The Kibuye Letters

So, here I am by myself in this enormous guesthouse overlooking the lake.  It is extremely clean with new furniture, but feels a bit like a mausoleum.  I could be the first person that has ever stayed here; there is so little trace of this house having been lived in.  The guesthouse is in the town of Kibuye, the camp is in Kiziba, which is about a 40 minute drive from town.

Kiziba is a bit of a fever dream to visit, with its permanent fog and hazy view of Lake Kivu.  The lake here has a Mobius strip coastline, sharply rising into green terraced hills.  There are a host of small islands, none of which look particularly inhabited, dripping off of the shore.

The road from Kibuye up to Kiziba is carved like a wound into the side of the hills; it is a coarse, bumpy road that still manages to provide a spectacular view with every twist and turn.

When one approaches the camp, the first thing that hits you is the strong smell of eucalyptus, mixed alternatively with wood smoke or goat manure.  There is eucalyptus everywhere, both in its standing planted form and chopped into poles and branches for building and fire, the only two things humankind has ever wanted from a tree.  The shaved bark surface of the eucalyptus gives it texture and depth, light tans mingling with ashy grays, the kelly green leaves flapping in the wind or laying listlessly on the ground in defeat, slowing turning bronze.

Kiziba has actually expanded from the last time I saw it.  When I was here in 2013, you turned a corner on the road and beheld the camp as a large mass of off-white shelter roofs crowning a hilltop.  Now, those shelter roofs extend down the side of the hill, almost reaching the valley.  The road is in a bit better condition, the surrounding agriculture appears a bit more organized.  You enter the camp through the high mists and clouds, the hard-packed dirt road scarred a thousand times with ruts and rivulets.  Past the ARC office is the central boulevard of the camp, lined with mud-and-stick buildings bearing hastily-crafted signs for various businesses.  There is even a ferry agency where you can buy a ticket to take a boat across Lake Kivu.  I stumble along with Gustave and Gentil among the steady stream of Congolese people.  There are lots of children, but also lots of older people walking with sticks, the men in leather cowboy hats and the women in tattered pagne headscarves.  We arrive at the big central market, where women sell small piles of tomatoes and pale eggplant off of torn raffia sacks.  I find one woman who is from Fizi Territory, and we manage to hold a brief conversation in Kifulero and Kibembe, two of the peculiar languages of South Kivu.  I buy some avocadoes and tomatoes (later I give them to the housekeeper to take home to her family), and we move on.

Gustave and Gentil divert us from the main road into the narrow corridors between shelters to inspect some roofing transformations.  The passage is so narrow that it only allows one person at a time between houses, past dark doorways and through puddles of mud.  The only way one does not become completely lost is by following the slope of the hill, which is what we do until we find open space and a road at the bottom of the camp.  Beyond us, there are sorghum fields and churches, beyond the confines of the camp.  The lake still appears as a gray, dreamlike band in the distance.  Beyond it lies Congo, its crocodile and okapi mystique obscuring the mokele-mbembe calling to our souls.

We wander back up the hill, past the old school buildings now barricaded and rusting, past the gleaming new brick-and-blue-paint schools, past the samurai castle walls holding back the hillside, past groups of men sitting on tree roots, past houses with rusting tin doors fashioned out of flattened USAID vegetable oil cans, back towards the neural center of the camp.

Gustave and Gentil take me to a long mud house, where an Oromo man called “Cappuccino” runs a business selling spicy tangawizi (ginger) tea, coffee, Fanta, and chapatti.  The tangawizi tea is so strong it gives me hiccups; the fluffy, warm chapatti was baked this morning and is stored in enormous black plastic containers that resemble 1960s undersea exploration submersibles.  There are gargantuan thermoses full of hot water lining the wall, and somehow a satellite TV perched on several Fanta crates showing a cycling race in Italy.  Mr. Cappuccino has been in Kiziba for 6 years, knows very little Kinyarwanda, but seems to manage with Kiswahili and a little English.

After finishing the tea, we go back to the office, which overlooks the basketball courts built a long time ago.  All the ARC logos with strange acronyms I have never heard of before, in curving fonts I have never seen before, make me feel like I have wandered back in time somehow, back when some longer-haired version of me was falling head over heels for a girl like you, except you were wearing a paisley-print dress and drove a Chevy Nova instead of a CRV.  Gustave and I finish up work to the noise of children on the basketball court.  On one side, a group of young boys play soccer.  On the left side, a group of adolescent girls play basketball.  The backboard has “ARC” written on it in big, green letters.

I think about you all the way back to Kibuye, the Land Cruiser packed to the maximum with all the staff going home for the evening.

Right now, I am listening to my favorite evening-in-the-field album (Rudiger Oppermann and Malamini Jobarteh, “Same Sun, Same Moon”), and trying to figure out how I am going to shower and slip into bed.


Most of the time you have to sit out all night to see the hyenas.  They come under flickering starlight and waning moon, always under the pretense of illusion.  In the small hours of morning, everything that murmurs on the horizon seems to be illusion.  I always have to rub a few blades of grass between my fingers to make sure I am not dreaming.  Surely this insomnia is unhealthy, and hyenas cannot be good companions when one cannot sleep for nights unending.  In the morning I walk to the heavy paw prints in the salted mud, just to convince myself it was all real.  Here they are now, circling, their burning eyes and charred pelts reeking of hunger and shadows.  One of these mornings…

The Discovery of the Dragon’s Scale

There once was a man who lived on the Congo River, in a house on stilts.  He traveled up and down the river in his boat often, he knew every root and every vine.  He knew the sandbar where the crocodiles would sun themselves, and he knew where the ibis perched on the highest tree by a sharp bend in the river.  However, there was one tributary he had never traveled up, as it was legend among his tribe that this stream was haunted.  However, one day in his canoe he witnessed a crocodile leap up to a low-hanging branch and snag the ibis, dragging it down into a swirl of brown water until there were only a few feathers bobbing on the surface.  He took this as a portent, and as he paddled home his mind wandered, he was distracted.  Only until he was a kilometer up the turbid stream did he hear the keening cry of a bird he had never heard before, and then it dawned upon him he was on the cursed tributary.  He stopped paddling; the canoe drifted into the shore and stopped with a muffled crunch.  The man’s eyes met those of an okapi, huddled in the shadows of the jungle.  The okapi looked deep into the man’s soul, never wavering its liquid gaze.  After a few moments that felt like an eternity, the okapi turned its head, and walked away into the jungle, blending into the darkness of the foliage.  The man looked down, his head pounding.  In the sand, there was an enormous emerald, rough and uncut.  It was the Dragon’s Scale.

Zanzibar 1870

Can you recall that day in 1870? It was in the Zanzibar Archipelago, in a small harbor on the southern island.

There were three dhows in the harbor, three cases of dysentery in the infirmary. I could see your eyes peeking through the jalousie of the big stone house by the knife sharpener’s market. I saw your eyes lined with kohl, your head covered in silk; wisps of your hair fluttered in the humid heat from the Indian Ocean. Your hands were covered in henna as you pushed the wooden slats of the jalousie aside, letting in the moist afternoon sunlight. Jewelry of jade, onyx, and moonstones hung from your ears, around your neck.

The Hajia brushes past me, then turns to point a gnarled finger in my face, shouting in Somalian Arabic. The miniature coins sewn onto her violet shawl jingle with every jabbing motion she makes. One of the coins is a Grecian antiquity, taken from a shallow shipwreck by her pearldiving son, the third of six. She admonishes me for staring at you, the same kind of admonishment that she bestows on all of her sons, especially the graceful pearldiving one with eyes like an antelope, the third of six. Slung around her arm is a woven basket brimming with maracuja. After finishing her admonishment, she turns to continue on her way, and I turn my head back to look at you through the second story window of the stone house. The bougainvillea creeping up the walls casts shadows under the blistering sun.

A procession of Omani musicians clatters by, cymbals and castanets and brass coronets. Several men run past bearing ivory tusks, some nearly 2 meters long. The air smells of cardamom tea, camel dung, and fried octopus fritters so popular down by the beach. One of the dhows has just unloaded; a trio of Gujarati sailors, bare-chested and burned by the sun, belly up to a seaside stall where a miniscule Swahili woman fries up the chewy octopus just caught from the ocean. The sailors talk loudly; after a month of monotony aboard the dhow, going from Bombay to Muscat and then down to Zanzibar, they are dazzled by the sights, sounds, and smells of the town full of stone houses, winding streets, and looping markets.

In the market beside your stone house, there are burlap bags thrown open, filling the air with the scent of strong chili powder and curry. A man sells pieces of chalk he claims have healing powers when brewed into a tea with sycamore leaves. I wander through the market, I see the back of your head, recognize your veil. The shadows grow deeper, it is now late afternoon; the heady mixture of myrrh, roasted coriander, and spiced fish is making my head swim. I wonder if you are indeed a vision, this temptress in the gauzy black shawl with eyes like black pearls, form like an alabaster tear jar (“record my lament, list my tears on your scroll,” writes Daoud), smile like the flashing sunset over Ratnakara. Yemeni carpets strung out on a laundry line roll lasciviously in the hum and moan of the breeze. Black clouds are hovering over the ocean in the distance, harbingers of an early evening storm. You stop by a house with a red door, and you look back at me. I murmur my desires to you, and your eyes are beckoning me in that mysterious language I will never be able to understand, in the centuries before and since. A cloud of swallows dashes overhead, an old wrinkled man bearing a tinker’s kit trudges by, his eyes never leaving the dust in front of his feet. You push open the red door and enter, your eyes never leaving mine. I see you disappear inside, the last thing I see are your ankles vanishing in the shadows. Do I follow? Is it an invitation? What lies beyond the red door, what do we discover once I slip off your veil, slip my hands underneath your garments, touch my lips to your neck?