On Safari, Struggling with my Inner Tourist

Monday, July 26, 2004 | Kampala, Uganda (map)

Guide on termite mound during an early morning game walk in Murchison Falls National Park
After saying our goodbyes to our many friends from the English classes and among MHI's staff in Goma, I accompanied Edouard, Dr. Sussman, and Lisa for a few days of wildlife watching in Uganda. We began in Kampala, where Friday night's dinner out in the lively Kisimenti district offered a stark contrast to somber Goma.

Saturday morning, we awoke early to a panorama of the Kampala skyline. Across the city's rooftops, where pigeons reign in America, colossal marabou storks loomed like gargoyles, their wings outstretched to bask in the dawn sun.

In the company of Mr. Parvez Malik, the Kenyan owner of Afri Tours, we drove north from Kampala. The asphalt turned to a rich ochre-red silt near Masindi, from where we continued a few hours further to the entrance of Murchison Falls National Park and our destination: the Sambiya River Lodge. A troop of raucous baboons greeted us on the roadway near the lodge.

A Teacher's Life in Goma

Thursday, July 22, 2004 | Goma, Democratic Republic of the Congo (map)

My classroom, full to the brim, during one of many boisterous moments
Today we met Musengo's year-old daughter, Odile, named after Edouard's wife. Musengo picked Lisa and I up from l'Ecole des Volcans—the school where we are teaching an informal English class to local kids each morning while in Goma—to take us back to his house, a two-room abode beside a wide field of lava rock. When we entered, little Odile was wobbling, but upright, clutching against a coffee table leg for support. She smiled at her father's voice, and thought nothing of these extra feet and legs that shuffled into her world.

When her father picked her up, however, and she came eye-to-eye with the first white people she had ever seen, her eyes widened and stayed transfixed in frozen shock. Musengo spoke to her in Swahili, in a high voice to soothe her, before taking her hand and reaching it toward me. She cringed and squirmed backward, evidently terrified of touching the pale skin of my outstretched hand. "Don't you remember when I showed you the muzungu on TV?" Musengo asked her playfully, and laughed.

It feels like "muzungu"—Swahili for "white person"—is all anyone has called me in weeks.

There but for the Grace of God: A Lesson in Congolese Chemistry

Wednesday, July 21, 2004 | Nord-Kivu, Democratic Republic of the Congo (map)

The northern road from Goma, into the hills
On Sunday we drove to the coltan mine at Bibatama, the heart of MHI’s operation. As we left the perfectly smooth, newly paved road out of the city and entered the mountains, the surface reverted to a fine powdery dust, which soon seeped in the 4x4's cracks and coated us all—Dr. Sussman and Edouard, two Burmese geologists on hire for some rock analysis, MHI’s top Congolese managers, and Lisa and I.

The vehicle climbed for several hours before we finally reached the mine's office, perched on a broad hilltop. In mid-afternoon and less than 100 miles south of the equator, the air held a crisp chill. We set off immediately for the mine, trudging along a steep path into a ravine while flanked by armed guards. The group wandered around the canyon's bottom for an hour or two, taking soil samples and pointing at veined rock faces, hoping to divine where the richest coltan deposits lay. Further down the ravine, workers were finishing up their day, shoveling a last few loads of mud and rock into a sluice along a streambed, and sifting out traces of the precious black grit. We passed small clusters of mud huts, home to the miners and their families, as dusk fell and we clambered back up the slope.

Where War Once Reigned, Still Waters Run Deep

Tuesday, July 20, 2004 | Goma, Democratic Republic of the Congo (map)

The smooth waters of Lake Kivu have seen much conflict in recent years.
Last Saturday we ate at L'Hôtel Nyira, home of Goma's finest restaurant (at least of the three that exist, by my count). I wolfed down a dish of local capitaine from the lake, while Edouard, Dr. Sussman, and Lisa tried grilled tilapia specials and a chicken dish with ground squash beans, cooked in a banana leaf. Following Edouard's lead, I dressed my fish with a fiery Congolese pili-pili sauce. The tuxedoed waiters hovered, in the near absence of other patrons, and eagerly brought additional rounds of Primus and Mutzig, the region's most popular beers. The Nyira even serves wine, a rarity in Goma.

Over dessert, Edouard recounted a previous trip to this hotel under very different circumstances. On a return visit to his country six years ago, during Congo's chaotic civil war, Edouard had taken shelter in the hotel with other Tutsis. Militias, likely composed of former génocidaires, hunted them

To Goma, the City at Horizon's End

Thursday, July 8, 2004 | Goma, Democratic Republic of the Congo (map)

Goma and Lake Kivu from nearby hilltop
When genocide struck Rwanda ten years ago, Edouard Mwangachuchu was a young cattle rancher just across the border in Bibatama, a small community in the hills northeast of Goma, DRC. He and his wife Odile, both Tutsis, raised their six children in peace, but grew increasingly worried as the génocidaires pushed closer and closer to the Congolese border. When the madness spilled over into Congo, Edouard recognized that to save his family, he had to flee. He wanted to reach the United States, where he knew he and his family could gain asylum.

Tragically, the only major airport within hundreds of miles was in Kigali, Rwanda's capital. To escape the genocide that threatened their lives, the Mwangachuchus would first have to travel to its very heart.

They left the ranch, abandoning their home and valuable cattle, and headed to Goma, near the

My Day at the Pool in Kigali

Wednesday, July 7, 2004 | Kigali, Rwanda (map)

The swimming pool at the Mille Collines served as a reservoir of drinking water during Rwanda's darkest days.
On my first day in Kigali, I walked along the city's lazy, dusty streets and snapped a few pictures, trying to master my first digital camera (and failing at it, if the resulting photographs are any indication).

The most striking thing about Kigali is its normalcy; it is shocking that a country so thoroughly devastated by genocide was rebuilt so quickly. Today, almost ten years to the date after the carnage peaked, office buildings, bustling grocers, bars, telecom shops, and tidy churches line the neat, well-paved roads. Guards leaned idly against the faces of banks and internet cafes, rifles slung over their shoulders. Women in brightly colored skirts zigzag gracefully in every direction, their heads topped by baskets brimming with bananas, peanuts, and other snacks.

The city is by no means paradise, however, as I am frequently reminded. This morning, Edouard's

In the Land of a Thousand Hills, Congo Bound

Tuesday, July 6, 2004 | Kigali, Rwanda (map)

Enjoying a Congolese brew (Primus) on my first night in Kigali
It was night when we landed in Kigali. Unlike the crisp white twinkles of European skylines, yellow splashes like flame winked across the city's hillsides. They wavered, small yellow points among flapping foliage, smudged by the dark and muggy air.

Dr. Sussman, his daughter Lisa, and I fetched our bags and trundled out to Edouard's Land Cruiser. I made out the dimly lit "Bienvenue à Kigali" sign as the driver rolled the vehicle slowly out of the airport parking lot, then charged off along the darkened road.

My first images of Rwanda were the stores along the roadside, each glimpsed for a second as our car sped along, each a glowing diorama in the dark night. People entered or exited as storekeepers stood behind counters minding their wares. Jaunted doorways framed the rapid-fire scenes, punctuated by the silhouettes of pedestrians as we sped past. Music and chattering laughter blared