Category Archives: travel writing

The thing about blogs.

Regular readers of this blog – both of them – might have been surprised, even alarmed, by the frenetic pace of updates this past week. I’d like to pretend this has something to do with a newfound commitment to my duties as a blogger, but the reality is that I’ve been rushing to clear the slate of my posts from Rwanda and Congo so that I can prepare for my next adventure: Zimbabwe, to which I’ll be heading aboard a Citiliner bus in about 90 minutes’ time. Maybe some time in December, I’ll be able to sit down and sort through my notes to finish up my writing on Botswana, too. Of course, I’m not making any promises.

This blog, I can honestly say, has not always been what I’d expected. Despite my best attempts to comment regularly on the goings-on that are going on around the continent, old habits die hard. Commentary just isn’t for me, no matter how hard I try. I guess I’m just a sucker for the rambling, 3,000-word, first-person travel narratives in which my patient readers kindly indulge. For that, I appreciate the traffic. I hope to be clogging up the Zimbabwean bandwidth with more of those missives in the weeks ahead. As always, though, I hope you’ll be patient if I vanish in the mean time.

On that note, see you in Harare.


You have to be courage to live here.

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.

Save the world.

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.

Bring us the Chinese.

Editor’s note: This is the seventeenth in a series of posts chronicling my travels in Rwanda and eastern Congo earlier this year.

To start at the beginning, click here.

Day 17 – April 6

Just two-plus weeks after leaving my Kigali digs, I’m starting to lose confidence in what I’m doing. Writing – the actual, laborious task of putting pen to pad, of trying to keep up with the day’s events, both significant and in-, to somehow process them into a form that is engaging and informative or just not a pile of steaming, faux-literary crap – seems to take up most of my time. I feel as bound to my notebook here in Goma as I felt to my laptop back in Kigali – gone the free-spiritedness of those early days on the road. It’s beginning to wear me out. It feels like half the day is spent caffeinating, and the other half logging impressions of the view over the rim of my coffee mug.

Today I spend two, three hours with my notebook, catching up on yesterday’s thoughts. I’m not convinced there’s much value in any of this. Still, out of a sense of duty, of blind faith, I write. The morning passes. At noon I’m again at the immigration office, braced for the worst. Without reason. I’m in and out in under two minutes. Stamped into my passport is a one-month visa de voyage – they even give me a receipt. The afternoon, its hazy, heavy heat, is suddenly before me. Tomorrow I will go to Bukavu; today, Goma. Some sense of purpose comes over me. For one day, at least, I will steer clear of Doga and Ihuzi, I will resist the lure of happy hour and the merry chatter of pretty, acronymed aid workers. Instead I will wander these dusty, sun-scoured, grit-choked streets, subjecting the locals to my ad hoc French, making friends, shaking off hustlers, dodging motorbikes, stepping into the stream of Congolese life.

Down the broad avenues, past the heroic roundabouts – no doubt the Belgians brought a grand vision to their colonial cities. At one rond point a statue is being built; it is still unfinished, hidden, wrapped in plastic sheeting. Rachel has been spreading a rumor that it will be an homage to the ubiquitous chukudu; this is a pleasing vision. Better that heroic wooden scooter than one of the many statesmen who have betrayed this country through the years. Between the buzzing motos they clatter past: one after another, carrying a cabinet, a small boy, wooden shelves, a generator; bushels of something green and leafy; 25kg bags of maize meal and cement. On the side of the road, slim youths in blue jeans crouch beside gas-powered pumps, filling the tires of passing motorists. Others sell half-liter bottles of gasoline – the color and viscosity are all wrong; probably the bottles have been topped off in Lake Kivu.

The roads are battered, buckled – yet still, they are the region’s best. (At Doga, an aid worker recalled a trip to the interior. “Maman, look at the road,” they called out to her passing car. “Bring us the Chinese!”) Music comes from the hair salons, the CD shops, the electronics stores. Maison Bush. “Dealers in japans used music and household equipments.” Outside, the speakers are taller than a child, stacked like the foundation stones of a pre-Columbian temple. The bass shakes the ground. “Hurry while stocks last!”

Down the street I find a two-storey house of stained white clapboard, the words “Restaurant Benedict” painted across the side in big blue letters. From inside comes the sound of laughter, boisterous voices. A curtain is the door. There is surprise at the white man suddenly standing there, asking for chakula. A boy bent over a basin, washing his hands in soapy water, says something in Swahili. Another boy giggles in the corner. A waitress – light-skinned, wide-hipped, a kanga covering her curves – gives me a frank and explicit look. I gesture toward the stairs and she raises her eyebrows, an east African look that seems to offer affirmation with the least possible effort. Upstairs there are white tables, white chairs, white benches, white walls. I am beginning to sense a theme. The ceiling is made from a patchwork of canvas sacks; in some places it sags, in others, you can see the sky through it. A blue heart is painted over the door to the toilet. The tables are full. Everyone is watching me, waiting to see what I’ll do next.

Suddenly, there is movement by the window. A young man in a soccer jersey moves his motorcycle helmet and offers me a seat. A general mood of welcome fills the room. The waitress comes and gives me a blank look. I’ve always wondered if it takes some particular effort, a Zen-like relaxation of the forehead and cheek muscles, to have a face so washed of emotion. I order foufou and beans and lenga-lenga – a poor-man’s meal. The boy beside me asks if I take meat. “Je ne mange pas viande aujourd’hui,” I say. No meat for me today. What I mean to suggest is that I won’t be taking meat in this particular restaurant, because if past experience is any indication, I expect it to have the taste and consistency of an 18” Pirelli. There is no way to translate this satisfactorily. My companion is puzzled. How can anyone with the money to take meat – and surely I have the money – take just foufou and beans and greens? I don’t want to offend him with my meat snobbery – certainly the men eating viande in the Restaurant Benedict are receiving it the way a Catholic receives communion. I shrug again. “Je ne le mange pas,” I say. He laughs softly and shakes his head. Another white with his inscrutable ways! The boy across from me wipes the plate with his foufou, the sauce dripping from his long fingers.

Next to me, the boy who offered me a seat, is Emmanuel. He drives a moto, he says, he is 24. The room is filled with a dozen Emmanuels – young, thin, all elbows and rib cages in secondhand clothes. Most are moto drivers, says Emmanuel. (One gets up and gingerly carries a plastic bottle full of petrol down the stairs.) Emmanuel lives just outside Goma with his parents – he is one of eleven children, he hasn’t married, he finished his studies after secondary school. He’s been working since he was 20, renting a bike, saving the profits. He points to it outside, a red GTZ motorbike surrounded by red and black and blue GTZ motorbikes. I ask how is life in Goma. “Ça va un peu,” he says. There is nothing to do at night, he complains. He’s not married, so what is there to do?

The waitress returns with a plate of foufou and a plate of beans and a shallow bowl full of meat and sauce. There was no lenga-lenga, she says – viande it is. Again, all eyes on me. “C’est le premier fois,” I say, rolling a ball of foufou between my fingers. It is a green mound of manioc, with the texture of yesterday’s mashed potatoes. I soak up some sauce, pinch a few beans between my fingers. The foufou is good – surprisingly good. “C’est bon,” I say happily, truthfully. Relief, laughter all around. Here is a mzungu eating foufou with his hands, approving. Hungrily I take another clump, dip into the sauce, lick my fingers. Later in the week they will still talk about this memorable afternoon, looking up expectantly when they hear footsteps on the stairs.

There is a shuffling of chairs, a new lunch shift, new faces. When a newcomer reaches the top step he pauses, does a doubletake in my direction. After he orders he’ll watch me from the corner of his eye, measuring my reactions.

The food now is slow-going – the foufou is heavy, dense, monotonous. At the tables around me, an eager clutter of dishes, bottles of Fanta and Primus, pitchers of water poured into little metal cups. It is for most, I suspect, the only good meal of the day. When the bill comes it is 1,300 francs, less than $2 – almost half of this for a Fanta citron. For four days I have searched fruitlessly, stupidly for cheap eats; but really, I wasn’t looking too hard. Walking around today I saw others – Mamling, Best Life – and I’m sure there are many more, hidden behind curtains, full of moto drivers and students and the rest of Goma’s working poor.

Outside Christophe, one of the moto drivers from lunch, offers to take me to the hotel. His English is good – he has friends, Congolese, that he visits in Kampala. The bike, he says, is rented for $7 a day – anything else he keeps, a modest profit after even a good day’s work. He wants me to take his number – I can give him a call, he says, if I ever need a lift. Before he drives off I snap a picture of him in front of the hotel – his blue shirt glittering, Tim Horton’s cap in his lap. He is punching his number into my phone.

In the afternoon I am on my way to the Virunga market, on the black jagged road that stretches from the center of town to the foot of Nyiragongo. Ask the Congolese why they would live in the path of one of the most active volcanoes on the planet, and they will undoubtedly tell you that the soil here is rich, impossibly fertile. Sure, it is dangerous here – but where isn’t it dangerous? And besides, the lava flow is slow; in 2002, hardly anyone was killed. The city rebuilt; now, they are still building. Along the Nyiragongo road, new construction sites: wooden scaffolds, cinderblocks, sheet metal, rebar. These will become small shopping centers, offices, hotels. Goma is stable, money is pouring in. The city is expanding to meet its growing needs.

Offices of Chinese telecom CCT

At the market, the usual market scenes – the colorful bustle and din of African commerce. Past the pots and pans and crockery, I am all business – on a mission, actually, to buy some socks. Rows of blouses and blue jeans, colorful bolts of cloth, jackets, soccer jerseys. The stalls are built high off the ground; the women sit with their legs dangling, or reclining barefoot on piles of clothes, taking the term “business casual” to new heights. Everywhere they follow me with their eyes, solicitous. “Mzungu, mzungu,” they say. It is like walking through a red light district. I buy my socks, tease the ladies with promises to return for jeans, shirts, a wife. Howls of laughter. Yes, yes, a wife – that’s more like it. Now I am in the fish market, passing buckets full of silver sambaza, dried fish stretched out like animal skins. Three women sit on a bench, chickens squawking between their legs. Rows of soaps, skin creams, hair care products, extensions. Women at sewing machines – the drone fills the air like the sound of cicadas.

Outside, the rain is approaching. I get on the back of a moto and race the clouds back into town. Three lorries pass us on the road – they are full of mourners. Dark suits, neckties, elaborate dresses. A man holds a wooden cross aloft, lurching with each bump in the road. Slowly they make their mournful procession along the Sake road. In the rear truck, women are singing a funeral hymn.

We just beat the rain to Nyira. Then the sky opens up. I sit with my notebook, my pen, my collected stories of Saul Bellow. It’s been a good day. I am thinking ahead now to tomorrow, to the port, to the boat to Bukavu. The rain is torrential, Biblical – there is no use planning now, there is nothing to do but sit and listen to the thunder rolling over the gardens. There is a luxuriousness to waiting out these tropical rains, hearing the roar on the rooftops. The temperature drops, the air is brisk. By the time the rain stops we have entered a new season. I put on my jacket, zip it all the way up, puff into my fists.

It is after five, and the humanitarians are returning from the field. Watching the rush hour traffic is like going on a particular, Congolese safari. Here is a Land Cruiser, there a Range Rover. Here are the RAV4s and 4Runners, the Prados and Pajeros. Minibuses wheeling through the dusky half-light, traveling with speed and peril. From where I’m standing you can watch all of Goma passing by: motos, chukudus, women carrying fruit, carrying children. Swallows are circling in the sky, crying out. Below them children are running through the mud and grass of a small public park, singing, toppling, laughing.

A boy approaches, solemn and apologetic, asking for my help. He is young, handsome, studious; he has a sheet of paper, folded into quarters, which he unfolds for my inspection. There is a sentence written across the top of the page – “James is a best teacher of English” – which this boy, Bernard, has to write in the future tense. It is an assignment for an English course he is taking, a class for youths in the crowded quartiers of Goma who can’t afford to study in the city’s schools. James is a best teacher of English. I help Bernard with the first example; he tries the next one on his own. “He is going to pay your money this evening,” says Bernard, struggling to find the past tense. Deep lines crease his forehead. “He paid your money this evening,” he says. He smiles, he is starting to get it. “Here in DRC, many boys do not speak English,” he says. “We do our best.”

The Sake road is crowded on my way back to Cirezi – the aid-group convoys, the MONUC vehicles crammed with well-armed, Kevlared, flinty-eyed soldiers. Motos weaving through the traffic – I see only headlights, and more headlights. They grow as big as dinner plates in front of me and then, suddenly, swerve to the side. There is peril and exhilaration in all of this. A traffic cop, a heroic figure, stands in the middle of the road, blowing on his whistle. Music and horns and the sound of ancient engines. Near the hotel, lingala at high decibels pours from the Champs Elysee, R&B from the shop next door. The walls are lined with DVDs: CSI and 24 and Lost on one shelf, Cavemen Bible Mysteries and God’s Love in World Movie Collection 3 on the next. Men and women outside are hustling home, slopping through the mud, their faces ringed by headlights and exhaust fumes. White faces in passing cars. Clothing boutiques, fluorescent-lit hair salons, gospel music, the racket of generators. Boys selling bread, women with piles of pineapples. You can do your grocery shopping here on the street, groping in the darkness.

At an Internet café down the road someone has left a personals site, Badoo, on the screen: one man’s longing, transmitted across hundreds of miles of jungle, war, and impenetrable bush, calling out to Maranatha, 18, Lorita, 24, Gloria, 20, and SEXYANA, 22 – pretty, pouting girls looking for love in Kinshasa. It is impossible, at times, to think of Goma as a city in a country called Congo. Yet here, as if bonded by the desires of strangers, the country becomes whole: a great, fragile nation, bound together in cyberspace.

The life is good, but it is a lot of change.

Editor’s note: This is the fifth in a series of posts chronicling my travels in Rwanda and eastern Congo earlier this year.

To start at the beginning, click here.

Day 5 – March 25

It’s half-past eleven when I finally get out of bed. It feels like my body is slowly returning to me. I have five missed calls on my phone – John, periodically checking on me since just before 6am. His concern is of the overbearing variety. I take a hot shower and spend the next two hours working through a giant Thermos of coffee. Though I’m paying close to twenty U.S. bucks for my room – a small fortune, on my budget – the narcotic pleasures of coffee by the lake remind me why this is one of my favorite places in Rwanda. Across from me, the green wooded hills of a peninsula jut into the lake; beside it, Amahoro (“Peace”) Island; beyond that, Napoleon Island – so named because it is said to resemble Bonaparte’s hat. From here, it looks like any other island on the lake – its slopes covered with trees, a denuded hilltop. Beyond it are still more islands, tiny and picturesque, so that you want to pack a picnic basket and spend the day exploring every one.

A view of the lake, from the Bethanie

This, of course, can be arranged. There are boats shuttling tourists between the islands; at the lunch hour they idle beside the jetty at the Béthanie, hoping to attract some clients. One boy, Haybarimana, a spindle in oversized clothes, offers to take me to Napoleon and Amahoro Islands for Rwf 20,000 – a steep price for an hour-long tour, considering I just spent ten hours traveling half the length of the lake for a fraction of that price. I tell him I’m waiting for friends to arrive from Kigali – Andrea & Co., escaping the capital for the weekend – and that we’ll talk when I’ve found a few more passengers. Or when he’s cooked up a more favorable rate.

Walking into town, with the cries and splashes of children rising from the lake, I compare images of Kibuye with memories from my last visit, nearly two years ago. Here a small vacant lot where women sell Fantas and ndazi beneath beach umbrellas – this I remember. There, on the hillside, the skeleton of a new building – no doubt a gaudy business hotel, soon to be welcoming the budding technocrats of Kigali. It looks like they just started building it a few months ago. Closer to town, the biggest change: a sprawling new “Regional Centre for Blood Transfusion,” sponsored by the American Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Next to it a maternal health care clinic, which is showing its years. Dozens of women in colorful wraps and dresses sit in the shade, cradling infants to their chests.

My first great shock comes at the stadium – one of the few places I vividly recall in Kibuye. It was here, in 2008, that I came to watch screenings for Hillywood, the traveling leg of the Rwandan Film Festival. That day there were hundreds of people crowding the grandstand – sitting, standing in the aisles, dangling from the railings. Mai and Ben, two friends from Uganda, had come down to Kibuye for the weekend. There had been heavy rains, and we picked our way through the mud to find places closer to the screen. It was slow going; at places the mud came up to your ankles. We watched a man with a lame leg navigate the field on a single crutch, poling himself like a gondolier.

The main feature that night was We Are All Rwandans, a 20-minute short film by the English director Debs Eugene-Gardner. It was based on events from a village near Kibuye in 1996, at a time when Interahamwe who had found refuge in what was then Zaire were staging periodic raids across the border – attacks to sow chaos in rural regions, and to test the stability of the newly formed government. In one such attack – the basis of the film – gunmen raided a boarding school and, seizing a classroom, demanded the students separate into Hutus and Tutsis. The students refused; one girl, defiant, insisted, “We are all Rwandans,” before she was killed. It was a story that was little reported at the time – Philip Gourevitch mentions it on the final pages of his famous book – but was seized upon as a seed of hope for a new, united Rwanda.

I had watched the film at screenings across Rwanda, and the effect was always dramatic. It is, by Rwandan standards, a graphic film, and there was much shock and grief as the students were gunned down in their classroom. (Six died, many more were injured.) In the end, though, amid the head-shaking and tongue-clucking, the film was powerfully received. It carried a message, I thought, that many Rwandans wanted to believe in.

It was a message, though, that seemed to win few fans that night in Kibuye. There was a sense of restlessness, and growing unease; before the film finished, the mood was outright hostile, with hisses and jeers directed at the screen, and many throwing up their hands with disgust as they left the stadium. Something to remember about Kibuye: it was this town and region that saw some of the worst killing in 1994. Tutsis were almost entirely wiped out from this prefecture; by some estimates, nearly 60,000 were killed – more than 90 percent of the Tutsi population.

So how to interpret the hostility of the crowd? Was it a reaction against the film’s message of a unified Rwanda? Or against the violence depicted – sure to upset the sensibilities of a rural audience? Or was it that particular story – drawn from a village just a few miles down the road – that hit too close to home? Was this predominantly Hutu crowd tired of being reminded of its crimes? Were they hoping the ghosts of the genocide might finally be put to rest?

Two years later, here is what’s left of that stadium: the overgrown grass of a soccer field, the crumbling remains of the grandstand. Packs of children scamper across the pitch, kicking a ball, or whatever bundle of rags and strings passes for a ball. Goats are chewing at midfield – chewing and chewing, in the manner of their kind. And yet the sight of that crowded grandstand, the hissing old men, the fat drops of rain that fell like silver dollars in our headlights – the memories are as vivid as if they’d happened just last week.

Kibuye stadium: then

Kibuye stadium: now

Across from the stadium, as a fresh rain begins to fall, I duck into a small restaurant for lunch. It is typical of rural Rwanda, with plastic tables and chairs arranged here and there, and a small TV flickering in a corner of the room. A menu is taped to the wall; the name of the restaurant, it says, is Sport Restaurant Long Life. Two short, stout young women bustle about the place – almost comically busy: there are just two other diners. There is a confused exchange between us in a mixture of Kinyarwanda, English and French. “Come, I show you,” says one of the girls, leading me into the kitchen. There is a large bowl of cassava, another of beans, two empty basins with grains of rice sticking to the side. She says something else, in Kinyarwanda. “In French, they say ‘chou,’” she says.

Chou,” I say. “Cabbage.”

“Cabbage,” she says, enjoying the feel of the word on her lips. She breaks into laughter. I order rice, beans, and cabbage, and we have another good laugh as she begins to fill my plate.

It is a good meal, served with a bowl of sambaza – tiny, silvery lake fish – in a watery tomato broth. It costs about a dollar. Brazilian telenovellas are playing on the TV, beamed in by satellite from Mozambique. The waitresses are rapt. Outside the rain falls heavily, then lightly. I stand in the doorway and look at what’s left of the stadium across the street. There is still some sport going on, but so much for the “long life.”

I ask the two men sitting by the door, finishing off their Sprites, what became of the stadium. One of the men, speaking in slow, cautious English, says they are tearing it down to extend the maternal health clinic next door. He mentions the American NGO – Peace something – which is funding the project. A new stadium is being built, he says, further down the road.

The man is young, in his late-30s, I guess, and neatly dressed. He says his name is Jean Baptiste Ntimehuka, and he is a bailiff at the high court in Kibuye. He takes from his pocket a small lanyard with his name and photo, about which he is very proud. How many Rwandans, I wonder, dream each night for such a job, such a lanyard! Jean Baptiste points to his surname and translates: “God is good.” He was born in a village not far from here and studied at the Université Libre de Kigali. He has now been living in Kibuye for nine years. He has two small children, a boy, five, and a girl, three. His wife was raised in the Congo; her family returned to Rwanda after the genocide. “And then she met you and she fell in love,” I say. Jean Baptiste laughs uproariously, the words “not exactly” implicit in his body language. I ask him about the life in Kibuye now, and he says, “Kibuye is the development. The life is good, but it is a lot of change.”

For this small town, the changes have probably been dramatic. Beside the gas station, where I remember there being rows of wooden dukas, there are now two construction sites: future homes, according to the signage, of new commercial plazas. There is a new shopping complex nearby, with a long arcade where the jobless youth of Kibuye can wait out the rain. It is full of small shops, a FINA Bank, a restaurant with two long tables over which are hunched lean men eating large plates of potatoes and rice.

Plans to build a new shopping complex in Kibuye

Outside the boys are milling, pushing, arguing, laughing, passing the time. Tanzanian R&B plays from a barber shop. I pop into a smart little supermarket for a Fanta to revive my flagging strength. The rear wall is covered with liquor bottles – Ugandan waragi, Malibu rum. There are a few staples of the Rwandan diet – Zesta brand fruit jam, Blue Band butter – as well as imported luxuries like Pringles and Cadbury’s hot chocolate. There are also five-gallon cans of vegetable oil sporting the USAID logo – relief supplies that at some point made their way from the international aid food chain into the parallel market of Rwandan commerce.

Parked in front is a truck from the National Institute of Statistics of Rwanda. The message on the driver’s side door exhorts Rwandans, “It’s Time to Deliver!”

On the way back to the Béthanie I’m caught in a steady shower. The rain is like a part of the landscape here. On the side of the road is the St. Jean Catholic church, site, like so many Rwandan churches, of countless genocide atrocities. Outside is a small memorial site – a shapeless slab of concrete, hasty, artless, as if designed with all the thought and care of a traffic pylon. (Better, though, than the Marxist tributes to the “povos” and “la luta” in Mozambique – fine examples of memorial kitsch.) The church door is locked; I can just make out the forms of wooden benches through the dusty, stained-glass windows. The views of the lake from here are stunning. As always in Rwanda, you have a hard time channeling the horrors of 1994 when so much of the world around you looks like Eden.

St. Jean Catholic Church

On my way to the road I am met by two men, one in an ill-fitting coat and large sunhat; the other clutching a sheaf of papers and wearing a rosary around his neck. They are choirists at the church, here to practice songs for Sunday mass. (Jean Baptiste, too, had said he sings in the choir. I suspect there are no shortage of hymns to get you through the week in Kibuye.) The talk, as one might expect in a churchyard, quickly turns to religion. Am I a Catholic? No, Greek Orthodox. Ah, says Jean Marie – the man with the rosary – that is almost the same thing. Here is where my French fails me. I try to explain the differences between the two religions: the Great Schism (“Il y a cinq, six sant ans” – my history as bad as my French), at which point Catholics began following the Pope (“Avec la pape,” showing a fork in the road with my hands, and Catholics going to the left), and “les orthodox” following something I call “l’archbishop” (hand shooting to the right, “comme ça”). I mention Rome and Constantinople, which draws satisfactory nods. “Constantinople,” says Jean Marie knowingly. They are practically in the same time zone, after all. Jean Marie, seeking one last reassurance, asks if the Orthodox believe in Christ and Mary. We do. Rapture. We are practically brothers now. Jean Marie pumps my hand and we part on the best of terms, footsoldiers in the Lord’s vast and varied army.

On the way down the hill a young boy joins me. He has a small tire and he is beating it down the hill with a stick. What simple, Victorian pleasures you find in rural Rwanda! The boy’s sandals scuff the pavement; he is holding up his pants with one hand. He beats his little tire into a ditch, pulls it out, and starts again. There is a look of furious concentration on his face. Nothing could matter as much this afternoon as the successful completion of his mission, which is to chase his tire down the hill and all the way home.

The rain has finally ended. The sun is out. The lake is bronze and the boats are drifting slowly, silently across it.

I’ve realized, since leaving my laptop and its distractions back in Kigali, that the day is long, with many hours to kill. It is no coincidence that I’ve filled two notebooks in just five days. I’m writing more than I’ve written in months, and it’s with no small regret that I think back to past trips – my Kenyan odyssey to Lake Turkana, for example – wondering how I passed those long hours, if not with my pen and pad. I could’ve written a small book about that endless truck ride from Maralal to the lake’s shores. And then the political circus in Loyangalani: the president and prime minister, there to launch an emergency relief effort with the WFP in the drought-ravaged north. They arrived on separate airplanes – too proud, too besotted with rank and protocol to carpool. The great tribes of the north, the Turkana, the Rendille, the El Molo, sang and jangled their braceleted legs on the runway. Probably the president, fat, gray, softened by years at the public trough, didn’t know what to make of those barebacked warriors singing their archaic songs. The prime minister danced a clever little jig. The heat was unbearable.

Turkana tribesmen rush to greet the President's plane

The assembled tribes on the runway at Loyangalani

All that feels now like a story from someone else’s life. In Kibuye I listen to the rain outside my window. I sing to myself – softly, at first, then less so. Appreciating for the first time how the sound of one’s voice, the bold notes sung in solitude, might fill the emptiness that wraps around the hours of rural life. If I were a Rwandan farmer tilling some vast country tract, I might sing thusly. (Though probably not the Smiths.) The sound of the rain picks up, and then the sound of my voice does, too, until the two songs blend in perfectly imperfect harmony. It is the first time I remember singing myself to sleep – another oddball habit, perhaps, to take home from my African life.

You have your problems. We have ours.

A note to the reader: In March of this year, just weeks before packing up my life in Kigali, I decided to throw some ratty old shirts in a duffel bag, buy a few pens and notebooks, point myself in the direction of Congo, and hit the road. It was to be my last great east African trip before the move to South Africa, and I wanted to do a sort of valedictory tour – to put my final sentimental stamp on a region that had occupied most of the past three years of my life.

The plan was to do a rough circuit of Lake Kivu, from the Rwandan resort town of Gisenyi; down to Cyangugu, in the country’s remote southwest corner; over the Congolese border to Bukavu; and across Lake Kivu to Goma, a one-time playground of white colonials in the Belgian Congo, now the humanitarian hub of eastern Congo’s restive North Kivu province. I’d decided, in a fit of romantic pique, to leave my laptop behind in Kigali; and so, pen and pad in hand, I set off like a pith-helmeted Victorian in search of a jolly good adventure.

Wonderful Products for Wonderful People: One of the six Kartasi Brand notebooks I filled on my trip.

What follows is the journal I kept during the nearly four weeks I spent on the road. Looking back at words I wrote just six months ago, it’s amazing to think how much has changed in how we look at Rwanda: first, because of the turbulent election season, which cast such an unflattering light on President Kagame and his handling of internal dissent; and more recently, because of the leaked UN report detailing some of the widespread and systematic atrocities linked to the RPA during its post-genocide Zaire campaign. These things were, of course, hardly news to anyone who has been watching the region for more than the past 20 minutes; still, in terms of the battering Rwanda’s public image has taken, it’s hard to imagine things in our favorite east African autocracy ever being quite the same.

What you’ll find below is not a hard-hitting inquiry into RPA war crimes, or a catalogue of the terrible atrocities being committed in the eastern Congo, but a simple account of what it was like to be in a particular place at a particular time. I tried, throughout those weeks of traveling, to look and listen with an open mind and heart, and I hope that I managed, in some small way, to bring the life of that region – with all its joy, frustration, laughter, disappointment, uncertainty, fear, hope, sorrow, and above all else, dignity – to the page. It is an imperfect account: for much of my trip I was writing between 2,000 and 3,000 words a day, much of it unfiltered, most of it, I hope, factually accurate, some of it deeply flawed. I’ve largely left these pages unedited, for the simple fact that the prospect of fine-tuning some 70,000 words of travelogue right now sort of makes my stomach turn. I hope you’ll forgive my flaws and trespasses and feel, ultimately, that it was worth the trip.

Day 1 – March 21

The guy in the corduroy jacket gets off the bus and tells me he saved me a seat. It’s the 13:30 Virunga Punctuel to Gisenyi, humid, packed. My ticket says 14h, but the guy in the corduroy jacket says it won’t be a problem.

Umva! Umva!” he says to the conductor, who is young and can’t be bothered. He waves me onto the bus. I wrangle my duffel bag down the aisle, maneuvering past the fat thighs that are spilling out from seats crammed with girthful men and women from the Congo.

The guy in the corduroy jacket gestures from a seat near the back. He has beer on his breath and his name is Patrick.

Kigali. This city – green, mild, easy, pleasant – which I’ve called home for most of the past year. I’ve spent more time in Kigali than any city south of the 42nd parallel, and yet it feels like I hardly know the place. Always a sense of returning or departing – Kenya, Burundi, Congo. It’s a place where I switch off, stare blankly at the hills, move gently between different states of catatonia. For three weeks, sick and medicated and cursing my bad karma, I’ve sleepwalked through coffees at Bourbon and karaoke at Cadillac and quiz night at Sol e Luna. We had some good parties here – I’m going to miss this city. A place to which I’ve grown accustomed to saying goodbye.

Patrick lives in Goma and works for a security company, about which he is grateful and pleased. Jobs are hard to come by in eastern Congo, and for Patrick – an office-bound accountant, not one of the narcoleptic askaris dozing off with a billy club cradled in his arm – this good fortune just a year out of college suggests some very powerful juju. Or family ties. He is wearing a button-down shirt and designer jeans that hang loosely from his slender hips. His English is excellent, which is good, because my French is not. He is the fifth of seven children, born in Bukavu, and the brief glimpses of the life there he offers suggest a privileged life indeed. His father teaches statistics at the university. He remembers watching the September 11 attacks on satellite TV. He has lived through some bloody times in Bukavu. “You have your problems,” he says, “we have ours.”

The Congolese men on the bus are loud and broad-chested and built like Easter Island totems. One wears an abacost – the Mobutu-era fashion still proudly worn by many Congolese – and another wears a flamboyant, sateen shirt in a bright floral pattern that suggests the very complicated relationship between the Congolese male and his masculinity. All wear sunglasses, the frames of which seem greatly distressed by the demands made by these oversized Congolese heads. Neck fat folds like an accordion. A woman fans herself, wearing more face paint than a geisha.

These Congolese have apparently made the trip to Kigali for the weekend’s tie between TP Mazembe, the Congolese powerhouse, and Kigali’s APR – the Rwandan minnows – in the African Champion’s League. APR scored a shocking 1-0 upset, about which one of the passengers has been loudly complaining into his phone for nearly 20 minutes. Patrick, having also traveled to Kigali for the match, glumly narrates the man’s call. “The dog barks at home,” the man says sagely – the implication being that Mazembe just didn’t look themselves on the road.

We stop and a man bounds off the bus with the particular nimbleness and grace I associate with fat Congolese men – the quick birdlike movements of feet that can dance a mean rumba. It’s a sort of spite to the ample waistlines and melon-sized heads. The man boards the bus with two bundles of eggs carefully wrapped in banana leaves, and a chicken wedged beneath his arm. The banana-leaf contraptions are ingenious: they look like sturdy little baskets. And the chicken proves to be surprisingly even-tempered, hardly squawking beneath the heavy forearms of his new owner.

Rwanda speeds by. Little towns whose names I’ll never know. Terraced hills, like temples to pagan sun gods. The roads are busy on a Sunday afternoon: families in church clothes, women tottering on uncomfortable heels, carrying colorful umbrellas. In Mukamira the whole town is gathered around a scruffy soccer pitch. We watch two teams of young boys chasing a ball across a bumpy field, and then Mukamira disappears from the rear window and is gone, gone forever.

Meanwhile, somewhere in Rwanda.

I’ve described to Patrick my plans to travel around the lake, and then I ask about traveling in Congo. Has he ever been to Kisangani, I ask, or Lubumbashi? No, he says, but it is easy enough. From Goma you take a boat to Bukavu. Then a bus to Uvira. In Uvira you can take a boat down Lake Tanganyika to Kalemie. And in Kalemie – voila! – there is a train that will take you the rest of the way to Lumbumbashi.

I am amazed at this intelligence. Is it possible that a train – some colonial relic – still carves a brave path through the jungles of Katanga? It does, says Patrick, though the security situation is never good. He laughs. “The reality of Congo, the security – you live with it,” he says. “For example, in Ruhengeri, if there is the army there, the bus must continue the journey. If you have the chance, you pass. If you do not have the chance – you have a rocket in the bus.”

There are no rockets in Ruhengeri. No police checkpoints, no anything. Spend enough time in Rwanda and you can take for granted how easy it is to travel here. I worry if I’m being lulled into a false sense of security. I am already on my guard for Bukavu, which has a reputation for hassles that borders on notorious. White travelers are few and far between in South Kivu – not like Goma, with its massive presence of international aid workers and UN peacekeepers. Bukavu’s immigration officials and policemen and assorted dregs of Congolese bureaucracy all seem doubly inclined to milk the unfortunate few passing through. I express my fears to Patrick that the days will be a monotonous shuffle through the crumbling halls of officialdom in search of the necessary permits to travel in Bukavu. He says I’m overreacting. “It is okay, as long as your paperwork is in order,” he says. This is hardly reassuring.

On the outskirts of town a billboard welcomes us to Gisenyi – a cheerful white family playing volleyball on the beach. I am too tired and cynical to comment. In town the tarmac tapers off just where I remember: veer left, toward the upmarket hotels along the lake, and the going is smooth as a baby’s bottom; veer right, Armageddon. By the market, where the bus deposits us, I exchange numbers and part ways with Patrick. He slings his corduroy jacket over his shoulder, hops onto a motorbike, and heads for the border. Picking my way through the street kids looking to carry my bags for small change, I head for the Auberge de Gisenyi, a budget stalwart, where the beds are hard, the showers are cold, but you’ll at least get some change for your Rwf 10,000.

A dilapidated old home in Gisenyi.

My few visits to Gisenyi have been as either a point of departure to or arrival from Goma, and so my experience of the city has been purely utilitarian. My memories are of the auberge’s spartan rooms, and of the misty silhouette of Nyiragongo looming over the marketplace. That this is actually Rwanda’s best-known resort town only becomes apparent when I get down to the beach, where a long colonnade of towering palm trees shades an avenue of beautiful old colonial homes – some enjoying a second life as hotels or municipal buildings, others perhaps inhabited by latter-day elites, still others falling into colorful states of disrepair. There is a wedding on the waterfront – a swish affair with dozens of tables arranged under a great white tent. The men are wearing smartly tailored suits and the women have traditional dresses draped across their shoulders. Two stern men with walkie-talkies bar the entrance. A long line of SUVs stretches down the avenue. One can only imagine what RPF stalwarts are tying the knot this afternoon in Gisenyi.

Further down, the beach is crowded with the young: adolescent boys with bare butts splashing around in the shallows, or young lovers sitting close together in the sand. Dusk is approaching. Hundreds of fruit bats are screeching and circling in the air. A gang of boys has gathered to throw rocks at their papery wings. The hills are green and tumbling down toward the water. The Congo is close enough to touch. On the way back into town, I meet a group of young Congolese boys on their way back to Goma. They want to know where I live, then ask if they can come home with me, back to America.

Dusk in Gisenyi

The sky is purple and there is chaos around the marketplace – hawkers carrying their unsold bundles, taxi-motos circling in search of a fare. The city is built at the foot of a very steep hill, and the houses of the poor crowd the slopes. You can see solitary figures slowly trudging up the footpaths. There is a single avenue running through the city, and it is crowded with people coming and going: old men on their way to the mosque, packs of children kicking at stones. Music pours from CD shops and brightly lit hair salons. Teenage boys hang about, gathered on street corners or outside barber shops, passing the time with the defiant purposelessness of youths the world over. Children are running through the gathering darkness, their little legs pumping them closer to home.

On a dirt side-street there’s a commotion like a carnival. A small tent has been built with plastic tarps and wooden poles. Inside dozens of women – husky, sweating, swaddled in colorful and elaborate dresses – are rhythmically thrusting their heavy haunches from side to side. They whoop and hoot wildly. It is a long way from the stiff formality of the wedding party I saw on the beach. A boy tells me it is a Muslim ceremony to prepare a woman for marriage. There are no men inside the tent. Just a few cluster outside, along with curious children and passersby.

I’d forgotten, after all these weeks in Kigali, how it feels to be a white man in small-town Africa. Everywhere I’m met with hysterical greetings and cries. It is an effort just to make it down the street. One boy, a high school student, perhaps, pumps my hand frantically, his face breaking into a wide, nervous smile. “Welcome to Rwanda,” he says, his voice cracking. Walking back to my hotel, past the women who sit hunched over piles of onions and maize in the darkness, I can still hear cries of “mzungu” and “How are you?” shouted from the shadows.

At the auberge they’re showing English football on the TV in the back yard. This TV – along with the posh new umbrellas shading the yard – seem to be the sole improvements at a hotel that has jacked up its rates by 50 percent in the past few months. This trend – to dramatically raise one’s prices, without any appreciable change in the quality of one’s service – I’d like to call, “to pull a Rwanda.” It is as if, by sheer force of effort and the careful manipulation of market prices, this country can just will itself into the developed world. I’m reminded of the drive to Gisenyi today, where we passed hundreds of houses branded with a scarlet letter X on the front door or wall. The houses – admittedly in sorry shape – have been marked for demolition, as part of another ambitious government initiative to Make the Country Safe. Down go the crumbling old mud-and-wattle eyesores; up go handsome new brick or poured concrete homes – dozens of which were being built, on rickety bamboo scaffolding, in every town we passed. The effect has certainly been dramatic: the constant buzz of new construction gives a sense of industry and purposefulness to even the smallest Rwandan towns. But I wonder what provisions have been made for the owners of these crumbling homes. In Kigali, when hundreds of families were evicted from a crowded slum on the slopes of Kiyovu hill to make way for new high-rent developments, there was a full-on Greek chorus of complaints over the hastiness of evictions, and the unfair prices given to those who were forced to “resettle.” Who foots the bill for these rural poor being moved into new homes? Ending poverty and banning the signs of poverty are two very different things. I think of the foreign journalist who glowed with praise for the fact that she didn’t see any Rwandans walking down the street with bare feet. She praised the government largesse that made this so – only a friend in Kigali, a long-time resident, told me the exact opposite was the case. The government, she said, had passed a law that made it punishable by fine not to put shoes on even the littlest pair of feet in your family. Suddenly, it became imperative to scratch together enough money for those extra pairs of plastic Bata sandals. (I never investigated the truth of this claim.) I suppose you can’t fault the end result so much as the over-determination of the government to get there.

Back at the auberge I’ve fallen into conversation with Robert Mugabe. Mugabe, a journalist for The New Times, had come to watch the tail-end of Chelsea-Blackburn on the big screen, and recognized me sitting with my Fanta. We’d met, briefly, at a Kigali sauna nearly a year ago. (A separate chapter, some day, to be written about Kigali’s sauna culture.) He never forgot the faces, it seems, of his journalistic brethren. Since we met he’d been promoted to bureau chief of Western Province. From his office in Gisenyi, he covered the whole of Lake Kivu – with a colleague in Kibuye, and another in Cyangugu – as well as the latest developments in eastern Congo. Not long ago, he had been on patrol with MONUC forces in North Kivu. It was unsatisfying, from a journalist’s perspective. MONUC tightly controls its image (or, at least, tries to); often, said Robert, security sweeps would be staged for the benefit of foreign journalists. Yet he knew MONUC had no business being in Congo, and that they only made things worse. He said he had proof that UN soldiers were directly complicit in the trade of illicit minerals, swapping guns for gold with local militias. He wanted to do more strenuous reporting in Congo, if he only had the resources. “I can go to an FDLR base and do my story from there, no problem,” he says. “You just have to have some money to pay them.”

And what about Gisenyi? I ask. What was the latest gossip? Any interesting stories I can be on the lookout for? Robert pauses to consider this. “Another man drowned in the lake,” he says. “He did not know how to swim.”

Such are the perils in Gisenyi today.

As seen in National Geographic Traveler!

Courtesy of Charles Robertson.

For my readers in the States, the May/June edition of National Geographic Traveler features a story by yours truly, “Kenya Passage,” which I encourage you to pick up at your neighborhood newsstand. Here’s a teaser:

The councillor hops down from the truck, scrambles through the mud, and stands there with his hands on his hips. His collar is turned up; he shakes his head and puffs into his fists and gives me a sour look. Night has begun to fall, and all the grunts and chirps and lusty calls of twilight in the African bush surround us. A few of the Samburu men unsheathe their machetes and start hacking at the brush, tossing branches and leaves under the truck’s wheels. Somewhere a child wails—a high, keen cry as urgent as the faces squinting into the dusk’s half-light.

This part of Kenya’s Great Rift Valley is dangerous country, a place haunted by lions and elephants and testy Pokot cattle raiders. Even these brave morans —Samburu warriors—get prickly at nightfall. The driver guns the engine, and the wheels whirl and spit mud, but after rocking to the side and surging briefly from the rut, the truck sinks back in. The councillor turns and stares off to the horizon; the men begin to argue. We’re stuck 40 miles from the middle of nowhere, the light has vanished below the hills, and no one has even noticed the guys with the guns.

Feeling teased? To read the rest of “Kenya Passage,” click here.