Airport arrivals, scrums and getting people arrested

Airport arrivals in Africa can make good practice for scrums, which is competition for positioning when media professionals have just a few moments to capture, get whatever they need, be it documenting the cast of the ballot, the utterance of words, usually empty, often lies, or any other in the spotlight individual, or happening, which comes like wind, often late, very late, sometimes early, from the backside as well.

Of course there is worse than surviving an African airport, but it is a test, after a long crammed in the seat, COFFEE? you know the routine. Groggy, with the weight of height miles and re-circulated air on the tongue and in the corner of the eyes, the walk to the vertically crammed bus or one door entrance to stamp the passport; it’s the last sense of relative freedom until the rush between the scruffy airport staff not working but being present for what? Usually pushing their services initially, then laughing off the refusal, defiant, but even if they are turned down, they wait in their prison outfits but usually do nothing. Or sometimes start talking, and talk quickly, in their own language or with a heavy accent in yours.

It takes a theater degree to have them stop talking. Or a cold stare. Or a fake faint, roll of the eyes. Or indifference and the usual huffing and puffing, yes we have extra pounds out west, no I don’t want it, I don’t want it, red in the face, type of semi-tantrum.

Older locals, who were on the plane as well, overly dressed in suits and boubous, sweating profusely, while a team of acolytes appearing out of nowhere hustle around with invariably slowly rolling, bent out of shape, haltingly rolling baggage trolleys.

And then other men, also in prison outfits, a few of them in some basic streetwear and with harder attitudes, on some big businessman’s pay, checking every baggage’s tags around the carousel, with corresponding numbers written on small pieces of papers or their sweaty hands, the numbers dissolving or crunched up as the suitcases slowly turn, creating a rush of bodies in the newfound airport hall heat, heat hall, no one wanting to give in an inch, for the carousels are usually small, but the bags plenty, of many forms, the giant plastic bag with the colorful depictions of Paris, New York, Hollywood, the great capitals of the world beyond, plastic wrapped masses of provisions, shoes, clothes for the whole extended family, large stereo systems, old suitcases you had not seen in decades, flashy plastic, circling and circling, you notice the bags no one picks up, looking almost like yours but no they’re not.

My first African arrival was in Mali. I thought I had seen tough arrivals in Indonesia where I used to live, but I was mistaken. The whirlwind just takes you into the earth. It is rich, it is intense, but it moves ever so slowly, like being surrounded in a wall of mud, the mud being slung at you. It feels good in a way, and it feels hard to get out of the mud, like you are spacewalking.

I was once briefly detained at the Abidjan airport. Made me feel a bit uneasy, as a Franco-Canadian journalist had just been stuffed in a cocoa bag never to be seen again, his last investigation into cocoa for arms snuffed.

So the mood was against journalists at the time. Shouldn’t it have been the journalists who were mad? A journalist had just been killed, so by the logic which prevailed, journalists were the ones who were under suspicion. There must have been a reason the other one had been killed. Maybe more should be killed.

I would have to say my hardest and at the same time productive airport arrival was Kinshasa.

Other journalists concur, speaking of baggage carousels surrounded by six, seven rows deep of intermediaries, that you have to pay off someone, give your baggage stubs to a paid acolyte, a pro who knows how to navigate the mass, who has enough allies to get his piece out. (This whole process I am told is repeated in internal airports just to get a boarding pass and bags onto a plane, where bribes are sometimes at every big step of the way.)

Some experienced or tired passengers are just resigned to pay off men in suits who wait on the tarmac at the plane’s arrival, to make the whole process just a walk through from bag on carousel to customs to trunk of the car, sweat and stress free, the express corrupt lane.

Ive also heard that in Kinshasa the porters in the prison uniforms ask for passports, take them and run away, through the throng off all the city’s Calcutta, reaching out the limbs they have, pleading with their well rehearsed eyes, you’ve arrived, my friend, it is time to share some more of your excess wealth for my gang leader of the physically deformed.

They were all around me like crawling ants, buzzing bees, sneaky snakes, to the car with the driver who was not helping in any way just enjoying the show once again perhaps, in the back of the mud filled parking lot, to the very last moment, euros, dollars, cfa francs, anything, change, god bless, give, give, give.

Through a few potholes with the car seat ripping apart and the springs up my butt, to the first military roadblock at the exit of the airport, ensued a shouting match of epic proportions over what I am not sure. It took decibels and time, perseverance, honking from behind, the arrival of a superior, some nasty stares, for finally the block to be lifted.

Just a few minutes away, still on the airport road, there was a scuffle to the left, rocks being thrown from a bridge above, competing protests! I was a reporter, my equipment was accessible, so I asked the driver to stop. Ive learned you never know when you’ll next drive through a protest, and that it’s always good to stop for unexpected commotion during a drive-by. The intensity is there, might as well press record and press the shutter button a few times, and figure out who is who, and what they stand for.

In the confusion, a young man I had just talked too was taken away by police. This put me in an awkward position. His friends were telling me, go to the police station, it’s over there, right there around the corner. You have to go, they say.

This has happened to me several times – an interview leads to an arrest, and not mine. What to do? Since I had just survived airport arrival, I decided cowardly as always to find a hotel room and immediately file, which I did, turning a few minutes of mayhem on the way from the airport into my first report on this return trip to Kinshasa.

This is an interesting website that has comments on most airport arrivals.

For Dakar’s airports, it has entries titled “Wallet Stolen by Airport Security” or “A Very bad airport”, usually much shorter than mine, but not lacking in bite.

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