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.

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One response to “Little by little. It is very nice.

  1. Pingback: Kivu redux. | This Is Africa

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