Guest post by Sandra Basgall, Catholic Relief Services Central Africa
Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, is a bustling city of 8 to 10 million on the Congo River. Across the river lies the capital of the Republic of Congo, Brazzaville. This is the only place in the world where two capitals lie side by side.
From certain locations, you can see Brazzaville, just as large and busy as Kinshasa. There are no bridges connecting the two cities. Many people cross by speed boat and others on the overcrowded ferries. You need a visa to visit there.Many of the boulevards in Kinshasa are very wide, but traffic is heavy, and during rush hour, the buses and taxis race each other to get the next passenger. These yellow and blue vehicles defy description. Some of them look like vans or old delivery trucks with windows cut out of the sides. People hold the doors closed by just hanging on to them. They are full, full, full of people and remind me of the old ‘70s game of seeing how many people can fit into a Volkswagen!
Many look like they can barely move, but my colleagues tell me that just a month ago, the worst of them were taken off the road. I can barely imagine what they looked like as this bunch is so rag-a-tagged. We have been told not to use buses or taxis as they are not safe mechanically and you might get robbed. I have no desire to ride in one.
During rush hour, it seems as if the total population is waiting for transportation, but that’s not possible as at least the other half are in cars buses, or taxis trying to negotiate their way up the main boulevard. Yesterday, my driver drove on side of the road facing traffic so he could negotiate faster in traffic. When he was not going on the wrong side of the road, he was driving on the sidewalk with the pedestrians and he was not alone doing this either. We had our own traffic jam on the wrong side of the street or the sidewalk.
The poor men and boys without a limb seem to hang out in the middle of the boulevards asking for handouts. If you ignore them, they tap on your car window, preferably with the stump or deformed limb.
There are also street children, boys, who are looking for handouts. I was so moved by a little boy about five that I gave him five francs (about 50 cents) and then I was sorry I did as another boy came and took it from him as we pulled away. They may be barefooted or only wearing one flip-flop, or, if they have two, they often do not match. I have never seen a woman or girl here so I do not know what they do.
They are putting street drains in the main street, 30th of June Boulevard, which you have to take to get almost anywhere and certainly to get downtown. This puts one of the lanes out of commission, and there are deep ditches along both sides of the street. When they are finished building the drains, they cover them over with square sidewalk tiles that have spaces between them to catch the rain water. This means that if you are going to go to a particular store and the street is torn up, you have to go to the end of the block and drive down the sidewalk to the store. I thought that when the sidewalks were finished, people would walk on them, but cars tend to park there.
African women are some of the most chic in the world, no matter their weight. They have amazing straight posture, wear colorful, interesting clothing (both of Western and African design), and amazing footwear. I have seen shoes that have a 5 inches heal and the toe just as long, coming out that far from the end of their toes. Men also wear these elongated toe shoes and when they get worn, they tend to turn up at the end like a pair of Arabian slippers.
Today, one of my Congo colleagues has a beautiful eyelet material dress in bright yellow and she looked quite beautiful. There is something about the dress of African women that has a class not found anywhere else in the world. There is no way, even if I weighed less, that I could begin to look as well as they do. I am constantly looking and taking in what I see.
Both men and women carry things on their heads effortlessly—.I have no idea why we in the north never learned to carry things that way. Sometimes it can be a small shopping bag just effortlessly perched there, and other times, they are carrying 100 pound sacks of produce. They stand straight and tall and what is difficult to me seems effortless to them.
Originally from the United States, but currently living in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo, Sandra Basgall works for Catholic Relief Services for Central Africa as their Monitoring and Evaluation Advisor. She has provided similar services to government agencies, NGOs/PVDOs, the United Nations, and educational institutions throughout the world. Organizations for which she has worked include UNESCO, the International Rescue Committee, BRAC Bangladesh, the Jamaican-Dominican Republic Integrated Rural Development Project, Pan American Health Organization, Caribbean Food and Nutrition Institute, and USAID. She has also taught undergraduate and graduate courses at the University of Iowa and the School for International Training.
She has extensive experience working, living, and traveling in many cultures and countries include Vietnam, Taiwan, Korea, Japan, Northern Caucasus States of Ossetia, Ingushetia and Chechnya, Russia, Bangladesh, Singapore, Mexico, Burundi, Rwanda, France, Denmark, Panama, Trinidad-Tobago, Jamaica, to name a few—and in various states in the United States.