As a friend observed, every time I talk about my past travels to the then Zaïre (D.R. Congo today), I stop dead at the border. If you were me, you would, too. The reason is simply that I don’t want to revisit the torture of those travels.
But, to be fair, let me go through the agony of remembering one visit. I’ve already talked of the anguish visited on me during one of my journeys to the Uganda-D.R. Congo border. That, surprisingly, was when I had the luxury of motorised transport. On previous visits, I’d had no such luck.
Take 1983. The hazards of Zaïre then were nothing compared to the risk of passing through Uganda. Uganda was hunting down Rwandans and their own citizens, the Bahima, as all of them were accused of collaborating with Yoweri Museveni.
Museveni, Uganda’s president today, was waging a guerrilla war against Milton Obote’s government. But I took the risk of passing through Uganda mainly because I didn’t bear any resemblance to the Rwandan refugees of the time, much less that of Bahima. The risk was only that of bumping into a former school-mate or a Mbarara resident who remembered me.
Fortunately, I reached the border town of Butogota without incident. From there, I left early the following morning to walk the 20-or-so-km journey to Nyamilima, where my parents lived, when the day was still ‘young’. Now, that journey is not for the faint-hearted. And knowing that, I always I left all my belongings in Butogota.
Instead of my passport, I picked a ‘travel chit’, which meant a small note from the local leader to the Zaïrese border officials to let me pass. Before reaching Nyamilima, however, there was a ‘log to negotiate’. At one point there was a narrow but deep gorge at the bed of which was a big river. To cross the gorge, you had to ‘negotiate’ the trunk of a big tree.
It was while balancing on this ‘bridge’ that I missed a step and plunged down into the fast-flowing river bellow!
When I hit the water, it snatched me and hurled me at the branch of a tree in the river which, fortunately, I managed to grasp and hang onto. After recovering my breath, I hauled myself up and settled onto the top of the cliff, where I lay to dry out.
Then I set off again and was finally received with embraces of my parents and relatives. The following afternoon, my pa took me to a ‘bar owner’ friend of his, whose ‘bar’, as in all villages, was a family hut and compound. ‘Bar patrons’ sat in the shade of a tree in the compound, each group with a calabash of a banana brew. You drank the brew with a locally-made straw.
In the evening as we walked leisurely back home, we met about six ‘bérets verts’. These were members of the Zaïrese army, so-called because of their green caps. In realty, though, they were in charge of policing, revenue collection, customs control, name it – anything except the protection of their country’s sovereignty! They took their time to study me and, when they decided I was a new face, they called me aside.
I persuaded Pa to go home and assured him I’d soon join him. That’s when I realised I’d lost my travel chit to the water in the river. You could see their glee at this, as they saw a chance to squeeze money out of me! Unfortunately, I didn’t carry any on me. I hoped to con them with an empty promise of it later but the game didn’t play out. They decided to walk with me to the other border post of Ishasha, if I didn’t want to go home for money.
That was a 30-km trek and I felt apprehensive but didn’t want to dent my transport money or touch my parents’. I resolved to go with them, hoping eventually they’d see the futility of holding me without any hope of getting money. Instead, they kept me with intention of keeping me until I relented. Some time very late in the night, when they saw I wouldn’t budge, they threw me into a dungeon that was full of filthy prisoners and I slumped down on the bare floor and slept, tired beyond words.
On waking up in the morning, I was naked but for my under-garment! Which was fine with me, as it reduced the sweltering heat in the tiny jail room. In fact, even the prisoners who’d shared my clothes among themselves explained it was for my good! They wanted me to enjoy my stay, they explained, so that I’d go with good memories as they could see my stay was likely not to be long. We all laughed heartily over that.
I was almost starving when Pa arrived with food on the third day. He’d managed to get the Italian priest from his church to drive him to my prison and to use his influence. The Italian’s single word was enough to get me released.
Even then, on subsequent visits I went prepared to dip a hand in my mean pocket!