Well, that was a day.
We spent much of the day at the U.S. Embassy. A while back I blogged about how the modern American embassy tends to suck, because it's a big ugly fortress built outside of town. Well, the Embassy in Kinshasa is a small, ugly fortress in the middle of town. It's the first U.S. embassy I've ever been in that was... I'm not sure how to put this. Grubby? Dingy? Run-down? It was hard to put my finger on it, but there was a general air of dilapidation that was very unlike what I've come to expect. Most American embassies have an ambience somewhere between "shopping mall" and "community college". This felt more like a public defender's office.
(This is not to harsh on the Embassy staff, who were uniformly professional and helpful to a bunch of consultants dropped suddenly in their laps. In fact, I think it's a tribute to the State Department that employee morale seemed as high as it was.)
Anyway. We had a security briefing, which can be summarized as "alarming"...
...and I actually wrote a description of it, but it got lost thanks to a double whammy power outage/internet crash. Internet access here is bad. But anyway, let's leave it at "alarming".
Okay, one thing. Congo is considered a "critical" crime country, the highest and worst rating. But while robbery and petty crimes are a constant problem, serious violence against expats is rare. The major physical threat to expats, it seems comes from police and soldiers, who should basically all be considered as potential armed robbers.
Okay, one other. Back in the Mobutu days, photographing pretty much anything outdoors -- public buildings, roads, the river -- was prohibited for security reasons. At some point after Mobutu's fall, the law got changed, so most sorts of photography are now allowed. But if you take out a camera, a policeman will immediately appear demanding that you hand it over. It's just too tempting; police salaries are tiny (when they're paid at all) and cameras are worth money.
On the plus side, expats are not considered to be at risk from the feared ANR, the local intelligence service. That's because they concentrate on the local Congolese, doing stuff like hanging around in bars and on buses trying to start conversations complaining about the government, so they can find the loudest complainers and arrest them.
Coming back to the Embassy: we stepped into the commissary, and... well, normally in a U.S. embassy, the commissary is like a small supermarket: shelves full of peanut butter, Snickers bars, Rice-a-Roni and Diet Coke. Here, there was nothing. A couple of shelves of Congolese tchotchkes, a couple of shelves of stuff like "Kinshasa Embassy -- U.S. State Department" golf caps and key chains, and... that was all. Apparently you can order American food through the commissary -- like, a big crate of Cheetos or something, and it arrives three months later -- and also some local market sellers are allowed in twice a week to sell fruits and vegetables. But that's all. It reminded me of shops in the Soviet Union back in Brezhnev's time: no, no potato chips or Heinz ketchup, comrades, but we do have these excellent U.S. State Department foam rubber cup holders!
Oh, and there was a shelf with back issues of Exchange Commissary News -- a periodical of whose existence I had been, up until now, unaware. Apparently it's the professional magazine for, well, commissary professionals. It wasn't clear if the back issues were for sale or just there for the casual reader.
So that was our embassy day.