Like the armies hiding in the hills, the geography here is volatile, and respects no boundaries. Far above the jungle, gazing down upon the small villages poking out from the holes in the jungle, I lost the border as it wove in and out of the hills on its way to the misty Ruwenzori mountains. The smoke rising from the open mountaintop craters and the scars in the jungle left by the wide lava flows served as a reminder that the rock is still young. Where land turns into lake, the long slopes slide into the water like a giant fist soothing her knuckles after a fight, respite perhaps between the eternal brawls. My avian viewpoint was from one of the many small planes that bypass Congo’s knotted forest tracks, on my way to the eastern border town of Butembo, 1600m up in highlight, where even the mosquitoes leave you alone. Butembo is a bustling and colourful town, on the main trade route between Uganda and Kisangani in Central Congo, where everyone wears a high-vis jacket. On 60km of winding murram track from the airstrip there were travelers at every turn, bicycles being pushed up hills and freewheeled down loaded with bananas, sugar cane or palm oil. Butembo seems cleaner and prouder than downtrodden and world-weary Goma, and the lack of military presence was an immediate relief.
The base in Butembo proved to be a hive of activity, with lorries toing and froing for construction in 10 different clinics. The much-adored office kitten, for reasons written in the folklore of office humour, was called Mobutu – it was a refreshing thought that this was one dictator who was scared of me.
Behind Mobutu’s litter tray in the corner of the base lay a tired relic of past adventures, a battered Landcruiser with grass taking seed on the bonnet. Pondering on how this camel might have acquired its dents and humps, I received a call from Goma, that other world six hours to the south: ‘You know that broken flowerpot of a car in Butembo – we’ve got a chance to fix it, send it to us today’. A flat bed truck, barely larger than the landcruiser, materialized, and I threw myself into a frantic chase around town, from agricultural merchants to the barbed wire and blue helmets of the UN forces. We quickly discovered that Butembo has no winches, no lifting platforms, no cranes, no block and tackle – nothing in fact to aid the transfer of large vehicle onto the truck bed. Sneaking shame-faced back into the office past the mechanic who had already repaired the punctures, remounted the wheels, and started on the brakes, we sat in consultation with Mobutu.
An hour later, we returned with the glint of a beautiful plan in our eyes, and a pair of thick red hardwood planks upon our shoulders. We would tow the landcruiser up the hill, and carefully roll it into the bed of the waiting truck. By mid-afternoon and several brake failures later, I was simply thankful only that we had avoided sending several tons of landcruiser through the market. Back on the main street in front of the office, and a large crowd was gathering, mainly of people with their own foolproof method of getting the car into the truck, but jostling with a generous proportion of local comedians attracted by the rotten smell of imminent collapse. Half an hour later, the air thick with diesel fumes, planks cracked and logs in disarray, crowds dispersed for fear of crushing, communication and comedians drowned by the revving on an engine on its limit, our car rolled into the bed of the truck with a disconcerting thud. Also lacking brakes, the truck leapt forward five metres with its new cargo, and a resounding cheer erupted from Butembo’s populace. A far cry from last year, when I had sat in my university exam halls trying to coax a malfunctioning heap of remembrances on African history onto a very empty sheet of paper.
Back in Goma, and I learned that on the strength of such sound fleet management experience, I would be sent to Maniema, one of the central provinces on the Congo river, to find similar solutions for the ailing motorbikes and failing transport network. Clearly showing a bit too much enthusiasm about the prospect, one of my kinder colleagues takes me aside to warn me that the base for which I am destined is accessible only after crossing the wide river by dugout canoe and riding two days and 17 collapsed bridges by motorbike.
In the meantime, I take a quiet weekend trip to Rwanda, listening to the waves lap on the shore of Lake Kivu, and the music that alternates between the happy chanting of schoolchildren and the loud rhythms of Congolese hip hop. There is a blue-headed lizard playing games with its partner on the tree next to me, and a farmer is silhouetted on the hillside as he digs around the water pump. It is a far cry from Rwanda’s turmoil of fifteen years ago, where I hear from an ex-Canadian Mountie, who spent ten years arresting and interrogating the perpetrators of the genocide, that one man he interviewed rode to work every day on a minibus driven by the man who killed his family. Although, I hear from Butembo that construction has been put on hold, the health centres rendered inaccessible as the rebels take control of one of the villages en route, torching 200 homes. It seems so gratuitous, unnecessary – I know that I am a long way from understanding how such flames are lit here.