Soon after moving in to our flat in Green point, I started chatting with the doormen of our building. To my surprise all of them are from Congo.
When I say surprised, it´s due to the fact that I know South Africa struggles with a high unemployment rate. Thus I find it interesting that the land lord of the building I live in only hire Congolese men. Now, surely I know Congo is a country in a much worse state than South Africa – especially considering the seemingly never ending conflicts there. However, the reasons for why there are so many Congolese men working in our building, has probably not so much to do with their boss´ concern about their situation, it has to do with greed, as most wrongful situations in this world.
The doorman Ill tell about today is called Costa. One of the nicest and hardest working persons Ive ever met. A young, good looking man with the softest skin and friendliest eyes. Eyes that normally are open when ours are closed, as Costa mostly works night shifts in our building. Although occasionally – when I’ve arrived home late – I’ve caught him asleep on his blue plastic chair next to the entrance. As much as I’ve then tried to sneak in and pass him silently on my way to the elevator, he’s always quickly lifted his head and sat up straight (on that clearly uncomfortable plastic chair of his), and stared firmly into the wall in front of him.
When that happened in the beginning, I normally looked his way while waiting for the elevator and said things like Hello, or Good night, or Hi, don’t worry, it’s late, yet it struck me that he hardly ever looked back at me while replying hello or goodnight back. He just stared into the wall or at his MP3 player.
Honestly it made me think he’s ashamed for having slept while on duty. As if he’s afraid of me telling someone about it. I don’t know. Either way, these encounters made me feel sorry for him as I can only imagine how it’s like sitting on that blue chair for hours with nothing to do or nobody to talk to. Part from that I got very curious about his life. One morning when I was on my way out for a run, I decided to talk to him. After we’d exchanged names and I’d told him who I was and that I simply was curious about his life and job, he softened up and seemed comfortable with my questions.
It turned into a chat for over an hour.
During that time, these are some of the things Costa told me: He’s worked night shifts in the building for 10 months. Each shift lasts for 12 hours and sometimes he works daytime somewhere else. How that’s even possible both mentally and physically, we can only imagine, but just for the record I tried my best not to react like a shocked naive Norwegian by the things Costa told me.
One of the most interesting lessons learned is that thousands of Congolese men work as security guards in Cape Town. Apparently. According to my new friend, all of them are exploited by (white) land lords in the sense of getting paid below the national minimum wage and working too long shifts. And hold your horses: All of them knows they are. Thing is, they feel like they have no other choice.
Fair enough I thought, although I couldn’t resist suggesting that they should protest about it, create a movement or take it to the media or something. Costa meant that is out of the question, as most of them are here illegally. We just have to be fine with whatever we get, he repeated.
Albeit his gloomy situation, Costa seemed happy that Congolese people are welcome in South Africa, claiming they’re overall respected as hard workers. Most of his new friends in South Africa were people from his home country and he was clearly proud that luckily all of them had a job. Nevertheless, he doesn’t think the South African government does much to improve the situation for immigrants so that they can get equal contracts and salaries as South Africans. For that, he said, it’s too much chaos and unemployment here already.
Do you consider yourself as lucky though? I asked him. Because of this job?
No, not really. But there’s nothing else I can do. If you mean, compared to others living on the street, of course. But this situation isn’t human, it’s not right. I have an education from Congo, I could work as a professional, but with this situation it’s very difficult. We all just know that we have to work with irrelevant stuff like this to survive in order to get anywhere in this country. Or anywhere else for that matter.
Do you dream of living somewhere else? Or to move back to Congo?
I would love to go to Europe, of course! Everybody wants to go there! But it’s very challenging to get there. It costs a lot of money, and is a long journey. I’m hoping everyday that I suddenly find a way to go… As for Congo, Id never want to go back there. It only represent a sad chapter of my life, that now is behind me.
Don’t you miss it?
I try not to. I try to live here and now. My family understands, and they want me to have a secure job here rather than living in Congo with no future. I speak weekly on the phone with people back home. And well, my mother cries, like all mothers, but she is a very strong woman.
We also spoke about politics, the history of conflicts in Congo and the music culture. He told me to check out two old artists called Papa Wemba and Tabu Ley, one of which also apparently played in two of Costa’s favorite Congolese movies La vie es belle and Kinshasa kids. The latter is a must see he said, apparently it was made recently. When I said I don’t think I’ve seen it he looked at me as if we were talking about not having seen the movie E.T!
Clearly I had to watch the trailer on Youtube and I must say it looks amazing.
So. I really enjoyed talking to Costa. He’s such an updated guy with a good sense of humor and a good soul. He’s just one of the many born in the freaking wrong place on this planet. Or better put: doomed because of the ongoing wrongfulness in the place he’s living in, with few possibilities to move somewhere else.
Some days later I asked him if he wasn’t very bored of starring in the wall. He had already told me his mp3 player was going him on the nerves, thus had the headset more hanging around the check than on top of his head. I said I could try finding him some new music, or at least something to read. Before going to bed I lend him a book on tourism as it was the only literature I had in English. On my way out the next morning he had left it by my door with a note on the cover: Merci Jeanette.
Next time we met he told me he actually loved the subject, and that in all honesty his old dream had been to go back to Congo and work with tourism development (!) His opinion was that Congo actually is perfect for tourism, just like South Africa is. That it’d be perfect if it wasn’t for the wars. He told how beautiful and green Congo is, with the richest wildlife and interesting cultures. And the nicest people.
Recently we spoke about how important a good level of English is for his improved future, and especially if he wants a position in the tourism industry here. A fun fact is that Costa has a degree in Business and Administration and thus thinks he could have good chances in consulting work, – if only his English improves.
When our eyes met and he talked like this, I tried my best to picture that all my energy and love, and best wishes were transportable. I wanted so badly to give it all out to him, to give him hope and strength… I wanted to inspire him to believe in himself and the situation, and to get the hell away from this exploitative job that only tires the young shit out of him.
He seemed very surprised, stood up from the plastic chair and timidly shook my hand. Then he shared his concern about whether his English is good enough to read it, so we agreed that if it isn’t or if he didn’t like the book, he could just give it back to me. Either way, I said, it’s crucial to read more English in order to get better. Just underline the words you don’t understand and keep a dictionary close so that you can translate as you go.
Shortly after I never saw Costa again.
When I asked one of the other doormen about him, they said he got a new job in another building.
Luckily I had left a note inside of the book. It said:
You are a beautiful soul Costa. I hope you’ll keep and nurture your bright opinions – and more than anything your dreams. Trust that they will give you the strength to continue fighting. The way might be long, but that’s part of living and part of achieving whatever and whoever we want to be. I hope this book can inspire you.