Recent African Airport Experiences: From Presidential Shutdown to an 'Are-They-Out-to-Get-Me' Moment

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Hijinks at Kinshasa's N'Djili International: There are four separate baggage searches; you got something for us 'to drink', ask the officers at three of them, using the French for tip, AKA bribe. Let's just forget the long lines, the three different immigration officials checking the passports even before you get to the one who stamps them -- and now the computer system's gone down. Let's just say that despite the apparent total anarchy everything does get done.

Past immigration control and through a door, and yet another search; an imposing man sitting on the metal detector conveyor belt says: 'Mr. Arkus, I'm the police commander. I see you're going to Djibouti.' Gawd, called by my very own name and he has no name list in his hand! What's going on?

"My younger brother lives in Djibouti and he's got a very serious illness -- sexual impotence," quoths he. "He needs our traditional medicine. I have here a little bottle of the stuff and I wonder whether you could take it to him as a humanitarian gesture."

"Sorry, old chappie," quoths I, "as much as I'm all in favour of promoting humanitarian causes, I'm not authorised to take photos (they keep on asking you if you're authorised when you try to take a photo in DR Congo), or anything to anybody."

What was this? A drug mule recruitment effort? An entrapment attempt, with some cohort down the line ready to pounce at yet one more check point, find the bottle (drugs?) and extort a huge bribe to let me proceed?

Presidential Hiccup at Luanda's 4 de Fevereiro International: The national carrier TAAG has managed to get itself banned from going anywhere near European air space because of its 'spotty maintenance' record so I give them a miss and take what expats say is the relatively safest bet -- Air26 -- for the short hop to Angola's Cabinda enclave. The floor of the domestic terminal where the check-in clerks sit is littered with refuse -- half empty food containers, plastic water bottles, reams of paper, and the clerks' chairs are in various stages of severe to total brokenness. But the Air26 ticketers turn up right on time at 10 a.m., processing people efficiently -- and no, none of them knows why the company's called Air26, and not Air27 or Air36. One says because it's an even number. Well, so is 36, but I let it drop.

The goon at the Migration and Foreigners Service check desk has every intention of dropping me. "You need a special letter of authorisation for Cabinda," quoths he. "But your ambassador to the UN said everything was OK for Cabinda," I lie. "No, you can't go," requoths he. Is he looking for a 'gasosa' (bribe)? At this point another goon comes over and asks why I want to go to Cabinda. To look around and get out of your freaking country and on to Pointe Noire in Congo, quoth I. He must think 'freaking,' spat out loudly amid my Portuguese, means magnificent, because he smiles broadly and tells his co-goon to let me through.

The information screens in the departure lounge are not working, and every so often an employee comes round shouting out the next departing flight. This may sound stone-age, but it's a damn sight better than your regular public address system in the first world sputtering, squawking and crackling away in Klingon.

Our boarding time has already passed and suddenly the whole freaking airport has shut down. Passengers who already boarded buses to go to their planes are brought back. The president is about to land on his victorious return from the World Cup in South Africa. After nearly an hour a gleaming all-white plane with three tail jets glides in, His Excellency's 'Air Force One.' I'm tempted to sneak a photo in a country where snapping anything official from ministries to airports to banks to soldiers is most categorically forbidden. The lady to my right won't cause any trouble; she's reading a book of prayers, currently one to Saint Bras, which I assume is to make up for the maintenance reputedly lacking with Angolan air companies. But the gent on my right is a hulking great soldier with a revolver strapped to his hip, so my photo remains in pectore.

His Excellency has apparently still not moved out of the vicinity because we're still stuck half an hour later. Still, this also happens in the first world. Remember Clinton holding up everybody at Los Angeles airport for 45 minutes while he got a perm aboard Air Force One? We finally depart two hours late.

Waiting for Godot at Pointe Noire's Antonio Agostinho Neto International: Domestic airline Trans Air Congo tells me I'll lose the flight if I get to the airport later that 7 a.m. for the 9 a.m flight to Dolisie. I obediently do as told, only to be refused access to the airport and made to stand outside for more than an hour among shoeshine boys, lottery ticket sellers and other milling passengers. It must be terrible in the rainy season. Perhaps it's all to take your mind off the reputed lack of maintenance of their planes, so you end up not caring if the damn thing does crash. It's only a half an hour hop and the pilot lands with such a thump that my window shade comes slamming down.

I take Trans Air Congo again from Dolisie to Brazzaville; Western embassies and others warn most firmly against risking the train as there are ninjas in the forest in between. These are militias of the Pool people who fought a civil war and now have an uneasy self-rule arrangement -- meaning ninjas playing yo-yo with AK-47s board the thrice-weekly train as it dawdles through their territory (there are no buses or trucks) and demand money or otherwise harass travellers.

I turn up at the airport at 7 a.m. as told, even though the plane is not meant to leave till 9.45. The problem is the airport staff haven't. But this time we're allowed to queue up inside. After about half an hour the staff start dribbling in; after another half they start sitting down; after another half they start getting their act together. Once through security a beautiful lady cop smiles winningly, saying "Bon voyage to Brazzaville. What are you going to leave for us." "Nothing," quoths I, sensing a little hint of tip/bribe-seeking.

On arrival at Brazzaville's Maya-Maya domestic terminal there's total screaming chaos as swarms of barking luggage touts mill about seeking your custom to get your cases off the partially holed and cratered conveyor belt.

Biding One's Time at Addis Ababa's Bole International: the airport seems determined to cede the crown to no one for worst arrival reception. We wait for well over an hour as a single immigration official slowly goes through the inexplicably long process of stamping you in. An officious official comes over to move some of us to the line for airplane crews, which moves even more slowly. Then a second official joins the process for the original line, though you'd hardly notice any difference, and some of us move back. Everybody's muttering complaints. Time for me to hold forth: "Every country should hold up Ethiopian officials for three hours at their airports, not the ordinary people of course," quoth I. Naturally, as I get more and more radical, the immigration booth becomes vacant, the immigration official is gesturing furiously and my audience is shouting at ME to get a move on.

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Also by the same author, Shakespearean spoofs on current day politics at