It was the strangest journey of my life and it always will be. I was looking for fictional characters I had invented, in a country I had never visited. The distant town of my imagination was Bukavu in Eastern Congo, known formerly as Costermansville and built in the early twentieth century by Belgian colonialists. It stands at the southern end of Lake Kivu, at 4,800 feet the highest and coolest of all Africa's Great Lakes. I had written my novel in a period when for personal reasons I had felt unable to leave England. Now, too late if my previous books were anything to go by, I was about to check its people and places against the reality.
But the novel isn't really set in Congo at all--or so I had almost persuaded myself by the time I began my journey. It's a romantic satire, for heaven's sake, written with both feet firmly off the ground. It's about Tony Blair's England, and good old-fashioned colonial exploitation, and political hypocrisy and shameless public lies, and other scores I had to settle. It's about the quest for identity in our multiethnic society, and New Labour's assault on our civil liberties, and a bunch of other similarly lofty themes. Congo is just backcloth, an abstraction, a symbol of perpetual colonial exploitation, slaughter, famine and disorder. To meet it face to face would only violate the delicate illusion!--or so I had tried to believe.
The only problem was that, well before I had added the last full stop to the first draft, Congo had become the elephant in my drawing room, and no amount of literary sophistry was going to make it disappear. My central character was the son of an erring Irish missionary and a Congolese headman's daughter. He had been dragged up in a bleak English boarding school, and he and I could get along fine. I had no quarrel with him. But when it came to my three Congolese warlords, each one some sort of standard-bearer of the militia or social faction that had spawned him, I had doubts. Neither my researches, nor my furtive lunches with Congolese expatriates, had reassured me that these characters could survive in the real world. If my visit to Bukavu did not deliver their likely counterparts--by which I mean, verify their attitudes and beliefs--I might be forced to look for other ways to tell the story, such as writing it again from scratch.
In Belgian colonial memory, as in my novelist's fantasy, Bukavu was a lost paradise, a misted Shangri-La of wide, bougainvillea-laden streets and lakeside villas with lush gardens sloping to the shore. The province of South Kivu was to Central Africa what biblical Palestine was to Arabia. The volcanic soil of the surrounding hillsides was so fertile, the climate so benign, that there was scarcely a fruit, flower or vegetable that didn't thrive there. But Eastern Congo has like every paradise a fatal flaw: It is a natural treasure chest of gold, diamonds, cassiterite and now coltan and uranium, which for centuries has lured every known species of human predator to its misted hills and jungles, from freebooting Rwandan militias to suited corporate carpetbaggers with nice manners and fat checkbooks and shiny offices in London, Houston, St. Petersburg and Beijing.
Ever since the late 1960s, Bukavu has suffered catastrophe after disaster. In the wake of the Rwandan genocide that hand-killed almost a million people in a hundred days, the town found itself in the front line of the refugee crisis. Hutu insurgents who had fled across the border from Rwanda used Bukavu as one of their two main bases from which to attack the Tutsi-dominated revolutionary government that had ousted them and seized power in Kigali. Goma, at the northern tip of the lake, was the second. The Tutsis retaliated in what became known as the First Congo War, and Bukavu took the brunt. The town barely had time to draw breath before the Second Congo War struck. And in June 2004, Bukavu fell into the hands of one General Nkunda, who invited his men to do with it what they pleased for three days. The town was sacked, and scores of women were raped.
I had also read that the Roman Catholic cathedral that dominates the town is called Our Lady of Peace.
There were three of us in the car by the time our Rwandan driver took the winding hill road from Kigali and headed toward the Congolese border four hours' drive away. The Foreign Office had advised us not to go, but for my two traveling companions such warnings had about as much impact as a footnote in a backpackers' guide. Michela Wrong had spent twelve years reporting on the African continent. She had covered post-genocide Rwanda for Reuters and the BBC and had written a seminal book, In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz, about Congo's recent history. Jason Stearns, at 29 a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group, had served three years in Bukavu as a political adviser to the United Nations. He spoke immaculate French, Swahili and an unknown number of the more obscure African languages and was widely held to be one of the West's leading authorities on Congo.
Both had plowed through an early draft of my novel, forgiven my trespasses and offered advice. Both knew the kind of players I needed to meet, and the locations I needed to see. Both had their professional agendas but agreed to coincide their trips with mine. It was April. On July 30--but the date remained uncertain--the Democratic Republic of Congo was proposing to hold its first multiparty election in forty years at a cost of nearly $500 million, $400 million of them from the West. There was gathering nervousness about the outcome. For my companions this made it the perfect time to go, as it did for me, since my novel was set in the run-up to the same elections. My only problem was: Had I left it too late for my warlords?