In the Flicker: Nyiragongo, DRC

In the past few years, I’ve probably read a dozen books starring the Democratic Republic of Congo: King Leopold, Dancing in the Glory, Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz, Stringer – and a dozen more where it features heavily in a supporting role. I joke that when I can’t handle reading about Rwanda and its accompanying canon of genocide reporting presented from a diversity of perspectives, I read about the DRC. It isn’t really true; there’s just much more on DRC, from a diversity of time periods, a diversity of places, and diversity of players. A country the size of Western Europe that looms over “Lilliputian” Rwanda’s western doorstep (Stearns, 2011, p. 148).

To write about the DRC and its history, whose “complexity has thwarted journalists and diplomats alike,” requires adherence to Jason Stearns’ (2011) warning: “beware of oversimplification, it will get you in trouble” (p. 16). It’s a country of incredible natural resources and an accompanying, convoluted history of double-crosses and dark players seeking the riches those resources bring. Kinshasa, the capital, is a long flight over jungle (amusing described as “broccoli fields” in the documentary Blood in the Mobile) from the east-bound Kivu provinces (Nord and Sud) which abut Lake Kivu, the divider between Rwanda and DRC. The east played host for Africa’s Great War, triggered by the Rwandan genocide in 1994, not simply one war “but at least forty or fifty different, interlocking wars” (Stearns, 2011, p. 100) which resulted in up to five million dead, depending on estimates. Without simplifying a decade-long conflict to a paragraph, today a shaky peace remains, which, “many diplomats and locals say, is more important than justice especially when the government is full of yesterday’s military leaders” (p. 146).

Today, Kivu’s unstable past is hardly a deterrent for those seeking minerals used throughout global industry. Within the past decade, rebel groups such as the Mai Mai, RCD-Goma, and FDLR (which are, by the way, Rwandan Hutu rebels) have been reported as controlling and “regulating” mining sectors within the region, skimming a revenue from the sale of the minerals and channeling that money back into the literal magazines of their causes. Blood in the Mobile (2010) purports that this mining for coltan, cassiterite, tin, and gold finds its way into “legitimate” supply chains; phone companies are reticent to admit that the admirable piece of technology, probably in your pocket or near you now, contains a little piece of Kivu.

Joseph Conrad, wrote in his seminal Heart of Darkness, “Like a running blaze on a plain, like a flash of lightning in the clouds. We live in the flicker – may it last as long as the old earth keeps rolling.” DRC: perhaps living in the flicker, or just outside it.

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Gran Barrier, Rwanda side

A thousand pages later, this past weekend, I crossed the border into DRC. My 24-hour trip, hardly a genuine attempt to experience the country, that began at the Gran Barrier. The barrier is the foot/auto border between Rubavu on the Rwandan side and Goma on the Congolese side, conjoined sister cities situated on the shores of placid Lake Kivu, sliced by the dividers of an international border and a vast economic divide. Even the developing world has these class divides: the reality for those who live on $4 a day, in relative stability and security (Rwanda) and those who survive, caught between rebels and resource pillagers, on $1.80 a day (DRC, both from UN Human Development Report, 2015).

On the DRC side, officials page through my passport and stamp my travel documents as I struggle through pidgin French, then point my friend and I to a closet of a room stuck to the side of the immigration building, where a nurse sits under a few Ebola and cholera posters pealing from the walls. We flash our yellow fever cards and the nurse uses an electronic thermometer held to our throats to take our temperature and then slowly copies our names, passport numbers, gender, and temperature into the ubiquitous graph-paged blue books, beloved by border guards this continent over. We are quickly released as legal entrants and climb into windowless Land Rovers, Indian Jones style, to wind through Goma proper and north of the city to our destination, settled in the heart of Virunga National Park: Nyiragongo volcano.

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Phone charge station: example of micro business at its finest

Writers love to anthropomorphize this country, with cities that become the humans they contain as they hum and throb and pulse. Sundaram (2013)  writes of his Kinshasa neighbourhood Victoire, at night, “the vitality would resurge…almost pure pleasure and excitement…dancers would move like water: slow hips, tempting” (p.9). Frenzy, chaos, humanity: from nearly two years in Rwanda, I can perceive the difference – disordered order, raw, open. Rwanda is a grid; Congo is a spiral, or ten spirals bouncing off each other, fractals spinning and churning.

The Rover cuts quickly down the road, Goma flying past the open sides of the truck. I was struck by the darkness – not the people, not the buildings painted bright with jewel tones and murals, not even the landscape, electric green under a brilliant blue sky – but the amount of igneous rock present, as if the city was blanketed in a charcoal-coloured snow. In 2002, Nyiragongo erupted and two rivers of lava sluiced through the city, a blaze of destruction that hardened into the dark volcanic rock that now lines this place, darkening its color pallete. You see inhabitants’ ingenuity, co-opting the rock for fences, walls, or even just stacked up between houses and buildings to clear it from the roads and gardens. Though it’s been fourteen years since the eruption, it still lies in massive heaps, haphazard hills when not methodically stacked and woven into walls. It’s continued presence belays the hand-hewn reality of this place; I can’t imagine bulldozers doing this clearing; the lava flows were most certainly broken up and moved by hand, one irregular crenelated rock at a time.

And then, the city falls away and we are bordered by Virunga on my left side, the volcano emerging from behind a curtain of cloud. A park on the edge of this civilisation, fighting a different battle but with the same objective: survival.  Virunga National Park was established in 1925 under Belgian colonial rule and originally called Prince Albert’s Park. The park is one of only three places left in the world where mountain gorillas can be found in their natural habitat: the other two are Rwanda and Uganda, within this verdant triangle of forest area. The park’s cadre of Park Rangers protect these animals and other wildlife from poachers and violent conflict, and the edges of the park from the encroachment of groups who would seek to destroy its natural beauty and incredible biodiversity for the sake of oil, minerals, or land, illustrated in the 2014 Netflix documentary Virunga.

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Signs for the Nyiragongo trailhead: Prince Albert was the name under colonial rule (hence the bullet holes – opinions expressed in violent form) 

We – myself and sixteen others from the U.S., Canada, and parts of Europe – begin our trek with Virunga rangers at the front, middle, and end of the group. They are dressed in proud uniforms, emblazoned with the park logo, and are slung with packs on their backs and AK-47s across their chests. To hike with armed guards is standard this part of the world: here in DRC, it is to protect you from poachers and rebels.

They are very quiet and succinct in their directions to us. Only a week ago, two of their colleagues were brutally murdered in a conflict between the rangers and the Mai Mai rebel group: two rangers, Fidèle Mulonga Mulegalega and Venant Mumbler Muvesevese, were killed, and another is missing.

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One of our rangers, Kalashnikov in hand

But when you are in a group of peers, hiking toward an open lava lake that inspires a multitude of Lord of the Rings jokes (“to Mount Doom, Frodo!”), it’s easy to forget all of these layers of context – poverty, war, conflict minerals, poaching. It all disappears in the quiet of the place, only the laboured breathing of hikers, the igneous rocks crushing together as you move across them, the wind and later driving rain among the tree branches, the occasional far-off helicopter.

I’m no outdoors adventure writer and haven’t the skill to electrify the sweaty, rain-soaked, sometimes painful details of the hike (and sometimes full body clamber) to the top. The route was long – five hours, broken into five segments, each progressively more challenging with incline and condition of the path. The final segment, up the side of the volcano to the crater summit, was taken a few steps at a time, neck down and eyes constantly forced a step ahead, the sharp 45 degree angle of the mountain in the peripheral vision. But at the top, the moment of glory: freeing myself from my backpack, adding extra layers against the biting cold, and surveying the view from the edge of the crater.

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The crater with the lava lake in the middle 

Within the past month, reports came of a new vent in the crate – but no “lateral movement” of lava, meaning it isn’t looking to erupt yet. The lake is a depression within the crater’s ledge, and the new lava vents form pools (or so we can observe) on the higher ledge above the depression. They shift and change, the top cooling and then the edges lighting fire and churning, pulling the cooled sections back into the lava to reheat and recool again – fifth grade science, before our eyes. In photographs, it appears as a shimmering, neon red puddle that inhales and exhales, expands and decreases.

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Virunga Mist, a Rwandan beer, with a background of Virunga Smoke

We stayed the night and woke early to see the lake blaze in the dark, an epic campfire with the same mesmerising quality. From a bench on the edge of the crater, the cold permeating all of my layers, I watched the crust form and disintegrate, occasional flares and splashes of molten orange. The smoke rose above it, a ruby glow in the darkness. Behind our back, the sun rose over the mountain range, slowly unveiling the layers of mountaintops, the clouds forming a blanket and obscuring the valley below us. The lights of Goma and the edge of Kivu was visible, a sprinkling far in the distance.

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Before sunrise on Nyiragongo

An hour after sunrise, we begin the descent, a much quicker pace than the laborious climb. The impact of each downward step, across often loose volcanic rock, resonates in my knees and thighs. We move along the path from the open low scrub near the summit to the sparse cover of trees and bushes then finally the dense forest as the ground levels out. We are packed back into trucks, snaked again down dirt roads and through Goma, and deposited at our starting point: the Gran Barrier. No injuries, no eruptions, no attacks, nothing real to fear in the end.

Places like this, seeking an identity beyond the one that history has hoisted upon them, need tourists. Ultimately, you should visit this place. The danger risk for tourists is low – and perhaps more is at stake if the tourism dries up: if no one visits, if no one cares, is there a reason to live and die for the protection of this place?

The reward is high: to see the earth opened up, the stuff that is at the very centre of our world smoke in an open pit. To see this: another, brighter perspective on this wide, vast continent in itself, the DRC.

Sources/Stuff Worth Watching

Blood in the Mobile: Danish 2010 documentary on the connections between smartphones and the conflict minerals sourced from East DRC.

Stearns, J. (2011) Dancing in the glory of monsters: The collapse of the Congo and the great war of Africa. New York: Public Affairs.

Sundaram, A. (2013) Stringer: A reporter’s journey in the Congo. New York: Doubleday.

Virunga: British 2014 documentary available through Netflix which details Virunga National Park’s conservation efforts in the face of continued rebel violence and exploitation by Western oil companies.

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A Grief Abroad

For Elaine. 

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It came at the close of our second day trekking into the Ethiopian wilderness. Covered in a second skin of dust, blisters rubbing between my toes in the wide box of too-new hiking boots, sweat – everywhere. We are lodged on rickety benches of stretched animal skins that shifted right and left as we shifted off of sore legs and backs, overlooking a wide panorama of cliff edge in the Ethiopian highlands: rolling hills, a jagged spectrum of browns and greens and reds like the painted backdrop of a Western. 

There’s a message from my cousin, the red notification leaping up as I moved my phone out of power-saving airplane mode and it connects to EthioTelecom.

Leanne, have you heard. Grandma passed away this morning.

The first moment is disorientation, counting back eleven hours, realising that “this morning” is still “this morning” in California, despite it being “this evening” in Ethiopia, the sunset subsiding into an inky blackness falling around us on our clifftop.

I’ve been abroad on and off in stints since 19, and always, lurking in the back of my head, was this fear: that being abroad, I would miss something truly memorable, truly important, in pursuit of what is (at its most disparaging) my “wandering” or (at its most respectful) my pursuit of a career and life outside of the usual bounds. A birth, a dozen weddings, and, this year, two deaths: first, my mother’s sister from cancer, and now, my father’s stepmother, Grandma Elaine, at 87.

Grief, at this distance, is sharpened by geography and that creeping guilt that I should have been there at the end. It doesn’t help that I knew it was coming, that at some point, my “abroad luck” would run dry and I would be 6000 miles and a $3000 flight away from jubilation or tragedy. There’s no comfort in the knowledge that it was inevitable, to be away and unable to return home, to be a part of the funeral, to hug my cousins and aunts and uncles, to sit next to my brother instead of crying to him over WhatsApp. It was impossible, in that moment, to walk back to my friends, laughing over cool beers, and share the news.

Even a week later, grief in this form – far away – is a funny thing: when it hits, what it does, what I do. What sets me off: sitting in a conference meeting as my colleagues talk, opening a link to an obituary, seeing condolences from thirty, forty years of her acquaintance added to the bottom. It’s strange how death – and distance – illuminate in those moments, somehow rattling me and making me proud of the woman I knew. 

My grandmother, the second wife of my father’s father, and more a part of my formative years than my biological grandmother, who passed too early and left me a few pieces of art and a perhaps a few creative bones, was named Elaine. We called her Grandma Elaine, or sometimes just her first name, and she lived in Riverside, part of the San Bernardino valley, a desert that will forever bring nostalgia at the sight of the R carved into the Box Springs Mountains or the rolling, dusty brownness – perhaps not so different from my perch in these African highlands. 

She was Scandinavian, and proud, with a careful, platinum bob. She drank refrigerated Franzia with ice cubes, a habit very separate from my family’s conservatism. Her fingers carried a collection of rings, big, bold gold pieces and diamonds, collected from her lifetime. She retired when I was a child and managed to travel swaths of the world – often on cruises. She once told me a story of her cruise boat being held up by some sort of pirates and she put her rings in her mouth to keep them from being stolen.

But, as I realised only recently, she was my role model: a strong woman who survived the deaths of two husbands and a son, who raised four boys, who beat cancer and lived with unapologetic vivacity. I remember one of my last conversations with her, her too far away to speak and me doing all the talking,  at the start of the summer only a few days after I’d arrived home following ten months in Rwanda, holding her hand and telling her how she had been so influential to me – even from a distance, from her home in Riverside to my ordinary (and now past) life in Northern California.

She was a teacher. I am a teacher. She travelled the world – I’m working on that one. She was brash, brave, ballsy – I’m working on those, too. But she was a woman of great depth, great compassion, great understanding. She knew what to tell me when it was something I needed to hear – to tell me I was strong, I was capable, that I wasn’t those other things that people would say about me. That I could do something different, that I was enough.

A few days after hearing that she had passed, deep into Saturday night as I was in another hotel, sitting with friends and looking out not over a cliff face but the lights of Addis Ababa, my phone blipped again with another text, this time from my brother, telling me that my grandmother’s best friend told him that Elaine relived her life through me.

I guess this is the job of a eulogy: to allow you to organise your thoughts, find a direction in your grief, to remember. C.S. Lewis found solace following the death of his wife in this task, “by writing it all down ... I believe I get a little outside of it” (p. 10). And so this is a eulogy to my grandmother: to put into words both grief and thankfulness, for what she imparted to me, even from a distance. It isn’t bad luck, to experience loss and grief while far away, it’s life: a thing better lived than fretted over.

Lewis, C.S. (1961) A Grief Observed. Harper: San Francisco.