Posts Tagged ‘Bukavu

07
Aug
09

gorillas

May 2, 2009

I’m standing at the bottom of a slope in Kahuzi-Biega National Park west of Bukavu in the DRC, dirt splattered all over my pants and for the second time in two months I am  witnessing my car flopping around in the mud. I think back to Nyungwe Forest in April when Martina and I drove to Rwanda to see chimps and just to get away from Burundi. We picked up Sarah from Scotland at the Park Ranger station (some foreshadowing perhaps – I had a ticket to Scotland for the following month). On the downhill drive into the park, we had no problems despite it being rainy season. The park’s tourist numbers confirm that April is the least popular month to visit but I highly recommend it if you want to see new landscapes and gorgeous cloud patterns every five minutes.

NyungweForest1

NyungweForest2

Anyway, of course, we didn’t have any issues getting to the park – we just slid downhill on the tire tracks other vehicles had carved into the yellow mud. Coming back uphill was a predictable catastrophe that no one really bothered to think about. The trip had seemed like such a brilliant idea until that point. Then things got cagey. I had run out of candy.

NyungweStuck

This was how the exit route looked.

NyungweStuck2

We tried putting logs into the tracks, we tried piling leaves under the car. I took out my machete to hack and to dig. We tried a lot of pretty silly things but with only the three of us and the Park Ranger, we didn’t move a yard. Finally, we convinced the Ranger to call his buddies and also to send for help from a nearby village. We waited for about 20 “Rwandan minutes,” which we were shocked to discover was only 15 ‘European minutes’. And then help arrived. Boy, did it arrive. Or I should say: boys. Lots and lots of barefoot giggly boys. We got to see chimps in their natural environement, a rainforest. The boys got to see foreigners in their natural environement, helplessly flailing in the mud. Fair enough. Everyone got to go home happy.

More Rangers arrived. Martina marshalled the whole group by shouting encouragements in a language no one really understood (Italian?) until she was laughing too hard to help push. Half the team pushed the car from behind, the other half pulled it by the grill on the front. The team rocked the car back and forth over each bump until it slowly gained enough momentum and traction to get going. But once it did pick up speed, I didn’t want to stop again so Sarah, Martina and our guide piled into the moving vehicle and I didn’t let up on the gas pedal until we were back on pavement. The car looked like hell. Probably the branches I crashed through did also. And then there was the rescue team:

NyungweTeam

All this flashes through my mind as I watch my Land Cruiser get a gentle nudge back up the hill so we can leave it on the drier part of the trail and hike toward the gorillas, the eastern lowland silverback gorillas. I love saying that. We’re a total of six hikers, one guide, and at least six Congolese soldier-turned-rangers. I hear some of the soldiers served under the Congolese Tutsi General Laurent Nkunda and had been integrated into the Congolese forces. That’s good, I guess, as all reports suggest they are really effective soldiers. In all, there are actually only three civilians – our guide, Carlos, Martina and me. The other four hikers sheepishly identify themselves as “Information Specialists” for the U.S. further north in Goma. I glance sidways at one in a black cap, impenetrable shades, a black tactical vest and menacing (black) boots. “Information? Oh, are you a writer?” Martina asks.

It’s a really refreshing hike. It’s still early in the morning and the Congolese landscape is awesome. The air’s clean, it’s not too hot – the climate isn’t really the problem for this country. We hike for about an hour when all of a sudden, a guerilla!

Gorillas4

Last known photo of the hikers before they see gorillas.

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The guerilla helpfully estimates that we are about several more minutes hike from the gorillas. He also tells us that we should always keep seven to ten meters between ourselves and the male or we might offend him. We learn the guerilla’s teammates have been radioing back and forth on the gorillas’ locations so he has seen them. All we have to do is turn right along the trail and hike a bit further. We take literally five steps after the turn when all of a sudden, gorillas!

Gorilla1

Gorillas2

At first, I don’t understand what is happening. I expected more hiking. I also expected more distance than two meters. When we got our pep talk, we must have already been inside seven meters of the gorillas. What I see is a semicircle trained on a small scene, almost like a stage. I’m confused because on the edges of this scene, just inches from a large female and her kids, are two or three rangers hacking away with sharp machetes, stripping the trees of branches and leaves. Then I realize they are clearing the space for us so we could see the gorillas better. Pretty quickly, we ask about the distance and the disturbance we are causing but Carlos explains that the rangers and gorillas are familiar with each other and if the gorillas were irritated by us, they would let us know. Everyone, gorillas and humans, also know that the law here is Chimanuka, the kingly male off to the left. He is essentially tolerating us because if he really wanted to, he could flatten all of us in a heartbeat. We are the ones that have to be totally respectful. At the moment, I am totally respectful of his eating every leaf around him. That’s about as far as our relationship gets. We don’t share a beer or anything, but he does end up tolerating us for more than an hour as we follow him deeper and deeper into the jungle.

Gorilla_Back

Gorillas6

Gorillas3

I’ve only uploaded a couple photos of the gorillas because this is ultimately not something I could show you well. Anyone can see images of gorillas anywhere, but there is so much more to it. It’s humbling and majestic and frightening and exciting and even a little sad, all at the same time. I would just muck it up; the experience deserves better than my telling of it. It would be hard to retell the stories we exchange while hiking or describe the flowers we smell. The enormity of Chimanuka’s frame, his fists that are the size of my torso, his commanding grunts. The little ones, interacting with us, dangling from branches, swinging by in the surrounding trees. Putting all of it onto a blog is really not why I went.

What I do support is tourism in the Congo. If you get the chance to visit, I recommend tours led by Carlos from the Co-Co Lodge, located in Bukavu. He has been there for a long time, so he knows the terrain and he knows the people. You can contact him at lodgecoco@kivu-online.com

You might mention Jeff and Martina from Bujumbura said hello, but I can’t be responsible for what happens next. Carlos was the one who had to get my car out of the mud.

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02
Aug
09

prehistoric time travel

I guess the first thing I should mention is that I am, in fact, not dead. Long periods of silence tend to create some outrageous rumors, like the idea that I would actually let myself die here. Humanitarian crisis created by a boneheaded U.N.-led operation? Rampant Interhamwe rebels, Congolese soldiers and militianmen raping, killing, burning and being generally unruly?
Please.

Instead, travel back in time with me to May 2, 2009, when I traveled back in time to 40 million B.C. Co-conspirator Martina and I are in Bukavu in the DRC. We’re at the Hotel de la Roche (the “Roach Hotel”) having some lunch after seeing eastern lowland silverback gorillas in Kahuzi-Biega National Park (which I’ll write about separately), when we’re joined by the cast of Disney’s new theatrical production, “Congo.” We are swarmed by a flock of mini-turkeys, something resembling a peacock on cocaine and our favorite, a shoebill. The shoebill is unlike any creature I have ever seen. Its slate-blue beak could keep me mesmerized for hours. It also really does look like a shoe, but the kind of shoe you would wear if you wanted to get beaten up in high school. We respond to this fascinating bird the only way humans know how when confronted by an astonishing creature: we try to hunt him. Martina and I take turns creeping as close as we could to the guy. We first track him and stare, hoping to build up some telepathic rapport. Then we move in for the kill. Here’s a visual narrative of our attempts.

BirdWatching1

BirdWatching2

It takes a little while but I have a good trick for getting right up to the shoebill.
(Photos by Martina)

BirdHunt1

BirdHunt2

BirdHunt3

BirdHunt7

BirdHunt4

BirdHunt8

BirdHunt9

BirdHunt10

BirdHunt12

Eventually, I lay down right next to him(?). There aren’t any serious objections, just some curious glances (from the hotel staff, too). I think he was completely fooled by my blue camouflage.

Next: Gorillas! And, guerillas!

Still alive, still alive, thanks…

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.

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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

10
Aug
08

congo pt. 1 (continued)

Tuesday, July 22, 2008.

(My mom’s birthday. Sorry I didn’t write, Mom – I was in the Congo.)

This is a work trip, so in two days, we crash around Bukavu – just me, Sean, and the humongous drum that he bought in Burundi, boucing around in the covered bed of a truck where the seats are two benches that face each other; I get out feeling kind of battered every time. In all, we meet with about ten different agencies and their practitioners to get a sense of what’s going on in the region and how we might help out. I don’t need to reiterate the details of those meetings, except to say that not everyone’s stories line up, but I will mention one place in particular.

Panzi Hospital (please visit http://www.panzihospitalbukavu.org/) is located a few kilometers into the hills of Bukavu. The road there is so dusty all the leaves on the plants lining the road are completely coated. It’s like the whole scene has been spray-painted sienna except for the female pedestrians wrapped in a splash of vivid colors. From what I hear, Panzi is one of the best-equipped hospitals in the Great Lakes region. Unfortunately, its favorable condition correlates to the need for such a facility.

Walking into Panzi, the first few patients we see would belong in most general hospitals. A few people on crutches, bandages on various parts of the body for others. I do notice though that they are very young. As I have started to learn more about eastern Congo, I start to ask myself what caused the injuries that I’m seeing. That boy on crutches? Probably not a skateboarding accident. Would I want to know the answer?

Sean and I meet with the deputy Director because the real Director is at a conference in Germany. The deputy Director leads us around the facility.

Panzi responds directly to a need in the region: treatment for victims of sexual violence. The term « systematic rape » is sometimes used to describe what is happening in eastern Congo. Women are the principal victims in a conflict that includes armed groups from several countries, groups that operate with relative impunity. No matter how I try to add up the motives of these groups, I cannot see what would lead to the brutal suffering they inflict on women. Some stories I wish I had not heard.

As the tour moves on, and I feel more awkward and sad, we enter wards full of recuperating women. All are rape victims, our guide confirms. We visit the operating rooms, where shiny metal stirrups are already set up. The sterile tiled rooms, the equipment – it all feels cold and menacing.

Toward the end of the tour, we come up to the side of a large shed, almost like a hangar. When we get around to the front and look inside, I am startled by a massive congregation of women and children seated at bench-tables, a few with baskets and other crafts in front of them. Up to the moment when we look into the hangar, I did not hear any sound that would suggest so many people were just around the corner. It’s kind of eerie. Later on, Sean says he thinks there were over a thousand women and children there. Sean and I end up buying a few of the crafts. Big laughs when I flip one of the baskets over and put it on my head. Sean says, « You knew that was going to happen. » Sure, but if you know me, you know I would put something on my head every chance I get (even bike helmets, on occasion).

On the way out, a chubby kid with the puffiest shiniest cheeks I have ever seen just grabs my hand and starts walking with me. Two fat little moons – they are so perfectly round, I don’t even want to pinch them, lest I disturb them. The boy walks with us all the way to the car and then waves us goodbye.

 

It’s been about two-and-a-half weeks since the visit now, and I have formulated two project proposals to pass on to HQ to see which one might be more workable. Here they are:

Congo Plan One:

Congo Plan Two:

 

07
Aug
08

congo, pt. 1 – bukavu, south kivu province

Monday, July 21 to Wednesday, July 23, 2008.

We’re getting near the border between Rwanda and the Congo (DRC). Below us stretches Lake Kivu, and I can’t believe what I’m seeing.

Everyone told us to stay at the Orchid and this is why:

It’s so hard to process what I read and hear about this region from seeing the lake. We had been expecting the worst. Early on during the ride, Sean and I joked about being taken hostage by some Congolese rebels. Who would try to escape? Who would get away? I smiled as I looked down: running shoes.

Congo is chaos, a place where paying bribes is slightly more justifiable because no one is paid their salaries. It doesn’t mean there is nothing good there or that nothing works or that productive work isn’t being done – it just means it’s all quite messy.

A useful contrast: the Rwandan checkpoint and the Congolese one. On the Rwandan side, everyone lines up, there is a window through which an immigration officer asks somewhat relevant questions, exchanges a few pleasant words, stamps our passports and then off we go. The minute we get off our bus on the Congolese side, a man in civilian clothes catches one of us by the arm and says, “Come with me, you have to get your vaccines.” He’s quite insistent and we’re kind of annoyed. We push him away and head right for the visa office.

Inside the office are three desks arranged in an ‘L’ with border police and would-be travelers buzzing around. There is a lot of pointing and page-turning. No one seems very happy. An officer sees us and motions us into a separate office where two officers are calmly doing nothing: the foreigner’s line. We are surprised when we get our passports back with visa stamps and signatures and have only paid the visa fees. I secretly feel like an asshole for that.

As soon as we step out of the visa office, the same man in civilian clothing accosts us and tells us to go to the vaccination booth. We refuse, but then a health ‘official’ (guy in a lab-coat) says we must go to show our vaccination cards. We are bowled over by the legitimacy of his white lab-coat. We decide to get this over with.

So we trudge down to a little tent where three lab-coated men are inside: one is standing and rubbing soapy hands together; another is seated behind a small table; the third is standing next to the second. The two men by the table record our names into a ledger and ask for our vaccination cards. Sean’s is a computer printout and relatively easy to decipher. Mine is the yellow booklet that folds out like an elaborate pop-up book. The inspecter never quite figures it out and I notice he never gets to the middle sections where my past vaccinations are actually recorded. We get our cards back and are about to leave when the man standing next to the table calls us back, extends his right hand, and says, “Please, a little present?” As we step out of the tent, I wonder if the tent and all that build up is just an ornate pretense to ask the question: “Do you have some money for us?”

Once we get out of the vaccination booth, we head back toward the bus. A Congolese policewoman sitting near the booth spots us. She watches me approach, smirks, and turns her head away as I walk past.

« Chinois! » she hisses.

We are in the Congo.

 

The other night:

My future roommate/fellow home renovator, Julie, and I are sharing anecdotes about the bathroom cockroaches (well, she was talking about « beetles ») before dinner and wondering why people naturally flinch at insects. We are surprised at the disproportionate reactions people have over such small creatures, although we agree that the geckos darting wildly all over the walls are rather cute. Julie put forth a very brave argument about overcoming those involuntary reactions by rationally concluding the harmlessness of the insect (in most cases). Is she right? Does rationality have any place in this equation? Is there something wrong with being scared?

There is sometimes a fascination with being tough around here. On occasion, I, too, have to project that personality – strictly for work, of course. But who are we kidding? Let’s get over ourselves and calm our romanticized notions of roughing it or being « cowboys. » Africa could use some more honesty from its guests (and in general?). Sometimes, I wonder if ‘Africa’ would get half the attention that it does (which is already pitifully little) from development workers if it weren’t such a beautiful and spellbinding place where our playground fantasies can be played out.

On one of my first days in Bujumbura, I was walking down a dirt path when I came across a man laying on his back on the ground, his limbs in a contorted position; he was clearly unconscious. I wondered if was dead.

I had almost stepped on him.

His was not a resting pose. He was covered in the red dust of the street, which was why I didn’t see him until the last moment. I felt a shock at seeing him like that and just missing planting my foot on his head. I guess I would be surprised if I almost stepped on any person, conscious or not, but I found myself asking why I was startled. I even chided myself for it. Now I look back and can’t understand that question or that reaction. Why would I ever want to be unflinching at the sight of something like that?

 

 

 

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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