Part One of Inside the ‘Heart of Darkness:’ The quest of two adventurers for street cred in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The Kivu region in the eastern DRC is a major flashpoint of military conflict. Since 1998, fighting between the DRC army and rebel militias has taken over five million lives. Armed groups are known to pillage, rape, kill, and kidnap indiscriminately. The Congolese military, which isn’t exactly known for embracing exemplary moral fiber either, is boosted by thousands of UN peacekeeping forces.
The border town of Kasindi disoriented me in ways that I’d never experienced anywhere else in the world. It looked like a town that had been devoured in its entirety and then regurgitated with characters from the Walking Dead. Crumbling buildings were placed haphazardly; shops and stalls set up wherever owners felt like; vehicles and people moved about chaotically.
The amount of garbage made the whole town look like a giant waste pit. Many people, mostly men, stumbled about like strung-out zombies with bloodshot red eyes glancing around erratically. Those who didn’t seem to be high on drugs looked suspicious and permanently on guard. And they kept on staring at us.
No one bothered to say hello, practice their English, or even beg for money like we’d experienced in the rest of East Africa. They watched us alright, but in a way that only made us feel like targets.
A scrawny man was selling bags of what I thought were French fries to people on the street. In order to strike up a conversation with a local, I ordered some frites. The man didn’t say much other than oui and didn’t look me in the eye. He handed me a greasy brown bag and I walked off. When I peeked inside, all I saw were tiny fish heads. I didn’t eat them.
David and I headed over to the nearest bank in search of an ATM machine. We weren’t sure we’d find another ATM machine for the duration of our ten-day trip, so we pulled out $300 in Congolese francs each. That turned out to be a good guess.
The US dollar was worth 900 Congolese francs at the time. What we didn’t know was that the largest note the ATM would give us was a 500.
The 540 individual bills we each received were enough to fill a briefcase that would have made a drug dealer proud. While dozens of stone-faced Congolese looked at us with interest, we stuffed cash into our money belts, pockets, and backpacks. We didn’t want to put all the money in one place in case of theft. We'd been in the country for a half hour, and already it wouldn’t have surprised me if my pants were stolen off my legs.
We walked over to where a half a dozen old Japanese commuter buses were parked in disarray. The interiors looked as if a tornado had passed through. Cigarette ash and glass covered the floors. Seats were torn up and disconnected from each other.
We found a bus traveling to Beni (the nearest major town just west of the Rwenzori Mountains) and Virunga National Park, home of one of the largest groups of endangered mountain gorillas in the world.
The bus couldn’t leave with just the two of us, so we waited about ninety minutes for it to fill up. In came the man who’d sold me the fish heads instead of frites, three Congolese soldiers with Kalashnikov rifles, two women with impressive amounts of facial hair, two handcuffed bandits and an armed policeman, and another man accompanied by four scrawny chickens.
I sat in a window seat next to one of the Congolese soldiers who was surprisingly friendly. Whenever he smiled I could see a prominent gap where his two front teeth should have been. When he started asking me for money in French, I pretended I didn’t know what he wanted. One of the handcuffed bandits was seated right behind me and a chicken planted himself in front of my left foot. With this cast of a Monty Python sketch we were all set to go.
Unfortunately, another bus driver had parked his bus directly in front of the main path leaving town. None of the buses were able to maneuver around it. It took another hour until the driver with the keys was found. He was nearly too drunk to walk, much less drive. He stumbled along the rocky path and fell over a few times as he approached his vehicle. All I could do was look down and pray that David and I were going to be okay.
Kasindi and Beni are only sixty kilometers apart, but it took us over seven hours to get there. There were no conventional “roads” to Virunga National Park. It was more like a dirt path had been haphazardly forged over time from the brute force vehicles inflicted upon the terrain.
Our less than ten kilometer-per-hour pace was made more agonizing because we couldn’t see very much around us. Surrounded by the second largest rain forest in the world, the tree cover blocked out most of the sunlight and all we could see were thick, enormous trees everywhere. It was definitely beautiful in its own way, but after awhile, green is just green.
David and I had no idea the journey would take so long. When we arrived in Beni after midnight we were exhausted and starving. We immediately lost our appetites when three large policemen seized us as we got off the bus. Without so much as explaining what they wanted, they sternly ordered us towards a tiny building a few dozen meters off the main path.
They sat us down inside a cold and dusty room in front of a bald, husky commander stationed behind a rickety desk.
“Registration,” he mumbled with a grin. Registration is not the French word for registration, but that would prove to be the major word Congolese officials used. “Passports!” he demanded.
We handed over our passports and opened them up to the pages with our transit visas. The commander inspected our passports carefully, but the way he meticulously turned them upside down made me wonder if he was even able to read.
“Visas pas valide!” he shouted while shaking his finger from side to side. Visas not valid!
“Quoi?! Pourquoi?!” we yelled frantically. What?! Why?!
He responded in some rapid-fire language that sounded like a jumble of French, Swahili, and Klingon. We could barely understand a word. Though the French vocabulary David and I had between us was limited, we could tell that this commander didn’t necessarily speak it fluently either.
The commander became frustrated when we didn’t understand what he was saying so he waved the other officers to take us away. They grabbed each of us by the arm and led us to a small dusty room next door with two chairs.
We were scared, of course, but at the time, neither of us realized that they’d just put us in their equivalent of a holding cell. Twenty minutes later, the guards retrieved us and put us back in front of the commander. This time there was another man beside him. He was young-looking, short, and not in uniform. He was clearly bothered and uncomfortable, and didn’t seem to want to be sitting there any more than we did. But he did speak English.
“Just give them something,” he gently urged us. “Any little something will be okay.”
“Oh!” David said mockingly. “They want a bribe!”
“It is late. The soldiers are very tired. They don’t want to keep you here. Give them something and they will let you go.”
David and I had a lot of experience with people shamelessly extorting us for money. Nearly every day of our trip we had multiple people asking, begging, and occasionally outright demanding cash from us, as if it was our duty to give it to them just because we were white.
Up until then, David and I had only given cash donations of any kind to handicapped or elderly people. Not once had we ever outright allowed ourselves to be extorted, though our “purchase” of our second Congolese visas was a bit border-line. We weren’t about to start by paying off a bunch of asshole military officers who were up past their bedtime.
“Tell them that we are tourists, our visas are valid, and that it’s time for us to find a hotel,” David said with a smile.
Maybe our refusal to pay a little bribe and get on with our trip was naïve. But now we knew that this commander wanted to get out of there just as badly as we did. By then it was nearly 1:30am. David and I felt a boost of confidence. We were tourists with time to kill. We could outlast these thugs.
The man translated what we’d said to the commander. The commander then walked out to discuss the issue with his soldiers. Five minutes later, he returned and showed us the door. We were free!
Almost. The commander was visibly disgruntled he got nothing out of us. So he escorted us to the closest hotel along with his English translator.
“You take two rooms. Each room is six dollars per night,” the translator told us matter-of-factly.
“We’d like to stay in a room together,” David protested.
“Impossible. You will take two. That is the law.”
We decided not to push our luck. The commander handed us our keys and made sure David and I were in our separate rooms before he and his translator finally departed. Neither room had electricity, just a few lit candles and boxes of matches. I wasn’t used to being alone after two months of traveling with David. Although he was in the room next door, it felt like we were miles apart.
Maybe it was because I was tired, hungry, or just overwhelmed from that night’s ordeal, but as soon as I blew out the candles and my room went pitch black, I was truly afraid. This was the first time I’d felt that way on the Africa trip.
I woke up the next morning and took a short walk by myself to get a handle on our surroundings. Beni appeared to be a real functioning city. There were colorful buildings everywhere, food stands were propped up and organized decently, people were hustling off to different places, and there was the radiant feeling of simplicity that can make Africa feel so wonderful.
|A neighborhood in Beni close to the main road|
That feeling lasted until breakfast. I woke David up and we went to a mini-market to buy something to eat. When we approached the checkout carrying baked bread and a few bananas, we were told by the young (non-bearded!) woman managing the place that our bill would be three US dollars.
David and I gave the woman a confused glance. This was Congo, not the US. Why would we be expected to pay in dollars?
We explained that we only had francs on us. The woman said that was fine and told us our new bill 2,760 francs.
Due to our limited French, David once again took out his pencil and notebook. He wrote “1 USD = 900 Congolese francs. 3 USD = 2,700 francs.”
The woman shook her head calmly, took David’s pencil and wrote “920,” to imply that one US dollar was equivalent to 920 francs.
The woman didn’t seem like she was lying, but we knew the exchange rate was 900:1. It was possible her boss preferred to be paid in US dollars and was trying to cheat people out of more francs if he couldn’t get the currency he demanded.
David returned his pencil and notebook to his backpack and we left. We found another market a block down the road. There, we tried to purchase the same quantity of bananas and bread as we had at the previous place. Once again, we were asked to pay three US dollars. When we asked for the figure in francs, we were given a new figure: 2,820. The franc/dollar exchange rate had just jumped to 940:1.
By then we were truly starving, not having eaten for at least sixteen hours. We made one final attempt at a third mini-market, but when the exchange rate rose to 960 francs to the dollar, we returned to the first mini-market and paid what was necessary to get some food in our bellies.
We ended up negotiating the franc/dollar exchange rate nearly every time we had to make a purchase. It was extremely irritating and reinforced the feeling that this country was out to get us.
Beni was filled with cars, had some paved roads, and structurally sound buildings. It seemed like a delightfully modern third-world city. David and I decided to walk around and get a sense of the city. We were strolling along the sidewalk when suddenly I felt a poke on my butt.
I looked around and a saw Congolese guy running a few dozen feet away laughing along with his buddies. I had no idea what to do so I brushed it off. Then it happened again. And then it happened to David. Pokes, and then spanks.
I started to understand what women experienced from street harassment.
At one point, when my butt got yet another proper spanking, the adrenaline and stress from the situation almost got the better of me. I turned around, stared straight at the perpetrator, a short guy in a ripped t-shirt and shorts, yelled at him in English, and approached him aggressively.
I wanted to punch that motherfucker in the face. I wanted to fight him as payback to all the jerks who thought this was a funny game. Never in my life had I felt that kind of rage towards someone who didn’t really do anything to me that was particularly violent. David grabbed me by the arm and pulled me back.
The next time someone slapped my butt, we were walking near a busy intersection. Just when I was about to lose my temper, a motorcyclist veered off the road and wiped out a few feet from where we were. He was immediately surrounded by half-dozen people, including the guy who’d slapped me. The man was knocked unconscious and the people surrounding him seemed to be checking his vital signs in an effort to stabilize him. They laid him out on the ground, ripped open his shirt, and went through his pockets to find his ID. So I thought.
They were robbing him. One man snatched a necklace from around his neck, another took his belt and shoes, and the rest of them went through the contents of his wallet before they all ran off. Only after that did some people come to see if he was okay.
It was then that I realized how desperate, opportunistic, and cruel some of these people were. I realized how stupid it would be to get myself dragged into a senseless fight. I had no idea what they were capable of, but I was starting to get an idea.
On our second morning in Beni, David and I were strolling down a major road when a white Land Cruiser bearing the UN logo sped past us. We got a quick glance at the passengers. Two middle-aged white men wearing green fatigues. The first white people we’d seen in Congo.
The two soldiers in the Land Cruiser took notice of us as well. It stopped abruptly and backed up. Sensing that the two men wanted to speak with us, we stopped where we were and waited for them to come to us.
“You guys need a ride?” the driver said in a thick Latin American accent after he rolled down his window.
“Yeah, sure,” David answered enthusiastically.
“Where do you need to go?”
“Nowhere really,” David said sort of smugly. “What is there to do around here?”
“What is there to do? There’s nothing ‘to do’ here,” the man said astonished. “What the fuck are you doing here?”
“We’re just traveling.”
“Get in the vehicle immediately.”
Our two new traveling companions were much more than mere soldiers. They were generals in the Chilean and Argentinean armies on a dangerous peacekeeping mission in the eastern DRC. Unlike most UN peacekeeping assignments, the combat units these generals were responsible for did have the authority “to use all necessary means” to protect civilians, humanitarian personnel, and human rights defenders under imminent threat of physical violence. They made it clear that their units had seen military action against guerrilla groups and that the threat of violence in the eastern DRC was real.
“Do you have any idea how crazy you are to be traveling around here by yourselves?” the general in the passenger’s seat rebuked. “You’re just walking along the road like you’re anywhere else but Congo! We haven’t seen travelers in the nine months we’ve been here.”
“Well we’re to explore,” I responded.
“Apparently. Can’t think of another reason you’d bother to be here. Still, I have to hand it to you. Traveling in the DRC means you must be brave.”
David and I looked at each other and we knew we were both thinking: Street cred!
Our new friends from South America drove us to an all but empty upscale restaurant owned by a half Greek-half Congolese man and treated us to a relatively tasty chicken and chips lunch. The owner, a heavyset man who complained incessantly about business being slow (I can’t imagine why), strongly recommended we go to a far flung place called Epulu, a few hundred kilometers northwest in the neighboring Orientale Province.
“There you will see the okapi animal,” he said slowly and dramatically. “It is half-giraffe and half-zebra!”
Well, sort of. The okapi is a creature that is most closely related to the giraffe, yet it has some of the same characteristics as a zebra. Like the giraffe, it has a long neck and long limbs, but it’s not nearly as tall. The upper parts of its legs and rump are marked with white and black transverse stripes, giving it a zebra-like appearance. Nevertheless, it is its own distinct species and is native to the central region of DRC.
The restaurant owner raved about the okapi conservation project in Epulu and began insisting we go that afternoon.
“There is a bus leaving in one hour! I will call and arrange the tickets for you!” he said. He waved over an extremely skinny elderly man of clearly mixed European-Congolese heritage who was getting wasted over a glass of whiskey at the bar and told him in French to fetch us two bus tickets.
Before we had a chance to ask any more questions, the old man was already off to buy the tickets and the UN generals informed us they’d give us a lift to our guesthouse so we could fetch our bags and meet the bus.
The restaurant owner asked that we pay him forty dollars a person for the bus tickets, since “it was a very long ride.” We got the feeling he had been so insistent of us going because he was getting a kickback from the bus company. It didn’t matter too much. The South American generals trusted him and he was helping us continue our adventure. And he didn’t screw us on the dollar-franc exchange rate.