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Serving in Zaire, 1982-86: A Report

The Scam as an Art Form
It does not take long for the new arrival to Zaire to appreciate the fact that the entire population appears to be on the make. The prevailing philosophy can be expressed this way: "You (the foreigner) are well-heeled and anything I can do to separate you from some of your money is O.K." One does not have to look far for the origin of this kind of thinking. It has been the dominant guiding principle of the rulers of the country in dealing with foreign donors since independence. And it is certainly not unique to Zaire.

The Traffic Police fit into this entrepreneurial mold. Any driver without diplomatic license plates is likely to be waved over to the curb. Papers are requested and produced but they are invariably deficient. This is true even when it is clear that the official inspecting them can't read. To minimize the delay, one quickly learns to include a ten zaire note (about ten cents when we arrived) as the documents are presented. They are returned quickly and you're on your way.

To make a long distance phone call you must first get the name of an "arranger" in the Ministry of Communication. In the event he is successful in getting you a line, he'll show up in your office later to collect. None of the payment ends up at the ministry, which is one reason why the equipment is approaching antique status and why a working line—even for calls within Kinshasa—is a sometime thing. Most businesses and embassies are forced to use their own radio networks. (There are variations to the phone scam. Someone shows up and claims to be an employee of the Ministry, with identification to prove it. For a small advance payment he promises to keep the line in good order and to place long distance calls tout de suite. Needless to say, the first time anyone tries to take advantage of their new-found arranger, they discover that no one at the Ministry has ever heard of him).

For many companies and diplomatic legations, telex communication with Europe and the States is even more important than telephone contact. Accordingly, a reliable telex line requires someone on a permanent retainer at the Ministry. Alice's office telex went down at a particularly hectic time. Repeated efforts to get the line back were unsuccessful. It took several days and many visits to the ministry before the full story was revealed. Her contact had died suddenly. Since there was no one on the payroll of the German Aid Office there, the line was sold to a Lebanese businessman for $1,000. An important delegation was due to arrive from Germany. She threatened to let the prime minister know that the loss of her telex jeopardized the upcoming negotiations. Service was restored on her old number that afternoon. Chances are that there was a very unhappy Lebanese businessman in Kinshasa that day.

An enterprising Zairian also could parlay fake injuries to servants and employees into extra income. The success of this scam was due to the fact that employers knew several things about daily life in Kinshasa for most of the population: serious bus accidents were common and the major hospital, Mama Yemo (named after the President's wife), would not treat anyone, no matter how seriously injured, without payment in advance. Someone arrived at Alice's office with the news that a guard expected at work later that day had been badly injured and needed an immediate blood transfusion. He generously offered to return to the hospital with the money, but was not enthusiastic about Alice's offer to drive him there. He managed to hop out of the car at the first opportunity. The guard in question showed up later in the day in perfect health.

Friends bargained with a street vendor over the purchase of a colorful tropical bird. The salesman explained that he would only sell a pair, the male with blue plumage and the female with red. "They would be heartbroken if separated," he maintained. A few days later our friends discovered that the female's feathers were losing their red sheen. The color had been painstakingly painted on.

The streets were filled with small boys ever alert to money-making possibilities. For them, the Mercedes' four-door locking system held no secrets. As the driver prepared to lock the car, he or she would be engaged in conversation, perhaps an offer to guard the car while shopping. While the driver was distracted, another boy would quietly open a rear door, just a crack, on the other side of the car. The driver would shut his door and lock, unaware that the system wasn't activated because all four doors were not closed when the key was turned. The kids would then clean out the contents at their leisure. Another well worn but productive trick was to let the air out of one tire while the owner was away. When the owner returned and started to replace the tire in question with a spare, there often was an opportunity for the boys, working together, to lift something of value—a handbag, the shopping bags, or a tool.

I received an expensive lesson in this kind of local ingenuity a few weeks after we arrived. Alice and I were making our first shopping trip to the fascinating, humming central market. In a four- or five-square-block area, one could buy anything from a live crocodile and monkeys barbecued whole to jewelry and watches. It was my watch, a Rolex, that I was worried about. Heeding advice that the crowded market was a high risk area, I took it off and placed it under the seat of our locked car. I don't know how, but someone must have seen me do it. When we returned with our vegetables, I was frustrated to see an old car parked behind ours, blocking our departure, with no owner in sight. I managed to move it out of the way, but in the confusion neglected to relock our car. This must have been the plan, because when I finally was able to back out I discovered my Rolex was missing. The usual reaction when I recounted our experience was, "Join the club!"

On a more official level, the need to make a payoff ("l'enveloppe" in the local patois) was ubiquitous. For any Zairian lucky enough to be employed there, the customs office was an excellent spot from which to improve one's standard of living. The extensive number of required permits, licenses, and stamps, even for the simplest and most straightforward transaction, was designed to spread the wealth. Following independence, the Belgian government and then the European Economic Community placed large teams of experts in the Customs Ministry itself in an effort to sanitize the operation. These expensive, long-term projects temporarily reduced the extra-official take, but they never achieved the sought after basic reform. Shortly before we left the country, a French consultant working at the airport on the EEC-financed Customs Reform Project noticed a plane unloading highly dutiable electronics. When he asked to see the papers, he was told to mind his own business. The adviser, known as the "terror of Marseille" for his zeal in catching smugglers in France, did not consider this reply satisfactory. The minister of finance had jurisdiction over Customs. He also was in the midst of negotiations with the World Bank and other donors over additional levels of aid for Zaire. Since the government's determination to eliminate such shady practices was an important element in donor willingness to provide more aid, the Minister gave in. The imported merchandise belonged to the governor of the Kinshasa region. He paid duty and a fine of $300,000. Who knows where that money came from!

An international mining company desperately needed spare parts for a pilot project that promised to be an important source of foreign exchange for Zaire for many years to come. Despite the fact that (or perhaps because) the company already had invested millions of dollars, they were unable to obtain the necessary signatures on the import documents. In a last effort to avoid closing down, they asked for Alice's help. By virtue of her position running the German aid program, she was able to get an interview with the senior official in question. After explaining the urgency of the situation, Alice added that once the papers were signed, she would like to invite the official for champagne to show her and the company's appreciation. "I don't touch champagne," he said. "Well, how about a glass of mineral water?" she asked. "I never refuse mineral water," was his response. The meaning of this exchange could not have been clearer. The papers were signed and the necessary payment made.

Pierre the Incomparable
In the United States, servants are associated with great luxury or the heyday of the British nobility. Overseas, they are something of a necessity, even for a middle-class household. Labor is relatively cheap and job opportunities are in short supply. For the Foreign Service family, there are a lot of extra tasks—official entertaining, soaking vegetables in iodine, boiling water, negotiating in the bazaar—that require help. Thus a family with a reliable, honest, and intelligent servant elicits the sin of envy from those not so fortunate. Pierre, our only servant during four years in Zaire, certainly was honest. It was his deficiencies in virtually every other department that tried our patience and continually placed him in danger of looking for other employment.

He tried to pass himself off as a cook, telling us that he had prepared wonderful meals for a Belgian family. It took us only a few days to discover that the family either had expired from severe malnutrition or had lost their taste buds during the Second World War. To say he was a "klutz" seriously understates his lack of hand/eye coordination. Pierre had a knack for breaking dishes and glassware (carefully selecting the most irreplaceable) and then hiding the evidence. After a series of such incidents, Alice told him to be particularly careful with a large, attractive serving dish that we had been carting around the world. This was a mistake. One evening during a dinner party we were waiting for the main course to be served. Katya, who was visiting, went into the kitchen to see what was wrong. She returned to the table and whispered in Alice's ear: "You had better talk to Pierre, he's sitting on the kitchen floor, sobbing." The serving dish was in pieces and so was Pierre.

He never did grasp the difference between 220 volts and 110. One by one, our U.S. appliances bit the dust, until he was forbidden to touch anything electrical. For added safety, I insisted he not even enter the room where I had installed my computer. The windows of our fifth floor apartment were made of special, imported glass. He opened the door after work one day with the exciting news that a huge bird had flown into a window, cracking the glass. We soon figured out that it was a broom handle, wielded by him, that had caused the damage.

On occasion, Pierre had to be reminded about the basics of a servant/employer relationship. If a conversation with guests interested him, he would stick around. He was extremely proud of his patron’s rank and missed no opportunity to lord it over other servants in the building or help that came in for special occasions. A fifth child, a son, was born while he was working for us. We tried to look appreciative when he informed us that he had named the baby "Lezin." Needless to say, "Lezin" expected unusual favors from his namesake patron, especially on his birthday and at Christmas.

Our son Benjamin brought Pierre a camera on one of his visits, and Pierre asked if we would develop the roll of film. None of the pictures came out. When we relayed the news to Pierre he began to cry. He had the pictures of many families in the quarter and asked payment in advance. Naturally, the money had long since disappeared.

We wanted to do something for him and his family that would be of lasting benefit before leaving Zaire. Alice arranged to buy the shack where he was living and put the title in his name. We hope this has helped him and his family weather the turbulent times his country is experiencing.

Fly Salvation Air
The best and often the only way to do business in the interior of Zaire is to fly. The choice of plane pilots was meager. Air Zaire, the official airline, was highly unreliable. A large portion of their fleet was grounded at any one time because of lack of spare parts, and the Belgian pilots were hardly a contented work force. The airline was a year or more behind in paying the foreign exchange part of their salary. Finally, the president had no hesitation in commandeering a plane at the last minute for one of his jaunts or state visits, leaving helpless, stranded passengers in his wake throughout the country.

Occasionally we would have to hire private planes and pilots in situations where the odds for completing the flight in one piece were not good. Depending on the location and timing, there was a better alternative. It was called the Missionary Air Force, or MAF. The MAF consisted of about twenty planes (single-engine Cessnas or Beechcraft) and pilots, each sponsored by a different U. S. church. Planes were located at various remote spots throughout the country. The pilots also were trained mechanics, responsible for the upkeep of their planes. From the standpoint of the passengers, this was a highly desirable and reassuring way of doing business. The MAF was established to provide some kind of contact, albeit sporadic and unscheduled, with the hundreds of missionary groups in the interior. A central office in Kinshasa kept track of the logistic needs of the various church-run clinics and schools in the bush, and scheduled flights accordingly. (Parenthetically, Zaire is the only country in my experience where most of the health care and schooling is provided outside of government by private, often church-sponsored organizations.) Many of the USAID projects were managed by missionaries, the preferred way to go because of their commitment, incorruptibility, and continuity. When we needed to make the essential on-site inspection, our first call would be to the MAF headquarters. We would arrange our schedule to take advantage of this unique transport assistance. Inevitably, arrival of the MAF plane created a lot of excitement locally.

When a particular trip could not be delayed—e.g., a delegation visiting Zaire for just a few days—we would be forced to contract with a private company. Once, three USAID employees flying to Mbudjimai in the center of the country had a close call. The pilot miscalculated the distance and head wind and they did not reach their destination before nightfall. Landing strips in the interior are not equipped with lights (chances are there is no electricity in the region) and the pilot could not find the dirt runway. They also were running out of gas. He circled the town a few times and miraculously, someone realized they were in trouble. Several cars drove to the landing strip, illuminated it with their headlights, and the plane was able to get down with the twin engines on the last reserves of fuel. "Ask not what your country can do for you. . . ."

Arthur Lezin, left, and U. S. Ambassador to Zaire Brandon Grove, Jr..
Pointe Noire
The neighboring Congo-Brazzaville was a popular place to spend a few days. Despite glaring and persistent mismanagement by the Marxist-dominated government, vestiges of the French colonial tradition (read good restaurants) remained. The only problem was getting there. It required a ferry ride across the Zaire River (the Congo) to Brazzaville, the capital, and from there a Congo Airline DC-3 to Pointe Noire. The ferry took only twenty minutes. However, obtaining the necessary documents to leave Zaire and enter Brazzaville was never easy, even with a diplomatic passport and embassy assistance at both ends. Boarding the ferry was an experience—a frenzied, chaotic mass of passengers, merchandise (a large proportion of which was smuggled) and police trying to sort everything out and make extra income on bribes.

On one trip, Alice and I managed to fight our way up the gangplank and find a place for our bags. One of the crew then told us that we would have to move to the ferry tied up alongside, since it would leave first. We picked up our stuff, climbed down a ladder and up another on the next ferry. I needed both hands to hold the railings and thus was not able to protect my carrying bag which held our money and travelers checks, passport, and identification. I recall being jostled while we made the move and looked for my wallet once we got settled.

It was gone. The crew were casting off the lines when we shouted to the police on shore that we had been robbed. Next thing we knew there was a tremendous commotion in the water next to the dock. Police were after a man swimming away from the boat. A Zairian appeared with my wallet. It had passed through several hands in a matter of seconds and all the money had been lifted. At least we had our identification and were able to continue our trip, albeit a trifle shaken. Miraculously almost all the money was recovered and it was presented to us when we returned a few days later. I hate to think what was done in the name of law and order to find it.

A Truly Diplomatic Reception
Diplomats and aid officials spend an awful lot of time saying good-bye to colleagues who have completed their tour in country. The guest list is pretty much the same for all of the farewell cocktails, national days, and assorted receptions and dinners. The rationale for this rite of diplomacy goes, I imagine, something like this: relations with country X would suffer irreparable damage if you, the representative of country Y, left without thanking all the local officials who have made your stay so productive and satisfying. There probably is another reason for attendance at such affairs, no matter how boring. If you don't make the sacrifice, chances are that no one will show up when you leave to tell you what a superlative job you've done. For those who stay behind, the whole process has to be repeated to introduce the new arrival to the same hapless guests.

The reader will now understand how we happened to host a cocktail party to introduce to the local community the newly arrived German ambassador. He was in the pleasant but formal mold. The ambassador wasn't quite sure where I fit in matrimonially, but knew I was connected with the U.S. aid program. "Tell me," he asked pleasantly, "how are relations between the German Economic Development Assistance and USAID?" "They have never been better," I told him. "I sleep with your Directrice." We later became good friends and laughed whenever we recalled our first meeting.

Republished by permission of the author and publisher.

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