You know, like Vegas.

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

To start at the beginning, click here.

Day 16 – April 5

Today – a day of border crossing and visa wrangling, of abundant headaches and angry French inquisitions – is a day I probably could have avoided. With a bit of foresight – hardly 20/20 for your myopic narrator – I could have bought a one-month Congolese visa before leaving Bujumbura in February. Gone the tragicomic troubles of the past week: I would’ve been in Bukavu days ago. Instead, a parade of hassles: a bank run in Gisenyi; another $35 wasted at the border; a few hours of interrogation, I suspect, to get my one-month visa.

(A word on the incongruities of the preceding paragraph: for one, despite the smooth-flowing Western bureaucracy of the aid-industry apparatus, there are no functioning banks in Goma. I have to visit Rwanda to use the nearest ATM. Also, since one-month visas can’t be issued at the border, I’ll have to pay $35 to buy a transit visa, simply to allow me the privilege of entering the Congo, visiting the immigration office, and applying for a one-month visa. Stanley I am not, but these small privations of traveling in the Congo tend to add up as the days wear on.)

It is almost eleven by the time I reach the border. I’m a familiar face by now – they know I am looking to go to Bukavu, I’ll have no trouble returning from Gisenyi later in the day. In Rwanda, once again – the smooth tarmac of the lake road is a blessing. The dust and grit of Goma, the countless moto trips over the Sake road, have made my eyes raw. It would do me good to come here every few days, just to give my eyes a break. The lake is glassy, there are morning bathers, young men, lathering themselves in the water. Such calm after the chaos of Goma. I can appreciate why so many expats, with their resident’s visas, will come here on the weekend, just to lie on the beach and have a cocktail at the Serena. Crossing the border here is like crossing between worlds. And yet this place, too, has known such violence.

Near the market, the usual bedlam. I’ve been offline for a few days and want to check my email. The Internet café is crowded: four girls to a computer, young boys playing FIFA on a Play Station hooked up to a big-screen TV. The connection today is abysmal. Not for the first time do I regard this country’s ambitious ICT plans with a degree of skepticism. After 30 minutes I haven’t managed to send a single email. The young footballers are cheering, banging on their control pads, shouting “Ronaldo” and “Rooney” like religious incantations. Outside the day is growing hot. I shake my pockets for change, pay, stand in the doorway, squinting into the hard mid-day light.

The view from the Internet cafe

On my way to the bank a boy, Francois, joins me. He is selling posters: he holds up a dozen, Michael Jackson, Akon, maps of Africa and the world, that he’s hawking for a dollar each. Probably he will walk up and down this street, he will circle the market all day, and maybe he will sell one poster of Rihanna and one of Man. U. Soon another man, older, I don’t catch his name, joins us. He has studied literature at the National University in Butare, but since coming to Gisenyi, he’s had few chances to speak English. He is eager for this opportunity; Francois, sullen, slowly gets pushed aside. The man is a professor at the college in Gisenyi – he teaches English, business, a real renaissance man. He asks where I am from. “America,” he says. The word is like a passport and airline ticket, transporting our conversation to a different, faraway place. “That place is white, rich,” he says approvingly. Francois is still lingering; he wants to practice his English, too. “What is your academic state?” he asks. I’m not entirely sure what he’s asking. But then, I get the sense he won’t entirely understand my answer, either. I tell him I’ve finished my studies many years ago, but the other man gives Francois a hard look, clucks his tongue. He is afraid that it’s too personal a question to ask a stranger. He tells me the famous story of when President Kagame was speaking at the university, and a student in the audience asked what level of studies he had completed. “People were astonished,” says the man. “They thought he was prying into his personal life.” “Rwandans are like that,” I say, meaning both private, and weird. We part on good terms. At the bank, another half-hour of my life is wasted. Then I’m back to my usual seat in the usual garden at the Auberge de Gisenyi, gorging on the lunch buffet before returning to Goma.

This is, of course, no ordinary week in Rwanda. Tomorrow, April 6, the anniversary of the plane crash that killed former President Habyarimana: tomorrow is the start of the annual genocide commemoration week. It is a grim time to be in Rwanda. Already, over the weekend, I had met two groups of Rwandans who had gone to Goma to escape the commemorations. (In Bujumbura, too, I’d been told this would be a busy week, Saga Plage crowded with Rwandans fleeing Kigali.) I’d already had my commemoration week, of course, in 2008 – a strange time, a sense of voyeurism that didn’t sit comfortably. The ceremonies, the solemn reburials, the brutal TV documentaries, the speeches. At the Gisozi Memorial, I watched survivors crumpling, breaking into hysterical cries. A woman scratched and clawed at the air, believing the attackers had come back for her. One night there was a grenade attack at the memorial – a guard was killed. The reconciliation process, I learned – New Times platitudes aside – wasn’t entirely what it seemed.

Scenes from commemoration week, 2008

My own view of Rwanda has shifted in the years since. In 2008, my first visit, I went to the memorials, read Philip Gourevitch, lowered my head, observed the pieties. To visit Rwanda, I thought, was to step into a cathedral. I remember a visit to Sainte Famille, the Kigali church that achieved such notoriety during the genocide. It was there that Father Wenceslas Munyeshyaka, clad in a military-issue flak jacket, preached the gospel with a crucifix in one hand and a pistol in the other. While thousands of refugees huddled inside his church, Munyeshyaka drew up lists of Tutsis and Hutu collaborators to hand over to the militias. They were given free rein to enter the church and pick out their victims. Munyeshyaka himself was accused of raping some of the refugees, or offering sanctuary in exchange for sexual favors.

When I visited the church it was early in the afternoon, and the pews were almost empty. A few women in loose, colorful dresses shuffled across the polished floor, touching their fingertips to their heads. On another day in Rwanda, those pews might have been filled by pious bodies dipping their heads in prayer. A man sat at the end of an empty row, leaning heavily on his knees. There were scars on the back of his head – a spider web of wounds healed over – and he sat there, his face resting in the palm of his hand, his fingers clicking the beads of a rosary. Crude oil paintings hung from the walls: a pink Roman arm lifting the whip; a stiff-figured Christ hunched beneath each blow. I wondered if there was a good Christian moral in that story of suffering, or if it might just be a bloody parable of human cruelty, and the harm that one man can do another.

In the two years since, though, much has changed – not only in Rwanda, but in how I understand it. I’ve grown skeptical of the government, wondered about the effect of all this death-worship, this genocide cult. My readings now are from Gerard Prunier, Howard French. I’ve thought more about RPF crimes committed after the genocide, grown critical of the government’s muzzling of the opposition, the press. [Ed. note: For some brilliant reading on the UN’s recently released report on Rwandan – and other – atrocities in the Congo, click here.]

At the auberge, they’re playing a live press conference with His Excellency PK on the radio. An American journalist asks about the commemoration week broadcasts on RTV, the graphic genocide footage played on a 24-hour loop. Many Rwandans had told him they were appalled by such violence – they said they would unplug their TVs for the week. Did such programs go too far in opening old wounds? he asks. Perhaps implicit is a broader criticism: how much commemoration is too much?

President PK fudges, is ambivalent. Maybe the footage is too much, maybe it isn’t. He is no psychologist, no specialist, he says. Maybe it is better to leave such questions to the professionals. Another Rwandan voice – a minister? – intercedes. Certainly the footage is too graphic for some, he says, and no doubt those are the voices you will hear raised in protest. But there are many who support those programs, he insists. Perhaps they are just less vocal than the critics. It is impossible to say.

It is an unsatisfactory exchange – so typical, in all its subterfuge and obfuscation and denial, of what I’ve come to expect from this government. But then, could it be any other way? Sixteen years on and still Rwanda is wrestling its demons, trying to balance the need to move on with the equally important need to remember. Say what you will about the government’s attempts to manipulate these memories for political gain at the national level; still, stripped of such cynicism, that need exists at the personal level, too.

This commemoration week is tricky business – I think it does more harm than good. For many survivors it is overwhelming: you see them staggering through the streets, as if in a daze, or sitting, weeping, on the curb. And it is a polarizing week, too. For all the talk of reconciliation, this is a Tutsi remembrance. In Bujumbura earlier this year, a Human Rights Watch researcher told me about the hostile receptions Hutus – even Hutu survivors – received at commemoration ceremonies, how they’re still treated with resentment, suspicion. What does it mean to reopen this divide every April? To force this national mourning – this public shaming – onto an ethnic majority that still feels largely excluded from power?

For journalists, certainly, it is an interesting time to be in Rwanda. But here I am, instead, back at the border. The Rwandan official is interested to hear, as per my African-border-crossing narrative, that I am a student. Master’s, or Ph.d.? Instantly I invent an academic history for myself, I advise him on scholarships, bemoan the lack of job prospects for a – ahem – Master’s graduate student in literature like me. He is sympathetic. Surely there will be something? Academia, perhaps, I sigh. There is always a demand for some particular skill or knowledge, he says, stamping my passport. Suddenly, my imaginary future looks bright.

On the Congolese side, no fictitious discourse on lit. theory. Still, I’m surprised at how helpful the woman – large, pretty, smiling, with long corn rows and wide, high hips – is. She stamps my passport, calls out to a colleague. She hands him 500 francs for transport from what appears to be petty cash – ! – and tells him to take me to the immigration office in town. The man’s eyes narrow. He is slender, mustachioed, his uniform is ill-fitting. He has a gruff manner and shrewd eyes – I like him not one bit. Surely now, I think, comes the shakedown? We take motos the short distance to immigration, he tells me to pay the drivers. He has pocketed the 500 francs from his colleague, but that’s the extent of his criminal designs. Standing outside the immigration bureau, stocky men in blue uniforms reposing in the shade, he even demands that my driver give me 100 francs change.

Inside, upstairs, and everything is smooth, brisk. A tall, pot-bellied man asks for my passport, sending a colleague downstairs to retrieve some forms. Another man arrives and ushers us into his office. His manner is brusque, bullying, but otherwise he seems to be on the level. The fives and tens I’d fretfully packed away into various pockets stay put. I would like to go to Bukavu? I would. When? As soon as possible. The man glances at his wristwatch, gold and gaudy, as if he might be able to ship me out this afternoon. I can come back tomorrow at noon, he says, and still have time to catch the two o’clock canôt rapide. I hand him $155, which disappears into his desk. C’est fini. Painlessly, in under five minutes, the deed is done. And while all sorts of horrors might await tomorrow – a “lost” passport, a processing fee – I am speechless at the efficiency I’ve just witnessed. Nowhere else in Congo, I suspect, would such a scene as this play out. This place, I decide, has its own sort of magic.

The day has been hot, muggy; I’m wilting in the sunlight. At the Nyira I sink into my seat with my notebook and a thermos full of cheap instant coffee. The terrace is surrounded by palm trees, vines, succulents. The birds are hysterical in the treetops. Across from me an American man – raucous, campy, flamboyantly gay – is entertaining his colleagues. He wants to know how to say “you fat bastard” in Swahili, and “fuck off,” and “shit.” Closer to me another American, a willowy blonde, is talking about opening a new nightclub with a Congolese friend. “People work so hard here, it’s always a crisis, and I don’t think they want to hear the same music when they go out,” she says, with great feeling. She knows a DJ in London who wants to come to Africa – why not Goma? It seems only logical, since Goma is a place in Africa. Her speech is slow, airy: you can picture the words floating down from a cloud like snowflakes, settling on her tongue. She wants to play her colleague a song on her iPhone. He nods, types something on his laptop. And what about the color scheme? She thinks purple – she wants her clients to feel like royalty. More tapping on the keyboard. “Will there be bottle service?” she asks. A very blank look from across the table. She explains the concept of people paying extraordinary amounts of money to buy a bottle and sit at a table. “You know, like Vegas?” she says. Her colleague’s fingers rest uncertainly on the keyboard. He is not sure what to do next.

So many crazy schemes are floating around in Goma. Surely there’s a market for such a velvet-roped fantasia, too. I can picture the Russians, the Lebanese, the Congolese with their gold watches and peacock shirts, paying exorbitant amounts to sit and be looked at. And besides, there are enough humanitarian rackets in eastern Congo already. Something should be said in praise of originality, too.

The coffee, the garden – somewhere there must be birds of paradise – didn’t do the trick. Instead I am easily distracted, high-strung. I write a few words and stare at the words I’ve written. It’s no use. The sky is still overcast, the rains haven’t come, but the air is warm and sticks to your skin. I head back to the hotel to take another shower – this time of day the cold water is a relief. I tip the pitcher over my neck and shoulders. I’ve made no plans for the evening, and I’m undecided, now, how I want it spent. I’ve grown cranky – it feels like this day has been wasted. Three days have passed since I arrived from Gisenyi, but it feels like life – Congolese life – is eluding me. My days have passed in a blur of coffees and schwarmas, my nights drinking with expats. The time for me is short, but so far, it seems like I’ve been getting nowhere.

In Goma, even the billboards confuse the fuck out of me

To shake off this sour mood – if nothing, I am a man of many sour moods – I decide to have a schwarma and a drink with an expat. It is, admittedly, an alluring life here. At Doga with Rachel, nursing the two-for-one happy hour special, I realize I’m not the only one to succumb to Goma’s lazy charms. Rachel has spent the day making ice cream – a tremendous failure – and taking her boat onto the lake. In the sky a rainbow was bending from the green hills of Rwanda toward the Congo; it was like a gift, an annunciation, a validation of her life here. Outside, in the jungles of North Kivu, the militias fought and raged; here, in Goma, in Chez NGO, you made ice cream and paddled across the lake. Rachel is no fool; she knows how ridiculous it all is. But still, here you were, at the end of one contract and looking for another. She had an offer floated to her for a one-month project in Jordan, but Africa has been her on-again-off-again home for five years. Before Congo, Uganda; before that, the Gambia, Senegal. She wants to come back to Congo and work in communications, but somewhere in the interior, far from Goma’s expat whirl. “I feel like I don’t know anything about Congolese life here,” she says. Then she phones her driver and we’re dashing through the rain, a truck waiting to carry us home.

It’s after ten now, the city is at rest. Just a few vehicles – aid workers returning from dinner, perhaps; a few lonesome motorbikes – drive down the Sake road. Moto drivers gather in the fluorescent glare of a petrol station. On the side of the road, youths selling loaves of bread in the dark. Nyiragongo is glowing dimly – somewhere beyond it, past distant mountains, fire and brimstone. And here, on these black streets of Goma, silent houses sitting in the darkness like blank faces, revealing nothing of their hidden lives.

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5 responses to “You know, like Vegas.

  1. Loved this, but I don’t want to hear any whining about having to go to Gisenyi to get cash. 🙂 There used to be NO ATM’s in Rwanda, and there was a law against dispensing cash off a credit card in dollars, so you had to go to Kigali, get it in francs, and then convert. It actually made more financial sense to fly to Kampala to get cash in those days.

    That billboard is about the rule of law. And, wow, this just brings home for me how very much Goma has changed. Can’t wait for the rest of the series.

  2. You know, the funny thing is that I wrote that little parenthetical aside yesterday – not when I was actually in Goma – thus completely forgetting that I’ve never used an ATM in Rwanda. They’re like all those Peace Corps workers in Kigali: ubiquitous, but pretty much useless. On this particular visit – as with every other trip to the bank – I had to wait on line, present my passport and ATM card, sign numerous forms in triplicate, wait while the teller had to get signed approval from the bank manager (who himself probably had to call the goddamn Minister of Finance), inquire extensively about the names, respective ages, and health of the teller’s children, gurgle and coo at an infant, and then finally get my stack of 500 franc notes. How spoiled we are in Joburg!

  3. That’s the Rwanda I know! Although the fact that you could do it in Gisenyi means there’s been progress. ..

  4. It’s really been great to follow your trip. I was in Ethiopia this summer launching a business to connect rural villages through trade, and can really relate to the experiences that you enumerate here. Especially the focus on religion – it is just everywhere. Keep us informed and the stories coming..

  5. Pingback: Kivu redux. | This Is Africa

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