Monday, June 21, 2010


Have you seen the movie “The Stepford Wives”? Friends who live in Gisenyi tell stories of midnight police visits – knock knock knocks on their doors. “You don’t have enough flowers in your garden,” the police will say, or “Excuse me. Your gate is 13 centimeters higher than regulation.” Yeah. Just like that.

Homes and small businesses that are built too close to the road, according to the “regulations”, get a bid red X spray painted on them and get smashed in with sledgehammers.

In the last few months the mayor of Goma has undertaken a similar campaign. In a province where the average daily income is well under a buck, shacks where people scrape by meager livings, support their families by selling cigarettes and flip-flops, have been broken into and destroyed – for what? For the aesthetic improvement of not having them roadside.

A man I know, N – a lovely guy with a wife and kids and an okay job (not quite what he wants to do in life, but hey, a job) – got a frantic phone call at work last month. The mayor and his team of army men were at N’s house banging down the gate. Heart in throat, N sprinted out of work and flagged down the first boda-boda he saw. Clinging to the back of the motorcycle he urged the driver to go faster and faster over the lava flow roads but even so – when he got home, his house, his home was all but demolished. The army men had looted it. N grabbed what possessions were left and hid them in the homes of his neighbors.

N’s home wasn’t too close to the road. He has all the evidence to prove that, and he brought that evidence to the mayor. “Whoops! My bad,” said the mayor. N has taken his evidence to the courts, and the judge will rule in N’s favor – he will have to. But even when N wins – nothing, nothing at all is likely to happen. No compensation, nothing. He had a home and possessions. Now he doesn’t. He’ll scrape together what he can and he and his family, together, they’ll rebuild.


Yesterday, Sunday, I took advantage of the hospitality of one of my colleagues, F, and went to his home to meet his wife and children, to eat chips and fried bananas, to drink a beer and watch the World Cup on his flat screen TV (except when the kids batted their huge eyelashes at their daddy and he let them change the channel to cartoons, “Just for ten minutes, though, kids,” because he’s a pushover and loves them so). In Goma, city of devastating poverty and ghastly riches, F is one of the few members of the solidly middle class.

But. But but but. 2002. F had met a lovely woman at University – a freshman when he was a senior. He had waited four years for her to finish her studies. He had finally felt free to propose. She said “Yes”. Both sets of parents agreed. Dowries were collected. And two weeks, no more than two weeks before the wedding date there was a trembling underfoot, deep in the ground. Nyiragongo. Lava spewed up and took everything. Not their lives, and not the clothes on their backs, but absolutely everything else. Possessions, money, their homes. The banks burned down. They fled deep into Rwanda and slept outside beneath the stars. Overnight, they went from excited youths planning their wedding to homeless people living day-to-day.

But then. Slowly, slowly. Somehow, somehow. Where does that type of strength come from? From necessity and with hope and through love. They rebuilt.

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