Editor’s note: This is the 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 4 – March 24
Two years ago, in Tanzania, I was marooned for three days in the little fishing village of Lagosa, on the shores of Lake Tanganyika. I was waiting for the MV Liemba – a venerable old World War I-era ferry – which, on its return passage from Zambia, would scoop me up and carry me back to the scruffy port town of Kigoma. The Liemba had already given me fits: a week before, its departure from Kigoma had been delayed – first a few days, then a full week – when it had been commandeered by the UN to return refugees from Tanzanian camps to their homes in Congo. I caught it the following week for its southbound passage; when it deposited me in Lagosa, there was a parks department speedboat waiting to take me to nearby Mahale Mountains National Park. I had timed my visit to the park, with its large population of chimpanzees, to coincide with the Liemba’s weekly voyage. If all went well, I would be able to catch the ferry as it made its return trip up the lake.
Of course, all did not go well. There were delays in Zambia – no one could say why. Each morning I would stand on the beach, squinting toward the horizon on which, I was sure, the figure of the MV Liemba would slowly come into view. I was great sport for the locals of Lagosa. Here was a village with no electricity, no phone towers – a place that, even by rural Tanzanian standards, was almost entirely off the map. And yet somehow, each day, word had already reached Lagosa through some mysterious bush telephone about the delay of the Liemba. “It will not arrive today,” a fisherman would say with assurance early in the morning. And sure enough, despite my frantic efforts to conjure the boat from the little wisps of cloud on the horizon, the Liemba would not come chugging down the lake until it was damn well ready.
In the past two years, I have drawn many morals from the story of my stay in Lagosa. The most relevant today, though, is the utter unreliability of lake transport in central Africa. Though steamships and pirogues and great cargo barges are the lifeline of the countless little villages along the shores of Kivu and Tanganyika and Malawi and Victoria, it takes endless stores of patience to negotiate their prehistoric passage. Thus another morning spent in an anxious purgatory of packed bags, waiting for word from John on the fate of my Bralirwa boat.
Luckily, Gisenyi is no Lagosa, and I can soothe my spirits over a cappuccino at the lakeside Serena Hotel. Where would Africa’s whites – the journalists, the diplomats, the aid workers – be without the comforts of our luxury sanctuaries? The tables at the Serena are populated thusly: an Indian expat (soon to be replaced by an American executive), your intrepid reporter, two American aid workers (with matching Macs), and a pair of white tourists – one American, one ambiguously European – along with their Rwandan guide. The hotel is charmless, possessed of the upmarket corporate blandness of international chain hotels the world over, but the coffee – at just Rwf 1,200 a pot – is superb. It is also, after a few busy days in Gisenyi, a concession to my need for personal space. In the market, or the crowded garden restaurant at the auberge – its Rwf 1,500 lunch-time buffet the only bargain in the joint – I feel the constant weight of bodies, the stares of curious, solicitous eyes. Coffee at the Serena is about both caffeine and equilibrium. It is for this reason I understand the distant, abstract reverie of other Northerners lost in their laptops and iPods and Therouxs at hotels across equatorial Africa. It is the familiar look of a tribe not at home in the tropics.
Two tables away the American and the German, or Swede, are having a very low-level discussion of Great Lakes politics. Minerals, Nkunda, MONUC. It is as unsatisfactory as picking up last week’s newspaper. Then the conversation turns to tourism. Always the same line: how these Africans should do more to develop the tourism sector, how with a little vision, etc. It is a very First World way to look at things. Show me a beach in Africa and I’ll show you a line of white men waiting to put hotels on it. “It is like paradise, almost,” says the Swede, or German, taking in the coastline with the expansive view of a man who sees great profits on the horizon. Already he is planning to sell Gisenyi’s charms on the Rwandan tourism portal he is developing online. “No one knows about this place,” he says, by which he doesn’t mean the Rwandans who have been coming to this resort town for decades.
And what about his vision? In the three days I have spent in Gisenyi, I would estimate the hotel occupancy rate at somewhere under 10 percent. This, of course, takes into account the fact that I arrived on Sunday, when most weekenders will be packing up and heading back to their homes in (most likely) Kigali or Goma. Still, I have seen few foreign tourists – the holy grail of the travel industry – and the largest crowds – the wedding parties who flocked to the beach on Sunday – had most likely driven to Gisenyi for the day of the celebration. The problem for Gisenyi, and any plans to develop it even further, is the fact that it already seems to have reached its tourist potential. There are far more beds than there are bodies with the available resources to fill them. And this isn’t likely to change dramatically, unless: a) Rwanda becomes substantially more popular among foreign tourists as a stand-alone destination, instead of just a gorilla-oriented add-on for a larger East African package; or b) the country continues to develop its growing middle class, so that there are greater numbers of Rwandans with disposable income, leisure time, and all the things we take for granted in the West. This is something you’ll find in Kenya, where hotels and safari camps will aggressively pursue Kenyan clients for their holiday packages. But Kenya is still light years ahead of Rwanda in terms of economic development. Despite great gains in recent years, Rwanda remains a minnow in the East African sea.
At the Serena, the Dutchman or Dane looks admiringly toward the border, where the Congolese frontier offers another enticing opportunity for local businessmen. “To me, Goma is the closest you can get to the disaster and the chaos without pushing yourself,” he says. “You can cross the border, and if it is too dangerous, you can come running back.”
He pauses and turns to the waiter. “I am trying to decide between the chicken curry and the tilapia with chips,” he says. And then, turning back to his companions, approvingly, “It’s almost like a little visit to hell.”
If Goma is hell, Gisenyi has been my own private purgatory. By mid-day John is again full of assurances, but this time, I decide to take the fateful step of bringing my things to Rubona. Better to wait at the ready in that little port town – the Bralirwa brewery and its tall chimney columns in clear view – than to sit on-call in Gisenyi, hoping for word from John. If nothing else, I’d like to feel like I’m a step closer to Kibuye.
In Rubona the arrival of a white man with an oversized duffel bag stirs the town’s listless hang-abouts to life. Whatever my story, it’s sure to add an interesting wrinkle to an otherwise uneventful day. Soon I’ve drawn the attention of a young man named Abdul, who, having heard my plan, has decided to become the custodian of my star-crossed fate. Unprovoked, he begins demanding details of the Bralirwa boat’s passage from passersby, and offering to conduct a thorough investigation at the brewery. I explain that my friend John is already on the case, and Abdul seems wounded. “I want to save you,” he says. I didn’t know I needed to be saved.
The town skeptics and philosophers are out in force. Abdul engages a young friend in soiled overalls who launches into a long monologue, like the ancient mariner. The only two words I recognize – “mzungu” and “polici” – do not bode well. Abdul sits thoughtfully beside me, weighing our options. “Why don’t you take the bus?” he says finally. It is not an easy question to answer. Mostly it’s an ill-defined spirit of adventure that’s made this Bralirwa boat so appealing. But I can’t, of course, ignore the irony that when a white man in Africa talks about “adventure,” he usually means forsaking his iPod, wearing ugly convertible pants, and generally living under the sort of conditions that 700 million or so Africans – whether out of necessity, custom, or both – live under every day. Why go through all this trouble, Abdul implies, when a perfectly good bus can get me there in a fraction of the time, for just a few more francs?
When John arrives he wears a look of affliction. Why did I come to Rubona without telling him first? Lord, spare me these sensitive African souls! After some nervous minutes of hand-holding and reassurances, our friendship is back on solid ground. We take my things to the Bralirwa brewery, which, despite John’s fears over “prohibitions,” seems to be as secure as a public park. There are women walking their children, and others carrying bundles of sugarcane on their heads, and still others selling pineapples out of a basket. Goats are everywhere. Somehow, though, we manage to find the only secure gate in the joint, on the other side of which idles my ride to Kibuye. John sidles up to the fence, greets the guard on duty, and begins talking in clandestine tones from the corner of his mouth. It is a Hollywood performance. This goes on for some time, before we’re shuffled off to wait, stage right. Minutes later the guard returns with a man in slacks and a neat polo shirt – the captain of the S.S. Bralirwa. Again, after greetings and small talk – you’d think they’d known each other for years – John lowers his voice and pleads my case. The need for secrecy, I suspect, is just a token measure of propriety (or else John has a theatrical spirit): by this point, there aren’t many people in Rubona who haven’t seen the white guy with the duffel bag on his way to the Bralirwa brewery. If subterfuge is necessary to get me on this boat, then the boat will be leaving without me.
Finally John and the captain agree on terms, shake; we take my things back to the beach, where we’ll await the captain’s signal. (Another ambiguous, theatrical touch: can’t he just call me on his phone?) We sit for an hour as the daylight dwindles, John struggling to tune into the BBC on his cellphone. A kingfisher dive-bombs into the water, and a magnificent fish eagle swoops from the top of a tree. Fishermen – donning bright orange life jackets, as required by law – begin pushing off from the beach in their rowboats, lashed three together with long, bending poles. Across the bay we watch crates of bottles getting loaded onto the boat, stacked a dozen high. The wait is endless.
Suddenly the boat sputters to life, turns, sweeps across the bay. This, it seems, is the captain’s signal. We take my bags and jog along the beach, where a few other passengers are crossing a wobbly gangplank. Across the bridge, onto a rusted old barge bobbing beside the Bralirwa boat, where we say quick, heartfelt goodbyes. Then I climb over the railing, hop onto the deck of the cargo boat, and wave to Rubona, where fishermen and laborers are gathered on the beach, laughing good-heartedly at the white man’s flight. An old man thrusts a long mangrove pole into the lake, steering us through the shallows. Then the boat’s engine throttles to full-speed ahead, and Rubona vanishes into the dusk.
It is a relief, finally, to be on my way to Kibuye. I had been told earlier in the day that the trip would take six hours, but John insisted we wouldn’t arrive till early morning. This was, I thought, preferable to pulling in at midnight without a place to stay. And a small part of me felt, ever mindful of my budget, that I might as well get my money’s worth from a night on the lake. We leave Rubona in high spirits, with the last embers of daylight dying in the sky over Congo, and the other passengers – a gregarious bunch, two men and four women, with two children in tow – already chattering away, as if they’d been childhood friends. Roasted maize is passed around. Children are gurgled and cooed at. The captain tunes his radio to a local station, fiddling with the antenna. “En-guh-lish,” says a man in a fleece pullover, to everyone’s delight. It is the only word of English I’ll hear for the rest of the journey.
We’re arranged in a half-moon at the front of the ship, sitting on crates and sacks and staring stiffly into the wind. The further we get from Gisenyi, its lights twinkling across the lake, the more of a metropolis it seems. Nyiragongo glows over the city. Night falls, plunging the hills of the Congo into a prehistoric darkness. Fishing boats paddle slowly across the water, lamps lit to attract the fish swimming beneath the surface. There are dozens of lamps glowing, like a floating city. The water slaps against the side of our boat, the moon is out, and I’m brought back to so many other journeys by lake and by sea: in Kenya, in Malawi, in Mozambique. For the first few hours, lost in this pleasant reverie, I convince myself that there’s no better way to travel from Gisenyi to Kibuye.
The cold comes gradually, at first. I pull my fleece and my jeans from my duffel bag, expecting to get some use out of them before the night is through. The women, swaddled in innumerable layers, seem to have more and more lengths of cloth to wrap themselves in as the night goes on. They seem like flimsy protection, though, as the cold begins to bite. The men, meanwhile, are doing the chivalrous thing and abandoning the women to the elements. The first mate opens a rusty trap door, revealing a musty bed in what appear to be the captain’s quarters. The captain shines his flashlight down the hatch and, it seems, offers me his bed. Everyone finds this hysterical. I decline with an emphatic no – “Hapana!” – which more or less brings the house down. (I’ll repeat this gag – “Hapana!” – for the next few minutes, each time achieving the desired effect.) Then the laughter dies and the first mate, stretching and yawning, descends the ladder. The captain lays a few pieces of cardboard over some crates and then follows to the cozy bed below.
The women laugh, hoot, chatter, and curl up on the cardboard. It has probably never dawned on them to expect any better from their men.
The joy of this lake cruise is coming to a close. The cold is suddenly bitter, and the women – rising, as if through some unspoken agreement – retreat with their children to their cardboard mattress. They wrap themselves tight in their kangas and huddle together for warmth. The children are remarkably well-behaved. Cries are quickly silenced with clucking and shushing. Alone at the front of the boat, I curl up in my fleece and wrap my thin jacket around my head, to protect against the wind. Every few minutes I shift my position – to find some extra degrees of warmth, to relieve an aching muscle. Now and then I look up to see the driver staggering through the pale moonlight over a mountain of crates. Somehow I snatch a few hours of sleep: 20 minutes here, 10 there. It is a very long night.
Some time around 4am we arrive at the brewery in Kibuye. A guard patrols its floodlit grounds, stopping to chat with the women or offer us a trip to the toilet. It is against Bralirwa policy, I suspect, to let us into the compound, though by this point, the prospect of a warm brewery floor to rest my head on brings a tear to my eye. Again I drift off. A light rain begins to fall. Finally, just a few minutes before six, as pale light colors the horizon, the women rise, as if on cue, and gather their things. Babies are bundled to backs; bags are passed in a daisy-chain onto the dock. I offer to help the oldest woman onboard – a shrill, middle-aged bird – with the bag of potatoes she has brought from Gisenyi. Only when I begin to strain with the effort do I realize she’ll be strapping nearly 50 pounds of potatoes to her back with a frayed length of rope, then trudging off into the hills of Kibuye.
Outside the brewery there are no formalities, no warm partings. One by one we scatter, picking our solitary paths through the crisp morning.
It is a long walk to the Béthanie – the church-run guesthouse where I’d stayed once before –and it takes me a few minutes to find my legs. The pain in my back and neck, too, is tremendous. But having this early-morning hour to myself, with the birdsong filling the trees, is almost entirely worth the effort getting here. And the pay-off, too, comes when I finally collapse into my bed, set my alarm clock, think better of it, and spend my first morning in Kibuye huddled under the covers.