Sunday, February 21, 2016

Congo, you missed the boat

I have not been to Congo since 2011, and, despite my experience and knowledge, heading back to the Goma border today, my heart raced as I tried to mentally brace myself for whatever might come.

Sure, I had all my paperwork in order, my visa already freshly stamped in my passport, but Adam was coming in on this new "tourist visa" offered by Visit Virunga, and the only promise he had was some printed paper and an email that literally said,
"This is the document you need for you to cross smoothly.  Print them out and your reservation to show at the border."
We had been staying in the border town of Gisenyi, in Rwanda, at the home of my friend Christina, whom I have known since 2003 when we both worked at the Jane Goodall Institute in DC. She dropped us at the border, and it was still dark, barely 5am.

The lights flickered on and off in the pedestrian crossing.  As we eyed the Congolese side, I saw hundreds of boys and men, running, screaming, just across the barrier.

"What's happening over there?" I asked the Rwandan gate guard, "Sports?" I added, hoping to be right.

"I don't know," he grunted in response.

Maybe my problem is that, when I see people screaming in a country I know to be unpredictable, I keep walking toward the commotion.  Because I did.

Apparently on Sundays, there is some kind of sports club that does their exercises in the middle of the road, right next to the border.

Everything was in order with my visa, but for Adam to be issued a tourist visa, the boss needed to arrive, and here it was 5:30am and he was nowhere to be found.  Though the border has only recently been opened 24 hours, there is no communication about which services are offered during what hours, so there was not even clarity about what time this boss was meant to arrive to begin with.

The principle guard was going to call him, but said he had no credits on his phone, so he used my phone instead.  I don't ever mind having the private mobile number of DGMs (directors of general migration).

It was still not even 6am, so, despite having reservations for the 7:30am boat to Bukavu, I figured that we still had plenty of time.

As time passed, the darkness slipped away, leaving the morning in a sepia tone as we watched Congolese youths exercising in the road. Somewhere in the distance, a radio played Abba's "Dancing Queen" and a guy rollerdanced, swirling his arms and legs elegantly to the tinny beat.

Around 6:45am, I started to worry, because the boss had not yet appeared, and the guards inside seemed disinclined to help.

When I mentioned that I was worried we would miss the boat, one guard told me that it was my fault, for not having arrived the night before to arrange Adam's visa for a 7:30am departure.  Apparently, leaving 2 hours is considered irresponsible.

I asked if the boss could be called again, and the guard told me that if we called him, he would be bothered and upset.  The guard promised that the boss would arrive by 7am.

The minutes ticked by, and 7am came and went. I coordinated with our local organizer that the likelihood that we would make the boat was narrowing, but that once this boss came, we should be through right away.

Of course, the boss arrived, and everything was not okay.  Though Adam had been sent documents, the ICCN (the conservation sector of the government) had not sent over their correlating copies and nothing could be done without their authorization.  My phone had no more credit, and, though the DGM had talked to someone on the phone in the ICCN, it seemed that everyone was confused, and slow, and the possibility of getting into the country at all for Adam was waning alarmingly fast.

The DGM, to his credit, was actually quite nice, which in my experience is unusual.  These kinds of diplomatic acrobatics are always treacherous, because you must be firm in your resolve to get whatever it is accomplished, but sweet enough to get the other person to tell you what it is you need to accomplish.

I managed to wrangle the information about the documents that were missing and, in lieu of waiting all day for someone from the ICCN to bring those documents over, I volunteered to just go by moto myself and get the job done. We had almost no Congolese francs - just enough to get to the boat terminal, but the situation was getting dire.  My colleagues had asked whether I would just take the 7:30am boat and leave Adam to sort himself, but quite frankly, that's not how we roll.

So, though I do not make it a habit, I left Adam at the border, and jumped on a motorcyle to go to the ICCN office in town.  I ran the risk that, because it was a Sunday, that it would be closed, but someone had at least been present to answer the telephone, so I had a hope.

The DGM was even more uncharacteristically kind -- he walked me over to the motorcycle taxi waiting station, looking for a driver he knew, and then explained to him where I needed to go and how much it was going to cost.

I was back on a bodaboda, cruising the lava-strewn streets of Goma again for the first time in a decade.  I clutched my folder of crucial documents, my money, my phone, and my hat -- hoping that I could pull off this last ditch effort to get Adam through, weaving in and out of pedestrian and vehicular traffic alike.

Though the main doors of the office were closed, one of the side doors was open, so I dismounted quickly and ran inside the office.  There was a leisurely man behind a desk, sporting a track suit, and, if it had been him that had received the call, he didn't seem to be in the midst of doing much of anything.

I explained the situation to him, and emphasized that we had been at the border since 5:30am, that we had already missed the boat, and that we needed help.  I had all my many printouts, thankfully, yet he was unable to find Adam in the system at all.

More roadblocks.  I took a deep breath, and worked through what it was that he needed in order to get this job accomplished.  He wanted to wait for his colleague -- who had not yet arrived in the office, but I was not about to play more of the waiting game.  I continued pressing, emphasizing that I knew his big boss, casually mentioning the names of many big players in the ICCN that I have happened to meet and know personally.

I managed to convince him to just put Adam in the system, and then print his documents fresh for the DGM.  Prodding, pushing, slowly, slowly.  In French, petit à petit.

I knew Adam was waiting alone at the border too, and my Rwandan data bundle had just given me the last of its internet, roaming in Congo.

At last, the documents were printed, in color of course, and put into a clean manilla envelope.  I jumped back on the motorbike that had waited for me, exuberant, successful, hopeful that everything would now be alright.

The motorcycle was not allowed to take me all the way to the office, and the driver scowled at me, having had to wait for so long, he expected me to pay him more money.

I passed the manilla envelope through the prison-like bars to the interior office, asking it to be brought directly to the boss.

And then we waited.  Twenty mere minutes later, Adam had a visa, colorful and bright in his little passport.  I could not contain my joy and thanked the boss profusely, mostly because it was such a pleasure, working with someone at the border who was nice.

All in all, it took only 3.5 hours and probably a considerable amount of my life energy, but in Francophone countries, I am always going to work to make sure Adam is okay.  I don't know what would have happened if he had been alone, unable to enter the town to go to the ICCN offices, unable to speak French, but that is a matter I will be taking up with the Visit Virunga people.

One day maybe he'll realize that he should resent me for taking him to the toughest places on Earth, but thankfully today is not that day.

In several hours, we'll be on the boat to Bukavu and to Lwiro Sanctuary, and getting to see the chimpanzees -- the Aketi Five -- that we literally risked our lives to save in 2009.  We have not seen them since then, and I can feel the happiness welling up inside me at the mere thought.

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