of questions from the crowd. As each one spoke, it encouraged the others and soon I was under siege from a non-stop interrogation. Where was my husband? Where was I from? Where was I going? And again and again, Where was my husband? I told various lies by way of response, but my inquisitors were quick to warn me that I shouldn’t even be thinking of going to Kinshasa, repeating everyone’s warning; it was ‘very dangerous for a woman alone’. I made up a lie that my husband was waiting for me there, but they wanted to know why he wasn’t with me, where he was exactly, where would we be staying? I was thinking on my feet and made up a fantastically elaborate story which they seemed to buy, but I still felt thoroughly unnerved and as the crowd swelled, moving in closer and the questions and warnings came thicker and faster I felt distinctly panicky. Overcome with dizziness and nausea, I forced myself to breathe slowly and deeply and stay calm but it was easier said than done. It seemed to me that by taking this ferry to Kinshasa, I was jumping out of the frying pan and into the blazing, fiery depths of Hades. When the boat cast off from the dock my heart was thumping fast at the thought of what awaited me on the other side of the river.

The crowd continued to stare at me, but the questions subsided and mercifully everyone’s attention was diverted to a scuffle on top of the roof where one of the ticketless chancers was hiding out. I had seen him swim round, climb aboard and then leg it up a pole on to the corrugated iron roof. But the deckhands had seen all the tricks before and it wasn’t long before he was rumbled. There was burst of shouting above us before a lithe black body sailed past, landing like a bomb in the churned up water. Whether he jumped or was pushed, I didn’t know, but he broke into a fast front crawl and it looked highly likely that he would make it to Kinshasa before the rest of us.

The crossing of the river took half an hour and in some way I wished it would never end, that I could float indefinitely in limbo, that I would never have to make my nerve-wracking entry into this most awful of African nations. As we left Brazzaville behind and the hazy image of Kinshasa’s tower blocks became steadily clearer, I became more and more fraught. Now I wished the boat would just hurry up and get on with it and spare me this slow and dreadful countdown.

I could see the chaos of Kinshasa port before we even touched the bank. As the boat edged in to moor, people were already jumping on from the quayside, making daredevil leaps across the water. The port officials were screaming orders to no avail, everyone was yelling at each other and throwing their sacks of rice and bulging Chinese laundry bags on and off the boat. I sat on the bike and waited for the mayhem to subside, before making a speedy run-up the ramp. But I didn’t get very far. My passage was quickly blocked by a mob of aggressive, shouting men who were grabbing hold of my arm, waving fake IDs in my face and yelling orders at me: ‘Show me your passport! Get over there! Where are you going? Stay there! Show me your papers!’

If they were attempting to intimidate me, they were succeeding, but I knew immediately that my usual tactic of smiling patiently and being extra polite would have no currency in this situation, and I’d long since realised that damsel-in-distress mode doesn’t work in this part of the world. Chivalry is a rare commodity in Africa, and the women are as tough as the guys; they have to be, considering their position in the pecking order, which is somewhere above the animals, but below the men. As I sat there on the bike with my engine running, slipping the clutch on the steep ramp, I knew there was only one way I was going to get out of this situation unscathed. It was time to dig out and dust off my hard-nosed side; if I didn’t I was likely to burst into tears, and that would be the worst thing I could do. I got the feeling that people had stopped crying in the Congo a long time ago.

It was a strange sensation to make a conscious decision to act like a seriously stroppy bitch, as there’s not much call for this kind of activity in my regular day-to-day life, but it was reassuring to know that I could draw upon it in an emergency. I stayed sitting on the bike, made what I hoped was a don’t-mess-with-me-face and started yelling at everyone, telling them where to stick their fake ID cards and to get the hell out of my way. I was almost laughing as I heard myself; I sounded quite ridiculous, but amazingly, it worked. The men made a feeble show of being threatening, but then slowly, one by one, they skulked off into the crowd, leaving me free to ride up the ramp and into the fenced off yard where the real trouble would begin; dealing with the men with the genuine ID cards.

There were no signs suggesting where I should go, all the buildings were unmarked and equally shabby, and to make matters more confusing none of the men who claimed to be customs and immigration officials were wearing any kind of uniform. There was no way of telling them from the hordes of dodgy fixers that I had successfully banished at the quayside, and once again I found myself at the mercy of yet more shifty, steely-eyed men. To add to the fun, there was now the added delight of being mobbed by legions of money-changers waving wads of Congolese Francs in my face.

Luckily I was taken in hand by a young chap by the name of Jean-Paul who I immediately liked, partly because he spoke English and partly because he was a bit chubby and showed the beginnings of a slight paunch under his too tight T-shirt. There was something quite sweet about him, but I was forever wary about who to trust and once again had only my instinct on which to rely. But my instinct had been getting a good workout lately and it came up trumps again. Jean-Paul never left my side, guiding me over the hot coals of the D.R.C’s entry formalities, most of which were conducted on the bonnet of a decrepit seventies Mercedes under a fierce midday sun.

Customs went pretty smoothly, aside from the unwanted attentions of a one-legged officer who called me into a vast, gloomy hangar on the pretext of examining my bike and made various lascivious suggestions, some of which involved me sitting on his stump. Mercifully, Jean-Paul came to the rescue and steered me back outside into the glaring sunlight where a man from immigration wanted to have a word with me.

Perched on the bonnet of the Mercedes, he appeared to be proof-reading every page in my passport. He turned to me, his eyes hidden behind mirrored sunglasses for maximum intimidation and I could see the reflection of my pale, anxious face staring back at me. It occurred to me that I couldn’t be more out place.

‘So, where were you before you came here?’ he said,

‘I was in Brazzaville, in Congo’

‘And before that?’

‘Gabon’

‘And before that?’

‘Cameroon’

He said nothing, but flicked through the pages in silence, studying the dates of my visas and stamps to see if they matched my story.

‘Let me see your vehicle papers’ he demanded

I fished them out of my luggage and he laid everything out on the bonnet, double-checking and cross-referencing every single date, right back to when I had entered Tunisia, before copying it all down into a book.

‘But you say you come from England. Where did you go from England, not to Tunisia no?’

‘I took a boat to France, and then another boat to Tunis’

‘There is nothing in here of France!’ he slammed my passport down on the bonnet triumphantly, and I realised how the car had become so dented.

‘If you’re English you don’t get stamped in France, it’s in the EU’ I said, trying not to sound too much of a smartarse. I wanted to add ‘duh!’ at the end of my statement, but I feared it would not help my cause.

He obviously had no idea what I was talking about and continued picking through my papers, determined to find something – anything – untoward that would provide him with the evidence he needed to extract a big, juicy bribe. Meanwhile, sensing that cash would soon be changing hands, the vulture-like money-changers were circling again, but as Jean-Paul shooed one away another would appear in his place. Oh sweet civilised Europe! I thought, with a sudden pang for its open borders, its temperate climate and its single monetary policy.

Confounded by the European question, the immigration officer instead quibbled over smudged visa stamps, questioned the sloppy handwriting of the Nigerian officials, tested me to see if I could remember what dates I had entered and exited each country, and accused me of lying when I failed to recall each one correctly. Jean-Paul was hopping around, trying to reason with him on my behalf, but was blatantly ignored or barked at occasionally. The sun was blazing high in sky now, even the broken-up tarmac beneath my feet was radiating heat but our man from Immigration was immune to the fierce rays burning down on us, and continued to interrogate me as I perched on the car bonnet feeling distinctly weak and light-headed under the glare of the cruel Kinshasa sun and its equally cruel bureaucracy. How is it possible, I marvelled, that this amount of attention to detail is lavished on completely unnecessary red tape and bullshit while the rest of this country’s affairs are in a state of complete meltdown?

The immigration officer didn’t like it, but eventually he had to admit it: there was nothing he could get me on. My papers were whiter than white, except for my faked Cameroon exit date which had sailed past his supposedly eagle eyes. He slammed my documents down on the car bonnet and made an invisible nod that meant I was free to go. I smiled at him, enjoying my mini victory; my spotless admin had triumphed over corruption! But my euphoria was short lived as it was now the turn of the policemen, and they wanted to see the contents of my luggage laid out on the ground.

Jean-Paul began a plea in my defence, but was banished to the sidelines as they picked over my belongings. The money changers were still hovering but they were blending into the crowd that had come to watch me unpack my kit. I recognised some of the faces; the one-legged customs man and a few of the guys that questioned me on the ferry were there, as well as some of the disabled men in their hand-pedalled carts. With a quick glance I approximated that my audience averaged about 1.75 legs per person.

‘This is for me, yes, a gift for me?’ said one of the officers, an older guy with a cunning, lined face. He was holding up a bottle of liquid soap.

‘Er yes, I s’pose so’ I shrugged. If soap was all he was after, I had got away lightly.

‘And this,’ said his younger sidekick, flicking through my French/English dictionary, ‘I like this, I learn English yes?’ he giggled.

‘Yeah, sure, knock yourself out’. If all went to plan I would be in Angola in a couple of days and my French dictionary would be redundant. In fact, these guys were doing me a favour, lightening my load, just as long as they left me my Portuguese phrase book.

‘Why are you here in Kinshasa, where are you going?’ the older officer asked me with a hint of suspicion. ‘You are married yes?’ he seized my left hand and stared at my wedding ring. I was getting used to being grabbed by complete strangers, and I barely flinched.

‘I’m meeting my husband, he’s here in Kinshasa’ I replied, rolling out the old line.

‘But where is he? Why is he not with you?’

I started to launch into my elaborate cover story, but I couldn’t remember the full details. To make matters worse, I was surrounded by various people to whom I had already told all sorts of lies, and with the overbearing heat and the pressure of the situation, I was becoming confused about what I had said to whom. Thankfully one of the guys from the ferry unknowingly came to my rescue.

‘Her husband is at the embassy, the embassy for Great Britain’ he shouted to the policeman. This was just the cue I needed.

‘Er… yes, yes, he’s at the embassy’ I concurred

‘But why is he not with you?’ the officer simply couldn’t understand how this could be.

It was all coming back to me now and my fabrications tripped off my tongue. Luckily, the finicky immigration officer was not present to challenge my quickly rewritten history.

‘We were travelling together, but when we were in Brazzaville, I had to go back to England, and while I was away, his visa ran out, so he came here. Then I flew back to Brazzaville and now I am catching up with him.’

‘So he came through here, through Kinshasa?’ the policeman sounded suspicious.

‘Er yes’

‘He is riding a motorcycle, like you?’

‘Yes’ I said, a little uncertainly. This was one nosey police officer.

‘I have not seen an English man on a motorcycle here’ he said, his eyes narrowing.

‘Uh…’ I tried to avoid his stare, not knowing what to say. But I was saved by his colleague piping up.

‘Yes, yes! I see him, he is with a friend, yes?’ he said, turning to me. ‘Two motorcycles, big motorcycles, one is red, yes? They are here two weeks ago!’

What on earth was he on about? Then the realisation dawned on me; he was talking about the two motorcyclists from Portsmouth that I had heard about. They were ahead of me by about two weeks and unbeknownst to them, they had saved my bacon in a most miraculous fashion.

‘Yes, yes, that was him!’ I agreed a little too eagerly.

The policemen both nodded, reassured and I suppressed a roar of laughter at this coincidental stroke of good fortune.

‘But why do you go back to England without him’ asked the older officer.

‘Well,’ I said, putting on a sad face and lowering my voice, ‘my grandmother died over Christmas so I had to go back home for her funeral’.

It worked every time. A murmur of sympathy passed through the crowd and this band of cruel, hard men poured out their condolences. One thing they knew about in this country was death.

‘Ah, I am very sorry. Very sorry about your grandmother’ said the older policeman, now gripping both of my hands.

I nodded and thanked them for their kindness, trying to look suitably grief-stricken. I didn’t feel too guilty as both my grandmothers had been dead for years, and I’m sure they wouldn’t have objected to me misusing their identities to help me out of a hole such as this.

Despite their burst of compassion, no amount of dead grandmothers were going to stop the police getting on with the business in hand and they continued to rifle through the rest of my clobber, choosing a few more ‘gifts’; a cigarette lighter and a marker pen but I didn’t mind too much; I was just relieved they possessed such humble tastes. Looking pleased with their haul, they wandered off, examining their prizes, leaving me to pack up and go. The Democratic Republic of Congo was mine for the taking.