Thursday, April 28, 2011
But Thursday is Africa day, and Caroline Todd has traveled here too. She captures a dramatic event from the past, but far from merely of historical interest in modern-day Africa. We welcome guest blogger Caroline Todd.
My husband and I have visited a good bit of Africa. Some of what we’ve seen winds up in the books in one fashion or another. Years ago we were in Rwanda on our way to Goma in what was then the Congo. We’d got permission to visit the Frankfurt Institute’s mountain gorilla camp to spend two days with them in the Virungas. But typical of flights out of Nairobi, ours was delayed, and we got to Kigali late in the afternoon. Too late, really, to cross borders. But we didn’t have much choice if we were to keep our time slot. Rwanda Tours had everything ready, and our van with seven passengers and a local driver headed for the crossing. And that, in late afternoon, turned out to be one of the most beautiful drives we’ve ever taken in Africa.
We got through the Rwanda frontier with no difficulty, and arrived in the Congo. But the people there kept us waiting. It was a motley crew in the real sense, and the mosquitoes were fierce as the sun set. The man in charge, a Major, was shut in his office. We debated turning back, because the Rwanda border closed at 6 PM. Just as we decided to try, he came out. His eyes as he surveyed us were calculating, and he ordered us to come in one at a time for an interview. That was mostly spent asking questions and scanning our passports, ten to fifteen minutes each. He was as aware as we were that very shortly Rwanda would be closed. What’s more, darkness was falling. When my turn came to be interviewed, I realized that he was after something, and I wasn’t sure what. I didn’t think it was a simple bribe. And I wasn’t the only one. One of our group was a lawyer from California, and he was worried enough as he was questioned to mention some important contacts he had in NY. The single man from Colorado talked about his Peace Corps background in West Africa. My husband thought that might encourage ideas of ransom, and kept a low profile. Meanwhile the Major’s men were going over the van, and I began to wonder if he was weighing his chances of getting rid of us and keeping the van. This outpost was hardly modern, a shack on stilts, and jungle came right up to the back. You could hide a few bodies there with ease. Writer’s imagination? I think the Rwanda Tours logo on the side was what made up their minds. It wasn’t just a rental. The owner in Kigali was well known. Still, we waited a while longer, and we were all distinctly uneasy by this time. Finally we were asked for twenty dollars apiece, handed our passports, and then told to get into the van. We did, and hot as it was, we kept the windows rolled up. Two of his soldiers took up positions in front of the vehicle so that we couldn’t move on. That was ominous, and they were well armed. Our driver told us in a low voice not to look any of the men in the eye. The wait lasted about five minutes, and seemed like an hour. I was sitting in the rear seat next to my husband. And suddenly there was a loud noise and something hit the window just by my head. I turned, and it was the Major. He was in a crouch, making gorilla noises, leaping at my window and flicking his hands, held gorilla fashion, at the glass. In the silence of the van, it was startling. He leapt back and forth several times, and I had a split second to decide how to respond. I didn’t think ignoring him would satisfy him, and he could very easily order us out of the van again. Laughing wouldn’t satisfy him either, as he was making ferocious faces as part of his act. It might even make him angry. What would a man like that most want as a reaction? Probably fear, the sense of being in control. So I cried out, clapped my hands over my face and threw myself toward my husband. I heard laughter, but didn’t look up. And then the van was moving, the soldiers stepping aside, and we rolled out of this ludicrous passport control post onto the Goma road. That uproarious laughter followed us. I don’t think we relaxed until we were well into Goma with lights and people around us. Have I used the Major yet in a book? No. Will I? I’m still not sure.