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Published: October 26th 2009
curiously appropriate for the DRC...
the bright light, the dark clouds and the silhouette of construction seemed, to me, to capture the essence of this tragic country today
I broke a promise.
Well, the lawyer that still lives somewhere deep inside me (despite my best endeavours to the contrary) would rather say that, actually, I have refined my approach to this particular promise and, while, yes, I did break the existing promise as then phrased, I can now re-cast it more intelligently.
I walked across the border into the Democratic Republic of the Congo yesterday to stay overnight in the provincial capital of Goma.
My promise had been that I would not travel to any country or any part of any country in respect of which the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office at that time advised against either all travel or “all but essential travel”. On a practical level, if the FCO has issued this kind of warning, it invalidates my travel insurance. Their categorising Mexico in this way because of the emerging swine ‘flu situation had successfully kiboshed my trip there earlier this year. The DRC as a whole is still listed as being a country to which the FCO advises against all travel; it makes an exception for Goma (and one or two other towns) and advises against all
but essential travel there.
Goma is only just round the corner from the Rwandan town of Gisenyi on the shores of Lake Kivu. In fact, it is effectively an extension of Gisenyi; you can’t really draw breath between the two. Some houses even seem to be built in no-man’s land, if not actually straddling the border. It’s a perfectly do-able - if slightly quirky - day-trip from Gisenyi, security permitting. In fact, my Singaporean next-door neighbours at the Auberge de Gisenyi were back by lunchtime. My curiosity was buzzing. But I’m not stupid (honest!). I wasn’t about to walk into a war zone, or anywhere I actually had real, justified reason to believe I might be at risk in the ordinary course of things. (I wasn’t about to walk the streets of Goma at midnight; heck, there are vast tracts of London where I wouldn’t do that.) So I canvassed opinion on the ground, and everyone I asked said there wasn’t a problem in Goma itself. In fact, my host at the Auberge went one further: “La guerre est finie!” he declared. Hmmm… I wouldn’t go that far, and a couple of the Congolese I spoke to
admitted that things were still “difficult” in the villages, but Goma itself is calm. I left most of my stuff in Gisenyi, taking only the minimum necessary (adding to the number of places around Africa my possessions are scattered: Windhoek, a container heading for Walvis Bay, my Kigali hotel…), updated my entry on the FCO’s “LOCATE” website (an online service for registering your presence in particular foreign countries), and got a taxi-moto to the border.
So, for the record, my promise is hereby revised. I promise that I will not go to any country or any part of any country in respect of which the FCO currently advises against either all travel or “all but essential travel”, UNLESS I have good, thorough, up-to-date information on the ground that there is no particular reason for concern at this time… and I’ll probably (hedging my bets here) then only dip into that country or that area for a short period of time, and with the minimum of kit.
Right. Got that bit out of the way.
(Yes, you can take the girl out of the law, but you can’t take the law out of the girl… Genes have a
lot to answer for.)
My destination, Goma, is better known for its refugee camps from the time of the Rwandan genocide to the present day, and its location in one of the remaining “unsettled” parts of this chronically dysfunctional country, than as an obvious tourist attraction. As well as exploring the town, I wanted to see if I could climb the local mountain, Nyiragongo. One of the five volcanoes in the border region of the DRC, Rwanda and Uganda, Nyiragongo is still extremely active. It destroyed half of Goma in 2002 and the glow of its lava lake can be seen at night, a surreal red smudge hovering in the blackness. The question mark over my tackling the mountain was less over my own physical condition (I hoped!) than on whether the security situation in the countryside outside Goma would allow me to do so, and, if so, whether I could find a guide at relatively short notice. Reports about the security situation varied, although the majority were positive. However, as it transpired, I couldn’t find a guide… although it must be said, I didn’t try too hard in light of the conflicting information I was receiving.
across a border, border-post to border-post, is a very odd sensation. The taxi-moto dropped me at the Rwandan immigration office where I completed formalities, before walking over to the barrier. This was for vehicles; it’s not signposted, but pedestrians are supposed to duck behind the wee barrier-booth, walk along the muddy verge, get our passports checked en route by a laconic seated uniform, and then rejoin the road on the other side. Walking the twenty yards of no-man’s land between the two barriers was strange. I felt very exposed… like a refugee, a kidnap victim being released, an Explorer…
I don’t have a lot of experience of walking into recent war zones, and approached the DRC immigration office cautiously. Seeing only windows for returning nationals and Rwandans, I went inside. A seated official casually flipped through the pages in my passport. Forwards and backwards and forwards again. Quizzing me offhandedly about my presence here. I began to wonder if I would get my passport back…
“Pas de visa,” he eventually concluded, passing it to an intimidating female colleague at the back of the room. “Hadn’t I told him as much?” I wondered, putting on my most ingratiating smile
and dusting off my best French small-talk. My passport was scrutinised again. Asked about my job, I admitted to being an “avocat” (it does still have its uses), but Scary looked distinctly dubious. I hardly looked the part. “Pas comme ça,” I clarified, gesturing at my shorts and hiking boots. She laughed, and I relaxed. A little. Unasked, I went over to pay my visa fee. US$35 for a trip to the Congo: cheaper than a ticket to the theatre in the West End, more expensive than a movie…
“Attendez dehors,” I was told. Nervous at being more than a yard from my passport, I hovered in the doorway for a small age while registers were completed, forms filled, stamps stamped, more forms filled… before Scary reunited us, giving me an additional formal-looking document, a “permis de séjour”, from the Ministère de l’Intérieur, Décentralisation et Sécurité (that’s quite some portfolio…). Suddenly, that was it, and I was walking down the road in the Congo...
(Amusingly, on my way back across the border today, Scary greeted me like a long-lost friend. I complemented her town and her people appropriately; she said she hoped to see me again. Who’s to
say? Stranger things have happened. Today’s was an outrageously quick border-crossing. From finishing my last cup of coffee at my uncharacteristically smart hotel to arriving back at the Auberge de Gisenyi, barely half an hour had elapsed. Not bad for an international border, particularly one between two Third World countries, let alone one where trucks carrying international aid and personnel dominate the passing traffic.)
Further exploration of this new land was deferred for a little. After all, I had to settle in to my very chichi hotel, literally a stone’s throw from the border. I’d chosen it for this proximity and also because it seemed to attract UN folks. Just in case… However, like much of the Goma that I saw, it was being energetically renovated/rebuilt/extended and my enjoyment of the hotel’s ambience and setting was a touch “enhanced” by frequent drilling and hammering. That said, I was amused to see that the lads working on resurfacing the lakeside bar area simply dump the old flagstones into the Lake, a deft economy of effort. And I was enchanted to watch the kingfishers flying over the Lake, crossing between Rwanda and the DRC with none of the formalities that us
poor humans have to endure.
But this wasn’t why I’d crossed the border. I finished my Fanta and set off to explore, senses on overdrive and shoulder bag firmly gripped under my arm.
Goma, I decided later, is Gisenyi’s older and uglier step-brother. Despite being practically an extension of the Rwandan town, Goma is very different: larger, sprawling, messy. While the main roads are tarred, the surface of the side streets is still simply hardened lava, largely unchanged since Nyiragongo’s eruption in January 2002. Volcanic rock is everywhere, a favoured building material, a hazard for pedestrians and drivers alike. I was glad I’d donned hiking boots for the walk into town.
Traffic is unsurprisingly chaotic. However, I felt that Goma took this to new lengths, even by Third World standards, when I encountered two-way traffic within each half of a dual carriageway. I needed a swivel joint for my neck when I tried to cross a road. There are more international acronym-ed vehicles - UN, MONUC, UNICEF, WFP, etc. - on the roads than I’ve seen anywhere else, and a disconcerting contrast between brand new 4WDs and chauffeured cars on the one hand, and mopeds and oversized,
wooden-wheeled scooters - a more basic, Flintstones-esque form of transport than any I have seen elsewhere - on the other.
This painful dichotomy between rich and poor was evident from the outset and everywhere I looked. Even as I walked into town, the number of enormous properties in the process of being built or renovated - huge security gates, imposing walls, sprawling verandas, manicured lakeside lawns, and all - was sickening. This is a country with a legendary wealth in natural resources but an equally legendary ability to abuse this for the benefit of the very, very few. Was I looking at sweeteners from Joseph Kabila to his henchmen or to the now-pacified (temporarily?) rebel leaders? Or the spending power of those who have acquired vast wealth over years of loyal service to the controversial, if now at least approximately democratically elected, president? Or, with Kinshasa over 2,200 km away, were these manifestations of the wealth of the hopefully-erstwhile local war-lords? Whatever the source of the funds, the lavishness being created here was nauseating.
Strangely, the streets are well labelled. While I have yet to see a street-name in Rwanda, Goma’s streets have newly-painted and co-ordinating purple-and-green name-plates,
seemingly sponsored by a local telco. Against the state of the roads’ surfaces, let alone the mixture of ruins and construction all around, this small degree of order is distinctly unexpected.
Warned by friends in Gisenyi, I was cautious in the use of my camera… and only got shouted at once. Oddly, this was when I was trying to photograph the shoe market (literally, that’s all it was - half an acre, or so it felt, of stalls selling shoes, all hanging up, like some macabre parting gift from the dead), and the two men gesticulating at me angrily were a fair way away. But I wasn’t about to argue, and called out apologies as I swiftly put my camera away, walking off with my hands raised.
Interestingly, the only other opposition I had to my camera was from children who ran off - sometimes laughing in play - when I jokingly or deliberately asked or tried to photograph them. This is in complete contrast to the usual reaction I find when photographing children abroad: the camera seems to have positively magnetic properties… memories of being swamped by half a school-ful in Ooty’s Botanical Gardens, when I tried
to snap a couple of the girls sitting on a park bench… In Goma, I was taking a picture of a street-scene and became aware I was the focus of attention for a gang of children off to my right so, without warning, I half-jokingly turned the camera on them. Shrieks of amusement, but they all ran off, only turning round to laugh at me when they considered themselves a safe distance away. Later I encountered into a couple of kids carrying vast baskets of bananas on their heads and asked if I could take their picture. The little boy moved away, uninterested, but his sister (bribed, admittedly) was prepared to stand solemnly still while I did the deed. When I showed her the photo, she broke into a gorgeous grin, so I begged a second photo, this time with her smiling, and she tentatively obliged.
Everywhere, people were delightful, friendly and curious, welcoming of a foreigner in their midst. My couple of hours’ meandering was regularly punctuated with “Bonjour! Ça va?” - I made particular effort to smile beatifically at, and greet, every uniform and weapon-carrying man I encountered - and was rewarded with some fantastic grins lighting
an unknown story
my heart broke for this sad wee lad
up my walk. But White Man = Piggy Bank. Here, even curvy, well-fed, regular folks would ask, “Dollar? One dollar?” and could be a little hard to dissuade. I explained to one well-rounded, baby-carrying young lady at the crowded market that if I gave her one dollar, I’d have to give everyone around her one dollar… and she appeared to accept the argument.
Of course there is genuine poverty here in bucket-loads here, and there are stories of unimaginable horror from the years of war… of genocide and torture and child soldiers and rape… but, for the most part, I didn’t encounter this first hand. A massive billboard promotes HIV/AIDS-awareness. The poignantly-named organisation, Heal Africa, provides a hospital and ancillary support. Another organisation claims to be helping rape victims and taking measures to counter violence against women.
But there was one small heart-tug story.
I found a small boy sitting on the curb - well, the ridge that forms the dividing line between road and, err, the bit to the side (it’s hardly a “pavement” here). He can’t have been more than three years old, ripped clothes, filthy feet, absolutely alone. He was the epitome of sadness,
his solemn little face unresponsive and staring. His eyes looked puffy and his face seemed a little swollen, although there was no obvious sign of recent violence. His left hand had clearly suffered a dramatic burn in the past, over his thumb, first finger and part of the back of his hand, but looked to have recovered well. But I couldn’t get through to him: my Swahili and Kinyarwanda were nonexistent, and my French didn’t seem to penetrate. I hunkered down to his level and gave him my bottle of water. He gulped so thirstily that I gave it to him to keep. Frustrated at my failure to communicate and very worried about his alone-ness, I collared a passing lad to act as translator. He seemed to have almost as much trouble getting a response out of the kid as I did… but, when I looked up, a crowd had gathered. In all likelihood, they’d have walked past the kid - someone suggested he was there to beg, but he hadn’t engaged even that far with me, the allegedly-rich white person - were it not for the newsworthiness of a muzungu’s interest. One of the more motherly types laid a
this solemn little girl was eventually persuaded to smile for my camera, and her face positively lit up
hand on the child’s forehead, but concluded he was physically all right. I never did figure out where his own mother was, but, as the bottom line seemed to be that she was close by and there seemed to be little more I could do, I said I was satisfied and tried to extricate myself. But the kid finally seemed to notice me, and got up to follow. A young lad nearby asked if perhaps I couldn’t give the kid some money. While I was more than happy to do so in theory, I was reluctant with so many people around: the crowd was gathering ever thicker. Finally, a young woman appeared, described to me as his “grand soeur” - though she looked most of the way to my age, even allowing for her straightened circumstances. Still, at least it appeared he had someone, and, realising that the crowd really wasn’t going anywhere (we’d even acquired a curious policeman at some point), I dug out a dollar bill and put it in the kid’s dungarees bib pocket, trying to push it down past the plastic bags he’d stashed in there. Slowly, deliberately, he corrected me, pulling out the bags, opening
the happening place to go
Being propositioned by the security guard there is an optional extra...
the second one and carefully pushing my bill to the bottom. He then carefully rolled the bag up again and put it back in his pocket. Someone prompted him, and he finally said one word to me, “Merci”, and I solemnly shook his hot little hand. I’m still not convinced he wasn’t ill, but I was blown away by the crowd’s behaviour: attentive, concerned, mediating… and not in the least demanding of me on their own account, even though my mid-leg trouser pocket clearly had another note or two in it. An extraordinary experience.
I stopped off at Chez Doga on my way back to the hotel, a chance to draw breath and to try to absorb some of the afternoon’s experiences. This bar is, reputedly, a pretty happening place later on, but I wasn’t going to stay out even as late as dusk. While I had felt safe throughout my afternoon’s meanderings, I wasn’t going to be silly. At the entrance, the graphic “Armes Interdites” signs are a shocking and instant reminder of the all-too-recent past. A couple of senior French UN uniforms came in, courteously if pointlessly introducing themselves to me, and made a booking for dinner
the Ihusi Hotel, Goma
my wee dose of luxury
later. I got chatting to the barman and to the head of security there… and found myself having to fend off the latter’s advances and bizarre declarations of love when he walked me back to my hotel. I didn’t take these too personally; after all, he’d been pretty clear he wanted to marry a “femme blanche”. I simply fit the limited criteria. But if I’d been toying with spending a second night here, I dismissed the idea. I didn’t want to run into any problems. At lunchtime today, I skulked back across the border without heading back into town again.
Overall, I found Goma to be a busy, friendly and essentially - desperately - optimistic place. Safety is relative and, sadly, probably only sporadic, but I personally felt no threat, heard no gunfire and saw no current evidence of unrest. I hope for the sake of this poor ravaged country and its beleaguered people that the final pockets of fighting, of rebellion, can be calmed. This place has so much to offer.
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