Josephine and Frederick's grand adventure
November 15, 2010 6:12 PM   Subscribe

Democratic Republic of Congo: Lubumbashi to Kinshasa. We made the decision to tackle this part of Democratic Republic of Congo when we were in Egypt. It would take us about 4 months to drive from Cairo down to the Zambia/DRC border. We immediately started our quest for information. It would soon become clear that very little information was available. We did not know of a single traveler that did this in the last 20 years. We knew of two who tried (both on motorbikes) in recent years. One crashed after a few days and got evacuated. The other got arrested and deported. Both didn't get very far. So we had to be creative and think of other sources of information. If there is one thing you can find anywhere in the world it is Coca-Cola. They should know how to get their goods in the country. We had no response via email, so we called them up. Their answer was pretty short: They do not have a distribution network outside the major cities in Congo. And it proved to be true, Congo is the first country we have visited were Coca-cola is hard to get once you leave the major cities. The moral of the story was: nobody knew anything about the road conditions.
posted by bluesky43 (167 comments total) 74 users marked this as a favorite

 
OK, this is going to take a while to read, but so far it's great stuff! Good post, thanks!
posted by Artw at 6:26 PM on November 15, 2010


A friend brought me back a volcanic rock from someplace north of Goma. It sits on the mantelpiece amongst my other treasured possessions.
posted by KokuRyu at 6:32 PM on November 15, 2010


I totally need to figure out how to transport chickens by bicycle...
posted by kaibutsu at 6:41 PM on November 15, 2010


"Now when I was a little chap I had a passion for maps. I would look for hours at South America, or Africa, or Australia, and lose myself in all the glories of exploration. At that time there were many blank spaces on the earth, and when I saw one that looked particularly inviting on a map (but they all look that) I would put my finger on it and say, 'When I grow up I will go there.' The North Pole was one of these places, I remember. Well, I haven't been there yet, and shall not try now. The glamour's off. Other places were scattered about the hemispheres. I have been in some of them, and . . . well, we won't talk about that. But there was one yet -- the biggest, the most blank, so to speak -- that I had a hankering after.

"True, by this time it was not a blank space any more. It had got filled since my boyhood with rivers and lakes and names. It had ceased to be a blank space of delightful mystery -- a white patch for a boy to dream gloriously over. It had become a place of darkness. But there was in it one river especially, a mighty big river, that you could see on the map, resembling an immense snake uncoiled, with its head in the sea, its body at rest curving afar over a vast country, and its tail lost in the depths of the land. And as I looked at the map of it in a shop-window, it fascinated me as a snake would a bird -- a silly little bird. Then I remembered there was a big concern, a Company for trade on that river. Dash it all! I thought to myself, they can't trade without using some kind of craft on that lot of fresh water -- steamboats! Why shouldn't I try to get charge of one? I went on along Fleet Street, but could not shake off the idea. The snake had charmed me. "

-heart of darkness
posted by kaibutsu at 6:49 PM on November 15, 2010 [5 favorites]


kaibutsu: "I totally need to figure out how to transport chickens by bicycle..."

Check out this fuckin' awesome goods vehicle I saw in Goma.
posted by gman at 6:56 PM on November 15, 2010 [7 favorites]


A secret I figured out a long time ago: Any book about travel in Africa is bound to be interesting. This reminds me of a book called Malaria Dreams.
posted by smcameron at 6:57 PM on November 15, 2010


"Ce n'est pas la Belgique ici, tu es en Congo!"

The arrogance of a pair of Belgians traveling through what was once The Belgian Congo, excited about their journey into the Heart of Darkness and sneering about local officials is REALLY bothering me.
posted by ChuraChura at 7:00 PM on November 15, 2010 [23 favorites]


Jesus. On the one hand, this is a really interesting account. On the other hand, these people are missing some kind of self-preservation gene and I can't understand why they wanted to do this.
posted by selfnoise at 7:05 PM on November 15, 2010 [4 favorites]


It's worse than that. I've been fascinated by this, but it gets a bit grating having to listen to our narrator constantly complaining about how everyone he meets asks him for money. Not to mention this:
The first village we encountered seemed deserted at first, but as soon as we entered the village we saw people coming at us from all sides. They had machetes and sticks and were shouting. "Des Blanc. Argent!" - "White people. Money!". They were all over the place. This was not good! I floored it and sped out of the village. A rock hit the back of our car.

What in gods name was that all about?

Very few Congolese had made us feel welcome now, but this was plain agression! It scared the hell out of us. [...] We had the feeling that they were focussing on us, not only because we were in a vehicle, but because of our skin color. Did a white person do something wrong here? Where they trying to seek vengeance? I wouldn't surprise me if a white person in car ran somebody over, or destroyed something and then fled away.
You think they would have read some history about the former Belgian Congo before, you know, showing up there with their phones and GPS and expensive cameras and a functioning vehicle and packaged food. If I were Congolese, I'd have asked them for money too. These people are utterly povertystricken, and you think there would have been some sense of shame of self-consciousness here.
posted by jokeefe at 7:16 PM on November 15, 2010 [15 favorites]


Basically, the story does this over and over:
We turned a corner and then get stuck in a bog/river/mud hole. Suddenly, Congolese people appear with shovels and demand money to help them out. But we tell them no and eventually get ourselves out. We don't put up with corruption.
So if this is corruption, the tow truck driver who comes to help me when my car breaks down by the side of the road must be a mafia kingpin. I mean, he does ask for money to help me out. And if I refuse, I suspect I'll be staying on the side of the road.
posted by fremen at 7:17 PM on November 15, 2010 [11 favorites]


Previous post with a somewhat similar theme: Angola, it's not like they said.
posted by parudox at 7:20 PM on November 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'm starting to get even more frustrated with this, interesting as it is. They get badly stuck after a storm:
No surprisingly nobody they [sic] offered their assistance, they even had some shovels. But they wanted money first. By now you probably think we are just stupidly stubborn and naive. We probably are, but we refused to give in to corruption. I once again told them they were free to help, but we would not give them money. So I continued to dig on my own with an entire village as an audience.
The expect the locals to work for them without compensation, to help them and use their time and energy to dig strangers out of the road. And when the locals ask to be paid for their work, the Belgians become bitter and resentful and describe this as 'corruption'. The arrogance is really beyond belief.
posted by jokeefe at 7:25 PM on November 15, 2010 [9 favorites]


The arrogance of a pair of Belgians traveling through what was once The Belgian Congo, excited about their journey into the Heart of Darkness and sneering about local officials is REALLY bothering me.

So any other country and you'd be fine? What, do Belgians have some permanent inherited stain?
posted by wilful at 7:26 PM on November 15, 2010 [2 favorites]


Ha, jinx, fremen.

The pictures, however, are wonderful, and the best part of the story for me.
posted by jokeefe at 7:26 PM on November 15, 2010


Christ, what assholes.
posted by Kraftmatic Adjustable Cheese at 7:29 PM on November 15, 2010


After a while, you'll find this:

"The relationship between China and Congo is worrying to say the least. I will not bore you to death with the details, but if you are interested, do a google search on the deals regarding the mining concessions and you will find plenty to read."

How about you google Belgium and Congo? I bet you'll find plenty to read.
posted by vidur at 7:31 PM on November 15, 2010 [10 favorites]


Jesus. On the one hand, this is a really interesting account. On the other hand, these people are missing some kind of self-preservation gene and I can't understand why they wanted to do this.
It was an interesting read, but it seemed a little strange that, from their point of view, the problems they were encountering were wholly unforeseen and surprising... They were traveling through what was, until recently, a war zone where *at least* 4 million people have died in the last decade, and many millions more displaced, a staggering amount of turmoil. It's likely that the Angolan army used their route, NR#1 to journey to the battlefield.

But, then again, maybe they know something we don't know about the situation on the ground.

Still, it seems like a risky journey.
posted by KokuRyu at 7:33 PM on November 15, 2010


So any other country and you'd be fine? What, do Belgians have some permanent inherited stain?

They are Belgians, travelling through the former Belgian Congo. You do know what the Belgian colonial regime was like, yes? The Heart of Darkness was not just a fantasy of Conrad's.
posted by jokeefe at 7:34 PM on November 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


There is a small, but not insignificant chance that these two fools will not make it back to Belgium.

unarmed rich people + war torn impoverished country != safe traveling experience
posted by leotrotsky at 7:34 PM on November 15, 2010


I have no doubt it was an adventure. But short adventure travel has its perils. One is an often gross misunderstanding of what is happening around them.

For example, this array of food to feed a village family for a year. Yikes.

The equivalent of the hostel backpacker in (West) Africa is the Adventure 4x4 Tourist or the Car Seller. When I lived in Nouakchott we'd see both. The former often were on some crazy high speed trek through the country: London to Capetown - IN TWO WEEKS!

There were a lot of stickers and logos plastered on their vehicles. One group of motorbikers even had t-shirts with skulls on them and a name like "Death Tour 2009". Tasteless, perhaps. But really at the base a complete and utter misunderstanding of the risk. Westerners using a country as an extreme sport, blasting through a village white knuckled, terrified of the same environ as hordes of children playing and barefoot toddlers taking their first stumbling steps.
posted by iamck at 7:39 PM on November 15, 2010 [4 favorites]


The fact that they could be smart enough to plan out how to do this ahead of time and yet dumb enough not to know what the very concept of "Antwerp" is to the Congolese culture is staggering.
posted by Navelgazer at 7:40 PM on November 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


So, yes, belgians do carry a national shame permanently, you say.
posted by wilful at 7:47 PM on November 15, 2010


There is a small, but not insignificant chance that these two fools will not make it back to Belgium.

These posts are three weeks old and he makes reference to being stuck in rainy old Belgium a bunch of times. I think there's a 100% chance that they did make it back.

What, do Belgians have some permanent inherited stain?

Yes.
posted by jackflaps at 7:47 PM on November 15, 2010 [3 favorites]


The expect the locals to work for them without compensation, to help them and use their time and energy to dig strangers out of the road. And when the locals ask to be paid for their work, the Belgians become bitter and resentful and describe this as 'corruption'. The arrogance is really beyond belief.

I agree. On the one hand, it was an interesting account (though I was irritated that this FPP was made before they had posted the final pieces of their travelogue -- couldn't this have waited until there was a complete story to read?). And, I appreciated their honesty about their anger and their confusion, as well as their moments of perspective where they realized how poor the people around them really were. But on the other hand, their arrogance and unpreparedness was painful to read. They wanted to be welcomed, nurtured, and taken care of at every turn, and that just isn't what they found. Nor did they have the physical, social, or financial resources to be independent.

They were counting on their whiteness and Europeanness to give them safe passage in a fairly dangerous place, and by and large it worked. But unlike the Angola travelogue that was linked above, they lacked a sense of perspective and an ability to make connections with the people whose homes they were passing through, and I think they were in a lot more danger because of that.
posted by Forktine at 7:49 PM on November 15, 2010 [4 favorites]


So any other country and you'd be fine? What, do Belgians have some permanent inherited stain?

Being an entitled asshole is bad no matter what country you're from, but coming from the country that is directly responsible for the bloodiest period in your host country? Yeah, that's an extra level of cluelessness.

If you're an American wearing a rising sun bandana in Nanjing, you're dumb and probably an asshole. If you're Japanese and wearing a rising sun bandana in Nanjing, you're definitely an asshole.
posted by kmz at 7:51 PM on November 15, 2010 [18 favorites]


I advise anyone with even a passing interest in the "infuence" of Belgium in the DR of Congo to read King Leopold's Ghost.
posted by Devils Rancher at 7:54 PM on November 15, 2010 [6 favorites]


Wow, this was impressive. I've often heard how it is impossible to travel through Africa without some sort of official capacity, but never gave it much thought. It makes me wonder if foreign aid wouldn't be better invested in roadworks and similar improvements. Not very glamorous I suppose. Good to know hick cops around the world will stop and harass you in anyway they can. I'm also impressed they didn't just give into the bribes.
posted by geoff. at 7:54 PM on November 15, 2010


So, yes, belgians do carry a national shame permanently, you say.

They should at least consider a modicum of humility when entering the Congo, if only for their own well-being.
posted by Devils Rancher at 7:55 PM on November 15, 2010


Oh FFS.
We came across a small motorcycle. You'd see them from time to time, it is the most luxurious transportation people have here. They are litte chinese 50cc (or 125cc) bikes. We stopped to let him pass and he stopped to greet and ask us if we had some oil for his engine.

All over the world there is an unwritten rule that in remote or difficult to travel areas people help eachother. That is why in the sahara everybody says hi to eachother. That is why in the Mongolian steppe people drive for kilometers just to check up on you. People help when needed as they know they will be helped when they are in need. We very much honour this unwritten rule and will always assist when we can.

So when this guy asks for oil, I do not hesitate and take out a my spare can of oil. I warn him that this is oil for diesel engines, but that does not matter to him. It is probably the best oil he would ever find to put in his little bike. As I am pouring oil from my can in his can the passenger of the bike starts begging with Josephine. I am not impressed when Josephine tells me. And when the bike owner too start to ask for money, it really pisses me off. We are helping this guy and still he begs for more? So I pour the oil out of his can back into mine and tell them to sod off. In our car and off we go.

For almost a month now we were in a serious fight with Congo. We were fighting against corruption. We were fighting against the roads. A constant battle. Congo was giving us a serious beating, but we stood strong and did not give in. Slowly but steadily we were winning this battle against the Congo.
But while we were so busy battling the roads and the corruption, Congo sneaked in from behind. It had transformed us into loud and angry people. With no remorse, no compassion, and a total lack of rules.

What happened to the unwritte rule of the road less travelled? The rule we nohour so much? All out of the door..

Congo had beaten us a long time ago already. Just like it had beaten most of its own citizens.. And we didn't have a clue.
I'd like to unwritten rule this guy upside the head.
posted by jokeefe at 7:56 PM on November 15, 2010 [13 favorites]


I can't imagine the impulse to undertake this. Such danger.
I watched the photos with that frisson.

Navelgazer, I get your point. I'm not sure I agree though.
Do you think that a Belgian visiting Congo can be compared to a German visiting Israel? Does that mean that a German shouldn't visit Israel either or should expect to be treated badly?
Are you navelgazer responsible for what your great-great parents did?
Personally I'm in favour of being sensitive about wrong done in the past but that new generations find ways to live together again.
posted by joost de vries at 8:14 PM on November 15, 2010 [2 favorites]


Day 22 made me laugh out loud.
posted by lantius at 8:18 PM on November 15, 2010


I agree with the comments that these Belgians should have known better, especially considering the history Belgium has had with the DRC.

If you'd like to read something similar but with none of the clueless Belgians, I would recommend Borneo Equator Expedition - Jungle , Swamps and Heatstroke, a trip by Indonesians (and a few non-Indonesians) in Indonesia.
posted by gen at 8:20 PM on November 15, 2010 [2 favorites]


Joost, I think that's a noble sentiment - but the folks making this trip were not being sensitive about wrongs done in the past. I don't think that this overland expedition was the great hope for bringing together Belgians and Congolese.

Traveling in a country where you are clearly wealthier than the majority of the people you're interacting with is hard. As a student traveling in an extremely underdeveloped and impoverished part of Kenya on grant money meant that I only had a little bit of money for personal expenses, and even less money to give to people who asked. And, it's true - lots of people asked. Grownups, kids, organizations - by the time I left the country it did feel like everyone wanted something from me, and I had a really hard time dealing with it. But I also went to Kenya with some larger purpose. I was doing research and volunteer work both times I was there - it wasn't like I was wandering around a country flaunting my mobility and relative wealth for the express purpose of exercising my mobility and relative wealth. That seems to be their purpose in this trip. Exploring Congo because it's such a thrilling, dangerous place and every now and then, you pass a canoe with men beating drums. Because that's the picture you have in your head.

Travel is important. Done properly, this trip could have brought together some young Belgians who wanted to really understand what it's like to be Congolese in 2010, and it could have introduced a lot of interested Congolese to a pair of Belgians who care about the state of the world. Instead, it seems like everyone confirmed their expectations: the Congolese were, in fact, corrupt, scary, mean, and couldn't really run their country properly. And the white people did have money, were stingy, ran through a town and disappeared without having leaving anything positive behind. If anything, this was a possible step backwards.
posted by ChuraChura at 8:25 PM on November 15, 2010 [4 favorites]


joost: I'm not saying they are to blame, just thatcoming from Belgium, one would expect some degree of knowledge of the history there, and that their expectations were bizarre.
posted by Navelgazer at 8:25 PM on November 15, 2010


Ooooo Metafilter reeks tonight. You know, because these two people are personally responsible for the state of the Congo today and the crimes of the past. Sometimes Mefites, you just kind of piss me off.

It's a cool story. There are definitely some translation issues here too - the connotations of the word "corruption" in French, Dutch or Flemish may not have the same connotations in English. I think it's an unusual application for "people who apparently have nothing else to do but stand around watching someone else dig their vehicle out of a hole" but I could understand the sentiment. Let's say you were stuck in Peoria, Illinois - you wouldn't be annoyed when someone asked you for a month's salary - $3,000 - to tow you out of a rut? How about over and over and over? Yeah, that's right I'm sorry, it's their fault - they're fucking Belgians.

Stow your resentment of them as well. They can afford to do this - they have the time to do it. Good for them.

And read the entire thread. They cough up some dough when they hire people to help.

I am looking forward to more of these.

Oh, and I find it very interesting that the Catholic missons still server as sanctuaries and waystations. Cool. Except of course, when they are helping fucking privileged hipster Belgians.
posted by Xoebe at 8:30 PM on November 15, 2010 [8 favorites]


Wow. Just, wow. When I started reading the FPP about a back roads trip to Congo, I became excited and prepared to send the link to a number of close friends/neighbors of mine. Some of whom were born and raised in Congo (now in the States), some of whom still work there on a frequent basis building hospitals, schools, bridges and such in the remote region near Karawa. A couple of friends are back in Congo working on micro-enterprise projects. (Like Sarah)

Then I began reading the story. The arrogance and ignorance of these two is boggling my mind. I can't forward it to them. It's too depressing.

(Also, asking Coca-Cola is on the wrong track. Missionaries. I don't agree with their motivations but experienced missionaries can get and are almost everywhere. Even where Coca Cola fears to tread.)
posted by jeanmari at 8:33 PM on November 15, 2010 [7 favorites]


Let's say you were stuck in Peoria, Illinois - you wouldn't be annoyed when someone asked you for a month's salary - $3,000 - to tow you out of a rut?

Let's see, the average annual income in the DRC is $171. So would I be shocked or offended if somebody asked for about fifteen bucks to tow my car out of a rut? I would be shocked at how cheap the tow was.

How about over and over and over?

Expenses are probably something you should plan for when making such a trip.
posted by kmz at 8:45 PM on November 15, 2010 [3 favorites]


I was prepared to chalk up some of the vitriol in this thread to knee-jerk political correctness but after reading a number of his entries it seems I was mistaken, badly mistaken. This guy is, I struggle for the correct term here, thick as a brick? Even I as a dumb American am aware of the history between Belgium and The Congo. He even goes so far as to say that sure the Congolese were treated poorly at times under colonial rule but at least they roads and such. This had the potential to be interesting and educational instead it's just irritating.
posted by MikeMc at 8:46 PM on November 15, 2010 [4 favorites]


On one hand, these folk seem to be a little too clueless and arrogant for their own good. (They do have the occasional odd word choice, so it's possible that they don't mean to use the term "corruption" with the strength we interpret.)

On the Belgian question, they don't seem to have the requisite sensitivity. But it also seems clear to me that they are being targeted because they are white; it's not like they're driving a giant waffle; their vehicle doesn't have any Belgian insignia that I noticed. A French or German or Australian group would get the exact same treatment. So it's a little more than justified anticolonialism going on here. And it looks to me like they're quite a bit younger than 50, which means that both they and around 95% of the Congolese they meet have lived their entire lives in an era when the DRC was an independent country.

The thing about travelling where everybody sees you as an ATM is it is just ruinous to your soul. You can't trust anybody, you can't accept anything. It's corrosive. As we can see.

But the most fascinating thing to me is that in AskMe today there was a question about a wrong phone number, and there was a link to this heavily favoured post as a metaphor. But here we have the exact same story as a reality.
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 8:47 PM on November 15, 2010 [5 favorites]


you wouldn't be annoyed when someone asked you for a month's salary - $3,000 - to tow you out of a rut?

If I was Bill Gates and I was asking you to haul my gold-plated Rolls out of rut? Hopefully not. And make no mistake, that's a pretty fair analogy.
posted by maxwelton at 8:52 PM on November 15, 2010 [3 favorites]


If you'd like to read something similar but with none of the clueless Belgians, I would recommend Borneo Equator Expedition - Jungle , Swamps and Heatstroke, a trip by Indonesians (and a few non-Indonesians) in Indonesia.

I was reminded of the Borneo trip, too. In particular, there's a striking contrast in how the two "expeditions" treat their hired help and the other locals. For example:

Sam tells us that we are not going anywhere today, so I ask one of the local women to wash my riding gear.
The lady comes from one of the small wooden huts beside our camp and is delighted to get the chance of income. I ask her how much and she tells me that its up to me.
Its always difficult to judge how much to pay in situations like this. I want to pay her really well as I'm sure she could do with the money, but don't want her to think that me and perhaps others that follow in my tracks are just walking ATM's. I guess average income here is about $1 - $2 a day max so I therefore take the middle ground and pay $5 for all my gear including the helmet lining. She's stoked.

posted by Forktine at 9:00 PM on November 15, 2010


Also: How can someone (between the two of them) who is an 'adventure traveler', touring by 4x4 car, have absolutely no mechanical ability--when a lack of that ability can kill you? Not too bright.

He talks about not repairing an obvious mechanical defect before the trip, undoubtedly because it would have entailed opening his wallet (which seems to be the most painful act he can imagine). Christ.
posted by maxwelton at 9:01 PM on November 15, 2010


you wouldn't be annoyed when someone asked you for a month's salary - $3,000 - to tow you out of a rut?

Around here, if you get stuck good and proper back in the mountains on a Forest Service road, you will be lucky if having a tow truck drive in and pull you out of the mud pit or snowbank costs only $500. If there's more involved (similar to their case where their vehicle was totally disabled and the tow vehicle needed to be high clearance and able to self-extract if it got stuck), you could easily be over a thousand dollars to get out.

And that's in the US, where gas is cheap, vehicles are cheap, there's good security, and parts are easily available. When they were trying to get cheap tows, they weren't thinking about the risks and costs that the people helping them were incurring. If the guy helping them snaps an axle shaft, it's not like he can drop by the neighborhood NAPA store and be back on the road later that afternoon.
posted by Forktine at 9:05 PM on November 15, 2010 [4 favorites]


How about over and over and over?

Expenses are probably something you should plan for when making such a trip.


Heh. You're kind of an idiot. If you went anywhere like this you would pay out over and over until you just ran out of money, because in a situation where you are seen as an ATM there is no limit, just increasing demands.

And then when you're done the locals would laugh at you and regard you with contempt, and they'd be right.
posted by Artw at 9:12 PM on November 15, 2010 [5 favorites]


Pushing buttons upon the Inter-Net LOL!
posted by Rat Spatula at 9:17 PM on November 15, 2010


Geez, I just spent 2 hours reading this and just think, wow, these guys are pretty badass, that is damn cool. But I come back here to learn that my fellow mefites perceive them as arrogant, racist, colonialist mvungus, and mechanically inept to boot. Fascinating.
posted by Flashman at 9:21 PM on November 15, 2010 [3 favorites]


If only there were more Americans who never leave their home country but have opinions on the entire world to tell everybody what to do and think!
posted by Artw at 9:23 PM on November 15, 2010 [13 favorites]


I'm honestly a little surprised at the vitriol here.

I think one of the key points that nobody has noted is that, in a lot of these cases, the locals actually create the ruts with the express purpose of causing people to get stuck so that they can demand money to be hauled out. He notes in at several points in the story, albeit mostly in passing.

Having been looked at as a walking ATM, it is a degrading experience. It's happened to me a couple of times in my travels, and it's hard to understand just how demoralizing it can be if you haven't been through it.

I can understand their lack of kindness, kindness is taken as a pretty good sign that you're a sucker in a lot of situations, which can actually get physically dangerous. They did pay people they asked for help at all times, and actually relatively inflated prices. They just didn't appreciate being screamed at to give somebody money to dig them out of a hole that there's a fair chance the local created in the first place, and frankly, I wouldn't either.
posted by zug at 9:33 PM on November 15, 2010 [4 favorites]


Extraordinary journal and journey. And fun commentary from MeFites too.

The journal author does seem like a thick-skinned bastard a lot of the time, but hey, isn't that the reason that they go where no one has gone before? That said, I'm not sure why it is problematic pointing out their assholish-ness at times. Often success and it go hand-in-hand.

Also, to those who complain about being treated unfairly because they're white or 'walking ATMs', given the amount of 'white privilege' that is undeservedly wielded by caucasians in many parts of Africa more than makes up for the headache. I'd like to see Indians, Arabs, Malays, etc. or other Africans get through with as much ease!
posted by Azaadistani at 10:45 PM on November 15, 2010 [3 favorites]


If you went anywhere like this you would pay out over and over until you just ran out of money, because in a situation where you are seen as an ATM there is no limit, just increasing demands.

Well, I wasn't really planning on traveling to a country I know nothing about with a vehicle I can't fix and no support network, but I guess I'll keep that in mind.

If only there were more Americans who never leave their home country but have opinions on the entire world to tell everybody what to do and think!

Haha, yeah, I guess I never have traveled outside the US other than when I was born in Beijing and lived in Canada.

But I admit, the Brits do beat the US when it comes to expertise on colonialism.
posted by kmz at 10:58 PM on November 15, 2010 [2 favorites]


It sucks to get hit up for cash all the time in Africa. But...if you're going to use that as a jumping off point to criticize the inhabitants of the country for hitting you up for money, you have not a fucking clue. That's all.
posted by iamck at 10:59 PM on November 15, 2010 [3 favorites]


I read the entire thing - well as much as they put up. I was annoyed at them too, but I think a lot of this was written after they returned from their trip. I wish that it had been written as they went along - I'd like to see what their original thoughts were as the realized that they may have bitten off more than they could chew. As it is, I think a lot of their remembrances of the trip have been colored by the compounded experience their interactions along the way. I've cut them a lot of slack - they are adventure travelers. They are more enthused by how their vehicle performs than excited to meet new people. Not the brightest bulbs in the billboard, that's for sure. I think they were really lucky to get out of Congo ok.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 11:25 PM on November 15, 2010


Josephine kept a journal, which is what most of the entries are based on. They occasionally post scanned pages showing how the truck was tilting in the road, etc.
posted by jokeefe at 11:32 PM on November 15, 2010


One possible soundtrack for their journey: Baloji's Tout ceci ne vous rendra pas le Congo, Karibu Ya Bintou, and Indépendance Cha-Cha.
posted by progosk at 11:47 PM on November 15, 2010 [2 favorites]


Yes they come off as rude and racist, at the same time it would take some serious stones to do what they did. For better or worse I have no desire to do it.

Oh, and the irony of two Belgians complaining about corruption in the DRC is not lost on me.
posted by Felex at 11:49 PM on November 15, 2010


This an awesome and amazing journey. I've read what's there, and I'm looking forward to the rest.

But yeah, 2cvfred needs to get his head together a bit. This is the bit that did it for me:

So we stopped on top of the hill and walked down. Sure enough, a big 4x4 truck was stuck in the tracks. They were carrying a GSM tower that was to be constructed on the savannah behind us. They had hired a team of about 20 man to assist the truck on this stretch. Armed with shovels and pickaxes they more-or-less levelled the road. We watched them for an hour and they had moved about 10 meter in that time. It was another kilometer to the top. This would take some time!

So we walked back to our car and waited... It was 10 in the morning.


The upshot is that they spend two days and two nights not helping someone else stuck on the road. Not for free. Not for money. Not even though it would enable them to get moving again.

Then (a bit ironically, but obviously enough when you think about it) they experience one of the highlights of their trip.

On one of the few occasions when they actually have the time, and make the effort, to connect with the locals, they enjoy themselves.

That says it all.
posted by Ahab at 11:53 PM on November 15, 2010 [3 favorites]


They seem to get on pretty well with folks not asking them for money. Hell, even some of them.
posted by Artw at 12:11 AM on November 16, 2010


If "no mechanical ability" means able to temporarily repair a broken axle, but unable to wish a differential into existence without having someone get parts, I want the phone number of your mechanic.

from Page 8: He was not complaining, but he longed back to the olden (colonial) days when roads were functional.
Damn those elderly impoverished Congolese villagers and their white privilege!

The upshot is that they spend two days and two nights not helping someone else stuck on the road.
You did note the part about a hired 20 man team with shovels and pickaxes you quoted, right? It's not like the other truck needed a boost or a winch or something. If they'd spent two full days doing hard labour in the jungle, they might have been able to knock an hour off of the delay. Or they might have just gotten in everybody else's way.
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 12:32 AM on November 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


I particularly like the idea that our intrepid mefi coomemtary crew knows more about conditions in Congo than people who are ***actually in Congo***, through the pure power of not being Belgian, having read Heart of Darkness and the application of dialectical provelege theory.
posted by Artw at 12:43 AM on November 16, 2010 [7 favorites]


You did note the part about a hired 20 man team with shovels and pickaxes you quoted, right? It's not like the other truck needed a boost or a winch or something.

Silly me, there I was thinking the locals might actually get a little assistance from someone who says shit like - People help when needed as they know they will be helped when they are in need. We very much honour this unwritten rule and will always assist when we can.

But no, you're right Homeboy. I can now fully see that the last thing a bogged truck might need is a winch, and the last thing that people who expect free help when in trouble might do is offer the same to others.
posted by Ahab at 1:45 AM on November 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


Hi, I am the author of the original article. Someone posted this link to me.

I don't know when you guys were last called arrogant, stupid, ignorant, 'not the brightest bulbs', etc... ? I just have and I can tell you it is not a pleasant thing to read. I guess this is the power of the Internet, somebody who vaguely reads an article I wrote has the knowledge to make a perfect assessement of my inteligence.

There are a few things said about us that I find to be quite disturbing. Do you honestly think that we just wandered into the Congo without knowing anything about it? Don't you think that we, as dreadful horrible Belgians, never learnt anything about the history of Congo? Don't you think that history did not just stop after the Leopold II era?
Don't you think that we, who choose to 'live our lives on the road', don't have a vague idea of how to cope with corruption, providing aid, etc, .. ? I try to do 'the right thing', and I have taken my time to actually think how to handle situations and their effects, not just on the short term, but also on the long term. Did you actually think about this? Or did you just copy what everybody else does? (and see how wonderful that is working out!)


The following is a tongue in cheek comment: Do Americans now need a thousand disclaimers posted on trip reports as well? I feel like I made a mistake by not explaining every decision we took as to not offend anybody. Why don't you start a class-action lawsuit again me? --> Do you think I am generalizing when I say things like this? Do you take offence out of it? Why do you generalize about things like the Belgo-Congo relations? About Belgians in general? About foreign aid? About corruption? Don't you think the situation 'in the field' might just be a bit more complex then what can be read on the Internet?

By no means was/is my trip report a 'howto' on how to cross the Congo. By no means do I intend to come across as arrogant claiming I-know-it-all. I will be the first to admit all my mistakes. The trip report is an account of what happened, nothing more, nothing less. I don't make any judgements in the report, I don't tell anyone how to handle things

If I am the arrogant twat here, then what should I think about all these anonymous - under the belt - comments behind my back?

Everybody is ofcourse entitled to its opinion. If you think it is stupid what we did, fine! Feel free to share your opinion with as many people as you like. Although, insulting someone would be consided a bit on the edge of what is "Freedom of Speech", don't you think?

To everybody who called my stupid, arrogant, etc.. You are welcome at my place whenever you want, we'll have a beer and maybe I can try to explain a bit more about what we did and why we did it? Any takers?
posted by RadioBaobab at 2:56 AM on November 16, 2010 [46 favorites]


You sound like a good sport, RB. Try not to let internet-haters get to you.

One of the problems of good travel writing is distilling the "OMG DID YOU SEE THAT!?" youthful naivete and tendency to be repetitive ("Day 1: Lots of beggars. Day 2: More beggars. Day 3: Today we saw some beggars.") People will start to think that's all you see because you mention it so often. They won't realize that you're mentioning it so often because, well, there's a shit-ton of fucking beggars out there. Like, so many that every day your global baseline of just how many beggars there are in the world grows an order of magnitude. Or the ever-popular "These fuckers can't DRIVE!" I've written whole chapters of books that will never be published on 3rd world drivers, roads, vehicles, social customs when passing, laws bent, beaten and broken…

tldr; Edit better. Find the good stuff and leave out the rest.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 3:52 AM on November 16, 2010


Hi Frederick,

Thanks for sharing this fascinating travelogue, and for taking the time to engage with us here. I've got to say, I had some misgivings of my own regarding the way you related to the Congolese people. I don't mean that in an accusatory way -- it sounds like you did your best to act reasonably in exhausting conditions, towards people who were often less than civil in return. But that's to be expected, really -- in a land of such incredible hardship, where rape is commonplace and cannibalism was practiced just a few short years ago, it gets difficult to criticize impoverished people for trying to score relatively lucrative jobs from rare foreigners who are fabulously wealthy in comparison. I guess it's just hard for people to see such a stark contrast between European prosperity and African privation and not get a bad taste in their mouths, especially if the journey is being undertaken for leisure instead of for outreach.

But however uncomfortable your journey may seem, I'm glad you took it. You injected money, however modest, into the local economy, left behind a few gifts, and, more importantly, you provided a valuable perspective on life in the modern-day DRC hinterland. It's a vast country that remains an unknown to most of the world's people, where even NGOs and journalists have little knowledge of rural conditions. I'm glad that you were able to capture some of the essence of that place and share it with the world, and that so many good people there were able to share their stories through your account.
posted by Rhaomi at 3:59 AM on November 16, 2010 [2 favorites]


Sometimes someone says something mean to me on the internet and it kind of hurts. It's like a slap in the face - it feels unexpected and undeserved. The reflexive impulse is to slap back or just be sulky or mopey. But I don't actually want to be that way. So instead I ask myself this question: Why on earth should I care what some stranger whom I'll never meet and that I don't really care about thinks of me?
posted by Ritchie at 4:06 AM on November 16, 2010


Thanks for the feedback civil_disobedient. And I agree with you on the editing. I do not do this for a living, but I have written many travel articles, for friends and family. The advice of only writing about the good stuff is one I try to adhere to in general. It is very sound advice.

In the case of our DRC trip report I chose to do it different. I took a risk of writing a lot about our emotions, and I specifically chose not to hide the 'bad stuff'. It is an integral part of the experience.

Why? Because there is so much bad stuff out there and nobody knows about it. Just look at the references made in the comments on this site. All pointers to the colonial past of DRC. But where can one find something about the present day Congo? And if those articles can be found, was it really written by somebody who was on the ground there? Preferably not on a paid mission and hiding away in a hotel? Or operating within the strict safety regulations of an NGO?

As a matter of fact, we did help a few individuals. Very small things that made important changes in their lives. That is what most articles would focus on. If I had written about those little facts and those little facts alone, It would have made everybody feel happy. And people would have thought of me as a generous person making the world a better place.

Sorry, but that is not the reality. No matter how much I would have tried, I cannot make this into a happy story.

For the sake of not being called arrogant again: I do not claim this is a journalist piece. I am not a journalist.

I plan on writing an elaborate afterthought when the report is finished to put things into perspective. It saddens me that so many people fail to put this into the right perspective. I believe my far-from-perfect English is to blame as is the fact that this report is not finished yet.
posted by RadioBaobab at 4:14 AM on November 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


Ritchie: "Sometimes someone says something mean to me on the internet and it kind of hurts. It's like a slap in the face - it feels unexpected and undeserved. The reflexive impulse is to slap back or just be sulky or mopey. But I don't actually want to be that way. So instead I ask myself this question: Why on earth should I care what some stranger whom I'll never meet and that I don't really care about thinks of me?"

Reminds me of this other valuable foreign travelogue anecdote:
I was in an internet cafe in Antananarivo, Madagascar, when a rather large, bald, and older French man took the computer next to me.

Now, this cafe was crowded. There was a line. It was relatively expensive for the average Malagasy. The internet was extremely slow.

The man logged on to the computer next to me and proceeded to spend the next 45 minutes (at least) leaving rude, derogatory comments on YouTube and French newspapers. I couldn't stop laughing. This random man, in the middle of an awesome, exciting country that was undergoing political strife, where there are just so many things to do in a maze of a city - in a crowded, oddly sweaty (for winter), slow internet cafe for money that could have bought him a very nice dinner - felt his time was best spent leaving atrociously misspelled, idiotic comments on YouTube and newspapers.

Who does that?

Every time I see something dumb on the internet, I pretend it's that French expat, just puttering away Teknet. Go on, little French dude. Do your thing. If this is honestly the best use of your time/life, I am pretty happy to be me and not you.
(NOT to imply that the people above are rude, derogatory, internet cafe goons -- Ritchie's comment just reminded me of the story, is all.)
posted by Rhaomi at 4:18 AM on November 16, 2010 [16 favorites]


RadioBaobab, thanks for responding. I'm curious about your references to not supporting "corruption" when you were talking about locals trying to procure money at every turn. I can understand the term when you're talking about the police, for example (though I don't even know if "corruption" is the term when it is so infused into the entire system that it becomes the norm). But for the people all around along the way trying to make money— while I understand how incredibly tiresome and frustrating that can be (though I can only imagine it on that scale)— you did come off sometimes as being scornful of them in a way that seems somewhat oblivious to the depth of their hardship and desperation. Like, you saw it, but you didn't feel it. At least, that's how it reads. Maybe you just had to harden yourself to all of it so much it becomes difficult to soften up.

But, that's an amazing journey, I'm glad you guys made it okay.
posted by Red Loop at 4:19 AM on November 16, 2010


Hi Red Loop, I can see many people have problems understanding what we mean with corruption. You are quite right that I probably used the term a bit too broad. I will go into further detail trying to explain what I meant when my report is finished in the forums I post it on.

As a quick answer: Corruption to me is when people make abuse of their powers to ask for 'fees' in return for services that are not supposed to be paying services.

An obvious example is when a police officers stop you and abuses his policing powers to ask for a bribe. Just because he can.

A less obvious example and much less common is when normal (meaning: not officials) people on purpose sabotage the road. With the only intention of making innocent passer-by's pay.

In DRC this is not only done to 'white people', but they do it to eachother too. This has a result that people are effectively limited to actually travel around (human rights anyone?) because they cannot 'afford' it. You are quite right that this is the norm. In case of foreigners, it is exagerated in such a way that becomes nearly impossible to get trough (unless you are a milionaire).
Then comes the obvious question: as a traveller in their country, should you just endorse this behaviour. And silently show that you agree with it? Or should you actively refuse to comply with their norms? How far does one have to go in accepting the norms of a country?

I do not know the answer. I honestly do not. I actually think there is no answer to this question. So I try to do what I (!!) think is the 'right thing'. I do not participate in corruption.

Josephine, being a girl, had to cover her face when we visited Iran. We did not make objections out of that. Yet we did not pay bribes in countries were it is deemed normal. Where do you draw the line?

Some more food for thought: Is it immoral to travel trough an impoverished region? How does staying at home help these impoverished people? Why is it that travelling trough those areas can only be done in in an aid convoy? Do you do the same for the impoverished areas of your hometown? What is the message you are bringing along if every 'white person' they ever meet is there only to give them freebies? Could that actually do more harm to their economy then not giving them anything at all?

I am no trying to be a wise-ass here, but these are questions I ask myself often. Yet I do not have an answer.
posted by RadioBaobab at 4:43 AM on November 16, 2010 [12 favorites]


tldr; Edit better. Find the good stuff and leave out the rest.

I don't know whether "find the good stuff and leave out the rest" is the right approach to describing how your trip went. (Or did I misunderstand you?) If something happens to you every day, everywhere you go, you need to mention it more than once. Not just that you were passing through town, but that you were passing through town when you were surrounded by people with machetes and sticks who were yelling "White people! Money!" and who threw rocks at you as you got away, not that you were driving but that you were driving when your car got stuck in a hole apparently dug by people who charged for getting cars out of that hole, etc. It may be repetitive, but it will be much more representative than the expurgated version.

And the locals didn't necessarily know the travelers were Belgian and therefore responsible for everything their ancestors may or may not have done to the locals' ancestors. It sounds as though the travelers were treated a certain way because they were travelers, people who could be separated from their money by locals.
posted by pracowity at 5:14 AM on November 16, 2010


Is it immoral to travel trough an impoverished region?

No, it isn't immoral. It is, however, a bit rich to bitch and moan and complain about the difficulties you encounter along the way.
posted by moonbiter at 5:39 AM on November 16, 2010


If I made the suggestion that I wanted to complain and moan I must apologize. It was not my intention.

Although I totally wrecked my car and spent countless sleepless night, I am not complaining. I knew that was possible when I started this trip. I am not asking anybody to feel sorry for me.
I am not angry at any of these people, in most cases I can see where their behaviour comes from. I try to understand it, often I don't... That does not mean I accept it.

I am telling a story on how we crossed the Congo. I am even letting you in on our thoughts and emotions in the hope that this is a bit more then just a 4x4 adventure trough the jungle. Nothing more, nothing less.

Shall I rephrase the question: Is it required when travelling trough impoverished region to tell the world how lucky we all are to have all these luxuries they do not have?
Or is it actually better to let the world know about the problems that exist in their country? How hard it is to do a simple task, like crossing their country?
posted by RadioBaobab at 5:49 AM on November 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


Thank you Frederick for coming here and discussing this with us. With the amount of criticism you have taken here, including from myself, this is a highly unexpected development. Perhaps some of it is your English but when I read your entries they seemed to consist primarily of commenting about the poor state of the roads and complaining about the locals. I know you were unaware of what the road conditions were but I wonder what kind of reception did you expect from the locals going into the DRC?
posted by MikeMc at 6:20 AM on November 16, 2010


Thanks, Fred, for taking time to contribute to the discussion here - it's what makes this place deserves the "best of the web" moniker. (I take it you are well equipped to watch out for the potholes...)
posted by progosk at 6:21 AM on November 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


RadioBaobab, I don't think anyone here thinks that you wrote this to get people to feel sorry for you or to complain about your trip. Nor do I think that most of us expect you to write a moralizing tale about "How Good We Have It In The West" or how the "Belgians Should Never Forget Their Misdeeds."

But it does strike me, at least, as somewhat amusing, and a bit bemusing, that you apparently felt the need to report every single encounter in which people asked you for money and the "how dare they?!" feelings the situation invoked in you.

I enjoyed looking at photos, by the way.
posted by moonbiter at 6:42 AM on November 16, 2010


Hello MikeMC.

That is ofcourse what the story is all about. We crossed the DRC and the only thing we did was battle the roads and the harrassement. I wished we had some more time and opportunity to explore the country. Then I could have told you more about other things. We did not have this opportunity.

Before I left on this trip (the Congo bit is just a very small part of it, this trip lasted 715days) I told everyone that warned me about the possible dangers that 99% of all people have good intentions. I really believe that. Guess what, I was wrong.

It's more. 99,9% of all people we have met in the many African and Asian countries we visisted have good intentions. We have received more hospitatilty and friendly gestures then we could have hoped for. I try to make it a point to write about these people instead of the other 0.1%, although it's the 'baddies' that usually make for the best 'war stories'

My expectations for Congo were not that much different, I knew it was a troublesome area and I was well informed before I set off. I had been in DRC before. Yes, it surprised me that we had so much difficulties with the 'locals'. But our story is not finished. I am still telling everybody what has happened. But one has to put things into perspective: if we were harrassed when entering a village, there were maybe 20 people with bad intentions. But how many people left us alone and did not mean us any harm? Perspective!

Why don't I talk about this more during the report: sorry, but this has got to do with my tongue-in-cheeck comment I made earlier about "disclaimers". I cannot explain everything to 'my audience'. I noticed that people who travel regularly (my target audience) have no problems putting my stories into perspective. Also, I am genuinely not lying if I said that the 0,1% of 'bad people' in DRC did a hell of a good job to isolate us from the 99,9% 'good people'. We really did not meet that many people with only good intentions (The exceptions I write about in my trip report). Sorry if you did want to hear this, but it's the reality.

MikeMC, You wrote the following and were clearly disgusted about it: "He even goes so far as to say that sure the Congolese were treated poorly at times under colonial rule but at least they roads and such."

I did not say this! This was what a Congolese told me. I was as surprised to hear it as you are. To me it was a very important and striking fact that people preferred the be 'surpressed' by a colonisator then to have the 'freedom' they 'enjoy' at the moment. DRC is not the only country I have heard this by the way. In no way do I give my opinion on this. It's a quote!

I am truly sad that people think we are irritating and even call us assholes. It makes me angry if you call Josephine an asshole (I am a testosterone filled body like all of you) and I would not recommend to do that to me in person. I guess I am being arrogant again...

But if my story at least made people think about Congo again, I guess that is worth it...
posted by RadioBaobab at 6:49 AM on November 16, 2010 [2 favorites]


Moonbiter,

You wrote: "But it does strike me, at least, as somewhat amusing, and a bit bemusing, that you apparently felt the need to report every single encounter in which people asked you for money and the "how dare they?!" feelings the situation invoked in you."

That is the sad bit. I am maybe only telling 5% of all the encounters in which people asked us for money. I have skipped many anecdotes of begging, corruption, bribes and getting stuck. Just for the sake of not making it too boring.

My story cannot be told without mentiong it so 'often'
posted by RadioBaobab at 6:55 AM on November 16, 2010


You also wrote:

"RadioBaobab, I don't think anyone here thinks that you wrote this to get people to feel sorry for you or to complain about your trip. Nor do I think that most of us expect you to write a moralizing tale about "How Good We Have It In The West" or how the "Belgians Should Never Forget Their Misdeeds."

It's all a matter of interpretation, but I had a hard time interpreting some of the comments made earlier not to read exactly that. Your last comment literally said "It is, however, a bit rich to bitch and moan and complain about the difficulties you encounter along the way."

Especialy the comments made by jokeefe I find difficult to not to take personal. And, pardon my arrogance, but in my eyes show a fair amount of ignorance too. Not only in selective reading of my trip report, but in (recent) history in general.

I have no intentions in starting an argument here. I hope that my replies have clarified a few things. You re still very free to remain with your original opinions. Just please don't call Josephine and myself idiots.

(or at least wait until you've met us so you can be sure we really are idiots ;-) )
posted by RadioBaobab at 7:03 AM on November 16, 2010


The digging mudholes and charging to extract motorists was a common practice in the US back when cars were new. I've encountered it in other countries, too. You can call it "corruption" if you want, but I guess I don't see the point of all the anger. They aren't bad people, they are just super poor, at the tail end of a couple of decades of incredible violence, and lack other options. Charging tolls to passing motorists generates a small amount of income. You can pay the toll, find a way to connect with people and get the help for free, or find your own way through the mudhole. The anger is the unnecessary part.

I will go into further detail trying to explain what I meant when my report is finished in the forums I post it on.

I said this before, but I'll say it again much stronger. It was really crappy to post this FPP before the story was finished. Not only is it frustrating to read what turns out to be an incomplete story, it is also missing the perspective piece which always goes at the end of these kinds of travelogues, and those ending pieces can totally change your perspective on what went before. Instead, Frederick is having to scramble to address those points now, rather than having the time and space to make them in their proper place in their story.

I am even letting you in on our thoughts and emotions in the hope that this is a bit more then just a 4x4 adventure trough the jungle.

That's what made this story so compelling and so rare. Most of these stories are just "we drove here, and then we drove there, and then we drove somewhere else." This one had introspection and honesty, and that makes it fun to read. I think the authors were extraordinarily lucky, and were more unprepared than they realize, but I absolutely commend them for their honesty in how they are writing about their experiences later. As he says, it would be easy to cherry pick and only write about the good stuff; most people do.
posted by Forktine at 7:16 AM on November 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


Thanks for being in the thread, Frederick. When I commented I was still at the point when you'd barely left Lubumbashi and it was mostly cops asking you for money and coming right out and saying it was because you're Belgian (the "you're not in Belgium anymore" line stuck with me). Once you got out into the country and it was everyone asking for money, and it was less about made-up colonial reasons, I got over that hang-up pretty quickly.

The anger is the unnecessary part.

Hell, I commend him for lasting as long as he did without getting angry. I totally agree about not being surprised about what they ran into along the way--how else do you make money out there?--but even then I'd have gotten fed up with it after about two days, which is why I'm not really cut out for driving a 4x4 through the Congo.
posted by jackflaps at 7:35 AM on November 16, 2010


Amazed at the "but you'd pay a tow truck driver" messages here. I've lived and played in rural parts of the U.S., from the northeast, to the area around southeastern Tennessee, to California. I've given people jump starts, helped dig cars out of snow banks and soft sand in dirt roads, driven a mile or two out of my way 'cause someone was hitchhiking in the middle of nowhere and it was worth my five minutes rather than making them walk that last stetch, and my response when I'm offered something in return has always been "do the same for someone else".

I've recently been helping someone do a little research for a friend taking a college speech class, and came across the notion of what sociologists apparently call "corrosive community": When people can assign their plight from a disaster situation to specific human actions, and end up waiting around for those deemed responsible to solve their problems, they start to turn on each other within the community. So man made disasters, be they floods from ill-maintained dams breaking, or oil spills, have a far more destructive force on a community than natural disasters.

From this narrative, it seems like the Congo is one big corrosive community. And it seems like the NGOs are just encouraging that sense of dependence.
posted by straw at 7:49 AM on November 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


But where can one find something about the present day Congo? And if those articles can be found, was it really written by somebody who was on the ground there?

I noticed that people who travel regularly (my target audience) have no problems putting my stories into perspective.

RadioBaobab: I am a person who regularly travels, sometimes to impoverished areas of the world. I am also a person who is quite close--personally close--to people from Congo, some of whom have now returned after years of schooling here in the States. Some of whom still travel there quite frequently. Granted, I have not been there yet myself, however, daily life in Congo is a common topic of conversation for these friends and I.

I understand that it is frustrating to be constantly asked for money when traveling in an impoverished area. I've experienced it myself--the anger, the bickering, the defensiveness. However, it is HOW you chose to focus on and write about those experiences that led to my evaluation of your interactions with some Congolese as being arrogant. In how you wrote about these interactions, you seemed to take too much delight in "teaching these locals a lesson"--implied or explicit.

Me: "Aaaah, of course how could I forget. I already paid this when I entered at by boat in Kinshasa a few months ago" <>He lost, I won.
_______________________

I just stuck my arm trough the window without letting them see myself and give the equivalent amount for locals (1$US). They give me back a receipt and presto. Another 49$ saved!

_______________________

And so on.
_______________________

Then there was how you wrote about your assessment of the two types of people in Congo--those who wanted your money and those who were making you uncomfortable with their tragic stories.

And the few friendly people we met made us feel totally out of place with their tragic stories.

How inconvenient for you! To be made to feel totally out of place! When you had to listen to someone's tragic story! Of mind-crushingly painful life experiences that you will hopefully never have to endure!

I don't know you personally, RadioBaobab. I just know what you have chosen to present in your online essay and (now) your interactions here on Metafilter. Just as you do not know the Congolese that you encountered except for your very brief interactions with them. Yet, you want me to extend to you a benefit of the doubt and an understanding that you seemed unwilling to extend to them? Can you see that?

Let's talk about how you chose to present the story around the broken bolt for your wheelcarrier at the mission.

the mission had a lathe so they could make one for us...We like kids, but we were silently hoping they would have to go to class today so we could have some rest. Alas, it was a holiday so we were bombarded to babysitter for the day :roll: :wink:


Wow. The mission, with their scant energy supply and poor resources, decided to direct that energy to helping you--the visitors--and made a custom bolt for your vehicle. You choose not to discuss the sacrifice that was made to help you--you skim over this event as if this type of service is expected--and then complain in the next sentence about being bombarded with interacting with the kids. Wow. Just....wow.

Yes, there are different cultural expectations in Congo. Survival instincts that make people desperate. Lack of boundaries with foreigners, more than likely based upon the fact that they are unable to enforce any boundaries for themselves. (How would I feel knowing, any moment, that soldiers could swoop in tomorrow, murder my husband in front of me, rape me and my young daughter, take any money/food they can find--tomorrow? Or the next day? Or the next? How would that mess with my sense of boundaries, or self-regulation? I have no real idea. You don't either.) There are the stories that you chose to tell from Congo. And there are the experiences of my Congolese friends, which make up the rest of those stories. They do not write down their stories, so these stories are harder to find.

The story of my two neighbors (a few houses down), both doctors who returned to Congo last year (where they lived for decades) to help with the hospital that they support in Tandala. How armed rebels took over the town that they were passing through, and how they were forced to hide in an old warehouse/shed-like building with one of the people from the town. How, when these rebels entered the warehouse, this town person leapt out of hiding, explained to the rebels that he was there by himself in order to protect my friends. The rebels shot him on the spot, left him on the ground to die in the warehouse, 10 feet from my friends, and departed. This person sacrificed himself for them, gave his life to protect them.

My friend from Gemena who has been back and forth to/from Congo to complete schooling here in the States (lived with my husband's family and then local friends here in Chicago) so he could return to Congo and try to rebuild his country. His story about returning after a short period of time in the States, and crying loudly and openly in the street when the true extent of his countries crushing poverty really hit him for the first time.

My friend, Sarah, who started LittleThings back in Gemena, to help the women of Congo.

My neighbor who, even in his 70's, travels back to Congo (the place of his birth) every few months to train others to maintain hospital equipment, run a micro-lending program for widows, who builds these wonderful prototypes of long haul bicycles in his garage so doctors can haul solar panels on small paths between villages that will power the car battery and lab equipment needed to provide testing and healthcare.

The Congo is not a country for tourists. At least not tourists with expectations that they will be treated as tourists are treated elsewhere, with "proper" rules and no bribes and replacement parts for your vehicle and so on. You ask the following:

How hard it is to do a simple task, like crossing their country?

...when just the way you phrase that question indicates to me that you still don't get it. Crossing their country is not a simple task, even for them. Crossing their country is a freakish nightmare, a war zone...even for them. Making it possible for you--the tourist--to cross their country without fear, hassle, or inconvenience is not their priority right now, frankly. So, please stop acting (through your writing) inconvenienced and annoyed at the difficulty of it, please, because, RadioBaobab, you DO have the ultimate privilege in that situation. You get to cross the border and leave. You get to leave the nightmare. Something they cannot do.
posted by jeanmari at 7:49 AM on November 16, 2010 [55 favorites]


Especialy the comments made by jokeefe I find difficult to not to take personal. And, pardon my arrogance, but in my eyes show a fair amount of ignorance too.

Hello Frederick, and thanks for showing up here to engage with us personally. Because you've mentioned me by name I feel I should respond, if only to say that my reactions were honest representations of my feelings as I was reading your piece. I don't deny that I found it fascinating, particularly the photographs, and that the story became more interesting towards the end where you hired a local crew to help after your vehicle began to break down (though I can't help but notice that you felt you overpaid the men, and then later criticized one man's apparent choice to spend some of his money on alcohol-- and this after he'd showed up with food for you the next day, unasked). However, it would be hypocritical of me to retract my comments just because you showed up in person to let us know that you were upset and insulted. I'm sure you've had many wonderful experiences while you were travelling in other countries, because people, by and large, are good to visitors, and interested in them. But a civil society is a fed and reasonably secure society; the Congo has little of either extra food or security. You mention at one point the diamond trade, and how Congo should be wealthy country if its resources weren't being bled away by foreign interests, and then later on you wonder why you find anger and hatred directed your way. I think you answered your own question.
posted by jokeefe at 8:30 AM on November 16, 2010 [5 favorites]


I offer my apology about the money quip (though I still think the way you told it makes it seem wrong, but I've never traveled where I would be considered an ATM, so my experience is nothing).

I still think it's downright dangerous to not have any mechanical knowledge (something you can acquire fairly easily) and rely completely on a machine when you will be in places you cannot get help. Where was your own tool kit when you had the locals work on your broken axle? You can fit a lot of tools into less than a cubic foot of space, and having a proper set of spanners and a set of drill bits, not to mention a small selection of common fasteners, would have had you miles ahead.

But more power to you for engaging this community, I did read your account all the way through and will read the final parts.
posted by maxwelton at 8:42 AM on November 16, 2010


I think there may be at least some misunderstanding going on because of the cultural/language barrier. I really have a hard time believing that, were any of our informal web anecdotes in English linked from a Belgian forum, any of us who don't have French or Dutch as a native tongue would have a smooth time fully describing and explaining our emotions and subtle nuances of meaning. Actually, given the lack of commitment of many Americans to learn any languages other than English (not that all who are commenting in this thread are Americans), I'll bet our difficulty would be even greater.

I appreciate RadioBaobab's posting his travel experiences and photographs and also his willingness to come on mefi and address some of the snark that's been directed at him. I also appreciate the mefites who've been willing to engage with him directly, whether they agree with him or not, in a way that's not the usual boilerplate snark.
posted by blucevalo at 8:44 AM on November 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


Frederick - I don't have anything substantive to add to the debates going on here; I just wanted to say that I loved reading your account of your travels and found it gripping. Thanks for writing it.

And much respect to you for coming here, keeping a level head and sharing your points of view.
posted by Hartham's Hugging Robots at 8:57 AM on November 16, 2010


For anyone in the thread who is interested in more stories from Congo or some of the initiatives on the ground to make a difference there, here are some links:

I don't know the Holmgren's personally, though I have met them as part of the work they do with some of the same people I know in my neighborhood. They do quite a bit of work in country and from afar to help some in Congo figure out programs that will benefit the whole community. The stories that they tell have been confirmed by my friends from Congo as representative of the grim realities there.

Paul Carlson Partnership, named in honor of Dr. Paul Carlson who was murdered in Congo in 1964. Some of my neighbors were personal friends of Dr. Carlson and were in Congo with him when he was shot.

Yes, these people and this organization are part of a Christian denomination, and I know how many of you feel about organized religion and its baggage. Evangelism and missionaries, in theory, make me uncomfortable. I can only tell you that this particular network of people who I now call friends and neighbors have a long history with and enormous caring/energy for the people of Congo. That many of them were born and raised there (even when their parents or grandparents came from elsewhere), that they work WITH people in Congo and ask them for what they need (not imposing themselves or unsustainable solutions upon them as far as I can gather from my friends in Gemena), and so on. If the Christian mission and motivation overlay makes you disdainful or uncomfortable, I hear you, I get it. But if you want read up on some hopeful work being done there and how you could get involved, please check it out.
posted by jeanmari at 9:04 AM on November 16, 2010 [2 favorites]


Jeanmari,

Thank you for your comment. You seem to have a genuine interest in a country most people cannot even point out in the map. A country that is dear to us both.

I can now start to see where some of the confusion is coming from. I guess I have to take the blame for not mentioning some minor but very important details. Allow me to comment:

"
How inconvenient for you! To be made to feel totally out of place! When you had to listen to someone's tragic story! Of mind-crushingly painful life experiences that you will hopefully never have to endure!
"


I do not see it as an inconvenience, although I do not find these stories amusing either. Just like everybody else I presume? What made me feel out of place was that everytime we took the time for somebody who wanted to tell their story, that we could see we where their only hope for relief. Our white skin and everything related to that (the car, the wealth, ..) was generating hope. A hope Icould not fulfil. A hope that NOBODY can fulfil. I cannot give them wealth. I cannot heal their wounds (physical and mental). I cannot make that rape undone. NOBODY can? That made me feel our of place, very much so. I think it would make everybody feel out of place.

It obviously disturbs you very much that I feel this way. But what am I supposed to do? Feel happy for them? Avoid them? I don't know jeanmari. I really do not know and I would appreciate if you told me how I should have felt instead? Maybe I can learn something from it instead of having to endure you rant.

Just to clarify this a bit more: I am not complaining about this. I am not asking people to feel sorry for me because I felt out of place. I am telling how I felt at that point in time. Nothing more. Nothing less. This is my human psyche, I cannot help feeling emotions and I cannot choose my emotions either. I often do not like my emotion. The fact that I am getting upset about this thread because I feel I am being misunderstood is a perfect example. I know I shouldn't have this emotion, yet it's there and I cannot help it.

I am very much being accounted for my honesty here.

"
Yet, you want me to extend to you a benefit of the doubt and an understanding that you seemed unwilling to extend to them? Can you see that?
"


I can see your point, thank you for making it. I did not think about it in that way, until now. You are right I misjudged many people in DRC. My mistake. As a matter of fact, I misjudge people all the time, here in Belgium, on the Internet, everywhere. I try to learn from my mistakes. I make no difference between race, gender or whatever in my judgements (or not conciously at least). You are free to misjudge me too.

"
Wow. The mission, with their scant energy supply and poor resources, decided to direct that energy to helping you--the visitors--and made a custom bolt for your vehicle. You choose not to discuss the sacrifice that was made to help you--you skim over this event as if this type of service is expected--and then complain in the next sentence about being bombarded with interacting with the kids. Wow. Just....wow.
"

Let's get the facts straight first. The mission always ran their power group during lunchtime. Every day. I could have asked them to run it specially for me early that morning. We could have won a day with that. But I didn't, I couldn't care and I was happy that they could fix it.
I paid for the labour, I paid for the fuel of the diesel group and I paid for the metal for the bolt. I thanked them profoundly. My sincere apologies if this was not clear in my online essay. Rest assured that I have left A LOT more details out of the report. It saddens me that you decide to jump to (wrong!) conclusions on these little details. I will also try to learn about this in future reports as to avoid the confusion. Thank you for putting this under my attention.

The kids: I expected to get bad comments on that. Kids are an emotional thing. Everybody is supposed to like kids. They are our future. They are everything. I agree! But the reality is that kids can also sometimes be very annoying (even our own kids!). That is an emotion and as said before I cannot choose my emotions. That does not mean I disliked them. I just wished for some peace and quiet at that time. It was an honest remark in my trip report. I talked about my emotions a lot because I could see my emotions evolved when the trip progressed. I found the whole experience very interesting, but instead you decide to pick out a few items (out of context) and comment on those. My storytelling failed I guess..

"
There are the stories that you chose to tell from Congo. And there are the experiences of my Congolese friends, which make up the rest of those stories. They do not write down their stories, so these stories are harder to find.
"

I am glad that you agree that is important to tell these stories. As nobody outside Congo seems to know about them. I am sure you understand that just putting these stories online will not make them read. Putting them in a trip report that gets a lot of attention on the other hand does. I would be interesting to know what you and your Congolese friends do with that kind of information? How do you put in use? That is a genuine question, I am not trying to be smart.

"
The story of my two neighbor ... // and other stories//
"

That is all very interesting Jeanmari. Disturbing events and it is encouraging to see people actually try to do something about it (your friend Sarah).
But what are you trying to say?

"
The Congo is not a country for tourists. At least not tourists with expectations that they will be treated as tourists are treated elsewhere, with "proper" rules and no bribes and replacement parts for your vehicle and so on.
"

For crying out loud. I have repeated this in all my replies thus far: I AM NOT COMPLAINING! I did not wanted to be treated as tourists elsewhere. I did not expect proper rules (I am not THAT naive). I did not expect a country without bribes. I did not expect replacement parts. Where do these assumptions come from? Where did I state this? I am terribly sorry but you are wrong. Very very wrong. I do talk about the lack of these things, but these are just facts.

How does it help Congo to label it is a 'war zone". a "freakish nightmare"? This is what the general public is led to believe. In such a way that NGO's are scared of it as well. They do not venture out to the area's we have been in, yet it is not THAT dangerous. Instead all the NGO's we gladly support are concentrated in Kinshasa, Lubum and Goma. Occupying big villa's, driving around in the latest Landcruisers, importing western goods the locals cannot afford. You might aim your arrows elsewhere Jeanmari, you are not shooting at the right person I think.

I personally believe that responsible (!) tourism can certainly be of help. Even in Congo. Not in all regions, not for all kinds of people. But it can certainly help. You are very free to have a different opinion. Although I find it disturbing that I am being called arrogent while you, yourself, make such bold (and arrogant) statements.

"How hard it is to do a simple task, like crossing their country?

...when just the way you phrase that question indicates to me that you still don't get it.

"

I will have to reply in the same manner. "You still don't get it". I might not be fluent in English but you might have to brush up on your notions of irony. The whole point is ofcourse that driving cross-country is not a simple task at all. It is nearly impossible to drive between the two major cities in the country. How many people, outside the Congo, realize the implications of that? How much does it say about the functionality of the country? For most of us this is a simple task. That is the whole point: trying to make it clear how messed up the situation is! If people (my audience) don't know the problem, they will not do anything about it?

I was tempted to make some very cross remarks on touting politcal correctness and bragging rights because you know a few Congolese people. But I will try to refrain from that. It just gives you an idea how your comments come across here. It's all about perspective again, a rare good on Internet forums indeed.
posted by RadioBaobab at 9:06 AM on November 16, 2010 [10 favorites]


Frederik - thank you for writing your story and for jumping in here to make clarifications. Even if people disagree with you or don't like you, at least you have brought attention to a part of the world that most people don't think about every day. I suspect that most of the people reading this (including myself) have no idea how they would react in such situations as you encountered. You can be 100% aware of the historical context and of the present impact you have on others, and still be annoyed at demands for money.
posted by desjardins at 9:24 AM on November 16, 2010


Hello Jokeefe. I appreciate that you come back to this and I understand accept your feelings about my piece. No offence taken on my part. You are still very welcome for a beer, we can even chat about something more cheerful then this!

Just a quick reply to this thing you said:
"
You mention at one point the diamond trade, and how Congo should be wealthy country if its resources weren't being bled away by foreign interests, and then later on you wonder why you find anger and hatred directed your way. I think you answered your own question.
"


Sorry to say this to you.. but you are a bit wrong here :-) I too find it incredibly how most people in 'these countries' can make the difference between a goverment/company and an individual. Never, ever, have I been blamed for stealing their diamonds and other goods. They know it is not true, even the most corrupt policeman did not bring that up.
Never, ever, have I had a strange look because I am Belgian. I think the Congolese would feel quite offended if they read how you guys think about them. They are perfectly capable of seeing the difference of what our goverment did and what we, as simple citizens, did.

That is why I get upset of seeing so many "colonial" remarks. They are not relevant. People who have travelled know about this. On the travellers forums nobody talks about this. I do not blame people for not knowing this. I do not ask you to believe me either. But, just maybe, take it into consideration the next time you judge somebody?

Those are certainly not the reasons we saw anger and hatred. The role NGO's and foreign aid plays in this hatred and anger is something else though...

But thanks again for replying! jokeefe! :-)

Maxwelton, apologies accepted! Thanks!

Oh, and I am not a mechanic, but that does not mean I am mechanically handicapped :-) I did dismantle my rear axle and rear propshaft in the bush. I do my own mainteance. I generally know how to keep my truck going. But that does not make me a mechanic!

The mechanics who fixed my rear axle used all of my tools! That reminds me that I did not tell anything about the fact that I was missing a few tools afterwards? I honestly thought they were stolen, but they might have gotten lost too. I decided not too tell this in the trip report as I do not like to make false accusations. Strange how I am at the same time being accused of not giving the Congolese the benefit of the doubt, isn't it?

Assumptions, assumtions, assumptions. There is a famous saying in English with regards to assumptions I think? ;-)

Thanks too to all the other comments!
posted by RadioBaobab at 9:27 AM on November 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


Hi Frederick.

Thanks for the fascinating travelogue and for joining the discussion here. (I hope you stay past this discussion; there's a great community here.)

I'm wondering how conditions in the DRC compared to your expectations beforehand. I noticed you began your report with the offhand remark that you'd driven to Lubumbashi from Cairo(!) so it's clear that you had a lot of experience in 4x4 travel with Africa.

I'm sure you were expecting bad roads, hard to find parts, demands for bribes, and so on, but were you expecting roads that were as bad as you encountered, bribery demands that were as frequent, etc?

I'm asking in part because I had a similar experience; expecting one country to be as easy to travel in as some of its' neighbours, and I was caught up short when it wasn't.
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 9:34 AM on November 16, 2010


This travelogue is fantastic. Much like the previously discussed motorcycle trip across Angola I'm astonished not only that people make these trips, but that they document them so thoroughly and then post them as forum posts of all things. I'd love to see this experience turned into a book. I feel privileged to have RadioBaobab here answering some of our questions. Thank you.

Like a lot of folks above I was uncomfortable and bummed out by all the complaining about money. On the other hand I think it's entirely honest and I don't think I'd do any better myself. What's an appropriate price to pay for a day's labor when your home country's labor rate is 100x the local rate and you have, literally, a billion times the wealth of the locals? It's an impossible situation. You can't just throw $100 bills around; you'd run out of money, you'd earn contempt, and you'd set yourself up for problems a few miles down the road. But you want to pay people well, and you're stuck and vulnerable. I could see being angry about it after a month (if a bit embarassed by my own reaction).

While the author sometimes comes off as arrogant, in other posts and in the photographs there's also a lot of empathy with and gratitude for the people who help him on the trip. I love these photos of people working and this photo of the mechanics crew. I also enjoyed the discussion with Mr. Shinandi, a sort of middle ground between the author's European sensibilities and the reality of the difficult life in Congo. Travelling through places distances you from the locals; getting stuck somewhere like Dibaya-Lubwe gives an opportunity to learn something.
posted by Nelson at 9:36 AM on November 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


RadioBaobab, I think you've comfortably acquitted yourself in the Metafilter High Court - get back to Horizons Unlimited and finish the story! I want to hear about the journey to Kinshasa!
posted by Hartham's Hugging Robots at 9:37 AM on November 16, 2010


I hope you stay past this discussion; there's a great community here

Seconding this - I think you're a valuable addition to Metafilter.
posted by Hartham's Hugging Robots at 9:39 AM on November 16, 2010


I was surprised to come back and see all the anger directed toward Frederik, he avoided bribing corrupt officials and paid market prices for goods and labor.

One of the stories from the travel log conveyed how an NGO, in all their wisdom, decided not to rent / buy heavy equipment in the construction of the road in lieu of spending all their money on local labor. Guess what's left? A soft road that'll be decimated the first semi that goes over it.

From reading the comments here, I would have expected him to be driving a landcruiser with a big Belgium flag hoisted up on the side, french fries flying out the back and every few villages they'd stop to take pictures and remind the locals how much better things were when the white guys were around.

There were maybe one or two instances on the whole trip where he possibly screwed someone over (the private roads perhaps?) ... but considering every opportunity was used to try to screw them over, the fact they weren't tighter with their guilders is amazing.

It seems like the anger here stems from the fact they didn't arrive like St. Angelina Jolie to be impart their wisdom of the West upon the locals. These people probably have lived through some horrific things, but treating it with paternalism is not the answer.
posted by geoff. at 9:50 AM on November 16, 2010 [6 favorites]


Ack well that was a messy comment, pretend I didn't compose it while cutting and pasting a bunch of text.
posted by geoff. at 9:51 AM on November 16, 2010


Radiobaobab-- I hear your frustration with my response to you, and I'm also hearing your frustration in trying to communicate the nuance of emotions experienced during your trip in a language that is not your first language. Since communicating your real intentions and this nuance is so difficult, I don't know what to suggest. (Except that I would suggest avoiding attempts at irony when it is difficult to even clearly communicate information plainly.)

Language seems to be the barrier here, as well as your choices of what to share in your story and what you have left out/unexplained. I was working with what you had written, and was mirroring back to you why it might be interpreted the way that I (I can only speak for myself here) was interpreting it. So, to clarify, this sentence:

And the few friendly people we met made us feel totally out of place with their tragic stories.

...is very different than your explanation of that here:

What made me feel out of place was that every time we took the time for somebody who wanted to tell their story, that we could see we where their only hope for relief. Our white skin and everything related to that (the car, the wealth, ..) was generating hope. A hope I could not fulfill.

The first sentence on its own is unfortunate, because it gives the reader an impression of you and your interactions in country that the second sentence corrects. I may have extended more benefit of the doubt to you in your narrative if that second sentence had been included and used to explain your continuous focus on the issues of money, bribes, and exchange of favors/goodwill versus compensation.

Why did it matter to me? Why did it strike a chord in me and compel me to respond here (when I really should be attending to work that is not getting done.) Before I clarify my motivations, let me correct something small but significant.

A country that is dear to us both...

The Congo is not dear to me. I have not lived there, nor visited. My circle of friends whose lives are linked to the Congo are dear to me. Very dear. I have cried with these friends, and have heard their painful stories. I've also laughed with them. So, if they want to help the Congo, I will work to help the Congo because it is important to them. I have personal ties to other places where I have traveled and worked, but I cannot say that one of those places is Congo. It is not.

You are correct that my friends do not publish their everyday experiences on the Internet (or in many other places) and that is unfortunate. These are people who live their lives away from the internet, who speak English as their second language, who are generally very humble and will not frequently tell the stories that they tell except in an intimate setting, one-on-one. Sometimes it is also because these stories make them feel ashamed or pained, sometimes they cry. I shared a few less personal stories here because--intentional or not--the impression that I walked away with after reading about your travels in Congo because of the priority you gave to the topic in amount of space you devoted to it and choices of words you made was that the Congolese most or all prey on foreigners, and that they are an unfriendly/unhappy people. I wanted to offer another perspective. As humans, we tend to offer help to those we feel empathy for and avoid those for who we feel disdain. With so little being written online regarding the personal stories of the Congolese, in your narrative (whether you intended it or not), I felt disdain radiating from you. Maybe I'm assigning too much influence to your account of your travels in Congo and its ability to shape the perceptions of others who will read it. I probably am.

I don't use the terms "freakish nightmare" or "war zone" lightly. I consider the possibility of gang rape or murder to be elements of a nightmare. Westerners might be getting a pass right now, but they haven't always in the past and they might not in the future. It is dangerous in Congo right now, and when two foreigners end up kidnapped or stranded somewhere, forcing an embassy to send resources in for their rescue, it creates more harm than good. You didn't get stuck or kidnapped out there. Good. The next two or four or sixteen 4 x 4 tourists might not get so lucky. We're both arrogant for offering opinions about the role of tourism in Congo without the perspective of the Congolese in the conversation. You put your opinion out there in your story. I responded here.
posted by jeanmari at 10:17 AM on November 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


Thanks for understanding my point jeanmari. I do not expect everybody to agree with me, but it is nice if people respect eachothers opinions. I appreciate that!

I will certainly be more careful of how I write things in the future, but then again, this is not an officially published book. It's a forum thread I write in between other things. Let's not blow this out of proportion here :-)

But when you say:

"
And the few friendly people we met made us feel totally out of place with their tragic stories.

...is very different than your explanation of that here:

What made me feel out of place was that every time we took the time for somebody who wanted to tell their story, that we could see we where their only hope for relief. Our white skin and everything related to that (the car, the wealth, ..) was generating hope. A hope I could not fulfill.

"

I cannot help to notice you forgot to copy an important part of the original quote I wrote in the trip report. It actually reads:

And the few friendly people we met made us feel totally out of place with their tragic stories. So many people expected that we would be able to help them. Could we stand it to keep dissapointing those people?

It might not be as full of nuance as my later explanataion in this thread, but is my English so bad that it reads completely different?

I appreciate that you are faulting me at my lack of nuance and my 'wrong' choice of priority to the things I tell and do no tell. Just to put this back into perspective: my main audience are people who do similar trips. I would bore them to death if I explained all the little detail of what are obvious things to them. It seems that to another audience (not meaning to look down or something) these are important details.

But at the same time I also feel the some reactions here are based on prejudice and what people want to read, instead of what is actually written. Altough I understand that I could be very wrong with that last statement. (and just in case I would be right, it would be very stupid of me to think people would acknowledge it ;-) )
posted by RadioBaobab at 10:38 AM on November 16, 2010


Meta.
posted by jokeefe at 11:04 AM on November 16, 2010


As many have said already, thanks for coming to the thread, Frederick.
posted by vidur at 11:29 AM on November 16, 2010


RadioBaobab,

As a new avenue to explore, I think your trip is awesome. I think we both understand why people may have problems with you doing this. I'm not going to comment about that.

Just ignore the haters. Americans sometimes don't have that high powered scope to aim at themselves when they take hiking trips to Vietnam, Iran, everywhere in South America and other places our military and/or our industry have shit on.

Rest well, knowing that those same people will be taking trips to Afghanistan and Iraq in a few years to get their favorite starbucks.
posted by hal_c_on at 11:32 AM on November 16, 2010


knowing that those same people will be taking trips to Afghanistan and Iraq in a few years to get their favorite starbucks.

What on earth?
posted by jeanmari at 12:04 PM on November 16, 2010


What an awesome adventure.
posted by sswiller at 12:09 PM on November 16, 2010


RadioBaobab,

I appreciate you bringing your perspective. Thank you.
posted by fremen at 12:15 PM on November 16, 2010


Radiobaobab, your comments in the thread show that you guys did spend more time and effort reflecting on your experience than I think came through in what was originally linked to.

My knee-jerk reaction upon reading it was that a pair of Belgians wandering around Congo and reacting to structural issues - corrupt officials, impassable roads - with frustration and derision is a lot like Americans getting pissed when they can't travel with impunity and safety around Mexico because of how dangerous drug wars are. It shows a lack of forethought. I get the impression that you guys did put forethought into this trip. I'm still not sure what the purpose of it was, though, and maybe that's just a failure of my reading.

International travel, especially where there's a big power or wealth imbalance, squicks me out. I think the only way that it can be done successfully is with a LOT of time spent with that high powered scope hal_c_on mentions. I think it's assumed that commenters are coming in with their own biases when we're reading links. That one's mine. I would be violently uncomfortable through the DRC with no larger purpose than traveling through the DRC.
posted by ChuraChura at 12:16 PM on November 16, 2010 [2 favorites]


To everybody who called my stupid, arrogant, etc.. You are welcome at my place whenever you want, we'll have a beer and maybe I can try to explain a bit more about what we did and why we did it? Any takers?

Belgian beer is the best on the planet! Do I need to insult you to enjoy some of your beers, or can we just talk about travelling through Africa instead?
posted by UbuRoivas at 12:23 PM on November 16, 2010 [2 favorites]


I actually enjoyed reading through (half) of the travel report. It felt like what most people feel when visiting a developing country. On a rational level, you realize why people are begging, why things are in ruins, etc. And you accept it as part of the normal life of the country you are in, and as something interesting you are experiencing while traveling. But there is still the struggle to get through. Frustration passes through all travelers' minds, they just don't usually articulate it. So while, I guess, there could have been more sensitivity in the writing, I appreciated it more as a "you are there on this journey with us" feeling. I feel like a lot of travelogues leave out the struggle part. I'm glad you left it in.
posted by bluefly at 12:45 PM on November 16, 2010


RadioBaobab,
Thank you for your travelogue. And thank you for coming to MetaFilter to contribute to the discussion. I look forward to reading the conclusion of the trip and to hear where you're going next!
posted by birdherder at 12:56 PM on November 16, 2010


Odd that blundering into the nuances and the complexities of a language, when especially sensitive issues of expression and circumspection are at stake, should be cited as a [mistaken] reason for why one is seen to have been blundering into the nuances and the complexities of a particularly troubled country, where again especially sensitive issues of expression [this time of wealth] and circumspection are at stake.

For me, it doesn't fly, unless one would be willing to concede the distasteful and unlikely point that the Dutch [Flemish] language is a particularly blunt instrument. Typos in the original account aside, I see no evidence of material or syntactical obstacles to a more careful exposition of the conflict and tension in the aims, impressions, and reflections of the author in the English used there.

It's one thing for the author to come and respond to harsh criticism here; it's another thing entirely for the points made by others in this thread concerning the presumptuousness and arrogance of the voyagers to be considered seriously for a moment by said authors.

One example: were there ruts left by the vehicle in the poorly compacted NGO road? Was there mention of any efforts to go back and fix them or anything? Would such efforts have been wholly unrealistic? What does that say about the assumptions of the voyage, especially when they are published on the interwebs? Wait, is it the expression of such an episode that makes it seem douchebaggery, or is it the suppositons of the undertaking itself?
posted by rudster at 1:29 PM on November 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


Well, I travel a lot. There a a lot of interesting thins to see. But guess what is the most interesting thing to see when traveling? The people.

This guy seem to have taken hundreds of pictures from from his car standing on the road. Honestly I am not too impressed by this.
posted by yoyo_nyc at 1:36 PM on November 16, 2010


I think the forum he is posting on is mostly concerned with the driving bit (4x4 and motorcycle enthusiasts) which may explain why most of the photographs are of the road. (Perhaps he will chime in about that?)
posted by bluefly at 2:12 PM on November 16, 2010


This guy seem to have taken hundreds of pictures from from his car standing on the road. Honestly I am not too impressed by this.

I guess that it is posted to forum for motorcyle and 4x4 adventures was lost on you? Frederik may have terabytes of photos that don't include the truck and the roads but look where he as posting it. If it were just of people and not about the roads, it probably would have been deleted for not being on topic.

This was not an article in the New Yorker, it was a guy's trip report to off road enthusiasts. Aside from his commentary about the corrupt government and people holding their hands out it could have been about a trip through Nevada.
posted by birdherder at 2:16 PM on November 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


it's another thing entirely for the points made by others in this thread concerning the presumptuousness and arrogance of the voyagers to be considered seriously for a moment by said authors.

It seems to me that said author has taken those considerations more seriously than most would. As to your points about language, I'm not sure what you believe a "more careful exposition" would entail, given the forum and the circumstances. Maybe mefites can offer to rewrite the entire account for him from their superior perspective and get rid of all the deficient language and all of the objectionable photographs and vastly improve the whole thing.
posted by blucevalo at 2:43 PM on November 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


To, the really AMAZING thing about this journey is that the loving relationship of these two adventurous souls survived all of the challenges that they faced. Makes you think about all of the stupid fights you have with your wife/husband/girlfriend/boyfriend over trivial things.
posted by Blogwardo at 2:44 PM on November 16, 2010


For what it's worth, my impression from (admittedly limited) time spent in sub-Saharan Africa, is that the people who swan about like arrogant royalty are actually NGO workers.

For one reason or another, I've never taken the route of driving my own vehicle, and instead prefer to slug it out on the local transport, where you typically take all day - from before dawn to after sunset - to travel a grand distance of 200km or less, in crowded buses with holes in the floor & with random chickens & goats for fellow passengers.

You stop for lunch somewhere caked in sweat & dust & this gleaming white SUV shows up, and you'd swear the entire thing is worth upwards of $100,000. It's covered in every aerial & satellite dish imaginable, has about fifteen separate airconditioners, probably a motorbike slung off each side & a rubber dinghy at the rear, bullbars large enough to flatten a medium-sized house, every ladder & winch known to mankind, and the rear compartment of the vehicle is piled high with electric refrigerators & frozen margarita machines.

A bunch of westerners pile out in safari combat suits with more pockets than a NASA astronaut. They do their best Stuff White People Like impression & look straight through you as you try to wave a friendly hello, order half the food in the entire place, leave most of it behind, and swan off again in a trail of self-important dust.

Now, I realise that it's probably a small compensation for a year or two of hardship before they return to their lucrative hospitals or engineering consultancies in Canada or Sweden, but the level of above-it-all money & privilege that just oozes out of them is staggering, when you've become accustomed to some of the normal day-to-day hardships faced by the regular people of the country that they've ostensibly come to save, and it really makes me cynical about donating to some of these organisations.

I'd be interested to know if this is just my warped personal prejudice or something, or have others (such as RadioBaobab) felt the same kind of thing?
posted by UbuRoivas at 2:51 PM on November 16, 2010 [3 favorites]


4x4 Forum or not. The topic is "my car standing on the road". Dunno. Doesn't catch me too much.

Give this a try: With motorcycles through Angola
posted by yoyo_nyc at 3:29 PM on November 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


RadioBaobab, would the trip have been possible on mountain bikes? After reading about an all-day ordeal to cover 50km in 8+ hours, I start to think that on a bike I could cover that distance in 2-3 hours and likely not get stuck too much.
posted by mathowie at 3:47 PM on November 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


We did not know of a single traveler that did this in the last 20 years.

How true is this? Didn't Tim Butcher do a similar trip on a motorcycle and write a book about it?
posted by thaths at 3:51 PM on November 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


He was a good example of the older generation. Theygrew up in a prosperous (relative) Congo and have seen it go downhill. They still have the pride every person should have. The younger generation grew up in disastrously f*cked up country and lack the pride. Why should they, they know they do not get any chances?
It is that old generation that longs back to the colonial time. They acknowledge there were a lot of problems in that period and that they were discriminated by the white colonisator. But at least they had a functional country. They had roads and schools. They had jobs and could buy supplies. And above all, there was stability. Now there is nothing but uncertainty.. waiting for the next war to start.


assholes
posted by [citation needed] at 4:44 PM on November 16, 2010


mathowie:
Yeah, looking at those photos and reading about the rate of progress the truck was making, I was definitely thinking that mountain bikes (maybe with an Xtra-cycle attached, or something along those lines) would have been pretty ideal. Judging by Google Maps (which really doesn't like giving directions across the DRC...), the trip is probably somewhere shy of 1600 miles. Assuming 40 miles a day (pretty reasonable for a loaded mountain bike on tour, I think), you would get through in about 40 days.

That said, Frederick said this was one leg of a 700+ day trip...
posted by kaibutsu at 4:54 PM on November 16, 2010


Ok, now that I realize the author of this travelogue is reading this thread, I feel I should contribute more than a single pull-quote and insult.What I quoted above is perhaps the most distilled example of the arrogance and privilege people are reading into this account.

RadioBaobab, you may not have intended this, but this comment read to me as a succinct endorsement of the legitimacy of a White Man's Burden view of Africa, with only a token acknowledgment of the inequity of the colonial regime, and no consideration of any lasting damage from Congo's colonial past. Instead, you seem to imply that the Congolese are incapable of self-governance.

While your commenting in this thread has made me reconsider my opinion, to be quite honest, when I reached the section I quoted, I stopped reading because I believed the writer was a white supremacist.
posted by [citation needed] at 5:02 PM on November 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


You know, In Russia you'll frequently meet people who talk about how much better things were under Communism.

OH GOD NOW I JUST SUPPORTED STALIN AND GENOCIDES!!!! WHAT AN ASSHOLE I AM!!!!
posted by Artw at 5:05 PM on November 16, 2010 [6 favorites]


Yeah, and in Chile you don't need to go all that far before you encounter people who wish Pinochet was still alive and running things. But should you make the mistake of trying to accurately convey their point of view, then you've pretty much outed yourself as being okay with state-sponsored torture and murder.
posted by Ritchie at 8:19 PM on November 16, 2010


would the trip have been possible on mountain bikes?

I know I've read accounts of bicycling there, but I couldn't find what I remembered on a quick Google search, though several did show up. Here's one from back in 1990 (interesting to compare to the photos in this FPP, and compare also to a Harley Davidson trip in 2000); here (scroll down to the section titled "The Giant Rock") are some photos of someone who rode there in 2009; here and here are accounts from 2007. It's a huge country, so be careful about comparing conditions on different routes. And here is a much more heart-warming account of using the professional bicycle haulers whose photos were in this FPP to move seeds and other aid supplies.

I've passed adventure bicyclers in some crazy places. On the one hand, bicycles are ideal -- they are light, quiet, unobtrusive go anywhere, easy to fix, and they are cheap enough that if it gets stolen or broken it isn't a huge deal. On the other hand, they are slow, and if a crowd comes after you throwing rocks and waving machetes you are going to be wishing you had a truck. The security issues cut both ways -- you don't look nearly as rich on a bicycle as you do in a truck, but in exchange you are completely vulnerable.
posted by Forktine at 9:09 PM on November 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


But should you make the mistake of trying to accurately convey their point of view, then you've pretty much outed yourself as being okay with state-sponsored torture and murder.

No, this doesn't wash. This is a common view in countries that have come out of oppressive regimes. Remember, after the Belgians left DR Congo went through decades of rule under the kleptocrat Mobutu and his repressive regime. And in his wake came Kabila and the country collapsing into a multi-front war ignited by the Rwandan genocide.

I mean, how would you rather live -- under a repressive regime, but with a steady if low-paying job in a country with a decent infrastructure, or in a democracy, but without work and always worried this militia will come out of the woods to press you or steal from you or torture/kill you for whatever reason they choose?

Some slaves did wish they were living back on the plantation. It's a fact. It's when you take it to imply that we never should have ended slavery that you sound like a Klansmen.

DR Congo got a raw deal twice from Belgium -- first for colonialism, and then from just up and leaving and doing absolutely nothing to fix the economic and psychological damage they'd left behind. And now the Chinese are stripping what's left bare to prop up their own economy. At least they're paying cash.
posted by dw at 9:52 PM on November 16, 2010


I mean, how would you rather live -- under a repressive regime, but with a steady if low-paying job in a country with a decent infrastructure, or in a democracy, but without work and always worried this militia will come out of the woods to press you or steal from you or torture/kill you for whatever reason they choose?

Wait, what's Iraq got to do with this?
posted by UbuRoivas at 10:11 PM on November 16, 2010


I spent two months in Africa right after college, and it was a sobering experience encountering the culture of shakedown, bribe, and begging. You're a white American in Africa, you have money, even if you don't.

At first you think, "Oh, I'm a rich white person, and these poor folk really need my money." And then it keeps happening, maybe because you're a soft mark, but mainly because you're white and from America and surely you have the money. You have to start saying no.

I got stupid and got lost in Maputo. By some miracle I was able to get out of that predicament by running into a guy who knew 20 words of English but figured out where I needed to be was next door to his work. And that was a harrowing experience, not because I was ever in real danger, but because I could have easily been just because of how utterly stupid I'd been to get lost in the first place.

I ended up getting out of him that his wife was a Christian and wished she had a Bible in her native language. So I bought them one, and they were insanely grateful. Next day they showed up with a bag of oranges in appreciation to my surprise -- they repaid my thanks with thanks of their own. That interaction taught me a lot -- that not only should I not be stupid, but to always be grateful for the small mercies people give me.

I do feel like Frederick and Josephine were being stupid. At the same time, it's clear to me they weren't a bunch of rich backpackers waltzing through the backcountry complaining that Kikwit didn't have a Jamba Juice. People do stupid things all the time and live to tell the tale. It's called adventure.
posted by dw at 10:14 PM on November 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


Wait, what's Iraq got to do with this?

Russia, Congo, Iraq... same as it ever was.
posted by dw at 10:15 PM on November 16, 2010


No, this doesn't wash.

I know. I was expanding on what Artw had said in the post immediately previous to mine. And now you've nicely fleshed out the argument I was making, so thank you.
posted by Ritchie at 10:25 PM on November 16, 2010


And now the Chinese are stripping what's left bare to prop up their own economy. At least they're paying cash.

dw, not to dispute that the Chinese are playing a nasty game, but they not paying cash. They're lending money and technical assistance to build roads, with repayment to be made via long term resource supply (third comment down and ff). Quite specifically, they're building N1. It's one of the things Fred complains about.
posted by Ahab at 10:45 PM on November 16, 2010


This is a common view in countries that have come out of oppressive regimes.

Yes, in Romania, too, because the regime sent young people to University. I have a Romanian friend whose older relatives lament the end of Communism; the were peasants who saw their children get free higher education, and they never forgot it.
posted by jokeefe at 11:35 PM on November 16, 2010


Latvia also. Let's not forget that Communism - and many other oppressive regimes - are very egalitarian (apart from the cadres & cronies who get all the extra benefits). For regular people, everybody gets about the same stuff, regardless of how lazy or incompetent they are. Open this kind of system to democratic capitalism, and a lot of people who were previously cocooned by the system are suddenly marginalised & vulnerable.

Inexplicably, a lot of them turn towards extremist movements like Neo-Nazism, but that irony is probably more of an indication of their intellectual limitations than anything else.
posted by UbuRoivas at 11:42 PM on November 16, 2010


I'd be interested to know if this is just my warped personal prejudice or something, or have others (such as RadioBaobab) felt the same kind of thing?

I was in Lubumbashi and out in Likasi (where the mine is, and the tarmac road stops) a couple of months ago, for work. I'm with one of the NGO's whos' work is so casually dismissed or actively derided in this thread. Due to the nature of my work, I get the privilege, occasionally, of engaging with local people. Who, I found to be in large part absolutely delightful, considering their collectively dire circumstances.

Was I asked for money? Sure, plenty. Forktine told me something invaluable before I first moved here: You need to prove that you are adaptable to living in a place where you walk past malnourished children --- whom you will never help --- every morning on your way to the air conditioned office, where bureaucracy moves according to its own logic, and where you have the shits for the third time this month.) That's what I did this morning, that's what I do pretty much every morning. Today I sat in that office, and now I'm sitting in one of those vehicles, out for another field visit in southern Ethiopia. I've even got the shits for the 3rd time this month (its gonna be a long November).

But sometimes I get to get past all of that and meet a farmer who has bumped up his maize or sorghum or what-have-you production TEN-fold because of an animal husbandry program our donors supported. Or a grandmother caring for a dozen or more AIDS orphans who is able to get them to a school now where they're guaranteed at least one hot meal a day. Or an entire village that now has a borehole and potable water where before, there was not access to clean drinking water. Ever. I'm talking about a village that has been there for hundreds of years if not thousands, and because of my NGO they now have clean water and the Child Well Being Outcome indicators (life expectancy at birth, etc.) will dramatically shift, because 1/3rd of the villages children will now not die from diarrhea.

After a few years now, I'm pretty used to seeing the stupidly wealthy, uber-adventure heroes trekking out across some of the harder spots here in Africa and leaving nothing in their wake but the bad impressions they've made with the poor few who have the misfortune of running into them. Maybe I'm even more with the locals themselves in their righteous anger at people like these. When I show up, yeah - I get asked for money. But then the realization pretty quickly comes that I'm here to help, and just money isn't the help they need most. And then we get down to business making real change happen, and save people's lives, whilst erudite blowhards argue at TED and write scathing screeds over development holding nations back.

Driving from Lubumbashi to Kinshasa is a feat, one that I have respect for even from before this discussion. What I don't necessarily respect as much are the people who do it wrong. I mean, hell - even if you're not going to do one damn thing to help, not leave behind one person who's better off for you having driven by, at least be cool enough to buy someone a beer and hear their story.

Are the stories hard to hear? Hell yes. That's why they need to be told. They're more important than your story, if you can ever get beyond it.
posted by allkindsoftime at 12:32 AM on November 17, 2010 [24 favorites]


"It shows you, Madame, the dangers of conversation. It is a profound belief of mine that if you can induce a person to talk to you for long enough, on any subject whatever, sooner or later they will give themselves away."

-Poirot
posted by clavdivs at 1:35 AM on November 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


Thanks allkindsoftime.

Although I promised myself to stop responding, I am going to take time to respond once more to your message. If only because you at least add content to the discussion, instead of flaming away.

When you talk about 'the people that do it wrong' with regards to the "adventure travellers" I can only hope you are not targetting us personally. I do not put all our 'good-doings' in thick fat paint. If I buy someone a beer and listen to their story, to me it is a normal thing. I do not need to be congratulated on that behaviour, nor do I want to boost my own ego with it. I do not mention these things in my trip reports. Just like I do not mention everytime I go to the loo. This is a gripe I have with aid workers, many (not all) talk about nothing else but how many lives THEY have saved today. They do not really seem to care about anything else but the statistics to show at home on what a great job they have done. I am sure you recognize that type of aid worker. And I am sure you are not one of them.

Since being involved in this thread I also understand where this behaviour comes from. If you do not keep statistics of all your good deeds, people at home will call you an arrogant ignorant twat. That is what is happening with me here?

I could have made a story about Congo just by telling about all the people who we've helped. It would be a very boring story. The few people that would actually read that kind of story would have a happy feeling in the end and think everything will be allright with the Congo.

That is not the story I wanted to bring. I do not want to bring a story that minimizes the existing problems in Congo, just for making it an easier read. That does not help anybody.

Many people on here have decided that I am a bad guy. Because I quote a Congolese that says he preferred colonial times, many people here are convinced that I agree with him. Because we play hard in the 'bribe game' many people here are convinced that we have no compassion at all. I tried to take as much blame as possible due to my lack of language knowledge, but those things are not what I have written. There is a difference between "He said... " and "I think...". A difference many people do not (want to) see.

I did not have hopes of "Making Congo A Better Place" by telling my story. Although I silently hoped that I could bring the attention back to Congo and remind people things are not going well there at all. In the end I just wanted to share my story with a few friends who have the same interest. I might have writen the story differently I had knewn it would draw that much attention
Instead I seem have started a discussion on our own person, instead of DRC. People also seem to be more interested in proving how much more compassionate they are then us. How much more they know about a country (or even continent) they have never set a foot on/in.

My next trip will be a Nile Cruise and I will walk around half-naked on my boat, drinking beer and complaining about the touts. That seems to be perfectly acceptable!
posted by RadioBaobab at 1:36 AM on November 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


allkindsoftime - I was simultaneously hoping & fearing you'd turn up in this thread, after that rant of mine about NGO workers showing up in all their technological splendour, not unlike how aliens in their UFOs must appear when they drop in on a field of cattle.

It was also backed up by the kind of thing that RadioBaobab mentioned: "all the NGO's we gladly support are concentrated in Kinshasa, Lubum and Goma. Occupying big villa's, driving around in the latest Landcruisers, importing western goods the locals cannot afford".

A friend of mine took on a job with [insert very well known international NGO] and spent some time (6 months? A year?) based in Kinshasa. At first, she seemed offput by the fact that she'd been supplied with a villa in the nice upper-middle class part of town, complete with a maid, cook, laundrywoman, gardener etc.

However, it quickly turned to rationalisations: "there isn't much employment in the villages, we pay them better than local rates, and they learn some English!" Maybe that's a win-win situation for all involved, but it still reeks of a kind of neocolonial privilege. Maybe it's the only way NGOs can secure good staff; I don't know. But it corroborates to me the attitude I saw time & time again by the guys in their sparkly new SUVs.

You say I'm pretty used to seeing the stupidly wealthy, uber-adventure heroes trekking out across some of the harder spots here in Africa and leaving nothing in their wake but the bad impressions they've made with the poor few who have the misfortune of running into them.

I don't think I'd count as one of the people you talk about (as a local bus backpacker, I both sneer & envy all kinds of people with their own transport, from NGOs to couples with SUVs to those Kontiki style shaggin'-wagon truck tours) but I think you're wrong to assume that "other people" just waltz through & contribute nothing. As an NGO worker, you're funded from overseas, either in taxes or personal donations. Without that funding, NGO workers couldn't pat themselves on the back for doing this work, that other people are paying for.

And visiting a country is often a strong motivator to donate - something you wouldn't be in a position to know about. In fact, I think it's about the most rational way to react to the constant pleas for financial help: "Sorry, but every day 100 people tell me a similar story. How am I to know that you are more needy or worthy than them? Instead, I give my money to a charity that knows this country better than I do, and let them parcel the money out..." Not that this stops small on-the-spot donations, though. Or stops me from being annoyed at how the charity workers seem to demand expensive & comfy airconditioned cocoons as a condition of employment.

Where was I going with this, again? I forget. But if you're in southern Ethiopia, maybe one of the little girls you see as you pass will be one of my sponsored kids, so be sure to wave & mouth "hi" from me.
posted by UbuRoivas at 2:31 AM on November 17, 2010


I guess I'm chiming in a bit late here, but I found the story interesting, (especially the "Create a base of donations from all travellers in your region" post!) and I'll definitely read the rest when it comes out. Thanks very much for putting the work into translating it into English for us! I'm kinda baffled by some of the uncharitable readings some people here have.

I feel I must ask: Is there a reason you didn't have a winch on your truck?
posted by WhackyparseThis at 2:52 AM on November 17, 2010


This is a gripe I have with aid workers, many (not all) talk about nothing else but how many lives THEY have saved today.

We tend to call that professional focus and commitment to cause, Fred.

I am genuinely glad that you got to meet and talk with people who dedicate themselves heart and soul to saving lives, and consider it something important to discuss.

But if the net result is that you consider what they do and discuss boring and contemptible, as you clearly do, then I'm sorry but you've lost any shred of respect I might have had for you.

Further, you're not going to regain my sympathy by subsequently claiming that you donate money to the good fight, or that you really would have preferred to write about the good things you did in the DRC (were that not too boring a story..).

We have a word in this part of the world for government officials, journalists, miners, and some types of tourist. We call them seagulls.. because they fly in, shit on everything, then fly out.

And that, Fred, is effectively what you are. Just another seagull.
posted by Ahab at 4:22 AM on November 17, 2010


If that is what you think I am, then so be it Ahab.

I congratulate you that you are able to make such an assessement of me by reading one partially finished trip report and a few comments I made. With those skills you can save many lives. I hope you use those skills appropriately!

This can go on forever but I am resigning here.

Feel free to delete my account again and donate my 5$ to a worthy cause. I will leave it up to you lot what that cause might be.

Thanks for the people who tried to understand me.
Thanks also for the people that don't.. I have no reason to dislike you as I don't even know you.

Cheers!
posted by RadioBaobab at 4:35 AM on November 17, 2010


Frederik, please stick around, if not in this thread then on MetaFilter. Our community could use more voices like yours.
posted by armage at 5:36 AM on November 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


I second armage. Don't leave just because a few people here like to pretend they can read minds. Also kinda lame no one explained to Fred what meta means. Fred click here to see more people talking about you behind your back. I think you may have broken a metafilter record for shortest time between registration and meta call out.
posted by AElfwine Evenstar at 6:35 AM on November 17, 2010


But if the net result is that you consider what they do and discuss boring and contemptible

When in the hell did he say this? I simply do not get the people in this thread: they are wilfully disregarding what he's actually saying. What's going on? Did he touch a nerve?

Frederik, do stick around - just not on this thread.
posted by Hartham's Hugging Robots at 6:42 AM on November 17, 2010


Frederik, thanks for posting your account and thanks for coming on here. Please don't take some of the negative comments on here too personally. They're not what everyone thinks.

I can't wait to read the end of the story.
posted by richb at 6:42 AM on November 17, 2010


Or stops me from being annoyed at how the charity workers seem to demand expensive & comfy airconditioned cocoons as a condition of employment.

To a pretty large extent, this is just simple staff effectiveness. Did you notice in the FPP how after a few days our travelers were having total meltdowns? The pressure, the lack of privacy, the stress, the heat, the fears for their security -- all of that made them less and less effective at making decisions, working with other people, and allocating resources. That was just after a few days -- try that for a year.

That's a recipe for disaster if your entire expat office staff is under those conditions. They'll quit; they'll get assaulted; they'll make bad decisions that put the entire program at risk. That's not to say there isn't waste, and there aren't unpleasant neo-colonialist attitudes. But it's the same reason that the Catholic missions that were helping the authors of the FPP have walls, gardens, machine shops, generators, water tanks, and other amenities -- without those, their staff can't maintain their own basic effectiveness, and the entire mission (in both senses of the word "mission") won't work.
posted by Forktine at 7:27 AM on November 17, 2010


True; makes perfect sense.

Aside from that, dear god, people here can be a bunch of churlish wankers sometimes! A guy goes to the trouble of putting together an interesting & informative travelogue on an adventure motoring site, and you people whinge endlessly about irrelevant sociopolitical nuances, how you don't like the photos, why wasn't it an academic thesis on Belgian history blah blah yawn blah.

For fuck's sake, it's a travelogue, not the fucking revolutionary musings of Che Guevara.

My sister has a couple of similar kinds of bloggy things about cycle trips across Asia & Europe, probably full of photos you'd endorse, but who would want to subject them to all this metascrutiny?

"My fried rice breakfast was tasty, just wish it had some fresh corn in it, not canned"

"Doesn't she realise that fresh rice is grown on farms that once used indentured labour?!?? Christ, what an asshole!!!"

Me calling out charity workers as selfish neocolonialists is nothing compared with the nasty & uncharitable readings here, bending over backwards to find something to whine about.
posted by UbuRoivas at 8:55 AM on November 17, 2010 [5 favorites]


avoir un certain respect!
posted by clavdivs at 9:22 AM on November 17, 2010


For fuck's sake, it's a travelogue, not the fucking revolutionary musings of Che Guevara

THIS.
posted by Hartham's Hugging Robots at 9:29 AM on November 17, 2010


So after several hours of reading, I finally caught up to the end, but it seems to still be in progress. I'm kind of bummed there isn't a conclusion yet (I'll continue reloading the forum threads reading the rest as it unfolds). I can't tell when the actual trip took place (are these posts "live" as the trip unfolds are being written from home after it was all over?).
posted by mathowie at 9:42 AM on November 17, 2010


I can't tell when the actual trip took place (are these posts "live" as the trip unfolds are being written from home after it was all over?).

I understood from reading the travelogue that this trip took place in 2008. See bottom of page 3 where they are referencing the cannibalism which took place as recently as 2 years ago in 2006. Actually after rereading they actually state that they were there in 2008.

We were here in 2008. The last reports of cannibalism in this area were from 2006.

All of the people we met in the DRC must have been confronted, one way or another, with these horrible events.

I never heard anything about this in the international news

posted by AElfwine Evenstar at 10:44 AM on November 17, 2010


I have been watching for updates and there are now ones available for days 32-37. Fred hasn't made it to Kinshasa yet, but well worth reading.

And as the author of this FPP, all I have to add is a re-post of this earlier comment:

For fuck's sake, it's a travelogue, not the fucking revolutionary musings of Che Guevara

and my thanks to Fred for coming here and responding to the commentary with such grace.
posted by bluesky43 at 10:54 AM on November 17, 2010


dw, not to dispute that the Chinese are playing a nasty game, but they not paying cash.

They're dumping billions into Africa to build an infrastructure to extract resources, only this time they're pushing it through the governments on the ground rather than coming in and colonizing the place.

The Chinese are at least treating the Africans like business partners, even if they're very junior partners selling out their resources and skimming off as much as they can in the process.

We have a word in this part of the world for government officials, journalists, miners, and some types of tourist. We call them seagulls.. because they fly in, shit on everything, then fly out.

And that, Fred, is effectively what you are. Just another seagull.


Coincidentally, I use the same word for people who jump in, threadshit, and look all smug about it.
posted by dw at 10:56 AM on November 17, 2010 [5 favorites]


This is a great post and a great story - a great piece of writing, even - in exactly the same sense that the photos of the bear chasing the bison posted the other day were great photos. It is a great shame that a few people here have been attacking RadioBaobab: I for one have not bought a single argument that has been made against him. All such arguments reek somehow of displaced guilt.

The story is written with refreshingly brutal honesty. RadioBaobab could easily have chosen to omit the parts that make him come across as less than a saint. By including them, the tale paints a very different picture than the one you might get from reading someone who has gone there explicitly to work towards trying to fix things and who has personal and professional reasons to perhaps skew their story heavily in the direction of how valuable their own contribution has been. That kind of account mainly leaves me queasily wondering about the parts that have been left out. Not so with RadioBaobab's.

Ahab's nasty, bitter and quite unnecessary 'seagull' insult reminded me of this old chestnut about the frozen sparrow in cowshit. Who knows what good some of those government officials, journalists, miners and tourists might actually be doing, even as they seem to blow in, shit everywhere, then leave? From reading this thread it strikes me that some places are so fucked that anyone at all coming in from outside for any purpose is going to be viewable from some perspective as 'shitting everywhere'. Perhaps that is where the 'displaced guilt' comes from.

(On preview, what UbuRoivas said: it's a travelogue, not the fucking revolutionary musings of Che Guevara.)

It will be a great shame - if understandable - should RadioBaobab choose not to stay around here in order to be insulted further, but meanwhile I too cannot wait to read the end of the story. Please do consider coming back, RadioBaobab, but please don't let that slow down your postings over at the original thread.
posted by motty at 11:22 AM on November 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


Well, this was in part and could have been an excellent conversation, I don't suppose RadioBaoBab is still reading this after some of the things that have been said about him, but I think potentially valuable criticisms could have been discussed without some of the particularly insulting lows that were sunk to, and I'm only sorry this is yet another area metafilter fails to productively handle. Everyone must agree that the quality of civil discourse is the major reason we read this place (it is for me at least), so when unnecessary assholeishness shuts things down and shuts people out, well, it's very disappointing.
posted by kaspen at 12:01 PM on November 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


I congratulate you that you are able to make such an assessement of me by reading one partially finished trip report and a few comments I made. With those skills you can save many lives. I hope you use those skills appropriately!

This can go on forever but I am resigning here.

Feel free to delete my account again and donate my 5$ to a worthy cause. I will leave it up to you lot what that cause might be.

Thanks for the people who tried to understand me.
Thanks also for the people that don't.. I have no reason to dislike you as I don't even know you.


I liked this thread and disliked all the piling on and shitting on RadioBaobab but...............
Does anyone else see the irony in him treating Metafilter just like he treated the Congolese?
posted by Xurando at 12:42 PM on November 17, 2010


"Some of the locals deliberately laid down trollish comments, and then lay in wait for unsuspecting commenters...nevertheless, after much flaming & flagging, we finally made it to MetaTalk, that disconcerting grey heart of darkness..."
posted by UbuRoivas at 1:00 PM on November 17, 2010 [4 favorites]


This is late, and redundant to all the drama, but I had to share a good example of the difference between Frederik's writing style and the introspective Woody Allen beanplating more praised on Metafilter:

"This time it was a toll booth. ... Foreigners had to pay 10 times the fee of the Congolese. I got out of the car and told them what I thought about corruption in Congo and why I thought nothing was working here. A 10 minute monologue. They were not impressed but I was happy I got it of my heart. We paid the stupid tax. It was an official thing and we got a receipt.

Between Mwene-Ditu and Mbuji-Mayi there is an asphalt road! ::dancing star emoticon::


The stress and defensiveness that the author felt is clear, and I can totally sympathize where he was coming from in lashing out at constant panhandling.

However, were it me having had this adventure (and it won't, since I'm chicken), I'd have to add parenthetical hindsights. Something like (as it turned out, that toll was actually reasonable, since it paid for maintaining the best quality infrastructure we'd seen in over a week of sinkholes and broken bridges)

Admittedly, this style would be longer, and in part would be for making myself look more sympathetic. But it's hardly Che Guevera, and without any meta-narrative, readers react as they have upthread.
posted by anthill at 4:57 PM on November 17, 2010


I don't buy RadioBaobab's defense that he is simply quoting someone in the text I excerpted above. His response was

Because I quote a Congolese that says he preferred colonial times, many people here are convinced that I agree with him.

When what he said was:


Not all is bad though. Occasionally (and I must admit, it was a rare event) we meet nice people. Like this guy on his bike.


[photo]

He stopped to say hello. He was a well educated person who previsouly worked as an accountant for a big company. The company is no longer there so now he survives like everybody else by trading a few things.


[photo]

He was a good example of the older generation. Theygrew up in a prosperous (relative) Congo and have seen it go downhill. They still have the pride every person should have. The younger generation grew up in disastrously f*cked up country and lack the pride. Why should they, they know they do not get any chances?
It is that old generation that longs back to the colonial time. They acknowledge there were a lot of problems in that period and that they were discriminated by the white colonisator. But at least they had a functional country. They had roads and schools. They had jobs and could buy supplies. And above all, there was stability. Now there is nothing but uncertainty.. waiting for the next war to start.
[emphasis mine]

He isn't quoting. He is generalizing to an entire generation's opinion, and editorializing as to why they feel that way. All this beside, the person he is talking about doesn't exactly look 60, but I acknowledge he could be, which would make him 10 at the time of independence. He mentions he used to be an accountant. I doubt he was an accountant during colonial times. Much more likely, the stability he enjoyed while employed would have been during Mobutu's regime (which if he had said that, would have been much more analogous to quoting Russians who say they preferred the Soviet regime).

I have thought about it, and I think I can come up with a better analogy: As I traveled through Northern BC, every so often (but not too often) one encounters a native who isn't drunk off his ass. This old guy [photo] is a great example of the older generation who still have some dignity. It is this older generation that prefers the missionaries and residential schools to the endemic corruption of self-governing reserves today. At least they could get a decent education!

If I said this on Metafilter, I would certainly expect a massive pileon, and rightfully so. The above comment coming from a white Canadian is clearly racist.

Indeed, if Frederick had claimed that many people preferred Mobutu's dictatorship to the chaos of today, I wouldn't have thought anything of it. If he was actually quoting someone directly, I would have been maybe moderately annoyed, taken in the context of the rest of what I read. The passage above as it stands, however, simply smacks of an arrogant--and yes, racist--paternalism.

As it happens, the family that lives next door to me fled the Congo just after the Rwandan genocide, and spent years in a refugee camp in Sudan. Perhaps I could ask them if they think Congo was better off under Belgian rule; but then again, they are of the younger generation that lacks any pride. Well, that and not even I am that much of an asshole.
posted by [citation needed] at 5:24 PM on November 17, 2010 [3 favorites]


Well, Iread it all so far, and it not only resounded with me, but I found it to be really compelling and, really, really beautiful.

The world outside is just like that. Filled with holes other people make just to make a tip; filled with police officers stopping you just to earn a few coins. I've seen this in my country many times, and the roads are not as bad as in Congo...

For all you skeptics, try driving through Baja California, it's not that far.

Thank you so much, Josephine and Frederick.
posted by omegar at 5:44 PM on November 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


FYI, Frederick just posted the leg of the trip from Kikwit to Kinshasa.
posted by Emanuel at 1:34 PM on November 18, 2010


yay! Yeah, the story is almost done, but I'm eager to wait until they actually get on a ferry to a new country.
posted by mathowie at 3:03 PM on November 18, 2010


It may be while yet, Matt, since he said that after they reached Kinshasa they'd be DRIVING ALL THE WAY BACK TO BELGIUM. (!!!)
posted by Rhaomi at 3:07 PM on November 18, 2010


If so, I hope they take the westward route - I'd love to see updates from places like Burkina Faso, Mali, Senegal, Cameroon, Western Sahara & Morocco. In fact, I think this is the only practical route anyway, unless they want to brave the Sudan.
posted by UbuRoivas at 3:44 PM on November 18, 2010


My guess is that this forum thread is only for the DRC leg of their trip and is just about over, since this all took place close to the end of their trip. They first drove from Belgium all the way down western Africa to South Africa, then shipped their Land Cruiser to Japan and drove through Russia, Mongolia, central Asia, the middle east, and then back down the eastern Africa before they reached the DRC. You can go here to see a map of their whole trip, but the trip reports in Dutch only unfortunately for most of you (thankfully I can read Dutch, albeit slowly). Looks like they returned to Belgium via Congo-Brazaville, Cameroon, Nigeria, Mali, Algeria, and Italy.
posted by Emanuel at 5:54 PM on November 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


but the trip reports in Dutch only

Maybe if we some people hadn't prosecuted a ridiculous pile we could have asked him to to do an English version.

It's kinda pathetic really watching a group of Americans lecturing a Belgian on the evils of colonialism at this late date in history. ...cough..cough..Afghanistan..cough..Iraq..
cough..Pakistan..cough....
posted by AElfwine Evenstar at 6:20 PM on November 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


Incidentally, the tale seems to be pretty much done (apart from a promised post on technical details of the truck).

Once again, RadioBaobab, thank you. This was an awesome story, and thank you for posting it. You make me want to return to Brussels just to buy you a beer (even if Cafe LopLop isn't there any more... :( )
posted by motty at 10:17 PM on November 19, 2010


The travel log is complete if anyone is interested.
posted by AElfwine Evenstar at 9:48 AM on November 20, 2010


Ah I guess there is one more post coming about the specs of the transport and logistics. Thank you RadioBaobab for this awesome report. Reading it was a pleasure and it reignited my wanderlust.
posted by AElfwine Evenstar at 10:29 AM on November 20, 2010


For those of you who have this favorited, Frederick just post another update with the GPS track of their trip through DRC. He says more info is coming.
posted by Emanuel at 3:50 PM on November 24, 2010


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