Baraka means blessing in Swahili and Baraka is indeed a blessing. He is full of laughter, spilling giggles into the world until the air around him shimmers with fist sized iridescent bubbles that turn his words pink and his sentences gold. I find myself laughing along with him about nothing at all when he reaches out to shake my hand, the movement causing the laughter to brush up against me, popping delightfully against my skin. He slides his hand through mine in a secret handshake that I don’t know yet. I think it’s the sort of thing you end with a fist bump so I curl my fingers up. Baraka sees my awkward fist just hanging there and laughs deep and rich before bumping a fist into mine. Matt is better at the secret handshake and as I watch I see Matt’s face. He has this goofy sort of smile that probably matches mine. Baraka chats with us like we’re old friends as we walk towards the border, trailing that fine, bright, laughter behind him.
As we approach the small, bustling concrete building with bars on the windows Baraka passes us the visas he’s miraculously acquired in only a day or two. We walk around the long lines waiting to be stamped out and Baraka ushers us towards the empty window clearly marked “Entry” as in, entry into Rwanda. Baraka smiles and lifts his hand for the secret handshake with a man behind us, breaking into conversation. The man knows the handshake. I approach the window and pass the stiffly uniformed man behind the window my passport.
“You are going to the Congo?”
“Yes! To see the volcano and Virunga!”
“Surely not by yourself!”
“No, we have a guide.”
I turn and search for Baraka and he catches my eye, walking up.
The Rwandan border official’s face softens and he chats with Baraka in Kinyarwanda while he stamps us out. No one is immune to the narcotic that is Baraka.
We walk out of Rwanda and around a little gate to the stretch of road where we are neither in Rwanda or the Congo. We flow along with a steady trickle of people, opening our bags three times for similarly bored looking border guards. They poke through our meager belongings and wave us on. Baraka looks tense and serious which is so different from normal. I feel myself tensing nervously in response. Someone checks our Rwandan exit stamp. We approach another smaller concrete building. It’s painted white and I follow Baraka closely as he walks past the lines of people queued up at the barred windows and pokes his head in the door. As I peer around his broad shoulders I draw a scowl from the immigration agent. Baraka has relaxed again. He cracks a joke in French and they turn their faces to him, blossoming into smiles. Everyone seems to love Baraka. He passes a small, plump woman our visas and passports and walks in his loose-legged way to the next door. A man sits in a small square room behind a desk. There is an enormous ledger in front of him, easily two feet by three feet when closed. He opens the enormous book and it takes up most of the desk. We hand him our immunization records, open to the yellow fever stamp. He reads the entire booklet, turning it delicately over and over in his wrinkled hands. Apparently satisfied he painstakingly records my information in slow, careful capital letters. He opens a drawer and pulls out a thermometer, puts a little plastic cap on it and places it in my ear when I lean forward. He looks at the number until it blanks out and then writes it carefully in the ledger next to my name and passport number.
We collect our passports and immunization cards and walk into the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Goma is a hard-bitten city. It was nearly destroyed when the Nyiragongo Volcano erupted in 2002, wiping out virtually every structure and causing the evacuation of nearly the entire city.
“Only the thieves remained. They went running back to steal the things people had left. But all of the thieves died.” Baraka explained with a shrug to indicate it was justice.
Since then Goma’s been a hotspot for military conflict. Just four years ago in the winter of 2012 a battle ravaged the city as two factions fought for control. When the defeated faction retreated they destroyed as many lives as they could reach on their way out. Many of the buildings we see on the main street are square, concrete structures with rebar poking from the top and rubble lining the base. They have a hasty feeling. Some of them are painted white and others blue. Some have not been painted at all.
I don’t ask Baraka about the conflict here.
The restaurant where we eat lunch is lovely, tall and red with white tiles on the floor and freshly painted tables. I ask where the bathroom is to wash my hands and owner brings a pitcher, a basin and a bar of soap. He pours the water over my hands as I wash them. The spaghetti is delicious.
We pull up to a grocery store with a distinctly post-apocalyptic feeling. I crawl out of the jeep and walk up two crumbling stairs. It is a medium sized room tightly packed with shelves of raw plywood held together by planks of wood in various sizes. Items are stacked neatly, their tidiness emphasized by their scarceness on the misshapen shelves. A refrigerator with a glass door holds cheese and a few other items on the left. A freezer chest sits on the ground at the back. Alcohol, diapers and toys take up the last row.
A desk is set up near the door. Three men lounge there on and around it. Boxes of cigarettes and a pocket calculator share space with their elbows. They smile and wave, gesturing us into the shop as I step through the door.
I don’t really know what to buy. It’s only one night but I don’t think we’ll be able to cook anything or keep anything cold. I pick up some granola bars and a can of tuna. The price isn’t marked on the tuna.
“Hey there! Ummm.. how much is this?” I ask the little crowd of men. One of them plucks the can out of my hand and the three of them look it over carefully and then scatter. One heads through a tiny door at the back, another leaves through the front and the last studies the shelf where just 4 other cans of tuna are neatly stacked. The other two men return and begin scouring the store.
“Aha!” There is a burst of triumphant French and one of the men returns smiling. “It is ten dollars!”
“Ten US dollars! You see I found this one and it is eight dollars.” He holds up a small tuna snack pack with a sticker. “Will you take it?!”
“Oh uhhh no. Thank you though.”
“I work in the Congo but live in Rwanda. It is so expensive to live in Goma!” Baraka smiles ruefully at me.
I look at the small handful of groceries that we’ve decided on. Bread, a wedge of locally made cheese, some cookies, a package of granola bars and an avocado. All of the prices clearly marked on stickers. The man at the front takes the bread and opens it, setting the loaf on a largish white machine I hadn’t seen before, he flips a switch. The machine starts shaking and shivering and gasping for it’s life and the bread starts moving across it. It jumps along and passes through a series of little wires, cutting the loaf into even slices. The man sweeps the freshly sliced loaf back into the bag with a flourish, and smiles hugely down at me. He adds up the tab with the little calculator.
“Forty eight dollars.” I pass him a fifty and he slides open a drawer in the desk where money is neatly laid out. He pulls out a worn two dollar bill, so dirty and well used it feels like cloth.
“Do you have any Congolese francs?”
“You want francs? Are you sure?” I nod.
“Okay!” He passes me two francs from the drawer, sliding them across the desk.
“Oh and don’t forget this.” I hold a little butter knife up that wasn’t added. He shrugs his shoulders and smiles. “You can take that.”
“Thank you!” Baraka exclaims. Matt and I follow suit, ”Thank you! Thank you!”
We pile back into the jeep. We’re finally off to the volcano! I can see it rising from the horizon, getting bigger as we approach it. The buildings start to disappear and suggestions of structures in planks and lengths of tin take their place. We finally pull onto a deeply rutted road and crawl past a rusty sign dotted with bulletholes, Parc National Albert. Another more modern sign stands at the back of a clearing, Parc National des Virunga.
As I climb down from the jeep I notice a neat line of huge, expensive, technicolor hiking backpacks laid out on the grass. Next to them a man is tucking a drone into a large rolling suitcase. A group of Russians in vibrant technical gear mill around in front of the packs. Each of them have a small, hiking style daypack on. They look… professional. And expensive. Baraka takes our two yellow plastic grocery bags, one containing our food and the other our rented sleeping bags out of the jeep. He ties them shut and proudly sits them on the ground. I brush self-consciously at the mud on my pants and step in front of the plastic bags to block them from view.
“You can put your things here for Francoise.”
“We don’t really have anything else.” I say, nervously looking at our two plastic bags and back at the huge pile of gear the Russians are bringing.
“It is only one day! You cannot die in only one day.” Baraka reassures us with lush chuckles that warm me but I’m still not feeling too confident.
A small child skinny enough to break my heart runs up with a dark green tarp.
“Aaah and here is your rain jacket!”
I feel the fabric, it’s a thick canvas and a little waxy feeling but this does not look waterproof. It looks heavy. I grimace at the tarp. Baraka chuckles and holds it up to me. The fabric touches the ground. He lifts it higher, well above my shoulder line.
“Aaah, perfect! This is just like the rangers wear! I bet tomorrow when you are done you can take a picture with them. If you ask them they might even let you hold their gun! That will make a nice picture!”
“erm… all right.” So there’s a bright side I guess. “And can we buy a little more water? And the hats we were going to rent?”
Baraka says something to the child who runs off and comes back 10 minutes later with a hat and a bottle of water. It looks suspiciously familiar. I look at the man seated behind a stand of boards precariously nailed together into a boxy shape selling snacks, soft drinks and water. His head is bare, I feel the beanie. It’s warm.
“Merci.” I pass the child a tip and he smiles and responds in French.
Baraka smiles and laughs, resting a hand on the child’s shoulder.
“Aha! It is time!” Baraka pushes the plastic bags to a young man I take to be Francois. Francois looks doubtful and Baraka replies soothingly in French. Other porters have donned the massive fancy backpacks, one balances the rolling suitcase on his head, another wears a worn canvas pack and carries a live chicken under each arm. “Francoise is going to take good care of you!”
Francoise shrugs his shoulders in greeting and says something to us in French.
“Parle vous anglais?” I ask him with a sideways smile.
“Non.” Francoise scowls at me and shakes his head no.
I give him a thumbs up and look around for Baraka.
“You aren’t coming with us?” I ask.
“No, Francoise will take good care of you though!”
“I think our sleeping bags are going to get wet. How cold is it up there again?”
“Do not worry, it is only one day! You cannot die in one day.”
I wonder how the hell else you would die but don’t say this.
“Go on! They’re getting ready to go, you all must stay together.” Baraka waves goodbye and we wander towards the Russians.
“We’re going to die.” Matt mutters under his breath.
“In one day.” I agree.3