Tag Archives: “paul kagame”

Welcome home.

Wednesday, November 9.

[N.B. – In the usual messy spirit of this blog, I’m fast-forwarding a few weeks, as I still try to cope with the terrible backlog of things I’d like to write about Kenya. Below are some thoughts since arriving in Rwanda this week. In the days and weeks ahead, I’ll continue to fill in the blanks from Kenya in my typical, shitty, roughshod way. Thanks for bearing with me.]

You know you are back before you’ve even hit the tarmac, because the hills outside the window are green and seem to go on forever. You remember the phrase you heard before, how they called this place “God’s country.” Kenya is far behind you now; if you flew over the endless tree-freckled plains of the Maasai Mara, or the great silver saucepan of Lake Victoria, you can hardly remember. The world beneath you is lush, abundant, and you’re flying close enough now to make out the tiny figures of motorbikes and bicycles moving over dirt roads, the flash of sunlight on tin roofs. Banana plants, palm trees, the little hilltop shambas of manioc and taro and maize. The green quiltwork of a land cultivated to within an inch of its life. The pilot announces your first descent, into Bujumbura: the flight is a puddle-jumper, passengers hop on and off along the route from Nairobi to Buja to Kigali and then back to Nairobi, like a matatu. Lake Tanganyika, fingers of land jutting into it, the mountains of eastern Congo like a man who took his last tired steps and slumped onto his side. On the tarmac you pick up a WiFi signal. The second “u” in Bujumbura hangs crookedly from the terminal. There is a door for departures and a door for arrivals and a door into the salon d’honneur, for VIPs. A dapper man sits beside you, he has an Afro and a pair of flared plaid pants, a spiritual descendant of Fela Kuti, some Highlife legend. His accent is posh, he is visiting from Oxford. Family? Friends? The rural health clinic he founded? He doesn’t say. You try to place this man in your mental geography of the region. Perhaps his parents fled the ethnic pogroms of the ‘60s. Or were killed: he was raised an orphan in the UK. Some sympathetic, church-going retirees took him in, gave him the best of everything. He’s come back to discover his roots, to find some lost sibling, long thought dead. Or is visiting the parents who are, in fact, still alive. They had fled to Kigali, to Zaire. His father had worked in the Belgian consulate. His father was a prince. You cannot imagine this black man with a BBC accent being a casual tourist. To Burundi, of all places. This little forgotten country in the troubled heart of a troubled region. Last year the opposition parties boycotted the presidential elections; Agathon Rwasa, the leader of the last of the rebel groups, just went and disappeared. Rumors that he is hiding out in the dense, lawless forests of eastern Congo, that the FLN is regrouping, planning to reignite the civil war that destroyed this country. A few weeks ago there was a massacre in a border town, more than 30 people shot dead by soldiers in Congolese army uniforms. A witness said they were given instructions, “Make sure there’s no survivors.” To leave not a trace, no eyes to bear witness and record and remember. Memory in these parts is a dangerous thing.

We lift off again, adieu, adieu, Burundi, à la prochaine fois, dear heart. It takes 30 minutes to pass through the looking glass, to cross the imaginary line that divides two countries which share so much and so little. Dysfunctional Burundi, slouching toward another war, its great open-hearted people held hostage by kleptomaniacs and thugs; and now Rwanda, the West’s darling, the land of a thousand hills and a million miracles, of 8% annual growth, a marvel in boardrooms, on spreadsheets, a land that when I close my eyes to picture it resembles a clenched fist. The sky is blue, dazzling, as we coast onto the runway: the very heavens seem to be smiling on Kigali. A battalion of blue-capped peacekeepers, South African flags stitched to their fatigues, is waiting in single file on the tarmac. They’re holding flipcams and pointing cameras at us, maybe getting some cheap, prosaic thrill out of the simple fact of our existence, their senses scrubbed dull by long, hard months in the Congo. A Europair plane is waiting for them. Their very souls seem rumpled, worn. Off they go, homeward bound, back to Johannesburg and Nelspruit and Port Elizabeth, to the families who have sung Sunday hymns for them, to mothers who have bent on creaking knees, Lord Jesus, please, bring that one back in one piece. A man beside me, his suit double-breasted, his face double-chinned, carries a leather bag with a nametag that reads, Hon. J.B. Dauda, Foreign Minister, Sierra Leone. Another, fedora’d, speaking elegant French into his cellphone, holds a garment bag that says Francesco Armmani. Inside, the terminal has hardly changed. The immigration official is lean and frank and cheerless. The woman at the forex bureau is reading the Bible. A Rwandair billboard on the street outside says, Ikeze Iwacu: Welcome Home.

I am told that I once spent nearly six months living in Kigali, though this seems hard to believe. From June-December 2009, I rented a room in a beautiful house in Remera, a three-bedroom with a small garden and a lovely hillside location that faced the morning sun. The house had high ceilings and the common rooms were flooded with sunlight; of the grainy memories I have of that time, what I remember best is writing at the dining room with my morning coffee, the garden full of birdsong, the cries of children floating up from the valley. The mornings were tranquil, but it was a busy house: turnaround in Kigali is especially high, and every few months, there seemed to be a new face smiling at me in the kitchen as I wiped the sleep from my eyes. We’ve mostly stayed in touch: Lydia, an American, her laugh like automatic gunfire, now mulling a move to South Africa; Kari, who returned to the great wild wilderness of Alberta (me, qua New Yorker, imagining all of Canada between Toronto and Vancouver as great and wild); Francesca, who had come to Kigali with her boyfriend, whose compass poles never quite aligned with African life, now back in Italy, safely on the other side of the Mediterranean. I remember the musical sound of her voice as she and Pietro chattered over coffee in the evening, rehashing the day’s highs and lows. For a long while it was a strong conviction of mine that every house should come with its own pair of Italians.

Fond memories, but perhaps I’m mentally varnishing that period of my life, giving it an unnatural shine. In many ways, those were low months for me: I was broke, anxious, my career was going nowhere. Just a couple of months ago in Cape Town, visiting an old Kigali friend, I was reminded just how unhappy, how unsure of my footing, I was. (This was long before Harper’s and Conde Nast Traveler, before The New York Times.) It is hard to remember now how the days and weeks passed, the mileage I accrued on the backs of motos whisking me from Remera to Kimihurura to UTC. Little writing survives from that time; no doubt my Gmail archive is crowded with the futile pitches I sent to countless editors, emails that were sent and resent and always unreturned. Struggling to recreate those months, I’ve consulted a certain Delphic document, known only as “spent.doc,” in which I’ve been filing my daily expenses for the past three years. But here my cryptic notes leave few crumbs; whole days are recorded as little more than moto, moto, coffee, moto, beer, beer, moto. Perhaps this is revealing in its own way. But what fears, what abiding passions guided me through those months, grasping toward some distant fulfillment, have been buried by the steady passage of time.

And here is Kigali now, the hills knuckling under a cloudless sky, the airport road smooth as a pool table. The median is planted with palm trees, a long, leafy colonnade, as neatly manicured as Versailles. (Later in the week, briskly crossing one such median at night, I’ll be tsk-tsk’d by a Rwandan woman: walking on the grass, she says, is against the law.) The city has been growing, new construction projects flank the road, the rickety wooden scaffolding, the blue reflective windows much-loved in this part of the world. Sun Rise House, Agaseke House. The distant skyline of the city center, the swooping necks of construction cranes, new office buildings which could’ve been transplanted from Dubai. The phallic thrust of City Tower. “You can see it is changing,” my taxi driver says, chuckling, no doubt attuned to the Western platitudes we whites always utter upon setting foot in this, the great “African success story.” (Remembering here the memorable story about 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?”) Passing through Remera, Chez Lando, the Ndoli’s supermarket I trudged up the hill towards, shopping bag clinking with empty beer bottles. And then clinking again as I walked down the hill, the bottles now full.

There seems to be more traffic now in the city center, though perhaps it’s just my imagination: Rwanda, more than any country I know, breeds a certain kind of indoctrination. You believe in this country’s rapid growth and development partly because you see it, partly because you’ve been reading about the “Rwandan renaissance” for years. Past the Union Trade Centre another skyscraper nears completion. Then a corridor of bank towers, acres of blue glass, and a new city hall, still under construction, which looks roughly the size of the U.S. Capitol. In the afternoon, after I’ve checked into my hotel, after I’ve griped about the shitty value-for-money that, more than anything else, tells me I’m back in Rwanda, I have a coffee at the Serena Hotel. A peacebuilding symposium is in town, a UN-backed summit in which conference delegates look for ways to import the Rwandan-miracle model into their own shattered post-conflict countries. (Thus the morning’s tarmac’s Honorable Foreign Minister from Sierra Leone.) In the lobby, I manage to get my hands on a slick piece of propaganda for conference attendees, touting the 17th anniversary of Rwanda’s “liberation.” Glossy pictorials, fawning column inches. And then the obligatory tribute to the country’s Vision 2020, a computer-generated image of a futuristic downtown that looks less like Kigali than Kuala Lumpur. An American woman in a pantsuit, heels clicking briskly across the lobby, is calling out, “Ambassador! Ambassador!” Pragmatic faces at every table, a sense of handshake agreements, details to be ironed out, bold new partnerships being forged.

Above the reception desk, that familiar glower. His Excellency. The honorable and venerable P.K. I can think of no other country which has been so totally and swiftly forged in the smithy of one man’s will. You can imagine him sitting at his executive desk beneath a picture of himself; his face is hard, frank, practical. Consultants, advisors, multi-national supplicants come and go, bent at the waist, obsequious, bearing contracts and promises and opium visions, like Coleridge’s Kublai Khan. I’m reminded of stories I heard about apartheid South Africa, an isolated nation whose people were nevertheless eager to adopt any new technology, tinker with it, try it on for size. Yearning to be a part of the wider world. And so it is in Kigali, where a sign outside the Kenya Airways office in town touts the latest fares to Hong Kong, Guangzhou and Dubai. Bureaucracies have been trimmed and streamlined. Starting a business in Rwanda is roughly as expensive and time-consuming as ordering a cup of coffee. (An informative exercise is to compare that same process in other countries, such as, say, Nigeria.) A friend, a health care worker, tells me how a study had been brought to the Health Ministry’s attention last year, showing the causal relationship between bare feet and certain species of worms. Within days, the government had passed legislation requiring all Rwandans to wear shoes; it was around this time that I, much mystified, noticed the proliferation of cheap, plastic, primary-colored sandals around the countryside. “If we do a study, and we can prove something works, the government will pass legislation next week,” my friend says to me.

We are eating pizza and drinking magnums of Rwandan beer at Sol e Luna. My old house is just down the hill, a five-minute walk. The lights on the hillside are winking; somewhere far below us, we can hear children’s laughter, a stray dog howling at a near-full moon. The night air is bracing, and I feel a brief, sharp pang for the tidy little autocracy I once called home. How lovely and simple life can be here, for those gifted and blessed enough to have forex in their bank account. Around us the tables are full of white diners (another, less flattering, reminder of South Africa creeps into my mind). I wonder, often, about this Rwandan renaissance. The country’s leaders are certainly speeding ahead; often, though, you get the sense that Rwandans themselves are struggling to keep up. I recount at the dinner table a conversation I’d had earlier in the day, with a journalist friend and a young businesswoman from Kenya. She was looking to start an IT firm in Kigali, but had found the country still lagging far behind its glossy reputation. It was easy to start a business here, but there was still a terrific shortage in qualified manpower. In all likelihood she’d have to bring skilled workers from Nairobi, then hire and train a Rwandan manager who could help bridge the language and culture gaps. The much-lauded ICT infrastructure was still primitive; even the power supply was terribly unreliable.

Almost on cue, the hill across the valley goes dark. “Like a Christmas tree,” my friend says. We sit there staring out at the darkness; closer to us the houses glow like pearls of light, cars curve along bends in a road lit like a seam of gold. For a few moments I remember the frustrations of living in Kigali, the cursed Remera house where the power was spotty, where we would often go days without water. But the reverie doesn’t last; the lights are back on almost as soon as they’d vanished. The city is back in business.

You know, like Vegas.

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

To start at the beginning, click here.

Day 16 – April 5

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-month visa.

(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, simply 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.

The view from the Internet cafe

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 seemed.

Scenes from commemoration week, 2008

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 huddled 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. [Ed. note: For some brilliant reading on the UN’s recently released report on Rwandan – and other – atrocities in the Congo, click here.]

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 personal 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, mustachioed, 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 change.

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.

In Goma, even the billboards confuse the fuck out of me

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.

The jewel of the Black Continent.

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

To start at the beginning, click here.

Day 10 – March 30

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 into Bukavu.

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?

Retire with dignity: does happy old age await Rwandans today?

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. What’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, being 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.

Just when you thought it was safe to leave Burundi…

Having spent the past three months getting neither shot by bandits nor maimed by flying hand grenades; having dodged Documentation – Burundi’s dreaded secret police – and suffered no more than a bit of sunburn after an epic session of doggy-paddling in Lake Tanganyika, it would seem like the perfect time to pack up shop, offer a few last merci beaucoups, and retreat to the cool, politically stable, corruption-free, soon-to-be-fully wired hills of Rwanda to catch my breath, before taking the plunge into the lawlessness of eastern Congo.

Sunburn, flaky skin, and other things you won't find in the State Department's latest travel advisory

But yesterday’s news out of Kigali, where simultaneous grenade attacks claimed at least one person and injured more than two dozen others, has been just the latest in a series of sobering stories from Rwanda in recent weeks.

Reuters reports that the three explosions went off within a half hour of one another; according to what I’ve picked up from the blogosphere, they occurred at the Nyabugogo bus station, the Rubangura building, and the restaurant Chez Venant. The latest update from AFP confirms that “two suspects have been detained in relation to simultaneous grenade attacks in the Rwandan capital Kigali that killed one person and injured some 30 others.”

“Two suspects were apprehended, they belong to the Interahamwe militia,” police spokesman Eric Kayiranga told AFP, referring to the extremist Hutu militia responsible for Rwanda’s 1994 genocide….

“Those who commit these kinds of crimes want to sow chaos, intimidate people and kill the genocide survivors,” Kayiranga said.

“We are continuing the investigation and questioning the two suspects,” notably on whether any link exists between the blasts and the August presidential election, he added.

For my Rwandan and Burundian readers, a Kinyarwanda-language article appears at igihe.com, and also offers some pics of the aftermath, including those posted below.

Kigaliwire, an ever reliable source of chatter out of Rwanda, notes that

there have been a number of grenade attacks in Rwanda in recent months. In July, 2009 an attack injured 2 girls at the genocide memorial in central Kigali. In September 2009 four people were killed and 52 injured in an attack in Karambo village, 60 miles south of Kigali. In addition there were three unrelated grenade attacks in December 2009 and another in January 2010.

I’ve reported in the past how hand grenades are a popular form of score-settling in the Great Lakes region, due to their nauseating ubiquity. In Rwanda, though, it’s difficult to dismiss the political dimensions behind such attacks – especially when they occur at the Gisozi memorial, or are used to silence witnesses in gacaca trials, as is so often the case. A grenade attack in Rwanda always seems to require an added level of scrutiny.

Or maybe it just seems that way, since the raison d’etre of the iron-fisted Kagame government remains the threat of Hutu barbarians at the gate. Yesterday’s attacks come against a backdrop of increasing tension and repression ahead of August’s presidential elections. Earlier this month Human Rights Watch published a report urging the government to end its intimidation of opposition parties. “Opposition party members are facing increasing threats, attacks, and harassment in advance of Rwanda’s August 2010 presidential election,” said a statement accompanying the report, published on February 10.

In the past week, members of the FDU-Inkingi and the Democratic Green Party of Rwanda – new opposition parties critical of government policies – have suffered serious incidents of intimidation by individuals and institutions close to the government and the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF). One member of the FDU-Inkingi was beaten by a mob in front of a local government office. The attack appeared to have been well coordinated, suggesting it had been planned in advance.

“The Rwandan government already tightly controls political space,” said Georgette Gagnon, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “These incidents will further undermine democracy by discouraging any meaningful opposition in the elections.”

The Rwandan government and the RPF have strongly resisted any political opposition or broader challenge of their policies by civil society. On several occasions, the government has used accusations of participation in the genocide, or “genocide ideology,” as a way of targeting and discrediting its critics.

Notable is the case of Victoire Ingabire, a controversial politician who returned to Rwanda last month to prepare her candidacy for this year’s election, after spending 16 years abroad. An ethnic Hutu, she quickly found herself on the wrong side of the famously crotchety government and, according to HRW, “has been widely condemned in official and quasi-official media and described as a “negationist” of the genocide for stating publicly that crimes committed against Hutu citizens by the RPF and the Rwandan army should be investigated and those responsible brought to justice.”

Ms. Ingabire: Voted 'Most Likely to Get Pushed Down a Flight of Stairs By an Innocently Whistling Paul Kagame' in her high school yearbook

Two weeks ago, in a case whose details remain contested and ambiguous, Ingabire and her driver were attacked inside a government office as they waited to register their upstart political party.

Police spokesman Supt Eric Kayiranga said Ms Ingabire had jumped the queue at the local government office in Kigali, Rwanda News Agency (RNA) reported.

He said a group of local men attacked her because they were angry that a person who “negates the genocide” could be served before them.

The BBC also reports that he said this with a straight face.

The row over Ingabire has, predictably, taken center stage in the Rwandan press. The New Times – which is to President Kagame as a finely tuned 1733 Montagnana cello is to Yo-Yo Ma – notes in its typically understated manner that Ingabire has “earned herself the most vicious distinction for being the first and only person to publicly espouse a revisionist and Genocide denial position, in relation to the Genocide against the Tutsi, on the Rwandan territory.” The paper also took umbrage with an interview with Ingabire in The East African, noting with a dark sense of foreboding:

Reports that Ingabire’s interview with The East African was masterminded by some intelligence organizations within the region, with a long history of using journalists as agents and assets, if true, do not augur well for regional stability.

The suspicion that this is all an elaborate conspiracy, as opposed to just an earnest bit of reporting on a controversial figure, offers a revealing snapshot of how the Kigali junta views the role of the press in an ostensibly free society.

Which isn’t to say The East African can be excused for its own unbiased approach. “The big question now,” write Charles Kazooba and Esther Nakazzi, “is whether Kagame is ready to tolerate political opposition, or he will continue to use the past as a pretext to crack down on legitimate political dissent.” Sure, it’s not quite as comically one-sided as The New Times’ onanistic View From Kigali; but “tolerate” and “legitimate” are pretty loaded words, given the context.

Still, the interview makes for a fascinating read. On some points, Ingabire comes across as a reasonably sane and level-headed opposition figure. She says,

Kagame’s government is not ready to accept opposition. This is why they sent young men to beat me and my aide two weeks ago – which was a true reflection of the lack of democracy and freedom of expression in Rwanda.

This treatment extends to all opposition politicians. Kagame must accept that there is an opposition that needs political space. We are not enemies. Instead, he uses the genocide ideology against us. The genocide took place 16 years ago and now is the time for democracy.

These are points that, in various diplomatic and civil society circles I’ve encountered in both Rwanda and Burundi, are rarely disputed by anyone whose name doesn’t rhyme with “salami.”

But Ingabire’s relationship to the FDLR remains ambiguous. Some of her assertions are a bit too cannily worded to be taken at face value.

The FDLR claims to be fighting for peace. They also accept that some of their members took part in the genocide. Everybody involved in genocide and crime against humanity committed in Rwanda has to be judged. Our argument is political space – it would solve the problem.

While lack of political space is certainly a problem in Rwanda, I’m not entirely sure that extends to the FDLR, for whom a campaign of murder, rape, violence and general thuggery seems to be the more salient problem. And when she fussily refuses to “discuss with the media details concerning the sources of [her party’s] funds,” you have to wonder whether the clumsy, heavy-handed assertions of The New Times about some of Ingabire’s political and financial allegiances might not have some small basis in fact.

In the end, the paper seems to hit the nail squarely on the head. “To certain Rwandan politicians, Genocide is an unfinished business,” says the paper, while referring to Ingabire. And the same could just as well be applied to the RPF leadership who continue to use the legitimate horrors of the genocide as a means to enforce an emergency rule without end. In Rwandan politics, the genocide is always an unfinished business.