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Congo Fever

Doug Casey’s Note: I’ve often said that, knowing what I do today, if I were 30 years old and wanted to seek my fortune, I’d definitely go to Africa.

Why? If you’re a white man from North America or Europe, you’re still a fairly rare and exotic commodity in most of Africa. People will want to meet you, not only because you’re unusual, but because you come from a richer and more sophisticated society.

Being in Africa puts you on an “unlevel” playing field. Just by virtue of your background, you have more knowledge, money, connections, and experience than 98% of the locals. That gives you an advantage you don’t have at home, where there are tens of millions just like you. That’s a huge opportunity.

In this article, my friend Francois recounts part of a recent adventure in the Congo. Which is still, as Joseph Conrad described it 100 years ago, the Heart of Darkness. Congo is the deep end of the pool… not recommended for travelers who haven’t already been around the block a few times.

Here’s a taste of what you may encounter when you get out into the bush. Amazon.com Gift Card i... Buy New $10.00 (as of 08:25 UTC - Details)

By Francois Houdain

“I’m screwed – I’m totally screwed,” says Eugenio.

He’s standing right next to me and has good reason to panic. It’s 3 a.m. and we have just landed in the Democratic Republic of Congo. We are making our way inside the Kinshasa airport, and he just realized he forgot his yellow fever vaccination certificate back in Italy. They probably won’t let him into the country. Actually, I don’t think they will even let him get to the customs section of the airport. Upon arrival in any Sub-Saharan country, you have to prove having been vaccinated against yellow fever – or you will probably get deported.

“Get behind me – and try to stay right behind me as I walk forward,” I quickly suggest to him.

It might work. There are about two hundred drowsy people advancing in three semi-lines. Mostly Africans but some white people as well. Most look like NGO types, a few tourists maybe, and some big guys. Military trainers, I think to myself. There’s a lot of confusion everywhere, and since Eugenio is short and smaller than I, they might not notice him. If, but only if, I am allowed to keep walking while I wave my yellow fever document.

Eugenio couldn’t catch sleep on the Nairobi-Kinshasa flight and neither could I, so we spent the night chatting about anything that could kill time. He says he’s Italian, but I heard him speak Arabic on the cell prior to take-off. He looks more like a Lebanese than an Italian to me. He has a girlfriend in the Congo, he says. Italy all the way to the Congo for a woman? I asked myself. Everybody who goes to Africa has a front, but this one is hard to believe. Unless, I guess, she’s Miss Congo.

I’m stopped in my tracks by a Congolese official wearing a white medical robe. He’s carrying himself with the authority of a nurse, but maybe he’s just an airport employee. He flips through the pages of my document, scans each page, checks the vaccination date, nods to me “ok,” and I start walking away. Alas, there is not enough confusion for Eugenio to blend into. The official blocks him with his arm. I keep walking but turn to look at him. He mumbles something in French, petrified. Good luck, Eugenio, and I head to customs.

Last night the plane was full and it was a long haul from Nairobi. The cabin was dark and when I looked out the window, Africa below was even darker. No lights, nothing shimmering anywhere, for hours. Like going from Barcelona to Moscow over a jungle.

The road I am on now, from the airport to the hotel, is nearly as dark. The man who has come to pick me up was recommended by a guy I know at an embassy in Rome. I don’t feel safe regardless.

Solar radiation in Africa is so strong that it can literally disable you. Overheating can happen before you know it. Sunlight flashes through the hotel room from behind the curtains and wakes me up. My bed is a pool of sweat. I sit up and hold my head. The hand on my forehead tells me I have a temperature.

I stumble to my feet and open the curtains. The sun is already high in the sky, but down below I see the hotel workers toiling in the garden. None are wearing hats. I guess these people have been used to the sun for millennia. I look up and stare beyond the garden and the hotel walls and observe the low-rises of the Kinshasa skyline in the distance.

Why am I here? I ask myself again.

My hazy mind drifts back to Rome for a beat. One of the two African colonels sitting in front me looks like a dangerous dude. I try not to look at him too much, because I’m suspicious and I’m not that good at hiding my thoughts. Not for very long at least. The other colonel is a bit more affable, in the sense that he smiles more, but all I keep seeing are two ruthless men in African military uniforms, even if they are wearing civilian clothes. Good cop, bad cop. I’m glad a large, round coffee table is between me and these guys. Some distance always helps in observing people.

The third African near me, the one who organized the meeting in this four-star hotel on a road leading to the Vatican, is the Person. The Person is too high-profile to be identified as either a woman or a man. The Person is talking to me about the Project. To substantiate the validity of the Project and credentials, the Person flicks through a gallery of pics on the cellphone and shows me each one. The Person is seriously connected, obviously, standing and smiling next to several French presidents, various African presidents, prime ministers, and even a pope or two.

On paper, the estimated numbers for this Bandundu region diamond mine are impressive: 200 tons of gravel with an average minimum of 15 carats of diamonds per cubic meter. At a minimum production of 200,000 times 15 carats that equals 3,000,000 carats of diamonds. That’s a lot of carats.

On behalf of a prudent investor I’m going to see if this place really exists. He is smart and isn’t paying a penny in advance to the Project people. First we need to see if it’s a working mine, if there is any extraction, or if it’s just a dugout. I have a high level go-to name and a cell number once I am in the area, a very senior official, let’s say.

It’s a thorny part of the jungle, apparently, but nothing much was happening in Nairobi so I decided after all to take the Rome job – and the risk. I will take some pictures and get out very quickly. Plus, being in the Congo might give me a chance to meet other people for other projects.

“I didn’t pay you in advance for this heap of rust on four tires – I paid you in advance to get me a real jeep with real A/C!!!”

My voice raised, I’m leaning forward from the back seat of the car.

My embassy contact sitting in the front is getting an earful. He took the money and instead of hiring a driver with a jeep, he hired a driver and a rusty Toyota with no A/C. Sixty euro a day – for a car worth ten euro – and he pocketed the rest. I don’t feel like wasting an afternoon or a day to find a better car and driver, so I just tell him to get me to this mine, as fast as possible.

“Monsieur, the area you want to go is dangerous. I couldn’t find anybody but this driver,” he tells me.

I feel feverish, the day didn’t start well, and we are behind schedule.

“OK,” I tell him, “but tell your guy to drive faster.”

I sit back and try to chill. Maybe a beat-up car that doesn’t get much attention might be better, after all.

Looking at Congo means looking into the abyss of Africa. On and off, the country has been at war for decades. Millions killed, millions displaced, about a million guns fired millions of times. War beats down a path for chaos. And human life aside, the second great casualty of war – while rule by law goes out the window – is a free market economy with healthy competition. Someone is benefiting from this chaos, and it must be the thugs – white, yellow, or black – who hoard its resources.

When asked for more money by his soldiers, the former dictator Mobutu apparently said: “Why do you want more salary? You have guns.”

Well, in the Congo, guns probably keep prices down. When you have AK-47 machine guns all around you, you better quote the lowest price for that natural resource or the next metal your workers will have to extract will be the lead shot into your body. The untapped potential in mineral resources of the Congo is estimated at 24 trillion dollars. If Fort Knox has about 300 billion dollars’ worth of gold, then the Congo is a giant jungle vault worth 80 times that.

We left Kinshasa an hour and a half ago. I’m sweating profusely. I usually enjoy my field trips, but not today. Today I just want to get this done and over with. I want to be there at 3 p.m., stay one hour, be back in Kinshasa by 8 p.m. I’m not a geologist anyway, just reconnaissance for hire.

As we drive north-northeast, I look out the window and gaze at nature. In random sequence, it’s one gorgeous palm tree after another, one majestic tree and one lush bush after another. Congo’s scenery is monumental. I go into a quiet trance for a few minutes, pacified by this splendid, evergreen motion picture.

Soldiers halt us at a checkpoint. From the back seat, I can spot at least twenty of them. My driver turns off the engine. What now? I think. A tall African in his mid-thirties, wearing on his upper body an AK-47 and lots of ammunition, walks over to our car. He immediately notices me, and he moves over to the side window.

“Vous allez où?”

The soldier looks at me quizzically, first, then gives a onceover at the old Toyota. As his torso turns, so does his rifle, previously practically pointing at me.

I lean my head out the window.

“I’m going to see a mine; it’s only two hours away.”

Then I drop the name of the senior official and wait for his reaction. But there isn’t one.

“You will not see any mine, because there is no mine in this region,” he tells me in a stern tone not only shaking his head, but completely ignoring the name I just floated. “Monsieur, turn this car around, and go back,” his AK-47 pointing back in my direction.

Sweat pours down from my forehead. I want to think for a moment on what to do.

Should I call the Person? Should I admonish this soldier armed to his teeth, by telling him he is making a big mistake, that the senior official is important, that it will get him into trouble to disrespect him like this? Should I pull out some cash and bargain my way forward?

I give one quick glance at the jungle all around me, which suddenly seems thicker and darker. I wipe the sweat off my face and make the split-second decision. I tap the embassy guy on the shoulder.

“C’mon, let’s go back.”

Our car now heading back to Kinshasa, I am free to think. I think that the soldier was lying, of course, because the Bandundu region is full of mines. I think that power must change hands fast in the Congo, because my local contact is no longer the flavor of the month, no longer pulling weight, and probably, the Person didn’t know that.  I especially think that beyond those soldiers, the official lines would have blurred: no more uniforms, no more state. Just more firearms, precious resources, and God knows what else.

I remember what an Israeli I know had told me over the phone before leaving: Amazon.com Gift Card i... Buy New $25.00 (as of 06:10 UTC - Details)

“That region is an unstable area to get in and out of – we don’t think any product can be moved out of there consistently. Not without security problems. But it may have changed.”

They probably know more than anyone else does but not entirely either. Russian politics are a riddle wrapped in a mystery, Churchill once said. Congo politics makes me think of a bushfire in a mine field.

When I travel, I never know whom I’m going to meet, so I fly wearing a blue suit and pack my one tie and the “essential other” in a carry-on. The essential other for Africa is emergency anti-malaria fever pills, the yellow fever certificate, disinfectant for cuts, and eye drops against the dust.

I step out of the taxi and walk into the airport fast, hoping to go through airport security quickly. I want to throw the carry-on aboard the plane and leave Congo.

The plane finally starts moving. As usual, I close my eyes when the plane takes off, soothed by the sensation of body and head tilting back. Not that I don’t pay attention to the sound of the jet engines under stress from exerting all that power necessary to get airborne.

The plane levels out and I open my eyes. Getting from the Congo to Kigali, Rwanda, shouldn’t take more than three hours. I look out the window. Against a bright blue sky, dozens of white, mushroom-shaped clouds float like huge air balloons – high above the jungle.

I check my forehead. I’m not sweating anymore. I sip and swallow some water, stretch my legs, and I feel relaxed – and safe. From all that jungle fever.

Reprinted with permission from International Man.

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