Tag Archives: rwanda

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 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.

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 weather is not good for them.

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

To start at the beginning, click here.

Day 12 – April 1

Coffee, again, at the Hotel du Lac. After yesterday’s catastrophic failures at the border, I’m oddly at peace with myself this morning. I’ve faced, I think, the worst of my demons. Today, my fate is in the hands of Etienne and Justin – both of whom had promised to lobby on my behalf throughout the night. For this first hour of what will turn out to be a grand April Fool’s joke on this particular April Fool, I can tell myself I’ve done about as much, so far, as I can possibly do.

In the deep end, in Cyangugu.

Justin calls just a few minutes after ten – he is on his way to Cyangugu. Soon we’re sitting together on the terrace of the Hotel du Lac, and he’s sharing the bad news. “I do not know what the problem is in Bukavu,” he says, shaking his head. South Kivu’s internal politics have been simmering; the province is a mess. The governor has been summoned to Kinshasa to explain himself. In Bukavu, the opposition is agitating for power. “They are trying to get the commandment of Bukavu,” says Justin. His uncle – some low-level cog, I suspect, in the ruling party machine – is afraid to cause trouble at such a critical moment for the party. Justin sighs. “The weather is not good for them,” he says. His uncle can’t step in on my behalf. Justin has done all he could.

When bad news comes, I prefer to take it all in one dose. By half-past ten, with still no word from Etienne, I decide to play what I suspect is my final card. Etienne’s voice is strained when he picks up the phone – I know the news is not good. The director in Goma has been trying his colleague in Bukavu throughout the night – still no answer. The message, for Etienne, is clear. “I think he is working with those men,” he says. His voice is deflated; my spirits sink. With the failure of this powerful maneuver, I know I’m out of options. Etienne wishes me luck with whatever I decide. “I’m sorry I have failed on my side,” he says.

Justin can see my mood has soured. He, too, is out of advice for me. With the door in Bukavu having slammed in my face, though, I’ve shifted from despair to resolve. It is hardly eleven; I can still make Gisenyi by nightfall. The day would be wasted – a grim daisy-chain of bumpy bus rides through the Rwandan hinterlands – but there’s nothing stopping me from strolling into Congo tomorrow morning. I share my plan with Justin. It’s clear this is the only way. Now I find myself trying to console him. He’s taken these past few days awfully hard. Though he knows better than I do the headaches and hurdles of life in the Congo, his pride in his country has been wounded. “It is a problem with Kabila,” he says. “A guest comes to knock on your door, you have to open first. This is not good politics.” He is not surprised, but still: the Congo has let him down.

With Justin, at the Hotel du Lac.

We embrace with great warmth – it is humbling how hard he and Etienne have lobbied for me – and say goodbye to the Hotel du Lac, to Cyangugu. I promise to keep him posted on my progress – despite the change in plans, I should still be in Bukavu some time next week – and off he goes, his bright white sneakers beating a path up the hill.

Now I’ve shifted into travel mode. It’s close to eleven: if I want to reach Gisenyi by nightfall, I probably should have left two hours ago. My mood is brisk. Money is exchanged – my stack of U.S. dollars has been dwindling all week – sweet loaves of ndazi bread are bought for the long journey, and soon I’m on the Horizon Bus to Kampala, by way of Kigali, the seats all but empty as we chug up the hill toward Kamembe.

Leaving Cyangugu, the bay glittering, sunlight glinting off the roofs in the slums of Bukavu, a powerful feeling catches in my throat. This has been a memorable week, and I’m oddly at peace as Bukavu disappears behind a bend in the road. For all the moronic waste of today’s journey, I don’t regret having come all this way only to be turned away at the border. Yesterday was educational; these, the border official might have said to me, are the facts of life. (Thinking of that legless man, the force of his shoulders, the short brisk strides and the powerful thrust of his walking stick. Thinking of the shrewd old woman wheeling her way uphill, the effrontery of that much put-upon face, the indignities of age, of her handicap, of the flesh.) A week from now I’ll be looking across the same bay, from the other side. A certain sense of dark comedy is, I suspect, a necessary survival skill in the Congo.

The bus is barreling now from Kamembe. Adieu, Faustin, Lazare! There are only five, six of us onboard, and I suspect this is an unscheduled journey – that the driver of the Kampala-Kigali line, in cahoots with some associates, has tacked on a side route for his own benefit. Why else would Horizon – a shuttle service between the major East African urban centers – Kigali, Kampala, Juba, Nairobi, Dar es Salaam – why would Horizon extend its route to Cyangugu, of all places? We stop along the way – sacks of charcoal, of potatoes, are tossed under the bus. Small money changes hands. Yes, this is probably a profitable racket. We stop in small towns – a solitary passenger, an old man with a battered suitcase, boards, smiles, looks around, settles fussily into a seat. In Ntidenzi, schoolgirls are skipping rope outside a primary school. They stop, smile, stare. Some classmates join them, everyone laughing and waving vigorously as we leave little Ntidenzi behind.

We pass for miles with nothing but tea plantations on either side of the road. Then a forest of blue gum trees – tall, slender, silver-barked, rocking in the wind. These you’ll find now all across Africa – non-indigenous, as native as yours truly. The blue gums grow quickly – it takes just five years, a man once told me, for a tree to reach maturity. In Rwanda, as in much of Africa, with its forests taxed by a rapidly growing population, these blue gums are planted to counter the effects of deforestation. In just a few years, a barren hill will be covered with trees – these become charcoal, firewood. But the effects, I’m told, will be disastrous. A South African farmer once described how quickly these selfish trees drink the water from the soil. The earth here is being depleted. But what else do you tell the villagers, who only know that they need these trees for survival?

Now we are entering Nyungwe Forest, the national park – the road cuts through one of Rwanda’s last pristine places. The mountains are covered in dense forest, lit by patches of sunlight. The climate changes. The clouds are low, rain begins to fall. Through the thick jungle cover we go, the trees draped with liana and creepers, vines hanging from the branches. It is a picture-book jungle, Curious George – the kind you see in cartoons with swinging monkeys and apes. It’s rare to see such wild places in Rwanda, with its carefully cultivated landscapes, its terraced hills. Thousands of years ago, the whole country must have looked like this. Our ancestors beating their chests and howling violently in the treetops. We stop. Villagers gather on the roadside, waiting for a lift. Somewhere in all that forest, still you find some settlements. They board, small bills clutched in their hands. Some wait – for a free ride, maybe, a passing friend. Others sell oranges, rough-husked fruits. In places we slow: a landslide has blocked part of the road. Piles of rock, mud, branches, sediment. A lorry passes, huffing slowly uphill and dragging a second trailer behind it. Across the windshield are the words, “Jesus is Life.”

Now the trees begin to thin, here and there you see hilltops denuded and trees stripped bare. Suddenly, more of those alien blue gums, and you know you are close to human populations again. The forest vanishes. Villages, small vegetable plots, farmers in their fields. The sunlight is bright – the clouds seem to hang over Nyungwe. Then more towns, bigger, rows of shops, banks. We are approaching Butare, and now we pass tourist hotels, cars, new constructions on the side of the road. You are impressed, coming out of the forest, to see the freshness and vitality of these towns. So much development along the road from Butare to Kigali. A difference from the neglected backwaters on the rough lake roads.

The day is growing long, too long. We are four, five hours out of Cyangugu – the landscape is monotonous. I read, doze off. We stop – dozens of secondary school students board. Suddenly the bus is full. Laughter, flirtations, the smell of body odor. The girl beside me reads from a book of hymnals. I close my eyes, open them, begin to count the mile markers. We pass rice paddies – scores of gacaca convicts, in their pink shirts and shorts, bending, working. More rainfall. The scene of an accident. A bicyclist, a prone body, on the side of the road; a bunch of bananas. My seat is hard, and I can’t find a way to arrange myself comfortably. Someone in front of me leans her head out the window and vomits. I close my eyes. When I open them, we’re in Kigali.

The city continues to grow on me – a place so sleepy and scrubbed that a friend once dubbed it “the Morgantown, West Virginia, of Africa.” But after two weeks upcountry it seems livelier, fresh, more boisterous than I remember. The streets are crowded, buses and motos, bodies dodging traffic, the rush-hour swarm. We reach Nyabugogo – craters, puddles like vast inland seas. It seems remarkable that a government which can lay hundreds of miles of fiber-optic cable across the country can’t build a decent fucking bus station. Women clutch at the hems of their dresses, step daintily. People waving, calling, an ecstasy of partings and reunions. The bus has finally stopped; outside, an angry crowd. They are going to Kampala – the bus, I suspect, is way behind schedule. We made terrible progress through the rain. Now they are thirsty for blood; we have to push our way through the crowds. I flag down a moto. On the back of the bike, weaving perilously through the traffic on my way to the Virunga Punctuel offices. The duffel bag is perched on my knee, my arm strains to keep it from pulling me off the bike.

The first bus is at half-past six; I have half an hour to kill. I am, in fairness, glad for the extra time. I stock up on samosas and congealed pizzas for the ride, make a bathroom run at the UTC. The place is packed – the crowds look so prosperous here. Cufflinks, sunglasses, high heels, earrings. Men who, if asked, would describe themselves simply as “businessmen.” So much noise and commotion, after the silence of the lake. As charmless as this place is, I realize how much I’m going to miss it: my thrice-weekly visits to Bourbon Coffee, my late-night runs to the 24-hour Nakumatt, the tall, slender university girls and preppily dressed boys strutting on their Friday-night promenades.

The feeling swells as our bus leaves Kigali, the lively streets, the constellations of lights strung across the hills. All day, since leaving Nyungwe, with the sun pouring its blessing on the hills and town after energetic town scrolling by, I’ve had an odd sense of faith in this country. In Kigali, too, with all the optimistic bustle, it struck me that maybe, for all my skepticism about reconciliation in Rwanda, this country really can pull through – that with enough jobs and development, enough growth trickling down to the collines, this country might actually get past the politics of genocide, divisionism, hate.

The optimism, this high feeling, catches in my throat. Along the road to Gisenyi, thinking about these past two weeks, I realize that I’ve never felt as strongly about Rwanda as I do right now. After all these months – stretching back to my first visit two years ago – Rwanda has finally grown on me.

Silently, I pour out my heart. The honeymoon is brief. An hour from the city, on a high backcountry road, the bus begins to rattle, a flat. This day – fittingly, April Fool’s – will never end. A lesser or more superstitious man might have gotten the cosmic hint and headed back to Kigali. We stand on the side of the road; the lights of the city cast a luminous dome over the hills. Together eight, ten of us stand in the mud, pushing against the side of the bus so the driver can remove the flat. The night is brisk. Men and women, villagers, appear, briefly passing through the headlights. An old man, short, friendly, greets me, shaking my hand. “Me hungery, me hungery,” he says, still smiling. I tell him I’m sorry, I have nothing; he laughs, shakes his head, wanders off. The road is pitched in darkness. I stand 20 feet behind the bus, staring at the stars, imagining myself all alone here, lost in the world. What a strange thing, this 21st-century soul. Bound to the earth. Wheeling around on our curious revolutions. Lassoed to an indifferent galaxy. Confronted on all sides by cosmic laughter. And believing ourselves somehow noble and brave and good.

Soon two bright headlights – an empty bus, sent to retrieve us and take us the rest of the way. We transfer our bags, settle into our seats. Everyone has arranged themselves in the same order from the first bus, and for some reason, this surprises and impresses me greatly. My window seat is vacant, waiting for my tired behind. I sit, bury my head in my hands, try to will the day to completion. There are too many twists in the road to nod off. Dark, silent towns pass in the night. We reach Ruhengeri – hotels, cheerful and welcoming; bars strung with Christmas lights. The moon comes out from behind the clouds. Mist fills the valleys. Mountains silhouetted against the light of the sky. This day has had some magic, too. The bus stops in villages left off the maps. People depart, walk stoically into the darkness. Men tug at their collars. Women kick off their heels, hoping to catch some sleep. Finally, Gisenyi.

It has taken close to twelve hours to get here from Cyangugu. Looked at differently: after nearly two weeks, I’m right back where I started. I slog down the road, surrounded by street kids – they are more aggressive, more demanding after dark. At my cheery little auberge, a group of young ex-pats, aid workers, most likely, looking blonde and convivial by the bar. A beer and a good lay – did Stanley have such simple hopes on his great African expeditions? But then the day’s final indignity: the rooms are all booked. As if Rwanda has prepared one last kick in the ass to send me into the Congo. I haul my bags back down the road, ignoring the catcalls of the street kids, thinking uncharitable thoughts about these goddamn orphans. A shifty youth greets me at the door of the grim Gisenyi City View Hotel, as disreputable a place as you’ll find in this lakeside resort town. We have to wake the manager, asleep in what will soon be my bed. He emerges from the room, sleepy, shirtless, smelling of booze. I am prepared to sleep in the garden if I have to. Then the lights go out.

I take out my flashlight, muttering, bickering, insulted that I’m paying close to fifteen U.S. bucks for this stuffy, wretched room. Briskly the sheets are changed, tidings for the night – good or otherwise – are exchanged. This long day is finally over. It’s approaching midnight as my head hits the pillow. It’s practically tomorrow already.

Me no money, me no go.

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

To start at the beginning, click here.

Day 11 – March 31

Another restless night. Not surprising. When I wake, heart racing, just after six this morning, I’m already juggling through unpleasant scenarios at the border. Bribes, detentions, angry interrogations. Demands for imaginary fees: a camera fee, a tourist fee, a fee for carrying an extra pair of sneakers. Dear Lord, don’t let the word “journalist” come up!

I’ve made my preparations, most of which involve stashing bundles of various currencies on different parts of my body, not sure how many bribes – and in which currencies and denominations – might be necessary to get me across the border. I’ve punched some phone numbers into my phone, too – friends who will, I hope, be able to get me out of a tight spot, should things not go according to my admittedly half-assed plan.

Wishful thinking: saying goodbye - sort of - to Rwanda

With a few cheery waves and brisk goodbyes, I leave Cyangugu just after nine. The Rwandan official – a tribute to her countrymen – stamps and scribbles me through, and then I’m crossing a rusted bridge over the Rusizi and trudging uphill. There is commotion on all sides: porters pushing loaded wheelbarrows up the hill, women carrying boxes and tough nylon sacks on their heads and backs. A police box – an empty shipping container – sits halfway up the hill, and a small health clinic further still. I reach the border post and stroll merrily toward the nearest window. No dice. Foreigners, of course, get the special treatment – far from prying eyes – and so I’m ushered through first one, then another doorway, into a small, congested room whose stifled air suggests the long, unpleasant hours ahead.

Two men, broad, bespectacled, cheerless, sit behind two cluttered desks, hunched like Talmudic scholars over their ledgers. The man in the far corner looks up, gives me a discouraging once-over, and says, simply, “Oui?” I have been preparing for this moment. I hand him my passport and $35 in crisp American bills, smiling nonchalantly, as if I do this sort of thing all the time. He gives my money a dirty look and asks, “Que’st-ce que c’est?” I suspect a long, delicate dance has just begun.

I explain that I’d like to buy an entry visa, and both men sit upright, push themselves back from their desks, as if to get a vantage point from which to better appraise me, and exchange a significant look. A long, heated, mostly one-sided debate ensues, in which my well-rehearsed pleas are brushed aside with an admittedly masterful display of bureaucratic stubbornness. Americans, they explain, must receive their visas from the Congolese Embassy in Washington, D.C. I protest that I’ve been out of the country for close to a year; then, they explain, with perfect reasonableness, I should have written to Kinshasa. I can only imagine what the creaking machinery of Congolese bureaucracy would do to such a letter. I say that I’ve twice visited Goma and bought my visa on arrival, but I can quickly tell this is a foolish gambit: I might as well explain how things work in China. They make disparaging remarks about their North Kivu counterparts, suggesting a less than brotherly bond between the Kivus; and besides, they say, a new law has come into effect – of course! – as of the first of this year. It is impossible for them to issue me a transit visa at the border – simply impossible! That would be against the law. Fortunately, finally, getting to the crux of the matter, there is a convenient loophole in this law, through which I can jump for just three hundred American bucks.

The finer points of this argument are, unfortunately, lost in a barrage of indignant French. Still, it is a brilliant performance. I can tell I am up against higher powers here: the complex mechanisms of the State, the mythical rule of law, the bureaucracy which the Congolese treat with the same gravity and respect the rest of us show colon cancer. I realize now that my hopes for a quick, painless border crossing were foolish ones; and I realize, too, that I’ll need whatever help I can get to make it into Congo.

I dial Etienne, a Rwandan tour operator I’d met in Kigali earlier this month. At the time he’d assured me that the Congolese visa was a breeze: $35 in American bills at the border, just as I’d done it in Goma. How simple everything seemed in Kigali! Etienne claimed to be well-connected with immigration officials on both sides of the border; he knew the rules, he said, as if these things in the Congo weren’t entirely negotiable. Over the phone I explain my case to him. He is attentive, sympathetic. His friend in Bukavu, he says, is unfortunately traveling to Kinshasa at the moment. I ask if he can try to talk some reason into these recalcitrant officials, and he offers to give it a shot. The man nearest me has returned to his paperwork, and when I call to him – once, twice, “Pardon? Pardon?” – his brilliance becomes evident. I wait for one, two, three beats as he dutifully records the latest entry in his ledger. Trappist monks could not go about their work with such religious devotion. Finally he raises his eyes, a master of his craft, almost feigning surprise that I’m still here. He takes the phone and, at great volume, explains the situation to Etienne. The situation, to borrow from the French, seems to be merde. Etienne, in my ear again, is unconvinced. He promises to make some calls to friends in Goma and urges me to sit tight. In the mean time, he says, I should leave these men to their devices. They won’t want a mzungu around, he says, during whatever complex negotiations might ensue.

Outside, sunlight, brilliance. I am put off, but not wholly discouraged, by the morning’s proceedings: really, I should’ve expected as much. I find a spot in the shade, sit on my duffel bag, watch the bustle of this busy crossing. Women are packing bags, stuffing sandals and clothes and cheap Chinese electronics into them, heaving them onto their backs. When they walk they’re almost doubled over, the muscles in their necks straining, their upper bodies parallel to the ground. I imagine they’ll make this same trip back and forth each day to sell their goods in the market. The day’s profits, a bundle of soiled, rumpled bills, will be buried somewhere in their bosoms. At home, there is a secret place they have for safekeeping.

There are the handicapped, too, weathered, shrewd, battered, defiant, straining their way uphill in rusted hand-pedaled tricycles. Because of some quirk in the customs law – a rare piece of beneficence, perhaps, in the cutthroat Congolese world – the handicapped are exempt from paying duties at the border. And so these crafty cripples, spurned by the world, often shunned by their own families, make a dozen trips a day, transporting jerry cans full of gasoline bought cheaply in Kamembe. For the tough uphill climb there is a young boy, barefoot, dressed in soiled rags, pushing from behind. Probably he will get 500 Congolese francs – about 60 cents – for the effort.

These young boys are everywhere, their feet cracked and blistered, in filthy shorts and oversized t-shirts, keeping the border economy going. They are porters carrying sacks of flour up the hill, or vendors selling whatever cheap nutritionless fare – plain white rolls, glucose biscuits, chewing gum, waffles – count as sustenance here. Most, I suspect, have never set foot in school – from an early age, they had to contribute to the family. And yet I suspect these young swift hustlers are learning more valuable lessons here than in some understaffed, underfunded Congolese school. (These Western pieties!) Near the border post a handsome adolescent – he is 15, or 16 – washes the Land Cruisers and 4Runners of Bukavu’s nouveau riche. He is fast, diligent; he charges 1,500 francs – almost $2 – per car. In his employ are two younger boys who carry jerry cans down the hill, filling them with lake water. On a slow day, this young entrepreneur probably takes home ten, fifteen bucks. This is an impressive amount even for a man his father’s age. He wears a smart, buttoned shirt and a pair of crisp denim shorts. He looks wise beyond his years.

A boy approaches me, smiling, his pants torn at the knees, a jerry can tied with a dirty rag over his shoulder. “Mzungu, how are you?” he says. His name is Abdullah. He orbits my small encampment, grinning, grateful for my proximate whiteness. “Me no money, me no go,” he says. I’ve been sitting outside for close to an hour. Join the club, I think.

Now my friend Justin arrives, looking sharp in a blue collared shirt and blue jeans and a bright white pair of New Balance sneakers. We greet each other joyfully – it’s been more than two months since we met in Bujumbura – and exchange the news. We’re interrupted by a call: Etienne has reached his friend, the chef of immigration in Goma, and wants me to send him my passport details. Suddenly the day has brightened. Things are moving forward, it seems, and it’s only 10am.

We stand and talk in the shade, the border circus whirling around us, Bukavu just fifty feet away. When I’d met Justin – briefly, at our hotel in Bujumbura – he had been visiting Burundi to apply for a passport at the Congolese Embassy. This had seemed illogical at the time. But then, I didn’t really know Congo.

“Everything is too much money here,” he explains, gesturing with his chin to the country on the other side of the border control. The cost of applying for a passport in Bukavu was too high – there were too many officials asking for too many bribes. It was easier and cheaper to travel to Bujumbura, where he had studied and lived for five years, than to deal with the bureaucratic hassles in Congo. He laughs, recognizing my similar plight. “Once you get in, it is no problem,” he says. “There is no control.”

Such is the situation for young Congolese in Bukavu, who find a better, easier life waiting as soon as they cross the border. Justin does his shopping in Kamembe; it was corruption at the university in Bukavu that drove him to Buja. “The teacher will call you and say, ‘I am marking your exam. What do you have to give me?’” he says. In Congo, he had no way of knowing what his talents were as a student. As with so much in Congo, it was just a question of how much he could pay.

Now he’s waiting for his passport in Bujumbura, so that he could begin the lengthy process of applying for an American visa. He is already 28 – old for a Congolese bachelor – and he knows how hard it will be to travel once he starts a family. The application process is difficult, though; it all depends on how much money he can show for himself. Already he has thought his expenses through: one hundred dollars a day for a hotel, fifty dollars a day for restaurants, money for transportation. Clearly, Justin is not a typical young Congolese of limited means. But not even these preparations will help his cause. “If I go to show them these calculations at the Embassy, it is not enough!” he says. “If I show them I have five thousand dollars, it is not enough!” And yet how easily he passed between these African borders.

Etienne, now, is on the phone again. No news from Goma. Patience, he counsels. I have nothing else to rely on. We stand and watch the border traffic pass us by. More women, husky, laboring – all day they flow back and forth between the two countries. Some wazungu, too. The UN and NGO staffers pass quickly – probably they are negotiating this border each day. An SUV idles outside the office, a white woman sitting in the back, suitcases piled behind her. Tourist? She doesn’t leave the car. Her driver, a tall, well-dressed man of solid build, carries her papers inside. Even this smooth customer, it seems, is rebuffed. Now he is on the phone. Now another man gets out of the car, confers. Soon they, too, are allowed to pass. Not even a look of pity as they go.

The officials, it seems, have come outside to stretch their legs, and they’re not too pleased to see us here. They have harsh words for Justin and shoo us further down the road. We find a bench, a thin plank of wood, in the shade of a pine tree. Our friend the carwasher is working diligently on an SUV. The owner, handsome, immaculately dressed, watches with intense curiosity. His shoes are spotless – he must have floated over all that mud. Justin greets a friend, a cousin. A student from the university approaches, smiling. Apparently I’d met him a few days before, in Kamembe. He gives me his email address, waves, trots off to catch up with his friends. I have no idea who he is.

We are talking about the Congo, me and Justin, and it is funny to hear him talk about Kinshasa, that far-away place. It is like hearing news from a foreign land. Justin has only heard stories from two brothers who had studied in the capital. It costs nearly $700 to fly to Kinshasa one-way from Bukavu – more than half the cost of a round-trip ticket to New York. To travel overland, of course, is impossible – it would take weeks, even if he could do it safely. But Justin follows the news. He is a keen critic of the president, Kabila the Younger. He says there is a saying in Kiswahili, “Sehemo yangu?” – “Where is my part?” – that explains the Kabila style of governance. Following in the footsteps of his father, and of Mobutu before him. “When I compare here to Bujumbura,” says Justin, “I regret too much.” He gestures to the tarmac road, which, he says, tapers off on the other side of town. The Chinese have been contracted to rebuild the roads in Bukavu – they’ve signed massive infrastructure deals in exchange for minerals all across Congo – but Justin says the quality of their work is poor. The government has no interest in developing the country. “We have money, but no conscience,” he says.

In Congo, it is like the age of the American robber barons. Worse – at least they gave us functioning railroads. The plunder of the Congo has been going on for so long, it has built so many lavish fortunes – in Congo, in Belgium, in France; no doubt in South Africa, America, China, too – that it’s impossible to see a way out. Justin sighs at his country’s wasted riches. “In our soil we have gold, we have diamonds, we have minerals,” he says. “But it is for nothing.” He says he has dreams of becoming president some day. He would like to turn the Congo into a functioning country, one that would work for its people – not against them.

Across the road, up a narrow dirt path, is a grand two-storey house. It belongs to Justin’s uncle, a local politico; on the ground floor he’s built a small restaurant, umbrellas and plastic tables facing Lake Kivu. Now, with storm clouds gathering over the Rwandan hills, Justin suggests we sit on the terrace: the umbrellas, at least, will keep us dry. We climb the muddy hill. At the top a busy youth, the houseboy, is washing laundry in a plastic basin. Justin goes to greet him, to search for his aunt. From the terrace I can see a long line of traffic, bodies and bodies, trudging across the border.

Moments before being forced back to Rwanda.

We sit under the candy-striped beach umbrellas and wait. My spirits are deflating. It’s been three hours now, and still no encouraging news from Etienne. He calls again. The Bukavu immigration chef, it seems, has switched off his phone. Etienne is sorry, sympathetic. “I know how it must be for you,” he says. I thank him with great feeling: already he’s done more than I could have expected. He promises to keep trying throughout the day. I assure him dinner’s on me when I make it back to Kigali.

Justin is standing beside me and we are watching the road. The early-morning traffic of market women and traders is being replaced by students – dozens of Rwandan youths who, like Faustin and Lazare, the two men I met in Cyangugu, cross the border each day to study in Bukavu. Now a man passes, legless, a muscular torso, with sandals tied to the stumps below his knees. He has a walking stick in one hand and a jerry can propped on his shoulder. Justin says he lost his legs to a bomb during the war – the big war, Mobutu’s war, when Rwandan troops stormed across the country to topple the old dinosaur. The fighting in Bukavu was bad. Each day gunfire, bombs, grenades. “That one,” says Justin, pointing to the legless man, “he decided he could not live asking, ‘Do you have money? Do you have money?’ He said, ‘I can still walk, so I can do something.’” The man carried a jerry can full of gasoline up the hill, hobbled back down, carried another. Day after day, this was his life. He might make a $5 profit on each one, says Justin. And there would be other deals, arrangements with people trying to get their goods through customs without paying a tax. “You see that one?” says Justin, pointing to a fretful woman standing in the road with a jerry can beside her. “She is trying to see how she can pass that border without paying a tax. Now she will ask that man to help her.” Sure enough, just seconds later, the woman is negotiating with the legless man. The conversation is brief – probably his asking price is too high. The man stumps off down the hill, taking brisk powerful strides, and the woman, trying her luck, picks up the jerry can and walks slowly toward the border.

The clouds blow in. They part. The road is drenched in sunlight. I’m starting to get hungry – I haven’t eaten all morning – and I know this won’t help my mood. I’m weighing our options when the choice is made for me: blustering down the road, gesticulating wildly, is one of the gruff immigration officials. I’m not sure how he spotted us – we must be 200 feet from the border control – but he is in no diplomatic mood. He wants us clear of the border, back in Rwanda – his whole manner is full of belligerence, threats. I take up my bags and we trundle off; things here can only end badly. Soon we are back at the Rwandan border, sitting on a bench, waiting. I am tired, my mood is sour. And then the rain starts to fall.

This is the low point of the day. If the war is far from over, this battle has been decisively won by the Congolese bureaucrats: I’m back where I started five hours ago. Outside the Rwandan border post, full of pathos and desperate entreaty, I ask a pretty Spanish girl – her manner confident, vigorous – how she plans on crossing the border. But she already got her visa in Spain – no hope that her handlers might be able to spirit me through. Finally, standing in the rain, I admit defeat. I ask the Rwandan official to cancel my exit visa – she is sympathetic, full of harsh words for her Congolese counterparts – and then me and Justin slouch our way to the Home St. François, where at least a hot meal is waiting.

Over potage and piles of rice and beans, I weigh my options. Etienne remains my best bet; Justin’s uncle – some ruling party functionary, no doubt – might prove to be a worthy plan B. There is apparently another border post – Rusizi deux – some 10 kilometers down the road, but I have my doubts. Justin assures me I’ll be able to pass without a hassle, but Justin has never been a white guy in the Congo. There’s a chance, too, that these stubborn bureaucrats will let me bribe my way through – Justin suggests approaching them as my intermediary with a hundred bucks – but this move seems full of potential peril. I might be angrily rebuffed. I might be shaken down for more money. I might spend the night in a Congolese prison, wrapped in the arms of a 300-pound convict whispering hoarsely into my ear, “C’etait bonne, non? C’etait très, très douce.”

The last, least desirable option – the one that even I, with my particular taste for black humor, find hard to swallow – would be to board a bus in the morning, backtrack hundreds of miles via Kigali to Gisenyi, and cross the border into Goma. This tragicomic journey would involve more strength than my tired bones could probably muster; and yet how different I’ll probably feel, come morning, if all the other doors have been slammed shut on me.

All these things circle in my head, synapses firing, as we finish our lunch. It is after two, and I can see that the window of opportunity for this day is closing. It seems pointless to keep Justin here – bless his heart, he’s already spent a full day fretting along beside me. We part with great laughter and warmth and gratitude – it’s been a memorable day – and then I’m again checking into room No. 6 at the Home St. François, exchanging dollars (another headache! most seem to be counterfeits I picked up in Gisenyi), and heading back to the Internet café across the road. There’s a sort of luxury in this: I am relieved, after this long day, to be back in familiar surroundings. Etienne calls again, promising to pursue things on his end throughout the evening. Justin says he will take things up with his uncle. Tomorrow is another day, full, I’m sure, of its own promises and failures.

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.

Little by little. It is very nice.

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

To start at the beginning, click here.

Day 9 – March 29

Glow-in-the-dark Jesus notwithstanding, I sleep soundly. This is, of course, a talent of mine. Years ago, in New York, I was a restless sleeper, an insomniac. Most nights I would be up until three or four, sleeping until mid-day. But then, that was a different life. For nearly four years I was un- or marginally employed. I slept under my parents’ roof, in the same bed I wet as a child. I kept odd hours: working at a restaurant in downtown Brooklyn; canvassing one ill-fated month for a grassroots political party. It was a restless life, it lacked equilibrium. There were all the distractions of home, too: high-speed Internet, hundreds of TV channels, my brother’s wall of DVDs in the basement. It was easy, in all that modern tumult, the confused chatter of endless entertainment, to be a nocturnal beast.

Now I sleep like a stone. Earlier this year, in Burundi, traveling in volatile rural areas, I twice woke in the morning to excited chatter from the other guests. Did I hear the gunshots in the night? No, in fact, I didn’t. A part of me – the ambulance-chasing journalist – felt like I’d missed out. But it is a gift, I guess, to sleep so well. In the morning, it feels like I’m being roused from some ancient depths. Coffee is a solemn, life-giving rite. I wonder if yesterday’s moto ride would have been less grim with a full tank of coffee to get me started in the morning.

Today I’m less sore than I’d feared, but still lethargic. It seems less a physical than a spiritual thing: it’s been a long week. At home in Kigali, in this sort of mood, I would spend the day catching up on the news, emailing friends across the time zones. I don’t know if I’ll allow myself that luxury here. My time is short in Cyangugu – a day, maybe two – and I feel compelled, if I’m going to continue filling these pages, to find some odd character or story that will bring this ramshackle town to life.

And so, again, the Hotel du Lac. It’s easy to see how this place, in its colonial-era heyday, made a smart getaway for a few days. The balconies with their views of the hills, the restaurant with its pleasant riverside terrace, the swimming pool – empty for years, I’m sure – with its optimistic tariffs for month-long memberships. How many families – the Belgians, the French – would come to escape Kigali, the tiresome halls of officialdom, for a few days’ rest? And how often have I seen this same hotel – the dusty rooms, the peeling paint, the empty swimming pool – in Kenya and Uganda, in Malawi and Mozambique? In Bukavu, long past its colonial prime, I expect to see a whole city swallowed by tropical decay, languor. And still, a different, modern, African vitality persists. The family that came to take Fantas on the Hotel du Lac terrace on Sunday afternoon, the mother in her church dress, the little boy in his smartly buckled vest, the daughter in her pretty white shoes: they had probably never known the Hotel du Lac as anything but what it is today. You won’t find them pining for the glory days of the Belgians! And still it is a place to admire the birds in the trees, to watch the pirogues gliding gracefully with the current, to come with your family on a Sunday afternoon, to spend the week’s thrifty savings and enjoy a few Fantas by the river.

Hotel du Lac, Cyangugu

It is an overcast day, cool, though I’m sure not for long. I leave my dirty clothes from yesterday’s trip to soak in a bucket of warm water and Nomi detergent, and then I’m off, past the bustling border post, up the green hills toward the sprawling modern town of Kamembe.

It is not long – I didn’t expect it to be – before two men begin matching my strides. They are on their way to Kamembe – too poor for transport, they explain, the 200 or 300 francs (50 cents) it no doubt costs to ride in a minibus. They ask if they can join me, and I say I would be glad for the company. The older of the two is named Faustin; the other, Lazare. Neither speaks very good English, and I take it as a challenge to see how far my French will get me. We walk on the road’s shoulder, stopping now and then to admire Bukavu spreading up and down the hills across the lake. I ask Faustin if he knows the population, and he laughs. Who could know such a thing? He lived in the city for ten years and knows it well. From the roadside he points to different quartiers along the lake, famous houses – here where a rich Congolese lives, there a Belgian, here some other whites, there the endless sprawl of the poor. It is obvious, even from across the lake, how much wealth is in Bukavu. Everywhere you see massive villas and modern hotels, and still more developments in the city’s choicer areas. But the living is difficult there, says Faustin. Many of the women we see on the road, carrying baskets of vegetables and fish, are Congolese, doing their shopping in Kamembe. They buy food for their families, and goods to sell in the markets of Bukavu at a profit. “Here there is many things to eat,” says Lazare. “There is house, house, house. They only build.”

All this movement between the two cities seems natural – what is a border, really, but something the whites put here? The people here share a language – Kiswahili is most commonly heard around the border – and the constant movement of goods gives this place the feel of one great marketplace. Congolese francs change hands as readily in Cyangugu as Rwandan ones. And livelihoods, too, are built on the belief that nothing so trivial as a border post will get in the way of business.

It has taken me some time, because of the language barrier, to fully understand the story of the two men I’m walking with. But when Faustin unfolds his identity papers – two pages of heavy cardstock, covered in stamps – I suddenly see: the two men are studying in Bukavu, and each day they leave Rwanda, spend a few hours at their university in Congo, and return to their Rwandan homes. The daily crossing is free, says Faustin; a year-long visa would cost a steep 5,000 francs – about nine bucks – which Faustin pronounces with a heavy sigh. So every day they leave their homes at 5am, and because there is no money, they must walk all the way to their university on the other side of the border. “Only on foot,” says Faustin. “No lifty, no car.” He laughs and shakes his head with good humor. It is the laugh of a poor man without a choice.

Lazare and Faustin, with his travel documents.

Faustin's much-stamped travel papers.

We stop to admire the remains of a villa swallowed by vegetation. It is the same house I marveled at from the back of my moto yesterday – the walls covered in creepers, the roof long gone, the bedrooms and salons now thick with plant life. It was once the house of the king, says Faustin. “Mille neuf sant cinquante sept” – 1957 – he says, with great significance. I do not know if this is the year the king died, or was deposed; my knowledge of Rwandan history begins with the 1959 revolution. Now tidy little bean plots have been planted along the outside walls. I begin taking pictures, and a woman offers a stern, if ambiguous, warning. Perhaps she’s afraid the king’s spirit still inhabits his home.

The king's house.

We turn from the main road and begin to climb a steep hill. “Shorty cut,” says Faustin. The path is still slick from yesterday’s rains, and I try to picture Lazare and Faustin – both wearing their smart, impractical shoes – negotiating the muddy embankment and exposed roots each day. It is a long way to the top (only later, when I take the tarmac road back from town, will I appreciate how much time we’ve saved). As we huff our way uphill, Faustin – still neatly buttoned at the cuffs and collar – explains that when he is not studying at the university, he is a pastor. He preaches at a Pentecostal church in Kamembe; he is trying to find a foreign sponsor who can help expand his church. “Je suis visionaire,” he says emphatically. I find it hard to debate him on that point. Imagining this same weary slog day after day – empty pockets and the sun on his back and the slender, worn briefcase filled with the day’s assignments – I think of what devotion and vision it takes to carry him up that hill.

Near the top we pause to catch our breaths. We’ve climbed through a cool, breezy forest of pines, and now we’re on a dirt road flanked by tin-roofed houses – tidy, well-kept homes, flowers in the yard, sun on the windows. Children come racing from their yards to greet us. Lazare, as delighted by their attentions as I am, greets them with proud, halting English. “How are you?” he asks. “What is your name?” Below us I can see mothers hanging laundry in their yards, or standing in their doorways, hands on cocked hips, watching in mock despair as their children bolt from the house to see the white man passing by.

Looking toward Bukavu.

Faustin is telling me again about his life. For ten years – from 1990 to 2000 – he lived in Bukavu, having fled at the start of the Rwandan civil war. Here, he explains, you always had people fleeing. They began leaving Rwanda during the ethnic pogroms of 1959 and ’62; they left during the civil war and the genocide. And now, too, you had the Congolese fleeing their own bloodshed, taking refuge in Rwanda. There was the camp I saw last week, near Kibuye. And here, too, close to Cyangugu, there is another camp: not Congolese, he explains, but Rwandan returnees from South Kivu. He shakes his head and laughs softly. It is too much even for him to make sense of.

At the top of the hill we come to a poor, crowded quarter, the houses slouching under rusted tin roofs held in place by large stones. The way is muddy; there is a smell of cooking fires, the sounds of women’s voices. “Il y a mauvaise vie ici,” says Faustin softly. And then, in English, “Here it is a bad life.” It is something he says with great feeling – a man well-versed in hardship.

Suddenly we are on the streets of Kamembe, beside the market. Color, noise, chaos. Faustin picks through the crowd, exchanging greetings. I’ve offered to take the two men to lunch, and they lead the way through streets congested with motorbikes and market women, school kids and street kids, the energetic din of a money-making border town. Lazare stops: he wants to introduce me to his father. He takes me to a large covered market where, just inside the entrance, sits a short, pleasant man on a wooden bench. Beside him is a shop neatly arranged with pens and pencils and notebooks – a tower of stationery rising toward the roofs. He greets me warmly. I tell him he has a good son – “Vous-avez un bon fils.” He accepts this with a laugh. Next to him another man sizes me up and asks for money. It is a serious plea, but everyone laughs – I wonder if soliciting white guys is his schtick. I shake Lazare’s father’s hand again and off we go, dodging bicycles and motorbikes and wheelbarrows as we cross the street.

The restaurant is down an alley, and there are beggars outside: a boy and a young man in wheelchairs, an old woman with crutches, another with a deformity of the back. Faustin greets them with jokes, laughter. They grin, tease him, call out with mirth. We pass through a beaded curtain and into two small, crowded rooms. Sunlight pours through a window running the length of the back wall. A small TV set plays music videos in the corner. My presence is noted by curious faces. We join a man sitting by himself at a table – no preamble needed, we just sit. His shoulders are hunched and his head is down and he is making his way gravely through a plate crowded with rice and beans and frites and spaghetti. We order three of the same. It is a lively place, the voices are loud and boisterous, there are shouts, threats, oaths, laughter. The waiters are tall, good-looking young men – they are possessed of a certain ease and self-confidence I’m not used to in Rwandan waiters. Back and forth they go, carrying heaping plates, or small tin bowls full of a watery tomato broth. An older man, cautious, well-dressed, circles the room like a foreman. He has a small parcel bag slung over his shoulder – he handles the money. When a customer pays, he carefully counts out the change.

The food arrives with three lukewarm Fantas, and we give the plates our undivided attention. Even in this cheerful restaurant, the food requires a certain care and solemnity. There’s no telling for Faustin and Lazare, I’m sure, when such a meal will come again. Around the room there are many men like them: lean, fastidiously dressed, heads lowered to their plates, attending to each bite with religious devotion. There are women, too, as bright as tropical birds – more than I’m used to seeing in such a restaurant. And other men, vigorous and well-fed, for whom such a meal is no great occasion.

As the food diminishes on our plates, the conversation strikes up again. Faustin, smiling marvelously with contentment, pats his stomach in a grand, gratuitous gesture with both hands. Lazare opens his briefcase and removes a stack of photocopies: the study guide for his biology class, he says. There are skulls, and muscles, and reproductive organs, each meticulously labeled in Latin and French. It is probably the closest his school comes to a textbook. He takes out a sheet of blank paper and begins to write: his name, his father’s name, his contact details. “Lives in Kamembe,” he says, and writes: Lives in Kamembe. He apologizes that he doesn’t have a phone, but I say it’s okay: my number changes with each country I visit. It is better that we stay in touch through email, I assure him. At this, he seems greatly pleased.

Outside we walk through the streets, the sun is out for the first time today. It is a cheerful, bustling town. There are dozens of forex bureaus, and the ubiquitous hair salons – “saloons” – with names like New Texas, and American Boys, and Number One, and Dream. This is the saloon preferred by Lazare; Faustin, almost apologetically, says he doesn’t have the money to cut his hair often. I explain that I cut my hair myself: “Je coupe les cheveux moi-même.” This amuses them greatly. Africans, I say, don’t know how to cut mzungu hair. I make a buzzing noise as I run an imaginary trimmer across Lazare’s head. They laugh, nod sagely: the white man has a point. Now we’ve stopped outside the Dream Saloon, and Lazare says he will continue up the hill toward home. I’m ready to return to the terrace of the Hotel du Lac – my French, I explain, has abandoned me. Faustin reassures me. “Little by little,” he says. “It is very nice.”

We part with Lazare and turn back down the hill. Briefly we pass through the market; I’d explained that I was going to walk home – “Je vais marcher” – but Faustin thought I wanted to see the “marché.” Piles of children’s clothes on the ground, rows of shoes and sandals. “My friend,” says a man, gesturing to his stock of Chinese-made running shoes, “you are welcome.” Further down the hill, buses in a dirt lot. I suspect Faustin has done enough walking today, so I offer to give him money for the bus. He is smiling, grateful. I plunk two coins in his hand, and he hesitates. The full journey home will cost 700 francs, he says – there is the bus, and then a boat. I realize how much I’ve probably missed in our conversation – boat? – but I am glad for the company he gave me, and I give him the money with gratitude. We part warmly. “À la prochaine,” I call out. Until next time. Faustin waves, crosses the road, and then disappears into the station’s throngs.

A bridge across the Rusizi, separating Rwanda from the Congo.

Walking down the hill, relieved to be free of my French, pleased at my encounter with Faustin and Lazare, the sun warm on my face, my spirits high. It is a long walk back to Cyangugu – some 30 minutes pass before I reach the place where we turned off for our shortcut. At the border, bedlam. Buses, motorbikes, porters with rickety wooden handtrucks, hoping to help some weary traveler with his cargo. Bicycles pedal toward the border post, laden with charcoal, jerry cans (these I saw pedaling down the hill from Kamembe – full of petrol, I suspect, to be resold in Bukavu at a profit). And women – so many women, with their baskets and bags and bundles, with great sacks of potatoes strapped to their backs. Brave, tireless, tough as a bag of screws: these women keep the economic engine thrumming. And then all the household duties: feeding the husband, dressing the children for school, keeping the home tidy. The day starts early and ends late. And yet to see them in groups – loud, laughing, chatting happily – is to appreciate what joy there is in such overworked spirits. In a small shop near the hotel, where I’ve stopped to buy water, a gaggle of women sits, bags straining and strewn around them, drinking milk, eating sweet loaves of ndazi bread, wiping the children’s noses, arguing with good humor. Always there is money changing hands between these tough, shrewd women. (Bundles of wrinkled, soiled bills wedged between their breasts.) Through some mystic calculus they keep the house running on the day’s small earnings. And always some wry comment, a frank stare, a bit of sexual humor, for the white guy, the mzungu.

Outside, along the waterfront, there is constant clamor. The Otracom bus stops, deposits and picks up passengers. Everyone carrying things, nylon sacks, boxes, households balanced on their heads. Further down the road is a warehouse, men bagging flour, their arms and faces covered in chalky dust, pale as the moon, as if the spirits have come back to stalk Cyangugu. Women everywhere – with their children at the health center, at a small busy marketplace, coming and going, coming and going. Further up the road, a shiny new duplex is being built, facing the Congo. I ask an old man in a baseball cap if it will be a hotel. No, he says, a house for a Rwandan man. Government? Phones, says the man. I appraise the house with its reflective windows and sparkling, white-washed walls. “C’est bonne travaille,” I say. It is good work. “Oui,” says the man. Before I go he asks for a sip of my bottled water.

On the way back to the hotel I meet one of the nuns, Sister Regina. She is making the rounds – the Home St. François runs a guest house, a health clinic, a center for the handicapped – and she asks if I’d like to join her. We enter a small gated compound, four buildings arranged around a tidy green courtyard. Women sit on the benches, talking softly, watching the children. There are three, four children with different handicaps – an autistic boy, a 15-year-old who shouts and claps when I walk in; a small girl, five years old, who hardly looks 18 months – and they are sitting on the floor, laughing, shouting, hobbling awkwardly on their crippled legs. The mothers greet me solemnly. Handicaps are not viewed with great charity in most of Africa. Grateful for the work the sisters are doing here, I wonder if they look at their strangely afflicted children with sorrow, fear, anger, regret – wondering if the devil’s work is in those twisted limbs.

Sister Regina shows me to another room, where three teenage girls are sewing and folding clothes. With a word from the sister they rise and politely greet me. The sisters are teaching these girls to be seamstresses, says Sister Regina. A useful trade. The girls are modest and avert their eyes. I can’t tell if they’re handicapped, too, or perhaps orphans, or girls abandoned by their families because of some unknown shame. We leave them to the hum of their sewing machines, the soft chatter of their voices. Next door is a dormitory, with six beds crowded into a small room. An autistic girl sits on one bed, squealing with joy as we enter. Near her an infant – hardly more than a year old, I’m sure – lies on a blanket, looking up at the ceiling.

The sisters have few resources here. The very fact of this home’s existence is a small miracle. Outside, near the entrance, a nurse is helping a young man with lame legs – a polio case, perhaps – as he takes his first brave steps with a walker. The women laugh, encourage him. Nearby a small child crawls across the floor. Sister Regina lifts her and hands her to me. I cradle her against my chest; instinctively she rests her head against me, sensing affection. Her tiny fingers clutch at my shirt. Our earliest instincts to be cared for, loved. I wonder if she can hear the beating of my heart. There are more shouts, a frantic waving of the arms, by the autistic boy. He hobbles to his feet and staggers after us as we go, his eyes bright and joyful, everyone laughing and cheering.

Outside Sister Regina tells me that there are a dozen of these homes around Rwanda – in Kigali, in Butare, in Gikongoro. The sisters are strong, industrious, their long days filled with cares over the physical and spiritual well-being of their charges. Sister Regina herself is kind, even-tempered; she struggles to speak English, laughs self-deprecatingly, returns to French. At the gate of the hotel she thanks me and excuses herself. She has more work to do – she gestures ambiguously up the road – and with that, she bustles off on her short, quick legs.

The day has worn me out. I take a Nescafe at the Hotel du Lac, then spend a few hours browsing online – the hotel’s Internet café, just across the road from the Home St. François, is a reprieve from the disconnectedness of Kibuye. At the hotel, I’m wary of another multi-course feast – bed, I suspect, is just an hour away. I have a bowl of soup, and then another. I’m in my room by half-past nine and in my bed by ten. Mosquitoes buzzing in my ear, Jesus on the wall, I sleep fitfully, waking every few hours with a start, until the day’s first sunlight comes into the room.