SundayEarly morning tea, the smoky taste of water boiled over a fire. Last group photos with Mama Asumpta and her 8-month old Joelle. Finding out the pick-up to take us out is also carrying considerable cargo and a half dozen other people. Swahili jangling tinny praise music on endless-loop tapes fills the cabin of the truck. The now-familiar domed leaf-and-pole structures of pygmy camps, the inevitable African scenes of boys kicking a football and women slinging heavy baskets onto their backs, old couples sitting under thatched kitubis by a fire, wooden shack shops selling cooking oil and sodas. A quick glimpse of three men dancing in unison to a radio in a forest clearing. A small rope rigged up with inexplicable hope to right an overturned truck in a jungly ditch. Another town where women were circling a compound, waving leaves in their familiar shuffling dance. An outdoor barbering session. All glimpsed at a breakneck 60 to 80 km/hr on a remarkably well graded road that occasionally degraded into muddy ruts. Jack throws up into the handy bag I pocketed from the seatback on our last flight. Another day in the car.
We passed east today, back through Mambasa and on to Komanda, where the eastern-most north-south route intersects the Bunia road, and where we turned south towards Beni. And as soon as we did, the atmosphere changed. Congo up to then had looked like Uganda, moslty, or rather our part of Uganda ten to fifteen years ago. But when we turned south we began to parallel the Bundibugyo border. ADF territory, the deep forests and unmarked trails of Mt Hoyo and the underpopulated expanses towards the Blue Mountains. Almost all the houses in this area are simple mud and thatch, but now even the mud was crumbling. Roofs were patchy. Gardens were few. Compounds were pitifully small and decaying. We passed what looked to me like IDP camps, huddled clusters of tiny shelters that were mere pole and sheeting. Even to us, who see Bundibugyo as "normal", this stretch looked beleaguered, poor. This was the epicenter of some of Congo's worst violence, and people are still wary. In the last two weeks rebels/bandits/ADF or NALU or just marginal men, attacked an army post nearby, a little detail we did not hear until we were passing by. The people are clearly surviving on making and selling charcoal. Our driver stopped to buy two bags, $5 each here, worth $25 by the time it gets to Goma much further south.
And then, suddenly, a paved road began. Part of China's agreement to invest in infrastructure in Congo while taking 25 years of mineral and resource rights in some areas. In the middle of nowhere, a line of transformation. Beautiful, smooth, unblemished, just-completed tarmac. And almost immediately, the border to North Kivu, and a marked increase in population density. Towns. Bicycles. Churches. Signs. People. More people. And a premonition of Bundi-to-come, where pedestrians throng with their historic proprietary air along the way, but where vehicles can now careen at terrible speeds. I saw our speedometer hit 120 km/hr a couple of times.
In no time we reached Oicha, and again the group graciously agreed to pause and let us tour the hospital. This was a medical center built in the 1930's by Dr. Carl Becker, now in the last decade almost completely renovated. The old Belgian-style brick bungalow staff houses are still there, but spacious new wards bear both Bible verses in Swahili and signs for UN programs to treat women affected by the sexual violence for which this area of the world is notorious. We were shown, reverently, pictures of Dr. Becker and his wife on faded calendars (I was told I look like her) while the all-Congolese staff proudly showed us around a very functional hospital. I noted on a map that Oicha is the center of the health district that would include the little corner of Congo over our border. The patient volume was about twice that of Nyahuka, with about five times the space and equipment. This is the town that the late Dr. Jonah fled to with his family the morning that we all ran in different directions under attack in June of 1997. He ended up working here in Oicha while we worked in Kijabe, until it was safe for all of us to come back, or at least it seemed safer in Uganda than in Congo.
And at last our pavement took us, smoothly, all the way to Beni, another city. Huge UN bases, barbed wire, containers, blue-hatted soldiers from Nepal. Two-story shops, signs in French and Swahili, lots of cars. We are about 75 km west of the Uganda border here, either east through Kamongo, Japonda and then to Busunga (our route tomorrow) or southeast through Bwera towards Kagondo and Kasese (by far the main route). And our day ended as only a trip in Congo can: in an outdoor restaurant run by a man born here to Greek parents, sitting around plastic table sipping tonic water imported from Kampala, while a wing-clipped hawkish black kite harried a cluster of four hustling anxious guinea fowl wandering the courtyard, next to a fountain inhabited by a turtle and four small crocodiles (yes, real ones), cheering with the Congolese as Ghana won the first African victory in the World Cup, chatting with three young American missionaries who are lending a year of their lives to teach at a new bilingual Christian University which a highly educated Congolese couple are turning from dream into reality in Beni. Crazy and wonderful, from the concrete visions of the Beckers to the 21st century ventures of "their" Congolese grandchildren.