Postcard from… Kinshasa

Just out of Kinshasa airport, without too many problems this time as I did not forget my yellow fever certificate and the border police officers only spent 10 minutes discussing whether the 08 for August as the validity end date of my visa is not actually 03 for March, but managed to sort out this issue without them trying to impose any ’fines’.

Outside the atmosphere is hotter and more humid than ever although the rainy season should soon be coming to an end. The night drive through the traffic to the city centre is as spectacular as ever, dodging cars of unrecognisable make and dozens of “fula fula”, the small blue and yellow broken vans crammed with an astonishing 20 to 30 people speeding home between the huge potholes, and past the hundreds of little shops selling bread or cigarettes alongside the 20km of road that leads to the city centre, each illuminated by a small candle in the absence of any public lighting. But no more UN tanks on patrol on the road as was the case a few years ago.

Dinner at Gaby’s, our favourite Portuguese restaurant and one of many of Kinshasa’s good restaurants, and then to the client’s flat in central Kinshasa, after watching some Super 14 rugby or Australian rules football on South African TV channels.

The next day, meeting with a team from a Congolese state-owned company to negotiate a key supply contract for the client’s mining projects. This time we have decided to bring them to the boardroom of a quiet restaurant near the city centre rather than meeting at their office.  Hopefully we will manage to get them to focus on our long-awaited contract. At least the room will have air-conditioning and we can avoid using the lifts at their office, Kinshasa’s most terrifying – and probably most dangerous – experience after travelling on local airlines. 

Two hours after the agreed time for the meeting, they are still “just leaving the office”… But eventually they arrive and negotiations start, slow and painful, the Congolese side always very calm and polite but unmovable, our frustration growing but there is no choice: they have monopoly, we need an agreement.  Soon it’s lunchtime; usually it would be sandwiches but today, in spite of the delay, it is a proper lunch: grilled caterpillars and crocodile…; no that’s not true: local fish and rice but I have previously eaten just such a meal with these same people (I have pictures!); lunch very friendly in spite of the heat of the previous discussions.  Negotiations start again, no progress.

Same the next day and the day after. Nothing much moves in spite of our patient efforts, until the last minute where they come with a completely new proposal trying to address some of our concerns.  But another negotiation session will be necessary in a few weeks, hopefully to finalise.

Tomorrow, early flight to Lubumbashi, the head city of Katanga, DRC’s main mining province, for other negotiations; so no fishing on the Congo river at the weekend this time…

Yves Baratte is a senior associate in Simmons & Simmons’ Paris energy and infrastructure group currently on secondment in Kinshasa.