It is a beautiful sight: watching a thunderstorm rock the Nairobi night skyline. Driving on the roads of the Kenyan capital the following morning is somewhat less pleasant.
With last minute arrangements already causing some dithering, the first leg of our journey to cover the elections in the Democratic Republic of Congo almost turns disastrous when one smart Aleck instructs the local driver to take a “slip road” to the airport in order to avoid Nairobi’s monstrous early morning traffic. ??The slip road starts as an impressive sand track but soon enough turns into a mud pit, complete with dancing cars and tilted trucks — left mostly immobile after making some wrong moves on the gooey roadway.
It seems we might miss that flight after all.
To put the drama into perspective: we need to catch a plane from Nairobi to Kigali via the Burundi capital, Bujumbura. Once in Kigali, we need to buy a sandwich and soda, hop into another vehicle and make a three-hour journey from the Rwandan capital to the eastern DRC town of Goma — all by nightfall.
Even stray cats and dogs stay indoors after sundown in Goma.
“You wouldn’t have thought the adventure would’ve started just on the way to the airport, eh?” our correspondent Peter Greste teases.
I laugh because he is mostly right.
On our right, the Kenyan national park stretches out as far as the early morning mist allows the eye to see. To our left, scores of slum dwellers go about their business, carefully dodging the sludge as they try to rebuild their storm-battered settlements. On the track, men dig trucks out of the mud.
When I woke up this morning, I hadn’t imagined such a start. But I am also unsurprised by the muddle this, after all, is Nairobi.
Coordinating multiple transfers — by flight, sea or land — over several countries is always difficult. But when it involves generators, editing equipment, body armour, lighting, sound kits, tripods and 15 bags, expect to be sitting at Kigali airport for some hours explaining why it looks like you are on your way to open a Universal Studios in the Congolese rain forest.
What happened to the days when journalists just carried a notebook and borrowed a pen? Or simply tapped phone calls? Never mind that.
While Nairobi could be described as the quintessential African city: an aroma of sights, sounds and cesspool to indulge, frustrate and corrupt, the thoroughness and perceived incorruptibility (not that we tried) of the Rwandan customs officials as they checked every detail of our mammoth package left us bemused.
Customs even made us remove the polyethylene wrapping around our generator case because plastic bags are banned in Rwanda.
In words, Kigali is impressive, if peculiar.
Although the country is still classified as poor and heavily dependent on foreign aid and tourism, there is an order and cleanliness that is almost unnerving. Spotless roads, neat pavements for pedestrians, drivers that follow the rules you can tell a lot about how a country is managed by the way the people drive on their roads.
There is obedience in the air and a sense of pride in the management of this city. It squashes a myriad of stereotypes and begs new questions.
The route through the land of a thousand hills, as Rwanda sells itself, is quite majestic. Banana trees, jungles of flamboyant wide leaves, sprout out like the propellers of green helicopters perched on the hillsides. Maize and tea plantations sit by the side of the winding road boys stand tilling wet fields and girls carry straws of sugar cane on their shoulders.
Every single plot of this fertile land seems to be used in some agricultural activity.
And every once in a while, we pass grassy football pitches where barefoot children chase leather on the lush grass between flimsy wooden goal posts: the only reminder that we are on the continent after all.
There is something sinister, almost ominous, in the air when villages have signboards for micro-credit banks and study classes for college students or when a signboard at the airport advertises that the Rwandan police can be contacted via Facebook.
An African country with a green agenda, an emphasis on technology and infrastructural development — can it really be?
I was warned about this drive. Eventually “you’d turn down a winding road and cross the border into Goma”, I was told.
And then it would be a different world.
Unless you are a humanitarian do-gooder, a diamond merchant or an arms dealer, it is unlikely that you have ever heard of Goma, a town in the state of North Kivu in the eastern DRC.
If parts of eastern Rwanda resemble what rural Africa ought to look like, Goma and the eastern DRC region might just represent everything that ever went wrong on the continent.
Blessed with minerals and cursed by armed groups competing over resources and challenging a frail national authority, this is where DRC’s democracy will face its sternest challenge.
We enter Goma to find out more.