When not everything goes well
One of the most exceptional days of my entire life was coming to an end. These kinds of days are magnificent because they offer everything one imagines but, even more importantly, everything that one could have never ever imagined. When the world surpasses all of your expectations, it all turns into bliss. It is in that state, with a broad smile drawn from ear to ear that I reach Kabo, the last and only village in the jungle before the WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society) base where I am heading to. I understand that this is where I must get the exit stamp on my passport in order to be able to leave the country the next day.
Everything seems calm in this small and remote village of Pygmies and Bantu on the banks of the Sangha river, where it is impossible to distinguish a hut from a possible immigration office. Guided by a friendly pygmy who was able to understand where I needed to go Iarrive at the immigration cabin pushing the bike through mud paths descending to the river. Once there, what should usually be a simple formality, became something also unexpected, but this time in a very negative way.
In the middle of thick vegetation, and near the river banks, we arrived at a precarious wooden cabin separated from the rest of the village. My pygmy friend tells me it's there, but it seems to me that there is no one inside. As I entered and called, I heard noises from the adjoining room, similar to those of someone getting out of bed. Shortly after, a young man under 30 wearing shorts and a T-shirt shows up from behind the curtain hanging from the crooked doorless frame. With an energetic greeting and a broad smile he welcomes me:
How are you? What a surprise! What are you doing here? Do you come by bicycle? How good! how may I help you? - he asks - My name is Eric.
Delighted by his friendliness, I ask if it is there where I have to get the exit stamp on my passport, since the next day I intend to cross the Central African Republic.
Yes! Sure, here it is, of course. No problem, come here, take a seat - He tells me pointing to a broken wooden chair. My pygmy friend, still astonished by my presence there, instead of returning to his hut stays there looking at us.
Eric sits behind his scorched wooden desk with crooked legs, and as he flips through my passport he continues his friendly speech, asking more questions than I usually get at border crossings.
When I comment that I am going to the base of WCS to meet with Andrea Turkalo, he interrupts me effusively:
- Andrea !!! Of course, a great woman, my friend, she passes through here a lot as well. Actually, she just passed yesterday afternoon. She has been at the base since yesterday. What's more, since you are here, would you do me a favour and take this cap she forgot? "-
I grab the cap, smile at him and I reassuringly tell him that there is no problem at all.
I always offer the best predisposition in the world to talk to immigration officers, but in this case, I start to worry because it is the end of the afternoon and I still have 32 km of jungle to cycle across to reach the base. The faster I start, the less I will have to pedal at night with all the risks that that involves. Besides, in the tropics the transition between day and night occurs in the blink of an eye.
Finally, after the friendly chit-chat, Eric declares, passport in one hand and holding the stamp with the other one near the pad next to it:
- Well, that's perfect! It will be 5000 CFA (~ 8 US$) - now talking in a serious tone
- Hahaha! Very nice! - I laugh and I after a couple of seconds I respond - I do not have to pay anything to get a stamp on my passport so please ..... - And I make a gesture as if indicating him to proceed, knowing already that I am dealing with a yet another corrupt official.
- Yes, here you have to pay - He says determinedly.
-Well, look, I know I do not have to pay anything and until you do not stamp my passport, I will not leave this place. I'm not going to pay you anything - I tell him in a serious tone so he stops fucking with me because I do not have time to waste anymore.
-Then you will not leave this place - He firmly declared.
- Yes, I'm going to leave and I have to leave, and you can not deny me the stamp. So please, stamp my passport because I want to go now. This is not the first time I leave the Congo. As you can see, I have a residence visa, and I have already left this country and I came back in and nobody has charged me for anything.
- I do not know how it is on the other borders, but to get out of here you have to pay the fee - he insists undisturbed, knowing that he will not stamp anything until he doesn't get his extra money
-Look, this is one country, and the rules do not vary from border to border. Have a look at the previous exit and see that I am not a tourist. I am a resident of your country, and I enter and leave all the time here- Taking advantage of my circumstantial resident's visa, I use it again and again to intimidate him and finally, I ask - So let's see, please explain to me why you say that I have to pay you 5000 CFA ?.
- Because that's the way it is here, you do not have your exit visa so you have to pay for it. In order to be able to stamp your exit, I must first get you the exit visa and ... - he continues on and on, inventing an endless list of artificial excuses and lies.
- Look, I already told you, I do not need anything you're saying, I know this country, I'm a resident, please, stamp my passport, it's late and I have to go -
I gradually start losing my patience due to the time pressure. I have been asked for money dozens of times on the African borders, but no ones has ever stood so stubbornly. I have even said goodbye to the corrupt ones with a reciprocal smile.has ever stood so stubbornly. I have even said goodbye to the corrupt ones with a reciprocal smile.
Soon it will be night time and I know that because of this imbecile now I will have to pedal in the darkness of the jungle, something that after having seen the snakes today and other dangers like the elephants, I preferred not to do.
- I will not stamp your passport until you pay the fee - he insists
- Look, explain it to me, once again. I know for a fact that I do not need anything you are telling me. So why do you insist that I have to pay you? -
- Because I say so ! - He stood angrily on his position.
- Because you say so??? But if you are not the one who makes the laws of this country - I say, in a tone of irony and now showing some contempt - So please, stamp my passport now!
- I will not stamp it, and I do not care, I rule here! I say it and you have to pay me the fee - he says in a haughty tone.
- Look, I know a lot of important people in this region - I start to tell half truth and half bluff, as in poker, to see if it get him intimidated - Do you know Marcel? The chief of the forest brigade here? He's a friend of mine, so if you insist on this nonsense I'll give him a call-
- Call him please, there is no problem - He says quietly, raising the bet
I do not know what this will lead to and it makes me uncomfortable to have to bother Marcel, but I'm glad I bought a phone in Brazzaville and that I had a signal. I would never have thought that here, in such a remote village, there would be an antenna.
When I call him, I explain to Marcel the situation in which I am and ask him if he can speak to the lunatic before me. (Marcel received his university education in Cuba, courtesy of the Cuban government. This allows me to speak in Spanish with him so the asshole could not understand us). I pass the phone and they speak in Lingala. Eric the corrupt also tries to convince Marcel of the legitimacy of his ridiculous demands and after several minutes he passes the phone back to me. Marcel tells me:
"Nico, look, you're on a very remote border, and he claims himself the right to charge you. It is not legitimate but please pay it, leave this behind and go. I will contact someone there to give you your money back -
Alarmed by this that I did not expect and with my heart moved by his willingness to help me giving me the money back, I tell him - Marcel, this is not a money problem for me. The amount is what worries me the least. I do not want to contribute a penny to this asshole abusing his power. Thank you very much for have spoken with him, now I will try to solve it myself. - I thank him and hang up
Pondering the situation, already with less "cards" in my hand to play and win this game, I stay silent for a few seconds contemplating my options, while I see the fucking jerk across the table playing the fool. He pretends to be relaxed, but his legs shaking under the table give away his uneasiness. His nerves are betraying him without him even noticing it. He flips through my passport back and forth without looking at me, as if he knows he will win this game.
After this brief moment of reflection, I decided to stand up, place both of my hands on his desk, and leaning slightly forward I said sternly:
- Well look, it's okay. Let's do the following. I already know that what you want to charge me is illegitimate and it is money for you -
(he tries to interrupt me to add more nonsense to it but I do not allow it)
and I continue - But I no longer have time to waste and if you insist, I have no problem, I will pay you, but you will do two things. One: if this is legitimate in your opinion as you are telling me, then you are going to issue a receipt with the amount, including your signature. Two: I want you to write down your name and surname and identification number, because on my return to Congo I will contact my acquaintances in the army in Ouesso and Brazzaville - I continue to lie in order to intimidate him.
His apparent tranquillity now fades in a fraction of a second and he tells me that he is not going to do that. I am now holding the 5000 CFA in the air, and pointing to a notebook with the other hand I demand energetically:
- Name and surname please - putting even more pressure on him.
- I SAID NO - he snaps back at me.
- NAME AND SURNAME AND IDENTIFICATION NUMBER !! - I insist, now raising my tone and pointing to his notebook.
- NO!!! - He yells
And at that very moment, with unleashed fury, he opens up the drawer of the desk, throws my passport in it and slams it shut with such strength that drags the entire table making the legs screech on the wooden floor. This is not good by any means, and at that moment I pull myself back in fear. He stands up, pushes the desk aside violently with both hands, almost to the point of turning it over, and moves forward threateningly towards me like a beast.
I take two more steps back until I have him 2 cm from my face screaming at me. Among the few things I manage to understand he says: - "But who do you think you are white? Do you think you can come here to tell me what to do? Here I am! !! I RULE HERE, and you are not going to tell me what to do"-
At that time he starts throwing punches at my shoulders and chest. I try to defend myself by pushing him back while trying to hold back my impulses and avoid making the serious mistake of hitting him back, because I know that's ultimately what it's basically looking for. With each charge, I keep pushing him back to get him out of the way as I insult him in Spanish. He also quits French to insult me in Lingalá. Finally, he begins to spit at me and shake me and I take him off me by pushing him back, yelling at him to calm down. I threaten him by saying that I'm going to call Marcel again. I pull out my phone and start dialling again. He backs off gruntling in disgust, to begin rearranging his desk and putting it back into place. I can see him shaking, as much as I am shaking.
- Marcel, please I do not know what to do, this guy has gone totally insane and started hitting me! - I exclaimed, trying to contain the anger and nerves that barely let me hold the phone.
Marcel asks me to calm down, to stay there, and to wait a moment. He says he will call someone he knows in the village to come help me. Soon after he calls me back and tells me to please stay calm. He has just communicated with a friend of his in the village and he is coming to where I am right now.
When I hang up, I inform the jerk that someone is on the way to help us solve this. Eric and I remain silent but the tension in the air now squeezes us more than the humid tropical heat that is suffocating us inside this cabin of hell. The minutes go by feeling like hours, we are both nervous and sweating. My friend, the pygmy who led me here and saw it all, is petrified. It gives me some peace of mind to know that if I disappear today, at least someone will have witnessed it.
After a long time of tension, someone finally shows up on the threshold. He is a middle-aged man with a face of a good man but one that also carries some real concern. After he comes in, he warmly greets us both by shaking hands. -I'm Jean-Robert - he introduces himself - I understand that there is a problem here. I have come at the request of my friend Marcel, let's see if you can all calm down now and see if we can solve this situation.
Jean-Robert sits down, and I proceed to explain that it all began when I refused to pay the 5,000 CFA bribe Eric is demanding from me because they have no legitimacy whatsoever. I told him that I have already left Congo and many other countries and that I have never paid a penny for doing so. After listening attentively, Eric tried to sketch some words to justify what he was trying to charge me, but I immediately noticed that in the presence of a local person with an obvious degree of education, he had given in.
After a moment of silence, Jean-Robert proceeds very calmly and pauses to speak to Eric, who while listening in regret, continues nervously flipping through my passport looking away and shaking his legs. He says - I believe that above all, it is very important that we see what kind of image of our Congo, we want to give our guests - He speaks in general terms without accusing him. He appeals to his origin and his principles by speaking from African to African, in a speech that I would have applauded.
Finally, as Jean-Robert continues to speak, Eric, with reticence and a strong anger that I can tell he is making an immeasurable effort to contain, chooses a page, holds the passport open with one hand against the table and with the other wets the stamp on the ink pad to proceed to stamp my exit and write the date on the stamp.
I sigh silently. A sense of relief, but also of victory and justice, brings me back my peace of mind - "I have won" - I think to myself. When we got up all four (my pygmy friend saw all the soap opera of the day and I'm sure he will tell it to all the village and to his grandchildren in the future) and we prepare to leave, I tell Eric that I would like to invite him to my house one day in my country so he can see what it is like to be treated as a guest, as I have been treated by every person in his country, except for him. He responds with contempt - I will never go to your house! - After that, when leaving the cabin, as he approached the door to see us leave, I say (victim of my impulses getting over reason) : - "J'ai gagné parasite! Je ne vais pas payer ta bier ce soir "(I won parasite, I'm not going to pay you the beer tonight)
I do not know whether he understood me or not, but I'm glad he did not react to such a stupid thing to say, product of an impulse that could have cost me having to stay there!
I walk along with Jean-Robert. We talk as I push the bicycle uphill helped by my faithful pygmy friend. I thank him infinitely for his help and I apologize for having disturbed him this afternoon, but he tells me that it is his duty to help me me, that I am a guest in his country. I also ask him if he believes that Eric did what he did because of the fact that I am white, to which Jean-Robert responds:
"Nico ... because you're white, he's asked you for so little." You have to see what he does to our own people, those who go and those who come. You have your papers in order and in the end he cannot demand anything and he will give up, but here, many people who come and go from Cameroon or the Central African Republic go with what little they have. Since he knows very well that all of them don't have their papers in order, he takes everything they've got"
My heart shrinks when I hear it. On the one hand, I am glad I did not contribute a cent to his abuse and that in the end, it all went well for me, but on the other hand, I lose all my spirituality, when thinking of all the defenseless people who are victims of his abuse and I feel like going back to the cabin and burn it down while he is sleeping.
Jean-Robert continues and says to me: "you are on a very remote border Nico, his nearest boss is 300 km away across the jungle, which means that here, he can do whatever he wants with whomever he wants"
The day has no more than half an hour more of daylight and I still have to pedal the last 32 km to Bomassa. I say goodbye to Jean-Robert giving him an affectionate hug and, later, to my loyal pygmy friend who accompanies me all the way until finding the road again.
I leave with a horrible feeling of uneasiness trying to find some meaning to so much evil between us humans. I know the night will fall soon, I am exhausted and my body sore and hurt from Eric's punches, but if the conditions of the road continues to be as it has been so far, I will be able to reach the WCS base relatively quickly and achieve my goal of the day. Unfortunately, not everything always works out as one expects it and a night that I will never ever forget awaits for me.