Saturday, January 08, 2005

Goma Sunday Morning

It's a few days before I land in Africa, so here's what was happening a few days before I left Africa last time:

For some reason there aren't many tourists in Rwanda these days. Which is a shame, because 'La Terre des Mille Colines'--The Land of a Thousand Hills--is one of the most drop dead gorgeous spots on earth, with terraced, beautifully lush volcanic hills rising in every direction and making somewhere like Bali seem lame in comparison.

Most Africans react to you with deferential respect, but while we were waiting through the border formalities, Jean Pierre had walked up to me with the friendly self confidence of equality, and invited to share the car he was driving into the capital of Kigali.

Many Tutsi are tall by African standards (5'11', say) and are almost skeletally thin with strange elongated heads, but most, like Jean Pierre, are indistinguishable from the 'normal looking' Hutus. It was a comfortable ride to sit in the front of a Volvo, and he didn't hesitate when I gingerly asked him about his experience in the Genocide.

His father was a prominent doctor in the south of Rwanda, he had eight sisters and brothers, and the entire family was massacred by their next door neighbors. The only reason he survived was because he was out of the country at the time.

I asked him how he had coped. He replied that for the first five or six years he had been overwhelmed with anger, but then a couple of years ago he had come to the realization that he was just going to have to blow it off. Now he had a wife and family and was putting together his future.

When we got to Kigali, he used his cell phone to call a friend to come over and change some money for me. And an hour or so later I was crammed into a ubiquitous African minibus going over and through some of those thousand hills to the 'resort' of Gisenyi.

I stayed at the Palm Beach Hotel right on the shores of Lake Kivu, probably the best resort hotel in the country. There had been a more upmarket place right next door, but that was where the 'government' that ran the genocide had been based, so it wasn't open these days. Like much of Africa itself, the staff of the Palm Beach was doing its part to keep the place up, but it was kind of a losing battle.

They did have a functioning pool table and tv lounge for the few upper class Rwandans and a few more white and East Indian businessmen sorts here to while away the weekend. And out on the lawn, between the hotel and the lake shore, tables and umbrellas were set up, waiters stood by for your order, and guards beat the crap out of any local daring to enter the property and trying to sell things to the guests.

There were supposed to be fabulous views of Congolese mountains across the lake, but the haze made the lakeshore look generic and not exotic. As the sun went down and the moon came up, I sat and tried to evoke what it must have been like here nine years before. But everything seemed too normal and peaceful, and in the end I went to bed.

The next morning felt like waking up at the summer vacation at the lake, and to make it even more laid back it was Sunday to boot. I decided to walk the kilometer distance along the lake, past the neatly mown lawns of modest vacation villas, to the border with the Congo.

When I got there I saw the cutest little border post I had ever seen--and I've crossed a lot of borders. The Rwandan flag was flying, a little white painted building stood by it, there was no traffic to be seen. I decided to take a picture.

Now I already knew that most Third World governments freak out if you take pictures of their border area. But it's such a bizarre, paranoid attitude, and anyway it was such a peaceful Sunday morning, and no one would probably notice me doing it...

When I entered the building, the guy immediately asked if I had taken a picture. I said yes. He said I would have to give them my film. I immediately realized that we had a problem here, since I had a digital camera.

What was worse, Rwandans speak French, and I had only been speaking French since I had entered the country yesterday, so my command of the language wasn't. And I was completely tongue tied trying to explain how I could just erase the offending shot.

Now the gendarme guy came in waving his gun and threatening and screaming. I knew that the worst case scenario was that I'd lose my camera and not my life, so it was easy to keep my cool and try to come up with new pidgin ways to explain my simple solution to their problem. Finally, when the customs guy and the gendarme guy went away for a minute to figure out what to do with me, I successfully showed a third guy that I had already gotten rid of the image. Went they returned it took him a couple of minutes to get this across to them. Once they understood, they calmed down and were then really fascinated by this, their first digital camera.

I smiled, shook their hands, and then walked fifty feet over to the Congo, where I bought a visa. The vibe in the small Congo building was suitably anarchic, and, as I was leaving, the guy said the one condition was that I didn't take any pictures. I thought he might have been aware of my recent contretemps and said, You mean around here?, and he said, No, In the Congo.

As soon as I walked out of his little one room shack I was in Goma, population more than a million. Except that the only way you could classify this as a city was by noting that a million people lived here: it was more like a really densely populated rural area that went on for about ten miles. The way you get around in Goma is by flagging down a 20 year old on his motorbike and riding around on the back of it, so within a couple of minutes I had done that, making the acquaintance of one Albert Kaymanza.

And Albert didn't have to ask me where I, the tourist of the week, wanted to go. Because although Goma was the Congo's third or fourth largest 'city', there had been a civil war for the past ten years or so, which had kind of hampered economic growth. And then a couple of years ago that volcano I could barely see in the mist about thirty miles away had erupted, and a long thin finger of lava had snaked down those thirty miles and had taken direct aim at what had passed for the downtown business district. So obviously I wanted to go see the lava field.

We passed an endless tableau of small thrown together shacks and small plots of banana palms, and we passed hundreds and hundreds of people walking in every direction towards a horizon of more shacks and banana palms, finally arriving to where that long thin line of lava had gone through the middle of the airport, and then following it on down to the lake. When we got to 'downtown' there were several hundred acres of moonlike desolation surrounded by the miles of shacks and tropical fecundity that were completely untouched. One giant blank wall of the cathedral was still standing. Nothing was left of the bank building, the two large department stores, the electric company headquarters.

Albert suggested I take some pictures. Not having gone through the fracas at the border I would have been sorely tempted to. And maybe have wound up in a Congolese jail. Instead I acted conservatively and kept the camera in the pocket.

Albert then continued to motorbike me through town, me continuing to be fascinated by all those people walking, walking along the road. How, without any discernable economic activity, did anyone, let alone everyone, survive here? I was flummoxed. Then all of a sudden a sign caught my eye: Internet!

We stopped and I went in. Yes, there were about 20 computer terminals, and it was about 50 cents an hour. I signed up.

Amazingly, not only was the equipment new, but the connection was super fast. I checked my e-mail, sent some messages, sent a few more messages for the novelty of e-mailing from the Congo, and then looked up.

Sitting a couple of terminals away was this incredibly grizzled and haggard white guy, looking exactly like a French version of Humphrey Bogart in 'The African Queen'. It was immediately obvious that he had been here all of his adult life, through all the civil wars, etc., probably the last living embodiment of the Colonial ex pat.

And there he was, this Goma Sunday morning, blithely keeping up with all of his internet correspondence.

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