Christine and I arrived late Monday evening in Kinshasa, much bedraggled after a week in upcountry Zaïre. Our plan was to take the ferry boat northward across Stanley Pool to Brazzaville, then fly on to Douala. It seemed a simple and elegant way to [quoteright'/>see the lower Congo, particularly since several guide books had assured us that the authorities in Brazzaville would grant us a transit visa when we stepped off the boat.
By Tuesday afternoon, we had purchased our plane tickets for the weekly flight from Brazzaville that left Tuesday morning at 9. It was then that we discovered, to our dismay, that Brazzaville visas had to be procurred in advance and in fact involved an unusually complicated process.
An historical note is in order here. When the former French colony north of the Congo River gained its independence in 1960, it immediately became a Marxist-Leninist "people's democracy," much like Cuba. Despite several coups and upheavals, the Brazzaville government has remained virginally communist, to the great annoyance of Zaïre and its other neighbors.
And its relations with the U.S. Government have been none too good, either. In fact, one of their visa requirements for Americans was that we procure a letter from our consulate, asking them to let us into the people's paradise.
So we hied ourselves to the American Consulate, located at the foot of Kinshasa's main boulevard, and got our letters. They attested, in French, that we were indeed American citizens, and any courtesies shown us would evoke Uncle Sam's undying gratitude. Little did Uncle Sam know...
Thus it was that bright and early Wednesday morning we were knocking on the door of the Congolese embassy in Kinshasa, asking to have visas stamped in our passports. We were taken up by a pleasant and efficient consular officer, who looked at our plane tickets for the next morning and assured us that a visa could be issued that day. Letters from our consulate, check. Three photographs, check. Vaccination certificates, check. Three forms filled out, check. 600 zaïres (about $20), cheek. He assembled everything into a bundle, with our passports and plane tickets, and told us to come back at noon.
We returned to the Congolese embassy at 11:30 and sat in their waiting room. The consul - not the person we had met earlier but a tall, severe-looking man named Okembi - reigned in his office. Our papers were carried in and out of his presence several times. He had a few visitors, mainly young ladies. We waited. Chickens scratched around the front door. His secretary entered his office once without knocking and was made to back out and do it properly. We waited some more. One o'clock. One-thirty.
At two o'clock Okembi suddenly burst out of his office, shouting and waving his hands in the air. "No more today," he declared, "I'm going home." He locked his office and headed out the door.
We were horrified. In Zaïre, your papers are everything. Without a passport we couldn't change money or check back into our hotel. If the police stopped us, our paperless state might land us in jail. Without our plane tickets we couldn't change flights. We followed Okembi to his car, pleading with him to at least give us back our stuff. He shouted in incomprehensible French and waved his arms some more. He climbed into his car, accompanied by a couple of his ladies. As I pleaded with him through the window, the ear started to roll.
George Towner was born in Reno and grew up near Berkeley. As a teenager he began making gangster movies using an old 8mm camera, one of which featured a car being pushed over a cliff off State Highway 1. He has started and sold two successful technology firms, and currently works for Apple Computer, where he is the most senior in age. He lives with his wife in Sunnyvale. They have two daughters and a son.
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