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.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Life with D'Assisi, Continued.

It has been awhile since I've written about Francois d'Assisi, the close-to-seven year old boy I lived with for two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer.

When I last wrote, we were struggling to find out what was causing his brain lesions. We didn't know what was making him forgetful or what was making his grades drop, but we knew something was wrong.

February through June were some of the most frustrating months of my life, trying to navigate the Rwandan medical system and trying to find answers for him. We visited doctor after doctor here and had tests upon tests done, but still came up empty handed. We were told to come back in a few months "if things got worse." I wanted to scream that we couldn't wait that long, but knowing deep down that with only a handful of neurologists in a country of 12 million, they were probably doing their best. It was a terrible feeling not knowing what was making him sick or how to make him better.

Working with several American doctors, including my uncle who's an infectious disease doctor, we came to the conclusion that D'Assisi was potentially dealing with a life threatening illness like brain lymphoma or a rare disease called progressive multifocal leuko encephalopathapy. We needed tests that were not available anywhere in Rwanda, and I made the decision to fly to Nairobi, Kenya at the beginning of July with him to get treatment, where I'd located a pediatric neurologist at one of the hospitals.

D'Assisi was incredibly excited for his first flight, dancing in the airport even in the wee hours of the morning. I tried my best to hide how completely terrified I was. I hoped for the best, and feared for the worst. When we boarded our flight, I wasn't sure if we would need to stay in Kenya for a few days, a few weeks, or longer. I had booked myself, D'Assisi, and one of the nuns (who could give medical consent for D'Assisi's treatment) a one-way ticket.

The three of us stayed in Nairobi for five days, and spent up to 15 hours a day at Aga Khan Hospital seeing every doctor we could squeeze into our schedule: the pediatric neurologist, an orthopedic surgeon (for his recently broken arm that doctors at the rural hospital in Rwanda hadn't set correctly), a physiotherapist (since D'Assisi has had severe walking problems since he was little), an eye doctor (ditto that for his eyes), and an HIV specialist. We had x-rays, an MRI, EEGs, blood and urine and eye tests.
D'Assisi dancing in the hospital waiting room

It made me realize how hard parenting really is. We went to get the EEG done, where they stick a bunch of suction cup-looking things to your head and measure your brain waves when you sleep (clearly I can describe this in a super scientific way), and we'd scheduled five hours for it. When they tried to hook him up to the machine, D'Assisi cried the entire time. For five hours straight. I tried soothing him. I tried showing him The Lion King on my laptop three times. I tried comforting him and telling him stories. I thought he would eventually cry himself dry and fall asleep, but nothing of the sort happened.

That night, we had to keep him awake so we could do his EEG the next morning. I stayed up with him until 1 am, then we both got 2 hours of sleep, woke up at 3 am and drove to the hospital at 4:30 am to get the EEG done, praying that his exhaustion would overcome his fear of the brain suction cups (it worked, finally).

Probably from being in a new, unfamiliar country, D'Assisi wet his bed every single night we were in Nairobi. In the middle of every night, Sr. Agathe and I would strip his sheets, take him to the shower to rinse off, and get him a new change of clothes. Parents must the most sleep-deprived people on the planet.

Despite the many tests we had to do, D'Assisi found joy in so many things, as he always does. The elevator was a new thrill for him, and he begged Sr. Agathe and I to ride it in between doctor's appointments.

The pediatric wing had a little play place with little toy cars to pedal around it, and we had to practically drag him out to get to our next appointment.

And every ride to the hospital from our guesthouse, D'Assisi had his head out the window, taking in Nairobi with a huge grin on his face.

 It was the first time he rode on a plane, rode an elevator, rode an escalator, and took an actual shower (rather than just a bucket bath).

On our fifth day at the hospital, our pediatric neurologist told us that the testing results showed that D'Assisi had brain parasites, probably from eating uncooked pork. I started crying in her office when she told me. She seemed a bit taken aback, and I explained that I was so happy because we were expecting it to be something much, much worse. The treatment was fairly simple, just a few months of medication, instead of chemotherapy or surgery. I could have hugged her. Even if it had been something more serious, I was incredibly grateful to just finally know finally what was wrong instead of continuing in the fragile medical uncertainty. I booked our ticket home for that evening.

After four months of treatment, D'Assisi's grades are back up (he's the third in his class!), and he's back to being himself for the most part. We are so, so grateful to everyone who said prayers for us, who connected us with doctors in Rwanda and abroad, to my Uncle Butch for being an incredible resource and a true lifesaver, and to my parents who set up an Airbnb in their house to help me pay for the medical expenses in Nairobi and who offer me their continual support--even on the days I feared for the worst. We are incredibly lucky.

Throughout D'Assisi's diagnosis and treatment, I have sought to adopt him, with the support of the nuns he lives with, and the process has been just as confusing as finding him medical treatment. I had heard that foreigners couldn't adopt in Rwanda, but asked two different lawyers who said it was possible. I arranged a meeting with local government officials to bring up his case in June, but they said I had to be 35 and married in order to adopt. I'm currently 26 and single, so neither of those were likely (although the officials graciously offered to "fast track my Rwandan citizenship" when I married one of their eligible friends or relatives). I felt that I was at a dead end.

In November, I decided to give it one last shot by hiring a family law specialist who could actually argue my case. I arranged a meeting early Wednesday morning to go over my options. I was so nervous I couldn't sleep the entire night. I knew that this would be my last chance. If the lawyer said that it wasn't an option under Rwandan law, I'd know it really wouldn't be possible, at least not for another 9 years and after Prince Charming decides to show up (and when D'Assisi would be 15 years old...). I kept going over all the possibilities in my head, turning them around and back again and playing through all of the scenarios of the meeting.

Early Wednesday morning, I took a motorcycle taxi to the tribunal in my district, where I met with my lawyer to look up the actual statutes surrounding adoption, and he said that under Rwandan law it's possible, and that the other officials were misreading the text. We have a lot of document-gathering to do, and need to argue our case in the district court.

I am cautiously optimistic that things will work out. I want to be D'Assisi's mom more than anything, but I am so afraid to get my hopes up, only to have them crushed if things don't work out. I'm able to visit him once a week, but every time I see D'Assisi, it feels like he's aged two years and grown a few inches. He's almost too big to carry on my shoulders anymore. I know that I am missing so many important moments in his life.

 Not the stereotypical big ones, like school awards or birthday parties, but the small moments that are the threads in the fabric of life.

Drinking our morning tea together, daytime dance parties, reading bedtime stories, and counting the stars at night. These are the things I miss about living with him, and that I fear I will never get back.