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In Congo, Gird Yourself for the Bureaucracy

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Before landing in the Democratic Republic of Congo in March, I was pretty sure I knew what the French word formalité meant. About the same thing it means in English, I thought: a formality, a little bump of inconvenience, something you have to do when you pass from one country to the next, the flash of a passport, the thump of a stamp, and you’re done.

Wrong. All wrong.

In the DRC, Belgian-inspired formalités snag you at every border crossing, every airport arrival gate, every ferry terminal. It’s the Congolese word for time suck, and its synonym is dread.

Oxfam America videographer Rob Baker shows some children in an IDP camp the screen on his camera.
Oxfam America videographer Rob Baker shows some children in an IDP camp the screen on his camera.

We were on a trip to document Oxfam’s humanitarian work in the eastern provinces of the DRC where years of conflict had left millions of people dead and hundreds of thousands of others displaced. Along with our equipment, we were toting sheaves of permission slips—the pre-formalité paperwork we had labored for weeks to get prior to our arrival. There was the “ordre de mission,” and the “lettre d’invitation.” We had a paper listing our jobs and our gear, and another vouching for the fact that we had paid $200 for the privilege of using that gear in the bush. Stapled to the heap were pictures of ourselves and pictures of our visas.

In that flutter of paper the first of many Congolese ironies struck me: Why is a country that is struggling to meet the basic needs of its citizens wasting so much energy on a group of strangers?

Behind worn desks at each point of departure and arrival, officials thumbed through our passports, studied our mission orders, and finally took out their pens to record, in excruciatingly slow cursive, our names and the raft of numbers that defined us. Would anyone ever flip back through those greasy ledgers to look at the entries? I doubted it. Could we rush the officials along? No.

Patience is a virtue, said a colleague. Sound advice.

But it did little to relieve the anxiety that occasionally gripped one or another of us snared in the slow-motion slog of Congolese bureaucracy. Rob, our videographer, blanched as he watched the baggage handlers at the Goma airport grab the bag with his very expensive camera, heave it onto a stack of luggage, and trundle the load down the tarmac into the terminal. He had vowed never to lose sight of his baby. But suddenly, it was gone, and ahead lay the dreaded formalités. Where would the camera be when he passed through that black hole?

But worse was the last day—the day we didn’t have a minute to lose if colleagues were going to catch their flight abroad. At the border crossing, the formalités dragged on, interrupted by a flag ceremony, and concluding with the announcement that we wouldn’t be able to leave after all: our visas had expired—or so it appeared. With a sly smile, the official set our passports aside. We’d have to wait for the boss, he said. The boss? In the middle of Easter weekend?

Time stopped. Suddenly, the bureaucracy had become something much more serious than a drag on our schedule. It was a whole new game, and probably one that was going to involve money. Would we play?

We never had to answer that question. One of our colleagues, smooth with Swahili, arrived just as we began to sweat. He talked us out of the jam–and out of our final formalité.

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