Bukavu, Democratic Republic of Congo – 04/25/09
A warning: this will likely be the most pessimistic of all my Fellowship journal entries. This isn’t to suggest that the past two weeks have been filled with cataclysm; on the contrary, I’ve found my new office to be a friendly and motivating place to work, and Bukavu is undoubtedly the most beautiful place in which I’ve ever had the fortune of living. But after the various trials of my transit travel from the Netherlands – the threat of deportation from the Republic of Congo, the rampant corruption of Kinshasa, the theft of my wallet and subsequent two-day Canadian embassy adventure in Addis Ababa – I have come to feel utterly exhausted. All along, I’d hoped that my final Fellowship placement would be a capstone – especially considering how dearly I’ve wanted to be in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) all my life – but now, I’m seriously wondering how I’m going to muster the energy. I’m in the midst of reading “The Brothers Karamazov”, and as much as I hate to admit it, I’m pretty sure Dostoevsky got it right when he wrote:
…unfortunately, these young men do not understand that the sacrifice of life is perhaps the easiest of sacrifices in many cases, while to sacrifice, for example, five or six years of their ebulliently youthful life to hard, difficult studies, to learning, in order to increase tenfold their strength to serve the very truth and the very deed that they hoped and set out to accomplish – such a sacrifice is often beyond the strength of many of them.
-Fyodor Dostoevsky, “The Brothers Karamazov”
Indeed, it was relatively easy to make the choice – or in many people’s eyes, the “sacrifice” – to move from the tranquility of The Hague to the insecurity (and “excitement”) of Bukavu; but will I have the strength to study and work – not for five or six years, but rather for three measly months – to serve the purpose of my passion? I suppose we shall have to wait and see.
Upon having secured an emergency Western Union transfer from my parents back in Addis Ababa (a worthwhile exercise, considering how the only means of receiving money in Bukavu would be via Western Union), I rebooked my ticked to Kigali and arrived in the capital of Rwanda two days behind schedule.
My 24-hour stay in Kigali was (thankfully) quite uneventful, but it did feel unexpectedly wonderful to land at the city’s tiny airport again; I had spent several weeks living in Rwanda during the summer of 2005, and returning now felt like revisiting an old friend.
Much had changed during the three and a half years since I had last visited. Though Kigali has always been an incongruously clean and well-ordered African capital (at least since the conclusion of the 1994 genocide), the streets are now positively boastful. Beautiful flowers and trees line the sidewalks, dazzling new office buildings are being constructed at the tops of the city’s many hills, and perhaps most surprisingly of all, the suicidal boda-boda motorcycle taxi drivers are now required by strict law to provide their clients with helmets! Unfortunately, this display of prosperity and order is generally unique to Kigali, and it belies the oppressive political atmosphere fostered by President Paul Kagame; but all told, it is a sight to behold.
My day consisted of catching up on e-mailing, purchasing my bus ticket to Cyangugu (a Rwandan border town that is contiguous with Bukavu) and relishing what I anticipated would be my final English-language conversation with some friendly Germans, Brits and Swedes. Indeed, we relished the experience so much that we kept the hotel restaurant open until 1am, and when they insisted on closing, we hailed a trio of boda-bodas to take us on a mad hunt for beer. Because it was Genocide Memorial Week in Rwanda – a strange seven days, during which the country’s usually stymied grief is given full public expression – all of the bars were closed, but we did end up finding a Kenyan-run gas station that sold Heineken, and were therefore kept happy and conversant until sunrise.
The bus trip to Cyangugu was a bone-crunching eight hours long, but I was very happy to have taken it, rather than catching a twenty-minute flight from Kigali. Rwanda is one of the world’s most beautiful countries; its myriad verdant hills, its neon green tea plantations and its adobe villages that seem to glisten like bronze in the moist afternoon light are more than enough distraction for an eight-hour drive. We even made our way through the cloud rainforests of Nyungwe National Park, a place that I had been unable to visit back in 2005. At risk of sounding too much like Conrad (yes, another book I recently completed was “Heart of Darkness”; I couldn’t help myself), it felt like traveling back to the dim and mysterious beginnings of time.
I, and my twenty-some cramped fellow passengers, first sighted the twinkling lights of Cyangugu at approximately 8pm. They were reflected in the waters of Lake Kivu, and that reflection was the first indication that I had reached my new home. The black sky was alive with lightning, which would erupt every five seconds (but curiously enough, without any accompanying thunder). Everything felt ominous and exciting.
Unfortunately, upon arriving at the bus park, I learned that the Rwandan-Congolese border shuts at 6pm every night, and I was therefore obliged to spend the night at a Catholic mission with quaint rooms and home-cooked meals served by Rwandan nuns. The place was indicted to me by a Congolese friend that I had made on the bus trip south, and who quietly insinuated that I should pay for his lodgings the following morning. This kind of “quiet insinuation” would quickly become a hallmark of many of my nascent Congolese friendships; with many people, I never know whether I am of genuine interest, or whether I’m just a possible means of obtaining a cold bottle of Coke.
And then, I crossed the border. The logistician from Search for Common Ground, Mr. Serge Muganga, was kind enough to have met me on the Rwandan side of the frontier to ensure that I made it through Congolese customs without any hitches. Interestingly, this time around, the fact that I had purchased my exorbitantly expensive three-month multiple entry visa in Brazzaville (rather than in Ottawa) was of no consequence; in Kinshasa, when trying to quit N’Djili airport, I was told that this “backdoor visa” indicated that I was a spy and that I would have to pay my way out of the country. If former President Mobutu Sese Seko were still alive, and if I had the opportunity to choke him for the legacy of corruption that he bestowed on his country’s officials and bureaucrats, I honestly don’t know what I would do.
Like I said before: Bukavu is gorgeous. It, along with Cyangugu, occupies a series of peninsulas that extend like fingers into the southernmost part of placid Lake Kivu. These lush strips of land are dotted with picturesque colonial-era villas, which are themselves dotted with wild tropical flowers of every shape and colour. From the lake, neighbourhoods of mudbrick houses are built like rice terraces into the sides of some steep and very tall hills. The weather is sunny and mild all year long. In the evening, one falls asleep to the sound of crickets, and in the morning, one is awoken by the natural symphony of a dozen different bird calls. If it weren’t located in the DRC, Bukavu would be hailed as an African Lake Como overnight, no doubt about it.
Upon being collected from the border, I made straight for my new office at Search for Common Ground (SFCG), where I was introduced to all of my friendly new colleagues. My hurricane of a supervisor, Ms. Lena Slachmuijlder, had not yet returned from a business trip to Costa Rica, and was therefore unable to welcome me, but everyone else at the office did their best to make me feel comfortable.
From there, Serge drove me to my new home: a two-storey white house with a balcony that overlooks the lake and the adjacent city of Cyangugu. I was told that aside from a small monthly payment to a housekeeper, my accommodation, food and cleaning would all be taken care of. For an increasingly indebted conflict management Fellow, this was an extremely generous offer: thanks, SFCG!
Work began the following day when my supervisor returned from San Jose. When I used the word “hurricane” to describe this woman, I meant precisely that: though there is nothing cruel or capricious about her, she is a force of nature. She doesn’t seem to sleep. She doesn’t seem to eat. She has spent the past several decades working in Africa and has come to know the continent as if it were one of her siblings. She moves from conversation to conversation with a sense of energy and purpose. She speaks fluent French and Zulu, and is working on her Swahili. She plays nearly every instrument native to the African landmass. This, I immediately knew, would be someone from whom I could learn a thing or two.
Lena and I spent my first day hashing out the terms of reference for my placement. My mission, for the next three months, would be to research and conduct interviews on the topic of communication strategies intended to promote the demobilization of child soldiers in eastern DRC. SFCG (and the Child Soldiers Initiative, with whom SGCG is linked) wants to know what is currently being done and by whom. What messages are being disseminated? How are they being disseminated (i.e. via radio, television, dramatic performance, field workshops, etc.)? How is their impact being evaluated and how effective have they been at staunching the flow of child recruitment?
Being an NGO whose explicit purpose is to improve communication within unstable communities, SFCG-Bukavu has been involved in sharing information and generating awareness of child soldiery for years. Indeed, one of their most innovative and successful initiatives has been something called “Sisi Watoto”, a group of youth (at least one of whom is always a former child soldier) who are trained in reporting and who produce regular radio programs on controversial subjects as varied as sexual violence committed by armed forces and discrimination against albinos. Over the years, many escaped child soldiers have cited SFCG’s radio programming as having contributed to their decision to flee in a very major way. But unfortunately, the recruitment and deployment of child soldiers continues to be a very serious problem in eastern DRC, and SFCG wants to know how it can step up its efforts at prevention. Hence my exciting research; indeed, this is the kind of project for which I have always dreamed of working.
Why, then, have the past two weeks been so rotten? If I finally arrived in Bukavu intact and with money, if the city has proven to be so beautiful, and if my work is shaping up to be so important and personally rewarding, what could I possibly have to complain about?
One: every time I strike up a conversation with someone, I feel enormously self-conscious on account of my inability to express complex ideas in French. There is no English in the DRC. Only French. And although I have a nearly fluent passive understanding of the language, my frustration at being unable to engage my friends and colleagues on an equal intellectual footing has transformed me into a mute. In part, I came to the DRC to master my French. Now, I don’t even want to try. So in brief: life has been quiet and lonely.
Two: the security restrictions here in the DRC are even more rigorous and exhausting than those I faced in Somaliland. During weekdays, I am either at work or at home. If I want to visit a nearby restaurant for dinner – even one just thirty seconds down the road from my house – I am obliged to organize the drive home with SFCG’s logisticians, or – as has tended to be more common – impose upon my friendly Burundian housemate Nestor to come and pick me up in his car. Though this imposition makes me feel enormously guilty, I haven’t been able to help myself; if it weren’t for the hour or two that I spend each night at Gerda’s Place (an unexpectedly delicious restaurant that serves excellent pizzas and samosas, and that is run by a gregarious Belgian woman), I might claw my eyes out.
Three: as fascinating as my (potential) work may be, I have managed to accomplish nothing for the past two weeks, aside from English and French drafts of a work plan. I have arrived in the DRC with next to no energy, and with the obstacle of French looming large wherever I go, I have little desire to begin any of my interviews. Moreover, I have been told that I should initiate contact with all of my potential interview subjects myself, and this has made me feel extremely nervous. As I have written so many times already, one of my greatest challenges over the past year has been to maintain a collected and professional persona in the face of important, impressive people, be they Lt. Gen. Roméo Dallaire, Chief Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo, or even the myriad communication experts that Carrie, Michelle and I were introduced to back in Boston. Now I was being asked to humbly telephone dozens of people of this stature, and impose upon them by requesting an hour of their already overstretched time. Gah!
And last but not least, I have experienced, for the first time in my life, a crippling and profound homesickness. By the end of this month, I will have spent eleven months away from my friends and family in Edmonton. Over the past twenty-one months, I have only spent four weeks in Canada, and the longest I have spent in any one place, without taking a plane trip of some sort, has been a month and a half. What this has meant is that I have calculated, literally to the day, how much time I have left in this Fellowship program. I have never done this in my life, and for someone who has always prided himself upon his identity as a rugged adventurer and insatiable traveler, such calculations are the very essence of humiliation and despair. My eyes have glazed over and I see nothing of what the DRC has to offer. All I see, in my mind’s eye, are the vast Prairies of Alberta and the majestic Rocky Mountains.
And that, my friends, is my story. I warned you this wasn’t going to be a particularly uplifting entry. I am tired, grumpy, lonely, unproductive, sequestered and homesick. Who knows what these final two months have in store for me.