Tag Archives: goma

What is my per diem?

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

To start at the beginning, click here.

Day 15 – April 4

Easter Sunday. The rains are heavy. Yesterday I’d told myself I would be up early, I would find a church to see the Congolese in all their Easter finery. Now it’s not an option, it sounds like the Great Flood is rising outside my doorway. In all fairness, I’m grateful: I need the rest. I listen to the rain at eight, at nine, stretched out luxuriously under the covers. It really is a beautiful bed. At close to ten I get up, go through my sluggish morning ablutions. The rain is still steady, pattering on the roof. Doga will not be an option this morning; nor will the lakefront terrace at the Ihuzi. Instead I have a coffee in the hotel restaurant – plastic floral arrangements, carvings of giraffes, of Nubian women. The tablecloths and curtains are like an old lady’s sitting room’s. The news from Kinshasa is blaring at a high volume. I have a single packet of bitter, Star brand instant coffee from Uganda, for which I’m charged an unreasonable two bucks.

The sun has suddenly, stubbornly appeared in the sky. The streets are empty. I had hoped, after the over-indulgences of these past two nights, to wander around the city, have some spontaneous encounters with more Jerusalems and Patricks and Lazares. But today, Sunday morning, the city is listless. Bored attendants sit outside a few clothing shops – the rest are closed. There’s hardly any traffic on the Sake road. The motos cruise past, solitary, or in pairs – tomorrow they’ll be in unruly packs, fighting through the traffic. A Sunday-morning mood suddenly comes over me – a desire to sit by the lake, read a book, eye the Italians by the swimming pool. On days like this, I truly believe I am the World’s Worst Traveler. What good could come of a lazy day of schwarma and American fiction? It’s too late, I am decided. I stop for Lebanese takeaway, double-fisting kafta sandwiches to the delight and distress of the other clientele. Then I am on my way to the lake, prepared to waste a full day in a recuperative stupor.

I also have some serious mulling to do. In the next day or two I’ll have to make a decision about Bukavu, to which my eight-day tourist visa doesn’t extend. This is its own brand of comedy: each province of the Congo is apparently a separate bureaucratic fiefdom, subject to its own visas, taxes and levies. My North Kivu visa will do me no good in South Kivu; for that I will have to buy a month-long visa de voyage for the entire Congo, which, as I already learned at the border, would set me back a whopping 150 bucks. It’s a steep price – steeper than I had planned. Still, I suspect I’ll regret it later if I decide to pass on Bukavu. Chances are that money will just get pissed away at Doga or Coco Jamboo, or at a string of farewell dinners in Kigali. Even before I’ve made my decision I’m calculating costs in my notebook. Once these mental preparations have been made, I know the next step Monday morning will be a visit to the immigration office.

The Sunday scene at the Ihuzi is lively – the pool is crowded, the pampered children of the Congolese elite are causing a ruckus in their plastic flotation devices. So much for a quiet, reflective coffee by the lake. I scan the bar for familiar faces, then again for attractive ones. An Italian girl, I think, with an older couple; another, sitting by herself with a salad. I find a shady table by the lake and order a beer. The water is calm, glassy; harmless puffs of cloud sit over the hills of Rwanda. There’s not a hint of rain in the sky. It’s turning out to be a beautiful day.

Looking toward Rwanda

If you spend enough time around the Ihuzi, if you have a knack for languages, there is probably much to be learned about the dynamics of eastern Congo. There are the Congolese with their expensive, monogrammed luggage sets, gold on their fingers and wrists. And the pilots – Russian, Ukrainian, Serb – who spend their days on perilous missions into the bush. Many are Cold War veterans: 20 years ago they might have been flying Soviet weapons into Angola, Mozambique. Now they are flying humanitarian missions into Beni, and diamonds out of Kisangani. The stress and the pay are high. On the weekend you see them by the pool, guzzling beer, manhandling young Congolese girls, their ruddy Slavic faces lit with mirth.

There are the aid workers, too – even now with their laptops and spreadsheets, preparing reports, briefings. And the Chinese – like some nocturnal species, you know they exist, but impossible to spot. They live in seclusion, pre-fab enclaves in the bush, maybe, protected by small armies. Their faces are lined – a line for each care and sorrow of exile. Two men sit by the water with fishing rods cast into the lake, staring silently at the surface. Maybe they are thinking of fishing trips in northern China – some tranquil spot ringed by mountains and myths, far from the chaos of Congo.

Suddenly, a familiar face – Joseph, the Brit from Kinshasa, arriving with a friend. Here is another of his Kinshasa connections – Jean Marc, French-Canadian, working with another international NGO. He has just arrived to establish himself in Goma; they are both marveling at the differences from Kinshasa, the few hassles, the quality of life – and, of course, the sun-blessed climate. They swap stories about life in Congo – the cons and costs of Kinshasa, the nightlife, the bribes and scandals. Their eyes are lit with mischievous mirth. Recently the British army was invited to train Congolese soldiers, says Jean Marc. They had budgeted $3 per soldier per day for lunch – more than enough for a meal of fou-fou and beans, maybe even goat meat. The generals were outraged. They refused to accept anything less than $5 a head – enough, says Jean Marc, to feed the soldiers and ensure there was something left over to skim. The soldiers would not accept $3, said the generals; I’m sure the soldiers themselves were far more willing. The British, instead, reneged on the deal. The theft was too brazen. “And then they’re going to say, ‘The British won’t feed our soldiers,’” says Jean Marc. Another story making the rounds in Kinshasa: a program was set up to register the police officers in each of the Congo’s provinces. There was international funding, biometric scanning. A trial run was set up in Equateur province. At the final tally they found 6,000 officers in the flesh but 10,000 on the payroll – 4,000 ghost workers whose salaries were being divvied up among local officials. The donors were outraged, the program was put on hold. But have you heard, says Joseph, that another group has been contracted to continue the program? They would do it at twice the cost, their method was flawed – but the executives had close ties to members of the ruling party.

It was a typical story. Last year Jean Marc had been traveling in the Central African Republic, assessing the possibility of setting up a project for his organization there. The country was a mess: the government was corrupt, they had no control outside the capital, Bangui. Militias ran the countryside. But Jean Marc found them easy to work with: they were eager for outside help, had not yet learned, in a country with so few aid groups on the ground, how to milk the system. Congolese officials had been dealing with humanitarian agencies, donor countries, the Bretton Woods institutions, for years. You couldn’t even come here to offer free training programs for soldiers, police, local officials. “The first question is, ‘What is my per diem?’” says Jean Marc.

Three Russians in Speedos come trotting by, water dripping from their shoulders. Two go plunging into the lake. A third stops, begins to flirt with a young Congolese woman. They are already familiar – she hesitates, she is wearing makeup and heels, he’s threatening to toss her into the water. They laugh, he isn’t serious. He puts a hand on her shoulder and another on her waist, as if to lead her in a waltz. The others climb out, shivering, shaking the water from their ears. “Tomorrow they will fly to Bunia or Dungu,” says Jean Marc – two of the Congo’s hot spots. Today they have no cares: the life of a bush pilot. Joseph says he won’t go anywhere near a Western bar on Wednesday night. He flies out Thursday morning; he doesn’t want to know what his pilots were up to the night before.

Meanwhile, somewhere in Goma.

We finish our beers, and Joseph invites me to visit his organization’s site in town. It is on the city’s outskirts – past Cirezi, bumping along the same rough road that took me to the MSF party on Friday. We get lost; even Joseph has a hard time finding the place, down Goma’s bumpy back roads. We spot a young boy hobbling across the jagged volcanic rocks on crutches – “One of ours,” says Joseph, with a self-deprecating laugh – and we know we’re on the right track. Finally we find the gate; a boy wearing a leg brace walks stiffly through the door. Inside a dozen youths, mostly polio victims, are playing in the yard. Boys on crutches are kicking a soccer ball around. Another, the muscles of his back atrophied, crawls across the porch on all fours. They are laughing, high-spirited. Joseph beams with paternal pride, calling to them from across the yard.

Pascal, a handsome man in his thirties, one of the first Stand Proud members in Goma, greets us and shows us around. There is a workshop on site where the association’s members build leg braces – some for their own use, some for other polio victims in Goma, some for the NGO Handicapped International. They buy scrap metal from the market, he explains, then hammer and twist the braces into shape, screw on joints so they bend at the knees. At the bottom the braces clip into shoes specially made for each member. Pascal pulls up his own pant leg to show the brace attached to his shoe. Next we are introduced to another man, the physical therapist. There are six-, seven-hour long sessions for the members three days a week, teaching them how to walk on their braces. (There is weight training, too, he says, gesturing to an old weight machine in the corner.) It is painful rehabilitation; some, says Joseph, give up on the exercises. Many are at an age where they’ve already learned to live with their handicaps. Their muscles have atrophied, their limbs are distorted. It is easier to cope with their disabilities, as they have for years, than to start from the beginning. In Kinshasa, says Joseph, there are personality clashes between wheelchair-bound handicaps and the members of Stand Proud. They have spent months and years going through a difficult rehabilitation process, reclaiming the use of their limbs. They look down on the men and women in wheelchairs, he says. They think they’ve given up.

Next door is a wooden clapboard house, sooty and weather-stained, the floors dusty concrete. Here is where Stand Proud’s members – thirty-some-odd, their ages ranging from five to 25 – live. Pascal leads us through the living room, crowded, full of excited shouts. A boy sits against the wall, his legs encased in plaster, a rosary around his neck. He is genial, he smiles and wants to shake my hand. Next a bedroom – a single bed, a clothesline across the room, shirts hanging from nails in the wall. Later, Pascal explains, when there is money, there will be two more beds squeezed into the room. Another bedroom – just a foam mattress on the floor. Most of the bedrooms are similarly furnished. Outside two youths – one on crutches, the other bent like a car jack – are fussing with a pot over a charcoal brazier. They are preparing fou-fou for dinner – a maize meal porridge, like the Kenyan ugali. Joseph asks what the meal times are – he has been full of questions, this is an important field visit for him. Pascal says there is lunch at noon, dinner between seven and eight. And breakfast? There is no money for breakfast, he says. Sometimes they have some tea. Joseph listens and nods.

I have complicated feelings through all of this. Certainly the place is in rough shape: it is hard to imagine all those bodies sharing tattered foam mattresses, or, as Pascal says, as some prefer, sleeping on the porch. And yet this place, for all its shortcomings, offers a better life than most of these boys would find at home. Most no doubt come from large families; in those poor households, difficult choices have to be made. There is never enough money to send all the children to school. And so parents gamble – they decide which child has the best chance to succeed. The rest are left to work around the house, in the fields, in the city. Probably these boys would get no education if they were left with their families. But Stand Proud is paying their school fees; most, smart, determined, are among the best in their classes. On the porch two older boys – handsome, confident youths – are kicking a soccer ball between them, keeping it in the air. I have to ask Joseph if they’re Stand Proud members; only when I look closely can I see the outlines of the braces worn beneath their pants. Their steps are smooth, easy. They look no different than anybody else.

As we’re leaving, we poke our heads into the living room to say goodbye. The boys are sitting on chairs and benches, lying on the floor; their attention is fixed to a small TV against the wall. TP Mazembe, the Congolese powerhouse, and APR, from Kigali, are playing the second leg of their tie in the African Champions League. Two weeks ago, I watched APR score a huge upset in Kigali. Today, everything is on the line.

We’re on our way to the gate when we hear cheers, ecstatic cries. TP Mazembe has scored. We look back and see the boys leaping to their feet, bodies contorted, twisted at odd angles, fists pumping in the air. The living room is like a carnival, the day, the hour for them has become historic. As we shut the gate, we can still see them through the doorway, hopping madly on their feet.

Back in town we visit Heal Africa, Goma’s best health clinic, where Stand Proud’s members have their surgeries performed. The organization has an arrangement with the hospital – the surgeries are deeply discounted – but Joseph wants to tour the facility for himself. Again he has detailed questions – where were the plasters prepared? did Stand Proud bring food for its members from the house, or cook it here? who was funding the place? – and all the while he listens intently, nods his head. Later in the week he’ll be meeting with the administrators, hoping to strengthen their partnership; there would be a meeting with Handicap International, too, to see if they might be able to help him secure more donor funds. Much of Joseph’s time was spent like this – scrambling, cajoling, searching for partnerships, funds. It was constantly an uphill climb. Stand Proud had done much for its members in Goma – yet still they had no breakfast, they slept on the floor.

It’s been a long afternoon. After our visit to Heal Africa, we drag our heels to Doga for coffee. The caffeine gives us a much-needed boost. Before long we’ve moved on to beers. Kate joins us just after seven – the mood shift is almost tangible. Joseph, I can see, is putting his best foot forward – to be 22 again! Kate is just passing by for a drink, though; when she leaves an hour later, Joseph’s spirits deflate. Suddenly we’re both restless; a female presence has thrown off the evening’s balance. We’re looking to move the evening along, to find some diversion, but we’re both strangers here. We run through our contacts – nothing. We have dinner at Coco Jamboo, the night has an air of winding down. By the time we get the bill I’m beat, I’ve spent the last of my money, and we’re forced to concede the night is through. Joseph is sullen as he gets on his moto. Tomorrow is the start of a short and busy week. He was hoping this night would turn out better.

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First, you must buy a chicken.

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

To start at the beginning, click here.

Day 14 – April 3

My 32nd birthday – the morning of it, the daylight hours – starts with headaches and regret. The usual drinker’s remorse. At half-past eight my head is throbbing, my tongue is fuzzy. It’s been awhile since my last round of heavy boozing. Only as the cobwebs clear does it start to make sense: the grand Mützigs at Petit Bruxelles, at least three stiff drinks – rum and Coke! – at the MSF house. This would be a morning best spent in bed. But my time here in Goma is short – the thought of a wasted morning, a wasted day, stings my conscience. Slowly I swing my legs from the bed; the rest of my body catches up with them. Footsteps outside the door, voices, sweeping. This is Africa. Even when the night ends late, the days begin early.

What I want most is a quick shower and a cup of coffee to start the day. But the bathroom is like a construction site, dirt and grit everywhere. Slowly I negotiate a way to the toilet, wash my face, brush my teeth. In the corner is a 35-gallon drum filled with water; there is nothing from the taps. I fill a bucket for my shower – these ablutions take ages. One by one I wash my limbs, my chest, I shampoo and rinse my hair. It’s almost ten by the time I finally leave the hotel, sluggishly plodding into the day.

It is a beautiful morning; again I give silent praise for the miracle of this Great Lakes climate. The day is brisk, dry, harmless clouds piled in the sky. Of course, this is the rainy season: it won’t last. A few hours from now torrential rains will be pounding the tin roofs of Goma, running in dark, sludgy rivers by the side of the road. Until the afternoon, though, I can count on this sunlight to lift my spirits. And already, walking along the clamor of the Sake road, I feel energized, revived.

A man pushes his chukudu along the Sake road

Coffee at Chez Doga is becoming a morning ritual; I’m not sure why. The coffee is burnt, the servers are indifferent. Still, the fresh air and caffeine are both doing me good. Overhead the planes pass – Antonovs, fat-bellied cargo planes. All day you hear the drone of their engines, you see them carrying their unknown cargo – coltan? gold? guns? – back and forth over the lake. Some fly so low on the approach that they rattle the windows. Instinctively, I find myself ducking my head. The airport in Goma has witnessed more than a few tragedies; the safety record in the Congo’s aviation history is catastrophic.

My headache is only getting worse – the coffee was a mistake. I have a hard time staying hydrated under the best of circumstances; this morning, I can practically feel my brain and liver cells gasping for water. The high mood leaving the hotel didn’t last; my spirits are low. I’m feeling grumpy and indecisive. I can’t decide if I should have lunch, guzzle more water, or go back to bed. These are the bad travel days – the ones where there’s nothing you want so much as an aspirin, a sofa, and a pile of DVDs. I have chicken schwarma at Kivu Market while the morning wastes away. It’s after noon and the rain clouds are starting to blow in. I buy paracetemol at a pharmacy and another liter of water. I buy another chicken schwarma. Some masochistic part of me – the writer, or the New Yorker, or both – decides caffeine is the only way to make it through the day. I flag down a moto on the street, negotiate a price. I make it to the Isuhi Hotel as the rain begins to pour.

On the back of a moto

The place is like a country club. Cranes strut across the lawn. Three expats come prancing in from the rain holding tennis rackets. Well-dressed families and their precocious kids sit over $15 plates of steak and frites. I order a bottle of water. Chelsea and Manchester United are playing on the big screen, drawing the usual crowds to the bar. The reception is terrible – probably the storm is wreaking havoc on the satellite dish. The flickering images make my head feel worse. I stare at the lake, gray and choppy, and listen to the planes buzzing overhead.

Probably I would be happy here – that’s what I’m thinking. Goma, this oddball town – in so many ways, an advertisement for all that’s wrong with how the West and Africa intersect – I think I could be happy here. The energy, the dark comedy of Congolese life on the one hand; balanced with the expat life, the swank house parties, tennis by the lake, wringing one’s hands over the fate of the Congo over $12 brochettes. (Goma, I suspect, has better per-capita dining options than any city in Africa.) Probably I could fall for an Italian, a pretty French girl, who heads off in the morning in a flak jacket and wears lipstick at night. Intimate dinners at Coco’s, or Le Chalet. Radioing the driver when we’re ready to head back to the villa.

Back at the hotel, my African life. The parking lot is muddy, there are puddles outside my door. Powerful smells from the bathroom. Still, mine is a cozy room. The bed is luxurious. Again I sprawl out, stare at the ceiling: I have time to kill. I’m meeting Kate at Doga for a birthday drink, but not for two hours. Twenty minutes pass. I’m afraid to doze off – I might not make it out of bed. I dress instead. I’ll have an early drink, I decide, fill up pages of my notebook. There is a barbecue on the lake later tonight – an interesting scene, says Kate. A Belgian family, they’ve lived in the Congo for years. I picture a fussy old man in white linen, gin and tonics on the lawn. Stories of the old Belgian Congo – they call Kinshasa Leopoldville; Stanleyville instead of Kisangani. The casual bigotry of colonials who have watched the Congolese train veer off the tracks. I hope I can make it through the night. I hope I can make it to the bar without getting mud on my linen pants.

At Doga a large bouncer is already manning the door. Behind his burly head is a sign, a picture of an X’ed out assault weapon. “NO WEAPON,” it says. “ARMES INTERDITES.” You do not want some drunk and unruly MONUC soldiers, I suspect, getting trigger-happy around the whores.

It’s after six when Kate arrives, carrying a colorful woven bag. Très congolaise. It’s been more than two years since we met in Nairobi, but we’ve stayed in touch, we know the broad outlines of one another’s lives. She has been in Goma for six months – the time flies, she’s finished her contract, she’ll be flying home to South Africa in a few weeks. The next step is a question mark. She’s been short-listed for a job in Kabul, something in communications, and she has a fingers-crossed sort of hopefulness one doesn’t typically associate with Afghanistan. If not that, who knows? She’s had a good life in Goma – her employer, a large aid organization, treats its staff like pampered children – and her job here has crystallized her plans to stay in the development field. And me – what about me? I’ll be in South Africa in three weeks’ time, starting the next chapter of my oddball life. I have a travel story about Joburg to write for The Washington Post, and we talk about possible angles – there are so many angles. Kate sits there like a prospective employer, scribbling notes. She has some people for me to look up in Joburg – and in Goma, too. Here is the name of a filmmaker, she says. Here is the number for a conservationist with the WWF.

She phones her driver and soon he pulls up – we have a hard time finding him at first, there are so many SUVs idling outside. The road to her compound is like all roads in Goma, rough, jagged heaps of volcanic rock. The truck rocks from side to side. We pass an army barracks – wretched camps surrounded by barbed wire-crowned walls – and then her house, bright and festive, glowing in the dark like an ocean liner at sea.

The place is a palace: ten-roomed, towering, ceilings like Versailles. It is a monument, too, to African kitsch – all sconces and chandeliers, animal prints, elaborate balustrades. The tenants are well looked-after – the cleaning lady, the cook, a gardener tending to the lawns – and it’s easy to see why Kate found her life here so appealing. What a different life I would have, settled in a place like Goma. Thinking of my miserly room at Cirezi, the shared toilet, the daily privations of my traveling life.

The group is ready and off we go, bumping again over these apocalyptic Goma roads. I am happily squeezed beside Lea, a pretty French blonde with eyes the size of dinner plates. She was the girl described to me as “hardcore” last night; her base, in Rutshuru, is in an especially volatile area. Every two weeks she comes back to Goma for much-needed decompression (and shopping, too: later she’ll describe how her money – rarely spent in Rutshuru – gets frittered away on imported cheese and wine and DVDs). There are few expats in Rutshuru; she has a 7:30 curfew. If she meets a colleague for drinks, she says, it has to be at 5 o’clock. By 7 she’s hurrying home, spending a drunken evening on the sofa watching last year’s blockbusters.

We reach the house and the gate swings open and it’s like arriving in Xanadu. The driveway is lined with palms – from where we are, we can’t even see the house. We’re all of us oohing and aahing as we crunch along the gravel – even by Goma standards, it seems this is a special outing. Suddenly the house, ranch-style, lit up, with floor-to-ceiling windows: less Congo than Malibu. The rumor is that the house has already been sold to the wife of President Kabila, who was looking for a second (third? fourth?) home by the lake. Beside it is a kidney-shaped swimming pool, attractively lit from within. “It’s like The O.C.,” someone says. Through the windows we glimpse a living room with expensive track lighting, stylish furnishings no doubt imported from Copenhagen, Tokyo, Milan. This is not what I’d expected. From Kate’s description of the family, I was expecting a white-washed villa, terra cotta roof tiles, a genial sloshing of drinks on the lawn with cousin Leopold, just in from Brussels.

Instead there is down-tempo house music, handsome men in open-collared shirts, an attractive blonde. Bruce – the nephew of the homeowner, Kate’s current love interest – is a mountain of 22-year-old muscle, sweet, baby-faced – by all appearances, a good kid. Uncle Pascal, he says, is vacationing in Belgium. I can see why he’d want to get away, I say, taking in the lake, the house, the jet ski, the swimming pool, with an expansive gesture. Bottles of wine on the bar – South African, French. The family, says Bruce, only arrived two decades ago. They were not old-time colonials, after all. Uncle Pascal works ambiguously in mechanics – “Uncle Pascal’s garage,” said with deprecating humor, will be a running joke tonight. Bruce himself was born in the Congo; he left when he was six. The family was here during all the troubles of the early-‘90s – riots in ’93, Rwandan refugees in ’94. And then, of course, the war against Mobutu. His family had to be evacuated in ’96, when all the expats were being shuttled to Gisenyi. According to Kate, his parents were the last expats to leave Goma. Somehow, they hadn’t gotten word of the evacuation; they watched the planes and helicopters flying over the lake from their lawn. Bruce’s dad – a handsome, athletic, stylish man with close-cropped gray hair and a mischievous glint in his eye – strikes me as just the sort of guy who could miss an evacuation. He is free-spirited, a dancer. I can picture him finishing off a bottle of red, watching the choppers, wondering about all the fuss.

The place is filling up – more of the same faces from last night. Expat life in Goma is, I think, like a big, happy, incestuous family. The grill is crowded with sausages, the table full of imported condiments. A woman next to me hears I am a journalist. She is the communications manager for Virunga National Park – she is used to my ilk. Last year poaching was a hot story, she says, the gorillas being killed for their meat. The conservationists were up in arms, the NGOs. The story practically sold itself, she says. Now she is hoping to get some press for the volcano. This time it isn’t just scientists, volcanologists excited by Nyiragongo, she says. The volcano has opened again to tourists. For a year and a half, the security situation was too tense; but now, since March 1, the tourists were allowed to climb it again, to see the lava lake, to camp on its slopes. “We’ve already sold more than 60 permits,” she says, almost surprised herself. I tell her that a friend climbed the volcano just two weeks ago – the pictures were astonishing. I don’t tell her about the brutal seven-hour slog, the rain and hail that are keeping me from going. Or the problem of the $200 permit. She tells me I should go if I have the chance. I tell her I’d love to. The sausages are delicious.

It is a good party, more low-key than last night’s – everyone seems to be in a state of permanent recovery here, shaking off nights past. I imagine Goma is a very good posting for the world’s aid workers. More guests arrive: Congolese men, handsome, well-dressed, strutting across the dancefloor with their chests out, like the prow of a ship; girls in short skirts and high heels. Jackie, an American, the blonde I noticed when I walked in, says she has been in Goma for three years, moving between jobs. An air of permanent transition about her. The life is good, she has a boyfriend, there’s always a party. Tomorrow someone will have a barbecue – at Pascal’s, or Cristof’s. “Not us,” she says, shaking her attractive blonde locks. “We’re still tired from last week.”

On the periphery of the dancefloor, with Lea. A pity to think of her wasting away in Rutshuru. She says she’s starved for company, I’m welcome to visit. I would like that, for all the obvious reasons. And to get out of Goma, too, to see some of the countryside. There are baroque security procedures for me to go through, she says, forms and waivers for me to sign. The situation there is unpredictable – just a few weeks ago, bandits swept through the city at night, looting – but she enjoys the life, she enjoys the people. Always demands for money, but in a soft, subtle way. A man has had a son, and says the day calls for a celebration; it is implicit that Lea will be buying the beer. There’s no way to sustain it, she says; everyone has eight, nine children, there are births every week. Generosity has its limits.

Recently she wanted to buy a cat for company. There was a man in town who kept a few. She asked her guard to approach him on her behalf. “First, you must buy a chicken,” he said, as if it were the most natural thing: to buy a cat, first a chicken.

We make an early night of it. It’s just after one as we pile sleepily into the car. The streets are plunged in darkness. Across the city, Nyiragongo glows. Next to the hotel, Sin City is going even louder than last night. Dozens of moto drivers waiting, glaring. I rattle my first against the gate. Stephen, a Frenchman, another coworker of Kate’s, leans his head out the car window, concerned. Finally the askari, sleepy and suspicious, opens the door. Instantly he smiles, warms – he knows he will get 500 francs for his trouble. I wave to the others and vanish into the darkness of Cirezi. Music rattles the windowpanes, the sound of laughter, bottles breaking on cement floors. I’ve been told Sin City gets rough after hours, but by the sound of things, it’s pretty rough at all hours. I wish I had the strength and courage to explore. Instead I lie in bed, listening to the syrupy voice of Koffi Olomide, the shouting of young restless men, the cries of the whores, the clamor shaking the walls with such force that the room seems to be swaying, until finally, in its own strange way, the party rocks me to sleep.

This is not the real Africa.

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

To start at the beginning, click here.

Day 13 – April 2

Despite the thin, musty foam mattress at the Gisenyi City View, I sleep like a prince. I feel fresh and revived in the morning, refusing, even, to let the scuzziness of the bathroom get to me. It is a brilliant day, the air sharp, Nyiragongo’s blue-gray profile looming over the market. At the auberge, in its cheerful garden, coffee and a much-needed plate of gatogo – the banana stew I’d grown so hooked on in Burundi. It’s the most I’ve had in my stomach in nearly two days. It is the first time, too, that I’ve felt a sense of confidence all week. I know Goma, I know this border. Congo doesn’t scare me today.

A last glimpse of Gisenyi

My bags are packed. I make a quick bank run – my stash of U.S. dollars has been woefully depleted this week – and then I am at the border, clearing Rwandan customs, and finally – finally! – stepping into the Congo.

What a difference, what briskness, after the hassles of Bukavu. The traffic all day – UN staffers, humanitarians, casual tourists, journalists – is such that the sight of a white face in Goma doesn’t excite Pavlovian impulses. No lengthy interrogations, no shameless shakedowns. I hand my passport and $35 to the official. She smiles. I wait. Another group of tourists is nearby, chatting amiably. We could be at any border crossing in the world. A man approaches, dour, a face full of flesh. “What is your job?” he asks. (English!) “I am a student.” “You are here to do some research?” Sure! Why not? “I am,” I say. “I am doing research on the Great Lakes.” Not entirely false. He nods and walks off. Minutes pass. An American friend, Rachel – an aid worker in Goma – arrives with her passport in hand. She is spending the day in Gisenyi – as easy as a trip to the corner store. She begins to dish out advice to the other tourists – what company to see the gorillas with, how much to climb the volcano. She hands them a business card for the tour company she prefers. Quite a useful one, that Rachel. I’m called inside – another short consultation over the length of my stay. I ask about Bukavu, and the woman’s eyes go wide. The eight-day visa, it seems, is only good for North Kivu province – lucky that I asked. If I want to go to Bukavu, she says, I’ll have to pay for the full, month-long Congolese visa – less than the $300 asking price at Rusizi, but still, a hefty hundred and fifty bucks. This will require some consideration. I thank the woman – so helpful, these North Kivu Congolese! – and see Rachel off to Gisenyi. Then I am slinging my bag over my shoulder, waving off the money-changers, and trudging my way into Goma.

This is a place that excites powerful and complex memories. I had walked this same road five months ago, had come with Steve Terrell – good-hearted, self-righteous, oh-so-American Steve! – a sort of freelance do-gooder who had been bringing medicine to a group of IDPs living in a squalid camp outside of Goma. We had met in Kigali; I was interviewing him to replace me in the house I was about to vacate in Remera. He had told me a tragic tale of lost IDPs – 6,000 Congolese, he said, neglected by the international community – and the next day we were in the back of the Virunga bus, racing toward the border. Steve was on a mercy mission; my reasons were more ambiguous. This might be The Story, I told myself – the one that would finally propel me from the bottom-feeding ranks of travel writers into the world of Serious Reporting. (Oh, the Congo would show me a thing or two.) On the bus Steve warned me and Lindsay, a roommate from Kigali, that the border would be overwhelming. It would be best to get behind him, he said. I gave him a frank look. I was full of anxieties before that trip, to be sure; but in my time, let’s face it, I’d seen a few things myself.

In Goma, just past the border, the money-changers swarmed. Holding their bricks of Congolese notes, colorful bits of play money. Steve wanted to handle the negotiations, but he had the exchange rates all wrong. He was making a mess of things – some savior! Then the moto drivers surrounding us, young, aggressive, in the manner of their kind. Steve’s warnings were ill-founded – I’d seen this sort of thing before. Then we were barreling through the dust and grit and free-wheeling derby of downtown Goma. The IDP camp would indeed be tragic, but this – the noise, the traffic, the energetic hustle and chaos – this was something to marvel at.

The IDPs had pitched their ragged tents in a field behind a church. They used plastic tarps and garbage bags and canvas sacks emblazoned with humanitarian logos to build these clumsy shelters. UNHCR, UNICEF, USAID. A strong gust of wind might have blown the whole place away. Steve introduced me to the camp leaders – again, these rigid hierarchies of Congolese society. There was an IDP president, a vice-president, a treasurer. Solemnly they took us around the camp, explained that the situation was dire. These people had fled fighting near their villages in North Kivu; they had come from Masisi, from Walikale, they had walked with whatever modest possessions they could carry, holding their children’s hands. The international community had abandoned them, they said. They were barred from the UN camps. They had no food or water. Steve, nodding, as grave as a crucifixion scene, carried out rudimentary check-ups on the young and old. He promised to bring eye drops for a young boy with a severe infection. On the bus back to Kigali, we were all on the verge of tears.

Now, five months later, I flag down a moto, balance my duffel bag on one leg. We zip through the streets, my driver chatting amiably in a French I only partly understand. Past the old ex-pat haunts – Chez Doga, Coco Jamboo – past the Soleil Palace, the hotel/restaurant/nightclub I stayed in when I returned to Goma a week after visiting with Steve. I had brought my friend and translator, Prudent, a journalism student at the university in Butare. It was forty bucks a night and I was on the tightest of budgets, I had almost nothing, and so there I was, sharing a bed with my translator while American hip-hop rattled the windowpanes. There was no running water, the electricity was sporadic. The living room was furnished with the gaudy opulence – the chintz curtains and gold fixtures and oversized leather sofas – of the African nouveau riche.

'Mr. Ambassador, how nice of you to come! I've been expecting you.'

After four days I was desperate. I was hemorrhaging money and the story was going nowhere. The 6,000 IDPs, it turned out, were more like 600. The Norwegian Refugee Council said that no, actually, they were being fed. The UN said they had refused to move into UN camps. The Congolese government said many weren’t IDPs at all – they were residents of Goma, trying to take advantage of the humanitarian aid being offered. And besides, they said, the security had improved: the IDPs would be sent back to their villages with a small living stipend, as soon as the government could prove they were who they said they were.

We were running in circles. And still my heart ached for these people – the sick old man with his frail, wheezing chest, the little boy whose rheumy eyes might never see again. We watched a middle-aged man, a father, making doors out of scrap metal. He sold them to the other IDPs for 400 or 500 Congolese francs – 50 cents for half a day’s work. Crouched outside his tent, hammering at rusted five-gallon cans of USAID beans and cooking oil. I knew there was a story in all of that, but what was the story? All I could think about was how much money we were burning through. I apologized and put Prudent on a bus back to Kigali. And for the next few days I wandered the city on my own, relieved of the burden of reporting a story I didn’t understand, marveling at the sheer improbabilities and incongruities of life in the Congo.

Dodging traffic on the back of a moto

Now my driver is whirling us around town, the road buckled and potholed, the traffic swerving, crawling, jockeying for some small advantage. Yes, here you know you are a long way from Rwanda. The dozens of SUVs – UN, MSF, IRC, NRC, ICRC, the whole alphabet soup – the police pickups, the lorries full of gaunt shivering soldiers, the perilous weaving motos, the wooden chukudu scooters, piled high with every imaginable cargo. The dust is thick – it stings your eyes. And an endless procession on the roadside: women with buckets of onions on their heads, barefoot children, men with briefcases, people selling, shouting, hustling, living. Oh yes, this is Goma – this is a brave new world.

At a fork in the road we turn left, darting through oncoming traffic. We stop outside a small hotel, the wall painted: Hotel Cirezi. I had called at the border; they had single rooms for twenty U.S. bucks a night. I pay the driver and heave my bag to the reception desk. The hotel is rundown but, it seems, well looked-after – that peculiar African ability to ensure that even if the paint is chipped, the windows cracked, the roof rusted and weather-beaten, there is still someone near at hand, endlessly sweeping the floors. My room is a stiff queen-sized bed and a wobbly desk and a wooden rack over which I drape some shirts. There are pegs on the wall, and I hang my linen pants. It is homely – homely enough.

Moto driver, outside the hotel

Hotel Cirezi: putting the bed in bedroom!

Outside the volcano is hidden by clouds: a storm is approaching. You can see the black sheets of rain in the distance. A dark, tumultuous mood, suitable for a city built atop black volcanic rock. With the low gray clouds sitting over this ashy landscape, you’re reminded of certain unsavory passages from Revelations. But the comparison doesn’t hold up: there is so much life – too much life – on the streets. We’re a long way from the dark days of 1994, when Rwandan refugees poured across the border, and a cholera outbreak took tens of thousands of lives; or 2002, when a volcanic eruption sent rivers of lava flowing through the city, displacing thousands; even 2008, when General Nkunda and his rebels threatened to take Goma by force. These things, you want to think, are fading from proximate threat to memory. Something like peace and stability has taken hold in Goma since – even as the war in the hills waxes and wanes. It was something I heard over and over the last time I was here: slowly, somehow, life is getting better.

Walking down the Sake road, thumbing texts into my cell phone, I dodge the traffic that has spilled in all its chaotic abundance onto the roadside. New shops are being built, trenches dug to lay a new water main (this drawing dozens of idle, curious youths). Near the university, an old man is stooping and pulling up greens in a grassy lot. Already he’s filled his plastic bag – this wily old cat, spying which of the dusty shoots might be good with a bit of salt after a long boil. Strange to think of my father here in Goma – my father, with his taste for wild dandelions growing in the baseball fields and public parks of Brooklyn. What must he look like, I always wondered, to a stranger passing by?

Near the roundabout, now, and the first cold, hard drops beginning to fall. Suddenly the sound of music – a marching band, a full ensemble of trumpets and tubas and drums and trombones, the horn section braying, swaying from side to side. Women carrying a banner: “Campagne d’Evangelation,” it says, from something called the “Federation Urbaine des Femmes.” And here they are, dozens of women in bright dresses and headscarves and t-shirts bearing the logos of their sponsors. A group passes with hymnals, laughing, singing; they smile at me and wave. Now the rain is picking up, and the women are trotting, trying to keep the tune.

A curtain of rain in the distance

I take a moto and just barely beat the rain to Chez Doga. Inside, just a few tables taken – a group in UN vests having lunch; a few Congolese sitting in a dark corner, silent, staring at their laptops. Only at night have I seen this place draw a crowd – the French and Italian aid workers, the Pakistani peacekeepers with their bristling moustaches and slender waists, the prostitutes with their magnificent coiffures. During the day, with the tables empty and the TV playing softly by the bar, it is a depressing place to be. But then, I only have coffee on my mind; and besides, there is the rain.

I sit with my notebook and pour the burnt coffee into my mug, thinking of my last visit to Goma. Doga was an educational experience for me: the menu with its $10 pizzas and $15 steaks, aid-industry prices, with those inscrutable dollar signs which, after so much time in Africa, looked like Egyptian hieroglyphs. Dimly I began to perceive the parallel economies, the parallel worlds of Goma. (The UNOCHA compound across the street seemed to glare with significance.) Next door, the Doga shop was fully stocked with top-shelf liquor and imported condiments. At night, the prostitutes would smile at me, test the water, lose interest: there were other, older johns with UN money to burn.

Down the street, after I’ve finished my coffee, I grab a snack at Kivu Market – Lebanese-owned, bursting with abundance. They’ve expanded since last year: the electronics section is full of flat-screen TVs; in sporting goods there are nautilus machines and treadmills. Say what you will about the humanitarian industry, but in Goma, it sure is good for business. The bakery is warm and smells of fresh bread; the shelves are stocked with imported cheeses. At the checkout, a big-headed, hirsute Lebanese circles like a pit boss. Outside, groups of Congolese men sitting at tables, using the WiFi. Money-changers holding stacks of Rwandan and American and Congolese bills. Around the corner, a new takeaway joint, part of Kivu Market. In just a few days, their hummus and schwarmas will become a crippling addiction.

Back at the hotel I change out of my wet clothes, rest, write. I have plans to meet Rachel later in the evening, but it’s early, just after four – I don’t want to wear myself out with aimless wandering. Boisterous voices coming from the hotel restaurant: they are off to an early start on this Friday afternoon. I lie down, stretch. The mattress is stiff and there are two plump pillows. It really is a marvelous bed.

By the time I leave the hotel just after five the air is crisp, patches of blue between the clouds. The Sake road is bristling with energy. Rush hour in Goma has a certain dark comedy – the endless processional of Land Cruisers and Prados, antennae jumping, all the logos of the great humanitarian stew, the UN jeeps and cargo trucks and armored personnel carriers. The Congolese are unmoved by all of this. They push their chukudus, walk briskly through the traffic, get muscled to the side of the road. They part as I walk past and close around me, like a wound. Outside a supermarket, the Champs Elysee, a crowd is watching videos on a 17-inch TV screen – Kenyan gospel, merry Christians swaying on a manicured hotel lawn to the heavy accompaniment of synthesizers and keyboards. There must be two dozen bystanders watching, motionless, silent, eyes fixed to the TV. A woman with a plastic wash basin full of maize on her head. A man in an ill-fitting coat, holding a laptop bag. Others, as solemn as funeral mourners. A one-legged man hobbles over on crutches, asking for money. He has red eyes and beer on his breath and teeth like a broken Steinway. I apologize, pat my pockets for emphasis, and tell him I have nothing, nothing at all.

More faces, bumping bodies, men with deformities, women built like cement mixers. Down the road I’m joined by a youth, studious-looking, in a light blue Kangol and matching pants spattered with mud. He introduces himself as Jerusalem – it’s like meeting some latter-day prophet on these Congolese streets. We walk together, trying to keep our stride through the crowds. A man brushes us aside carrying a bookshelf on his shoulder. Jerusalem says he has been six months without a job; would I be able to help him out? “I know the UN is sometimes looking for translators,” he says. A longshot, but why not hope the white man works for the UN, has powerful connections? I tell him I’ve just arrived in Goma, I’m passing through. He takes this with no hard feeling. He has been eight years out of secondary school and has struggled to find regular employment. It is a problem for the Congolese, he says. “We have spent all this time in school, but for what?” he says. The country is adrift – there is no leadership in Kinshasa. I ask about President Kabila, and Jerusalem shakes his head. “If he was a good president, I would not be without a job,” he says.

A vote of confidence for President Kabila

The traffic is like some micro-organism, infinitely replicating and sub-dividing. Two lanes become four, four become six, six become Cannonball Run. Suddenly we’ve stepped into oncoming traffic, dodging motorbikes and minibuses. Walking in Goma is a sport. We leap across puddles and dodge chukudus. We climb piles of dark gravel and volcanic rock – up and down, up and down, like a pair of mountaineers.

Jerusalem wonders now if I can’t find a job for him somewhere else – in South Africa, or Europe, or America. His eyes glitter as he pronounces that magic word. It has the power of ritual, of incantation. He knows America, of course – from music videos, from movies. Getting him there, I explain, would be no easy task. And even in America, I say, so many are out of work. He takes this news as if it’s been delivered from the heavens on the back of a thunderbolt. “I did not think it was possible to have a white with no job,” he says. Clearly, this has been a day of wonders.

At the roundabout we exchange numbers and part. “We are together,” says Jerusalem, beginning the five kilometer walk toward his home. The clouds have parted, the volcano is out. Jerusalem dodging motorbikes and dashing through puddles. The road seems to stretch to the foot of Nyiragongo in the direction of his home; in the other, traders are packing up shop at the market, a group of young men are sitting on sofas on the side of the road. Lean men, secondary-school dropouts, perhaps, with a lifetime of shuffling between odd jobs ahead of them. A city full of Jerusalems, hoping to find that golden key: a job with the UN, some NGO, a driver or security guard or translator for an organization with bank accounts in Europe, a headquarters in London, or Geneva.

At an Internet café, someone has left a PDF open on the screen – an invoice for the shipment of a C-Class Mercedes (“wine red”) from Kobe, Japan. This, too, is part of Goma’s story.

Dusk. I have time to kill. I poke my head into Soleil Palace – a dozen guys sitting around, watching TV. Doga is empty. For all the expats here, for all the stress of the day’s work, happy-hour culture hasn’t quite made it to Goma. A crowd of Congolese, a few hundred, are making their cheery way down the road. There is laughter, singing – a church has just let out. It’s not exactly the happy hour I had in mind. I find a seat outside a shopping arcade beside the Hotel des Grands Lacs, watch the to-ing and fro-ing. A boy on a motorbike cruises beside two girls, chatting, working for a smile. The girls are uninterested; they cross the road. Standing under a tree, the unlucky suitor’s friends burst into laughter.

Soon a boy comes to join me. He is short, slight, red-eyed; he wears a Muslim prayer cap which he takes off and twists in his hands. His name is Patrick. Sitting, sighing, shaking his head, he says, “Papa,” and begins telling me about his life. He came to Goma in 1994; he left Rwanda with his family – part of the hordes of refugees who came pouring across the border after the genocide. He was only four. Now his father is gone, his mother is gone; he has three young sisters to look after. He has no work, he’s never finished school – his tale of woe is endless. Passersby slow, stare; a few other youths began to rib him – whether because he’s a little conman, or because they all know his misfortunes, they’ve seen him sitting here with other wazungu, wearing his heart on his sleeve – whatever the reason, I’m not sure. But after awhile even I begin to smile at his theatrical flourishes. “Je suis avec beaucoup de souffrance,” he says, lightly touching his breast. “Pas en peu – beaucoup!” He wants to make sure I’m clear on this point: he has not had a little suffering – a lot!

Finally I’m rescued – Rachel calls, she’s on her way. I give this little long-suffering hustler 1,000 francs – a princely sum, even I can’t say why I do it. The transaction has been observed by a security guard nearby; soon he, too, is asking for money. I laugh this off. “Je ne suis pas banque,” I say. There is a lesson, I’m sure, to be learned from this. A toot of the horn; Rachel and her driver pull up, in their IRC truck. I climb into the back and shut the door, and like that, I’m transported to another side of Goma life.

We’re meeting her friends at Petit Bruxelles, a genteel outpost of European charm founded, the story goes, by the former head of OXFAM as a gift to his Congolese wife. It is lively, the tables are filling quickly. All of Goma’s expat community seems to be here, along with a few Congolese gathered around the TV at the bar. Rachel’s friends arrive in pairs, in threes. By the time we join them they’ve filled a long table – Italians and English, and a few of us Americans, sitting at the end. Rachel introduces me as her “friend from the Internet” – we’d met after reading one another’s blogs. This draws appropriate laughter. It is a good crowd, young, spirited, talkative. Maybe it’s the Italians who have this effect on us. Two balladeers move between the tables, strumming their guitars. More people arrive – white, attractive, well-dressed. The air of First World salaries. Everyone knows everyone. Laughter, greetings, kisses. Two young guys at my end of the table – from Hong Kong and the UK, both Josephs – swap stories about life in Kinshasa. British Joseph has lived there since last year: he works for an NGO that makes braces for polio victims. Hong Kong Joseph spent two months in the capital before moving to Goma. He works for Catholic Relief Services – CRS. Everyone here is known by their acronym. Rachel is IRC Rachel. I’m introduced to an attractive Russian woman – Julie, or Jenny. An acronym is supplied. Only I seem to float around as a free radical, a journalist. Two of the Italians have propped their walkie talkies on the table. They seem to give the dinner an air of urgency, of impending flight.

The talk at the table is of the MSF party – MSF, MSF, for Médecins Sans Frontières. The party is being held at a lakeside villa 30 minutes from town, and it seems that the whole of Goma, after finishing dinner at Petit Bruxelles, will reconvene there. Rachel is ambivalent: she will be up at 4:30 in the morning to see the gorillas. Everyone else is saying, “MSF! MSF!” like some talisman we use to keep evil spirits at bay. Here you begin to get a sense of the stories I’d heard about Goma in Kigali: of a bacchanalian frenzy of UN staffers and loose aid workers and strapping MONUC soldiers desperate to unwind after their stress-filled ops in the bush. It is an odd sort of life you lead here. No doubt the work leaves most feeling like an emotional punching bag, and everyone in Goma seems to have done hard time. They have spent years in Congo, or other war zones. (“We’ve already done Darfur,” a couple tells me.) Friday night, Saturday night, is when you trade your flak jacket for a strapless dress, you touch up your helmet hair with a bit of pomade, and you let your discomfort over the incongruities of Goma life – the Versailles-like villas and chauffeured vehicles and inflated salaries – recede until Monday morning.

The fabled MSF party is in full-swing by the time we get there, just after eleven. A dozen SUVs are parked outside; the music is probably rattling the windowpanes in Gisenyi. The house is massive, set against lawns that stretch 100 feet down to the lake. The significance of an MSF party soon becomes apparent. This is one of the humanitarian world’s most respected and well-funded organizations. Not for MSF bottles of lukewarm Primus and Fanta. The bar on the back porch – manned by two cheerful, gyrating, middle-aged Gauls – is well-stocked with top-shelf liquor. I suspect Lake Kivu will run dry before the MSF house does. Inside, the living room has been cleared, dozens of bodies moving on the dancefloor in 4/4 time. The soundtrack has no doubt been picked by our two French friends: ‘90s dance tracks mixed with Michael Jackson and disco standards. It is a good crowd. Pretty girls flit about in city clothes. Heels, lipstick, earrings – not a frumpy peasant skirt in sight. Couples slip into the garden. Small-talk shouted over a “Billie Jean” bassline. Someone’s colleague had to be evacuated from her post last week after soldiers looted the city. “She’s hardcore,” they say admiringly. Everyone crowds the bar for more drinks.

It is a very good party which goes on a little too long. The car I came in has left. By half-past two I’m sheepishly milling around, looking for a ride. No one is going my way, no one offers. Finally I’m rescued by the Italians – part of our dinner group from Petit Bruxelles – who are on their way into town. Already I’ve warmed to them – they are gregarious, welcoming, in the manner of most Italians. They’re also the only ones to offer me a lift.

Outside, waiting for the others to join us, we talk about the humanitarian community in Goma. Stefano, who works for Caritas, makes a face like he’s swallowed something bitter. “This is not the real Africa,” he says, referring not just to this party, but to everything it signifies. He works in the countryside, rehabilitating former child soldiers. In Goma, he says, everything is polluted by money. It is the first thing people ask for when they see a white man on the street. (Beaucoup de souffrance!) The people in the interior are kinder, more generous. “You see the real Africa in Walikale, in Masisi,” he says.

The rest of the group has come, we pile into the car. It is half-past three on the morning of my 32nd birthday when we reach the hotel. The nightclub next door is raucous; the music is loud, the street crowded with idling motos. “Be careful,” Stefano warns, as I pick my way through the crowd. The gate is locked and I wait three, four minutes, rattling the door to wake the askari. I’m about to start scaling the gate when he emerges, sleepy, shuffling his feet. The Italians drive off with a toot of the horn – arrivederla, amici! – and it’s with visions of Italian girls and gyrating Frenchmen filling my head that I drift into my 33rd year.

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.

Congo’s intriguing mixture of fascination and frustration: neither fascinating nor intriguing

I try not to make a habit of trashing the work of my hypothetical colleagues, but when a writer so obviously mails it in – especially in a story that conforms to all the guidelines of Lazy Travel Writing 101 – I feel inclined to vent.

Today’s Guardian features a dispatch from Africa correspondent David Smith, whose most recent Letter from Africa (or, specifically, the Congo), reads like a postscript to Binyavanga Wainaina’s biting How to Write About Africa, without the parody.

“Is there anywhere in Africa to rival the mystery and mystique of Congo?” Smith asks. (Short answer: yes.) Drawing on the fabled exploits of Henry Stanley, Mr. Kurtz and Muhammad Ali – and giving at least a cursory reading of the back cover of Tim Butcher’s Blood River – Smith unpacks 1,000 words on “Congo’s intriguing mixture of fascination and frustration” in a way that makes Congo sound as intriguing, fascinating and frustrating as a weekend trip to Bed, Bath & Beyond. No taxis at the airport in Kigali! No toilet seat at the hotel! Terrible coffee! Harrowing indeed was the perilous, three-hour drive from Kigali to the border in the back of his chauffeured car.

“I dozed on the back seat as the driver put on a CD,” writes Smith.

“The horror!” wrote Joseph Conrad.

For Smith, it could have been worse

What follows is a plodding account of what Smith sees on his day-trip to Goma – a blow-by-blow of “people sitting in grime on the streets,” “the dilapidated state of most of the buildings,” and “the rutted, pot-holed, jolting terrain.” Apart from a brief nod to the fact that this was once “a popular tourist stop for those adventurous enough to drive from one end of the continent to the other,” we learn about as much from this piece as Smith himself presumably did by watching the Congo scroll by outside his window. For an amateur’s travel blog, this is acceptable; for a freakin’ “Africa correspondent” for The Guardian, slightly less so.

One redeemable feature: this pic, from Getty Images

Nothing of Goma’s fabled history as a resort town for wealthy colonists in the Belgian Congo. Nothing of the fun-loving, free-spiritedness of the Congolese. Even the fact-checking is lazy: the Nyiragongo volcano – “a perpetual menace to this city” – which looms on the city’s outskirts did not, in fact, erupt earlier this month. That was Nyamulagira, 15 miles to the north of Goma. This would have taken three seconds to check on Google (seven, if you’re on a Burundian connection). It is also the only fact that needed to be checked in the story.

Nyiragongo, which did not erupt earlier this month

It’s hard to swallow a piece about a writer who claims to have gone “in search of the place where Henry Stanley explored” by casually strolling across the border, taking a look around, and talking to not a single Congolese soul. What little local color we have is supplied by Alan Doss, “the Welsh-born head of the UN mission,” whom our fearless scribe asks to describe “the magnetism of the Congo.”

“The great rush for Africa,” he explained.

“This is truly a magnificent country with incredible diversity among its peoples.”

An actual Congolese man

Malik Ngiama, with self

Despite Doss’ earnest protestations, the Congolese we see basically sit on “unclean floors,” sell chickens and eggs, and watch kung fu flicks in a wooden shack. This, it seems, is travel writing. Shame on you, Guardian!