by DAVID AXE
Dungu, Democratic Republic of Congo — The flight engineer on my U.N. helicopter ride from Bunia to Dungu, in eastern Congo, was wearing — I swear to God — a light blue leisure suit and white leather loafers. After two days straight hopscotching across this thickly-forested country the size of the entire eastern U.S., a fashion flashback in the back of a Russian-made Mi-8 chopper didn’t seem nearly as bizarre as it should have. I was too tired to care.
Kinshasa and its millions of grabby, gabbing urbanites — and its traffic, pollution and litter — wore me down fast. Plus, developing countries love pointless bureaucracy, and Congo is among the least developed. In Kinshasa I wasted entire days arguing the finer points of accreditation, travel authorizations and which deputy from which office was authorized to say what on which subject. In two weeks’ time, I managed to score just a handful of interviews and some video B-roll. Honestly, I wasn’t surprised. In big Third World cities, it’s always like that.
I sensed that things would be easier, bureaucratically speaking, out east in Congo’s hinterlands. It seems I was right: in Dungu, a rural territory just south of Congo’s borders with Sudan and Central African Republic, aid workers, U.N. peacekeepers and many of Congo’s most desperate people practically rub elbows amid mile after endless mile of green canopy. Getting there ain’t east: all of Congo has just 300 miles of paved roads and for me the only affordable flight belonged to the U.N. and required several stops, including one in Uganda. Once in Dungu, I was in the thick of it. At the time of writing, I’ve been in Dungu just a few hours, and my dance card’s already filling up. The subject matter here is bleak: mass rape, endangered children, attacks by the mad Lord’s Resistance Army. But the opportunities for meaningful reporting are myriad.
In Bunia, an eastern town that’s an important stop-over en route to Dungu, I walked from my hotel down a red dirt road to a road intersection teeming with motorcycle taxis bearing passengers in all directions. Some asshole in the Kinshasa airport had swiped my phone charger from my baggage, and I desperately needed a new one, and fast. At the intersection I found a young man who asked a small fee for people to recharge their phones at his booth. I offered to buy his charger. I had $40 on me: I’d give him all of it, I said. He smiled and shook his head. It cost just $5 for him to buy the charger, he said. I could have it for the same price.
That $35 margin, by the way, would have bought the man’s bread for several months.
That never would have happened in Kinshasa.