A few years ago I was hired by an American publishing company who were working on an Exclusive Production about the illegal Gemstone trade in the DRC and the complicity of some Multinational Telcos in the ‘blood mining’ of Coltan, Tantalum, and Tin minerals. It was such an eye-opener in regards to how Africa is exploited and robbed with violence by some of your favorite tech companies. I promise to revisit this story some other time.
For now I’d like to focus on another interesting experience I had on that expedition. Since the production required us to go to DRC for the filming and ground production, we needed a Fixer on the ground to take us to areas where we could get material.
On such an expedition, one does not have the luxury of making an advanced trip for a Recce of the area and production set. This is a strictly touch-and-go experience because the mining regions were controlled by the rag-tag militia. Any suspicions on our intended purpose would cause us risk, not from the militias, but the Multinational Mafia running the illegality for foreign companies.
In the DRC, rebels control many mining sites in direct collusion with international gemstone brokers. Where the government chased them from sites, the smart rag-tag militia found a new way to finance themselves; Roadblocks.
The rebels figured out that the best way to outsmart the government forces was to erect roadblocks.
If you finance the transport routes to the mines and levy taxes, then you control the mining. The DRC is heavily forested and the road infrastructure is almost non-existent out of the towns. DRC is also too vast and as thick as it can get. These factors make it too expansive and expensive for the government to patrol giving rebels control over swathes of area.
To penetrate one of the sites at North Kivu, we had to be ingenious about it. Our Fixer, introduced us to a domiciled Dutch NGO which had made friends with rebels by giving them free medical supplies. After negotiating with them and explaining our mission, they gave us a supply LandCruiser and gave us their T-shirts and badges and a driver, Pierre Lokanda, a friendly and interesting character.
On our 400KM of harsh forested terrain adorned in disguise on a mission to make secret audiovisuals, Pierre entertained us with Rhumba oldies from the stereo. He sang along and occasionally communicated with other vehicles through radio calls speaking impeccable Francois.
In his land cruiser were 3 Americans, 1 Dutch, one Ugandan, and 2 Kenyans.
About 50Kms to our destination, we encountered one of the scariest situations since we landed there. A road Barricade with mean-looking thugs dressed like the army. They ordered us out for a ransack but Pierre told us to stay put.
With his hands in the air he walked out to meet them. Ng’ash, my fellow countryman was shaking and making silent prayers. I was not shaken per-se, (that’s my story and I’m sticking by it) just that, I knew my chances of returning to Nairobi in one piece was now about 30%. I made a promise to myself that I wouldn’t shake my knees and pee on myself until those chances were reduced to 15% and if I saw a gun barrel on my forehead.
I succeeded. No pee.
Pierre went to meet the mean-looking militia all pointing rusty guns at our vehicle. It looked eerily like a scene from a Bruce Willis movie. After some inaudible conversation, we saw them put down their guns and one of them gave Pierre a fist bump. Pierre said something to them and they all laughed heartily. I was confused.
He walked back to the vehicle and drove off past the now opened roadblock. They waved past us all smiling. We didn’t bother to ask Pierre what he told them or how he easily got us out of the jam. Who was this guy?
We all kept quiet in anticipation of our next stop. It was getting dark and we needed to get to camp on time because the nights were very dangerous. Running into a random herd of mad elephants was a very real possibility. Road mines and IEDs were also a possibility.
About 10KMs to camp, we had a loud bang and our car stopped. Baas. Kwisha sisi. Now we were scared. I was down 5% and I knew by another 5% pee would wee … No Nairobi. What if we ran into a bad group of a militia? What if Pierre fooled the last ones and they were behind us? What if a mad Hippo or Elephant came from out of nowhere?
But it was a close shave. The land cruiser had blown something in the engine.
The funny thing though, was that everyone seemed calm and the Americans were chatting heartily. We were all laughing at our proximity to instant death considering that our filming would be the most dangerous thing yet. Ng’ash and I pretended to be calm. We were scared witless. But we were not about to show the Americans that. We needed to show them Africans were tough. Wapi!
Matt, one of the Americans chimed in and told us that this was by far one of his riskiest endeavors. Now, Coming from someone who had spent much of the journey narrating to us his near-death experiences in Brazil and some Colombian drug dens and routes, I knew my 15% threshold was just about.
All this time Pierre had walked out with pliers and a torch and opened the hood(Bonet) of the truck.
He requested us to stay in the car and not to make very loud or sudden noises.
Great. We’ll just die in our seatbelts.
After what seemed like an hour, though it was just 15Minutes, Pierre walked back, revved the engine and smiled to himself as we drove to the camp.
After 4 days in camp distributing paracetamol and Band-Aids and helping the Dutchman who accompanied us, (he was a real doctor), in his wizardry to the miners, we finished our set production and returned to Kivu. On our way back we encountered 2 roadblocks about 100Kms apart and in both instances, Pierre handled it well. I didn’t see him bribe them, what was he telling them? Was he using charms?
When we arrived back in town, we all thanked Pierre for his brevity because without which, we’d have probably remained in the forest as skulls.
When I shook his hand to thank him as we had Kenyan beer froth in our cozy but mosquito-infested hotel, he broke into perfect Kenyan Swahili and said:
By the way, Pierre ni Jina tu ya hapa. Mimi ni mkenya Kama wewe nimekuja hapa kuhustle. My real name is ni Peter Odhiambo. Natoka Karibu na kwenu huko Sondu, Kisumu side but tulihamia Eldoret when I was a teenager.Pierre
(By the way Pierre is just a name to move around. I am Kenyan here to earn a living like you. My real name is Peter Odhiambo. From Sondu, Kisumu but Lived mostly in Eldoret).
I was dumbstruck. All this time this dude had deciphered our sheng and ‘msengenyo’ with Ng’ash? WTF?
Peter had been in the NGO world as a fixer and driver for many years working in many war-torn francophone countries and had assimilated well with his working environment. I also learned that day that he was also a certified twin-engine Private pilot who occasionally did medical evacuations with the NGO rugged Cessna Caravan. He was a genius and a lifesaver. He was very brave and conversant with handling all small arms. We spent the next day before our travel back to Kisangani in the NGO camp breaking apart his AK 47s. He loved the thrill of his life.
Peter then said something funny yet true to me that has stuck in my mind to this day.
“Mnasemanga mumekatwa ndio maana mko brave. Kilasiku tunaitwa ‘ngetai ama Kihii, lakini hamuezi toboa hapa.” Ng’ash and I looked at each other feeling awkward because he was addressing our respective tribes.
You brag that you come from the brave community. The circumcised. You insult us daily but here you can’t survive!Pierre
True, I come from a brave community raised on a war doctrine by cultural identity, but the jungle of Zaire (DRC) navigating through territories run by Tutsis and Congolese rag-tags isn’t something the Kipsigis in me signed up for… I’m sure Ng’ash felt the same.
Being a man takes more than having a cut, being a man is in the heart… Kama huwezi jitoa kwa Shida yeyote hapa, wewe ni maiti tu.Piere
I have no clue why he brought that up at all. But I guess he had always kept it in his heart waiting for the perfect opportunity to say it. Yay. What a perfect opportunity.
This had been the best time to tell us this because Ng’ash had sworn never to enter the DRC again and so scared had he been on one instance that he told me that if we had made it out alive, he’d be saved and become a pastor. Never mind that a week later after getting to Nairobi he was dundaing like the sinner he was.
This story came back to mind today as I was reading an engagement on Twitter and was saddened at how quickly debates degenerate into some juvenile insults.
The worst is when grown men keep referring to other grown men’s genitalia as a way to expose their inability to hold a debate. ‘Get circumcised first before addressing us” … A grown educated man told another on that Twitter hell hole.
I quote Peter ‘Pierre’ Odhiambo who told us as a parting shot…
‘Hiyo kitu umebeba iko na kichwa ndogo na jicho kimoja lakini haina akili. Wakenya watumie ile kichwa kubwa iko na macho mbili na akili. Kukua mwanaume ni kukua na roho mzuri na roho shujaa, hiyo ingine ni ya kuzaa na kuleta utamu”.
He was right. Absolutely right.
When it comes down to it, those who repeat this insult are small boys themselves. They lack any substance. Debates should be about the power of the mind. Keep away from the basement.