The medical officer blocking the doorway to baggage claim and the streets of Pointe Noire is draped in a reassuring white jacket. Lulled by a smooth immigration process that was not too taxing on French-language capacities stirring from their dormancy, I am unprepared for the hostile rejection of my yellow immunisation record as invalid. This does not work here! I am told. Retaining possession of the document clearly marked with YFVAX 0.5ml/SC, dated, with the provider’s card stapled below as further evidence, he dismisses me to the side to wait.
People arriving singly and in groups off the same flight from Addis Ababa, approach white jacket, show a card or not; some ill-trained prestidigitators pass a crumpled bill across the palm of white jacket; one group is accompanied by a large man who proclaims his credentials and assures white jacket that ‘they are with me’, sweeping past him. To one whose palm-crossing has been just a little too obvious, white jacket protests, ‘What are you doing? I can’t accept that.’ But too late; he’s through and into baggage claim.
When the flow of people slows for a moment, white jacket tells me that the problem can be fixed with 30,000 francs. ‘I see,’ say I. ‘And what am I purchasing in exchange for F30,000? Do you propose to vaccinate me here? Or will the F30,000 franc donation somehow itself inoculate me against yellow fever – or something else?’ He is not amused.
It does not occur to me to draw his attention to the name on my letter of invitation, a former Attorney General of the country during the presidency of the professorial Pascal Lissouba. I hand over two US $20 bills. White jacket goes to search for $10.00 in change. Just as he returns, said former official arrives outside the door. I lean around the door to give him a synopsis of the last half hour. He and white jacket retire to a corner for a brief confabulation. Having assured my host that it was a terrible mistake, created by language misapprehensions, white jacket returns the two twenties and asks impatiently for his ten back.
‘Quelle honte!’ my host admonishes white jacket as we escape to baggage claim: ‘Quel accueil au Congo!’
It was in Kenyatta airport in Nairobi where I first encountered the term. ‘It’s the mzungu factor,’ says a young man hired to talk tourism to airport arrivées. He is sympathetic to my plight, having heard my tale about an exponentially-inflated accommodation bill. ‘You fell for it. Sorry.’
Here in Congo, the word is musungu, the meaning the same: at root, someone who spins around in the same place, a dizzy, aimless wanderer – a look perfected, the Swahili say, by the first Europeans who arrived in the Great Lakes region in the early 18th century – now simply ‘white person’, its possessive form, chisungu, meaning ‘behaving rich’.
The 26 hours of travel has left me lots of time to read my serendipitously-chosen travel-and-nighttime reading, Will Ferguson’s novel, 419. The title is a reference to the section of the Nigerian criminal code that outlines the penalties for those indulging in the art of internet fraud. One character explains to the latest recruit to his team of weavers of complicated and pathos-laden letter-baiters why ‘419-ing’ is an honourable profession. ‘If we Nigerians are good at thieving, we learned it from the British. We may plunder bank accounts; they plundered entire continents… The banks in Europe and America – rolling in money like a pig in slop, they have grown fat on our misery. Where does the money from the Delta flow? Into offshore accounts, into foreign banks… Fat-faced oyibos fart like kings behind gated compounds in Port Harcourt while the people outside live on table scraps and snot.’ Four nineteeners are simply helping to return some of that loot to the continent from which it was stolen, he asserts. ‘Justice demands it. God demands it!’