Tag Archives: kibuye

The mystery of the swimming cows.

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

To start at the beginning, click here.

Day 7 – March 27

In the morning, no signs of insect carnage in the restaurant. Walls that were covered with little black bugs and predatory lizards look as if they’d been scrubbed clean. The lake is calm, the sky is pale and cloud-covered. So begins the end of my first week on Lake Kivu.

At nine the restaurant is already full: a German couple, a French woman, two British women, an American. Then the Rwandans arrive: a church group, most likely, here for a conference or a weekend retreat. They’re a handsome crowd – close to a dozen men, a few women, all immaculately dressed, freshly laundered, ironed. Bless these Rwandans, who bring their formalities even to a lake retreat. They negotiate with a boat captain who’s offering trips across the lake. Probably the first price, the second price gets rejected. Negotiations are long, complex, informal. There is lots of laughter. A couple strolls off and whispers intimately under a tree. Some of the hotel workers have come over now, to join the negotiations. Everything is good-humored. A price is finally agreed upon. More laughter. Still, no sense of urgency. The men slowly, unsure of their land legs, board one by one. The women with their shoes in their hands. Life vests secured over their neat collared shirts and blouses, they motor across the lake. You can hear their laughter long after they’ve left the shore.

At the Presbyterian-run Béthanie, these weekend church functions seem to make up the bulk of the business. (Foreign aid workers, too, pale, petite American girls on weekend liaisons with their Rwandan boyfriends.) It is the closest they ever come, I suspect, to filling all these empty rooms. It is a beautiful compound, dozens of small villas swallowed by the vegetation. Outside my room is a papaya tree and poinsettias and a pine tree and a baobab. There are palms shaking their shaggy heads over the water, and birds everywhere. It’s as perfect as any place I’ve known in Rwanda.

In the afternoon, Andrea looking well-rested and stress-free, we have lunch in town: again rice and cabbage and a bowlful of sambaza. The girl who dishes our food cooks, cleans, serves, clears the tables. I wonder if Rwanda would grind to a halt without these sturdy, hard-working women. On the way into town we passed two women, young girls, hardly out of adolescence. They were carrying bundles of wood on their heads and babies on their backs and jerry cans in their hands. And still they greeted us joyfully. “Mirwe,” they said, their voices high and musical, as we wagged our hands in greeting.


Self-portrait, with bicycle taxi

Back at the lake now, looking for a way to spend a warm and sunny afternoon. Down the road from the Béthanie is a new hotel, the Moriah Hill Resort; Andrea had seen them advertising a pair of well-maintained kayaks in the local press in Kigali. A little physical exertion, we decide, would be a welcome break from beers on the terrace at Béthanie. The walk to Moriah Hill is pleasant, too, down a scenic road framed by pines and palms – those incongruous pairings of Kibuye! – with water birds grazing their breasts against the lake’s surface.

Despite the changes in town, the health centers and shopping complexes, Moriah Hill is the only new tourist development I’ve found, nearly two years after my last visit to Kibuye. It is an arresting sight: a block of gray concrete, a strange, modernist (cubist?) box, so out of place amid the graceful contours of these Rwandan hills. No doubt this architectural atrocity, with its spa treatments and motorboat tours of the lake, charges executive prices to the Kigali elite who escape here for the weekend. Andrea and I – no executives, to be sure – frugally order a couple of beers from the restaurant. Then we rent a two-person kayak and put our muscles to work, paddling our hearts out until the Moriah eyesore is out of view.

It’s tempting to get carried away in a kayak: the sun-crested water, the islands strung across the horizon, etc. But our progress is slow – the islands in the distance refuse to budge, despite our paddling – and we decide to hug the shore, rather than setting some perilous course for open water. It is a beautiful afternoon. The hills are full of birdsong, and the shore is overhung with palm trees and tropical flowers. Even if the churches and the houses and the massive power stanchions of Kibuye never leave our sight, the calm and solitude of the lake makes it feel like seeing them through a thick pane of glass.

In a shallow cove we find the skeleton of a boat – an abandoned project by some local shipbuilder, perhaps, whose money had run out. To see it half-submerged in the water is like discovering some sunken Spanish galleon washed up onshore. It fills us with joy and wonder, and we lift our paddles from the water, as if to give it its due reverence as we drift silently by.

I’m using muscles I haven’t used in months, and there is a good, vigorous burn in my arms and chest. Andrea – an expert paddler in her day, full of stories of northern Ontario’s lake country – has excellent form. We paddle across a channel – storm clouds threatening over the hills – and draw a wide, lazy arc around a small island. Suddenly, a surprising sight: first one cow, then two, lowing and swishing their tails. It is like some small bit of magic – we’re hundreds of feet from the shore. Did some intrepid herder, desperate for land in the crowded hills around Kibuye, row them out to this deserted island to graze? Did they swim here themselves? Can a cow even swim? (It turns out they can – really well, according to Francine, the receptionist at Moriah Hill.) Mystery pervades their presence here. While the cows, unfazed by said mystery, unmoved by our curiosity, chew placidly at the hillside.

We round the island and steer back toward Moriah Hill. Now thunder is rumbling. Far out to the west, over the Congo, we can see a curtain of rainfall. Our muscles are sore, but we strain our oars. Sun spangles dance over the water. Somewhere far away, voices cry out from the hills. It is a beautiful feeling to exert ourselves like this, with the sun warm on our arms and faces. We put all our weight into rowing back to shore, knowing the storm clouds and the growing thunder are chasing us to the hotel.

After last night’s apocalypse, though, tonight’s rainfall is meek as a lamb. Back at the Béthanie the lake is beating against the shore, but the threatening, grumbling clouds surprise us with just a mild shower. It is a disappointment for Andrea, who had canceled her plans to leave for Gisenyi this evening. Instead she arranges a 6am wake-up call for tomorrow morning; if all goes well, she’ll be on the back of a moto and in Gisenyi by 9 o’clock.

I, meanwhile, have my own problems to worry about. During dinner I get a text from Aimable, whose moto “vient d’être prise” by the traffic police because of “retard des tax.” I’m not entirely sure what to make of this – retard tax? – but the point is clear: I’m on my own for the trip to Cyangugu. It’s a headache I was hoping to avoid; tomorrow is a Sunday, after all, hardly the time to be making convoluted travel plans in pious, Church-going Rwanda. Andrea, though, is sanguine: she’s sure something will come together in the morning. I decide to show some faith, too: if nothing else, three years of traveling in Africa have taught me that things always work out in the end.

But never the way I’d planned.

The life of the collines.

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

To start at the beginning, click here.

Day 6 – March 26

It is hard to get an early start at the Béthanie. Morning coffee on the lake, with the birds crying hysterically in the trees, and the water slapping rhythmically against the jetty, is a two-hour affair. It’s half-past eleven when I finally leave the compound, compelled only by hunger – I had just a few flimsy samosas for dinner last night – and my reluctance to fork over five grand for a mediocre lunch.

Instead it is another plate of riz and haricots and legumes and viande – the scenery changes, but the meal stays the same. Years from now, I will look back at my time in Africa as one endless lunch buffet. It has spoiled me, in a way: I’ve come to expect a heaping plate of hot food at the ready as soon as my stomach demands it. And what terrible preparation, too, for those interminable dinners at the Béthanie, with the sluggish service and hour-long waits for tepid soup. Better to stock up on samosas again – which I do, greedily, abundantly – so I can nibble away in peace and solitude in the comfort of my room.

After lunch I’ve planned to visit the memorial site at Bisesero – easier said than done. My trusted Bradt guide (true to form) describes this evocative hilltop site near Kibuye; it makes no mention, though, of the hour-long drive over rocky roads to reach it. This prompts lengthy negotiations with half the moto fleet of Kibuye, most of whom won’t budge from a Rwf 10,000 asking price. (Never mind when I ask about the cost to Cyangugu – they just laugh.) In the end, though, I’m introduced to a friendly young guy named, fittingly, Aimable, who settles for a rate of Rwf 8,000. For the trip to Cyangugu, too, he is enthused – the cost, at Rwf 20,000, more than I’d planned, but probably, in retrospect, about what I should have expected.

Off we go, Aimable chatting amiably in French, me struggling to follow along with the wind rasping in my ear. The road climbs steadily as we leave Kibuye, and the views are sublime, endless. The hills are green and tumbling down to the water, which is laced with peninsulas and dotted with little wooded islands. Everything seems to be in perfect proportion to the landscape. Whoever made this place had a masterful eye. In the distance more islands, and beyond them only the blue-gray line of the horizon. Beyond that, Congo. Beyond that – Congo, still.

The narrator, with Aimable, en route to Bisesero

Looking across Lake Kivu

We scoot and skid over the gravelly road, here passing a small village, there surprising a group of women carrying bundles of wood on their heads. “Mirwe,” I say. “Yego,” they say, smiling. We climb another hill – even the hills have hills here – and suddenly, in the distance, a sprawling city comes into view. It is a Congolese refugee camp, says Aimable. I can see the sun glinting off tin roofs; the whole place has an air of permanence. It has been here for 15 years, he says, with some 27,000 refugees to call it home. I remember the stories of the Rwandan refugee camps in Goma, built in the weeks and months after the genocide, when the Interahamwe and the Hutu refugees – killers and innocents alike – crossed the border and established themselves in Zaire. Along with the UN tents provided for refugees, they built general stores and hair salons, movie theaters and mechanics. This they did in a matter of weeks. It is impossible to imagine what 15 years can do to a refugee camp. But already we’ve scooted off, goodbye, the camp is far behind us.

It is beautiful country here. Little country homes crown the hills – the tiled roofs, the soft earthy palettes, have a Mediterranean air – and there is a constant commotion of farm work. I can see villagers swinging their hoes on the hillsides – even the steepest slope is home to a little vegetable plot – and there is endless traffic on the road: men with machetes on their shoulders, women carrying charcoal and wood. Narrow footpaths zigzag through the fields, crowded by village women walking single-file. I remember a passage from African Laughter, by Doris Lessing, still echoing in my head:

The people living here are poor. Their lives when the rains fail are hungry. But surely it is better to be poor here, in this sunlight, this beauty, than, let’s say, Bradford or Leeds. There ought to be different words for poverty that grimes and chills and darkens, and this poverty where people live in splendour, lifted up on to the Altitude into ringing windy sun-scoured skies.

I think of these words as I watch a woman, barefoot, sitting in a small patch of sunlight on a hill, staring off at the sunlight on other hills. But then, this land, this beauty, is already overcrowded. There is not enough to sustain the rapidly growing population. It was a reason, too, for the killings in ’94. Peasants were promised the cattle, the land, of their dead neighbors. I think of these things, too, as we go speeding over the hills.

A rural church


This is the life of the collines – so attractive, as you drive past, the modest, tidy homes, the sweat and sunlight and industry. But it is in these collines that so much of the fear and suspicion of Rwandan life is bred. A man described to me in Burundi how his countrymen would never talk to you straight, how everything was told cautiously, circuitously. It was how word traveled between the collines: never in a straight line, from hilltop to hilltop, but twisting down into the valleys, following the winding paths, bending, distorting. It is easy to see how rumors could spread here – how plausible a story might sound, how a lie could become truth as it made its false, winding way between the collines.

Now there are tea plantations on either side of us, as far as I can see – a picture-book greenness, a greenness that shames and shuns the dark, shadowy greens of the trees. Here women are plucking the leaves and carrying them in baskets on their heads. Always there are children nearby – sitting on a mound of dirt, like young sentries, or playing in a gully on the side of the road. Now and then we pass weighing stations – a venture, no doubt, of some American NGO, or the EU. Here there is a festive, communal air. Leaves are being weighed, bagged, to the great delight and pride of the farmers. At some of the stations the bags are being loaded onto trucks; at others, wiry, barebacked men are taking the bags onto their heads, trudging off to some distant market. The farmers are organized into cooperatives, says Aimable. Their lives are better today than they were a few years ago.

Tea plantations

Bags of tea leaves being transported

Now the temperature is dropping, the road carries us along a high mountain ridge. On one side, plump cumulus clouds, sunshine; on the other, a cool, damp fog blows across the valley. It is like being in two places at once. The road tunnels beneath a canopy of pines, conifers. The air is brisk, alpine. Storm clouds are brewing distantly over the hills. We reach the memorial site in an appropriate atmosphere of gloom – even the green hills look gray as they vanish behind the fog.

Bisesero was the site of one of the most defiant stands by Tutsis during the genocide. In April 1994, more than 50,000 had gathered on the hilltop. For six weeks they repelled their attackers with machetes and sticks, fighting, too, the hunger and the cold. It was the rainy season, and there must have been little solace in the gray skies and muddy slopes. Many were undoubtedly weak and sick when the killers returned in mid-May. This time they were well-armed and determined – the killings went on for days. By the time French soldiers arrived at the end of June, just 1,300 survivors remained, scattered across the hilltops, hidden in the forests. It was the most complete ethnic cleansing in all of Rwanda.

The road to Bisesero

At Bisesero the doors are locked, the memorial is empty. Aimable scoots off to a small nearby settlement, looking for the custodian of the site. It is a somber place, but I know this is all in my head: on a sunlit day, facing the valley, I imagine this would be as cheerful as any place in Rwanda. Ten minutes pass, and Aimable returns with the guide: a pretty, petite girl named Odette, in a long skirt and a heavy overcoat and a pink kerchief wrapped around her head. She is an orphan of the genocide, both her parents killed, she explains, during “la guerre.” I would like to know how the task came to her, to be the custodian of this site at Bisesero, but we struggle to communicate in French. She opens the door to a long, narrow shed; inside are skulls and bones, hundreds of them arranged neatly on tables, with pale shafts of sunlight falling through the windows. Odette asks if I have any questions, but where would I begin?

The dead of Bisesero

She shuts the door and we walk outside, toward a path that zigs and zags up the hill. There are small houses – odd oblong buildings made of brick – regularly spaced along the path. They are, I take it, from what I can understand of Odette’s explanation, works in progress as the memorial continues to grow. I ask if many tourists come to Bisesero. She says the last one came about a month ago. I ask how she spends the rest of her days; she shrugs. She has no money to continue her studies. She gestures vaguely to the road, which ribbons toward her small village, where she passes the time until another tourist arrives, asking for the girl with the key.

At the top of the hill the tombs: plain tiles laid across the earth, beneath which lie the remains of 50,000 bodies. We circle the place, our feet crunching over the gravel, the birds in the trees. Here is a cairn to commemorate where men and women were killed with machetes and spears. We walk back down the hill, Odette pausing to lock each building behind us. She and Aimable are talking easily, laughing – even here, life goes on. At the bottom, in the visitor’s center, I sign the guestbook. I notice that the last visitors had come just a day before. But these were Rwandans; Odette seemed to take my question as, “Do you get many foreigners here?” I find it ennobling – important even – to see page after page of the guestbook filled with Rwandan names.

Outside the rain clouds are almost above us. Aimable is impatient to go. Odette reaches up on the tips of her toes, struggling to throw a bolt across the door of the visitor’s center. It is a grim little thing, concrete, formless; I imagine it is how Stalin would have dreamt up a commemoration to the killings at Bisesero. Before we leave I ask if I can take Odette’s picture. She smoothes her skirt and stands rigidly, eyes wandering off to the treetops. I show her the picture, and she is pleased. She stands on the side of the road and waves as we drive off for Kibuye.

Odette, in front of the memorial

We take a different route back to town. Aimable has no doubt weighed the probability of rain each way; the other road, I suspect, has already been drenched. He revs the engine and pushes our little moto forward, looking anxiously over his shoulder, as the clouds continue to gain on us. Soon the first drops catch our helmets; a steady, light rain is falling. It is not unpleasant to drive through, though Aimable is forced to tighten his grip on the handlebars – the road is slick. In the villages we pass, everyone is huddled joylessly under awnings and overhangs, any protection they can find under the rusted eaves of a general store. The road is still busy with men carrying bags of charcoal, or driving their goats with a stick. Women walk slowly with bags on their heads – they must get to a far-away village, to the house of some relation, rain or no. A boy uses a broad banana leaf as an umbrella. Another chases a bull uphill, its nostrils flaring, its horns like scimitars.

Aimable does well: we’ve escaped the rain. The clouds seem to sit and brood over the hills as we race down toward the lake. The road wraps and bends, past the wagging leaves of banana plants and the small steep plots of villagers. The hills jut into the lake, they grow and recede as we round each bend. It is one of the most beautiful roads I’ve ever seen. By the time we reach Kibuye, the rain still dragging its heels, I am convinced of my plan to take a moto to Cyangugu. Aimable is thrilled; we set a departure date for Sunday. I wave as he goes scooting off through town, buoyed by his sudden good fortune.

The restaurant at the Béthanie is crowded by early evening – weekenders, I suspect, coming down from Kigali. Andrea, too, is making the trip from the city. She has never been to Kibuye, and with just a few months left in Rwanda, she thought it would be a pity to pass the town by. But now her bus is delayed; the timing couldn’t be worse. Just after dusk a fierce storm blows across the lake, lightning ripping across the sky in terrible bolts. It is a beautiful, frightful storm. Even after it passes, I can follow the lightning as it flashes further along the lake. An hour later the rain returns. It will keep on like this for the rest of the night.

Andrea rolls in, soggy and flustered, after eight. She is wired, breathless. She’s just come from a village school about an hour’s drive from Kibuye, where she listened to the school nurse giving a talk on sex ed. The students – teenagers, in Standards four and five and six – were frank, curious. Andrea – who has spent almost two years in this country already – was shocked to see such a candid discussion about sex, in rural Rwanda, of all places. This is noteworthy; Andrea has seen much in Rwanda, she doesn’t shock easy. Often I envy the richness, the variedness of her life here. Last year, in that same village, she had watched as a friend’s parents – killed during the genocide, buried in a small family plot in the yard – were exhumed and reburied in a national burial site during a formal ceremony. It was, she said, a great honor for the family: they carried pictures of their parents at the head of a procession, saw them interred with elaborate rites. But she wondered – we both wondered – whether all survivors felt the same. Bodies across Rwanda were being exhumed, reburied in national burial sites commemorating the genocide’s dead. Did all the families consider it an honor? Did they feel they were being exploited – their private grief made public in the name of “national healing”?

The conversation, as always, takes off on tangents. The struggles of New Times journalists to square the demands of their consciences with the need to earn a paycheck. The impending visit of Canada’s governor-general and assorted dignitaries. And always, of course, the intrigues in Kigali, where her house – the house where I spent the past three weeks – saw a constant flow of foreign journalists, here to train Rwandans on the ethics and demands of the media industry. It is a fickle business, handling the needs of a half-dozen journalists under the same roof, like a poor-man’s Big Brother. Always a fresh problem to handle, new needs to deal with. Listening to her tired monologue, I get the feeling that this short “vacation” is hardly enough. Not until Rwanda is behind her, I suspect, will Andrea be able to sleep with a clear head.

Beer, dinner – we leave our problems for another day. Hundreds of bugs – crawling, slithering, flitting on filmy wings – have assaulted the lighting fixtures. It’s like a buffet for the lizards prowling along the walls. We watch them scuttling, tongues flicking, giving chase. We are rapt. I’ve seen this same scene repeated in dozens of hotels across Africa. With a few weeks, or months, or years, a neglected home would be completely overtaken by invasive weeds, by night creatures. I can think of no better advertisement for man’s irrelevance in the greater scheme of the earth’s history. Amazing, too, that we can do so much harm in so little time.

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

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

To start at the beginning, click here.

Day 5 – March 25

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

A view of the lake, from the Bethanie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kibuye stadium: then

Kibuye stadium: now

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

Chou,” I say. “Cabbage.”

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

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

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

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

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

Plans to build a new shopping complex in Kibuye

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

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

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

St. Jean Catholic Church

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

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

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

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

Turkana tribesmen rush to greet the President's plane

The assembled tribes on the runway at Loyangalani

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

It is like paradise. Almost.

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

To start at the beginning, click here.

Day 4 – March 24

Two years ago, in Tanzania, I was marooned for three days in the little fishing village of Lagosa, on the shores of Lake Tanganyika. I was waiting for the MV Liemba – a venerable old World War I-era ferry – which, on its return passage from Zambia, would scoop me up and carry me back to the scruffy port town of Kigoma. The Liemba had already given me fits: a week before, its departure from Kigoma had been delayed – first a few days, then a full week – when it had been commandeered by the UN to return refugees from Tanzanian camps to their homes in Congo. I caught it the following week for its southbound passage; when it deposited me in Lagosa, there was a parks department speedboat waiting to take me to nearby Mahale Mountains National Park. I had timed my visit to the park, with its large population of chimpanzees, to coincide with the Liemba’s weekly voyage. If all went well, I would be able to catch the ferry as it made its return trip up the lake.

Of course, all did not go well. There were delays in Zambia – no one could say why. Each morning I would stand on the beach, squinting toward the horizon on which, I was sure, the figure of the MV Liemba would slowly come into view. I was great sport for the locals of Lagosa. Here was a village with no electricity, no phone towers – a place that, even by rural Tanzanian standards, was almost entirely off the map. And yet somehow, each day, word had already reached Lagosa through some mysterious bush telephone about the delay of the Liemba. “It will not arrive today,” a fisherman would say with assurance early in the morning. And sure enough, despite my frantic efforts to conjure the boat from the little wisps of cloud on the horizon, the Liemba would not come chugging down the lake until it was damn well ready.

The good ship Liemba, on Lake Tanganyika

Passing the time at a, um, bar in Lagosa.

In the past two years, I have drawn many morals from the story of my stay in Lagosa. The most relevant today, though, is the utter unreliability of lake transport in central Africa. Though steamships and pirogues and great cargo barges are the lifeline of the countless little villages along the shores of Kivu and Tanganyika and Malawi and Victoria, it takes endless stores of patience to negotiate their prehistoric passage. Thus another morning spent in an anxious purgatory of packed bags, waiting for word from John on the fate of my Bralirwa boat.

Luckily, Gisenyi is no Lagosa, and I can soothe my spirits over a cappuccino at the lakeside Serena Hotel. Where would Africa’s whites – the journalists, the diplomats, the aid workers – be without the comforts of our luxury sanctuaries? The tables at the Serena are populated thusly: an Indian expat (soon to be replaced by an American executive), your intrepid reporter, two American aid workers (with matching Macs), and a pair of white tourists – one American, one ambiguously European – along with their Rwandan guide. The hotel is charmless, possessed of the upmarket corporate blandness of international chain hotels the world over, but the coffee – at just Rwf 1,200 a pot – is superb. It is also, after a few busy days in Gisenyi, a concession to my need for personal space. In the market, or the crowded garden restaurant at the auberge – its Rwf 1,500 lunch-time buffet the only bargain in the joint – I feel the constant weight of bodies, the stares of curious, solicitous eyes. Coffee at the Serena is about both caffeine and equilibrium. It is for this reason I understand the distant, abstract reverie of other Northerners lost in their laptops and iPods and Therouxs at hotels across equatorial Africa. It is the familiar look of a tribe not at home in the tropics.

Two tables away the American and the German, or Swede, are having a very low-level discussion of Great Lakes politics. Minerals, Nkunda, MONUC. It is as unsatisfactory as picking up last week’s newspaper. Then the conversation turns to tourism. Always the same line: how these Africans should do more to develop the tourism sector, how with a little vision, etc. It is a very First World way to look at things. Show me a beach in Africa and I’ll show you a line of white men waiting to put hotels on it. “It is like paradise, almost,” says the Swede, or German, taking in the coastline with the expansive view of a man who sees great profits on the horizon. Already he is planning to sell Gisenyi’s charms on the Rwandan tourism portal he is developing online. “No one knows about this place,” he says, by which he doesn’t mean the Rwandans who have been coming to this resort town for decades.

And what about his vision? In the three days I have spent in Gisenyi, I would estimate the hotel occupancy rate at somewhere under 10 percent. This, of course, takes into account the fact that I arrived on Sunday, when most weekenders will be packing up and heading back to their homes in (most likely) Kigali or Goma. Still, I have seen few foreign tourists – the holy grail of the travel industry – and the largest crowds – the wedding parties who flocked to the beach on Sunday – had most likely driven to Gisenyi for the day of the celebration. The problem for Gisenyi, and any plans to develop it even further, is the fact that it already seems to have reached its tourist potential. There are far more beds than there are bodies with the available resources to fill them. And this isn’t likely to change dramatically, unless: a) Rwanda becomes substantially more popular among foreign tourists as a stand-alone destination, instead of just a gorilla-oriented add-on for a larger East African package; or b) the country continues to develop its growing middle class, so that there are greater numbers of Rwandans with disposable income, leisure time, and all the things we take for granted in the West. This is something you’ll find in Kenya, where hotels and safari camps will aggressively pursue Kenyan clients for their holiday packages. But Kenya is still light years ahead of Rwanda in terms of economic development. Despite great gains in recent years, Rwanda remains a minnow in the East African sea.

At the Serena, the Dutchman or Dane looks admiringly toward the border, where the Congolese frontier offers another enticing opportunity for local businessmen. “To me, Goma is the closest you can get to the disaster and the chaos without pushing yourself,” he says. “You can cross the border, and if it is too dangerous, you can come running back.”

He pauses and turns to the waiter. “I am trying to decide between the chicken curry and the tilapia with chips,” he says. And then, turning back to his companions, approvingly, “It’s almost like a little visit to hell.”

The horror! A little visit to hell, in Goma.

If Goma is hell, Gisenyi has been my own private purgatory. By mid-day John is again full of assurances, but this time, I decide to take the fateful step of bringing my things to Rubona. Better to wait at the ready in that little port town – the Bralirwa brewery and its tall chimney columns in clear view – than to sit on-call in Gisenyi, hoping for word from John. If nothing else, I’d like to feel like I’m a step closer to Kibuye.

In Rubona the arrival of a white man with an oversized duffel bag stirs the town’s listless hang-abouts to life. Whatever my story, it’s sure to add an interesting wrinkle to an otherwise uneventful day. Soon I’ve drawn the attention of a young man named Abdul, who, having heard my plan, has decided to become the custodian of my star-crossed fate. Unprovoked, he begins demanding details of the Bralirwa boat’s passage from passersby, and offering to conduct a thorough investigation at the brewery. I explain that my friend John is already on the case, and Abdul seems wounded. “I want to save you,” he says. I didn’t know I needed to be saved.

The town skeptics and philosophers are out in force. Abdul engages a young friend in soiled overalls who launches into a long monologue, like the ancient mariner. The only two words I recognize – “mzungu” and “polici” – do not bode well. Abdul sits thoughtfully beside me, weighing our options. “Why don’t you take the bus?” he says finally. It is not an easy question to answer. Mostly it’s an ill-defined spirit of adventure that’s made this Bralirwa boat so appealing. But I can’t, of course, ignore the irony that when a white man in Africa talks about “adventure,” he usually means forsaking his iPod, wearing ugly convertible pants, and generally living under the sort of conditions that 700 million or so Africans – whether out of necessity, custom, or both – live under every day. Why go through all this trouble, Abdul implies, when a perfectly good bus can get me there in a fraction of the time, for just a few more francs?

When John arrives he wears a look of affliction. Why did I come to Rubona without telling him first? Lord, spare me these sensitive African souls! After some nervous minutes of hand-holding and reassurances, our friendship is back on solid ground. We take my things to the Bralirwa brewery, which, despite John’s fears over “prohibitions,” seems to be as secure as a public park. There are women walking their children, and others carrying bundles of sugarcane on their heads, and still others selling pineapples out of a basket. Goats are everywhere. Somehow, though, we manage to find the only secure gate in the joint, on the other side of which idles my ride to Kibuye. John sidles up to the fence, greets the guard on duty, and begins talking in clandestine tones from the corner of his mouth. It is a Hollywood performance. This goes on for some time, before we’re shuffled off to wait, stage right. Minutes later the guard returns with a man in slacks and a neat polo shirt – the captain of the S.S. Bralirwa. Again, after greetings and small talk – you’d think they’d known each other for years – John lowers his voice and pleads my case. The need for secrecy, I suspect, is just a token measure of propriety (or else John has a theatrical spirit): by this point, there aren’t many people in Rubona who haven’t seen the white guy with the duffel bag on his way to the Bralirwa brewery. If subterfuge is necessary to get me on this boat, then the boat will be leaving without me.

Finally John and the captain agree on terms, shake; we take my things back to the beach, where we’ll await the captain’s signal. (Another ambiguous, theatrical touch: can’t he just call me on his phone?) We sit for an hour as the daylight dwindles, John struggling to tune into the BBC on his cellphone. A kingfisher dive-bombs into the water, and a magnificent fish eagle swoops from the top of a tree. Fishermen – donning bright orange life jackets, as required by law – begin pushing off from the beach in their rowboats, lashed three together with long, bending poles. Across the bay we watch crates of bottles getting loaded onto the boat, stacked a dozen high. The wait is endless.

The Bralirwa boat prepares for the journey.

The rusted husk of a boat in Rubona.

Fishermen set off for a night on the lake.

Suddenly the boat sputters to life, turns, sweeps across the bay. This, it seems, is the captain’s signal. We take my bags and jog along the beach, where a few other passengers are crossing a wobbly gangplank. Across the bridge, onto a rusted old barge bobbing beside the Bralirwa boat, where we say quick, heartfelt goodbyes. Then I climb over the railing, hop onto the deck of the cargo boat, and wave to Rubona, where fishermen and laborers are gathered on the beach, laughing good-heartedly at the white man’s flight. An old man thrusts a long mangrove pole into the lake, steering us through the shallows. Then the boat’s engine throttles to full-speed ahead, and Rubona vanishes into the dusk.

John and others waving at our departure.

Next stop, Kibuye.

It is a relief, finally, to be on my way to Kibuye. I had been told earlier in the day that the trip would take six hours, but John insisted we wouldn’t arrive till early morning. This was, I thought, preferable to pulling in at midnight without a place to stay. And a small part of me felt, ever mindful of my budget, that I might as well get my money’s worth from a night on the lake. We leave Rubona in high spirits, with the last embers of daylight dying in the sky over Congo, and the other passengers – a gregarious bunch, two men and four women, with two children in tow – already chattering away, as if they’d been childhood friends. Roasted maize is passed around. Children are gurgled and cooed at. The captain tunes his radio to a local station, fiddling with the antenna. “En-guh-lish,” says a man in a fleece pullover, to everyone’s delight. It is the only word of English I’ll hear for the rest of the journey.

We’re arranged in a half-moon at the front of the ship, sitting on crates and sacks and staring stiffly into the wind. The further we get from Gisenyi, its lights twinkling across the lake, the more of a metropolis it seems. Nyiragongo glows over the city. Night falls, plunging the hills of the Congo into a prehistoric darkness. Fishing boats paddle slowly across the water, lamps lit to attract the fish swimming beneath the surface. There are dozens of lamps glowing, like a floating city. The water slaps against the side of our boat, the moon is out, and I’m brought back to so many other journeys by lake and by sea: in Kenya, in Malawi, in Mozambique. For the first few hours, lost in this pleasant reverie, I convince myself that there’s no better way to travel from Gisenyi to Kibuye.

The cold comes gradually, at first. I pull my fleece and my jeans from my duffel bag, expecting to get some use out of them before the night is through. The women, swaddled in innumerable layers, seem to have more and more lengths of cloth to wrap themselves in as the night goes on. They seem like flimsy protection, though, as the cold begins to bite. The men, meanwhile, are doing the chivalrous thing and abandoning the women to the elements. The first mate opens a rusty trap door, revealing a musty bed in what appear to be the captain’s quarters. The captain shines his flashlight down the hatch and, it seems, offers me his bed. Everyone finds this hysterical. I decline with an emphatic no – “Hapana!” – which more or less brings the house down. (I’ll repeat this gag – “Hapana!” – for the next few minutes, each time achieving the desired effect.) Then the laughter dies and the first mate, stretching and yawning, descends the ladder. The captain lays a few pieces of cardboard over some crates and then follows to the cozy bed below.

The women laugh, hoot, chatter, and curl up on the cardboard. It has probably never dawned on them to expect any better from their men.

The women were assured these were the coziest bottles around.

The joy of this lake cruise is coming to a close. The cold is suddenly bitter, and the women – rising, as if through some unspoken agreement – retreat with their children to their cardboard mattress. They wrap themselves tight in their kangas and huddle together for warmth. The children are remarkably well-behaved. Cries are quickly silenced with clucking and shushing. Alone at the front of the boat, I curl up in my fleece and wrap my thin jacket around my head, to protect against the wind. Every few minutes I shift my position – to find some extra degrees of warmth, to relieve an aching muscle. Now and then I look up to see the driver staggering through the pale moonlight over a mountain of crates. Somehow I snatch a few hours of sleep: 20 minutes here, 10 there. It is a very long night.

Arriving in Kibuye.

Some time around 4am we arrive at the brewery in Kibuye. A guard patrols its floodlit grounds, stopping to chat with the women or offer us a trip to the toilet. It is against Bralirwa policy, I suspect, to let us into the compound, though by this point, the prospect of a warm brewery floor to rest my head on brings a tear to my eye. Again I drift off. A light rain begins to fall. Finally, just a few minutes before six, as pale light colors the horizon, the women rise, as if on cue, and gather their things. Babies are bundled to backs; bags are passed in a daisy-chain onto the dock. I offer to help the oldest woman onboard – a shrill, middle-aged bird – with the bag of potatoes she has brought from Gisenyi. Only when I begin to strain with the effort do I realize she’ll be strapping nearly 50 pounds of potatoes to her back with a frayed length of rope, then trudging off into the hills of Kibuye.

Outside the brewery there are no formalities, no warm partings. One by one we scatter, picking our solitary paths through the crisp morning.

It is a long walk to the Béthanie – the church-run guesthouse where I’d stayed once before –and it takes me a few minutes to find my legs. The pain in my back and neck, too, is tremendous. But having this early-morning hour to myself, with the birdsong filling the trees, is almost entirely worth the effort getting here. And the pay-off, too, comes when I finally collapse into my bed, set my alarm clock, think better of it, and spend my first morning in Kibuye huddled under the covers.

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.