Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of posts chronicling my travels in Rwanda and eastern Congo earlier this year.
To start at the beginning, click here.
Day 2 – March 22
Before leaving Kigali, I made the decision to leave my laptop behind. For this three- or four-week trip, I wanted to be as unencumbered as possible – to not have to hesitate at the prospect of a boat ride into the unknown, or a stranger’s invitation into his home, because of fears over the safety of my pricey electronic wares. Implicit was a desire, too, to leave behind my emotional crutches. I knew how easy it was, from past travels, to sink into a DVD or retreat into my iPod at the end of a long day. I wanted no such comforts now. Life in rural Africa, after all, means contemplating boredom: acquainting yourself with the long hours after nightfall, when solitary diversions are few and the sound of silence is absolute. (No such luck in the Auberge de Gisenyi, where the chatter of Spanish league football goes on till after midnight.) I felt it was important, for these few weeks, to stay engaged to the world around me – not to escape into a Coen brothers flick or an old school playlist that might, however subtly, draw me back to my American life.
Tuneless, flickless, my first night is a blessing: I sleep like a stone. At half-past eight the birds are chattering, the kitchen is dishing out omelettes, my first morning post-Kigali is bright and auspicious. How liberating, too, to know there are no deadlines on the horizon, no pressing emails to get to: nothing preventing me from just disappearing for a few weeks. It is like a spiritual lightness, as if I’ve been set free from the weight of my daily routine. I feel more curious, more engaged. For a travel writer, I have the peculiar sense that I need to travel more often.
By late-morning I am back on the beach, which today, a Monday, is almost empty. In the distance I see eight sets of pale limbs, eight swaths of khaki, eight back- and fanny-packs milling around the jetty – Belgian tourists, perhaps, getting reacquainted with their former fiefdom. Closer to me a group of Rwandans – overdressed for the beach, as ever – is watching a motorboat tugging a waterskier in wide circles. He is a Rwandan, and he can only go through one or two passes before losing his balance, flailing his arms, and crashing into the water. The lake is flat and inviting. Every few minutes a small transport plane buzzes overhead – the latest batch of Congolese minerals, no doubt, being whisked off the tarmac in Goma en route to foreign lands.
On the beach I meet one of the young captains of the boat sputtering past us in broad arcs. On the weekend, he says, there is plenty of business from tourists: the wazungu weekending from Kigali, the Congolese escaping the clutter of Goma, the Rwandans holding their wedding celebrations on the lake shore. They pay a few thousands francs to get taxied along the coast, or rent the boat for the day to head further south. (A group of tourists, he says, have paid $600 to take the boss’ other boat to Cyangugu.) On a Monday morning, though, business is slow. The boys waterskiing and flopping around in the water are all employees of the Serena Hotel next door. I suspect the boss – an anonymous businessman in far-away Kigali – wouldn’t be too pleased to see his gas dollars going to waste. Fidele laughs and shrugs away the boss’ concerns. It is a modest job, even by Gisenyi’s standards. “It is something so I can eat,” he says. More often he will take his small savings and cross the border into Goma, where he can buy cheap goods and resell them in Gisenyi for a profit. He hopes he can make it to America someday. “It’s something I think or dream, but I don’t know to do it,” he says. He would like to go and make money and then return to Rwanda. “You know, Africans, we love that country,” he says. But it’s not the same as having a home.
There is a great sense of movement in this border town. Fidele’s retail racket is a common one; others, handicapped men and women, cross the border with their wheelchairs stocked with petrol and cigarettes. The handicapped, through some loophole in Congolese law, are exempt from paying customs duties at the border. And so their hand-pedaled tricycles are loaded down with cigarettes and dry goods and wheeled duty-free across the border. Other, obscure goods are no doubt being shuttled across in some of the many SUVs with Congolese plates barreling around Gisenyi. And then there are the casual pedestrians: most of the youths I meet along the beach seem to be Congolese, playing hooky for the sake of a casual stroll in their peaceful neighbor.
Despite the lazy pleasure of the waterfront and the languid decay of some of the old colonial homes, there is great energy around Gisenyi. After leaving the beach I walk the six kilometers to Rubona, the bustling little town that serves as Gisenyi’s principal port. Along the way I pass a fish market full of the riotous cries of market women; on the beach outside, thousands of slender silvery fish lay on wooden racks, drying in the sun. There are women selling vegetables on the road, and women carrying great bundles and baskets on their heads, trundling many miles to sell their pineapples and cassava and tomatoes and maize, their voices singing shrilly as they chatter along the way.
On the road a man stops me and gestures to a small satchel slung across his shoulder. It is too small to hold the statuettes and Congolese masks being sold by other hawkers in Gisenyi. I wonder if he is offering postcards; his accent is inscrutable. Only when he opens the zipper to reveal a few hunks of rust-colored rock does the word “Coltan! Coltan!” come into focus. I gently decline – conflict minerals are not my idea of a souvenir. Thus do I, in my own small way, give a tiny cry of protest at the atrocities in the Congo.
Half-way to Rubona, in a small crowded town clinging to the side of a hill, I’m stopped by a group of youths listening to R&B ballads on a cell phone. They are polite, friendly, smiling easily; soon one – introducing himself as John – asks if he can accompany me the rest of the way. As in most of rural Africa, there clearly isn’t much to occupy John on a Monday afternoon. He says he’s just finished secondary school – last month? last year? – and I delicately side-step the conclusion of that thought, as it is probably the familiar refrain: no money to pay for university, no job prospects on the horizon. The rare chance to walk with a stranger through these familiar streets, the opportunity to both form a new friendship and boost his own cachet in little Kiroji, is not something to pass up.
So off we go, followed by dozens of curious, eager eyes. The town is built along the road and there is a constant commotion of bodies: women selling pots and pans on tattered blankets, or crouching behind bunches of green bananas. Barbers are buzzing shiny domes in their tiny hair salons and carpenters are sawing at furniture on the roadside. “Everyone’s a businessman here,” says John. And it is hard not to admire the entrepreneurial spirit as peanuts and boiled eggs and bottled beer and avocados and charcoal and hair extensions are being sold.
By the time we reach Rubona my face and neck are sunburned and painful to the touch. We stop for Fantas in a small shop almost entirely devoted to hair care products. DARLING NEW LOOK – HIGHEST QUALITY HAIR ADDITIONS, says a typical package. LIKE HUMAN HAIR! HAIR THAT LASTS LONGER! Outside, with the sun high overhead, we can see the fishing boats clustered around the beach far below. The road has been steadily climbing since Gisenyi, and so John – as familiar with the town as if we were picking through his own backyard – gestures to a narrow path vanishing through the banana plants and begins bounding down the hill.
Little Rubona is booming. The hillside is crowded with new housing developments – sprawling brick villas that, I suspect, will soon be touting the requisite Grecian columns and reflective windows that are the truest indication of ill-gotten wealth in the Great Lakes region. John gestures to one half-built compound and says, “That is for a Nigerian,” as if no more needs to be said. We pick through small gardens and brush aside great banana leaves. Many of the houses are already occupied. An old woman hangs the laundry from a line. An ancient fisherman sits in the shade, mending his net. No one seems particularly surprised to have a white man tramping through the yard. The lake is blue, still, dotted with green islands. John skips ahead on fast, sure, nimble feet, now and then pausing to push an earphone back into his ear.
On the beach the women are selling vegetables and breast-feeding and spreading their freshly laundered clothes over the sand to dry. The way they look at you is frank and explicit. John exchanges some words with them and is soon scrambling down a sandy slope, to where a long, slender, motor-powered boat is being loaded for the lake journey. There are negotiations, but they end in disappointment: the boat will be leaving this evening, a day or two before I’ll be ready to say goodbye to Gisenyi. Nearby we find two more boats, these shaded by canopies made from heavy tarps bearing the WFP logo. Again, no luck: Monday, it seems, is the only day that passenger boats travel from Gisenyi to Kibuye.
As we trudge off through the sand, bitter and defeated, John continues to ask hopefully for any mid-week departures. It is hard to describe what a strange and touching thing it is to see such fierce loyalty, such determination, in someone I’ve only just met. If John himself were desperate to board the next boat to Kibuye, I couldn’t imagine him putting any more effort into our search.
At a local restaurant on the lakeshore, as we’re waiting for our brochettes, John disappears in search of fresh intelligence. Minutes later he returns, looking conspiratorial and optimistic. There is a rumor that a cargo ship will be leaving the Bralirwa brewery on Tuesday on a southbound journey. John can’t investigate the rumor any further. “At this time, it is a prohibition to go there,” he says, gesturing to the brewery with its great billowing chimneys nearby. “This night I will search the information.” He promises to contact an uncle who works for Bralirwa to see if there might be a way to smuggle me onto the ship. Suddenly, things have gotten very interesting in Rubona. Soon storm clouds begin to churn over the hilltops, and we scramble for the nearest motorbikes, hoping to beat the rain back to Gisenyi.
I lose John along the way. The rain begins to fall in fat, cold drops; as we speed over the hills, they strike my arms and face like pebbles. Halfway to Gisenyi we stop and take cover under a shop awning. There is a crowd of young boys there; as the rain intensifies, others come to join us. A leathery old woman, carrying a massive bundle of firewood, muscles her way into our sanctuary. We stand there, talking softly, as the rain pelts the tin roof. Smoke rises from the blacktop. Villagers trudge by, hanging their heads. It is a great comfort, in its own way, to be stranded here, at the mercy of the elements. When the rain stops we get back onto our moto, scooting and skidding our way back to Gisenyi.
In the evening, John calls: the Bralirwa boat, he reports, will be leaving at 8am. A few hours later, he calls with an update: the boat won’t be leaving till the afternoon. Strange that I suddenly feel so compelled to leave a town I was just getting used to. But I don’t want to miss the boat; I decide to pack my things tonight and be on-call throughout the day tomorrow. One way or another, I hope to be in Kibuye by nightfall.