The Ecphorizer

An International Incident
George Towner

Issue #32 (April 1984)

Only mad dogs and American tourists argue in the mid-day sun

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,

Soon it became clear that Christine was no match for a ton of motorized steel.

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.

At this point the International Incident took place. Christine planted herself in front of the consular car, hoping to give me a little more time to assemble the French irregular verbs that I was hurling through the windows. Okembi choked with rage. He ordered the chauffeur to run over Christine. The chauffer tried to hide under the dashboard. In desperation, I launched into pluperfect subjunctives. The ladies in the back seat gaggled with alarm.

Soon it became clear that Christine was no match for a ton of motorized steel. She stepped aside, the car roared away, and we were unceremoniously ejected from the Congolese Embassy.

The next 24 hours were a nightmare of picking up pieces and cajoling various suspicious Africans into accepting our bona fides The American consulate was sympathetic and offered to help get our passports back. By the next afternoon we had developed a new travel plan, via Sabou, and felt confident enough of the future to treat ourselves to a swim in the pool at the Intercontinental Hotel.

Christine was on her 85th lap and I had just finished a beer when an American Embassy chauffeur appeared at poolside. Begging our pardon, but the American consul would be most appreciative if we could have a chat downtown No hurry any time in the next 30 minutes would do.

The American consul, a thoroughly professional diplomat named Sally Beth Bunbrey, received us in her office. A bit of a problem had developed at the governmental level. As a matter of fact, Okembi was refusing to issue any more visas to Americans. Although consuls don't usually have that authority, he was a nephew of the President of the Congo and pretty much did what he felt like. Several aid programs were suddenly disrupted because Americans were unable to cross the river. The Ambassador was not officially asking us, but just wondered if we had considered going back to the Congolese Embassy and apologizing to Okembi...

We mulled over this suggestion. I still had some past participles I hadn't tried on him. Finally, the next morning, we trudged out to the Congolese Embassy like good little citizens.

After a half hour in the old familiar waiting room, we were led into the presence. Okembi sat in stony silence as I parsed my apologies.

Then he launched into a 20-minute tirade. His honor had been abridged. His progress home had been impeded. His lunch had been delayed. He was a man of dignity, a man of the world. Why, he had even been in Paris! Who did we think we were, etc. It was a nostalgic moment for me; I had not been spoken to that way since leaving the Army. Finally he waxed magnanimous. Recognizing our frailties, our insignificance, he had decided to open the border once more to Americans. Peace was declared. We were ushered out.

Later, at the hotel, we ran into a very worried American professor. His project to rescue the pigmy chimpanzee from extinction had been stymied by the visa ban. We were able to assure him that all was now well. War between the United States of America and the People's Republic of the Congo had been averted and the honor of Mr. Okembi had been restored.

The intrepid duo from San Francisco wanted to do a fairy tale trek across Africa from south to north.  Little by little that fairy tale is turning into the trip from hell!  More next month. You can read about George's latest book here!

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George Towner

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.