The first trip to Congo

This post by Founder Nate Houghton outlines his first trip to Kinshasa.

The first thing to do when you’re nineteen and interested in working in the Congo is arrange a trip. The second thing to do is tell your parents that you have arranged a trip. The order is important.

My first time in Kinshasa was January of 2009. It involved being on a plane for so long that I forgot I was on a plane, no doubt helped by the free Heineken from the friendly folks at Ethiopian Air. Landing in Kinshasa was surreal, partially because I had not slept in over a day and partially because I had spent so much time reading about this place that to see it was unreal. The airport in Kinshasa has one runway, and once we landed, the plane had to turn around and goes back down the runway to get closer to the terminal. I remember that the soldiers who escorted us from the plane were heavily armed and I remember bribing the immigration officer with a $10 bill. At that point, I didn’t know any better.

At the airport, I met Mukila. Mukila’s job is simple: he gets visitors out of the airport without any hassle. After four trips, I’ve determined that he does this by charging people like me a fee, disbursing portions of this revenue to customs officials, police officers, and soldiers as his “cost of business”, and making a profit on the “margins”. That way, his customers can leave the airport without so much as a question or sideways glance. This makes perfect sense to me now, but at the time, it seemed like magic.


Mukila on the way from the airport

Mukila escorted me to my hosts from Kinshasa’s Presbyterian community. I still had not slept, but when they asked if I would like to see one of the schools they support, I couldn’t say no. I still remember the children – there must have been at least forty in every classroom – and how excited they were. The entire school stopped its lessons and I bumbled through French greetings in every classroom. If I had any doubts about my trip at that point, they were erased after seeing these students!

After the trip, people would often ask how I spent my time in the Congo – probably envisioning some sort of jungle adventure with a local guide complete with unimaginable flora and fauna. The truth is that my work in Kinshasa was filled with meetings just like my work in the United States. The only differences were language and temperature.

Fortunately, the meetings were productive. When I say that the Leadership Institute is truly a Congolese program, I mean it! From the very beginning, the programming was created by our Congolese partners. The first trip is where this started.

I returned from my first trip excited about the possibilities and with our theory of change reaffirmed. It was time to get to work building an organization.

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