Field Notes

Twists and Turns in Congo

By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, April 30, 2008; 5:09 PM

Field Notes is a new feature intended to give readers a sense of the story behind the story. These journals -- a glimpse at the way our correspondents work -- will occasionally accompany dispatches from abroad on the web and in print.

There are few straight lines anyplace I've been so far in Africa -- roads, bricks, buildings, windows, pushcarts, power poles, farm fields, all are edged by a wavering line that betrays the work of unguided hands.

The rule applies widely, to traffic and queues, and in this, Congo is no exception, especially the Lubumbashi airport, where I arrived around noon a few Wednesdays ago to report on the country's roads and mines.

No lines here, just free-form crowds.

A mass pushing to the immigration counter, a scrum leaning toward the security check, and finally into the baggage claim area, where luggage is heaped from plane to pile. The conveyor belt that delivers the bags to the terminal was broken, so we all did what we had to do: climbed onto it, crouched through the opening to the outside and sorted through the pile.

But what can I tell you about Lubumbashi?

It is a busy mining center with a downtown consisting of three-story salmon-colored buildings, with shops selling cellphones, radios, stationery, auto parts, shoes, airline tickets and the sort of knock-off fashions from China you'd find at any trendy discount store in the U.S.

There are lots of cars and traffic circles in Lubumbashi, one of which has a startingly realistic statue of former president Laurent Kabila, a heavy man whose every bulge is recreated in such unflattering detail that I wonder whether the artist was being subversive.

Kabila was from the area and remains a heroic figure here. Huge fading billboards bearing his image -- again, a rather unflattering image of the man glancing sideways, appearing more shifty than clever -- loom at every turn like so many Doctor Eckleburgs.

Beyond downtown, side streets are planted with large-trunked trees and palms and half-dilapidated 1950s-era modern houses left by the Belgian colonizers -- all tile-roofs, curvy sides and wrought iron bars woven with bright pink flowers.

I stayed at Motel Nazem, a truck-stoppy kind of place with a lobby the size and brightness of a 7-Eleven: glossy white tile floors and oversized leather couches where the hotel employees watched soccer on TV all day.

It was in the shiny lobby that I met my trusty translator (my French is très poor), who I had found through a local contact who knew someone who knew someone who was Antoine, a Congolese radio journalist with excellent English.

A day-dreamy sort of person, Antoine told me how he had become captivated by the U.S. space program in the 1980s during the Cold War, when the United States had a cultural center in Lubumbashi that showed Peter Jennings' nightly news broadcasts. He had composed an epic poem about the Challenger space shuttle, as well as a song, called Challenger, which, in a singularly mesmerizing moment at 2 p.m. on a Wednesday, he sang freely in the lobby of Motel Nazem.

A sidenote: It is always interesting to see what random fragments of foreign cultures filter into people's imaginations. In Somalia, Franz Kafka appeared on more than one bookshelf; in eastern Chad, a young taxi driver had Gandhi: A Very Short Introduction on his dashboard; in the bars of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, no song is more popular than Country Roads by John Denver.

And so, Antoine in Lubumbashi had the Challenger.

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