In typical fashion, the dramatic incidents of the past week finally involved other parties. I’m telling you, a little cable TV would go SUCH a long way here!
Well, what do you know, we received an invitation for a rendez-vous at the administrator’s office, with the presumption of finding a solution to our problems with Mr. Moibi.
What exactly could one call a compromise when one is being asked for $8,000?
We showed up early, me in my finest (only) dress, and were forced to stand outside of the office for twenty tense minutes as the officials assembled.
I wasn’t originally aware that Mr. Moibi himself was going to be present at the meeting, so imagine my surprise when he showed up, clutching his precious folio of tax justification, wearing an enormous, baby-blue shirt with pink detailing all over it.
It was, inappropriately, very difficult not to laugh, because really, he looked like a huge blueberry.
We entered the Assistant ATE’s office, where my eyes were first met with a huge SIFORCO calendar poster. SIFORCO, a powerful logging company, is infamous among conservationists in the area for its immoral behavior, backed by copious gifts to local officials.
It does, however, give one a good idea of what to expect of the official residing in that office!
(someone could probably buy every person here just by having a CaféPress account)
The officials were, however, known to us and very friendly as we all said our various cultural hellos.
But things seemed to be taking a downward turn as the Assistant ATE began reading from a sheet of paper, talking about how we capture chimps.
I had to interrupt. Not only do we not “capture” chimps, but it sort of goes against our very mission! Oh dear already.
It turned out that the choices of words this man was using were specific, as he was hoping for our agreement in their usage for the later application of taxes. For, in front of him, was a huge bound book with passages inside, highlighted in orange.
Eager to commence with the <s>extortion</s> meeting, this man lifted the book and read the cover slowly to Polycarpe and myself, who can both read French perfectly well.
What he failed to read, under the title Administration of Congolese Law, was the subtitle: Commercial Regulations.
Were we not an NGO, a non-profit, and ergo not subject to regulations governing commercial trade? When I pointed this out, however, the AATE ignored me. He certainly wasn’t going to waste all that orange highlighter!!
In official meetings, I often tend to let Polycarpe do the talking, as he is better versed in Congolese culture and is incredibly passionate and well-spoken in French. As the discussions became heated, however, it seemed an opportune time to intervene when one of the four officials present told Polycarpe that his reluctance to “adhere” to the Congolese laws being explained to him was akin to treason.
Treason... a word in French OR English, is still clearly audible and cuts through any room with a tense vibration. In Congo, the ensuing silence is deathly still.
Using my best Diplomatic Voice, I took the floor, taking advantage of the fact that, as a woman and a white, that no one would dare interrupt me. I explained that we were doing the work on Congo, protecting a species that was extremely endangered, and that the Kisangani Zoo was no place for chimpanzees, and most importantly that we had acted in, in our estimation, the fullest accordance with Congolese law.
I was prepared, with my folder of documents (minus the ones we’ve yet to print in Buta), and as I looked each of the men in the eye, describing the horrors of the chimpanzee pet trade and the massacre of a species, I felt a connection. The men in the room (minus Mr. Moibi, who I would never deign to look in the eye) agreed that our plans for Bukavu were the best for the chimpanzees and that Kisangani Zoo would not be a good place for them to go.
Score: 1 Conservationists!
However, like pigs sniffing for truffles, the whole idea of “exportation taxes” had riled them into a rough unity, and we were subjected to yet more readings from the Big Book Of Taxes That Shouldn’t Apply To Us.
Mister Moibi hadn’t had much of a say, either, and, once given the chance, began a tirade so forceful that his dark skin was nearly as blue as his blueberry chemise! Accusing me AND Cleve of hunting chimps, using our magical cameras to search for diamonds, and trafficking in wildlife, it was probably the most ridiculous thing I’ve heard since I’ve gotten here. Which is really saying something.
If I’d been allowed to use the word “imbecile,” I would have, but as it was, he claimed to be “past injured” by my use of the word voleur -- “thief” -- when he came to our house three days in a row demanding the payment of taxes. By the law, insulting a member of the “state” is like insulting the country itself. I can only imagine the infractions against the news media in the US should such a law be passed!
He pulled out the infamous Tax List again, shaking it and apparently sure that the louder he was and the closer he furrowed his brows together, the more convincing he would be. If I’d been given a dollar for each time he said the word “documents” I could probably pay his damn taxes by now.
I truly think that Mr. Moibi believed the officials, in their Congolese Corrupt Collaboration, would not only believe his ridiculous claims but that they would then back all of his itemizations from his phony “List of Taxes.”
But upon looking at them, the AATE said, “Well, these are a bit exaggerated!”
Score: 2 Conservationists!
Of course, a bill for $8,000 would, in my mind, call for something stronger than “a bit exaggerated,” but we take whatever little we can get.
With truffles still in the air, the issue of our Detention Certificate was also brought up, because of its price difference with Mr. Moibi’s total -- $17 versus $5000.
Funnily, the AATE had been WITH the previous Minister of the Environment when we discussed and arranged the certificate, and had been WITH the Minister of the Environment when I allowed them within proximity of the sanctuary (not allowed to interact with the chimps, of course) -- the only two non-staff people in all of Congo allowed such a privilege. Yet his participation in the creation of our original document didn’t seem to add to its legitimacy in his mind (I think this fact should say something very strong indeed).
They even went so far, though, to phone the superior of Mr. Moibi to also discuss the document’s validity. The matter of what kind of country issues official documents only to later say, “Oh, this price may have been wrong, give it back to us so we can charge you 300x more” was not mentioned, though I wish it had been!
The issue of the detention permit is a big one because, if we ARE subject to “exportation taxes” -- they total a third of whatever we paid for detention. And I’ll tell you, the difference between $17 and $5000 is just as big to us out here as the difference between $5.66 and $1,666.00!!
Mr. Moibi was not done yet, however, and pulled out two LEGAL INFRACTION documents that he’d drawn up and prepared with carbon paper affixed, demanding that I sign them.
I might be young, but I certainly wasn’t born yesterday, and I don’t sign random things just because someone tells me to. As I asked for time to read them through, Mr. Moibi loudly proclaimed that this was evidence of my refusal to adhere to Congolese laws.
Polycarpe, in a rare moment of weakness, whispered to me, Sign them!
I refused, though, despite the absolute ruckus of noise in the office as all five men present all spoke at the same time, each at an equally high decibel.
Upon reading these documents, I discovered that they were for judicial/police proceedings against me for the illegal detention of chimpanzees.
Had I signed them, I would have agreed that my detention certificate was bogus and that I’d broken the law.
Tempted to rip them in half, I instead explained why I was refusing to sign them, and brought them to the AATE’s desk, bringing too once more the Certificate of Legitimate Detention, and I pointed to the line in the infraction, directly contradicting the very legally issued document he’d witnessed.
The AATE was suddenly “confused” and summoned over Mr. Moibi, who, never deterred, used white-out on the top page only and passed the documents back to me to sign.
Who knows how stupid they think I am, because I don’t speak the most beautiful French or because I’m a woman, but I’m smart enough to know that White-Out is NOT a magical item, and does not possess the adequate sorcery to remove something from all copies of a document that has carbon copies.
Score: 3 Conservationists!
Again refusing to sign, and reaching the fourth hour of this extremely noisy and non-productive meeting, I conferred with the two higher-level officials in the room, mentioning that I would go to Buta, print out our transfer papers from the ICCN (a national Congolese agency and ostensibly the governing body of all protected species) and discuss the matter with those more in power to make decisions such as these.
The fact that it shouldn’t be an issue at ALL, since I’m completely within the law and not subject to commercial taxes was ALSO not discussed.
But I am certain that Mr. Moibi will not let up until I have contacted Joseph Kabila himself. And, when I go to Buta tomorrow, I might just try that!