Editor’s note: This is the fifteenth in a series of posts chronicling my travels in Rwanda and eastern Congo earlier this year.
To start at the beginning, click here.
Day 15 – April 4
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, staring 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 capital, 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 shortcomings, 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 school 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 their 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.