Of Laws and Loopholes
Travel Stories: Christopher Vourlias just wanted to cross the border, but one man stood between him and the Congo
09.07.11 | 10:32 AM ET
If I’m stuck here all week, I thought, sizing up the stand-off, that’s just fine with me.
The room was stuffy and the light was the color of unwashed linens. Rusted filing cabinets lined the walls, metal shelves stacked with documents in duplicate and triplicate. Sitting across from the doorway was a thickset official, wearing a bright patterned shirt and a look of permanent grievance; even his baldness, the muscular frets of his forehead seemed full of warning. He made an ambiguous gesture with his pen, either to sit or explain myself. He was the only thing standing between me and the Congo.
I had spent three days in Cyangugu, a somnolent town in southwestern Rwanda, gathering my courage for this border crossing. The clouds were low, the wind rough, the sky cracking with thunder. The weather matched my spirits. I was worried about what might lie ahead; I knew from past visits that nothing came easy in the Congo. There was always a payout, and beyond that one, another. The greedy outstretched hands of policemen and bureaucrats who had lost faith in their government to pay the rent were insatiable. I’d expected problems at the border: angry inquisitions, a barrage of indignant French, an endless shifting of papers and bureaucratic feints and dodges.
Here I was not disappointed. The official, looking at my passport, lowered his face like a portcullis. It was impossible to issue me a visa at the border—simply impossible! A new law had come into effect as of the first of the year, he explained. I should have gotten my visa from the Congolese Embassy in Washington, D.C., or written to Kinshasa. To stamp my passport here would be against the law. Contre la loi! His French was like a wrecking ball. I stood there dumb with grief while he appraised me over the rims of his glasses. Fortunately, he said, there was a convenient loophole in that law, through which I could jump for just 300 American bucks.
The frankness of his face, the bitter clarity of his eyes, suggested this man was a master of such loopholes. But I refused to play his little Gallic games. I was prepared to hand over $35 in rumpled bank notes—the cost of an eight-day visa on past visits—but not a penny more. Thinking in my bovine American way that I was an emissary of the good and the just. I was indignant; my garbled French told a story of epic wrongdoings. I told the men I would wait outside. I had friends—powerful friends, I thought—that I wanted to call.
Outside, the brilliant morning sunlight lit the way to Bukavu like the Yellow Brick Road. The border might have remained closed for me, but still there was the raucous energy of frontier traffic: the carnival of carwashers and money-changers, of market women in the bright plumage of tropical birds, of the hungry and the shifty and the endlessly hustling ranks of Rwandans and Congolese. Their faces were lined with the innumerable cares of their thrift-worried lives. Just why was I so desperate to get into the Congo, anyway? Eight thousand miles away I had a perfectly good home. It was a place where the streets were paved, where the supermarkets were full, where you could send your kids to school without having to bribe their teachers for good grades. It was a place where you didn’t have to live in fear of police roadblocks and drunken soldiers, or a late-night knock at the door.
I remembered that home now and then—a place I had left, perhaps permanently, more than three years before. Earlier in the week I’d gotten a call from New York; on the other end of the line, my mother was anxious about my trip. “I see the Congo is in the news again—political unrest and what have you,” she said. This was true: that week, Human Rights Watch had issued a report about a large-scale rebel attack in the volatile northeast. I had read the story; it was hundreds of miles from where I was trying to cross the border—a five-day journey by car, at least, for anyone willing to brave it. My mother’s intentions, it seemed, were better than her geography. It was like me suggesting she bring an umbrella to work because it was raining in Boston.
But I could understand why the word Congo sounded alarm bells in my parents’ modest Brooklyn home. I pictured them sitting at the kitchen table, steaming mugs of Maxwell House at their elbows, as they scanned the headlines and the world briefs for missives from the troubled countries I’d called home. There was little news, and it was never good. Maybe this was what compelled me to visit. For three years, as I traveled in Africa, I had followed the stories from Congo—the epidemic of rapes, the conflict minerals, the plunder dating back to the days of the Belgians. It was impossible to ignore these facts. And yet I knew they were half-truths, too; they were only telling part of the story.
I thought of the passage in Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness,” where Marlow, the narrator, stands transfixed by a map of Africa, and the place that would become the Belgian Congo—the lunatic fiefdom of a gluttonous king—is like a great, blank canvas untouched by European hands. I had read travelogues that transposed that heart onto the Congo itself; it became a symbol of a country, and a continent, when in reality, Conrad was describing the terrible violence and barbarism that lurked in our own hearts. That so many could misread his book through the years seemed only fitting: our understanding of the Congo had hardly progressed beyond Marlow’s in the century since “Heart of Darkness” was published. It was the same blank slate.
On my first visit some months before, I had met a man, Malick Ngiama, a short and amiable 35-year-old with an uneven handlebar moustache and a single deep dimple furrowed into one of his cheeks. He had walked with me through the streets of Goma and taken me to the one-room, dirt-floored, tin-roofed office of his NGO, the Save the World and Handicapped Association. He had started the organization himself, he explained, because there were so many handicapped in Goma who had nothing—not a Congolese franc to their names, not a roof over their heads. It was a modest enterprise—he had no Western figurehead, no foreign funding—but each week the members gathered, and Ngiama would teach them some job skills, or the threadbare English he had picked up through conversations with foreigners. Why had I never read about a man like Malick Ngiama before? How many more Ngiamas were living there—in Goma and Bukavu, in Sake and Masisi—hoping to save the handicapped, and the world?
I wanted to return to Congo to write the stories of people like him. At the border I was joined by a friend, Justin, a young Congolese man I had met in Burundi some months before. Justin was aggrieved by the lack of hospitality I was being shown. “A guest comes to knock on your door, you have to open first,” he said. “This is not good politics.” He offered to call his uncle, some ruling-party functionary, who could perhaps intercede on my behalf. Around us handicapped men and women, churning their hand-pedaled tricycles up the hill, taxied jerry cans full of gasoline toward the border. They bought it cheaply in Rwanda; because of some provision in the Congolese tax code, they were exempt from paying customs duties. In the markets of Bukavu, these shrewd hustlers would sell their gasoline for a modest profit. They, too, had found a loophole to exploit. It seemed to me that the moral of Congolese life was somehow finding a way, any way, to make it through the day.
Justin hung up the phone with bad news from his uncle. The political situation was not good, he explained. The governor had been summoned to Kinshasa to explain the province’s sorry state. In Bukavu, the opposition was agitating for power. Justin’s uncle was afraid to cause trouble at such a critical moment for the party. He sighed. “The weather is not good for them,” he said. We would have to go it alone.
Storm clouds were now brewing over Lake Kivu. We retreated further up the road, to where Justin’s uncle kept a restaurant up a small hill on the roadside. We sat under a giant beach umbrella, bracing for the rain, watching the endless to-ing and fro-ing on the road. A man passed beneath us, legless, a muscular torso, with sandals tied to the stumps of his knees and a jerry can full of gasoline propped on his shoulder. Justin said he had lost his legs to a bomb during the war—the big war, Mobutu’s war, when Rwandan troops stormed across the country to topple the old dinosaur. Rather than sit on the side of the road and beg for handouts, the man had managed to make a living selling gasoline, one jerry can at a time. His face was a scowl, chiseled by a decade of hard schooling in Congolese life. This place might have taken his legs, but it had also, in its bitter way, taught him a lesson in survival.
Now another storm was blowing in: the border official, my erstwhile tormentor, came blustering down the road. Perhaps word had gotten to him that the white man was still lurking, looking for trouble. He was full of angry remonstrances, threats of arrest and violence. Pointing down the road, toward the bucolic hills of Rwanda, he said I had to leave the border at once. Tout de suite! I took Justin by the wrist, afraid that he might take the fall on my behalf. In the sky above us the clouds finally broke. The rain fell in cold, fat drops, dimpling the lake’s calm surface and muddying the road.
Earlier in the week I’d met two young Rwandan men who were studying in Bukavu. Each morning they left their homes in Cyangugu at 5 a.m., and because there was no money, they walked all the way to their university on the other side of the border: a three-hour trip. “Only on foot,” said Faustin, a baby-faced youth, an anatomy student with dreams of working in a hospital or private clinic in Kigali. “No lifty, no car.” He laughed and shook his head at this improbable daily journey between two countries: six hours round-trip to study the Latin names of illnesses he might some day treat in his own clinic. What could you do, he said, chuckling, shaking his head. It was the laugh of a poor man without a choice.
I had learned to laugh at myself on my travels, and there was a certain black humor in all of this. Back and forth a legless man stumped up and down the hill, carrying his family’s fortunes on his shoulder, while I, a white man moved by curiosity and whim to visit the world’s war zones, stood there waiting for my own sort of hand-out. Perhaps the border official, carrying decades of post-colonial grievances, wanted to teach me a lesson; in the words of my grandfather, he was giving me the business. But I had an American passport and bundles of U.S. bucks stashed in the pockets of my cargo pants. I had my own loophole.
Standing in the rain I hitched my duffel bag over my shoulder, said my goodbyes to Justin, and stomped off down the road, determined to find another way. I boarded a bus that took me across the length of Rwanda, over the green hills, rising and falling and rising again until we reached the capital and then, aboard a second bus, arrived at a separate border post some twelve hours after I’d set off. Hundreds of miles from where I’d had my morning’s Nescafe, my passport was stamped and I stepped easily into the Congo. One country, two border posts, two different worlds. Only later, unpacking my bags, did I notice the date on my cellphone. The ghosts of past plunderers, adventurers, strivers and seekers were having one last laugh at my expense.
It was April Fool’s Day.