In Africa, International Woman’s Day (March 8th) is a pretty big deal. We’re talking about party food, ceremonies, parades, and of course matching dresses. Our office here in Bunia, DRC celebrated March 8th a little early this past Friday by having a party and ceremony for our women.
Apparently the UN theme for International Women’s Day 2015 is “Empowering Women, Empowering Humanity: Picture it!”
The boat slowly pulled up to the dock in Kasenyi, an ancient looking platform made up of part stone, part wood, part cement. On the center of the extended dock was a huge metal crane, that perhaps had once been used to load boats, but now stood silently, its cables dangling down to shredded ends – a remnant of days past.
Several people milled around, some were stripped down washing clothes, others were jumping in and swimming around, while others just sat under the shade of the metal crane, taking in the day.
It took well over ten minutes for the boat to finally harbor itself up against the ancient dock. As the crew threw out lines to others on the dock, we jumped off and gathered our baggage. Before even taking two steps, a slender man with a lanyard and a badge stopped us, politely demanding us to give him our passports and follow him up the bank.
We obliged and walked with him for several minutes, navigating our way through roads and footpaths till we reached the top of the bank. There, a small white office with the letters of DGM (Congo customs) painted in faded blue sat, perched on the hilltop overlooking the lake.
Another man was sitting on the porch of this small office, reading a book. He glanced up as we approached, his eyes widening slightly at the sign of three white guys lugging bags up from the shore.
After a quick word with the man that had brought us, the man on the porch motioned for us to follow and he led us inside. He had to first unlock several of the doors before we got into his office. There he began to fill out our paperwork.
As mentioned earlier, crossing borders seems to be an issue for me. Notably, getting into Congo has been somewhat difficult, particularly in Bunia. Last time I went through the airport I spent over an hour discussing with the customs officials why they shouldn’t make me pay import taxes on coupons that I was carrying for one of our projects. After a long conversation, they finally agreed to let me go with the boxes.
However, the man checking us in here was quite polite. He made light conversation with us, asking about our trip, why we crossed the lake, what we were doing in Congo, etc… Fairly quickly, considering a Congo border, we were through and free to go. He didn’t even bother to check our bags – which surprised us.
A driver from our country office was already there waiting for us. We quickly loaded up and headed towards town. Before leaving the port-town we stopped to grab some bread and sodas because we had yet to eat that day (besides our questionable coffee) and it was already 1pm.
We were warmly welcomed back to Congo over the next hour and a half we bounced along the dirt road which made its way across the humid plain towards the mountains. We climbed quickly, snaking back and forth up the hills before cresting them and making our way down to the plateau which holds our city. By 3:30 pm we were pulling into our gated compound, dusty, tired, worn out, and exceedingly content.
The next morning, I awoke to the sounds of singing, dishes banging, and roosters crowing. Although it was hardly even light outside, people were already active. My room was still pitch black, and I lay there taking in the sounds outside. After a few minutes, a thin stream of light snuck into the room, forcing its way through under the door. I crawled out from under the covers (although being on the lake front was quite warm and humid, so it was really only a thin sheet) and mosquito net, and put my legs on the floor, finding my sandals.
Outside, the thick, warm breeze of a coastal paradise blew gently around me. The sun was creeping over the roof behind me. On my left, a couple rooms down, was a kitchen where three woman had already begun cleaning – and were singing while the worked. In front of me were several chickens, clucking away as they began their day’s task of picking up insects. To my right, where Robert and Randy’s rooms were, remained silent. First going to Randy’s room, then Robert’s, I pounded on their door until I got a response, coming out more like a groan from each, confirming that they were indeed awake.
We were given mugs, hot water, and ‘instant’ coffee grounds. This coffee was in a sketchy looking container – a plastic jar with a screw-top lid. The label said it was instant coffee, but it had spelling errors and claimed to be a mix of Spain and China…
We smelled it and it still had a coffee smell to it, so we each bravely put several spoonfuls into our mugs. It didn’t really dissolve like instant coffee, nor float like ground coffee, nonetheless it had some caffeine in it and it got us going.
Next we headed around to the other side of hotel building which was conveniently the immigration office. We filled out the exit forms without any hassles. On the form you have to fill out there’s a line that says “mode of transport: land/air/water.” This was the first time I ever got to check off “water” for mode of international travel. We then returned to the other side of the building to pay the hotel owner.
The prices hadn’t really been set when we checked in, so when we asked for the bill we weren’t sure what to expect. After she scribbled on a piece of paper for a few minutes, the total came out to 80,000 Uganda shillings – this is just about $10 apiece, which included the room, dinner, and coffee, not a half bad deal.
We then walked down from the hotel to the lake. On the way, the man who we had talked to the night before reappeared. He confirmed that we could ride his boat and after some quick discussion we jumped on the boat – each paying about $6 for the ride (over 25 miles across the lake).
To get to the boat we had walk along a wooden set of boards that created a dock. The boat was about 20 meters long and loaded to the brim. We crawled onto the white tarps that covered the cargo – which we later found out was boxes and boxes of tomatoes. Besides us three, there were three crew members and seven other passengers.
A claim of the boat manager had been that this motor (a 75 horsepower outboard) was the “biggest” motor on the lake. This trip across was also to be its maiden voyage. I asked him if we should be worried because it hadn’t been tested before – he laughed at me, saying there was no need to worry. And so the motor pushed us away from the dock and out onto the lake.
Although we never lost sight of the land on our left (port-side?), it quickly became a thin line. There was no covering over us, so for the next five hours we basked under the equatorial sun and were kissed by the gentle breeze blowing over the lake.
The crew was composed of a captain or navigator who spent pretty much the whole trip holding onto the outboard motor. The other two were “deck hands.” One was deaf and mute and so we didn’t have much conversation with him.
The other however was very, very talkative. He stood at about 5’7”, compact and energetic. As we asked questions, he explained to us in a mix of English and Swahili on how he had used to be Kung Fu fighter. He claimed to actually have spent over 16 years in China training and fighting. He was so enthusiastic about it that he had actually named his first son Bruce Lee. Although at the end we’re still not sure if he really did any of the things he claimed, it did make for interesting conversation.
About three and half hours into our trip, the motor began to sputter and finally died out. The crew didn’t seemed phased so we went on talking, not really noticing anything different. They had already had to fill the engine from several jugs, so we assumed they had just forgotten and we’re going to add the fuel now – but they never did.
For about thirty minutes we slowly drifted off course, just following the current and wind of the lake. Finally our Kung Fu fighter went to the front (brow) of the boat and waved his shirt violently into the wind. Off on the horizon was another boat. When it seemed that it had turned towards us, he finally sat down.
Another 10 minutes passed before this boat, an identical twin to ours, pulled up. It was returning to Uganda from Congo with no cargo, so it sat almost 10 feet higher than our boat. The two crews exchanged laughs and yells for a few minutes before the other crew handed our guys another jug of fuel. The crew quickly put it into the motor and in another half hour we reached the shore of Kasenyi.
Despite the fact that we stranded at sea for a while, this was by the far the most relaxing phase of our trip. It felt like a proper holiday, dozing under the sun with as much space as we could want. We weren’t cramped into buses, rushing from one place to another or traveling overnight.
The trip should have taken about four hours, but with our fuel delay we made it in about five.
Arriving in Kampala on Saturday morning, the 3rd of January, was a milestone in our journey. Not necessarily a ‘good’ milestone, but one nonetheless. The reason being that this was where the extent of our ‘planning’ had ended. Up until this point we had a rough idea of what was coming next. We knew where the bus stations were, the costs, etc… Getting off the bus in Kampala was like waking up from a dream, with absolutely no idea where we were.
Our first order of business was coffee and food. We walked back to the Café Java, the same café Robert and I had spent two hours in a few days before. From there, we began to search online, text, and call people. The issue was we had no idea what bus to use to get to Lake Albert on the Congo border. We actually didn’t even know what town we needed to get to.
For almost two hours we struggled to find any leads to help us, but no one seemed to have any clues about what we needed. Robert and I walked to three different bus stations, but none of them had buses going in that direction. Getting a little frustrated, we were sitting in the café chewing on what to do, and trying to stay awake after a sleepless night on a bus.
At this point, the coffee had moved through me and it was time to visit the restroom.I left the table and made my way upstairs to the men’s room. While walking up the stairs, I offered up a quick prayer, saying something along the lines of “God, it’d be really nice if you could just drop someone into the café that could help us.” I did my business and washed my hands and headed back downstairs. Half way down the stair case another man walked by me on his way up. Out of the corner of my eye I saw that his polo said OCC (Operation Christmas Child – which is another branch of the same organization I work for). I made it down to the bottom of the stairs before it clicked in my mind. I turned around and shouted up, “You work for OCC?”
The man turned around, and replied “Yes?” I laughed, and explained who I was and what I was doing. The man, Paul, came down to our table and listened to our story. He grinned and then began to give us all the details we needed, including which bus, times, locations, etc… on how to get down to Lake Albert. We then talked to his co-worker. She, believe it or not, was from the very town we needed to head to. She confirmed what he had told us and gave us her father’s phone number so we could call him if we had any issues when we arrived.
Feeling relieved and confident, we took the information they had given us and headed out. It was about a 10 minute to the bus station we needed to use. We arrived and were put on a bus that was promised to us to be leaving in 40 minutes. Slowly the bus filled up, one person, then another, then a couple, etc… However, the bus was not going to be leaving until it was full. It took almost 3 hours for the bus to fill up to the number they needed. We slowly roasted in the box-like oven of the bus through the hours of 8-11.
Finally at 11am it began moving. The ride to Fort Portal, the first town we needed to get to, should have taken only 3 hours, but the bus driver felt he needed to stop at almost every town we passed. At one of the stops we purchased chapatti’s and grilled chicken for lunch. This entailed us choosing from the many vendors crowding our window yelling out prices, being handed food wrapped in plastic bags or on a brochette-like stick, and handing money out the window to conclude the transaction. Five hours later we pulled into town.
Fort Portal was probably the most bitter experience on this journey. It’s hard to explain exactly why, but it was a series of factors. First of all, we asked the bus driver to drop us off at or near the taxi park. He agreed to this, but after driving a few minutes through town he randomly stopped on the side of the road and said this is where we needed to get off because our taxi was there. We got off, a little confused. Once outside, we were surrounded immediately by a crowd of people, including a taxi owner who said his taxi, the only vehicle nearby, was the last taxi to Ntoroko that day (it was already 4:30pm).
We tried to decline, but they kept insisting, The whole group seemed as if they were hiding something from us. Robert, doing the negotiating mostly in Swahili, kept asking them to show us the taxi park, but they would never give us a straight answer. Finally, in an attempt to get some space we said we had some things to do first. The taxi owner tried to get us to leave our stuff with him while we went about and then we could come back and get it. There was not a chance that we’d do that with how uncomfortable he was making us.
Leaving the crowd we looked for currency exchange bureau. We found one across the road, but some of the crowd followed us, making us even more uncomfortable. After changing money, and asking other people, we were able to finally find the taxi park. It was late afternoon so it was fairly empty at this point, but one car was loading people for Ntoroko. Although the car looked like just some private car, we decided it was a better option than the other taxi. While I loaded the bags, Randy went and bought water for the ride and Robert went to the restroom. A few minutes later they both came back – Randy with 3 water bottles and 3 sodas for a deal of $3.5. Robert, on the other hand, had had to pay for a free bathroom and was somewhat offensively told that whites were not welcome in Africa.
Somewhat bewildered about the whole experience, we crammed into the back of the car. The three of us squished into the back seat, designed for two small people at most. On the way out of town, the driver continued to pick up people. By the time we began the descent from the plateau towards the lake there were ten people in the car – us three in back, four in the middle row, and three up front. This car was maybe designed for 6-7 people tops.
The road down was absolutely stunning. It began with 10 km of winding roads down the steep side of the plateau. At a fork in the road, we turned off and began down a gravel road. This road makes its way through Semiliki National Park. This is a hidden gem of Uganda. You quickly leave behind civilization. Before long, on both sides of the road, are herds of Uganda Kob (a type of antelope). It took us about an hour to navigate the park to the port village of Ntoroko. Along the ride we saw: antelope, warthogs, baboons, monkeys, and the highlight – a herd of elephants.
It was actually rather amusing: the three of us in back were straining our necks to see out the windows, acting like little kids with how excited we got every time we spotted another animal. The other 7 people in the car stared straight ahead, barely interested in the landscape around.
The only time that they seemed to show any emotion was when we saw the elephants. This was probably because the herd was crossing the road in front of us and so the driver had no choice but to stop and wait for them to finish walking across. At this point several of the passengers pointed out to us (although we could obviously see) that there were elephants and that’s why we had stopped.
Ntoroko is what you would imagine a fishing port to be like. There was a scattering of houses along the shore – nothing too remarkable to note. We unloaded and were met by various people. After some discussions, our taxi driver took us (so we re-loaded) to the customs office which was already closed. Behind the office was a hotel where we signed in. We had met a boat manager when we arrived (who was in fact related to the hotel owner), and he promised to meet us there the next morning at 7:30.
There was no power, so we took bucket baths in the flickering light of candles. While waiting for the food to be made, we messed around with long-exposure shots and flashlights. A small crowd of local kids stood around and watched – probably trying to process why three grown men were running around with flashlights in the courtyard. We retired that night fairly early because we hadn’t slept much between an overnight bus and all day of traveling.
We had already bought our tickets – this time from a Rwandan bus company called Trinity Express. Before boarding we had to get our bags checked. Then we handed them off to a guy that was loading them underneath the bus.
The bus Robert and I had used to come from Kampala had been a bus with 4 seats wide, divided by an aisle in the middle. This bus was five seats across, three on one side and two on the other. We had purchased our seats together so we squished into the side with three seats.
This time the bus had plenty of space between our seats and the seats in front of us. However, by adding an extra seat, they had cut the width per seat substantially. Let’s just say that three full grown men – not to mention two that are well over 6 feet tall, makes for a tight fit.
At around 8:20pm, ten minutes before departure, the conductor got on the sound system and announced he was going to pray. We glanced at each other, a little surprised. The driver then proceeded to pray, in some Rwandan language, faster than a rapper. For five minutes straight, only pausing to catch his breath every 30 seconds before diving back into it, this man continued on. When he said “amen,” the whole bus started cheering and clapping. Infected by the energy we joined in, hesitantly clapping along with the others.
A few minutes later we were off, beginning the long journey back to Kampala, Uganda. This time went much quicker than the first. The border crossing came quicker this time, so we were all still awake. We worked our way through customs, fishing out the $50 per person per visa once again. A total of 10 hours later, we arrived in Kampala, pulling in at about 6am, just as the sun was rising over the sprawling city.
The next morning greeted us early. We rolled out of bed and went over to the hotel restaurant to grab a quick meal of omelets and toast. The coffee was surprisingly really good. So we delayed for another 30 minutes as the hotel manager called some guys to bring us 4 bags of Goma coffee.
Once again we hopped on motorcycle taxis and whipped through town, weaving through early morning traffic – a mix of motorcycles, cars, bikes, and carts.
The border crossing was once again surprisingly easy. There were no issues getting out of Congo. The Rwandan side took our temperature, searched our bags for plastic bags again, and we shelled out another $30 each for the visa.
Less than half an hour later we were on motorcycles again, bumping across dirt, cobblestone, and paved roads to the bus station in Gisenyi.
Learning quickly from our previous mistake on this section, we purchased a seat for our bags. The buses that frequent this border and the capital Kigali are not designed to hold any luggage. Coming from Kigali we had suffered and held our huge hiking bags on our laps. This time we piled them on a seat next to Randy and traveled much more comfortably.
Once again the twisting roads, snaking through and over the hilly terrain of Rwanda, amazed us. The whole way was paved; street lights lined the roads, and there were blinking lights on the side to make sure you knew where the edge was.
Four hours later we pulled into the capital, once again at the congested bus stop of Kigali. We called up the guest house we had stayed at a few days ago. After some quick negotiating, we rented a room for a few hours. We dropped off our bags there before heading out on moto-taxis again – this time to the Rwanda Genocide Museum.
Originally we had planned to spend half an hour to an hour there. However, it took us well over two hours to walk the grounds and then read through the whole exhibit. The exhibit explained the genocide from the beginning to end – who was doing what, when, where, etc…
After being fully overwhelmed by the information and horrors, we entered another exhibit where other genocides were explained – albeit in less detail, but not less dramatic or horrible. We all left the museum quiet, processing what we had just seen and learned.
The next stop was the mall again (you have to appreciate the small things in life while you can, right?). There we ate at Coffee Bourbon again, including pitchers of coffee.
We bought some snacks in Nakumatt – the East-African version of a hybrid between Walmart and Target, before heading back to the hotel. We showered quickly, checked out, and headed back down to the bus station, once again using our standard moto-taxis.
Few cities stir the imagination and wonder more than that of Goma. This is where some the largest flow of refugees from the Rwandan Genocide in 1994 fled to. It was also the epicenter for the First and Second Congo Wars (which estimates have put at somewhere between 5 and 10 million deaths), not to mention 2 recent volcano eruptions (1977 and 2002) less than 20 km away, and a dangerous lake that harbors deadly gases.
Most recently in 2012 the rebel group M23 took it over, and then were later ousted by the Congolese government. This is a city with a more complicated, deadly history than perhaps any other in contemporary history.
How could we not choose to explore it?
After showering at our hotel we hailed three moto-taxis and were taken up the coast of the lake about 5 km to a restaurant called Le Chalet. Built on the lakefront, this Belgium-style mansion is now home to one of the more prestigious restaurants in Goma.
In a celebratory meal (and for a change of diets after canned fish for two days), we all ordered huge plates of pasta and brochettes. It probably took us almost two hours to enjoy the meal and a coffee while sitting on the dock, staring out across Lake Kivu.
We had been told (according to a source that will remain unnamed at this point), that there was a place where the lava had flowed out onto the lake. Thinking it’d give us a way to explore the city a bit, we decided to walk back from the restaurant (which was on the edge of the city), towards the border (which is the other end of town).
The next two hours were spent mapping out the coast, passing mansions, stores, kids swimming, motorcycles getting washed, an old harbor with ships, and other sites.
Despite walking almost the whole way back to the border, we were sadly disappointed because we never found the lava flow (which we later found out doesn’t really exist – at least not in the way we thought and were told).
However, this walk was absolutely stunning. It was January 1st, so everyone was a still a little relaxed after a night of partying. This meant that we had multiple conversations with people as we walked along – ranging from types of fishing nets to how our presence wasn’t wanted.
Seeing the city of Goma is like stepping into a different Congo from where we work in Bunia. There’s paved roads, crisscrossed with dirt tracks. Dark black dirt, instead of rusty brown, makes up the foundation to the city.
All over town people have collected the lava, broken it down into bricks, and built their houses and walls out of it. Some streets are stilled covered the dried out lava, making them tricky to navigate on a motorcycle.
After several hours of exploring the city, we eventually wandered back to our hotel and ate dinner before crashing for a night of sleep.
The haphazard chronicles and musings of a global nomad.