As we navigate the battered road between Bukavu and Baraka, I finally realize why Joseph Kony has been so difficult to find. Dense jungle all but swallows the one tarmac road in this deeply conflicted area of eastern DR Congo. A blanket of deep green foliage cloaks the area’s impressive mountain range, which extends to the western horizon. During the six-hour drive between Bukavu and Baraka, I notice an absence of police, soldiers or other visible signs of central authority. Upon first glance, it would appear that this vast region is largely ungoverned.
Wary Pakistani peacekeepers patrol the road with heavy guns. With their long Islamic beards and close-cropped hair, they could not look farther from home. As we overtake their convoy, I wonder why Pakistan, a country with it’s own vicious war, has deployed able-bodied soldiers to this largely forgotten battleground. They seem removed from the environment here, clearly serving a tour rather than engaging in a broader mission. We stark awkwardly at one another as our vehicle speeds past.
I notice an interesting difference between Sudanese and Congolese as our truck speeds through small population centers. In southern Sudan, most people on the roadside glare directly into the eyes of people passing in cars. Here, I notice few people looking at our faces but instead attempting to read the writing printing on the doors of this NGO vehicle. It sounds like a minor issue, but I suspect it speaks to a vast gap in literacy rates between southern Sudan and eastern DR Congo. I believe that if more southern Sudanese could read, fewer would stare so ominously at passersby.
It was not until today that it occurred to that southern Sudan’s nearly 90 percent illiteracy rate might contribute to some of the intense staring for which they are so well known. Many there are incapable of reading writing on teeshirts, trucks and other things that might distract them from staring directly into another person’s eyes.
Perhaps it’s a coincidence, but I think there might be something to it.
Generally speaking, eastern DR Congo feels significantly more developed than southern Sudan. People appear relatively well fed, the road, while in decay, is largely covered in tarmac. Towns between Bukavu and Baraka seem quite vibrant and well stocked with modern goods.
It’s strange to travel to such conflicted and troubled places that still seem like a step up.