I had a lot of decisions to make quickly. It was the last Friday of January after a long couple of weeks spent predominantly alone at a table in the back of a café when an email came through to my inbox: could I be in DRC in two weeks’ time? Not sure.
Though my research into the country had been a fairly new pursuit, the country had been on my mind for some time. I'd been planning on starting up the application process for a visa while back in the UK but I was low on funds and had limited time before I needed my passport to get me back to Kenya. In any case the process didn't seem like it would be a straightforward one.
Making an approach of any kind to the country leaves you feeling slightly unwelcome. For starters the DRC embassy in London's website is written in French without an option to translate it. Moreover it feels like it hasn’t been updated since the early 2000’s. Try the phones and they don’t ever pick up. Try to visit the embassy building itself and doors are only open between 9:30 and 13:00, Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.
Though I’d heard better reports about the Congolese embassy in Nairobi, it wasn’t going to do me much good. According to DRC rules I could only apply for a visa in my official country of residence - in my case, the UK.
Once back in Kenya this left me with a couple of options. Either DHL my passport directly into the true heart of darkness that was DRC’s London embassy, or apply for a second passport and risk sending that into an eternal abyss instead.
So could I be in DRC in two weeks? What was written to come across as a resounding and wholehearted ‘yes!’ in my email, was in my head and in reality more of an ‘oh shit’.
The email came through on the day preceding more than a week of shooting with the two journalists I mentioned in my last post. I was ready to focus on the work I had ahead of me when all of a sudden there was this puzzle to solve in between the gaps.
Luckily there was Caleb.
Fixers are the production team behind so much journalism we see coming from all parts of the globe. They are the local knowledge that can guide reporters, photographers and film crews to their story. Beyond this they can be the translators, they can provide the transport, they can remember to bring the sandwiches. In my case, Caleb was the ranger who was to guide me fearlessly through the perils of a Congolese bureaucratic swamp.
Caleb was a fixer based in DRC who’d been recommended to me by a friend. We’d already been in touch a couple of times over Whatsapp about the logistics of shooting in the country but now I needed him on the case for me and quick.
Turned out that rather than fiddle around with organising the appropriate visa before I was in the country, I could enter on a tourist visa and sort my documents from the inside. DRC has a small but steady tourist industry that revolves around Virunga Park on its eastern border with Rwanda. Tourists who are after some adventure can hike up and spend a night at the top of Mount Nyiragongo, a volcano with one of the largest open lava lakes in the world; or wander through the forests to gawk at a bunch of gorillas for a few hours. In order to get the aforementioned tourist visa, you actually have to sign up for and book one of these trips. With some reluctance due to the price tag, I opted for the volcano trek. This entailed forking out $300 for the trip itself, $75 for food and some warm clothing, and another $105 for the actual visa. It wasn’t ideal but it was fast.
Once in, the plan was to get my passport to Caleb who, with a bit of cash to encourage some movement among the various desks it would pass along, and a couple of painfully obsequious letters to His Excellency Minister of Communication and Media in the Democratic Republic of Congo Mr. (insert name), would have it back to me within a week.
This quickly cut down the time I had to get into the country from two weeks to one. And the week I had ahead of me was pretty well booked. What’s more, the job wasn’t exactly guaranteed. There was a ‘strong likelihood’ that it was going ahead, which in this world doesn’t really mean much. Do I book the trip up the volcano now? Do I wait for more confirmation? How long would that take?
I waited a couple of days into the next week. The point at which a contract arrived in my inbox was roughly the point at which I booked the volcano, and roughly the time at which I had to leave Nairobi. I had a few days shooting near Kisumu in the west of Kenya before the end of the week and so I figured to save time I’d continue directly West after that job was done.
I made it out of the city by the skin of my teeth with camera gear, some climbing gear, a tent(?), and not enough clothes.
By the time I reached Kigali from Kisumu on the Monday of the following week, I wasn’t sure if I’d spent the last 15 hours in a coach or a washing machine. Modern Coast offers the pinnacle of pseudo luxury with its faux leather seating, stinging plug sockets, and internet-less WIFI on the decks of an ageing fleet. All these trimmings of modern travel however add a top-heavy mass to the upper half of the coaches. This becomes apparent as they are hurled around the twists and winds of the East African countryside and you are forced seek out what you would cling onto should the coach finally cave in to the usual laws of physics.
Shaken, I took a bike to a hostel I’d visited in the city a couple of times before. The following day I was to head to Congo.
That evening I placed my full faith in Caleb by sending something around $1100USD to a Western Union account in DRC. This was so he could get started on the various coercions and bureaucratic manoeuvres necessary to organise my documents in time.
While doing this I pondered all the warnings I’d ever heard about Western Union and its popularity among fraudsters in Africa. I actually had to borrow this money from an old friend who I’d agreed to pay back once receiving payment for the job I was going to Congo for. I pondered some more about how I’d phrase my explanation to him as I recounted the story of how I so naïvely waved goodbye to his generous loan with no immediately apparent way of paying it back.
I clicked send.
Congo. For a country that felt so inexplicably illusive to me, it was surreal that the border crossing could be so benign. Five minutes checking out of Rwanda, five minutes checking into DRC. Not an eyebrow nor gun raised.
It was dusk and after some hassle finding an ATM and a local simcard, things fumbled into place for me pretty quickly when a person I’d been introduced to on WhatsApp by a person I’d met on Facebook turned into a warm smile, a lift, and an unexpected provider of food and shelter.
I barely had time to register my surroundings before I had to make it to the base of Mount Nyiragongo the next morning. The ride through the city was only brief before we were out in the countryside but for all of it my eyes were wide.
Goma is a city cast and weathered by the tireless hands of conflict and greed. The familiar, red earth of East Africa that had stained the neck of my shirt and the rim of my shoes for the past year was here but a miserable black from millennia of nearby volcanic activity. Innumerable organisations with operations in the city has turned the streets into a dyslexic muddle of acronyms that scramble about in their various attempts to hold the country together - MONUSCO, UNHCR, FARDC, UNICEF, OCHA. United Nations vehicles, particularly, move starkly with the thick, black letters, ‘U, N’, stamped impassively onto the roofs and doors of plain, white aircraft and armoured vehicles. The brief glimpses of beauty and potential for the city found in the idyllic lakeside chalets are quickly eclipsed by the thought of where the money came from to pay for them. Carefully laden remnants of colonial Belgium found in some of the paving in the roads or stonework in the walls will turn to rubble without warning or time for nostalgia.
Leaving the city, the countryside offers a different kind of violence as the hills tumble in from the northeast: a continuation of the steep rises and falls of western Uganda. Just like there, the hues of green, blue and black sit deep and angry, as if it could be the very landscape itself that urges and stirs the violence that ravages it.
Yes, my imagination was (and still is) running away with the mystery and romance and tragedy of the city, and I should add that the picture I paint of it is a melodramatic one. It’s not all gloom. On the same weekend that I arrived in the city, for instance, there was a music festival being held right in the centre. Entry was a dollar and it was a demonstration that life and happiness goes on here just as it does anywhere else. But the wonder the country seems to provoke in me, as well as the impending political drama that promises to play out across the country this year, has made me decide to give living here a shot.
My assignment went well. It offered a quick tour of a few of the key locations in the east. It made me realise how desperately I need to learn French. And after hitting the road once again for more shooting back in Kampala, it made me feel excited to return to my new home.
More to come.