The plan to meet the bishop seemed simple enough. My friend Father Alfred said we could drive to where the bishop was staying, some 60 miles away. If we left after lunch, we would arrive in mid-afternoon, see the bishop and return by evening. In many parts of the world it would have been a quick and easy trip, but this was in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where the simplest of trips can turn into an epic journey. And so it was with this excursion, which reinforced lessons important for enduring the physical and emotional rigors of the Congo.
The trip started in the town of Bunia, in northeastern Congo. I had been to Bunia numerous times for my dissertation research on Congo’s wars, but this time I was in town for a consultancy project on the minerals trade. After one of my previous trips, my mother and uncle were so moved by my photos of a destroyed Catholic school that they wanted to donate money for its reconstruction. I needed to talk to the bishop about their proposal, but he was out of town visiting the parish at Fataki, north of Bunia. Father Alfred arranged a meeting, and we were supposed to leave one weekday at 1 p.m.
Lesson 1: Starting times are variable
At the appointed time, Father Alfred, our driver, Roger, and I were ready to go, but we had to wait for another priest who was coming along for the ride to finish his lunch. While we waited, my stomach felt a bit unsettled, but I was unsure if it was something I ate or my anxious desire to get moving or both. The longer we delayed our departure, the greater the likelihood we would come back at night. Traveling on Congo’s roads is always difficult, but at night it can also become dangerous.
We finally left shortly after 2 p.m. As we bounced along from Bunia in our four-wheel drive vehicle, Alfred said the road to Fataki was “good.” This evoked memories of the time my friend Pascal and I drove along this same road, but coming south from the Uganda-Congo border toward Bunia. Someone told us “the road is good” on the way to Bunia, but then we came to a halt in a line of vehicles behind a truck trapped in a big hole. We were stuck for 14 hours there and spent a nervous night locked in our car.
“The road is good” became a joke between Pascal and me. I hoped this time the road would be good.
Lesson 2: The roads are never good
About an hour into our trip, the road became dustier and dustier. The roads are often dusty, since there are no paved roads in the Congo’s Ituri region, but this was exceptional. It had not rained in a couple of weeks, and the many large trucks that travel this road every day, carrying goods from Uganda, pulverize the dirt. Inches of powder covered the road, and the verdant roadside foliage had become brown.
An extraordinary amount of dust was sifting into our vehicle, and, one by one, we all started coughing. I donned my motorcycle goggles and covered my nose and mouth with a handkerchief. Later I blew what seemed like grams of snotty dust out of my nose.
During a brief stop, I asked Roger about the dust. He told me the car had been in an accident some months before. The repair job was less than perfect, and the dust was entering through gaps under the doors and around the rear windows.
In addition to the dust, the road was in terrible condition. Roger swerved around bumps and holes and rocks, but despite his maneuvering we were constantly hitting obstacles and being thrown back and forth, up and down, making for a wearisome trip.
As we neared Fataki, we were surprised to see the bishop’s car heading in the opposite direction. Both cars skidded to a dusty halt, and we learned the bishop was returning to Bunia earlier than planned for an important meeting. After I presented him with the letter from my mother about reconstructing the school, the bishop’s car headed south and we continued north. I wanted to go back to Bunia, too, but the priests in Fataki were expecting us.
Around 5 p.m. we arrived at Fataki. The daylight was getting thin, but my frustration was thick. We would be driving back at night, when the roads are much more dangerous, and any breakdown could leave us stranded for some time.
At the parish we emerged from the car, dust falling from our clothes. After we greeted the priests, we each washed up and entered the sitting parlor, where a nun served up beer for the priests. I requested a soda. My stomach was still feeling funky. Was it anxiety or a simmering illness? I couldn’t tell. I watched the clock tick past 5:30 p.m. toward 6 when Alfred finally said we would go. But first we would stop by the seminary . . . my frustration grew again.
We finally left Fataki around 6:30. The car lurched and weaved and bounced down the dark road. After a few miles, the dust returned in force. We all started to cough again. My breathing was labored, my chest heavy. I felt tired and ill. After what seemed an eternity, we reached the outskirts of Iga Barriere, about an hour from Bunia. The trip is almost over, I thought.
Lesson 3: It ain’t over ’til it’s over
We passed through Iga around 9 p.m., but about a mile outside of town we came upon the bishop’s car, which had broken down. We pulled over and got out, and Roger and the bishop’s driver worked on the car’s engine. After a half hour, they tried to start the car, but this only produced a clicking sound. It’s the battery, someone said.
I naively thought they would use jumper cables for this job, but of course there were none. To my surprise, Roger removed the battery from our car and held it over the battery in the bishop’s car, while the other driver held two wrenches in his hands. Instead of using jumper cables, they were connecting the batteries with bare metal wrenches! I looked away, thinking the battery might explode or someone would get electrocuted. Amazingly, this technique worked and the bishop’s car started up. Roger replaced the battery in our car and soon we were off again, following the bishop back to Bunia.
Lesson 4: Blessed (and shrewd) are the peacemakers
A few miles down the road we came to a roadblock. A soldier approached the bishop’s car and signaled it could pass, but then a man in civilian clothing emerged from the darkness near the bishop’s car. He seemed to be upset and pleading with the bishop for help.
When a loud argument erupted next to the bishop’s car, we got out to investigate. I had trouble following the discussion, which mixed French and Swahili, but pieced together the story. The man in civilian clothing complained that the soldier wanted a bribe to let him pass with his vehicle. The soldier asserted the man was smuggling a car into Congo from Uganda without paying the proper taxes. The soldier was relatively calm, but after the man hurled a slew of insults at him, the soldier took an aggressive stance. I thought there was going to be a brawl.
There might have been a fight if not for the action of Father Alfred. As the two men moved closer to each other, Father Alfred straddled a ditch next to the road and held his arms straight out from his sides, keeping the two apart. He was the epitome of a peacemaker.
At this point the bishop, still sitting in his car, suggested that each man call his supervisor to straighten out the dispute. The soldier should call his commanding officer, and the other man — who it turned out worked for the Congolese customs agency — should call his boss. This shrewd move completely defused the situation. It quickly became apparent that both the soldier and the customs agent were up to no good, and neither wanted to call further attention to what he was doing. They soon began talking to each other in hushed tones. Then the soldier indicated the man could pass.
Lesson 5: Find the positive in every experience
As I stood there watching the argument and its resolution, my earlier frustration melted away. I felt a peace wash over me, and suddenly I was thankful for this day. It had it all: a rough drive, terrible dust, mounting frustration, profound fatigue, a mechanical breakdown, an encounter with corruption and a successful peacemaking effort.
But the day was not done. We continued on through three or four more roadblocks, passing safely through each one as soon as the policemen or soldiers realized the bishop was in the lead car. As we arrived at Bunia, we stopped at the bishop’s house, where he invited us inside for a late dinner. I took off my dusty jacket and a nun helped me to wash my hands. After the meal, as we prepared to leave, the nun approached me, her arm outstretched, holding a tied-off plastic bag into which she had placed my filthy coat.
I arrived at my hotel shortly before midnight. I stood in the shower and let the lukewarm water dribble over me. My hair was stiff with dust, and the water pressure was insufficient for me to really get clean. Still, it felt good. Finally, I climbed into bed, exhausted but grateful for this classic Congo day.
Dan Fahey is a post-doctoral fellow in the political science department at Colorado College in Colorado Springs.