This thread is great! The story is cookie cutter perfect for publishing in something like the Overland Journal!
I dont know how you managed to keep your cool! I think I would have finally lost it with the begging and all.
I spent a year in Afghanistan, and the people there seem to have a lot of similar traits as far as begging and always trying to pull one over.....only difference there is that there are a lot more evil untrustworthy people!
Our exhaust broke of just at the exhaust manifold. Probably due to to all the flexing on these roads. All hopes of arriving somewhere without getting noticed were out of the door with that.
Quite to our surprise there was no checkpoint at the entrance of Ilebo. But actually that is not too strange, as nobody ever takes that road. Ilebo has a bustling harbour city feel about it. Lots of activity on the streets. We got a lot of stares, but people seemed friendly.
We headed straight for the catholic mission and were greeted by Abbé Omer. The mission was the former headquarters of Belgian sisters (Josephites?). They had fled a the country a few times, and after the last war they did not return. The building was given to the Catholic mission. It looked like a nice building, but the decay had started.
We discussed our plans with Abbé Omer in the garden of the mission (it must have been a wonderfull garden back in the days.. now it looked a bit rundown). The good news was that there was good ferry here that could take us across the mighty Kasai river. The bad news was that nobody every uses that ferry and it does not see any regular action.
Omer knew the guy who was responsible for the Ferry, a chap called Barthélémy. He even has his phone number, but he does not have credit on his phone. No problem, he can use ours. A conversation in Lingala starts, it takes about ten minutes until we run out of credit on our phone. I actually think they talked 1 minute about the ferry and the other 9 minutes about other things, but anyway. Here was the deal:
- Price for a two-way trip is 50$US
- we have to supply our own diesel the engine of the boat. 150 liters is required (!). that's about 200$US (Diesel here is cheaper because they have a regular supply via boats from Kinshasa).
- we have to supply two batteries to start the engines of the boat
- the ferry is on the other side of the river and they would only be able to get it across somewhere next week
That's just great!
We immediatelly uttered to Omer that that was a ridiculously high price, one we would never pay. And that we wanted to cross as soon as possible. preferably tomorrow.
What followed was a very difficult negotiation. Abbé Omer insisted that he acted as an intermediate person. According to him to protect us from getting ripped off (because we were white). I was actually convinced that he was playing a game with his mate Barthélémy to make some money out of us. It took us many hours on the phone to finally convince this Barthélémy to come to see us to discuss the price. He would come at 8 the next morning.
Later that evening Omer suggested that we he would have to inform the police of our presence (c'est normal!), it took us a lot of persuading for him not to 'give us in'.
So there we were, staying in a courtyard of the mission.. with a gate that was so badly bend that it would no longer close. Hosted by an Abbé whom I did not trust (Josephine had a better feeling about him... she is usually right about those things). Waiting for a guy who wanted 250$US to ferry us across a river.
Did you know that, by law, all state operated ferries in the Congo are free? Yeah right
We got up at 7 - sleeping late! - so we would be ready to meet Barthélémy at 8. We felt so stupid, we should have known better. How lang had we been travelling trough Africa now?
He showed up at 11:30.
He had a bunch of official documents with him. Documents that actually looked legit. It described the running costs of the ferry (dated recently 2004 I think). And indeed, 75liters was stated as the amount of fuel required for a one-way trip. They would have to charge us a two-way trip as the boat was currently on the other side of the river, and they had to get it across first. Ofcourse there are no other passengers. There was not a lot of room for discussion there. The 50$US fee on the other hand was not legitimate at all, he knew it, we knew it. But as these guys rarely get paid by the goverment it is generally accepted that they ask for a fee. We got it down to a reasonable 25$US(still too much). This would pay for the entire boat crew and they would 'rent' 2 batteries for us.
We would buy a barrel of diesel (cheaper then per liter) and have it delivered to the port directly.
We had a very long discussion about the payment, he wanted everything in advance as he had to pay for the diesel. We did not want to give a total stranger in Congo 225$US, without a contract (not that it would be worth anything), without having seen the boat, ... . He eventually agreed with a 100$US downpayment. We hoped we could trust this guy!
He would cross the Kasai river tomorrow in a dug-out canoe with the boat crew to go and get the ferry. 'Somewhere in the afternoon' we would then be able to cross.
I did not trust Abbé Omer. I did not trust this Barthélémy. I did not trust our deal. But we did not have a choice..
The mission had very nice rooms on the top floor. Every room used to belong to a sister. With a living area, a seperate bedroom and a private bathroom. With bathtub and everything. The bathtub looked a bit green and the toilet no longer had a seat (who is this guy who keeps stealing all the toilet seats in Africa?). We could use one of the rooms to wash ourselves, but we would camp in our tent.
For a minute we thought they had running water, but they hadn't. There is a running water system in Ilebo, but there are no meters. Instead, people are charged depending on how large their building is. The usual corruption is probably included too. The mission had a staff of 3 but lived in a huge house, so apparantely their water bill was huge. They had thus cancelled the service. According to Omer almost nobody makes use of the water network any longer.
Instead people operate 'commercial' taps on the street. You can go there with a jerry can, they fill it up and you pay per liter. In a way it is rewarding as you first have to work a sweat before one can take a shower.
There was another guest in the mission. A father who was asked/sponsered by the UN to travel around and educate people about corruption and long-term planning. He held a talk in the small chapel in the mission, we sat just outside the chapel so we could overhear everything he said. It was very interesting. He talked about corruption, and how it would make it impossible for a society to have progress. He also covered the subject of the roads, he would encourage people to keep the roads in a good state in their villages instead of intentionally creating bogholes. He explained that in the short term they would loose 'income', but it would benefit them in the longer term if traffic increased (more and thus cheaper supplies, an actual functional economy).
It was very refreshing to hear this and we really hoped his talk would make an impression. When his talk was finished we saw the people leaving the mission. 4 man had attended.
That evening Omer had invited us to join them for dinner. We reluctantly accepted. Eating with 'the locals' is always in interesting experience, but very often it is just very bad food. As to not offend people and also as a precaution for us not to get sick, we tried to avoid these offerings in Congo as much a possible. We could see most people were happy when we declined as they have so little food already.
We were pleasantly surprised, maniok leaves, something that resembled a stew and fufu (= pap for the South Africans, but made out of maniok).
Our car was packed and ready to go... we were waiting for a phone call from Barthélémy. When it finally arrived around noon, Abbé Omer told us he had notified the police that we would be leaving from the port today. We have no idea why he did that, as he knew how much trouble we've had with the police thus far.
Anyway, on his little motorbike he guided us towards the port. Not surprisingly we were stopped by the police who were waiting for us. As our boat was waiting for us, we were not in the mood for a lengthy negotiation. So as soon as they had checked all our papers (our self issued 'permit' was still doing wonders) we played bluff and immediately asked for their names and ranks and claimed we knew their superior officer. This was a risky move and probably a stupid risk to take at the time, but it worked. Somehow we sensed by now how confident the police was and we could play the game along quite well.
We couldn't believe our eyes when we finally saw the ferry.
It looked brand new!
A German (?) NGO had funded the restoration of the ferry recently. It had received a nice fresh coat of paint, but the money to rebuild the engines had gone missing.
The departure in the port of Ilebo was hectic (dodgy place!) so we could not really say goodbye to Abbé Omer. He waved us goodbye from the shore. I did not get along well with Omer. I cannot explain why. But in retrospect he did help us and my lack of trust in him was probably a mistake. Shame..
Abbé Omer on the right.
The trip across would take an hour as it was upstream. We felt very much at ease during that hour. We were disconnected from the shore, on a safe distance from everybody that wanted money from us, we did not have to drive. We just had to sit back and enjoy the ride. It was also one of the rare occasions were we got out of the dense forest and could have a look around.
The port of Ilebo
A floating fishing village on the shores of the Kasai:
Once out of the port these two guys would use long sticks to feel how the deep the river was.
This dugout canoe hitched a ride with us. For a moment I thought of charging them a fee... according to local Congolese tradition. I didn't ;-)
The beautiful, mighty, muddy Kasai river
In Ilebo we had asked for the road conditions on the other side of the river. Nobody knew. People here travel by boat, not by road. We were silently hoping that the roads would be perfect on the other side. We couldn't have been more wrong...
Barthélémy gave us a letter for his friend, the captain of the next ferry. It was written in Lingala, but we could make out a few words. The letter was about us but we did not know what it said. Would it be some good words for us? Or would it be some tips on how to extort the maximum amount of money out of us? We did not ask about the condition of the next ferry... It was probably better that we didn't know at the time..