Along the southern point of Lake Kivu you can pass between Rwanda and Congo. A tiny prop plane will take you from Kigali right to the edge of the country.
The flight takes thirty minutes, and they offer a quick snack of Coke and groundnuts while you watch the propeller spin outside.
Fifteen minutes of smooth winding road curves around the edges of hills from which you can watch the fishing boats in the small bay. These roads eventually move down to the water’s edge and let you out at a busy little border crossing.
There are loose papers waiting on a table in front of a small building. People gather around that table to declare their departure from Rwanda. Loose pens are claimed and shuffled and claimed again while people fill out their passport numbers and check boxes to say why they came. Business. Travel. Other. Two men at desks in an unlit room look over them, ask questions, pound ink onto the visa pages.
You pass over a wooden bridge just wide enough for one car. There is the smallest bit of standing room on each side and people walking to and from shuffle against the railing to keep from being hit while maintaining their momentum. Once you cross the bridge you are no longer in Rwanda. On this other side you are on your way to standing in the Congo, but you aren’t there yet.
Just over the bridge and before the next check point you are officially nowhere.
A colleague, the driver taking me from Rwanda to Congo, he described it as the neutral zone. It was filled with people, almost all of them walking quickly. Mostly they were women, women with piles of bananas or bins of fresh fish or unseen goods in giant thick plastic sacks. They carried them carefully on top of their heads. Carrying. Almost everyone was carrying something, some food or tool or market-bound good strapped to shoulders or foreheads or worn as a back-breaking crown, taken from one country to the other on foot.
There were people sitting in the neutral zone. A group of moms looked relaxed, sitting on the ground with legs stretched out in front of them, eating quickly and talking quickly. A girl played by a tree that hung over a hill’s slope. Border guards sat on an unconnected fence to watch the bridge.
You can always go back. In the neutral zone you can turn around. You don’t have to enter the new country. You don’t have to pass through the scrutiny of unfamiliar people. You can turn around in that space. You don’t even have to decide. You could sit for a while. Talk to your friends. Watch others pass through. You have til nightfall or until someone with a gun nudges you in one direction or another. But really, you can turn around and head back.
I’ve been crossing a lot of borders on this trip through East Africa. I can’t stop thinking about them. The departure, the arrival, the duty-free space in between. There are a lot of people walking these lines. I am walking these lines.