The event is so hidden away from any boxing traditions that one half-expects Muhammad Ali to approach his opponent and murmur, "Dr. Foreman, I presume?" Not that sport is unfamiliar to Za√Øre. Residents are busy with wrestling, basketball, bicycle races and go absolutely bananas over soccer. It is just that an event like the fight for the Heavyweight Telstar Title is the biggest thing yet and the whole nation loves the idea. Starting with the scenes here, and in the pictures and stories on the following pages, the idea grows that there'll be a hot time in old Kinshasa that night.
Ironing things out in Kinshasa
The word has been passed around in Za√Øre that everybody will be on his best behavior for the thousands of visitors expected in a couple of weeks, and for the millions of others who will be looking in on this exotic country via television. This is not to imply that Za√Ørians ordinarily misbehave—any tendency in that direction was pretty much quashed last May when President Joseph Mobutu threatened the public execution of 48 accused lawbreakers without trial. So much for discipline. What counts now is image—and getting ready for the main event.
The Vingt du Mai soccer stadium is being painted, patched and lighted by a 400-man crew that works from daybreak until dark. With a little companionable crowding, they say it will hold 62,800 fans: 48,000 in backless seats in the upper rows, 8,800 closer to the action in seats equipped with backrests and 6,000 in seats to be installed at field level, which makes for the biggest ringside gallery in recent boxing history. The fight is set for Sept. 25 at 3 a.m. Za√Øre time, so that it can be shown in New York at 10 p.m. on Sept. 24. Early-morning spectating does not bother the Za√Ørians. Well, there is one nagging little worry: last year the rainy season started a touch early, on Sept. 18, and in this part of the world being caught in a shower has been compared to sitting under the sluiceway of Hoover Dam. Still, the promoters can take comfort in the fact that the ring will be covered so at least the two fighters who have made all this possible will not drown.
September 1, 1974
Housing in the capital city of Kinshasa—better known as Leopoldville when Za√Øre was the Belgian Congo—will be even more chancy than the weather. One starts with total government control: all rentable beds in Kinshasa and environs have been commandeered for the occasion. Three hotels offer 446 first-class rooms; there are another 4,300 or so beds at the Kinshasa University dorms; the remaining foreigners will be put up in a resort area called N'sele, about 30 miles from town. This includes the fighters themselves, who will train in the same gym on an alternating schedule. The resort area, which is owned by Mobutu, includes his summer palace, his own riverside house, an estate of bungalows, a self-service restaurant and a fine swimming pool.
Before bedding down, a traveler must undergo a currency check at Kinshasa's Ndjili Airport. Each visitor's money is counted. If he tries to leave the country with more foreign cash than he entered with, he is in deep trouble. This has to do with the fact that the official exchange rate, which the visitor gets, is around .50 Za√Øre to the dollar; the black-market rate, which is offered extensively, can be as high as one for one.
A financial term which every visitor to Za√Øre becomes familiar with is matabiche, which means payola, tip or bribe. Most of one's transactions in the country involve matabiche—and confusion. One recent tourist making his first trip to Za√Øre encountered a local in the airport who gestured that he was a taxi driver. Booked with a nod, the driver took up one of the traveler's bags and was suddenly set upon, shoved around and punched by another driver. A soldier intervened, a torrent of strong language arose and the anxious traveler shrugged and got into the original driver's car. Then a man claiming to be chief of all the taxis stuck his head in the window and asked the traveler for matabiche. As the chief had done nothing to earn a tip, he was asked by the traveler, "Pourquoi?" (The official language of Za√Øre is French, the local dialect Lingala. English speakers are rare.) Set back by a question of such unreasonable simplicity, the chief thought a moment and replied that it was because he was the chief. The traveler, unconvinced, grinned at the chief. The chief grinned back. The taxi moved off.
Whatever a taxi chief's role may or may not be, it is safe to call him a citizen. Citoyen or citoyenne, depending on sex, is the correct form of address for everyone from waiters to ministers. That convention is part of the new official scheme of equality and further represents a restructuring of colonial values. Mobutu declared last November that Za√Øre would be Za√Ørized and that the Za√Ørois would take over the country's enterprises. To discourage Western dress, he also made it illegal for Za√Ørois to wear neckties.
After Muhammad Ali recently claimed Za√Ørois ancestry, the Za√Ørois in the street in turn claimed Ali as something of a personal relation. Most of the locals are rooting for "Cassius," as they tend to call him, and assume he must win. Some foreign embassy security men have voiced fears that the stadium crowd might erupt if Foreman lays Ali low. But sporting crowds in Za√Øre—at the weekly bicycle races, for instance, or at the strange, almost tongue-in-cheek local wrestling matches called luttes—seem friendly, unfanatical and quite orderly. When crowd control is exercised, however, it is always by gendarmes spiritedly swinging clubs.
Aside from the currency restrictions, there is one other thing a visitor to Za√Øre ought to know about: he should not count on doing his own wash-and-wear clothes and hanging them up to dry. Fight visitors should make sure everything they wear in the country is laundered and ironed, because ironing kills the Michango worm. This is a local parasite which introduces itself under the skin—often through the soles of the feet—and proceeds subcutaneously around the body until it reaches the soft part under the eye, where it can at last be removed by an operation. It is not illegal to take a Michango worm out of the country.