I RECENTLY went through Gemena airport, in the capital of the Sud-Ubangi District of Equateur Province of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
It was the most bizarre process I have ever gone through to do the check in (not including the US questions about whether I will try to kill the President). I am going to describe it now so I do not lose any of the steps:
Gemena is a town of 350,000 people in the middle of the northern part of DRC rainforest. It is quite isolated: It takes two days to get to a Congo river port, and then one or two weeks to Kisangani or two to three weeks to the national capital Kinshasa. By road you can get to the river in front of Bangui, Central African Republic (CAR) in three days.
There is a commercial flight to Kinshasa twice a week. Apart from that, the airport has no movement. Departure is at 12:20pm but I arrived there at 8:15am! And I now understand why.
1. On arrival to the airport, there is a barrier. No surprise there. The driver showed some papers. All in order, we could enter.
2. To enter the building, there are two policemen who requested my ticket and passport. I could proceed into the terminal.
3. At the entrance, my bag was checked by a policeman. I proceeded.
4. Then it was time for serious business. I had to pay a “go pass”, a tax of $10. I handed in a $20 note but the guy had no change. Had to wait a bit and got my ten back.
5. At the next table, I had to pay the airport tax - $5, and this time there is change. All fine.
6. I gave my ticket to the check-in desk and left it there like everybody else. Then waited to be called.
At this point the little terminal had become a large hive of confusion; people trying to “help” others with their bags and asking for money, people shouting, others complaining, many people doing last minute packing or changing weight from a box to another, people asking you to carry their extra bags, and lots of small notes of 500 or 1000 francs passing from hands to hands non-stop in exchange for small favours, jumping the queue (if you call it one), putting your ticket first, allowing extra weight not registered, and so on, and so forth.
7. A slim young woman with a weak voice, starts calling passengers one by one. With the noise in the place, hardly anyone can hear anything so we all push and park ourselves closer to the counter so we can hear our name when is called.
8. Then my name was called! Pushing a few people I manage to get to the counter. They weigh my bag, put a couple of stickers here and there, and give me back the ticket with a sticker that means I am checked in! Had I finished? Noooooo.
9. I was not going to be let into a quiet waiting room to read. I headed to immigration. Yes, in DRC, even on internal travel, you need to go through immigration. As I am a foreigner, they sit me in a chair and have to wait for the “foreigners police officer” (not many foreigners here; today I am the only “mundele” – white person - at the whole airport. Nothing to do with Goma, where at times there are no blacks around!). The guy copies in a notebook my passport details, my address in Kinshasa and my visa details.
10. In DRC, on top of your visa you need a document, called the orden de mission, that allows you to move around in the country. I show it and the immigration officer too copies the details of this document. Then he goes with the ticket, the passport, the orden de mission and the receipts for all the taxes that that I had paid and disappears. Ten minutes later comes back with all papers stamped. I can proceed!
11. Yellow fever card. I need to go to another post where two guys in white coats ask me for my vaccination card, my passport, my orden de mission and my ticket. They write this information in a note book (again!) and then tell me there is a problem with my vaccination card: I am not vaccinated against cholera. I explain is not compulsory but one of them tells me it is our fault; it is “us” French and “Belgium” people who brought cholera to DRC (although I am neither).
Finally he agrees to give me the documents back and let me go IF I give him 1,000 Franc. I refuse and after a bit of back and forward and blaming us French again for cholera, I get my papers and proceed.
12. A policeman asks me for the ticket, the receipts of the taxes, the ordren de mission, the passport and the vaccination card. All ok so I can proceed.
13. Ebola desk. A lady asks me for my ticket, ordren de mission and passport. She writes all details in a notebook (third time!), asks me for my address in Kinshasa, measures my temperature and asks me to give her 1,000 Franc. I refuse, she insists holding my ticket (I get back the rest of papers) and finally I proceed with no payment.
14. To finally enter the waiting room, a policeman checks my bag (second time, remember step 3), asks for my ticket, my orden de mission and my passport, writes the details on a notebook (fourth time!) and lets me in. Another guy in front of me gave him 1,000 Franc and went through without being checked.
15. I am in!!!! It is 10:00am; it took me almost two hours! I order a bottle of water and the vendor sells it to me at a Mundele price, 1,500 Franc (it’s usually 500 or 1,000 max). I have no energy to keep fighting so I pay and…he asks me for more money as a present! I refuse to give him anything.
This is a small example of how hard, out of date and corrupt the system for moving around in DRC is. Congolese people need to show documents indicating why they are moving from one place to another; it is an apartheid like system that comes from the colonial times and was never removed and is now being exploited.
Why? Because all these employees at the airport, get a very low salary or no salary at all. They are expected to collect money through corruption from people who lack some document or the other. The more documents to request - different taxes, ID card, vaccination card, orden de mission….the more chances someone will not have one of them, and the more money state employees can get. The goal is not to get rich but to survive and feed their families.
It is accepted by people as well. It has always been like this. They know civil servants do not get paid so why not contribute with “a petite rien” (a small nothing) to their survival? So much so be done, so much! By the way, 1,000 Franc is not much, it is just $1.