Have you ever experienced the impact of a shock wave from a bomb hitting you head on? Think of a Predator-like, invisible, alien force rippling through the air like a fierce tidal wave. That surging force coming towards me and pushing me back with such vigour and ferocity is something that I’ll never forget.
Sunday, May 4, 2012, otherwise known as my fourth day in Congo-Brazzaville, the country that was to become my nesting place for a jaunty six-month adventure. Then, the roller-coaster began, the first hair-raising, nerve-wracking, panic-stricken stretch of the ride started… That jarring, thunderous sound ripped through the subdued stillness of the rich African air. In a dream-like stupor, wearing nothing but a nightdress, I awoke to my house mates running about the third-floor of our apartment. That loud bang that shredded through an otherwise tranquil Sunday morning was an explosive; more specifically a bomb had detonated. My room-mates comprised of a pretty perky Scottish PhD student who seemed content in her African surroundings and her Cameroonian supervisor who had a fondness for cheap liquor but was a sweet soul all in all. Our first-floor neighbour was a middle-aged American veterinarian who would later become one of my good friends during my tenure in the Congo. I recall the vet running up to our third-floor apartment, bare-foot thinking that something exploded in our apartment. This is just to give you an idea as to how loud and vivid that bomb detonation was. So what was next, we’re all panicky, all confused, all lost-souls thrown into a possible Central African terrorist attack/ coup d’état (according to the vet). I didn’t even have time to brush my teeth nor wash my face before we were told that we need to head to our respective embassies. Thank goodness I did not head towards the South African embassy, as it was much nearer to the point of origin of the explosions. Across the road from my three-story apartment building was the UN Headquarters, could I seek refuge there? The vet was packed up in his 4×4 within seconds, taking his two beloved dogs with him. He was headed for the USA embassy. The American embassy already had helicopters and an evacuation plan in place to get their expats out safely. What was I feeling at that time, considering my knack for getting stressed out so easily? I strongly believed for about 15 minutes of that entire experience that I was going to die. Thoughts flooded through my mind, “Okay, keep calm Kerry, you need to phone your family back home, this may be the last time that they hear from you.” I phoned my mom, I just said to her, “Mommy, it’s either an earthquake or terrorist attack but there are definitely bombs.” At that stage two powerful bombs went off. Then the third one detonated, the most powerful one out of all of them. I remember my mom’s response just being, ‘Oh my god, oh my god, what the hell is that?’ The fact that I was crying and telling my mom that I was scared did not ease her mood a bit. I tried calling my boss back home too, no answer. Eventually, my Scottish roommate got news from Twitter. It said that explosives went off at the munitions depot near the Department of Defence. So the vet was off and my two roommates and I had two choices, stay within our courtyard or join the people of Brazzaville carrying what they could in their hands to get away from the city. We decided to stay behind, for several reasons. One was that we did not know where exactly to go in the first place. We were afraid of being attacked in that state of panic. We were also afraid of being robbed of our money and passports. I think that watching too many Hollywood films had, at that point, given me a negative perception of Central Africa. I just associated violence and savagery with those regions. Later on, I came to realise that they were in fact a very laid-back group of people. I was actually safer walking around town at night there than I was back home in SA. That being said, the crime factor is breeding everywhere you go.
Sitting in our courtyard, explosion upon explosion going off, the look of sadness, terror and confusion on the faces of the Brazzaville natives touched my heart. To them, it was a scene that they had relived before. A gentle reminder of the country’s history echoed the Civil War that the country had endured from 1997-1999. That reign of terror where the state was being toppled resulted in many lives lost. Was the same thing happening again, was the aggressor of the previous Civil War and now president of The Republic of Congo being ousted out of his position of power as well? He was due to make an appearance in Brazzaville on that Sunday in 2012, so there were so many rumours flooding about.
By the end of that day, the official press statement was that there was an accidental fire in the arms depot that resulted in the explosives detonating. The news reports said that only 250 people were killed but I am certain that tally was much higher. No one attended work for over a week and the people of Brazzaville tried to pick up the pieces, get their lives back on track, bury their loved ones and pray for the quick recovery of their loved ones bed-ridden and critical in hospital. A month after the incident, I remember after a late-night out, we saw soldiers being handcuffed and blindfolded being questioned about the incident. In 2013, a couple of soldiers were imprisoned and charged for that ‘accidental’ fire because it turns out that there was inner turmoil brewing within the Congolese Army between soldiers from two rival ethnic tribes.
I recall my parents and boss asking me to come back home. Prior to this, I lived in France for nine months where I survived a house fire. Yes, fire and brimstone seem to follow me wherever I go for some reason. I will write about my stay in France shortly. Life in Central Africa was a struggle. A struggle because in SA, as well as in France, I lived comfortably. In Brazzaville, I had to endure power outages like it was going out of fashion and no water supply. In Central Africa, they still use the old-school, hydro-electric water pump method, so when the power is out there is no water as well. People who know me well-enough know about my OCD when it comes to cleanliness and hygiene. Those moments of me being unable to shower was tough, I was not used to a rustic lifestyle by that stage of my life. After that incident, I had a tight-knit group of fellow expat friends from SA, the USA and Europe. They made the daily struggles bearable. One of the highlights of my stay in the Congo was travelling to the Odzala National Park. I will share this experience with you in another post.
So what can I conclude? Personal growth and change for the better does not come from sitting in your comfort zone, being surrounded by the same faces who have the same mind-sets and opinions. Personal growth and inner change comes from perseverance, the willingness of the human spirit to endure and never quit. The willingness of the human spirit to be grateful for today and appreciate the little things in life. I survived something magnificent, something that has a place in history, and all it did was fuel my desire to forge on with my journey in Central Africa and grow. Even now, when I experience my lowest lows, I remind myself of the incredible journey that I had endured all by myself, I’ve survived a lot. Today, even if I have to deal with work stress or rejection in the form of a love interest, it really cannot compare to the above. Will I go back and do it all again? Absolutely! In fact, on my bucket list is a dying desire to back-pack through Africa.
A news report and video footage of the explosion as reported by the BBC: