Editor’s note: This is the twelfth in a series of posts chronicling my travels in Rwanda and eastern Congo earlier this year.
To start at the beginning, click here.
Day 12 – April 1
Coffee, again, at the Hotel du Lac. After yesterday’s catastrophic failures at the border, I’m oddly at peace with myself this morning. I’ve faced, I think, the worst of my demons. Today, my fate is in the hands of Etienne and Justin – both of whom had promised to lobby on my behalf throughout the night. For this first hour of what will turn out to be a grand April Fool’s joke on this particular April Fool, I can tell myself I’ve done about as much, so far, as I can possibly do.
Justin calls just a few minutes after ten – he is on his way to Cyangugu. Soon we’re sitting together on the terrace of the Hotel du Lac, and he’s sharing the bad news. “I do not know what the problem is in Bukavu,” he says, shaking his head. South Kivu’s internal politics have been simmering; the province is a mess. The governor has been summoned to Kinshasa to explain himself. In Bukavu, the opposition is agitating for power. “They are trying to get the commandment of Bukavu,” says Justin. His uncle – some low-level cog, I suspect, in the ruling party machine – is afraid to cause trouble at such a critical moment for the party. Justin sighs. “The weather is not good for them,” he says. His uncle can’t step in on my behalf. Justin has done all he could.
When bad news comes, I prefer to take it all in one dose. By half-past ten, with still no word from Etienne, I decide to play what I suspect is my final card. Etienne’s voice is strained when he picks up the phone – I know the news is not good. The director in Goma has been trying his colleague in Bukavu throughout the night – still no answer. The message, for Etienne, is clear. “I think he is working with those men,” he says. His voice is deflated; my spirits sink. With the failure of this powerful maneuver, I know I’m out of options. Etienne wishes me luck with whatever I decide. “I’m sorry I have failed on my side,” he says.
Justin can see my mood has soured. He, too, is out of advice for me. With the door in Bukavu having slammed in my face, though, I’ve shifted from despair to resolve. It is hardly eleven; I can still make Gisenyi by nightfall. The day would be wasted – a grim daisy-chain of bumpy bus rides through the Rwandan hinterlands – but there’s nothing stopping me from strolling into Congo tomorrow morning. I share my plan with Justin. It’s clear this is the only way. Now I find myself trying to console him. He’s taken these past few days awfully hard. Though he knows better than I do the headaches and hurdles of life in the Congo, his pride in his country has been wounded. “It is a problem with Kabila,” he says. “A guest comes to knock on your door, you have to open first. This is not good politics.” He is not surprised, but still: the Congo has let him down.
We embrace with great warmth – it is humbling how hard he and Etienne have lobbied for me – and say goodbye to the Hotel du Lac, to Cyangugu. I promise to keep him posted on my progress – despite the change in plans, I should still be in Bukavu some time next week – and off he goes, his bright white sneakers beating a path up the hill.
Now I’ve shifted into travel mode. It’s close to eleven: if I want to reach Gisenyi by nightfall, I probably should have left two hours ago. My mood is brisk. Money is exchanged – my stack of U.S. dollars has been dwindling all week – sweet loaves of ndazi bread are bought for the long journey, and soon I’m on the Horizon Bus to Kampala, by way of Kigali, the seats all but empty as we chug up the hill toward Kamembe.
Leaving Cyangugu, the bay glittering, sunlight glinting off the roofs in the slums of Bukavu, a powerful feeling catches in my throat. This has been a memorable week, and I’m oddly at peace as Bukavu disappears behind a bend in the road. For all the moronic waste of today’s journey, I don’t regret having come all this way only to be turned away at the border. Yesterday was educational; these, the border official might have said to me, are the facts of life. (Thinking of that legless man, the force of his shoulders, the short brisk strides and the powerful thrust of his walking stick. Thinking of the shrewd old woman wheeling her way uphill, the effrontery of that much put-upon face, the indignities of age, of her handicap, of the flesh.) A week from now I’ll be looking across the same bay, from the other side. A certain sense of dark comedy is, I suspect, a necessary survival skill in the Congo.
The bus is barreling now from Kamembe. Adieu, Faustin, Lazare! There are only five, six of us onboard, and I suspect this is an unscheduled journey – that the driver of the Kampala-Kigali line, in cahoots with some associates, has tacked on a side route for his own benefit. Why else would Horizon – a shuttle service between the major East African urban centers – Kigali, Kampala, Juba, Nairobi, Dar es Salaam – why would Horizon extend its route to Cyangugu, of all places? We stop along the way – sacks of charcoal, of potatoes, are tossed under the bus. Small money changes hands. Yes, this is probably a profitable racket. We stop in small towns – a solitary passenger, an old man with a battered suitcase, boards, smiles, looks around, settles fussily into a seat. In Ntidenzi, schoolgirls are skipping rope outside a primary school. They stop, smile, stare. Some classmates join them, everyone laughing and waving vigorously as we leave little Ntidenzi behind.
We pass for miles with nothing but tea plantations on either side of the road. Then a forest of blue gum trees – tall, slender, silver-barked, rocking in the wind. These you’ll find now all across Africa – non-indigenous, as native as yours truly. The blue gums grow quickly – it takes just five years, a man once told me, for a tree to reach maturity. In Rwanda, as in much of Africa, with its forests taxed by a rapidly growing population, these blue gums are planted to counter the effects of deforestation. In just a few years, a barren hill will be covered with trees – these become charcoal, firewood. But the effects, I’m told, will be disastrous. A South African farmer once described how quickly these selfish trees drink the water from the soil. The earth here is being depleted. But what else do you tell the villagers, who only know that they need these trees for survival?
Now we are entering Nyungwe Forest, the national park – the road cuts through one of Rwanda’s last pristine places. The mountains are covered in dense forest, lit by patches of sunlight. The climate changes. The clouds are low, rain begins to fall. Through the thick jungle cover we go, the trees draped with liana and creepers, vines hanging from the branches. It is a picture-book jungle, Curious George – the kind you see in cartoons with swinging monkeys and apes. It’s rare to see such wild places in Rwanda, with its carefully cultivated landscapes, its terraced hills. Thousands of years ago, the whole country must have looked like this. Our ancestors beating their chests and howling violently in the treetops. We stop. Villagers gather on the roadside, waiting for a lift. Somewhere in all that forest, still you find some settlements. They board, small bills clutched in their hands. Some wait – for a free ride, maybe, a passing friend. Others sell oranges, rough-husked fruits. In places we slow: a landslide has blocked part of the road. Piles of rock, mud, branches, sediment. A lorry passes, huffing slowly uphill and dragging a second trailer behind it. Across the windshield are the words, “Jesus is Life.”
Now the trees begin to thin, here and there you see hilltops denuded and trees stripped bare. Suddenly, more of those alien blue gums, and you know you are close to human populations again. The forest vanishes. Villages, small vegetable plots, farmers in their fields. The sunlight is bright – the clouds seem to hang over Nyungwe. Then more towns, bigger, rows of shops, banks. We are approaching Butare, and now we pass tourist hotels, cars, new constructions on the side of the road. You are impressed, coming out of the forest, to see the freshness and vitality of these towns. So much development along the road from Butare to Kigali. A difference from the neglected backwaters on the rough lake roads.
The day is growing long, too long. We are four, five hours out of Cyangugu – the landscape is monotonous. I read, doze off. We stop – dozens of secondary school students board. Suddenly the bus is full. Laughter, flirtations, the smell of body odor. The girl beside me reads from a book of hymnals. I close my eyes, open them, begin to count the mile markers. We pass rice paddies – scores of gacaca convicts, in their pink shirts and shorts, bending, working. More rainfall. The scene of an accident. A bicyclist, a prone body, on the side of the road; a bunch of bananas. My seat is hard, and I can’t find a way to arrange myself comfortably. Someone in front of me leans her head out the window and vomits. I close my eyes. When I open them, we’re in Kigali.
The city continues to grow on me – a place so sleepy and scrubbed that a friend once dubbed it “the Morgantown, West Virginia, of Africa.” But after two weeks upcountry it seems livelier, fresh, more boisterous than I remember. The streets are crowded, buses and motos, bodies dodging traffic, the rush-hour swarm. We reach Nyabugogo – craters, puddles like vast inland seas. It seems remarkable that a government which can lay hundreds of miles of fiber-optic cable across the country can’t build a decent fucking bus station. Women clutch at the hems of their dresses, step daintily. People waving, calling, an ecstasy of partings and reunions. The bus has finally stopped; outside, an angry crowd. They are going to Kampala – the bus, I suspect, is way behind schedule. We made terrible progress through the rain. Now they are thirsty for blood; we have to push our way through the crowds. I flag down a moto. On the back of the bike, weaving perilously through the traffic on my way to the Virunga Punctuel offices. The duffel bag is perched on my knee, my arm strains to keep it from pulling me off the bike.
The first bus is at half-past six; I have half an hour to kill. I am, in fairness, glad for the extra time. I stock up on samosas and congealed pizzas for the ride, make a bathroom run at the UTC. The place is packed – the crowds look so prosperous here. Cufflinks, sunglasses, high heels, earrings. Men who, if asked, would describe themselves simply as “businessmen.” So much noise and commotion, after the silence of the lake. As charmless as this place is, I realize how much I’m going to miss it: my thrice-weekly visits to Bourbon Coffee, my late-night runs to the 24-hour Nakumatt, the tall, slender university girls and preppily dressed boys strutting on their Friday-night promenades.
The feeling swells as our bus leaves Kigali, the lively streets, the constellations of lights strung across the hills. All day, since leaving Nyungwe, with the sun pouring its blessing on the hills and town after energetic town scrolling by, I’ve had an odd sense of faith in this country. In Kigali, too, with all the optimistic bustle, it struck me that maybe, for all my skepticism about reconciliation in Rwanda, this country really can pull through – that with enough jobs and development, enough growth trickling down to the collines, this country might actually get past the politics of genocide, divisionism, hate.
The optimism, this high feeling, catches in my throat. Along the road to Gisenyi, thinking about these past two weeks, I realize that I’ve never felt as strongly about Rwanda as I do right now. After all these months – stretching back to my first visit two years ago – Rwanda has finally grown on me.
Silently, I pour out my heart. The honeymoon is brief. An hour from the city, on a high backcountry road, the bus begins to rattle, a flat. This day – fittingly, April Fool’s – will never end. A lesser or more superstitious man might have gotten the cosmic hint and headed back to Kigali. We stand on the side of the road; the lights of the city cast a luminous dome over the hills. Together eight, ten of us stand in the mud, pushing against the side of the bus so the driver can remove the flat. The night is brisk. Men and women, villagers, appear, briefly passing through the headlights. An old man, short, friendly, greets me, shaking my hand. “Me hungery, me hungery,” he says, still smiling. I tell him I’m sorry, I have nothing; he laughs, shakes his head, wanders off. The road is pitched in darkness. I stand 20 feet behind the bus, staring at the stars, imagining myself all alone here, lost in the world. What a strange thing, this 21st-century soul. Bound to the earth. Wheeling around on our curious revolutions. Lassoed to an indifferent galaxy. Confronted on all sides by cosmic laughter. And believing ourselves somehow noble and brave and good.
Soon two bright headlights – an empty bus, sent to retrieve us and take us the rest of the way. We transfer our bags, settle into our seats. Everyone has arranged themselves in the same order from the first bus, and for some reason, this surprises and impresses me greatly. My window seat is vacant, waiting for my tired behind. I sit, bury my head in my hands, try to will the day to completion. There are too many twists in the road to nod off. Dark, silent towns pass in the night. We reach Ruhengeri – hotels, cheerful and welcoming; bars strung with Christmas lights. The moon comes out from behind the clouds. Mist fills the valleys. Mountains silhouetted against the light of the sky. This day has had some magic, too. The bus stops in villages left off the maps. People depart, walk stoically into the darkness. Men tug at their collars. Women kick off their heels, hoping to catch some sleep. Finally, Gisenyi.
It has taken close to twelve hours to get here from Cyangugu. Looked at differently: after nearly two weeks, I’m right back where I started. I slog down the road, surrounded by street kids – they are more aggressive, more demanding after dark. At my cheery little auberge, a group of young ex-pats, aid workers, most likely, looking blonde and convivial by the bar. A beer and a good lay – did Stanley have such simple hopes on his great African expeditions? But then the day’s final indignity: the rooms are all booked. As if Rwanda has prepared one last kick in the ass to send me into the Congo. I haul my bags back down the road, ignoring the catcalls of the street kids, thinking uncharitable thoughts about these goddamn orphans. A shifty youth greets me at the door of the grim Gisenyi City View Hotel, as disreputable a place as you’ll find in this lakeside resort town. We have to wake the manager, asleep in what will soon be my bed. He emerges from the room, sleepy, shirtless, smelling of booze. I am prepared to sleep in the garden if I have to. Then the lights go out.
I take out my flashlight, muttering, bickering, insulted that I’m paying close to fifteen U.S. bucks for this stuffy, wretched room. Briskly the sheets are changed, tidings for the night – good or otherwise – are exchanged. This long day is finally over. It’s approaching midnight as my head hits the pillow. It’s practically tomorrow already.