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2.20.2013

The Road to Goma





So There I was

Breaking one of my cardinal rules of living in an alien environment. I was ignoring the advice of the local friend charged with my health and safety.  Muzungu Ujinga - stupid white person!

I was getting ready to head out from Kigali to Goma. It is a long ride on the very best of days. Those days don’t come around very often. My friend was clear that I should be on the 10:30 bus, and that at the latest.  It was the last bus that had a good chance of getting me to the border crossing before dark. I was going to have to negotiate that crossing without help, and in need of a visa. It might take time. No one wanted me to cross into the Congo after dark.

Before leaving there was a task that I needed to perform. I had been charged with the duty of interviewing six secondary students at the George Fox Secondary School. They were orphans and at risk of losing their place at school for the inability to pay their fees. I was going to bring their stories back to a group in the US who had scholarships on their mind. It felt important.

My friend picked me up and wanted to purchase my bus ticket before  seeing the students. He did not want to risk a sold out bus and a late departure.  We got to the bus office. He tried to buy me a ticket. Bad news. There was no 10:30 bus today, just a 9:30 and an 11:30.  It was five minutes until nine. My friend stated his intention to buy me a ticket on the 9:30 bus. He was clear about this. He assured me that the students would wait. I knew my return trip would be even tighter and on the weekend, the odds of finding the students at school were not good. I asked him to buy me a ticket on the 11:30 bus. He told me this would not do - he wanted me to get on the 9:30 bus right then and there. I asked him to pray with me for a moment. In those moments of silence I felt a bond and a call to those young people that would not let me go. I could not abandon them. I thanked my friend for his care of me. I assured him that I understood the risk I was taking. I told him that I felt clearly led to go see the students. I asked him to buy me the 11:30 ticket. He politely asked me to buy it myself, as he wanted no responsibility for my choice. This is as clear as an African can be that you are being foolish beyond belief.  I bought my own ticket for the 11:30.  Then he took me to see the students.

It was a heartbreaking hour. I heard stories that will never leave me. We all wept. I had nothing to promise them except that I would tell their stories.  Any possible help was many months away, and it might be too late for some of them. Walking away crushed my heart.

We arrived back at the bus station at 11:25. They were doing repairs on the bus. Duct tape being applied to headlights. I snagged the seat in the center front next to the driver. I am a famous puker, and seeing forward and having air is a good idea. The bus was a Toyota 10 seater, they sold 17 tickets - plus luggage. It was good to be packed in tight because there were no seat belts, as was evidenced by the spider shaped crack in the windscreen directly where my head would hit in a sudden deceleration. Seasoned African travelers like the center of the bus. The air is bad, but the person at the center often survives the crash cushioned by the bodies of their comrades. We left with a locally on-time departure of noon straight up.

Kigali sits in a bowl, a city on many hills surrounded by mountains. Every road out of the city goes up. Every road is serpentine. Serpents would puke on those roads. Our bus driver was in a mood to make time. Cutting curves and not stopping for vegetables or people. Until we were about half way up -  then there was a large group of people by the roadside and on it. I do not know what caught his attention, but he slowed and then called something to the passengers and then stopped. Way too far into the roadway for my happiness. So we all got out. Driver trotted up to the people who I could now see were distressed and pointing over the precipice. Driver looked over the edge and screamed. I never like it when African men scream. It is never good.

It turns out that over the edge was the 9:30 bus. Our company’s bus.   Yes, that bus.
Some men had climbed down. There was not a soul to bring up alive. Bodies would be eventually hauled up, the bus would be left. Phone calls were made to headquarters. People prayed.  About an hour later our driver decided that we needed to try and go on. We boarded our bus in a somber mood. He goosed it up the hill. He started swearing almost immediately. I looked at him. He pointed to the gauges. I watched as the engine heat gauge swung up and over the “H.”  He alerted the passenger to our situation. This bus was not going to make it to the Congo today. Many groans tempered a bit by our status of being alive, and our awareness of how lucky we were in that. That status was challenged right off. He turned the bus, put it in neutral and switched off the engine. We coasted silent and swift as death itself down that mountain. We passed the bus plunge scene, and the roadside viewers looked at us with gaping mouths as we flew past. They must have though our driver has gone insane with grief and was planning to take us to follow the lost bus. Our tires screeched at every turn. The smell of burning brake pads filled the cabin. The people of the bus were too shocked to pray. Finally we reached the flats and over the river bridge and coasted to a stop. Then people thanked whatever God they worshiped.
I honestly cannot tell you why I did not find or borrow a phone and call my Kigali friend and bail. But I didn’t. I bought cokes and sambusa with the people of my bus and we waited for the bus company to send us another bus. I am sure that we commandeered the 12:30 bus. But soon (an hour or so) we had another bus and a fresh driver. And again we ascended. It was about 2:30 pm.

As were starting the climb, I spoke in a loud voice and stated that I was going to lead the bus in prayer, apologizing for my English. I prayed loud and long.  I prayed for the bus, I prayed for every part of the bus, I prayed for our new driver and for our old driver. I thanked God for our lives and I prayed for the souls of the departed. I prayed for our courage and for the road ahead of us.  When I finished, a voice in the back said loudly “In the name of Jesus - I agree with you!” It was the first English I had heard all day. I invited the man named Daniel to come and sit more forward so that we could talk. The people of the bus rearranged themselves for my entertainment. Daniel had lived in Boston for two years, and he told me the story of Mary Dyer. He was very pleased to see that female Quaker preachers were still risking their necks for the Lord.
 He had thought we had all been killed. Not quite, Daniel, not quite.

I guess some days is just pleases God to have everyone on their knees.

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