I'm finally in Bukavu, Democratic Republic of Congo - the town I grew up in with my parents, my brother, Simon and my sister, Olivia. And despite 10 years since we last visited, everything is essentially the same, albeit smaller (to my older 'adult' self)... other than the occasional 'new' building or fence. The main change for me is seeing it all through 'Australian-ised' eyes... everything seems a lot more run down, destroyed, falling apart and dirty.
Entering this country was a saga unto itself. As you know, I spent 3 days in Nairobi, where I paid for and successfully applied for my DRC visa. I got it in Kenya because there are no DRC embassies in Australia, and, in that case, they advise you to then get the visa in "the country nearest to your country of residence with a DRC embassy"... which is Kenya for an Australian. That Kenyan visa process was tense, but resulted in me finally retrieving my passport WITH visa inside last Friday - the day before I travelled to Congo, via Rwanda.
I slept poorly the night before the flight - filled with anxieties about the flights, but mostly about my upcoming border crossing, which I knew was always an arduous, difficult obstacle... no different to how it had been when we lived here, when Dad had to constantly argue for our entry and exit from the country.
I made the most of a hot shower at the hotel in Nairobi (at 4 in the morning) and stole a roll of toilet paper... just in case... :)
After queueing at Nairobi Aiport for close to 2 hours, I boarded my flight to Kigali, the capital of Rwanda. Once in the aiport (after a nerve-wracking 30 minutes when we thought my luggage had been lost), having bought my Rwandan visa (for less than one day!), I spotted (and took a few moments to recognise and confirm in my mind before I embarassed myself) Malcolm and Elizabeth Richards - old friends of our family, who were missionaries with their 3 kids (similar ages to us) in Congo at the same time as us. They were on their return journey after a 3-week visit to their town... and it was so incredibly wonderful to catch up with friends, talk in English, pick their brains about the current state of DRC, and, in general, have company to break the loneliness of the last few days.
I then flew (in a mini-plane) from Kigali to the border town, Kamembe (a mere 30-minute flight). A flood of emotions washed over me as I looked out the window and saw the familiar patchwork hills, tin rooves, windy, dirt roads... and upon disembarking, the smells too were familiar. I saw my Dad's pastor friend, Jules, at the airport gates, awaiting my arrival to take me to the border. It was one of the most memorable hugs I've had for a long time... we were so overjoyed to see each other again!
We took a taxi to the border... I was nervously praying in the back seat. I queued up at the Rwandan customs (on one side of the river), and was stamped through immediately! I couldn't believe it! I thought that was it - I was into DRC!! Revitalised by my newfound confidence, we hiked across the river and up the hill on the other side, with my pack, and, as soon as I spotted the DRC Customs building, my heart sank, as I remembered that the worst was still to come...
I confidently took my passport into the Customs Official and showed him my Kenya-acquired visa in my passport. It seemed fine... but, as if in slow motion, while I stood and watched (and willed him to not look further), he carefully flipped through the rest of the pages in my passport, looking at all the visas, and discovering that I was an Australian citizen. As soon as I said 'no' to his question of whether I was a Kenyan resident, and he shook his head, I knew my chances of entering were minimal. He said I shouldn't have got my visa in Kenya. I said that was the nearest country to Australia. He said I should've sent another letter requesting permission from the government to obtain a visa at the border since there were no embassies in Australia. I explained that I'd trawled through their website, and nowhere had it mentioned that. And anyway, I HAD actually fulfilled all the other criteria detailed on their website.
3 hours and lots of unsuccessful arguments and discussions later, even with the whole team from Panzi who had come down to greet me, AND the Anglican Bishop, and Pastor Jules, and some others all batting for me, we were turned down and I was sent back to Rwanda, devastated. I'd got my hopes up, and been SO close to being back in my childhood home, and now it may not happen. It was Saturday... usually nothing happened on Sundays, and Monday this week was a public holiday. So I was looking at staying in Rwanda till possibly Tuesday... with nothing to do.
By about 5pm (after being up since 3am and having no lunch), Jules and I arrived at an Anglican Guesthouse in Rwanda (near the border), and I set up in a room there... quite pessimistic and disheartened.
The next day (Sunday), I packed up and headed down to the border again, having been told the Panzi team would bring another 'letter' today. I stamped out of Rwanda, headed up to the DRC Customs again, and was turned down AGAIN. Stayed in Rwanda for another few hours, reading and waiting... till I got a call from a random, saying I could come up because they were going to let me through! I headed up again, not hoping for much, and they said they'd give me a visa. I handed over my passport, the Official stamped it with a visa, and then looked up and asked me for USD $300!! I was shocked... mistakenly, I hadn't allowed for spending $360 (in total) on a DRC visa... and I'd only been able to bring cash because there aren't any ATMs in DRC. I paid (a decision which is still aggravating me), with no choice, and we hopped in the car and drove into Bukavu. As I described earlier, the town is much the same... the Belgian school I (and my siblings) attended was still the same, albeit much smaller to my eyes. It was amazing, once again, to witness the poverty of everyday life for the people here... something I'd been so used to, and now felt so foreign with, after 15 years living in Australia.
I was dropped off at my Guesthouse (the Swedish Mission in town), and, upon seeing 2 buckets of water in the bathroom, discovered the lack of any running water in the whole town for the last 2 weeks. I didn't care... was so nice to be back in Congo again. I went out for an early dinner with a friend, had a washer-and-bucket clean and, before I could contemplate the consequences of no showers for the next week and a half, nor the current lack of any clean, drinking water, I went to bed, exhausted.