Editor’s note: This is the twenty-second in a series of posts chronicling my travels in Rwanda and eastern Congo earlier this year.
To start at the beginning, click here.
Day 22 – April 11
The crusade is in full swing this morning – the soundcheck begins at half-past seven. By the time I’ve showered and dressed for breakfast, the worshippers are already pouring in: women, big, stout, matronly, with proud God-fearing faces, and slender men in ill-fitting jackets, and little boys in little-boy suits, and cheerful girls in tulle party dresses, and a little girl in a white hat and white dress and white shoes, like she’s on her way to her first communion. An old gent with a trim beard and a thinning horseshoe of hair looks at me with an imploring face. He is a pastor, I think, he has a small leather-bound book in his hand, he surely wants me to join the congregation. But it is too much for me, this hysteria, this early-morning rapture. And so I am on my way to the lake again, to Orchid Safari – another of the swish lakeside hotels – hoping to find the peace I couldn’t find yesterday at the Hotel La Gauche.
This is, I think, walking into the main lodge, more like it. Gone are the crisp white linens of La Roche, the plastic floral centerpieces, the garish overt opulence of Africa’s nouveau riche. The place is subdued – earth tones, track lighting, the music is barely audible – and one hardly has to look at the menu to know what higher culinary spheres one is now traveling in. (Though if one does, the options – tournedos façon chevreuil, choucrotte garnie – present a certain baffling refinement, at twenty bucks a pop.) On the wall are contemporary African paintings, elephant-dung art, a Warhol reproduction. Outside, the terrace is done up like a hunting lodge – above the fireplace a mounted buffalo’s head, the dark eyes dull and anesthetized, the powerful swoop of the horns. Beside the terrace is lush tropical foliage, and beyond that, the lake. The plump cumulus clouds, the mild green hills, are reflected in its polished surface – you can appreciate here why the Belgians, so smitten by this place, had called it “the Switzerland of Africa.”
I am reading Hemingway’s Green Hills of Africa, the pages well-thumbed and dog-eared, and it is having a very curious effect on me. Certainly there is irony in this setting: across from the mounted head is a buffalo’s skull, and beside it the head of an antelope, a kudu perhaps, with those long marvelous corkscrew horns. Only they’re on display in this very genteel, $200-a-night resort, with its imported bottles of Chimay and Leffe beer and its $8 croques monsieurs. It is striking how white travelers will pay princely sums for this sort of bush chic, while the Congolese will pay just as much for a stiff-linened aesthetic that strains toward – one has to say it – colonial refinement. Jarring, then, to sit beneath those mute judgmental buffalo eyes, to read of Hemingway and Pop and P.O.M., and Droopy and M’Cola, tracking rhino through the overgrown elephant grass, Papa sighting with his Springfield, getting the musky scent of the game, following the trail of blood spoors on blades of grass, to read those rich loamy bush smells, to almost smell them, sitting here in Chez Orchid, drinking coffee from my effete little porcelain pot.
Certainly you get used to such incongruities in Africa. Only now, drowning out the Whitney Houston – ! – on the stereo, the overbearing bustle of the waiters, looking past the lake toward the Rwandan hills, and Hemingway’s Africa is spreading before me. Now, being in Africa, I was hungry for more of it, the changes of the seasons, the rains with no need to travel, the discomforts that you paid to make it real, the names of the trees, of the small animals, and all the birds, to know the language and have to be in it and to move slowly. That country, Hemingway’s country, brings me back to Kenya, always. The fresh morning smell of the savannah, the sun rising, roosting in the baobabs. Walking once in the Maasai Mara, we skirted the path of two ill-tempered buffalo muscling through the bush, and suddenly there was the whole tree-freckled plain, the sub-scrubbed savannah, stretching like a golden carpet in the sunlight.
I want to pursue these reveries, only there are two Americans, aid workers, at the next table, and they are drowning out my thoughts. The girl is young, in her twenties, with that flat brassy accent and projectile voice of Midwestern girls who spent their college years grabbing rebounds, chasing down rugby balls. Her companion, an older man, white-haired, an aid veteran, speaks with a murmur, almost inaudibly – the voice of experience, a man trained in discretion. She dominates the conversation. There was a problem with Burma, she explains – not with the country, or the ruling junta, but with the way her organization gathered data there. She had an idea, a system of lists, a better way to organize the data collected in the field. It was remarkable, efficient. “Those were the types of ways we dealt with the Burma problem,” she says.
The terrace now is beginning to fill – a young Belgian couple, or French, stylish, tapping away on their laptops; then two older American women, blonde, sun-freckled, in loose, colorful dresses; then a MONUC contingent, two Tunisians, an American women, a Malaysian. A French woman joins the American aid workers beside me. There is a project, the American says, her organization is sending an intern to Iraq. “What we need is for someone to sit through the summer and log data,” she says. It sounds hellish. They are prattling on, I’m drowning in aidspeak, the American is explaining at great length “what’s really cool about the data set” she’s acquired. It seems like a terrible way to spend a sunny Sunday morning. Now one of the older American women is approaching the MONUC soldiers, she lives here, it seems, there’s been a break-in at home. It’s not the first time, she says. She has a high, shrieking, distressed, hysterical laugh. There is a MONUC base nearby – surely, someone saw something. The Tunisians are poker-faced – their mustaches don’t even twitch. It is life in a war zone, after all. The days has grown warm, my mood has soured. I finish my drink, pay the bill. It is a long walk up the hill.
Again a feeling of restlessness, of unease, comes over me. I am ready, I think, for this trip to end. It seems like madness to think that in less than two weeks, I’ll be in South Africa – and so much to do before then! I have two edits to run through this week – my New York Times piece on Bujumbura, and finally, at long last, my Sports Illustrated story on the Rwandan cycling team [Ed. note: Still yet to run, FY fucking I.] – and I desperately need to crank out some stories for Variety, if I have any hope of actually getting paid this May. My taxes, too, need to be filed this week – impossible to imagine getting to them with the Internet speeds in Goma. I have overextended myself, I think – have just barely gone too long detached from the rest of the world. And still, it has been worth every minute, every penny. It’s been a very good trip.
After lunch I have plans to meet with Jean Luc – Justin’s brother, a journalist here in Bukavu. He is waiting for me by the market – older, forty-ish, his hair and goatee threaded with white. He greets me effusively, takes me by the hand – bless these Congolese! We go to a local bar, a poured-cement dance hall full of plastic tables and chairs, loud music, drunken voices, overlooking Patrice Lumumba. We order two Sprites, which arrive lukewarm. Jean Luc tells me he reports for a Christian radio station, Neno la Uzina – he translates this roughly as “the Word will save you.” He has been reporting on local news from around South Kivu. “The political situation here is very bad,” he says. Recently he reported on a killing here in Bukavu – he thought there was some link to the security services. But it was impossible to tell who was behind the violence here, he says. “We think that maybe it is because of the political situation,” he says. He shrugs. “Maybe it is someone with the hunger in his stomach.” On the radio he has to stay objective, report just the facts. “As a journalist, I have to keep a narrow view,” he says. He cannot editorialize on the air. “Otherwise, tomorrow” – he draws a finger across his throat.
This is not just idle talk. Reporting in Congo is dangerous business – just last week, a journalist was killed in Beni, in the north, under suspicious circumstances. Three journalists have been killed in Bukavu since 2008 – last year, there was a report that some were receiving death threats by text message. It makes Jean Luc’s job even harder. He cannot do any reporting from the countryside, it is too difficult, too dangerous. He wonders if he might be able to hitch a ride with MONUC. “I am just a poor journalist,” he says, with a sigh.
The security situation is always changing – even the peace in Bukavu now is, he knows, a tentative one. The instability in the countryside he blames on the Rwandan genocidaires who have been a cancer in the Kivus since 1994. “You can ask anyone in this restaurant, they will tell you the FDLR is the biggest problem we have,” he says. “If the FDLR leaves tomorrow, everyone will say merci a dieu – thanks to God.” Instead they were in the countryside, they were terrorizing the villages, fighting the FARDC, MONUC, the Mai-Mai militias. Impossible to consider how, sixteen years after the genocide, the aftershocks are still being felt. In Rwanda the FDLR threat remains the government’s raison d’être – it ensures a perpetual existential crisis, the threat of Tutsi extinction, it allows the government to operate with a free hand. How can anyone question draconian laws against the spread of “genocide ideology” – whatever that might entail – when the Hutu barbarians remain at the gate, ready to finish the job from ’94? The author Gerard Prunier, in Africa’s World War, makes a valid point: Kagame and company know first-hand what a ragtag army can achieve after years in the bush. It can topple a country. But what to do from Kigali? It isn’t 1997, you can’t just push your way into the Congo to root out the last of the rebels. And how can the Congolese, with their poorly trained army – as much a threat to villagers as the FDLR – secure their own country? There is no easy solution, no end to the crisis in sight. Jean Luc sighs – like so many Congolese, he remains hopeful, in spite of the evidence at hand. “If the FDLR ever goes back to Rwanda, I think we will have peace here,” he says.
Outside it is a brilliant, hot afternoon. We are walking along the Avenue Lumumba, toward La Bote – Jean Luc has an hour to kill before heading to the station. We pass the mayor’s office – a beautiful, bright blue Art Deco that swoops around a corner – and I pause to take a picture. Jean Luc looks nervous, dissuades me. “People know I am a journalist,” he says, “and tomorrow, they will summon me, they will ask, ‘Who was that mzungu with you? Why was he taking pictures?’” Even picture-taking in the Congo comes with a certain peril. Instead we stop, admire the architecture. A MONUC caravan passes – two lorries, an SUV, a jeep with a Pakistani at a mounted gun in the rear. Many of the “casques bleus,” the blue helmets, says Jean Luc, will sneak pictures from inside their vehicles. It must be a strange life for them here. Yesterday, at the market, I watched two Uruguayans, tall and burly, circling among the vegetables. And an Egyptian, assault rifle slung across his chest, waiting while a comrade shopped in an alimentation. The boys selling Fantas and blue jeans called me “amigo.” But then, in 2004, when Laurent Nkunda attacked the city, and the MONUC peacekeepers stood by, there were violent demonstrations against the UN. Jean Marie told me in Bujumbura how he and his friends threw stones at the Uruguayans. One of his rocks clipped a soldier in the helmet. He remembered this detail specifically, recalled it with relish.
Down La Bote, turning onto a dirt road, Jean Luc wants to show me where he lives. It is seven kilometers from the center of town. We are on the edge of a hill. “There,” he says, pointing across the bay, to where the tin rooftops of a crowded quartier flash against the sunlight. Nearby we hear laughter – two women and a stout drunk man, leaning against a car. He has heavy-lidded, solicitous eyes, he is trying to convince them he is a gynecologist. They laugh, walk off. He comes to me and Jean Luc, greets us, shakes our hands. “Women need fucking,” he says, swaying from side to side. “I told them I am a doctor. I can show them how.”
That night the hotel restaurant is full. A family, a couple, another couple. An older woman with a man, maybe her son, sitting at the next table. She is large, bent over the table, her back rises like a hump. God only knows what mysteries that dress conceals. Her companion is stocky, he might have been an athlete once – now he is all stomach. They’ve ordered foufou and sambaza, they are demanding, meticulous. They send a plate back, it’s gone cold, the waiter brings a fresh plate but now the other, half-eaten, is sent back, too. Each time the waiter makes it back to the counter they hiss, wag their fingers, make some fresh demands. The woman is wearing her glasses on the tip of her nose, the power is out, and she’s holding the sambaza to the candlelight, inspecting it like a jeweler. Pity these Congolese boys, les petits, the underpaid waiters and porters whose livelihoods depend on these fat, overbearing feudal lords and ladies – the heavy-haunched elites who carry their thrones on their ample behinds.