Goma Market

DAY 1

I was going through customs in Amsterdam on my way to Kinshasa when the officer next to the guy leafing through my passport overheard me telling him my destination. He leaned over and sarcastically asked, “Kinshasa? How’s life there?” As I’ve planned my trip to the DRC for the last few months that’s just one of the most frequent responses to hearing where I’m headed. “Why?” is probably the most common one. Closely followed by “You couldn’t pay me to go”.

I was recently asked by a new acquaintance if I am normal. It was more like a, “You’re normal, right?” I wasn’t entirely sure. Certainly not ordinary. “Extraordinary,” I joked. Not that either. Just wired a little differently, I guess. But I have ended up thinking about it a lot. Am I crazy? I am – against most people’s sound advise – headed to the rape capital of the world during an Ebola outbreak, where I am going to stay at something that is simply called “the lava site” in a city that rebels have occupied on countless occasions, next to an active, erupting volcano. And then there are the gorillas. Guerrillas and Gorillas. It’s the trip of a lifetime. A brave trip. I have heard it all. And so, today I go to the Democratic Republic of Congo and it’s with lots of plans and zero expectations other than to come out alive with really weird stories.

I’m still a few hours away from what might be the biggest adventure of my life, but so far, at the airport in Nairobi, I haven’t encountered anything particularly strange. People of all colors wearing anything and everything. I’ve wondered if people wear sandals on the streets of Kinshasa. It would appear so. Would I be the only white person on the plane? Hardly. It’s every continent represented. And we’re all going to the same strange place. Except it’s like that SNL sketch where the flight appears to be boarding and no one is allowed onboard. It’s endlessly amusing, watching people go up to the gate with the blinking “Final Call” screen only to be told there isn’t a plane here. “But it says ‘Final Call'”. Shrug. The screen is lying. Now it says “Gate Closed”. An American gentleman is taking a picture of the “Gate Closed” sign. Like if the sign says so it must be true. Shrug. Be flexible. Only the white people seem worried. There’s grunting. Like grunting ever made a difference.

Finally, we get on the flight, after a five hour delay and a walk across the busy Nairobi tarmac, like lemmings. The flight is uneventful except for confusion about whether or not we have landed in Michael Crichton’s Congo or The Democratic Republic of. We descend across an entire city built of shacks. This, I suppose, is what Africa looks like. But there’s no yellow hue, like in the movies – it’s decidedly grey. As we land I see old dilapidated planes with muddy roofs, military helicopters and an airport that looks very modern – far from the shit shack described online in something I read earlier this month. Welcome to Kinshasa. No, welcome to Brazzaville. No, Kinshasa. Correction, Brazzaville. Kenya Airlines – The pride of Africa, indeed. I hope we’re in Brazzaville because I really want to pick the right Congo at this point. It’s been a long day. Unlike in Nairobi, I have no cell phone carrier in Brazzaville. I wonder what I’ll have in Kinshasa. There’s only about 20 of us left on the plane. I wonder where my bag is.

I’ve finally landed. The somewhat scary man at customs flirts with me. “How come you’re not married?” How long do you have, scary customs guy? Then the yellow fever vaccination card has to be shown, then your passport again. No one is particularly smiley. Happy happy Africa is not here at the airport. I use my crappy French and an extremely expensive cell connection to call the monastery I’m staying at to explain to them that I am now at the airport. I’m not sure how, but my driver then finds me and off we go – bag and all. I keep thinking how lucky I am that my phone works at all. This is not the kind of place you go to the Customer Service Desk and ask them to help you. There is no customer service desk. Just men with guns.

Kinshasa is everything you think it is. Six lane roads that people constantly dash across like they’re daring you to hit them. Trucks where men stand on flat beds without holding on to anything, like they are surfing the freeway. Guys climbing up trucks in transit to hitch a ride on stacked crates. Their expressions indicate that I am the whitest person they have ever seen. “Don’t worry,” I want to tell them. “I’m the whitest person anyone has ever seen.”

We do a passenger switch in an alley and I continue on to Procure de Mission Saint Anne with another driver. My bad French does nothing for him so we drive in silence until we get to the monastery. I immediately run into two Americans, and for some reason feel better. Maybe because they give me the Wifi password and I’m no longer so impaired by lack of modern technology. Speaking of, then starts the impossible mission of getting my flight ticket for the following day printed. There is a fair amount of running up and down stairs, as my new American friend attempts to hook up her printer to a computer that refuses to connect to the internet while the one that does connect to the internet isn’t compatible with the printer. An hour later, ticket in hand, I’ve also learned that I live on a somewhat dangerous road where horrible things happen to unsuspecting people. I’m supposed to meet a friend of a friend at the end of this road. “You live in a walkable neighborhood,” I’d been told. It’s all relative. The road is easy enough to walk because you’re not dodging buses and trucks and whatever else is competing for space. But it is dark, unpaved and I am surrounded by nothing but tall white walls and barb wire as everything in that area appears to be a large compound. I pay an older man at the monastery five bucks to take the three minute walk with me to the supermarket. It seems ridiculous (as indicated by the receptionist at St Anne who was dramatically sighing when I asked who could come with me) but I really don’t want to walk there alone.

Back in America my friend and I have speculated that this supermarket by the UN Headquarters and American Embassy is probably like Gelson’s. It is not. Initially, I think we’re cutting through a gym because the first thing I see are exercise bikes. But it’s more like a costco of sorts. A costco in a small warehouse that appears to be going out of business. You can buy your deodorant and your television there. And an exercise bike. A young girl sees me and goes, “psst” as if trying to get my attention. She does. Nothing happens. I continue to peruse the shampoo selection while waiting for Amanda.

Amanda is under strict instructions to give me the true Congolese experience. We ignore those instructions and she drives us to “the golf course”, a country club-like setting where we’re surrounded by manicured greens and other people she knows through expat circles. We eat scallops and risotto. We talk a bit about the political situation in the country. We talk about work, America, cultures and wars. Then we talk about boys. I could be sitting anywhere in the world, eating scallops, overlooking a golf course, laughing as we swipe left and right on Tinder. But I’m in the DRC.

DAY 2

I wake up at 3:55am and the first thing I read is that Robin Williams is dead. It’s not that long since I interviewed him. It’s sad and I want to post something on Facebook but my internet connection is whatever is worse than limited but not entirely nonexistent and I have to get my ass out of the monastery by 4:30am to catch a flight to Goma. Again, I have employed a kind gentleman to escort me to my airport transportation, which is all of one block away.

We drive there and I’m relieved I’m not rolling my little red bag trough the streets of Kinshasa in the dark. I find the bus. We’re off. No drama. I’m amused by a neon sign of a hamburger joint called Hunga Busta. We race through empty streets, past buildings that look like the ones where bad guys in movies spend their final moments before either being tossed into the ocean with their feet encased in concrete or taking a bullet to the head. This is what movies have taught me. I suspect these industrial areas house millions of people. A beeping sound inside the bus indicates something should be checked or a seatbelt should be fastened. We continue driving in silence. We pick up a well dressed lady in the middle of what seems like an area where plumbing doesn’t exist. But it must. She looks like she has plumbing.

We check in for the flight and despite having an understanding that people might not be helpful I’m experiencing lots of kindness from strangers. A security guy from Beirut buys me a breakfast sandwich and tells me he speaks six languages. A former JAG officer tells me about the time in Kosovo that he took a meeting with Finnish officers in a sauna. A South African peace keeper tells me I need to go see beautiful Libya. And South Africa of course.

We land in Goma and my bag – still with me – and I get a ride from my friend whom I am visiting. She drives in this madness – unpaved, bumpy roads, people in the street, no road rules – except the one that says that when you’re inside a roundabout you have to yield to incoming traffic. We go to a market where she buys vegetables with extreme determination saying firm “no”s to half the people trying to get her to buy their fruit and telling the rest exactly what she wants. I’m just overwhelmed and it’s a relief to just be following someone around. We go to her place, a beautiful house near the lake, and determine this isn’t the right time to take a shower because there is no water coming out of the taps. “Keep checking, it comes and goes.” We go to lunch instead and giggle about Tinder in Goma, which still hasn’t been tested out because I have no wifi.

I spend the afternoon at cotton candy colored hotel by the shore of Lake Kivu. Hotel Linda has wifi, and I proceed to make it my office for the next few hours, even as the electricity goes in and out. I’m learning a new kind of calm in the DRC. In LA I would already be on the phone to someone, demanding that this nonsense comes to an end immediately. Here, you wait. Drink your coffee. Eventually it comes back. The sun has come out by the time I walk back home to my friend’s house – yes, I walked! – and Goma really is beautiful with its palm trees and sparkling lake and multicolored flowers. The walking here during the day is no big deal. A blonde girl roaming the dirt roads of Goma appears to be an endless source of amusement to those driving by, but the two-minute walk is not scary. Which is nice, after Kinshasa.

Everything here is nice compared to my 12 hours in Kinshasa (though I did enjoy dinner there tremendously). I finally take a shower. It’s more of a lukewarm trickle but the job gets done. My globe trotting bestie and I catch up for hours over a bottle of Malbec while the lights flicker on an off. Apart from the water and electricity, and the occasional sound of a plane landing so close it may take the roof off the place, my day in Goma has been very normal. Imagine that.

DAY 3

I wake up to another foggy day. I’ve brought every kind of sun screen there is with me to Africa and I suspect it’s all coming home with me. I’ve seen the sun for a total of 30 minutes since I landed on the continent. But that’s ok. I’m not here to sunbathe.

I am here to see if I can work on some stories while in Goma. I’m spending the day with ECI.

I visit the offices of Eastern Congo Initiative in Goma with the intent to write a feature about a Hollywood supported organization in the DRC. ECI is of course Ben Affleck’s organization which supports local programs and focuses on advocating in the US for policy change that increases government engagement in the DRC. But my day with Crispin Baderha, ECI’s Program Quality Manager, and Baraka Kasali, their a Program Officer, turns out to be so much more. As always I’m approaching it from a “Why the DRC?” perspective. There is conflict in other places. There is poverty in other places. Women and children are violated in other places. Why should we fight for the Congo? Baraka, a DRC native who has spent 19 years in Chicago, puts it simply. “If Congo succeeds, all of Africa succeeds.”

It’s true. The DRC borders nine other nations in Africa that are all greatly affected by the country’s instability. It’s an economy that could thrive, on agricultural resources, energy resources, of course their minerals and even tourism, if political instability – which keeps these resources in the hands of very few key players – wasn’t such an issue. But at ECI they are hopeful. They see the impact of the work that they are doing, and you can’t help but share their enthusiasm as you visit organizations like ETN and Children’s Voice that give child soldiers and at-risk youth vocational training and psychological support, or women who have been sexually violated getting legal services and support from Dynamique des Femmes Juristes.

But more impressively (to me, at least) is the desire to keep looking for the pitfalls and problems of these programs, create new solutions and stick with something until it is really changing lives and not just sending people out into the world without a real ability to survive. We all have to take some responsibility for our own progress in this world, but given the best tools possible to succeed will change the lives of these kids and maybe impact the trajectory of the country. Maybe. But that’s what you do, right? You educate a new generation to demand a better way of living and to then create it themselves.

I can’t hear stories about the rape of 8-year-old girls without feeling a little sick. But these stories are so prevalent here. If you want a reason to really care about Congo, YouTube Mama Masika’s story. It has nothing to do with what I did today but speaks to the resilience of the people of the DRC. It’s something we talked about today: How come people just don’t give up? Because you don’t want to give the enemy your power, was one theory. What says fuck you more than surviving?

I am of course now staring into the bottom of a glass of red wine. Time for more of the “normal”. Oh – and I learned something new today. In 2002 all of Goma was covered in lava when the volcano erupted and destroyed the entire city. It’s why everything here looks fairly new. The irony, which was pointed out to me today, is that the volcano will with certainty erupt again, and the entire city will once again be destroyed. Yet they keep building. Resilience, indeed.

DAY 4

I’m having my morning coffee, staring out at Lake Kivu. I’m still wrapping my head around last night, which was the best kind of “normal”. Despite all warnings, my experience in Goma, so far, has been more Dominican Republic than Democratic Republic. We went out to a bar last night, at a fancy hotel called Le Chalet, where a bunch of people who look like me squished together under a small roof, smiling, drinking, dancing.

“Don’t tell anyone it’s like this or they’ll start coming to the DRC,” one guy said to me. “Honey, no one’s coming,” I assured him. Despite the fact that I feel extremely safe, I realize we are having the most un-DRC-like experience. I am spending the week in a tiny little fishbowl where Uruguayans dance salsa, the Europeans sing loudly along to Bruno Mars, and we all nod our heads and swivel our hips to African rhythms as the rain pounds the roof above our heads. “I’m impressed,” says a man whose opinion I take very seriously. I’m not sure if he means the tequila shot I’ve reluctantly pounded after he says “If you were a true Finn you’d drink it and ask for more,” or the fact that I am in the DRC. I don’t care which one impresses him, I’m just happy to hear it.

As we head home, I bounce around the back seat of the car as we travel along the bumpy dirt roads, singing along to All Saint’s Pure Shores on the radio. It’s so bizarre and simultaneously so familiar.

DAY 4

Breakfast overlooking Rwanda at Ihusi Hotel. Lunch at Ethiopian buffet. No electricity. No internet. No water. Post-work drinks at Linda Hotel, beautiful – delicious! – fondue with Swiss crew who made fun of my hiking boots (I fucking look like Minnie Mouse while they all walk around in flip flops). Lots of white wine. Rain. Lots of rain. Wet, muddy, bumpy Goma roads. All well in the DRC.

DAY 5

Today I watched a cat get castrated on a dining room table.

Poor nutless Archie.

Then I spent two hours in the UN press office. Talk about going from one strange end of the spectrum to another. I have a greater understanding of how to work on stories with the United Nations. I have gained no greater understanding of castration.

The only thing that can make this day weirder is if I get to wash my hair.

Earlier today I was mildly irritated with how cumbersome certain things are in the developing world. I’ve gone four days without washing my hair, it was hot, I should have remembered to apply deodorant, I was looking for internet and achieving absolutely nothing. Then, as I trekked to the UN for my meeting I saw a man make his way forward on all fours, flip flops on his hands as he walked on his knees, through the mud and the dirt, and I realized I have no problems at all.

DAY 9

It is finally time to leave the DRC, and unfortunately there has been little time and no internet to document the past four days. I have attended another house party, with absolutely delightful people that I would have been happy to spend more time with – and maybe one day will see elsewhere in the world. The following morning we drove out to Mikeno Lodge in the Virunga National Park, where we enjoyed a luxurious afternoon overlooking the majestic jungle, while sipping on red wine, and later, after taking a look at the gorilla orphanage, sitting around a crackling fire on the beautiful deck. After dinner, we retreated to our own luxe cabin where our fireplace made up (just barely) for the lack of hot water, and we were all set for an early morning rise to see the gorillas in the wild.

At 6:30am we took off for the park, up something that is better described as a frequently traveled general direction than a road. Without getting into great detail of the unpleasant sounds rocks make when scraping against the bottom of your car, I would suggest that anyone going gorilla trekking in the Congo pay for the ridiculously expensive transportation to the top of any suggested starting point, if only for peace of mind.

Driving up the hill, we’re also constantly followed by kids who live in the villages on the mountain. They are running behind the car, trying to touch it and even mount it. We keep stopping to yell at them. It results in a pause of about two minutes and then they’re back. The ones that aren’t trying to jump onto the car are standing by the road screaming “Bolbo” with outstretched hands. We first think it means white person, but it means plastic water bottle. It’s an endless chorus of “Bolbo Bolbo” for an hour and a half, and a sea of outstretched hands. It’s cute for about a minute, disconcerting for about half an hour and then just slightly annoying.

When we arrive at the park we get a briefing in French – wear a mask around the gorillas, stay seven meters away, if a baby approaches step back, no eating, no drinking, inside voices, that kind of thing – and start our trek on foot around 8:30am. It’s a trek, all right, through potato and corn fields, past small villages with screaming kids and curious livestock. About an hour after leaving the park entrance we’re at the edge of the jungle. We hike up a river bed, occasionally relying on the kindness of rangers to make it across puddles that come up to their calves. Because gorillas are living, breathing and above all moving creatures, our gorilla family kept moving further away and there was certainly a point where I thought the $400 we paid to see these animals would be the cost of the world’s most expensive hike. But then we finally reached them – two gorillas rolling around in the tall grass, grunting and wrestling with each other. The seven-meter distance appears to be more advisory than compulsory, but it doesn’t maybe matter so much. If the gorillas decide to charge, would it not be over in an instant?

One guard machetes a path for us to go around the wrestling primates and we’re now staring at a three-month-old baby gorilla who’s climbing to the top of a small tree, only to have the whole tree bend over. It amuses him at first, but he soon gets tired of that and starts staring at us instead. He sits on top of a bush, munching on a branch and stares each one of us in the face while doing it. He’s not suspicious so much as curious. I frantically snap picture after picture, like this experience will somehow make more sense in retrospect.

It does make more sense in retrospect. There is nothing logical about standing face to face with a gorilla – a gorilla that is eyeing you in the same way you’re eyeing them. Like, “What the fuck?”

For about 20 minutes we watch a group of them attend to the needs of a silverback, picking the flees off his bottom. They look up, get back to their own business, check us out again, continue with what they’re doing. We watch. There’s no laughing, no oohing or aahing, like in zoos where inevitably some child is banging on the glass to get the animal’s attention. We’re all silent, only the rangers occasionally make grunting noises that seem to put the gorillas at ease.

Two hours later, we return to our car – the one with a flat tire – and it becomes a communal effort to get us back to Goma. We won’t get back before nightfall which means another night at Mikeno Lodge who in solidarity charged significantly less for the unintentional second night stay. “We must all take part in this…comment dire…malheur.” The tire is fixed by 6am, we have plenty of help putting it back on the car and it really seems like everyone is on Team Get Us Home. We get home. And then we get to Kinshasa. It seems like it’s against all odds, but it’s just how things are over here. Man makes plans and Congo laughs.

And now, it’s time to leave the DRC. The last thing I experience before the disaster movie-like embarkment on the N’Djili tarmac is an airport employee telling me it’s $1 to use the airport bathroom. I tell him to forget it. I can piss on the plane. The entire airport experience has resulted in heart palpitations, due to my plane being over booked and being placed on standby, but now I’m on the tarmac and if we just get on the plane I can breathe again. Yet we’re checking, checking and checking passports and visas and the $50 go pass to exit, and our bags again and our boarding passes again and yellow fever cards and what not. Better safe than sorry, I guess. But at this point I’m feeling pretty safe. Apparently some important people from the Congolese government have been at the airport forcing them to close the air space, so we’re 30 minutes late. What’s 30 minutes when you have a one-hour layover? I will never see my bag again.

In the past ten days I’ve seen kids hang off the back of trucks. I’ve seen adults hang onto minivans in 60mph traffic. I’ve seen cows, piglets and goats run in front of cars. I’ve seen people walk next to the median on the equivalent of a freeway. I’ve seen people make u-turns across eight lanes of traffic. But I’ve also seen people fight for a better tomorrow, a better life for themselves and their families, I’ve seen people have a lot of fun in the strangest place on earth (that I’ve been to). Every step has been an adventure. And if I just get on the plane I’ve made it. I survived my trip to the DRC.

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