Clearly, the naval officer’s goal was to take my boat and motor. He essentially said this to me.
“It is the job of the navy to confiscate any boat that my be faster or more powerful than the Navy’s boat.”
“Where’s your, boat?”
“I don’t have a boat.”
Now, we had arrived, car-less, at the south side of the lake, and we now needed to traverse …. with our stuff, including samples and some field gear, a folded up Zodiac, and a 40 horsepower motor … about 125 kilometers of the Western Rift Valley floor including the Virugna Volcanoes, in order to get to Goma. Then, we would be two thirds of the way to our final destination, across Lake Kivu, the city of Bukavu.
And we had no plan.
So I went to the big chief and I said something that was almost exactly the truth, but that I knew would have very little effect.
“Dr. Kubwa, the chief of the Ishango parcel told me that you would be able to give us a ride to Goma. When can we go?”
After much laughter, “Well, I can drive you to Goma any time you want, as long as you have a truck for me to drive you in!” More laughter. Dr. Kubwa physically resembled Idi Amin and was almost as jolly. “But don’t worry about a thing. You are my guests here. You will stay in our best guest lodging and in two days you’ll have a ride to Goma. Come back tomorrow and I’ll give you details.”
And with this,we were accompanied to a pickup truck, where we loaded our gear, the boat, and the motor, and drove up out of the fishing village to the Park tourist facility a few kilometers away on the plains. Indeed, the accommodations were nice …. for Zaire. There was no actual running water, there were no actual doors or windows, etc. but the cabin consisted of a pretty decent burned out shell with a roof that would not leak much, and only a few bats living in the rafters.
Now, I want to take a short break from my story because we are almost done with the Congo Memoirs — this should be obvious because after getting across the plains and over the volcanoes and across the lake we’re going to get on an airplane and fly to Kenya and then home — and there are some things I never got to mention and one of these comes to mind right now, for a reason that will become apparent to you shortly.
This is about language. Some other time I’ll chronicle my foray into the world of KiSwahili and dabblings with other locally spoken languages. For now, I simply want to acknowledge that even when one is quite fluent, but especially when one is learning, it is possible to make some egregious, sometimes funny, sometimes consequential (in a non-funny way) errors. Who knows how many such errors happen and one does not know? Who knows how many stories are being told right now across Central Africa about the muzungu who said the most outlandish thing, obviously by accident, one day way back when? Sometimes these mistakes are made and one realizes later … by seconds, minutes, days, whatever … that the mistake was made.
For instance, I was walking along the road one day in the Ituri Forest, and two young boys were sitting on the side of the ditch. One of them was helping the other to dig a thorn out of his foot. As I walked by, we all exchanged the ubiquitous greetings (one never passes another person without greeting, ever, anywhere, in The Congo).
“You have defeated the day!”
“Yes, and so have you!”
And after this locally appropriate greeting, seeing their dilemma, I said to the boy with the thorn in his foot, “So, I see that you are pregnant. That can hurt.” And I continued walking.
Later, I realized what I had said. I was always confusing the word “to be pregnant” with the word “thorn.” So, I had actually said “So, I see you are with pregnancy.” Now, three or four hundred meters down the road and out of sight, I could suddenly understand why they had given me that funny look.
I remember the anthropologist (not me) who spent several weeks telling the locals that he was “Fond of little girls …. likes to play with the young women, the virgins … is here to very closely study the nubile females… ” and so on and so forth. He was trying to say that he likes, plays, and is interested in music but he mixed up the word for “music” and “nubile female.” Good thing the local people are rather tolerant.
Anyway, so those things happen, but by the time we were in the southern part of the park begging for a ride to Goma, my language skills were quite advanced. I spoke KiSwahili as well as any person in Zaire outside of our current destination, Bukavu (Bukavu is a local university town and KiSwahili is the primary African language there as far as I can tell.) So we rested at the rest house, poked around the park a bit, and late in the second day Dr. Kubwa told us “There is an empty truck coming up the road today … I just heard on the radio. It will stop here, and I’ll tell the driver to load you and your stuff up and drive you to Goma. No problem. It will be here tomorrow morning, first thing!”
Well, that was cool. So we spend a relaxed afternoon and evening making sure everything was ready. First thing in the morning we got a ride down to the road where we could intercept the truck. And we waited.
And waited and waited and waited. This was not unusual. We knew the roads were bad, schedules could not really be adhered to, and we were entirely prepared to wait all day and even the next day and the next.
Finally, in the afternoon, we heard a vehicle coming down the hill from the park headquarters, and suddenly we spotted a truck coming up the main road. After a few moments, Dr. Kubwa pulled up and said “Here comes the empty truck, I could see it from headquarters. You really should have waited up there with me, in the shade, and I could have driven you down when the truck came.”
Well, we knew that, but we also knew that the longer one spent with Dr. Kubwa the more promises one had to make about stuff we’d do for him or bring him on our next visit. And we were pretty sure this was our last visit to this part of the country for a very long time.
In any event, a moment later a very large truck … not a semi, but a six wheeler flat bed with wooden sides, probably a four or six wheel drive … pulled up to where we were standing.
I was very disappointed to see that this was not our truck. I could tell it was not our truck because it was not empty. In fact, it was full. It appeared to be full of beer. Cases and cases and cases and cases of Primus brand beer. And just as I was thinking that this must be some mondo truck to be able to carry this much weight, I herd Dr. Kubwa intone: “Well, here it is, your empty truck has arrived!”
I looked at the chief. I looked at the truck driver, who had descended to greet everyone. I looked at the four other people stuffed into the cab of the truck (all trucks in the Congo have a driver, a mechanic, a second driver, and some other guys, in order to keep things working). I looked at the five or six people up on top of the truck, way way up high on top of the beer cases.
And then I looked at the beer. And I realized my mistake.
This was not an empty truck. This was a truck of empties.
No wonder the truck could carry so many cases of beer. There was no beer, just air. This truck was on its way from the hinterland back to the brewery down in Goma, carrying thousands and thousands of empty bottles.
“Cameo ya vide, atafika kesho.” in KiSwahili is a Frenchified way of saying “An empty truck will arrive tomorrow.”
“Cameo de vide, atafika kesho, ” in local French is a KiSwahili-fied way of saying “A truck of empties will arrive tomorrow.”
In this case, a very very overloaded truck of empties.
The next 48 hours was a bit of a nightmare.
We loaded the boat and the motor up on TOP of the empties, along with our luggage and ourselves. Dressed in light equatorial clothing (shorts, tee-shirts, light rain jackets) we endured wind and dust and constant, never ending clinking of bottles as the truck lurched over the rugged landscape for a couple of hours, and the sun fell. Just at sundown, in the very nick of time, we reached the last park checkpoint which would be sealed only a few minutes later, and there we were able to obtain a bite to eat. (Skewers of duiker meat roasted with hot pepper. Pretty tasty.) Then, the truck drove into the night, and up in elevation.
We crossed the Virugna volcanoes in the dark. For about two hours we rode above 3 thousand meters and it snowed most of the time. Hypothermic, starved, and dehydrated, we eventually passed down into the volcanic valley of Goma, where a night-long road block had stopped dozens of vehicles, with soldiers at the head of the road block harassing everyone, stealing people’s stuff, taking the women off to the bushes. We were no longer in the boonies.
Fortunately, we had some powerful friends in Goma. I talked to some people and word got into town via the bush telegraph that we needed to get past a road block. During the wee hours of the morning, a suburban … one of those big wood-sided station wagons of the 1970s …. with a familiar face in it pulled up, and the soldiers who at that moment were explaining to me that they would be confiscating The Zodiac and its motor, give way and step back, rather surprised to see who has just pulled in. (I’ll save you the suspense. I can’t tell you who it was, just assume it was someone of influence in those parts.) We took the boat and the motor down off the truck. Taking the motor down off the truck involved some guy dropping the motor on me and me catching it. That was a problem, it turns out.
We loaded the motor, the boat, our stuff, ourselves in the Suburban and as we took off, the head of the military unit said to me so no one else would hear “I’m coming to town tomorrow to get your boat. Don’t try to get away with this shit again.”
So we went into town. Our rescuer offered to put us up, but that would not do. We would be found by the soldiers too easily and although I was confident we would prevail in any argument with them, I did not want that kind of trouble at that time. So I asked to be dropped off at the seediest brothel in town.
There is a fine line between a brothel and a cheap motel in that part of the Congo. Well, honestly, there is no line. They are the same thing. Westerners never, ever stayed in such places, so we could hide out from the army easily.
The next morning we made contact with the right people, and a vehicle came and collected the boat and the motor. We made a show of this so that the local police and soldiers would know that this equipment was being taken away to the home of the local version of an Italian godfather for safe keeping. No one would even try to get at this important equipment. With our heavy burden secured, we checked into the nice hotel, and I spent the next night and day laying on the floor, drugged on codeine and Valium, letting my back heal. (Remember the part above about the motor being dropped on me???)
Over the next few days, we met with friends and colleagues. I stayed quite stoned on my meds the whole time, supplementing the muscle relaxing effects of the codeine with plentiful beer. I did my very best to generate as many empties as possible. We also observed something rather strange. Goma, as a border down, always had a reasonable military presence, but there was more going on now. In fact, a large contingent of special forces and AND (the Zairois equivalent of CIA/FBI) were staying in our hotel, and they had set up, and were guarding with armed soldiers, a satellite uplink station in the hotel’s court yard. I tried to talk to them to find out what was going on, but they were not having it. I tried to buy them beer but they would not have that either. Sober soldiers. In Zaire. Something serious was happening.
During this time we went down to the ticket office of the local steamship company, and bought passage on the boat to Bukavu. We watched the boat come in and go out a few times. This was one of those boats that you hear about sinking with hundreds dead every now and then. A third-world ferry. I tried to think back if any Lake Kivu boats had ever sunk, taking all passengers and crew to the murky deep with them, and couldn’t recall. The tickets were dirt cheap.
The boat trip was a blast. We were on the top deck of this boat for hours, as it chugged slowly the long way across the lake, which is absolutely beautiful. This lake was totally different than The Big Lake on which we had lived for so long. The Big Lake was formed because a graben … a big chuck of the planet …. had slipped down and made a low spot that filled with water. Lake Kivu was a volcanic lake. There were volcanic vents down under the water at great depth. Every now and then they would erupt and the lake would fizz and all the fish would die. Deadly gases came out of this lake, mainly methane. You’ve heard of the deadly gas events at Lake Nykos in Cameroon. Lake Kivu is one of those “exploding lakes” as well. As we boated along the lake, I thought “I hope the lake does not explode today…”
At one point the lake neared the shore at a remote but densely occupied rift-wall village. As the boat got closer and closer to the shore, people on land started to throw cabbage and leaks towards the boat, most of which ended up in the water. Maybe a hundred cabbages and bunches of leaks. As the boat got closer, many of the cabbages and leaks ended up on the docks, and the people on the boat collected them. Then the boat docked, and packaged up bundles of cabbages and leaks were loaded on the boat, a couple of people got off the boat (this was their destination) and a couple of people got on the boat (on their way to Bukavu) and then the boat pulled away. And again, cabbages and leaks were thrown toward the boat, landing on the deck at first, then landing in the water. And the boat moved on.
We went along the west side of Idjwi, the world’s largest inland island, and then to the narrow channels that define the southern part of the lake, passing back and forth between Zaire and Rwanda. Eventually, the boat docked up at Bukavu, and for the first time in many months, we stepped into a full blown University town, so different from Cambridge (whence we came) yet in some ways quite similar. The University, and the brewery, were the main industries here.