18
Dec
08

business trip, pt. three: the good bandit

backing up a bit…

November 12-14, 2008 – Bukavu, DRC

I like shaking hands. I like what it can or cannot tell me, the little bit of human contact, the absurd formality of the gesture. Sometimes when I’m leaving the house, I shake hands with the guards. On this particular occasion, it feels different. I have just told the guys I am going to the Congo for a few days. They look at the ground or just around, but not at me when we shake, and the grip lasts a little longer than usual. Not much, but just enough that I can tell they’re thinking something. I ask about it, and Dieudonné tilts his head and shrugs.

“Muri Congo, hari indwano.”

I am about to ask what ‘indwano’ is when I realize it can only be one thing. In the Congo, there is war. That’s what it was – the handshake felt like a farewell.

I say, “Oya, i Goma hari indwano. Ngiye i Bukavu. Hariya, nta indwano iriho.” No, in Goma there is war. I am going to Bukavu. There, there is no war.

I realize the skeptical looks I get have nothing to do with my Kirundi (because it’s perfect?).

“Urugendo rywiza.” Have a beautiful trip.

And I do.

The drive through southwestern Rwanda is one of my favorite so far. But before I get there I have to revisit the scene of an earlier drama. About four months ago, I crossed at this border with my colleague, Sean. We took a bus together but while Sean had no problems getting through immigration into Rwanda, I had to resort to somewhat dubious tactics. I’m wondering if the issue might resurface so I decide I better preempt the issue.

I walk up to a short policeman who has the familiarity of being someone I should avoid.

I ask, “We know each other, no?”
“…Yes?”

Good, he doesn’t remember me that well. I tell him that yes, we met a few months ago when I passed through here and he helped me a lot. He likes hearing that, and happily stamps my passport. I make a note to shut up before he really does remember. 

There is very little fuss when I pull up to the border barrier. The guard lifts up the gate for me to pass. Where are you going, he asks. To Bukavu, I say.

“Woooh, courage!”

The Rwandan border post only has one officer present. It also only has one visitor present: me. I want to get going so I can arrive in Bukavu before dark, but the Rwandan officer has invoked Obama. However, unlike every other person so far, the officer is not effusive about Obama being elected. Or it seems so at first. We spend a good 20 minutes going over the possible scenarios for disappointment from an Obama presidency. It’s actually kind of refreshing. At the end, however, the officer reveals himself to be an enthusiastic supporter, just more grounded and analytical than others. The border post is a waste of his talents.

After the border, there is an uphill road that bends  and opens upon a glorious panaorama. The road isn’t too good, which gives me reason to slow down to admire the view. In the distance, I can see a shimmering grey veil of rain moving across the bright green tea fields. The sky ahead gets darker. I speed up to beat the rain so I can get to Bukavu before it gets too muddy. As I increase my speed, I glance in the rear view mirror and notice a gray pick-up truck. It recedes as I accelerate.

I’m zipping along, noticing how much quicker Rwandans are than Burundians to react to an oncoming vehicle when I see the gray pick-up behind me again. It is diligently trying to catch up to. It is somewhat effective. Not quite Nabokov’s darting spider in the rearview mirror – maybe more like a manatee. Then I see the truck’s headlights flash, kind of. They are so weak I barely notice them in the daylight. I figure the driver is just trying to pass me. I slow down a bit and the vehicle keeps approaching until we are almost bumper-to-bumper. He makes no attempt to move around me. The lights wink again. I see an arm reach out the driver side and wave at me. It seems to be making the universal gesture for “Pull the hell over, I’ve been chasing you for the last 10km!”

A young man in a hip black t-shirt and a badge hanging around his neck on a chain gets out of the truck. I ask him who he is, and he says he is a police officer. There are a lot of reasons not to believe him but instead I just register curiosity. Huh, I think, in Rwanda, the police have cars.

The officer instructs me to go back to the border post. I offer to follow him but he says no, he will follow me. The drive back is no less scenic and several times, I slow down so the gray truck can catch up.

At the border station, the Immigration Officer that stamped my passport is standing at the top of the steps and smiling as I pull up. I get out of my car, beaming, like we are sharing some private joke. He must have realized what happened once his colleagues took off in tepid pursuit. He reaches out to shake my hand – no problem, no problem, he tells me, excuse me, I didn’t know you had a vehicle. You need an entry card for it.

When the apprehending officer pulls up, he sees me talking to his colleague, who then explains quickly what happened. The young officer is smirking when he gestures me into his office. No problem, no problem.

In the office, there is an Obama photo that someone printed out. I ask who printed it out, and the officer, my new friend, says he did. I smile. Too easy. I should be back on the road in two minutes. I just hope they don’t notice I had to make a “correction” on my insurance documents.

I’m getting near the Congo/Rwanda border now. I see a sign for Ruzizi I, Ruzizi being the river that divides the two countries. I’m not sure where Ruzizi II is, but remembering that I crossed at II last time, I search in vain for the sign to Ruzizi II. Apparently, you can only get to Ruzizi II if you already know where it is. I thought I would give Ruzizi I a try anyway just to compare – boy, was that a mistake.

I get to the border and walk up to the immigration window on the Rwandan side. I answer all the usual questions: Where are you going? For how long? What are you doing there? Do you have a job for me?

I get back in the car and pass the gates. The moment I am through, it’s like I’ve jumped dimensions. The smooth Rwandan road has been transformed into a broken mud-path. Women with giant baskets on their heads line the roadsides. Porters stoop under sacks that say 50kg on them, staggering one by one up the mountainside. Mud mud, everywhere.

At the Congo border station, the chief, Dismas, invites me into his office and chats a while with me. I soothe his incredulity that I am in fact American. He tells me he likes my name, and then asks if I know where his name comes from. I say no and he tells me the Biblical significance of Dismas. Dismas is the thief who is redeemed at the last moment of his life when he repents and reaches out to Jesus. Dismas means the “good bandit.” I say, I’ve met many Dismas’ in the Congo, many ‘good bandits’. This incarnation of Dismas says, yes, it is a good story, and, do not forget, I am Dismas, the good bandit. I’ll bet you are!

Once I escape from Dismas’ office, I realize “escape” is never that easy. I walk back up the muddy road, everyone stopping what they’re doing to stare at me. I climb into my truck and have just enough time to put on my seat belt when suddenly the passenger side door and the back seat doors pop open all at once and three men climb in. They’re laughing and chatting, like they don’t even notice me.

I barely manage, “What are you doing?!?!”
“We need a ride into town.”
“Good, go find a taxi. Who are you???”
“We work for the government. It is very muddy today so we do not want to walk.”
“No, get out of my car!”
“It is not far”/”You can drop us in town”/(laugh laugh laugh) Repeat five times.
I only relent when I look over to the man in the passenger seat and notice he is cupping a new Barbie-pink plastic cell phone in his hands. Is that your new phone, I ask?
Ha ha, no, it is a toy for my daughter. I think, that phone must get to his daughter. Finally, I say, “Ok, if you think this is a taxi, I am charging each of you 300 francs (about 60 cents).”
Silence.
The guys look at one another, unsure how to react. Ha ha?
Ha! 

I stay at Hotel La Roche, which could be loosely translated as “The Roach Hotel.” The last time I stayed here with Sean and they stuck us up in an attic double. This time I manage even worse: an attic single with exposed panels of insulation (asbestos?) and a ceiling that makes me reconsider verticality as an evolutionary advantage.

bukavu3_08_11

Down in the courtyard, I stand around to admire the lake and the bizarre elephant and bald eagle sculptures the hotel just doesn’t seem to want to get rid of. Total class.

bukavu4_08_11

I recall the last time I was here, a helicopter landed on the lawn where I’m standing. Lake Kivu is just amazing.

bukavu2_08_11

As I’m admiring the lake view, two other guests start talking to me. Inevitably, we talk about the violence raging in Goma, just across the lake. Remembering that Laurent Nkunda’s rebels briefly took Bukavu in 2004, I ask if that will happen this time. The men give a surprising answer. What is happening in Goma, they say, is the Americans’ fault. And the rebels will kill all Americans. Then they will come here and kill everyone. But not you.
Not me? Just me? But I’m American, I say.
Oh, they will kill you then. Ha ha. Obama! 
Ha? 

In the last six months, I’ve been told I will be killed more than in all previous 27 years combined (junior high doesn’t count). I don’t take most of the remarks very seriously, but no matter how many times I hear it, it still gives me pause; I feel my smile freeze up and become awkward. Dying is not really the issue; it is much more likely I will get flattened by a car/truck/Land Cruiser/motorcycle/cow. Rather, it’s knowing that someone would actually *want* to kill me and also knowing that being killed by people with intent here does not simply mean dying, but something much worse. It’s just not a very happy thought. The conversation ends soon after.

So I’m here in Bukavu to wrap up registration for Heartland. I have a handwritten letter from George in Kinshasa and a phone number for his contact. But first, I give George a call to let him know that I did make it to Bukavu, as promised. He recognizes my voice instantly (I’m still always surprised when that happens). I’m equal parts delight at speaking to George and amazement that the call actually made it across the Congo. Don’t worry, George tells me, you will get registered. It will happen because I am working for you.

Two more calls, several quick meetings, and yes, George, Heartland is registered to begin operations in the Congo. Thank you, friend.

I have one other objective in mind. It’s kind of a long shot given how I only have two hours left in Bukavu before I have to leave to get back to Burundi at a reasonable hour. I have a Burundi driver’s license already, but the Congo requires another one and people are starting to catch on that my Illinois card is not the International License, despite my assurances (“See, it’s in English. And that’s me.”). As Bukavu is the provincial capital, I should be able to get a license here. On the way to the Bureau de Roulage (the Office of Rolling?), a policeman stops me and demands to see my license. I tell him I am on my way to get one. He tells me he can help because his dad works in the Bureau de Roulage. Uh huh. I tell him I like his helmet.

At the Bureau de Roulage, I reach the second floor and find a man sitting at a small desk. I ask him about getting a license and how long it would take. He takes my money and tells me he’ll call in an hour when it’s ready. Even I find that too easy, so I ask again.
Can you do it?
Yes, no problem, he replies. The money goes in the front shirt pocket and I’m relieved. It’ll get done because he’s going to do it himself. It’ll get done because he just got paid.
I’m not surprised when about two hours later, he calls me and asks me to meet him on the street corner. 

The document is far better than I had ever hoped. I had seen the licenses in Kinshasa and they were shiny laminated things, but in Bukavu, they do not waste. My license displays its origins proudly: “Republic of Zaire: Unity, Work, Progress.” It could also read – “Republic of Zaire: Best. Souvenir. Ever.”

On my way out of town, I pull up to the policeman that stopped me earlier. I flash my new license and he says, yes, that is good. It is okay now.

The drive back to Bujumbura is a little harrowing and annoying, not least because I can’t find my way out of Bukavu’s muddy back roads. I also  have to contend with a completely inept policeman who sends me the wrong way. There isn’t too much else I really want or need to say about the rest of the drive. I did take a self-portrait along the way though. It was completely dark when I took the photo but the miracle of flash photography comes through once again. (I realize, maybe this might have been the that photo? The one where, as I’m holding the camera up, I wonder if it will find its way to people that need to see it.)

bukavu5_08_11

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4 Responses to “business trip, pt. three: the good bandit”


  1. December 23, 2008 at 2:00 am

    i’m glad you made it out all in one piece! you are a captivating writer.

  2. 2 Kevin Schular
    January 2, 2009 at 7:14 pm

    Can you tell me more about crossing into Congo at Bukavu? We are going there on Jan 21 and are trying to decide about getting a visa at the border or here in Canada at the Congo embassy. Any thoughts?

  3. 3 Garcon Bk
    January 12, 2009 at 7:33 pm

    Just telling kevein that is better to apply for a visa at the embasssy here in Canada before leaving. It will save you time and unwanted questions from the boarder services. I live in Canada but work there.

  4. 4 Martin Agsten
    January 19, 2009 at 4:04 pm

    Hi!

    I am crossing into Bukavu from Rwanda in a week or so. AS I am searching for info on the web your blog popped up. Do you think it is safe to cross with all the trouble going on in the North? Can you tell me where togo to what there is too see and do?

    It be nice to get an answeer
    Thx
    Martin


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