Everyone’s a businessman here.

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

To start at the beginning, click here.

Day 3 – March 23

The bags are packed in the morning, the musty shirts and socks of the past few days balled up into a separate compartment, awaiting a good rinse in Kibuye. Toiletries are carefully stowed, according to the likelihood of an explosion in transit. Books are packed away in reverse order of preference for the journey ahead. After breakfast I take care of outstanding orders of business: a quick visit to the Internet café; a less than quick visit to the bank, where, just two days after leaving Kigali, I’ve reassessed my budgetary demands and realized that, at this rate, I’ll never make it to Goma two weeks hence. The preparations move forward. I raid the forex bureaus around the market, unloading my $20 bills for small denominations – a must for Congolese officials on the take. I stock up on samosas and queen cakes in anticipation of the day’s long journey. By noon, I am utterly in the thrall of the mood of heightened preparedness that grips me on any travel day. I am ready, as my mother would say, to get this show on the road.

A busy street scene in Gisenyi.

Only there’s no word from John on the departure time of the Bralirwa boat, and when I call him, he can offer only a Zen-like injunction to sit tight and let the African transport gods sort things out at their leisure. He invites me to visit his home in Gitsimbi instead – untroubled, it seems, by the prospect of me missing my ride. The boat will leave when it leaves, he insists, and I’m sure to be on it. I take him at his word. Outside the auberge I flag down a moto, haul my backpack onto my shoulders, and scoot over the green hills toward Gitsimbi.

John is waiting for me in Gitsimbi, grinning, pleased at my arrival, at our budding friendship, earphones dangling around his neck. Nearby a sullen, barefoot old man watches me with bloodshot eyes, and the children are chirping, “Mzungu, how are you?” as their faces poke from houses and kiosks and treetops and the bosoms of husky mothers. Again I think of John’s words: “Everyone’s a businessman here.” And I record the inventory, the small piles of charcoal, the bunches of green bananas, the oversized heads of cabbage, the soiled third- and fourth-generation shoes, the brightly colored children’s clothes – everything laid out on blankets, or on rickety wooden tables; or else spread out on the earth still damp from the morning’s rains.

The clouds are still heavy and they begin to break as we approach John’s home. His is among a small group of houses clustered on the side of a hill, overlooking a long, narrow valley studded with the starburst shapes of banana plants. We negotiate a steep, rocky path, surprising the mothers who sit pounding grain in the doorways, and the children playing in muddy yards. A train of barefoot women, carrying bundles of wood up the treacherous walkway, erupts with joy and laughter as I greet them in Kinyarwanda. The oldest – a mirthful old bird with a face like a walnut – extols my praises in a high, hoarse voice as we skid and slide the rest of the way to John’s home.

Outside John's home in Gitsimbi

It is a large, multi-roomed compound with rough concrete walls and tin roofs that rattle as the rain picks up. The living room is small and dark, with five stiff-cushioned chairs arranged around a coffee table, and a dim shaft of light falling from a narrow window. A red, tasseled curtain separates the room from the rest of the house; on the other side I can hear John’s sisters – two shy, polite girls who shake my hand with downturned eyes – chattering away as they carry out their domestic duties. John sits slouched in his chair, smiling, pleased to offer his hospitality on a rainy afternoon. He is the last of seven children, he tells me; years ago his father took to calling him “Sept” – the French word for seven – a nickname, I’ll later learn, that has followed him to this day. I ask after his parents and he disappears behind the curtain. Soon a woman presents herself – tall, handsome, vigorous in spite of her seventy-odd years – and greets me in the Rwandan manner: a clasping of shoulders at a polite but friendly distance, almost like a sumo hold. She vanishes; a man replaces her – tall and lean as a mangrove pole, wearing a vest and ill-fitting slacks and a smile of great warmth and generosity. We stand there, stiffly shaking hands and thanking each other repeatedly. “He is suffering very much,” John says, when his father leaves the room. I ask what ails him, and John gestures to his arms, his legs, his head – as if life, and all its symptoms, were the ailment.

It is only later that I’ll realize the oddity of that scene: an intact family unit, in a country where the normal chain of African greetings – the inquiries into the health of siblings and parents – is always fraught with peril. How often have I answered the question, “Do you have parents?” before pausing with dread, bracing myself to ask the same in return. But here was John, the youngest of seven (the first-born, he said, approaching 50), and here were his parents, in their 70s and 80s. Suddenly I am playing en ethnic game. Are John and his family Hutus? But then, his parents are so tall. Perhaps they are Tutsis who fled across the border, into what was then Zaire, to escape the genocide? There is no delicate way to ask these questions. Instead I wait, hoping the story of his family’s survival might somehow tell itself.

John’s three-year-old niece – small, frail, shy – comes into the room and sits beside me, her bare feet dangling above the floor. I take out a bag of samosas, which I’d brought for the trip to Kibuye; John hands them out to his niece and his sisters and his parents, coughing in another room. I wish I’d brought more. We sit in amicable silence while little Alina makes a mess of her samosa and the rain pelts the roof. It is an African scene: sitting together, passing the time, which is always in abundance. John has spent many days like this. He left secondary school before senior six – his final year – because the family had no money for him to complete his studies. He wants to go back to get his certificate, maybe to continue on to university. He shows me a bundle of technical drawings sitting in a pile in the corner – houses he had designed “from imagination” in school. They are beautiful drawings, with soaring A-frames and massive bay windows and balconies overlooking, I’m sure, tidy little imaginary gardens. The interior plan is drawn with careful attention to detail and proportion. Here is a master bedroom, here is a kitchen, here is a stairway. It is a beautiful home. “They have built that house,” says John, somewhere in Musanze district. “But they pay me nothing, because I am a student.” He laughs bitterly – at 24, already he knows to expect no better from the world. Every day he goes into Gisenyi, looking for work. There are many others like him. He passes the time in Gisenyi; or at a barber shop in Gitsimbi; or with his family, here, on their perch above the valley. When he can find some money, he visits his girlfriend in Musanze. “For me to get five hundred” – about a dollar – “I say thanks God,” he says.

It is a long walk back to Gisenyi, but the rain has stopped – thanks God. John’s uncle tells him the boat will be leaving in the morning; I can do nothing but sit and wait and hope he’s right. At the auberge we share a Fanta before he returns home, promising to see me in the morning. I’m beginning to grow restless, knowing both my time and money on this trip are limited. If there are more delays with the boat, I’ll have to abandon my half-baked plan to reach Kibuye by lake and find another option – moto, perhaps, which was the original plan; or, failing that, by bus.

At night, outside the auberge, there are dozens of motorbikes gathered at the gas station, where assorted night critters circle toward the fluorescent lights. I doubt there will be more than a handful of customers to go around on this soggy Tuesday night, and I suspect these guys are here as much for the camaraderie as for the prospect of finding work. I think of Jean Marie and Lucio, my Congolese friends in Bujumbura, who would go one or two days without eating, but found their hunger easier to bear because they were bearing it together. It can be hard for us to grasp in the West, locked away with our solitary comforts. I am glad I left my laptop in Kigali, with all its diversions. I am happy to sit on a bench outside the barber shop, listening to the laughter, the arguments over football and girls, waiting for the clouds to clear to get a look at the glowing tip of Nyiragongo.

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6 responses to “Everyone’s a businessman here.

  1. Pingback: It is like paradise. Almost. | This Is Africa

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  4. Pingback: The mystery of the swimming cows. | This Is Africa

  5. Chris, you are a wonderful stylist. Why am I not reading this in the Washington Post like your other work? Stay safe, James

  6. Pingback: Kivu redux. | This Is Africa

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