I Am Going Back to the Congo this Summer
The title says it all. I am going back to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) this summer.
The first time I went to my father’s country was in 2009. I remember feeling excited, a bit apprehensive too. This would be the first trip to Sub-Saharan Africa I could remember.
Reaching the DRC can be tricky, particularly if you are trying to reach a location without an international airport nearby. We first landed in Kigali, Rwanda. I was impressed by the city. The streets were spotless clean. I was told plastic bags, this horrendous product that plagues so many poor countries, had been banned years ago. We did not stay long, only 24 hours or so, but we took the time to visit the Kigali Genocide Memorial. It shook me. Some pictures I couldn’t even look at.
The following day, we made our way towards the Congo. My dad rented a driver that would bring us to the border between the Congo and Rwanda. The journey lasted about six hours. Through the jungle. On twisted, uneven streets, full of potholes bigger than a car. I got so carsick, I had to lay my head on my dad’s laps and close my eyes for most of the journey. We only stopped a handful of times, to use the bathroom and to watch a family of monkeys hanging out by the side of the road.
We were late. By the time we reached the border, dark had already set in and customs were closed. I could see the lights of Bukavu on the other side of the lake. We were so close, I could have walked. But customs were closed, so we were told to wait until the next morning.
I was tired, sick and confused. I wasn’t sure I wanted to be there. I could feel how foreign I was. I kept close to my father, trying to blend in but aware that everyone around me considered me white. What a strange feeling when I had been black all my life. I tried to adapt, but I was uncomfortable. I looked around and tried to understand a way of life I had never experienced before. I could see insects bigger than I cared for crawling around and I tried really hard not to let it affect me.
Of all the places I visited in the Congo, I liked Bukavu the best. The dusty streets. The lively markets. The smells of gasoline and fire that hung in the air. The bright colors of plastic furniture. The fresh fruits and the lake, oh the lake. Lake Kivu was beautiful. I was told there were gorillas in the mountains nearby. My dad promised he would take me to see them one day, when the region was not as unstable. When we had more time too, because it was a trek.
We flew to Goma after a short week, in a “coucou”, a little plane that fits 12 people maximum. I remember giggling with my sister. She wouldn’t let go of my hand. I was a bit scared. It seemed to be the kind of plane that would crash and nobody would know. I did not see much of Goma. I was not allowed to walk around. Again, I was told there was an active volcano, but it was so dusty that there was barely any visibility.
Kinshasa was next, the capital of the DRC. I do not know what I was expecting, but certainly more than what I discovered. There was nothing glamorous about it. It was messy, dirty and crowded. Traffic was a nightmare. I saw Chinese workers pouring concrete along the road, trying to make the streets wider to accommodate the mess of it all.
I was slowly coming to understand the African way of life. Time didn’t flow at the same speed as in Europe. It was slower. Patience and flexibility were required qualities. People were constantly late, stuck in traffic or at the hairdresser or whatever. Plans were always changing, postponed or cancelled altogether. Also, there was just not much to do. At that time at least, there were no theaters. No movies. No shopping malls. There was no place for young people to hang out, if not their own backwards.
That’s the thing when you visit countries like the Congo. It’s full of wonders, but there is no infrastructure to get you there. How do you go and see gorillas if there is no guide to take you up the mountains? How do you go and hike up a volcano if there is no road to lead you there, no tourist office, no railing to protect you from falling? What do you do in a city of 10 millions when there is no entertainment and the only people you know are your aging relatives?
Traveling is a pain too. Walking by yourself is discouraged, particularly if you look too white. Wait for the driver, I was told. No driver in sight? Well, I guess you will have to wait then. How long? Who knows. When he’s back. What can we do in the meantime then? Eat. Watch TV. Internet? Oh no, WiFi doesn’t work. We’ll get you a SIM card. When? Later, darling, later. And, oh, now electricity is out too. I guess we’ll wait a little bit longer.
I will be honest. I did not enjoy that “vacation” as much as I did travelling to other countries. True, I was a teenager, and I was a grumpier, harsher version of who I am now. Still, I don’t think I was the worst of teenagers. I just spent so much of my time inside, shielded from what was outside.
The truth is, outside was not much better. Sometimes, you get a glimpse of what it used to be. Before Kabila, before Mobutu, before the Belgians left. Not that the Belgians did many good deeds, but at least they built things. Now all you see are crumbling buildings, crumbling roads, crumbling everything. You realize not much has changed in the past fifty years.
It took me a full decade to want to go back to the DRC. I have changed a lot since then. Understanding where I come from matters now. Being more in sync with my father’s culture too. I don’t expect much. My parents have been travelling back and forth between Belgium and the DRC for years. Last time my mom went to Kinshasa, she came back deflated. Discouraged that so little has changed.
This time around, I hope to understand something I might not have understood before. But I am also prepared not to find anything at all. At least I will know.