AF 888 – a letter from above the Mediterranean Sea
by Christian Botale Molebo*
Air France Flight 888: Paris-Kinshasa, 29 August 2013, departure time: 9:45. A Congolese woman is being deported. I am in seat 36J, economy class.
The deportee looks to be 30 or so. She is escorted by French police in civvies and armbands: a woman in her 40s and two younger men.
They enter through the rear, evading the passengers’ gazes, and settle at the very back of the plane. At first, the woman is silent; she seems to be unconscious, or maybe she is sleeping. As the plane takes off, she cries out in Lingala: “Nako kende te!” (“I don’t want to leave!”) She screams this over and over and, as we gain altitude, panic spreads through the cabin.
The captain, his crew and the police try to calm things down, but the woman won’t stop screaming, so they handcuff her and a cop clamps her mouth shut with a gloved hand. At the passengers’ behest, the woman calms down. Ninety per cent of the people on board are Congolese.
“Ebongaki osala makelele oyo tangu nanu avion emati te,” she is told. “You should have screamed before the plane took off; now it’s too late.”
Still, people are angry, tense. Many have unbuckled their seatbelts; others are standing up. They want to know what, exactly, is going on at the back of the plane. Over the PA system, the captain warns, “If things don’t quiet down, I’ll land in Algiers, the closest airport to here.”
This seriously upsets the passengers. “Toboyi!” they call out. “No way!” Loud complaints: Air France costs a fortune and no one was told about the woman at the back of the plane. The captain and the policewoman make the rounds, explaining to people that this isn’t Air France’s fault: they’re just following the law. The passengers respond that the law is making the plane unsafe and causing a change of course, to which their answer is: “Te, te, te” (“No, no, no”), “Alger te!”
The captain makes another announcement: the plane is now in danger and people may die. If things don’t calm down immediately he’ll make for Algiers. In fact, he says, he’s radioing Algiers air control right now.
The food comes. Many Congolese refuse to eat. Because they are angry, but also because the crew has run out of chicken with mustard sauce. No one wants to eat the “risotto-style, four grain medley with parmesan”.
After the meal, things calm down. It’s less tense in the cabin and the police escort tries to make friends. The captain apologises over the PA system. The policewoman says they’re not to blame, that she and her colleagues are just doing what they’ve been told to do, that they were taken by surprise as well – they only found out they were on this detail this very morning. It’s their bosses who made the decision.
After some back and forth, a Congolese man gets up to pass a hat around; the idea is to collect a little money so the woman at the back of the plane will have something on her when she arrives. As things stand, she has nothing – not even a suitcase. Three hundred euros or so are raised. Now things are really calming down. People are talking with the crew, with the police. A lady asks the cops to uncuff the woman, so she can eat. We’ve been in the air for five hours by now. But the woman won’t eat. She’s afraid her meal has been poisoned. The lady takes a bite to show her it’s okay. The woman eats and drinks a little.
The passengers give the woman the money and wish her luck. They ask the police not to turn her over to Congolese immigration, as she’ll be ransomed and thrown in jail all over again. One man offers to take custody of her. But the police say they can’t allow that, that they have to follow procedure.
The rest of the flight goes well. A good vibe settles in. Passengers, crew and police – in an orderly fashion everyone gets up to get a drink. Everyone but the woman at the back of the plane.
*translated by Dominique Malaquais
Christian Botale Molebo is a performance artist and storyteller based in Kinshasa.
The issue offers forays into interlaced subjects of power, resistance, protest, mobilisation, mobility and belonging.
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