Congo Nile Trail: Day 3

Today I walked from Kinunu to Musasa.

Today’s themes are experience, beliefs and behaviours. My examples are coffee and money. They’re totally linked. Trust me. Especially those fellow student nurses among you who once called me Mister Tangent in class. Or was that Tutor Fox? Anyhow, I hope that’s what I got called, because that’s what I remember being called, and it’s going to be my blog title. In any case, I tangent off into a discussion about deep-drop toilets, Canada, and walking alone versus being accompanied. This somehow returns my subject to money and experience.

Let’s start with coffee. As I walk out of Kinunu Guest House I climb past neat houses painted in pastel colours and numerous coffee plantations. There are more wells in this village alone than I have seen on the walk so far. As I crest the hill, the shimmering Lake Kivu rises above the land and under the horizon, and the breeze wicks the sweat from my eyebrows. People are dressed cleanly and smartly, and carry themselves with purpose. I walk along narrow paths that are almost isthmuses: the land falls steeply on both sides with into the lake. This is truly paradise. And, for the moment, unspoilt. Locals here give directions with delight rather than suspicion. A man wears a spotless t-shirt with ‘fear the tree’ written on it. On the horizon, the mountains are two-dimensional blue-grey and navy sillhouettes. People smile and shake my hand. Children laugh. They want to know my name. They do not follow and ask for money. They are proud, and dignified.

They are less abject than in one of the villages we passed yesterday, where many wore dirty clothes with holes in, and some of the goats looked less bedraggled than their owners. In Rwinyoni the huts were bare, unpainted concrete.

I am aware that this is beginning to sound like a series of bold generalisations that could be insensitive to the peoples they portray. I remember classes at Sussex where we discussed anthropological theories of the gaze and its power relations: Who am I to describe whole groups of people and their villages based on merely passing through, especially when I am the privileged Western tourist and they live in relative poverty? And based on what other than my own perceptions and knowledges formed by the society in which I have been brought up, a society with a poor track record of appreciating Africa?

Are these observations true? On arrival last night, Liam thought it was simply because I was happy to be close to shelter and food. Yet Aaron also felt that coffee and money had brought a happier vibe and materially neater appearance to Kinunu. I do not compare the villages to belittle one group in relation to the other, but because I remain reasonably convinced this morning that coffee, and the money it brings, has improved the sense of purpose of the people of Kinunu. Their village, and they themselves, seem more welcoming not because they are ‘better’ and the people of some of the poorer villages are ‘worse’, but because they are most likely happier and healthier. Surely it’s more easy to be happy and welcoming, and not to beg for money, when life is less hard? So I try to keep in mind that behaviour is a product of whether needs are more than a reflection of whether people are ‘better’ or ‘worse’.

In a more first-world-problem kind of way, the links between experience, beliefs and behaviours divided our discussion last night. When we arrived at Kinunu Guest House we met two German girls: One is on placement in Kigali, and the other is visiting her having just finished her masters degree at Oxford. We also meet a prematurely-retired British guy who’s been travelling the world for a couple of years. It’s his first trip to Africa. He voted to leave the EU. I voted to remain. The two German girls have very similar viewpoints to my own: Britain has a duty of care in the refugee crisis, climate change needs global solutions, and we need to be united as the EU to face countries as large as Russia, China and the US in terms of global influence and trade.

The Brit disagrees. I suggest that it’s brilliant that, in post-referendum Britain, we’re all having healthy debate rather than just chatting to people who agree with us. Though I caution that the younger voters were fairly unanimously in favour of remaining. He thinks the older have more experience and therefore are more able to make such decisions. I happen to disagree, but perhaps he is right. Even so, surely those of us who will live to experience the results of Brexit should be allowed to ‘make our own bed and lie in it’, rather than have someone else’s bed made for us to lie in?

In short, our behaviours result from our experiences, not from us being better or worse than others.

Seeing how I’ve stretched the making-bed-and-lying-in-it sentence to comic proportions, perhaps now is a time to turn from the serious to the silly. It was fun walking with Liam, Aaron and Victor in part because we were not so serious. It’s easy when travelling around an area such as this one to meet lots of individuals who care about understanding the world around them and thinking deeply about their understandings. Liam, Victor and Aaron are no exception, but it was fun to spend a large part of the walk considering a grading system for deep drop toilets. I suggested a 0-5 linear scale from ‘clean sit-down toilet’ to ‘fetid faeces-backflowing hell-hole’. Victor preferred a non-linear grading system. I wondered whether a logarithmic scale might be worth considering. We managed to stretch this conversation out for some time.

I’ve been told that US citizens like ribbing Canada. Well this stereotype is indeed true if Aaron, Victor and Liam make a representative sample (which they don’t). I hear many stories of awful events taking place ‘somewhere in Canada’. The most vivid involves a schizophrenic decapitating the passenger next to him on a Greyhound bus journey and then taking control of the bus. Is this material for a horror-film sequel to Speed, we wonder? Specifically, I wonder if the severed head is left to roll around until the police are able to stop the situation, or whether another passenger neatly wraps it in, say, a sweater. Apparently there was some cannibalism involved. I begin to wonder whether the story ever happened or whether its’ part of some book of folk tales that US citizens are taught when learning about their mysterious neighbouring nation.

My thoughts are interrupted when Innocent, who had helped us find Kinunu Guest House yesterday, turns up on a bike. Victor told him I was continuing on foot, he says. After all the excitement and companionship of the last few days, I had hoped to walk alone today. You know. Recollection in tranquility and stuff, or whatever Wordsworth actually said. I begin to devise some ‘somewhere in Canada’ story about how I’ll deal with Victor when I find him.

Innocent follows me around the church. He’s walking to see his Gran and he wants to practice English with me en-route. I want to walk alone. I tell him this. He ignores this. He tells me I haven’t understood his question. I thank him and tell him it is kind, but that I would like to walk alone. His entire face drops with the realisation. Maybe he does not understand and has taken this personally. He looks sad, but agrees. As he leaves me, I feel pangs of guilt set in. Have I been cruel? Innocent did not ask for money last night, to my knowledge, unless the Americans gave him some. Should I accept help that is not wanted? Or was I politely assertive here? Am I being Western by asserting an individual, rather than a collective, choice. Is it my walk, or am I their guest, on their land? If I like photographing their place and people, is it fair for them to walk with me and speak English? Should they not ‘take’ from me as I ‘take’ from them?

Regardless of what is right or wrong, I’m feeling crowded by all the interest. Two children follow me persistently. I am becoming angry. I overtake Innocent again. He’s sat away from me now and barely acknowledges me when I address him. The children are still following me. I increase my pace. I start saying ‘no’ much more sternly when asked for money. I am sick and tired of being asked for money. I am not the richest of the rich. If I gave every child who asked on the route some money I’d be broke. In any case, unless I gave every child an awful lot of money it wouldn’t be sustainable or improve their lives for longer than a few days. The people who need to see these children, and explain themselves to them, are the super-wealthy who take far more than they need from the world whilst leaving all these children in poverty, but they will not visit here. Or is this just my excuse, or my method of blaming, in order to deal with a problem I’m being faced with and perhaps should be made accountable for? The children only see me, and I’m relatively wealthy, and they want me to give them money. Do I blame them? Of course not. It doesn’t make it any less frustrating, but I try to remember that they do not see muzungus [white people] often and view me with hope and promise. I must try to smile and to be kind to them.

I descend to the Lake shore. There’s no dirt road now. Just miles and miles of beautiful single track. A few small children shout muzungu, muzungu, muzungu and chant with glee. They smile. They’re not running close behind me and shouting aggressively like some of the others. I put out my hand to high five them. I slip and trip. This scares the toddlers. They run away crying. I begin to feel like I’m getting the whole making friends thing a bit wrong today.

So, I finish with questions rather than answers. Did Innocent want money, or did he just want friendship? Is the idea of lone hiking and tourism over ‘public footpaths’ and ‘bridleways’ UK / Western-specific? In other words, am I privileged, rather than exercising a right, when I walk on the land here, and should I give back with smiles and friendship when I take photographs and use the paths? On the whole, I think I’ve done this. Would it test any human being to be constantly followed, shouted at, and asked for money several times an hour for days? And is money just a metaphor for all these things I’ve discussed – a material and easy symbol of exchange less tangible than exchanges of ideas or friendship?

These questions aside, I arrive at Musasa Base Camp tired, hungry, and with limited water. One of my feet is sore. Will events change my mood, or will my mood change and put a different interpretation on events? I’ll let you know tomorrow.

Komoot GPS Trail:

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