My Friends Started a Bus Company in the Congo
The two first “Amani Express” buses
In August 2010, I travelled to Rwanda with three friends to cover the presidential election. We spent a month there and I headed back to Europe, but my friends – Yassin, Arthur and Louis-Guillaume – crossed the border to the Democratic Republic of Congo and came up with the totally predictable idea of starting their own Congolese bus company, the “Amani Express”, which translates to Peace Express in English.
The DRC is reportedly the sixth most corrupt country in Africa and its roads are rarely paved, so it didn't exactly seem like the most fertile ground for a start-up bus company, but that didn't dissuade my three friends, who settled in Butembo, North-Kivu and have built their company into a successful one, all the way from the ground up.
I thought this was all pretty impressive, so last time Yassin and Louis-Guillaume were in Paris, I asked them some questions about their business.
Amani Express' first passengers
VICE: What prompted you setting up your own company in the Democratic Republic of Congo ?
Yassin: Ignorance, mainly. We didn't realise all the factors that put off foreign investors from starting businesses in the DRC. Some surveys rank the DRC as the sixth most corrupt country in Africa in order to dissuade people like us from investing money there. We were a little naïve, but that’s ultimately what brought us so far.
LG: We were completely amazed by the country as soon as we crossed the border. We really wanted to settle in a hostile environment and live an extraordinary adventure.
Did your skin colour cause any problems fitting in?
Yassin: My dad is Somali, so I thought I'd be able to be the link between the Congolese and us, but I quickly realised that, to them, all three of us were white. When we got there, people called us “muzungu”, which means “the white man” or “the rich man”. We thought that the authorities in the region would eventually give us more credit because of the company, but they didn’t. The company still suffers from corruption because of our skin colour, but our relationship with the local population has changed; we're now seen as real members of our neighbourhood.
LG: It's difficult to establish your personality and go beyond skin colour at the beginning. Even though the authorities take advantage of it, people tend to put us on a pedestal for some reason. They're very respectful and admiring towards us and almost treat us as if we were superior to them. It's very strange.
Yassin, Arthur and the Amani Express team.
Did you get into much trouble with the local authorities?
LG: [Laughs] They're probably the main source of our problems.
Yassin: They call it “hassle” over there. Mind you, that can mean “a gun to the head”, which is definitely a hassle. On several occasions, soldiers sent by the local chief of immigration – who we know very well now – turned up at our house at dawn. I guess he thought, 'This was a bad month, I need money, so how about sending a few armed men to put pressure on the expats and extort some money from them?'
Wow, that sucks.
LG: It's unbelievable. The police representative always comes to us and tries to convince us he could kick us out of the country or throw us in jail.
Yassin: We regularly have to face those kind of situations, but so they don't mess with our business, we have no choice but to maintain a stable “friendship” with the chief of immigration. That means we have a monthly corruption budget that ranges from £25 to £1,250.
Yassin, LG and a friend from the local police
Does the political situation in the country have any repercussions on your company?
Yassin: We’re still trying to determine what extent war has on our business. We have a lot of trouble at borders, for example, because of all the different armed militias fighting over the territory and imposing their own taxes. Of course, that affects the company because the border taxes keep fluctuating and we can't get a stable accountancy.
Butembo. The street where the agency is based.
Has it ever affected you on a personal level?
LG: We were woken up one morning by the sound of gunfire and I got a text from a Congolese friend saying, “Stay at home. They're shooting everywhere.” There had been a clash between the Mai-Mai – rebels from the jungle who are rarely sober – and troops from the AFDRC (the Congolese army) near the airport, a couple of kilometres away from our front yard. That same day, Yassin and I had to go to Kampala in Uganda via the road where the fighting had taken place. We saw a load of dead bodies lying on the ground right next to us: four Mai-Mai bodies, two of them with their genitals cut off.
Yassin: It was terrible. And it was completely insane to see how indifferent everyone looked, especially the kids. It made the whole thing feel like an everyday occurrence.
Bodies of dead Mai-Mai rebels.
What about your own employees? Have you had much trouble with them?
The first manager we hired for our company was a friend who we'd met out there. He helped us fit in, acted as a real link between us and the locals and we shared a house with him for eight months, but he eventually tried to get us kicked out of the country so he could claim all the company's assets. The company's in good hands now, though. Our current manager is a brilliant man and we know we can trust him.
Some of the employees in Butembo.
Would you say that you've adapted well to the Congolese lifestyle overall?
LG: It was a radical change. We have no running water or electricity here. Needless to say, we don’t have the same degree of comfort as in Europe, but, in a way, our life isn't so different here. Our habits are the same. In terms of the Congolese lifestyle; things do happen a bit slower. The entire structure of society is based on the idea that you can’t predict anything. I guess you just get used to it after a while.
More from Congo:
Watch - The VICE Guide to Congo