|Nestled in the hills of the southern end of Lake Kivu sits the city of Bukavu, a vigorous mix of old, new, ramshackle and paradox.
As long as you’re looking out over the lake, it’s a gorgeous view. But when you look out over the city, a very different mentality has set in.I suspect that thirty years ago, the city might have been described as bustling and growing, but neglect and misplaced governmental priorities are clearly the order of the day. Despite boasting a population of close to 1/4 million people, there’s only one paved road running through the town. It starts at the Rwanda border, and comes to a crumbling end scarcely 1/2-way through the town. The rest of the streets (as far as we could see) crumbled away to dirt long ago – assuming they were ever paved in the first place (My guess is that there was at least one other paved road, but we didn’t see them while we were there). Traffic kept a frantic pace on the streets, and the driving would rattle your teeth and whiten your knuckles at the same time.
Despite staying in a reasonably modern 3rd-floor apartment, the electricity was about as reliable as the water (we used batteries and buckets most of the time we were there) – and that certainly explains why most cell phones had built-in flashlights. The US exchange rate was about 1,000 Congo Franks to the dollar, and the largest denomination of their bills was 500 F. Using US currency was not just the norm – it was expected of nationals and foreigners alike. For all practical purposes, there are no banks, no postal service, no credit cards, no checks. Military personnel were not to be trusted: if they see you doing something suspicious, there’s not much to prevent them from harassing you until you give them a bribe to go away. Property values are sky-high because the UN is there “observing peace”. Since the UN pays whatever anyone wants to charge them (they don’t care – it’s not their money), anyone wanting to buy property has to deal with land costing up to 10x what it would cost a few hours away. Such is life in a large city near the “deepest, darkest jungles of Africa”.
Despite the “adverse” living situation, most of the citizens we met in Bukavu were very kind and friendly, and intensely curious about foreigners from America. September is apparently the month to get married, and hardly a day passed when we didn’t see someone either preparing for or celebrating a wedding. One such party was in the courtyard of our apartment. Mothers and children were singing and dancing, drumming out a beat on yellow water containers – and the newlyweds hadn’t arrived yet. The dowry system is alive and well in the Congo. The father of a prospective husband talks to the father of the bride-to-be, and he sets a price that the prospective husband must pay him in order to marry his daughter. Giving goats or other livestock for a dowry is common. For the poor, this is an incredibly huge hurdle. Although a few goats may only cost $50 – $100, saving up that kind of money for a dowry while living on less than $5 per day is no small feat. Should the couple start living together before marriage (which is not uncommon, given the expensive dowry), the bride’s father raises the dowry so the would-be husband now has to pay for the wife and the children. Yet despite that, we saw probably a dozen weddings a week while we were there.
I would have thought adoptions were common in this land where life is difficult. Unfortunately the red tape is prohibitive and it’s easier to adopt from neighboring countries, which means that the Congo has a disproportionate number of homeless kids. Fortunately, our host missionary was able to help facilitate an adoption for Evan, a 3 month orphan. He was quite adorable. Hopefully before too long he’ll go to his new parents in Alabama.
Cooking in the Congo is a mix of old world and new. The cafe next door to our apartment used charcoal and wood to cook local delicacies as well as modern offerings like cinnamon rolls and pizza. They provided meals for the camp.