Posts Tagged ‘Uvira

16
Jan
11

border crossing series, pt. 389

13 January, 2011, Burundi/DRC Border at Kamivira

This region plays tricks on my concept of time. Increments of fifteen and thirty minutes feel qualitatively the same. I am continuously calculating how much time I need to accomplish a task and then reducing those calculations little by little while still telling myself that the task can be accomplished. It’s like I believe infinitely in the possible, in being able to meet deadlines, reach a destination, mediate an argument, no matter the reality of my circumstances. Often, this thinking is endlessly optimistic, even more often it is abetted by a lack of structure that makes those gaps exploitable; everything is negotiable. At the highest levels, you might call it corruption, but it’s a spectrum; at the lowest levels, it’s called being resourceful or “getting shit done.”

So on my colleague, Molly’s last visit to Uvira on the other side of the border with Burundi on Lake Tanganyika, we had planned to head back to Burundi at 5:30 p.m. Goodbyes, handshakes, hugs and photo-taking mean we actually left at 5:46. And suddenly, even by my calculations, it strikes me that it was a ridiculous amount of time to drive back out of the NGO quarter, weave our way through town, connect to the road that leads to the border, get our passports stamped and cross no-man’s land back to the Burundi side – this was 14 minutes after all, not 15; the whole process usually takes about an hour. Any one of those parts could take at least 20 minutes. And even though there were several announcements during the year with much fanfare about the relaxing of border regulations and longer opening times, we checked and found out the border still closes at 6 p.m. There might be no negotiating on that point, I think, which then might lead to serious “negotiatin’.” Belt, ignition, lights, gas!

The drive is a blur – a rambling, muddy, splashy “pole pole!” blur. I’m one hand on the horn the whole time, the other all a-flickin’ the brights, spinning the wheel, eyes scanning for every possible danger. Bicycles, motorcycles, carts, policemen, UN vehicles, trucks, buses – who knew there would be rush hour in Uvira!

It is exactly 14 minutes when we crossed the first gate into the Congolese immigration section. Beyond the second gate is no-man’s land, the strip of fertile emptiness that divides Burundi and the Congo in our little corner of the world, and beyond that, the gate back to Burundi. Home. We are still in our car and it looks like we have just entered the parking lot from Hell. The last herd of vehicles crossing back after a day of commerce in Burundi has spilled over from the other side. The cars  and buses are so solidly arrayed, there’s only enough room for humans to wriggle by. I find a narrow path for the car but there’s no room to park the car to the side and walk to the row of immigration offices on our right. At the same time, I am scheming, thinking of things to say to shorten the immigration process. I’m amazed I even think this is possible, and I feel a bit guilty but I couldn’t worry about that then; this is the context in which I live and work.

I haven’t rolled up ten meters when all of a sudden I hear, “Jefferson, traverse directement le frontier!” This is like “Advance to Go” in Monopoly, but better. Skip everything and just go. At an international border. I turn my head in time to see my old friend and immigration officer, Fazuli, both arms stretched out toward Burundi, pointing frantically, face full of concern. He’s hatless, has no time for another word and runs off somewhere. It’s just chaos. I do what he says and drive right up to the second gate. An incoming car gets the gate up and just as I’m about to blow through to the other side, a sharp woman’s voice yells at me to stop. I step on the brakes. Another immigration officer. The game is up; she scolds me and demands our documents. Surely, she is going to take them to the immigration office to log by hand and then stamp. “Immigration Procedures – Lose 15 Minutes. Go back three spaces and spend the night in Uvira.” This would be a disastrous result because Molly leaves Burundi for good the next day and there is a ton of wrap-up she needs to do. The loss of an evening and morning would derail the entire process. So it is pure honey-colored joy when the officer glances at our passports, doesn’t even try with my inch-thick document and hands them back to us with a smile. I shake her hand at the same time I step on the gas. We’re off! Home!

Home. But they locked the door. Figuratively. More accurately, they tied the string. When they tie a string across an opening, like a bridge, that’s the warning – the way is closed. In this case, some random non-uniformed person unties it for us to pass. We get on the short narrow metal bridge and travel the 20 meters across only to be halted by a real gate. The officer manning the gate is in a blue beret and matching poncho and he is doing his best to nonchalantly ignore us. He would turn away, stare briefly past our car and then look at the ground again. Another officer, a big fella, in light blue shirt sleeves has come out of the immigration office to watch. I haven’t been in a situation quite like this one. Sort of a half-hearted farce coupled with willful inactivity. Something needed to give. I hop out of the car, and ask Molly to move to the driver’s side, just in case.

Poncho quickly moves toward me and gives me a firm “The border is closed, you can’t cross, etc. etc.” I don’t really hear him because I can quickly see he’s not the problem. Poncho takes his orders from the Big Guy. I ignore Poncho, swing my legs over the gate and head straight toward Mr. Big.

I start walking toward the large officer with all the deliberateness of someone approaching a hibernating bear. In a steady straight line, concentrating. Except, he’s not hibernating – he’s in full-blooded anger mode, yelling at me to turn the car back before I’m even within 10 meters of him. I get closer. For some reason, I believe if I can get near enough to this raging hulk, I can explain to him exactly why we have to cross and he would listen. At this point, I have to believe in something, I tell myself. Now in front of the still blustering officer, I imagine myself standing in front of a roaring lion, fangs bared – probably not open to reasoned dialogue. I wonder if he is going to eat me.

“TURN AROUND!!! YOU ARE NOT ENTERING THE COUNTRY! YOU WILL TURN AROUND AND LEAVE RIGHT NOW! RIGHT NOW!!!”

But it’s all a show right? A show of authority, a show of power, a show. So I can show no weakness, no uncertainty, no grammatical errors, and to an extent, no emotion: no sarcasm, no indignation, no fear.

I direct a string of soothing declarations at him. “We are aid workers. We were told to cross the border. My colleague needs to catch a flight (tomorrow). I understand we are a minute late. That is why I got out of the car to speak with you. I don’t understand your anger.”

The point is not content – like so many things in this region, it’s about style, appearance. By this point, his objections were verging on the bizarre.

“YOU HAVE NO RIGHT TO COME BACK! WHY DID YOU LEAVE THE COUNTRY?”

What? Why I left has nothing to do with me coming back. It’s not a ‘why’ issue. I say, “You are right – I should have never crossed the border!” It’s turning into a farce, and it would have, except at that moment as the conversation was descending into nonsense, we both catch a surreal sight in our peripheral vision. Slowly, as if it were the most normal and cordial thing, Poncho gently lifts the gate and Molly guides the vehicle at a slow soft roll in front of the immigration office.

We’re both gawking with our eyes, Mr. Big and me, but our mouths are still churning out bullshit. I think it’s at that moment that he realizes he has lost. Somehow, he loses his communication authority over Poncho who, perhaps in a moment of civility or weakness, decides to let Molly just enter. I thought they had worked this scheme out, but whatever, we are back and there is no point in delaying the inevitable. Mr. Big thinks the same, grabs our passports and stalks off into the immigration office. I join him after a few moments and find Mr. Big at his desk in the now very dark office. (Electricity at an international border post? Nope!). He is holding his cell phone up as a light to the passport registry to fill it out. “Take,” he says and I hold up the light. I’m amazed to see my hand trembling a little. No one likes getting yelled at, no matter how calm you try to be. I close my eyes and tell my hand to stop. I reopen my eyes and the hand isn’t shaking anymore – I think – it’s too dark to tell. When the officer is done recording our info, he folds up the passports and hands them to me with a faint smile. We shake hands. The joining of hands – symbolic applause. The show is over.

I take our passports back and move back to the car. I love their weight in my hand.
In the last three years, I have added pages to my passport three times, the last time incurring a stern warning that I would have to get a brand new passport next time. My passport has graduated from being a pass’port’ to being a pass’book’. “Is that your passport in your pocket or are you just happy to see me?” Well, both.

I am still moved by the “Welcome Home” the U.S. immigration officer inevitably offers before spending several moments locating a spot to stamp my passport. I still want to respond with a robust “Thanks!” but now I feel guilty, like I can see the doubt in their eyes. Welcome home, they say (pause, looks at all the stamps), but what the heck were you doing abroad?

It’s a somewhat cliché device, but after all the trips to the Congo, each one memorable and recorded with a stamp, the one I’ll never forget is the one I didn’t get.

A part of me is still there.

Officially.

13
Mar
10

international women’s day – continued but abridged

I had been expecting the festivities to rumble on into the night for International Women’s Day, but Aristide, our Project Coordinator, explained to me that the women absolutely had to get home by seven or eight p.m. He said it was to avoid trouble. My first thought: okay, it’s a bit unruly here, maybe not safe for women on the streets after dark with so much beer already consumed. But Aristide, with the help of the female staff, explained differently: The problem is that if they didn’t get back by then, there’ll be trouble at home.

‘8 mars’ is synonymous with female emancipation…for a day. The thinking is, women get their day and men will put up with it to an extent. So men will tolerate the “desordre” of ‘8 mars’ for a while. They’ll let the cries for equality and female empowerment ring out as long as they stay on the street. They’ll permit the dancing and parading as a necessary antagonism, so long as the women come back home and remember to cook dinner. So women who stay out a little too long, who drink a little too much on 8 mars are pushing it – they’re taking the whole liberation idea a bit too far. If they “se vengent” against men that way and if they try to repay the men for the other 364 days of inequality, then there would be hell to pay the night of ‘8 mars’. Better for the women to return home early and show their obedience to existing power structures – on this, both sides generally agree – “saving face” takes on a very literal meaning. So while ‘8 mars’ is a daylong party for women, it’s also a node for the paradoxical nature of women’s rights in the Congo, both its celebration and its negation.

I’m especially curious about the bellicose tone of these conversations. Of course, many discussions about gender roles and the sexes take on some edge of competitiveness, but I consistently sense that it takes on the dimension of a combat here. Women are either up or down, have to be shown their place or beaten back. Men have to show their dominance, must always be superior and they really are in control anyway but they talk as if their place is forever in doubt in this familiar contest. This is strange. Women remain overwhelmingly the principal victims in conflicts all over the world. In the Congo, it’s spawned a new vocabulary of inhumanity. Has the international community so inundated eastern Congo (and the world generally) with rhetoric about women’s empowerment that there is a defensive backlash from men? Probably, but that wouldn’t be a problem if real solutions to promote women’s livelihoods accompanied the flashy posters. More on this point another time, I think.

The next day, I gathered the staff to talk about the previous day’s events and what it meant to them. Inevitably, we talked about notions of respect and equality, women’s progress in obtaining rights such as inheritance in the DRC and the evolution of a women’s role in a family or a couple. It’s so interesting – I feel like we make a lot of progress. The men are at times disenchanted, at times threatened, at times just flummoxed. I was really impressed by how even-handed the women’s arguments were – not at all in line with the fervor of the day before and not based on some UNIFEM slogan. It sometimes makes me think there isn’t really a dialogue going on, not yet. The men, maybe out of politeness to me, clearly had things they wanted to say but always found some quirky way of framing their real thoughts to make us all laugh. Right before I returned to Bujumbura, one of them said, “Yes, of course we respect women, but sometimes they are just so proud (orgueilleuses)!”

11
Mar
10

international women’s day

march 8, 2010. uvira, south kivu, drc

“Huit mars”. International Women’s Day. It’s a festive occasion – huge parade, endless speeches, mid-morning drinking, especially on the Congo side, which is where I am to march with my Congolese colleagues. Everyone wants a good seat.

Uvira, South Kivu Province of eastern DRC, about 15 kilometers over the Burundi/DRC border at Kavimvira. A U.N.-backed holiday celebrating women (in the Congo!) could only mean one thing: giant block party. This day affirms my quaint belief that any backwater hub in the Congo could out-party and no doubt outdrink any Big Ten campus. Don’t believe me? Then you must see what happens when any vehicle, spilling over with too many passengers, rolls by blaring a local tune. From above, I’m sure you could see the ripple of dancing and chaos and screaming children that would follow the music source.


I’m with my new colleagues that we recently hired for a project against human trafficking. We are nine marching behind our Heartland Alliance banner.

That is the why. This is the wow:

After a two-hour delay under a crushing sun, we get moving, just as the sky ahead darkens. I’m suddenly relieved to find us near the head of the procession. When we get near the endpoint, there are crowds lining both sides and somewhere a rabid announcer (in huge plastic sunglasses and purple velvet top hat, no doubt) is screaming out the name of each organization and congratulating them. When we get near the spectator stand with local dignitaries reviewing the march, I hear Heartland Alliance’s name being blared out. “Ouais ouais, felicitations, Heartland Alliance! Ouais ouais!” Then I hear “Ouais, felicitations, Jefferson Mok! OUAAAAAIIIS!!!”

What? Sweet.

“Ha ha ha, tu es connu ici!”

Evidently. It’s a small community and all, and I do stick out quite a bit. But it never ceases to surprise me when I am stopped on the road, in shops, at the borderpost, at one of Uvira’s three nightspots or in the middle of a city-wide parade by hearing my name called out to me from a wall of strange faces. I love it.

Just as soon as we finish our part of the parade, the sky splits open and thick drops come plopping down. We run for it. Actually, everyone else runs for it, and I get distracted by this woman’s elegant headpiece.

Then I run for it, only I have no idea where everyone else has gone (ever travel with me before? Sound familiar?) Luckily, my team sends back one of the guards to find me and we all pile into a little bar tucked behind another little bar, which is most of what Uvira is.

We sit down, order some drinks – I have to restate the no-beer-during-workhours policy but I lose the no-bottle-caps-on-the-floor battle. We order meat on sticks and are treated to some Congolese classic tunes, which apparently everyone knows exactly how to dance to, because that’s what half the bar is doing. There is a guy dancing, Capri-cut Dickies denim, olive t-shirt. Very nice movements, short, round but lanky, too.  All of a sudden, he stops boppin’ and runs over to the grill to berate the hapless worker stationed there. I’m not really following the action. Then the dancer picks up the tongs and starts flipping around hunks of meat. Uh oh. Oh my god, he’s the cook! Except, he’s also the resident dancer! But, of course, he’s not stopping either task for the other.

There are many moments when I can see a disaster gathering with the speed of a drunken pig. This is one of them. Maybe I’ve had practice, but I see these moments very clearly now and yet I know I have no possibility of getting out of the way. As I’m typing this, my stomach is a lead-brick on coke. It’s rumbling and tumbling, with intent. Did I not see this coming when I speared the first of four or five pinkish meats that also managed to be incinerated black on the outside, while happily watching the dancing cook. There was a piece that was so unchewable, I had to pause and prepare myself mentally to not choke. Like a pissed off hippo, It did not go down easy.

It’s been about 15 minutes since I’ve managed to pull myself into a sitting position to type this. This is not the first time that I’ve been struck down by mega-sunstroke and a stomachache in Uvira. Somehow, in the span of 20 km, Uvira manages to be about four times hotter than Bujumbura. It’s really just the other side of the lake, but we’re a world away here.




Click below to receive an email notification when I post a new entry.

Join 36 other followers

December 2019
M T W T F S S
« Dec    
 1
2345678
9101112131415
16171819202122
23242526272829
3031  

Pages