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.
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.
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.