03
Aug
08

congoing

Note:

I am somewhat sensitive to the risk that a personal and anecdotal blog like this one may be viewed as a legitimate source of information based on its access to the situation « on the ground. » I have avoided a more rigorous treatment of the subjects I am here to engage, like the issue of child soldiers, female combattants and soon, the fiasco that is the Congo. Some topics I don’t treat because of personal or professional reasons. I don’t think I am very knowledgeable about the above topics yet, nor am I equipped to properly analyze them. If at some later date, I do acquire those skills, then maybe I will have a blog that isn’t named after me. For now, I am content to have the wide-eyed wonder of an amateur with seats that are almost too close. After all, I came to traumatized Burundi so I wouldn’t have to go to (possibly) traumatizing grad school yet.

 

Monday, July 21, 2008.

Exactly one month after my arrival in Burundi, I am on a bus out of the country. I am on a work trip to Bukavu in South Kivu province of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) with my colleague Sean, who is visiting from Chicago.

Before I leave for Bukavu, I stop by the cafe where Gabriel, the Greek baker, dispenses sound advice and good coffee. I mention my trip to him and while he grabs me a croissant, he gives me a number to call if I want to hire a car and driver. He also tells me I should stay at the Orchid hotel in Bukavu (everyone tells me this).

He says, « When you are at the hotel, it’s so beautiful and calm. »

But I say, « But what’s behind, away from the lake, is so terrible. »

He says, « When you are looking out on the lake, you forget everything else. There you are at the edge of Paradise and Hell, » and I know we aren’t talking about religion.

At first, I try to rent a car so Sean and I can drive to Bukavu. The trip is about four to five hours if we pass through Rwanda. Estimates for passing through Uvira on the Congo side range from six hours to “Eternity,” and always given with this warning: « Don’t go that way. »  I ask around for quotes for a car and driver and get prices of $150-200 USD per day. Contrast that with the cost of renting the same set-up in Burundi, which is about $35 USD a day. People say the high prices are because of this or that fee but what they really mean is, « You have to give me a hell of a lot of money before I drive there. » Our budget for the trip is only several hundred dollars. I ask about renting a car and driving ourselves but we won’t get one, people say, because no one would be willing to let a car go to the Congo without supervision. Once we find a bus company in town that goes through Rwanda, we get two tickets for a total of $10 USD each.

Our bus passes through the Hutu-stronghold province of Cibitoke, which is northwest of Bujumbura. The landscape is startingly flat. Even more stunning is the number of passengers on the bus. Usually, in Burundi and many parts of Africa, the bus simply would not leave town until it was crammed with five or six people to a row. On this bus, some rows only have three people. When there are empty « seats » like this, the driver sometimes cruises around town, honking wildly and slapping the side of the vehicle to attract passengers. In this case, we just take off. I think that’s the first time I’ve been on a van/bus (matatu) where we don’t even hit the displayed seating capacity, much less the inflated one. By the time we get to the border of Burundi and Rwanda, there are only four passengers left, and we still continue on. The meaning is pretty clear: no one wants to go to the Congo.

We arrive at the border around noonish. It’s sunny, it’s warm, the landscape is gorgeous. Sean and I get out and go to the border patrol office to get our Burundi exit-stamps. Sean gets his and crosses over to the Rwandan side with the van. I step up to the window and hand over my passport, which I have opened to the page with my entry-stamp. Instead of looking at the stamp, the officer, a blue-clad policeman with a raw cut under his right eye, flips through to the other pages, looking for something. Did he not see that I had generously done half the work for him by opening to the relevant page? But he keeps flipping, turning the passport this way and that. The cut under his eye smiles and frowns as he concentrates and narrows his eyes. He stops flipping. The cut is frowning. He says, « Where is your visa? »

I try again and turn back to the page with the entry-stamp. He shakes his head. « No, that is not the right visa. That is only for three days. It is expired. Your stay in Burundi is illegal so you cannot leave. »

It takes me a second to realize what is going on. A country that won’t let a person leave because of an expired visa? As if I need another reminder that I am not in the U.S. I try to reason with the officer, try to invoke the infalliability of the empirical evidence before us: this is a stamp that I received upon entry for which I paid the fee of $20 USD, hence I have a visa, right?

« No. »

« Ok, » I say. « So what form do I fill out to get the visa? Who do I need to see? Is it this office here? » I ask, pointing to the chair next to him.

« No, you have to go back to Bujumbura. »

Here, I might say that my blood ran cold at his answer but that is strictly a Northern Hemisphere thing, where the rules are rigid and the weather cold enough to give the expression meaning. But in Burundi, it’s just too hot for blood to ‘feel’ cold and rules…what rules?

So I try to appeal to a higher authority. « Where is your commander? » I say.

« No. »

Right. I look all around. The scenery again: bright, green, beautiful…and totally empty. There doesn’t seem to any suggestion that another person will pass by today. I turn back to the officer.

« I cannot go back today. I have to go to the Congo. » I don’t believe I’m saying those words. I say, « You really don’t want me here, talking to you all day. » He has no idea the danger he is in. In fact, it turns out, he really just has no idea.

I say, « Ok, so tell me what I need to get the visa. This is a border crossing. »

« Go back to Bujumbura. »

I look around again. Not a person in sight.

« No, tell me how we can solve this here. » Ok, I am officially trying to pay you off.

« You need a visa and you don’t have one. »

« Yes, I know that. You don’t want me here and I don’t want to be here, but I’m not going back to Bujumbura, so let’s find a ‘solution’. » Is he for real? Is he this dense?

He sits back, looks up at me. He looks confused. Then, « Oh, oh, ok, come into my office and we will discuss. »  The cut under his eye is beaming.

I wonder briefly what he saw inscribed in my expression that made him understand. Was it desperation? A propensity for conspiracy? Or did he just need a few moments to get it?

I enter the office from the side door and walk over to the officer’s right but he doesn’t look up at me. He extends his open left hand across his body, still looking out. He is insisting on secrecy. I feel a little ridiculous. I am hoping Sean can’t see me. I look out the window, expecting to see an army truck pull up to arrest the corrupt foreigner. No luck – still no one, except Sean (looking toward the office) and the van.

« Ok, no problem. Give me something to get a few beers. A little present. »

 I love this – he still feels the need to dress up the bribe, as if I care what he spends it on. I wish he had said that he was going to pay his kids’ school fees instead – that’s what everyone in the Congo says. I already know I only have a 10,000 franc bill in my wallet – about $8 USD. That’s going to buy a lot of beers. Sadly, I’m going to be party to both corruption and alcoholism.

We drive on to Bukavu.

 

(I find out later from a friend that he knows the commander of that border post. When he hears my story, he tells me I should have called him because he could have gotten me through. Turns out the commander is an old friend of his. The lesson is clear: next time I find myself about to bribe someone, I should call everyone listed in my cellphone first.)

In the next few days, I will write a post about the trip to eastern Congo. Hopefully.
I’ve been super-busy and kind of run-down recently, but this blog is a good space to gain perspective so I’ll  try to keep it going. Thanks for reading.

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2 Responses to “congoing”


  1. 1 Boujin
    August 3, 2008 at 4:59 pm

    You pulled out all the stops there. Glad you got through the checkpoint. Keep those wits you’ve so accurately honed about you and come back in one piece. When you hear stories like this after living in a country like Japan it boggles the mind in ways that I can’t even fathom.

  2. 2 Marie
    August 5, 2008 at 4:42 pm

    I’m a-waitin’ your next entry with bated breath now, what with plans down n all!
    Also, keepin’ you in prayers (when I do say them). Grad school could not top the experiences that you’re having right now. Stay safe. x


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