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Reliving the Beauty of Bukavu

`Well,'' my mother says on the phone from Houston, ``when I read about the refugees flooding into Goma and Bukavu, I'm certainly glad you got out of there.''

The fact is I got out of there almost 30 years ago. But I suspect my mother was glad to have me ``out of there'' from the moment I left.

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I lived in Bukavu for two months in the fall of 1963. I went back again for six months a year later. The town is perched high on the backbone of Africa; the escarpment of the Rift Valley rises all around.

The town spreads out across a series of peninsulas that stretch like fingers into the southern waters of Lake Kivu.

At the north end of the lake lies Goma. Active volcanoes rise behind it, and a swath of moonscape lava flow, dating from the 1880s, extends west of the town from the volcanoes to the lake. At night, the crest of Nyiragongo gives off a roseate glow.

If you could live in the moist jungles that lie west of the Kivu all the way to the Atlantic Ocean, and if you could go for months with perspiration always on your skin, never quite able to make humidity and mildew your friends, then the Kivu was paradise. Bukavu was the center of it.

There was a good deal of unrest in the Kivu even then, but I have very fond memories of Bukavu.

My mother's comment prompted me to delve through my old letters from Africa. Looking at them for the first time since they were written, I am distressed that Goma and Bukavu should suddenly become metaphors for hell.

``Dawn is just coming up, rising out of blue clouds that stretch above the mountain jungle,'' starts a letter written from Bukavu on ``Tuesday 6 Apr. 65.''

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``Light hasn't touched the water yet, and pirogues sit on its blue-and-silver surface awaiting the dawn catch. Birds are chirping all over the place; it's really quite noisy when you stop to listen.

``The scenery between Bukavu and Goma is simply breathtaking,'' states a letter written Oct. 15, 1963. ``A real paradise. And worth the million and one bumps required to see it. The scenery north of Goma is less spectacular, but no less interesting, the first savannah I've seen in Africa.''

Three of us had stolen off to see game at Parc National Albert. We were Fred Charlton, a communications staffer at the United States Consulate in Bukavu; the delightful, wheeler-dealer Paul Wemboyendja, local employee of the United States Information Service post; and me, who was about to be transferred to a post far away in the hot, squishy jungle.

In Goma, ``Hotel des Grands Lacs had our reservations ready,'' the letter continues. ``Paul had made these with a great sense of importance over the telephone last week. He made out that our party was as important as one full of ambassadors and mwamis, calling Fred `attache du Consulat americain,' stressing that I was `directeur du Centre Culturel a Bukavu.' ''

The next day we reached the game park and put up at Ruindi Camp. ``Coming down the mountains from Rutshuru, we drove out onto a long, wide plain,'' reports the letter.

``Some of the grass was this famous stuff one hears so much about, grass growing taller than one's head.

``We drove beside a flat stream that had cut a rust and dark orange-colored gulch through the land. Paul, with field glasses to his eyes, insisted that he saw hippos. We stopped. Darned if he wasn't right. We got out of the car and looked at them; honest to goodness hippos were standing in the water, a mother nuzzling her child.''

Later that afternoon we had the experience that made the trip so memorable. After we had seen Cape buffalo, wart hogs, waterbuck, baboons, and monkeys, we spotted more hippos and a herd of 15 grazing elephants.

``It was getting late, about 5:15, when the road led within 50 yards of hippos bathing at the edge of Lake Edward,'' says the letter. ``The road looked uncertain because of the mud. According to Fred, the guide told him he could get across the mud. He went into it about five feet, and we were stuck fast.

``We got out and tried to push. Impossible. The front right wheel had sunk to its axle. The rear right wheel was almost as deep. None of us, as it turned out, knew how to work the four-wheel drive automobile.

We ran around gathering what vegetation we could, breaking up a small tree and uprooting marsh grass.

``It was fast growing dark and the alternatives closed in on us as fast as the twilight. They were to get out while we could on foot or spend the night in the jeep.

``We had seen a large truck off in the distance (like an ocean liner passing people marooned on a raft) and found ourselves incredibly lucky to be able to walk'' to a commercial fishing village on the lake.

``Fred said he'd like to run all the way. I admit to having an uncomfortable moment when I realized that hippos were on both sides of us and that they had suddenly begun to grunt.

``I don't know what we could have done if we'd been chased. No vegetation offered us cover. If we had returned to the jeep, a hippo could have knocked it over on its side without the slightest hesitation.

``It was dark when we reached the village. A native led us to the house of the fisheries director. As we approached it, we saw marabou, a stork-like bird, sitting on the roof, eight or 10 of them, their bodies and spindly legs silhouetted against the sky.

``Now one of the more amazing aspects of Paul Wemboyendja showed itself. We came into the light of the porch where a Belgian man and some Indians were standing. As we stepped forward to shake hands, Paul recognized the Belgian and said, `Ah, tu habites ici.''' (``Ah, you live here.'')

Paul had helped this man escape across Lake Kivu during anticolonial agitation after independence three years earlier. The Belgian lent us the fisheries' Volvo truck. When we tried to free the US Information Service jeep that night, we managed to trap the truck in mud. We went back to Ruindi Camp and the next morning succeeded in dislodging the jeep.

``I would have liked to stay at least long enough to make the circuit where lions roam,'' the letter reports, ``but the others wanted to return to Goma, and I didn't want any more jeep worries.''

The letter continues, ``You have probably seen pictures of Tahiti with the mountains rising tall and misty. The mountains here rise in the same way, tall and sudden. On the lake, pirogues are cutting slowly through the water. The green is lush, and trees bend toward the water, sometimes stand in it, their leaves drooping into it.

``There are small beaches and native huts crowding along the water. The islands are blue shapes, not distinct patterns of terrain and vegetation. Between you and them stretches water, some of it dark reflecting the clouds, patches of it silvered by the sun. Above the islands are those dramatic cumulus, the elephants of clouds. They are dark, perhaps seeming to reach out of the sky like enclosing arms.

``What mystery sits on those islands? What adventure beckons?

``Suddenly you realize that those are not realities at all; they are dreams, yearnings that nature has given blue shape, longings that nature has set across an uncrossable stretch of dark and silvered water, out of reach like all dreams.''

The letter closes with news of the troubles this paradise had even then, news that made my mother glad to have me out of there.

``There is an unofficial curfew tonight,'' the letter concludes. ``Word has gotten around that the Mwami of Kabare will be stirring up trouble, perhaps invading the town as he has threatened to do in the past.

The streets are deserted. There is silence where usually the night is full of the sound of Latin rhythms from the Congolese bars. No spears through the windows yet.

``More soon.''

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