Editor’s note: This is the twenty-first in a series of posts chronicling my travels in Rwanda and eastern Congo earlier this year.
To start at the beginning, click here.
Day 21 – April 10
The morning starts, as any good morning should, with songs of praise.
The “salle de conference” at the Tourist hotel apparently doubles as a church hall, and by half-past eight, it is already crowded with worshippers. They are singing and swaying and wagging their hands with fervor, egged on by two pastors whose faces are slick with sweaty, religious rapture. In the corner, a guitarist plucks an off-key tune; the drummer has not yet turned up. The effect of this early-morning religiosity on my mood is not unpleasant. I have spent more than three years in Africa; I have witnessed church services in remote corners of Uganda and Malawi, have watched Maasai villagers gathered in a tin shack in the Kenyan bush to sing warbling songs from their hymn books. (The pastor, gladdened by my presence, gave thanks that “even the white man has found God.”) I am not put off by these things, not surprised when one of the first questions out of a stranger’s mouth is, “Are you Christian?” or “Are you saved?”
It is no small thing, at my age, to shrug off the self-satisfied East Coast cynicism that compels one to handle an earnest Christian the way one handles a retarded kid with drool on his chin. I am comfortable in Africa with all this Bible-thumping and God-praising; I’ve mostly given up on the smug self-assurance that I know any better. Without the presence of the church in eastern Congo, besides, this region would be even worse off than it already is.
And the presence is everywhere. There are a half-dozen churches within a 10-minute stroll from the hotel, and I have seen people pouring from them on all days, at all hours: Thursday afternoon, Friday morning. On Sundays the services seem to last from dawn to dusk. On the streets I see advertisements for Christian concerts – one ad, for a “grand concert” with a certain Christine Shusho, promises attendees a real “soirée chrétienne.” The people of Bukavu seem to spend most of their time shuttling between churches and wedding parties – though the fête chrétienne at the Tourist Hotel is, I’ll later learn, a special occasion. Hosted by something called La Communauté Missionaire Chrétienne Internationale, it is billed as a “croisade d’évangélisation, de guérison, de délivrance et de brisement des liens malsains” – an event that, even with my threadbare French, seems to portend a whole lot of drumming and praising.
Which, feelings of religious tolerance notwithstanding, has its limits. I decide the morning would be better spent in my own sort of soulful contemplation by the lake – somewhere to wrap myself in silence, drink an overpriced coffee, sit with my pen and pad. It is a pleasant walk from town. The roads in Bukavu bend and curve away from the Avenue Lumumba, wrap around the hills. Walking down to the Hotel La Roche – one of Bukavu’s upmarket, lakeside hotels – the city is like a giant construction site. Piles of bricks, rickety wooden scaffolding, men hauling bags of cement on their heads. Rising on large plots of land are the skeletons of two- and three- and four-story villas, rewards for ruling-party stalwarts, the spoils of the mineral war tearing apart South Kivu. Sandwiched between them are their older counterparts: whitewashed towers with million-dollar views, most with Land Cruisers and Prados in the driveways. (Peeking over the wall of one gaudy mansion, I see two kid-sized Hummers on the lawn: they start them young in Bukavu.) Further down, the governor’s mansion – a massive colonial villa, a dozen gardeners clipping and pruning, a colonnade of trees, a mini-Versailles. The road bends again, more construction, a man in a rasta hat grilling brochettes in the shade. At the foot of the hill, a dozen soldiers sitting on chairs and tree stumps next to an unfinished villa – a gift, perhaps, for some decorated general. Next an army base – barracks, canvas tents, the privations of life as a foot soldier. Later someone will tell me it is a “transit camp,” before adding under his breath, “FDLR.” Here is where former Interahamwe come to turn themselves in, lay down their arms. Later they’ll be sent to “reeducation” camps in Rwanda, before integrating again into Rwandan society.
Finally I reach the Hotel La Roche, a big white modernist box set back 50 meters from the lakeshore. It is an architectural nightmare of African nouveau kitsch: sliding glass doors, blue window panes, gaudy curtains, brass fittings. Each of the rooms has a peerless view of the parking lot, yet somehow, this is one of Bukavu’s finest hotels. I manage to sneak a peek into one of the rooms – white-tiled floors, plush faux-leather sofas; I don’t have to go any further to know there are gold sconces on the walls. Still, if you were to raze the hotel, it would be a pleasant enough place. The lawns are well-kept, there is a thatched-roof bar, a pleasant little restaurant that, from the outside at least, looks like a colonial villa. Beside it, built on stilts, another restaurant almost floating over the lake. Out back, scampering over the walls, two mangy little monkeys. Only when I get closer do I see they have ropes tied around their waists, the cooks are keeping them as pets. They live in a miserable little wooden house; one has a panicky, afflicted look, the other is gnawing on a bottlecap. It scampers up the leg of a gardener, begins picking at his hair. I ask if I can snap a picture, and he agrees. When the others begin chanting “franga, franga,” I tell them I have no money to give. “Hakuna franga.” They are sullen, crestfallen, but this is a point of principle: I refuse to give any money to a bunch of monkey-abusing chefs.
Still, there is the lake. I have a vision of a quiet hour of writing, maybe two, listening to the water lapping at the shore. It doesn’t last. The bartender has turned up the soft rock on the stereo – when I ask the waiter to turn it down, it’s just a few beats before the bartender turns it up again. I wait 20 minutes for the waiter to bring my coffee, and when he does, I discover the Thermos is full of hot water. I try to track him down, but he’s vanished, and by the time I have my coffee in front of me my head is throbbing. The coffee suddenly seems like a bad idea; I could probably use a beer instead. I’m jittery, high-strung. I try to calm myself, I watch the pirogues drifting across the lake, I amuse myself with the plastic floral arrangements. It doesn’t help. They are renovating the hotel, the workers are hammering, sawing, the only peace, I imagine, can be found at the bottom of the lake. I pay my bill, trudge moodily up the hill. By the time I find a moto, I’m ready again for lunch at the Tourist.
This is not shaping up to be a good day. I’ve been hoping to make plans with Landry, to contact Justin – he’s returned to Bujumbura for the week – to get the number of his brother, a journalist in Bukavu. But the Zain network has been down since yesterday – I haven’t been able to make a call, to send a text. I appreciate, now, why Landry had lined up his cell phones at the bar earlier this week. He had three of them, with five SIM cards between them – one for his colleagues in Belgium, an MTN SIM for Rwanda, three Congolese SIMs – Zain, Vodacom, CCT – for the inevitable network failings here. “In Congo, you cannot have a network that works every day,” he had said. And so today, it seems, is the day that Zain has decided to take a breather.
At Rendez-Vous, again, I sit stewing over a coffee. I’m not in the mood for another early night, I don’t want to walk the streets by myself in search of adventure. At two, though, there is a breakthrough: the telecom stars have aligned, the Zain gods are again smiling. It is Landry, we make plans to meet at four, the day has been saved. Outside, another wedding party parades by. This, I am told, is a union of great consequence – a high-ranking military figure. A string of SUVs festooned with bows and colorful ropes of garland, army trucks full of soldiers – white-gloved, clutching sabers – in ceremonial dress. The sound of drums – a marching band, crowded into a minivan, beating some festive tune. On the side of the minivan the words “Operation Amani Leo, Sud-Kivu” – this is one of the disastrous, MONUC-backed military operations that has done more harm than good in the hills of eastern Congo. Today, a more peaceful mission. On the side of the road, women ululating and waving their arms.
Outside the hotel there’s a boy, his name is Thierry, he’s 14. He wants to go to America some day – “I would like to go there to see your president,” he says. Already he has seen enough of the poverty in Bukavu, the lack of jobs. He knows the life must be better in America because we have the dollar, and the dollar is strong. “If you give one dollar to a man here, he says, ‘Good! Good! Good!’” says Thierry. “But if you give one dollar to an American man, he says, ‘Bah, what is this?’”
He adds, “You are very absent-minded.”
Landry arrives, sharply, he is wearing a crisp white shirt with flowers embroidered onto the collar and the cuffs. Seeing his latest ensemble has become something of a sport for me. He has brought a friend, Armel – the husband of the sister of Landry’s wife. We pile into the Hilux – another typical day in Congo. Armel is a lawyer, a former human rights worker – he has worked with the UN, in the Hague, for a local NGO. I tell him about a report just published by the International Crisis Group on the Kabila government, the usual litany of rights abuses against civil society, opposition groups. Armel laughs grimly – he is not surprised. The US is sending its top gun in Africa, Johnnie Carson, to discuss these things with Kabila this month. It will be the usual refrain, I’m sure, tying aid to “good governance.” And yet still, despite the reports, the money will pour into the Congo.
We are looking to have a drink, but this is surprisingly hard to arrange on a Saturday afternoon in Bukavu. It is a day for weddings, and Landry’s usual drinking holes have been booked by wedding parties – great swarms of women in tulle, long-limbed, big-hatted; and men in their shiny suits, their sharp lapels. We are circling “La Bote,” the shoe-shaped peninsula, past the houses of the FARDC officers and their families, picturesque old homes, weathered, water-stained, some with satellite dishes planted on the lawns. Soldiers are milling everywhere, sitting on porches, drinking, rifles nearby. I would love to take some pictures, but this is not an option. We reach another bar, Landry hops out to see if there might be room for us inside. Armel points to a long driveway ahead of us, patrolled by a soldier from the elite Republican Guard. It used to be the Cercle Sportif, he says. You could go there with your family, play tennis, go for a swim. “A few years ago, Kabila decided to take it for his home,” says Armel. Now, when the president arrives for his once- or twice-yearly visits to South Kivu, he has those sprawling sporting grounds to himself.
Again, no luck – Landry hops behind the wheel, we drive off. A light rain is falling now, goats are bleating on the side of the road. Armel suggests a place called Bel Air, Landry chuckles, shaking his head. “Bel Air,” he says, like a punchline. Bel Air it is. The bar is hidden down a flight of stairs on the Avenue Lumumba, behind a club called Anges Noirs. At the foot of the stairs, a list of prohibitions: no shorts, no flip-flops, no knives, no guns. The bar is très Congolaise: a split-level concrete patio, dozens of plastic tables and chairs, loud voices, empty bottles. The view over the lake is impressive, the hills green, sublime. We sit beside a pool table, order a round. Two men are racking the balls, breaking, knocking the solids and stripes every which way. The felt of the table is torn, uneven – you have to play the surface the way you would a putting green. Laughter, a commotion, the clinking of bottles. A dark cloud hovers over the lake, brooding, waiting.
We are talking about the situation in South Kivu, and you can tell there are two South Kivus: the city, here, with its Bel Airs and Botes; and upcountry, “the villages,” as Armel calls them. I ask what’s the biggest threat to the villages and he leans forward, lowers his voice. “I think the biggest problem in the villages is the FARDC,” he says – the Congolese army, poorly disciplined, unpaid for months on end. They go to the villages, they take and take. Life has become too hard upcountry – the threats from the army, the FDLR, the militias. You can see the difference in Bukavu, the crowding, says Armel. “I think most of them have come because of the fighting. There are no jobs, they cannot go to their fields,” he says. In the city, there is always a cousin, a brother, an aunt with some room in the house. “In Bukavu, at least, there is some work,” says Armel.
Landry and Armel, of course, represent a small minority in Bukavu – these are men who have worked and studied abroad, they have seen Europe, carry well-stamped passports. Already Armel is looking again to travel – he is applying for jobs with the UN, the Red Cross, using his contacts in the development world. He would like to see more of America – he has been to California, spent time at Stamford. He has a brother he would like to visit, a physician, in New York. When I ask if he would like to live there, too, he makes a fussy face, shakes his head. “Here you can live for $500” a month, he says. “I do not think you can live for $500 in New York.”
We settle our bill, Landry has invited me for dinner at his place, but first another bar, another drink. “Here we say, ‘One for the road,’” he says, adding, when I comment on the oversized bottles of Congolese beer: “It is a long road.” Again we are in the Hilux, it is a short drive, Landry plows onto the sidewalk, where a frightened askari is helping him to park. There is a small ditch on the road’s shoulder, which Landry is struggling to negotiate. “I am using four-wheel drive,” he says, optimistically. Great relief when the vehicle is at rest, the askari still wringing his hands.
We step into Le Saint Laïc. A long, narrow dining room stretches from the entrance, tables crowded to the side. Opposite them bottles of wine in glass display cases, like geological specimens. We enter another dining room in the rear – fat, mirthful men sloshing glasses of beer, women with bad wigs and shapeless dresses. We sit. A band is warming up. People come over to the table to greet Landry. They are playing a CD, old Congolese music from the seventies and eighties. Armel and Landry are nostalgic. “They are playing music from our childhood,” says Armel. Now a short, deferential youth comes over to the table, removes his baseball cap, shakes our hands. He wants to apologize for the live music: this is karaoke night at Le Saint Laïc, but there is a problem with the equipment, he explains. I cannot feign disappointment – live music over Congolese karaoke is, I think, something of a no-brainer. The band is ready: a drummer, a guitarist, a man on a keyboard, three singers moving rhythmically back and forth. They are students, says Landry – he used to do the same thing when he was in university. More broad-shouldered, big-bellied men enter. Women built like fullbacks. Young girls, prostitutes, maybe – cast-offs from the Big Leagues of the Goma expat scene.
Landry gets a call from home – dinner is ready. We are all happily buzzed as we leave the restaurant, the music has done something to me, it’s lifted my spirits. The moon is out, a sharp crescent, like an anchor cast into the dark sea of night in Bukavu. This has turned out to be a beautiful day. At Landry’s house the guard swings the gate open – the place is a mess, says Landry, apologetically, they’re adding another floor. Outside scaffolding climbs the walls, there are bricks piled in the driveway. Landry’s children – six and five – are making gleeful noises from somewhere inside. “Karibu,” says Landry. The place is a palace. The sofas are leather, there is a flat-screen TV, a stereo system, a keyboard with a microphone. (“Sometimes, we have karaoke,” Landry admits.) On the wall, family portraits: Landry and his wife and the kids on Lake Kivu; Landry and his wife, embracing, in front of a studio backdrop of the Dubai skyline. There are shelves cluttered with knick-knacks, the expensive porcelain tchotchkes of African prosperity, and three remote controls on the coffee table. Landry’s sister sweeps in from the dining room. Dinner, she says, is served.
Despite the fact that there are three oversized bottles of beer in my stomach, I have managed to save room for the feast Landry’s sister has prepared. The table is amply set: mounds of foufou, cabbage and beef, rice with onions, frites, fried fish. The conversation has tapered off, we are stuffing our faces – even after I’m full, I pile more cabbage onto my plate. Landry’s sister is a wizard in the kitchen, she brushes aside my marriage proposals – I think it’s implicit, in the rarefied precincts of Chez Landry, that she can do better. Afterward we are back on the sofas, drowsy, content. There is a news segment – some attempt to negotiate a truce with the FDLR and another rebel group. Much head-shaking and tongue-clucking from Armel and Landry. These mediation efforts will end like all the others. The night is winding down – Armel yawns, stretches, pulls himself to his feet. Again we are in the Hilux, bumping over these rough Bukavu roads. Armel lives down the street; I am just around the corner. We make plans to have a parting drink before I go.
At the hotel there is a scene of bedlam, nuptial chaos. If the Belvedere struck me as a forlorn catering hall when I poked my head in last night, it’s apparently because it is, indeed, a catering hall. Tonight it is booked for a wedding party – the music is loud enough to rattle the hotel’s windows. From my room I can see into the main room: well-dressed, well-fed, middle-aged bodies moving slowly across the dancefloor. Somehow, these past few weeks, I’ve grown accustomed to high-decibel lingala and kwasa kwasa and rhumba blaring into the wee hours – it’s a wonder I’ve ever slept any other way. My head is nodding off to 4/4 time, and by 11 o’clock, faster than you can say “Papa Wemba,” I’m out cold.