I recently had the chance to go to the University of Kinshasa for a week to present the CSD and its applications in both teaching and research. Not only was it my first time doing a presentation and workshops about the CSD, but it was also my first time in Africa and it was to be a memorable experience on all accounts.
Leaving London on a very wet and drab Friday morning, I arrived in Kinshasa after nearly a day of travelling to be greeted by a dense and humid heat. I was to learn that this was nothing compared to the weather conditions during the rainy season, but the contrast with the inclement England weather was very welcome. Having been met by Professor Zéphirin Yav at the airport, I arrived at the UNIKIN guesthouse on the university campus after three hours of never ending traffic jams. I stayed at the guesthouse for the duration of my stay, a small structure for hosting visitors to the university but made into a very welcoming space by the staff. In particular I will remember fondly Maman Pauline who not only cooked excellent Congolese food (spicy captain fish accompanied by plantains was a particularly delicious dish) but also dispensed sound relationship advice! Other highlights of the guesthouse include sleeping under a mosquito net, although it felt a little irrelevant as I only encountered two mosquitoes throughout my stay, being woken up every morning by the exotic songs of the local birds, and occasionally hearing the thud of a mango falling on the sand from the large mango tree in the garden.
Although Kinshasa is not known for being a tourist destination (when we went, the Foreign Office was recommending avoiding all but necessary travel to the whole country), our host Zéphirin did his best to show us as much as possible of the city, the Congo river and beyond. In particular, I have great memories of visiting Lola Ya Bonobo, a sanctuary for orphaned bonobos that includes a nursery with human substitute mothers dishing out love and attention to the youngest bonobos and several large enclosures for older bonobos who seemed to be enjoying playing, grooming each other, and eating papayas. The botanic gardens of Kisantu were also very beautiful, much larger than the Cambridge ones and of course tropical species such as orchids were growing easily without a glasshouse!
Colin Groom and Juliette Pradon (CCDC) pictured with Zepheryn Yav and his students from the University of Kinshasa.
As much as I enjoyed the excursions, I was most interested in the normal life in Kinshasa, so driving from one place to the next was endlessly fascinating. The main thoroughfare from the airport into town was being upgraded for the 14th Francophonie Summit to be held in October, which meant that it was at the time a dirt track shared almost equally between throngs of vehicles and pedestrians. Most other roads in town were in similar need of attention, with vehicles normally driving on the right but in reality veering from one side to the next as was needed to avoid the large potholes and trenches in the road. The vehicles themselves were incredible, barely road-worthy by European standards but still running thanks to the incredible talent and resourcefulness of the mechanics and drivers, who seemed able to repair any minor or major fault right there on the side of the road. Nonexistent public transport in Kinshasa means people use heavily loaded vehicles, from Japanese motorcycles which can take three passengers or two passengers and some luggage, to minibuses fashioned from vans by cramming benches inside and cutting windows in the side panels. Outside of the city there was a marked preference for the Peugeot 504 as it seemed to be able to carry more than 5 meters of goods (charcoal, manioc, or the ever present plastic Jerry cans) stacked on top of it; one even carried 18 people inside and sitting on the roof. How did these cars still run when they seemed to be collapsing in the middle?
The density and diversity of people walking on the side of the road was also incredible: many people are dressed very smartly in Kinshasa, some men in European suits whilst others wear more obviously second hand European clothes, most women in beautiful, colourful patterned wax cotton dresses; people selling to drivers an array of goods (plastic bags of water, fruits, bread, tissues…); women (mostly) carrying large and/or cumbersome loads on their heads, sometimes with a child on their back tucked into a pagne, its two little feet sticking out at the front; men pushing two-wheeled carts heavily loaded with containers etc. The streets were lined with tiny commercial properties with their names and sometimes advertisements/brands painted directly onto the walls with very bright colours. These shops consisted mostly of phone-related businesses (selling prepaid phone cards or charging a set amount to make a call using the provided chair and mobile phone), garages (not unlike those to be found under many of London’s train and tube arches), débits de boissons (selling bottled Congolese soft drinks and beers), débits de ciment (selling cement and sometimes other construction material), pharmacies (including those labelled as traditional medicine outlets), hairdressers (which were very busy and seemed places where people would also socialise) and shops selling an assortment of supplies.
Of course the reason for the trip to Kinshasa was three days of science, demonstrating to students and staff in the Chemistry Department of the University how to use the CSD for teaching and research purposes. Technical hiccups (lack of internet, the projector showing increasing signs of distress, reading out more than twenty licence keys over the phone…) notwithstanding, I was very pleased with how the presentations and workshops were received. I was struck by how eager and interested everyone was, and grateful for their tolerance to my lack of technical vocabulary in French. All participants in the workshops now have the full CSD system installed on their computers and have been exposed to the basic functionalities of the software, such that they can in turn train their students to use the CSD.
I will remember the friendliness and openness of everyone I engaged with and the energy and dynamism emanating from Kinshasa. I hope that our collaboration with Professor Yav can develop further and that the CCDC can get more involved with training tomorrow’s African scientists. I left the country with Kinshasa in my eyes and in my heart, and cannot wait to go back.
Juliette helping some of the University of Kinshasa students during a CSD teaching workshop.