Saturday, July 11, 2009

The Road to Goma, Part 2: Bunagana to Goma

The missionaries left Rungumba in 1990 after the fighting in the area became too heavy. Their legacy however is surprisingly intact considering what's occurred here in the last 20 years; homes, schools and a hospital are still operating. But many of these buildings have fallen into disrepair, and those that are still in working order are a shadow of their former selves.

Bizi had taken me to this area to spend the night after crossing the border. The original plan had been to press on to Goma, but with night fast approaching it was no longer safe to make the trip. We wheeled of the main highway and bounced north on a narrow road near Bizi's home town. On the way to the missionary campus, we stopped by the river turbine built to supply power to the buildings. Constructed in 1929, the turbine had operated continuously but with declining output until 2006, when it finally gave up the ghost. The hospital up the hill, and the guest homes beyond now have little to no electrical power, and so must depend entirely on parafin lamps for lighting.

The guest house we were to sleep in is maintained by a small staff from town. The building itself looks just as it did when the missionaries left thanks to the cleaning and repairs the staff performs. The house sits on a hill overlooking a dirt airstrip once used by the Baptist missionaries. The field is still clearly visible, but small plots of farmland are encroaching on the strip itelf, making landings now impossible. Above the house stood a series of abandoned schoolhouses, bashed up by the recent fighting in 2008.

The night passed peacefully, and in the morning we set out carrying our obligatory batch of matoke and a sack of potatoes (a vehicle never goes to waste around here). The road south was covered in potholes, though not deep enough to slow us down too much. What did slow us down however were the police - we were stopped at least twice, and there may have been some sort of exchange of items (I swear I couldn't tell; I don't speak French or Swahili!). We also passed by trucks loaded to the brim with people, some carrying AKs. It looked like armed people, maybe army, maybe not, were mixing in amoungst people just trying to move from one place to another. Thankfully we were never stopped by anybody like that.

2 1/2 hours later we arrived in Goma. The city had installed a huge number of street lights since I had last visited in May. They were put up in advance of President Joseph Kabila's visit for Independance Day on June 30th. The sight was impressive, but it made me wonder what else the government was capable of if given the proper motivation.

Friday, July 10, 2009

The Road to Goma, Part 1: Mbarara to Bunagana

"You may pay if you want to, but you don't have to. It's up to you."

It was the first time I'd ever been asked for a bribe, and the police officer sure was nice about it. I was sitting in a small metal hut in Bunagana, Uganda, a few feet from the DRC border. I had spent the previous five hours driving across the hilly, dusty roads of western Uganda learning how to drive a stick shift and drive on the left-hand side of the road. It was easier than I had expected, though putting it into first was still tricky - quite a few locals got a chuckle out of watching the mzungu sputter out of a petrol station or a stop sign.

But now at the border I was at the final stage in a journey of emotions. When I had set out from Mbarara towards Kabale, I was moving fast, feeling the wind on my arm, and loving the trip. But after Kabale, I became less sure of the way. Excitment gave way to apprehension the longer it took to get to the border. I was afraid I was lost. But I finally reached Kisoro, and shortly after that Bunagana. I had arrived at the border.

My fear was not completely gone however because I still had to cross the border, meet a friend, then travel several hours south to Goma. And my fears were not relieved - my paperwork was not in order, and it took several hours to make it so (special thanks to Melissa, who emailed the documents. And special thanks to Zain, whose wireless internet made it possible to recieve them. Technology can be pretty amazing, even in east Africa). By the time I actually crossed the border, it was too late to drive to Goma before dark. And so my friend Bizi from HEAL Africa drove us to Rungumba and the abandoned Baptist missionary outpost that was to be our lodging for the night.

Click here to see a Flickr map of the trip from Mbarara to Goma.