Editor’s note: This is the twenty-third in a series of posts chronicling my travels in Rwanda and eastern Congo earlier this year.
To start at the beginning, click here.
Day 23 – April 12
Having put myself to bed with solemn intent to make the most of my last day in Bukavu, I wake feeling curiously downbeat – less willing to spend these last few hours exploring the city than curled up with a good book. And so, after breakfast, having passed on the bitter Star brand coffee to save myself for the real thing, I’m on the back of a moto en route to Orchid Safari, hoping to find the peace that my Sunday morning so badly lacked.
And it’s perfect – I have the place to myself. I order a pot of coffee and kick off my sneakers and again get lost in the hills and valleys of Hemingway’s Africa. This is a marvelous book. The premise – that a work of non-fiction might follow the rhythms of a single month in a foreign country – has given me courage: why not turn this trip, mixed with stories from Burundi, and memories of the past year in Rwanda, into a brisk travelogue of my time in the Great Lakes? Certainly, for all the academic work coming out of the region, there hasn’t been much to capture the spirit of traveling here. But is it enough, what I’ve done and seen here? Is this the book that I want to write? And will anyone care what I have to say?
Today I am at peace with such questions – the self-doubt, the usual demons, have taken the day off. It seems possible – anything seems possible. After nearly three years in Africa, I should have a whole bookshelf inside me. South Africa, now, is like both a beacon and a talisman. Once I get there, I know I’ll be capable of marvelous things.
I finish the coffee and then, unhurried, have a beer. Today is a day for reflection, solitude, reverie. I am in a Hemingway mood, I am thinking of landscapes and African skies, morning smells, earth smells, and it’s all a bit disingenuous, I know, I am a city boy, and these wondrous landscapes are just the backdrop for the stories I want to tell. Hemingway made the hills, the woods, the savannah, characters in his books, he gave them personality, life. But then the Africans, the porters and trackers and native chuckleheads – they became part of the scenery. It’s a way of writing about Africa that, I’d like to think, died 50 years ago.
These are the thoughts that occupy me on my way back to the hotel, and as I pack my bags. It is almost three when I meet Landry in front of the Tourist, we have time for a farewell drink. He takes me to a place he just discovered last night – a guest house, the owner is a friend of his father’s, it is down an alley off the Avenue Lumumba. There is a small bar and a furnished living room and an old man sitting at a table, counting a stack of money. It hardly seems like a hidden gem, but then voilà, there is a terrace out back, all the green hills of Bukavu are in front of us, and there is the lake, and suddenly I’m laughing with Landry, too: yes, it was a marvelous find.
We have a quiet beer, I’m still in my state of reverie, the crows are wheeling in the air, there is the sound of children playing somewhere far below us. Now I am back in Kigali: if I close my eyes it is the same breeze, the same voices coming in through the dining-room window. That was a very good house, the Remera house. I lived there for six months, the light filling the living room, those endless mornings at my laptop, watching the sun creep across the table. Those were some of my happiest days – it says something, I think, that my fondest memories are of me at the dining room table, writing. I try to share some of this with Landry but it’s no use, he smiles politely – the truest happiness, I think, is impossible to share.
It is already after four when we get into his car. He is certain the boat won’t leave till six, but I’m foolishly anxious, I haven’t learned a thing. The ticket says 17h and I can’t trust Landry’s inate Congolese sense of things not going according to plan. He knows the MV Iko, he laughs, “I had to make that journey two years ago.” The boat was crowded, there were no rooms for the passengers. “I paid the captain some money – there was a small space in his cabin, and I was able to pass the night,” he tells me.
On the way to the port he has to run an errand – someone is waiting for him at the mayor’s office with some documents. The untroubled pace of this afternoon is starting to distress me – I am, at heart, the sort of traveler who can never be too early. Outside the mayor’s office a woman is sitting on a stool, running a copy machine off an extension cord through the window. Landry’s friend arrives with the documents – just a few meters down the road we pull over. “I have been looking for this man,” says Landry, as another car pulls in behind us. There is a friendly palaver between them, Landry makes an introduction, gets back into the car. They are speaking genially in French, I hear the words “dix milles cinq sant,” think nothing of it. Landry reaches into the backseat for his laptop case. I am fretting, checking the time. Then he pulls out a stack of crisp $100 bills – dix milles cinq sant, $10,500 worth – and hands them to his friend. It seems like the sort of transaction one would grow used to in Bukavu. I give Landry a brief, reappraising look and wonder how well I know my friend. But now it is half-past four, and I am focused again on getting to the port before the MV Iko chugs off without me.
The port road is busy, a sprawling marketplace, swirls of color – you wouldn’t see such sights in a tropical aquarium. Down a bumpy dirt road we go, Landry admitting he’s not sure of the way, ferries and cargo boats being loaded all along the waterfront. We pass a large crowd, a fiery gent – no doubt a pastor – thundering into a microphone. Men directing us along the way, I hop from the car, ticket in hand, ready to make some mad dash to the boat. Foolish of me: there are, of course, “formalités.” We’re being directed again, led to a warehouse where four ticket agents are sitting in a row. Two are brandishing stamps, all four are brandishing scowls. There is a stamp, a tax, another stamp – Landry butts in, a woman has demanded another tax, he wants to know why. She is cowed – no doubt I looked like an easy mark, but here is Landry, fierce, well-dressed, intelligent – a bulldog in an open-collared shirt with justice on his side. I will not pay the tax without a receipt, he says, and suddenly, her hand is laid bare. She does not protest, she has nothing to say. Landry storms off, still disgusted – me thinking of the $2 I pissed away at the port last week.
The commotion of a long journey, of imminent departures. There are boys selling boiled eggs and loaves of bread, men carrying bags of cement and maize meal, loading the cargo bay. The boat is white-washed, sparkling, a veritable Love Boat – as fine a ship as you might want to take on your eight-day Caribbean cruise. But no, someone says, laughing, that’s not the Iko at all. Sure enough, there is the word “Emmanuel” splashed across the stern. The passengers are walking through the galley, there is the Iko – a small, sordid ferry – docked beside it. I put on a brave face for Landry, who laughs and slaps my back as we part. Across a narrow gangplank, struggling to keep my balance, side-stepping past the yawning maw of the cargo hold. The Iko is bobbing lightly, there is much to-ing and fro-ing – no sign, at just a few minutes to five, that we’ll be leaving anytime soon. In second class the passengers are crammed in twos and threes into plush love seats, it looks like a second-hand furniture store, there is a great commotion of luggage being passed around, laughter. Upstairs first class is like a living room: two sofas, a love seat, two coffee tables, a flat-screen TV. It is a small, crowded room – I would imagine, in the MV Iko’s past life, that these were the captain’s quarters. Instead the first-class passengers – fifteen or twenty, at least – are packing in, looking around with puzzlement, and settling into any available space on the sofas. Most are husky women in bright print dresses, men in abacosts and sport jackets. They are pressed shoulder to shoulder, fidgeting, adjusting their feet – as mirthless a group of Congolese as any I’ve seen. The prospect of spending a night in that room is grim beyond words. By the time a crew members asks if I’d like to take my seat – two stout women moving slightly, shifting their heavy haunches – I’ve already decided to take my chances on the deck. I find a plastic chair beside the captain’s cabin, settle in. For the second time this month, it seems, I’ll be spending a night beneath the star-filled sky of Lake Kivu.
This is a cheerless start to the voyage. I am thinking of the Miss Rafiki, with its wide, spacious restaurant – all those inviting corners to curl up in for the night. Next to us, in the idling Emmanuel, the first-class lounge is a tease – cush armchairs, plenty of legroom, plastic floral arrangements, half-a-dozen wall-mounted TVs. You could imagine fat men in pleated pants signing peace treaties and telecom deals in such swank quarters. I feel frustrated, duped. I’m not the only one. Two Congolese men board, give the first-class room a frank look, and start barking at the crew. Soon they are poking their fat aggressive heads into the cabins reserved for shipmates, speaking in low tones, no doubt coming to an arrangement. One of the crewmen crawls into a cubby space beneath the captain’s cabin. His bare feet poke out from a pile of blankets and pineapples.
Commotion all along the shore. Great sacks being hauled into the water on men’s shoulders, long poles of eucalyptus loaded onto a cargo boat. There is a pile of bricks on the beach, like a funeral cairn, and a pair of pigs rooting through the trash. Two boys in a slender pirogue paddle and drift beside us. One is in a sleeveless red t-shirt, a straw hat, the other is hunched beneath a black windbreaker. They are passing a glowing stub of cigarette back and forth between them. There are nets tangled at their feet, sawed-off jerry cans full of sambaza.
The boat comes alive with a rumble, the engine begins to thrum. It is almost six, and still there is a merry commotion of passengers boarding. Shouts from the waterfront, a great body of movement – a thief, perhaps, caught in the act, facing mob justice. A bright red Zodiac boat putters by, a soldier squatting beside a belt-fed machine gun. I smile and wave, and he smiles and waves back. The sun has vanished beneath the hills. The light is gray, murky. Suddenly we lurch forward, we begin to pull away from shore. Past the wooden cargo boats, marvelous crafts as long as the Iko, as old as the Congo, past the narrow pirogues bobbing in the bay, full of grim staring fishermen, past the rusted ferries fallen, I hope, into disuse. A dozen motorcycles are in shallow water, their drivers running wet rags over the spokes and handlebars. And then Bukavu diminishes behind us, tiny pinpoints of light flicker on, and we are chugging out across the lake.
It is a beautiful, clear night. There is a tumult now, a joyful shared energy of a long journey just beginning. The first-class lounge-cum-dormitory is alive with laughter, the loud din of cramped quarters. Congolese music videos are playing on the TV; bottles of beer have suddenly materialized on deck. The hills are dark, there are storm clouds in the distance, we can see flashes of lightning on the horizon. This is, of course, of no small interest to me as I hunker down on the deck. At the front of the boat loud voices – soldiers with their rough boastful ways, arguing good-heartedly about something. Radios crackling with static, ring tones like the nighttime chirrups of some exotic insects. The fishermen are paddling out as the darkness deepens, their brightly lit lanterns flaring up and down the lake.
Cooking smells begin to waft across the boat, two boys rush back and forth with stacks of covered plates. There is a pot of something, cabbage and tomato sauce, maybe, bubbling on a charcoal brazier down below. In my haste to get to the port before the hypothetical departure time, I hadn’t bought anything – no glucose biscuits, no ndazi, no loaves of dry bread. I’m hungry, two men nearby – friends of the captain’s – are picking at a hunk of foufou and half a fried fish. I flag down the waiter, order foufou and meat – “ugali et nyama” – hoping for the best. The wait is long, the others have already finished, they’re licking their fingers with relish. Finally here comes the timid bustling boy, dodging bodies on the deck. He pours cold water from a pitcher over my hands. The foufou is warm, the meat is all fat and bone. I probe a bit with my teeth – I was mistaken. There’s not a single piece of bone on my plate. It is meat, all meat, with the texture and toughness of a spare tire.
It is nine o’clock, it is ten, it is eleven. They’re playing action movies in the lounge – shootouts, car chases rattle the lake’s silence. Approaching midnight they prepare the room for bed – the coffee tables removed, two stiff foam mattresses laid across the carpeting. When I look into the room half an hour later, there are bodies sprawled and tangled everywhere. Heads and feet poke from blankets on the floor, on the sofas. If I’d wanted, I’m sure I could have squeezed in somewhere, found a little nook between two pairs of oversized buttocks. Outside the night has cooled, but it is still pleasant, manageable. The hard part, I know, will be at three, at four. And still I am watching the sky, looking for signs of rain.
I’ve unpacked a few extra layers and just managed to doze of in my chair when a boy joins me. He is 20, a student in Goma, he only speaks French, I don’t catch his name. He had already circled the deck twice, lingered in the shadows – working up the nerve, I suspect, to talk to me. And so talk he does – and talk, and talk. I’m grumpy and sleepy and feeling uncharitable, I can’t help it – even as I curse myself for being such a bastard, I behave like a total bastard. My answers are terse, I volunteer nothing. Each time I close my eyes and begin to nod off, again I hear his high, hysterical voice. Am I married? I am not. “Pourquoi?” Do I have brothers? Are they married? They are not. “Pourquoi?” Every detail of my life is dissected, examined, and then subjected to an incredulous “Pourquoi?” It would be hard enough to bear this late-night inquisition in English. In French, it is intolerable.
But now the conversation has attracted others, and the lively din from the captain’s quarters – he seems to have three, four others sharing his room – spills onto the deck. A short man, very drunk, lurches my way. In the dark I can barely make out his dress, the features of his broad face, but it seems he is military – a colonel, he says, in the FARDC. I wonder to myself if I’ve happened upon the first pygmy officer in the Congolese army – he is tiny, he barely reaches my chin. He is in Bukavu with Operation Amani Leo – the latest MONUC-backed attempt to root out the FDLR in the Kivus – but now he is on his way to Goma to lodge a complaint. He has not been paid in two months – “Deux mois!” he says, stomping his little foot. I do not know who is footing the bill for Amani Leo – the Congolese government? the UN? – but I am hardly surprised at this peacekeeping on the cheap. I remember meeting a Burundian soldier in Bujumbura – a peacekeeper with the African Union’s ANISOM force in Somalia. That mission had been supported by the international community – who could argue with sending African cannon fodder to Mogadishu? – but the pledges from Europe had not been honored, the peacekeepers hadn’t been paid in months. The Burundian soldier had had to pay his own way to Kampala to catch the transport plane to Somalia. He had borrowed the money from his wife – a fact that filled him with great shame.
The colonel is a voluble little man, comically drunk: the way he lurches from side to side, you would think we were pitching about on high seas. He says his name is Christophe Mukubwa – we joke about this irony, Mukubwa, from the Swahili “kubwa,” or big. His father, he explains, was an important chief. When he hears I am a Christophe, too, he embraces me with great feeling: first, taking me by the shoulders; and then, in the Congolese manner, greeting me with a series of head bumps – left, then right, then bumping foreheads. I am in the colonel’s good graces. He is complaining bitterly about the Congolese army. He would like to change its image, improve discipline, regulate pay, boost morale – but how could he, Christophe Mukubwa, accomplish it? “Je ne suis pas haut,” he says. He is just a small fish. There were majors above him, lieutenants, generals. Most of these, he knows, have it in their best interests to maintain the status quo. They profited greatly. How many generals and majors, I wonder, are building those grand lakeside villas in Goma and Bukavu? But Christophe has heard I am a journalist – I had mentioned it to Pourquoi earlier, I don’t know where he’s going with this. An exposé of FARDC wrong-doings? I prefer not to get my hands dirty. Yes, yes, I explain, I am a journalist – but in America only, I’m on vacation here. He nods, yes, of course, it makes perfect sense. He wants to hear all about my impressions of Congo. Then he turns to take a whiz off the side of the boat.
More lightning flashes. I’m expecting the worst, bracing for the cold and the rain, but so far the weather has held out. The insomniacs are out now – the star-gazers, the heavy drinkers, huddling against the railing. A boy begins talking to me – he is the waiter from earlier, who spent the long dinner hour being barked and hissed at. His name is Espoir: Hope. He is 17, a first-born son; with his job aboard the Iko he supports a younger brother and sister, his ailing parents. It is all he has done since he was forced to leave school at 14. “The month they bring me ten dollars, so I cannot do anything with the life,” he says. In a few hours, at three, he will begin preparing the tea for breakfast. In Goma he will get an hour or two to rest; then he is off to the market, he has to buy meat and vegetables and fish, he comes back to the boat to begin preparing for dinner. Sleep, when he gets it, comes in brief snatches. He is friendly, soft-spoken, laughing, resigned. “God Him see,” he says, shaking his head. “In Congo, God Him see.”
The night deepens. The stars trail across the sky. One by one the others drop off, I huddle up in my seat, wrap myself in extra layers. I sleep fitfully – 20 minutes, 30 minutes, then my head snaps up as someone steps gingerly by. The crew are sprawled out on the deck, wrapped in blankets, sleeping on foam mattresses. From the captain’s quarters, the sounds of more bottles being popped open. It is a long night. By five, dimly, I can see the glow of Nyiragongo through a thin veil of clouds. It is still a long way off. The wind has suddenly picked up, the temperature has dropped – this last hour is a bitter one. I am doubled over in my seat, trying to use my raincoat to block the wind. Finally, gray light over the hills. The flag snaps briskly at the helm. Goma, at last, comes into view. The lake is the color of a battleship, the sky like armor. Sleepy bodies emerge from the first-class cabin, barefoot, toothbrushes poking from between their lips. Much foam-mouthed spitting over the side. Passengers standing at the helm, baring their teeth to the wind. It is half-past six, we are chugging into the bay. Someone tells me we will arrive within the hour.
Pourquoi is back, and another boy, a student, who speaks some English. We stand against the railing, leaning over the side. There was a plane crash in 1994, says the student, the wreckage has never been found. “The lake is very profound,” he says, staring into its mysterious depths. Pourquoi feels excluded by the conversation, I can tell. I throw out conciliatory phrases in French, tell brief, aimless stories hemmed in by the language barrier. I behaved badly toward him last night, and feel a need to make amends. This could have been a memorable passage for him, we could have spanned the continents with our conversations under that star-filled sky. I was sulking, uncharitable – a real jerk. We are chatting more amiably now – I want only for us to part on the best of terms – but now others are coming out of the first-class cabin, fresh, alert, grinning as they butt into the conversation with well-turned English phrases. Pourquoi inches along the railing, he can’t follow the words. I don’t notice when he finally, quietly slips away.
A man, forty-ish, traces of gray in his hair, approaches me. He is slightly unkempt, as if this weren’t the first night he’d spent sleeping in his clothes. He wears two gold rings and his pinkies, by some genetic mishap, are tiny, unformed, they twist out to the side like baby prawns. I am fascinated by these freakish fingers. “To do business in Congo is very, very good,” says this man, Fidele, his little pinkies twitching. He works in minerals – a good sector, I say, nodding approvingly, as if I might just be looking to expand my portfolio. I ask about dealing with the government – a breeze, he assures me. “I go to the office, small money here, small money here, it is done,” he says, making a brisk gesture with his hand. For a foreigner, of course, it is not so easy, the government is always looking for handouts. But that is simple enough, he says. “You can find a partner, a Congolese, and he will handle everything for you,” says faithful Fidele. He gives me a significant look, and I imagine I wouldn’t have to look too far to find the partner he has in mind.
Fidele has traveled – he has been to the UK, Europe. He makes a contemptuous face. “Je ne peux pas preferer l’europe,” he says, shaking his head vigorously. The life here in Congo is good – the soil is rich, there is so much money to be made. He gestures to a magnificent lakeside villa – it would not seem out of place on the French Riviera. “In Congo, you can have that house in a few years,” he says, his voice swelling with admiration. “In America, you will work your whole life.” A horror, like a sudden chill, comes over him. “Fucking job,” he says, then again, with a venomous sort of mirth: “Fucking job!”
I am vague about my own fucking job, I travel, I say ambiguously, as if I, too, might be a fortune-hunter like Fidele. He senses a kindred spirit, he writes his name and contact info on a slip of paper and underscores the point that I can call him anytime. “It is very good for a businessman in Congo,” he says, almost choked with emotion. He offers a parable: he went to London in 2005, he was trying to export Kivu coffee beans to the UK. But there were so many officials with prying eyes, so many taxes and laws! Even now, Fidele can’t shake the bad feeling that came over him five years ago on a business trip to London. How could anyone manage to make a dishonest living?
Behind Fidele is an older man, handsome, dignified, in a brown suit and a black mock turtleneck. He is pointing a camcorder at the boat, at the hills – hell would be an endless loop of African home videos, I think. I tell him he looks like a tourist but he laughs, shakes his head. He is from Goma, but he has two daughters studying in America, in Arkansas, he likes to take pictures to send them. I do not catch his name, he says he is the director of the central bank in Goma – Fidele has grown quiet, he takes a sudden interest in the waves. The man is hoping to visit his daughters this year – he is going to America in June, to Maui, for a month-long seminar. I give him a second look. “I’m in the wrong line of work,” I say. He laughs genially, pans his camera across the waterfront. Now there is a commotion of voices, movement. It is half-past seven, and we are finally pulling into port.
It has been an endless day – how many of these days have I known in Africa, these marathon journeys. I gather my things, haul them downstairs, through too-narrow doorways. Porters have begun climbing aboard the Iko, pirate-style, taking the stairs in twos and threes. The passengers queue with surprising patience; a chicken, too, waits with a solemn gravity for which its species is not known. Now we are bumping and pushing onto the waterfront, a riot of porters, soldiers, waiting relations. An official, the same official who shook me down for 500 francs last week, spots me in the crowd. One last indignity, I tell myself. He takes me to customs, more scribbling, more stamps, but a surprise: there is no tax to be paid. The ports have squeezed me as dry as they’re going to squeeze me. I hop onto the back of a moto, we make our way along the muddy port road. The sun is over the hills, a bright gold medallion, and I’m facing my last two days in Congo.