One of the jobs I do in this city where one job is never enough is I work on a website. The website covers news from all over the world and sometimes I get a story from the Democratic Republic of Congo. The stories from the DRC – just as an FYI news media love acronyms – they’re usually quite depressing. The DRC has had civil war on and off for the last two decades. Millions have died.
As you might imagine this means DRC is a pretty crap choice for a vacation.
I know this because I holidayed there a few years ago. Whenever I see DRC news stories I’m reminded of this visit and of the end of the trip in particular, when I burst in to tears in front of a room full of strangers.
The strangers were immigration officers and a couple of cops. Aside from the odd dewy-eyed moment in the darkness of a movie theater I don’t cry in public. Yet this was second time that day I’d cried. The first was a few hours earlier at a cafe where I’d been trying to collect myself after some wild-eyed kid pulled a knife on me in the street.
Because of the shock the tears came uncontrollably. The locals saw this and word got around and pretty soon a couple of “cops” turned up. (FYI – in DRC you must put inverted commas round the name of any public official). The “cops” asked me to accompany them to the precinct. I went because I thought they wanted me to fill in a crime report. But it soon became clear they weren’t interested in the crime. I was led to an office where I met some “immigration officers”.
The men wanted to see my passport. I might be here illegally, they said. When I tried to protest that maybe the recent knife crime should take precedence over my immigration status they got very angry and began shouting. That’s when I started crying.
My memory is of some pretty major league blubbing. Crumpled, wet face. Loud sobs. The whole nine yard. The men in the room were not impressed and if anything their treatment of me grew even harsher after my breakdown. I was escorted back to my hotel and had my passport taken from me. I was taken to a police precinct and forced to sleep on a moth-eaten mattress. The next day I got my passport back and that same afternoon booked a flight out of the DRC and a few days later left and never went back.
That episode left a big mark on me. It shattered an illusion I’d had about myself till then. Till that point I’d wanted to see myself as the adventurous writer, bringing reportage from far flung places, cool-headed in the face of danger. A modern-day Hemingway. But this episode showed me that this larger-than-life person didn’t exist and that the truth was someone much smaller.
For along time after the DRC trip I felt humiliated by my breakdown and I hated the small person I’d revealed myself to be. I couldn’t really talk about it but I know it prayed on me. I got involved in a series of relationships that looking back on it now were quasi-abusive and quit working and got fucked up a lot. I think I was punishing myself. I think I wanted to forget.
In the last couple of years I’ve started to understand the truth of that episode. The main thing is that I’ve begun to come to terms with that smaller person who inhabits me. I see him now as the little boy I once was and the vulnerability he reveals in me I realize is the heart of my humanity and without it I would be just another dead man walking.
I realize too that the truly shameful fear on show in that room in Kinshasa wasn’t mine. It was the men’s. They were afraid to see another man cry because it reminded them too much of their own vulnerability. They had grown used to the idea that they had to stay hard to survive. They had grown used to the idea that a man never lets his guard down, that to show weakness is to be less than human.
Because of this terrible fear men do terrible things. At least in part, this terrible fear is why millions have died in the DRC.
A version of me died in the Congo and, on the whole, I’m glad he’s gone.