A DUTCH Adventurer, storyteller, author & entrepreneur in DRC
Roland Verbiest is a Dutchman who arrived to the Democratic Republic of the Congo 12 years ago (in 2011). He has a trucking company called Grand Pousseur in Kinshasa and used to travel frequently on the Congo river to the interior to deliver beers for the local breweries.
He has written down folk stories in Lingala in a book and told them himself in Lingala to the people along the river (see the video).
He has written a book called Blauw Hout or Blue Wood in Dutch about his life in the DRC. I have yet to read it as it is in Dutch. I need to find a translated version.
I met him through a common friend. We were invited for a meal at his house in May 2022. We were amazed by the local art sculptures in his house that he built with old containers. We also watched his documentary of his trips to Kisangani by boat (link below).
His metallic creations are a work of art.
He wrote a great article in Dutch that I translated thanks to Google. Apologies for some mistakes as I don’t speak Dutch.
Read it below.
Google Translation of Location Kinshasa by Roland Verbiest on Elders Literair website
“Traffic on Boulevard Lumumba continues to push toward downtown Kinshasa this morning, and the shouts of the wewa, the motorcycle taxis and the shouts of the ‘ress’ – the receptionists of the 207D Mercedes taxi vans – are getting louder.
The Boulevard has an extra reason to compete for the title of ‘Getting rid of the most horrific traffic jam in the world’: it connects the airport with the city, and now everyone has to pull aside, because that’s where the sirens of motorcycle cops are wailing.
A dozen luxury SUVs with blinded windows and flashing 4×4 lights have to pass. Priority for guests of the president or perhaps the president himself. The traffic jam doesn’t budge and an army of black-suited civilian agents with sunglasses and walkie-talkies jump out of the lead Fortuner and start shouting too.
The elite column is guided over the path of oncoming traffic. Then every taxi thinks it has that right and the scene of wild debauchery and animal roughness is complete.
In front of the 18e Rue, the last side road of the 6.5 kilometer long Boulevard, stands a gold-colored statue of Patrick Lumumba, the former ‘Premier ministre’. He raises a deflecting hand, as if to say, “Easyyyyyyyy!!” and: ‘This color was not my choice!’
Despite his somewhat restrained character, he had to pay for that protesting attitude with his death in 1960 when he was shot by the Belgians. A park is being built to honor him, but that idea came long after President Mobutu’s 1970 plan to build a two hundred meter high tower as a tourist attraction.
The idea of the statue only came up last year, but while the traffic around it demonstrates its presence in all tones, this park is quiet. The public is still waiting for it to wind down.
In addition to the busy four-lane road, two ‘petit boulevards’ run parallel, intended as entrances and exits to and from the side streets. They are not paved and offer the desolate appearance of disused streets. There is a petrol station in front of the entrance of the 18e Rue where we have our garage.
The station has been cordoned off because the owner has not arranged his deliveries of diesel and petrol properly. The staff in uniform leans against the pumps, waiting for the tanker.
On the left side of the station is the entrance to the Kinshasa bus company. There is also little movement here, because most buses are on the site with a breakdown. This is the third time in the twelve years I’ve been here that I’ve witnessed an attempt to realize bus transportation.
The management and the politicians skim off the cash from the tickets and the maintenance budget. For repairs, parts are removed from buses that are there for maintenance, which means that more and more buses are left behind at the depot.
We are waiting for a fourth foreign injection for the purchase of a hundred brand new buses, which will then be raced in about four years.
To the right of the gas station on the corner of 18e Rue is a container painted dark blue with the inscription ‘République Démocratique de Congo, Ville de Kinshasa, Ministère intérieur et sécurité, Département police, Antenna Limete industrielle. Equipe d’Intervention’ and some titles in a smaller letter below.
In front of the container are two chairs and two officers sitting still, their legs stretched out and the faces of ungainly dogs watching what passes by. Their machine guns haven’t seen a drop of oil in four years. Every day the officers get up early, because many things can happen, and every day they go to bed early, because too little has happened to think about.
Something is wrong. Too many loose ends. This continues throughout the city. There is therefore something wrong with the atmosphere, with the stories woven from thousands of threads that make a city.
They don’t seem to form a pattern here, and when they do, many unfinished and dark patterns have emerged in addition to the pompous, carnivalesque, shimmering patterns. A golden thread is missing here.
That golden thread is yet to come. In the coming months we will read and understand the four-year election cycle as it can be followed in the streets, factories and buildings of the Limete industrial district around Boulevard Lumumba, because it is much clearer to read there than in newspapers or on social media.
Though Boulevard Lumumba has all the gritty, well-thumbed, dusty, and impersonal of a thoroughfare, oil and cartridges are dispensed here in November for the policemen’s machine guns, for here will rise a shriek whose shrillness the dusty air of Boulevard Lumumba and all of Kinshasa will cut through like a sharp arrow that will fly straight for the heart of the Congo. But before this spectacle of the election circus fulfills its promises, here are the clowns. The trapeze artists are still waiting.
A young man, not too tall, slender, naturally black, with long rasta hair and earplugs, swings past the blue container. The cops are either used to him or they’re sleeping behind their sunglasses, because they don’t budge when he passes them. Shaka hasn’t had it easy in his life. Fled the war at the age of fifteen and came to Kinshasa on his own from the east, only to live on the streets for several years. He got over that. I met him at an exhibition. Not much later he used our garage as a backdrop for photos of plastic costumes he had made. I have been working with him for several months now.
Shaka’s choice of clothing is peculiar. He almost always wears high mountain boots and overalls, but has a fine eye for colors and effects. Everything always so accentuated that he emerges as a character appropriate to the scene of his actions. Those are the facts for him as an artist. He ignores the precepts of the prevailing fashion and creates it himself.
Shaka calls himself plasticine. With bold plans and ideas that glow with a barbaric sheen, shimmer and piquancy, he recreates plastic waste into art objects.
We have now opened a bar at the place where trucks from Kikwit and Bandundu-ville unload their vegetables: Liberté, the largest market in Kinshasa. Shaka has completely decorated the bar container with plastic bottles, cans and caps. The name of the bar is Kuku Pemba, a figure from an ancient, almost forgotten story from the Kikwit area.
On an old piece of steel is written: ‘Kuku Pemba dit: réduire, récycler, ré-utiliser. Ca c’est la solution!’ With this we make a statement about the incredible amount of plastic in Kinshasa and the lack of any organization in the garbage collection. The project has been very well received and the neighbors are now also making curtains from caps. What is made of waste is recognized by these Congolese as a cool cultural object.
Shaka walks down 18th Rue to our garage. I always wonder what it is about his smile. How many times has he upset people with this? That smile is an answer to questions for which normal answers fall short. He exudes something of the innocence of a totally uncorrupted being. He usually lives up to that image, but not always. He showed in the beginning that he can also be a rascal. When I suggested the idea of turning a container into a bar, he first responded enthusiastically, with a flamboyant imagination, as if every idea was turned into a feeling and every feeling into a passion, and he was all attention.
But when the conversation shifted to the execution phase and he was sure he would get money, he relaxed considerably. Shaka often looks up thoughtfully, surprised at where his stream of words has led him. But not at that moment, because there his smile appeared, compelling, irresistible, there suddenly sat a complete human being, one who can conquer the world with a single facial expression. He gives a little giggle, “Hey!”, and licks his lips like a satisfied cat.
Despite his street manners, I’ve embraced Shaka and live with his routine of coming every day with a smile to report that he has no money—yes, he’s on a paycheck—and needs something, content with this obvious hindrance to hide behind.
Shaka, like all of us here, has to work hard, including cleaning up his own mess. When I remind him of this, he looks at me blankly for a moment as if to say, “You can’t blame a tiger for not having wings.”
Shaka arrives at the garage and I enjoy watching him so earnestly and idiosyncratically edit, arrange and string plastic bottles together with the patience, ingenuity and need to forget of a prisoner. In our garage there is a looser atmosphere, partly due to Shaka, and we enjoy our dream and the idea that creating is the most real thing there is.
In the coming months, life will lose much of its uplifting side. I have been through the electoral circus in Congo twice and now I know a little bit about what to expect. The incumbent government’s actions are imminent, and we are already seeing many indications of this. Decent people are scarce when a prestigious position is to be had.
The majority view power as something to be shown off and not used for good. There come moments with such an oppressive atmosphere that it seems as if you see ten possible ways out quickly reduced to one. Then you are not talkative. You hold your breath and feed on the head of one lung, while the bullets fly over your head, and you spare the rest, dark and silent.
Will the election noise make Shaka look harder in the coming months and will his eyes darken? Will a depraved hand draw a first wrinkle in his soul and give him a first gray hair? I predict: no! Perhaps because Congolese have been tested so many times as a metal that has reached its highest hardness under the most extreme temperatures.
And I already know that it will be hot. This circus is gruesome and unforgettable, but in the end leaves no more impression on people than a footstep on a muddy road in the rainy season. How is all that possible? Shut up now! We’re going to hurry. Highly Honored Audience!! The last business has already started. And according to an old theater law, that is always the shortest.
In our garage, partly due to Shaka, there is an even looser atmosphere and we enjoy our dream and the idea that creating is the only and most real thing there is.”
“Roland Verbiest is a one hit wonder in the writing field. ‘Okay, but a firefly then!’ he says himself. He was the founder of DOEN, a Hague entertainment magazine that he led for ten years, with a team that later gave birth to the Haagse Harry comic series.
Verbiest started an events agency and is the inventor and – for fifteen years – organizer of the Haagse Koninginnenach. He also organized the Ha-Schi-Ba Haagse Schilderwijk Bazar, and FAST, a surf village in Scheveningen. However, after various complications in The Hague, he was sidelined.
That hurt him, but he picked himself up and started a transport company in the Democratic Republic of Congo together with his brother. He published the book Blauwhout (2018) about his experiences in Congo.”
Standplaats Kinshasa – Elders Literair
Description : translated from Dutch
“Two brothers from The Hague see their careers stranded in the Netherlands and decide to chase an old childhood dream: a transport company in Congo and living and working with and among the local population.
They soon run into the harsh Congolese reality. After two years, stunned by all the intimidation, they must conclude that they have been completely stolen. And yet the thought rears its head more and more: This can’t be true!
There must be something else besides all that craziness. They have the opportunity to increase their company’s income by managing two push boats, so-called Grand Pousseurs, on the Congo River. The author learns more and more about tribal culture, which stubbornly adheres to concepts and traditions that have developed over the centuries and that are resorted to at every opportunity. Everywhere in Congo, for example, traditional heads are still regularly initiated who are given power over the people in their village, district, or province, because those who talk a lot and convincingly are listened to. The initiations take place during ceremonies in which the entire village is present, and the initiate is endowed with properties that make it possible to call upon the metaphysical thoughts of ancestors or the forces of nature. During the nocturnal ceremony in this book, two old maîtres coutumiers – traditional chiefs – dispute power. It will be a sultry night full of hallucinatory events in front of a frenzied circle of participants. What exactly happened that night is bizarre enough, but this mystical ceremony is of such importance that a secret is revealed and that offers a counterbalance to this crazy Congo.”
Roland Verbiest brings back an ancient legend to the ba ngombe tribe at km 1300 of the river Congo.
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