Editor’s note: This is the nineteenth in a series of posts chronicling my travels in Rwanda and eastern Congo earlier this year.
To start at the beginning, click here.
Day 19 – April 8
It is the boating hour, it seems. On my way to the port, motos stream down the road, carrying women with great vinyl market bags, and men holding suitcases on their laps. Those without money to spare walk along the roadside, luggage on their heads and shoulders, children in tow. The sun has still not crested the hilltops. Down below, the port is in chaos. Passengers, porters, soldiers exercising a dubious sort of crowd control. Little swift speed boats and creaky passenger ferries bob on the water. Men writing out tickets, holding wads of cash and slips of paper, as if they’re on their way to the races.
My arrival does not go unnoticed: quickly I am surrounded by officials, helpful and genial, delivering me every which way. I am escorted into a room in what looks like a warehouse, with just two weathered wooden desks, an empty filing cabinet, and a dozen bags of cement piled on the floor. A man opens a dusty ledger and writes my name, my passport number, my ticket details. There is a dollar tax – voilà, I am stamped and back outside, turning hopefully toward the boat. Alas, this would have been too easy. There is a line, a crowd of Congolese, and another official waiting with another stamp. She takes my ticket, tears a tiny notch in the side, stamps a small piece of paper, staples this paper to my ticket. Another $1 tax is paid. I turn to go and a man, an official, an amiable older fellow who speaks some English, stops me. “Take care your sacks,” he says. “Here there are many thieves.” Yeah, no kidding. I lug my things along, wary of flinty-eyed pickpockets, but there is no need for such subtlety here. A portly man, another customs official, in a soiled white shirt and a crooked beret, stands before me, grinning like the cat who made the canary pay a dubious customs duty. There is, he says, another tax – he pulls a stamp and inkpad from his pocket, smiling drunkenly. “You must be the guy who shakes down white people for more money, huh?” I ask. “Oui,” he says, laughing merrily. Five hundred francs exchange hands. I have now been triply stamped and approved. I’m wary of more taxes, but no, my duty to the Congolese tax authorities has been done, I am free to go. The port road is crowded – women selling peanuts, ndazi, cassava, sausages; men holding wheels of cheese. Crowds pushing forward, hysterical cries of farewell. Sacks, boxes, battered suitcases, jerry cans. I buy two loaves of ndazi; my change is paid out in peanuts. Now I am ready to board the Miss Rafiki.
The lower deck, second class, is already crowded, business being done from the windows with the hustlers on the dock. I ascend to the higher precincts – there is a first-class lounge with thin-pile carpeting and banquettes and TVs, but I go further still, all the way to the top. I want to spend this morning with the sun and the wind on my face. This is a certain character type, I suspect – something to do with freedom. There are two seating areas, plastic lawn chairs arranged over strips of Astroturf. Across the bay the M/V Salama, its deck a riot of colors, chugs into port. Closer to us the M/V Kivu King – a canôt rapide, a $50 passage – idles with the muscular self-assurance of expensive machinery. A group of white passengers waits patiently to board. Below me the dock teems with crowds, porters, soldiers, farewells. An angry shouting match ensues: two passengers, well-dressed men, appear to have missed a stamp. Near them laughing, idling. Husky, self-possessed women accustomed to long voyages – they carry hampers full of food, they hold their children close to them. Bread-sellers holding up loaves from a distance, hoping to catch someone’s eye at the final moment. A boy selling sausages from a plastic basket is being bullied by some soldiers for a minor, probably made-up infraction. The boy cowers, his lower lip trembles. One of the soldiers takes off his belt, holding it in the air with violent intent.
Now others are filling the deck: two soldiers, customs officials in white shirts and epaulets, two girls – students, maybe, from the university, spending the weekend with family in Bukavu. A man in a red baseball cap joins me, he is smiling, he has a broad nose and Oriental eyes. He is wearing a black jacket with many zippers and, beneath that, a t-shirt with President Obama’s smiling visage on it. His name is Alexis, he says; he lives in Bukavu and has five children: Celine, Melvin, Alexis Charlotte, Alex, and another I forget. He says he is a truck driver; he has just made the two-day journey from Kisangani to Goma. It is nothing, he says, a thousand kilometers, but the road is good. From Goma to Bukavu, on the other hand, is a three-day drive: three days to travel 200 kilometers along the lake’s shore. We shake our heads, laughing, marveling. Now he is going home to see his children – sometimes, he will not see them for two months at a time. Then he will go to Uvira, across the border from Bujumbura, to pick up an SUV he will deliver to Kisangani. He will drive to Bukavu, take the truck on the ferry, and then drive again all the way from Goma to the far north.
The horn blows – not a loud, dignified blast, but a dying noise, like something you’d hear from under the hood of an ‘87 Buick Regal. It sounds again, and we’re off. The port recedes, the evergreen hills of Goma, with Nyiragongo looming and puffing in the background. The morning is cool, the sun is out, spirits are high at the start of our voyage. Over the side I see the crowds leaning out in second class – men’s cuffs, women’s wrists ringed by gold bracelets, a pair of hands clutching a rosary. Yesterday I read a story, a ferry – the Amani – ran aground off Idjwi island. MONUC was called in, but no one was hurt. The Marinette Express arrived and shuttled everyone to safety.
I am starting, now, with our smooth passage, with the sun on my hands and face, to feel the effects of last night. I was lucky to grab three hours’ sleep, and now, tired and sun-warmed, the next five ours given over to the journey, I close my eyes and go numb. It has been just three weeks, even less, since I left Kigali, but it’s felt like a lifetime. The plodding progression south from Gisenyi, the fiasco at the Bukavu border. Now, a week later, having run an end-around through Goma – a busy week, a very good week – I am preparing myself again for Bukavu. Excited, but exhausted, too. I’m running out of money, I miss the familiar faces in Kigali. I have piles of writing to do. And then – incredible to think – in just two weeks I’ll be in Johannesburg.
Passing the Congo, passing the hills of Rwanda. Islands, small green domes, the hills planted with bananas, cabbage, manioc. It is an Edenic scene – but no one would ever think such thoughts about this place. It is hard to imagine how I’ll write about this country later, what little of it I’ve seen. Goma, to me, is not an adventure; yet surely there are travelers, the armchair adventure-seekers, who will cross the Gisenyi border for a day, just to get a Congolese stamp in their passports. (“It’s almost like a little visit to hell,” said the man at the Serena in Gisenyi.) This sort of travel is almost pathologically dishonest. But what, then, have I accomplished? How to write about the place, how to describe these lives, these desires? Je cherche la travaille. J’ai besoin d’argent. Je veux apprendre d’anglaise. Je veux une femme. Je veux vivre. The life of modern Africa, of the city, of its shanties and sprawl, of its Dickensian dreams and dramas.
At the bow of the boat the men are crowded, shouting, laughing, arguing, pointing at this or that thing on some distant hill. A man in a windbreaker with the word “Hooch” across the back. Another guzzling Primus. The women sit gathered on the deck behind them, piled among the luggage and potato sacks, using suitcases and duffel bags for pillows. Infants hidden under blankets. A Congolese flag snaps briskly on its pole. Soon the clouds are low, the wind picks up, a light rain begins to fall. Tarps are unfurled, bearing the UNICEF logo. Somewhere the sound of a child crying, the rustling of bodies under jackets. When the rain lets up the tarps are folded away. Everyone stands stiffly, facing the wind.
The life of the lake. Hours pass. Small fishing boats row beside us, young boys perched at the helm. Yesterday a boat was swamped in Rwandan waters, six were killed. It was carrying genocide survivors to a commemoration ceremony in Kibuye. Boats drifting, gliding. Across the lake there are storm clouds, they are moving away from us, you can see dark curtains of rainfall draped across the hills. We pass a small island, about the size of a baseball diamond, crowned by a solitary house. It is owned by a Canadian man of Congolese origin, I am told. There are a few men, gardeners, tending to the lawns. On the grass there is a small gazebo, the roof thatched with banana leaves. Maybe the owner is in the kitchen, or the bedroom. Maybe he’s in Montreal.
Now the city in the distance, the houses rising up the hills. It takes forty minutes for us to finally pull into port. Dozens of fishing boats are in the bay, sitting in neat military rows – no one can explain why they do this. Metalworkers are building a new ship, there is a great noise of banging and welding and blasting. The dock is crowded. Suddenly, I’m struck by nerves. Somewhere in that loud throng is undoubtedly another official with another tax, or a problem with my visa. I have just counted my money on the boat: three hundred bucks, just enough for a week, I imagine. My bribe allowance is minimal. I step off the boat and, sure enough, am pulled to the side. Not some portly immigration official this time, not a policeman with menacing, opaque sunglasses, but a woman – short, brisk, in a flowery dress that hugs her body. She has a lanyard around her neck and a list – passenger’s names, obscure notations – that gives her an air of officialdom. She wants to see my passport – there is another form to fill out, she says, surely another fee – and then we stand there, getting jostled and bumped, waiting for any other “étranger” to materialize.
There are none – it is just me, she is visibly deflated. Today there will be just a small payout. She cleaves a path through the crowd – really, this bustling little woman is all business – and I follow her quickly swaying hips with appreciation. A building, a long low shed, ahead of us. She unlocks a padlock, opens the door; there is a small room with a desk in the corner, a single lightbulb hanging from the ceiling. For the second time today, I am standing in the sort of room where political dissidents undoubtedly have the soles of their feet flayed. I fill out the form, another tax – 1,000 francs – is paid. All things considered, there have been none of the shakedowns I’d feared: my grand total for the day amounts to about four bucks. Outside, a taxi driver is waiting. I ask for a moto, but this sets off cries of alarm. The woman, strangers in the crowd, tell me it is not safe to take a moto with my big bag – the word “securité” is in much circulation. Probably this driver is somebody’s cousin. I succumb, I am seven bucks the lighter. We crunch over the gravel, back from the lot. My camera, my passport, my phone – all the essentials are exactly where I’d left them. Around the port, a sprawling marketplace takes shape: brightly painted dukas, women squatting by the road, selling vegetables and shoes. Chaos, Congolese chaos. Now we are racing toward the city.
Suddenly, it is all too much for me – the sleepless night, the tumult of the port; not to mention I haven’t eaten all day, I’m in caffeine withdrawal. The challenge of this new city overwhelms me. I convince myself I’m wasting my time here, that I could be on tomorrow’s boat back to Goma instead. Outside my window the city looks rundown: the weather-stained buildings, the crumble of roads, the sky low and gray. The feeling I have is ominous – the day bears a mark of failure.
Until suddenly, literally, the clouds part. The city is flooded with sunlight. We are on a wide avenue now, and the streets are full of life, color. Art Decos line the road, the hard lines and soft palettes of some colonial architect. The mayor’s office is the color of a cloudless sky. Palm trees, women sitting under beach umbrellas. We turn a corner and voilà, there is the lake, blue-gray, endless, the peninsulas of Bukavu poking into it. The fears are gone; I have suddenly warmed to the place. We pass a market, and cell phone shops, and salons with their murals of well-coiffured men who look like Sinbad. It is a long drive – I feel less ripped-off by driver, who strikes me, now, as an alright guy. We arrive at the Guest House Tourist. “Voici,” he says. There is a small sidewalk restaurant, a UN compound across the road. It looks like a fine base for the next couple of days.
Certainly I’ll be able to stretch my dollar here. For $25 my room comes with a good bed, an armoire, a bathroom with running water. It is positively cozy. Downstairs I dig into the plat du jour – a plate of rice, peas and beef for 2,300 francs, or less than $3. I am hungry enough to have another, but the cold shock of my accounting on the boat – the fact that even on a tight budget, I can barely make it through another week – has me on my best behavior. I’ve been scared stringent. Across the street I check my email – there is a small library, the books donated by some American church group, and an Internet café full of second-hand laptops – and then I am on the street, facing Bukavu.
It is late in the day, just after four; the sky is low, the weather is good for walking. This is, I’ll soon learn, the only avenue worthy of the name in Bukavu: it stretches from the Rwandan border to the governor’s mansion at the end of the shoe-shaped peninsula they call “la bote.” Aid-group SUVs barrel past, just a handful, and UN lorries full of MONUC soldiers. Taxis creep by, honking their horns. There are no minibuses in Bukavu, I’ll later learn; passengers share taxis-voitures that drive back and forth along the Avenue Patrice Lumumba. Motos, less brazen than in Goma. The drivers and passengers are required by law to wear helmets. The road is busy, but it is nothing like the Sake road – none of the endless bottlenecks, none of the smoke and grit hanging in the air.
Outside an old Art Deco I find a few children gathered on the sidewalk. They are playing a game with bottlecaps, they’ve arranged them in the formations of two football teams playing a 4-4-2. A torn bit of playing card, a king of hearts, is the ball. One of the boys sends a bottlecap flying toward a milk carton in the shape of a goal.
Already I like the feel of this city – there is, as the French say, a je ne sais quoi to this handsome avenue, to the relaxed traffic on the street, the workers casually strolling home in the clear late-day sunlight. Along the road, constant commerce: women selling plastic floral arrangements, ropes of garland, hard little tomatoes, high heels, children’s shoes, men’s shoes, hard-boiled eggs, oranges that look like limes, hand mirrors, burnished picture frames, duffel bags and suitcases, pursues, more plastic floral arrangements, wall clocks, LCD lamps you power like wind-up toys. A man is selling second-hand books on the steps of a shop – school texts, English-language primers, romance novels by someone called Gérard de Villiers. Two MONUC trucks have emptied onto the street, causing bedlam. The Uruguayans are surrounded by men with blue jeans, socks, belts. Boys come up to me and call me “amigo.” Everyone has something to sell.
It is late and the market sounds like the floor of the stock exchange, people coming and going, men carrying pairs of shoes and looking hopefully at passersby. The women have spread out their blankets on the sidewalk, they’re selling vegetables, but also they’re laughing, gossiping, braiding each other’s hair. Their voices are loud, hysterical, their eyes shrewd. Young boys pass carrying buckets of soda on their heads. They rattle their bottle-openers against the glass, some are musical, they sound like xylophones. It’s an effective marketing tool – you can hear the sound over the din of the traffic. I buy a Fanta citron, sit on the steps, watch the street. Then I hop on a moto and head back to the hotel.
What I have in mind is a quiet night with my notebook, a few extra hours in bed to make up for what I missed last night. Only the phone is ringing, it’s my friend Landry, a Ph.D. student I’d met in Cyangugu last week. He is surprised to hear I’m already in Bukavu. There is no time to protest: he wants to swing by the hotel in 30 minutes to greet me. Reluctantly, I agree. I have a feeling this night will pass in a blur of brochettes and Primus. With time to kill I again pop into the Internet café across the street, anxious for word on some proposals I’d sent to editors earlier in the week. The connection is bad – Lena, a plump, friendly girl, the cashier, asks where I’m staying, offering to fetch me when the connection improves. You do not often see such customer service in Congo, though I am aware, too, of other motives. We sit outside; she asks me about America – “Chez Obama,” she calls it. They teach her some English at school, but it is not enough, she says, she would like to learn more. Next year she will go to university – to study economics, maybe, or medicine. She wants to finish her degree, work for a few years – marriage is still a long way off. Do I have a wife, she asks. I tell her I don’t. I want to work for a few years, too, I say. She says in Congo, if you’re not married by the time you turn 25, people will think there’s something wrong with you. I tell her in New York, it’s common for people to marry at 35, 40. She exclaims softly and shakes her head. It is an incredible figure.
Landry arrives at the hotel looking sharp, Congolese, in a bright orange shirt made from something frilly and European. He wants to show me the city, shrugging off my protests. “Bukavu is not a big town,” he says. “It’s just one road. We can do it in 30 minutes.” We drive once along the Avenue Lumumba, as far as the governor’s mansion, then drive back. The road is crowded with pedestrians, shopping, haggling, strolling in the cool evening air. It is my favorite time of day – the music pumps from the shops, the bars are beginning to fill. Landry turns down a side street, points out expensive hotels as landmarks. We reach a busy commercial strip that has only been built in the past year – new shops are rising, there is scaffolding, bricks everywhere. Landry points out his wife’s shop – she trades in clothes, shoes, she’s in Istanbul on business. Things here have been looking up for the past year, he says. “If we have the security here in Congo, I think Bukavu will be a very big town,” he says.
We park near the hotel – there is a bar nearby he wants to show me. It is a short stroll. I am asking Landry about other countries he’s visited, places he would like to go. South Africa? He has never been, he’s heard a lot about the crime, the violence. “It is not like here,” he says, disapprovingly. At least here you can walk in the street, you can take a beer outside. Not often do you expect to hear extolled the virtues of the security situation in eastern Congo.
The bar is behind a red gate, there are three or four huts for private parties and a bunch of tables scattered across the courtyard. The place is full – Landry has a few words with the waiter and voilà, another table materializes. He has greetings, words for everyone. “Bukavu is very small,” he says. “It is easy to have relationships with everyone.” We order beers – the oversized bottles so popular in the Great Lakes region. The place is loud, lively. “Here, it is not possible to have a day pass without taking a beer,” says Landry. It seems to me part of the joyfulness, the free-spiritedness, for which the Congolese are known – but no, says Landry, it is the Rwandans who are to blame. When they fled after the genocide in 1994 and came pouring into the Congo, he says, they brought their hard-drinking culture with them. Landry knows Rwanda well – he teaches at a college in Kigali, he does his research in Nyungwe. His Ph.D., he says, is on something called “nitrogen siding” – it involves taking soil and leaf samples, the explanation flies over my head. Every two weeks he has to travel to Nyungwe to collect his samples. It is a long day – the forest is cold, it is always raining. The Ph.D. racket, it seems, leaves something to be desired. It is not an easy life for Landry. He spends three, six months out of the year in Belgium, studying at the University of Ghent. The progress toward his Ph.D. is slow: the life in Ghent is expensive, and he’s not allowed to work in Belgium. He has to return to Bukavu, pursue his businesses, put some money aside for his family. Last year he began to build a house on a plot of land he bought for $35,000. In Belgium, he said, you had to scrape by to survive – here you could start some projects to invest in the future. These were his people here, too. “In Bukavu, people are very quiet. They have time to hear you, to see what you have to say,” he says. “It is not like Europe, or Kinshasa.”
You get the sense in the Kivus, when you are talking about Kinshasa, that you are talking about another country. Under Mobutu, these regions were antagonists. After the war to overthrow him, and during the successive Kabila regimes, it has been the weakness of the Kinshasa government – and, by extension, its poorly paid, poorly trained army – that has allowed the security situation here to spin out of control. Landry has lived most of his life in Congo; he remembers when things were bad, and then really bad, just a few years ago. “Maybe some days, you could not leave the house,” he says, “because some people” – rebels, government soldiers – “have come from a village to get food, to take beer.” The current peace, the stability, has only been in place for a year, but the people are hopeful. Buildings are popping up everywhere – real estate prices are skyrocketing. Landry hopes that the current government will recognize the importance of stability in the region. “If there is a problem in the interior,” he says, “it is not a Bukavu problem, it is not a Kivu problem – it is a Congolese problem.” And yet Landry himself knows Kinshasa, he knows the cynicism there – the believe that the government’s duties run out as soon as you reach the city limits.
We are on our second beers, but I’ve given up: Landry might blame their drinking on Rwanda, but I still can’t keep up with these Congolese. My stomach is full, weighed down by nearly 140cL of Primus; my head is light. Landry gets behind the wheel and steers us carefully down Patrice Lumumba. At the hotel we part warmly. I don’t even slow in the restaurant, I’ve drunk away my appetite and can barely keep my eyes open as I stumble up the stairs. The bed is stiff; I’ve been thinking about it all day. It’s ten hours before I open my eyes to the first traces of daylight.