16 August 2013

'The Switzerland of Africa' might be false advertising

As I write this (write, not post. I suspect I’ll be in Bunia by then (I was right!)), I am looking out over Lac Kivu on a beautiful, sunny Sunday, sipping water with lime and listening for gunshots. There will be more on that later. Let’s start with how I got here and what I’ve been up to for the last week or so!

As our donors are convinced that Province Orientale is transitioning to a ‘development’ phase (never mind the hundreds of thousands of displaced people or rampant sexual violence or lack of potable water and latrines or cholera epidemics or…well, I guess I’ll stop there), they have begun to pull their funding. Accordingly, headquarters has turned its attention to the donor-friendly morass to the south, and it’s my job to sniff out likely projects associated funds. So it was that, a week ago last Tuesday, I was chilling in the Bunia airport with my boss, having spent nearly four hours waiting for a flight that had been delayed and then re-routed, being moderately entertained by a variety show. As I watched, the show segued from impersonators of Kabila and Mobutu to selections from the Occasional Oratorio, Carmen, and Messiah. Who knew the Congolese were such Händel fans? We had moved on to music videos for Congolese pop standards (which were even stranger, if that’s possible. The featured dancers writhing around in business casual interspersed with the Passion as played by a bunch of appropriately Middle Eastern-looking folks and a verrrry European Jesus) by the time the rain started and then a PSA for the World Bank when the flight was confirmed as cancelled.

When we finally did depart for Goma – a mere two days later – I was eager to see this city that is so much in the news for all the wrong reasons. The approach took us in over the lake and from that vantage the beautiful water-front hotels and manses quickly give way to tin-roofed slums.

The Goma airport is the nicest – most ‘real’ – I’ve yet seen. One can almost imagine that it’s in a mid-sized American city, at least until you hit immigration (yes, we had to pass through customs after a domestic flight). Only two people were working the immigration and health and sanitation desks (admittedly, it was a national holiday. Happy belated Parents’ Day!) and I’m fairly certain we woke one from a nap. The other not only offered to find us a taxi, but ended up driving us to our hotel himself. Still in uniform, nonetheless (turns out he overcharged. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised).

I will cover Goma in greater detail later. Right now, sufficed it to say that it is just like Bunia, but bigger, dirtier, and with black soil instead of red. Our hotel, though, was amazing. The grounds were beautiful and included both a pool and a sauna. Over dinner, we began hatching all manner of plans on how we could go to the gym and get a massage before our flight, only to find out that our ETA for the following morning was 0600. Oh, what might have been. Happily, I did have time to utilize the bath tub (!) and deliciously hot water (I soaked for close to an hour and watched some Buffy. It felt almost sinful).

The early morning departure highlighted the dichotomies that have come to define both Goma and Bukavu in my mind. As we ate breakfast, we watched the sun rise over the lake, mist rising off the water and the warm tangerine of the sky gently distorted by the waves. I could almost feel the denizens of the garden stretching their petaled faces toward the first light of day. Then we left the hotel. The morning mist blurred together with the exhaust and black dust and smoke from burning trash and filtered the weak sunlight so that the very air looked like it was burning. The few people on the road moved through the haze like wraiths. I had passed from paradise to purgatory in seconds.

In a bit of a reversal from most airports, Goma had their security/bag check prior to ticketing (the personal scan conducted on the runway - by the pilots, no less – with a hand-held metal detector just before boarding. We ALL set it off, and no one seemed to care). I was faintly impressed that they bothered at all. There was of course no x-ray machines; just a man pawing through my bag. I wondered about the efficacy of his inspection, as he averted his eyes throughout the process, I presume so that he wasn’t scandalized by the sight of some racy unmentionables. He did manage to come into contact with my sandals, which are studded, and my perfume bottle, which is crystalline. It took me a while to convince him that he would have to pull them out and look at them to be sure they weren’t, in fact, dangerous (he sprayed the perfume, because apparently sweet smelling things cannot be used as a weapon). Nothing was said about my 12 oz bottle of contact solution. While I was waiting for him to finish, a man in a long coat sidled up to me. I watched him warily out of the corner of my eye, sure he was going to try and sell me a genuine Folex watch or possibly flash me. It turns out that he was just the seediest cheese monger ever (Goma is renown in Eastern Congo for its cheese. It’s the only kind we can get in Bunia). I didn’t take him up on his offer.

More so than its counterpart in Bunia, the Goma PAX terminal (I’m using this jargon generously. There are no terminals here) makes for great people watching. At that hour most everyone was associated with some flavor of police force. Between the DGM, national police, Goma police, and various and sundry UN police and peacekeepers, they easily outnumbered the passengers 2:1. They all looked very impressive from a distance, in their smart uniforms and combat boots. Up close, though, their uniforms were patched and inconsistent. Often as not, their epaulettes were taped on a like a 5th grade craft project. The only thing that was totally consistent was their precisely angled berets. As I was having my passport processed yet again, the DGM misread my Ordre de Mission (basically, the paper that gives me permission to travel in-country) and tried to convince me that I worked for the BBC, nationality be damned!

After waiting a mere 2.5 hours for a 20 minute flight, we arrived at the Kavumu airport, about 40km outside of Bukavu. The airstrip is surrounded by the decomposing bodies of Russian propeller planes. The skin of the planes hangs from the metal skeletons in long strips. Cyrillic lettering and faded pin-up girls are still visible along some of the fuselages (I found these wreaks somewhat more comforting than the defunct planes at Goma, which are mostly recent acquisitions and are in far worse shape). After managing to identify the sole taxi waiting outside the gates, we set out for Bukavu, buzzing past the border with North Kivu as well as President Kabila’s vacation home. I only had time to form the most basic impressions – it’s dirty, crowded, with horrible traffic, lots of hills, and a slightly worrying prevalence of ‘fire ministries’ – before we vanished off the tarmac road and into a silent haven of lac-front hotels and NGO compounds.

The hotel claimed not to have our reservation, but it was no matter. We were shown to beautiful rooms, complete with a balcony view of Lac Kivu. I had mostly unpacked by the time they discovered that we DID have a reservation, and our budget had only allowed for third-class rooms. The view vanished along with the balcony and armoire. By Congo standards, I still counted it as a win. There was just enough floor space to unroll my yoga mat, the internet was good, and if I let the water run long enough, it turned from umber to clear, even if it never really got warm.

That first afternoon, we inadvertently photo-bombed one of those odd music videos I mentioned earlier as we ate a late lunch. The cast and crew kept coming over during breaks between takes to take photos while shaking our hands. They never even bothered to ask who we were. Indeed, despite there being a metric ton of muzungus in Bukavu, the sense of being noticed simply for my skin colour was unmistakable. ‘Muzungu manger’ (white person give me something to eat) was the chant used to set the marching cadence of the children who followed us around rubbing their bellies. The adults didn’t even bother to say anything – they would just hold out their hands to us. One woman had the temerity to do so from the passenger side window of a land cruiser.

Even so, we ended up walking for hours through this bustling city. And while it was a welcome change from Bunia, where we never walk, I’m not sold on why people love it so much. Certainly, the lake is beautiful, and the tiered effect is quite lovely, but when you back off of that and turn around, it’s pretty much just a city. Imagine San Francisco about 10 years after the apocalypse. There’s still a tremendous amount of the beauty that made this a resort town during the Belgian years, but little to nothing has been done to halt its decay in the last half century. As you walk along, you catch glimpses of the lake between the buildings and where you would expect to find terraced gardens or vineyards or possibly coffee shops, there are gently smoking midden heaps. Many of the buildings had tables and chairs stacked haphazardly on top of one another on their balconies and patios, like remnants of a hurricane or modern art installation.

There are no traffic lights, or even laws (at least, nothing that’s enforced) and the city is soundtracked by a symphony of horns that blend with the merchants hawking their goods, barkers hanging out of open minivan doors, and actual music (usually hip hop or reggae) blasting from various stalls and storefronts. This cacophony was underpinned by the singing filtering out of myriad church services (it was a Sunday). The churches to be held predominately in the unfinished top floors of nearly every building in town (it seemed to me that all the buildings in Bukavu stop after the third or fourth floor. The upper stories are just framed. It was almost as though every building crew n town suffers from collective ADD, though it might have something to do with a nasty earthquake in 2008), and the make-shift aluminum siding they put up really carries the sound. We even found some of the advertised fire ministries. They were, to my amusement, held in buildings that were half wood, half tarp. Apparently the sermons sometimes get away from them.
The ladies here did seem a touch more progressive than at home. I saw some 50 sporting pants, several of whom I am fairly confident were not hookers. They also sell a more diverse array of goods from their heads, including shoes, eggs, fish, or even beer. The beverage vendors balance what look to be double-hulled cardboard boxes on heads (in an attempt to keep the goods cool, one assumes) and hang a sample of their wares from a corner of the box, which they softly hit with a small metal rod. It makes a melodic clinking that reminds me of an ice cream truck. Except alcoholic. The beer sellers at baseball games are pikers compared to these women.

Aside from the barkers, the shops mostly advertise through murals (this true of everywhere, not just Bukavu) and there seemed to be a run on talented artists. Solidly 75 per cent of the salons had the same closely sheered dude glowering at me. But others were quite, though sometimes unintentionally, whimsical. A cell phone store had people holding (what I presume were) their loved ones instead of phones. Another depicted a leopard about to devour foot of an unaccountably jolly man. It was for toothpaste. I have no idea what was going on. The fair President Obama appears surprisingly often, as do Mickey Mouse, Dora the Explorer, and Jesus. As often as not, earnest efforts to add interest to their subjects – perhaps with a quizzical head tilt – turned the ad into a Picasso.

We concluded our walk at a nearby hotel (not ours) where we ordered a mint julep and a cappuccino. The julep was virgin and tasted like the rinse at the dentist’s office, only with more sugar. The cappuccino was just a regular coffee with powdered milk, but it was topped with whipped cream and chocolate (I don’t even want to think about how many chemicals were in the whipped cream). They were delicious. We had each had two.

If most of Bukavu was just a dusty, dirty city, we did find one oasis where it more than lived up to the hype. It is called the Orchid Safari Club and it is amazing. Go here. Tell people you were in DRC, so they think you’re a badass, but know that you’ll just go on a gorilla tour and eat amazing food (they have a Belgian consulting chef who makes a mean chocolate lava cake) and sit in beautiful gardens and rub elbows with MSF, ICRC, UN, and other rockstars of the aid world. Go. Book your ticket now. I’ll wait. Are you back? Excellent. You won’t even be alone in your merry-making, as there were already an astounding number of holidayers there. What would possess you to go to Congo on vacation, I have no idea (aside from the well informed advice of a trusted blogger, of course), but they were all over the place. Some even brought kids. I appreciate that Bukavu is reasonably safe, all considered, but that’s bananas. If you’re feeling particularly posh, you can probably even come by helicopter from Rwanda. Two landed on the bank near where we were swimming.

Did I not mention that I went swimming in Lac Kivu? Well, I did, schisto risk be damned. I live on the wild side. We mostly just did it for the experience, as the day was overcast and chilly and we were absolutely freezing by the time we got out of the water. The original plan had been to recline in the gardens of the Orchid with our books, but we ended up scampering back up to the bar and ordering hot chocolate. We actually spent the lion’s share of our weekend there though we stopped going once the work week started (it felt too much like R&R), only shooting wistful glances in its general direction.

In fact, I’ll gloss over the work altogether (meetings are boring) and skip to the end, when the cabbie who endeared himself to us by flagging down a UN vehicle to get directions to UNICEF, came to take us back to the airport. Apparently, it was such a long journey that he deemed it necessary to bring a friend and the friend brought provisions (a malt beverage, near as I could tell). We were stopped by police no less than three times, the first before we had even hit the city limits. I don’t think any bribes were paid, but Zach (the driver) was certainly menaced. It might be worth noting that in South Kivu, 50 per cent of the protection incidents in 2012 were attributed to either the FARCD or National Police (PNC) (also worth noting that this isn’t exactly limited to the Kivus. Our team in Ango has actually requested that the rest of the team pray that the police stop asking them for bribes).

As passengers, we were mostly ignored or leered at by the men with guns, though each stop allowed the car to be more or less mobbed by blind beggars with a seeing eye children, young banana vendors, smooth lorry drivers who thought ‘Eeeeh Muzungu’ functioned well as a pick-up line. It was the Bukavu equivalent of ‘How you doin’?’. I ended up just rolling up the tinted window in frustration, which is why I can offer you no photos of banana groves or double-hauled canoes.

With all the forced stops, the once-generous 2.5 hours we budgeted to make our flight dwindled fast. We didn’t even bother to get taxi into the gates of the airport (which would have necessitated passing through yet another PNC check-point), instead grabbing our bags and scurrying into the DGM, Zach calling after us to find him on Facebook. We went through the standard rigmarole – Riët was hassled for her visa (more on this later) and I for my lack of French. We paid for the Go-pass (again, a rant is forthcoming) and darted into the boarding area, sans ticket, sans weight check, only to wait…and wait…and wait. When we finally found someone ostensibly associated with the humanitarian airline we were flying, we were told not to worry – the plan was running late, and the pilots would check us in when the y arrived. By ‘check in’ they apparently meant nod in recognition and say ‘oh, hey’. ECHO pilots all speak excellent, and surprisingly colloquial, English.

Coming soon (and hopefully before I leave for Uganda): my triumphant return to Goma! Seriously, I’m sorry about the length. I won’t write anything about Uganda at all – I’ll just post photos of gorillas and call it good (this is probably a lie).