Editor’s note: This is the twenty-fourth in a series of posts chronicling my travels in Rwanda and eastern Congo earlier this year.
To start at the beginning, click here.
Day 24 – April 13
The temptation, when I reach my room at the Cirezi, is to catch up on the sleep I missed aboard the ferry. But there’s an adrenaline buzz as I listen to the commotion of street traffic: I am wired and happy to be back. Besides, it seems like a waste to spend my penultimate day lying in bed. Outside the early-morning rush, the congestion along the Sake road, invigorates me. I buy a new notebook – I’ve been burning through pages – and take a moto to Nyira for my morning coffee.
The end of this trip is in sight now, I am stumbling toward conclusions, in the mood for stock-taking. It has been a prolific month for my writing – maybe my most productive ever. By the time this journal wraps up in two days’ time, I will have written, I think, more than 70,000 words – a small book’s worth, over the course of four manic weeks. It’s a bit extraordinary, really. So much, too, has been left out – by sheer necessity, by a need to give my hand and mind a rest. (And, in fairness, by the fact that most of what I’ve already written could use a good edit.) I’m tired today after the long night, but there’s a greater mental exhaustion, too, an emotional need to put this trip – and journal – to rest. Some days it has been too much effort to sit, remember, record; but I’ve tried to leave out as little as possible, to give my future self – when the time comes to give this account some coherence – all the raw material to work with. I’ve made the mistake in the past, I know, left too much to the uncertainty of memory. And there will be no time, besides, to catch up in the coming days and weeks. Kigali will be a blur – seven days, ten, with so much to do. And then, of course, Johannesburg.
The morning drags, I’m exhausted – already I am scaling back the day’s expectations, hoping to simply slog my way toward nightfall. Tomorrow I can make the trip to Sake, just 25 kilometers from the city, to see a Congo beyond (however slightly) the protected shells of Goma and Bukavu. Today is for Goma – the ash-gray streets, the palls of dust, the cloud-spewing peak of Nyiragongo. I have decided today to call on my friend, Malick Ngiama, a man I’d met when I visited Goma with Prudent in November. He was a short, kind, generous man, he had walked with us through the streets and taken us to the office – the one-roomed, dirt-floored, tin-roofed shack – of his organization, the Save the World and Handicapped Association. He had started it himself, because there were so many handicapped in Goma who had nothing, did nothing – they were shunned, they sat on the street outside the university, or Kivu Market, begging passersby. “There were these people, and no one was helping them, so I wanted to help them,” he said. It was a modest enterprise – he had no Western figurehead, no foreign funding – but each week the members would gather, there were more than 30, and Ngiama would teach them some job skills, would teach them English. His own English was cobbled together from stories he had read online, conversations with foreigners. “I manage and I use the computer to find new words, and immediately I teach them to my students,” he said. He painted, too: he showed us pictures of the volcano, landscapes, a self-portrait with neatly cropped hair and a thin scrawl of mustache above his lip.
His office is along the Sake road, down a small hill – I’m sure I’ll remember it when I spot it. I haven’t heard from Ngiama in months, and I want this visit to be a surprise – to walk through the door, smiling, to clasp him warmly by the shoulders, start furiously bumping heads. The day is sunny, hot – I can feel the sunblock streaking down my face. All the commerce and hustle and thrift of this sun-flushed boulevard: the clack of a chukudu racing, weighted with bags of USAID maize meal; the throaty laughter of a woman sitting behind piles of pineapples, little pyramids of tomatoes and lemons and oranges the color of limes; motos pressed against each other, carrying a man with a car axle, another with five plastic chairs stacked atop his head; a lorry loaded with bales of grass – coming from where? going to where? – and women, laughing, flashing their teeth, sitting high up top.
I walk past the brightly decorated storefronts – Maison Glory, Atelier la Grace, Mini Alimentation Gloire a Dieu – and past a furniture shop, newly built sofas and armchairs sitting on the side of a hill, casual buyers looking, stroking the fabric, like the pelt of some exotic beast. Outside a DVD shop, a flatbed truck floating a banner for the Tigo cellphone network has attracted a crowd, there are tall speakers playing loud music to a curious crowd. Little boys in torn shorts come racing by, pushing toy trucks made from wires, from milk cartons and bottle caps. People sitting outside shops, sitting in an old abandoned minibus – a perfect Congolese snapshot, the wheels have come off, it’s going nowhere.
After twenty minutes I know something is wrong. I have walked further along the Sake road than I’ve ever walked before, I should have passed Ngiama’s office already. I continue walking – past a new hotel, an abandoned petrol station, clothing shops, hair salons – and then I turn back to retrace my steps. By the time I reach Cirezi, I know it’s no use: Ngiama’s office is gone. I feel a terrible pang of sadness and longing in my chest – why hadn’t I emailed Ngiama before coming, why hadn’t I told him I was already in Goma? It is already late in the day, I don’t have his phone number – I know there is almost no chance that Ngiama, a poor man, will check his email in the next day. Usually it takes days, sometimes weeks, for him to respond. And I think of what became of his modest tin shack hung with paintings, his villages and volcanoes and bucolic rural scenes. Last month there was a story in the Globe and Mail about this city, and the mayor’s mad scheme to relieve congestion by broadening the roads. It was done in a typically brutal, heavy-handed, Congolese fashion: one afternoon, without warning, gangs of young thugs with sledgehammers and crowbars showed up along the Sake road, tearing down houses and shops. Panicked men and women ran distressed into the street, watching helplessly as their livelihoods were destroyed. The local government offered them no compensation. Is this what happened to Ngiama? Was the Save the World and Handicapped Association caught up in the demolitions?
This sadness weighs on me all afternoon – it only seems to add to my heaviness on a day that has begun to drag, to darken along the edges. I have been looking forward, these last few days, to stepping off the bus in Kigali; to hopping on the back of a moto and puttering up to Andrea’s house; to having a farewell round of pizzas and Peronis at Sol e Luna before boarding my flight to Joburg. But suddenly I feel less ready to leave Goma – who knows how long it will be before I am again walking along the Sake road, wiping the grit from my eyes, joking with some jobless youth about Kabila and Obama? (Last year, on this same road, I had chanced upon a political rally with Prudent – supporters of one of Mobutu’s sons, who was slated to run in some parliamentary election. They wore yellow t-shirts with the old Leopard’s face emblazoned on them, a lingala slogan that they translated as, “We will never forget you.” The irony was utterly lost on them: no, the Congo would not forget Mobutu anytime soon.) It is strange what you cling to as a traveler – these lunatic attachments to places that so often break your heart. Will I ever see Malick Ngiama again? I remember how he took my hand in both of his and shook it warmly as we parted; I remember his lopsided mustache, the slight limp as he hobbled across his city of ashes, hoping to save the handicapped, and the world.
Walking, lost in these thoughts, the day delivers a happy surprise: Patrick, the young guy I’d met some three weeks ago on the bus from Kigali to Gisenyi. It seems so providential to bump into him on the side of the road, especially with my spirits so low. We greet happily – much head-bumping commences. Things are going well for him here in Goma, work is going well; he is on his way just now to make some photocopies for the office, he has a manila envelope under his arm. There’s no time to share with him all the stories from these past three weeks, so we make plans to have a goodbye drink the next night, a few beers at his favorite watering hole. We both laugh loudly, stupidly – what are the odds! It is the sort of symmetry, the closing of the circle, that makes my writer’s heart swell.
Groggy now, having set a plan in motion for my last day in Goma, I’m beginning to wave a white flag on this endless day. Tomorrow I would like to be rested; so long as the DJ at Sun City cooperates, I can make it an early night, have a full, energetic day ahead of me – in Sake, and here in Goma. I treat myself to one last meal at Coco Jamboo – the finest burgers I’ve had on African soil – and fork over some of my last few American bucks. I’ve worked it out perfectly, almost to the last cent: I’ll have just enough to make it through my final day and back into Rwanda. There is a light, finally, at the end of the tunnel. It is almost like going home.