Friday, October 24, 2008

The Road to Mushenyi

Senator Mubalama has asked me to visit Mushenyi, a small village some 3 hours south of Bukavu in Walungu territory. He wants to generate outside support for this community, because it has been robbed repeatedly by rebels for over a decade.

We start out early on a Saturday morning, four men and me in the Senator’s red SUV. Besides the Senator and his driver, there are two translators: my friend Victor to translate Mashi, a local Bantu language, into Kiswahili, and Roland, a bright 21-year old from Kinshasa, to translate Kiswahili and French into English. We stop for bananas and rolls, and stock up on water. Then we are off.

Our route takes us south through Nyangezi, then another hour and a half into the interior. Having travelled this road before, I am prepared for tilled fields, stands of banana, and eucalyptus farms that stretch like variegated carpet to the ring of mountains surrounding this rich valley.

But soon we are climbing, gears grinding, our red SUV tracking a narrow dirt trail up into the clouds, it seems. One side of the road hugs the cliff, while the other drops, I could even say “plummets”, down to the valley floor far, far below. It turns out that Victor is terrified of heights, so luckily for him, I am sitting by the outside window, able to see the entire valley as it falls away below us. The view is breathtaking.

Not liking heights much myself, I take inventory. I am alright, I tell myself: focusing my thoughts on the view, breathing abdominally, squeezing my thumb mound, and ignoring Victor, who is frozen in fear on the far seat. I idly wonder what will happen if we meet another car.

I realize the Senator is telling a story. He’s speaking a combination of French and Kiswahili, so Roland translates.

“He’s saying that once he had an accident here, on this road,” Roland explains. “His car went over the side, all the way to the bottom,” he continues casually. Not much fazes Roland. “Someone driving crazy and lots of cars went over the edge. . . . one truck was full of people . . ." More waiting, and by now I am imagining the full catastrophe. Then he continues, “He says he wasn’t hurt because he is a religious man.”

I am horrified, first for the people who crashed to the bottom, then for us, realizing that their fate could be ours. . . and I’m not all that religious. Of course, as things have it, just at that moment, a transport truck loaded with passengers suddenly roars into view, heading straight toward us at high speed, enveloped in an ominous cloud of dust.

Soon we are stopped, nose to nose with the truck, the drivers eyeing each other coldly. Negotiations begin, and it is decided that since the SUV is smaller, it will hug the cliff while the transport squeezes by. To my eyes, there is no pull-out space, so I watch fascinated from a safe distance.

The Senator, who grew up here in the high country, is undaunted, happily shaking hands with the people riding on top of the load. Roland eats a banana, then throws the peel over the edge, watching it fall like a pebble into a deep well. Victor stands, hands jammed into jean pockets, his back glued to the cliff, watching his feet.

After several tries, the SUV is angled tightly enough against the cliff wall for the truck to inch by. Ever so slowly the transport maneuvers its narrow path. Peering down from their perch, the passengers watch the progress intently, then cheer when the truck clears the SUV. Everyone is smiling now, especially the drivers.

The transport passengers wave goodbye, eager to reach town before dark. Comfortably back in the red SUV, we are relieved, too, laughing and all speaking at once in whatever language comes to mind, no need for translating at the moment.

Soon we arrive in Mushenyi, where it seems the whole town has come out to greet us.

To be continued. . .

With love and gratitude,

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