I had attended a very important conference the previous month during which we needed the support of a delegation of Africans. To cement that support I promised to attend another conference a few weeks later in the city of Kinshasa in a country that is now called the Democratic Republic of Congo. The story begins in London on December 3, 1995 when I called a friend from the hotel. He knew I was about to leave on a trip to Africa and mentioned that a Cameroon Airlines 737 (Flight 3791) had crashed in a swamp and that all but five passengers had died. I thought to myself: “I’m flying on Cameroon Airlines from Nairobi. I hope lighting does not strike twice this week.” Despite having what I would call an ominous set of feelings after hearing that news, I nevertheless proceeded to the Air Kenya gate for the first leg of my trip. As I sat in my chair waiting for the call to board the plane I was paged by the woman at the counter. She pleasantly told me that the Air Cameroon flight had been cancelled and that I would not be able to get to my destination through Nairobi without several days waiting at least. At this I point, could have said: “Maybe this is a great excuse not to make this trip.” I was tired from weeks of traveling and did not see many future benefits from attending the meetings that were planned. But I had promised to make the trip after someone did a favor for me in the past. I have no doubt that what caused me to not cancel my trip was what Professor Cialdini calls “the reciprocity principle.” Humans are compulsively driven by nature to return a favor.
“One of the most potent of the weapons of influence around us is the rule for reciprocation. The rule says that we should try to repay, in kind, what another person has provided us.” Professor Robert B. Cialdini
Working with the woman at the airline counter resulted in a new plan being hatched to re-route me to the Ivory Coast on a Swiss Air flight leaving from Geneva and then for me to travel on to Kinshasa, Congo via Ethiopian Airways. On my Swiss Air flight, I sat next to a French pilot who lived in the Ivory Coast. He said that he head that the swamp the 737 had crashed into the day before was filled with crocodiles which devoured several of the passengers. I remember thinking to myself: I hate crocs! The flight to Ivory Coast from Geneva almost passes over the wonderfully named cities of Timbuktu and Ouagadougou the capital city of Burkina Faso (formerly Upper Volta). As we were coming into the airport in Ivory Coast, the Frenchman pointed out a hole in the ground where an Air Afrique plane went nose in a year before. Needless to say, it’s a big hole! He then told me that an old DC-3 Dakota wreck still could be seen at the end of the runway in Kinshasa that they don’t even bother to clear away. Upon my arrival in the Ivory Coast, I proceeded to immigration and received my first taste of la mordida, African-style. I did not have visa since I had not planned on going to this country until the air crash incident, but my bag was past immigration on the other side of a large chain link fence. My arguments with the officials were going nowhere when a man pulled me aside and said: “Give me dollars and I’ll get your bag.” I thought for a few seconds and then said in response: “Bags first, then dollars.”
He proceeded to get bag and I proceeded give him five US dollars. He was indignant at the amount of my tip. “More,” he demanded indignantly. Negotiations followed resulting in a $20 payment in total. But my problem had just begun since I needed to buy a ticket from Ivory Coast to Zaire. Again, the problem was that I needed to clear immigration to get a ticket. Several hours of discussions ensued, resulting in my clearing immigration but being unable to get a ticket. The Ethiopian Air plane start loading. It’ was the last flight out and it was near midnight. The next plane out to my destination was days later on Air Cameroon. People were pushing and yelling. It was hot and humid befitting a country nearly on the Equator. I was feeling like human piece of toast. Then, in a moment of panic and inspiration I pulled out two $100 bills. Magic instantly happened, and my ticket appeared immediately. I literally raced through customs without stopping and entered the Ethiopian Air 757 with some relief.
The seating arrangements on the 757 were what one would call “festival seating” if it were a concert. So I was a little worried. I spied a seat and it was in a exit row. “What luck!” I thought. The only catch was that there was so much luggage in front of my seat that my knees were are level with my face. I thought the stewardess might frown at this arrangement, but she passed my row during the preflight check without making a peep.
After we were in the air, the meal arrived and it was allegedly chicken, but looked like a huge leg of grasshopper. Lots of hairs could be seen peeking through the hideous looking sauce. I did spy a package of saltines and ate them greedily even though they were as dry as the Sahara Desert I flew over on the way to the Ivory Coast. The crackers had a picture of Emperor Haile Selassie on the wrapper so they were either honoring him or were really old. When we arrived in Kinshasa a miracle happened: I was met by someone calling himself a majordomo who whisked me through a “VIP lounge” rather than the usual immigration facility. This man was literally my savior during my stay. The language of the Congo was French and I spoke only enough to order a meal. More importantly, the majordomo knew the unwritten rules of a country that was literally in its final stages of disintegration. Conditions would continue to worsen after my visit, culminating in May, 1997 when rebel forces led by Laurent Kabila expelled President Mobutu Sese Seko from the country.
No bribes were solicited in the VIP lounge and a ride to the hotel in a ramshackle Mercedes ensued. I was told later by another person going to the conference that one should never go to Zaire, Nigeria or Ivory Coast without someone there to meet you. I remember thinking to myself: “Now you tell me.”
As we drove through the still mostly sleeping city at 4:00 AM on December 5, 1995 the scene looked like something out of Apocalypse Now. Poverty was everywhere and living conditions astoundingly bad. People were growing corn in the dirt strips between lanes on the road and sometimes could be seen sleeping by their crops. I saw only one stop light in this city of three million on the Congo River. Streets were made of packed dirt or composed of badly broken concrete. I recall seeing just one taxi during my entire visit.
My hotel was operated by the Belgian airline Sabena and was guarded by many soldiers bearing automatic weapons. The presence of the soldiers was both comforting and menacing at the same time, The remainder of my visit to this country constituted my own Year of Living Dangerously (except that I’m no Mel Gibson and there was no Sigourney Weaver). There is something eerie about not getting a dial tone when you pick up a phone. Cellular phones were the only means of communication since and wire or cable is immediately torn down or dug up and made into decorative items to sell to the few tourists that visit. The country had no working bank that people like me could use. So it was not possible to cash a traveler’s check. This meant I had only $640 in cash to pay bribes and make tips since $220 had gone to bribes already in the Ivory Coast. I figured I would tip the major domo $40 for each day’s assistance. This lack of cash hung on me like an as yet unlit tire necklace for the duration of the trip. The conference was held in the Palace of the People a huge decaying monstrosity constructed by the Chinese next to a bizarre soccer stadium that seated 100,000 people. The heat and humidity in this near equatorial city not only oppresses the body but attacks physical infrastructure with a vengeance. Making matters worse are the periodic pillages that occur every three years or so (“le pillage est le sport national Congolais”) During these riots everything that isn’t nailed down is stolen.
A couple of days of meeting in rooms filled with people all sweating profusely followed. It was to say the least a colorful event about “telecommunication in Africa.” It is no small irony that this conference was taking place in a country that had virtually no operational telecommunications systems. All forms of government ministers came and went and speeches droned on and on. One highlight of the conference was the fact that you could buy lunch at mid day from vendors who cooked meat on skewers over small fires lit right on top of the marble installed years before by Chinese workers. I could regale you further with tales of my visit but the important lesson comes as part of my exit from the country as the conference concluded. .
I had a sense of what was coming the next day at the airport when I was approached by a man in the hotel bar demanding I give him an advance on the bribes I would be paying at the airport. He produced an army identity card and was large and menacing. A bit of yelling between the majordomo and the man resulted in my paying the fellow $20, which seemed a bargain. Unlike when I arrived in the country, the ride back to the airport took place at night . The car took a route that I would never in a million years be able to retrace through a series of teaming slums. Piles of tires burned at irregular intervals, giving the city a hellish appearance.
Arriving at the airport, at 10:00 p.m. rather than 4:00 a.m. when I arrived meant the legions of beggars and con men were there. When the majordomo tried to get me through into the VIP lounge that I was able to use upon my arrival, but we were told that the policy had changed and that I would instead need to go through what is called the lion pit. It was a round building much like the Roman Coliseum, and like its counterpart it is filled with menacing creatures. The scene was one of pure chaos, with no one speaking English. There were no real lines, just a series of counters to be navigated and very menacing men walking around either in uniform brandishing weapons or not in uniform jostling you and demanding dollars. To add to the confusion, beggars would now and then poke me trying to sell an item like a plastic soccer ball that they have been hawking for a week or more.
I made it to the Sabena Airlines line with the help of the majordomo and amazingly was able to obtain my ticket without paying a bribe! But then came the immigration and then customs lines. I knew I had got to make the $260 last through the entire process. Immigration was a scene out of a nightmare with a lot of yelling taking place between the majordomo and the officials in French. Somehow the water parted. “Again no bribe! What a bonus!” I thought. But then I had to navigate customs. Of course, there was no x-ray equipment and I had been told at the hotel that they are known to do strip searches including the equivalent of a prostrate exam on occasion in a small room. The customs officials were ostensibly looking for smuggled diamonds, the country’s principal illegal export. Of course, the real purpose of the procedure is to compel people to pay bribes.
The customs officials proceeded open my bag and as soon they saw two shirts and a pair of loafers they liked the items promptly disappeared. This confiscation of my clothing took place in full view of at least 50 people all similarly terrified. No explanation was given for the clothing being taken. They just wanted what I had and took the apparel they wanted with no explanation. This should have been no surprise perhaps given that the President of the country, Mobutu Sese Seko, once said: “If you want to steal, steal a little in a nice way. But if you steal too much to become rich overnight, you’ll be caught.”
The situation at the airport worsened for me when suddenly the officials demanded that I pay them $300. This was $40 more cash than I actually had remaining in my wallet and I had yet to tip the majordomo for the day. Against my better judgment, I made myself appear to be a little indignant. The officials became surly in response to my agitation. To make matters worse, the man I recognized from the bar the previous night arrived and started yelling in French about dollars. I thought to myself: maybe this man is my own version of Kurtz and this is my own Heart of Darkness. Again he produced an identity card from the Army and demanded “dollars!” Things were, to say the least, dicey and getting more so. I will never forget thinking that it was literally as hot as hell. Humidity was literally dripping from the walls and from me. As the airplane started boarding passengers my level of fear started climbing. I quickly offered $200 which would leave enough for a small tip for the major domo. I would send him more money by mail later.
Why did I offer only $200? Well, the majordomo had done things for me that if I had actually had the cash I would have paid him far more. Even given the danger I was in, I thought to myself: “There is no way in hell I can offer all the majordomo’s tip money to these menacing officials no matter how scared I am.” Cialdini’s reciprocity principle was making me face down these brutish and scary thugs. I seriously doubt I was being brave to be brave. As an aside, the President of Zaire’s full name Mobutu Sese Seko can be translated as: “”The all-powerful warrior who, because of his endurance and inflexible will to win, will go from conquest to conquest, leaving fire in his wake”. Which, at that particular moment, I decided adopt as my own nickname! 😉
The breakthrough arrived like clap of tropical thunder: “Done,” announced the enormous man with the Army ID card. The final word in the negotiation was delivered in English no less by a man who apparently decided that he did not want to be my Kurtz that day.
My bag was quickly closed by the officials and as the majordomo and I approached the airplane, I pressed all the cash I had left into his hands as a tip fulfilling my need to reciprocate for all this man had done for me. I remember waking quickly across the tarmac and up the stairs into the airplane. I also still remember first blast of the plane’s air conditioning and the Belgian stewardess offering me a chilled glass of champagne. The bubbles never tasted so good.
My visit to this city on the Congo River was as close to hell as I’ve ever been. As Dorothy said in The Wizard of Oz, “There’s no place like home.”