“You can come across, but promise me you won’t stay the night, ok?” Not quite the terror inducing remarks I expected from a border guard as I tried to cross into the DRC in August 2004. The country was still in the midst of an interminable ethnic conflict and I’d heard nothing but terrifying stories from the few that I met who had ventured in. It’s a ghost town they said, the police will strip you naked claimed others. But after having decided to forego a visit to Bukavu due to encroaching rebels I knew this was my last shot. Curiosity had pushed aside my voice of reason and as I stared at Mt. Nyiragongo from across the border in Gisenyi I knew I wanted to go.
My fascination with Africa stemmed in large part from my grandmothers stories about the Congo – some in our family had worked there during Belgian’s atrocious colonial period – and I longed to see whether myth was indeed reality. Before leaving home that spring, my mother had made me promise not to go to either of the Congo’s or Burundi. Too dangerous she said – I wouldn’t survive past customs. But kids being kids I decided I couldn’t miss out on this opportunity to see what had become Africa’s biggest question mark; the continent’s biggest country, its richest in terms of resources, yet the most ravaged by conflict and poverty.
And as if decades of war and foreign interference weren’t bad enough, Mt. Nyiragongo had, in 2002, spewed rivers of deadly lava onto Goma – destroying much of the city and forcing hundreds of thousands, many of whom were refugees from the Rwandan genocide, out of their homes. I still remember the eruption in 2002. I was a student back in Canada and vividly recall a feeling of incredulousness as I watched the streams of people, and rivers of fire, pour through Goma on the news. How could one place have it so bad?
So two years later, hesitations pushed aside, I was on the cusp of finally getting where I wanted so badly to go. And yet this man, a government official no less, was telling me that I couldn’t stay the night. Rebels, he said, you never know when they’ll come back.
I’m always quick to believe I’m semi-invincible; he’s just trying to protect the foreigner I thought. But at the same time I couldn’t help but remember Pasteur Kiza’s warnings in Burundi. “Things are getting worse – you foreigners don’t see it – but things are getting worse.” His fears rang true in Bujumbura as the day after we pulled into port over a hundred refugees were massacred on the border between the DRC and Burundi. From that moment forward I decided to put a bit more stock into these warnings.
And so after a surprisingly enjoyable conversation with my French-speaking border guard I promised him that I would indeed just stay the day, though only after exacting a promise that he’d let me come back tomorrow on the same visa. Africa gets a bad rap for many things, several justifiable, but after having crossed 17 borders by land I’m still amazed at the hospitality and friendliness of the military and police who patrol their borders. While a few have asked for this or that (my favourite remains the Mozambican officer who really admired my quick-dry socks), the majority are just curious about the young man in front of them. Curiosity defies race, its defies wealth; it’s simply who we are.