In central Africa there is a chain of lakes confusingly called The Great Lakes. They stretch down the eastern border of the Democratic Republic of Congo and beyond; their waters covering the lowest parts of a tectonic rift thousands of miles long; creating seemingly endless vistas of spectacular scenery.
The 18th of February, 2005, found me on the Safina, a passenger boat plying the waters of one of those lakes – Lake Kivu. I was on my way from Bukavu to Goma. I had just finished doing a week of training in Bukavu and was on my way to Goma to encourage the translators for the Tembo language who had attended the training and were traveling with me, along with a German colleague, Bettina Gottschlich.
Our first class tickets gave us the right to sit in a very nice area below decks. But my colleague wanted to sit outside. The crew obligingly put out a couple of plastic chairs for us. Before leaving Goma, however, we were upgraded. The crew decided that it was not a good idea to put one of the items being shipped – a nice couch – in the cargo hold with hundreds of bags of cassava flour which were leaking a bit and covering everything in fine white powder. So the couch was set on the deck for us.
For the better part of the day we watched idyllic panoramas slide past from our comfortable perch. It was an abundant visual feast of God’s extravagant creation spiced by delightful conversations with my colleague, the Tembo translators, the crew and other passengers. It was one of the most relaxing days I have ever had.
Nevertheless, two disturbing thoughts kept creeping into my head. First, the Congo was suffering. The idyllic vistas were hiding the truth that the country was coming out of a war that had claimed more civilian deaths than any war since WWII – an estimated 5.4 million. That is at least 20 times as many as in Darfur. This particular area has been called the rape capital of the world due to the actions of brutal militias. As I write this eight years later, the region around the lake is still very troubled.
The other thought was for our safety. I did not see lifeboats or floatation devices. For most of the trip we traveled a narrower section of the lake where I could probably swim to shore – provided the sinking ship or some desperate passenger did not get hold of me. At least the Safina was not nearly as crowded or low in the water as some other vessels we saw.
Then, we saw ahead of us the ominous rise of Mount Nyiragongo, the volcano which had recently devastated parts of the city of Goma; a column of vapors still emanating from its summit. At this point, the lake widened dramatically. The steep hills and mountains rising directly from the shore were nothing but bluish darkness on the horizon. If we went down here, none of us would make it.
Next time, I’ll take water safety equipment researched and approved by JAARS. That organization has researched safe water travel for parts of the world where Bible translators regularly travel by boat. Having water safety equipment with me will please a particularly lovely part of God’s creation – my wife.