This is not the real Africa.

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

To start at the beginning, click here.

Day 13 – April 2

Despite the thin, musty foam mattress at the Gisenyi City View, I sleep like a prince. I feel fresh and revived in the morning, refusing, even, to let the scuzziness of the bathroom get to me. It is a brilliant day, the air sharp, Nyiragongo’s blue-gray profile looming over the market. At the auberge, in its cheerful garden, coffee and a much-needed plate of gatogo – the banana stew I’d grown so hooked on in Burundi. It’s the most I’ve had in my stomach in nearly two days. It is the first time, too, that I’ve felt a sense of confidence all week. I know Goma, I know this border. Congo doesn’t scare me today.

A last glimpse of Gisenyi

My bags are packed. I make a quick bank run – my stash of U.S. dollars has been woefully depleted this week – and then I am at the border, clearing Rwandan customs, and finally – finally! – stepping into the Congo.

What a difference, what briskness, after the hassles of Bukavu. The traffic all day – UN staffers, humanitarians, casual tourists, journalists – is such that the sight of a white face in Goma doesn’t excite Pavlovian impulses. No lengthy interrogations, no shameless shakedowns. I hand my passport and $35 to the official. She smiles. I wait. Another group of tourists is nearby, chatting amiably. We could be at any border crossing in the world. A man approaches, dour, a face full of flesh. “What is your job?” he asks. (English!) “I am a student.” “You are here to do some research?” Sure! Why not? “I am,” I say. “I am doing research on the Great Lakes.” Not entirely false. He nods and walks off. Minutes pass. An American friend, Rachel – an aid worker in Goma – arrives with her passport in hand. She is spending the day in Gisenyi – as easy as a trip to the corner store. She begins to dish out advice to the other tourists – what company to see the gorillas with, how much to climb the volcano. She hands them a business card for the tour company she prefers. Quite a useful one, that Rachel. I’m called inside – another short consultation over the length of my stay. I ask about Bukavu, and the woman’s eyes go wide. The eight-day visa, it seems, is only good for North Kivu province – lucky that I asked. If I want to go to Bukavu, she says, I’ll have to pay for the full, month-long Congolese visa – less than the $300 asking price at Rusizi, but still, a hefty hundred and fifty bucks. This will require some consideration. I thank the woman – so helpful, these North Kivu Congolese! – and see Rachel off to Gisenyi. Then I am slinging my bag over my shoulder, waving off the money-changers, and trudging my way into Goma.

This is a place that excites powerful and complex memories. I had walked this same road five months ago, had come with Steve Terrell – good-hearted, self-righteous, oh-so-American Steve! – a sort of freelance do-gooder who had been bringing medicine to a group of IDPs living in a squalid camp outside of Goma. We had met in Kigali; I was interviewing him to replace me in the house I was about to vacate in Remera. He had told me a tragic tale of lost IDPs – 6,000 Congolese, he said, neglected by the international community – and the next day we were in the back of the Virunga bus, racing toward the border. Steve was on a mercy mission; my reasons were more ambiguous. This might be The Story, I told myself – the one that would finally propel me from the bottom-feeding ranks of travel writers into the world of Serious Reporting. (Oh, the Congo would show me a thing or two.) On the bus Steve warned me and Lindsay, a roommate from Kigali, that the border would be overwhelming. It would be best to get behind him, he said. I gave him a frank look. I was full of anxieties before that trip, to be sure; but in my time, let’s face it, I’d seen a few things myself.

In Goma, just past the border, the money-changers swarmed. Holding their bricks of Congolese notes, colorful bits of play money. Steve wanted to handle the negotiations, but he had the exchange rates all wrong. He was making a mess of things – some savior! Then the moto drivers surrounding us, young, aggressive, in the manner of their kind. Steve’s warnings were ill-founded – I’d seen this sort of thing before. Then we were barreling through the dust and grit and free-wheeling derby of downtown Goma. The IDP camp would indeed be tragic, but this – the noise, the traffic, the energetic hustle and chaos – this was something to marvel at.

The IDPs had pitched their ragged tents in a field behind a church. They used plastic tarps and garbage bags and canvas sacks emblazoned with humanitarian logos to build these clumsy shelters. UNHCR, UNICEF, USAID. A strong gust of wind might have blown the whole place away. Steve introduced me to the camp leaders – again, these rigid hierarchies of Congolese society. There was an IDP president, a vice-president, a treasurer. Solemnly they took us around the camp, explained that the situation was dire. These people had fled fighting near their villages in North Kivu; they had come from Masisi, from Walikale, they had walked with whatever modest possessions they could carry, holding their children’s hands. The international community had abandoned them, they said. They were barred from the UN camps. They had no food or water. Steve, nodding, as grave as a crucifixion scene, carried out rudimentary check-ups on the young and old. He promised to bring eye drops for a young boy with a severe infection. On the bus back to Kigali, we were all on the verge of tears.

Now, five months later, I flag down a moto, balance my duffel bag on one leg. We zip through the streets, my driver chatting amiably in a French I only partly understand. Past the old ex-pat haunts – Chez Doga, Coco Jamboo – past the Soleil Palace, the hotel/restaurant/nightclub I stayed in when I returned to Goma a week after visiting with Steve. I had brought my friend and translator, Prudent, a journalism student at the university in Butare. It was forty bucks a night and I was on the tightest of budgets, I had almost nothing, and so there I was, sharing a bed with my translator while American hip-hop rattled the windowpanes. There was no running water, the electricity was sporadic. The living room was furnished with the gaudy opulence – the chintz curtains and gold fixtures and oversized leather sofas – of the African nouveau riche.

'Mr. Ambassador, how nice of you to come! I've been expecting you.'

After four days I was desperate. I was hemorrhaging money and the story was going nowhere. The 6,000 IDPs, it turned out, were more like 600. The Norwegian Refugee Council said that no, actually, they were being fed. The UN said they had refused to move into UN camps. The Congolese government said many weren’t IDPs at all – they were residents of Goma, trying to take advantage of the humanitarian aid being offered. And besides, they said, the security had improved: the IDPs would be sent back to their villages with a small living stipend, as soon as the government could prove they were who they said they were.

We were running in circles. And still my heart ached for these people – the sick old man with his frail, wheezing chest, the little boy whose rheumy eyes might never see again. We watched a middle-aged man, a father, making doors out of scrap metal. He sold them to the other IDPs for 400 or 500 Congolese francs – 50 cents for half a day’s work. Crouched outside his tent, hammering at rusted five-gallon cans of USAID beans and cooking oil. I knew there was a story in all of that, but what was the story? All I could think about was how much money we were burning through. I apologized and put Prudent on a bus back to Kigali. And for the next few days I wandered the city on my own, relieved of the burden of reporting a story I didn’t understand, marveling at the sheer improbabilities and incongruities of life in the Congo.

Dodging traffic on the back of a moto

Now my driver is whirling us around town, the road buckled and potholed, the traffic swerving, crawling, jockeying for some small advantage. Yes, here you know you are a long way from Rwanda. The dozens of SUVs – UN, MSF, IRC, NRC, ICRC, the whole alphabet soup – the police pickups, the lorries full of gaunt shivering soldiers, the perilous weaving motos, the wooden chukudu scooters, piled high with every imaginable cargo. The dust is thick – it stings your eyes. And an endless procession on the roadside: women with buckets of onions on their heads, barefoot children, men with briefcases, people selling, shouting, hustling, living. Oh yes, this is Goma – this is a brave new world.

At a fork in the road we turn left, darting through oncoming traffic. We stop outside a small hotel, the wall painted: Hotel Cirezi. I had called at the border; they had single rooms for twenty U.S. bucks a night. I pay the driver and heave my bag to the reception desk. The hotel is rundown but, it seems, well looked-after – that peculiar African ability to ensure that even if the paint is chipped, the windows cracked, the roof rusted and weather-beaten, there is still someone near at hand, endlessly sweeping the floors. My room is a stiff queen-sized bed and a wobbly desk and a wooden rack over which I drape some shirts. There are pegs on the wall, and I hang my linen pants. It is homely – homely enough.

Moto driver, outside the hotel

Hotel Cirezi: putting the bed in bedroom!

Outside the volcano is hidden by clouds: a storm is approaching. You can see the black sheets of rain in the distance. A dark, tumultuous mood, suitable for a city built atop black volcanic rock. With the low gray clouds sitting over this ashy landscape, you’re reminded of certain unsavory passages from Revelations. But the comparison doesn’t hold up: there is so much life – too much life – on the streets. We’re a long way from the dark days of 1994, when Rwandan refugees poured across the border, and a cholera outbreak took tens of thousands of lives; or 2002, when a volcanic eruption sent rivers of lava flowing through the city, displacing thousands; even 2008, when General Nkunda and his rebels threatened to take Goma by force. These things, you want to think, are fading from proximate threat to memory. Something like peace and stability has taken hold in Goma since – even as the war in the hills waxes and wanes. It was something I heard over and over the last time I was here: slowly, somehow, life is getting better.

Walking down the Sake road, thumbing texts into my cell phone, I dodge the traffic that has spilled in all its chaotic abundance onto the roadside. New shops are being built, trenches dug to lay a new water main (this drawing dozens of idle, curious youths). Near the university, an old man is stooping and pulling up greens in a grassy lot. Already he’s filled his plastic bag – this wily old cat, spying which of the dusty shoots might be good with a bit of salt after a long boil. Strange to think of my father here in Goma – my father, with his taste for wild dandelions growing in the baseball fields and public parks of Brooklyn. What must he look like, I always wondered, to a stranger passing by?

Near the roundabout, now, and the first cold, hard drops beginning to fall. Suddenly the sound of music – a marching band, a full ensemble of trumpets and tubas and drums and trombones, the horn section braying, swaying from side to side. Women carrying a banner: “Campagne d’Evangelation,” it says, from something called the “Federation Urbaine des Femmes.” And here they are, dozens of women in bright dresses and headscarves and t-shirts bearing the logos of their sponsors. A group passes with hymnals, laughing, singing; they smile at me and wave. Now the rain is picking up, and the women are trotting, trying to keep the tune.

A curtain of rain in the distance

I take a moto and just barely beat the rain to Chez Doga. Inside, just a few tables taken – a group in UN vests having lunch; a few Congolese sitting in a dark corner, silent, staring at their laptops. Only at night have I seen this place draw a crowd – the French and Italian aid workers, the Pakistani peacekeepers with their bristling moustaches and slender waists, the prostitutes with their magnificent coiffures. During the day, with the tables empty and the TV playing softly by the bar, it is a depressing place to be. But then, I only have coffee on my mind; and besides, there is the rain.

I sit with my notebook and pour the burnt coffee into my mug, thinking of my last visit to Goma. Doga was an educational experience for me: the menu with its $10 pizzas and $15 steaks, aid-industry prices, with those inscrutable dollar signs which, after so much time in Africa, looked like Egyptian hieroglyphs. Dimly I began to perceive the parallel economies, the parallel worlds of Goma. (The UNOCHA compound across the street seemed to glare with significance.) Next door, the Doga shop was fully stocked with top-shelf liquor and imported condiments. At night, the prostitutes would smile at me, test the water, lose interest: there were other, older johns with UN money to burn.

Down the street, after I’ve finished my coffee, I grab a snack at Kivu Market – Lebanese-owned, bursting with abundance. They’ve expanded since last year: the electronics section is full of flat-screen TVs; in sporting goods there are nautilus machines and treadmills. Say what you will about the humanitarian industry, but in Goma, it sure is good for business. The bakery is warm and smells of fresh bread; the shelves are stocked with imported cheeses. At the checkout, a big-headed, hirsute Lebanese circles like a pit boss. Outside, groups of Congolese men sitting at tables, using the WiFi. Money-changers holding stacks of Rwandan and American and Congolese bills. Around the corner, a new takeaway joint, part of Kivu Market. In just a few days, their hummus and schwarmas will become a crippling addiction.

Back at the hotel I change out of my wet clothes, rest, write. I have plans to meet Rachel later in the evening, but it’s early, just after four – I don’t want to wear myself out with aimless wandering. Boisterous voices coming from the hotel restaurant: they are off to an early start on this Friday afternoon. I lie down, stretch. The mattress is stiff and there are two plump pillows. It really is a marvelous bed.

By the time I leave the hotel just after five the air is crisp, patches of blue between the clouds. The Sake road is bristling with energy. Rush hour in Goma has a certain dark comedy – the endless processional of Land Cruisers and Prados, antennae jumping, all the logos of the great humanitarian stew, the UN jeeps and cargo trucks and armored personnel carriers. The Congolese are unmoved by all of this. They push their chukudus, walk briskly through the traffic, get muscled to the side of the road. They part as I walk past and close around me, like a wound. Outside a supermarket, the Champs Elysee, a crowd is watching videos on a 17-inch TV screen – Kenyan gospel, merry Christians swaying on a manicured hotel lawn to the heavy accompaniment of synthesizers and keyboards. There must be two dozen bystanders watching, motionless, silent, eyes fixed to the TV. A woman with a plastic wash basin full of maize on her head. A man in an ill-fitting coat, holding a laptop bag. Others, as solemn as funeral mourners. A one-legged man hobbles over on crutches, asking for money. He has red eyes and beer on his breath and teeth like a broken Steinway. I apologize, pat my pockets for emphasis, and tell him I have nothing, nothing at all.

More faces, bumping bodies, men with deformities, women built like cement mixers. Down the road I’m joined by a youth, studious-looking, in a light blue Kangol and matching pants spattered with mud. He introduces himself as Jerusalem – it’s like meeting some latter-day prophet on these Congolese streets. We walk together, trying to keep our stride through the crowds. A man brushes us aside carrying a bookshelf on his shoulder. Jerusalem says he has been six months without a job; would I be able to help him out? “I know the UN is sometimes looking for translators,” he says. A longshot, but why not hope the white man works for the UN, has powerful connections? I tell him I’ve just arrived in Goma, I’m passing through. He takes this with no hard feeling. He has been eight years out of secondary school and has struggled to find regular employment. It is a problem for the Congolese, he says. “We have spent all this time in school, but for what?” he says. The country is adrift – there is no leadership in Kinshasa. I ask about President Kabila, and Jerusalem shakes his head. “If he was a good president, I would not be without a job,” he says.

A vote of confidence for President Kabila

The traffic is like some micro-organism, infinitely replicating and sub-dividing. Two lanes become four, four become six, six become Cannonball Run. Suddenly we’ve stepped into oncoming traffic, dodging motorbikes and minibuses. Walking in Goma is a sport. We leap across puddles and dodge chukudus. We climb piles of dark gravel and volcanic rock – up and down, up and down, like a pair of mountaineers.

Jerusalem wonders now if I can’t find a job for him somewhere else – in South Africa, or Europe, or America. His eyes glitter as he pronounces that magic word. It has the power of ritual, of incantation. He knows America, of course – from music videos, from movies. Getting him there, I explain, would be no easy task. And even in America, I say, so many are out of work. He takes this news as if it’s been delivered from the heavens on the back of a thunderbolt. “I did not think it was possible to have a white with no job,” he says. Clearly, this has been a day of wonders.

At the roundabout we exchange numbers and part. “We are together,” says Jerusalem, beginning the five kilometer walk toward his home. The clouds have parted, the volcano is out. Jerusalem dodging motorbikes and dashing through puddles. The road seems to stretch to the foot of Nyiragongo in the direction of his home; in the other, traders are packing up shop at the market, a group of young men are sitting on sofas on the side of the road. Lean men, secondary-school dropouts, perhaps, with a lifetime of shuffling between odd jobs ahead of them. A city full of Jerusalems, hoping to find that golden key: a job with the UN, some NGO, a driver or security guard or translator for an organization with bank accounts in Europe, a headquarters in London, or Geneva.

At an Internet café, someone has left a PDF open on the screen – an invoice for the shipment of a C-Class Mercedes (“wine red”) from Kobe, Japan. This, too, is part of Goma’s story.

Dusk. I have time to kill. I poke my head into Soleil Palace – a dozen guys sitting around, watching TV. Doga is empty. For all the expats here, for all the stress of the day’s work, happy-hour culture hasn’t quite made it to Goma. A crowd of Congolese, a few hundred, are making their cheery way down the road. There is laughter, singing – a church has just let out. It’s not exactly the happy hour I had in mind. I find a seat outside a shopping arcade beside the Hotel des Grands Lacs, watch the to-ing and fro-ing. A boy on a motorbike cruises beside two girls, chatting, working for a smile. The girls are uninterested; they cross the road. Standing under a tree, the unlucky suitor’s friends burst into laughter.

Soon a boy comes to join me. He is short, slight, red-eyed; he wears a Muslim prayer cap which he takes off and twists in his hands. His name is Patrick. Sitting, sighing, shaking his head, he says, “Papa,” and begins telling me about his life. He came to Goma in 1994; he left Rwanda with his family – part of the hordes of refugees who came pouring across the border after the genocide. He was only four. Now his father is gone, his mother is gone; he has three young sisters to look after. He has no work, he’s never finished school – his tale of woe is endless. Passersby slow, stare; a few other youths began to rib him – whether because he’s a little conman, or because they all know his misfortunes, they’ve seen him sitting here with other wazungu, wearing his heart on his sleeve – whatever the reason, I’m not sure. But after awhile even I begin to smile at his theatrical flourishes. “Je suis avec beaucoup de souffrance,” he says, lightly touching his breast. “Pas en peu – beaucoup!” He wants to make sure I’m clear on this point: he has not had a little suffering – a lot!

Finally I’m rescued – Rachel calls, she’s on her way. I give this little long-suffering hustler 1,000 francs – a princely sum, even I can’t say why I do it. The transaction has been observed by a security guard nearby; soon he, too, is asking for money. I laugh this off. “Je ne suis pas banque,” I say. There is a lesson, I’m sure, to be learned from this. A toot of the horn; Rachel and her driver pull up, in their IRC truck. I climb into the back and shut the door, and like that, I’m transported to another side of Goma life.

We’re meeting her friends at Petit Bruxelles, a genteel outpost of European charm founded, the story goes, by the former head of OXFAM as a gift to his Congolese wife. It is lively, the tables are filling quickly. All of Goma’s expat community seems to be here, along with a few Congolese gathered around the TV at the bar. Rachel’s friends arrive in pairs, in threes. By the time we join them they’ve filled a long table – Italians and English, and a few of us Americans, sitting at the end. Rachel introduces me as her “friend from the Internet” – we’d met after reading one another’s blogs. This draws appropriate laughter. It is a good crowd, young, spirited, talkative. Maybe it’s the Italians who have this effect on us. Two balladeers move between the tables, strumming their guitars. More people arrive – white, attractive, well-dressed. The air of First World salaries. Everyone knows everyone. Laughter, greetings, kisses. Two young guys at my end of the table – from Hong Kong and the UK, both Josephs – swap stories about life in Kinshasa. British Joseph has lived there since last year: he works for an NGO that makes braces for polio victims. Hong Kong Joseph spent two months in the capital before moving to Goma. He works for Catholic Relief Services – CRS. Everyone here is known by their acronym. Rachel is IRC Rachel. I’m introduced to an attractive Russian woman – Julie, or Jenny. An acronym is supplied. Only I seem to float around as a free radical, a journalist. Two of the Italians have propped their walkie talkies on the table. They seem to give the dinner an air of urgency, of impending flight.

The talk at the table is of the MSF party – MSF, MSF, for Médecins Sans Frontières. The party is being held at a lakeside villa 30 minutes from town, and it seems that the whole of Goma, after finishing dinner at Petit Bruxelles, will reconvene there. Rachel is ambivalent: she will be up at 4:30 in the morning to see the gorillas. Everyone else is saying, “MSF! MSF!” like some talisman we use to keep evil spirits at bay. Here you begin to get a sense of the stories I’d heard about Goma in Kigali: of a bacchanalian frenzy of UN staffers and loose aid workers and strapping MONUC soldiers desperate to unwind after their stress-filled ops in the bush. It is an odd sort of life you lead here. No doubt the work leaves most feeling like an emotional punching bag, and everyone in Goma seems to have done hard time. They have spent years in Congo, or other war zones. (“We’ve already done Darfur,” a couple tells me.) Friday night, Saturday night, is when you trade your flak jacket for a strapless dress, you touch up your helmet hair with a bit of pomade, and you let your discomfort over the incongruities of Goma life – the Versailles-like villas and chauffeured vehicles and inflated salaries – recede until Monday morning.

The fabled MSF party is in full-swing by the time we get there, just after eleven. A dozen SUVs are parked outside; the music is probably rattling the windowpanes in Gisenyi. The house is massive, set against lawns that stretch 100 feet down to the lake. The significance of an MSF party soon becomes apparent. This is one of the humanitarian world’s most respected and well-funded organizations. Not for MSF bottles of lukewarm Primus and Fanta. The bar on the back porch – manned by two cheerful, gyrating, middle-aged Gauls – is well-stocked with top-shelf liquor. I suspect Lake Kivu will run dry before the MSF house does. Inside, the living room has been cleared, dozens of bodies moving on the dancefloor in 4/4 time. The soundtrack has no doubt been picked by our two French friends: ‘90s dance tracks mixed with Michael Jackson and disco standards. It is a good crowd. Pretty girls flit about in city clothes. Heels, lipstick, earrings – not a frumpy peasant skirt in sight. Couples slip into the garden. Small-talk shouted over a “Billie Jean” bassline. Someone’s colleague had to be evacuated from her post last week after soldiers looted the city. “She’s hardcore,” they say admiringly. Everyone crowds the bar for more drinks.

It is a very good party which goes on a little too long. The car I came in has left. By half-past two I’m sheepishly milling around, looking for a ride. No one is going my way, no one offers. Finally I’m rescued by the Italians – part of our dinner group from Petit Bruxelles – who are on their way into town. Already I’ve warmed to them – they are gregarious, welcoming, in the manner of most Italians. They’re also the only ones to offer me a lift.

Outside, waiting for the others to join us, we talk about the humanitarian community in Goma. Stefano, who works for Caritas, makes a face like he’s swallowed something bitter. “This is not the real Africa,” he says, referring not just to this party, but to everything it signifies. He works in the countryside, rehabilitating former child soldiers. In Goma, he says, everything is polluted by money. It is the first thing people ask for when they see a white man on the street. (Beaucoup de souffrance!) The people in the interior are kinder, more generous. “You see the real Africa in Walikale, in Masisi,” he says.

The rest of the group has come, we pile into the car. It is half-past three on the morning of my 32nd birthday when we reach the hotel. The nightclub next door is raucous; the music is loud, the street crowded with idling motos. “Be careful,” Stefano warns, as I pick my way through the crowd. The gate is locked and I wait three, four minutes, rattling the door to wake the askari. I’m about to start scaling the gate when he emerges, sleepy, shuffling his feet. The Italians drive off with a toot of the horn – arrivederla, amici! – and it’s with visions of Italian girls and gyrating Frenchmen filling my head that I drift into my 33rd year.

2 responses to “This is not the real Africa.

  1. nice experience, and nice sharing provides input for traveling

  2. Pingback: Kivu redux. | This Is Africa

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