Wide Lawns and Narrow Minds


… behind high whitewashed fences topped with spikes and guarded by sentries.

Friday 12 May 1972

Somehow, on arrival at Lubumbashi, I was expecting such marvellous things that if the streets had been paved with gold nothing would have seemed out-of-place. Originally named Élisabethville after Élisabeth, Queen of the Belgians, it had a fine reputation as an elegant city high in the heart of Africa. I was excited.

Throughout most of the two-hour flight from Kinshasa, I had gazed out at clouds which cleared occasionally to reveal impenetrable jungle. But in the last half hour the jungle had yielded to the open and empty bush. I sat among well-dressed Africans who on landing brought cases and piles of plastic-wrapped parcels from every crevice in the plane. My thoughts raced at the prospect of living in this mysterious new land.

I descended to the airport tarmac. There was a host of red tulips, a privet hedge and everywhere black smiling faces ready to receive leur invités.The douane provided no serious problems although I had to open my worn, leather suitcase which my uncle had given me. Made in India in the 30’s, it had seen far more of the world than me. The sweaty customs official cursorily raked over the top layer of my clothes, displacing shirts and short trousers. Satisfied, he pulled the lid shut and chalked an ‘X’ on my case in a lazy, non-committal fashion.

Waiting for me was René Vandamme, a man in his late 30s about 5’ 9” in height, moderately built. His suntanned arms showed signs of peeling, while his swept back, greyish, black hair revealed a large forehead above a strongly boned face. He had lived through the Congo’s “troubles” since 1964 and his rugged appearance suggested he was well qualified to tackle any of the more irregular problems of life.

The late-afternoon sun was shining brilliantly from a sky peppered with cumulus clouds and the air was warm and clear, no more the heavy, humid, drugged air of Kinshasa that required fighting and constant economy of movement.

As we travelled from the airport to the centre of town, I was more interested in speaking French correctly than inquisitively seeking new visual information. I wanted to prove in an instant I was capable of the assignment.

Soon, however, I turned my attention to the town. The roads were wide; the shops and houses stood well back. Mostly built in painted concrete, they gave the town a pleasing and colourful look. The streets were lively with the sounds of engines and klaxons. There were people everywhere: standing in groups, sitting cross-legged on the ground or strolling with heads held arrogantly high in the sunshine.

The evening sky appeared angry through its vastly differing intensities. The various shades of reds and blues fought the sinking clouds on the western horizon. Soon, the battle was over. The sky had lost its light. Night fell to the continual applause of chirping crickets.

At the hotel, René checked that everything was satisfactory. I assured him it was and he said he’d be back at eight o’clock on Monday to take me to the factory. In the comfort of the small Greek-run Cosmopolite Hotel, I was soon asleep.

In the afternoon of the following day, I set out on foot to explore the town. At that time on a Saturday, I discovered many shops had shut and most people remained indoors probably taking a siesta. My simple city-map showed me that the Belgians had laid the city out well. Neatly tree lined avenues crossed each other perpendicularly.

The streets were not empty but nor were they bubbling with life. Away from the main streets, the roads were heavily pitted and the side-walks were grass, no tarmac or paving stones. Shuffling feet had worn narrow paths in the grass to reveal the salmon red earth. In busier streets, the paths criss-crossed such that the grass was almost non-existent, except for the occasional tuft of green in an ochre and red desert.

In May, the rainy season was just ending and the grass was still green, but showing early signs of yellowing. All the streets were really avenues, trees abounded. The banana trees had small green unripe fruit curving skywards from the central security of their trunks, while the marvellous red flower of the flamboyant tree easily justified its name. I walked and walked happy to feel the streets of a foreign city around me, Avenue Lomami, Avenue Mobutu or was it Avenue de la Reine? Many streets still had their old Belgian names in evidence. In the diplomatic quarter, grand houses had big gardens and red roofs. They stood behind high whitewashed fences topped with spikes and guarded by sentries. I meandered on like a stream twisting one way and then turning another.

Heading towards the centre of town on Avenue de Kambove, a group of African women with shiny limbs and neatly parted hair tied in tight curly bunches ambled along with a rhythmic gait. Some of them carried large bags on their heads – quite a feat of deportment – several also carried a baby bandaged to their back in the folds of profusely coloured sheets of cloth elaborately and precisely wound around their bodies. Even with these encumbrances, their slow measured tread had quite a spring in it.

Far less elegantly dressed, the men wore dirty white shirts and unpressed dark trousers and sometimes, like the children, without shoes!

Lubumbashi suffers from the African malaise – untidiness. Many streets were dirty, the roads littered with trash from discarded, lace-less, old shoes to pieces of a car from an earlier accident, and the open drains blocked and full of evil smelling refuse. Africa is a colourful continent and its towns have colourful smells. A pleasant square marked the town centre but it held a surprise. Where else could one in a main square lined with solemn banks and impertinent shops, the Place Royale no less, pee nonchalantly with one’s back to the stream of passing pedestrians and traffic?

I wandered lonely but fascinated by every little bit of my new surroundings: the cafes, the shops, the traffic, the giant propaganda billboard with dictator Mobutu, his fist raised, declaring, ‘Un seul chef ...’ and the empty market with stalls baking below corrugated iron sheets displaying fruits and vegetables.

I had walked for hours and was getting hungry as night fell. Beggars, tramps, the lame and homeless appeared like black dots brought into focus by a microscope on a slide. They had existed by day almost unseen, but by night they become starkly evident as they erected their lean-to boxes against shop windows. These little boxes would house them overnight. As I passed in the darkening light of early evening, they lay chattering to their friends in neighbouring boxes through chinks in the cardboard like Pyramus and Thisbe. Others sat motionless by a small fire of wood supported on two bricks; this was not the suburbs but the centre of town.

Yet months before, below the railway arch at Embankment by the Thames, I had seen people curled up in sleeping bags with their pathetic belongings in a plastic bags and a cup with a few copper coins in the bottom amid London’s wealth.

Like me, they had arrived at their destination believing its streets to be paved with gold.

2 thoughts on “Wide Lawns and Narrow Minds”

  1. Thank you for portraying the sights and smells of this exciting place so vividly. I am always fascinated by the way that Africans speak French, not from firsthand experience, but from film, where the colonists had left the legacy of language behind. I look forward to reading more.

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