Saturday, September 23, 2006

21 September International Day of Peace

Photo: Wim Mulder

Chinese, Pakistani, and Uraguayan blue berets mixed with Congolese children to create the international peace symbol here the day before yesterday. First the symbol was created by the children alone (see above photo), and then the blue berets joined in later. The live images were sent via satellite to Holland where they were broadcast on a giant screen at the beach near The Hague where Dutch children were also making a peace sign. The event was also seen live on the internet at and clips were also shown on the Dutch TV news during the day. At the time of writing some photos from here can be seen on the web site, and I'm hoping that the film clip will soon be added, for those of you who have highspeed access! The site changes daily.

The event here was the result of several weeks of planning by our dynamic Head of Mission (Ramin Shahzamani) and plenty of hard work on the part of our local team. In addition to the peace symbol the children also performed sketches, poems, music, dances, and sang a special 'peace song'. Most applause, however, went to an impromptu kung fu demonstration by the Chinese engineer unit!

When I get more internet access I have a lot more photos to be posted. Check this site often!

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Elle est courageuse!

I’ve come into the office on Sunday morning to use the internet. We actually have electricity, but our ISP guys are obviously still in bed and haven’t bothered to turn on their equipment yet. Since there are no functioning banks here, the guys who provide the internet connection (by satellite, I presume, as there are no telephone landlines) also provide banking services. And since they’re Indian, they also supply the Indian Air Force (who are in charge of the small MONUC airbase an hour’s drive out of town) with spices. We were at the IAF base last week in order to interview the MONUC commander, who happens to be Dutch (we’re a Dutch NGO), as he was passing through. The Indians have developed a small haven of beauty and order amidst the general chaos; their camp is immaculate, with flowers everywhere, neatly bordered footpaths between the tents, a large well-tended vegetable garden, a fountain providing a gentle shower that sparkles in the sunlight as it waters the tiny lawn outside the tent that serves as their officers’ club. Even a separate, sign posted, and spotless toilet with imported toilet paper for women visitors to the camp – what a miracle! (I have photographs of what is meant to pass for toilets at a local school that I shall post to the site whenever I get around to it).

Hmmm, I meant to write about something completely different – how did I get on to toilets?!! As I was saying… the internet is down, so I’m writing this on the computer with the hope that I can post it onto the blog today, because my own computer still doesn’t have any internet access at all, so once the week begins it’s difficult for me to get access.

On my last post I mentioned the discussion sessions that we’re holding with teachers, to encourage them to find their own solutions to problems with the children. Many of the problems are fairly ordinary – the kind of problems with children’s behavior that teachers everywhere come across. When they began talking about problems with aggressive youngsters who are bullying others I wanted to tell them (but didn’t) about some of the schools in the US where metal detectors have been installed to catch the kids with guns and knives. Sometimes a ‘problem’ isn’t a problem, like the teacher who asked how to stop a pupil writing with his left hand. I was surprised (to say the least) that some teachers here still believe that left-handedness is something bad that can be corrected and they try to force the child to change. Some problems are caused by the general circumstances that make me want to give up in frustration at the seeming impossibility of changing things: many children go to school on an empty stomach, without even having had a glass of water or anything to eat the night before, so they fall asleep in class. Teachers want to know how to deal with the sleepy children. How can a child who hasn’t eaten stay awake or even concentrate in school? Many people are so poor that they may not even eat once a day. Another young adolescent boy often begins crying during class. Apparently he had witnessed the rape of his mother. Sexual violence against women and even very young girls here is epidemic and has contributed to the general breakdown of society, as many husbands and families will reject a wife or daughter who has been raped, such is the stigma attached to it.

All kinds of physical and mental disabilities are also common. One 17-year old girl we met at a school last week had no hands, only something that resembled a finger at the end of her wrist that enabled her to write, and no legs below her knees. She still manages to walk, somehow, and came into the room where we were holding our discussion session to meet us and proffered a stumpy arm to shake. I admired her tenacity in coming to school under such difficult circumstances – the other children are so distracted by her presence they don’t pay attention in class – and after she left the room I could only say “elle est courageuse!”

Friday, September 08, 2006

Technical Difficulties!

This is my first chance on line since last Saturday. Our internet access is experiencing technical problems. Hard to tell how long it will take to get fixed. If anyone needs to contact me urgently (or even not urgently), please call!
Otherwise all is well here, and work proceeds apace, with visitors from our Amsterdam HQ this week. They brought lots of wonderful rye bread, cheese and chocolate, so were welcomed with open arms!! They are here to film children making a peace sign in celebration of International Peace Day on 21st September. This will be broadcast in The Hague at the same time that children there will be making a peace sign. In other work, our team members have begun discussion sessions with teachers from our partner institutions, during which they discuss children's psycho-social issues and show the teachers that they often have the answers to the problems themselves. This is proving extremely interesting and rewarding.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

End of dry season close at hand?

The dry season is being used as an excuse for quite a few things these days: no power, for a start, and when there's no power that means no internet connection. We get internet via satellite (there are no telephone landlines here) and for some reason it doesn't work when there's no power, so our internet connection has been especially bad this past week.

And no water, of course! Water is mainly off during the day time, so I take my shower at night, and everyone fills up buckets and basins at night in order to have some during the day. Not having enough buckets at the office has led to a slightly desperate feeling, as both drinking water and water for flushing toilets has been close to running out. Finally, our logistics guy went out and bought 20 plastic jerry cans today. Doubtless heavy rain will fall tonight and for the next 9 months!

The other dry season effect is the dust. If I sit outside on the deck, my papers will be covered in a fine layer of dust within about five minutes. Everything, inside and outside, has to be wiped down daily. And walking along the roads is particularly unpleasant as passing cars throw up thick clouds of fine dirt that I cannot help but breathe in. After a day in the field my hair is thick with dust, nostrils and ears grimy, and every crease of skin brown with dust.

If I ever get around to figuring out how to properly post connections to other blogs in the side bar, one of the first to go up will be: "Breaking Hearts in the Heart of Darkness" ( I'm sad to say that the writer has just left Congo. However, her blog is still there, and well worth reading. I hasten to point out that her situation out in the "bush" was far, far more difficult than my relatively cosy lifestyle here in town.

Yes, I'm still thinking about those gorilla photos! Am still unpacking and getting my stuff sorted out at the new house.