Monthly Archives: December 2013

A Love Affair with Lake Victoria IV – Bujumbura Fried Fish and Spider-Man

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As soon as we crossed the border, I knew something was different.

Rounded Rwandan hills dissipated behind us in the distance as cute, cozy mountain villages quickly turned into small poverty stricken communities, complete with women clad in dirty fluorescent robes carrying buckets of mangos on their heads and babies strapped to their backs.

For a country that shares the same physical size and relative war-ridden history of its northern neighbor, Burundi lacked strikingly in just about everything when compared to Rwanda.

After a few hours of driving through dirt roads and jungle terrain in the dark, always wondering if the driver had gotten us lost, we finally saw Bujumbura appear in the distance as a disorganized mess of faded lights by a dark lake we knew was there but couldn’t see.

I took an immediate dislike to the Burundian capital.

Burundi remains one of the top five poorest countries on the planet and boasts one of the lowest per capita GDPs in the world. Since the civil war that ended in 1993, the country has been host to a long series of political rebellions, coup d’états and in-fighting that has left the country, and its capital, a tattered shell of what it could be. Just walking down the streets of Bujumbura, you can feel a certain weighted helplessness in the air coupled with a clear sense that if things were going on, they were doubtlessly riddled with corruption and a general disregard for the average citizen that could be seen in everything from the crumbling infrastructure to the masses of idle men and squatting mothers inhabiting every street corner, hands outstretched.

It was so humid one day I stopped at a small red shack near the mini-bus terminal to grab a Coke. Since soft drinks in still come in glass bottles, you have to stand around the vendor and immediately hand the empty back so that the salesman can recycle it for a small return; in some instances the bottle itself is worth more than the liquid inside.

As I was awkwardly standing around, keeping one eye on my bag and the other on everyone around me, a child came up to me, dirty and clad in goodwill rags, hand outstretched, mouthing the word “help” over and over again. I shooed him off. I’d the spent the morning prey to Bujumbura’s booming leagues of beggars and I just wanted to have a sip of something cold before heading back to the hotel. But the kid stuck around, and every time I looked down to make sure no one had their fingers in my bag, he was standing there, looking up at me.

A lot of kids in Africa are conditioned to immediately start begging when they see Westerners or anyone who looks any shade of white. You’ll walk down the road past a group of playing children and they immediately surround you with the only English I think they know: “Mistah! Mistah! I’m haaaangry…give me mahney!”

I’d love to be a fly on the wall for some of these schoolyard discussions: “Yah, if you say that to white people they actually just give you money! I don’t even know what it means!” These kids go from happy and frolicking to destitute and miserable for the cameras at the drop of an IPhone.

But there was something different about this kid by the soda shack. There was a kind of desperation in his eyes I still can’t describe. I looked at his protruding belly and noticed for the first time he was wearing an age-weathered Spider-Man T-shirt that was much too small for him. I remembered having the exact same shirt as a kid and for a second I wondered if it could be mine; most of the clothes we donate in Canada eventually find their way to outdoor markets in Africa being sold for pennies. Quebec goodwill organizations donate the majority of their clothes to French-speaking countries in the developing world, just like Burundi.

For a second I met eyes with the kid and imagined our roles reversed; he growing up in a quiet suburb of Montreal and me begging for scraps in Bujumbura, both sporting the same Spider-Man T-shirt. I thought about the great genetic lottery that I had won, and how simply the location of one’s birth can directly dictate the quality of life that surrounds it. What the hell made the two of us any different? When you boil down the bones, we’re all just blood and bags of flesh, walking through the world, trying to make it through another day in the hopes of something better.

I bought the kid a samosa and gave him the rest of my Coke, which he took with a smile and immediately put to his lips with both hands. I left right away and didn’t look back as he approached the counter and leaned in contently with the others.

When did I become so heartless? I guess it comes with the territory to a certain extent. Reporting on human rights is emotionally draining, and as time goes on I find myself becoming older, colder. I spend my days riffling through reports and articles that display the depths of human cruelty and eventually, somewhere along the line, I started to become so numb to it all because it makes the work easier to swallow. Journalism school teaches you to be objective, to take a step back so as to not be influenced by what you’re seeing, to be a nicely dressed fly on the wall with a pen and a camera. You’re told that great journalists earn their stripes through impartial experience, but I’m starting to wonder if this is professional practice or just a coping mechanism developed over the years, passed down from generation to generation of reporters, an old sedative for a new wave of lost souls, quiet witnesses to the cruel world beyond our eyes.

Sometime I get so caught up in the beauty and novelty of Africa that I forget the sad realities of daily life for a lot of people on the ground. I write about development and the proliferation of human rights in such broad strokes that I’m completely blind to the individuals I’m trying to make life better for, or at least telling myself I am. I talk about all of this like a bold concept while I completely disregard the faces behind it all because I was taught to, but more often than not I feel like I’m sinking into a middle ground made of mud and good intentions that only ever reconcile on printed paper.

That night, Aaron and I took a taxi to a place along the lake called Le Cercle Nautique and were puzzled when the driver pulled up to a Korean massage parlor that looked like it definitely gave happy endings. In a heavy Burundian French the driver assured us that if we followed a dimly lit stone alleyway nearby, we’d reach the place we were looking for. I swear it only sounds shady in retrospect.

The road past a white stone wall quietly revealed a series of rickety wooden docks, barely visible amidst a thick bush of palm trees and driftwood. We grabbed beers and sat facing Lake Tanganyika in near silence. We watched as fishermen on a nearby rocky dock sat and laughed amongst each other, occasionally pulling something from the water into a communal wicker basket. Behind them, two hippos were bobbing up and down over the surface, snorting misty air as tourists took out their cameras and tried to capture to action.

We ordered fish and when it arrived, head and scales and all, I realized what the men had been doing on the dock all evening. We started with forks and knives but as it got darker, Aaron and I both resorted to using our hands to pick apart skin and tiny bones we couldn’t see.
As the sun set over the lake, the Congolese mountains in the distance dissolved in a haze of mist and glowing purple darkness that slowly creeped onto the dinner dock, leaving it lit by only the faint glow of cigarettes and cell phones.

Le Cercle Nautique at sunset

Le Cercle Nautique at sunset

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A Love Affair with Lake Victoria Part III – Gisenyi, The Jagged Teeth of Goma

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After linking up with Aaron in Kigali, he hired a driver to take us north to Gisenyi, a small Rwandan tourist town along the border with the Democratic Republic of the Congo, just a few kilometers from the city of Goma. As we drove, I lost myself in backseat window frames of green-speckled rolling red hills that gave the Rockies a run for their money, not in size, but in sheer untamed natural beauty.

The ancient levels of cultivated terraces across the hills spoke testament to the fact that these lands had been the epicenter of a sophisticated culture of agriculture that far predated any Belgian colonialists. It wasn’t mechanized, but you could tell there was a certain beautiful harmony with nature that can only exist after years spent in cyclical synchronization with the environment.

As we got closer to Gisenyi, in the distance we could see the three massive volcanoes that stood in strange dominating juxtaposition with the curvy landscape. Aaron turned and explained that locals call them “The Jagged Teeth” because of the way they stand out against the rounded hills that looked so small in comparison. The volcanoes seemed ominous even before I realized that they demarcated the boundaries to a region plagued with war, slavery and misery for the better part of 200 years.

Things started to go south for the Congo when King Leopold II of Belgium took a large portion of central Africa as his own personal colony in 1885, ironically naming it the Congo Free State. What followed was years of brutal enslavement of the local population, forced to collect industrial amounts of ivory or rubber with their bare hands, the profits of which flowed directly into the king’s coffers. A victim of what’s known as “The Resource Curse,” the Republic of the Congo got its independence in 1960, but a Cold War fuelled civil conflict over power would sow the seeds for a greater war that would engulf the region in armed guerilla warfare and misery to this very day. The Second Congo War, or more popularly known as the Great War of Africa, involved troops from Rwanda, Uganda, The African Union and a host of other in-fighting groups that turned a country that should be one of wealthiest in the world into a humanitarian disaster of corruption, poverty and forced labour.

Though the war is technically over, fighting in the Eastern Kivu areas near the borders with Rwanda and Uganda goes on, with many armed groups like M-23 and Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army still active in mineral rich rural areas, though in early November, the M23 rebels finally called for a ceasefire with the Congolese army, bringing a 20 year rebellion to the negotiating table, at least for now.

These days, the fighting isn’t over ivory or rubber, but minerals like gold and coltan used to manufacture chips and small circuitboards in just about every smartphone and laptop on the planet. It’s undoubtedly the breadbasket of the tech industry, a global trade that involves everyone from Chinese manufacturers to North American mass consumers.

On the way to Gisenyi, we passed refugee camps where displaced people sat and walked around behind heavy iron bars and barbed wire that made them look like open-air zoo animals. These people, without saying a word, spoke volumes to the ongoing Congolese conflicts that have claimed the lives of several million people and counting. Believe it or not, the refugees are the lucky ones, living in the hope that they might one day be able to return home.

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A woman stands outside Nkamira Refugee Camp

The next day, we headed to a border crossing along the lake known as the Grande Barrière to try and see if we could get to Goma to meet up with some NGO workers on the other side. There, a bright blue reflective road sign read “Democratic Republic of the Congo” with another more weather-worn board that read “Safe Journey” and I couldn’t help but laugh a bit.

M-23 rebels group captured Goma in 2012, but despite the city having been retaken, there was still a sort of heavy tension you could almost touch. Heavily armed guards and military outposts along the border told the story of a multi-belligerent conflict with no end in sight, the prolongation of which both Rwanda and Uganda have their hands in just as much as the Congolese. It’s the kind of place you don’t need to be told not to take pictures. So I made sure to take a quick picture.

A tad short on $350 visa tab necessary to enter the country (at least only half of which I assumed was bribe money for the guards) we headed to a nearby bar where they set a table and a few plastic chairs for us on the grass. There, we sat and shared drinks with political activists, former rebel fighters and NGO workers from groups like Free the Slaves and the Enough Project who crossed over to meet with us, keeping an eye on their watches so as to not miss the 6:00 PM border curfew that would leave them stuck in Rwanda until sunrise.

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A view of La Grande Barrière taken from inside my jacket

They talked about the situation in Goma and the complete lack of political will for change that held a stranglehold on the whole region. A perpetual wheel of lies and bullshit good intentions that fed into a system so genuinely sickening, it was actually easier to just ignore it altogether and wait for the new IPhone to patch over the dark parts. A perfect system by which the rich remained so, uninhibited as long as people could be pacified by a blood-soaked touchscreen at a reasonable price. The irony of it all, is that I write this on a laptop that I know is riddled with minerals from the Congo, myself a devoted slave to the whole damn pixilated process.

It all seemed so strange, all the heavy security and general malaise backdropped to beautiful Lake Kivu, with its quaint sandy beaches and ritzy waterfront resorts. Separated by an arbitrary border and heavy fortifications, this was the division not only between two countries, but two seemingly different worlds. As Rwanda became the beacon of East African post-war political stability, the DRC had sunk deeper and deeper into a routine of systematic corruption and failed political will where they rich, just like in the old days, lined their pockets with the blood of those too poor to realize the true value of their work. The whole place was living testament to the fact that if you turn your eyes away from someplace long enough, it really can just disappear, vanish into the depth, buried beneath terabytes of Buzzfeed articles about Miley Cyrus and 25 reasons why cats are more important than breathing. The world had all but forgotten the Congolese struggle, and there I was, straddling the line that separated two worlds I’d never be able to reconcile or even fully understand.

After the interviews, Aaron and I decided to take a stroll down the waterfront as the cloudy sun was setting over the lake. We sat on a natural dock of jagged volcanic rocks and took turns unsuccessfully trying to snap pictures of lightning bolts over the Lake Kivu.

As I finally made it back to my hotel gate, I felt a single drop of rain fall on my head and I rushed inside just as a nearby bolt of lightning broke the sky open. In the distance, I could see Lake Kivu momentarily illuminated in vibrant shades of blue and cherry gray.

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