LAKE KIVU JOURNAL
A note to the reader: In March of this year, just weeks before packing up my life in
Kigali, I decided to throw some ratty old shirts in a duffel bag, buy a few pens and
notebooks, point myself in the direction of Congo, and hit the road. It was to be my last
great east African trip before I moved to South Africa, and I wanted to do a sort of
valedictory tour – to put my final sentimental stamp on a region that had occupied most
of the past three years of my life.
The plan was to do a rough circuit of Lake Kivu, from the Rwandan resort town of
Gisenyi; down to Cyangugu, in the country’s remote southwest corner; over the
Congolese border to Bukavu; and across Lake Kivu to Goma, a one-time playground of
white colonials in the Belgian Congo, now the humanitarian hub of eastern Congo’s
restive North Kivu province. I’d decided, in a fit of romantic pique, to leave my laptop
behind in Kigali; and so, pen and pad in hand, I set off like a pith-helmeted Victorian in
search of a jolly good adventure.
What follows is the journal I kept during the nearly four weeks I spent on the road.
Looking back at words I wrote just eight months ago, it’s amazing to think how much has
changed in how we look at Rwanda: first, because of the turbulent election season, which
cast such an unflattering light on President Kagame and his handling of internal dissent;
and more recently, because of the leaked UN report detailing some of the widespread and
systematic atrocities linked to the RPA during its post-genocide Zaire campaign. These
things were, of course, hardly news to anyone who has been watching the region for
more than the past 20 minutes; still, in terms of the battering Rwanda’s public image has
taken, it’s hard to imagine things in our favorite east African autocracy ever being quite
What you’ll find below is not a hard-hitting inquiry into RPA war crimes, or a catalogue
of the terrible atrocities being committed in the eastern Congo, but a simple account of
what it was like to be in a particular place at a particular time. I tried, throughout those
weeks of traveling, to look and listen with an open mind and heart, and I hope I managed,
in some small way, to bring the life of that region – with all its joy, frustration, laughter,
disappointment, uncertainty, fear, hope, sorrow, and above all else, dignity – to the page.
It is an imperfect account: for much of my trip I was writing between 2,000 and 3,000
words a day, much of it unfiltered, most of it, I hope, factually accurate, some of it deeply
flawed. I’ve largely left these pages unedited, for the simple fact that the prospect of fine-
tuning some 70,000 words of travelogue right now sort of makes my stomach turn. I hope
you’ll forgive my flaws and trespasses and feel, ultimately, that it was worth the trip.
November 24, 2010
March 21 – Kigali to Gisenyi
You have your problems. We have ours.
In which our intrepid writer does intrepid things.
The guy in the corduroy jacket gets off the bus and tells me he saved me a seat. It‟s the
13:30 Virunga Punctuel to Gisenyi, humid, packed. My ticket says 14h, but the guy in the
corduroy jacket says it won‟t be a problem.
“Umva! Umva!” he says to the conductor, who is young and can‟t be bothered. He wa ves
me onto the bus. I wrangle my duffel bag down the aisle, maneuvering past the fat thighs
that are spilling out from seats crammed with girthful men and women from the Congo.
The guy in the corduroy jacket gestures from a seat near the back. He has beer on his
breath and his name is Patrick.
Kigali. This city – green, mild, easy, pleasant – which I‟ve called home for most of the
past year. I‟ve spent more time in Kigali than any city south of the 42nd parallel, and yet
it feels like I hardly know the place. Always a sense of returning or departing – Kenya,
Burundi, Congo. It‟s a place where I switch off, stare blankly at the hills, move gently
between different states of catatonia. For three weeks, sick and medicated and cursing my
bad karma, I‟ve sleepwalked through coffees at Bourbon and karaoke at Cadillac and
quiz night at Sol e Luna. We had some good parties here – I‟m going to miss this city. A
place to which I‟ve grown accustomed to saying goodbye.
Patrick lives in Goma and works for a security company, about which he is grateful and
pleased. Jobs are hard to come by in eastern Congo, and for Patrick – an office-bound
accountant, not one of the narcoleptic askaris dozing off with a billy club cradled in his
arm – this good fortune just a year out of college suggests some very powerful juju. Or
family ties. He is wearing a button-down shirt and designer jeans that hang loosely from
his slender hips. His English is excellent, which is good, because my French is not. He is
the fifth of seven children, born in Bukavu, and the brief glimpses of the life there he
offers suggest a privileged life indeed. His father teaches statistics at the university. He
remembers watching the September 11 attacks on satellite TV. He has lived through
some bloody times in Bukavu. “You have your problems,” he says, “we have ours.”
The Congolese men on the bus are loud and broad-chested and built like Easter Island
totems. One wears an abacost – the Mobutu-era fashion still proudly worn by many
Congolese – and another wears a flamboyant, sateen shirt in a bright floral pattern that
suggests the very complicated relationship between the Congolese male and his
masculinity. All wear sunglasses, the frames of which seem greatly distressed by the
demands made by these oversized Congolese heads. Neck fat folds like an accordion. A
woman fans herself, wearing more face paint than a geisha.
These Congolese have apparently made the trip to Kigali for the weekend‟s tie between
TP Mazembe, the Congolese powerhouse, and Kigali‟s APR – the Rwandan minnows –
in the African Champion‟s League. APR scored a shocking 1-0 upset, about which one of
the passengers has been loudly complaining into his phone for nearly 20 minutes. Patrick,
having also traveled to Kigali for the match, glumly narrates the man‟s call. “The dog
barks at home,” the man says sagely – the implication being that Mazembe just didn‟t
look themselves on the road.
We stop and a man bounds off the bus with the particular nimbleness and grace I
associate with fat Congolese men – the quick birdlike movements of feet that can dance a
mean rumba. It‟s a sort of spite to the ample waistlines and melon-sized heads. The man
boards the bus with two bundles of eggs carefully wrapped in banana leaves, and a
chicken wedged beneath his arm. The banana- leaf contraptions are ingenious: they look
like sturdy little baskets. And the chicken proves to be surprisingly even-tempered, hardly
squawking beneath the heavy forearms of his new owner.
Rwanda speeds by. Little towns whose names I‟ll never know. Terraced hills, like
temples to pagan sun gods. The roads are busy on a Sunday afternoon: families in church
clothes, women tottering on uncomfortable heels, carrying colorful umbrellas. In
Mukamira the whole town is gathered around a scruffy soccer pitch. We watch two teams
of young boys chasing a ball across a bumpy field, and then Mukamira disappears from
the rear window and is gone, gone forever.
I‟ve described to Patrick my plans to travel around the lake, and then I ask about
traveling in Congo. Has he ever been to Kisangani, I ask, or Lubumbashi? No, he says,
but it is easy enough. From Goma you take a boat to Bukavu. Then a bus to Uvira. In
Uvira you can take a boat down Lake Tanganyika to Kalemie. And in Kalemie – voila! –
there is a train that will take you the rest of the way to Lumbumbashi.
I am amazed at this intelligence. Is it possible that a train – some colonial relic – still
carves a brave path through the jungles of Katanga? It does, says Patrick, though the
security situation is never good. He laughs. “The reality of Congo, the security – you live
with it,” he says. “For example, in Ruhengeri, if there is the army there, the bus must
continue the journey. If you have the chance, you pass. If you do not have the chance –
you have a rocket in the bus.”
There are no rockets in Ruhengeri. No police checkpoints, no anything. Spend enough
time in Rwanda and you can take for granted how easy it is to travel here. I worry if I‟m
being lulled into a false sense of security. I am already on my guard for Bukavu, which
has a reputation for hassles that borders on notorious. White travelers are few and far
between in South Kivu – not like Goma, with its massive presence of international aid
workers and UN peacekeepers. Bukavu‟s immigration officials and policemen and
assorted dregs of Congolese bureaucracy all seem doubly inclined to milk the unfortunate
few passing through. I express my fears to Patrick that the days will be a monotonous
shuffle through the crumbling halls of officialdom in search of the necessary permits to
travel in Bukavu. He says I‟m overreacting. “It is okay, as long as your paperwork is in
order,” he says. This is hardly reassuring.
On the outskirts of town a billboard welcomes us to Gisenyi – a cheerful white family
playing volleyball on the beach. I am too tired and cynical to comment. In town the
tarmac tapers off just where I remember: veer left, toward the upmarket hotels along the
lake, and the going is smooth as a baby‟s bottom; veer right, Armageddon. By the
market, where the bus deposits us, I exchange numbers and part ways with Patrick. He
slings his corduroy jacket over his shoulder, hops onto a motorbike, and heads for the
border. Picking my way through the street kids looking to carry my bags for small
change, I head for the Auberge de Gisenyi, a budget stalwart, where the beds are hard, the
showers are cold, but you‟ll at least get some change for your Rwf 10,000.
My few visits to Gisenyi have been as either a point of departure to or arrival from Goma,
and so my experience of the city has been purely utilitarian. My memories are of the
auberge‟s spartan rooms, and of the misty silhouette of Nyiragongo looming over the
marketplace. That this is actually Rwanda‟s best-known resort town only becomes
apparent when I get down to the beach, where a long colonnade of towering palm trees
shades an avenue of beautiful old colonial homes – some enjoying a second life as hotels
or municipal buildings, others perhaps inhabited by latter-day elites, still others falling
into colorful states of disrepair. There is a wedding on the waterfront – a swish affair with
dozens of tables arranged under a great white tent. The men are wearing smartly tailored
suits and the women have traditional dresses draped across their shoulders. Two stern
men with walkie-talkies bar the entrance. A long line of SUVs stretches down the avenue.
One can only imagine what RPF stalwarts are tying the knot this afternoon in Gisenyi.
Further down, the beach is crowded with the young: adolescent boys with bare butts
splashing around in the shallows, or young lovers sitting close together in the sand. Dusk
is approaching. Hundreds of fruit bats are screeching and circling in the air. A gang of
boys has gathered to throw rocks at their papery wings. The hills are green and tumbling
down toward the water. The Congo is close enough to touch. On the way back into town,
I meet a group of young Congolese boys on their way back to Goma. They want to know
where I live, then ask if they can come home with me, back to America.
The sky is purple and there is chaos around the marketplace – hawkers carrying their
unsold bundles, taxi- motos circling in search of a fare. The city is built at the foot of a
very steep hill, and the houses of the poor crowd the slopes. You c an see solitary figures
slowly trudging up the footpaths. There is a single avenue running through the city, and it
is crowded with people coming and going: old men on their way to the mosque, packs of
children kicking at stones. Music pours from CD shops and brightly lit hair salons.
Teenage boys hang about, gathered on street corners or outside barber shops, passing the
time with the defiant purposelessness of youths the world over. Children are running
through the gathering darkness, their little legs pumping them closer to home.
On a dirt side-street there‟s a commotion like a carnival. A small tent has been built with
plastic tarps and wooden poles. Inside dozens of women – husky, sweating, swaddled in
colorful and elaborate dresses – are rhythmically thrusting their heavy haunches from
side to side. They whoop and hoot wildly. It is a long way from the stiff formality of the
wedding party I saw on the beach. A boy tells me it is a Muslim ceremony to prepare a
woman for marriage. There are no men inside the tent. Just a few cluster outside, along
with curious children and passersby.
I‟d forgotten, after all these weeks in Kigali, how it feels to be a white man in small- town
Africa. Everywhere I‟m met with hysterical greetings and cries. It is an effort just to
make it down the street. One boy, a high school student, perhaps, pumps my hand
frantically, his face breaking into a wide, nervous smile. “Welcome to Rwanda,” he says,
his voice cracking. Walking back to my hotel, past the women who sit hunched over piles
of onions and maize in the darkness, I can still hear cries of “mzungu” and “How are
you?” shouted from the shadows.
At the auberge they‟re showing English football on the TV in the back yard. This TV –
along with the posh new umbrellas shading the yard – seem to be the sole improvements
at a hotel that has jacked up its rates by 50 percent in the past few months. This trend – to
dramatically raise one‟s prices, without any appreciable change in the quality of one‟s
service – I‟d like to call, “to pull a Rwanda.” It is as if, by sheer force of effort and the
careful manipulation of market prices, this country can just will itself into the developed
world. I‟m reminded of the drive to Gisenyi today, where we passed hundreds of houses
branded with a scarlet letter X on the front door or wall. The houses – admittedly in sorry
shape – have been marked for demolition, as part of another ambitious government
initiative to Make the Country Safe. Down go the crumbling old mud-and-wattle
eyesores; up go handsome new brick or poured concrete homes – dozens of which were
being built, on rickety bamboo scaffolding, in every town we passed. The effect has
certainly been dramatic: the constant buzz of new construction gives a sense of industry
and purposefulness to even the smallest Rwandan towns. But I wonder what provisions
have been made for the owners of these crumbling homes. In Kigali, when hundreds of
families were evicted from a crowded slum on the slopes of Kiyovu hill to make way for
new high-rent developments, there was a full-on Greek chorus of complaints over the
hastiness of evictions, and the unfair prices given to those who were forced to “resettle.”
Who foots the bill for these rural poor being moved into new homes? Ending poverty and
banning the signs of poverty are two very different things. I think of the foreign journalist
who glowed with praise for the fact that she didn‟t see any Rwandans walking down the
street with bare feet. She praised the government largesse that made this so – only a
friend in Kigali, a long-time resident, told me the exact opposite was the case. The
government, she said, had passed a law that made it punishable by fine not to put shoes
on even the littlest pair of feet in your family. Suddenly, it became imperative to scratch
together enough money for those extra pairs of plastic Bata sandals. (I never investigated
the truth of this claim.) I suppose you can‟t fault the end result so much as the over-
determination of the government to get there.
Back at the auberge I‟ve fallen into conversation with Robert Mugabe. Mugabe, a
journalist for The New Times, had come to watch the tail-end of Chelsea-Blackburn on
the big screen, and recognized me sitting with my Fanta. We‟d met, briefly, at a Kigali
sauna nearly a year ago. (A separate chapter, some day, to be written about Kigali‟s sauna
culture.) He never forgot the faces, it seems, of his journalistic brethren. Since we met
he‟d been promoted to bureau chief of Western Province. From his office in Gisenyi, he
covered the whole of Lake Kivu – with a colleague in Kibuye, and another in Cyangugu
– as well as the latest developments in eastern Congo. Not long ago, he had been on
patrol with MONUC forces in North Kivu. It was unsatisfying, from a journalist‟s
perspective. MONUC tightly controls its image (or, at least, tries to); often, said Robert,
security sweeps would be staged for the benefit of foreign journalists. Yet he knew
MONUC had no business being in Congo, and that they only made things worse. He said
he had proof that UN soldiers were directly complicit in the trade of illicit minerals,
swapping guns for gold with local militias. He wanted to do more strenuous reporting in
Congo, if he only had the resources. “I can go to an FDLR base and do my story from
there, no problem,” he says. “You just have to have some money to pay them.”
And what about Gisenyi? I ask. What was the latest gossip? Any interesting stories I can
be on the lookout for? Robert pauses to consider this. “Another man drowned in the
lake,” he says. “He did not know how to swim.”
Such are the perils in Gisenyi today.
March 22 – Gisenyi, Rubona
It’s something I think or dream.
In which a boat trip is planned, for no good reason.
Before leaving Kigali, I made the decision to leave my laptop behind. For this three- or
four-week trip, I wanted to be as unencumbered as possible – to not have to hesitate at the
prospect of a boat ride into the unknown, or a stranger‟s invitation into his home, because
of fears over the safety of my pricey electronic wares. Implicit was a desire, too, to leave
behind my emotional crutches. I knew how easy it was, from past travels, to sink into a
DVD or retreat into my iPod at the end of a long day. I wanted no such comforts now.
Life in rural Africa, after all, means contemp lating boredom: acquainting yourself with
the long hours after nightfall, when solitary diversions are few and the sound of silence is
absolute. (No such luck in the Auberge de Gisenyi, where the chatter of Spanish league
football goes on till after midnight.) I felt it was important, for these few weeks, to stay
engaged to the world around me – not to escape into a Coen brothers flick or an old
school playlist that might, however subtly, draw me back to my American life.
Tuneless, flickless, my first night is a blessing: I sleep like a stone. At half-past eight the
birds are chattering, the kitchen is dishing out omelettes, my first morning post-Kigali is
bright and auspicious. How liberating, too, to know there are no deadlines on the horizon,
no pressing emails to get to: nothing preventing me from just disappearing for a few
weeks. It is like a spiritual lightness, as if I‟ve been set free from the weight of my daily
routine. I feel more curious, more engaged. For a travel writer, I have the peculiar sense
that I need to travel more often.
By late- morning I am back on the beach, which today, a Monday, is almost empty. In the
distance I see eight sets of pale limbs, eight swaths of khaki, eight back- and fanny-packs
milling around the jetty – Belgian tourists, perhaps, getting reacquainted with their
former fiefdom. Closer to me a group of Rwandans – overdressed for the beach, as ever –
is watching a motorboat tugging a waterskier in wide circles. He is a Rwandan, and he
can only go through one or two passes before losing his balance, flailing his arms, and
crashing into the water. The lake is flat and inviting. Every few minutes a small transport
plane buzzes overhead – the latest batch of Congolese minerals, no doubt, being whisked
off the tarmac in Goma en route to foreign lands.
On the beach I meet one of the young captains of the boat sputtering past us in broad
arcs. On the weekend, he says, there is plenty of business from tourists: the wazungu
weekending from Kigali, the Congolese escaping the clutter of Goma, the Rwandans
holding their wedding celebrations on the lake shore. They pay a few thousands francs to
get taxied along the coast, or rent the boat for the day to head further south. (A group of
tourists, he says, have paid $600 to take the boss‟ other boat to Cyangugu.) On a Monday
morning, though, business is slow. The boys waterskiing and flopping around in the
water are all employees of the Serena Hotel next door. I suspect the boss – an anonymous
businessman in far-away Kigali – wouldn‟t be too pleased to see his gas dollars going to
waste. Fidele laughs and shrugs away the boss‟ concerns. It is a modest job, even by
Gisenyi‟s standards. “It is something so I can eat,” he says. More often he will take his
small savings and cross the border into Goma, where he can buy cheap goods and resell
them in Gisenyi for a profit. He hopes he can make it to America someday. “It‟s
something I think or dream, but I don‟t know to do it,” he says. He would like to go and
make money and then return to Rwanda. “You know, Africans, we love that country,” he
says. But it‟s not the same as having a home.
There is a great sense of movement in this border town. Fidele‟s retail racket is a
common one; others, handicapped men and women, cross the border with their
wheelchairs stocked with petrol and cigarettes. The handicapped, through some loophole
in Congolese law, are exempt from paying customs duties at the border. And so their
hand-pedaled tricycles are loaded down with cigarettes and dry goods and wheeled duty-
free across the border. Other, obscure goods are no doubt being shuttled across in some
of the many SUVs with Congolese plates barreling around Gisenyi. And then there are
the casual pedestrians: most of the youths I meet along the beach seem to be Congolese,
playing hooky for the sake of a casual stroll in their peaceful neighbor.
Despite the lazy pleasure of the waterfront and the languid decay of some of the old
colonial homes, there is great energy around Gisenyi. After leaving the beach I walk the
six kilometers to Rubona, the bustling little town that serves as Gisenyi‟s principal port.
Along the way I pass a fish market full of the riotous cries of market women; on the
beach outside, thousands of slender silvery fish lay on wooden racks, drying in the sun.
There are women selling vegetables on the road, and women carrying great bundles and
baskets on their heads, trundling many miles to sell their pineapples and cassava and
tomatoes and maize, their voices singing shrilly as they chatter along the way.
On the road a man stops me and gestures to a small satchel slung across his shoulder. It is
too small to hold the statuettes and Congolese masks being sold by other hawkers in
Gisenyi. I wonder if he is offering postcards; his accent is inscrutable. Only when he
opens the zipper to reveal a few hunks of rust-colored rock does the word “Coltan!
Coltan!” come into focus. I gently decline – conflict minerals are not my idea of a
souvenir. Thus do I, in my own small way, give a tiny cry of protest at the atroc ities in
Half-way to Rubona, in a small crowded town clinging to the side of a hill, I‟m stopped
by a group of youths listening to R&B ballads on a cell phone. They are polite, friendly,
smiling easily; soon one – introducing himself as John – asks if he can accompany me the
rest of the way. As in most of rural Africa, there clearly isn‟t much to occupy John on a
Monday afternoon. He says he‟s just finished secondary school – last month? last year? –
and I delicately side-step the conclusion of that thought, as it is probably the familiar
refrain: no money to pay for university, no job prospects on the horizon. The rare chance
to walk with a stranger through these familiar streets, the opportunity to both form a new
friendship and boost his own cachet in little Kiroji, is not something to pass up.
So off we go, followed by dozens of curious, eager eyes. The town is built along the road
and there is a constant commotion of bodies: women selling pots and pans on tattered
blankets, or crouching behind bunches of green bananas. Barbers are buzzing shiny
domes in their tiny hair salons and carpenters are sawing at furniture on the roadside.
“Everyone‟s a businessman here,” says John. And it is hard not to admire the
entrepreneurial spirit as peanuts and boiled eggs and bottled beer and avocados and
charcoal and hair extensions are being sold.
By the time we reach Rubona my face and neck are sunburned and painful to the touch.
We stop for Fantas in a small shop almost entirely devoted to hair care products.
DARLING NEW LOOK – HIGHEST QUALITY HAIR ADDITIONS, says a typical
package. LIKE HUMAN HAIR! HAIR THAT LASTS LONGER! Outside, with the sun
high overhead, we can see the fishing boats clustered around the beach far below. The
road has been steadily climbing since Gisenyi, and so John – as familiar with the town as
if we were picking through his own backyard – gestures to a narrow path vanishing
through the banana plants and begins bounding down the hill.
Little Rubona is booming. The hillside is crowded with new housing developments –
sprawling brick villas that, I suspect, will soon be touting the requisite Grecian columns
and reflective windows that are the truest indication of ill- gotten wealth in the Great
Lakes region. John gestures to one half-built compound and says, “That is for a
Nigerian,” as if no more needs to be said. We pick through small gardens and brush aside
great banana leaves. Many of the houses are already occupied. An old woman hangs the
laundry from a line. An ancient fisherman sits in the shade, mending his net. No one
seems particularly surprised to have a white man tramping through the yard. The lake is
blue, still, dotted with green islands. John skips ahead on fast, sure, nimble feet, now and
then pausing to push an earphone back into his ear.
On the beach the women are selling vegetables and breast- feeding and spreading their
freshly laundered clothes over the sand to dry. The way they look at you is frank and
explicit. John exchanges some words with them and is soon scrambling down a sandy
slope, to where a long, slender, motor-powered boat is being loaded for the lake journey.
There are negotiations, but they end in disappointment: the boat will be leaving this
evening, a day or two before I‟ll be ready to say goodbye to Gisenyi. Nearby we find two
more boats, these shaded by canopies made from heavy tarps bearing the WFP logo.
Again, no luck: Monday, it seems, is the only day that passenger boats travel from
Gisenyi to Kibuye.
As we trudge off through the sand, bitter and defeated, John continues to ask hopefully
for any mid-week departures. It is hard to describe what a strange and touching thing it is
to see such fierce loyalty, such determination, in someone I‟ve only just met. If John
himself were desperate to board the next boat to Kibuye, I couldn‟t imagine him putting
any more effort into our search.
At a local restaurant on the lakeshore, as we‟re waiting for our brochettes, John
disappears in search of fresh intelligence. Minutes later he returns, looking conspiratorial
and optimistic. There is a rumor that a cargo ship will be leaving the Bralirwa brewery on
Tuesday on a southbound journey. John can‟t investigate the rumor any further. “At this
time, it is a prohibition to go there,” he says, gesturing to the brewery with its great
billowing chimneys nearby. “This night I will search the information.” He promises to
contact an uncle who works for Bralirwa to see if there might be a way to smuggle me
onto the ship. Suddenly, things have gotten very interesting in Rubona. Soon storm
clouds begin to churn over the hilltops, and we scramble for the nearest motorbikes,
hoping to beat the rain back to Gisenyi.
I lose John along the way. The rain begins to fall in fat, cold drops; as we speed over the
hills, they strike my arms and face like pebbles. Halfway to Gisenyi we stop and take
cover under a shop awning. There is a crowd of young boys there; as the rain intensifies,
others come to join us. A leathery old woman, carrying a massive bundle of firewood,
muscles her way into our sanctuary. We stand there, talking softly, as the rain pelts the tin
roof. Smoke rises from the blacktop. Villagers trudge by, hanging their heads. It is a great
comfort, in its own way, to be stranded here, at the mercy of the elements. When the rain
stops we get back onto our moto, scooting and skidding our way back to Gisenyi.
In the evening, John calls: the Bralirwa boat, he reports, will be leaving at 8am. A few
hours later, he calls with an update: the boat won‟t be leaving till the afternoon. Strange
that I suddenly feel so compelled to leave a town I was just getting used to. But I don‟t
want to miss the boat; I decide to pack my things tonight and be on-call throughout the
day tomorrow. One way or another, I hope to be in Kibuye by nightfall.
March 23 – Gisenyi, Rubona
Everyone’s a businessman here.
In which a young man dreams.
The bags are packed in the morning, the musty shirts and socks of the past few days
balled up into a separate compartment, awaiting a good rinse in Kibuye. Toiletr ies are
carefully stowed, according to the likelihood of an explosion in transit. Books are packed
away in reverse order of preference for the journey ahead. After breakfast I take care of
outstanding orders of business: a quick visit to the Internet café; a less than quick visit to
the bank, where, just two days after leaving Kigali, I‟ve reassessed my budgetary
demands and realized that, at this rate, I‟ll never make it to Goma two weeks hence. The
preparations move forward. I raid the forex bureaus around the market, unloading my $20
bills for small denominations – a must for Congolese officials on the take. I stock up on
samosas and queen cakes in anticipation of the day‟s long journey. By noon, I am utterly
in the thrall of the mood of heightened preparedness that grips me on any travel day. I am
ready, as my mother would say, to get this show on the road.
Only there‟s no word from John on the departure time of the Bralirwa boat, and when I
call him, he can offer only a Zen- like injunction to sit tight and let the African transport
gods sort things out at their leisure. He invites me to visit his home in Gitsimbi instead –
untroubled, it seems, by the prospect of me missing my ride. The boat will leave when it
leaves, he insists, and I‟m sure to be on it. I take him at his word. Outside the auberge I
flag down a moto, haul my backpack onto my shoulders, and scoot over the green hills
John is waiting for me in Gitsimbi, grinning, pleased at my arrival, at our budding
friendship, earphones dangling around his neck. Nearby a sullen, barefoot old man
watches me with bloodshot eyes, and the children are chirping, “Mzungu, how are you?”
as their faces poke from houses and kiosks and treetops and the bosoms of husky
mothers. Again I think of John‟s words: “Everyone‟s a businessman here.” And I record
the inventory, the small piles of charcoal, the bunches of green bananas, the oversized
heads of cabbage, the soiled third- and fourth-generation shoes, the brightly colored
children‟s clothes – everything laid out on blankets, or on rickety wooden tables; or else
spread out on the earth still damp from the morning‟s rains.
The clouds are still heavy and they begin to break as we approach John‟s home. His is
among a small group of houses clustered on the side of a hill, overlooking a long, narrow
valley studded with the starburst shapes of banana plants. We negotiate a steep, rocky
path, surprising the mothers who sit pounding grain in the doorways, and the children
playing in muddy yards. A train of barefoot women, carrying bundles of wood up the
treacherous walkway, erupts with joy and laughter as I greet them in Kinyarwanda. The
oldest – a mirthful old bird with a face like a walnut – extols my praises in a high, hoarse
voice as we skid and slide the rest of the way to John‟s home.
It is a large, multi-roomed compound with rough concrete walls and tin roofs that rattle as
the rain picks up. The living room is small and dark, with five stiff-cushioned chairs
arranged around a coffee table, and a dim shaft of light falling from a narrow window. A
red, tasseled curtain separates the room from the rest of the house; on the other side I can
hear John‟s sisters – two shy, polite girls who shake my hand with downturned eyes –
chattering away as they carry out their domestic duties. John sits slouched in his chair,
smiling, pleased to offer his hospitality on a rainy afternoon. He is the last of seven
children, he tells me; years ago his father took to calling him “Sept” – the French word
for seven – a nickname, I‟ll later learn, that has followed him to this day. I ask after his
parents and he disappears behind the curtain. Soon a woman presents herself – tall,
handsome, vigorous in spite of her seventy-odd years – and greets me in the Rwandan
manner: a clasping of shoulders at a polite but friendly distance, almost like a sumo hold.
She vanishes; a man replaces her – tall and lean as a mangrove pole, wearing a vest and
ill- fitting slacks and a smile of great warmth and generosity. We stand there, stiffly
shaking hands and thanking each other repeatedly. “He is suffering very much,” John
says, when his father leaves the room. I ask what ails him, and John gestures to his arms,
his legs, his head – as if life, and all its symptoms, were the ailment.
It is only later that I‟ll realize the oddity of that scene: an intact family unit, in a country
where the normal chain of African greetings – the inquiries into the health of siblings and
parents – is always fraught with peril. How often have I answered the question, “Do you
have parents?” before pausing with dread, bracing myself to ask the same in return. But
here was John, the youngest of seven (the first-born, he said, approaching 50), and here
were his parents, in their 70s and 80s. Suddenly I am playing en ethnic game. Are John
and his family Hutus? But then, his parents are so tall. Perhaps they are Tutsis who fled
across the border, into what was then Zaire, to escape the genocide? There is no delicate
way to ask these questions. Instead I wait, hoping the story of his family‟s survival might
somehow tell itself.
John‟s three-year-old niece – small, frail, shy – comes into the room and sits beside me,
her bare feet dangling above the floor. I take out a bag of samosas, which I‟d brought for
the trip to Kibuye; John hands them out to his niece and his sisters and his parents,
coughing in another room. I wish I‟d brought more. We sit in amicable silence while little
Alina makes a mess of her samosa and the rain pelts the roof. It is an African scene:
sitting together, passing the time, which is always in abundance. John has spent many
days like this. He left secondary school before senior six – his final year – because the
family had no money for him to complete his studies. He wants to go back to get his
certificate, maybe to continue on to university. He shows me a bundle of technical
drawings sitting in a pile in the corner – houses he had designed “from imagination” in
school. They are beautiful drawings, with soaring A- frames and massive bay windows
and balconies overlooking, I‟m sure, tidy little imaginary gardens. The interior plan is
drawn with careful attention to detail and proportion. Here is a master bedroom, here is a
kitchen, here is a stairway. It is a beautiful home. “They have built that house,” says
John, somewhere in Musanze district. “But they pay me nothing, because I am a student.”
He laughs bitterly – at 24, already he knows to expect no better from the world. Every
day he goes into Gisenyi, looking for work. There are many others like him. He passes
the time in Gisenyi; or at a barber shop in Gitsimbi; or with his family, here, on their
perch above the valley. When he can find some money, he visits his girlfriend in
Musanze. “For me to get five hundred” – about a dollar – “I say thanks God,” he says.
It is a long walk back to Gisenyi, but the rain has stopped – thanks God. John‟s uncle tells
him the boat will be leaving in the morning; I can do nothing but sit and wait and hope
he‟s right. At the auberge we share a Fanta before he returns home, promising to see me
in the morning. I‟m beginning to grow restless, knowing both my time and money on this
trip are limited. If there are more delays with the boat, I‟ll have to abandon my half-baked
plan to reach Kibuye by lake and find another option – moto, perhaps, which was the
original plan; or, failing that, by bus.
At night, outside the auberge, there are dozens of motorbikes gathered at the gas station,
where assorted night critters circle toward the fluorescent lights. I doubt there will be
more than a handful of customers to go around on this soggy Tuesday night, and I suspect
these guys are here as much for the camaraderie as for the prospect of finding work. I
think of Jean Marie and Lucio, my Congolese friends in Bujumbura, who would go one
or two days without eating, but found their hunger easier to bear because they were
bearing it together. It can be hard for us to grasp in the West, locked away with our
solitary comforts. I am glad I left my laptop in Kigali, with all its diversions. I am happy
to sit on a bench outside the barber shop, listening to the laughter, the arguments over
football and girls, waiting for the clouds to clear to get a look at the glowing tip of
March 24 – Gisenyi to Kibuye
It is like paradise. Almost.
In which hell doesn’t look half bad.
Two years ago, in Tanzania, I was marooned for three days in the little fishing village of
Lagosa, on the shores of Lake Tanganyika. I was waiting for the MV Liemba – a
venerable old World War I-era ferry – which, on its return passage from Zambia, would
scoop me up and carry me back to the scruffy port town of Kigoma. The Liemba had
already given me fits: a week before, its departure from Kigoma had been delayed – first
a few days, then a full week – when it had been commandeered by the UN to return
refugees from Tanzanian camps to their homes in Congo. I caught it the following week
for its southbound passage; when it deposited me in Lagosa, there was a parks
department speedboat waiting to take me to nearby Mahale Mo untains National Park. I
had timed my visit to the park, with its large population of chimpanzees, to coincide with
the Liemba‟s weekly voyage. If all went well, I would be able to catch the ferry as it
made its return trip up the lake.
Of course, all did not go well. There were delays in Zambia – no one could say why.
Each morning I would stand on the beach, squinting toward the horizon on which, I was
sure, the figure of the MV Liemba would slowly come into view. I was great sport for the
locals of Lagosa. Here was a village with no electricity, no phone towers – a place that,
even by rural Tanzanian standards, was almost entirely off the map. And yet somehow,
each day, word had already reached Lagosa through some mysterious bush telephone
about the delay of the Liemba. “It will not arrive today,” a fisherman would say with
assurance early in the morning. And sure enough, despite my frantic efforts to conjure the
boat from the little wisps of cloud on the horizon, the Liemba would not come chugging
down the lake until it was damn well ready.
In the past two years, I have drawn many morals from the story of my stay in Lagosa.
The most relevant today, though, is the utter unreliability of lake transport in central
Africa. Though steamships and pirogues and great cargo barges are the lifeline of the
countless little villages along the shores of Kivu and Tanganyika and Malawi and
Victoria, it takes endless stores of patience to negotiate their prehistoric passage. Thus
another morning spent in an anxious purgatory of packed bags, waiting for word from
John on the fate of my Bralirwa boat.
Luckily, Gisenyi is no Lagosa, and I can soothe my spirits over a cappuccino at the
lakeside Serena Hotel. Where would Africa‟s whites – the journalists, the diplomats, the
aid workers – be without the comforts of our luxury sanctuaries? The tables at the Serena
are populated thusly: an Indian expat (soon to be replaced by an American executive),
your intrepid reporter, two American aid workers (with matching Macs), and a pair of
white tourists – one American, one ambiguously European – along with their Rwandan
guide. The hotel is charmless, possessed of the upmarket corporate blandness of
international chain hotels the world over, but the coffee – at just Rwf 1,200 a pot – is
superb. It is also, after a few busy days in Gisenyi, a concession to my need for personal
space. In the market, or the crowded garden restaurant at the auberge – its Rwf 1,500
lunch-time buffet the only bargain in the joint – I feel the constant weight of bodies, the
stares of curious, solicitous eyes. Coffee at the Serena is about both caffeine and
equilibrium. It is for this reason I understand the distant, abstract reverie of other
Northerners lost in their laptops and iPods and Therouxs at hotels across equatorial
Africa. It is the familiar look of a tribe not at home in the tropics.
Two tables away the American and the German, or Swede, are having a very low- level
discussion of Great Lakes politics. Minerals, Nkunda, MONUC. It is as unsatisfactory as
picking up last week‟s newspaper. Then the conversation turns to tourism. Always the
same line: how these Africans should do more to develop the tourism sector, how with a
little vision, etc. It is a very First World way to look at things. Show me a beach in Africa
and I‟ll show you a line of white men waiting to put hotels on it. “It is like paradise,
almost,” says the Swede, or German, taking in the coastline with the expansive view of a
man who sees great profits on the horizon. Already he is planning to sell Gisenyi‟s
charms on the Rwandan tourism portal he is developing online. “No one knows about this
place,” he says, by which he doesn‟t mean the Rwandans who have been coming to this
resort town for decades.
And what about his vision? In the three days I have spent in Gisenyi, I would estimate the
hotel occupancy rate at somewhere under 10 percent. This, of course, takes into account
the fact that I arrived on Sunday, when most weekenders will be packing up and heading
back to their homes in (most likely) Kigali or Goma. Still, I have seen few foreign
tourists – the holy grail of the travel industry – and the largest crowds – the wedding
parties who flocked to the beach on Sunday – had most likely driven to Gisenyi for the
day of the celebration. The problem for Gisenyi, and any plans to develop it even further,
is the fact that it already seems to have reached its tourist potential. There are far more
beds than there are bodies with the available resources to fill them. And this isn‟t likely to
change dramatically, unless: a) Rwanda becomes substantially more popular among
foreign tourists as a stand-alone destination, instead of just a gorilla-oriented add-on for a
larger East African package; or b) the country continues to develop its growing middle
class, so that there are greater numbers of Rwandans with disposable income, leisure
time, and all the things we take for granted in the West. This is something you‟ll find in
Kenya, where hotels and safari camps will aggressively pursue Kenyan clients for their
holiday packages. But Kenya is still light years ahead of Rwanda in terms of economic
development. Despite great gains in recent years, Rwanda remains a minnow in the East
At the Serena, the Dutchman or Dane looks admiringly toward the bo rder, where the
Congolese frontier offers another enticing opportunity for local businessmen. “To me,
Goma is the closest you can get to the disaster and the chaos without pushing yourself,”
he says. “You can cross the border, and if it is too dangerous, you can come running
He pauses and turns to the waiter. “I am trying to decide between the chicken curry and
the tilapia with chips,” he says. And then, turning back to his companions, approvingly,
“It‟s almost like a little visit to hell.”
If Goma is hell, Gisenyi has been my own private purgatory. By mid-day John is again
full of assurances, but this time, I decide to take the fateful step of bringing my things to
Rubona. Better to wait at the ready in that little port town – the Bralirwa brewery and its
tall chimney columns in clear view – than to sit on-call in Gisenyi, hoping for word from
John. If nothing else, I‟d like to feel like I‟m a step closer to Kibuye.
In Rubona the arrival of a white man with an oversized duffel bag stirs the town‟s listless
hang-abouts to life. Whatever my story, it‟s sure to add an interesting wrinkle to an
otherwise uneventful day. Soon I‟ve drawn the attention of a young man named Abdul,
who, having heard my plan, has decided to become the custodian of my star-crossed fate.
Unprovoked, he begins demanding details of the Bralirwa boat‟s passage from passersby,
and offering to conduct a thorough investigation at the brewery. I explain that my friend
John is already on the case, and Abdul seems wounded. “I want to save you,” he says. I
didn‟t know I needed to be saved.
The town skeptics and philosophers are out in force. Abdul engages a young friend in
soiled overalls who launches into a long monologue, like the ancient mariner. The only
two words I recognize – “mzungu” and “polici” – do not bode well. Abdul sits
thoughtfully beside me, weighing our options. “Why don‟t you take the bus?” he says
finally. It is not an easy question to answer. Mostly it‟s an ill-defined spirit of adventure
that‟s made this Bralirwa boat so appealing. But I can‟t, of course, ignore the irony that
when a white man in Africa talks about “adventure,” he usually means forsaking his iPod,
wearing ugly convertible pants, and generally living under the sort of conditions that 700
million or so Africans – whether out of necessity, custom, or both – live under every day.
Why go through all this trouble, Abdul implies, when a perfectly good bus can get me
there in a fraction of the time, for just a few more francs?
When John arrives he wears a look of affliction. Why did I come to Rubona without
telling him first? Lord, spare me these sensitive African souls! After some nervous
minutes of hand-holding and reassurances, our friendship is back on solid ground. We
take my things to the Bralirwa brewery, which, despite John‟s fears over “prohibitions,”
seems to be as secure as a public park. There are women walking their children, and
others carrying bundles of sugarcane on their heads, and still others selling pineapples out
of a basket. Goats are everywhere. Somehow, though, we manage to find the only secure
gate in the joint, on the other side of which idles my ride to Kibuye. John sidles up to the
fence, greets the guard on duty, and begins talking in clandestine tones from the corner of
his mouth. It is a Hollywood performance. This goes on for some time, before we‟re
shuffled off to wait, stage right. Minutes later the guard returns with a man in slacks and
a neat polo shirt – the captain of the S.S. Bralirwa. Again, after greetings and small talk –
you‟d think they‟d known each other for years – John lowers his voice and pleads my
case. The need for secrecy, I suspect, is just a token measure of propriety (or else John
has a theatrical spirit): by this point, there aren‟t many people in Rubona who haven‟t
seen the white guy with the duffel bag on his way to the Bralirwa brewery. If subterfuge
is necessary to get me on this boat, then the boat will be leaving without me.
Finally John and the captain agree on terms, shake; we take my things back to the beach,
where we‟ll await the captain‟s signal. (Another ambiguous, theatrical touch: can‟t he just
call me on his phone?) We sit for an hour as the daylight dwindles, John struggling to
tune into the BBC on his cellphone. A kingfisher dive-bombs into the water, and a
magnificent fish eagle swoops from the top of a tree. Fishermen – donning bright orange
life jackets, as required by law – begin pushing off from the beach in their rowboats,
lashed three together with long, bending poles. Across the bay we watch crates of bottles
getting loaded onto the boat, stacked a dozen high. The wait is endless.
Suddenly the boat sputters to life, turns, sweeps across the bay. This, it seems, is the
captain‟s signal. We take my bags and jog along the beach, where a few other passengers
are crossing a wobbly gangplank. Across the bridge, onto a rusted old barge bobbing
beside the Bralirwa boat, where we say quick, heartfelt goodbyes. Then I climb over the
railing, hop onto the deck of the cargo boat, and wave to Rubona, where fishermen and
laborers are gathered on the beach, laughing good- heartedly at the white man‟s flight. An
old man thrusts a long mangrove pole into the lake, steering us through the shallows.
Then the boat‟s engine throttles to full-speed ahead, and Rubona vanishes into the dusk.
It is a relief, finally, to be on my way to Kibuye. I had been told earlier in the day that the
trip would take six hours, but John insisted we wouldn‟t arrive till early morning. This
was, I thought, preferable to pulling in at midnight without a place to stay. And a small
part of me felt, ever mindful of my budget, that I might as well get my money‟s worth
from a night on the lake. We leave Rubona in high spirits, with the last embers of
daylight dying in the sky over Congo, and the other passengers – a gregarious bunch, two
men and four women, with two children in tow – already chattering away, as if they‟d
been childhood friends. Roasted maize is passed around. Children are gurgled and cooed
at. The captain tunes his radio to a local station, fiddling with the antenna. “En-guh- lish,”
says a man in a fleece pullover, to everyone‟s delight. It is the only word of English I‟ll
hear for the rest of the journey.
We‟re arranged in a half- moon at the front of the ship, sitting on crates and sacks and
staring stiffly into the wind. The further we get from Gisenyi, its lights twinkling across
the lake, the more of a metropolis it seems. Nyiragongo glows over the city. Night falls,
plunging the hills of the Congo into a prehistoric darkness. Fishing boats paddle slowly
across the water, lamps lit to attract the fish swimming beneath the surface. There are
dozens of lamps glowing, like a floating city. The water slaps against the side of our boat,
the moon is out, and I‟m brought back to so many other journeys by lake and by sea: in
Kenya, in Malawi, in Mozambique. For the first few hours, lost in this pleasant reverie, I
convince myself that there‟s no better way to travel from Gisenyi to Kibuye.
The cold comes gradually, at first. I pull my fleece and my jeans from my duffel bag,
expecting to get some use out of them before the night is through. The women, swaddled
in innumerable layers, seem to have more and more lengths of cloth to wrap themselves
in as the night goes on. They seem like flimsy protection, though, as the cold begins to
bite. The men, meanwhile, are doing the chivalrous thing and abandoning the women to
the elements. The first mate opens a rusty trap door, revealing a musty bed in what appear
to be the captain‟s quarters. The captain shines his flashlight down the hatch and, it
seems, offers me his bed. Everyone finds this hysterical. I decline with an emphatic no –
“Hapana!” – which more or less brings the house down. (I‟ll repeat this gag – “Hapana!”
– for the next few minutes, each time achieving the desired effect.) Then the laughter dies
and the first mate, stretching and yawning, descends the ladder. The captain lays a few
pieces of cardboard over some crates and then follows to the cozy bed below.
The women laugh, hoot, chatter, and curl up on the cardboard. It has probably never
dawned on them to expect any better from their men.
The joy of this lake cruise is coming to a close. The cold is suddenly bitter, and the
women – rising, as if through some unspoken agreement – retreat with their children to
their cardboard mattress. They wrap themselves tight in their kangas and huddle together
for warmth. The children are remarkably well-behaved. Cries are quickly silenced with
clucking and shushing. Alone at the front of the boat, I curl up in my fleece and wrap my
thin jacket around my head, to protect against the wind. Every few minutes I shift my
position – to find some extra degrees of warmth, to relieve an aching muscle. Now and
then I look up to see the driver staggering through the pale moonlight over a mountain of
crates. Somehow I snatch a few hours of sleep: 20 minutes here, 10 there. It is a very long
Some time around 4am we arrive at the brewery in Kibuye. A guard patrols its floodlit
grounds, stopping to chat with the women or offer us a trip to the toilet. It is against
Bralirwa policy, I suspect, to let us into the compound, though by this point, the prospect
of a warm brewery floor to rest my head on brings a tear to my eye. Again I drift off. A
light rain begins to fall. Finally, just a few minutes before six, as pale light colors the
horizon, the women rise, as if on cue, and gather their things. Babies are bundled to
backs; bags are passed in a daisy-chain onto the dock. I offer to help the oldest woman
onboard – a shrill, middle-aged bird – with the bag of potatoes she has brought from
Gisenyi. Only when I begin to strain with the effort do I realize she‟ll be strapping nearly
50 pounds of potatoes to her back with a frayed length of rope, then trud ging off into the
hills of Kibuye.
Outside the brewery there are no formalities, no warm partings. One by one we scatter,
picking our solitary paths through the crisp morning.
It is a long walk to the Béthanie – the church-run guesthouse where I‟d stayed once
before –and it takes me a few minutes to find my legs. The pain in my back and neck,
too, is tremendous. But having this early- morning hour to myself, with the birdsong
filling the trees, is almost entirely worth the effort getting here. And the pay-off, too,
comes when I finally collapse into my bed, set my alarm clock, think better of it, and
spend my first morning in Kibuye huddled under the covers.
March 25 – Kibuye
The life is good, but it is a lot of change.
In which memories are remembered.
It‟s half-past eleven when I finally get out of bed. It feels like my body is slowly
returning to me. I have five missed calls on my phone – John, periodically checking on
me since just before 6am. His concern is of the overbearing variety. I take a hot shower
and spend the next two hours working through a giant Thermos of coffee. Though I‟m
paying close to twenty U.S. bucks for my room – a small fortune, on my budget – the
narcotic pleasures of coffee by the lake remind me why this is one of my favorite places
in Rwanda. Across from me, the green wooded hills of a peninsula jut into the lake;
beside it, Amahoro (“Peace”) Island; beyond that, Napoleon Island – so named because it
is said to resemble Bonaparte‟s hat. From here, it looks like any other island on the lake –
its slopes covered with trees, a denuded hilltop. Beyond it are still more islands, tiny and
picturesque, so that you want to pack a picnic basket and spend the day exploring every
This, of course, can be arranged. There are boats shuttling tourists between the islands; at
the lunch hour they idle beside the jetty at the Béthanie, hoping to attract some clients.
One boy, Haybarimana, a spindle in oversized clothes, offers to take me to Napoleon and
Amahoro Islands for Rwf 20,000 – a steep price for an hour- long tour, considering I just
spent ten hours traveling half the length of the lake for a fraction of that price. I tell him
I‟m waiting for friends to arrive from Kigali – Andrea & Co., escaping the capital for the
weekend – and that we‟ll talk when I‟ve found a few more passengers. Or when he‟s
cooked up a more favorable rate.
Walking into town, with the cries and splashes of children rising from the lake, I compare
images of Kibuye with memories from my last visit, nearly two years ago. Here a small
vacant lot where women sell Fantas and ndazi beneath beach umbrellas – this I
remember. There, on the hillside, the skeleton of a new building – no doubt a gaudy
business hotel, soon to be welcoming the budding technocrats of Kigali. It looks like they
just started building it a few months ago. Closer to town, the biggest change: a sprawling
new “Regional Centre for Blood Transfusion,” sponsored by the American Center for
Disease Control and Prevention. Next to it a maternal health care c linic, which is showing
its years. Dozens of women in colorful wraps and dresses sit in the shade, cradling infants
to their chests.
My first great shock comes at the stadium – one of the few places I vividly recall in
Kibuye. It was here, in 2008, that I came to watch screenings for Hillywood, the traveling
leg of the Rwandan Film Festival. That day there were hundreds of people crowding the
grandstand – sitting, standing in the aisles, dangling from the railings. Mai and Ben, two
friends from Uganda, had come down to Kibuye for the weekend. There had been heavy
rains, and we picked our way through the mud to find places closer to the screen. It was
slow going; at places the mud came up to your ankles. We watched a man with a lame leg
navigate the field on a single crutch, poling himself like a gondolier.
The main feature that night was We Are All Rwandans, a 20- minute short film by the
English director Debs Eugene-Gardner. It was based on events from a village near
Kibuye in 1996, at a time when Interahamwe who had found refuge in what was then
Zaire were staging periodic raids across the border – attacks to sow chaos in rural
regions, and to test the stability of the newly formed government. In one such attack – the
basis of the film – gunmen raided a boarding school and, seizing a classroom, demanded
the students separate into Hutus and Tutsis. The students refused; one girl, defiant,
insisted, “We are all Rwandans,” before she was killed. It was a story that was little
reported at the time – Philip Gourevitch mentions it on the final pages of his famous book
– but was seized upon as a seed of hope for a new, united Rwanda.
I had watched the film at screenings across Rwanda, and the effect was always dramatic.
It is, by Rwandan standards, a graphic film, and there was much shock and grief as the
students were gunned down in their classroom. (Six died, many more were injured.) In
the end, though, amid the head-shaking and tongue-clucking, the film was powerfully
received. It carried a message, I thought, that many Rwandans wanted to believe in.
It was a message, though, that seemed to win few fans that night in Kibuye. There was a
sense of restlessness, and growing unease; before the film finished, the mood was
outright hostile, with hisses and jeers directed at the screen, and many throwing up their
hands with disgust as they left the stadium. Something to remember about Kibuye: it was
this town and region that saw some of the worst killing in 1994. Tutsis were almost
entirely wiped out from this prefecture; by some estimates, nearly 60,000 were killed –
more than 90 percent of the Tutsi population.
So how to interpret the hostility of the crowd? Was it a reaction against the film‟s
message of a unified Rwanda? Or against the violence depicted – sure to upset the
sensibilities of a rural audience? Or was it that particular story – drawn from a village just
a few miles down the road – that hit too close to home? Was this predominantly Hutu
crowd tired of being reminded of its crimes? Were they hoping the ghos ts of the genocide
might finally be put to rest?
Two years later, here is what‟s left of that stadium: the overgrown grass of a soccer field,
the crumbling remains of the grandstand. Packs of children scamper across the pitch,
kicking a ball, or whatever bundle of rags and strings passes for a ball. Goats are chewing
at midfield – chewing and chewing, in the manner of their kind. And yet the sight of that
crowded grandstand, the hissing old men, the fat drops of rain that fell like silver dollars
in our headlights – the memories are as vivid as if they‟d happened just last week.
Across from the stadium, as a fresh rain begins to fall, I duck into a small restaurant for
lunch. It is typical of rural Rwanda, with plastic tables and chairs arranged here and t here,
and a small TV flickering in a corner of the room. A menu is taped to the wall; the name
of the restaurant, it says, is Sport Restaurant Long Life. Two short, stout young women
bustle about the place – almost comically busy: there are just two other diners. There is a
confused exchange between us in a mixture of Kinyarwanda, English and French.
“Come, I show you,” says one of the girls, leading me into the kitchen. There is a large
bowl of cassava, another of beans, two empty basins with grains of rice sticking to the
side. She says something else, in Kinyarwanda. “In French, they say „chou,‟” she says.
“Chou,” I say. “Cabbage.”
“Cabbage,” she says, enjoying the feel of the word on her lips. She breaks into laughter. I
order rice, beans, and cabbage, and we have another good laugh as she begins to fill my
It is a good meal, served with a bowl of sambaza – tiny, silvery lake fish – in a watery
tomato broth. It costs about a dollar. Brazilian telenovellas are playing on the TV,
beamed in by satellite from Mozambique. The waitresses are rapt. Outside the rain falls
heavily, then lightly. I stand in the doorway and look at what‟s left of the stadium across
the street. There is still some sport going on, but so much for the “long life.”
I ask the two men sitting by the door, finishing off their Sprites, what became of the
stadium. One of the men, speaking in slow, cautious English, says they are tearing it
down to extend the maternal health clinic next door. He mentions the American NGO –
Peace something – which is funding the project. A new stadium is being built, he says,
further down the road.
The man is young, in his late-30s, I guess, and neatly dressed. He says his name is Jean
Baptiste Ntimehuka, and he is a bailiff at the high court in Kibuye. He takes from his
pocket a small lanyard with his name and photo, about which he is very proud. How
many Rwandans, I wonder, dream each night for such a job, such a lanyard! Jean Baptiste
points to his surname and translates: “God is good.” He was born in a village not far from
here and studied at the Université Libre de Kigali. He has now been living in Kibuye for
nine years. He has two small children, a boy, five, and a girl, three. His wife was raised in
the Congo; her family returned to Rwanda after the genocide. “And then she met you and
she fell in love,” I say. Jean Baptiste laughs uproariously, the words “not exactly”
implicit in his body language. I ask him about the life in Kibuye now, and he says,
“Kibuye is the development. The life is good, b ut it is a lot of change.”
For this small town, the changes have probably been dramatic. Beside the gas station,
where I remember there being rows of wooden dukas, there are now two construction
sites: future homes, according to the signage, of new commercial plazas. There is a new
shopping complex nearby, with a long arcade where the jobless youth of Kibuye can wait
out the rain. It is full of small shops, a FINA Bank, a restaurant with two long tables over
which are hunched lean men eating large plates o f potatoes and rice.
Outside the boys are milling, pushing, arguing, laughing, passing the time. Tanzanian
R&B plays from a barber shop. I pop into a smart little supermarket for a Fanta to revive
my flagging strength. The rear wall is covered with liquor bottles – Ugandan waragi,
Malibu rum. There are a few staples of the Rwandan diet – Zesta brand fruit jam, Blue
Band butter – as well as imported luxuries like Pringles and Cadbury‟s hot chocolate.
There are also five-gallon cans of vegetable oil sporting the USAID logo – relief supplies
that at some point made their way from the international aid food chain into the parallel
market of Rwandan commerce.
Parked in front is a truck from the National Institute of Statistics of Rwanda. The
message on the driver‟s side door exhorts Rwandans, “It‟s Time to Deliver!”
On the way back to the Béthanie I‟m caught in a steady shower. The rain is like a part of
the landscape here. On the side of the road is the St. Jean Catholic church, site, like so
many Rwandan churches, of countless genocide atrocities. Outside is a small memorial
site – a shapeless slab of concrete, hasty, artless, as if designed with all the thought and
care of a traffic pylon. (Better, though, than the Marxist tributes to the “povos” and “la
luta” in Mozambique – fine examples of memorial kitsch.) The church door is locked; I
can just make out the forms of wooden benches through the dusty, stained- glass
windows. The views of the lake from here are stunning. As always in Rwanda, you have
a hard time channeling the horrors of 1994 when so much of the world around you looks
On my way to the road I am met by two men, one in an ill- fitting coat and large sunhat;
the other clutching a sheaf of papers and wearing a rosary around his neck. They are
choirists at the church, here to practice songs for Sunday mass. (Jean Baptiste, too, had
said he sings in the choir. I suspect there are no shortage of hymns to get you through the
week in Kibuye.) The talk, as one might expect in a churchyard, quick ly turns to religion.
Am I a Catholic? No, Greek Orthodox. Ah, says Jean Marie – the man with the rosary –
that is almost the same thing. Here is where my French fails me. I try to explain the
differences between the two religions: the Great Schism (“Il y a cinq, six sant ans” – my
history as bad as my French), at which point Catholics began following the Pope (“Avec
la pape,” showing a fork in the road with my hands, and Catholics going to the left), and
“les orthodox” following something I call “l’archbishop” (hand shooting to the right,
“comme ça”). I mention Rome and Constantinople, which draws satisfactory nods.
“Constantinople,” says Jean Marie knowingly. They are practically in the same time
zone, after all. Jean Marie, seeking one last reassurance, asks if the Orthodox believe in
Christ and Mary. We do. Rapture. We are practically brothers now. Jean Marie pumps
my hand and we part on the best of terms, footsoldiers in the Lord‟s vast and varied
On the way down the hill a young boy joins me. He has a small tire and he is beating it
down the hill with a stick. What simple, Victorian pleasures you find in rural Rwanda!
The boy‟s sandals scuff the pavement; he is holding up his pants with one hand. He beats
his little tire into a ditch, pulls it out, and starts again. There is a look of furious
concentration on his face. Nothing could matter as much this afternoon as the successful
completion of his mission, which is to chase his tire down the hill and all the way home.
The rain has finally ended. The sun is out. The lake is bronze and the boats are drifting
slowly, silently across it.
I‟ve realized, since leaving my laptop and its distractions back in Kigali, that the day is
long, with many hours to kill. It is no coincidence that I‟ve filled two notebooks in just
five days. I‟m writing more than I‟ve written in months, and it‟s with no small regret that
I think back to past trips – my Kenyan odyssey to Lake Turkana, for example –
wondering how I passed those long hours, if not with my pen and pad. I could‟ve written
a small book about that endless truck ride from Maralal to the lake‟s shores. And then the
political circus in Loyangalani: the president and prime minister, there to launch an
emergency relief effort with the WFP in the drought-ravaged north. They arrived on
separate airplanes – too proud, too besotted with rank and protocol to carpool. The great
tribes of the north, the Turkana, the Rendille, the El Molo, sang and jangled their
braceleted legs on the runway. Probably the president, fat, gray, softened by years at the
public trough, didn‟t know what to make of those barebacked warriors singing their
archaic songs. The prime minister danced a clever little jig. The heat was unbearable.
All that feels now like a story from someone else‟s life. In Kibuye I listen to the rain
outside my window. I sing to myself – softly, at first, then less so. Appreciating for the
first time how the sound of one‟s voice, the bold notes sung in solitude, might fill the
emptiness that wraps around the hours of rural life. If I were a Rwandan farmer tilling
some vast country tract, I might sing thusly. (Though probably not the Smiths.) The
sound of the rain picks up, and then the sound of my voice does, too, until the two songs
blend in perfectly imperfect harmony. It is the first time I remember singing myself to
sleep – another oddball habit, perhaps, to take home from my African life.
March 26 – Kibuye, Bisesero
The life of the collines.
In which we find the girl with the key.
It is hard to get an early start at the Béthanie. Morning coffee on the lake, with the birds
crying hysterically in the trees, and the water slapping rhythmically against the jetty, is a
two-hour affair. It‟s half-past eleven when I finally leave the compound, compelled only
by hunger – I had just a few flimsy samosas for dinner last night – and my reluctance to
fork over five grand for a mediocre lunch.
Instead it is another plate of riz and haricots and legumes and viande – the scenery
changes, but the meal stays the same. Years from now, I will look back at my time in
Africa as one endless lunch buffet. It has spoiled me, in a way: I‟ve come to expect a
heaping plate of hot food at the ready as soon as my stomach demands it. And what
terrible preparation, too, for those interminable dinners at the Béthanie, with the sluggish
service and hour- long waits for tepid soup. Better to stock up on samosas again – which I
do, greedily, abundantly – so I can nibble away in peace and solitude in the comfort of
After lunch I‟ve planned to visit the memorial site at Bisesero – easier said than done. My
trusted Bradt guide (true to form) describes this evocative hilltop site near Kibuye; it
makes no mention, though, of the hour- long drive over rocky roads to reach it. This
prompts lengthy negotiations with half the moto fleet of Kibuye, most of whom won‟t
budge from a Rwf 10,000 asking price. (Never mind when I ask about the cost to
Cyangugu – they just laugh.) In the end, though, I‟m introduced to a friendly young guy
named, fittingly, Aimable, who settles for a rate of Rwf 8,000. For the trip to Cyangugu,
too, he is enthused – the cost, at Rwf 20,000, more than I‟d planned, but probably, in
retrospect, about what I should have expected.
Off we go, Aimable chatting amiably in French, me struggling to follow along with the
wind rasping in my ear. The road climbs steadily as we leave Kibuye, and the views are
sublime, endless. The hills are green and tumbling down to the water, which is laced with
peninsulas and dotted with little wooded islands. Everything seems to be in perfect
proportion to the landscape. Whoever made this place had a masterful eye. In the distance
more islands, and beyond them only the blue- gray line of the horizon. Beyond that,
Congo. Beyond that – Congo, still.
We scoot and skid over the gravelly road, here passing a small village, there surprising a
group of women carrying bundles of wood on their heads. “Mirwe,” I say. “Yego,” they
say, smiling. We climb another hill – even the hills have hills here – and suddenly, in the
distance, a sprawling city comes into view. It is a Congolese refugee camp, says Aimable.
I can see the sun glinting off tin roofs; the whole place has an air of permanence. It has
been here for 15 years, he says, with some 27,000 refugees to call it home. I remember
the stories of the Rwandan refugee camps in Goma, built in the weeks and months after
the genocide, when the Interahamwe and the Hutu refugees – killers and innocents alike –
crossed the border and established themselves in Zaire. Along with the UN tents provided
for refugees, they built general stores and hair salons, movie theaters and mechanics. This
they did in a matter of weeks. It is impossible to imagine what 15 years can do to a
refugee camp. But already we‟ve scooted off, goodbye, the camp is far behind us.
It is beautiful country here. Little country homes crown the hills – the tiled roofs, the soft
earthy palettes, have a Mediterranean air – and there is a constant commotion of farm
work. I can see villagers swinging their hoes on the hillsides – even the steepest slope is
home to a little vegetable plot – and there is endless traffic on the road: men with
machetes on their shoulders, women carrying charcoal and wood. Narrow footpaths
zigzag through the fields, crowded by village women walking single- file. I remember a
passage from African Laughter, by Doris Lessing, still echoing in my head:
The people living here are poor. Their lives when the rains fail are hungry. But
surely it is better to be poor here, in this sunlight, this beauty, than, let’s say,
Bradford or Leeds. There ought to be different words for poverty that grimes and
chills and darkens, and this poverty where people live in splendour, lifted up on to
the Altitude into ringing windy sun-scoured skies.
I think of these words as I watch a woman, barefoot, sitting in a small patch of sunlight
on a hill, staring off at the sunlight on other hills. But then, this land, this beauty, is
already overcrowded. There is not enough to sustain the rapidly growing population. I t
was a reason, too, for the killings in ‟94. Peasants were promised the cattle, the land, of
their dead neighbors. I think of these things, too, as we go speeding over the hills.
This is the life of the collines – so attractive, as you drive past, the modest, tidy homes,
the sweat and sunlight and industry. But it is in these collines that so much of the fear and
suspicion of Rwandan life is bred. A man described to me in Burundi how his
countrymen would never talk to you straight, how everything was told cautiously,
circuitously. It was how word traveled between the collines: never in a straight line, from
hilltop to hilltop, but twisting down into the valleys, following the winding paths,
bending, distorting. It is easy to see how rumors could spread here – how plausible a
story might sound, how a lie could become truth as it made its false, winding way
between the collines.
Now there are tea plantations on either side of us, as far as I can see – a picture-book
greenness, a greenness that shames and shuns the dark, shadowy greens of the trees. Here
women are plucking the leaves and carrying them in baskets on their heads. Always there
are children nearby – sitting on a mound of dirt, like young sentries, or playing in a gully
on the side of the road. Now and then we pass weighing stations – a venture, no doubt, of
some American NGO, or the EU. Here there is a festive, communal air. Leaves are being
weighed, bagged, to the great delight and pride of the farmers. At some of the stations the
bags are being loaded onto trucks; at others, wiry, barebacked men are taking the bags
onto their heads, trudging off to some distant market. The farmers are organized into
cooperatives, says Aimable. Their lives are better today than they were a few years ago.
Now the temperature is dropping, the road carries us along a high mountain ridge. On one
side, plump cumulus clouds, sunshine; on the other, a cool, damp fog blows across the
valley. It is like being in two places at once. The road tunnels beneath a canopy of pines,
conifers. The air is brisk, alpine. Storm clouds are brewing distantly over the hills. We
reach the memorial site in an appropriate atmosphere of gloom – even the green hills look
gray as they vanish behind the fog.
Bisesero was the site of one of the most defiant stands by Tutsis during the genocide. In
April 1994, more than 50,000 had gathered on the hilltop. For six weeks they repelled
their attackers with machetes and sticks, fighting, too, the hunger and the cold. It was the
rainy season, and there must have been little solace in the gray skies and muddy slopes.
Many were undoubtedly weak and sick when the killers returned in mid-May. This time
they were well-armed and determined – the killings went on for days. By the time French
soldiers arrived at the end of June, just 1,300 survivors remained, scattered across the
hilltops, hidden in the forests. It was the most complete ethnic cleansing in all of Rwanda.
At Bisesero the doors are locked, the memorial is empty. Aimable scoots off to a small
nearby settlement, looking for the custodian of the site. It is a somber place, but I know
this is all in my head: on a sunlit day, facing the valley, I imagine this would be as
cheerful as any place in Rwanda. Ten minutes pass, and Aimable returns with the guide:
a pretty, petite girl named Odette, in a long skirt and a heavy overcoat and a pink kerchief
wrapped around her head. She is an orphan of the genocide, both her parents killed, she
explains, during “la guerre.” I would like to know how the task came to her, to be the
custodian of this site at Bisesero, but we struggle to communicate in French. She opens
the door to a long, narrow shed; inside are skulls and bones, hundreds of them arranged
neatly on tables, with pale shafts of sunlight falling through the windows. Odette asks if I
have any questions, but where would I begin?
She shuts the door and we walk outside, toward a path that zigs and zags up the hill.
There are small houses – odd oblong buildings made of brick – regularly spaced along
the path. They are, I take it, from what I can understand of Odette‟s explanation, works in
progress as the memorial continues to grow. I ask if many tourists come to Bisesero. She
says the last one came about a month ago. I ask how she spends the rest of her days; she
shrugs. She has no money to continue her studies. She gestures vaguely to the road,
which ribbons toward her small village, where she passes the time until another tourist
arrives, asking for the girl with the key.
At the top of the hill the tombs: plain tiles laid across the earth, beneath which lie the
remains of 50,000 bodies. We circle the place, our feet crunching over the gravel, the
birds in the trees. Here is a cairn to commemorate where men and women were killed
with machetes and spears. We walk back down the hill, Odette pausing to lock each
building behind us. She and Aimable are talking easily, laughing – even here, life goes
on. At the bottom, in the visitor‟s center, I sign the guestbook. I notice that the last
visitors had come just a day before. But these were Rwandans; Odette seemed to take my
question as, “Do you get many foreigners here?” I find it ennobling – important even – to
see page after page of the guestbook filled with Rwandan names.
Outside the rain clouds are almost above us. Aimable is impatient to go. Odette reaches
up on the tips of her toes, struggling to throw a bolt across the door of the visitor‟s center.
It is a grim little thing, concrete, formless; I imagine it is how Stalin would have dreamt
up a commemoration to the killings at Bisesero. Before we leave I ask if I can take
Odette‟s picture. She smoothes her skirt and stands rigidly, eyes wandering off to the
treetops. I show her the picture, and she is pleased. She stands on the side of the road and
waves as we drive off for Kibuye.
We take a different route back to town. Aimable has no doubt weighed the probability of
rain each way; the other road, I suspect, has already been drenched. He revs the engine
and pushes our little moto forward, looking anxiously over his shoulder, as the clouds
continue to gain on us. Soon the first drops catch our helmets; a steady, light rain is
falling. It is not unpleasant to drive through, though Aimable is forced to tighten his grip
on the handlebars – the road is slick. In the villages we pass, everyone is huddled
joylessly under awnings and overhangs, any protection they can find under the rusted
eaves of a general store. The road is still busy with men carrying bags of charcoal, or
driving their goats with a stick. Women walk slowly with bags on their heads – they must
get to a far-away village, to the house of some relation, rain or no. A boy uses a broad
banana leaf as an umbrella. Another chases a bull uphill, its nostrils flaring, its horns like
Aimable does well: we‟ve escaped the rain. The clouds seem to sit and brood over the
hills as we race down toward the lake. The road wraps and bends, past the wagging
leaves of banana plants and the small steep plots of villagers. The hills jut into the lake,
they grow and recede as we round each bend. It is one of the most beautiful roads I‟ve
ever seen. By the time we reach Kibuye, the rain still dragging its heels, I am convinced
of my plan to take a moto to Cyangugu. Aimable is thrilled; we set a departure date for
Sunday. I wave as he goes scooting off through town, buoyed by his sudden good
The restaurant at the Béthanie is crowded by early evening – weekenders, I suspect,
coming down from Kigali. Andrea, too, is making the trip from the city. She has never
been to Kibuye, and with just a few months left in Rwanda, she thought it would be a pity
to pass the town by. But now her bus is delayed; the timing couldn‟t be worse. Just after
dusk a fierce storm blows across the lake, lightning ripping across the sky in terrible
bolts. It is a beautiful, frightful storm. Even after it passes, I can follow the lightning as it
flashes further along the lake. An hour later the rain returns. It will keep on like this for
the rest of the night.
Andrea rolls in, soggy and flustered, after eight. She is wired, breathless. She‟s just come
from a village school about an hour‟s drive from Kibuye, where she listened to the school
nurse giving a talk on sex ed. The students – teenagers, in Standards four and five and six
– were frank, curious. Andrea – who has spent almost two years in this country already –
was shocked to see such a candid discussion about sex, in rural Rwanda, of all places.
This is noteworthy; Andrea has seen much in Rwanda, she doesn‟t shock easy. Often I
envy the richness, the variedness of her life here. Last year, in that same village, she had
watched as a friend‟s parents – killed during the genocide, buried in a small family plot in
the yard – were exhumed and reburied in a national burial site during a formal ceremony.
It was, she said, a great honor for the family: they carried pictures of their parents at the
head of a procession, saw them interred with elaborate rites. But she wondered – we both
wondered – whether all survivors felt the same. Bodies across Rwanda were being
exhumed, reburied in national burial sites commemorating the genocide‟s dead. Did all
the families consider it an honor? Did they feel they were being exploited – their private
grief made public in the name of “national healing”?
The conversation, as always, takes off on tangents. The struggles of New Times
journalists to square the demands of their consciences with the need to earn a paycheck.
The impending visit of Canada‟s governor-general and assorted dignitaries. And always,
of course, the intrigues in Kigali, where her house – the house where I spent the past
three weeks – saw a constant flow of foreign journalists, here to train Rwandans on the
ethics and demands of the media industry. It is a fickle business, handling the needs o f a
half-dozen journalists under the same roof, like a poor- man‟s Big Brother. Always a fresh
problem to handle, new needs to deal with. Listening to her tired monologue, I get the
feeling that this short “vacation” is hardly enough. Not until Rwanda is be hind her, I
suspect, will Andrea be able to sleep with a clear head.
Beer, dinner – we leave our problems for another day. Hundreds of bugs – crawling,
slithering, flitting on filmy wings – have assaulted the lighting fixtures. It‟s like a buffet
for the lizards prowling along the walls. We watch them scuttling, tongues flicking,
giving chase. We are rapt. I‟ve seen this same scene repeated in dozens of hotels across
Africa. With a few weeks, or months, or years, a neglected home would be completely
overtaken by invasive weeds, by night creatures. I can think of no better advertisement
for man‟s irrelevance in the greater scheme of the earth‟s history. Amazing, too, that we
can do so much harm in so little time.
March 27 – Kibuye
The mystery of the swimming cows.
In which cows can swim.
In the morning, no signs of insect carnage in the restaurant. Walls that were covered with
little black bugs and predatory lizards look as if they‟d been scrubbed clean. The lake is
calm, the sky is pale and cloud-covered. So begins the end of my first week on Lake
At nine the restaurant is already full: a German couple, a French woman, two British
women, an American. Then the Rwandans arrive: a church group, most likely, here for a
conference or a weekend retreat. They‟re a handsome crowd – close to a dozen men, a
few women, all immaculately dressed, freshly laundered, ironed. Bless these Rwandans,
who bring their formalities even to a lake retreat. They negotiate with a boat captain
who‟s offering trips across the lake. Probably the first price, the second price gets
rejected. Negotiations are long, complex, informal. There is lots of laughter. A couple
strolls off and whispers intimately under a tree. Some of the hotel workers have come
over now, to join the negotiations. Everything is good-humored. A price is finally agreed
upon. More laughter. Still, no sense of urgency. The men slowly, unsure of their land
legs, board one by one. The women with their shoes in their hands. Life vests secured
over their neat collared shirts and blouses, they motor across the lake. You can hear their
laughter long after they‟ve left the shore.
At the Presbyterian-run Béthanie, these weekend church functions seem to make up the
bulk of the business. (Foreign aid workers, too, pale, petite American girls on weekend
liaisons with their Rwandan boyfriends.) It is the closest they ever come, I suspect, to
filling all these empty rooms. It is a beautiful compound, dozens of small villas
swallowed by the vegetation. Outside my room is a papaya tree and poinsettias and a pine
tree and a baobab. There are palms shaking their shaggy heads over the water, and birds
everywhere. It‟s as perfect as any place I‟ve known in Rwanda.
In the afternoon, Andrea looking well- rested and stress- free, we have lunch in town:
again rice and cabbage and a bowlful of sambaza. The girl who dishes our food cooks,
cleans, serves, clears the tables. I wonder if Rwanda would grind to a halt without these
sturdy, hard-working women. On the way into town we passed two women, young girls,
hardly out of adolescence. They were carrying bundles of wood on their heads and babies
on their backs and jerry cans in their hands. And still they greeted us joyfully. “Mirwe,”
they said, their voices high and musical, as we wagged our hands in greeting.
Back at the lake now, looking for a way to spend a warm and sunny afternoon. Down the
road from the Béthanie is a new hotel, the Moriah Hill Resort; Andrea had seen them
advertising a pair of well- maintained kayaks in the local press in Kigali. A little physical
exertion, we decide, would be a welcome break from beers on the terrace at Béthanie.
The walk to Moriah Hill is pleasant, too, down a scenic road framed by pines and palms –
those incongruous pairings of Kibuye! – with water birds grazing their breasts against the
Despite the changes in town, the health centers and shopping complexes, Moriah Hill is
the only new tourist development I‟ve found, nearly two years after my last visit to
Kibuye. It is an arresting sight: a block of gray concrete, a strange, modernist (cubist?)
box, so out of place amid the graceful contours of these Rwandan hills. No doubt this
architectural atrocity, with its spa treatments and motorboat tours of the lake, charges
executive prices to the Kigali elite who escape here for the weekend. Andrea and I – no
executives, to be sure – frugally order a couple of beers from the restaurant. Then we rent
a two-person kayak and put our muscles to work, paddling our hearts out until the Moriah
eyesore is out of view.
It‟s tempting to get carried away in a kayak: the sun-crested water, the islands strung
across the horizon, etc. But our progress is slow – the islands in the distance refuse to
budge, despite our paddling – and we decide to hug the shore, rather than setting some
perilous course for open water. It is a beautiful afternoon. The hills are full of birdsong,
and the shore is overhung with palm trees and tropical flowers. Even if the churches and
the houses and the massive power stanchions of Kibuye never leave our sight, the calm
and solitude of the lake makes it feel like seeing them through a thick pane of glass.
In a shallow cove we find the skeleton of a boat – an abandoned project by some local
shipbuilder, perhaps, whose money had run out. To see it half-submerged in the water is
like discovering some sunken Spanish galleon washed up onshore. It fills us with joy and
wonder, and we lift our paddles from the water, as if to give it its due reverence as we
drift silently by.
I‟m using muscles I haven‟t used in months, and there is a good, vigorous burn in my
arms and chest. Andrea – an expert paddler in her day, full of stories of northern
Ontario‟s lake country – has excellent form. We paddle across a channel – storm clouds
threatening over the hills – and draw a wide, lazy arc around a small island. Suddenly, a
surprising sight: first one cow, then two, lowing and swishing their tails. It is like some
small bit of magic – we‟re hundreds of feet from the shore. Did some intrepid herder,
desperate for land in the crowded hills around Kibuye, row them out to this deserted
island to graze? Did they swim here themselves? Can a cow even swim? (It turns out they
can – really well, according to Francine, the receptionist at Moriah Hill.) Mystery
pervades their presence here. While the cows, unfazed by said mystery, unmoved by our
curiosity, chew placidly at the hillside.
We round the island and steer back toward Moriah Hill. Now thunder is rumbling. Far
out to the west, over the Congo, we can see a curtain of rainfall. Our muscles are sore, but
we strain our oars. Sun spangles dance over the water. Somewhere far away, voices cry
out from the hills. It is a beautiful feeling to exert ourselves like this, with the sun warm
on our arms and faces. We put all our weight into rowing back to shore, knowing the
storm clouds and the growing thunder are chasing us to the hotel.
After last night‟s apocalypse, though, tonight‟s rainfall is meek as a lamb. Back at the
Béthanie the lake is beating against the shore, but the threatening, grumbling clouds
surprise us with just a mild shower. It is a disappointment for Andrea, who had canceled
her plans to leave for Gisenyi this evening. Instead she arranges a 6am wake-up call for
tomorrow morning; if all goes well, she‟ll be on the back of a moto and in Gisenyi by 9
I, meanwhile, have my own problems to worry about. During dinner I get a text from
Aimable, whose moto “vient d’être prise” by the traffic police because of “retard des
tax.” I‟m not entirely sure what to make of this – retard tax? – but the point is clear: I‟m
on my own for the trip to Cyangugu. It‟s a headache I was hoping to avoid; tomorrow is a
Sunday, after all, hardly the time to be making convoluted travel plans in pious, Church-
going Rwanda. Andrea, though, is sanguine: she‟s sure something will come together in
the morning. I decide to show some faith, too: if nothing else, three years of traveling in
Africa have taught me that things always work out in the end.
But never the way I‟d planned.
March 28 – Kibuye to Cyangugu
Political unrest and what have you.
In which white people do white things.
With Aimable having bailed on me last night and no certain prospects ahead for the trip
to Cyangugu, I‟m up and anxious early. The morning plan – a quick coffee, a long walk
into town, an endless round of negotiations with moto drives – is a far cry from the
leisurely mornings I‟ve enjoyed since arriving in Kibuye. I am dreading the day.
But suddenly, a surprise: Andrea calls just a few minutes shy of eight; she‟s in the
parking lot with Emmanuel – her ride to Gisenyi. They‟ve found another moto driver
who‟s offered to take me to Cyangugu. Rare are the transportation surprises in Africa that
are of the welcome variety. We meet and negotiate briefly; the agreed- upon price –
20,000 francs, close to forty U.S. bucks – is what I‟d offered to pay Aimable. That
Andrea is paying the same amount for a quicker and more comfortable, tarmac-ed ride to
Gisenyi is unremarked upon. I fork over ten grand in gas money, give Andrea a quick hug
and a “Safari njema,” and retreat to my room to pack my things.
It‟s an inauspicious morning – gray, cool, with a light drizzle left over from last night‟s
storms. I‟m hoping the day will clear by mid- morning, but for now my spirits are low,
they continue to sink as I wait for my driver to return from his petrol run. Fifteen minutes
become twenty, twenty become forty – still no sign of him. Soon my doubts grow. Who
was this friend of Emmanuel‟s, anyway? And why did he need ten thousand in gas
money? I begin to imagine they‟ve struck some prior arrangement – that this friend will
disappear, 10,000 francs the richer, while Emmanuel denies they‟d ever met and I get
stranded in the parking lot of the Béthanie. A feeling of he lplessness sinks in. How often
have I felt this way in Africa – left to the mercies of strangers, never sure if I‟ve invested
my trust in the wrong guy? Now I‟m blaming myself instead. Why did I tell him to come
back in 15 minutes? Why couldn‟t I just grab my bags while he was right in front of me?
How could I fork over 10,000 francs, no questions asked?
It‟s just as my pulse begins to throb in my neck and my fleecing seems assured that the
guard trots up the stairs to the reception desk and returns with a number scribbled on his
hand. Relief! Suddenly, my doubts vanish. A number! To go with it, I‟m sure, a face and
a name. The guard calls, and with an emphatic “Umva!” lets it be known that the white
man is waiting. “He comes,” says the guard, shaking his head with sympathy. Now my
sympathies, too, are engaged. Maybe I was being too harsh. Probably this driver needed
the money – for what? To pay some debt? To help his mother, his girlfriend, his brother?
Who knows what desperate errand he had to run this morning, 10,000 francs in hand? I‟m
feeling more charitable by the time I hear his engine sputtering down the path. It is 9am
on the dot, and my ride is here. We grapple briefly with my duffel bag, settling on a
dubious side-saddle arrangement that promises a long and interesting day ahead. Then,
with a brief wag of the hand to the guard, we‟re off, hoping to make Cyangugu by early
The air is brisk, the sky gunmetal gray. I eye the clouds with ambivalence. An overcast
day is probably preferable to long hours in the sun; but a single downpour – especially in
the early going – would make this journey unpleasant at best, treacherous at worst.
The road is already in rough shape. In rural Africa, the going is only as good as
yesterday‟s rains allow, and just a few kilometers from Kibuye we‟re sputtering through
the mud and skidding across rivulets streaming down from the hilltops. Already I‟m
discouraged. I‟m trying out different arrangements to keep my duffel bag balanced on my
thigh, but my arm muscles are straining, and the prospect of shifting grips every few
minutes for the next five hours seems like a kind of madness. The driver, Aloys, appears
to have a particularly sadistic streak to him. Often I‟ve ridden motos with my duffel bag
balanced on the gas tank, between the driver‟s legs; while it‟s hardly the safest
arrangement, this is Africa, and it can be done. Aloys pooh-poohed the suggestion from
the start, without explanation. With each bump in the road, though, with each rock that
jolts our tires – and my sore backside – I wonder just how long I‟m going to last.
Not long, as it turns out. Forty minutes from Kibuye, Aloys pulls over. He begins fussing
with plastic bags and ropes and straps on the back of the bike. Suddenly – voilá! – a
rubber hose is produced. He lashes it violently across my bag, once, twice, and gives it a
few mighty tugs. The bag, for now at least, is secure. Cautiously we rearrange ourselves
on the bike and speed off, my spirits lifted. Cyangugu suddenly seems like it‟s just
around the bend.
For now, the going is easy. If there was a reason behind this mad project – a motorbike
trip to Cyangugu that would take a greater toll on my body and wallet than the Otracom
bus – it was a desire to feel some sort of closeness to the country passing by. So much is
lost on those crowded buses – the windows sealed against the fresh mountain air, the
bodies pressed on top of each other in sweaty congress. I wanted to feel the joy and
openness of the road; and I wanted, too, to see the delight and awe and confusion on all
those Rwandan faces as a white man came barreling around the bend, waving his hands
in greeting. And along the way, I‟m treated to such marvelous, welcoming gestures. An
old gent doffs his cap and sweeps it grandly through the air; an old woman throws her
arms up and calls out “Muraho!” grinning like a schoolgirl who‟s stolen her first kiss.
I take great pleasure in these country greetings, and in all the rural sights of the hills.
Though we pass few cars, the road is always crowded: villagers hauling banana leaves
and charcoal and firewood in massive bundles, or jerry cans full of water, or baskets and
plastic containers full of fruits and bread. Twice we‟ll pass youths carrying car batteries
on their heads. How I would love to know the stories of those car batteries! And always
the same smile and cheerful greeting. “Muraho,” I‟ll call out. “Yego,” they‟ll say,
grinning, emptying their bellies with laughter. “Amakuru,” I say. “Yimeza,” they say. This
goes on and on all day. Women swinging their hoes in the fields will pause to wave their
hands. In sprawling rice paddies, where dozens of men and women labor, doubled over at
the waist, they pop up one by one at the sound of our engine, like a game of Whack-a-
Mole. Cheerily they watch and wave as we vanish around a hill.
In a small village – a collection of huts and mud-and-wattle homes, arranged around a
single general store – we stop at a bridge that is being repaired. It is wooden, rickety,
unsure of itself. A group of children surrounds our bike. “Good morning, teacher,” they
say. “How are you?” I say. “I am thank you,” they say. They crowd close to the bike, all
toothy grins. Aloys shoos them away and pushes ahead, the bridge creaking beneath us.
Then we are back on solid ground, the wheels spinning with confidence as we climb
These small, shapeless villages. No signs to greet you, to fix these places on a map. The
larger ones might have a row of poured-concrete shops – a restaurant, a mechanic, a
general store – and these are weather-stained and faded many shades drabber than when
they were built. Sometimes you will see a store with a fresh coat of paint, and almost
always these will be yellow or blue: yellow for MTN, the cell phone company; blue for
Primus, the beer. A shopkeeper will be paid to turn his store into a giant advertisement; I
imagine this is a mark of great prestige. The smaller, poorer villages – and there are many
– will often have just a few wooden stalls lining the main road. Always, in these
commercial centers, you will see youths, the unemployed, sitting outside a shop, or under
a tree – on this rainy day, wherever they can stay dry. The towns, paradoxically, seem
drained of life. They don‟t have the vitality and industry of the hills, where ever ywhere
you see farmers planting, tilling. I suspect few people live in these small settlements;
they‟re simply trading centers for the surrounding area. Here the people live on every hill
and in every valley. Often you will enter a village and leave it just as quickly, as if the
whole vision – the slouching mud huts, the weather-beaten storefront, the riot of
vegetation – were just some trick of the light.
We are more than three hours out of Kibuye now, and the rain is falling steadily. The
road has grown more treacherous; skidding down the hill Aloys will suddenly lose
control, wrench the handlebar to the side, right the moto. I am having unpleasant visions
of plunging off these scenic cliffs, meeting some picturesque demise in a grove of banana
plants. The rural charms of this country road, by now, are forgotten. I am cold, and wet,
and mud-spattered, and grumpy. Aloys, for his part, is picking up the pace. Never mind
that these high cliffside roads have grown more dangerous. For him, there is still a long
return journey ahead. Better to get this over with – one way or another.
Suddenly we come to a stop. Around us a forest of blue gums – tall, silver-barked,
shivering in the wind. Aloys says something in Kinyarwanda. He points to a tree.
Scuttling up the trunk are two vervet monkeys, quick, playful, their black pinched faces
taking us in with a whimsical sort of curiosity. I cluck my tongue; they pause, then panic.
Off they go, leaping and tumbling between the highest branches, until they disappear into
It is almost four hours now since we left Kibuye. Every rock, every rut sends a jolt
through my whole body. My ass is numb beyond words. At each turn, at every hilltop
summit, I expect to see the lake spreading beneath us. Aloys, too, has a se nse of
expectation about him. He makes a call and hands me the phone. A voice is beaming to
me – from Cyangugu? Kigali? – speaking English and French. He wants to know where
I‟m going – a point, I would‟ve hoped, that was by now apparent. I say Cyangugu. Yes,
but which hotel? My knees tremble – I can almost feel the hot shower on my back. I hand
the phone back to Aloys, who concludes a quick dialogue in Kinyarwanda. Then we are
off again, the quaint coastal charms of Cyangugu, I‟m sure, just minutes away.
It is the worst sort of torture. Still we wind along these bumpy rural roads. Still the
villagers grin and wave and show more good nature, I‟m afraid, than I can bear. The road
is endless. We come to Nyagasheke, a large town with rows of shops and a smart new
health clinic – no doubt a lifeline for miles around. In the center of town we stop beside a
shrine to the Virgin Mary, draped with blue and white pennants. It is Palm Sunday, and
dozens of people pour from a nearby church, clutching palm fronds to the ir chests. It
seems fitting, what with my Biblical passage through the Rwandan hinterlands, to be
greeted thusly. But we have no time for Nyagasheke; we are off again, the rain batting
coldly against my face.
It is another 20 minutes before we come to a miraculous sight: tarmac, as the rough lake
road finally meets the paved road joining Cyangugu to Butare. For the first time all
morning, we‟re both relieved. This is marvelous country, with its hills and valleys
covered with emerald-green tea plantations as far as I can see. But a cold wind is
blowing, and the rain has gathered force. It is another wretched hour to Kamembe, the
busy modern town overlooking rundown Cyangugu. By the time we arrive my legs are
caked in mud, my muscles aching in places I didn‟t know they existed. Down the hill we
go, past an old villa decaying in the forest, like a Roman ruin. The lake is a flat silver
plate in the distance. Suddenly, the border. With a little carelessness, I think, we might‟ve
driven straight through it and up the hill to Bukavu. Instead we are at the hotel, I am
paying Aloys and pumping his hand with gratitude, and he is already getting back onto
his motorbike for the long journey home. It has taken almost five hours for us to reach
Cyangugu, and if it weren‟t for my sore-assed protestations, I doubt Aloys would have
stopped at all. Before going he puts his number – “Aloys Motar” – into my phone. In
spite of it all, he is eager to make this trip again, for the 22,000 francs I‟ve just paid him.
To one side of the road is the aging Hotel du Lac; to the other, the church-run Home St.
François. The nuns are busy about the place, their crisp white habits bustling through the
garden, and I‟m greeted instead by a cheerful young man named Bernard. He is eager to
practice his flawed English on me. “I am happy very to see you,” he says, beaming, as if
he‟d just invented the words himself. I am, after this long day, happy to see him, too. I
entrust myself to him, and he is soon sitting me in the dining room – thrifty, spartan, a
few crucifixes and church calendars on the wall – bringing out plate after plate: potage
and rice and beans and frites and viande. I eat like a refugee. Even in my famished state I
can only get half- way through the meal, but I‟m afraid to let good-hearted Bernard down.
So I will myself to get through the rice and beans and salad, and when dessert comes –
two passion fruits and an orange – I force it down, too. It is the first and last thing I‟ll eat
today. Then a short, brisk nun – Sister Miriam – enters, bustles me toward reception,
expresses dismay at my long journey, smiles at my French, asks me to sign here and here,
takes my money, and shows me to my room.
It is all a tired traveler can ask for: a hot shower, a large bed, and the desk on which I
write these words. There are two Bibles in four languages – Kinyarwanda, French,
English and German – and a crucifix hanging on the wall above my pillow (which, I‟ll
later learn, glows in the dark). By the time I‟ve washed and shaved and massaged the
kinks out of my legs and lower back, I feel slightly revived. Across the street is an
Internet café – my first since Gisenyi – and a lakeside restaurant at the Hotel du Lac
which promises some much- needed caffeine.
The phone rings before I make it out the door. “Home,” says the caller ID. What a quaint
concept here, just 100 meters from the Congo! On the other end of the line, tidings from a
normal, New York life. Mom on her way to Florida for a week; dad worried if I‟ve filed
my taxes; my oldest brother, Nick, with his two-year-old son gurgling in the background.
Strange how easily I‟ve put thousands of miles between us. My mother is anxious about
my trip to the DRC. “Why are you going there again?” I‟m not sure if there‟s a short
answer. She wants me to be careful. “I see the Congo is in the news again – political
unrest and what have you,” she says. (This, I‟ll later learn, has to do with a Human Rights
Watch report about a large-scale attack by the Lord‟s Resistance Army in the volatile
northeast last December. It‟s like me warning my mother to bring an umbrella to work
because it‟s raining in Boston.) She is full of love and worries, my poor heartsore mom! I
tell her to be careful, too: it wasn‟t long ago that political unrest was gripping Florida.
The hotel has come alive now with guitars and tambourines and festively done up
families. Minibuses fill the parking lot – there is a church on the third floor of the guest
house, and the Palm Sunday mass has attracted worshipers from miles around. It‟s a bit
too much for me. Instead I cross the road, order a coffee on the patio of the Hotel du Lac,
stare blankly at the hills of Bukavu, just across the Rusizi River. Houses are perched on
the edge of the hill; smoke pirouettes into the air from cooking fires; there a re the cries of
roosters, birds, children. It could be a scene from anywhere in Africa. And yet the
knowledge of what lies beyond it, in the dark, forbidden places of the interior – it fills me
with a cold, clammy dread. I drink my coffee and try to gather my strength. It will be an
interesting week ahead.
Beside the hotel, the Rusizi – gray, green, depths unknown – moves briskly. There is a
small island in the river, and a man in a thin red windbreaker sits in a pirogue by its
banks, casting his line into the water. He is huddled against the cold – it is no day to be
out on the water – but he sits there, patient, casting his line again and again. His boat is
the weathered husk of some ancient tree – it looks like it was carved from a single
majestic trunk. Something about that noble battered pirogue, about the fisherman‟s stiff
resilience, seems to augur what awaits me in the Congo. When he finally casts off from
the shore, he waves in reply to my greeting, then tips his head back with a gesture to
show his thirst. I am just finishing my coffee – I have nothing to give him – and I offer an
apologetic shrug. He smiles, nods, turns back to the water, and continues to row his
lonely boat home.
March 29 – Cyangugu, Kamembe
Little by little. It is very nice.
In which we take a short cut.
Glow-in-the-dark Jesus notwithstanding, I sleep soundly. This is, of course, a talent of
mine. Years ago, in New York, I was a restless sleeper, an insomniac. Most nights I
would be up until three or four, sleeping until mid-day. But then, that was a different life.
For nearly four years I was un- or marginally employed. I slept under my parents‟ roof, in
the same bed I wet as a child. I kept odd hours: working at a restaurant in downtown
Brooklyn; canvassing one ill- fated month for a grassroots political party. It was a restless
life, it lacked equilibrium. There were all the distractions of home, too: high-speed
Internet, hundreds of TV channels, my brother‟s wall of DVDs in the basement. It was
easy, in all that modern tumult, the confused chatter of endless entertainment, to be a
Now I sleep like a stone. Earlier this year, in Burundi, traveling in volatile rural areas, I
twice woke in the morning to excited chatter from the other guests. Did I hear the
gunshots in the night? No, in fact, I didn‟t. A part of me – the ambulance-chasing
journalist – felt like I‟d missed out. But it is a gift, I guess, to sleep so well. In the
morning, it feels like I‟m being roused from some ancient depths. Coffee is a solemn,
life- giving rite. I wonder if yesterday‟s moto ride would have been less grim with a full
tank of coffee to get me started in the morning.
Today I‟m less sore than I‟d feared, but still lethargic. It seems less a physical than a
spiritual thing: it‟s been a long week. At home in Kigali, in this sort of mood, I would
spend the day catching up on the news, emailing friends across the time zones. I don‟t
know if I‟ll allow myself that luxury here. My time is short in Cyangugu – a day, maybe
two – and I feel compelled, if I‟m going to continue filling these pages, to find some odd
character or story that will bring this ramshackle town to life.
And so, again, the Hotel du Lac. It‟s easy to see how this place, in its colonial-era
heyday, made a smart getaway for a few days. The balconies with their views of the hills,
the restaurant with its pleasant riverside terrace, the swimming pool – empty for years,
I‟m sure – with its optimistic tariffs for month- long memberships. How many families –
the Belgians, the French – would come to escape Kigali, the tiresome halls of
officialdom, for a few days‟ rest? And how often have I seen this same hotel – the dusty
rooms, the peeling paint, the empty swimming pool – in Kenya and Uganda, in Malawi
and Mozambique? In Bukavu, long past its colonial prime, I expect to see a whole city
swallowed by tropical decay, languor. And still, a different, modern, African vitality
persists. The family that came to take Fantas on the Hotel du Lac terrace on Sunday
afternoon, the mother in her church dress, the little boy in his smartly buckled vest, the
daughter in her pretty white shoes: they had probably never known the Hotel du Lac as
anything but what it is today. You won‟t find them pining for the glory days of the
Belgians! And still it is a place to admire the birds in the trees, to watch the pirogues
gliding gracefully with the current, to come with your family on a Sunday afternoon, to
spend the week‟s thrifty savings and enjoy a few Fantas by the river.
It is an overcast day, cool, though I‟m sure not for long. I leave my dirty clothes from
yesterday‟s trip to soak in a bucket of warm water and Nomi detergent, and then I‟m off,
past the bustling border post, up the green hills toward the sprawling modern town of
It is not long – I didn‟t expect it to be – before two men begin matching my strides. They
are on their way to Kamembe – too poor for transport, they explain, the 200 or 300 francs
(50 cents) it no doubt costs to ride in a minibus. They ask if they can join me, and I say I
would be glad for the company. The older of the two is named Faustin; the other, Lazare.
Neither speaks very good English, and I take it as a challenge to see how far my French
will get me. We walk on the road‟s shoulder, stopping now and then to admire Bukavu
spreading up and down the hills across the lake. I ask Faustin if he knows the population,
and he laughs. Who could know such a thing? He lived in the city for ten years and
knows it well. From the roadside he points to different quartiers along the lake, famous
houses – here where a rich Congolese lives, there a Belgian, here some other whites,
there the endless sprawl of the poor. It is obvious, even from across the lake, how much
wealth is in Bukavu. Everywhere you see massive villas and modern hotels, and still
more developments in the city‟s choicer areas. But the living is difficult there, says
Faustin. Many of the women we see on the road, carrying baskets of vegetables and fish,
are Congolese, doing their shopping in Kamembe. They buy food for their families, and
goods to sell in the markets of Bukavu at a profit. “Here there is many things to eat,” says
Lazare. “There is house, house, house. They only build.”
All this movement between the two cities seems natural – what is a border, really, but
something the whites put here? The people here share a language – Kiswahili is most
commonly heard around the border – and the constant movement of goods gives this
place the feel of one great marketplace. Congolese francs change hands as readily in
Cyangugu as Rwandan ones. And livelihoods, too, are built on the belief that nothing so
trivial as a border post will get in the way of business.
It has taken me some time, because of the language barrier, to fully understand the story
of the two men I‟m walking with. But when Faustin unfolds his identity papers – two
pages of heavy cardstock, covered in stamps – I suddenly see: the two men are studying
in Bukavu, and each day they leave Rwanda, spend a few hours at their university in
Congo, and return to their Rwandan homes. The daily crossing is free, says Faustin; a
year-long visa would cost a steep 5,000 francs – about nine bucks – which Faustin
pronounces with a heavy sigh. So every day they leave their homes at 5am, and because
there is no money, they must walk all the way to their university on the other side of the
border. “Only on foot,” says Faustin. “No lifty, no car.” He laughs and shakes his head
with good humor. It is the laugh of a poor man without a choice.
We stop to admire the remains of a villa swallowed by vegetation. It is the same house I
marveled at from the back of my moto yesterday – the walls covered in creepers, the roof
long gone, the bedrooms and salons now thick with plant life. It was once the house of
the king, says Faustin. “Mille neuf sant cinquante sept” – 1957 – he says, with great
significance. I do not know if this is the year the king died, or was deposed; my
knowledge of Rwandan history begins with the 1959 revolution. Now tidy little bean
plots have been planted along the outside walls. I begin taking pictures, and a woman
offers a stern, if ambiguous, warning. Perhaps she‟s afraid the king‟s spirit still inhabits
We turn from the main road and begin to climb a steep hill. “Shorty cut,” says Faustin.
The path is still slick from yesterday‟s rains, and I try to picture Lazare and Faustin –
both wearing their smart, impractical shoes – negotiating the muddy embankment and
exposed roots each day. It is a long way to the top (only later, when I take the tarmac
road back from town, will I appreciate how much time we‟ve saved). As we huff our way
uphill, Faustin – still neatly buttoned at the cuffs and collar – explains that when he is not
studying at the university, he is a pastor. He preaches at a Pentecostal church in
Kamembe; he is trying to find a foreign sponsor who can help expand his church. “Je suis
visionaire,” he says emphatically. I find it hard to debate him on that point. Imagining
this same weary slog day after day – empty pockets and the sun on his back and the
slender, worn briefcase filled with the day‟s assignments – I think of what devotion and
vision it takes to carry him up that hill.
Near the top we pause to catch our breaths. We‟ve climbed through a cool, breezy forest
of pines, and now we‟re on a dirt road flanked by tin-roofed houses – tidy, well-kept
homes, flowers in the yard, sun on the windows. Children come racing from their yards to
greet us. Lazare, as delighted by their attentions as I am, greets them with proud, halting
English. “How are you?” he asks. “What is your name?” Below us I can see mothers
hanging laundry in their yards, or standing in their doorways, hands on cocked hips,
watching in mock despair as their children bolt from the house to see the white man
Faustin is telling me again about his life. For ten years – from 1990 to 2000 – he lived in
Bukavu, having fled at the start of the Rwandan civil war. Here, he explains, you always
had people fleeing. They began leaving Rwanda during the ethnic pogroms of 1959 and
‟62; they left during the civil war and the genocide. And now, too, you had the Congolese
fleeing their own bloodshed, taking refuge in Rwanda. There was the camp I saw last
week, near Kibuye. And here, too, close to Cyangugu, there is another camp: not
Congolese, he explains, but Rwandan returnees from South Kivu. He shakes his head and
laughs softly. It is too much even for him to make sense of.
At the top of the hill we come to a poor, crowded quarter, the houses slouching under
rusted tin roofs held in place by large stones. The way is muddy; there is a smell of
cooking fires, the sounds of women‟s voices. “Il y a mauvaise vie ici,” says Faustin
softly. And then, in English, “Here it is a bad life.” It is something he says with great
feeling – a man well- versed in hardship.
Suddenly we are on the streets of Kamembe, beside the market. Color, noise, chaos.
Faustin picks through the crowd, exchanging greetings. I‟ve offered to take the two men
to lunch, and they lead the way through streets congested with motorbikes and market
women, school kids and street kids, the energetic din of a money- making border town.
Lazare stops: he wants to introduce me to his father. He takes me to a large covered
market where, just inside the entrance, sits a short, pleasant man on a wooden bench.
Beside him is a shop neatly arranged with pens and pencils and notebooks – a tower of
stationery rising toward the roofs. He greets me warmly. I tell him he has a good son –
“Vous-avez un bon fils.” He accepts this with a laugh. Next to him another man sizes me
up and asks for money. It is a serious plea, but everyone laughs – I wonder if soliciting
white guys is his schtick. I shake Lazare‟s father‟s hand again and off we go, dodging
bicycles and motorbikes and wheelbarrows as we cross the street.
The restaurant is down an alley, and there are beggars outside: a boy and a young man in
wheelchairs, an old woman with crutches, another with a deformity of the back. Faustin
greets them with jokes, laughter. They grin, tease him, call out with mirth. We pass
through a beaded curtain and into two small, crowded rooms. Sunlight pours through a
window running the length of the back wall. A small TV set plays music videos in the
corner. My presence is noted by curious faces. We join a man sitting by himself at a table
– no preamble needed, we just sit. His shoulders are hunched and his head is down and he
is making his way gravely through a plate crowded with rice and beans and frites and
spaghetti. We order three of the same. It is a lively place, the voices are loud and
boisterous, there are shouts, threats, oaths, laughter. The waiters are tall, good- looking
young men – they are possessed of a certain ease and self-confidence I‟m not used to in
Rwandan waiters. Back and forth they go, carrying heaping plates, or small tin bowls full
of a watery tomato broth. An older man, cautious, well-dressed, circles the room like a
foreman. He has a small parcel bag slung over his shoulder – he handles the money.
When a customer pays, he carefully counts out the change.
The food arrives with three lukewarm Fantas, and we give the plates our undivided
attention. Even in this cheerful restaurant, the food requires a certain care and solemnity.
There‟s no telling for Faustin and Lazare, I‟m sure, when such a meal will come again.
Around the room there are many men like them: lean, fastidiously dressed, heads lowered
to their plates, attending to each bite with religious devotion. There are women, too, as
bright as tropical birds – more than I‟m used to seeing in such a restaurant. And other
men, vigorous and well- fed, for whom such a meal is no great occasion.
As the food diminishes on our plates, the conversation strikes up again. Faustin, smiling
marvelously with contentment, pats his stomach in a gra nd, gratuitous gesture with both
hands. Lazare opens his briefcase and removes a stack of photocopies: the study guide for
his biology class, he says. There are skulls, and muscles, and reproductive organs, each
meticulously labeled in Latin and French. It is probably the closest his school comes to a
textbook. He takes out a sheet of blank paper and begins to write: his name, his father‟s
name, his contact details. “Lives in Kamembe,” he says, and writes: Lives in Kamembe.
He apologizes that he doesn‟t have a phone, but I say it‟s okay: my number changes with
each country I visit. It is better that we stay in touch through email, I assure him. At this,
he seems greatly pleased.
Outside we walk through the streets, the sun is out for the first time today. I t is a cheerful,
bustling town. There are dozens of forex bureaus, and the ubiquitous hair salons –
“saloons” – with names like New Texas, and American Boys, and Number One, and
Dream. This is the saloon preferred by Lazare; Faustin, almost apologetically, says he
doesn‟t have the money to cut his hair often. I explain that I cut my hair myself: “Je
coupe les cheveux moi-même.” This amuses them greatly. Africans, I say, don‟t know
how to cut mzungu hair. I make a buzzing noise as I run an imaginary trimmer across
Lazare‟s head. They laugh, nod sagely: the white man has a point. Now we‟ve stopped
outside the Dream Saloon, and Lazare says he will continue up the hill toward home. I‟m
ready to return to the terrace of the Hotel du Lac – my French, I explain, has abandoned
me. Faustin reassures me. “Little by little,” he says. “It is very nice.”
We part with Lazare and turn back down the hill. Briefly we pass through the market; I‟d
explained that I was going to walk home – “Je vais marcher” – but Faustin thought I
wanted to see the “marché.” Piles of children‟s clothes on the ground, rows of shoes and
sandals. “My friend,” says a man, gesturing to his stock of Chinese- made running shoes,
“you are welcome.” Further down the hill, buses in a dirt lot. I suspect Fa ustin has done
enough walking today, so I offer to give him money for the bus. He is smiling, grateful. I
plunk two coins in his hand, and he hesitates. The full journey home will cost 700 francs,
he says – there is the bus, and then a boat. I realize how much I‟ve probably missed in
our conversation – boat? – but I am glad for the company he gave me, and I give him the
money with gratitude. We part warmly. “À la prochaine,” I call out. Until next time.
Faustin waves, crosses the road, and then disappears into the station‟s throngs.
Walking down the hill, relieved to be free of my French, pleased at my encounter with
Faustin and Lazare, the sun warm on my face, my spirits high. It is a long walk back to
Cyangugu – some 30 minutes pass before I reach the place where we turned off for our
shortcut. At the border, bedlam. Buses, motorbikes, porters with rickety wooden
handtrucks, hoping to help some weary traveler with his cargo. Bicycles pedal toward the
border post, laden with charcoal, jerry cans (these I sa w pedaling down the hill from
Kamembe – full of petrol, I suspect, to be resold in Bukavu at a profit). And women – so
many women, with their baskets and bags and bundles, with great sacks of potatoes
strapped to their backs. Brave, tireless, tough as a bag of screws: these women keep the
economic engine thrumming. And then all the household duties: feeding the husband,
dressing the children for school, keeping the home tidy. The day starts early and ends
late. And yet to see them in groups – loud, laughing, chatting happily – is to appreciate
what joy there is in such overworked spirits. In a small shop near the hotel, where I‟ve
stopped to buy water, a gaggle of women sits, bags straining and strewn around them,
drinking milk, eating sweet loaves of ndazi bread, wiping the children‟s noses, arguing
with good humor. Always there is money changing hands between these tough, shrewd
women. (Bundles of wrinkled, soiled bills wedged between their breasts.) Through some
mystic calculus they keep the house running on the day‟s small earnings. And always
some wry comment, a frank stare, a bit of sexual humor, for the white guy, the mzungu.
Outside, along the waterfront, there is constant clamor. The Otracom bus stops, deposits
and picks up passengers. Everyone carrying things, nylon sacks, boxes, households
balanced on their heads. Further down the road is a warehouse, men bagging flour, their
arms and faces covered in chalky dust, pale as the moon, as if the spirits have come back
to stalk Cyangugu. Women everywhere – with their children at the health center, at a
small busy marketplace, coming and going, coming and going. Further up the road, a
shiny new duplex is being built, facing the Congo. I ask an old man in a baseball cap if it
will be a hotel. No, he says, a house for a Rwandan man. Government? Phones, says the
man. I appraise the house with its reflective windows and sparkling, white-washed walls.
“C’est bonne travaille,” I say. It is good work. “Oui,” says the man. Before I go he asks
for a sip of my bottled water.
On the way back to the hotel I meet one of the nuns, Sister Regina. She is making the
rounds – the Home St. François runs a guest house, a health clinic, a center for the
handicapped – and she asks if I‟d like to join her. We enter a small gated compound, four
buildings arranged around a tidy green courtyard. Women sit on the benches, talking
softly, watching the children. There are three, four children with different handicaps – an
autistic boy, a 15- year-old who shouts and claps when I walk in; a small girl, five years
old, who hardly looks 18 months – and they are sitting on the floor, laughing, shouting,
hobbling awkwardly on their crippled legs. The mothers greet me solemnly. Handicaps
are not viewed with great charity in most of Africa. Grate ful for the work the sisters are
doing here, I wonder if they look at their strangely afflicted children with sorrow, fear,
anger, regret – wondering if the devil‟s work is in those twisted limbs.
Sister Regina shows me to another room, where three teenage girls are sewing and
folding clothes. With a word from the sister they rise and politely greet me. The sisters
are teaching these girls to be seamstresses, says Sister Regina. A useful trade. The girls
are modest and avert their eyes. I can‟t tell if they‟re handicapped, too, or perhaps
orphans, or girls abandoned by their families because of some unknown shame. We leave
them to the hum of their sewing machines, the soft chatter of their voices. Next door is a
dormitory, with six beds crowded into a small room. An autistic girl sits on one bed,
squealing with joy as we enter. Near her an infant – hardly more than a year old, I‟m sure
– lies on a blanket, looking up at the ceiling.
The sisters have few resources here. The very fact of this home‟s existence is a small
miracle. Outside, near the entrance, a nurse is helping a young man with lame legs – a
polio case, perhaps – as he takes his first brave steps with a walker. The women laugh,
encourage him. Nearby a small child crawls across the floor. Sister Regina lifts her and
hands her to me. I cradle her against my chest; instinctively she rests her head against me,
sensing affection. Her tiny fingers clutch at my shirt. Our earliest instincts to be cared for,
loved. I wonder if she can hear the beating of my heart. There are more shouts, a frantic
waving of the arms, by the autistic boy. He hobbles to his feet and staggers after us as we
go, his eyes bright and joyful, everyone laughing and cheering.
Outside Sister Regina tells me that there are a dozen of these homes around Rwanda – in
Kigali, in Butare, in Gikongoro. The sisters are strong, industrious, their long days filled
with cares over the physical and spiritual well-being of their charges. Sister Regina
herself is kind, even-tempered; she struggles to speak English, laughs self-deprecatingly,
returns to French. At the gate of the hotel she thanks me and excuses herself. She has
more work to do – she gestures ambiguously up the road – and with that, she bustles off
on her short, quick legs.
The day has worn me out. I take a Nescafe at the Hotel du Lac, then spend a few hours
browsing online – the hotel‟s Internet café, just across the road from the Home St.
François, is a reprieve from the disconnectedness of Kibuye. At the hotel, I‟m wary of
another multi-course feast – bed, I suspect, is just an hour away. I have a bowl of soup,
and then another. I‟m in my room by half-past nine and in my bed by ten. Mosquitoes
buzzing in my ear, Jesus on the wall, I sleep fitfully, waking every few hours with a sta rt,
until the day‟s first sunlight comes into the room.
March 30 – Cyangugu
The je wel of the Black Continent.
In which our writer faces the Congo.
It is a slow morning. I don‟t know what restless spirit got into me during the night, but
there I was – at midnight, at 2:30, at half-past five – snapping my head from the pillow,
reaching for my phone to check the time. Maybe it‟s the Congo, already, gnawing at my
nerves. When I pull myself from bed just after seven, I don‟t feel rested. Rising this
morning is like a duty. One must get up and start the day.
Other problems, too: I am down to my last few Rwandan francs, reluctant to make
another bank run, planning for a thrifty day. Worse still is the irritation, the dull stinging
in my left eye. I have suffered from conjunctivitis before – in Zanzibar, in Lebanon; my
suffering is always picturesque. Both cases were remedied easily enough; in the
developing world, where eye infections are like the common cold, any pharmacy will
carry the necessary drops. But that would entail another trip up the hill to Kamembe, and
more money spent – more headaches to preoccupy me as I plan for the Congo.
Not surprisingly, my mood is gloomy. I decide to let the day take its course, giving
myself over to my downcast spirit. It‟s been a long ten days since leaving Kigali, and
even at my most optimistic, I have to expect a difficult day at the border tomorrow. I can
have a day to myself, I suspect, without admitting defeat.
And so I spend the morning at the Internet café, hopelessly contemporary, catching up on
the news, reviving my online flirtations with girls I‟ve met on my travels. There‟s a
certain sort of pathos in this, I think, and I have to ask myself if I‟m lonelier than I‟d like
to admit. Drifting along, generally occupied and pleased with my work, with my
traveling, I enjoy my solitude. More often than not I crave it, and respond to threats to it
the way a mother bear treats threats to her cubs. But I wonder, too, if this is self-defense –
if solitude, as comfy as a well- worn pair of jeans, is just easier for me than the
alternatives. Can backpacking across Africa by myself be the safest route ? Is Congo –
the horror! – the easy way out?
More emails. How‟s the weather in Amsterdam? In Riga? In Rome? In the afternoon I
have a quiet lunch at the Home St. François, another parade of dishes I can barely put a
dent in. A pastor named Abraham approaches me, introduces himself, stands beside the
table, neatly dressed, laptop case slung over his shoulder as he prepares for the long trip
to Kigali. We‟ve hardly spent three minutes in conversation when he asks for my email
address and phone number. How quickly in Rwanda, in Africa, a perfect stranger will
latch onto these brief encounters, hoping a friendship will grow from it. Yesterday, too, in
the restaurant with Faustin and Lazare, a man who sat at our table as we prepared to leave
asked for my email address. I was too polite to say no – but what could we possibly have
to say? In the time it took to push back my chair and get up from the table, he had already
opened to a fresh page in his day planner, uncapped his pen. I imagine, in a few weeks,
I‟ll be reading another email from a stranger, asking for my help in some small
enterprise, or inquiring about the health of my parents in New York.
In the afternoon, overcome with fatigue, beat up physically, beat up spiritually, a
financial basketcase, I return to my favorite table at the Hotel du Lac. In the time it takes
me to order my coffee a fantastic storm has blown across the lake. Flashes of lightning,
loud cracks of thunder. The rain blows across the hills in sheets and pounds on the tin
awning. For thirty minutes, the rain is catastrophic. And then, again, the river is calm, the
birds are singing. Somewhere on the hill across from us, I can hear the beating of drums.
For ten days I‟ve skirted the shores of Lake Kivu here in Rwanda, but tomorrow, crossing
into Congo, it will be a different chapter – maybe a different book. These Great Lakes
states, steeped in blood, sharing so much of their troubled pasts. But here, in Cyangugu,
just a few steps from another imaginary border drawn up in Brussels, or Paris, or Berlin,
you appreciate how greatly, too, their histories have diverged. In how many places in the
world, along how many seemingly arbitrary borders, are chaos and order so neatly
divided? In Rwanda, they take such pride in the fight against corruption; at border
crossings from Burundi and Uganda, a billboard greets you with the slogan, “Corruption:
NO! Investment: YES!” In Congo? Already I‟ve begun to stash small denominations on
different parts of my body, unsure how many payoffs will be necessary to get me safely
For 16 years, Rwanda has rewritten its history – a willful effort by a nation to decide for
itself how the rest of the world will see it. I think of the story of President Kagame, after
a speech to a crowded auditorium in Boston, snapping at the young man who had praised
him for the safety and cleanliness of Kigali. “What did you expect?” said Kagame. “That
we are dirty and live like savages?” The West – the whites – have been writing the
history (literally and figuratively) of the developing world, the Third World, the non-
white world, for decades. What chance does Rwanda – does any country – have of
picking up the pen and starting on a fresh page?
This week I‟ve exchanged some emails with my friend, the journalist Jina Moore, about
the legacy of the genocide. Jina, like so many foreign journalists, had arrived in time for
the genocide commemoration week in April; unlike the others, though, she would be
spending the next ten months in the country, reporting – as she so often does – with deep
thoughtfulness and insight on the challenges Rwanda faces. What we both wondered was
whether there were still fresh ways to explore the genocide, whether there was anything
new to be learned from the formulaic stories that would soon be filed by dozens of
foreign correspondents in Kigali. Was there anything to be gained from more survivors‟
stories, from the reopening of old wounds? [As a brief editorial aside, I have to note that,
six months later, there’s been quite a lot to add, indeed.]
The most interesting stories – at least, to the extent that they‟re so rarely told – would be,
I think, the Hutu stories. It was Gerard Prunier, in Africa’s World War, who compared the
genocide to Damocles‟ sword, forever hanging over the heads of the Hutu population,
reminding them of their guilt, ready to strike if they – the overwhelming majority – were
perceived as a threat. What does it mean to be a Hutu, still vilified in your own country,
still regarded with suspicion, sixteen years after the genocide? What does one do with the
resentment, the anger, the fear? Does a Hutu man feel he has a common stake in Rwanda
with his Tutsi neighbor? Can Rwanda ever find a way across its deepest, widest divide?
I wonder, too, what the legacy of the genocide is within the different Tutsi communities.
It is reductive, after all, to treat Rwanda‟s Tutsis as a single, unified ethnic group. Wha t‟s
the relationship between the genocide survivors and the “Ugandan” Tutsis who dominate
the government? Do the survivors feel exploited by their leaders? And how many of
Rwanda‟s Tutsis are survivors, how many returnees? Are these commemorations equally
in everybody‟s interests?
A tangent to all these thoughts: how is the genocide being taught today – both officially,
in classrooms and commemorations, and unofficially, in Hutu and Tutsi homes?
Thinking, too, of the demographic explosion in Rwanda. Take the number of children of
both ethnic groups who were born after 1994, add the large numbers of returnees, and
you have a significant portion of the population – half? more? – whose knowledge of the
genocide comes secondhand. What is the story, I wonder, be ing handed down to them?
And for those hundreds of thousands, those millions, what does it mean?
At night, lying in bed, I flip through an old Traveler’s Guide to the Belgian Congo and
Ruanda-Urundi, dated 1951. Take away what 50 years of independence have taught us
about the colonial era and you see such hopefulness, such innocence – if such a word can
be used to describe the colonizers – in the descriptions of this ample tome. “The region
bordering Lake Kivu and its outlet, the wild and torrential Ruzizi, is one of the most
unforgettable beauty spots of central Africa,” we are told. “To all those who have visited
it, it remains the jewel of the Black Continent.” Here, in painstaking detail, are described
suggested tourist itineraries for visitors to these Belgian colonies – across which, we are
told, run “72,266 miles of highways, of which 11,130 miles are main highways, 54,150
miles local roads, and 7,350 miles private roads.” The meticulousness is a wonder to
behold; so, too, is the lost world described. Here is a railway schedule for the twice-
weekly trip from Elisabethville to Port Francqui; there the fares for the regular Sabena
flights from Albertville to Kigali, from Leopoldville to Brussels. Should you want to
cruise the Congo River aboard the Lake Leopold II Line from Leopoldville to Kiri, you
would do well to note that service is every 21 days. Should you have nine days to kill
around Lake Kivu, a day-by-day itinerary – including hotel recommendations – will
guide you along the way.
Thinking of this snapshot of a dimly remembered past. Thinking of Bukavu, a favorite
playground of the Belgian colonists, once described, with its fertile, scenic surroundings,
as the “Switzerland of Africa.” You‟d be hard-pressed in 2010 to describe anything in the
Congo as remotely Swiss. Instead, you‟re likely to find a place that is – for better and for
worse – richly, unmistakably Congolese.
March 31 – Cyangugu, DRC border
Me no money, me no go.
In which French would come in handy.
Another restless night. Not surprising. When I wake, heart racing, just after six this
morning, I‟m already juggling through unpleasant scenarios at the border. Bribes,
detentions, angry interrogations. Demands for imaginary fees: a camera fee, a tourist fee,
a fee for carrying an extra pair of sneakers. Dear Lord, don‟t let the word “journalist”
I‟ve made my preparations, most of which involve stashing bundles of various currencies
on different parts of my body, not sure how many bribes – and in which currencies and
denominations – might be necessary to get me across the border. I‟ve punched some
phone numbers into my phone, too – friends who will, I hope, be able to get me out of a
tight spot, should things not go according to my admittedly half-assed plan.
With a few cheery waves and brisk goodbyes, I leave Cyangugu just after nine. The
Rwandan official – a tribute to her countrymen – stamps and scribbles me through, and
then I‟m crossing a rusted bridge over the Rusizi and trudging uphill. There is commotion
on all sides: porters pushing loaded wheelbarrows up the hill, women carrying boxes and
tough nylon sacks on their heads and backs. A police box – an empty shipping container
– sits halfway up the hill, and a small health clinic further still. I reach the border post and
stroll merrily toward the nearest window. No dice. Foreigners, of course, get the special
treatment – far from prying eyes – and so I‟m ushered through first one, then another
doorway, into a small, congested room whose stifled air suggests the long, unp leasant
Two men, broad, bespectacled, cheerless, sit behind two cluttered desks, hunched like
Talmudic scholars over their ledgers. The man in the far corner looks up, gives me a
discouraging once-over, and says, simply, “Oui?” I have been preparing for this moment.
I hand him my passport and $35 in crisp American bills, smiling nonchalantly, as if I do
this sort of thing all the time. He gives my money a dirty look and asks, “Que’st-ce que
c’est?” I suspect a long, delicate dance has just begun.
I explain that I‟d like to buy an entry visa, and both men sit upright, push themselves
back from their desks, as if to get a vantage point from which to better appraise me, and
exchange a significant look. A long, heated, mostly one-sided debate ensues, in which my
well-rehearsed pleas are brushed aside with an admittedly masterful display of
bureaucratic stubbornness. Americans, they explain, must receive their visas from the
Congolese Embassy in Washington, D.C. I protest that I‟ve been out of the country for
close to a year; then, they explain, with perfect reasonableness, I should have written to
Kinshasa. I can only imagine what the creaking machinery of Congolese bureaucracy
would do to such a letter. I say that I‟ve twice visited Goma and bought my visa on
arrival, but I can quickly tell this is a foolish gambit: I might as well explain how things
work in China. They make disparaging remarks about their North Kivu counterparts,
suggesting a less than brotherly bond between the Kivus; and besides, they say, a new
law has come into effect – of course! – as of the first of this year. It is impossible for
them to issue me a transit visa at the border – simply impossible! That would be against
the law. Fortunately, finally, getting to the crux of the matter, there is a convenient
loophole in this law, through which I can jump for just three hundred American bucks.
The finer points of this argument are, unfortunately, lost in a barrage of indignant French.
Still, it is a brilliant performance. I can tell I am up against higher powers here: the
complex mechanisms of the State, the mythical rule of law, the bureaucracy which the
Congolese treat with the same gravity and respect the rest of us show colon cancer. I
realize now that my hopes for a quick, painless border crossing were foolish ones; and I
realize, too, that I‟ll need whatever help I can get to make it into Congo.
I dial Etienne, a Rwandan tour operator I‟d met in Kigali earlier this month. At the time
he‟d assured me that the Congolese visa was a breeze: $35 in American bills at the
border, just as I‟d done it in Goma. How simple everything seemed in Kigali! Etienne
claimed to be well-connected with immigration officials on both sides of the border; he
knew the rules, he said, as if these things in the Congo weren‟t entirely negotiable. Over
the phone I explain my case to him. He is attentive, sympathetic. His friend in Bukavu, he
says, is unfortunately traveling to Kinshasa at the moment. I ask if he can try to talk some
reason into these recalcitrant officials, and he offers to give it a shot. The man nearest me
has returned to his paperwork, and when I call to him – once, twice, “Pardon? Pardon?”
– his brilliance becomes evident. I wait for one, two, three beats as he dutifully records
the latest entry in his ledger. Trappist monks could not go about their work with such
religious devotion. Finally he raises his eyes, a master of his craft, almost feigning
surprise that I‟m still here. He takes the phone and, at great volume, explains the situat ion
to Etienne. The situation, to borrow from the French, seems to be merde. Etienne, in my
ear again, is unconvinced. He promises to make some calls to friends in Goma and urges
me to sit tight. In the mean time, he says, I should leave these men to their devices. They
won‟t want a mzungu around, he says, during whatever complex negotiations might
Outside, sunlight, brilliance. I am put off, but not wholly discouraged, by the morning‟s
proceedings: really, I should‟ve expected as much. I find a spot in the shade, sit on my
duffel bag, watch the bustle of this busy crossing. Women are packing bags, stuffing
sandals and clothes and cheap Chinese electronics into them, heaving them onto their
backs. When they walk they‟re almost doubled over, the muscles in their necks straining,
their upper bodies parallel to the ground. I imagine they‟ll make this same trip back and
forth each day to sell their goods in the market. The day‟s profits, a bundle of soiled,
rumpled bills, will be buried somewhere in their bosoms. At home, there is a secret place
they have for safekeeping.
There are the handicapped, too, weathered, shrewd, battered, defiant, straining their way
uphill in rusted hand-pedaled tricycles. Because of some quirk in the customs law – a rare
piece of beneficence, perhaps, in the cutthroat Congolese world – the handicapped are
exempt from paying duties at the border. And so these crafty cripples, spurned by the
world, often shunned by their own families, make a dozen trips a day, transporting jerry
cans full of gasoline bought cheaply in Kamembe. For the tough uphill climb there is a
young boy, barefoot, dressed in soiled rags, pushing from behind. Probably he will get
500 Congolese francs – about 60 cents – for the effort.
These young boys are everywhere, their feet cracked and blistered, in filthy shorts and
oversized t-shirts, keeping the border economy going. They are porters carrying sacks of
flour up the hill, or vendors selling whatever cheap nutritionless fare – plain white rolls,
glucose biscuits, chewing gum, waffles – count as sustenance here. Most, I suspect, have
never set foot in school – from an early age, they had to contribute to the family. And yet
I suspect these young swift hustlers are learning more valuable lessons here than in some
understaffed, underfunded Congolese school. (These Western pieties!) Near the border
post a handsome adolescent – he is 15, or 16 – washes the Land Cruisers and 4Runners of
Bukavu‟s nouveau riche. He is fast, diligent; he charges 1,500 francs – almost $2 – per
car. In his employ are two younger boys who carry jerry cans down the hill, filling them
with lake water. On a slow day, this young entrepreneur probably takes home ten, fifteen
bucks. This is an impressive amount even for a man his father‟s age. He wears a smart,
buttoned shirt and a pair of crisp denim shorts. He looks wise beyond his years.
A boy approaches me, smiling, his pants torn at the knees, a jerry can tied with a dirty rag
over his shoulder. “Mzungu, how are you?” he says. His name is Abdullah. He orbits my
small encampment, grinning, grateful for my proximate whiteness. “Me no money, me no
go,” he says. I‟ve been sitting outside for close to an hour. Join the club, I think.
Now my friend Justin arrives, looking sharp in a blue collared shirt and blue jeans and a
bright white pair of New Balance sneakers. We greet each other joyfully – it‟s been more
than two months since we met in Bujumbura – and exchange the news. We‟re interrupted
by a call: Etienne has reached his friend, the chef of immigration in Goma, and wants me
to send him my passport details. Suddenly the day has brightened. Things are moving
forward, it seems, and it‟s only 10am.
We stand and talk in the shade, the border circus whirling around us, Bukavu just fifty
feet away. When I‟d met Justin – briefly, at our hotel in Bujumbura – he had been
visiting Burundi to apply for a passport at the Congolese Embassy. This had seemed
illogical at the time. But then, I didn‟t really know Congo.
“Everything is too much money here,” he explains, gesturing with his chin to the country
on the other side of the border control. The cost of applying for a passport in Bukavu was
too high – there were too many officials asking for too many bribes. It was easier and
cheaper to travel to Bujumbura, where he had studied and lived for five years, than to
deal with the bureaucratic hassles in Congo. He laughs, recognizing my similar plight.
“Once you get in, it is no problem,” he says. “There is no control.”
Such is the situation for young Congolese in Bukavu, who find a better, easier life
waiting as soon as they cross the border. Justin does his shopping in Kamembe; it was
corruption at the university in Bukavu that drove him to Buja. “The teacher will call you
and say, „I am marking your exam. What do you have to give me?‟” he says. In Congo,
he had no way of knowing what his talents were as a student. As with so much in Congo,
it was just a question of how much he could pay.
Now he‟s waiting for his passport in Bujumbura, so that he could begin the lengthy
process of applying for an American visa. He is already 28 – old for a Congolese
bachelor – and he knows how hard it will be to travel once he starts a family. The
application process is difficult, though; it all depends on how much money he can show
for himself. Already he has thought his expenses through: one hundred dollars a day for a
hotel, fifty dollars a day for restaurants, money for transportation. Clearly, Justin is not a
typical young Congolese of limited means. But not even these preparations will help his
cause. “If I go to show them these calculations at the Embassy, it is not enough!” he says.
“If I show them I have five thousand dollars, it is not enough!” And yet how easily he
passed between these African borders.
Etienne, now, is on the phone again. No news from Goma. Patience, he counsels. I have
nothing else to rely on. We stand and watch the border traffic pass us by. More women,
husky, laboring – all day they flow back and forth between the two countries. Some
wazungu, too. The UN and NGO staffers pass quickly – probably they are negotiating
this border each day. An SUV idles outside the office, a white woman sitting in the back,
suitcases piled behind her. Tourist? She doesn‟t leave the car. Her driver, a tall, well-
dressed man of solid build, carries her papers inside. Even this smooth customer, it
seems, is rebuffed. Now he is on the phone. Now another man gets out of the car, confers.
Soon they, too, are allowed to pass. Not even a look of pity as they go.
The officials, it seems, have come outside to stretch their legs, and they‟re not too pleased
to see us here. They have harsh words for Justin and shoo us further down the road. We
find a bench, a thin plank of wood, in the shade of a pine tree. Our friend the carwashe r is
working diligently on an SUV. The owner, handsome, immaculately dressed, watches
with intense curiosity. His shoes are spotless – he must have floated over all that mud.
Justin greets a friend, a cousin. A student from the university approaches, smiling.
Apparently I‟d met him a few days before, in Kamembe. He gives me his email address,
waves, trots off to catch up with his friends. I have no idea who he is.
We are talking about the Congo, me and Justin, and it is funny to hear him talk about
Kinshasa, that far-away place. It is like hearing news from a foreign land. Justin has only
heard stories from two brothers who had studied in the capital. It costs nearly $700 to fly
to Kinshasa one-way from Bukavu – more than half the cost of a round-trip ticket to New
York. To travel overland, of course, is impossible – it would take weeks, even if he could
do it safely. But Justin follows the news. He is a keen critic of the president, Kabila the
Younger. He says there is a saying in Kiswahili, “Sehemo yangu?” – “Where is my part?”
– that explains the Kabila style of governance. Following in the footsteps of his father,
and of Mobutu before him. “When I compare here to Bujumbura,” says Justin, “I regret
too much.” He gestures to the tarmac road, which, he says, tapers off on the other side of
town. The Chinese have been contracted to rebuild the roads in Bukavu – they‟ve signed
massive infrastructure deals in exchange for minerals all across Congo – but Justin says
the quality of their work is poor. The government has no interest in developing the
country. “We have money, but no conscience,” he says.
In Congo, it is like the age of the American robber barons. Worse – at least they gave us
functioning railroads. The plunder of the Congo has been going on for so long, it has built
so many lavish fortunes – in Congo, in Belgium, in France; no doubt in South Africa,
America, China, too – that it‟s impossible to see a way out. Justin sighs at his country‟s
wasted riches. “In our soil we have gold, we have diamonds, we have minerals,” he says.
“But it is for nothing.” He says he has dreams of becoming president some day. He would
like to turn the Congo into a functioning country, one that would work for its people – not
Across the road, up a narrow dirt path, is a grand two-storey house. It belongs to Justin‟s
uncle, a local politico; on the ground floor he‟s built a small restaurant, umbrellas and
plastic tables facing Lake Kivu. Now, with storm clouds gathering over the Rwandan
hills, Justin suggests we sit on the terrace: the umbrellas, at least, will keep us dry. We
climb the muddy hill. At the top a busy youth, the houseboy, is washing laundry in a
plastic basin. Justin goes to greet him, to search for his aunt. From the terrace I can see a
long line of traffic, bodies and bodies, trudging across the border.
We sit under the candy-striped beach umbrellas and wait. My spirits are deflating. It‟s
been three hours now, and still no encouraging news from Etienne. He calls again. The
Bukavu immigration chef, it seems, has switched off his phone. Etienne is sorry,
sympathetic. “I know how it must be for you,” he says. I thank him with great feeling:
already he‟s done more than I could have expected. He promises to keep trying
throughout the day. I assure him dinner‟s on me when I make it back to Kigali.
Justin is standing beside me and we are watching the road. The early- morning traffic of
market women and traders is being replaced by students – dozens of Rwandan youths
who, like Faustin and Lazare, the two men I met in Cyangugu, cross the border each day
to study in Bukavu. Now a man passes, legless, a muscular torso, with sandals tied to the
stumps below his knees. He has a walking stick in one hand and a jerry can propped on
his shoulder. Justin says he lost his legs to a bomb during the war – the big war,
Mobutu‟s war, when Rwandan troops stormed across the country to topple the old
dinosaur. The fighting in Bukavu was bad. Each day gunfire, bombs, grenades. “That
one,” says Justin, pointing to the legless man, “he decided he could not live asking, „Do
you have money? Do you have money?‟ He said, „I can still walk, so I can do
something.‟” The man carried a jerry can full of gasoline up the hill, hobbled back down,
carried another. Day after day, this was his life. He might make a $5 profit on each one,
says Justin. And there would be other deals, arrangements with people trying to get their
goods through customs without paying a tax. “You see that one?” says Justin, pointing to
a fretful woman standing in the road with a jerry can beside her. “She is trying to see how
she can pass that border without paying a tax. Now she will ask that man to help her.”
Sure enough, just seconds later, the woman is negotiating with the legless man. The
conversation is brief – probably his asking price is too high. The man stumps off down
the hill, taking brisk powerful strides, and the woman, trying her luck, picks up the jerry
can and walks slowly toward the border.
The clouds blow in. They part. The road is drenched in sunlight. I‟m starting to get
hungry – I haven‟t eaten all morning – and I know this won‟t help my mood. I‟m
weighing our options when the choice is made for me: blustering down the road,
gesticulating wildly, is one of the gruff immigration officials. I‟m not sure how he spotted
us – we must be 200 feet from the border control – but he is in no diplomatic mood. He
wants us clear of the border, back in Rwanda – his whole manner is full of belligerence,
threats. I take up my bags and we trundle off; things here can only end badly. Soon we
are back at the Rwandan border, sitting on a bench, waiting. I am tired, my mood is sour.
And then the rain starts to fall.
This is the low point of the day. If the war is far from over, this battle has been decisively
won by the Congolese bureaucrats: I‟m back where I started five hours ago. Outside the
Rwandan border post, full of pathos and desperate entreaty, I ask a pretty Spanish girl –
her manner confident, vigorous – how she plans on crossing the border. But she already
got her visa in Spain – no hope that her handlers might be able to spirit me through.
Finally, standing in the rain, I admit defeat. I ask the Rwandan official to cancel my exit
visa – she is sympathetic, full of harsh words for her Congolese counterparts – and then
me and Justin slouch our way to the Home St. François, where at least a hot meal is
Over potage and piles of rice and beans, I weigh my options. Etienne remains my best
bet; Justin‟s uncle – some ruling party functionary, no doubt – might prove to be a
worthy plan B. There is apparently another border post – Rusizi deux – some 10
kilometers down the road, but I have my doubts. Justin assures me I‟ll be able to pass
without a hassle, but Justin has never been a white guy in the Congo. There‟s a chance,
too, that these stubborn bureaucrats will let me bribe my way through – Justin suggests
approaching them as my intermediary with a hundred bucks – but this move seems full of
potential peril. I might be angrily rebuffed. I might be shaken down for more money. I
might spend the night in a Congolese prison, wrapped in the arms of a 300-pound convict
whispering hoarsely into my ear, “C’etait bonne, non? C’etait très, très douce.”
The last, least desirable option – the one that even I, with my particular taste for black
humor, find hard to swallow – would be to board a bus in the morning, backtrack
hundreds of miles via Kigali to Gisenyi, and cross the border into Goma. This tragicomic
journey would involve more strength than my tired bones could probably muster; and yet
how different I‟ll probably feel, come morning, if all the other doors have been slammed
shut on me.
All these things circle in my head, synapses firing, as we finish our lunch. It is after two,
and I can see that the window of opportunity for this day is closing. It seems pointless to
keep Justin here – bless his heart, he‟s already spent a full day fretting along beside me.
We part with great laughter and warmth and gratitude – it‟s been a memorable day – and
then I‟m again checking into room No. 6 at the Home St. François, exchanging dollars
(another headache! most seem to be counterfeits I picked up in Gisenyi), and heading
back to the Internet café across the road. There‟s a sort of luxury in this: I am relieved,
after this long day, to be back in familiar surroundings. Etienne calls again, promising to
pursue things on his end throughout the evening. Justin says he will take things up with
his uncle. Tomorrow is another day, full, I‟m sure, of its own promises and failures.
April 1 – Cyangugu to Gisenyi
The weather is not good for the m.
In which we meet an April fool.
Coffee, again, at the Hotel du Lac. After yesterday‟s catastrophic failures at the border,
I‟m oddly at peace with myself this morning. I‟ve faced, I think, the worst of my demons.
Today, my fate is in the hands of Etienne and Justin – both of whom had promised to
lobby on my behalf throughout the night. For this first hour of what will turn out to be a
grand April Fool‟s joke on this particular April Fool, I can tell myself I‟ve done about as
much, so far, as I can possibly do.
Justin calls just a few minutes after ten – he is on his way to Cyangugu. Soon we‟re
sitting together on the terrace of the Hotel du Lac, and he‟s sharing the bad news. “I do
not know what the problem is in Bukavu,” he says, shaking his head. South Kivu‟s
internal politics have been simmering; the province is a mess. The governor has been
summoned to Kinshasa to explain himself. In Bukavu, the opposition is agitating for
power. “They are trying to get the commandment of Bukavu,” says Justin. His uncle –
some low- level cog, I suspect, in the ruling party machine – is afraid to cause trouble at
such a critical moment for the party. Justin sighs. “The weather is not good for them,” he
says. His uncle can‟t step in on my behalf. Justin has done all he could.
When bad news comes, I prefer to take it all in one dose. By half-past ten, with still no
word from Etienne, I decide to play what I suspect is my final card. Etienne‟s voice is
strained when he picks up the phone – I know the news is not good. The director in Goma
has been trying his colleague in Bukavu throughout the night – still no answer. The
message, for Etienne, is clear. “I think he is working with those men,” he says. His voice
is deflated; my spirits sink. With the failure of this powerful maneuver, I know I‟m out of
options. Etienne wishes me luck with whatever I decide. “I‟m sorry I have failed on my
side,” he says.
Justin can see my mood has soured. He, too, is out of advice for me. With the door in
Bukavu having slammed in my face, though, I‟ve shifted from despair to resolve. It is
hardly eleven; I can still make Gisenyi by nightfall. The day would be wasted – a grim
daisy-chain of bumpy bus rides through the Rwandan hinterlands – but there‟s nothing
stopping me from strolling into Congo tomorrow morning. I share my plan with Justin.
It‟s clear this is the only way. Now I find myself trying to console him. He‟s taken these
past few days awfully hard. Though he knows better than I do the headaches and hurdles
of life in the Congo, his pride in his country has been wounded. “It is a problem with
Kabila,” he says. “A guest comes to knock on your door, you have to open first. This is
not good politics.” He is not surprised, but still: the Congo has let him down.
We embrace with great warmth – it is humbling how hard he and Etienne have lobbied
for me – and say goodbye to the Hotel du Lac, to Cyangugu. I promise to keep him
posted on my progress – despite the change in plans, I should still be in Bukavu some
time next week – and off he goes, his bright white sneakers beating a path up the hill.
Now I‟ve shifted into travel mode. It‟s close to eleven: if I want to reach Gisenyi by
nightfall, I probably should have left two hours ago. My mood is brisk. Money is
exchanged – my stack of U.S. dollars has been dwindling all week – sweet loaves of
ndazi bread are bought for the long journey, and soon I‟m on the Horizon Bus to
Kampala, by way of Kigali, the seats all but empty as we chug up the hill toward
Leaving Cyangugu, the bay glittering, sunlight glinting off the roofs in the slums of
Bukavu, a powerful feeling catches in my throat. This has been a memorable week, and
I‟m oddly at peace as Bukavu disappears behind a bend in the road. For all the moronic
waste of today‟s journey, I don‟t regret having come all this way only to be turned away
at the border. Yesterday was educational; these, the border official might have said to me,
are the facts of life. (Thinking of that legless man, the force of his shoulders, the short
brisk strides and the powerful thrust of his walking stick. Thinking of the shrewd old
woman wheeling her way uphill, the effrontery of that much put- upon face, the
indignities of age, of her handicap, of the flesh.) A week from now I‟ll be looking across
the same bay, from the other side. A certain sense of dark comedy is, I suspect, a
necessary survival skill in the Congo.
The bus is barreling now from Kamembe. Adieu, Faustin, Lazare! There are only five, six
of us onboard, and I suspect this is an unscheduled journey – that the driver of the
Kampala-Kigali line, in cahoots with some associates, has tacked on a side route for his
own benefit. Why else would Horizon – a shuttle service between the major East African
urban centers – Kigali, Kampala, Juba, Nairobi, Dar es Salaam – why would Horizon
extend its route to Cyangugu, of all places? We stop along the way – sacks of charcoal, of
potatoes, are tossed under the bus. Small money changes hands. Yes, this is probably a
profitable racket. We stop in small towns – a solitary passenger, an old man with a
battered suitcase, boards, smiles, looks around, settles fussily into a seat. In Ntidenzi,
schoolgirls are skipping rope outside a primary school. They stop, smile, stare. Some
classmates join them, everyone laughing and waving vigorously as we leave little
We pass for miles with nothing but tea plantations on either side of the road. Then a
forest of blue gum trees – tall, slender, silver-barked, rocking in the wind. These you‟ll
find now all across Africa – non- indigenous, as native as yours truly. The blue gums
grow quickly – it takes just five years, a man once told me, for a tree to reach maturity. In
Rwanda, as in much of Africa, with its forests taxed by a rapidly growing population,
these blue gums are planted to counter the effects of deforestation. In just a few years, a
barren hill will be covered with trees – these become charcoal, firewood. But the effects,
I‟m told, will be disastrous. A South African farmer once described how quickly these
selfish trees drink the water from the soil. The earth here is being depleted. But what else
do you tell the villagers, who only know that they need these trees for survival?
Now we are entering Nyungwe Forest, the national park – the road cuts through one of
Rwanda‟s last pristine places. The mountains are covered in dense forest, lit by patches of
sunlight. The climate changes. The clouds are low, rain begins to fall. Through the thick
jungle cover we go, the trees draped with liana and creepers, vines hanging from the
branches. It is a picture-book jungle, Curious George – the kind you see in cartoons with
swinging monkeys and apes. It‟s rare to see such wild places in Rwanda, with its
carefully cultivated landscapes, its terraced hills. Thousands of years ago, the whole
country must have looked like this. Our ancestors beating their chests and howling
violently in the treetops. We stop. Villagers gather on the roadside, waiting for a lift.
Somewhere in all that forest, still you find some settlements. They board, small bills
clutched in their hands. Some wait – for a free ride, maybe, a passing friend. Others sell
oranges, rough-husked fruits. In places we slow: a landslide has blocked part of the road.
Piles of rock, mud, branches, sediment. A lorry passes, huffing slowly uphill and
dragging a second trailer behind it. Across the windshield are the words, “Jesus is Life.”
Now the trees begin to thin, here and there you see hilltops denuded and trees stripped
bare. Suddenly, more of those alien blue gums, and you know you are close to human
populations again. The forest vanishes. Villages, small vegetable plots, farmers in their
fields. The sunlight is bright – the clouds seem to hang over Nyungwe. Then more towns,
bigger, rows of shops, banks. We are approaching Butare, and now we pass tourist hotels,
cars, new constructions on the side of the road. You are impressed, coming out of the
forest, to see the freshness and vitality of these towns. So muc h development along the
road from Butare to Kigali. A difference from the neglected backwaters on the rough lake
The day is growing long, too long. We are four, five hours out of Cyangugu – the
landscape is monotonous. I read, doze off. We stop – dozens of secondary school
students board. Suddenly the bus is full. Laughter, flirtations, the smell of body odor. The
girl beside me reads from a book of hymnals. I close my eyes, open them, begin to count
the mile markers. We pass rice paddies – scores of gacaca convicts, in their pink shirts
and shorts, bending, working. More rainfall. The scene of an accident. A bicyclist, a
prone body, on the side of the road; a bunch of bananas. My seat is hard, and I can‟t find
a way to arrange myself comfortably. Someone in front of me leans her head out the
window and vomits. I close my eyes. When I open them, we‟re in Kigali.
The city continues to grow on me – a place so sleepy and scrubbed that a friend once
dubbed it “the Morgantown, West Virginia, of Africa.” But after two weeks upcountry it
seems livelier, fresh, more boisterous than I remember. The streets are crowded, buses
and motos, bodies dodging traffic, the rush-hour swarm. We reach Nyabugogo – craters,
puddles like vast inland seas. It seems remarkable that a government which can lay
hundreds of miles of fiber-optic cable across the country can‟t build a decent fucking bus
station. Women clutch at the hems of their dresses, step daintily. People waving, calling,
an ecstasy of partings and reunions. The bus has finally stopped; outside, an angry crowd.
They are going to Kampala – the bus, I suspect, is way behind schedule. We made
terrible progress through the rain. Now they are thirsty for blood; we have to push our
way through the crowds. I flag down a moto. On the back of the bike, weaving perilously
through the traffic on my way to the Virunga Punctuel offices. The duffel bag is perched
on my knee, my arm strains to keep it from pulling me off the bike.
The first bus is at half-past six; I have half an hour to kill. I am, in fairness, glad for the
extra time. I stock up on samosas and congealed pizzas for the ride, make a bathroom run
at the UTC. The place is packed – the crowds look so prosperous here. Cufflinks,
sunglasses, high heels, earrings. Men who, if asked, would describe themselves simply as
“businessmen.” So much noise and commotion, after the silence of the lake. As
charmless as this place is, I realize how much I‟m going to miss it: my thrice-weekly
visits to Bourbon Coffee, my late- night runs to the 24- hour Nakumatt, the tall, slender
university girls and preppily dressed boys strutting on their Friday-night promenades.
The feeling swells as our bus leaves Kigali, the lively streets, the constellations of lights
strung across the hills. All day, since leaving Nyungwe, with the sun pouring its blessing
on the hills and town after energetic town scrolling by, I‟ve had an odd sense of faith in
this country. In Kigali, too, with all the optimistic bustle, it struck me that maybe, for all
my skepticism about reconciliation in Rwanda, this country really can pull through – that
with enough jobs and development, enough growth trickling down to the collines, this
country might actually get past the politics of genocide, divisionism, hate.
The optimism, this high feeling, catches in my throat. Along the road to Gisenyi, thinking
about these past two weeks, I realize that I‟ve never felt as strongly about Rwanda as I do
right now. After all these months – stretching back to my first visit two years ago –
Rwanda has finally grown on me.
Silently, I pour out my heart. The honeymoon is brief. An hour from the city, on a high
backcountry road, the bus begins to rattle, a flat. This day – fittingly, April Fool‟s – will
never end. A lesser or more superstitious man might have gotten the cosmic hint and
headed back to Kigali. We stand on the side of the road; the lights of the city cast a
luminous dome over the hills. Together eight, ten of us stand in the mud, pushing against
the side of the bus so the driver can remove the flat. The night is brisk. Men and women,
villagers, appear, briefly passing through the headlights. An old man, short, friendly,
greets me, shaking my hand. “Me hungery, me hungery,” he says, still smiling. I tell him
I‟m sorry, I have nothing; he laughs, shakes his head, wanders off. The road is pitched in
darkness. I stand 20 feet behind the bus, staring at the stars, imagining myself all alone
here, lost in the world. What a strange thing, this 21st-century soul. Bound to the earth.
Wheeling around on our curious revolutions. Lassoed to an indifferent galaxy.
Confronted on all sides by cosmic laughter. And believing ourselves somehow noble and
brave and good.
Soon two bright headlights – an empty bus, sent to retrieve us and take us the rest of the
way. We transfer our bags, settle into our seats. Everyone has arranged themselves in the
same order from the first bus, and for some reason, this surprises and impresses me
greatly. My window seat is vacant, waiting for my tired behind. I sit, bury my head in my
hands, try to will the day to completion. There are too many twists in the road to nod off.
Dark, silent towns pass in the night. We reach Ruhengeri – hotels, cheerful and
welcoming; bars strung with Christmas lights. The moon comes out from behind the
clouds. Mist fills the valleys. Mountains silhouetted against the light of the sky. This day
has had some magic, too. The bus stops in villages left off the maps. People depart, walk
stoically into the darkness. Men tug at their collars. Wo men kick off their heels, hoping to
catch some sleep. Finally, Gisenyi.
It has taken close to twelve hours to get here from Cyangugu. Looked at differently: after
nearly two weeks, I‟m right back where I started. I slog down the road, surrounded by
street kids – they are more aggressive, more demanding after dark. At my cheery little
auberge, a group of young ex-pats, aid workers, most likely, looking blonde and
convivial by the bar. A beer and a good lay – did Stanley have such simple hopes on his
great African expeditions? But then the day‟s final indignity: the rooms are all booked.
As if Rwanda has prepared one last kick in the ass to send me into the Congo. I haul my
bags back down the road, ignoring the catcalls of the street kids, thinking uncharitab le
thoughts about these goddamn orphans. A shifty youth greets me at the door of the grim
Gisenyi City View Hotel, as disreputable a place as you‟ll find in this lakeside resort
town. We have to wake the manager, asleep in what will soon be my bed. He emer ges
from the room, sleepy, shirtless, smelling of booze. I am prepared to sleep in the garden if
I have to. Then the lights go out.
I take out my flashlight, muttering, bickering, insulted that I‟m paying close to fifteen
U.S. bucks for this stuffy, wretched room. Briskly the sheets are changed, tidings for the
night – good or otherwise – are exchanged. This long day is finally over. It‟s approaching
midnight as my head hits the pillow. It‟s practically tomorrow already.
April 2 – Gisenyi to Goma
This is not the real Africa.
In which there are wonders.
Despite the thin, musty foam mattress at the Gisenyi City View, I sleep like a prince. I
feel fresh and revived in the morning, refusing, even, to let the scuzziness of the
bathroom get to me. It is a brilliant day, the air sharp, Nyiragongo‟s blue-gray profile
looming over the market. At the auberge, in its cheerful garden, coffee and a much-
needed plate of gatogo – the banana stew I‟d grown so hooked on in Burundi. It‟s the
most I‟ve had in my stomach in nearly two days. It is the first time, too, that I‟ve felt a
sense of confidence all week. I know Goma, I know this border. Congo doesn‟t scare me
My bags are packed. I make a quick bank run – my stash of U.S. dollars has been
woefully depleted this week – and then I am at the border, clearing Rwandan customs,
and finally – finally! – stepping into the Congo.
What a difference, what briskness, after the hassles of Bukavu. The traffic all day – UN
staffers, humanitarians, casual tourists, journalists – is such that the sight of a white face
in Goma doesn‟t excite Pavlovian impulses. No lengthy interrogations, no shameless
shakedowns. I hand my passport and $35 to the official. She smiles. I wait. Another
group of tourists is nearby, chatting amiably. We could be at any border crossing in the
world. A man approaches, dour, a face full of flesh. “What is your job?” he asks.
(English!) “I am a student.” “You are here to do some research?” Sure! Why not? “I am,”
I say. “I am doing research on the Great Lakes.” Not entirely false. He nods and walks
off. Minutes pass. An American friend, Rachel – an aid worker in Goma – arrives with
her passport in hand. She is spending the day in Gisenyi – as easy as a trip to the corner
store. She begins to dish out advice to the other tourists – what company to see the
gorillas with, how much to climb the volcano. She hands them a business card for the
tour company she prefers. Quite a useful one, that Rachel. I‟m called inside – another
short consultation over the length of my stay. I ask about Bukavu, and the woman‟s eyes
go wide. The eight-day visa, it seems, is only good for North Kivu province – lucky that I
asked. If I want to go to Bukavu, she says, I‟ll have to pay for the full, month- long
Congolese visa – less than the $300 asking price at Rusizi, but still, a hefty hundred and
fifty bucks. This will require some consideration. I thank the woman – so helpful, these
North Kivu Congolese! – and see Rachel off to Gisenyi. Then I am slinging my bag over
my shoulder, waving off the money-changers, and trudging my way into Goma.
This is a place that excites powerful and complex memories. I had walked this same road
five months ago, had come with Steve Terrell – good-hearted, self- righteous, oh-so-
American Steve! – a sort of freelance do-gooder who had been bringing medicine to a
group of IDPs living in a squalid camp outside of Goma. We had met in Kigali; I was
interviewing him to replace me in the house I was about to vacate in Remera. He had told
me a tragic tale of lost IDPs – 6,000 Congolese, he said, neglected by the international
community – and the next day we were in the back of the Virunga bus, racing toward the
border. Steve was on a mercy mission; my reasons were more ambiguous. This might be
The Story, I told myself – the one that would finally propel me from the bottom- feeding
ranks of travel writers into the world of Serious Reporting. (Oh, the Congo would show
me a thing or two.) On the bus Steve warned me and Lindsay, a roommate from Kigali,
that the border would be overwhelming. It would be best to get behind him, he said. I
gave him a frank look. I was full of anxieties before that trip, to be sure; but in my time,
let‟s face it, I‟d seen a few things myself.
In Goma, just past the border, the money-changers swarmed. Holding their bricks of
Congolese notes, colorful bits of play money. Steve wanted to handle the negotiations,
but he had the exchange rates all wrong. He was making a mess of things – some savior!
Then the moto drivers surrounding us, young, aggressive, in the manner of their kind.
Steve‟s warnings were ill- founded – I‟d seen this sort of thing before. Then we were
barreling through the dust and grit and free-wheeling derby of downtown Goma. The IDP
camp would indeed be tragic, but this – the noise, the traffic, the energetic hustle and
chaos – this was something to marvel at.
The IDPs had pitched their ragged tents in a field behind a church. They used plastic
tarps and garbage bags and canvas sacks emblazoned with humanitarian logos to build
these clumsy shelters. UNHCR, UNICEF, USAID. A strong gust of wind might have
blown the whole place away. Steve introduced me to the camp leaders – again, these rigid
hierarchies of Congolese society. There was an IDP president, a vice-president, a
treasurer. Solemnly they took us around the camp, explained that the situation was dire.
These people had fled fighting near their villages in North Kivu; they had come from
Masisi, from Walikale, they had walked with whatever modest possessions they could
carry, holding their children‟s hands. The international community had abandoned them,
they said. They were barred from the UN camps. They had no food or water. Steve,
nodding, as grave as a crucifixion scene, carried out rudimentary check-ups on the young
and old. He promised to bring eye drops for a young boy with a severe infection. On the
bus back to Kigali, we were all on the verge of tears.
Now, five months later, I flag down a moto, balance my duffel bag on one leg. We zip
through the streets, my driver chatting amiably in a French I only partly understand. Past
the old ex-pat haunts – Chez Doga, Coco Jamboo – past the Soleil Palace, the
hotel/restaurant/nightclub I stayed in when I returned to Goma a week after visiting with
Steve. I had brought my friend and translator, Prudent, a journalism student at the
university in Butare. It was forty bucks a night and I was on the tightest of budgets, I had
almost nothing, and so there I was, sharing a bed with my translator while American hip-
hop rattled the windowpanes. There was no running water, the electricity was sporadic.
The living room was furnished with the gaudy opulence – the chintz curtains and gold
fixtures and oversized leather sofas – of the African nouveau riche.
After four days I was desperate. I was hemorrhaging money and the story was going
nowhere. The 6,000 IDPs, it turned out, were more like 600. The Norwegian Refugee
Council said that no, actually, they were being fed. The UN said they had refused to
move into UN camps. The Congolese government said many weren‟t IDPs at all – they
were residents of Goma, trying to take advantage of the humanitarian aid being offered.
And besides, they said, the security had improved: the IDPs would be sent back to their
villages with a small living stipend, as soon as the government could prove they were
who they said they were.
We were running in circles. And still my heart ached for these people – the sick old man
with his frail, wheezing chest, the little boy whose rheumy eyes might never see again.
We watched a middle-aged man, a father, making doors out of scrap metal. He sold them
to the other IDPs for 400 or 500 Congolese francs – 50 cents for half a day‟s work.
Crouched outside his tent, hammering at rusted five-gallon cans of USAID beans and
cooking oil. I knew there was a story in all of that, but what was the story? All I could
think about was how much money we were burning through. I apologized and put
Prudent on a bus back to Kigali. And for the next few days I wandered the city on my
own, relieved of the burden of reporting a story I didn‟t understand, marveling at the
sheer improbabilities and incongruities of life in the Congo.
Now my driver is whirling us around town, the road buckled and potholed, the traffic
swerving, crawling, jockeying for some small advantage. Yes, here you know you are a
long way from Rwanda. The dozens of SUVs – UN, MSF, IRC, NRC, ICRC, the whole
alphabet soup – the police pickups, the lorries full of gaunt shivering soldiers, the
perilous weaving motos, the wooden chukudu scooters, piled high with every imaginable
cargo. The dust is thick – it stings your eyes. And an endless procession on the roadside:
women with buckets of onions on their heads, barefoot children, men with briefcases,
people selling, shouting, hustling, living. Oh yes, this is Goma – this is a brave new
At a fork in the road we turn left, darting through oncoming traffic. We stop outside a
small hotel, the wall painted: Hotel Cirezi. I had called at the border; they had single
rooms for twenty U.S. bucks a night. I pay the driver and heave my bag to the reception
desk. The hotel is rundown but, it seems, well looked-after – that peculiar African ability
to ensure that even if the paint is chipped, the windows cracked, the roof rusted and
weather-beaten, there is still someone near at hand, endlessly sweeping the floors. My
room is a stiff queen-sized bed and a wobbly desk and a wooden rack over which I drape
some shirts. There are pegs on the wall, and I hang my linen pants. It is homely – homely
Outside the volcano is hidden by clouds: a storm is approaching. You can see the black
sheets of rain in the distance. A dark, tumultuous mood, suitable for a city built atop
black volcanic rock. With the low gray clouds sitting over this ashy landscape, you‟re
reminded of certain unsavory passages from Revelations. But the comparison doesn‟t
hold up: there is so much life – too much life – on the streets. We‟re a long way from the
dark days of 1994, when Rwandan refugees poured across the border, a nd a cholera
outbreak took tens of thousands of lives; or 2002, when a volcanic eruption sent rivers of
lava flowing through the city, displacing thousands; even 2008, when General Nkunda
and his rebels threatened to take Goma by force. These things, you want to think, are
fading from proximate threat to memory. Something like peace and stability has taken
hold in Goma since – even as the war in the hills waxes and wanes. It was something I
heard over and over the last time I was here: slowly, somehow, life is getting better.
Walking down the Sake road, thumbing texts into my cell phone, I dodge the traffic that
has spilled in all its chaotic abundance onto the roadside. New shops are being built,
trenches dug to lay a new water main (this drawing dozens of idle, curious youths). Near
the university, an old man is stooping and pulling up greens in a grassy lot. Already he‟s
filled his plastic bag – this wily old cat, spying which of the dusty shoots might be good
with a bit of salt after a long boil. Strange to think of my father here in Goma – my father,
with his taste for wild dandelions growing in the baseball fields and public parks of
Brooklyn. What must he look like, I always wondered, to a stranger passing by?
Near the roundabout, now, and the first cold, hard drops beginning to fall. Suddenly the
sound of music – a marching band, a full ensemble of trumpets and tubas and drums and
trombones, the horn section braying, swaying from side to side. Women carrying a
banner: “Campagne d’Evangelation,” it says, from something called the “Federation
Urbaine des Femmes.” And here they are, dozens of women in bright dresses and
headscarves and t-shirts bearing the logos of their sponsors. A group passes with
hymnals, laughing, singing; they smile at me and wave. Now the rain is picking up, and
the women are trotting, trying to keep the tune.
I take a moto and just barely beat the rain to Chez Doga. Inside, just a few tables taken –
a group in UN vests having lunch; a few Congolese sitting in a dark corner, silent, staring
at their laptops. Only at night have I seen this place draw a crowd – the French and Italian
aid workers, the Pakistani peacekeepers with their bristling moustaches and slender
waists, the prostitutes with their magnificent coiffures. During the day, with the tables
empty and the TV playing softly by the bar, it is a depressing place to be. But then, I only
have coffee on my mind; and besides, there is the rain.
I sit with my notebook and pour the burnt coffee into my mug, thinking of my last vis it to
Goma. Doga was an educational experience for me: the menu with its $10 pizzas and $15
steaks, aid-industry prices, with those inscrutable dollar signs which, after so much time
in Africa, looked like Egyptian hieroglyphs. Dimly I began to perceive the parallel
economies, the parallel worlds of Goma. (The UNOCHA compound across the street
seemed to glare with significance.) Next door, the Doga shop was fully stocked with top-
shelf liquor and imported condiments. At night, the prostitutes would smile at me, test the
water, lose interest: there were other, older johns with UN money to burn.
Down the street, after I‟ve finished my coffee, I grab a snack at Kivu Market – Lebanese-
owned, bursting with abundance. They‟ve expanded since last year: the electro nics
section is full of flat-screen TVs; in sporting goods there are nautilus machines and
treadmills. Say what you will about the humanitarian industry, but in Goma, it sure is
good for business. The bakery is warm and smells of fresh bread; the shelves are stocked
with imported cheeses. At the checkout, a big-headed, hirsute Lebanese circles like a pit
boss. Outside, groups of Congolese men sitting at tables, using the WiFi. Money-
changers holding stacks of Rwandan and American and Congolese bills. Around the
corner, a new takeaway joint, part of Kivu Market. In just a few days, their hummus and
schwarmas will become a crippling addiction.
Back at the hotel I change out of my wet clothes, rest, write. I have plans to meet Rachel
later in the evening, but it‟s early, just after four – I don‟t want to wear myself out with
aimless wandering. Boisterous voices coming from the hotel restaurant: they are off to an
early start on this Friday afternoon. I lie down, stretch. The mattress is stiff and there are
two plump pillows. It really is a marvelous bed.
By the time I leave the hotel just after five the air is crisp, patches of blue between the
clouds. The Sake road is bristling with energy. Rush hour in Goma has a certain dark
comedy – the endless processional of Land Cruisers and Prados, antennae jumping, all
the logos of the great humanitarian stew, the UN jeeps and cargo trucks and armored
personnel carriers. The Congolese are unmoved by all of this. They push their chukudus,
walk briskly through the traffic, get muscled to the side of the road. They part as I walk
past and close around me, like a wound. Outside a supermarket, the Champs Elysee, a
crowd is watching videos on a 17- inch TV screen – Kenyan gospel, merry Christians
swaying on a manicured hotel lawn to the heavy accompaniment of synthesizers and
keyboards. There must be two dozen bystanders watching, motionless, silent, eyes fixed
to the TV. A woman with a plastic wash basin full of maize on her head. A man in an ill-
fitting coat, holding a laptop bag. Others, as solemn as funeral mourners. A one- legged
man hobbles over on crutches, asking for money. He has red eyes and beer on his breath
and teeth like a broken Steinway. I apologize, pat my pockets for emphasis, and tell him I
have nothing, nothing at all.
More faces, bumping bodies, men with deformities, women built like cement mixers.
Down the road I‟m joined by a youth, studious- looking, in a light blue Kangol and
matching pants spattered with mud. He introduces himself as Jerusalem – it‟s like
meeting some latter-day prophet on these Congolese streets. We walk together, trying to
keep our stride through the crowds. A man brushes us aside carrying a bookshelf on his
shoulder. Jerusalem says he has been six months without a job; would I be able to help
him out? “I know the UN is sometimes looking for translators,” he says. A longshot, but
why not hope the white man works for the UN, has powerful connections? I tell him I‟ve
just arrived in Goma, I‟m passing through. He takes this with no hard feeling. He has
been eight years out of secondary school and has struggled to find regular employment. It
is a problem for the Congolese, he says. “We have spent all this time in school, but for
what?” he says. The country is adrift – there is no leadership in Kinshasa. I ask about
President Kabila, and Jerusalem shakes his head. “If he was a good president, I would not
be without a job,” he says.
The traffic is like some micro-organism, infinitely replicating and sub-dividing. Two
lanes become four, four become six, six become Cannonball Run. Suddenly we‟ve
stepped into oncoming traffic, dodging motorbikes and minibuses. Walking in Goma is a
sport. We leap across puddles and dodge chukudus. We climb piles of dark gravel and
volcanic rock – up and down, up and down, like a pair of mountaineers.
Jerusalem wonders now if I can‟t find a job for him somewhere else – in South Africa, or
Europe, or America. His eyes glitter as he pronounces that magic word. It has the power
of ritual, of incantation. He knows America, of course – from music videos, from movies.
Getting him there, I explain, would be no easy task. And even in America, I say, so many
are out of work. He takes this news as if it‟s been delivered from the heavens on the back
of a thunderbolt. “I did not think it was possible to have a white with no job,” he says.
Clearly, this has been a day of wonders.
At the roundabout we exchange numbers and part. “We are together,” says Jerusalem,
beginning the five kilometer walk toward his home. The clouds have parted, the volcano
is out. Jerusalem dodging motorbikes and dashing through puddles. The road seems to
stretch to the foot of Nyiragongo in the direction of his home; in the other, traders are
packing up shop at the market, a group of young men are sitting on sofas on the side of
the road. Lean men, secondary-school dropouts, perhaps, with a lifetime of shuffling
between odd jobs ahead of them. A city full of Jerusalems, hoping to find that golden
key: a job with the UN, some NGO, a driver or security guard or translator for an
organization with bank accounts in Europe, a headquarters in London, or Geneva.
At an Internet café, someone has left a PDF open on the screen – an invoice for the
shipment of a C-Class Mercedes (“wine red”) from Kobe, Japan. This, too, is part of
Dusk. I have time to kill. I poke my head into Soleil Palace – a dozen guys sitting around,
watching TV. Doga is empty. For all the expats here, for all the stress of the day‟s work,
happy-hour culture hasn‟t quite made it to Goma. A crowd of Congolese, a few hundred,
are making their cheery way down the road. There is laughter, singing – a church has just
let out. It‟s not exactly the happy hour I had in mind. I find a seat outside a shopping
arcade beside the Hotel des Grands Lacs, watch the to- ing and fro- ing. A boy on a
motorbike cruises beside two girls, chatting, working for a smile. The girls are
uninterested; they cross the road. Standing under a tree, the unlucky suitor‟s friends burst
Soon a boy comes to join me. He is short, slight, red-eyed; he wears a Muslim prayer cap
which he takes off and twists in his hands. His name is Patrick. Sitting, sighing, shaking
his head, he says, “Papa,” and begins telling me about his life. He came to Goma in 1994;
he left Rwanda with his family – part of the hordes of refugees who came pouring across
the border after the genocide. He was only four. Now his father is gone, his mother is
gone; he has three young sisters to look after. He has no work, he‟s never finished schoo l
– his tale of woe is endless. Passersby slow, stare; a few other youths began to rib him –
whether because he‟s a little conman, or because they all know his misfortunes, they‟ve
seen him sitting here with other wazungu, wearing his heart on his sleeve – whatever the
reason, I‟m not sure. But after awhile even I begin to smile at his theatrical flourishes. “Je
suis avec beaucoup de souffrance,” he says, lightly touching his breast. “Pas en peu –
beaucoup!” He wants to make sure I‟m clear on this point: he has not had a little
suffering – a lot!
Finally I‟m rescued – Rachel calls, she‟s on her way. I give this little long-suffering
hustler 1,000 francs – a princely sum, even I can‟t say why I do it. The transaction has
been observed by a security guard nearby; soon he, too, is asking for money. I laugh this
off. “Je ne suis pas banque,” I say. There is a lesson, I‟m sure, to be learned from this. A
toot of the horn; Rachel and her driver pull up, in their IRC truck. I climb into the back
and shut the door, and like that, I‟m transported to another side of Goma life.
We‟re meeting her friends at Petit Bruxelles, a genteel outpost of European charm
founded, the story goes, by the former head of OXFAM as a gift to his Congolese wife. It
is lively, the tables are filling quickly. All of Goma‟s expat community seems to be here,
along with a few Congolese gathered around the TV at the bar. Rachel‟s friends arrive in
pairs, in threes. By the time we join them they‟ve filled a long table – Italians and
English, and a few of us Americans, sitting at the end. Rachel introduces me as her
“friend from the Internet” – we‟d met after reading one another‟s blogs. This draws
appropriate laughter. It is a good crowd, young, spirited, talkative. Maybe it‟s the Italians
who have this effect on us. Two balladeers move between the tables, strumming their
guitars. More people arrive – white, attractive, well-dressed. The air of First World
salaries. Everyone knows everyone. Laughter, greetings, kisses. Two young guys at my
end of the table – from Hong Kong and the UK, both Josephs – swap stories about life in
Kinshasa. British Joseph has lived there since last year: he works for an NGO that makes
braces for polio victims. Hong Kong Joseph spent two months in the capital before
moving to Goma. He works for Catholic Relief Services – CRS. Everyone here is known
by their acronym. Rachel is IRC Rachel. I‟m introduced to an attractive Russian woman –
Julie, or Jenny. An acronym is supplied. Only I seem to float around as a free radical, a
journalist. Two of the Italians have propped their walkie talkies on the table. They seem
to give the dinner an air of urgency, of impending flight.
The talk at the table is of the MSF party – MSF, MSF, for Médecins Sans Frontières. The
party is being held at a lakeside villa 30 minutes from town, and it seems that the whole
of Goma, after finishing dinner at Petit Bruxelles, will reconvene there. Rachel is
ambivalent: she will be up at 4:30 in the morning to see the gorillas. Everyone else is
saying, “MSF! MSF!” like some talisman we use to keep evil spirits at bay. Here you
begin to get a sense of the stories I‟d heard about Goma in Kigali: of a bacchanalian
frenzy of UN staffers and loose aid workers and strapping MONUC soldiers desperate to
unwind after their stress- filled ops in the bush. It is an odd sort of life you lead here. No
doubt the work leaves most feeling like an emotional punching bag, and everyone in
Goma seems to have done hard time. They have spent years in Congo, or other war
zones. (“We‟ve already done Darfur,” a couple tells me.) Friday night, Saturday night, is
when you trade your flak jacket for a strapless dress, you touch up your helmet hair with
a bit of pomade, and you let your discomfort over the incongruities of Goma life – the
Versailles- like villas and chauffeured vehicles and inflated salaries – recede until
The fabled MSF party is in full-swing by the time we get there, just after eleven. A dozen
SUVs are parked outside; the music is probably rattling the windowpanes in Gisenyi. The
house is massive, set against lawns that stretch 100 feet down to the lake. The
significance of an MSF party soon becomes apparent. This is one of the humanitarian
world‟s most respected and well- funded organizations. Not for MSF bottles of lukewarm
Primus and Fanta. The bar on the back porch – manned by two cheerful, gyrating,
middle-aged Gauls – is well-stocked with top-shelf liquor. I suspect Lake Kivu will run
dry before the MSF house does. Inside, the living room has been cleared, dozens of
bodies moving on the dancefloor in 4/4 time. The soundtrack has no doubt been picked
by our two French friends: „90s dance tracks mixed with Michael Jackson and disco
standards. It is a good crowd. Pretty girls flit about in city clothes. Heels, lipstick,
earrings – not a frumpy peasant skirt in sight. Couples slip into the garden. Small-talk
shouted over a “Billie Jean” bassline. Someone‟s colleague had to be evacuated from her
post last week after soldiers looted the city. “She‟s hardcore,” they say admiringly.
Everyone crowds the bar for more drinks.
It is a very good party which goes on a little too long. The car I came in has left. By half-
past two I‟m sheepishly milling around, looking for a ride. No one is going my way, no
one offers. Finally I‟m rescued by the Italians – part of our dinner group from Petit
Bruxelles – who are on their way into town. Already I‟ve warmed to them – they are
gregarious, welcoming, in the manner of most Italians. They‟re also the only ones to offer
me a lift.
Outside, waiting for the others to join us, we talk about the humanitarian community in
Goma. Stefano, who works for Caritas, makes a face like he‟s swallowed something
bitter. “This is not the real Africa,” he says, referring not just to this party, b ut to
everything it signifies. He works in the countryside, rehabilitating former child soldiers.
In Goma, he says, everything is polluted by money. It is the first thing people ask for
when they see a white man on the street. (Beaucoup de souffrance!) The people in the
interior are kinder, more generous. “You see the real Africa in Walikale, in Masisi,” he
The rest of the group has come, we pile into the car. It is half-past three on the morning
of my 32nd birthday when we reach the hotel. The nightclub next door is raucous; the
music is loud, the street crowded with idling motos. “Be careful,” Stefano warns, as I
pick my way through the crowd. The gate is locked and I wait three, four minutes,
rattling the door to wake the askari. I‟m about to start scaling the gate when he emerges,
sleepy, shuffling his feet. The Italians drive off with a toot of the horn – arrivederla,
amici! – and it‟s with visions of Italian girls and gyrating Frenchmen filling my head that
I drift into my 33rd year.
April 3 – Goma
First, you must buy a chicken.
In which the armes are most definitely interdites.
My 32nd birthday – the morning of it, the daylight hours – starts with headaches and
regret. The usual drinker‟s remorse. At half-past eight my head is throbbing, my tongue is
fuzzy. It‟s been awhile since my last round of heavy boozing. Only as the cobwebs clear
does it start to make sense: the grand Mützigs at Petit Bruxelles, at least three stiff drinks
– rum and Coke! – at the MSF house. This would be a morning best spent in bed. But my
time here in Goma is short – the thought of a wasted morning, a wasted day, stings my
conscience. Slowly I swing my legs from the bed; the rest of my body catches up with
them. Footsteps outside the door, voices, sweeping. This is Africa. Even when the night
ends late, the days begin early.
What I want most is a quick shower and a cup of coffee to start the day. But the bathroom
is like a construction site, dirt and grit everywhere. Slowly I negotiate a way to the toilet,
wash my face, brush my teeth. In the corner is a 35-gallon drum filled with water; there is
nothing from the taps. I fill a bucket for my shower – these ablutions take ages. One by
one I wash my limbs, my chest, I shampoo and rinse my hair. It‟s almost ten by the time I
finally leave the hotel, sluggishly plodding into the day.
It is a beautiful morning; again I give silent praise for the miracle of this Great Lakes
climate. The day is brisk, dry, harmless clouds piled in the sky. Of course, this is the
rainy season: it won‟t last. A few hours from now torrential rains will be pounding the tin
roofs of Goma, running in dark, sludgy rivers by the side of the road. Until the afternoon,
though, I can count on this sunlight to lift my spirits. And already, walking along the
clamor of the Sake road, I feel energized, revived.
Coffee at Chez Doga is becoming a morning ritual; I‟m not sure why. The coffee is burnt,
the servers are indifferent. Still, the fresh air and caffeine are both doing me good.
Overhead the planes pass – Antonovs, fat-bellied cargo planes. All day you hear the
drone of their engines, you see them carrying their unknown cargo – coltan? gold? guns?
– back and forth over the lake. Some fly so low on the approach that they rattle the
windows. Instinctively, I find myself ducking my head. The airport in Goma has
witnessed more than a few tragedies; the safety record in the Congo‟s aviation history is
My headache is only getting worse – the coffee was a mistake. I have a hard time staying
hydrated under the best of circumstances; this morning, I can practically feel my brain
and liver cells gasping for water. The high mood leaving the hotel didn‟t last; my spirits
are low. I‟m feeling grumpy and indecisive. I can‟t decide if I should have lunch, guzzle
more water, or go back to bed. These are the bad travel days – the ones where there‟s
nothing you want so much as an aspirin, a sofa, and a pile of DVDs. I have chicken
schwarma at Kivu Market while the morning wastes away. It‟s after noon and the rain
clouds are starting to blow in. I buy paracetemol at a pharmacy and another liter of water.
I buy another chicken schwarma. Some masochistic part of me – the writer, or the New
Yorker, or both – decides caffeine is the only way to make it through the d ay. I flag down
a moto on the street, negotiate a price. I make it to the Isuhi Hotel as the rain begins to
The place is like a country club. Cranes strut across the lawn. Three expats come
prancing in from the rain holding tennis rackets. Well-dressed families and their
precocious kids sit over $15 plates of steak and frites. I order a bottle of water. Chelsea
and Manchester United are playing on the big screen, drawing the usual crowds to the
bar. The reception is terrible – probably the storm is wreaking havoc on the satellite dish.
The flickering images make my head feel worse. I stare at the lake, gray and choppy, and
listen to the planes buzzing overhead.
Probably I would be happy here – that‟s what I‟m thinking. Goma, this oddball town – in
so many ways, an advertisement for all that‟s wrong with how the West and Africa
intersect – I think I could be happy here. The energy, the dark comedy of Congolese life
on the one hand; balanced with the expat life, the swank house parties, tennis by the lake,
wringing one‟s hands over the fate of the Congo over $12 brochettes. (Goma, I suspect,
has better per-capita dining options than any city in Africa.) Probably I could fall for an
Italian, a pretty French girl, who heads off in the morning in a flak jacket and wears
lipstick at night. Intimate dinners at Coco‟s, or Le Chalet. Radioing the driver when
we‟re ready to head back to the villa.
Back at the hotel, my African life. The parking lot is muddy, there are puddles outside
my door. Powerful smells from the bathroom. Still, mine is a cozy room. The bed is
luxurious. Again I sprawl out, stare at the ceiling: I have time to kill. I‟m meeting Kate at
Doga for a birthday drink, but not for two hours. Twenty minutes pass. I‟m afraid to doze
off – I might not make it out of bed. I dress instead. I‟ll have an early drink, I decide, fill
up pages of my notebook. There is a barbecue on the lake later tonight – an interesting
scene, says Kate. A Belgian family, they‟ve lived in the Congo for years. I picture a fussy
old man in white linen, gin and tonics on the lawn. Stories of the old Belgian Congo –
they call Kinshasa Leopoldville; Stanleyville instead of Kisangani. The casual bigotry of
colonials who have watched the Congolese train veer off the tracks. I hope I can make it
through the night. I hope I can make it to the bar without getting mud on my linen pants.
At Doga a large bouncer is already manning the door. Behind his burly head is a sign, a
picture of an X‟ed out assault weapon. “NO WEAPON,” it says. “ARMES
INTERDITES.” You do not want some drunk and unruly MONUC soldiers, I suspect,
getting trigger-happy around the whores.
It‟s after six when Kate arrives, carrying a colorful woven bag. Très congolaise. It‟s been
more than two years since we met in Nairobi, but we‟ve stayed in touch, we know the
broad outlines of one another‟s lives. She has been in Goma for six months – the time
flies, she‟s finished her contract, she‟ll be flying home to South Africa in a few weeks.
The next step is a question mark. She‟s been short- listed for a job in Kabul, something in
communications, and she has a fingers-crossed sort of hopefulness one doesn‟t typically
associate with Afghanistan. If not that, who knows? She‟s had a good life in Goma – her
employer, a large aid organization, treats its staff like pampered children – and her job
here has crystallized her plans to stay in the development field. And me – what about me?
I‟ll be in South Africa in three weeks‟ time, starting the next chapter of my oddball life. I
have a travel story about Joburg to write for The Washington Post, and we talk about
possible angles – there are so many angles. Kate sits there like a prospective employer,
scribbling notes. She has some people for me to look up in Joburg – and in Goma, too.
Here is the name of a filmmaker, she says. Here is the number for a conservationist with
She phones her driver and soon he pulls up – we have a hard time finding him at first,
there are so many SUVs idling outside. The road to her compound is like a ll roads in
Goma, rough, jagged heaps of volcanic rock. The truck rocks from side to side. We pass
an army barracks – wretched camps surrounded by barbed wire-crowned walls – and then
her house, bright and festive, glowing in the dark like an ocean liner at sea.
The place is a palace: ten-roomed, towering, ceilings like Versailles. It is a monument,
too, to African kitsch – all sconces and chandeliers, animal prints, elaborate balustrades.
The tenants are well looked-after – the cleaning lady, the cook, a gardener tending to the
lawns – and it‟s easy to see why Kate found her life here so appealing. What a different
life I would have, settled in a place like Goma. Thinking of my miserly room at Cirezi,
the shared toilet, the daily privations of my traveling life.
The group is ready and off we go, bumping again over these apocalyptic Goma roads. I
am happily squeezed beside Lea, a pretty French blonde with eyes the size of dinner
plates. She was the girl described to me as “hardcore” last night; her base, in Rutshuru, is
in an especially volatile area. Every two weeks she comes back to Goma for much-
needed decompression (and shopping, too: later she‟ll describe how her money – rarely
spent in Rutshuru – gets frittered away on imported cheese and wine and DVDs). There
are few expats in Rutshuru; she has a 7:30 curfew. If she meets a colleague for drinks,
she says, it has to be at 5 o‟clock. By 7 she‟s hurrying home, spending a drunken evening
on the sofa watching last year‟s blockbusters.
We reach the house and the gate swings open and it‟s like arriving in Xanadu. The
driveway is lined with palms – from where we are, we can‟t even see the house. We‟re all
of us oohing and aahing as we crunch along the gravel – even by Goma standards, it
seems this is a special outing. Suddenly the house, ranch-style, lit up, with floor-to-
ceiling windows: less Congo than Malibu. The rumor is that the house has already been
sold to the wife of President Kabila, who was looking for a second (third? fourth?) home
by the lake. Beside it is a kidney-shaped swimming pool, attractively lit from within. “It‟s
like The O.C.,” someone says. Through the windows we glimpse a living room with
expensive track lighting, stylish furnishings no doubt imported from Copenhagen, Tokyo,
Milan. This is not what I‟d expected. From Kate‟s description of the family, I was
expecting a white-washed villa, terra cotta roof tiles, a genial sloshing of drinks on the
lawn with cousin Leopold, just in from Brussels.
Instead there is down-tempo house music, handsome men in open-collared shirts, an
attractive blonde. Bruce – the nephew of the homeowner, Kate‟s current love interest – is
a mountain of 22-year-old muscle, sweet, baby-faced – by all appearances, a good kid.
Uncle Pascal, he says, is vacationing in Belgium. I can see why he‟d want to get away, I
say, taking in the lake, the house, the jet ski, the swimming pool, with an expansive
gesture. Bottles of wine on the bar – South African, French. The family, says Bruce, only
arrived two decades ago. They were not old-time colonials, after all. Uncle Pascal works
ambiguously in mechanics – “Uncle Pascal‟s garage,” said with deprecating humor, will
be a running joke tonight. Bruce himself was born in the Congo; he left when he was six.
The family was here during all the troubles of the early-„90s – riots in ‟93, Rwandan
refugees in ‟94. And then, of course, the war against Mobutu. His family had to be
evacuated in ‟96, when all the expats were being shuttled to Gisenyi. According to Kate,
his parents were the last expats to leave Goma. Somehow, they hadn‟t gotten word of the
evacuation; they watched the planes and helicopters flying over the lake from their lawn.
Bruce‟s dad – a handsome, athletic, stylish man with close-cropped gray hair and a
mischievous glint in his eye – strikes me as just the sort of guy who could miss an
evacuation. He is free-spirited, a dancer. I can picture him finishing off a bottle of red,
watching the choppers, wondering about all the fuss.
The place is filling up – more of the same faces from last night. Expat life in Goma is, I
think, like a big, happy, incestuous family. The grill is crowded with sausages, the table
full of imported condiments. A woman next to me hears I am a journalist. She is the
communications manager for Virunga National Park – she is used to my ilk. Last year
poaching was a hot story, she says, the gorillas being killed for their meat. The
conservationists were up in arms, the NGOs. The story practically sold itself, she says.
Now she is hoping to get some press for the volcano. This time it isn‟t just scientists,
volcanologists excited by Nyiragongo, she says. The volcano has opened again to
tourists. For a year and a half, the security situation was too tense; but now, since March
1, the tourists were allowed to climb it again, to see the lava lake, to camp on its slopes.
“We‟ve already sold more than 60 permits,” she says, almost surprised herself. I tell her
that a friend climbed the volcano just two weeks ago – the pictures were astonishing. I
don‟t tell her about the brutal seven-hour slog, the rain and hail that are keeping me from
going. Or the problem of the $200 permit. She tells me I should go if I have the chance. I
tell her I‟d love to. The sausages are delicious.
It is a good party, more low-key than last night‟s – everyone seems to be in a state of
permanent recovery here, shaking off nights past. I imagine Goma is a very good posting
for the world‟s aid workers. More guests arrive: Congolese men, handsome, well-dressed,
strutting across the dancefloor with their chests out, like the prow of a ship; girls in short
skirts and high heels. Jackie, an American, the blonde I noticed when I walked in, says
she has been in Goma for three years, moving between jobs. An air of permanent
transition about her. The life is good, she has a boyfriend, there‟s always a party.
Tomorrow someone will have a barbecue – at Pascal‟s, or Cristof‟s. “Not us,” she says,
shaking her attractive blonde locks. “We‟re still tired from last week.”
On the periphery of the dancefloor, with Lea. A pity to think of her wasting away in
Rutshuru. She says she‟s starved for company, I‟m welcome to visit. I would like that, for
all the obvious reasons. And to get out of Goma, too, to see some of the countryside.
There are baroque security procedures for me to go through, she says, forms and waivers
for me to sign. The situation there is unpredictable – just a few weeks ago, bandits swept
through the city at night, looting – but she enjoys the life, she enjoys the people. Always
demands for money, but in a soft, subtle way. A man has had a son, and says the day calls
for a celebration; it is implicit that Lea will be buying the beer. There‟s no way to sustain
it, she says; everyone has eight, nine children, there are births every week. Generosity has
Recently she wanted to buy a cat for company. There was a man in town who kept a few.
She asked her guard to approach him on her behalf. “First, you must buy a chicken,” he
said, as if it were the most natural thing: to buy a cat, first a chicken.
We make an early night of it. It‟s just after one as we pile sleepily into the car. The streets
are plunged in darkness. Across the city, Nyiragongo glows. Next to the hotel, Sin City is
going even louder than last night. Dozens of moto drivers waiting, glaring. I rattle my
first against the gate. Stephen, a Frenchman, another coworker of Kate‟s, leans his head
out the car window, concerned. Finally the askari, sleepy and suspicious, opens the door.
Instantly he smiles, warms – he knows he will get 500 francs for his trouble. I wave to the
others and vanish into the darkness of Cirezi. Music rattles the windowpanes, the sound
of laughter, bottles breaking on cement floors. I‟ve been told Sin City gets rough after
hours, but by the sound of things, it‟s pretty rough at all hours. I wish I had the strength
and courage to explore. Instead I lie in bed, listening to the syrupy voice of Koffi
Olomide, the shouting of young restless men, the cries of the whores, the clamor shaking
the walls with such force that the room seems to be swaying, until finally, in its own
strange way, the party rocks me to sleep.
April 4 – Goma
What is my per diem?
In which the ghost workers get paid.
Easter Sunday. The rains are heavy. Yesterday I‟d told myself I would be up early, I
would find a church to see the Congolese in all their Easter finery. Now it‟s not an
option, it sounds like the Great Flood is rising outside my doorway. In all fairness, I‟m
grateful: I need the rest. I listen to the rain at eight, at nine, stretched out luxuriously
under the covers. It really is a beautiful bed. At close to ten I get up, go through my
sluggish morning ablutions. The rain is still steady, pattering on the roof. Doga will not
be an option this morning; nor will the lakefront terrace at the Ihuzi. Instead I have a
coffee in the hotel restaurant – plastic floral arrangements, carvings of giraffes, of Nubian
women. The tablecloths and curtains are like an old lady‟s sitting room‟s. The news from
Kinshasa is blaring at a high volume. I have a single packet of bitter, Star brand instant
coffee from Uganda, for which I‟m charged an unreasonable two bucks.
The sun has suddenly, stubbornly appeared in the sky. The streets are empty. I had hoped,
after the over- indulgences of these past two nights, to wander around the city, have some
spontaneous encounters with more Jerusalems and Patricks and Lazares. But today,
Sunday morning, the city is listless. Bored attendants sit outside a few clothing shops –
the rest are closed. There‟s hardly any traffic on the Sake road. The motos cruise past,
solitary, or in pairs – tomorrow they‟ll be in unruly packs, fighting through the traffic. A
Sunday- morning mood suddenly comes over me – a desire to sit by the lake, read a book,
eye the Italians by the swimming pool. On days like this, I truly believe I am the World‟s
Worst Traveler. What good could come of a lazy day of schwarma and American fiction?
It‟s too late, I am decided. I stop for Lebanese takeaway, double-fisting kafta sandwiches
to the delight and distress of the other clientele. Then I am on my way to the lake,
prepared to waste a full day in a recuperative stupor.
I also have some serious mulling to do. In the next day or two I‟ll have to make a
decision about Bukavu, to which my eight-day tourist visa doesn‟t extend. This is its own
brand of comedy: each province of the Congo is apparently a separate bureaucratic
fiefdom, subject to its own visas, taxes and levies. My North Kivu visa will do me no
good in South Kivu; for that I will have to buy a month- long visa de voyage for the entire
Congo, which, as I already learned at the border, would set me back a whopping 150
bucks. It‟s a steep price – steeper than I had planned. Still, I suspect I‟ll regret it later if I
decide to pass on Bukavu. Chances are that money will just get pissed away at Doga or
Coco Jamboo, or at a string of farewell dinners in Kigali. Even before I‟ve made my
decision I‟m calculating costs in my notebook. Once these mental preparations have been
made, I know the next step Monday morning will be a visit to the immigration office.
The Sunday scene at the Ihuzi is lively – the pool is crowded, the pampered children of
the Congolese elite are causing a ruckus in their plastic flotation devices. So much for a
quiet, reflective coffee by the lake. I scan the bar for familiar faces, then again for
attractive ones. An Italian girl, I think, with an older couple; another, sitting by herself
with a salad. I find a shady table by the lake and order a beer. The water is calm, glassy;
harmless puffs of cloud sit over the hills of Rwanda. There‟s not a hint of rain in the sky.
It‟s turning out to be a beautiful day.
If you spend enough time around the Ihuzi, if you have a knack for languages, there is
probably much to be learned about the dynamics of eastern Congo. There are the
Congolese with their expensive, monogrammed luggage sets, gold on their fingers and
wrists. And the pilots – Russian, Ukrainian, Serb – who spend their days on perilous
missions into the bush. Many are Cold War veterans: 20 years ago they might have been
flying Soviet weapons into Angola, Mozambique. Now they are flying humanitarian
missions into Beni, and diamonds out of Kisangani. The stress and the pay are high. On
the weekend you see them by the pool, guzzling beer, manhandling young Congolese
girls, their ruddy Slavic faces lit with mirth.
There are the aid workers, too – even now with their laptops and spreadsheets, preparing
reports, briefings. And the Chinese – like some nocturnal species, you know they exist,
but impossible to spot. They live in seclusion, pre- fab enclaves in the bush, maybe,
protected by small armies. Their faces are lined – a line for each care and sorrow of exile.
Two men sit by the water with fishing rods cast into the lake, sta ring silently at the
surface. Maybe they are thinking of fishing trips in northern China – some tranquil spot
ringed by mountains and myths, far from the chaos of Congo.
Suddenly, a familiar face – Joseph, the Brit from Kinshasa, arriving with a friend. Here is
another of his Kinshasa connections – Jean Marc, French-Canadian, working with
another international NGO. He has just arrived to establish himself in Goma; they are
both marveling at the differences from Kinshasa, the few hassles, the quality of life – and,
of course, the sun-blessed climate. They swap stories about life in Congo – the cons and
costs of Kinshasa, the nightlife, the bribes and scandals. Their eyes are lit with
mischievous mirth. Recently the British army was invited to train Congolese soldiers,
says Jean Marc. They had budgeted $3 per soldier per day for lunch – more than enough
for a meal of fou-fou and beans, maybe even goat meat. The generals were outraged.
They refused to accept anything less than $5 a head – enough, says Jean Marc, to feed the
soldiers and ensure there was something left over to skim. The soldiers would not accept
$3, said the generals; I‟m sure the soldiers themselves were far more willing. The British,
instead, reneged on the deal. The theft was too brazen. “And then they‟re going to say,
„The British won‟t feed our soldiers,‟” says Jean Marc. Another story making the rounds
in Kinshasa: a program was set up to register the police officers in each of the Congo‟s
provinces. There was international funding, biometric scanning. A trial run was set up in
Equateur province. At the final tally they found 6,000 officers in the flesh but 10,000 on
the payroll – 4,000 ghost workers whose salaries were being divvied up among local
officials. The donors were outraged, the program was put on hold. But have you heard,
says Joseph, that another group has been contracted to continue the program? They would
do it at twice the cost, their method was flawed – but the executives had close ties to
members of the ruling party.
It was a typical story. Last year Jean Marc had been traveling in the Central African
Republic, assessing the possibility of setting up a project for his organization there. The
country was a mess: the government was corrupt, they had no control outside the capita l,
Bangui. Militias ran the countryside. But Jean Marc found them easy to work with: they
were eager for outside help, had not yet learned, in a country with so few aid groups on
the ground, how to milk the system. Congolese officials had been dealing with
humanitarian agencies, donor countries, the Bretton Woods institutions, for years. You
couldn‟t even come here to offer free training programs for soldiers, police, local
officials. “The first question is, „What is my per diem?‟” says Jean Marc.
Three Russians in Speedos come trotting by, water dripping from their shoulders. Two go
plunging into the lake. A third stops, begins to flirt with a young Congolese woman. They
are already familiar – she hesitates, she is wearing makeup and heels, he‟s threatening to
toss her into the water. They laugh, he isn‟t serious. He puts a hand on her shoulder and
another on her waist, as if to lead her in a waltz. The others climb out, shivering, shaking
the water from their ears. “Tomorrow they will fly to Bunia or Dungu,” says Jean Marc –
two of the Congo‟s hot spots. Today they have no cares: the life of a bush pilot. Joseph
says he won‟t go anywhere near a Western bar on Wednesday night. He flies out
Thursday morning; he doesn‟t want to know what his pilots were up to the night before.
We finish our beers, and Joseph invites me to visit his organization‟s site in town. It is on
the city‟s outskirts – past Cirezi, bumping along the same rough road that took me to the
MSF party on Friday. We get lost; even Joseph has a hard time finding the place, down
Goma‟s bumpy back roads. We spot a young boy hobbling across the jagged volcanic
rocks on crutches – “One of ours,” says Joseph, with a self-deprecating laugh – and we
know we‟re on the right track. Finally we find the gate; a boy wearing a leg brace walks
stiffly through the door. Inside a dozen youths, mostly polio victims, are playing in the
yard. Boys on crutches are kicking a soccer ball around. Another, the muscles of his back
atrophied, crawls across the porch on all fours. They are laughing, high-spirited. Joseph
beams with paternal pride, calling to them from across the yard.
Pascal, a handsome man in his thirties, one of the first Stand Proud members in Goma,
greets us and shows us around. There is a workshop on site where the association‟s
members build leg braces – some for their own use, some for other polio victims in
Goma, some for the NGO Handicapped International. They buy scrap metal from the
market, he explains, then hammer and twist the braces into shape, screw on joints so they
bend at the knees. At the bottom the braces clip into shoes specially made for each
member. Pascal pulls up his own pant leg to show the brace attached to his shoe. Next we
are introduced to another man, the physical therapist. There are six-, seven- hour long
sessions for the members three days a week, teaching them how to walk on their braces.
(There is weight training, too, he says, gesturing to an old weight machine in the corner.)
It is painful rehabilitation; some, says Joseph, give up on the exercises. Many are at an
age where they‟ve already learned to live with their handicaps. Their muscles have
atrophied, their limbs are distorted. It is easier to cope with their disabilities, as they have
for years, than to start from the beginning. In Kinshasa, says Joseph, there are personality
clashes between wheelchair-bound handicaps and the members of Stand Proud. They
have spent months and years going through a difficult rehabilitation process, reclaiming
the use of their limbs. They look down on the men and women in wheelchairs, he says.
They think they‟ve given up.
Next door is a wooden clapboard house, sooty and weather-stained, the floors dusty
concrete. Here is where Stand Proud‟s members – thirty-some-odd, their ages ranging
from five to 25 – live. Pascal leads us through the living room, crowded, full of excited
shouts. A boy sits against the wall, his legs encased in plaster, a rosary around his neck.
He is genial, he smiles and wants to shake my hand. Next a bedroom – a single bed, a
clothesline across the room, shirts hanging from nails in the wall. Later, Pascal explains,
when there is money, there will be two more beds squeezed into the room. Another
bedroom – just a foam mattress on the floor. Most of the bedrooms are similarly
furnished. Outside two youths – one on crutches, the other bent like a car jack – are
fussing with a pot over a charcoal brazier. They are preparing fou-fou for dinner – a
maize meal porridge, like the Kenyan ugali. Joseph asks what the meal times are – he has
been full of questions, this is an important field visit for him. Pascal says there is lunch at
noon, dinner between seven and eight. And breakfast? There is no money for breakfast,
he says. Sometimes they have some tea. Joseph listens and nods.
I have complicated feelings through all of this. Certainly the place is in rough shape: it is
hard to imagine all those bodies sharing tattered foam mattresses, or, as Pascal says, as
some prefer, sleeping on the porch. And yet this place, for all its sho rtcomings, offers a
better life than most of these boys would find at home. Most no doubt come from large
families; in those poor households, difficult choices have to be made. There is never
enough money to send all the children to school. And so parents gamble – they decide
which child has the best chance to succeed. The rest are left to work around the house, in
the fields, in the city. Probably these boys would get no education if they were left with
their families. But Stand Proud is paying their schoo l fees; most, smart, determined, are
among the best in their classes. On the porch two older boys – handsome, confident
youths – are kicking a soccer ball between them, keeping it in the air. I have to ask
Joseph if they‟re Stand Proud members; only when I look closely can I see the outlines of
the braces worn beneath their pants. Their steps are smooth, easy. They look no different
than anybody else.
As we‟re leaving, we poke our heads into the living room to say goodbye. The boys are
sitting on chairs and benches, lying on the floor; their attention is fixed to a small TV
against the wall. TP Mazembe, the Congolese powerhouse, and APR, from Kigali, are
playing the second leg of their tie in the African Champions League. Two weeks ago, I
watched APR score a huge upset in Kigali. Today, everything is on the line.
We‟re on our way to the gate when we hear cheers, ecstatic cries. TP Mazembe has
scored. We look back and see the boys leaping to their feet, bodies contorted, twisted at
odd angles, fists pumping in the air. The living room is like a carnival, the day, the hour
for them has become historic. As we shut the gate, we can still see them through the
doorway, hopping madly on their feet.
Back in town we visit Heal Africa, Goma‟s best health clinic, where Stand Proud‟s
members have their surgeries performed. The organization has an arrangement with the
hospital – the surgeries are deeply discounted – but Joseph wants to tour the facility for
himself. Again he has detailed questions – where were the plasters prepared? did Stand
Proud bring food for its members from the house, or cook it here? who was funding the
place? – and all the while he listens intently, nods his head. Later in the week he‟ll be
meeting with the administrators, hoping to strengthen the ir partnership; there would be a
meeting with Handicap International, too, to see if they might be able to help him secure
more donor funds. Much of Joseph‟s time was spent like this – scrambling, cajoling,
searching for partnerships, funds. It was constantly an uphill climb. Stand Proud had done
much for its members in Goma – yet still they had no breakfast, they slept on the floor.
It‟s been a long afternoon. After our visit to Heal Africa, we drag our heels to Doga for
coffee. The caffeine gives us a much-needed boost. Before long we‟ve moved on to
beers. Kate joins us just after seven – the mood shift is almost tangible. Joseph, I can see,
is putting his best foot forward – to be 22 again! Kate is just passing by for a drink,
though; when she leaves an hour later, Joseph‟s spirits deflate. Suddenly we‟re both
restless; a female presence has thrown off the evening‟s balance. We‟re looking to move
the evening along, to find some diversion, but we‟re both strangers here. We run through
our contacts – nothing. We have dinner at Coco Jamboo, the night has an air of winding
down. By the time we get the bill I‟m beat, I‟ve spent the last of my money, and we‟re
forced to concede the night is through. Joseph is sullen as he gets on his moto. Tomorrow
is the start of a short and busy week. He was hoping this night would turn out better.
April 5 – Goma
You know, like Vegas.
In which there is bottle service.
Today – a day of border crossing and visa wrangling, of abundant headaches and angry
French inquisitions – is a day I probably could have avoided. With a bit of foresight –
hardly 20/20 for your myopic narrator – I could have bought a one- month Congolese visa
before leaving Bujumbura in February. Gone the tragicomic troubles of the past week: I
would‟ve been in Bukavu days ago. Instead, a parade of hassles: a bank run in Gisenyi;
another $35 wasted at the border; a few hours of interrogation, I suspect, to get my one-
(A word on the incongruities of the preceding paragraph: for one, despite the smooth-
flowing Western bureaucracy of the aid- industry apparatus, there are no functioning
banks in Goma. I have to visit Rwanda to use the nearest ATM. Also, since one-month
visas can‟t be issued at the border, I‟ll have to pay $35 to buy a transit visa, simp ly to
allow me the privilege of entering the Congo, visiting the immigration office, and
applying for a one- month visa. Stanley I am not, but these small privations of traveling in
the Congo tend to add up as the days wear on.)
It is almost eleven by the time I reach the border. I‟m a familiar face by now – they know
I am looking to go to Bukavu, I‟ll have no trouble returning from Gisenyi later in the day.
In Rwanda, once again – the smooth tarmac of the lake road is a blessing. The dust and
grit of Goma, the countless moto trips over the Sake road, have made my eyes raw. It
would do me good to come here every few days, just to give my eyes a break. The lake is
glassy, there are morning bathers, young men, lathering themselves in the water. Such
calm after the chaos of Goma. I can appreciate why so many expats, with their resident‟s
visas, will come here on the weekend, just to lie on the beach and have a cocktail at the
Serena. Crossing the border here is like crossing between worlds. And yet this place, too,
has known such violence.
Near the market, the usual bedlam. I‟ve been offline for a few days and want to check my
email. The Internet café is crowded: four girls to a computer, young boys playing FIFA
on a Play Station hooked up to a big-screen TV. The connection today is abysmal. Not
for the first time do I regard this country‟s ambitious ICT plans with a degree of
skepticism. After 30 minutes I haven‟t managed to send a single email. The young
footballers are cheering, banging on their control pads, shouting “Ronaldo” and
“Rooney” like religious incantations. Outside the day is growing hot. I shake my pockets
for change, pay, stand in the doorway, squinting into the hard mid-day light.
On my way to the bank a boy, Francois, joins me. He is selling posters: he holds up a
dozen, Michael Jackson, Akon, maps of Africa and the world, that he‟s hawking for a
dollar each. Probably he will walk up and down this street, he will circle the market all
day, and maybe he will sell one poster of Rihanna and one of Man. U. Soon another man,
older, I don‟t catch his name, joins us. He has studied literature at the National University
in Butare, but since coming to Gisenyi, he‟s had few chances to speak English. He is
eager for this opportunity; Francois, sullen, slowly gets pushed aside. The man is a
professor at the college in Gisenyi – he teaches English, business, a real renaissance man.
He asks where I am from. “America,” he says. The word is like a passport and airline
ticket, transporting our conversation to a different, faraway place. “That place is white,
rich,” he says approvingly. Francois is still lingering; he wants to practice his English,
too. “What is your academic state?” he asks. I‟m not entirely sure what he‟s asking. But
then, I get the sense he won‟t entirely understand my answer, either. I tell him I‟ve
finished my studies many years ago, but the other man gives Francois a hard look, clucks
his tongue. He is afraid that it‟s too personal a question to ask a stranger. He tells me the
famous story of when President Kagame was speaking at the university, and a student in
the audience asked what level of studies he had completed. “People were astonished,”
says the man. “They thought he was prying into his personal life.” “Rwandans are like
that,” I say, meaning both private, and weird. We part on good terms. At the bank,
another half- hour of my life is wasted. Then I‟m back to my usual seat in the usual
garden at the Auberge de Gisenyi, gorging on the lunch buffet before returning to Goma.
This is, of course, no ordinary week in Rwanda. Tomorrow, April 6, the anniversary of
the plane crash that killed former President Habyarimana: tomorrow is the start of the
annual genocide commemoration week. It is a grim time to be in Rwanda. Already, over
the weekend, I had met two groups of Rwandans who had gone to Goma to escape the
commemorations. (In Bujumbura, too, I‟d been told this would be a busy week, Saga
Plage crowded with Rwandans fleeing Kigali.) I‟d already had my commemoration week,
of course, in 2008 – a strange time, a sense of voyeurism that didn‟t sit comfortably. The
ceremonies, the solemn reburials, the brutal TV documentaries, the speeches. At the
Gisozi Memorial, I watched survivors crumpling, breaking into hysterical cries. A
woman scratched and clawed at the air, believing the attackers had come back for her.
One night there was a grenade attack at the memorial – a guard was killed. The
reconciliation process, I learned – New Times platitudes aside – wasn‟t entirely what it
My own view of Rwanda has shifted in the years since. In 2008, my first visit, I went to
the memorials, read Philip Gourevitch, lowered my head, observed the pieties. To visit
Rwanda, I thought, was to step into a cathedral. I remember a visit to Sainte Famille, the
Kigali church that achieved such notoriety during the genocide. It was there that Father
Wenceslas Munyeshyaka, clad in a military- issue flak jacket, preached the gospel with a
crucifix in one hand and a pistol in the other. While thousands of refugees huddle d inside
his church, Munyeshyaka drew up lists of Tutsis and Hutu collaborators to hand over to
the militias. They were given free rein to enter the church and pick out their victims.
Munyeshyaka himself was accused of raping some of the refugees, or offering sanctuary
in exchange for sexual favors.
When I visited the church it was early in the afternoon, and the pews were almost empty.
A few women in loose, colorful dresses shuffled across the polished floor, touching their
fingertips to their heads. On another day in Rwanda, those pews might have been filled
by pious bodies dipping their heads in prayer. A man sat at the end of an empty row,
leaning heavily on his knees. There were scars on the back of his head – a spider web of
wounds healed over – and he sat there, his face resting in the palm of his hand, his fingers
clicking the beads of a rosary. Crude oil paintings hung from the walls: a pink Roman
arm lifting the whip; a stiff- figured Christ hunched beneath each blow. I wondered if
there was a good Christian moral in that story of suffering, or if it might just be a bloody
parable of human cruelty, and the harm that one man can do another.
In the two years since, though, much has changed – not only in Rwanda, but in how I
understand it. I‟ve grown skeptical of the government, wondered about the effect of all
this death-worship, this genocide cult. My readings now are from Gerard Prunier,
Howard French. I‟ve thought more about RPF crimes committed after the genocide,
grown critical of the government‟s muzzling of the opposition, the press.
At the auberge, they‟re playing a live press conference with His Excellency PK on the
radio. An American journalist asks about the commemoration week broadcasts on RTV,
the graphic genocide footage played on a 24- hour loop. Many Rwandans had told him
they were appalled by such violence – they said they would unplug their TVs for the
week. Did such programs go too far in opening old wounds? he asks. Perhaps implicit is a
broader criticism: how much commemoration is too much?
President PK fudges, is ambivalent. Maybe the footage is too much, maybe it isn‟t. He is
no psychologist, no specialist, he says. Maybe it is better to leave such questions to the
professionals. Another Rwandan voice – a minister? – intercedes. Certainly the footage is
too graphic for some, he says, and no doubt those are the voices you will hear raised in
protest. But there are many who support those programs, he insists. Perhaps they are just
less vocal than the critics. It is impossible to say.
It is an unsatisfactory exchange – so typical, in all its subterfuge and obfuscation and
denial, of what I‟ve come to expect from this government. But then, could it be any other
way? Sixteen years on and still Rwanda is wrestling its demons, trying to balance the
need to move on with the equally important need to remember. Say what you will about
the government‟s attempts to manipulate these memories for political gain at the national
level; still, stripped of such cynicism, that need exists at the perso nal level, too.
This commemoration week is tricky business – I think it does more harm than good. For
many survivors it is overwhelming: you see them staggering through the streets, as if in a
daze, or sitting, weeping, on the curb. And it is a polarizing week, too. For all the talk of
reconciliation, this is a Tutsi remembrance. In Bujumbura earlier this year, a Human
Rights Watch researcher told me about the hostile receptions Hutus – even Hutu
survivors – received at commemoration ceremonies, how they‟re still treated with
resentment, suspicion. What does it mean to reopen this divide every April? To force this
national mourning – this public shaming – onto an ethnic majority that still feels largely
excluded from power?
For journalists, certainly, it is an interesting time to be in Rwanda. But here I am, instead,
back at the border. The Rwandan official is interested to hear, as per my African-border-
crossing narrative, that I am a student. Master‟s, or Ph.d.? Instantly I invent an academic
history for myself, I advise him on scholarships, bemoan the lack of job prospects for a –
ahem – Master‟s graduate student in literature like me. He is sympathetic. Surely there
will be something? Academia, perhaps, I sigh. There is always a demand for some
particular skill or knowledge, he says, stamping my passport. Suddenly, my imaginary
future looks bright.
On the Congolese side, no fictitious discourse on lit. theory. Still, I‟m surprised at how
helpful the woman – large, pretty, smiling, with long corn rows and wide, high hips – is.
She stamps my passport, calls out to a colleague. She hands him 500 francs for transport
from what appears to be petty cash – ! – and tells him to take me to the immigration
office in town. The man‟s eyes narrow. He is slender, musta chioed, his uniform is ill-
fitting. He has a gruff manner and shrewd eyes – I like him not one bit. Surely now, I
think, comes the shakedown? We take motos the short distance to immigration, he tells
me to pay the drivers. He has pocketed the 500 francs from his colleague, but that‟s the
extent of his criminal designs. Standing outside the immigration bureau, stocky men in
blue uniforms reposing in the shade, he even demands that my driver give me 100 francs
Inside, upstairs, and everything is smooth, brisk. A tall, pot-bellied man asks for my
passport, sending a colleague downstairs to retrieve some forms. Another man arrives and
ushers us into his office. His manner is brusque, bullying, but otherwise he seems to be
on the level. The fives and tens I‟d fretfully packed away into various pockets stay put. I
would like to go to Bukavu? I would. When? As soon as possible. The man glances at his
wristwatch, gold and gaudy, as if he might be able to ship me out this afternoon. I can
come back tomorrow at noon, he says, and still have time to catch the two o‟clock canôt
rapide. I hand him $155, which disappears into his desk. C’est fini. Painlessly, in under
five minutes, the deed is done. And while all sorts of horrors might await tomorrow – a
“lost” passport, a processing fee – I am speechless at the efficiency I‟ve just witnessed.
Nowhere else in Congo, I suspect, would such a scene as this play out. This place, I
decide, has its own sort of magic.
The day has been hot, muggy; I‟m wilting in the sunlight. At the Nyira I sink into my seat
with my notebook and a thermos full of cheap instant coffee. The terrace is surrounded
by palm trees, vines, succulents. The birds are hysterical in the treetops. Across from me
an American man – raucous, campy, flamboyantly gay – is entertaining his colleagues.
He wants to know how to say “you fat bastard” in Swahili, and “fuck off,” and “shit.”
Closer to me another American, a willowy blonde, is talking about opening a new
nightclub with a Congolese friend. “People work so hard here, it‟s always a crisis, and I
don‟t think they want to hear the same music when they go out,” she says, with great
feeling. She knows a DJ in London who wants to come to Africa – why not Goma? It
seems only logical, since Goma is a place in Africa. Her speech is slow, airy: you can
picture the words floating down from a cloud like snowflakes, settling on her tongue. She
wants to play her colleague a song on her iPhone. He nods, types something on his
laptop. And what about the color scheme? She thinks purple – she wants her clients to
feel like royalty. More tapping on the keyboard. “Will there be bottle service?” she asks.
A very blank look from across the table. She explains the concept of people paying
extraordinary amounts of money to buy a bottle and sit at a table. “You know, like
Vegas?” she says. Her colleague‟s fingers rest uncertainly on the keyboard. He is not sure
what to do next.
So many crazy schemes are floating around in Goma. Surely there‟s a market for such a
velvet-roped fantasia, too. I can picture the Russians, the Lebanese, the Congolese with
their gold watches and peacock shirts, paying exorbitant amounts to sit and be looked at.
And besides, there are enough humanitarian rackets in eastern Congo already. Something
should be said in praise of originality, too.
The coffee, the garden – somewhere there must be birds of paradise – didn‟t do the trick.
Instead I am easily distracted, high-strung. I write a few words and stare at the words I‟ve
written. It‟s no use. The sky is still overcast, the rains haven‟t come, but the air is warm
and sticks to your skin. I head back to the hotel to take another shower – this time of day
the cold water is a relief. I tip the pitcher over my neck and shoulders. I‟ve made no plans
for the evening, and I‟m undecided, now, how I want it spent. I‟ve grown cranky – it
feels like this day has been wasted. Three days have passed since I arrived from Gisenyi,
but it feels like life – Congolese life – is eluding me. My days have passed in a blur of
coffees and schwarmas, my nights drinking with expats. The time for me is short, but so
far, it seems like I‟ve been getting nowhere.
To shake off this sour mood – if nothing, I am a man of many sour moods – I decide to
have a schwarma and a drink with an expat. It is, admittedly, an alluring life here. At
Doga with Rachel, nursing the two- for-one happy hour special, I realize I‟m not the only
one to succumb to Goma‟s lazy charms. Rachel has spent the day making ice cream – a
tremendous failure – and taking her boat onto the lake. In the sky a rainbow was bending
from the green hills of Rwanda toward the Congo; it was like a gift, an annunciation, a
validation of her life here. Outside, in the jungles of North Kivu, the militias fought and
raged; here, in Goma, in Chez NGO, you made ice cream and paddled across the lake.
Rachel is no fool; she knows how ridiculous it all is. But still, here you were, at the end
of one contract and looking for another. She had an offer floated to her for a one- month
project in Jordan, but Africa has been her on-again-off-again home for five years. Before
Congo, Uganda; before that, the Gambia, Senegal. She wants to come back to Congo and
work in communications, but somewhere in the interior, far from Goma‟s expat whirl. “I
feel like I don‟t know anything about Congolese life here,” she says. Then she phones her
driver and we‟re dashing through the rain, a truck waiting to carry us home.
It‟s after ten now, the city is at rest. Just a few vehicles – aid workers returning from
dinner, perhaps; a few lonesome motorbikes – drive down the Sake road. Moto drivers
gather in the fluorescent glare of a petrol station. On the side of the road, youths selling
loaves of bread in the dark. Nyiragongo is glowing dimly – somewhere beyond it, past
distant mountains, fire and brimstone. And here, on these black streets of Goma, silent
houses sitting in the darkness like blank faces, revealing nothing of their hidden lives.
April 6 – Goma
Bring us the Chinese.
In which we do our best.
Just two-plus weeks after leaving my Kigali digs, I‟m starting to lose confidence in what
I‟m doing. Writing – the actual, laborious task of putting pen to pad, of trying to keep up
with the day‟s events, both significant and in-, to somehow process them into a form that
is engaging and informative or just not a pile of steaming, faux- literary crap – seems to
take up most of my time. I feel as bound to my notebook here in Goma as I felt to my
laptop back in Kigali – gone the free-spiritedness of those early days on the road. It‟s
beginning to wear me out. It feels like half the day is spent caffeinating, and the other
half logging impressions of the view over the rim of my coffee mug.
Today I spend two, three hours with my notebook, catching up on yesterday‟s thoughts.
I‟m not convinced there‟s much value in any of this. Still, out of a sense of duty, of blind
faith, I write. The morning passes. At noon I‟m again at the immigration office, braced
for the worst. Without reason. I‟m in and out in under two minutes. Stamped into my
passport is a one- month visa de voyage – they even give me a receipt. The afternoon, its
hazy, heavy heat, is suddenly before me. Tomorrow I will go to Bukavu; today, Goma.
Some sense of purpose comes over me. For one day, at least, I will steer clear of Doga
and Ihuzi, I will resist the lure of happy hour and the merry chatter of pretty, acronymed
aid workers. Instead I will wander these dusty, sun-scoured, grit-choked streets,
subjecting the locals to my ad hoc French, making friends, shaking off hustlers, dodging
motorbikes, stepping into the stream of Congolese life.
Down the broad avenues, past the heroic roundabouts – no doubt the Belgians brought a
grand vision to their colonial cities. At one rond point a statue is being built; it is still
unfinished, hidden, wrapped in plastic sheeting. Rachel has been spreading a rumor that it
will be an homage to the ubiquitous chukudu; this is a pleasing vision. Better that heroic
wooden scooter than one of the many statesmen who have betrayed this country through
the years. Between the buzzing motos they clatter past: one after another, carrying a
cabinet, a small boy, wooden shelves, a generator; bushels of something green and leafy;
25kg bags of maize meal and cement. On the side of the road, slim youths in blue jeans
crouch beside gas-powered pumps, filling the tires of passing motorists. Others sell half-
liter bottles of gasoline – the color and viscosity are all wrong; probably the bottles have
been topped off in Lake Kivu.
The roads are battered, buckled – yet still, they are the region‟s best. (At Doga, an aid
worker recalled a trip to the interior. “Maman, look at the road,” they called out to her
passing car. “Bring us the Chinese!”) Music comes from the hair salons, the CD shops,
the electronics stores. Maison Bush. “Dealers in japans used music and household
equipments.” Outside, the speakers are taller than a child, stacked like the foundation
stones of a pre-Columbian temple. The bass shakes the ground. “Hurry while stocks
Down the street I find a two-storey house of stained white clapboard, the words
“Restaurant Benedict” painted across the side in big blue letters. From inside comes the
sound of laughter, boisterous voices. A curtain is the door. There is surprise at the white
man suddenly standing there, asking for chakula. A boy bent over a basin, washing his
hands in soapy water, says something in Swahili. Another boy giggles in the corner. A
waitress – light-skinned, wide-hipped, a kanga covering her curves – gives me a frank
and explicit look. I gesture toward the stairs and she raises her eyebrows, an east African
look that seems to offer affirmation with the least possible effort. Upstairs there are white
tables, white chairs, white benches, white walls. I am beginning to se nse a theme. The
ceiling is made from a patchwork of canvas sacks; in some places it sags, in others, you
can see the sky through it. A blue heart is painted over the door to the toilet. The tables
are full. Everyone is watching me, waiting to see what I‟ll do next.
Suddenly, there is movement by the window. A young man in a soccer jersey moves his
motorcycle helmet and offers me a seat. A general mood of welcome fills the room. The
waitress comes and gives me a blank look. I‟ve always wondered if it takes some
particular effort, a Zen- like relaxation of the forehead and cheek muscles, to have a face
so washed of emotion. I order foufou and beans and lenga-lenga – a poor-man‟s meal.
The boy beside me asks if I take meat. “Je ne mange pas viande aujourd’hui,” I say. No
meat for me today. What I mean to suggest is that I won‟t be taking meat in this
particular restaurant, because if past experience is any indication, I expect it to have the
taste and consistency of an 18” Pirelli. There is no way to translate this satisfactorily. My
companion is puzzled. How can anyone with the money to take meat – and surely I have
the money – take just foufou and beans and greens? I don‟t want to offend him with my
meat snobbery – certainly the men eating viande in the Restaurant Benedict are receiving
it the way a Catholic receives communion. I shrug again. “Je ne le mange pas,” I say. He
laughs softly and shakes his head. Another white with his inscrutable ways! The boy
across from me wipes the plate with his foufou, the sauce dripping from his long fingers.
Next to me, the boy who offered me a seat, is Emmanuel. He drives a moto, he says, he is
24. The room is filled with a dozen Emmanuels – young, thin, all elbows and rib cages in
secondhand clothes. Most are moto drivers, says Emmanuel. (One gets up and gingerly
carries a plastic bottle full of petrol down the stairs.) Emmanuel lives just outside Goma
with his parents – he is one of eleven children, he hasn‟t married, he finished his studies
after secondary school. He‟s been working since he was 20, renting a bike, saving the
profits. He points to it outside, a red GTZ motorbike surrounded by red and black and
blue GTZ motorbikes. I ask how is life in Goma. “Ça va un peu,” he says. There is
nothing to do at night, he complains. He‟s not married, so what is there to do?
The waitress returns with a plate of foufou and a plate of beans and a shallow bowl full of
meat and sauce. There was no lenga-lenga, she says – viande it is. Again, all eyes on me.
“C’est le premier fois,” I say, rolling a ball of foufou between my fingers. It is a green
mound of manioc, with the texture of yesterday‟s mashed potatoes. I soak up some sauce,
pinch a few beans between my fingers. The foufou is good – surprisingly good. “C’est
bon,” I say happily, truthfully. Relief, laughter all around. Here is a mzungu eating foufou
with his hands, approving. Hungrily I take another clump, dip into the sauce, lick my
fingers. Later in the week they will still talk about this memorable afternoon, looking up
expectantly when they hear footsteps on the stairs.
There is a shuffling of chairs, a new lunch shift, new faces. When a newcomer reaches
the top step he pauses, does a doubletake in my direction. After he orders he‟ll watch me
from the corner of his eye, measuring my reactions.
The food now is slow-going – the foufou is heavy, dense, monotonous. At the tables
around me, an eager clutter of dishes, bottles of Fanta and Primus, pitchers of water
poured into little metal cups. It is for most, I suspect, the only good meal of the day.
When the bill comes it is 1,300 francs, less than $2 – almost half of this for a Fanta
citron. For four days I have searched fruitlessly, stupidly for cheap eats; but really, I
wasn‟t looking too hard. Walking around today I saw others – Mamling, Best Life – and
I‟m sure there are many more, hidden behind curtains, full of moto drivers and students
and the rest of Goma‟s working poor.
Outside Christophe, one of the moto drivers from lunch, offers to take me to the hotel.
His English is good – he has friends, Congolese, that he visits in Kampala. The bike, he
says, is rented for $7 a day – anything else he keeps, a modest profit after even a good
day‟s work. He wants me to take his number – I can give him a call, he says, if I ever
need a lift. Before he drives off I snap a picture of him in front of the hotel – his blue shirt
glittering, Tim Horton‟s cap in his lap. He is punching his number into my phone.
In the afternoon I am on my way to the Virunga market, on the black jagged road that
stretches from the center of town to the foot of Nyiragongo. Ask the Congolese why they
would live in the path of one of the most active volcanoes on the planet, and they will
undoubtedly tell you that the soil here is rich, impossibly fertile. Sure, it is dangerous
here – but where isn‟t it dangerous? And besides, the lava flow is slow; in 2002, hardly
anyone was killed. The city rebuilt; now, they are still building. Along the Nyiragongo
road, new construction sites: wooden scaffolds, cinderblocks, sheet metal, rebar. These
will become small shopping centers, offices, hotels. Goma is stable, money is pouring in.
The city is expanding to meet its growing needs.
At the market, the usual market scenes – the colorful bustle and din of African
commerce. Past the pots and pans and crockery, I am all business – on a mission,
actually, to buy some socks. Rows of blouses and blue jeans, colorful bolts of cloth,
jackets, soccer jerseys. The stalls are built high off the ground; the women sit with their
legs dangling, or reclining barefoot on piles of clothes, taking the term “business casual”
to new heights. Everywhere they follow me with their eyes, solicitous. “Mzungu,
mzungu,” they say. It is like walking through a red light district. I buy my socks, tease the
ladies with promises to return for jeans, shirts, a wife. Howls of laughter. Yes, yes, a wife
– that‟s more like it. Now I am in the fish market, passing buckets full of silver sambaza,
dried fish stretched out like animal skins. Three women sit on a bench, chickens
squawking between their legs. Rows of soaps, skin creams, hair care products,
extensions. Women at sewing machines – the drone fills the air like the sound of cicadas.
Outside, the rain is approaching. I get on the back of a moto and race the clouds back into
town. Three lorries pass us on the road – they are full of mourners. Dark suits, neckties,
elaborate dresses. A man holds a wooden cross aloft, lurching with each bump in the
road. Slowly they make their mournful procession along the Sake road. In the rear truck,
women are singing a funeral hymn.
We just beat the rain to Nyira. Then the sky opens up. I sit with my notebook, my pen,
my collected stories of Saul Bellow. It‟s been a good day. I am thinking ahead now to
tomorrow, to the port, to the boat to Bukavu. The rain is torrential, Biblical – there is no
use planning now, there is nothing to do but sit and listen to the thunder rolling over the
gardens. There is a luxuriousness to waiting out these tropical rains, hearing the roar on
the rooftops. The temperature drops, the air is brisk. By the time the rain stops we have
entered a new season. I put on my jacket, zip it all the way up, puff into my fists.
It is after five, and the humanitarians are returning from the field. Watching the rush hour
traffic is like going on a particular, Congolese safari. Here is a Land Cruiser, there a
Range Rover. Here are the RAV4s and 4Runners, the Prados and Pajeros. Minibuses
wheeling through the dusky half- light, traveling with speed and peril. From where I‟m
standing you can watch all of Goma passing by: motos, chukudus, women carrying fruit,
carrying children. Swallows are circling in the sky, crying out. Below them children are
running through the mud and grass of a small public park, singing, toppling, laughing.
A boy approaches, solemn and apologetic, asking for my help. He is young, handsome,
studious; he has a sheet of paper, folded into quarters, which he unfolds for my
inspection. There is a sentence written across the top of the page – “James is a best
teacher of English” – which this boy, Bernard, has to write in the future tense. It is an
assignment for an English course he is taking, a class for youths in the crowded quartiers
of Goma who can‟t afford to study in the city‟s schools. James is a best teacher of
English. I help Bernard with the first example; he tries the next one on his own. “He is
going to pay your money this evening,” says Bernard, struggling to find the past tense.
Deep lines crease his forehead. “He paid your money this evening,” he says. He smiles,
he is starting to get it. “Here in DRC, many boys do not speak English,” he says. “We do
The Sake road is crowded on my way back to Cirezi – the aid- group convoys, the
MONUC vehicles crammed with well-armed, Kevlared, flinty-eyed soldiers. Motos
weaving through the traffic – I see only headlights, and more headlights. They grow as
big as dinner plates in front of me and then, suddenly, swerve to the side. There is peril
and exhilaration in all of this. A traffic cop, a heroic figure, stands in the middle of the
road, blowing on his whistle. Music and horns and the sound of ancient engines. Near the
hotel, lingala at high decibels pours from the Champs Elysee, R&B from the shop next
door. The walls are lined with DVDs: CSI and 24 and Lost on one shelf, Cavemen Bible
Mysteries and God’s Love in World Movie Collection 3 on the next. Men and women
outside are hustling home, slopping through the mud, their faces ringed by headlights and
exhaust fumes. White faces in passing cars. Clothing boutiques, fluorescent-lit hair
salons, gospel music, the racket of generators. Boys selling bread, women with piles of
pineapples. You can do your grocery shopping here on the street, groping in the darkness.
At an Internet café down the road someone has left a personals site, Badoo, on the screen:
one man‟s longing, transmitted across hundreds of miles of jungle, war, and impenetrable
bush, calling out to Maranatha, 18, Lorita, 24, Gloria, 20, and SEXYANA, 22 – pretty,
pouting girls looking for love in Kinshasa. It is impossible, at times, to think of Goma as
a city in a country called Congo. Yet here, as if bonded by the desires of strangers, the
country becomes whole: a great, fragile nation, bound together in cyberspace.
April 7 – Goma
Hell in paradise; or, paradise in hell.
In which our writer misses the boat.
Today I am up early, full of purpose. By the afternoon I hope to be on a canôt rapide to
Bukavu, so the morning has been set aside for practicalities: buying my ticket, ema iling
long- neglected editors, paying bills – all the workaday drudgery of life on the road. I
catch a moto outside the hotel to take me to the port. We turn down a few rough dirt
roads, crest a hill, and then – voilà – there is the lake, blue in the early morning light. The
weather is bracing, the air is crisp: I forget too often, I think, how spoiled my life is.
Stupid, too. I‟ve approached this day with exaggerated ease, relying on just a solitary
immigration official‟s assurances that the daily speedboat to Bukavu leaves at 2pm. The
Marinette Express, it turns out, is an early boat – 7:30am. And as I motor along the port,
skirting the muddy puddles, 7:30 seems to be the departure time of every last boat to
Bukavu. It is already half-past eight: I‟ve missed my ride. This strikes me as a
consequence of almost cosmic stupidity on my part. Suddenly, there it is: another day in
Goma lies before me. I buy a ticket for tomorrow‟s passage aboard the venerable Miss
Rafiki – first class, $25: half the price and twice the journey of the canôts rapides –
grumbling and wondering all the while why I didn‟t think to sort this out yesterday.
My self-reproach, though, is of a gentle species – it‟s hard to stay mad at yourself on such
a bright, crisp, sun-scrubbed morning. The port is alive with color and commotion: motos
scooting through the mud, officials hurrying about, porters hauling 25kg. bags of cement
and flour. Women in bright tropical dresses sit under umbrellas, chattering, selling
bananas, bread. An old World War I-era gunboat sits aloft on metal drums – testament,
perhaps, to colonial foolishness. Beside it fishermen crouch, talking, laughing, pulling
apart their nets.
With a long, pointless day before me, I‟ve decided to encamp at the nearest Internet café
and try to drum up some work. It‟s been nearly three weeks since I left Kigali, and the
accounting of the trip so far – almost $1,000 going out of my bank account, exactly
nothing going into it – is a particularly dark cloud looming over the horizon. Goma has
been extravagantly, catastrophically expensive, and the $150 visa for Bukavu was more
than I should‟ve reasonably spent. I‟ll be lucky to stretch out my money for another
week, and beyond that, there‟s no sign of how I‟ll survive the last couple of weeks in
Kigali before boarding my flight to Johannesburg.
It is on these days of grave financial reckoning that I‟m at my worst – a bitter, frustrated,
self-doubting miser for whom every small expense feels like Shylock‟s pound of flesh. I
re-budget my budget, fret over how to cut costs (is “lunch” really necessary?), give
disparaging looks to the club- footed men asking me for change on the street. As if I had
the money to spare! Moi! At times I consider it a small miracle that I‟ve made it this far –
that for most of the past five years, from my giddy days writing for the start-up,
TravelGator.com, to the gaudy cash cow of Forbes Traveler.com, to my newfound role as
“Africa correspondent” for Variety, I‟ve been living out of backpacks and duffel bags,
scuttling around the world, somehow making it work. I‟ve suffered from panic attacks,
and woken up in suffocating sweats, feeling the heavy weight of anxiety on my chest.
Four days now into my 33rd year, and I feel less stable than I did a decade ago. Often I
think of my happiness in the Platonic sense: as an unsatisfied longing, always awaiting
The Internet is down for most of the afternoon: it is a wasted day. At dusk, I find myself
again at the first roundabout in town. The place lifts my spirits. The swallows circling,
the Congolese with their slow homeward strolls. Boys in a mango tree, hanging upside-
down; girls tumbling in the grass. The joy these things bring me is almost inexplicable. I
feel deeply attached to this region: the long safaris into northern Kenya, the cries of the
fish market in Zanzibar, the rainy-season clouds blowing across the hills of Kigali. And
now, too, a part of me is being left behind in Congo. Often I try to convince myself that
southern Africa will be a different sort of sameness, another chapter in the same book. I
don‟t know what to expect. At times I‟m gripped by an undoubtedly overblown fear of
Johannesburg, where my plane will touch down in less than three weeks. I‟ve read of
criminal syndicates who orchestrate carjackings of taxis leaving OR Tambo International
Airport. I‟ve read grisly stories of armed break-ins, violent assaults of an almost
ingeniously sadistic character. I stand here in the Congo and think about the dangers of
A girl sits beside me; she is 13, her name is Alice. I‟ve seen her around Kivu Market,
pretty, big-eyed, smiling, calling out, “Bananes! Bananes!” in a nasally sing-song. All
week I‟ve teased her – “Hakuna ndizi”: “No bananas” – and now she has found me, she is
pushing her bananas and peanuts on me, asking if I have a wife. A saucy little thing, this
Alice. I ask if she has a family. “No mother, no father,” she says, drawing a finger across
her throat. She lives with an uncle, she works, she has no money for school. She asks me
for ten dollars; I buy some peanuts instead. She says she sells 10,000 francs‟ worth of
bananas and 4,000 francs‟ worth of peanuts every day. I think I‟m misunderstanding her
– it‟s almost $17, an astonishing amount – but there you have it, there‟s Alice. She
follows me for a minute, twirling, laughing, a terrible little flirt, and then she sings out,
“Bye-bye,” and skips back to her friends.
At sunset I‟m at the Ihusi. Joseph is sitting by the lake, looking ruminative. “You‟re
looking ruminative,” I say. He has been sitting with a Mützig, scribbling in a pocket-
sized Moleskine. “I‟m figuring out how to fix the aid industry,” he says, ironically, but
with earnestness, too. It has preoccupied him much in Goma: so much of what‟s wrong
with the industry, he says – the wastefulness, the bureaucracy – is going wrong here. I
give him an appraising look. The thin scrawl of mustache, the clever eyes, the blond
mussed hair, the casually aristocratic bearing: once he might have jauntily led a horse
brigade in the Crimean War, or debarked in Bulawayo with dozens and porters of native
guides for a pith- helmeted expedition into the African interior. (In a modern-day sense,
I‟m not entirely off the mark: later I‟ll learn that his father was once an ambassador to the
Congo.) He wants to fix the aid industry, he says, but also he wants to fix Congo, and his
life in Kinshasa, and the great tangled mess of life in general. He has a young, restless
spirit; I can see in him – as in myself, as in most of the expats I‟ve met in Goma – a
discomfort at the ease of life here. Kinshasa is messy, it is a challenge – his life there is
messy, a challenge. There is pride in how he tells stories of the sporadic electricity, the
apartment flooding, the crowded minibuses, the no- good police. He has chosen a more
difficult life – a more African life – as I have, too, in my own way. This is a life that has
its own rewards. But how easy, how tempting to have a villa by the lake, a coterie of
servants, a car and driver, a salary – long nights at Coco‟s, Le Chalet, Petit Bruxelles.
We‟re meeting a group for dinner at Doga. Joseph, from CRS – not American, after all;
he is from Hong Kong, or Canada, or both – and others: Oxfam, Save the Children, it is
easier to remember organizations than names. There‟s an American from Dakar, a former
journalist – Washington Post, Christian Science Monitor – who traded his freelance life
for a salaried job with CRS. He is a communications manager, he visits CRS sites across
the continent and writes articles about the life, the progress, the challenges. It sounds like
a plum job, a writer‟s kind of work. Plus, the salary. “Some day you‟ll cross over to the
dark side,” he says, laughing. For years he has traveled across the continent, across Asia
– he covered war in Afghanistan, all the African hotspots. A Swiss-German at the table
says he looks familiar. Sierra Leone in 2002? Angola in 2006? It is a game you hear often
played in Goma.
The table is crowded with pizzas and beers; two guys, former Peace Corps, are
comparing the eating in Goma to Chad, Cameroon. Everyone agrees there‟s no place like
Goma. You can get imported olive oil, top-shelf liquor, goat cheese. (In Walikale, says
someone, he tested out goat cheese on the locals – they were repulsed.) And of course,
too, there is the lake, the climate. Someone says Goma was described as “Hell in
Paradise.” Or was it “Paradise in Hell”? It was impossible to imagine the wars of the
interior on a mild, sunlit day in Goma – the clouds gently brushing against endless green
The party breaks up. It is me and Joseph now, watching Man. United and Bayern Munich
on the big screen. It is impossible to remember what it‟s like to walk into a bar, pick up a
normal girl. The prostitutes in Doga have elaborate hair, complicated outfits involving
lycra and netting. The older men, flush with NGO salaries, get most of their attentions.
The game is a thriller. Bayern scores late, goes through on away goals. A pretty girl, tall,
slender, totters by on stilettos and wraps her arms around a burly white guy. Outside,
motos are waiting. Joseph is off to Kinshasa in the morning, me to Bukavu. We promise
to stay in touch. On the way home my moto runs out of gas; the driver stops, gets off, tilts
his bike 45 degrees until we hear the gasoline sloshing around in the tank. We stop to top
off on the Sake road – a boy in a Man. United wool cap and soiled overalls jogs over,
selling petrol from jerry cans. Soldiers pass in pickup trucks, huddled against the cold.
Youths, well-dressed, chatting into their cell phones, walking in the dark.
At Cirezi the music from Sun City is again rattling the walls. I have slept here for six
nights, and there has been a party for six nights. I sleep poorly – both because of the
music, and because of the pre-trip jitters: I know I have to be up early in the morning. I
wake up at 2, at 2:15, at 2:45; again at 5; and finally, pulling myself out of bed, at a few
minutes to six. Outside, music, drunken voices, laughter. The day‟s first light starts to fill
April 8 – Goma to Bukavu
Here there are many thieves.
In which we do the town in 30 minutes.
It is the boating hour, it seems. On my way to the port, motos stream down the road,
carrying women with great vinyl market bags, and men holding suitcases on their laps.
Those without money to spare walk along the roadside, luggage on their heads and
shoulders, children in tow. The sun has still not crested the hilltops. Down below, the port
is in chaos. Passengers, porters, soldiers exercising a dubious sort of crowd control. Little
swift speed boats and creaky passenger ferries bob on the water. Men writing out tickets,
holding wads of cash and slips of paper, as if they‟re on their way to the races.
My arrival does not go unnoticed: quickly I am surrounded by officials, helpful and
genial, delivering me every which way. I am escorted into a room in what looks like a
warehouse, with just two weathered wooden desks, an empty filing cabinet, and a dozen
bags of cement piled on the floor. A man opens a dusty led ger and writes my name, my
passport number, my ticket details. There is a dollar tax – voilà, I am stamped and back
outside, turning hopefully toward the boat. Alas, this would have been too easy. There is
a line, a crowd of Congolese, and another official waiting with another stamp. She takes
my ticket, tears a tiny notch in the side, stamps a small piece of paper, staples this paper
to my ticket. Another $1 tax is paid. I turn to go and a man, an official, an amiable older
fellow who speaks some English, stops me. “Take care your sacks,” he says. “Here there
are many thieves.” Yeah, no kidding. I lug my things along, wary of flinty-eyed
pickpockets, but there is no need for such subtlety here. A portly man, another customs
official, in a soiled white shirt and a crooked beret, stands before me, grinning like the cat
who made the canary pay a dubious customs duty. There is, he says, another tax – he
pulls a stamp and inkpad from his pocket, smiling drunkenly. “You must be the guy who
shakes down white people for more money, huh?” I ask. “Oui,” he says, laughing
merrily. Five hundred francs exchange hands. I have now been triply stamped and
approved. I‟m wary of more taxes, but no, my duty to the Congolese tax authorities has
been done, I am free to go. The port road is crowded – women selling peanuts, ndazi,
cassava, sausages; men holding wheels of cheese. Crowds pushing forward, hysterical
cries of farewell. Sacks, boxes, battered suitcases, jerry cans. I buy two loaves of ndazi;
my change is paid out in peanuts. Now I am ready to board the Miss Rafiki.
The lower deck, second class, is already crowded, business being done from the windows
with the hustlers on the dock. I ascend to the higher precincts – there is a first-class
lounge with thin-pile carpeting and banquettes and TVs, but I go further still, all the way
to the top. I want to spend this morning with the sun and the wind on my face. This is a
certain character type, I suspect – something to do with freedom. There are two seating
areas, plastic lawn chairs arranged over strips of Astroturf. Across the bay the M/V
Salama, its deck a riot of colors, chugs into port. Closer to us the M/V Kivu King – a
canôt rapide, a $50 passage – idles with the muscular self-assurance of expensive
machinery. A group of white passengers waits patiently to board. Below me the dock
teems with crowds, porters, soldiers, farewells. An angry shouting match ensues: two
passengers, well-dressed men, appear to have missed a stamp. Near them laughing,
idling. Husky, self-possessed women accustomed to long voyages – they carry hampers
full of food, they hold their children close to them. Bread-sellers holding up loaves from
a distance, hoping to catch someone‟s eye at the final moment. A boy selling sausages
from a plastic basket is being bullied by some soldiers for a minor, probably made-up
infraction. The boy cowers, his lower lip trembles. One of the soldiers takes off his belt,
holding it in the air with violent intent.
Now others are filling the deck: two soldiers, customs officials in white shirts and
epaulets, two girls – students, maybe, from the university, spending the weekend with
family in Bukavu. A man in a red baseball cap joins me, he is smiling, he has a broad
nose and Oriental eyes. He is wearing a black jacket with many zippers and, beneath that,
a t-shirt with President Obama‟s smiling visage on it. His name is Alexis, he says; he
lives in Bukavu and has five children: Celine, Melvin, Alexis Charlotte, Alex, and
another I forget. He says he is a truck driver; he has just made the two-day journey from
Kisangani to Goma. It is nothing, he says, a thousand kilometers, but the road is good.
From Goma to Bukavu, on the other hand, is a three-day drive: three days to travel 200
kilometers along the lake‟s shore. We shake our heads, laughing, marveling. Now he is
going home to see his children – sometimes, he will not see them for two months at a
time. Then he will go to Uvira, across the border from Bujumbura, to pick up an SUV he
will deliver to Kisangani. He will drive to Bukavu, take the truck on the ferry, and then
drive again all the way from Goma to the far north.
The horn blows – not a loud, dignified blast, but a dying noise, like something you‟d hear
from under the hood of an „87 Buick Regal. It sounds again, and we‟re off. The port
recedes, the evergreen hills of Goma, with Nyiragongo looming and puffing in the
background. The morning is cool, the sun is out, spirits are high at the start of our
voyage. Over the side I see the crowds leaning out in second class – men‟s cuffs,
women‟s wrists ringed by gold bracelets, a pair of hands clutching a rosary. Yesterday I
read a story, a ferry – the Amani – ran aground off Idjwi island. MONUC was called in,
but no one was hurt. The Marinette Express arrived and shuttled eve ryone to safety.
I am starting, now, with our smooth passage, with the sun on my hands and face, to feel
the effects of last night. I was lucky to grab three hours‟ sleep, and now, tired and sun-
warmed, the next five ours given over to the journey, I close my eyes and go numb. It has
been just three weeks, even less, since I left Kigali, but it‟s felt like a lifetime. The
plodding progression south from Gisenyi, the fiasco at the Bukavu border. Now, a week
later, having run an end-around through Goma – a busy week, a very good week – I am
preparing myself again for Bukavu. Excited, but exhausted, too. I‟m running out of
money, I miss the familiar faces in Kigali. I have piles of writing to do. And then –
incredible to think – in just two weeks I‟ll be in Johannesburg.
Passing the Congo, passing the hills of Rwanda. Islands, small green domes, the hills
planted with bananas, cabbage, manioc. It is an Edenic scene – but no one would ever
think such thoughts about this place. It is hard to imagine how I‟ll write about this
country later, what little of it I‟ve seen. Goma, to me, is not an adventure; yet surely there
are travelers, the armchair adventure-seekers, who will cross the Gisenyi border for a day,
just to get a Congolese stamp in their passports. (“It‟s almost like a little visit to hell,”
said the man at the Serena in Gisenyi.) This sort of travel is almost pathologically
dishonest. But what, then, have I accomplished? How to write about the place, how to
describe these lives, these desires? Je cherche la travaille. J’ai besoin d’argent. Je veux
apprendre d’anglaise. Je veux une femme. Je veux vivre. The life of modern Africa, of
the city, of its shanties and sprawl, of its Dickensian dreams and dramas.
At the bow of the boat the men are crowded, shouting, laughing, arguing, pointing at this
or that thing on some distant hill. A man in a windbreaker with the word “Hooch” across
the back. Another guzzling Primus. The women sit gathered on the deck behind them,
piled among the luggage and potato sacks, using suitcases and duffel bags for pillows.
Infants hidden under blankets. A Congolese flag snaps briskly on its pole. Soon the
clouds are low, the wind picks up, a light rain begins to fall. Tarps are unfurled, bearing
the UNICEF logo. Somewhere the sound of a child crying, the rustling of bodies under
jackets. When the rain lets up the tarps are folded away. Everyone stands stiffly, facing
The life of the lake. Hours pass. Small fishing boats row beside us, young boys perched
at the helm. Yesterday a boat was swamped in Rwandan waters, six were killed. It was
carrying genocide survivors to a commemoration ceremony in Kibuye. Boats drifting,
gliding. Across the lake there are storm clouds, they are moving away from us, you can
see dark curtains of rainfall draped across the hills. We pass a small island, about the size
of a baseball diamond, crowned by a solitary house. It is owned by a Canadian man of
Congolese origin, I am told. There are a few men, gardeners, tending to the lawns. On the
grass there is a small gazebo, the roof thatched with banana leaves. Maybe the owner is in
the kitchen, or the bedroom. Maybe he‟s in Montreal.
Now the city in the distance, the houses rising up the hills. It takes forty minutes for us to
finally pull into port. Dozens of fishing boats are in the bay, sitting in neat military rows
– no one can explain why they do this. Metalworkers are building a new ship, there is a
great noise of banging and welding and blasting. The dock is crowded. Suddenly, I‟m
struck by nerves. Somewhere in that loud throng is undoubtedly another official with
another tax, or a problem with my visa. I have just counted my money on the boat: three
hundred bucks, just enough for a week, I imagine. My bribe allowance is minimal. I step
off the boat and, sure enough, am pulled to the side. Not some portly immigration official
this time, not a policeman with menacing, opaque sunglasses, but a woman – short, brisk,
in a flowery dress that hugs her body. She has a lanyard around her neck and a list –
passenger‟s names, obscure notations – that gives her an air of officialdom. She wants to
see my passport – there is another form to fill out, she says, surely another fee – and then
we stand there, getting jostled and bumped, waiting for any other “étranger” to
There are none – it is just me, she is visibly deflated. Today there will be just a small
payout. She cleaves a path through the crowd – really, this bustling little woman is all
business – and I follow her quickly swaying hips with appreciation. A building, a long
low shed, ahead of us. She unlocks a padlock, opens the door; there is a small room with
a desk in the corner, a single lightbulb hanging from the ceiling. For the second time
today, I am standing in the sort of room where political dissidents undoubtedly have the
soles of their feet flayed. I fill out the form, another tax – 1,000 francs – is paid. All
things considered, there have been none of the shakedowns I‟d feared: my grand total for
the day amounts to about four bucks. Outside, a taxi driver is waiting. I ask for a moto,
but this sets off cries of alarm. The woman, strangers in the crowd, tell me it is not safe to
take a moto with my big bag – the word “securité” is in much circulation. Probably this
driver is somebody‟s cousin. I succumb, I am seven bucks the lighter. We crunch over the
gravel, back from the lot. My camera, my passport, my phone – all the essentials are
exactly where I‟d left them. Around the port, a sprawling marketplace takes shape:
brightly painted dukas, women squatting by the road, selling vegetables and shoes.
Chaos, Congolese chaos. Now we are racing toward the city.
Suddenly, it is all too much for me – the sleepless night, the tumult of the port; not to
mention I haven‟t eaten all day, I‟m in caffeine withdrawal. The challenge of this new
city overwhelms me. I convince myself I‟m wasting my time here, that I could be on
tomorrow‟s boat back to Goma instead. Outside my window the city looks rundown: the
weather-stained buildings, the crumble of roads, the sky low and gray. The feeling I have
is ominous – the day bears a mark of failure.
Until suddenly, literally, the clouds part. The city is flooded with sunlight. We are on a
wide avenue now, and the streets are full of life, color. Art Decos line the road, the hard
lines and soft palettes of some colonial architect. The mayor‟s office is the color of a
cloudless sky. Palm trees, women sitting under beach umbrellas. We turn a corner and
voilà, there is the lake, blue-gray, endless, the peninsulas of Bukavu poking into it. The
fears are gone; I have suddenly warmed to the place. We pass a market, and cell phone
shops, and salons with their murals of well-coiffured men who look like Sinbad. It is a
long drive – I feel less ripped-off by driver, who strikes me, now, as an alright guy. We
arrive at the Guest House Tourist. “Voici,” he says. There is a small sidewalk restaurant,
a UN compound across the road. It looks like a fine base for the next couple of days.
Certainly I‟ll be able to stretch my dollar here. For $25 my room comes with a good bed,
an armoire, a bathroom with running water. It is positively cozy. Downstairs I dig into the
plat du jour – a plate of rice, peas and beef for 2,300 francs, or less than $3. I am hungry
enough to have another, but the cold shock of my accounting on the boat – the fact that
even on a tight budget, I can barely make it through another week – has me on my best
behavior. I‟ve been scared stringent. Across the street I check my email – there is a small
library, the books donated by some American church group, and an Internet café full of
second- hand laptops – and then I am on the street, facing Bukavu.
It is late in the day, just after four; the sky is low, the weather is good for walking. This
is, I‟ll soon learn, the only avenue worthy of the name in Bukavu: it stretches from the
Rwandan border to the governor‟s mansion at the end of the shoe-shaped peninsula they
call “la bote.” Aid- group SUVs barrel past, just a handful, and UN lorries full of
MONUC soldiers. Taxis creep by, honking their horns. There are no minibuses in
Bukavu, I‟ll later learn; passengers share taxis-voitures that drive back and forth along
the Avenue Patrice Lumumba. Motos, less brazen than in Goma. The drivers and
passengers are required by law to wear helmets. The road is busy, but it is nothing like
the Sake road – none of the endless bottlenecks, none of the smoke and grit hanging in
Outside an old Art Deco I find a few children gathered on the sidewalk. They are playing
a game with bottlecaps, they‟ve arranged them in the formations of two football teams
playing a 4-4-2. A torn bit of playing card, a king of hearts, is the ball. One of the boys
sends a bottlecap flying toward a milk carton in the shape of a goal.
Already I like the feel of this city – there is, as the French say, a je ne sais quoi to this
handsome avenue, to the relaxed traffic on the street, the workers casually strolling home
in the clear late-day sunlight. Along the road, constant commerce: women selling plastic
floral arrangements, ropes of garland, hard little tomatoes, high heels, children‟s shoes,
men‟s shoes, hard-boiled eggs, oranges that look like limes, hand mirrors, burnished
picture frames, duffel bags and suitcases, pursues, more plastic floral arra ngements, wall
clocks, LCD lamps you power like wind- up toys. A man is selling second- hand books on
the steps of a shop – school texts, English- language primers, romance novels by someone
called Gérard de Villiers. Two MONUC trucks have emptied onto the street, causing
bedlam. The Uruguayans are surrounded by men with blue jeans, socks, belts. Boys come
up to me and call me “amigo.” Everyone has something to sell.
It is late and the market sounds like the floor of the stock exchange, people coming and
going, men carrying pairs of shoes and looking hopefully at passersby. The women have
spread out their blankets on the sidewalk, they‟re selling vegetables, but also they‟re
laughing, gossiping, braiding each other‟s hair. Their voices are loud, hysterical, their
eyes shrewd. Young boys pass carrying buckets of soda on their heads. They rattle their
bottle-openers against the glass, some are musical, they sound like xylophones. It‟s an
effective marketing tool – you can hear the sound over the din of the traffic. I buy a Fanta
citron, sit on the steps, watch the street. Then I hop on a moto and head back to the hotel.
What I have in mind is a quiet night with my notebook, a few extra hours in bed to make
up for what I missed last night. Only the phone is ringing, it‟s my friend Landry, a Ph.D.
student I‟d met in Cyangugu last week. He is surprised to hear I‟m already in Bukavu.
There is no time to protest: he wants to swing by the hotel in 30 minutes to greet me.
Reluctantly, I agree. I have a feeling this night will pass in a blur of brochettes and
Primus. With time to kill I again pop into the Internet café across the street, anxious for
word on some proposals I‟d sent to editors earlier in the week. The connection is bad –
Lena, a plump, friendly girl, the cashier, asks where I‟m staying, offering to fetch me
when the connection improves. You do not often see such customer service in Congo,
though I am aware, too, of other motives. We sit outside; she asks me about America –
“Chez Obama,” she calls it. They teach her some English at school, but it is not enough,
she says, she would like to learn more. Next year she will go to university – to study
economics, maybe, or medicine. She wants to finish her degree, work for a few years –
marriage is still a long way off. Do I have a wife, she asks. I tell her I don‟t. I want to
work for a few years, too, I say. She says in Congo, if you‟re not married by the time you
turn 25, people will think there‟s something wrong with you. I tell her in New York, it‟s
common for people to marry at 35, 40. She exclaims softly and shakes her head. It is an
Landry arrives at the hotel looking sharp, Congolese, in a bright orange shirt made from
something frilly and European. He wants to show me the city, shrugging o ff my protests.
“Bukavu is not a big town,” he says. “It‟s just one road. We can do it in 30 minutes.” We
drive once along the Avenue Lumumba, as far as the governor‟s mansion, then drive
back. The road is crowded with pedestrians, shopping, haggling, stro lling in the cool
evening air. It is my favorite time of day – the music pumps from the shops, the bars are
beginning to fill. Landry turns down a side street, points out expensive hotels as
landmarks. We reach a busy commercial strip that has only been built in the past year –
new shops are rising, there is scaffolding, bricks everywhere. Landry points out his wife‟s
shop – she trades in clothes, shoes, she‟s in Istanbul on business. Things here have been
looking up for the past year, he says. “If we have the security here in Congo, I think
Bukavu will be a very big town,” he says.
We park near the hotel – there is a bar nearby he wants to show me. It is a short stroll. I
am asking Landry about other countries he‟s visited, places he would like to go. Sout h
Africa? He has never been, he‟s heard a lot about the crime, the violence. “It is not like
here,” he says, disapprovingly. At least here you can walk in the street, you can take a
beer outside. Not often do you expect to hear extolled the virtues of the security situation
in eastern Congo.
The bar is behind a red gate, there are three or four huts for private parties and a bunch of
tables scattered across the courtyard. The place is full – Landry has a few words with the
waiter and voilà, another table materializes. He has greetings, words for everyone.
“Bukavu is very small,” he says. “It is easy to have relationships with everyone.” We
order beers – the oversized bottles so popular in the Great Lakes region. The place is
loud, lively. “Here, it is not possible to have a day pass without taking a beer,” says
Landry. It seems to me part of the joyfulness, the free-spiritedness, for which the
Congolese are known – but no, says Landry, it is the Rwandans who are to blame. When
they fled after the genocide in 1994 and came pouring into the Congo, he says, they
brought their hard-drinking culture with them. Landry knows Rwanda well – he teaches
at a college in Kigali, he does his research in Nyungwe. His Ph.D., he says, is on
something called “nitrogen siding” – it involves taking soil and leaf samples, the
explanation flies over my head. Every two weeks he has to travel to Nyungwe to collect
his samples. It is a long day – the forest is cold, it is always raining. The Ph.D. racket, it
seems, leaves something to be desired. It is not an easy life for Landry. He spends three,
six months out of the year in Belgium, studying at the University of Ghent. The progress
toward his Ph.D. is slow: the life in Ghent is expensive, and he‟s not allowed to work in
Belgium. He has to return to Bukavu, pursue his businesses, put some money aside for
his family. Last year he began to build a house on a plot of land he bought for $35,000. In
Belgium, he said, you had to scrape by to survive – here you could start some projects to
invest in the future. These were his people here, too. “In Bukavu, people are very quiet.
They have time to hear you, to see what you have to say,” he says. “It is not like Europe,
You get the sense in the Kivus, when you are talking about Kinshasa, that you are talking
about another country. Under Mobutu, these regions were antagonists. After the war to
overthrow him, and during the successive Kabila regimes, it has been the weakness of the
Kinshasa government – and, by extension, its poorly paid, poorly trained army – that has
allowed the security situation here to spin out of control. Landry has lived most of his life
in Congo; he remembers when things were bad, and then really bad, just a few years ago.
“Maybe some days, you could not leave the house,” he says, “because some people” –
rebels, government soldiers – “have come from a village to get food, to take beer.” The
current peace, the stability, has only been in place for a year, but the people are hopeful.
Buildings are popping up everywhere – real estate prices are skyrocketing. Landry hopes
that the current government will recognize the importance of stability in the region. “If
there is a problem in the interior,” he says, “it is not a Bukavu problem, it is not a Kivu
problem – it is a Congolese problem.” And yet Landry himself knows Kinshasa, he
knows the cynicism there – the believe that the government‟s duties run out as soon as
you reach the city limits.
We are on our second beers, but I‟ve given up: Landry might blame their drinking on
Rwanda, but I still can‟t keep up with these Congolese. My stomach is full, weighed
down by nearly 140cL of Primus; my head is light. Landry gets behind the wheel and
steers us carefully down Patrice Lumumba. At the hotel we part warmly. I don‟t even
slow in the restaurant, I‟ve drunk away my appetite and can barely keep my eyes open as
I stumble up the stairs. The bed is stiff; I‟ve been thinking about it all day. It‟s ten hours
before I open my eyes to the first traces of daylight.
April 9 – Bukavu
The fine art of looking fabulous.
In which there is awkward silence.
After nearly a week at the Hotel Cirezi in Goma, I‟d forgotten the simple luxury of
having a bathroom en suite. I take my time with the morning ablutions, pad around
naked, pop in once, twice to check myself in the mirror. The running water, too, seems a
bit gratuitous. I fill the bucket in the tub twice – once to shower, once for the toilet – and
then again: it never hurts to have a bucket of water on standby in Africa. Each time I turn
the faucet, the sound of Congolese tap water clanking through the pipes is like a
Breakfast at the Guest House Tourist, too, feels opulent. Three slices of fresh white bread
– not for this venerable hotel the dry, chalky hot dog buns of a lesser establishment. The
omelette, too, is almost worthy of the name: three eggs, hot, scrambled and liberally
soaked in butter. So pleased am I by this feast that‟s been included in the price of my
room that I can almost forgive the lackluster instant co ffee: Star brand, product of
Uganda, the same bitter brew that was served up in Goma. It‟s a credit to my forward-
thinkingness as a traveler par excellence that I thought to pocket a few packets of
Nescafe on my last visit to the Ihuzi. This is, admittedly, a far cry from Kenyan AA, but
it‟s enough to get my motor revving at the start of a long day in Bukavu.
Outside it is a glorious morning: the sun high, the wind carrying a hint of early spring in
New York. Today I have my camera with me, refusing to give in to my self-
consciousness as a White Guy With a Camera in Africa – one of my most crippling
traveler‟s neuroses. In three years I have failed to get over the debilitating inability to
take pictures on the street. And today, too, my courage doesn‟t last. Seeing the wary
stares of some husky mama, the flinty-eyed squint of some idle youth, I lose my nerve. I
have a criminal air about me each time my camera comes out. In front of a gas station –
the word Mobil faded, almost scrubbed from the building; the pumps rusting with disuse;
a gang of youths on the sidewalk, selling gasoline in water bottles and jerry cans – I toy
with my camera, sigh, leave it in my pocket. I know this feeling well. Today will be full
of photographic disappointment.
Walking along the road, the sun bright on the colorful storefronts, I‟m joined by a man in
a blue dashiki, a flash drive hanging around his neck. His name is Henry, he is a pastor.
“You have to be careful with photographs here,” he warns me. (Vindication!) “They will
see you and think you are a spy.” More likely they will invent some mythical
photographer‟s fee, I say, charge another tax. Henry laughs. His English is flawless – he
spent six years studying theology in Nairobi. He tells me the name of his church, but I
miss it. Even after all these years in Africa, I‟m dumbfounded by the preponderance of
Christian denominations and sects. I grew up Greek Orthodox in a Roman Catholic
neighborhood; in college, I met Protestants, slightly expanding my religious worldview.
Henry tells me his church is based in Indiana, in Terre Haute. He is here coordinating the
work of church-run health centers in Bukavu, in South Kivu, far to the north in Oriental
province. This name rings a bell – the security situation there, I say, is not too good.
Henry laughs. “Even last year I was there, I almost lost my life,” he says. They were
driving at night, they had come to a bridge, a gunman wouldn‟t let them pass. The driver
stepped on the gas and drove right through him. “That driver was very bra ve,” says
In the health centers it is hard work; it is the church institutions in Congo that so often fill
the needs left by a government in absentia. But there is very little funding: the church in
Terre Haute cut its ties with the clinics a few years ago. “They used to support us,” says
Henry, “but they have stopped, because of mismanagement.” The previous director was
corrupt – now Henry has stepped in to replace him. The church wants to restore its
financial assistance, but they are cautious. “They have to be good stewards of God‟s
money,” he says.
Around us the clamor of street life, commerce, hustling. The city rises and falls over the
hills, there are explosions of green, everything tumbles down to the lake. I comment on
Bukavu‟s beauty and Henry, who has lived here most of his life, sighs. “Because of the
demographic situation,” he says, “it has lost some of its beauty.” People have come from
the countryside – some fleeing violence, others looking for a better life – and there are
the high birth rates, too, of the Congolese. Much of the city looks like a building site.
“They are just building everywhere,” says Henry. “There are no regulations here.”
We part – Henry has to mail some documents, he will spend the morning moving from
shop to shop, printing, photocopying, mailing – and on I go, along Avenue Lumumba. A
man stops me, his name is Iragi Kadusi – he writes it in my notebook – and he is looking
for work. He has spent a year in Nairobi, he had to leave when his visa expired, and now
he is stuck here in Bukavu. There are no jobs, no opportunities, he says. The Congo has a
“dirigent mauvais” – a bad leader. An old woman comes up to us, she has one arm, a
beggar. Iragi shoos her away – there is no telling how much charity the white man has,
you wouldn‟t want him spreading it around to every last beggar on the street. I give Iragi
a hard look. It is hard, now, to feel too charitable toward him. He wonders if I might have
a job for him in America. Or maybe just something for transport, for “transfert ”?
Down the hill, toward the great dirt roundabout described, optimistically, in my
guidebook as the “site of future monument.” This was written in 2006. There is no sign of
construction, of any forethought toward whatever future totem – Kabila with a dove on
his shoulder? – might someday rise here. The future, in Congo, is such an indefinable
quantity. Better to play it safe – to leave this dirt- filled lot, crisscrossed by schoolboys
and soldiers and weary old women, and wait to see how things pan out ten years down
To the right, the port road. Across from me, a set of concrete stairs climbing the hill. I
have seen these secret stairways around Bukavu, full of mystery and promise. I start to
climb, it is a weary slog, the sun is strong, the stairs seem to go on forever. Women
huffing along, dresses hugging their thick curves, shoes impractical for such feats of
mountaineering. Near the top an old man, a dignified gent in a hat and blazer, wearing the
pouty, stricken look of old age. These stairs, under this sun, must be brutal for him. And
for me, too. I stop to catch my breath, take in the view. A young man and woman,
students, stop beside me. We begin to talk, they are eager, full of curiosity. The university
where they are studying is just nearby, they say. Would I like to see it?
It is a pleasant walk. The hilltop is wooded, shaded, a small act of mercy. Here now, says
Gilbert, is the Institute Supérieure pour la Développement Rurale – a specialized institute,
it attracts students from Goma, from Kinshasa. There are workers everywhere, they are
renovating, building a new wing. The classrooms have wooden benches and chalkboards
and dusty windows. Students loafing around, a Friday-afternoon lethargy about them.
Outside, four copy machines set up on wooden tables in the dirt. A girl, bored, is sitting
under an umbrella. Extension cords wind around her bare feet. Gilbert takes me through
the halls, shows me the dormitories – crowded little rooms, just enough space for a bed
and a desk. A boy sits outside, cleaning his shoes. Curtains in the doorways. Cleaning
women in the yard, hanging laundry on the lines. I look into a window – a boy sitting on
the edge of his bed, two giant Manchester United posters covering the wall. The place has
an air of weary negligence, of university bureaucrats sitting at their ledgers, trying to
reconcile impossible sums.
Gilbert wants to take me now back to town – there is a road that winds past his school
and the Catholic University of Bukavu and down a beautiful, wooded hill. He wants to
show me his home – it is just here, “juste ici,” he says, hoping I won‟t refuse. I am, in
truth, getting tired of his company, struggling to follow his French. I would like to hop on
a moto back to town, have lunch, but the house is just here, he said, waving ambiguously
down the hill.
We are back at the roundabout now, the “site of future monument,” and Gilbert has
phoned his taxi driver, suggesting the house is not juste ici, after all. The sun is strong
now, we are trudging uphill; I‟m trying to think of the politest way possible to rid myself
of Gilbert. Now a car toots its horn – Gilbert‟s taxi, brazenly pulling onto the sidewalk.
Gilbert negotiates something with the driver, takes a seat in the front. The windows won‟t
budge in the backseat, and grumpy indeed is the travel writer staring sullenly out the
window. Curse this Congolese boy and his hospitality – curse his home! Realizing, of
course, what a bastard I can be.
Bukavu is scrolling by – there is the market, there is the Hotel Tourist. “Juste ici,” it
seems, is shorthand for “Kinshasa.” Finally we arrive at the gate of an opulent villa –
three stories, whitewashed, crowning a hilltop overlooking the lake. My first thought is:
Gilbert can pay for the goddamn cab himself. The gardener opens the gate, there is
another gardener, a cook, a cleaning woman. An SUV in the driveway; in the backyard, a
satellite dish about the size of a hockey rink. We go into the sitting room and voilà, all the
furnishings of middle-class Congolese life: stiff armchairs, chintz curtains, a coffee table
with a plastic floral centerpiece. Sconces like you wouldn‟t believe. There is a small
Sharp TV and a Sharp VHS and a DVD player and a Sony Playstation. The wiring is
exposed, it runs up the wall like ivy. An older man sits on the sofa – not his father, says
Gilbert, but the family pastor. He is a pleasant, avuncular man in shiny pants and an
Adidas soccer jersey. Gilbert offers me a Fanta and disappears from the room. The pastor
is across from me and sits there in amiable silence. “C’est une bonne maison,” I observe.
“Bonne maison,” he says. “Kabiza.” I soon realize the Swahili-speaking pastor‟s French
is worse than my own. He sits back in his seat – on the wall above him, a wooden plaque
reads: “Christ is the head of this house.” We sit there together, quiet, smiling, making
embarrassed eye contact. After ten minutes Gilbert returns with a small basket, inside of
which, wrapped in a handkerchief, are two bottles of Fanta. He pours me a citron and
shares an orange with the pastor. Then the three of us are sitting together with nothing to
I have been in this same room before, it seems – the stiff upright furniture, the doilies, the
brass fixtures on the walls. And I have endured these same silences, have battled through
language barriers and sat quietly sipping Fantas. It is sweet and frustrating and enduringly
strange. I am grateful for this hospitality – it is touching, in its own way. But how long
can we go on sitting like this? An hour? Two? Isn‟t Gilbert bored of my company yet?
We‟ve had almost nothing to say for an hour, and yet I know that unless I invent some
excuse – “Pole sana. J’ai un rendezvous maintenant.” – we‟ll be in this sitting room till
From the kitchen, now, a commotion, voices. Heads pop into the room – two brothers, a
family friend. They arrange themselves around the coffee table, they want to know what I
do, why I‟m here. Good questions, all. We struggle through the usual explanations – I am
a writer, a journalist – and then our momentum slows. My French is full of useful phrases
– “What time does this bus leave?”, “Is it safe there?”, “Where is your boyfriend right
now?” – but I have no knack for small talk. I tell them I am going to South Africa for the
World Cup, and their interest is revived. Who do they support? France, says Gilbert;
Spain, says one brother; Italy, another. Giorgio, or Jojo – the youngest, a loudmouth, a
little wiseass, I know I would come to despise him – asks if I would like to play football.
Not the real thing, of course – we are in rarefied precincts here, we get our entertainment
from TV screens. But alas, sighs Gilbert, there is no power. In this palace, all the
comforts of the Western world – but outside, it is still Congo.
We walk through the garden and up toward the front gate, and Jojo, or Giorgio, is
snapping at the gardener – a meek, passive youth, he is terrified of this little lord of the
manor. Christ, spare me these spoiled rich kids! Outside Gilbert offers to walk me back to
the hotel. He stops to greet shopkeepers, classmates, two nuns. Finally we are at the hotel,
shaking hands, parting. He says if I ever want to “reposer,” mi casa es su casa, more or
less. I thank him – I am, in my own bitchy way, grateful for his company this afternoon.
Again, lunch at the Guest House Tourist. The wood-paneled dining room, the TV blaring
music videos, the fat Congolese drinking bottles of Primus. I have not seen any
restaurants along the main road, and the other hotels – catering to business travelers,
upmarket tourists tracking lowland gorillas in Kahuzi-Biéga National Park – are no doubt
the sort that quote their prices in dollars. For my 2,300 francs – about two and a half
bucks – I am happy to spend my days elbow-deep in riz and petit pois and roti de boeuf.
After lunch, a food coma sets in. And a general exhaustion, too. It has been three weeks
now – I am reminding myself of this each day – and with both time and finances
dwindling, end-of-trip fatigue is coming over me. How easy would it be, I think: a
speedboat to Goma, a Virunga Express from Gisenyi – I could leave Bukavu in the
morning and be in Kigali by the afternoon. A familiar bed and familiar faces. Plus I could
finally put the finishing touches on these rambling notes.
Just up the road from the hotel I‟d spotted a small snack bar, Rendez-Vous, during my
morning walk. It turns out to be just what I‟d been hoping for this afternoon – a Western-
style coffee shop. The owner, or manager – a young white woman with, I think, a Spanish
accent – is pacing the room in a denim skirt and high heels. Two young Congolese girls,
slender, pretty, sit sipping Fantas; in the back room an aid worker, an attractive brunette,
is sitting on a sofa. There are paintings and batiks on the wall, photos o f past clients
making merry, a glass counter crowded with croissants, cookies, cakes. It is a cheerful,
homely place – like leaving the Congo for the afternoon.
Outside clouds gather, rain begins to fall – a passing shower. Horns are suddenly honking
up and down the road: a wedding processional passes, a Hummer and a Mercedes and a
string of SUVs. Youths, street vendors, come into the café, selling belts, kitchens knives,
outlet adapters. Then a man, elegantly dressed – a flamboyant jacket, the lapels threaded
with silver. Surely this is a sapeur, Congo‟s famous fashionistas. Where else in the world
can you walk through a crowded slum and find men in Ferragamo shoes, Dior shirts,
Valentino pants? It is their philosophy, their movement, a way of life: men who have
rejected violence, rejected war, who have embraced the sole dictum of looking fabulous.
This man‟s shoes are like mirrors – he disappears into the backroom, heels clicking. I
finish my cappuccino. This place has been a happy find. The menu says, “Ca ll ahead or
send an SMS for your order.”
The caffeine has been only a slight pick- me-up. It is after five, I feel listless – I can‟t
imagine more Primuses with Landry tonight. I kill time online, catching up on the news –
I‟ve been so detached, disconnected these past few weeks. The baseball season has
started, Tiger Woods is 4- under at the Masters – once these things would have mattered
to me. An email from the New York Times – my Bujumbura story, finally set to run on
May 2. I have a quick look at the edit – the lede, the only part of the story I was proud of,
has been eviscerated. I don‟t have the strength to read the rest.
The sky is still overcast, the sun won‟t be out again until tomorrow. I change into pants,
throw on a jacket – this whole musty wardrobe, I can‟t wait to cast it off in South Africa.
I am no sapeur; I do not feel fabulous. Bundled thusly against the evening chill, I decide
to walk with no destination in mind.
The boredom of travel – the part they forget to mention in the guidebooks. Surely I could
start a conversation with a stranger, walk into a bar by myself, find some way to pass the
hours. But I‟m in one of those in-between moods, restless, indecisive. I don‟t want to
struggle through another low- level conversation in French, I don‟t want to be alone. I
walk along Patrice Lumumba, another jobless youth to keep me company, monsieur,
asking for a job, for money. It is dark now, the streetlights are on. The city is still busy,
the market, the shops. I stand outside a bar, partly in the shadows, watching, listening to
the music of daily life. How accustomed I am to strange voices, foreign tongues. Passing
headlights, the beeping of horns. To save gas, the moto drivers shut their engines at the
top of the hill. They coast by in the darkness, the headlights black, they float by like
Suddenly, up and down the avenue, the power goes out. The shops are dark, the
streetlights – I can feel the skin go prickly on the back of my neck. Part of me feels safer,
inconspicuous, in the dark – Shakespeare‟s Henry V, circling among the troops incognito.
But the moment passes; I‟m scared shitless. I hail a moto, go bumping back up the hill
toward the safety of the Guest House Tourist. Now the sounds of generators thrumming
to life; some of the shopkeepers light candles, paraffin lamps. In the hotel dining room,
men in suits crowded around a table full of empty bottles. They have come from some
wedding, some celebration – all day the cars and trucks crept along the avenue, full of
smartly dressed party-goers. There is wrapping paper on the floor, someone has gotten a
gift – for what? I greet them, they are neither welcoming nor un-. I feel compelled to try
something different for dinner, to have a coffee by the lake. But I think about money,
again, always the money. I can‟t afford a taxi down the hill; and besides, I need to save a
few bucks for another round of drinks with Landry.
Instead I am back on the street, they are building a new hotel, Belvedere, next to the
Tourist. There is already a restaurant, open for business. The dining room is vast, like a
catering hall, but there are just a few tables scattered across the room. It is like seeing a
handful of old couples shuffling across an empty dancefloor. Music pumps in from a
wedding party in the next room; a DJ exhorts the crowd in French. The menu is full of
dollar signs, it is three times the price of the Tourist. I apologize, I put it bluntly: “C’est
très cher.” Probably they will laugh when I leave, already I can hear them repeating after
me, “C’est très cher,” not kindly.
Outside more women in party dresses, and men with wide lapels. A well-dressed young
man comes down the street with a live goat, he stops at the Belvedere, a girl in high heels
comes rushing down the stairs to greet him. The goat bleats – probably he is as confused
by all of this as I am. Then they go upstairs, one after the other: the pretty girl, the goat,
the smartly dressed boy bringing up the rear.
April 10 – Bukavu
One for the road.
In which the road is long.
The morning starts, as any good morning should, with songs of praise.
The “salle de conference” at the Tourist hotel apparently doubles as a church hall, and by
half-past eight, it is already crowded with worshippers. They are singing and swaying and
wagging their hands with fervor, egged on by two pastors whose faces are slick with
sweaty, religious rapture. In the corner, a guitarist plucks an off-key tune; the drummer
has not yet turned up. The effect of this early- morning religiosity on my mood is not
unpleasant. I have spent more than three years in Africa; I have witnessed church services
in remote corners of Uganda and Malawi, have watched Maasai villagers gathered in a tin
shack in the Kenyan bush to sing warbling songs from their hymn books. (The pastor,
gladdened by my presence, gave thanks that “even the white man has found God.”) I am
not put off by these things, not surprised when one of the first questions out of a
stranger‟s mouth is, “Are you Christian?” or “Are you saved?”
It is no small thing, at my age, to shrug off the self-satisfied East Coast cynicism that
compels one to handle an earnest Christian the way one handles a retarded kid with drool
on his chin. I am comfortable in Africa with all this Bible-thumping and God-praising;
I‟ve mostly given up on the smug self-assurance that I know any better. Without the
presence of the church in eastern Congo, besides, this region would be even worse off
than it already is.
And the presence is everywhere. There are a half-dozen churches within a 10- minute
stroll from the hotel, and I have seen people pouring from them on all days, at all hours:
Thursday afternoon, Friday morning. On Sundays the services seem to last from dawn to
dusk. On the streets I see advertisements for Christian concerts – one ad, for a “grand
concert” with a certain Christine Shusho, promises attendees a real “soirée chrétienne.”
The people of Bukavu seem to spend most of their time shuttling between churches and
wedding parties – though the fête chrétienne at the Tourist Hotel is, I‟ll later learn, a
special occasion. Hosted by something called La Communauté Missionaire Chrétienne
Internationale, it is billed as a “croisade d’évangélisation, de guérison, de délivrance et
de brisement des liens malsains” – an event that, even with my threadbare French, seems
to portend a whole lot of drumming and praising.
Which, feelings of religious tolerance notwithstanding, has its limits. I decide the
morning would be better spent in my own sort of soulful contemplation by the lake –
somewhere to wrap myself in silence, drink an overpriced coffee, sit with my pen and
pad. It is a pleasant walk from town. The roads in Bukavu bend and curve away from the
Avenue Lumumba, wrap around the hills. Walking down to the Hotel La Roche – one of
Bukavu‟s upmarket, lakeside hotels – the city is like a giant construction site. Piles of
bricks, rickety wooden scaffolding, men hauling bags of cement on their heads. Rising on
large plots of land are the skeletons of two- and three- and four-story villas, rewards for
ruling-party stalwarts, the spoils of the mineral war tearing apart South Kivu. Sandwiched
between them are their older counterparts: whitewashed towers with million-dollar views,
most with Land Cruisers and Prados in the driveways. (Peeking over the wall of one
gaudy mansion, I see two kid-sized Hummers on the lawn: they start them young in
Bukavu.) Further down, the governor‟s mansion – a massive colonial villa, a dozen
gardeners clipping and pruning, a colonnade of trees, a mini-Versailles. The road bends
again, more construction, a man in a rasta hat grilling brochettes in the shade. At the foot
of the hill, a dozen soldiers sitting on chairs and tree stumps next to an unfinished villa –
a gift, perhaps, for some decorated general. Next an army bas e – barracks, canvas tents,
the privations of life as a foot soldier. Later someone will tell me it is a “transit camp,”
before adding under his breath, “FDLR.” Here is where former Interahamwe come to
turn themselves in, lay down their arms. Later they‟ll be sent to “reeducation” camps in
Rwanda, before integrating again into Rwandan society.
Finally I reach the Hotel La Roche, a big white modernist box set back 50 meters from
the lakeshore. It is an architectural nightmare of African nouveau kitsch: sliding glass
doors, blue window panes, gaudy curtains, brass fittings. Each of the rooms has a peerless
view of the parking lot, yet somehow, this is one of Bukavu‟s finest hotels. I manage to
sneak a peek into one of the rooms – white-tiled floors, plush faux-leather sofas; I don‟t
have to go any further to know there are gold sconces on the walls. Still, if you were to
raze the hotel, it would be a pleasant enough place. The lawns are well-kept, there is a
thatched-roof bar, a pleasant little restaurant that, from the outside at least, looks like a
colonial villa. Beside it, built on stilts, another restaurant almost floating over the lake.
Out back, scampering over the walls, two mangy little monkeys. Only when I get closer
do I see they have ropes tied around their waists, the cooks are keeping them as pets.
They live in a miserable little wooden house; one has a panicky, afflicted look, the other
is gnawing on a bottlecap. It scampers up the leg of a gardener, begins picking at his hair.
I ask if I can snap a picture, and he agrees. When the others begin chanting “franga,
franga,” I tell them I have no money to give. “Hakuna franga.” They are sullen,
crestfallen, but this is a point of principle: I refuse to give any money to a bunch of
Still, there is the lake. I have a vision of a quiet hour of writing, maybe two, listening to
the water lapping at the shore. It doesn‟t last. The bartender has turned up the soft rock on
the stereo – when I ask the waiter to turn it down, it‟s just a few beats before the
bartender turns it up again. I wait 20 minutes for the waiter to bring my coffee, and when
he does, I discover the Thermos is full of hot water. I try to track him down, but he‟s
vanished, and by the time I have my coffee in front of me my head is throbbing. The
coffee suddenly seems like a bad idea; I could probably use a beer instead. I‟m jittery,
high-strung. I try to calm myself, I watch the pirogues drifting across the lake, I amuse
myself with the plastic floral arrangements. It doesn‟t help. They are renovating the hotel,
the workers are hammering, sawing, the only peace, I imagine, can be found at the
bottom of the lake. I pay my bill, trudge moodily up the hill. By the time I find a moto,
I‟m ready again for lunch at the Tourist.
This is not shaping up to be a good day. I‟ve been hoping to make plans with Landry, to
contact Justin – he‟s returned to Bujumbura for the week – to get the number of his
brother, a journalist in Bukavu. But the Zain network has been down since yesterday – I
haven‟t been able to make a call, to send a text. I appreciate, now, why Landry had lined
up his cell phones at the bar earlier this week. He had three of them, with five SIM cards
between them – one for his colleagues in Belgium, an MTN SIM for Rwanda, three
Congolese SIMs – Zain, Vodacom, CCT – for the inevitable network failings here. “In
Congo, you cannot have a network that works every day,” he had said. And so today, it
seems, is the day that Zain has decided to take a breather.
At Rendez-Vous, again, I sit stewing over a coffee. I‟m not in the mood for another early
night, I don‟t want to walk the streets by myself in search of adventure. At two, though,
there is a breakthrough: the telecom stars have aligned, the Zain gods are again smiling. It
is Landry, we make plans to meet at four, the day has been saved. Outside, another
wedding party parades by. This, I am told, is a union of great consequence – a high-
ranking military figure. A string of SUVs festooned with bows and colorful ropes of
garland, army trucks full of soldiers – white-gloved, clutching sabers – in ceremonial
dress. The sound of drums – a marching band, crowded into a minivan, beating some
festive tune. On the side of the minivan the words “Operation Amani Leo, Sud-Kivu” –
this is one of the disastrous, MONUC-backed military operations that has done more
harm than good in the hills of eastern Congo. Today, a more peaceful mission. On the
side of the road, women ululating and waving their arms.
Outside the hotel there‟s a boy, his name is Thierry, he‟s 14. He wants to go to America
some day – “I would like to go there to see your president,” he says. Already he has seen
enough of the poverty in Bukavu, the lack of jobs. He knows the life must be better in
America because we have the dollar, and the dollar is strong. “If you give one dollar to a
man here, he says, „Good! Good! Good!‟” says Thierry. “But if you give one dollar to an
American man, he says, „Bah, what is this?‟”
He adds, “You are very absent-minded.”
Landry arrives, sharply, he is wearing a crisp white shirt with flowers embroidered onto
the collar and the cuffs. Seeing his latest ensemble has become something of a sport for
me. He has brought a friend, Armel – the husband of the sister of Landry‟s wife. We pile
into the Hilux – another typical day in Congo. Armel is a lawyer, a former human rights
worker – he has worked with the UN, in the Hague, for a local NGO. I tell him about a
report just published by the International Crisis Group on the Kabila government, the
usual litany of rights abuses against civil society, opposition groups. Armel laughs grimly
– he is not surprised. The US is sending its top gun in Africa, Johnnie Carson, to discuss
these things with Kabila this month. It will be the usual refrain, I‟m sure, tying aid to
“good governance.” And yet still, despite the reports, the money will pour into the
We are looking to have a drink, but this is surprisingly hard to arrange on a Saturday
afternoon in Bukavu. It is a day for weddings, and Landry‟s us ual drinking holes have
been booked by wedding parties – great swarms of women in tulle, long- limbed, big-
hatted; and men in their shiny suits, their sharp lapels. We are circling “La Bote,” the
shoe-shaped peninsula, past the houses of the FARDC officers and their families,
picturesque old homes, weathered, water-stained, some with satellite dishes planted on
the lawns. Soldiers are milling everywhere, sitting on porches, drinking, rifles nearby. I
would love to take some pictures, but this is not an optio n. We reach another bar, Landry
hops out to see if there might be room for us inside. Armel points to a long driveway
ahead of us, patrolled by a soldier from the elite Republican Guard. It used to be the
Cercle Sportif, he says. You could go there with yo ur family, play tennis, go for a swim.
“A few years ago, Kabila decided to take it for his home,” says Armel. Now, when the
president arrives for his once- or twice-yearly visits to South Kivu, he has those
sprawling sporting grounds to himself.
Again, no luck – Landry hops behind the wheel, we drive off. A light rain is falling now,
goats are bleating on the side of the road. Armel suggests a place called Bel Air, Landry
chuckles, shaking his head. “Bel Air,” he says, like a punchline. Bel Air it is. The bar is
hidden down a flight of stairs on the Avenue Lumumba, behind a club called Anges
Noirs. At the foot of the stairs, a list of prohibitions: no shorts, no flip- flops, no knives,
no guns. The bar is très Congolaise: a split- level concrete patio, dozens of plastic tables
and chairs, loud voices, empty bottles. The view over the lake is impressive, the hills
green, sublime. We sit beside a pool table, order a round. Two men are racking the balls,
breaking, knocking the solids and stripes every which way. The felt of the table is torn,
uneven – you have to play the surface the way you would a putting green. Laughter, a
commotion, the clinking of bottles. A dark cloud hovers over the lake, brooding, waiting.
We are talking about the situation in South Kivu, and you can tell there are two South
Kivus: the city, here, with its Bel Airs and Botes; and upcountry, “the villages,” as Armel
calls them. I ask what‟s the biggest threat to the villages and he leans forward, lowers his
voice. “I think the biggest problem in the villages is the FARDC,” he says – the
Congolese army, poorly disciplined, unpaid for months on end. They go to the villages,
they take and take. Life has become too hard upcountry – the threats from the army, the
FDLR, the militias. You can see the difference in Bukavu, the crowding, says Armel. “I
think most of them have come because of the fighting. There are no jobs, they cannot go
to their fields,” he says. In the city, there is always a cousin, a brother, an aunt with some
room in the house. “In Bukavu, at least, there is some work,” says Armel.
Landry and Armel, of course, represent a small minority in Bukavu – these are men who
have worked and studied abroad, they have seen Europe, carry well- stamped passports.
Already Armel is looking again to travel – he is applying for jobs with the UN, the Red
Cross, using his contacts in the development world. He would like to see more of
America – he has been to California, spent time at Stamford. He has a brother he would
like to visit, a physician, in New York. When I ask if he would like to live there, too, he
makes a fussy face, shakes his head. “Here you can live for $500” a month, he says. “I do
not think you can live for $500 in New York.”
We settle our bill, Landry has invited me for dinner at his place, but first another bar,
another drink. “Here we say, „One for the road,‟” he says, adding, when I comment on
the oversized bottles of Congolese beer: “It is a long road.” Again we are in the Hilux, it
is a short drive, Landry plows onto the sidewalk, where a frightened askari is helping him
to park. There is a small ditch on the road‟s shoulder, which Landry is struggling to
negotiate. “I am using four-wheel drive,” he says, optimistically. Great relief when the
vehicle is at rest, the askari still wringing his hands.
We step into Le Saint Laïc. A long, narrow dining room stretches from the entrance,
tables crowded to the side. Opposite them bottles of wine in glass display cases, like
geological specimens. We enter another dining room in the rear – fat, mirthful men
sloshing glasses of beer, women with bad wigs and shapeless dresses. We sit. A band is
warming up. People come over to the table to greet Landry. They are playing a CD, old
Congolese music from the seventies and eighties. Armel and Landry are nostalgic. “They
are playing music from our childhood,” says Armel. Now a short, deferential youth
comes over to the table, removes his baseball cap, shakes our hands. He wants to
apologize for the live music: this is karaoke night at Le Saint Laïc, but there is a problem
with the equipment, he explains. I cannot feign disappointment – live music over
Congolese karaoke is, I think, something of a no-brainer. The band is ready: a drummer,
a guitarist, a man on a keyboard, three singers moving rhythmically back and forth. They
are students, says Landry – he used to do the same thing when he was in university. More
broad-shouldered, big-bellied men enter. Women built like fullbacks. Young girls,
prostitutes, maybe – cast-offs from the Big Leagues of the Goma expat scene.
Landry gets a call from home – dinner is ready. We are all happily buzzed as we leave
the restaurant, the music has done something to me, it‟s lifted my spirits. The moon is
out, a sharp crescent, like an anchor cast into the dark sea o f night in Bukavu. This has
turned out to be a beautiful day. At Landry‟s house the guard swings the gate open – the
place is a mess, says Landry, apologetically, they‟re adding another floor. Outside
scaffolding climbs the walls, there are bricks piled in the driveway. Landry‟s children –
six and five – are making gleeful noises from somewhere inside. “Karibu,” says Landry.
The place is a palace. The sofas are leather, there is a flat-screen TV, a stereo system, a
keyboard with a microphone. (“Sometimes, we have karaoke,” Landry admits.) On the
wall, family portraits: Landry and his wife and the kids on Lake Kivu; Landry and his
wife, embracing, in front of a studio backdrop of the Dubai skyline. There are shelves
cluttered with knick-knacks, the expensive porcelain tchotchkes of African prosperity,
and three remote controls on the coffee table. Landry‟s sister sweeps in from the dining
room. Dinner, she says, is served.
Despite the fact that there are three oversized bottles of beer in my stomach, I have
managed to save room for the feast Landry‟s sister has prepared. The table is amply set:
mounds of foufou, cabbage and beef, rice with onions, frites, fried fish. The conversation
has tapered off, we are stuffing our faces – even after I‟m full, I pile more cabbage onto
my plate. Landry‟s sister is a wizard in the kitchen, she brushes aside my marriage
proposals – I think it‟s implicit, in the rarefied precincts of Chez Landry, that she can do
better. Afterward we are back on the sofas, drowsy, content. There is a news segment –
some attempt to negotiate a truce with the FDLR and another rebel group. Much head-
shaking and tongue-clucking from Armel and Landry. These mediation efforts will end
like all the others. The night is winding down – Armel yawns, stretches, pulls himself to
his feet. Again we are in the Hilux, bumping over these rough Bukavu roads. Armel lives
down the street; I am just around the corner. We make plans to have a parting drink
before I go.
At the hotel there is a scene of bedlam, nuptial chaos. If the Belvedere struck me as a
forlorn catering hall when I poked my head in last night, it‟s apparently because it is,
indeed, a catering hall. Tonight it is booked for a wedding party – the music is loud
enough to rattle the hotel‟s windows. From my room I can see into the main room: well-
dressed, well- fed, middle-aged bodies moving slowly across the dancefloor. Somehow,
these past few weeks, I‟ve grown accustomed to high-decibel lingala and kwasa kwasa
and rhumba blaring into the wee hours – it‟s a wonder I‟ve ever slept any other way. My
head is nodding off to 4/4 time, and by 11 o‟clock, faster than you can say “Papa
Wemba,” I‟m out cold.
April 11 – Bukavu
I am just a poor journalist.
In which the Burma problem is dealt with.
The crusade is in full swing this morning – the soundcheck begins at half-past seven. By
the time I‟ve showered and dressed for breakfast, the worshippers are already pouring in:
women, big, stout, matronly, with proud God- fearing faces, and slender men in ill- fitting
jackets, and little boys in little-boy suits, and cheerful girls in tulle party dresses, and a
little girl in a white hat and white dress and white shoes, like she‟s on her way to her first
communion. An old gent with a trim beard and a thinning horseshoe of hair looks at me
with an imploring face. He is a pastor, I think, he has a small leather-bound book in his
hand, he surely wants me to join the congregation. But it is too much for me, this
hysteria, this early- morning rapture. And so I am on my way to the lake again, to Orchid
Safari – another of the swish lakeside hotels – hoping to find the peace I couldn‟t find
yesterday at the Hotel La Gauche.
This is, I think, walking into the main lodge, more like it. Gone are the crisp white linens
of La Roche, the plastic floral centerpieces, the garish overt opulence of Africa‟s nouveau
riche. The place is subdued – earth tones, track lighting, the music is barely audible – and
one hardly has to look at the menu to know what higher culinary spheres one is now
traveling in. (Though if one does, the options – tournedos façon chevreuil, choucrotte
garnie – present a certain baffling refinement, at twenty bucks a pop.) On the wall are
contemporary African paintings, elephant-dung art, a Warhol reproduction. Outside, the
terrace is done up like a hunting lodge – above the fireplace a mounted buffalo‟s head,
the dark eyes dull and anesthetized, the powerful swoop of the horns. Beside the terrace
is lush tropical foliage, and beyond that, the lake. The plump cumulus clouds, the mild
green hills, are reflected in its polished surface – you can appreciate here why the
Belgians, so smitten by this place, had called it “the Switzerland of Africa.”
I am reading Hemingway‟s Green Hills of Africa, the pages well- thumbed and dog-eared,
and it is having a very curious effect on me. Certainly there is irony in this setting: across
from the mounted head is a buffalo‟s skull, and beside it the head of an antelope, a kudu
perhaps, with those long marvelous corkscrew horns. Only they‟re on display in this very
genteel, $200-a-night resort, with its imported bottles of Chimay and Leffe beer and its
$8 croques monsieurs. It is striking how white travelers will pay princely sums for this
sort of bush chic, while the Congolese will pay just as much for a stiff- linened aesthetic
that strains toward – one has to say it – colonial refinement. Jarring, then, to sit beneath
those mute judgmental buffalo eyes, to read of Hemingway and Pop and P.O.M., and
Droopy and M‟Cola, tracking rhino through the overgrown elephant grass, Papa sighting
with his Springfield, getting the musky scent of the game, following the trail of blood
spoors on blades of grass, to read those rich loamy bush smells, to almost smell them,
sitting here in Chez Orchid, drinking coffee from my effete little porcelain pot.
Certainly you get used to such incongruities in Africa. Only now, drowning out the
Whitney Houston – ! – on the stereo, the overbearing bustle of the waiters, looking past
the lake toward the Rwandan hills, and Hemingway‟s Africa is spreading before me.
Now, being in Africa, I was hungry for more of it, the changes of the seasons, the rains
with no need to travel, the discomforts that you paid to make it real, the names of the
trees, of the small animals, and all the birds, to know the language and have to be in it
and to move slowly. That country, Hemingway‟s country, brings me back to Kenya,
always. The fresh morning smell of the savannah, the sun rising, roosting in the baobabs.
Walking once in the Maasai Mara, we skirted the path of two ill-tempered buffalo
muscling through the bush, and suddenly there was the whole tree-freckled plain, the sub-
scrubbed savannah, stretching like a golden carpet in the sunlight.
I want to pursue these reveries, only there are two Americans, aid workers, at the next
table, and they are drowning out my thoughts. The girl is young, in her twenties, with that
flat brassy accent and projectile voice of Midwestern girls who spent their college years
grabbing rebounds, chasing down rugby balls. Her companion, an older man, white-
haired, an aid veteran, speaks with a murmur, almost inaudibly – the voice of experience,
a man trained in discretion. She dominates the conversation. There was a problem with
Burma, she explains – not with the country, or the ruling junta, but with the way her
organization gathered data there. She had an idea, a system of lists, a better way to
organize the data collected in the field. It was remarkable, efficient. “Those were the
types of ways we dealt with the Burma problem,” she says.
The terrace now is beginning to fill – a young Belgian couple, or French, stylish, tapping
away on their laptops; then two older American women, blonde, sun- freckled, in loose,
colorful dresses; then a MONUC contingent, two Tunisians, an American women, a
Malaysian. A French woman joins the American aid workers beside me. There is a
project, the American says, her organization is sending an intern to Iraq. “What we need
is for someone to sit through the summer and log data,” she says. It sounds hellish. They
are prattling on, I‟m drowning in aidspeak, the American is explaining at great length
“what‟s really cool about the data set” she‟s acquired. It seems like a terrible way to
spend a sunny Sunday morning. Now one of the older American women is approaching
the MONUC soldiers, she lives here, it seems, there‟s been a break-in at home. It‟s not
the first time, she says. She has a high, shrieking, distressed, hysterical laugh. There is a
MONUC base nearby – surely, someone saw something. The Tunisians are poker- faced –
their mustaches don‟t even twitch. It is life in a war zone, after all. The days has grown
warm, my mood has soured. I finish my drink, pay the bill. It is a long walk up the hill.
Again a feeling of restlessness, of unease, comes over me. I am ready, I think, for this trip
to end. It seems like madness to think that in less than two weeks, I‟ll be in South Africa
– and so much to do before then! I have two edits to run through this week – my New
York Times piece on Bujumbura, and finally, at long last, my Sports Illustrated story on
the Rwandan cycling team – and I desperately need to crank out some stories for Variety,
if I have any hope of actually getting paid this May. My taxes, too, need to be filed this
week – impossible to imagine getting to them with the Internet speeds in Goma. I have
overextended myself, I think – have just barely gone too long detached from the rest of
the world. And still, it has been worth every minute, every penny. It‟s been a very good
After lunch I have plans to meet with Jean Luc – Justin‟s brother, a journalist here in
Bukavu. He is waiting for me by the market – older, forty- ish, his hair and goatee
threaded with white. He greets me effusively, takes me by the hand – bless these
Congolese! We go to a local bar, a poured-cement dance hall full of plastic tables and
chairs, loud music, drunken voices, overlooking Patrice Lumumba. We order two Sprites,
which arrive lukewarm. Jean Luc tells me he reports for a Christian radio station, Neno la
Uzina – he translates this roughly as “the Word will save you.” He has been reporting on
local news from around South Kivu. “The political situation here is very bad,” he says.
Recently he reported on a killing here in Bukavu – he thought there was some link to the
security services. But it was impossible to tell who was behind the violence here, he says.
“We think that maybe it is because of the political situation,” he says. He shrugs. “Maybe
it is someone with the hunger in his stomach.” On the radio he has to stay objective,
report just the facts. “As a journalist, I have to keep a narrow view,” he says. He cannot
editorialize on the air. “Otherwise, tomorrow” – he draws a finger across his throat.
This is not just idle talk. Reporting in Congo is dangerous business – just last week, a
journalist was killed in Beni, in the north, under suspicious circumstances. Three
journalists have been killed in Bukavu since 2008 – last year, there was a report that
some were receiving death threats by text message. It makes Jean Luc‟s job even harder.
He cannot do any reporting from the countryside, it is too difficult, too dangerous. He
wonders if he might be able to hitch a ride with MONUC. “I am just a poor journalist,”
he says, with a sigh.
The security situation is always changing – even the peace in Bukavu now is, he knows, a
tentative one. The instability in the countryside he blames on the Rwandan genocidaires
who have been a cancer in the Kivus since 1994. “You can ask anyone in this restaurant,
they will tell you the FDLR is the biggest problem we have,” he says. “If the FDLR
leaves tomorrow, everyone will say merci a dieu – thanks to God.” Instead they were in
the countryside, they were terrorizing the villages, fighting the FARDC, MONUC, the
Mai-Mai militias. Impossible to consider how, sixteen years after the genocide, the
aftershocks are still being felt. In Rwanda the FDLR threat remains the government‟s
raison d’être – it ensures a perpetual existential crisis, the threat of Tutsi extinction, it
allows the government to operate with a free hand. How can anyone question draconian
laws against the spread of “genocide ideology” – whatever that might entail – when the
Hutu barbarians remain at the gate, ready to finish the job from ‟94? The autho r Gerard
Prunier, in Africa’s World War, makes a valid point: Kagame and company know first-
hand what a ragtag army can achieve after years in the bush. It can topple a country. But
what to do from Kigali? It isn‟t 1997, you can‟t just push your way into the Congo to root
out the last of the rebels. And how can the Congolese, with their poorly trained army – as
much a threat to villagers as the FDLR – secure their own country? There is no easy
solution, no end to the crisis in sight. Jean Luc sighs – like so many Congolese, he
remains hopeful, in spite of the evidence at hand. “If the FDLR ever goes back to
Rwanda, I think we will have peace here,” he says.
Outside it is a brilliant, hot afternoon. We are walking along the Avenue Lumumba,
toward La Bote – Jean Luc has an hour to kill before heading to the station. We pass the
mayor‟s office – a beautiful, bright blue Art Deco that swoops around a corner – and I
pause to take a picture. Jean Luc looks nervous, dissuades me. “People know I am a
journalist,” he says, “and tomorrow, they will summon me, they will ask, „Who was that
mzungu with you? Why was he taking pictures?‟” Even picture-taking in the Congo
comes with a certain peril. Instead we stop, admire the architecture. A MONUC caravan
passes – two lorries, an SUV, a jeep with a Pakistani at a mounted gun in the rear. Many
of the “casques bleus,” the blue helmets, says Jean Luc, will sneak pictures from inside
their vehicles. It must be a strange life for them here. Yesterday, at the market, I watched
two Uruguayans, tall and burly, circling among the vegetables. And an Egyptian, assault
rifle slung across his chest, waiting while a comrade shopped in an alimentation. The
boys selling Fantas and blue jeans called me “amigo.” But then, in 2004, when Laurent
Nkunda attacked the city, and the MONUC peacekeepers stood by, there were violent
demonstrations against the UN. Jean Marie told me in Bujumbura how he and his friends
threw stones at the Uruguayans. One of his rocks clipped a soldier in the helmet. He
remembered this detail specifically, recalled it with relish.
Down La Bote, turning onto a dirt road, Jean Luc wants to show me where he lives. It is
seven kilometers from the center of town. We are on the edge of a hill. “There,” he says,
pointing across the bay, to where the tin rooftops of a crowded quartier flash against the
sunlight. Nearby we hear laughter – two women and a stout drunk man, leaning against a
car. He has heavy- lidded, solicitous eyes, he is trying to convince them he is a
gynecologist. They laugh, walk off. He comes to me and Jean Luc, greets us, shakes our
hands. “Women need fucking,” he says, swaying from side to side. “I told them I am a
doctor. I can show them how.”
That night the hotel restaurant is full. A family, a couple, another couple. An older
woman with a man, maybe her son, sitting at the next table. She is large, bent over the
table, her back rises like a hump. God only knows what mysteries that dress conceals.
Her companion is stocky, he might have been an athlete once – now he is all stomach.
They‟ve ordered foufou and sambaza, they are demanding, meticulous. They send a plate
back, it‟s gone cold, the waiter brings a fresh plate but now the other, half-eaten, is sent
back, too. Each time the waiter makes it back to the co unter they hiss, wag their fingers,
make some fresh demands. The woman is wearing her glasses on the tip of her nose, the
power is out, and she‟s holding the sambaza to the candlelight, inspecting it like a
jeweler. Pity these Congolese boys, les petits, the underpaid waiters and porters whose
livelihoods depend on these fat, overbearing feudal lords and ladies – the heavy-
haunched elites who carry their thrones on their ample behinds.
April 12 – Bukavu to Goma
In Congo, God Him see.
In which to do business is good.
Having put myself to bed with solemn intent to make the most of my last day in Bukavu,
I wake feeling curiously downbeat – less willing to spend these last few hours exploring
the city than curled up with a good book. And so, after breakfast, having passed on the
bitter Star brand coffee to save myself for the real thing, I‟m on the back of a moto en
route to Orchid Safari, hoping to find the peace that my Sunday morning so badly lacked.
And it‟s perfect – I have the place to myself. I order a pot of coffee and kick off my
sneakers and again get lost in the hills and valleys of Hemingway‟s Africa. This is a
marvelous book. The premise – that a work of non-fiction might follow the rhythms of a
single month in a foreign country – has given me courage: why not turn this trip, mixed
with stories from Burundi, and memories of the past year in Rwanda, into a brisk
travelogue of my time in the Great Lakes? Certainly, for all the academic work coming
out of the region, there hasn‟t been much to capture the spirit of traveling here. But is it
enough, what I‟ve done and seen here? Is this the book that I want to write? And will
anyone care what I have to say?
Today I am at peace with such questions – the self-doubt, the usual demons, have taken
the day off. It seems possible – anything seems possible. After nearly three years in
Africa, I should have a whole bookshelf inside me. South Africa, now, is like both a
beacon and a talisman. Once I get there, I know I‟ll be capable of marvelous things.
I finish the coffee and then, unhurried, have a beer. Today is a day for reflection, solitude,
reverie. I am in a Hemingway mood, I am thinking of landscapes and African skies,
morning smells, earth smells, and it‟s all a bit disingenuous, I know, I am a city boy, and
these wondrous landscapes are just the backdrop for the stories I want to tell. Hemingway
made the hills, the woods, the savannah, characters in his books, he gave them
personality, life. But then the Africans, the porters and trackers and native chuckleheads –
they became part of the scenery. It‟s a way of writing about Africa that, I‟d like to think,
died 50 years ago.
These are the thoughts that occupy me on my way back to the hotel, and as I pack my
bags. It is almost three when I meet Landry in front of the Tourist, we have time for a
farewell drink. He takes me to a place he just discovered last night – a guest house, the
owner is a friend of his father‟s, it is down an alley off the Avenue Lumumba. There is a
small bar and a furnished living room and an old man sitting at a table, counting a stack
of money. It hardly seems like a hidden gem, but then voilà, there is a terrace out back,
all the green hills of Bukavu are in front of us, and there is the lake, and suddenly I‟m
laughing with Landry, too: yes, it was a marvelous find.
We have a quiet beer, I‟m still in my state of reverie, the crows are wheeling in the air,
there is the sound of children playing somewhere far below us. Now I am back in Kigali:
if I close my eyes it is the same breeze, the same voices coming in through the dining-
room window. That was a very good house, the Remera house. I lived there for six
months, the light filling the living room, those endless mornings at my laptop, watching
the sun creep across the table. Those were some of my happiest days – it says something,
I think, that my fondest memories are of me at the dining room table, writing. I try to
share some of this with Landry but it‟s no use, he smiles politely – the truest happiness, I
think, is impossible to share.
It is already after four when we get into his car. He is certain the boat won‟t leave till six,
but I‟m foolishly anxious, I haven‟t learned a thing. The ticket says 17h and I can‟t trust
Landry‟s inate Congolese sense of things not going according to plan. He knows the MV
Iko, he laughs, “I had to make that journey two years ago.” The boat was crowded, there
were no rooms for the passengers. “I paid the captain some money – there was a small
space in his cabin, and I was able to pass the night,” he tells me.
On the way to the port he has to run an errand – someone is waiting for him at the
mayor‟s office with some documents. The untroubled pace of this afternoon is starting to
distress me – I am, at heart, the sort of traveler who can never be too early. Outside the
mayor‟s office a woman is sitting on a stool, running a copy machine off an extension
cord through the window. Landry‟s friend arrives with the documents – just a few meters
down the road we pull over. “I have been looking for this man,” says Landry, as another
car pulls in behind us. There is a friendly palaver between them, Landry makes an
introduction, gets back into the car. They are speaking genially in French, I hear the
words “dix milles cinq sant,” think nothing of it. Landry reaches into the backseat for his
laptop case. I am fretting, checking the time. Then he pulls out a stack of crisp $100 bills
– dix milles cinq sant, $10,500 worth – and hands them to his friend. It seems like the sort
of transaction one would grow used to in Bukavu. I give Landry a brief, reappraising look
and wonder how well I know my friend. But now it is half-past four, and I am focused
again on getting to the port before the MV Iko chugs off without me.
The port road is busy, a sprawling marketplace, swirls of color – you wouldn‟t see such
sights in a tropical aquarium. Down a bumpy dirt road we go, Landry admitting he‟s not
sure of the way, ferries and cargo boats being loaded all along the waterfront. We pass a
large crowd, a fiery gent – no doubt a pastor – thundering into a microphone. Men
directing us along the way, I hop from the car, ticket in hand, ready to make some mad
dash to the boat. Foolish of me: there are, of course, “formalités.” We‟re being directed
again, led to a warehouse where four ticket agents are sitting in a row. Two are
brandishing stamps, all four are brandishing scowls. There is a stamp, a tax, another
stamp – Landry butts in, a woman has demanded another tax, he wants to know why. She
is cowed – no doubt I looked like an easy mark, but here is Landry, fierce, well-dressed,
intelligent – a bulldog in an open-collared shirt with justice on his side. I will not pay the
tax without a receipt, he says, and suddenly, her hand is laid bare. She does not protest,
she has nothing to say. Landry storms off, still disgusted – me thinking of the $2 I pissed
away at the port last week.
The commotion of a long journey, of imminent departures. There are boys selling boiled
eggs and loaves of bread, men carrying bags of cement and maize meal, loading the cargo
bay. The boat is white-washed, sparkling, a veritable Love Boat – as fine a ship as you
might want to take on your eight-day Caribbean cruise. But no, someone says, laughing,
that‟s not the Iko at all. Sure enough, there is the word “Emmanuel” splashed across the
stern. The passengers are walking through the galley, there is the Iko – a small, sordid
ferry – docked beside it. I put on a brave face for Landry, who laughs and slaps my back
as we part. Across a narrow gangplank, struggling to keep my balance, side-stepping past
the yawning maw of the cargo hold. The Iko is bobbing lightly, there is much to-ing and
fro-ing – no sign, at just a few minutes to five, that we‟ll be leaving anytime soon. In
second class the passengers are crammed in twos and threes into plush love seats, it looks
like a second-hand furniture store, there is a great commotion of luggage being passed
around, laughter. Upstairs first class is like a living room: two sofas, a love seat, two
coffee tables, a flat-screen TV. It is a small, crowded room – I would imagine, in the MV
Iko‟s past life, that these were the captain‟s quarters. Instead the first-class passengers –
fifteen or twenty, at least – are packing in, looking around with puzzlement, and settling
into any available space on the sofas. Most are husky women in bright print dresses, men
in abacosts and sport jackets. They are pressed shoulder to shoulder, fidgeting, adjusting
their feet – as mirthless a group of Congolese as any I‟ve seen. The prospect of spending
a night in that room is grim beyond words. By the time a crew members asks if I‟d like to
take my seat – two stout women moving slightly, shifting their heavy haunches – I‟ve
already decided to take my chances on the deck. I find a plastic chair beside the captain‟s
cabin, settle in. For the second time this month, it seems, I‟ll be spending a night beneath
the star-filled sky of Lake Kivu.
This is a cheerless start to the voyage. I am thinking of the Miss Rafiki, with its wide,
spacious restaurant – all those inviting corners to curl up in for the night. Next to us, in
the idling Emmanuel, the first-class lounge is a tease – cush armchairs, plenty of
legroom, plastic floral arrangements, half-a-dozen wall- mounted TVs. You could imagine
fat men in pleated pants signing peace treaties and telecom deals in such swank quarters.
I feel frustrated, duped. I‟m not the only one. Two Congolese men board, give the first-
class room a frank look, and start barking at the crew. Soon they are poking their fat
aggressive heads into the cabins reserved for shipmates, speaking in low tones, no doubt
coming to an arrangement. One of the crewmen crawls into a cubby space beneath the
captain‟s cabin. His bare feet poke out from a pile of blankets and pineapples.
Commotion all along the shore. Great sacks being hauled into the water on men‟s
shoulders, long poles of eucalyptus loaded onto a cargo boat. There is a pile of bricks on
the beach, like a funeral cairn, and a pair of pigs rooting through the trash. Two boys in a
slender pirogue paddle and drift beside us. One is in a sleeveless red t-shirt, a straw hat,
the other is hunched beneath a black windbreaker. They are passing a glowing stub of
cigarette back and forth between them. There are nets tangled at their feet, sawed-off
jerry cans full of sambaza.
The boat comes alive with a rumble, the engine begins to thrum. It is almost six, and still
there is a merry commotion of passengers boarding. Shouts from the waterfront, a great
body of movement – a thief, perhaps, caught in the act, facing mob justice. A bright red
Zodiac boat putters by, a soldier squatting beside a belt- fed machine gun. I smile and
wave, and he smiles and waves back. The sun has vanished beneath the hills. The light is
gray, murky. Suddenly we lurch forward, we begin to pull away from shore. Past the
wooden cargo boats, marvelous crafts as long as the Iko, as old as the Congo, past the
narrow pirogues bobbing in the bay, full of grim staring fishermen, past the rusted ferries
fallen, I hope, into disuse. A dozen motorcycles are in shallow water, their drivers
running wet rags over the spokes and handlebars. And then Bukavu diminishes behind us,
tiny pinpoints of light flicker on, and we are chugging out across the lake.
It is a beautiful, clear night. There is a tumult now, a joyful shared energy of a long
journey just beginning. The first-class lounge-cum-dormitory is alive with laughter, the
loud din of cramped quarters. Congolese music videos are playing on the TV; bottles of
beer have suddenly materialized on deck. The hills are dark, there are storm clouds in the
distance, we can see flashes of lightning on the horizon. This is, of course, of no small
interest to me as I hunker down on the deck. At the front of the boat loud voices –
soldiers with their rough boastful ways, arguing good- heartedly about something. Radios
crackling with static, ring tones like the nighttime chirrups of some exotic insects. The
fishermen are paddling out as the darkness deepens, their brightly lit lanterns flaring up
and down the lake.
Cooking smells begin to waft across the boat, two boys rush back and forth with stacks of
covered plates. There is a pot of something, cabbage and tomato sauce, maybe, bubbling
on a charcoal brazier down below. In my haste to get to the port before the hypothetical
departure time, I hadn‟t bought anything – no glucose biscuits, no ndazi, no loaves of dry
bread. I‟m hungry, two men nearby – friends of the captain‟s – are picking at a hunk of
foufou and half a fried fish. I flag down the waiter, order foufou and meat – “ugali et
nyama” – hoping for the best. The wait is long, the others have already finished, they‟re
licking their fingers with relish. Finally here comes the timid bustling boy, dodging
bodies on the deck. He pours cold water from a pitcher over my hands. The foufou is
warm, the meat is all fat and bone. I probe a bit with my teeth – I was mistaken. There‟s
not a single piece of bone on my plate. It is meat, all meat, with the texture and toughness
of a spare tire.
It is nine o‟clock, it is ten, it is eleven. They‟re playing action movies in the lounge –
shootouts, car chases rattle the lake‟s silence. Approaching midnight they prepare the
room for bed – the coffee tables removed, two stiff foam mattresses laid across the
carpeting. When I look into the room half an hour later, there are bodies sprawled and
tangled everywhere. Heads and feet poke from blankets on the floor, on the sofas. If I‟d
wanted, I‟m sure I could have squeezed in somewhere, found a little nook between two
pairs of oversized buttocks. Outside the night has cooled, but it is still pleasant,
manageable. The hard part, I know, will be at three, at four. And still I am watching the
sky, looking for signs of rain.
I‟ve unpacked a few extra layers and just managed to doze of in my chair when a boy
joins me. He is 20, a student in Goma, he only speaks French, I don‟t catch his name. He
had already circled the deck twice, lingered in the shadows – working up the nerve, I
suspect, to talk to me. And so talk he does – and talk, and talk. I‟m grumpy and sleepy
and feeling uncharitable, I can‟t help it – even as I curse myself for being such a bastard,
I behave like a total bastard. My answers are terse, I volunteer nothing. Each time I close
my eyes and begin to nod off, again I hear his high, hysterical voice. Am I married? I am
not. “Pourquoi?” Do I have brothers? Are they married? They are not. “Pourquoi?”
Every detail of my life is dissected, examined, and then subjected to an incredulous
“Pourquoi?” It would be hard enough to bear this late-night inquisition in English. In
French, it is intolerable.
But now the conversation has attracted others, and the lively din from the captain‟s
quarters – he seems to have three, four others sharing his room – spills onto the deck. A
short man, very drunk, lurches my way. In the dark I can barely make out his dress, the
features of his broad face, but it seems he is military – a colonel, he says, in the FARDC.
I wonder to myself if I‟ve happened upon the first pygmy officer in the Congolese army –
he is tiny, he barely reaches my chin. He is in Bukavu with Operation Amani Leo – the
latest MONUC-backed attempt to root out the FDLR in the Kivus – but now he is on his
way to Goma to lodge a complaint. He has not been paid in two months – “Deux mois!”
he says, stomping his little foot. I do not know who is footing the bill for Amani Leo –
the Congolese government? the UN? – but I am hardly surprised at this peacekeeping on
the cheap. I remember meeting a Burundian soldier in Bujumbura – a peacekeeper with
the African Union‟s ANISOM force in Somalia. That mission had been supported by the
international community – who could argue with sending African cannon fodder to
Mogadishu? – but the pledges from Europe had not been honored, the peacekeepers
hadn‟t been paid in months. The Burundian soldier had had to pay his own way to
Kampala to catch the transport plane to Somalia. He had borrowed the money from his
wife – a fact that filled him with great shame.
The colonel is a voluble little man, comically drunk: the way he lurches from side to side,
you would think we were pitching about on high seas. He says his name is Christophe
Mukubwa – we joke about this irony, Mukubwa, from the Swahili “kubwa,” or big. His
father, he explains, was an important chief. When he hears I am a Christophe, too, he
embraces me with great feeling: first, taking me by the shoulders; and then, in the
Congolese manner, greeting me with a series of head bumps – left, then right, then
bumping foreheads. I am in the colonel‟s good graces. He is complaining bitterly about
the Congolese army. He would like to change its image, improve discipline, regulate pay,
boost morale – but how could he, Christophe Mukubwa, accomplish it? “Je ne suis pas
haut,” he says. He is just a small fish. There were majors above him, lieutenants,
generals. Most of these, he knows, have it in their best interests to maintain the status
quo. They profited greatly. How many generals and majors, I wonder, are building those
grand lakeside villas in Goma and Bukavu? But Christophe has heard I am a journalist – I
had mentioned it to Pourquoi earlier, I don‟t know where he‟s going with this. An exposé
of FARDC wrong-doings? I prefer not to get my hands dirty. Yes, yes, I explain, I am a
journalist – but in America only, I‟m on vacation here. He nods, yes, of course, it makes
perfect sense. He wants to hear all about my impressions of Congo. Then he turns to take
a whiz off the side of the boat.
More lightning flashes. I‟m expecting the worst, bracing for the cold and the rain, but so
far the weather has held out. The insomniacs are out now – the star-gazers, the heavy
drinkers, huddling against the railing. A boy begins talking to me – he is the waiter from
earlier, who spent the long dinner hour being barked and hissed at. His name is Espoir:
Hope. He is 17, a first-born son; with his job aboard the Iko he supports a younger
brother and sister, his ailing parents. It is all he has done since he was forced to leave
school at 14. “The month they bring me ten dollars, so I cannot do anything with the
life,” he says. In a few hours, at three, he will begin preparing the tea for breakfast. In
Goma he will get an hour or two to rest; then he is off to the market, he has to buy meat
and vegetables and fish, he comes back to the boat to begin preparing for dinner. Sleep,
when he gets it, comes in brief snatches. He is friendly, soft-spoken, laughing, resigned.
“God Him see,” he says, shaking his head. “In Congo, God Him see.”
The night deepens. The stars trail across the sky. One by one the others drop off, I huddle
up in my seat, wrap myself in extra layers. I sleep fitfully – 20 minutes, 30 minutes, then
my head snaps up as someone steps gingerly by. The crew are sprawled out on the deck,
wrapped in blankets, sleeping on foam mattresses. From the captain‟s quarters, the
sounds of more bottles being popped open. It is a long night. By five, dimly, I can see the
glow of Nyiragongo through a thin veil of clouds. It is still a long way off. The wind has
suddenly picked up, the temperature has dropped – this last hour is a bitter one. I am
doubled over in my seat, trying to use my raincoat to block the wind. Finally, gray light
over the hills. The flag snaps briskly at the helm. Goma, at last, comes into view. The
lake is the color of a battleship, the sky like armor. Sleepy bodies emerge from the first-
class cabin, barefoot, toothbrushes poking from between their lips. Much foam- mouthed
spitting over the side. Passengers standing at the helm, baring their teeth to the wind. It is
half-past six, we are chugging into the bay. Someone tells me we will arrive within the
Pourquoi is back, and another boy, a student, who speaks some English. We stand against
the railing, leaning over the side. There was a plane crash in 1994, says the student, the
wreckage has never been found. “The lake is very profound,” he says, staring into its
mysterious depths. Pourquoi feels excluded by the conversation, I can tell. I throw out
conciliatory phrases in French, tell brief, aimless stories hemmed in by the language
barrier. I behaved badly toward him last night, and feel a need to make amends. This
could have been a memorable passage for him, we could have spanned the continents
with our conversations under that star- filled sky. I was sulking, uncharitable – a real jerk.
We are chatting more amiably now – I want only for us to part on the best of terms – but
now others are coming out of the first-class cabin, fresh, alert, grinning as they butt into
the conversation with well-turned English phrases. Pourquoi inches along the railing, he
can‟t follow the words. I don‟t notice when he finally, quietly slips away.
A man, forty- ish, traces of gray in his hair, approaches me. He is slightly unkempt, as if
this weren‟t the first night he‟d spent sleeping in his clothes. He wears two gold rings and
his pinkies, by some genetic mishap, are tiny, unformed, they twist out to the side like
baby prawns. I am fascinated by these freakish fingers. “To do business in Congo is very,
very good,” says this man, Fidele, his little pinkies twitching. He works in minerals – a
good sector, I say, nodding approvingly, as if I might just be looking to expand my
portfolio. I ask about dealing with the government – a breeze, he assures me. “I go to the
office, small money here, small money here, it is done,” he says, making a brisk gesture
with his hand. For a foreigner, of course, it is not so easy, the government is always
looking for handouts. But that is simple enough, he says. “You can find a partner, a
Congolese, and he will handle everything for you,” says faithful Fidele. He gives me a
significant look, and I imagine I wouldn‟t have to look too far to find the partner he has
Fidele has traveled – he has been to the UK, Europe. He makes a contemptuous face. “Je
ne peux pas preferer l’europe,” he says, shaking his head vigorously. The life here in
Congo is good – the soil is rich, there is so much money to be made. He gestures to a
magnificent lakeside villa – it would not seem out of place on the French Riviera. “In
Congo, you can have that house in a few years,” he says, his voice swelling with
admiration. “In America, you will work your whole life.” A horror, like a sudden chill,
comes over him. “Fucking job,” he says, then again, with a venomous sort of mirth:
I am vague about my own fucking job, I travel, I say ambiguously, as if I, too, might be a
fortune- hunter like Fidele. He senses a kindred spirit, he writes his name and contact info
on a slip of paper and underscores the point that I can call him anytime. “It is very good
for a businessman in Congo,” he says, almost choked with emotion. He offers a parable:
he went to London in 2005, he was trying to export Kivu coffee beans to the UK. But
there were so many officials with prying eyes, so many taxes and laws! Even now, Fidele
can‟t shake the bad feeling that came over him five years ago on a business trip to
London. How could anyone manage to make a dishonest living?
Behind Fidele is an older man, handsome, dignified, in a brown suit and a black mock
turtleneck. He is pointing a camcorder at the boat, at the hills – hell would be an endless
loop of African home videos, I think. I tell him he looks like a tourist but he laughs,
shakes his head. He is from Goma, but he has two daughters studying in America, in
Arkansas, he likes to take pictures to send them. I do not catch his name, he says he is the
director of the central bank in Goma – Fidele has grown quiet, he takes a sudden interest
in the waves. The man is hoping to visit his daughters this year – he is going to America
in June, to Maui, for a month- long seminar. I give him a second look. “I‟m in the wrong
line of work,” I say. He laughs genially, pans his camera across the waterfront. Now there
is a commotion of voices, movement. It is half-past seven, and we are finally pulling into
It has been an endless day – how many of these days have I known in Africa, these
marathon journeys. I gather my things, haul them downstairs, through too-narrow
doorways. Porters have begun climbing aboard the Iko, pirate-style, taking the stairs in
twos and threes. The passengers queue with surprising patience; a chicken, too, waits
with a solemn gravity for which its species is not known. Now we are bumping and
pushing onto the waterfront, a riot of porters, soldiers, waiting relations. An official, the
same official who shook me down for 500 francs last week, spots me in the crowd. One
last indignity, I tell myself. He takes me to customs, more scribbling, more stamps, but a
surprise: there is no tax to be paid. The ports have squeezed me as dry as they‟re going to
squeeze me. I hop onto the back of a moto, we make our way along the muddy port road.
The sun is over the hills, a bright gold medallion, and I‟m facing my last two days in
April 13 – Goma
Save the world.
In which a friendship is remembered.
The temptation, when I reach my room at the Cirezi, is to catch up on the sleep I missed
aboard the ferry. But there‟s an adrenaline buzz as I listen to the commotion of street
traffic: I am wired and happy to be back. Besides, it seems like a waste to spend my
penultimate day lying in bed. Outside the early- morning rush, the congestion along the
Sake road, invigorates me. I buy a new notebook – I‟ve been burning through pages – and
take a moto to Nyira for my morning coffee.
The end of this trip is in sight now, I am stumbling toward conclusions, in the mood for
stock-taking. It has been a prolific month for my writing – maybe my most productive
ever. By the time this journal wraps up in two days‟ time, I will have written, I think,
more than 70,000 words – a small book‟s worth, over the course of four manic weeks.
It‟s a bit extraordinary, really. So much, too, has been left out – by sheer necessity, by a
need to give my hand and mind a rest. (And, in fairness, by the fact that most of what I‟ve
already written could use a good edit.) I‟m tired today after the long night, but there‟s a
greater mental exhaustion, too, an emotional need to put this trip – and journal – to rest.
Some days it has been too much effort to sit, remember, record; but I‟ve tried to leave out
as little as possible, to give my future self – when the time comes to give this account
some coherence – all the raw material to work with. I‟ve made the mistake in the past, I
know, left too much to the uncertainty of memory. And there will be no time, besides, to
catch up in the coming days and weeks. Kigali will be a blur – seven days, ten, with so
much to do. And then, of course, Johannesburg.
The morning drags, I‟m exhausted – already I am scaling back the day‟s expectations,
hoping to simply slog my way toward nightfall. Tomorrow I can make the trip to Sake,
just 25 kilometers from the city, to see a Congo beyond (however slightly) the protected
shells of Goma and Bukavu. Today is for Goma – the ash-gray streets, the palls of dust,
the cloud-spewing peak of Nyiragongo. I have decided today to call on my friend, Malick
Ngiama, a man I‟d met when I visited Goma with Prudent in November. He was a short,
kind, generous man, he had walked with us through the streets and taken us to the office
– the one-roomed, dirt- floored, tin-roofed shack – of his organization, the Save the World
and Handicapped Association. He had started it himself, because there were so many
handicapped in Goma who had nothing, did nothing – they were shunned, they sat on the
street outside the university, or Kivu Market, begging passersby. “There were these
people, and no one was helping them, so I wanted to help them,” he said. It was a modest
enterprise – he had no Western figurehead, no foreign funding – but each week the
members would gather, there were more than 30, and Ngiama would teach them some job
skills, would teach them English. His own English was cobbled together from stories he
had read online, conversations with foreigners. “I manage and I use the computer to find
new words, and immediately I teach them to my students,” he said. He painted, too: he
showed us pictures of the volcano, landscapes, a self-portrait with neatly cropped hair
and a thin scrawl of mustache above his lip.
His office is along the Sake road, down a small hill – I‟m sure I‟ll remember it when I
spot it. I haven‟t heard from Ngiama in months, and I want this visit to be a surprise – to
walk through the door, smiling, to clasp him warmly by the shoulders, start furiously
bumping heads. The day is sunny, hot – I can feel the sunblock streaking down my face.
All the commerce and hustle and thrift of this sun- flushed boulevard: the clack of a
chukudu racing, weighted with bags of USAID maize meal; the throaty laughter of a
woman sitting behind piles of pineapples, little pyramids of tomatoes and lemons and
oranges the color of limes; motos pressed against each other, carrying a man with a car
axle, another with five plastic chairs stacked atop his head; a lorry loaded with bales of
grass – coming from where? going to where? – and women, laughing, flashing their teeth,
sitting high up top.
I walk past the brightly decorated storefronts – Maison Glory, Atelier la Grace, Mini
Alimentation Gloire a Dieu – and past a furniture shop, newly built sofas and armchairs
sitting on the side of a hill, casual buyers looking, stroking the fabric, like the pelt of
some exotic beast. Outside a DVD shop, a flatbed truck floating a banner for the Tigo
cellphone network has attracted a crowd, there are tall speakers playing loud music to a
curious crowd. Little boys in torn shorts come racing by, pushing toy trucks made from
wires, from milk cartons and bottle caps. People sitting outside shops, sitting in an old
abandoned minibus – a perfect Congolese snapshot, the wheels have come off, it‟s going
After twenty minutes I know something is wrong. I have walked further along the Sake
road than I‟ve ever walked before, I should have passed Ngiama‟s office already. I
continue walking – past a new hotel, an abandoned petrol station, clothing shops, hair
salons – and then I turn back to retrace my steps. By the time I reach Cirezi, I know it‟s
no use: Ngiama‟s office is gone. I feel a terrible pang of sadness and longing in my chest
– why hadn‟t I emailed Ngiama before coming, why hadn‟t I told him I was already in
Goma? It is already late in the day, I don‟t have his phone number – I know there is
almost no chance that Ngiama, a poor man, will check his email in the next day. Usually
it takes days, sometimes weeks, for him to respond. And I think of what became of his
modest tin shack hung with paintings, his villages and volcanoes and bucolic rural
scenes. Last month there was a story in the Globe and Mail about this city, and the
mayor‟s mad scheme to relieve congestion by broadening the roads. It was done in a
typically brutal, heavy-handed, Congolese fashion: one afternoon, without warning,
gangs of young thugs with sledgehammers and crowbars showed up along the Sake road,
tearing down houses and shops. Panicked men and women ran distressed into the street,
watching helplessly as their livelihoods were destroyed. The local government offered
them no compensation. Is this what happened to Ngiama? Was the Save the World and
Handicapped Association caught up in the demolitions?
This sadness weighs on me all afternoon – it only seems to add to my heaviness on a day
that has begun to drag, to darken along the edges. I have been looking forward, these last
few days, to stepping off the bus in Kigali; to hopping on the back of a moto and
puttering up to Andrea‟s house; to having a farewell round of pizzas and Peronis at Sol e
Luna before boarding my flight to Joburg. But suddenly I feel less ready to leave Goma –
who knows how long it will be before I am again walking along the Sake road, wiping
the grit from my eyes, joking with some jobless youth about Kabila and Obama? (Last
year, on this same road, I had chanced upon a political rally with Prudent – supporters of
one of Mobutu‟s sons, who was slated to run in some parliamentary election. They wore
yellow t-shirts with the old Leopard‟s face emblazoned on them, a lingala slogan that
they translated as, “We will never forget you.” The irony was utterly lost on them: no, the
Congo would not forget Mobutu anytime soon.) It is strange what you cling to as a
traveler – these lunatic attachments to places that so often break your heart. Will I ever
see Malick Ngiama again? I remember how he took my hand in both of his and shook it
warmly as we parted; I remember his lopsided mustache, the slight limp as he hobbled
across his city of ashes, hoping to save the handicapped, and the world.
Walking, lost in these thoughts, the day delivers a happy surprise: Patrick, the young guy
I‟d met some three weeks ago on the bus from Kigali to Gisenyi. It seems so providential
to bump into him on the side of the road, especially with my spirits so low. We greet
happily – much head-bumping commences. Things are going well for him here in Goma,
work is going well; he is on his way just now to make some photocopies for the office, he
has a manila envelope under his arm. There‟s no time to share with him all the stories
from these past three weeks, so we make plans to have a goodbye drink the next night, a
few beers at his favorite watering hole. We both laugh loudly, stupidly – what are the
odds! It is the sort of symmetry, the closing of the circle, that makes my writer‟s heart
Groggy now, having set a plan in motion for my last day in Goma, I‟m beginning to wave
a white flag on this endless day. Tomorrow I would like to be rested; so long as the DJ at
Sun City cooperates, I can make it an early night, have a full, energetic day ahead of me –
in Sake, and here in Goma. I treat myself to one last meal at Coco Jamboo – the finest
burgers I‟ve had on African soil – and fork over some of my last few American bucks.
I‟ve worked it out perfectly, almost to the last cent: I‟ll have just enough to make it
through my final day and back into Rwanda. There is a light, finally, at the end of the
tunnel. It is almost like going home.
April 14 – Goma, Sake, Gisenyi
You have to be courage to live he re.
In which the whole thing ends.
Since arriving in Goma nearly two weeks ago, the Sake road has been like an artery – not
only of traffic, of which there was plenty, but of the clatter and commotion and
commerce that is the lifeblood of this city. The UN trucks and chukudus, the SUVs flying
the flags of the Western aid agencies, the motorbikes, the pall of dust, the beggars and
cripples, the street kids, the college kids, the women with their loaves of bread and
baskets of tomatoes, the men with their polished shoes and briefcases stepping cautiously
around puddles the size of Lake Kivu: if you wanted to grapple with and understand life
in Goma today, there seemed to be no better place to start than this ash-gray, dust-choked
road that continues on to a town called Sake, which I‟m only now, on my last day in the
Congo, setting out to see.
The minibus is crowded. Our feet are squeezed beside buckets and plastic bags, green
leafy shoots poking from the tops. There are mostly women onboard, they have suitcases
in their laps and wedged beneath their seats. Beside them, picking at the exposed seat
stuffing, curled into their sides, strapped to their backs, nursing at their bosoms, are at
least a dozen children – a small schoolroom‟s worth of boys and girls in dirty shorts and
torn tulle dresses with bare, dusty feet. Beside me a well-dressed man, knees hunched up
to his chest, tells me he works with MSF, he is on his way upcountry to see his father.
Another man in a threadbare jacket boards, holding four suits on wire hangers. “Sir!” he
says, beaming, seeing me in the rear. He is selling the suits for $30 each.
We barrel through town, past the place where last year I met 700 IDPs living in a ragged
tent city behind a church. The IDPs are gone now – like those who were staying in UN-
sponsored camps around Goma, they‟ve returned to their homes in Walikale and Masisi
and beyond – but along the road we pass vestiges of their presence, the ghosts of wars
past that have left so many Congolese living their poor, transitory lives. There are houses
made from sticks and banana leaves and mud; the roofs a nd windows are covered with
UNHCR tarps, the doors are made from USAID scrap metal. In the fields we pass
unfinished stone walls, like the relics of medieval villages; we pass concrete foundations
for homes that were never built, pillars and corner stones laid with hope and uncertainty.
It is beautiful country here. Just minutes from the city everything is lush, there are rows
of vegetables in the fields, the hills are cultivated with small, neat plots of beans and
manioc. In the distance, the scalloped folds of a green mountain range skirt the lake‟s
shores; the water is flat and silver as a saucepan. A pair of military helicopters fly
overhead. We stop at checkpoints, and more checkpoints. Someone has words with the
driver, soldiers circle the matatu, staring into the windows. In nearly three years of
traveling in Africa, I have never felt so vulnerable and conspicuous. We are waved
through; the gears make terrible grinding noises. Further down the road we are stopped
again. A young girl sits beside me in a gold party dress, the zipper is broken, it slips off
her small shoulders. She smiles and swings her bare feet. An infant is bundled to her
mother‟s back, its eyes wide and alert. A soldier gets in, clutching a small blue suitcase in
his slender hand.
We reach Sake, where the conductor shakes me down for 200 or 300 francs more than the
going rate. It is the equivalent of 30 cents, but I take this in stride: I have other things on
my mind. The unease I felt aboard the matatu – the hard bearing eyes of the soldiers at
the checkpoints – hasn‟t let up here in town. There are no friendly cries of “Mzungu!” as I
step into the road; instead a man, another passenger, takes me gently by the elbow and
says, “Be careful, there are many thieves here.” Suddenly the pho ne, the camera in my
pockets feel like big, conspicuous bricks. A few youths, hangabouts, part-time bike
mechanics and carwashers, crowd close to me, for what seems like no good reason. Two
women braiding hair on the side of the road look up at me to stare.
I have felt this sort of discomfort before – in the frontier towns of northern Kenya,
Uganda – and always it has passed once I‟ve had a few minutes to walk around, get my
bearings. It doesn‟t pass here. As I walk down the main road – a row of spare shops on
one side, a listless market on the other – I can feel wary eyes following me. I‟m hoping to
find some friendly, eager face to latch onto – a local aid worker, a school teacher – but I
get only a few reluctant smiles. There is a lump in my throat about the size of a fist. I
walk to the end of the road – the town is ringed by green hills, it is breathtaking. Two
years ago Laurent Nkunda‟s troops fought the ragtag Congolese army on these same
hilltops. I can imagine how the sounds of gunfire and grenade b lasts reverberated across
the valley – it must have been terrifying when night fell.
Two men are chatting under a tree, they are in their 30s or 40s, it is impossible to predict
what time and care do to these Congolese faces. They call out in my direction and I
approach them, smiling, ever eager, like a real village idiot. We exchange a few
greetings, and quickly a crowd gathers. There are the usual questions – about where I am
from, and what I am doing here – and I can hear my responses dopplering across the
crowd. “New York” pings out to an old man at the crowd‟s edges; then “America,”
moving quickly from mouth to mouth. I don‟t tell them I am a journalist; I say simply
that I‟m traveling, a voyageur, as if this meant anything. I‟m not entirely sure, after all,
that “journalist” is the most accurate job description – would “travel blogger” translate
easily into French or Kiswahili? Why exactly am I in Sake, after all? So I could see it.
Why? There is no satisfactory answer to this. Their questions have a hard edge to them;
while I don‟t feel especially threatened, I can‟t say I‟ve heard all that many karibus,
either. There is a sense of expectation, for lack of a better way to put it: that if a white
man pitches up in Sake one afternoon, it is because he ha s some motive for coming.
Judging from some of the hard looks in the crowd, I can assume such motives aren‟t
I feel ill at ease when the invariable requests come: for some small money, just enough to
buy milk, or bread. The crowd is in the dozens now – for all my travels in rural Africa,
I‟ve never seen such a crowd materialize around me so quickly – and there‟s no way I
can give any amount of money that would appease them all. I apologize, I say I have
nothing. There are nods – some sympathetic, others less so, as if they‟d expected no less
treachery. A small boy comes up to me, offering to sell his slingshot. I feel stupid being
here. I apologize again, at elaborate length, shaking as many hands as I can, working the
crowd like a politician, doing my best to extricate myself from a situation that‟s growing
more and more uncomfortable by the second.
I walk back down the market street, my steps a little bit quicker now, it almost feels like
I‟m walking in someone else‟s shoes. Approaching the taxi rank I meet a smartly dressed
man carrying a thick brown envelope under his arm. He is a former primary school
teacher, his name is Anselme, he has been out of work for months now, he says, sighing,
laughing, what can you do. It is not like the life in America. “You have come to be fat,”
he says. “You take meat, you take beans, you take potatoes, you take milk.” A fraying
belt is cinched tightly across his waist – it is clear that Anselme does not take these
things. The life in Sake is bitter, it is hard. “We go to school, but we have not the job,”
says Anselme, kicking the dirt from his shoes.
His wife owns a small shop beside the taxi rank; she rises when we enter, smoothes her
dress, smiles and offers me a Fanta. We sit for a few minutes on a pair of oversized
armchairs, talking, looking out into the street. A young girl takes a few brave, wobbly
steps from behind the counter – it is their daughter, she wears a pretty white dress, she is
barely five. Anselme smiles and lifts her into my lap. We all la ugh, make gurgling noises,
try to quell the trembling of her lower lip. I think of these small, generous acts by
Anselme and his wife and feel embarrassed: what about Sake has gotten me so spooked?
Thanking them for their time, rushing to catch a matatu that‟s about to leave for Goma, I
feel ashamed, as if I‟m running away from something. For the twenty minutes it takes us
to reach town, I try to figure out what it is.
Back in town I feel dejected, I was hoping to have a rousing send-off today but instead
feel like a part of me was wrong, wrong about Congo and everything. The sky is low, a
light rain is falling. I walk to the end of the Sake road, turn, the rain is steady, the clouds
are flat and gray, it looks like they‟re stretched across the whole of Congo. The cars rush
by, their windows are fogged, the drivers stare grimly ahead. Across the road I hear
music, loud and tinny and discordant notes carrying through the air. I wonder if there is
some political rally, some public- health crusade, but no, there are two churches side by
side, one is clapboard, the other is built from corrugated tin, and they both have gospel
music blasting from their cheap Chinese speakers. Inside the benches are mostly empty –
it is a Wednesday afternoon – but still there are some women and children clapping,
singing, shuffling from side to side. I stand there watching, listening, trying to understand
this faith and devotion and rapture. One of the women joyously wags her hands. Another
has a tin can full of beans that she shakes in time to the music.
Out front are a dozen buses and lorries, a few men in soiled overalls circle, carrying
wrenches and spanners. There are others sitting beside a giant Caterpillar bulldozer, they
are drivers and mechanics, but they say they have not had work for weeks. Maybe I can
give them something for bananas? “Pole sana,” I say. I‟m sorry. “Pole sana,” he says,
and then, as I‟m walking away, “Pole Congolaise.”
The confusion, the sudden sadness and bitterness I feel, doesn‟t lift on the way back to
Cirezi, and it doesn‟t pass until I‟ve found a cheery watering hole close to the hotel. It is
exactly what my sagging spirits need: music, laughter, brochettes, and bottles of Primus
about the size of my forearm. There are dozens of tables and chairs arranged around a
gravel courtyard, and a white-tile dancefloor with a disco ball twirling over it. It is hardly
six, but a number of parties seem to be deep into their Wednesday-night drinking sessions
already. The lighting is dim; I can barely make out the faces around me. The waitresses
with their crowded serving trays bustling through the dark like shadows. The music is
mellow, Congolese: an easy guitar rhythm, a lilting male voice riding the chords with
some lovesick ode. A single couple gets up and sways side to side on the dancefloor. She
is a husky girl in a pink tank-top and pink skirt; he, slender, in blue jeans and a shiny red
shirt, clutches her like a live preserver. In the background, the clack-clacking of pool
balls. Twice the power goes out as I labor through my brochettes. There is genial laughter
as the Christmas lights and disco ball again flicker to life over the dancefloor. This is the
Congo, after all. There are graver things to worry about on a night when, for now at least,
the world is at peace.
An hour later I am on the back of a motorbike, puttering down the Sake road to meet
Patrick. He is waiting for me in front of a small, fluorescent- lit bottle shop; outside, on
the road‟s shoulder, a few plastic tables and chairs are occupied by a boozy crowd. Two
groups of men are drinking, conversing in loud tones, their eyes glazed over. Now and
then a waitress will come out to get pawed and sweet-talked. Patrick watches all this
sullenly; the waitress, it seems, is a former sweetheart. I suggest moving the party to Sun
City, but he balks. “At Sun City, there is many violence,” he says. “They like to take the
bottles, to fight.” The merry commotions I‟d heard night after night through the wall, it
seems, were not altogether merry.
We sit on the roadside, drinking lukewarm beers, watching the occasional lorry come
barreling down the road. Many truck drivers prefer to travel at night, says Patrick, to
avoid the bribes they have to pay during the day. It was something I witnessed that
afternoon, when the conductor aboard my matatu hopped out at a light and exchanged a
brief greeting with a policewoman. As we drove away, I could see her through the rear
window, unfolding the 100- franc notes he had pressed into her palm.
This was nothing – this was Congolese life. You put up with these daily hassles, you kept
your head down and you worked and you hoped for the best. Things are looking up, says
Patrick. It‟s not like it was in 2008, when Nkunda and his troops had threatened the city.
Then the general‟s Rwandan sponsors turned on him; today he awaits a war-crimes trial
that many in the Great Lakes prefer not to see. Who knows what names will be named?
Even now, says Patrick, you had the Rwandans poking their noses around near Walikale,
looking to exploit the region‟s great mineral wealth. He remembers the chaos a decade
ago, after the Rwandans had chased out Mobutu and decided, on their way back to Kigali,
that the Kivus weren‟t such a bad place after all. Suddenly a tiny, mineral- less country
was exporting diamonds and gold. “They invent a war when they want to make money,”
says Patrick, shaking his head. War and profits are two things these Kivu Congolese
know something about.
But now they are getting on with their lives. Patrick is making a good life for himself
here, he says. “If you are intelligent, you are able to make money here,” he says. It‟s not
like the problems in South Kivu, where he was born. “In Bukavu, there is too much
tribalism,” he says. “Here, they will give you a job because you are inte lligent, because
you are able.” Patrick, intelligent and able, has managed to find a place for himself here.
And even if things sour, he says, with a shrug, he has learned more than a few things
about survival. With five dollars, he says, he can last for two weeks – 200 francs for the
bus to work, $1 for a sack of beans that can last for days. This knowledge, this grim
arithmetic of survival, is another part of Congolese life.
“You have to be courage to live here,” he says.
We finish our beers and exchange promises to keep in touch, hoping our paths might
cross again. I tell him to look me up if he ever makes it to Johannesburg – from here, an
impossible journey – and he says why not, laughing, clapping my shoulder.
“If you tell me they have beer, they have girls, I like to travel there,” he says. And then I
climb on the back of a motorbike to take me home.
Coda – April 15
The rain now seems endless, the same rain falling on me yesterday afternoon is falling on
me again, it is turning the streets to mud, it is raining on all of Congo. Lying in bed last
night, I had thought of taking one last valedictory tour around town this morning, looking
for some message or prophecy from this place I hardly know. But the sky is a low gray
canvas, the clouds are grumbling, it is time to go, I think, packing my bags, resting my
duffel on one knee on the back of a moto, time to go as I buy samosas at Kivu Market for
the trip to Kigali, as I press my last few dollars into my moto driver‟s soggy palm at the
border, it is time, I think, time to go home.
The Virunga Punctuel is musty, the windows are fogged – the rain has soured
everybody‟s moods. It is like being packed into a funeral hearse. Slowly we bump over
the terrible Gisenyi roads, lurch over the rocks until we find the smooth pavement. People
begin to stretch their legs, talk quietly into their cell phones. Just a mile from the border,
and already life has returned to the strange sort of normalcy of today‟s Rwanda. I had
thought this bus ride would bring with it a rush of feelings, an emotional coda to the past
month‟s travels. But there‟s none of that: my mind is washed blank. I tug at my soggy
shorts, try to peel myself from the damp pant legs of the man sitting next to me. I rest my
chin on my backpack, stare at the floor, and begin counting the hours until Kigali.
You feel tempted, at the end of a journey, to take stock, to square your mental accounts
and make sure the emotional ledger is balanced. But after so many words, it feels like
there‟s nothing left to say. My back is to the Congo, and I wonder, now, if I‟ll ever find
my way there again, if I‟ll get to know the country beyond its twin Kivu border posts. In
Goma they had said it was a two-day journey to Kisangani – the roads were good, they
did not say it was dangerous, it was impossible or crazy: just that it was two days‟ time.
For a few minutes I think about this on the Virunga bus, think about what I would do if I
had the money and the weeks to spend. Probably I could get into a minibus in Goma, or
climb on top of some transport truck with the husky singing women and beanpole men
who live their brave, thrifty lives in the interior. It was two days to Kisangani; and surely
there was some other place just a day from there, and another, and on and on, until you
reached Kinshasa or New York or the ends of the earth.
That will be a trip for another time – today, just the thought exhausts me. I watch the hills
of Rwanda out the window, hear the words forming in my head. (I watch the hills of
Rwanda…) I think of what last words there are to say, and I decide that it‟s simply a
matter of reaching the end, of putting down your pen when you‟ve decided there‟s
And then it‟s done.