I am leaving the Congo at the end of June, meaning three months sooner than expected, to reduce pressure on a financially desperate mission. The news came three days ago, delivered apologetically by a country director I barely know. And so, suddenly, unexpectedly, it is almost over.
I've been on the waters of Lake Kivu only once before, during my initial trip to Minova back in October, but I spent the entire trip trapped in a tightly-packed ferry cabin, distracted by the jabberings of a stand-up comic on screen in front of the passengers and my racing thoughts as I tried to figure out where on earth I had landed. This time is different. In the kayak, I can consider this place freely, encumbered only by the memories it triggers in me and the anticipation of departure.
Departure was inevitable, of course. The when of it shouldn't really matter. I never intended to stay here forever. And yet I want to have the time to say goodbye properly. I called Ariane, the cook, yesterday to make sure she would be there for my final week in the field. Why? she asked, suspicious and shrewd as ever. Well maman, I said, I'm going home. Ariane with the cousin in the States who has invited her to come and stay, but only if she leaves her husband behind in Africa (which she can't bring herself to do, although she dreams of attending cooking school somewhere in the West). Ariane whose family takes care of eight war-orphaned children and who is an orphan herself (although I still don't have the whole story). Ariane whose hefty two year-old has clearly inherited his mother's bulk, and whose one year-old came down with mysterious sores on her tongue that prevented her from eating until we cured them with honey.
And there is Iledéfense, the night watchman who shows no sign of fatigue on our long weekend walks into the bush, despite his not having slept the night before, who took refuge in his friend's home in Bukavu during the war, fearful of a deadly encounter with the Interahamwe militias who prowled the streets, attacking anyone with the delicate facial features of a potential Tutsi, who has studied logistics and computers but makes do with the work he can get (as we all must), and spends a good chunk of his week opening and closing doors at our base, unmarried still at age 30 but with several prospects, unfailingly, excessively polite Iledéfense.
And so on.
After forty minutes of paddling, the islands we were aiming for remain distant, so we pause to take our bearings. Turning to face the shore, the city of Bukavu sprawls before us, its terraces of once-stately colonial homes succumbing to decades of neglect. Dust-filled, rust-rooved, potholed Bukavu, with hospitals full of rape victims, hotels full of mining magnates and Land Rovers toting hundreds of humanitarian workers from one gated compound to another. I have never really found my footing in Bukavu, although the occasional weekend retreat here has helped me gain much-needed perspective after long stints in the field.
Right on cue, the wind begins to blow, and the once-still waters turn choppy. We head back to shore, fighting the wind all the while. The kayak keepers chide us, politely, upon our return; apparently we had briefly ventured into Rwandan waters during our jaunt. We apologize in Swahili and head back home.
Time soothes all sorrows, as Saint-Exupéry said. And departure is inevitable, eventually, for all of us. The Congo of my day-to-day is vibrant, bold with exquistely tailored pagnes, pungent with fermenting manioc drying in the sun, heartbreaking in its hardship, inspiring in its persistence. It is not the kind of place to fade away quietly, memory blurring into memory like water into sky.