Editor’s note: This is the seventeenth in a series of posts chronicling my travels in Rwanda and eastern Congo earlier this year.
To start at the beginning, click here.
Day 17 – April 6
Just two-plus weeks after leaving my Kigali digs, I’m starting to lose confidence in what I’m doing. Writing – the actual, laborious task of putting pen to pad, of trying to keep up with the day’s events, both significant and in-, to somehow process them into a form that is engaging and informative or just not a pile of steaming, faux-literary crap – seems to take up most of my time. I feel as bound to my notebook here in Goma as I felt to my laptop back in Kigali – gone the free-spiritedness of those early days on the road. It’s beginning to wear me out. It feels like half the day is spent caffeinating, and the other half logging impressions of the view over the rim of my coffee mug.
Today I spend two, three hours with my notebook, catching up on yesterday’s thoughts. I’m not convinced there’s much value in any of this. Still, out of a sense of duty, of blind faith, I write. The morning passes. At noon I’m again at the immigration office, braced for the worst. Without reason. I’m in and out in under two minutes. Stamped into my passport is a one-month visa de voyage – they even give me a receipt. The afternoon, its hazy, heavy heat, is suddenly before me. Tomorrow I will go to Bukavu; today, Goma. Some sense of purpose comes over me. For one day, at least, I will steer clear of Doga and Ihuzi, I will resist the lure of happy hour and the merry chatter of pretty, acronymed aid workers. Instead I will wander these dusty, sun-scoured, grit-choked streets, subjecting the locals to my ad hoc French, making friends, shaking off hustlers, dodging motorbikes, stepping into the stream of Congolese life.
Down the broad avenues, past the heroic roundabouts – no doubt the Belgians brought a grand vision to their colonial cities. At one rond point a statue is being built; it is still unfinished, hidden, wrapped in plastic sheeting. Rachel has been spreading a rumor that it will be an homage to the ubiquitous chukudu; this is a pleasing vision. Better that heroic wooden scooter than one of the many statesmen who have betrayed this country through the years. Between the buzzing motos they clatter past: one after another, carrying a cabinet, a small boy, wooden shelves, a generator; bushels of something green and leafy; 25kg bags of maize meal and cement. On the side of the road, slim youths in blue jeans crouch beside gas-powered pumps, filling the tires of passing motorists. Others sell half-liter bottles of gasoline – the color and viscosity are all wrong; probably the bottles have been topped off in Lake Kivu.
The roads are battered, buckled – yet still, they are the region’s best. (At Doga, an aid worker recalled a trip to the interior. “Maman, look at the road,” they called out to her passing car. “Bring us the Chinese!”) Music comes from the hair salons, the CD shops, the electronics stores. Maison Bush. “Dealers in japans used music and household equipments.” Outside, the speakers are taller than a child, stacked like the foundation stones of a pre-Columbian temple. The bass shakes the ground. “Hurry while stocks last!”
Down the street I find a two-storey house of stained white clapboard, the words “Restaurant Benedict” painted across the side in big blue letters. From inside comes the sound of laughter, boisterous voices. A curtain is the door. There is surprise at the white man suddenly standing there, asking for chakula. A boy bent over a basin, washing his hands in soapy water, says something in Swahili. Another boy giggles in the corner. A waitress – light-skinned, wide-hipped, a kanga covering her curves – gives me a frank and explicit look. I gesture toward the stairs and she raises her eyebrows, an east African look that seems to offer affirmation with the least possible effort. Upstairs there are white tables, white chairs, white benches, white walls. I am beginning to sense a theme. The ceiling is made from a patchwork of canvas sacks; in some places it sags, in others, you can see the sky through it. A blue heart is painted over the door to the toilet. The tables are full. Everyone is watching me, waiting to see what I’ll do next.
Suddenly, there is movement by the window. A young man in a soccer jersey moves his motorcycle helmet and offers me a seat. A general mood of welcome fills the room. The waitress comes and gives me a blank look. I’ve always wondered if it takes some particular effort, a Zen-like relaxation of the forehead and cheek muscles, to have a face so washed of emotion. I order foufou and beans and lenga-lenga – a poor-man’s meal. The boy beside me asks if I take meat. “Je ne mange pas viande aujourd’hui,” I say. No meat for me today. What I mean to suggest is that I won’t be taking meat in this particular restaurant, because if past experience is any indication, I expect it to have the taste and consistency of an 18” Pirelli. There is no way to translate this satisfactorily. My companion is puzzled. How can anyone with the money to take meat – and surely I have the money – take just foufou and beans and greens? I don’t want to offend him with my meat snobbery – certainly the men eating viande in the Restaurant Benedict are receiving it the way a Catholic receives communion. I shrug again. “Je ne le mange pas,” I say. He laughs softly and shakes his head. Another white with his inscrutable ways! The boy across from me wipes the plate with his foufou, the sauce dripping from his long fingers.
Next to me, the boy who offered me a seat, is Emmanuel. He drives a moto, he says, he is 24. The room is filled with a dozen Emmanuels – young, thin, all elbows and rib cages in secondhand clothes. Most are moto drivers, says Emmanuel. (One gets up and gingerly carries a plastic bottle full of petrol down the stairs.) Emmanuel lives just outside Goma with his parents – he is one of eleven children, he hasn’t married, he finished his studies after secondary school. He’s been working since he was 20, renting a bike, saving the profits. He points to it outside, a red GTZ motorbike surrounded by red and black and blue GTZ motorbikes. I ask how is life in Goma. “Ça va un peu,” he says. There is nothing to do at night, he complains. He’s not married, so what is there to do?
The waitress returns with a plate of foufou and a plate of beans and a shallow bowl full of meat and sauce. There was no lenga-lenga, she says – viande it is. Again, all eyes on me. “C’est le premier fois,” I say, rolling a ball of foufou between my fingers. It is a green mound of manioc, with the texture of yesterday’s mashed potatoes. I soak up some sauce, pinch a few beans between my fingers. The foufou is good – surprisingly good. “C’est bon,” I say happily, truthfully. Relief, laughter all around. Here is a mzungu eating foufou with his hands, approving. Hungrily I take another clump, dip into the sauce, lick my fingers. Later in the week they will still talk about this memorable afternoon, looking up expectantly when they hear footsteps on the stairs.
There is a shuffling of chairs, a new lunch shift, new faces. When a newcomer reaches the top step he pauses, does a doubletake in my direction. After he orders he’ll watch me from the corner of his eye, measuring my reactions.
The food now is slow-going – the foufou is heavy, dense, monotonous. At the tables around me, an eager clutter of dishes, bottles of Fanta and Primus, pitchers of water poured into little metal cups. It is for most, I suspect, the only good meal of the day. When the bill comes it is 1,300 francs, less than $2 – almost half of this for a Fanta citron. For four days I have searched fruitlessly, stupidly for cheap eats; but really, I wasn’t looking too hard. Walking around today I saw others – Mamling, Best Life – and I’m sure there are many more, hidden behind curtains, full of moto drivers and students and the rest of Goma’s working poor.
Outside Christophe, one of the moto drivers from lunch, offers to take me to the hotel. His English is good – he has friends, Congolese, that he visits in Kampala. The bike, he says, is rented for $7 a day – anything else he keeps, a modest profit after even a good day’s work. He wants me to take his number – I can give him a call, he says, if I ever need a lift. Before he drives off I snap a picture of him in front of the hotel – his blue shirt glittering, Tim Horton’s cap in his lap. He is punching his number into my phone.
In the afternoon I am on my way to the Virunga market, on the black jagged road that stretches from the center of town to the foot of Nyiragongo. Ask the Congolese why they would live in the path of one of the most active volcanoes on the planet, and they will undoubtedly tell you that the soil here is rich, impossibly fertile. Sure, it is dangerous here – but where isn’t it dangerous? And besides, the lava flow is slow; in 2002, hardly anyone was killed. The city rebuilt; now, they are still building. Along the Nyiragongo road, new construction sites: wooden scaffolds, cinderblocks, sheet metal, rebar. These will become small shopping centers, offices, hotels. Goma is stable, money is pouring in. The city is expanding to meet its growing needs.
At the market, the usual market scenes – the colorful bustle and din of African commerce. Past the pots and pans and crockery, I am all business – on a mission, actually, to buy some socks. Rows of blouses and blue jeans, colorful bolts of cloth, jackets, soccer jerseys. The stalls are built high off the ground; the women sit with their legs dangling, or reclining barefoot on piles of clothes, taking the term “business casual” to new heights. Everywhere they follow me with their eyes, solicitous. “Mzungu, mzungu,” they say. It is like walking through a red light district. I buy my socks, tease the ladies with promises to return for jeans, shirts, a wife. Howls of laughter. Yes, yes, a wife – that’s more like it. Now I am in the fish market, passing buckets full of silver sambaza, dried fish stretched out like animal skins. Three women sit on a bench, chickens squawking between their legs. Rows of soaps, skin creams, hair care products, extensions. Women at sewing machines – the drone fills the air like the sound of cicadas.
Outside, the rain is approaching. I get on the back of a moto and race the clouds back into town. Three lorries pass us on the road – they are full of mourners. Dark suits, neckties, elaborate dresses. A man holds a wooden cross aloft, lurching with each bump in the road. Slowly they make their mournful procession along the Sake road. In the rear truck, women are singing a funeral hymn.
We just beat the rain to Nyira. Then the sky opens up. I sit with my notebook, my pen, my collected stories of Saul Bellow. It’s been a good day. I am thinking ahead now to tomorrow, to the port, to the boat to Bukavu. The rain is torrential, Biblical – there is no use planning now, there is nothing to do but sit and listen to the thunder rolling over the gardens. There is a luxuriousness to waiting out these tropical rains, hearing the roar on the rooftops. The temperature drops, the air is brisk. By the time the rain stops we have entered a new season. I put on my jacket, zip it all the way up, puff into my fists.
It is after five, and the humanitarians are returning from the field. Watching the rush hour traffic is like going on a particular, Congolese safari. Here is a Land Cruiser, there a Range Rover. Here are the RAV4s and 4Runners, the Prados and Pajeros. Minibuses wheeling through the dusky half-light, traveling with speed and peril. From where I’m standing you can watch all of Goma passing by: motos, chukudus, women carrying fruit, carrying children. Swallows are circling in the sky, crying out. Below them children are running through the mud and grass of a small public park, singing, toppling, laughing.
A boy approaches, solemn and apologetic, asking for my help. He is young, handsome, studious; he has a sheet of paper, folded into quarters, which he unfolds for my inspection. There is a sentence written across the top of the page – “James is a best teacher of English” – which this boy, Bernard, has to write in the future tense. It is an assignment for an English course he is taking, a class for youths in the crowded quartiers of Goma who can’t afford to study in the city’s schools. James is a best teacher of English. I help Bernard with the first example; he tries the next one on his own. “He is going to pay your money this evening,” says Bernard, struggling to find the past tense. Deep lines crease his forehead. “He paid your money this evening,” he says. He smiles, he is starting to get it. “Here in DRC, many boys do not speak English,” he says. “We do our best.”
The Sake road is crowded on my way back to Cirezi – the aid-group convoys, the MONUC vehicles crammed with well-armed, Kevlared, flinty-eyed soldiers. Motos weaving through the traffic – I see only headlights, and more headlights. They grow as big as dinner plates in front of me and then, suddenly, swerve to the side. There is peril and exhilaration in all of this. A traffic cop, a heroic figure, stands in the middle of the road, blowing on his whistle. Music and horns and the sound of ancient engines. Near the hotel, lingala at high decibels pours from the Champs Elysee, R&B from the shop next door. The walls are lined with DVDs: CSI and 24 and Lost on one shelf, Cavemen Bible Mysteries and God’s Love in World Movie Collection 3 on the next. Men and women outside are hustling home, slopping through the mud, their faces ringed by headlights and exhaust fumes. White faces in passing cars. Clothing boutiques, fluorescent-lit hair salons, gospel music, the racket of generators. Boys selling bread, women with piles of pineapples. You can do your grocery shopping here on the street, groping in the darkness.
At an Internet café down the road someone has left a personals site, Badoo, on the screen: one man’s longing, transmitted across hundreds of miles of jungle, war, and impenetrable bush, calling out to Maranatha, 18, Lorita, 24, Gloria, 20, and SEXYANA, 22 – pretty, pouting girls looking for love in Kinshasa. It is impossible, at times, to think of Goma as a city in a country called Congo. Yet here, as if bonded by the desires of strangers, the country becomes whole: a great, fragile nation, bound together in cyberspace.