Saturday, June 30, 2007

Transportation a problem? Or not!

Kinshasa has a very unique transportation system. There are some city buses and they are getting more all the time but they are few and far between. There are many buses on the side of the roads that are broken down and it seems very difficult to keep them running in a place where they must maneuver in heavy traffic and the roads are so potholed that the buses breakdown often. We don't know what the price is to ride these buses but people fight to get on them. When the city bus stops, people run to the door and start shoving and elbowing each other trying to get on'. They stack them in as tight as possible and then they don't stop any more until they let someone off. When you see these buses on the road they are usually so full that another body could not be fit anywhere on them. It looks like a mass of humanity. We have not got a good picture of the stuffed bus yet as we don't want to be rude and take a picture that might offend someone. Most people choose to ride commvies. Commvies are a unique form of transportation that at first look like total chaos but actually is a well oiled machine that services a large population and makes it possible for people to move around the city. Keep in mind that there are 9 million people in this city and although the traffic is always very congested most people do not own cars and depend on the commvies for transportation. Commvies are large vans, mini vans, old VW vans, station wagons or just old cars. The drivers of these vehicles may own the van but most rent the van for a set amount of money per day and then hope they make more money than they spend so they have an income. Gas is $8 per gallon so profit margin can't be very good. They also have a partner that rides the van with them and collects the money from the riders. The regular seats in the van are removed and the van is rigged with 5 rows of seats, actually benches that hold 5 people per seat. It is not uncommon to see many more people loaded into these vans as they open up the back doors and set people on both sides of the back bench or set them with their legs hanging out under the back hatch door as they sit on the floor of the van. Unusually they leave the side sliding door open and two or three people stand in that doorway and hang on half in and half out of the van. We have also seen two or three riders standing on the back bumper which is just rim and holding on to the lip at the roof. How they manage to stay on is unknown to us as they are swerving in and out of traffic, hitting these huge potholes and bouncing along the road. The most precarious rider is the one who hangs on to the roof rim on the back and balances on the Ball hitch on the back of the van. When you drive behind such a van you are fearful he will fall off and you will run over him before you can stop. We try to stay out of the right lane as this is the lane most of these commvies drive in so they can stop and pick up passengers whenever they are hailed from the side of the road. Most commvies are very beat up missing lights and sometimes doors. Several times we have been driving along and the van in front of us looses their sliding door. The passengers just jump off and pick up the door and hold it in place as the van gets back in motion. When the commvies break down or stop passengers will get out and push the vehicle along until it starts up again. They don't want to lose their ride they have already paid for. We wondered how the drivers know when to stop and pick someone up. Usually there are many people on the side of the road waiting for transport and they seem to be waving at the commvies. We finally realized that they are waving in a certain way. They may wave their hand up and down or sideways. They may wave with three fingers or four. They may extend their thumb or just put their thumb up or down. Each gesture means a different destination. Sometimes the driver may even wave out the window to show where he is going. Most cars have drivers on the left side of the car but it is not unusual to see someone driving from the right side of the car. During commute time in the morning and evening competition for transport is high and people run, shove and push trying to get on one of these vans. You can imagine how hard it is if you live on the outside of town and want transport and a van pulls up that is full and you desperately want to get home so you just shove your way in. When they stop sometimes many people have to climb out to allow the person getting off to get out of the van. All this is happening as the driver maneuvers around many, many cars and other transports and the money changer is trying to keep track of who is getting on and making change for these passengers. It looks like total confusion but the system works and millions of people are transported daily around the city. It is interesting to see how many people can get in to one of these vans. I wonder if they know they might be making the world record for van stuffing. We have counted 27 people in one VW bus. That is our record. You may have an appointment with someone but often they are late because they couldn't get transport or many times families have to choose who will go to church on Sunday as they cannot afford transport for everyone to go. The cost for riding the commie runs about $.40 and this is out of the range of many people. Another form of transport is hitching a ride on a truck. We assume that when a truck is going somewhere for a price they will give people a ride. We have seen huge trucks stuffed full of people; men, women and children. Sometimes the truck will be loaded with big bundles of kasava leaves or other goods and the people will just sit on top of the pile. The pile may be tipped precariously but the people just hang on and hope for the best. Last night we were going out to the airport to pick up our new mission president and his wife and we drove behind a pickup truck that had so many men in it we couldn't count them all. I counted 17 but was unable to see those in the front. They were straddling the tailgate and everyone was hanging on to someone. We got laughing at them and gave them a thumbs up and they laughed and to ask why we only had four people in our truck, couldn't we give someone a ride. We have decided that the transportation in Kinshasa is an amazing system. This system moves millions of people every day and without the system the city could not function. An example of creative necessity. I want to ride on a commvie but Farrell says mission rules prohibit my riding mass transit. Oh Well. Where we saw chaos we know see ingenuity. Where we saw lack of order we now see creativity in the making.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Just a bit about Kinshasa the capitol of the DRC

KINSHASA: Kinshasa is the capital of the DRC. Kinshasa has a population of 9 million people and it is about the same size as the Salt lake Valley. It sits on the bank of the Congo River.

It has many high-rises and some very beautiful buildings but most are old and rundown. Many buildings that were once beautiful are gutted and ruined during different unrest and fighting. There is one medical university that must have been very large and beautiful but now stands like a skeleton on the side of the road and is full of squatters using it as home. There is no water or electricity to it.

Many of the little suburbs which are still part of Kinshasa have no electricity and many have only water in streams that they fetch in big 5 gallon jugs. Plumbing is only for the wealthy and the systems are run on septic tanks.

Every business or embassy or large home has a fortified wall around it topped with razor wire of broken battles to discourage anyone coming over the wall and all have guards at the gate. Our apartment, the mission home/office and Temporal Affairs building all have high walls with guards. Everything is dependant on whether the electricity is on. Electricity service is sporadic and most large buildings have back up generators. We have plumbing with running water and we have a 3 filter system for our water so we can drink the water if we run it through the filter. The water tastes good and we put it in the refrigerator to get it cold and do not have to buy water to drink. The rule when you shower is to keep your eyes and mouth shut tight.

All over the city you will see men selling water. They package it in plastic bags about 2 cup each. People buy water to drink when they are thirsty as there are no water fountains or taps to get water from and no way of getting water. With the heat you have to make sure and drink a lot of water. The bad thing about this commercial system is that when they finish drinking the water they throw the bag on the ground and you can imagine how this litter adds to the garbage that is everywhere, It is a very bad problem and we have heard that in Kenya they have outlawed plastic bags. We don’t know what they use now. But for the Congo this water bag issue is a huge problem as trash. Trash is everywhere and there is no garbage system to speak of and you never see a garbage can on the street to collect trash. Trash does get gathered up into piles and then it is burned. these piles may be little road side piles or big piles filling a huge lot.

On every corner and all along the streets people have stands and are selling something. They have an umbrella over the booth many of them tattered with holes or ribs that hang down. They have 2-6 plastic patio chairs around the booth . They sit at these booths all day with all the chairs filled with friends or family members. These vendors sell big bowls filled with bagets of bread, soda pop, phone cards, and other food snacks. They sell a pasty food called foofoo that is wrapped up in banana leaves and tied with some kind of strip of vegetation. We understand that they boil or roast these bundles and eat them for dinner.

Everyone eats breakfast on the road. They buy bread and tea. The bread is spread with something but we haven’t ventured to try it yet. Lunch is usually more bread bought at one of these booths or from someone who walks around with a big bowel on their head full of bread or a packaged of cookies and a soda pop. You may see some one just start a little fire to heat a pot for tea right on the side of the rode in front of a large business. The road side belongs to everyone and there are no rules to who can you the area or what they can do with the area. At night the air fills with smoke as everyone goes home and people start building charcoal fires to cook their dinner on. The smoke gets pretty heavy at times and we aren’t sure what they cook but we are told it is usually foofoo . This is that pasty food that they add things too such as onions, peppers, garlic and cooked greens. The Congolese don’t like salad and they think we are crazy for eating raw vegetables. Bread is sold everywhere and we buy it at a bakery. The bread has a big European influence and it is the best bread I have ever tasted. We eat bread almost every meal, something new for us.

When driving down the main streets ii is not uncommon to have salesmen carrying their wears come right out in the street and try to sell you something through your window. They sell maps, shoes, shirts, ties, Kleenex ( these are heavy duty and people use them to wipe away the sweat from their faces), newspapers, children’s toys, flashlights, bags of water and almost anything you can imagine . People are usually stopped in traffic when this happens but not always. Sometimes the car in front of you just stops or slows down and the transaction takes place while the car continues on down the road moving slowly. It is hard to appreciate this dangerous way of selling but the cars are whizzing by and where there are two lanes the cars may make three lanes causing the cars to be very close in proximity. I have seen one of these vendors raise his hands and his goods up in the air to make himself very skinny so he won’t get knocked down when two cars whiz by on each side of him.
There is some open air markets where many vendors put out their wares. One is "Thieves Market". They sell paintings which they swear they painted themselves. They sale jewelry, wood carvings, masks, kuba clothes, onyx and jade carvings. Everything is up for barter. You can never get away without buying something and usually they make such good deals you buy many things you didn't want to buy. They also have a fabric market with just rows and rows of booths selling Congolese fabric which is very colorful and is the cloth that the women make their beautiful Congolese dresses out of.
POLICEMEN: Here in Kinshasa it is very hard to understand the police system. There are security guards at businesses like the grocery store. They are all in uniform and many carry guns or even rifles. There are several different kind of policemen. The ones dressed in navy blue uniforms with red bars on them are mostly mean and rude although one by our intersection is very good at directing traffic, always waves and smiles when we come by. The other police are dressed in bright blue pants and hat with yellow shirts. They only direct traffic. Most of these policeman are grouped together in 3,4 or 6. We have been told not to be the first one to stop at an intersection as they work together as one stops you while the others walk around the vehicle and try to get you to pay money. There are also state soldiers who are dressed in dark green uniforms are always with their dark green vehicles and usually are quick to say bon jour. You don’t want to mess with the soldiers. They have a reputation of being mean and using their power to rob people. There are also the UN soldiers. Their compound is just across the street from our apartment and they runaround in grey or white vehicles and are dressed in gray uniforms.

We have had 3 incidences with the police. We were stopped once and they demanded money from us but we just kept telling them in English we are poor missionaries and they finally waved us on.

We have finally decided that the best thing to do is wave and smile at every officer (no matter their title ) and try to make friends. This is starting to show some results as now when we approach an intersection we get salutes, smiles and many times the traffic is stopped to let us pass through. I guess the Lord provides. As you can imagine we are always watching to see that we not offend or disobey traffic rules. We don't have any pictures of policemen as we never stop long enough to ask for a picture and here you have to ask if you can take a picture and then it may cost you as everyone wants a way to get your money.

TRAFFIC RULES: We have been told that you must stop at all intersections, use your turn signal and yield the right of way but no one does any of this. There are no stop signs to speak of and traffic lights are rare and if you do come on one you must stop way back from the intersection or incur get chewed out by the policeman. At the main intersections there are round booth raised up above the traffic and a policeman stands in this booth and stretches out his arms. If his arms are pointing at your lane you have the right of way but be ready for him to turn without warning and change the flow of traffic. People weave in and out of traffic and there is no time to turn on a signal light and most cars are so beat up they don’t have headlights let alone turn signals. The unwritten law is if you are in motion you have the right of way. You hear horns honking continuously which signals that they are passing or taking the right of way. Headlights are also flashed to signal that a car is taking the right of way so watch out.

If a car breaks down it stays right where it is and they fix it right where it stands. It doesn’t matter if it is in the middle of an intersection or lane they fix it right there and I don’t know how they do it without getting killed as everyone is just whizzing around them, ignoring that they have the hood up or are changing a tire. We saw a big truck in the middle of a road and they were changing the axle. How they did that in the middle of the road, no one knows. We have seen only a few accidents but when there is one it is bad. It is no wonder since everyone speeds and leaves no room for error. Traffic is always bumper to bumper and if there is an inch of space some one takes it as a pathway. We were trying to get across a main road and you have to inch out into traffic or just take off and hope people stop. Farrell is more careful and a car behind him got angry and took off around us sailing through the intersection and cars screeched to a stop and it got through but I sure had my doubts it would make it. People get really angry if you let someone in or wait for someone to pass. If you come up to a car and it is going to slow you just go around it even if someone is right next to you they just have to get out of the way.

Despite all the strange things about this city, the city is growing. Everywhere you look there is building going on. New businesses open every day. People are happy, optimistic and enjoying life. You can buy fresh flowers on the corner, a bouquet for 1000fr ($2). There may be no fresh milk but the bread is the best in the world. Traffic is terrible but nothing is too far away. Police at first seem intimidating but after awhile become friendly and helpful. You find beggars everywhere but along side them are people working very hard to make an honest days living.
It is interesting how our views have changed just in the 2 months we have been here. We love the Congo and find new things every day to keep us busy and useful. Life is good

Farrell and Marilyn
Elder and Soeur Barlow