LUBUMBASHI, Democratic Republic of Congo — Time. Food. We set our clocks by these things. But how we set them is relative. If I’ve learned nothing else in all my time and travels across Africa, it’s that time and associated expressions of time do not have a one-to-one correlation.
“Five minutes” and “just now”, for instance, merely mean “wait…perhaps for a long time. It’ll happen. Maybe it won’t.”
Just the other day, upon touchdown in Johannesburg, a guy on my flight called someone and I heard him say, “We have just landed [it was actually 10 minutes ago]…I’ll be coming out just now.” I thought to myself, “No you won’t. It will be at least 45 minutes from now till you appear at the front door. So that’s an absolute falsehood that you’ll be there “just now”.”
Or was it? I suppose it all depends on who the receiver is, who the speaker is, and just where on the planet the utterance is transmitted.
When hunger is compounded with “five minutes” or “just now”, time balloons and nearly stands still while your stomach and mind might actually be squirming.
My 50-year-old Belgian point man in Lubumbashi, Democratic Republic of Congo (let’s call him Nathan), is a great guy. He did an outstanding job of not merely making sure I got the photos I came here for, but of steering me through a chaotic maze of bureaucracy in and out of the Lubumbashi airport (that’s a whole other story which can be summed up in two syllables: oy vey). Let me be clear: There isn’t anything Nathan did not do for me. He patiently fielded my many emails over several month. But, alas, we all have our foibles. In a land where time seems to have stopped or ceased to mean much by today’s general concepts, Nathan seems to have himself forgotten just how long two or five or ten minutes really is for he doesn’t seem to have the slightest sense of time. The lapses in measurement of time might have actually been comical if only — oh, if only — they had not left me so hungry.
The time warp began upon my landing. He was not at the Lubumbashi airport upon my arrival as was the plan. We had confirmed at least 10 times. I think almost literally.
Clearly, I needed to confirm 11 times.
I borrowed someone’s phone. Twice. “Nathan?”
“Oui?” said a doubtful voice on the first call.
“It’s Jono. Jono David.” Uncertainty. I tried a French-ish accent. “Jeaneau Daveed. I’m at za airport. Are you coming?”
“Ah, oui, oui. Yes, I weel be zere in 10 minoots.” I called him again 25 minoots later, and voilà, there he was.
Being a Sunday, his time was free for me. He patiently allowed me to work as freely as I needed to get photos of the well-maintained cemeteries and the capacious synagogue. That evening over pizza, he told me he would come for me at 9 a.m. the following morning. At 9:30, he rang to say he’d come some time after 2 p.m.
I spent my morning editing photos from the day before.
He turned up at 12:30. “Okay, let’s go!” he said with a wave of his arm and a tilt of his head.
“Uh, Nathan, I’m not ready.” I was expecting you at 2 p.m., I was thinking but did not say. “I need several minutes to put away my computer and get ready.” He waited.
Later in the day, he set dinner time for 7:00. I texted him at 7:24. He called half an hour after that. “I weel be zere at 8:30. It is good for you?”
“Yes, that’s fine.” Hunger and I waited in the lobby at that appointed time. At 8:46 p.m., I texted again: “It is getting late. Jono.”
At 9:00, I gave up and retreated to my room. At 9:08, Nathan rang. “Jeaneau, I weel be zere in 2 minoots.”
“No, it’s too late for me, Nathan. I can’t eat dinner this late. It makes me feel uncomfortable.”
He was surprised. “Really?” Yes, really. “Zen I weel see you in za morning.”
I dipped into my reserve (yes reserve) food supply: energy bar, mixed nuts and berries, chocolate biscuits.
The plan for the morning was for him to come at 9:30 to be at the airport for 10:00 for my 11:30 flight to Kinshasa.
Pickup time came…and went. At 9:35, I called him. “Nathan. Bon jour. Where are you?”
“I am coming.”
“Two-two-two minoots,” was the reply. I wasn’t sure if the stuttered response meant two minoots and twenty-two seconds, twenty-two minoots and two seconds, two hundred and twenty-two minoots, or really two minoots. At 9:45, I dialed his number again, and voilà, he was pulling up to the hotel.
At the airport, with a wink and a smile, I asked Joseph, the check-in man for Korongo Airlines (affectionately renamed by me as Koro-no-go Airlines), if the flight was on time. He hesitated ever so slightly. “Ten minoots delay, not more.” And then, as if to reassure me, “I promees you not more.”
I felt so much better. No, not really. In fact, I’ve never felt so uneasy in an airport before. It is so oppressively bureaucratic.
Nathan went on his way and I sat…and sat and sat…in the scruffy waiting area. Four hours later, again hungry, the flight was cancelled due to an issue with a wheel. I was rebooked for the following morning at 8:00 a.m.
Nathan graciously welcomed me to his home for the night. I spent the afternoon resting and using the internet while he did his work.
“This evening,” I said sometime around 4:00 p.m., “I must eat a proper supper.”
“We will go somewhere nice.”
By 7:00 p.m., I was desperate for food. Nathan, however, was in his usual condition: on the phone and entranced by something on the computer screen. He looked as if he had all the time in the world.
“Nathan, I’m hungry. I really must eat.”
At 7:35, I heard the clink and clang of a spoon swirling around a mug. I looked over and to my astonishment he was ever so casually making himself a cup of tea.
“Would you like a tea or coffee?” he offered.
“No, thanks. I need food. Now.” Nice of him to offer, I supposed. But nope, I needed solid food. I needed something to chew on, to savor, to tantalize my tongue.
“I weel just feeneesh my tea, zen we will go,” he said with a backward flip of his hand. “Not more zan five minoots,” he added with a shrug and puckered lips.
Fifteen minoots later: “Nathan, I’m sorry. I am grateful for all you are doing for me, but I really…must…eat. S’il vous plaît.” Yes, I said s’il vous plaît.
I was actually pleading with him to take me to eat.
Finally, just before 8:00 p.m., we got in the car. He revved it up…then his phone rang.
“Fuuuuuuuuuuuuckkkkk!!!!!” reverberated inside my head.
He switched off the car and held me captive for an eternal five minoots more. I was squirming inside.
Finally, we drove. About 10 minoots later, we pulled into a parking lot of what appeared to be an Italian restaurant. I was beginning to salivate.
“No, no. Zis is wrong,” Nathan said. “It is za next entraance.”
You’re killing me here, I was thinking.
At last, the right parking lot. We sat on a verandah on a perfectly cool Lubumbashi evening at a Greek-owned restaurant. Thirty minoots later, I was staring at and drooling over a plate of chicken fillets smothered in a cream sauce with a side of rice and salad. Real food. Before tucking in, I actually grinned at it as if to welcome it to my mouth. I washed it down with a large size chilled Simba beer, a local brew.
I devoured it all in two minoots. No, not quite. I just wanted to say “two minoots” one more time.
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