London – Brussels – Douala – Kinshasa
The Congo. The word on it’s own brings a flood of images: dense jungle, vast rainforest, smoking volcanoes towering over mud villages, the Congo river cutting a wide brown belt through the country. The inpenetrable heart of Africa. The set for ‘Dr Livingstone I presume’.
Despite being the same place, I have a set of images with much sharper edges in my mind for the Democratic Republic of Congo, or the DRC. The world’s largest peace-keeping force. Modern firearms. Families displaced by conflict. Children slaving in unregulated mines. So it’s not until you remember that this was formerly Belgian Zaire that the camembert and chocolate truffle on the plane from Brussels stop being completely ludicrous.
I’ve been to central Africa before. I know how beautiful it is, how the trees teem with life, how bright the colours are, how immense the sky can be, how quickly the sun sets, how solid the air feels, and how the red mud never, ever washes out of white clothes. The images with sharp edges are the ones currently taking up my mind though.
The screen above me on the plane tells me that I’m writing this about 8km up and 800km north of Douala, Cameroon, where we’ll touch down to refuel before heading south over the equator to Kinshasa, the DRC’s capital city. The plane is full of mainly French-speaking people. So far I’ve understood a request for ‘un stylo’, requested ‘un cafe’, and ‘mange-d’ ‘poisson et frites’. I’ve struggled with the French article on the Millennium Development Goals in the in-flight magazine and, while Girls Aloud might be able to let their funky music do the talking, I’m going to have to learn to speak French, quickly.
It’s an amazing opportunity: three months of immersion while doing a job that I love. I just hope I have time to make the most of it!