Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Last Days - part one

On the shores of Lake Kivu, Gisenyi, Northern Rwanda

Josh Ruxin and entourage, Heaven Restaurant, Kigali

The drive to Gisenyi

A child on the streets of Goma, DRC

Living atop the lava flow from 2002, Goma, DRC

A view of the volcano over Gisenyi, Rwanda

After closing Goodness, we have four days left in Rwanda. They are packed.

1) We drive to Gisenyi, on the shores of Lake Kivu in the North. The drive - 3 hours from Kigali - is beyond beautiful. Gisenyi, a resort town, borders the Democractic Republic of Congo. Both towns lie under an active Volcano, which, in 2002, erupted. Gisenyi was spared. Goma - a town that has seen more than its share of extreme hardship - was hit with a lava flow. While in Gisenyi, we lounge on the beach. We visit the local market. We relax.

2) Rebecca, Guillaume and I venture into Congo. It is $35 USD for a visa. Josh Ruxin, the Columbia prof and one of the architects of the Millenium Village Project, had recommended a trip to Goma. For the first time in many years, the town is stable, he says. We would be among the first non-specialist Westerners to enter.

The contrast is shocking between Gisenyi and Goma. The latter is poor and dirty. There are luxury homes behind high walls with razor wire, and there is garbage in the streets, and evident poverty. The people are not smiling as we pass. UN planes fly low overhead every few minutes as they approach a landing strip nearby. UN and Medecins Sans Frontieres Land Cruisers are everywhere. We ask at a hotel where the lava flow is that destroyed a swath of the town in 2002. We walk to it. The flow is mostly built over now - again with luxury homes, not yet finished or occupied. The road almost disappears in one section, though, where the lava is still present. The landscape is apocalyptic. There are small shanties occupied by extremely poor people, living next door to the monster homes-in-the-making. I take surreptitious photos, but make the mistake of visibly lifting my camera for one last shot of an empty building. A woman with a baby strapped to her back tears over to us - livid. She begins a tirade which we cannot understand. A crowd begins to gather around us. Another man happens by who speaks French. Well-dressed, and sympathetic to the westerners-in-trouble. He translate: "You Europeans cannot take pictures away and leave nothing in return". Guillaume hands her a 500 Congolese Franc bill. She is incensed, insulted. She is yelling. The crowd began with children, then women, and now men are gathering. Some people are clearly amused. Others aren't. Our translator begins to get nervous. The woman's anger does not abate. She continues to shout. At one point,our translator tells us to "Leave. Now." It is only at this point that I feel that perhaps a tipping point is about to be reached. We begin to walk away, the woman following us, screaming, and making the gesture of drawing her hand across her throat, and throwing it to the ground. Two boda bodas (motorcycle taxis) materialize. One of the drivers yells for a third. We hop on, and are spirited away to the border.

Back on the Gisenyi side, we feel enormous relief to be back in safe, welcoming Rwanda. Josh Ruxin had told us that 5 million people have died in the DRC. Disease, war, displacement. It is the greatest single disaster since the Second World War. One feels that in Goma.

3) The drive home through darkness. As the sun sets, we begin to see the ever so dim glow of the volcano, reflected in the smoke rising from its cone.

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