Sunday, October 2, 2016

The Space in Between

For the past couple of months, I've been living out of suitcase, traveling between what has been my home for the past two years, in Kamembe in southwestern Rwanda, to where my work is primarily based now, in Rubengera in western Rwanda, to Kigali in the center of the country, to get physical therapy for a foot problem I have from running a half marathon in May (side note: when given the choice between running a half marathon in a hilly city on a warm day or getting a few more hours' sleep, always choose sleep). 

I've been feeling a little discombobulated with all of the traveling, like a plant trying to grow without proper roots. I'll take the last bus after work to Kamembe, in the dark on the road that twists alongside the shores of Lake Kivu, or a 6 am car to my work's headquarters, fueled by coffee and on too little sleep, or I'll drive myself from Kigali late at night to make an early meeting the next morning, without ever unpacking my bag. On average, I'm commuting about 9-12 hours a week. I've been living somewhere in the space between all three places, without properly feeling settled in any of them. 

The feeling of living in this strange space-in-between hasn't been limited to only physical spaces. For the past two months, I've been taking care of D'Assise* every other weekend, in full mama mode. I feel a wave of gratitude wash over me when he gets to join me, and my weekends with him are usually filled with playing soccer, reading Goodnight Moon, and trying to teach him how to use his new bike (which is a lot harder than I expected and a good exercise in patience). My bedtime is somewhere around 9 pm, with a few middle-of-the-night wake-ups because D'Assise is scare d of the dark and not used to sleeping in his own bedroom alone, and then he wakes me up to start the day around 5 am, a time of day that in my mind was previously reserved for red-eye flights or maybe your house burning down. Though my sleep is lacking, our weekends together are filled with joy, and I feel incredibly grateful to call him my son. 

But on the weekends that I don't have him, I'm still living my old life: enjoying Kigali's lovely cafes, binge-watching terrible reality tv shows, staying out late and sleeping in later. And somewhere on the motorcycle taxi ride in between leaving the bar and arriving back home, I feel a pit in my stomach, and a sort of emptiness at saying goodbye to my former life. I'm living in the space in between being a mother and being a childless and relatively carefree 27 year old, and it has not been an extremely easy transition for me. In some ways, I wished that I had to go through the nine months of mandatory mental preparation for motherhood that accompany pregnancy. I don't feel like a proper Mom with a capital M yet. 

I feel so many things slowly changing, and it's been hard for me to cope with them with an at-times grueling schedule and so much travel. Most of all, I feel many of my relationships changing since I've become a mother. I have only one good friend in Rwanda who has a kid, and I've found myself longing for more friends with kids, to be able to relate to people who know what it's like to have a seven year old who insists on sleeping with all the lights on, no matter how many times I tell him there's nothing to be afraid of, or calling for me to come pull him out of the toilet because he fell in. 

At the same time, I sometimes feel like a fake when I think about befriending other mothers, for I have never given birth to a baby. I've never breastfed or spent sleepless nights with a crying infant or heard my child's first word, and I was not there to see D'Assise take his first few steps. On the weekends that I have D'Assise, after we've brushed our teeth together, sung our nighttime songs, read his stories, and tucked him in by 9 pm, I wonder what my other friends are doing, if they're having fun without me, and I ask myself if some of my friendships will survive motherhood. I feel extremely guilty for even thinking that, but it crosses my mind in those brief moments of solitude when my head is on the pillow before sleep overtakes me. 

In November, both D'Assise and I will be moving to a new home, three hours up the lake from Kamembe, to Rubengera, Rwanda. I already have a room in a house there, and I won't have to commute as much every week. It was a difficult decision to make; I will be leaving southwestern Rwanda, where I've lived for more than 4 years. I will miss my friends in Kamembe, and I will be much further from the nuns, who have been my rock in Rwanda, celebrating with me during the good times and making me waffles and giving me group hugs during the not-so-good times (seriously, they're the best). As hard as it is for me to move from beautiful Cyangugu, I think it's what will be best for my little family right now. I'm looking forward to feeling settled and to once again growing roots. I'll be happy for the day that I'm no longer stuck in this space in between three cities and between motherhood and my former life. 

*If you're wondering why I'm now spelling D'Assisi as D'Assise, it's because that's what's on his official Rwandan passport (and is actually the correct French spelling of his name, Francois d'Assise). The nuns had always spelled it with an "i" before, but because I want him to use the correct official spelling, I'll be spelling it with an "e" from here on out :)

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Prepping for Parenthood

I've been D'Assisi's parent for a week now, and I still can't believe it's real.

First photo of us right after the adoption hearing
We have a one-month waiting period for the adoption papers to be totally finalized. Then, the nuns and I decided that D'Assisi will start spending weekends with me for a couple of months, and then he'll move in with me when the end of the school term ends in December (we didn't want him to have to transfer schools in the middle of a term). The nuns and I wanted to have a slow transition period to make sure he's not shocked by moving out of the convent overnight, and it gives me a bit of time to prepare. I'm looking forward to our first weekend as family this coming weekend.

There are a massive amount of things I'm trying to prepare for, jotted on a note in my phone in stream-of-consciousness gibberish whenever I remember one, which is often in the middle of the night.

  • Where will we live? Look at options
  • How to get health insurance and meds for D'Assisi (does work cover it?)
  • Changing his last name? Do I want to change his name or not? 
  • Get a US immigration/adoption lawyer for US citizen process
  • Visa process/bringing him home for Christmas
  • New clothes for D'Assisi (how do boys' clothing sizes work?)
  • Childcare for when he's on school vacation and I'm at work
  • English tutoring? Should he learn French? 
  • Look up parenting advice on interracial adoptions living in child's home country
  • Look up parenting advice in general
I don't think I've ever examined my life as intensely as in the past week. What parts of myself do I want to pass on to my child? (my love of dancing and cooking, being Catholic, a fondness for being outdoors and in nature) What parts do I want to make sure he doesn't adopt? (my lack of patience and intense frustration at incompetence, forgetting that people are watching me dance) What do I want him to be able to decide for himself? (being a vegetarian, whether he calls me Mom or keeps calling me Claire or Mahoro, my Rwandan name) What do I need to change about my current life to make sure he comes first? (reserving dedicated family time, making sure I'm really present and not checking email or being on my phone when he's around, probably going to bed a lot earlier). 

I'm both elated and pretty nervous about being a first time parent. I know there are going to be challenges, and I'm trying my best to prepare for them. But I guess becoming a first-time parent is a bit like boxing. You can train for endless hours, but you don't know where the punches are going to fall until you're in the ring. 

I'm most apprehensive about how D'Assisi is going to take the adjustment, and how my relationships will inevitably change. Even though I've been in D'Assisi's life for the past four years, it's different than living with me. I don't know if the transition will be natural, or if he'll really struggle not living in the convent. And I know some of my relationships will probably change. I don't have very many close friends who are parents here, and my usual weekend social life has not been playing Chutes and Ladders and going to bed at 9 pm. It's absolutely a sacrifice that I would always choose to make, but it does make me a little nervous. 

Ultimately, I'm trying to channel the Rwandan parents I knew in my village, who seem infinitely more relaxed about parenting than Americans do (and most definitely more chill than I am about it). The modern American parenthood preparation checklist is about 10,000 things long, costs a couple million dollars in unnecessary expenses, and has too many recommended parenting books to be reasonable. Rwandan mothers gave birth (silently! Rwandan culture is crazy sometimes) at our rural health center, laid on the simple metal beds packed into the maternity ward until they regained their strength, and then took the swaddled baby home perched on the back of a motorcycle or bicycle taxi. They made sure their babies were clean, dressed, had food to eat, and then just loved their kids. Fancy baby strollers and Mommy and Me classes be damned. 


Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Love Wins.

In Rwandan culture, mothers take the name of their first-born child. I have officially been Mama D'Assisi for about 36 hours. It's a name that I will never take for granted.

So many thoughts and questions are rushing through my head, and it's hard to wrap my around what motherhood entails. So perhaps I'll just start with how the adoption went, for my friends and family who have been asking about it, and also so that I never, ever, ever forget all the beautiful parts of yesterday.
First day together, four years ago. 
He was such a tiny little thing. 
The past few months have been at times a soul-crushing blur of paper-gathering. I gave tax returns, police background checks, graduation diploma, attestations of my character, and various official forms to my lawyer for our adoption dossier. Translations and notarizations, copies and more copies. A local official who refused to sign the papers. I had multiple meetings with him that he would blow off. With a little convincing from the nuns (okay, a lot of convincing from the nuns and my lawyer), he finally signed them. I thought we were going to have a court date in January, then March, then May. I didn't know if I'd ever see the end of the paper-gathering process.

Francois D'Assisi, the day we first met. 
Finally, our dossier was complete we were granted a court date at the tribunal in our district for his adoption hearing. A judge would decide if I could become D'Assisi's legal parent on July 19. I awaited the date with a mix of excitement and apprehension, even fear. I wanted so badly to be his parent, and was terrified at the idea of the court saying no.

Many people reminded me that even if the judge ruled no, I'd still be able to be a part of his life, and that's very true. I'm extremely blessed to have been able to stay in Rwanda, just 30 minutes from the convent where he lives, and to be able to see him on a regular basis. Although I would be able to see him on weekends and sometimes for a quick meal midweek, it felt like he had grown a foot and aged five years in between. I wanted to be there for the life "in between", the small moments like eating breakfast together and reading to him at night. I wanted to be able to make medical decisions for him. I wanted to provide stability (he lives with 8 sisters, but they switch out every two years or so depending on what the order needs them to do, so he's had over twenty parents in his life already). I wanted to provide him love.

Before I knew it, it was the night before our adoption hearing. I couldn't sleep from thinking about all of the what-ifs and maybes. I finally fell asleep around 3 am, and awoke to the blaring of my alarm clock at 6:15 am. I picked up my lawyer and one of the nuns who would serve as a witness, and we drove the two hours or so to the rural tribunal, first along smooth, paved roads, and then along rough, rock-strewn ones that wound through the hills near the Burundi border.

In the car, my lawyer quizzed me on questions the judge might ask:
"You are now single. What if you get married and your husband does not accept D'Assisi?"
"I would never marry anyone who didn't accept him."
"Oh. I didn't think of that."

"How can you prove that you are not a child abuser or trafficker or just trying to adopt a child to serve your own purposes?"
"Umm....I lived in a convent for 2 years and the nuns are supporting me in the adoption? And I don't know, if I were trying to traffic a kid, I probably would have given up on this one a long time ago and gone for someone easier?"
"Okay, noted."

My lawyer asked me if I'd like to defend myself, in Kinyarwanda, or if he'd do all the talking. I gladly gave him the responsibility. My hands were cold and clammy, and my throat was as dry as a cotton ball, and my lawyer certainly had a lot more experience than I did.

At last, we pulled in front of a small brick building where a few people were waiting on benches outside the court. There were signs hanging up on the doors that said "Corruption is forbidden. You don't have to pay for your rights." We went inside to the simple courtroom, filled with rows of wooden benches, a raised platform for the judge in front of a large framed picture of the President in the front of the room, and a Rwandan flag. My lawyer put on his lawyer robes: black satin with ancient-looking white puffy sleeves at the wrists, and we waited for the judge to arrive. I expected that we'd be alone in the courtroom, especially since ours was the first appointment of the day, but other people who had hearings that day all crowded onto the benches inside.

I tapped my feet nervously as we waited for the judge, and Sr. Alphonsine held my sweaty hand to calm me down. The judge came about 40 minutes later, wearing black robes and a round black pillbox-style hat, and everyone stood up. He called my name, trying his best to pronounce my unfamiliar last name, and the hearing began.

My lawyer presented him with the meticulously collected dossier, as well as copies of all of D'Assisi's medical files from Rwanda and our trip to Kenya. My lawyer presented our case. In short, D'Assisi had been abandoned as a baby, was HIV positive, and was taken in by the nuns, since several of them worked at the health center. I lived with him for two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer, and fell in love with him. A year and a half ago, we discovered that D'Assisi had brain lesions and doctors in Rwanda couldn't diagnose what was causing them, so we travelled to Nairobi to see a pediatric neurologist there, who discovered that he had brain parasites. The treatment was successful, and he's healthy now, but the nuns have limited means and aren't able to provide a steady environment.

Given the quizzing in the car, I expected us to be at the tribunal for hours, with an intense volley of questions from the judge. My lawyer talked for maybe forty minutes, and answered a few questions ("How old is the woman pursuing the adoption?"). The judge paused, and said, "It's so obvious that this adoption would be a clear benefit to the child, and I really have nothing to argue about. The adoption is successful. Come back at 2 pm to pick up the signed official documents." And just like that, the judge called someone else's name and it was all done.
Toddler picture. That hat! Those little legs. 
My lawyer and Sr. Alphonsine stood up to head outside, and I followed suit. I thought I had perhaps misunderstood the decision.
"So, we won?"I asked.
"We won. You're a parent. Where are we getting drinks?" my lawyer responded.

I burst into tears, which shocked both my lawyer and Sr. Alphonsine.
"Why are you crying?! You're supposed to be happy!"my lawyer exclaimed confusedly.
All I managed to blubber through the tears was that I'm an American, and sometimes we cry when we're happy too.

I called my parents, even though it was around 2 or 3 am Nebraska time, and told them the good news. We had to come back to the court to get the documents in a few hours, so my lawyer wanted to get buy some maize flour at the local market, and I tried to answer a few emails in the car. It was a surreal experience, having your life completely and utterly changed forever, and then trying to focus on some mundane, real life thing like answering an email.

Sr. Alphonsine had to get back to her work at the local school, so we drove her back. All of the sisters and I hugged, and I cried all over again. D'Assisi came back from school for his lunch break, and I practically smothered him I hugged him so tight. We ate lunch with the sisters, the usual rice, beans, and boiled greens, and I then I asked D'Assisi in Kinyarwanda, "Ese urashaka kuba umuhungu wanjye?""Do you want to be my son?" He responded, "yego."

Four years, one month, and six days passed from the first day I met D'Assisi until I became his mother. I could not be any more grateful for the time we've spent together, for his health, and for the support from family and friends near and far. I'm looking forward for all that is to come.

Love wins.
Mama D'Assisi

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Four Years in Rwanda.

It's been awhile since I last wrote. I find that I don't have as much time to write as in my Peace Corps days, and that I don't take the time to write as much. They are two different things. I hope to get back into writing more frequently, if for nothing than for my own good, like being able to look at a map as you make a long voyage and remembering all the beautiful places you passed on the way.

Anyways. As of 10 May, I've been in the Land of a Thousand Hills for four years. Give or take 1,460 days. Two years longer than I planned on staying.

I suppose that I'll have to get another subtitle for my blog now, as it's currently set as "One Girl. Two Years. My Life in Rwanda", which was last appropriate in May 2014. Alternate options for subtitles include "I Never Expected to Stay this Long" ,"The Returned Peace Corps Volunteer Who Never Returned", "The Staring Never Stops", "I Swear Rwanda is Awesome" and "Sorry, Mom."

I'm sitting on the long porch of my house in Kamembe thinking about how I somehow never left Rwanda, watching lightning flicker across the inky sky over the DR Congo. Night is when my small town in the southwest is the most peaceful--the border closes, and the hustle and bustle of traders and travelers ceases. The lights of fishermen's boats are scattered across placid Lake Kivu, the darkness of the night disguising the depth of the lake. I can faintly hear the songs of the fishermen on the lake, Congolese rhumba music playing across the peninsula in Bukavu, and engines braking in the distance. It's when I become most introspective and thoughtful, thinking about life and what I'm doing here, so far from my beloved Cornhusker state.

Fishermen on Lake Kivu
Sunset on Lake Kivu
When I strike up conversations with Rwandans on the bus, in a restaurant, or in the crowded sauna I sometimes frequent here, they almost always ask how long I've been in Rwanda. Imyaka ine, I respond. Four years. Then they ask how long I will stay in Rwanda: iteka ryose, I respond jokingly. Forever. We both laugh, and they almost always ask why I stayed so long. Abantu beza, Imisozi myiza, I respond, trying to condense four intense years into as many words. Good people, beautiful hills. 

I guess I don't have any good answers to why I stayed, other than I have found meaning and purpose and beauty in the everyday here that I have not found anywhere else, and these are more necessary parts of my life than nearly anything else.

Part of this is my job, working with a fantastic group of people to make farmers in Rwanda and East Africa more prosperous, part of it is the communities I'm a part of and the people I love here, including D'Assisi, and part of it is seeing growth and change all around me, and feeling that I am contributing to that, in the smallest of ways.

One of the many lessons I've learned: always work with joy

Rwanda is not the same country as in 1994. It is not the same country as when I stepped off the plane in Kigali in May 2012. In the four years I've spent here, I've seen roads being paved, hotels and buildings going up, the Kigali Convention Center's dome lighting up the city.

I've seen friends from my village improve their houses, get bigger harvests, buy cellphones, open bank accounts, and attend university in Kigali.

 I've talked to members of my community who had their lives destroyed in 1994, and have managed, impossibly, to forgive and to rebuild. It's hard to describe this feeling of momentum, but it's exciting to be a part of, like being a tiny droplet in a river rushing rapidly downstream.

I fell in love with this mysterious, beautiful, bewildering, lush, exciting country, and sometime during those four years, it became my home. 

I adore the vibrant colors and patterns of the igitenge clothing worn by Rwandan women, the kinyarwanda songs and energetic dancing of my colleagues before and after every meeting, the reddish brown earth that seems to pervade the very pores of my skin whenever I wander outside, piles of speckled multicolor beans at the market and mounds of fresh fruits balanced atop vendors' heads, the fresh air and tall trees of the misty rainforest near my house, and the cool blue waters of Kivu. I traded the flat plains of the Midwest for the green rolling hills of this small east African country. For how long, I don't know. It's hard to give up on momentum.

For now, I just want to be grateful for the most challenging and most rewarding four years of my life.

Murakoze Cyane, Rwanda. 

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Bukavu, DRC: La Belle Musique

After we returned from gorilla trekking, Lotte and her parents and I relaxed back at her house for a bit, which was a little flooded from a bout of intense rain. I explored the garden and the lakefront, where a boat was parked. 

As I got closer, I could see that the boat—painted with the words “Canal Pleasure Tours”  and “M/V Karibu Princess” was in bad condition—the wood was rotting and the metal parts were rusty. 

Lotte had told me it had come all the way from Dublin--an incredible journey no matter what route they took: down the Atlantic Ocean and up the Congo River hundreds of miles to Kisangani, and then overland through the jungle, or through the Mediterranean and down the Nile, through Egypt and Sudan and Uganda, and then overland to Congo. Though it had seen better days, it would be a fine boat with a little love and attention, and I pictured turning it into a houseboat and living my days floating about on Lake Kivu. Parties interested in making this dream a reality can send checks my way.

            We watched the sunset, as the perpetual blues of Kivu gave way to yellows and cotton candy pink clouds. Lake Kivu’s sunsets are among the world’s best kept secrets, in my opinion. The four of us decided to get dinner at a place called Lodge Coco on the same peninsula as Lotte’s house. We walked there in the dark, using our phones to guide us along the muddy road. It was a really nice place, complete with a pizza oven. It was fairly empty when we got there, but became more crowded as the evening wore on (although I’m told that Fridays are more popular, since they have a live band). We ordered beers, which were cold even though the power went out several times when we were there, and we could hear the hum of the generator starting up. The Swiss owner, who has lived in Congo for years, came and introduced himself, which was a nice touch.
             After a filling dinner, Lotte and her parents went home since they had to catch an early morning boat to Goma the next morning. They took my phone with them as a precaution against potential pickpockets and/or muggings (sorry if you're reading this, Mom and Dad), leaving me just the bare minimum money I’d need for that night. My friend Congolese friend Godelive picked me up in a taxi, and we headed for a soiree salsa. The streets of Bukavu at night were so quiet compared to the daytime. The taxi dropped us off on a dark street, and at first I thought we’d made a mistake in the location. But we walked through a dim entryway and arrived at a large room with chairs and tables around the outside, a bar set up in a corner, and couples with some SERIOUS dance moves dancing to a mix of music—salasa, rhumba, cumbia-- in the middle. I was pretty intimidated, but my Congolese friend Racky, who is a professional dancer, showed me the ropes. I met a group of Godelive and Racky’s friends, and everyone was so friendly to me. Congolese couples flowed to the rhythms on the floor, dipping and spinning furiously through the night's thick air. 
            After the soiree salsa, we had to make a stop at Parc des Princes, a larger club on La Botte peninsula. We could hear the music pulsing from outside as our taxi pulled up to the nightclub. Despite it being one of the more popular spots at night, there was no sign marking it out front. We hurried down the two flights of stairs into the gaudily, even garishly, decorated club, where several disco bulbs made the room spin. If a fun house in an amusement park were turned into a club in the Congo, it would look something like Parc des Princes. Some walls were painted with stripes, others with a leopard print, and there were Louis Vuitton logos painted carefully on the walls leading to the latrines. Parc des Princes has a sort of maze-like layout that makes you feel like you're in a cave, with little seating areas carved out and a billiards area with a great view of the lake.
            To me, there are two kinds of nightclubs in the world, one of which I detest, and the other I adore. The first kind is the type where you have to pay a cover, everyone is dressed up and the place is really fancy, but no one is really having fun—you’re just there to “seen and be seen.” People kind of do a little side-to-side shuffle, but mostly it’s just looking around and seeing how much everyone’s trying to pretend like they’re having fun (but no one is wiling to admit how truly awful it is). 
            The second is the type of place where you can crazy dance to your heart’s content and no one cares. No one is afraid to get on the dance floor. Everyone is sweating buckets from dancing and no one cares. This, I adore. And this, my friends, is Parc des Princes.
            When we arrived, the dance floor was full but not too crowded. Racky and Godelive and I got some drinks and then danced. And danced. And danced. As the night wore on, more and more people arrived, crowding into the many nooks and crannies of the club. The Congolese, in my experience, love their music and know how to dance like nobody’s business, and that night was no different. It’s those moments that make you feel alive: dancing to Swahili and French music, in a sweaty maze-like club overlooking the dark waters of Lake Kivu. 

Friday, December 4, 2015

Gorilla Trekking in the DR Congo

My heart was racing as I stood in line at Immigration on the Rwanda side, waiting for my papers to be stamped. It was 5:30 pm on a Friday, and the line to enter Congo before the border closed at 6 pm was easily 60 people long, all equally as impatient as I was to get across. As the minutes passed, the line lengthened,  it became increasingly evident that not everyone would make it through the line and the tension was visible. Several people tried to cut, although angry shouts in Swahili and Kinyarwanda, and sometimes shoves, usually put them back in their place.
            After the immigration officer questioned my intentions to go to Congo, my papers were begrudgingly stamped, and I proceeded across the rickety bridge over the Rusizi River that leads to the second largest country in Africa. Right next to the rickety wooden bridge lies a fancy blue, two-lane, paved bridge that was completed about two years ago, but has never opened to either foot or vehicle traffic. Rumors say that the agreement was for both Congo and Rwanda to refurbish and straighten the roads leading to the bridge on their side of the border. Rwanda, rule-abiding to a T and with signs saying things like “Together We Prevent Corruption!” lining the way to the border, finished their side of the road around the same time as the new bridge was built. Congo has yet to keep up their end of the deal since someone managing the project was rumored to have taken the funds, so the now two-year old bridge remains closed. If only they had more enthusiastic anti-corruption signs lining the road to the border...
            I headed into the Congo immigration office, where several Congolese police officers stood outside smoking cigarettes in faded blue fatigues. Once I entered the small immigration office, a large photo-shopped picture of the Congolese head of state, Joseph Kabila, stared back at me. The immigration officer was surprisingly friendly, and thanked me for coming to visit his country in slightly accented English as he looked through my American passport.
            My friend Lotte met me at the border in a car, and we headed to her home in Muhumba, one of the five fingerlike peninsulas of Bukavu. It was drizzling slightly, and the potholed roads were filled with muddy puddles. I couldn’t help but notice the increased security as the evening light faded, with high brick walls topped with half of yard of barbed wire or electric fences surrounding each house like a fortress. Lotte and I arrived at her house, where elegant crowned cranes strutted about a well-manicured garden. 

Lotte’s parents were visiting from the Netherlands, and I got to know them in between staring at the sun slipping in between the ribbons of sapphire-hued mountains beyond Lake Kivu.

             We ate a satisfying Congolese meal with grilled fish, lenga-lenga (greens), rice, and ugali, as well as some chocolate Lotte had brought back from the Netherlands. I fell asleep on the couch at some point after eating and awoke to the sound of dishes being washed awhile later. I decided to keep sleeping on the couch, but when the sound of mosquitoes buzzing in my ears became too loud for me to sleep, I pitched my tent in the middle of Lotte’s living room and slept inside of it instead.

The Gorillas

The next morning, we all woke up early to head to Kahuzi-Biega National Park, a massive forested park just an hour outside of Bukavu. 

The driver picked us up, then we switched drivers, and then proceeded through the crowded streets of Bukavu towards the park.

            The streets were bustling with uniformed schoolchildren, who actually study on Saturdays, various small-goods vendors, and throngs of brightly-painted mini-buses with the convoyeurs standing out of the open doors yelling out the final destination to attract potential passengers. 

We passed the harbor, where fishermen were bringing the night’s catch and where large passenger boats were setting sail for Goma, at the opposite end of the lake.

Our nostrils filled with the smell of fermenting grains as we went by the Congolese Bralima brewery, which provides the area with its supply of the ubiquitous Primus beer, and whose counterpart Bralirwa brews the same beverage on the opposite side of the lake. The walls of the brewery were painted with the rather strange slogan of Primus Bralima, “Toujours Leader”, or “Always Leader.” Our driver stopped the get gas, and I watched as a Chinese truck with an unimaginable number of dirty yellow jerrycans piled high on top of it spewed clouds of black smoke as it sputtered by. The driver said the jerrycans were used in the palm oil trade. The palm oil could be collected from large plantations a few hours from Bukavu, and brought back to the city, where it was sold.

            The road to Kahuzi-Biega followed the lake, and was pretty well paved for most of the trip. We cruised through several small villages and a couple of barricaded police checkpoints, one of which we had to pay a “fee” at to get past. I was speechless at the beauty of the Congolese countryside. One of the things I miss most living in the most densely populated country in Africa is true wilderness. No matter where you are in Rwanda, unless you’re in a National Park, you can always spot people around. The land is parceled out into millions of tiny fields, like a patchwork quilt covering the rolling hills in maize, beans, bananas, and sorghum. I started to get choked up just gazing at the untamed, vast expanses before me.

            At the turnoff to the Parc National Kahuzi-Biega, named for the two highest peaks in the park, the road began to get a bit more rough, although not unmanageable. There was a statue of a gorilla with faded and chipped paint among the few buildings on the compound.

 I took a short walk around, and saw the grave of the Belgian founder of the park, as well as a sign in French designating the park as World Heritage Site, although two of the metal plates making up the insignia were missing.
We went inside to the visitors center, where several men were building the floor. I wasn’t sure what hike I wanted to do (Lotte and her parents had already planned on visiting the mountain gorillas), and inquired about the various options, and eventually decided to stick with my friend for the gorillas hike (which was amazing in and of itself---in Rwanda gorilla trekking permits are around $700, and they usually have to be bought weeks if not months in advance).
I chatted with on of the rangers in French about what I did in Rwanda and how long I’d been there. I mentioned that I first came to Rwanda with Corps de la Paix, and the ranger had a soft look on his face. He said he remembered the days when Peace Corps was in what was then Zaire, and that there was a teacher at his school who was from Peace Corps and that the program was well-respected. He asked how many Peace Corps Volunteers are in Congo now, and I had to tell him that there weren’t any, since the wars in Congo in the 1990s. The ranger asked when we’d return, and I said I couldn’t tell him. It made me feel so proud that he had such a positive experience with Peace Corps, and it made me really sad that I couldn’t assure him that the organization would be back soon.
We had some tea the staff brought to us and some waffles we brought from Lotte’s house for breakfast next to a table full of gorilla skulls. 

We listened to a short briefing from one of the rangers along with three people I knew were Belgians before they told us. The ranger introduced himself in French as “Juvenal, the alive one from Congo and not the dead one from Rwanda“ (a reference to the former president of Rwanda, whose death in an airplane crash prompted the beginning of the Rwandan genocide).

Juvenal gave a short history lesson, showing us a picture of the Belgian founder of the park, and large photo of the first ranger of the park, a man by the name of “Monsieur Pillipilli Pygmee” roughly translated as “Mr Spicy Pygmy.” Juvenal also showed us a massive map of Kahuzi-Biega. All of the trails were concentrated in a smaller area in the southeast; the rest left unexplored. It was astounding.
After the briefing, the seven of us and a couple park rangers piled into a beat-up pick-up truck to drive to the trailhead on a dirt and gravel road with dense rainforest all around it. 

I knew I was no longer in Rwanda when a few motos with passengers and drivers who were not wearing helmets, and up to the three or four people were crammed onto it, passed us on the way to Kisangani (Rwandan law dictates that only two people, the driver and one passenger, can ride a motorcycle, and that both must wear helmets). The motorcycle passengers and drivers seemed shocked to see white people and would crane their necks trying to get a glimpse, and in one case the driver crashed into a ditch because he was trying to see us and wasn’t paying attention to the road.

2 out of 3 passengers with helmets gets a thumbs up from Papa Lambert
After maybe half an hour of driving, the truck stopped. A guide who introduced himself to us as Papa Lambert met us, and although there was no trailhead, we began to hike on a narrow path through the jungle. Papa Lambert walked in front, and a guard wielding an AK-47 walked behind the seven of us. The forest was thick, and the path was occasionally slippery. After we’d walked for forty minutes, Papa Lambert stopped us in a small clearing. His face was somber as he cleared his voice. In French, he said that military groups used to use the clearing as a small base during the Congo Wars in the late 1990s, attacking traffic on the road from Bukavu to Kisangani, and killing both the animals and some of the guards in the park. I had so much respect for the guards and guides of Kahuzi-Biega. Papa Lambert had a sense of pride and dignity about him mixed in with the twinge of sadness in his voice, and I instantly respected him.

We continued on through the rainforest for perhaps an hour and a half total, and finally Papa Lambert turned to us and said we were approaching the family of gorillas. He handed out surgical masks “so we don’t catch the gorillas’ diseases, and they don’t catch ours”, we put dutifully put them on.

There were perhaps twenty gorillas in the family, including a massive silverback and several playful young gorillas. 

There were only seven of us, plus the guards, and we got to be within a few feet of them. It was magical. 

The young gorillas goofed around, swinging from branches and even wrestling each other. 

Some of the parents groomed and picked insects from their young’s hair. And all of them ate bamboo shoots and other plants. 

No pictures and no description does it justice, and I would do it again in a heartbeat.

We stayed with the gorilla family for a couple of hours, which seemed to fly by, and then made the trek back to the road, where our truck was waiting. 

More guards came back with us, and the back of the truck was very full. I sat next to one guard who was no more than four and a half feet tall, who wore bubblegum-pink rain boots, and another who was carrying a Kalashnikov with a slightly rotting wooden barrel that was duct-taped together, which didn’t exactly inspire confidence in his ability to use it, if it was needed.

I sat and stared at that gun as we bumped and bounced down the rough road. I wondered where it was made, who had brought it Congo, when, and how and why. During the Congo Wars? Maybe even when Mobutu was president? I could only guess. I thought about all of the people that might have carried that ancient-looking gun, and tried not to think about the people at the other end of it. I wondered what that gun had seen. 
I was jolted from my thoughts when another large truck carrying hundreds of dirty yellow jerrycans and quite a few passengers piled on top as well came barreling up the road, towards wherever the palm oil was coming from.

We made it back to the main compound, and then Lotte, her parents, and I got back in our car to head back to Bukavu.

 I had my head out the window the whole time, taking in the small villages with little shops and wooden bars, rows of sugarcane lined up against houses, children playing football, clothes drying in the breeze, and then once again, the hustle and bustle of Bukavu as we reached the city’s limits in the late afternoon.