The Only Honest Man in Kinshasa

I drag my bags from the cozy guesthouse bed in Mbanza-Ngungu, DRC where I spent 2 days in complete peace recovering from malaria and toss it on the back of my scooter which is held together by little more than duct tape and love.  I have a couple hours of driving left until I reach the infamous city of Kinshasa.

DRC

Since starting this trip down Africa, I’ve always seen Kinshasa as the black hole, the patch of quick sand that I’d have to squeeze through before finally arriving at the ease of Southern African travel.  Kinshasa is notoriously challenging.  Between gangs of street children, thugs that roam the streets at night, and corrupt police and military, this city is a cellar of misery.

As I enter the city, I’m fooled by the superficial state of the city.  Wide roads, smooth flowing traffic and well-kept iconic architecture lure me into the thought that this place can’t be as bad as the stories make it seem.  However, it only takes a couple minutes of driving before I find that the heart of Kinshasa is cold and bleak.  I’m stopped on 3 separate occasions by police, each time it’s the same game. They ask to see my documents, I show them.  They realize I’m legit, they make up new documents and tell them I owe them $50 or a $100 in fines.  I call them thieves and that they should remove their uniform and join the street kids in their gangs if they want to steal.  They look at me shocked and ask if I’m a tourist.  I say yes, and they tell me that I can continue.

I arrive at my hotel on a quite dirt road in a subdued neighbourhood of Kinshasa.  The lobby is dark and the power is off.  I’m showed to my room; it smells like week old piss and has no running water.  There are no sheets on the bed and the mosquito nets on the windows have holes the size of baseballs.

DRC

I didn’t take pictures in Kinshasa. But this is the countryside of the DRC.

Without wasting anytime, I hide all my belongings under the wooden slabs that make up my bed and set off on my scooter towards the airport.  I have no visa for Angola and need to fly myself and my scooter to Lubumbashi in the east of the DRC.

On the way to the airport I pull over to check my GPS, and no sooner than I do am I jumped by 8-10 men in plain clothes claiming to be police.  They show me a piece of paper with a signature and a stamp and claim to be from the department of transportation.  I refuse to show them any of my documents until a clothed police officer is present.  They start pushing me and one man starts ripping at Anne Murray, trying to pull her apart.  I push back and tell them that if they don’t back off I’ll have them arrested for abuse.  They respond to my strength and do as I say.  As soon as a police officer shows up I show my documents, all of which are legal.  They demand I pay $100 because I don’t have some invented document.  I tell them they might as well take me to jail because I’m a tourist and am not going to pay corrupt officials anything.  They eventually back off and tell me I can leave.

The airport is no better.  The military outside “guarding” the premises won’t let me in unless I pay a bribe, when I refuse one man pulls his AK-47 up.  I ask him if he wants to be the one responsible for killing a tourist, he drops his weapon and I pass without paying.  I’m met by a herd of men who follow me around pretending to show me places obviously signed.  I finally enter an office to some semblance of peace, the first I’ve felt since arriving in Kinshasa. Of course, it won’t last.

Kinshasa

The office is a factory of lies.  They sell me an airline ticket for $300 only to hand me a ticket with the price $249 clearly marked on it.  I have to demand the money back.  An argument ensues, but I get the money back eventually.  I’m told the price to ship my scooter is $200 so I agree and they pack it and send it away to the cargo plane.  An hour later they tell me that the price is $400 and that I have to pay another $200.  Another argument ensues and eventually they agree that the price is $200.  Nothing is easy.

After 3 hours in the office arguing over the most mundane prices, I don’t trust anyone.  I don’t know if my ticket is real.  I don’t know if my scooter will actually be shipped.  However, there is one man in the office that I trust.  His name is Jean-Marie and there is nothing he has done or said that has given me reason to trust him, but there is something about his look that makes me trust him.  I ask him to personally take care of my scooter and flight details, and with a sense of pride in his eyes he agrees.

My flight leaves 2 days from now, and it is about 2 days too far away as far as I’m concerned.  Kinshasa is starting to scare me. I’m starting to get paranoid.  It seems like every time I leave my piss-stenched hotel room I have a run in with police looking to extort me.  It gets to the point that I don’t leave my room except to eat and maybe use the internet cafe.  I think that Kinshasa is the first place I’ve travelled to that has actually gotten to me.  I travelled Haiti, Nigeria, and many other notoriously dangerous places with grace.  Kinshasa though, is a swelter of distrust.  I don’t like how I feel about this place.  I need to leave.

Kinshasa

On my last night, I find myself in a familiar place: in my bed playing games on my iPhone in the dark.  My flight is set to leave tomorrow at 4pm and I can’t help but feel like I need to hide out in my room until the moment comes that I can escape this place.  A knock at my door disturbs my mood.

“There is a man downstairs to see you,” the security guard says with a nervous look on his face. “A man named Jean-Marie.”

I lock my door and bounce down the stairs in curiosity as to why Jean-Marie would come to my hotel.  I see him hunched over a table.  He’s drunk. Gutted, I’m sure that the only man in Kinshasa I felt to be truly honest is here with some story about why he needs money.  I’m so disappointment that I greet him with a shortened temper in my voice.

Stuttering his words he starts mumbling words and pulls his cell phone from his pocket.

“There’s a problem,” he says as I start to finish his sentence in my head. You need to pay me more money. “Since you don’t have a cell phone here I gave them my number.  They sent me an SMS an hour ago to say the flight time has changed to 9am.  You need to be at the airport by 6am now,”

It’s only then that I see his black eyes and notice that his shirt is ripped and he is walking with a limp.

“What the hell happened to you? Did you get in a car accident”

“I forgot my ID today,” he says in a saddened voice. “The military asked to see it, and when I couldn’t produce it, or pay bribes, they jumped me.  They kicked me, punched me and stomped on me when I was down.  I was in so much pain I had to drink, then I got the SMS and had to come warn you.”

I’m struck by the casualness of his voice as he describes the situation as if it was simply daily life in Kinshasa.  He reminds me to leave the hotel at 5am and starts for the door.  As he leaves, I put $10 in his palm and ask him to take a proper taxi home.  I can’t believe that bruised, beaten and drunk he still found it in him to cross the city by public transport to tell me about the change to my flight.  Once again, I’m blown away by the care that people can show.  Even in the pits of despair of the world, you meet people who are genuine and caring.  I’m not sure what I would have done in his situation, but I’m not sure I can honestly say that I would have done what he did for a complete stranger.

At 5am my alarm clock begins to ring.  I step out into the dark streets of Kinshasa.  I’m swarmed by a group of prostitutes and a couple beggars.  I fight through them to get to a taxi to the airport.

The international airport in Kinshasa is as corrupt as any other part of the city.  I’m asked for bribes at every turn.  I don’t actually ever pass through security, the baggage machine or the metal detector.  I have a knife and a bottle of water in my bag but no one would ever know.  Hell, I could have carried grenades onto the flight without an issue.  All the others in the security line are handing over bills to get past, I wonder what contraband they are carrying.

The plane lifts from the ground at 9am and I look down at the city that imprisoned my soul for 3 days.  I can’t help but feel like I’ve escaped a kidnapper.  A weight is lifted from my shoulders, and the reward of Southern Africa is now a mere day’s drive away.

In Lubumbashi, Anne Murray waits for me on the runway. A military outpost greets me with a smile and nothing else.  A supermarket stands proud on the roadside.  I feel like I’ve arrived.  I did it.  I crossed West and Central Africa.  It’s time for a new chapter on this journey, it’s time for Southern Africa.


Author: Brendan van Son

Author: Brendan van Son is a travel writer and photographer from Alberta, Canada. He has visited 6 of the 7 continents and more countries than he has the desire to count. Check out his profile on . for a little bit more about him.

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41 Comments

  1. Incredible experience, which fits with everything I’ve ever read about Kinshasa. Glad to hear you escaped unscathed. How on earth do good folk like Jean-Marie survive there? You have to wonder. Great writing, gripping, enthralling.

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    • Yeah, crazy times. I honestly think if I stayed in Kinshasa much longer I’d become a jaded villain as well, so it’s certainly testimony to the strength of Jean-Marie’s character.

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  2. Holy crap. I probably would have curled up in that piss-smelling room and cried like a little school girl. Have I told you yet that you’re nuts? Maybe 100 times. Now, 101.

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    • haha, I’m starting to worry that when I get to North America and Europe in a couple months I’m going to suffer from craziness withdrawl haha

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  3. Wow, way to stand up for yourself time and time again! Great story-telling, glad you got out of there ok.

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    • Thanks Christine, I was warned that the only way to get through town was to be really bold and to match their aggressiveness. In most places in Africa I’ve been, being bold like that would have gotten me into a lot of trouble. Such a rough situation to be put in as a polite Canadian kid haha.

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  4. wow – Kinshasa sounds insane but what a touching story that you left on. That’s why I travel.

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    • Thanks Tracy, definitely a wild city. It all just makes the next stage of things all the more rewarding.

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  5. How touching that the honest one went through all of that to get you the correct time for you to leave. I’m sure his spirit wishes he could go with you. Your trip summarizes how I felt traveling from Senegal to Cote d’Ivoire by BUS. Every stop was someone in an official looking suit asking for a “gift,” then me stating how I was ready to go to jail because I’m not paying. They don’t run in to people talking back much because many just pay up. Not me. My travels lasted about 2 weeks via bus as the costs for air travel was too much. Instead, I paid for it by feeling imprisoned by the overwhelming hunt for the survival (or greediness?) of others. I too did not want to trust anyone along the way.

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    • Latoya, I’ve done the Senegal to Cote d’Ivoire by bus as well. At least there it’s a bit of a joke and you can usually get out of it by joking back. This was literally abuse. You’re right though, the biggest problem is the fact that so many people do just pay so it makes it harder and harder for the rest of us who prefer to be honest. Shame really.

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      • Sounds like we need to do the route again and create a documentary out of it. Hmmm…. :-)

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  6. Geeze. What a place and story. The whole time I was reading, the quote from Star Wars kept coming to mind: “a wretched hive of scum and villainy.” Glad you made it out OK! Thanks for what is one of the best bits of travel writing I’ve read in a long time.

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    • Thanks for reading Tristan, you’re right, that line from Star Wars would have been perfect!

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  7. Congrats, you’ll fine South Africa a piece of cake after all that, or perhaps most parts of the world.

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    • Thanks dude, actually… Zambia has been a piece of cake too. Actually, I think Haiti would be a piece of cake after Kinshasa.

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  8. Love your writing here, I really felt as though I was there (although I don’t think I want to be!) Many parts of Africa definitely intimidate me, mainly for the reasons you’ve talked about.

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    • Thanks Julia, it’s funny, Africa kind of scared me at first. However, after a while I got really comfortable. Kinshasa, as you read, definitely got to me.

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  9. You write really well. While I accept your experience is real, I have been to Kinshasa about 10 time and have never been through what you have been through. I have always had a good experience. I guess a white guy riding around in a scooter is like a red light flashing to all the dodgy people in the city. I think you attract trouble given your mode of transport. I am interested to know what you paid for your hotel. I have stayed in many hotels and guest houses at $60-100 a night and they have always been clean.

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    • Steven, yeah. I was definitely a target. Not only while on the scooter but while walking around. I saw other white people there but they were always in their own vehicle “hiding” from the city. I was out on the streets. My daily budget is $45 a day when I travel, I don’t stay at hotels in that price range. My hotel was $20 a night.

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  10. Holy hell! Sounded like a crazy adventure! Africa is not in our budget our itinerary this year but all of western and eastern Europe is as well as China, Russia, Mongolia and pretty much all of SE Asia. I can’t see it being nearly this bad, but if anyone has any advice please let me know, this is the first big trip for the 4 of us, 6+ months and any help would be MUCH appreciated! :)

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    • Biggest bit of advice Matt: While listening to other people’s opinions is valuable, always make your own judgement. So many times I’ve heard people say “it’s not worth going to” etc. and then I go and I love it. Take their advice, then make your own opinions. And secondly, let your guard down and enjoy being curious. Have fun!

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  11. Brilliant piece of story telling! I’m glad that you got to find a little diamond in the rough of Kinshasa rough. Its amazing that in the most desperate times, people can still show so much kindness. Really appreciate your travel writing, do shout if you’re passing through Johannesburg and need some local advice :)

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    • Thanks Meruschka, I’ll be in Jo’Burg in August. I’ll let you know :D

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    • Haha, I do what I can!

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  12. Although Kinshasa is a place that I would never consider spending any time, I’m glad that there are people like you who will so that I can read about it. Super interesting story and very touching about Jean-Marie. You were lucky to have met him.

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  13. You absolutely hooked me to the computer screen with this post – such a great read!

    I’ve read several stories about people traveling in DRC and pretty much the overall feeling is as fucked up as in your case. You have balls, man! I’m happy to read that you always questioned the police officers and not-so-pollice officers when they wanted to extract bribes – as long as things don’t get violent, one should always question and don’t just go with anything people want to impose to tourists (and this applies to other places not nearly as dangerous as DRC.. for instance India). One thing is being a tourist, or traveler, another different thing is being an idiot!.. And even if we’re talking of small amounts (which I see is not your case) what counts is the principle, not the actual value of money!..

    Kudos for the honest man – the fact that he came to your hotel after being beaten up by the police makes it so freakin’ dramatic!!

    Hope you enjoy the new phase of your travels in South Africa. Relax a bit and please keep sharing stories as interesting as this one!

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    • Thank for the comment Zara, and I agree with you totally. Moreover, I think that too many tourists, travellers, idiots, just give money because it’s easier than fighting and that sets a bad example for the future.
      Anyways, I’m glad to be out of there and now pool-side in Southern Africa :D

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  14. It seems like a really beautiful place but too dangerous for me! Congratulations for taking the risk and going there!

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  15. Wow, what an incredible story. I can’t believe this guy came all the way to the hotel in his state! But how frustrating with all those bribes. You are brave for having challenged them. That could have also turned nasty. Congrat on crossing Africa, hopefully South Africa will be a bit more relaxing now. :-)

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    • Thanks Tammy, believe me I’m enjoying the ease of Southern Africa!

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  16. Wow!! Very brave of u !! That’s why people from east KIVU feel like being stolen our right by those pigs in Kinshasa !!

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  17. thank for sharing mr.. i like your post.. because, your post is very-very good…

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  18. Hi, How you ever been to Jakarta, Indonesia This will be a first year as an overseas teacher.

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  19. My heart rhythm increased from line to line while reading it! At some point I thought something bad had happened but then I realised the post was written after departing DRC. Even if the conflict will end soon, this amazing country will be hard visiting it, many years after..

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  20. Nicely written. I am in Kinshasa now for a job assignment. I am staying in Client’s guest house. they have a good set up here. I was bored as they did not allow me to explore the city. I also thought that it cant be that crazy and wanted to be desperate to explore this place. But reading your experience will probably demotivate me again……..:)

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    • Don’t be demotivated. It’s not cool, but if you’re careful, you’ll be fine. Go out during the day, and pay for taxis when you can (even though they’re expensive). It’s a tough town, but there is some beauty in the chaos there for sure. Go explore a bit.

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  21. I’m utterly floored. I have to pick my jaw up off the ground. I get the existence of bribery but never ever have I ever encountered anything even remotely close to what you’ve described. That scares me. I just don’t know what I’d do if I was in that situation.

    I’m glad you made it out, doesn’t give me any desire to go to the DRC.

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  22. Where on earth did you stay? Why did you accept to stay in an untidy hotel? Some of your hardships are of your own making I think. But in general they really try and suck money out of you any chance they get. My policy is to be firm but not rude.

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