Obviously, there's more to Africa than the lowlights of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, but it's hard to shake some of the salacious and outrageous images from the most dysfunctional society I've ever encountered. In the Congo, they tell you that you don't have to worry about the ordinary people; it's the guys in uniform (police, military, petty officials) you need to watch out for. I found this to be entirely true.
Everywhere I went in the Congo, I was received warmly by the locals, and with open palms and toothy smiles by those in authority — authority there pretty much being synonymous with "the guys with the most weapons." Though on second thought, I guess that's what it means in our country, too. Maybe we're just better at concealing the ugly nature of universal inevitabilities.
Regardless, the cops in Kinshasa and other large Congolese cities have an interesting way of drawing their salaries, which are almost never paid by the government. Picking out a vehicle stopped at a light or sign, or just one crawling at the usual 2 or 3 mph through the slum-city's infuriating traffic, they'll simply open the car door and plop themselves next to the unsuspecting driver or in the back seat. If the car is already filled with passengers, they'll grab one of the passengers by the shoulder, "help" him to the curb, and climb inside. Once in the car, they begin loudly berating the driver about some supposed infraction ("I saw you take an illegal right turn a mile back!" "Your license plate is hung at a crooked angle!") and start the bribe bidding at around $100.
To the Congolese, this is everyday stuff. They fulfill their part of the bargain by rolling their eyes, acting aggrieved, and refusing to pay a penalty that usually equals three or four months income. After five or ten minutes of back and forth barking, the two parties cool down and start chit-chatting about completely unrelated matters — "You're from Katanga province? So's my mother in law!" A tenuous friendship established, talk of bogus infractions is dropped and the cop or soldier or whomever soon begins shaking hands and back-slapping and letting the driver know he's a bit hard up this week, bills to pay, kids to support, wives and girlfriends to keep happy, and, hey, could you do a brother a solid and help me out a bit? Two or three dollars eventually changes hands, and the car is sent on its way. The whole process takes between fifteen and thirty minutes, and if I've covered it here in suspiciously extensive detail it's because I saw it go down in more or less this fashion a dozen or so times during my two weeks in the Congo.
As you move up the ranks to government officials, the process becomes more civil, but pricier. If you'd like to read about one such encounter with a government official — a congenial, heavyset bald guy with wire-rim glasses who sweated profusely despite cooling himself with a plastic Japanese fan during the entire hour I spent detained in his office — this story continues under a dispatch titled "My Favorite Souvenir From Africa" on my website, chuckthompsonbooks.com. It's a pretty good story and ends with me secretly carrying away a terrific keepsake, a small piece of evidence to the Congo's endemic corruption.
Tomorrow: What everyone seems to miss about Smile When You're Lying.
÷ ÷ ÷
The very first editor-in-chief of Travelocity magazine, Chuck Thompson's work has appeared in Maxim, The Atlantic, Esquire, National Geographic Adventure, and Escape, among many others. He will appear at Powell's City of Books on Burnside on January 14th, 2008. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Books mentioned in this post
Chuck Thompson is the author of Smile When You're Lying: Confessions of a Rogue Travel Writer