Editor’s note: This is the last in a series of posts chronicling my travels in Rwanda and eastern Congo earlier this year.
To start at the beginning, click here.
Day 25 – April 14
Since arriving in Goma nearly two weeks ago, the Sake road has been like an artery – not only of traffic, of which there was plenty, but of the clatter and commotion and commerce that is the lifeblood of this city. The UN trucks and chukudus, the SUVs flying the flags of the Western aid agencies, the motorbikes, the pall of dust, the beggars and cripples, the street kids, the college kids, the women with their loaves of bread and baskets of tomatoes, the men with their polished shoes and briefcases stepping cautiously around puddles the size of Lake Kivu: if you wanted to grapple with and understand life in Goma today, there seemed to be no better place to start than this ash-gray, dust-choked road that continues on to a town called Sake, which I’m only now, on my last day in the Congo, setting out to see.
The minibus is crowded. Our feet are squeezed beside buckets and plastic bags, green leafy shoots poking from the tops. There are mostly women onboard, they have suitcases in their laps and wedged beneath their seats. Beside them, picking at the exposed seat stuffing, curled into their sides, strapped to their backs, nursing at their bosoms, are at least a dozen children – a small schoolroom’s worth of boys and girls in dirty shorts and torn tulle dresses with bare, dusty feet. Beside me a well-dressed man, knees hunched up to his chest, tells me he works with MSF, he is on his way upcountry to see his father. Another man in a threadbare jacket boards, holding four suits on wire hangers. “Sir!” he says, beaming, seeing me in the rear. He is selling the suits for $30 each.
The matatu to Sake
We barrel through town, past the place where last year I met 700 IDPs living in a ragged tent city behind a church. The IDPs are gone now – like those who were staying in UN-sponsored camps around Goma, they’ve returned to their homes in Walikale and Masisi and beyond – but along the road we pass vestiges of their presence, the ghosts of wars past that have left so many Congolese living their poor, transitory lives. There are houses made from sticks and banana leaves and mud; the roofs and windows are covered with UNHCR tarps, the doors are made from USAID scrap metal. In the fields we pass unfinished stone walls, like the relics of medieval villages; we pass concrete foundations for homes that were never built, pillars and corner stones laid with hope and uncertainty.
It is beautiful country here. Just minutes from the city everything is lush, there are rows of vegetables in the fields, the hills are cultivated with small, neat plots of beans and manioc. In the distance, the scalloped folds of a green mountain range skirt the lake’s shores; the water is flat and silver as a saucepan. A pair of military helicopters fly overhead. We stop at checkpoints, and more checkpoints. Someone has words with the driver, soldiers circle the matatu, staring into the windows. In nearly three years of traveling in Africa, I have never felt so vulnerable and conspicuous. We are waved through; the gears make terrible grinding noises. Further down the road we are stopped again. A young girl sits beside me in a gold party dress, the zipper is broken, it slips off her small shoulders. She smiles and swings her bare feet. An infant is bundled to her mother’s back, its eyes wide and alert. A soldier gets in, clutching a small blue suitcase in his slender hand.
We reach Sake, where the conductor shakes me down for 200 or 300 francs more than the going rate. It is the equivalent of 30 cents, but I take this in stride: I have other things on my mind. The unease I felt aboard the matatu – the hard bearing eyes of the soldiers at the checkpoints – hasn’t let up here in town. There are no friendly cries of “Mzungu!” as I step into the road; instead a man, another passenger, takes me gently by the elbow and says, “Be careful, there are many thieves here.” Suddenly the phone, the camera in my pockets feel like big, conspicuous bricks. A few youths, hangabouts, part-time bike mechanics and carwashers, crowd close to me, for what seems like no good reason. Two women braiding hair on the side of the road look up at me to stare.
I have felt this sort of discomfort before – in the frontier towns of northern Kenya, Uganda – and always it has passed once I’ve had a few minutes to walk around, get my bearings. It doesn’t pass here. As I walk down the main road – a row of spare shops on one side, a listless market on the other – I can feel wary eyes following me. I’m hoping to find some friendly, eager face to latch onto – a local aid worker, a school teacher – but I get only a few reluctant smiles. There is a lump in my throat about the size of a fist. I walk to the end of the road – the town is ringed by green hills, it is breathtaking. Two years ago Laurent Nkunda’s troops fought the ragtag Congolese army on these same hilltops. I can imagine how the sounds of gunfire and grenade blasts reverberated across the valley – it must have been terrifying when night fell.
Two men are chatting under a tree, they are in their 30s or 40s, it is impossible to predict what time and care do to these Congolese faces. They call out in my direction and I approach them, smiling, ever eager, like a real village idiot. We exchange a few greetings, and quickly a crowd gathers. There are the usual questions – about where I am from, and what I am doing here – and I can hear my responses dopplering across the crowd. “New York” pings out to an old man at the crowd’s edges; then “America,” moving quickly from mouth to mouth. I don’t tell them I am a journalist; I say simply that I’m traveling, a voyageur, as if this meant anything. I’m not entirely sure, after all, that “journalist” is the most accurate job description – would “travel blogger” translate easily into French or Kiswahili? Why exactly am I in Sake, after all? So I could see it. Why? There is no satisfactory answer to this. Their questions have a hard edge to them; while I don’t feel especially threatened, I can’t say I’ve heard all that many karibus, either. There is a sense of expectation, for lack of a better way to put it: that if a white man pitches up in Sake one afternoon, it is because he has some motive for coming. Judging from some of the hard looks in the crowd, I can assume such motives aren’t always good.
I feel ill at ease when the invariable requests come: for some small money, just enough to buy milk, or bread. The crowd is in the dozens now – for all my travels in rural Africa, I’ve never seen such a crowd materialize around me so quickly – and there’s no way I can give any amount of money that would appease them all. I apologize, I say I have nothing. There are nods – some sympathetic, others less so, as if they’d expected no less treachery. A small boy comes up to me, offering to sell his slingshot. I feel stupid being here. I apologize again, at elaborate length, shaking as many hands as I can, working the crowd like a politician, doing my best to extricate myself from a situation that’s growing more and more uncomfortable by the second.
I walk back down the market street, my steps a little bit quicker now, it almost feels like I’m walking in someone else’s shoes. Approaching the taxi rank I meet a smartly dressed man carrying a thick brown envelope under his arm. He is a former primary school teacher, his name is Anselme, he has been out of work for months now, he says, sighing, laughing, what can you do. It is not like the life in America. “You have come to be fat,” he says. “You take meat, you take beans, you take potatoes, you take milk.” A fraying belt is cinched tightly across his waist – it is clear that Anselme does not take these things. The life in Sake is bitter, it is hard. “We go to school, but we have not the job,” says Anselme, kicking the dirt from his shoes.
His wife owns a small shop beside the taxi rank; she rises when we enter, smoothes her dress, smiles and offers me a Fanta. We sit for a few minutes on a pair of oversized armchairs, talking, looking out into the street. A young girl takes a few brave, wobbly steps from behind the counter – it is their daughter, she wears a pretty white dress, she is barely five. Anselme smiles and lifts her into my lap. We all laugh, make gurgling noises, try to quell the trembling of her lower lip. I think of these small, generous acts by Anselme and his wife and feel embarrassed: what about Sake has gotten me so spooked? Thanking them for their time, rushing to catch a matatu that’s about to leave for Goma, I feel ashamed, as if I’m running away from something. For the twenty minutes it takes us to reach town, I try to figure out what it is.
Back in town I feel dejected, I was hoping to have a rousing send-off today but instead feel like a part of me was wrong, wrong about Congo and everything. The sky is low, a light rain is falling. I walk to the end of the Sake road, turn, the rain is steady, the clouds are flat and gray, it looks like they’re stretched across the whole of Congo. The cars rush by, their windows are fogged, the drivers stare grimly ahead. Across the road I hear music, loud and tinny and discordant notes carrying through the air. I wonder if there is some political rally, some public-health crusade, but no, there are two churches side by side, one is clapboard, the other is built from corrugated tin, and they both have gospel music blasting from their cheap Chinese speakers. Inside the benches are mostly empty – it is a Wednesday afternoon – but still there are some women and children clapping, singing, shuffling from side to side. I stand there watching, listening, trying to understand this faith and devotion and rapture. One of the women joyously wags her hands. Another has a tin can full of beans that she shakes in time to the music.
Out front are a dozen buses and lorries, a few men in soiled overalls circle, carrying wrenches and spanners. There are others sitting beside a giant Caterpillar bulldozer, they are drivers and mechanics, but they say they have not had work for weeks. Maybe I can give them something for bananas? “Pole sana,” I say. I’m sorry. “Pole sana,” he says, and then, as I’m walking away, “Pole Congolaise.”
The confusion, the sudden sadness and bitterness I feel, doesn’t lift on the way back to Cirezi, and it doesn’t pass until I’ve found a cheery watering hole close to the hotel. It is exactly what my sagging spirits need: music, laughter, brochettes, and bottles of Primus about the size of my forearm. There are dozens of tables and chairs arranged around a gravel courtyard, and a white-tile dancefloor with a disco ball twirling over it. It is hardly six, but a number of parties seem to be deep into their Wednesday-night drinking sessions already. The lighting is dim; I can barely make out the faces around me. The waitresses with their crowded serving trays bustling through the dark like shadows. The music is mellow, Congolese: an easy guitar rhythm, a lilting male voice riding the chords with some lovesick ode. A single couple gets up and sways side to side on the dancefloor. She is a husky girl in a pink tank-top and pink skirt; he, slender, in blue jeans and a shiny red shirt, clutches her like a live preserver. In the background, the clack-clacking of pool balls. Twice the power goes out as I labor through my brochettes. There is genial laughter as the Christmas lights and disco ball again flicker to life over the dancefloor. This is the Congo, after all. There are graver things to worry about on a night when, for now at least, the world is at peace.
An hour later I am on the back of a motorbike, puttering down the Sake road to meet Patrick. He is waiting for me in front of a small, fluorescent-lit bottle shop; outside, on the road’s shoulder, a few plastic tables and chairs are occupied by a boozy crowd. Two groups of men are drinking, conversing in loud tones, their eyes glazed over. Now and then a waitress will come out to get pawed and sweet-talked. Patrick watches all this sullenly; the waitress, it seems, is a former sweetheart. I suggest moving the party to Sun City, but he balks. “At Sun City, there is many violence,” he says. “They like to take the bottles, to fight.” The merry commotions I’d heard night after night through the wall, it seems, were not altogether merry.
We sit on the roadside, drinking lukewarm beers, watching the occasional lorry come barreling down the road. Many truck drivers prefer to travel at night, says Patrick, to avoid the bribes they have to pay during the day. It was something I witnessed that afternoon, when the conductor aboard my matatu hopped out at a light and exchanged a brief greeting with a policewoman. As we drove away, I could see her through the rear window, unfolding the 100-franc notes he had pressed into her palm.
This was nothing – this was Congolese life. You put up with these daily hassles, you kept your head down and you worked and you hoped for the best. Things are looking up, says Patrick. It’s not like it was in 2008, when Nkunda and his troops had threatened the city. Then the general’s Rwandan sponsors turned on him; today he awaits a war-crimes trial that many in the Great Lakes prefer not to see. Who knows what names will be named? Even now, says Patrick, you had the Rwandans poking their noses around near Walikale, looking to exploit the region’s great mineral wealth. He remembers the chaos a decade ago, after the Rwandans had chased out Mobutu and decided, on their way back to Kigali, that the Kivus weren’t such a bad place after all. Suddenly a tiny, mineral-less country was exporting diamonds and gold. “They invent a war when they want to make money,” says Patrick, shaking his head. War and profits are two things these Kivu Congolese know something about.
But now they are getting on with their lives. Patrick is making a good life for himself here, he says. “If you are intelligent, you are able to make money here,” he says. It’s not like the problems in South Kivu, where he was born. “In Bukavu, there is too much tribalism,” he says. “Here, they will give you a job because you are intelligent, because you are able.” Patrick, intelligent and able, has managed to find a place for himself here. And even if things sour, he says, with a shrug, he has learned more than a few things about survival. With five dollars, he says, he can last for two weeks – 200 francs for the bus to work, $1 for a sack of beans that can last for days. This knowledge, this grim arithmetic of survival, is another part of Congolese life.
“You have to be courage to live here,” he says.
We finish our beers and exchange promises to keep in touch, hoping our paths might cross again. I tell him to look me up if he ever makes it to Johannesburg – from here, an impossible journey – and he says why not, laughing, clapping my shoulder.
“If you tell me they have beer, they have girls, I like to travel there,” he says. And then I climb on the back of a motorbike to take me home.
Coda – April 15
The rain now seems endless, the same rain falling on me yesterday afternoon is falling on me again, it is turning the streets to mud, it is raining on all of Congo. Lying in bed last night, I had thought of taking one last valedictory tour around town this morning, looking for some message or prophecy from this place I hardly know. But the sky is a low gray canvas, the clouds are grumbling, it is time to go, I think, packing my bags, resting my duffel on one knee on the back of a moto, time to go as I buy samosas at Kivu Market for the trip to Kigali, as I press my last few dollars into my moto driver’s soggy palm at the border, it is time, I think, time to go home.
The Virunga Punctuel is musty, the windows are fogged – the rain has soured everybody’s moods. It is like being packed into a funeral hearse. Slowly we bump over the terrible Gisenyi roads, lurch over the rocks until we find the smooth pavement. People begin to stretch their legs, talk quietly into their cell phones. Just a mile from the border, and already life has returned to the strange sort of normalcy of today’s Rwanda. I had thought this bus ride would bring with it a rush of feelings, an emotional coda to the past month’s travels. But there’s none of that: my mind is washed blank. I tug at my soggy shorts, try to peel myself from the damp pant legs of the man sitting next to me. I rest my chin on my backpack, stare at the floor, and begin counting the hours until Kigali.
You feel tempted, at the end of a journey, to take stock, to square your mental accounts and make sure the emotional ledger is balanced. But after so many words, it feels like there’s nothing left to say. My back is to the Congo, and I wonder, now, if I’ll ever find my way there again, if I’ll get to know the country beyond its twin Kivu border posts. In Goma they had said it was a two-day journey to Kisangani – the roads were good, they did not say it was dangerous, it was impossible or crazy: just that it was two days’ time. For a few minutes I think about this on the Virunga bus, think about what I would do if I had the money and the weeks to spend. Probably I could get into a minibus in Goma, or climb on top of some transport truck with the husky singing women and beanpole men who live their brave, thrifty lives in the interior. It was two days to Kisangani; and surely there was some other place just a day from there, and another, and on and on, until you reached Kinshasa or New York or the ends of the earth.
That will be a trip for another time – today, just the thought exhausts me. I watch the hills of Rwanda out the window, hear the words forming in my head. (I watch the hills of Rwanda…) I think of what last words there are to say, and I decide that it’s simply a matter of reaching the end, of putting down your pen when you’ve decided there’s nothing left.
And then it’s done.