“Good efternoon Madam, Mossieu; jumbo karibu and BON – JOUR!” The platinum blond, pudgy air hostess of the Soviet era Antonov charter welcomed aboard the assorted mix of ID dangling aid workers and peacekeepers as we walked up the rear cargo ramp, hauling our duffels and back packs.
“Good efternoon ladies and gentlemen; jumbo karibu. — and BON! JOUR!”. She clasped her hands enthusiastically, and with that last bit, dipped a dainty courtesy squeezing tighter in her polyester uniform.
This was my flight to Lumumbashi — 1,500 kms and two time zones later to South Eastern Congo, which means three stops, one plane change and two potential possibilities to get bumped off by someone more worthy on the U.N. roster list.
The U.N. flight from Kinshasa was Canadian owned and operated, starring a hip young male airhost with a slick hairdo and a stud in his ear. The Russian Antonov on the other hand, was to take us the rest of the way in the middle of the Congolese rainforest down close to the Zambian border after a delay of two hours on account of the weather.
“Jumbo Karibu …. No not there…..please to go all the way down…” She momentarily loses her hospitality grin and motions me unceremoniously down the narrow aisle. I look down the cramped walkway and low overhead where the rest of the passengers had been stuffed and instead point behind to several rows of open seats – one of them even with nice legroom.
“That — for VIP!” She snaps, somewhat to the delight of two Russian officers sitting comfortably in the roomy back and continues to usher me down the musty carpet where the co-pilot had now emerged to pack in the rest of the people and the luggage.
“I already looked down there. There is no room. I have a huge bag — see?” I hold up my oversized bag stuffed with the usual – camera, mosquito net, emergency light, first aid kit, rope, etc.
“He said no room?” Apparently referring to the co-pilot. “Don’t pay any attention to him. I tell you, there is room.” She points to a single empty seat next to an oversized man in camouflage and beret, holding his duffel on his lap.
”No. I think I will sit over there.” I reply feeling instantly claustrophic. I turn decisively and walk back toward the cargo rear where the two officers are sitting; in the process revealing the bold print on the back of my vest: International Observer.
“I think over here.” I sit down, shove my bag under the seat and fasten my seatbelt.
“Yes. Ok.” She says, suddenly very agreeable “No problem Madam”
Then she leans down and whispers quietly “How about over there?” She points to the super VIP row with the nice leg room.
“Jumbo karibu fasten seat belt have a pleasant flight.” She recites on auto pilot, then pauses for a moment. “I come back with some nice coffee for you.” She winks at me and walks off.
I stretch out my legs, stow my bag away and lean against the window. The rain begins to pour.
It has been five years since the last elections in Congo. The major opposition party which had boycotted in 2006 is back in full force and they have many followers where I am going. I stared hypnotically at the double wheels as the plane picks up speed, splashing the rain furiously and then takes off.
“Madam, Mossieu, Good efternoon. Jumbo Karibu and Bon Jour. Please fasten seat belt and yourself read the card with safety features in seat pocket. Our flight to Lumumbashi is one hour and half. Jumbo Karibu — Bon Voyage and Safari Njema.”