Lab Project


Dorine Mokka

On this set, there are no actors, only people playing their roles in real life. The stakes are not only high but vital.  

The canoe boat drivers and their apprentices are engaged in endless, lively discussions, while street vendors court passersby and passengers who are about to embark or disembark. ‘Tolekistes’ (bicycle taxi drivers) and motorcycle taxis remain vigilant with their hands on the handlebars of their motorcycles and bicycles that can be counted by the dozens along the road spanning the river. Here, anything can be bought - cigarettes, fuel, goats, clothes, sachet water, etc.

Nearby, I can see several public booths built one after the other with recycled wood or standing under a parasol. There are also some of these famous 'Malewa'- makeshift Congolese restaurants.

The setting is perfect, while the décor is the result of complete abandonment. The lighting is natural with the stage simply set around a big mess that is, in itself, an organized orderliness. It is noisy with a radio blaring somewhere and an argument taking place elsewhere as curses from some merge with the laughter of others; even the engine motor boats and rowing boats revving up for the return trip bash against each other with the movement of the waves, lined up on their invisible floating parking lot. 

For all, the only driving force - the empty stomachs and pockets - provides enough adrenaline to seek that extra 200 or 500 Congolese Francs. And to earn these, each person has his or her own strategy. ‘Uniformed men’ use threats, the Malewa ‘dadas’ their charm, the street hawkers their bargaining; parking for commercial bicycles and motorcycles' drivers, the click and clack music of the ‘manicure boys’ and biblical predictions by ‘men of God’, including cheating and theft as well as smiles and winks. The casting is perfect.

I suddenly notice the youngest of the Tolekistes, and with neither makeup nor masks, their faces show the hard struggle for survival and their hardened calves the mileage on the meter. 

But today there is an extraordinary actor, an important guest: the Mayor of the city.

A ceremonial arrival of big cars, bodyguards, the media, and the smell of abusive power. The mayor is probably there to boost his popularity rating by showing off. Officially, he is there to supposedly inspect some major road construction that only he sees, since nothing seems to have been done on this dilapidated street. Unofficially, he does his ‘one man show’. Nothing surprising.

The false role-playing actor with an imposing physique is the rising star in local politics. Dressed in suit, tie, and Ray Ban UV sunglasses, the man of the year with an assured but unsatisfied gait picks up a hoe to show his bureaucrat muscles while the cameras of the national television zoom in on all his actions and gestures. 

-Cut. We must film the last shot again.

-A little smile, your Honor, the whole country will be watching you on the evening news!

Yes, they will see him if they have electricity, at least.

While they are preparing to re-film the said last shot, I overhear a lady asking her son:

- "Djo nani tena ule ?". Translation: Who's this man?

Oh yes, because without electricity and direct contact between the rulers and the ruled, the mayor is, for many, just a name, a faceless voice and the colors of a political party.

And this is why, like everyone present, I don’t pay him much attention.

Indeed, people should pay less attention to politicians, who have the luxury to re-film the unsuccessful shots of their life in office and concentrate on their daily lives. But this does not prevent the odor of ‘disenchantment’ from spreading through the air.

And what is my role in all this? I have been here since an hour, an observed observer, solitary with an evasive look and a wandering mind. 

From where I am standing, the Palm Beach Hotel is to my right and to my left is the Kisangani Cathedral with its 17 steps towering over the statue of a white-robed Jesus with widespread hands who seems, almost, to be saying: 

- “Karibu apa Kisangani.” Welcome to Kisangani!

You are all welcome to my Kisangani, the only city where a signboard at the entry point shows “Welcome to Kisangani" on both sides! 

Here you are welcome on arrival and departure!

Please join me on Colonel Tshatshi Avenue, which leads directly to the beach on the right bank and offers a beautiful view of the river, its majestic course, people crossing, and a distant view of Lubunga, the only one out of six districts situated on the opposite river bank.

The view on the river and the scenes taking place on the river bank is just incredible. Kisangani presents its most beautiful scenario.

So, I’m looking at the river and the river looks back, reminding me of why I came here holding, in my right hand, a letter to be sent to a great writer of the 20th century , "a traveler and observer of the Third world, a critic of uncompleted societies created through colonization." And in my left hand, the weight of over 320 pages of the French version of his book. A Bend in the River.

However, this letter seems heavier. Maybe a last reading at the bend in the River Congo in Kisangani could lighten its weight...

Toleka. Here I go.

Dear Naipaul,

We don’t know each other but I have read your book, so in return I am writing what I think as I think about what I would write. I know you will understand my state of mind as an exiled person and a vagabond. 

After all, we are all authors with different capabilities and from different generations, races, nationalities, ages, different in almost every way. 

If you are wondering if this is a game, I would say that it is. Writing is already a game, though one of the most risky. 

It is risky writing about a society while juggling truth and fiction, as we are the only ones capable of gauging the distance we create between these two. Based on their geographical location, some readers read our work the other way round while others read it literally or do not understand the message behind the traps created from the game of words. 

I have a question: Do you think your novel will be your ‘personal' observation of a city in the heart of Africa through Salim the main character or can we, like many experts, consider it an image of the whole continent of Africa? 

At times, I am of the impression that for some people Africa is one big country of Blacks, with Africans as inhabitants, speaking one language - African. This is sad.

Truth be told, Africa has its problems, but the realities are different, as everything needs to be put into context, I believe, even in Lubumbashi, Kinshasa, or Kisangani, three cities in the same country with three different facets, among many others, of the Congolese reality.

But be careful, dear writers. And what if we were the ones writing, the other way round?

Oops. I said it. Do I have the right to say this? About a work crowned with success, honor, and a Nobel Prize in literature? 

I, an unknown descendant of free natives, sold into slavery, colonized, formerly colonized, independent, almost free; a Congolese citizen for a while, then a Zaire citizen for 32 years under the regime of someone you call ‘the Big Man.’ 

I was born during the Zaire era and then became Congolese after the coup d’état by a rebel chief, who became president and then a hero after his assassination and was succeeded by his son, who came from nowhere to become the son of the hero. He in turn became president based on the nostalgia of his father’s death, thus paving the way to the “1 President + 4 Vice Presidents” policy used to stall a long war without ever stopping it. He became the president with a first mandate after the first supposedly free, fair, and democratic elections since independence and then got a second and last mandate that will end at the end of next year unless he manages, by any means, to get a third one...

As you know, decisions by the powers-that-be in Kinshasa influence, greatly, each inhabitant’s life in the city of Zabeth and also what I represent, my future, as was also the case for Salim. 

You know, like Salim, I seek to become someone so as not to be a nobody. And to achieve this, there are two ways to go: either Get into the system or Work against it. 

And you know your choice for Salim.

Coming back to me and my relationship with the anonymous town where your A Bend in the River is set, my city and my adoptive mother, Kisangani.

Yes, this city does have a name. Indeed, it has several names: Kisangani, Boyoma, Singa Mwambe, Martyr Town, Town of Hope, Bicycle Town, the list goes on. 

You could have even named it whatever you fancy, don’t you think so? 

For me, this city is my adoptive mother. It has been seven years now since I arrived here, unhappy, lost, full of doubts and mistrust, pessimistic, confused, and armed with a collection of clichés from Wikipedia, Google, blogs, and old national and international newspaper clippings that I should have never read. 

Badly prepared to meet Kisangani, I was there, on the old, tarred, and hot Bangoka airport tarmac after leaving Lubumbashi on an impulse and in defiance. 

This Kisangani’s rich sister taught me to dream big, but in the end almost broke my wings; I, who had the big dream of flying high. I also blamed her hugely for taking away my values and blinding me.

Heartbroken, she let me leave. Indeed, leaving was imperative. 

Goodbye Lubumbashi. Goodbye to your tender and boring everyday life. 

Welcome to Kisangani where things happen.

Things are happening, everything is happening, time is passing and politicians are hitting out at themselves, citizens are slogging it out while I dance to the rhythm of my wristwatch’s ticking needle.

Naipaul. I am in love with a city in ruins. Because of this city, I am experiencing hardship and not complaining because my small battle with survival draws inspiration from it.

You know, Salim is a very interesting character, being neither African nor European. However, I would have loved for him to see through my eyes.

The eyes of a Congolese who, since his arrival in Kisangani, feels he has entered another world and has finally obtained the Congolese nationality through experiencing the real problems many Congolese encounter, while facing hardship and feeling the biting economic crisis in this country of 2,345,409 km2 from a small empty pocket of barely 15 centimeters.  

And since November 18, 2008, I have been feeling the pinch. Yet, at that time, 19 years old, I had almost 1,000 U.S dollars in my pocket, not for buying Nazruddin’s boutique in an anonymous city in ruins but, I think, for my funeral. 

So just some money, received from my dear ones. They had a knowing look on their faces: 

- "Adieu Dorine, take this money because we are not sure if we will see you again... In Kisangani, the war is still ongoing and there are many epidemics." 

- The war and epidemics? Yes, there are.

Before my very eyes, they are there, - on the two banks at the bend of the river. 

Seated on the last step of the Kisangani cathedral, I see the war and the epidemics paralyze the people: this mental war and its psychological epidemics injecting their ‘waiting virus.'

The perpetual waiting for a bright future, promised long ago in endless political speeches, in unimaginable biblical predictions, and even in our wildest dreams.

Perpetual waiting for everything. 

Compulsory waiting for a long time. Even for boarding at the airport, for collecting luggage after disembarking, for going through immigration control and passport check, for democracy and for the election of district deputies (Already canceled! With the resulting consequence of rigged nominations of special Commissioners for the 26 provinces created after the division). But also waiting for the long-expected development of an educational system that is worthy of the 21st century, for the hope that has, once again, been dashed, and for the liberty of our dreams tortured by politics and the media, for the realization of Kabila’s five projects (Education, Health, Water, Electricity, and Infrastructure), which have since passed by five paths, five shortcuts that all ended in dead ends... Waiting for the revolution through the arts and the masses’ rebellions, for a decent salary and a profitable banking system for all, for electricity each night, and for drinking water for all... 

Yes, we must wait. So, I am waiting while looking at the river.

And while the masses continue to wait, many Salims have left their cherished India or their home countries to make money in what you call a city that had almost seized to exist.

Oh yes! On the ruins, money has already learnt to grow like mushrooms. Americans and Europeans had already understood this, joined now by the Chinese who are leading in this rally of “who will grow more money out of the ruins of cities abandoned by their colonizers?"

These Chinese impress me because no sector is spared, not even retail trading which is normally left to locals. 

So Naipaul, do you think that Kisangani should have remained under colonialists in order to be the best or just better?

Do you know that Kisangani is called the Martyr Town? And that politicians re-baptized it the Town of Hope in order to make it attractive once again? And it seems like it has worked. 

Let’s check out the demography: 216,526 inhabitants in 1970, 406,429 in 1993, 682,599 in 2004, 935,977 in 2012. And today? 

But back to your book. You know, I read Naipaul, “painter of unfinished societies created from colonization”, but I would like to read Naipaul, “painter of existing ancient African societies before the supposed discovery of Africa, destroyed, torn, injured, forever shaken up by colonization, its ambitions and excesses."  A utopia?

Some will tell me it’s a blasphemy. Because your novel has become one of the greatest books dedicated to the African continent. For this, bravo. I duff my hat to you my dear, given that no other book of this kind, written by an African, could command more attention than yours. It seems!

This is even so because of the crushing exactness and your keen look as an outsider, as well as your sense of observation and detail, the star quality of your pen, and your appetite for adventure. Interesting. 

Finally, I would like to let you know that since I arrived in this city, I have not stopped searching for my place, just like everyone here. Even wallowing in problems, I am searching for my road through the piles of ruins, inherited from conflicts that have left almost indelible marks on the walls of the city and on the faces of Boyomais, Kisangani's inhabitants, even more strangely on the faces of those born after the last war... 

And it is hard for me to not have experienced all these, only being able to relive everything in the eyes of others. It is hard, but I prefer to stay because I believe joy and happiness are possible, be it in Kinshasa, New Delhi, or in London. Even while facing this abandonment, the joy of living can be created. 

My only daily battle is to grab my right to dream and to live my dreams, and this means going against the system. I do not care to know if I am seen by others as a mystery, as a stranger, as an exception...

The most important thing is what I feel for this city and the battle that it offers me - a noble battle.

I will stop here but I will write again, once I am sure of having been read.

Enjoy your reading, Naipaul.

Yours sincerely,                                                        

Kisangani, December 19, 2015.

With the letter reading finished, I needed a minute’s silence to realize that time had passed very quickly, seconds became minutes and minutes hours.

- " So, hours that I have been here."

Mosquitoes warn me that they are ready to dine while several singing insects join toads for an unbelievable recital. Kisangani’s nightlife has started. 

Slowly, the sky is covered with its beautiful starry coat, while Kisangani divides into two, as is the case each night; partial electricity for right bank Kisangani and its five districts and total blackout for left bank Kisangani and its sole district, Lubunga. 

And not forgetting that the river with its volume could electrify all of Africa. But where is the Honorable Mayor to hear this?

Gone, like all the actors who were enlivening this place a while ago on this bank, where it is time to check proceeds and make inventories, with the last bicycles and motorcycles taxis driving back clients, passersby are fewer and the last canoe boats are leaving for the day. Luckily, on this side, some bulbs and projectors are already lighting up on some buildings.

Contrary to the opposite bank, with Lubunga already plunged in a dangerous darkness that paralyses life on this side of the city, forgotten for decades.

Everything is in the dark, nothing is spared from it, not even a shadow of hope. 

A few hours was all that was needed for Lubunga to go from neglected to abandoned and from abandoned to forgotten and from forgotten to nonexistent...!

- "We are already black, see how they are plunging us into darkness," the wind whispers.

I dare not imagine what my friends on the other side see while looking at the bank where I am. 

Isaac, Dorcas, Agha, Alain... What do you see?

Paradise? A type of Boyomese Paris? Happiness? President Joseph Kabila’s ongoing five projects? Or the results of his new “revolution of modernity” policy? The gains of colonization? Or colonial negligence, which royally ignored geographical and cultural factors in the division of this big cake? Injustice? The forgetfulness of politicians? 

Or you just tell yourselves you also deserve it.

- That you also deserve some electricity and drinking water.

I would love to write another letter through your eyes, a letter to the people responsible for the abandonment inflicted on this part of life. It would be another story...

Right now, I just feel bad. I am ashamed to be under the cathedral’s projector while children, on the other side, fear that the darkness will steal their dreams, yet these dreams are all they have left.

Right now, I must return to my house on the 10th Avenue of Tshopo town, not far from the Tshopo dam. All I have left is just sadness to accompany me on the 20-minute walk home, as I wonder if I will also find electricity there.