Tag Archives: laurent nkunda

You have to be courage to live here.

Editor’s note: This is the last in a series of posts chronicling my travels in Rwanda and eastern Congo earlier this year.

To start at the beginning, click here.

Day 25 – April 14

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.

The matatu to Sake

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 and 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 phone, 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 blasts 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 has some motive for coming. Judging from some of the hard looks in the crowd, I can assume such motives aren’t always good.

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 laugh, 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 intelligent, 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 nothing left.

And then it’s done.

I am just a poor journalist.

Editor’s note: This is the twenty-second in a series of posts chronicling my travels in Rwanda and eastern Congo earlier this year.

To start at the beginning, click here.

Day 22 – April 11

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 [Ed. note: Still yet to run, FY fucking I.] – 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 trip.

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 author 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.”

Doctor's orders: a mural warns against multiple partners

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 counter 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.