My Favorite Souvenir From Africa

Petty bribes to traffic cops and soldiers are an accepted feature of daily life for visitors as well as citizens in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Usually these are taken care of after a bit of theatrical debate and a payoff of two or three dollars worth of Congolese francs. After you adjust to this near daily occurrence in the Congo’s magnificently dysfunctional cities, the process starts to feel more annoying than outrageous. As you move up the ranks to work out “problems” with government officials, the encounters become more civil—far fewer automatic weapons are involved, for instance—but pricier.

This I discovered a few weeks ago after an immigration official at Kinshasa’s D’Jili International Airport “inadvertently” stamped a September arrival date into my passport. The date conflicted with the November date on the official visa issued to me by the DRC embassy in Washington, DC, not to mention my actual arrival date of November 14. The clerical “error” made it appear as though I’d entered the country illegally, a regrettable “mistake” subsequently taken advantage of by officials throughout the country.

In a mid-sized town, a few hours east of Kinshasa, a run-in with a typically eagle-eyed local officer—who’d spotted my passport issue like he knew it was coming—ended with me coughing up ten bucks, but also, more happily, hauling away a souvenir of a type I’m sure no one else has. After an interminable session of intense but respectful argument about how best to handle the matter of my passport, the official who’d detained me—a congenial, heavy-set bald guy with wire-frame glasses who sweated profusely despite incessantly waving a plastic Japanese fan for the entire hour I sat in his office—pulled a sheet of paper from his desk and began breaking down for my benefit the grim economics that forced a nice guy like him to harass a nice guy like me.

“Do you know what I make in salary each month?” the official asked me.

When I said I hadn’t the foggiest, he shook his head plaintively, scribbled something on the paper and turned it around for me to read: “Par roi 22,000 FRC = $45.”

“That’s not much of a salary,” I said.

“It is a crime that a man in a position as revered as yours is not remunerated more fittingly,” added Henri, my local traveling companion and invaluable assistant during these negotiations.

“I am forty-five years old,” the official continued morosely. “Do you know how many children I have?”

I shook my head. Like a coroner filling out a death certificate, he scratched another line on the page: “Pere de 10 enfant.”

“Ten kids?” I said. “Wow!”

“Oh, monsieur, it is a terrible burden,” added Henri. “Life is truly unfair to the Africans.”

Next, the official jotted down his monthly rent: $120. Then figures covering other expenses. School for the younger children. University for the older ones. Food. Electricity. Gasoline and car maintenance. All told the guy needed about $250 a month just to keep his head above water.

“So,” I asked, the guileless lamb being led into the room where they shoot the pneumatic bolt between your eyes, “how does a man in your position make up the difference between such a tiny salary and such massive monthly expenses?”

“My friend,” the official replied, spreading his arms and smiling in a rueful way that suggested a recent viewing of Braveheart being stretched on the rack.

Ten dollars later, my passport came back across the desk, and Henri and I were out the door. But I’d gotten something for my money. While the official had been looking wistfully out the window, no doubt ruminating over textbooks for his under-funded spawn, I’d discreetly slid his ad hoc budget into my pocket. As soon as I get completely unpacked, go through my photos, and finish my laundry, I’m getting a little frame for that scrap of evidence attesting to the Congo’s endemic corruption. I’m not big on T-shirts or carved knick-knacks—some keepsakes, however, are almost worth trouble you go through to get them. —CT

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