Second post from Kin – Bike, beer and bonobos

Flavours of the second month in Kin.

Stand in central Kinshasa on Boulevard 30 Juin.  Green and blocky buildings and a Beijing-grey sky. Stuffed-up traffic, skinny police and the shaegaes – former child-soldiers now beggars in the road. Kinshasa’s huge but doesn’t feel huge. Not like New York’s hours of subway or Paris with its views. The roads tail long and elasticky away from the river. They stretch towards the Bas-Congo and Bundundu. Music crackles from every radio.

1. Bike

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Shiny, Indian made with a rearview mirror!

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Sights of Kinshasa

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Since buying a bike my quality of life improved. More freedom – at least in Gombe on a Sunday afternoon. You can tour the government buildings, concrete statues, quiet embassy flags and gated compounds. Gombe the eye of the storm. North of Avenue 30 Juin. To go further, you need a car.

Dance

Midnght on a rooftop in Victoire. It’s a rhumba bar where ancient musicians thrumb the rhythm and middle-aged dancers gyrate. Lollipop-spinning buttocks, bright-coloured clothes and very serious expressions. It seems the Congolese are famous throughout Africa for their love of music, dance and beer. South of Avenue 30 Juin. Concerts and “boite de nuit”. Another concert full of dancing, dancing and rhtyms of Brazil.  Rhumba, Ndombolo, Congolese salsa and jazz all night long. The radios are always turned on around here.

Beer

Not for nothing this is a former Belgian colony. Oh they do drink beer! Tembo > Mutzig  > Skol > Primus – my verdict so far. Would love to visit a brewery. See below three different beers in one photo alone. And right a stranger Belgian legacy. “Chez Tintin” is a funny place by the Livingstone rapids that shaped Congo’s history… see plastic statues of Tintin reading about Jesus and Captain Haddock with beer. Tintin in Congo book-cover-pantings are sold as souvenirs. A book now banned in much of Europe for being racist. Another beer?

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Chez Tintin at Livingstone Rapids

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Tembo

Bonobos

And finally we made it to the bonobo orphanage! Congo is the only place in the world with bonobos in the wild. They are considered the closest ape to humans, closer even than chimpanzees. Some likenesses in their body, long limbs and hunanesque hands were eerily disconcerting. Women fed the orphaned babies with milk, stroking them. Like humans they are social and rely on human contact. If not loved, the babies stop eating and die. Luckily these were in good form and playful. They climbed right over the electric fence and tried to get away! These are the lucky ones of course. Bonobos are under serious threat by poaching, environmental destruction and even war.

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…disconcerting!… and very endangered

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Our closest ancestors

Can barely believe I’ve spent two months in the DRC – it feels like nothing, and like it has flown by. “Malembe malembe” (slowly slowly) is still very much the order of the day. Next on the wish list: more music, camping, big market, botanical gardens, Brazzaville, inviting Congolese friends round for dinner. Do come visit.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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First post from Congo – Malembe Malembe

I didn’t write before because I didn’t know where to start. This country is 10 times the size of Guyana and almost 100 times the population. Kinshasa is the third-biggest city in Africa. More than anything it reminds me of Beijing! Swirls of impressions and language, unique and blood-curdling history combined with complex and politically tense present. Where to begin.

Like Guyana, let’s start with the waters. The Congo river defines the country – not only its name but its borders (which roughly match the drainage basin) and its history. Unlike the rest of Africa’s great rivers, you cannot sail from the Congo to the sea. It is blocked near the mouth by a plug of inpassable 220km rapids.

The Kongo kingdom was below the rapids, near the coast (just in today’s Angola). Despite the king’s fluent Portuguese, conversion to Christianity and appeals to the Pope, it was destroyed by the slave trade. “How Europe Underdeveloped Africa” by Guyana’s own Walter Rodney could almost have been written for the Kongo. And indeed many Afro-Guyanese would trace their roots back to here. But although the Europeans transported perhaps three million Congolese/Angolans as slaves, they were blocked by the rapids, and could not sail upstream. So the vast interior of the Congo (of different peoples, as the Kongo were just by the coast) became one of the last uncolonized places in Africa.

Jump to the present – central Kinshasa has been the capital since the 1880s. I’m staying in a 1920’s Belgian colonial house with huge green garden trees. The centre has wide roads, (some) tall buildings, and is the 5th most expensive city in the world. Expats praise the city’s restaurants – most diplomats live in compounds and are forbidden to walk the streets. Beyond, Kinshasa’s 24 communes have a population of – 8m? 10m? 15m? Who knows. I have driven the main road to the airport and out of town. But beyond that, what I have seen? Nothing of where most citizens live. The per capita HDI and GDP is second-lowest in the world.

“Would you like some bugs with your lunch?” Well why not! A breezy lunchtime in the office in central Kinshasa. Most of my colleagues are Congolese – some from other parts of the country – Bandundu, Kivu, Equator. Some Europeans too. But French is the office language and I stumble through. The smiles and laughs help enormously. Many live an hour from the office, through gridlock traffic. Like London without the underground. At lunchtime, Camille brings plantain and rice, mashed manioc, fish or chicken, some vegetables, chilli sauce and if you’re lucky, the bugs. They say you’ll like anything once you’ve tried it 30 times… Driving to meetings, Congolese music on the radio. “I’ve been on the radio-shows three times” says the driver Noah. “They didn’t believe i was a driver because I’m so well-dressed. I said why shouldn’t a driver be well-dressed!”

 

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View from the Office

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Lunchtime Selection

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So, almost three weeks in, and the highlight was today, swimming in the Congo river. Also enjoying morning runs to gradually explore the city. I suspect this place will require stamina to  discover and get to know. So I’m glad for my first expression in Lingala, learned from our smiling office driver: “Malembe, malembe” or slowly, slow.

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Dusk by Kinshasa – Across the river from Brazzaville

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Pirogue in the Congo River

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Brexit – my view from Kinshasa

“Europe will not be made all at once, or according to a single plan. It will be built through concrete achievements which first create a de facto solidarity.”

When I first read this quote, on a rusty steel girder monument in Luxembourg over 10 years ago, I cried. The words are from the Schuman declaration which launched the European Coal and Steel community, the precursor to the EU. They capture the vision, solidarity and practicality of the European project. On Friday I cried too, as it seems did millions of Brits. This is it how it feels to watch the wheels of history turn. For the moment Britain is diminished, and so is Europe. We must keep moving forward.

I feel grateful to have benefited tremendously from the EU. Both in big ways, such as peace, free movement and environment law, and in small. I am proud that the UK was part of it for over 40 years, and helped to integrate Eastern European countries after the fall of the USSR. I am proud of the contribution of my parents who are both passionate EU civil servants. That said I respect the referendum result. The people have spoken.

The view from Kinshasa is a funny one. In one of the poorest countries in the world, I can hardly moan my salary just dropped 15%! In many ways I’m glad to be far from the wounded, emotional (amost hysterical) UK. Although my British, French and Belgian colleagues are talking of little else. That said, another part of me wishes I was there. The next few months will be critical for our future. We need to avoid scrapping and fall-outs. We need wise leadership, meticulous negotation, and solidarity. There is lots to gain!

One of the projects in the program I am working on, supports the implementation of harmonized business law in Africa. In 2012, the DRC joined a union of now 17 mostly Francophone states called “OHADA”. The depth and reach of OHADA is expanding, to unify further legal areas and encourage other countries to join, perhaps even some anglophone ones. And interestingly, the UK through DFID is the biggest supporter of OHADA in the DRC. Oh Britain, I hope you continue to support multilateralism. I hope you continue to help build structures that are bigger than yourselves.

Rumba music difts from the next house. The sky is dark and smoky like Beijing. The mosquitos squawk and dawn awaits. Not in Europe but in Africa from where our ancestors came.

View from the Office

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Out of Guyana – the last few months

I wrote this on a train through the Scottish borders. It was a sunny early evening with fields drenched bright green with yellow. Ahead lay dusk, West Midland brickscapes and a London night. But no longer did a red-eye flight await to Georgetown via JFK, to a wooden office and Subryanville terrace. Over two weeks since, I moved on from Guyana. This blog has finally outlived its name. Thank you to friends and family who followed my blog and kept in touch during my 31-month adventure. Here’s the update!

Adjusting the zoom

During March, I had a break from the “new world” to some of the “oldest worlds” in the Levantine crescent. For two weeks visiting Adrian we travelled back in time through bedouin camps, caravan-trade posts, crusader castles, roman ruins, islamic wonders, 5000-year-old pyramids, religious origins, a re-constructed nation and an occupied “state”. Binging on history and human complexities at the hub where three continents meet. Reminded and focused on the vastness of the planet. By then, I had decided to move on.

Fasting forward and stepping back

Effectiveness should increase exponentially the longer an ODI Fellow is in-job. My last 6 months felt as impactful as much of the previous time combined. More so when considering that across government, post-election plans were getting into gear. Priorities shifted to making sure that all work (both at the Ministry and voluntary) was handed over, and I was sufficiently redundant – critical but sometimes hard to let go. It was good to see concrete successes in our ministry and beyond (even as simple as a sign!) and smart, committed new staff. My boss and colleagues gave me a moving send-off (and a painting!) Time felt visually “ripe”.

Long exposure – getting it all in

Suddenly, the croaks of frogs at night became louder, the sky became deeper, the mangos sweeter, and the birds more present around the wooden veranda. The imminent scarcity of Georgetown brought me back to the first, fully-sentient weeks of arrival. A wave of lasts. Last swim in Colgrain pool beneath a morning sky. Last cycle to work whizzing past the National Park. Last drinks  on the veranda. Last Ital veggie-moosh delivered by the zen-grinning Indian man. Last reggae-dancehall-calyspo. Last yellow oreole in the bush. A wave of goodbyes and sovourings, and even some KTV.

And Go

“How many days did you stay in Guyana? We’re doing a tourism survey.” said the lady from the Bureau of Statistics. I sat with 160 lb of luggage at Ogle airport; recently renamed “Correia International” amid a storm of public debate. I helpfully pointed out that the “Ministry of Tourism, Industry and Commerce” referred to in the survey no longer existed. I should know because until this morning I worked in its replacement. “In that case”, she said, “You are not elligble to complete the survey.”

40 minutes later, the plane set off for Barbados. Georgetown’s wooden houses and the brown Demerara mouth smudged into brocolli-green horizon. The silty-brown waters turned to brown. We chuttered between the Atlantic and the Caribbean, like a tiny boat surrounded by only sea and sky. My overwhelming feeling was of lightness and gratitude. Guyana would spend the next few weeks deep in celebration of its 50th anniverary on 26th May. And I would be home for my dad’s birthday. There will be time to reflect more later, to keep alive a bond which I feel will be life-long, even if just for me. I promise a post of “things I learned from Guyana” when there’s been more time to digest. But for now, goodbye and thanks for joining me!

Guyana Flight Pic

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Trini Carnival

“It’s a year I been waiting – we be anticipating… waiting on the stage stage stage stage stage.” The Trinidad and Tobago Carnival is deservedly one of the most famous in the world. Its music reverberates through the Caribbean all year round. Its Calypso and Soca Monarchs are giants. It’s a founding inspiration to Notting Hill, Toronoto and other West Indian carnivals around the West. And like most Caribbean culture, its originates from a complex blend of world cultures, repression, mad celebration, self expression, creativity, deep tradition, and sheer joy.

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Carnival starts the Monday before Ash Wednesday at “J’ouvert” before break of day. Team Georgetown is ready to go at 4am.

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5am by the stage at Chaguanas. Carnival was brought to T&T the Europeans and transformed by the Africans, but here mostly East Indians filled the crowd.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If the anticipation for carnival takes a year, preparations reach fever pitch in the months before. Costumes are finished, “bands” are launched, and major fetes, concerts and even breakfast parties are held up until “dimanche gras”. Before I came to Guyana people in London told me “must visit Trini carnival!” but was foiled by cost and s pre-planning. This year a Trini friend took initiative into his own hands, hosting a big group of us at his home and planning everything down to the sites and the fetes. Unforgettable.

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Juveeee!!! (“Jour Ouvert!”) around 6am

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Hosing down the revellers at 8am

 

 

 

 

 

 

The weekend included Soca concerts, steel “panarama” and sight-seeing of Trinidad’s pitch lake, family friends and Maracas beach. But carnival really started before dawn on the Monday, since we were signed up to take part in a “j’ouvert band”. Still night, hundreds or thousands of hyper-excited people crammed together in simple costumes (the fancy comes later), covered in paint and powder and dancing through the dark street to thumping Soca music. The atmosphere was electric, like a huge quantity of pent-up tension being released in a mad celebration; like Pagwah, Mashramani, Beltane, European Carnival and an electro rave combined.

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Carnival Monday, San Fernando, pre-parade for the big day; costumes to come tomorow

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Monday wear

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If juvee was the launch, the rest of Monday was “carnival day 1”. The full costumes come on the Tuesday. We visited “South” including San Fernando and  local village Carapachaima (yes Trinidad still has lots of indigenous names). Here they still do traditional “mas” (masquerade). That’s carnival with old characters brought by the French or mocking the Europeans. Slaves were banned from playing carnival and countered with their own celebration called Canboulay, which sprouted Calypso and  steel pans before emancipation and independence and everything finally merged.

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Sailor mas at carapachaima

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Dames Lorraines – traditional carnival characters mocking the French planter ladies

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tuesday is the big day… we headed for Port of Spain. It’s not a holiday officially. But de facto it kindof is.

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Carnival Tuesday; the team ready to go!

When we reached Port of Spain the whole city was one big street party. Thousands and thousands lined the streets, and thousands and thousands more danced and “wined” in bands of all kinds of costume. There were main stages and small stages and whichever song is played the most wins “Road march“. For the third year running its Machal Montano who we saw play live on Saturday (and even ended up backstage due to some confusions about oversold tickets!)

 

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Casina mas

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A big band

 

 

 

 

 

 

The masqueraders in the main procession are mostly organized in “bands” with the same costume or themes on a costume. The biggest bands can have hundreds or even thousands and would cost at least 1000 USD to join (for the costume, music and free drinks).It’s not all commercialized though, there’s also small bands, traditional bands and random bachanal.

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Not all shorts and bikinis on the procession

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You can’t play mas and ‘fraid powder!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The atmosphere of carnival was great for tourists, but overwhelmingly by and for the locals. Our Trini friend was like the “mayor of Port of Spain” because it seemed on every corner he ran into people he knew. There was also a real sense of history and tradition (as glimpsed in previous cringeworthy video). One of the biggest parties in the world?

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Traditional Stilters

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By Wednesday the streets were quiet. The papers were full of photos and the countdown already started for carnival 2017. Looking back there are so many great moments. This was one of the top experiences of my time in Guyana. If I can’t make it back to Port of Spain, at least want to finally make Notting Hill! See you there? 🙂

 

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Just another day in Suburban GT

“I en’t know any road with that name.”

“Shivastan! Shrivastand? Nothing like that?”

“No. Not that I know round here.”

“Let she check the map nah?”

“No problem.”

I walked into the cool stone police outpost, past the two middle-aged women officers  at the bare table . The cell cage rattled to my right; captives waiting for court or Camp St jail. The map of Prashad Nagar was drawn out in black-and-white behind. Last I came here was late at night to report a friend mugged.

“Here, it’s right here! But where are we now? Where is this station?” It wasn’t clearly marked on the station territory map.

“Bissessar St.”

“There’s no Bissessar St on the map… Sure you don’t mean Campbell Avenue? Are we this square things here?”

“Could be, yes.”

“Then my street is just 2 corners away. Thanks!”

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Yellow Oriole two corners from Prashad Nagar police station

And home again. Making a little quality time for the puppies downstairs before they leave home.

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New life in a land without Spring 

 

It’s improbably long since it rained in Georgetown. And from Suburbia we have been plotting the second round of UWC selections. Hoping this can become sustainable and a regular feature of Guyana.

UWC Guyana Chronicle 24.1.15

So in the spirit of short posts and quick wishes, may you have a great week ahead.

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Island (Inland) Paradise

To speak Caribbean island Paradise you might think Grenada or St Lucia or St Maarten or some such. But they’ve islands in the Essequibo delta too. One is bigger even than Barbados! Finally made it to Baganara and the verdict is a big thumbs up.

Former mining base and get-away of the Correia family, Baganara is now one of the most famous “resorts” in Guyana. This may be partly because, like Arrowpoint, it has the benefit that the owners own a plane company. So it is well-connected both by boat and by airstrip. And just as I never planned to visit Arrowpoint or Rock View or Hurakabra, in the end I was brought here by others.

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Loading up from Roed-en-Rust

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A bit more luxury than last Essequibo trip’s hammocks in the village hall…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Best bits about getting away:

  1. Rebalancing – sleep, sleep, chase out the work-thoughts, slow-down, perspectivize, find new reserves of energy

 

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A bit more safety than last boating trip’s sunk-canoe-debacle

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Same mystical moon

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Best bits about getting away:

2. Alertness – morning birds, ripply cold water, hot shower, reggae-songs-at-breakfast, boat-wind-shatters, midnight dip beneath the huge starlit sky

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6.30am do we call it a murder of cow-birds?

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Good morning sunshine with bakes salt fish, sweet fried plantain, pepper and eggs

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Best bits about getting away:

3. Time with great people – with big dreams and shared ideas, and family-building and architected pleasure (wine! cheese!) and jungle-love and holiday-calm. People in Javier Marias books make good company too.

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Burns’ Beer Garden in Tuschen: Some of the only cafe-conch in Guyana!

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West-Dem East-Dem Dusk – shortly before the strawberries and cream of a myriad scarlet and white ibises on the East Demerara Bridge Bank

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Returned from Baganara relaxed and much-refreshed, thinking “why don’t I do this more often?” and “gosh I miss the cool, rugged British highland.” Essequibo is special in Guyana, and to paraphrase poet Ian McDonald in last Sunday’s Stabrokek column; we make things special when we travel but with our travelling eyes our home is just as special. 2016 is the 100th anniversary of the US national parks service being established. May you all get some deep pleasures from your favourite local hill or forest or coastland shrub or mountains. And may you share the best photos with me please 😉

 

 

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