It somehow seems appropriate that I would end up spending my last night in Bukavu at the same place I spent my first evening in Bukavu. Just over two years ago, almost to the week, after a six-hour bus ride through the winding mountains from Kigali which caused at least one of my fellow passengers to become carsick, after being detained at the border for a very unpleasant hour, after meeting and being rescued by my “Brother”* and his negotiation that I would only have to pay $30 for the privilege of entering the Congo for eight days at a stretch, after seeing MONUC helicopters rising from the hills and wondering if maybe this wasn’t actually a really bad idea, my “Brother” took me to dinner at Maman Kindjo’s.
We walked from the Swedish Pentecostal mission to this restaurant, my “Brother” peeking around every corner with his headlamp to make sure we wouldn’t be attacked. I was exhausted from the journey and totally overwhelmed, trying to remember the French I hadn’t spoken in five years, wondering why I couldn’t understand Congolese Swahili, and thinking “There’s no possible way I can live in this country and write a dissertation about it.” Truth be told, I was wondering what on earth I’d been thinking.
Our dinner at Maman Kindjo’s was the first chance I had to relax. My “Brother” picked a boma, ordered us some fish and meat and tsombe (greens made from cassava leaves) and bugali and we just sat there and talked as he explained the city, the differences in Congolese and Kenyan Swahili, and gave me some good contacts to start with. It’s not an exaggeration to say that I wouldn’t have been able to handle Bukavu or Congo without the conversation we had at Maman Kindjo’s.
Tonight Uncle Réne and his wife wanted to take me for dinner, and they picked Maman Kindjo’s. We sat in a room and talked for two hours about Bukavu, about the fact that marriages in the states don’t require the paying of a dowry (which no one here can believe, but which Mama Réne has decided she’d like to be the m.o. for her sons’ marriages. “What about the girls?” I asked. “No, no,” she said, “those should be traditional.”) We laughed and laughed, Alain from Goma called to make sure that all had gone well for me and that Réne had taken care of me, and we laughed some more.
As we left to head back home, Mama Réne leaned in. “I’m pregnant,” she whispered. The baby’s due on December 25. You’ll have to name it Mary or Joseph, I said. In a society that’s built around continuation of family lines, there’s no better news. We just smiled and smiled as we drove off into the Bukavu night, away from a place of many memories. If you’d asked me two years ago, I’d never have expected it to be true. But somehow, Congo feels like home.
*The story of how my “Brother” came to be my “Brother” is really funny. We had a mutual friend from Yale, she’d put us in contact when he was looking for a job in African affairs, I put him in contact with a friend who ended up giving him a job. Despite years and years of trying to meet in Washington, our paths never crossed until we both found ourselves in Bukavu. I was detained at the border, the immigration officer called him and ordered him to come retrieve me, and we started furiously text-messaging back-and-forth. “By the way,” I wrote, “I’m a tourist.” “If anyone asks,” he replied, “you’re my sister.” Keep in mind that we’ve never actually seen each other before this point, but when he walked up to the border to save me, we had to hug and act like we were siblings who hadn’t seen each other in months. (“I didn’t know if you were a mzungu or what,” he told me later.) And thus I was introduced as his sister to everyone in town.