Wheels and deals in dusty Bukavu

Bukavu, nestled on the southwest corner of Lake Kivu in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), has a major dust problem during the dry season.

Vehicles ply the cracked streets of this once-elegant city from early morning, stirring up red dust clouds.

I remembered that down on La Botte, a narrow, pretty peninsula that projects a kilometre from the city centre into the lake, with a few narrow streets and large, old, crumbling houses, there used to be a “Cercle Sportif”, with lawns, a clubhouse with a bar and lakeside access.

The last time I visited the Cercle had been in 2001, during the country’s long-running civil war, and then broader conflict, when the Rwandan-backed Rassemblement Congolais pour la Démocratie ruled Bukavu and the rest of the eastern DRC.

The club, which was founded in 1952 when Belgian colonialism still had seven years to run, had not been in great shape, but it was at least ticking over, and my Congolese hosts and I had dined there on a lazy Sunday afternoon, later wobbling out on to the lake in a hired canoe.

Now, on another Sunday, the unmown lawns that led to the lake were either covered in washing, or filled with children playing games.

The children, it turned out, were the offspring of soldiers of the Republican Guard, an elite, heavily armed unit of the Congolese armed forces, under the direct orders not of the army’s chief of staff, but of President Joseph Kabila.

Soldiers of the guard were wandering about the site, some stumbling unkempt from the clubhouse, which they had converted into accommodation. Most of the panes of glass had been broken, the paint had peeled and tropical foliage burst from cracks in the walls and roof.

Inside the clubhouse bar, now entirely empty of drink, four men huddled in a corner. They worked for the owner, a Frenchman they said, and had been tasked by him to defend the clubhouse against the Republican Guard until the day the stars realigned and he could return and restart the business.

The Republican Guard, the men told me, had commandeered the Cercle in 2005 and had been squatting there ever since. A nearby presidential residence they had initially been assigned to protect had since been closed and gradually the soldiers were drifting away to other locations.

“Conditions here are deplorable. But people still come to play tennis. And maybe all the soldiers will leave. We are now a tiny bit hopeful,” one of the men said.

The hope was heartening, but unable to compensate for the heat in the empty bar. A massive new hotel, the Panorama, however, had opened a few months earlier, also on La Botte, on Boulevard Reine Elisabeth (Queen Elizabeth). Sure enough, a short walk away, the hotel towered in marble above a narrow road snarled up in the early evening with poorly parked Pajeros and Hummers and their frustrated chauffeurs.

Inside was more marble acreage, competing for attention with lavish chandeliers and pillars tiled in what looked like platinum. Reception staff, garbed in braid-laden uniforms reminiscent of early 19th-century European cavalry officers, pointed us towards dangerously uneven marbled steps leading down to a poolside bar and the lakeside terrace.

A buffet was in full swing, and posses of fabulously dressed members of the Bukavu elite strolled up and down beside the lake, pausing good humouredly as they passed one another to embrace in greeting.

Waiters in Playboy-bunny-type waistcoats glided in to take drinks orders. Congolese music played. More people kept arriving, most of the women in high-high heels that made the many steps down to the terrace an even graver challenge.

Dire financial straits
The owner of the Panorama, the waiters told me, was a former director of Gécamines, a state-owned mining company based in faraway Lubumbashi down south. Gécamines has been in dire financial straits for decades, but the Panorama’s fixtures and fittings pointed clearly to what had been, for the hotel’s founder at least, a highly lucrative tenure there.

The hotel’s claim of five stars is implausible, but for marble and bling it is Bukavu’s undisputed champion, so it should capture the lion’s share of the city’s government workshop and conference business.

And for a city that these days makes much of its money from its status as a trading hub for gold, mined by artisanal diggers throughout South Kivu province and smuggled from Bukavu to Kampala and Nairobi and from there flown to Dubai, the Panorama forms a more fitting backdrop to the drinking and deal-making all this requires than the Cercle ever could.

Still, as the Taksim Square protestors in Istanbul know so well, green spaces in a city are precious.

And when they roll down to the gently lapping waves of Lake Kivu, they are priceless.

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