Thursday, October 16, 2008


Buta is unlike many African cities that I’ve visited, because it is rural in its basic elements -- it is considerably isolated from other cities, despite having an airport, but it has the hubbub and commerce of a much bigger city because of its extensive trade in diamond and gold.

In fact, everywhere you go you see houses of the Good Reverend Diamond. Cleve took pictures that he’s offered to let me use -- an abundance of signs that advertise JUIF NOIR -- Black Jew -- and a crudish painting of a diamond. It’s big business, and I think, as a result, Buta’s officials at the very least get a bit of an inflated sense of self, or at least of self-importance.

Buta, however, does not get a lot of whites, so riding around on the back of a motorcycle, one almost feels like the queen or the pope, without the popemobile or the bulletproof glass. Schoolgirls erupt into Beatles-Fangirl-like screams, sometimes falling to the ground. Everyone is yelling, “Mondele! Mondele!” (Lingala for “whitey” like the swahili word, “Mzungu”)

All the while, you sit primly on the back of the bike, giving them the pageant wave, and smiling as though you mean it. What you wouldn’t pay, sometimes, to just blend in.

Mama Cecile’s house was a nice change -- we actually had a double bed to sleep in and good food to eat. Cleve got us some Primus - Congolese beer - which I actually like quite a lot though others might disagree. It felt good too to just exhale and take it all in. A million people stopped by to pay us visits - I’m not even sure now who they all were but word spreads fast when there are two new whiteys in town.

It shouldn’t have surprised us, then, when the assistant to the DGM came by to insist that we go and register ourselves at his office at once. We made an appointment and were off.

Congolese love their paperwork, and there’s this pretense that it’s somehow official as they write your name on a blank sheet of paper with a pen that they borrowed from someone else in the office, because the office only HAD one pen.

They look at your very sternly, and try to intimidate you and make you long to give them your money just to make the meeting go by quicker. Meanwhile, there is a goat bleating in the lobby.

In perspective, it really is quite laughable, though one must not laugh. It is, again, part of The Game.

We had slight problems because Cleve’s research permits did not have the NEW flag on them, so they were made BEFORE the edits to the constitution and were therefore somehow inherently invalid. Gotta have that stripe of red to commemorate all of the blood spilled here, you know.

They also demand photocopies of all of your documents, color copies of your passport and visa, but they do not actually have a photocopy machine so it is up to you to go to the café and expensively scan and print these things, and then bring them over.

In addition, of course, to the $20 per person charge for “administration fees.” I asked for a receipt for this cost, yet, somehow, I never got it.

We thought we were done with our official visits that night, when a man came by and very sternly gave us Official Invitations™ to a Very Official Meeting™ with a different government agency... at 10 am the following morning, which effectively put the kibosh on our plans to leave at 6 am for Aketi.

We called Cleve’s friend, a very high-up official in Buta, to see if this meeting was, in fact, necessary and not just another ploy to take more money from us. He assured us after calling the chief of the office that it would be very quick, very simple, and only cost us $10 a person.

Ha! He should have also told us that the road was paved after 6km.

We arrive at this lovely old Belgian building which is pretty bombed out. A very old man up front takes our names and our professions, and we are escorted back to a very official office that just happens to have only 3 walls. But, as a result, a very lovely view of the outdoors!

The wind on our backs, we sit down and are schmoozed by this extremely drunk official who always seems to squint with one eye. It makes it difficult to gauge whether he is winking at you, or contemplating stabbing you with his friend’s pen.

He explains to us that his office is in charge of the security of all of Congo, and it is very important work, and he is protecting the country and of course, (lastly) us. We are then handed an extremely long list of questions which includes gems like:

What village do you live in?
What is your tribe?
Is your tribe patriarchal or matriarchal?
To whom do you confide all of your most intimate secrets?

He is very confused when we tell him that we do not have a tribe, and that yes, New York is very large but it does not have any villages. It also includes who our possessions should go to if we die, what our religions are, and who we voted for in the last election.

Though much of it seems innocuous, there are certainly some questions that he seems to take more seriously, and slants his squinty eye at us accusingly. He wants to know what jobs we had, and why we left them, and what we want to do overall. There is a personality survey on the back, where he asks Adam accusingly whether or not he is driven to anger easily.

There is a section about our ability to give public demonstrations and speeches, and of course, what is the AMOUNT of our loyalty, not to DRCongo, but to JOSEPH KABILA its PRESIDENT. It left me wondering for sure whether we were at an interview or an inquisition.

We are again asked to proffer photocopies of all of our documentation, and to stamp our thumbprint so many times that I wonder if my thumb will ever be clean. Every page must be signed and dated, and we must guarantee that we are not lying on any page.

He is also suspicious of all of the time I spent in Uganda. How long had it been since I left? And did I KNOW that Uganda is menacing Congo? Am I spy? Really, it was not to be believed.

We also needed to provide photos, which Adam had also printed at the Cybercafé in town. We didn’t have any scissors, so Drunk Official offered to cut them with a tiny broken razor and ruler. As he cut my photos, he started slobbering a bit, saying that he was going to keep one of my photos, as a remembrance of me, and hold it close to his heart, and think of me.

It was extremely, extremely creepy.

Oh, and we also had to pay him $20 a person, not $10, because our paperwork was “special” --

Another registration fee. At least we got a receipt.

At the end of the meeting, we were called into the big boss’ office, which did in fact have four walls, where he grilled us about the phonecall he’d received from the higher authority, our friend.

As a woman, negotiation is easier here because no one really takes you seriously anyway. So you smile and laugh a little and play a bit dumb, and no one suspects a thing.

We did decide, however, upon leaving the meeting that we’d leave Aketi right away.

And we did, thankfully, after a blitz of packing and preparation! Another entry for the trip from Buta to Aketi. My battery is about to die.

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