Kinshasa Chronicles, one Diaspora man’s experience

JJ Bola

JJ Bola is based in London, born in the DRC, blogger, writer, poet and coach




I was filled with so much anticipation when I booked the tickets. It was slowly dawning on me that this was real. I was going back to the country of my birth, to the place that my mother and father was born, and their mother and father before them, and so on.

Everything leading up to my trip was drama. I had to apply for a visa for Congo, permission to enter the country in which I was born. This made me really consider how identity and politics must have left so many of the Congolese Diaspora in exile, unable to return. Me being able to go to the west was a privilege, and being able to go back home was a sort of privilege as well.

Initially, they accepted my visa application. The embassy said I should return on Friday, two days before I fly out, and collect my visa. I received a phone call on Thursday afternoon saying that my visa application had been suspended.

I could not put into words my level of rage, and panic. I was told that I needed to send a few documents, and it should be okay. The following morning, I waited anxiously as my brother went to collect my visa. He called me and said, in his most consolatory voice, ‘mate they’re not giving you a visa’.

I told him not to leave that building no matter what, even if it burns down, you are not leaving that building without a visa. This was at 9am.

After a whole day of making angry phone calls to embassy officials, the visa was finally given to my brother at 15:30pm.  I took this as a test, they wanted to see if I really meant to go home.

The flight was long, Brussels, Luanda, and finally Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo. I left at 6 hours and arrived in Kinshasa at 20 hours UTC. As we were landing, the first thing I noticed was that the city was not that well lit. I wondered about the problem electricity supply.

When the plane finally landed, and the doors opened, a wave of hot air came rushing through the plane. It embraced me like an old lover whom I should never have left. It felt warm and I took off my cardigan.

As I walked down the steps of the plane, I let out a big sigh of relief.

A soldier in blue beret, AK47 in hand, walks towards me. I had my headphones on listening to Lokua Kanza Nakozonga, to those familiar with the song this was for me a special moment.

The soldier pointed in my direction, calling someone to come over. I assumed he must be calling someone else. Why would this soldier, armed with a gun, be calling me? I carried on.

The soldier then said you, demulayi ( translate: you, the tall one). I stopped; my legs were trunks rooted in the ground. I point to myself, me! He nodded, and said there are people here waiting for you.

With all the shock and surprise in my bones, I walked towards him. People waiting for me? What people?

I walked hesitantly towards the two figures lurking in the shadow. They  turned out to be my uncles, one of who works as airport security; another huge sigh of relief.

Their names were familiar; they bounced around the walls of our childhood home from my parents’ lips. Their faces were new; the years had changed their appearance recognition. Still, I felt comfortable in their presence.

I walked with the soldier. He escorted me past the security points with such a swiftness that left the other passengers wondering who this person in chuck tailoring, beige chinos and a blue button up shirt, with the cap, really was. My two uncles waited on the other side. I realized that in Kinshasa, much like anywhere else, it’s who you know that matters.

We left the airport and walked to the car park where most of my family was waiting for me. More childhood names that I had grown up with, and became familiar with over the phone suddenly came to life and were real people. My aunties in whose faces I saw my mother, my cousins, who I would have been my companions had I not gone abroad. I felt connected in a deeper way than ever before.

Congo was no longer a mirage or a distant dream that I spoke about elusively hoping one day to get to know and not knowing if I ever will. It was real; it breathed its air into my lungs and gave me life once again. Its moonlight kissed my skin. That night our heartbeats were one.

I was staying at my Uncle’s house in Bandal. Bandal is notoriously popular in Kinshasa, everyone knows Bandal. It is where all the parties happen, where people stay up all night, and all day, living life to the full, letting go of all the woes of the day. There are a lot of woes to let go of.

I spent most of my time visiting different places with my cousin, who was my age but he was far more extravagant and showy than I am. He was sorely disappointed with my daily attire of t-shirt and chinos.

Come on man, you’re from Europe. You have to sap! (To sap, is now a verb, taken from the word sapeur, which would translate as tun up).

I would remind him that I am not from Europe, I am African. I was raised in EuropeThen we would enter an argument about our different viewpoints of the world.

In Kinshasa, the divide between the rich and poor is very apparent. There are those who travel in their air-conditioned 4×4, past trucks with peasant workers who have just scrambled for a daily wage hanging on from the sides. If you have a conscience, the opulence and wealth of the rich will leave you with downcast. It occurred to me that Kinshasa like the rest of the country isn’t poor at all. It is mismanaged. At that moment we drove past a poster of the President Joseph Kabila, which said Judge me not by my words instead judge me by my actions. The irony was too much.

JJ Bola, based in London, born in the DRC, is blogger, writer, poet and basketball coach