Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Do They Know it's Christmas?

The crime rate here jumps at this time of year because people are desperate to provide something extra to meet their families' expectations of new clothes and good food on the table. There aren't really any signs of Christmas in the same way you see lights and other decorations in the over-developed world. My favourite local restaurant, Gerda's, (run by a Belgian woman and mentioned in a previous post, March 2006) however is all lit up with fairy lights, Christmassy table mats, a well-decorated tree, red glass baubles and tiny shiny stars swimming in glass bowls on the tables, and a special menu with Coquilles St. Jacques - a delicious addition to an already pretty good menu.

People in North Kivu won't have much to celebrate this year, with hundreds of children being forcibly recruited into the various armed groups who even take children from schools and IDP camps. An estimated 800,000 people are now internally displaced in North Kivu: equivalent to the entire population of East Timor when I lived there in 1997. Fighting goes on. The BBC website (http://news.bbc.co.uk/) has been providing decent coverage of the war, and the recent visit by the head of UN High Commission for Refugees also brought the crisis to the world's attention for a few seconds for those who were tuned in at the right time. The city of Goma appears to be relatively safe and the residents calm, which allowed us to send two of our team this week for a monitoring visit, to see how staff trained last month to work with children in the camps are progressing.

Work slows down considerably for most of us during this time, and I'll be taking two weeks off. First stop is Kigali where I'm looking forward to spending time with good friends, and after that I'll be at the inviting Shaanti Holistic Health Retreat (http://www.shaantihhr.com/) on the Kenyan coast near Mombasa for a week. They offer special rates for those of us working in Africa, and I'm hoping that meditation and yoga twice a day will restore some of my sanity. This is a crazy world where so much luxury and so much poverty exist side by side. I'm grateful for the opportunities to be aware of both and to have the freedom to move from one world to the other. Most people are trapped by circumstances totally beyond their control.

Before I go, a few more photos to show you how beautiful it is here (yet another contrast: the beauty, the poverty, the violence...North Kivu is even more beautiful than South Kivu, where I'm located).

Daybreak over Bagira: Bagira is a suburb of Bukavu, purpose built for government workers by the Belgian colonial government in the '50s.

Taken from the second-floor of the house where I live, near the lake shore. This one looks straight across at Mount Kahuzi and the Kahuzi-Biega National Park, home to some of the few remaining mountain gorilla families. The small buildings on the opposite shore is the MONUC camp for the Uruguayan and Chinese military who patrol the lake. The international border between DR Congo and Rwanda runs the length of Lake Kivu and Congo is sensitive to the possibility of infiltrations by Rwandan military.

My favourite: a rare good sunset over Lake Kivu.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Bukavu Central Prison
Our project provides psychosocial support to boys in prison and when the Clowns Without Borders were in town we invited them to perform for all the inmates. People in the prison are a mix of those who are awaiting charges and those who have already been sentenced. Some may be there for good reason; others may just have been in the wrong place at the wrong time and unable to pay a bribe to get them out of trouble. The entire justice system barely functions; lawyers are beaten up by police; rapists rape with impunity. Women often bring their young children into the prison with them. The government provides almost no food for prisoners, and the majority of boys in the prison were recently found to be suffering from malnutrition, two of them severely. The food issue is a serious conundrum for aid agencies: if we provide food then the government is never likely to take over its responsibility in this domain. Most international agencies here are working more towards long term development and do not have a budget for food aid.

This person with deformed legs – he’s unable to walk – allegedly allowed his house to be used for storing weapons.

Almost everyone enjoyed the clowns’ performance; however these two were clearly uninterested!

This is the gate between the main area of the prison and the boys’ quarter. However as the prisoners themselves control what goes on inside the prison, it is unclear who controls access to this section, and the padlock has to be replaced frequently. Anyone who knows anything about child protection and prison systems knows that children under 18 should be kept separate from adults.

Sometimes aid agencies will provide items for the boys, such as these new clothes, sandals and the football in recognition of the International Day for Children’s Rights. Unfortunately assistance to the children doesn’t last long- much needed items such as mattresses, towels, and soap are snatched away from them all too quickly.

This is the main gate where we entered. The photo is taken from inside. It looks as though anyone can come and talk to the inmates through these bars; however there are soldiers on guard at the outer gate.

There’s a small yard: the covered area on the left is where the men can sit and eat – if there’s food. The area to the right seemed to be dominated by laundry.

Laundry is scrubbed on stone benches, and then the clothes are hung wherever possible to dry.

This tap was broken, and the water poured out continuously. It rains for nine months of the year here, so no one is particularly worried about water shortages. Dark clouds over the courtyard and a dark, dungeon-like interior make this prison a place I was only too happy to leave.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Back of Beyond

You may well imagine that Bukavu is one of those out of the way places, the back of beyond, that no one’s ever heard of and certainly no one who is anyone at all would ever think of visiting. Can you locate it on a map of DR Congo? I doubt that I could before I first came to East Africa four years ago. It’s a surprise to find out the number of people that visit – and I’ve probably only heard of a few.

Eve Ensler, author of The Vagina Monologues, was in town on November 25th to lead a march, which she had organized, of thousands of women dressed in black marking the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. Also in town last week were a number of Congressional delegates, the fact-finders, researching information about the Great Lakes region conflict on behalf of members of the US Congress. Along with them (possibly just a coincidence, I don’t know) was GW’s former speech writer, the one who coined the term “axis of evil” (used by Bush in his State of the Union Address on Jan 29th, 2002). We were all hanging out (at separate tables, of course!) having drinks and dinner at The Orchid, described by John Le Carré (he stayed here in April 2006 after finishing work on his latest novel, The Mission Song, which uses the war in Eastern Congo as a backdrop) as one of those quintessential places where you find a mélange of expatriates gathered together around the bar*. I was quite perturbed in fact when a friend came over to where I was having a working dinner with a couple of colleagues, and in whispered tones informed us of the identity of the chap in the blue shirt just a few feet away. Had never in my life expected to get this close to the axis of evil!

Yes, Bill Gates has been here too. Haven’t seen much sign of his beneficence yet. And yes, they’re still fighting in North Kivu, barely 100 km from Goma. No end in sight yet.

*”In every trouble spot I have cautiously visited, there has always been one watering hole where, as if by secret rite, hacks, spies, aid workers and carpetbaggers converge. In Saigon, it was the Continental; in Phnom Penh, the Pnom; in Vientiane, the Constellation; in Beirut, the Commodore; and here in Bukavu it's the Orchid, a gated, low-built lakeside colonial villa surrounded by discreet cabins.” http://www.thenation.com/doc/20061002/lecarre

Saturday, November 24, 2007

International Children's Day

I haven't been posting many photos recently, so today is an attempt to make amends! The 20th November is International Children's Day, when we commemorate the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Children's rights are widely ignored and unknown around here, so part of our work is to raise awareness of, and advocate for, children's rights. In Bukavu this year our primary activity was to give children a voice: we provide radio and TV time, and the children use that time to hold discussions and put on sketches concerning their rights. Children have the right to freedom of expression and the right to give their opinion, so this activity permits them to put this right into effect.

Children also have the right to free primary education. These two photos were taken in a small primary school where classes take place in a deserted house formerly inhabited by a tea factory manager in a rural area. The classrooms are almost empty of children because the teachers sent the kids home for non-payment of fees. Fees are paid monthly and this happens about two days out of every month. Trying to explain to the school director that the kids aren't learning much if they're not in school elicits a shrug of the shoulders, "One of our teachers was sick last week from lack of food, how are they to eat?"

Clowns and Magicians Without Borders from Belgium (www.cmsf.be) are in town this week, and we took the two women and one man with us into the rural communities in Walungu, only just beginning to recover from the war, to perform for the children.

Some kids loved it, others were clearly not sure what to make of these weirdos from Europe!

The favourite moments were when the clowns invited a member of the audience up onto the stage to perform some "gymnastics" with them - which had the other kids roaring with laughter at their hapless friend.

I've just run out of time for today - the Americans in town are celebrating Thanksgiving this afternoon so I need to get home and start cooking! And congratulations to Australians out there for holding peaceful democratic elections!
North Kivu

Visitors from HQ, trainings, orienting a new colleague, meetings with partners, reports to write...work goes on! Last week I took the boat across the lake for the second time since I've been here and stayed three days in Goma to monitor a training that my local colleagues are providing to "animateurs" who will work with children in the IDP camps. The offensives in North Kivu continue (see BBC World Service or Relief Web for more details) and no one expects the fighting to end soon. Somewhere in the region of half a million people are now displaced and are moving into 20+ IDP camps scattered around North Kivu. UNHCR and other INGOs such as the Norwegian Refugee Council, World Vision, AVSI, and Save the Children are working to provide services to people in the camps - although not all camps can be safely reached due to the presence of various armed soldiers, militias, rebels, etc.

IDP camp in North Kivu

For me North Kivu and Goma itself are places of vastly conflicting feelings. There is a vicious war going on, yet Goma bears a strong resemblance to Kona, Hawaii, and the whole surrounding area is so similar to different parts of the Big Island of Hawaii, that I feel quite at home and totally foreign all at once. The presence of active volcanoes, the lava rock walls, the black sandy lanes, the lush bougainvillea, hibiscus and plumeria blossoms, the road along the water-front clogged with traffic...all these typical of both Kona and Goma. Allow peace to prevail, the rich mineral resources to be exploited in a legal manner with taxes paid and investments in the local area made, and this could be a popular international tourist destination. The actuality is rough roads, thousands of unemployed and underemployed people milling around scraping together whatever they can in order to survive; buildings destroyed by the lava flow of 2002 never rebuilt; poor water and sanitation facilities; and piles of black lava rocks left scattered throughout the center of town giving it a grim, dirty look.

Boy in an IDP camp, North Kivu

In the IDP camps people build their own rough shelters with local materials: sticks and small branches, covered with banana leaves. These small, rounded huts are then covered with the UNHCR plastic sheeting ubiquitous to this part of the world. The ground is rough with lava, I don't know what people place on the floor of their huts to protect themselves. Water and sanitation facilities are provided as quickly as possibly, depending on accessibility of the camp to aid workers. The camp I visited had a local president, a member of the displaced community, and local aid workers running the camp. I saw wood for cooking being distributed in an orderly manner. Apparently there had not yet been any food distribution, although they people had been there for about a month. There was an informal market set up on the ground near the entrance to the camp. The camp president told me that people were hungry, but also his other concern was that they could not work and thus had no income to buy units for their mobile phones - a sign of changing times and expectations!

There isn't very much for children to do. Aid agencies are setting up emergency schooling programs for those who would normally be in school. Other programs are gradually being set up to provide recreational facilities (soccer balls, various toys for different ages, trained workers, tracing agencies for lost children, etc.) and games for children.

Some children have never seen a camera before, whilst others love to ham it up in front of the lens.

I went to the camp with a group of trainees who were there to practice their games with the children. These are special games designed to encourage children to feel more self-confident, to have trust in each other, to cooperate with each other, to accept each other, to be creative, and generally to have a good time and enjoy themselves, relieving some of the stress of being displaced from their usual homes. It was great to see the kids running around laughing and dancing, and also to see mothers passing by with loads of fire-wood or water on their heads, smiling to see the kids happy. Seeing happy kids can be quite a rare event around here.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Sunday in the park in London

Regent's Park was glorious in the Sunday afternoon sun and Londoners have taken to sidewalk cafes and Sunday shopping like ants to the sugar bowl. These pleasures didn't exist in England when I was young! Mid-October and the weather here is sunny and warm enough for just a light jacket. The parks on Sunday afternoon were filled with people of all languages taking their dogs and children for a walk, the leaves are turning yellow and beginning to fall, but still plenty of green trees and colourful flowers abound.

After enjoying coffee, the Sunday papers, and the company of various scotty, dachshund, labradoodle, and other designer doggies in Regent's Park, I walked down Baker St (stopped only by eastern european tourists " excuse me, are you a local? Do you know where the Sherlock Holmes museum is?) to Oxford St, jammed with crowds of Sunday shoppers. For the first time ever (and I love this about London - there's always something new to discover) I chanced upon a crack between the shops that led to St. Christopher's Place and discovered aromatic sidewalk cafes with southern european street musicians and a relaxed mediterranean atmosphere of Sunday afternoon lingering over coffee and conversation. How England has changed!

My shopping mecca, Marks and Spencer, disappointed. In the children's section I found clothing targeted at 3 - 5 year old boys, military fatigue-style with " Little Soldier" emblazoned across the front of khaki-coloured t-shirts. I doubt the designers and marketing folks at M&S know what the life of a real " little soldier" is like...I am tempted to go and talk to them about it.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Time for a break

Those of you keeping up with the news in this part of the world will know that fighting in North Kivu has been going on for some weeks now. The effect on the local population is disastrous. One aspect among many is the forced recruitment of children, girls as well as boys, to fight and work for all sides. The article below comes from Reliefweb (www.reliefweb.int) where you can sign up for regular updates of the situation here, if interested. I also recommend an insightful analysis of the situation published by Enough (www.enoughproject.org). Bukavu itself remains calm, though many of us are involved in some way assisting relief efforts in North Kivu.

On a personal note: this Friday one of my close friends here is leaving, her mission in DR Congo at an end for the moment (one never knows what the future holds!): good luck for the next mission, Astrid! In a place like this good friends are a life & sanity saver and the departure of one leaves a gap. Fortunately I'm off to London for a week's R&R - much needed!

DRC: Thousands of youth risk forced recruitment into militia

GOMA, 8 October 2007 (IRIN) - James Mapundo, who just turned 18, speaks French, English and Swahili and would really like to go back to school to learn another language. Instead, he is stranded in an expanding camp for displaced Congolese called Bulengo, now home to 13,000 people in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo's North Kivu province.

Mapundo is one of an estimated 370,000 civilians to have fled their homes since hostilities resumed between dissident general Laurent Nkunda's National Congress for the People's Defence (NCPD) and the Congolese army in December 2006.

He, like thousands of other young people, is now at risk of forcible recruitment into armed groups who control much of North Kivu.

"[The NCPD] kill people and they take the young to go into the military formations," Mapundo told IRIN. "They asked me to go in the military, but I refused."

Despite his precarious situation, Mapundo is one of the lucky ones. Many other children have not escaped armed groups, though statistics are unclear because access to most of the population is hindered by ongoing fighting.

Humanitarian workers, though, say recruitment of children into armed militias has skyrocketed since the latest bout of fighting erupted six weeks ago.

"Organisations working in child protection have noticed a dramatic increase of the recruitment of kids into armed groups," said Patrick Lavand'Homme, head of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Goma.

Protection workers note that other disturbing trends have emerged since the current flare-up began.

"[The militia groups] are targeting schools," said Pernille Ironside, a protection officer in Goma with the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF). "We have had numerous reports of secondary schools and technical schools being targeted, and children generally over the age of 15 being at greatest risk of being recruited."

Girls targeted

While the focus is often on boys who have been recruited into armed groups, the situation for girls is equally critical, protection workers say.

Girls who are abducted are forced to become "wives" to the military commanders - relegating them to the role of sex slaves.

Unlike boys, girls always remain behind the scenes in rebel camps, making it more difficult for protection workers to gain access to them.

"It's always been a grave issue," Ironside told IRIN. "The difficulty is that girls who are kidnapped by armed groups . in some cases develop a tacit acceptance of their situation. They know that were they to go back to their home community they would be stigmatised as a result of the fact that they have been raped and borne children by an opposing group."

The forced recruitment of children has struck fear into the hearts of many of the displaced who say they will not leave the camps and return home until their security can be assured.

"I have heard of a lot of children being recruited, even the little girls," said Ame Muhima, the president of a grouping of 4,000 displaced families waiting to be integrated into formal camps for the displaced outside of Goma.

"There were 17 children who have escaped and come back to us here," Muhima said.

Protection workers say children are no longer being recruited by the Congolese army but by any one of three main militia groups operating in the region; and they face the risk of recruitment in more ways than one.

Mayi-Mayi militia groups tell children it is their responsibility to fight to protect their villages from other armed groups. Spurred by a sense of duty, children often volunteer themselves for service. Those who resist are "volunteered" by their parents.

The Forces Démocratiques de Liberation du Rwanda (FDLR), an ethnic Hutu militia group with links to the perpetrators of Rwanda's 1994 genocide, employ a different tactic.

'The FDLR are known to sweep into a village and literally scoop up all of the children of a certain age and march them off into the bush," Ironside told IRIN.

If caught, children captured during the recent eruptions in violence are held in squalid prisoner-of-war (PoW) camps by the various armed groups. Forces loyal to Nkunda are widely reported to be holding underage PoWs.

Civilians caught in crossfire

Humanitarian workers hope for a cessation of hostilities but say they believe the situation in North Kivu could instead deteriorate, citing increased military activities in the region.

Resource-rich eastern Congo has long been a simmering cauldron of conflict as rag-tag militias aligned along ethnic lines fight for control of the region.

A 1998-2003 war pulled in seven neighbouring nations and cost an estimated four million lives, mostly from hunger and disease.

Humanitarian workers note that civilians, including children, bear the brunt of the fighting and will continue to do so as the conflict rages on.

Outside the Bulengo site, 13-year-old Gusanga spends his days wandering among the hastily constructed straw huts asking for someone to give him a pen.

Proud of his fluent French and Swahili, and mature beyond his years, the boy volunteers his services as a translator to visitors.

One month ago, he fled the risk of recruitment by FDLR militias in nearby Kitchanga town.

"Everyone who is 15 or older has to join them in the fighting," Gusanga told IRIN. "When I'm 15, I would prefer to be in school; but when we turn 15 then they catch us."

Source: United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs - Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN)

Date: 08 Oct 2007

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

The International Rescue Committee

Many thanks to Rick for bringing my attention to The IRC's campaign against sexual violence in DR Congo. The IRC is a respected international NGO working here in South Kivu and other areas of the DRC. Several of the IRC expatriate staff here are good friends of mine, so I have no hesitation in recommending their work and also in recommending that you, dear reader, go as soon as possible to www.ircuk.org, under the title "Stop the Violence" click on "Add Your Voice" to send a message to the EU about the violence in eastern DRC.

International Peace Day celebrations went well, although the VIPs from Kinshasa never made it - something wrong with the plane (typical!); somehow I don't think they were missed.

"Girls demand peace and say no to sexual violence!"

There was some terrific drumming and traditional dance by teenagers from a local NGO called ASO. The kids are all marginalised from society in some way, either they're former child soldiers, rape victims, orphans... they are doubly victimised, first they are raped or forced to fight or their parents are killed, and then society rejects them because of what has happened to them. Local organisations are able to help a few such children get an education and get back on their feet - but far too many kids still end up on the street.

And of course a whole contingent of riot police was needed just in case all the children decided to attack the visitors!!

Saturday, September 15, 2007

No good news

Apologies if you were looking for something cheerful to read - but this issue (below) is so important, and so ignored! Will do my best to post some interesting photos soon. Next Friday, 21 September, is the International Day of Peace, and we'll be holding celebrations here with lots of visiting ambassadors and various UN VIPs.

AIDS activist accuses UN, western nations of ignoring Congo sexual abuse
By Nick Wadhams

The chairman of an anti-AIDS group has accused the U.N. Security Council and the West in general for ignoring what he calls a litany of horror against women in eastern Congo. For VOA, Nick Wadhams has the story from Nariobi

In a blistering statement, Stephen Lewis, a former U.N. envoy on AIDS in Africa, said sexual violence against women and girls is endemic in the eastern region of the Democratic Republic of Congo, where millions of people are still suffering from the aftershocks of years of civil war and unrest.

He cited thousands of rapes each month, as well as torture and killings by militias, and the miserable funding of limited health care in eastern Congo. While the crisis in Sudan's Darfur province has received attention from both the U.N. and Hollywood stars, the plight of women in eastern Congo has been largely ignored despite numerous reports, journalist accounts, and visits by diplomats.

"The entire world is preoccupied with Darfur, understandably," Lewis said. "But it must be said that between ten and twenty times of the number of people have died in the eastern Congo as have died in Darfur. There are more displaced persons in the eastern Congo than in Darfur. Darfur has been going on for four years, the eastern Congo has been ravaged for ten. And nowhere on this planet is there such a holocaust of horror visited on women and girls."

Lewis, who is Canadian, heads his own foundation which works to fight the spread of AIDS across Africa. He spoke after a trip to the region. His comments came days after the U.N. emergency relief coordinator, John Holmes, relayed similar concerns after visiting Congo.

Some analysts fear that Congo is on the brink of a new civil war. Tens of thousands of people have fled the east in recent months because of fighting between government forces and various militias that have taken shelter there.

Lewis said the ongoing violence against Congolese women, including sexual assault and murder, proves how badly the U.N. has failed to confront the country's problems. He said U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon must press the International Criminal Court to declare rape a crime against humanity and indict suspected war criminals on charges of committing it.

"Neither the United Nations nor the international community has the faintest idea what to do about the catastrophe for women in the Congo," Lewis said. "Where the Congo is concerned, all the Security Council is really concerned about, as evidenced in their most recent discussions, is questions of troop numbers, arms embargoes and sanctions. Rape is not on the agenda."

Lewis argues that the world's leaders, mostly men, have applied what he called a "spectacular lack of energy" in ending the abuse of women in Congo. He suggests it is time these men turned to women to solve the problem.

Source: Voice of America (VOA)

Date: 13 Sep 2007

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Where have I been all these weeks?

This is the dry season and today it’s raining. Every morning these days when I look out over the lake I can barely make out the hills on the opposite side, let alone the glorious mountains behind them. My view is shrouded in a pale grey haze.

Life in the Kivus (North and South) is only getting worse for thousands upon thousands of villagers displaced by continued conflict. People who last year voted in the first democratic elections for generations, full of hope for an easier time, are now having those hopes dashed by political and military leaders who couldn’t care less about anything other than their own access to power and resources.

The conflict here is far worse than Darfur – an estimated 4 million dead in contrast to around 200,000 in Darfur. Yet Sudan has oil – quelle surprise! So the USA is more interested in what transpires there. (I do not mean to say that the suffering of people in Darfur should be ignored or downplayed, but a bit more media attention to the conflict here would not go amiss).

Here is South Kivu villagers within 150 kilometres of Bukavu are being murdered; rape of women and, with growing frequency, children is an epidemic. Bukavu is experiencing a gradual increase of targeted killings. A few weeks ago, Serge Maheshe, the city’s best journalist – indeed, probably one of the country’s best – was assassinated. In a total and cynical travesty of justice two of Serge’s best friends are now being held in prison accused of his murder.

For the rest of us life continues and work goes ahead. We have been busy with a series of four training programs intended to improve the quality of teaching provided to children in non-formal education settings. These are children who would not otherwise receive an education either because they cannot afford regular primary school (the government does not provide free primary education), or because they dropped out of school and are now trying to catch-up. Formal primary schools restrict entry to a specific age group, so older children who missed out on primary school must find other ways to get an education. This morning we handed out certificates to 59 teachers who had just completed a one-week training program. One teacher had just given birth a few weeks before and had to bring her new-born with her. The baby slept peacefully in a cardboard box at her side during the sessions.

My own life seems like an ocean of privilege: in May I took my annual leave in Australia to visit my family. We enjoyed several festive meals celebrating my sister’s 50th birthday and my father’s 80th. Much of my time was spent in doctor’s offices getting attention paid to a knee problem and having routine check-ups. When I wasn’t chocking over the cost (prohibitive in Australia these days) I was marveling at the luxurious surroundings of doctor’s offices and the hospitals full of high-tech medical machinery. I also visited a Montessori nursery school equipped with bright toys, fish tanks, colorful books, and much more, and was close to tears when I compared it with the dirt floors and smelly dark corners available to toddlers here.

Only a few weeks after, at the end of June, I was in Amsterdam for a week of work-related meetings at our head office. Meeting up with our Dutch colleagues and others from field offices in Colombia, Sierra Leone, Sudan, Uganda, Afghanistan, and Israel/Palestine was invigorating and useful. I’m very grateful that our organization gives us the opportunity to do this every year. Needing urgent dental work I also hopped over to London for a few days. I was in London when an attempt was made to blow up a car outside a popular night club; taking the underground and walking along crowded Oxford Street (especially being at Oxford Circus for some reason) made me nervous. I feel safer here in Bukavu! I was fortunate enough to avoid the worst problems at Heathrow; my luggage stayed with me and my flights all arrived on time. I was especially happy to see a couple of old friends, talk to a couple more on the phone, and also enjoyed a pub lunch with my cousin in Highgate – not far from the cemetery where Marx is buried, and a walk up the hill from a stone commemorating Dick Whittington and his famous cat, which may mean nothing to you but all English school children (at least in my day!) know the story of the young Dick Whittington who went on to become Mayor of London three times over.

We endured a week of rain and cold weather in Amsterdam, but the skies brightened while I was in London (in spite of catastrophic flooding elsewhere), allowing me to walk around and enjoy St James’ Park, Green Park, Trafalgar Square, and the view from the bridge that crosses the Thames between Charing Cross and the Royal Festival Hall, near the Eye. London at it’s best.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

The boring bits

Just in case you think I'm always dashing off on exciting adventures, I should report that yesterday morning (Saturday!) I spent a solid three hours in the office filing papers, while my local colleagues took a much-needed computer class in the room next door. When I first began here a year ago I inherited a cupboard jammed full with a mess of papers, the result of a hasty evacution in mid-2004, followed by two years of management by people who didn't pay much attention to minor administrative details such as filing documents. I've been gradually sorting through all these papers (truly, an enormous pile!) piece by piece during the past year. Yesterday I finally sorted, trashed, and filed the last remaining pile. A whole new section of desk has now opened up. Being in the sorting mood, I then went home and spent an hour or so sorting out papers there! My one adventure this weekend: driving to the office this morning (Sunday) the roads were quite deserted so I took the opportunity to speed up the rocky, gouged track in third gear, bouncing from side to side all the way. And some people have to go to special tracks and rent all-terrain tricycles to have that much fun!

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Blogging en Afrique!

When I have the time, I really enjoy reading blogs by other people working in Africa. I've added a few of them to my Links list (right hand side of the screen). A terrifically well written and amusing article on mobile phones in this part of the world can be found at Reality Check. The author, Barry, is a colleague who does consulting work for War Child Canada. On the Kivu Express, written by my friend Pierre who just arrived here from Montreal a couple of weeks ago, you'll find an interesting and informative description of Bukavu - there are more photos, too! Two of my favourite blogs are Breaking Hearts in the Heart of Darkness and Conrad's Ex-Girlfriend, both written by a young American woman who manages to be very funny when writing about all the craziness that goes on out here. Happy reading!

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Easter Weekend

Finally I made it across the lake by boat to Goma! I've been wanting to make this trip for a while, and it was worth the wait. We had perfect weather both on the trip out on Saturday and for the return on Monday morning. Below are a few of the photos that I took along the way.

Just a reminder - Bukavu and Goma sit on opposite ends of Lake Kivu, the sixth largest lake in Africa. The lake also forms the border between large sections of Rwanda and the DR Congo. The scenery all along the lake is spectacular: islands, traditional life-styles, fishing boats, hills and mountains...

We travelled by modern, speedy, 20-seater motor boat. It was a three-hour trip each way. Others on the lake travel at a slower pace. When I saw this large boat full of passengers I couldn't figure out the means of propulsion. I assume the occupants are from the island of Ijwi - a large island that sits in the middle of the lake, closer to Bukavu than Goma.

Here we are, speeding towards Goma, with the Nyirangogo volcano in the background. The volcano erupted in early 2002 causing a humanitarian emergency in Goma, which had already seen far more than it's share of refugees following the 1994 genocide in neighbouring Rwanda.

The streets of Goma are still filled with scattered lava rocks which flowed through the town, burning buildings, down to the lake. The place is a mess! While there is plenty of cash circulating around town, thanks to all the mining activities - with some fabulous houses as evidence - no taxes are paid and no money goes into public services. The hospital is one I'd definitely rather not end up in; there is little infrastructure; intermittent electricity; no street lights, and sticky water pumped up from the lake. Even so, in places I was reminded strongly of the Kona side of the Big Island of Hawaii thanks to all the bouganvillea, lava rock walls, cinder tracks between houses in the back lanes, and the hot sun.

On the way back we saw plenty more fishing boats, like this pirogue near Bukavu:

And here we are approaching Bukavu once again - the calm waters protected by the surrounding islands, unlike Goma where the lake is almost like the sea.

While I've been uploading these photos I was also checking the web for more information about the volcano. It appears that I'm not the only one who isn't sure about the spelling: I found items under both "Nyirangogo" and "Nyiragongo". Wikipedia has interesting details for anyone who's interested in more information. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mount_Nyiragongo

Dowry in Rwanda
I didn't get time to post earlier, but towards the end of March I went up to Kigali by car (a five hour drive each way) to attend the dowry ceremony of two friends in Rwanda. We were, again, blessed with gorgeous weather, and I thoroughly enjoyed the drive each way through the green hills and the Nyungwe forest - thankfully in an office vehicle as we were also picking up visitors from our HQ. Dowry in Rwanda is paid by the man to his prospective bride's family. Many women see it as an indication of their value to society and have no interest in changing this element of their culture. Traditionally the dowry is paid in cows, though nowadays for people living in the city cash is more useful. When a cow is given, the first calf born would traditionally be given back to the young married couple. I attended a dowry ceremony a while back where a young cow was indeed presented at the ceremony.

The ceremony usually lasts several hours and takes place at the home of the woman's family. Each side is represented by older male relatives. The young man arrives, accompanied by a supportive group of friends and relatives. The older men do the negotiating. It's somewhat like a set theatre piece, where everyone knows the outcome, but they still go through their roles. Generally the man's side requests the woman's hand in marriage; the first reply is why this one? Maybe you've made a mistake? She has sisters who are still unmarried...after an appropriate response, the next problem is that she isn't available, she's gone off to Paris to visit an uncle, to Brussels for studies, or something similar. After further discussions, some other member of the woman's family may say something complimentary about the young man to show that he's acceptable; others may object; in the end another person will say they've just had news that the woman has arrived at the airport...(she's waiting in the house all the while). Once they've finally agreed to accept the young man, the male representatives will go off "to inspect the cows" (usually a quick walk around the block!); and finally the young woman appears, accompanied by female family members and traditional dancers.

A final word before I dash out the door for dinner with friends: thank you to Elisa, and everyone else who posts comments! It's great to hear from people, and your comments really encourage me to post more often! Ciao for now!

Saturday, March 31, 2007

At the speed of years

Today marks my official one year anniversary with War Child Holland, and about three weeks from now is the one year mark of my arrival in DR Congo. During my first couple of months here I couldn't wait to leave; now I've just signed the contract for my second year without a second thought. A young French woman, recently arrived to work with one of the big international NGOs, lasted about three weeks. Apparently the last straw was a trip to Kinshasa where she got stuck at the airport due to the fighting in the city that killed an estimated 600 people. That would probably do it for me to! I have no intention to go to Kin (as the city is known here), and fortunately don't see any reason why I would need to. There is no support here in Bukavu for the former vice-president at the root of the problems, so life here remains calm, relatively speaking - and it's all relative. This morning we have the usual problems - a couple of visiting colleagues stuck at the Rwanda border over a visa issue; another colleague called in to the local national security office (a very scary place) for questioning (he's just reappeared at our office, I'm happy to say). And it's only Saturday morning! But I do wish the French woman had stuck it out long enough to find out it's not really that bad. The most vivid image in my mind from the past few weeks is of a motorcycle-taxi driver in town. With passenger perched behind, dark glasses on his face, his head was adorned with a set of clean white fluffy rabbit ears, the large perky kind with the pink satin lining that a young girl might wear to a costume party. That really was my laugh for the day. Sorry no photo, but you'll just have to imagine this oh-so-cool young lad on the motorbike with his fluffy white rabbit ears!

Saturday, February 17, 2007

More Dakar Photos: Tabaski Sheep

Tabaski is the Senegalese name of a traditional Islamic holiday which celebrates the time when Abraham (Ibrahim) was going to sacrifice his son, but then God told him to kill a sheep (or a goat?) instead. The date for this holiday changes each year; it was most recently celebrated on 31st December. In Dakar everyone buys a sheep to kill and eat on the day. In the weeks leading up to Tabaski the suburbs of Dakar were filled with sheep for sale; on one outing we were caught in a huge traffic jam and surrounded by sheep! Here are a few photos of some of the sheep - they are much larger and tougher looking than the sheep usually seen in places like England or Australia.

These past few weeks have flown by so fast I hadn't even realised it was so long since I'd posted anything on the blog. During this time I was acting Head of Mission for a couple of weeks while my line manager was away, I moved into a new house and am still getting it organised the way I want it, I took in two cats that my friends at IRC didn't want, and my new housemate arrived. At work we've been busy holding meetings with our potential partners for the coming two years, and I designed a needs assessment form to assess their non-formal education programs.

It is inspirational meeting with potential partners. They are local people who work incredibly hard for little or no pay, to help children the rest of society doesn't care about. They work in cramped offices often without basic needs such as a clean toilet, electric light, or a computer on which to write the project proposals and reports that we request from them. The children are former child-soldiers (both boys and girls), orphans, girls who have been raped and thus shunned by their families, children who have been accused of witchcraft (often just a ploy by a step-parent to get rid of an unwanted child), street children who left their families due to maltreatment or simple poverty....and there is so much poverty here, due to years of war and rampant corruption.

Yesterday I visited one center which provides literacy classes to youth, and a catch-up program where the primary school curriculum can be completed in three years. The classrooms are constructed out of pieces of wood and plastic sheeting from Unicef, the windows and doors are just blank spaces, and the floors are mud. However, they had constructed brick and cement toilets which are actually a rarity here at most centers I visit.

All of this is in enormous contrast to the protected and privileged peninsula where I live in a large, comfortable, two-storey house providing tranquil views of Lake Kivu and the mountain range beyond, and set in a spacious garden full of tropical flowers. We are pampered by an excellent housekeeper who cooks delicious food - all of it cooked from scratch using loads of fresh local fruit and vegetables. I feel rather sorry for the majority of Westerners who survive on tasteless processed products.

It was bright and sunny when I left the house this morning to come to the office. Since then we've had yet another tropical downpour and my walk home is going to be very muddy indeed!

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

More Scenes from the Dakar Suburbs

Sweeping the street in the early morning, with the Atlantic Ocean in the background - this was on the main road running south from Dakar.

I took this photo of the old colonial building, and only later noticed the man with the missing hand. In all the countries where I've been in Africa I frequently see disabled people - many of whom have been maimed in war, crippled from polio, or who are born with deformities that in the West would be quickly put right soon after birth, but here people are too poor or there are no surgeons available.

Here's a street stall: note the Christmas tinsel!

Monday, January 22, 2007

Sunday, Sunday!
Today started out overcast and cool, and gradually the clouds got darker and darker and it eventually poured down for an hour or so. But by early afternoon it all cleared up and the sun popped out from behind the clouds, so I walked over to the office, marvelling at how quickly the sun was drying up all the puddles.

Some of my friends occasionally query how I spend my days at work. Sometimes I do too! Another week has gone by, and what did I achieve? With the start of the new year we are in the process of selecting partners to work with over the next couple of years. This has involved several visits to eleven different partner-NGOs (local non-government organisations working with children) gathering information about how they work and what they do that will help us select the best partners for our work. The visits are carried out by our local staff, although I sometimes do go out on field visits with them. Otherwise I'm in the office planning the overall work, reading their reports, making sure they keep on track with their work plans, and doing other desk work such as writing sections of our annual report, preparing monitoring and evaluation plans, thinking up ways to improve our work, record keeping and so on. It's amazing just how much time the planning takes - but good planning is enormously important, and saves time in the end.

For the next couple of weeks I'll also be busy managing the day-to-day activities of the office as a whole, since I'm acting head of mission while the real Head of Mission is away on leave. A couple of the logistical items to deal with are preparing the new house that I'll be moving into next weekend (we have a new international expat staff member arriving, and I'll be sharing the new house with him, leaving our Head of Mission some privacy in his own place); and making arrangements for the return of a former vehicle from Uganda. We use Toyata Land Cruisers - not the same as the fancy SUV's you see on the road in the US - specially adapted for field work in really rough places. When our office here was closed down temporarily in June 2004 following a military attack on the city, the cars were sent up to the Uganda program office. We are now retrieving one of them, and it will be driven from Uganda to the border with Rwanda, where two of our logistics team will meet it, and drive it back down here.

And now I'm heading back home, as some friends are coming over for Sunday afternoon "tea" and a chat. Will post more Senegal photos next week!

Fortunately it's still possible to get a really good cup of coffee in Dakar, in spite of all the advertising for Nescafe. But on the street guys are making a living selling shots of Nescafe in tiny plastic cups.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

More photos from Senegal
Here are a couple more photos - no time to post more today!

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Scenes from the Suburbs
The following photographs were taken while driving out of Dakar towards the Bandia National Park, or driving back from Lac Rose, about 35 km from the city centre.

This type of bus is known as a "car rapide" and is usually anything but, as it stops all the time to pick up more passengers!

Yummy french baguettes available everywhere!
Travels in Africa: my return trip from Dakar, Senegal to Bukavu, DR Congo

This is how it should have gone: arrive at Dakar airport at approximately 14:00h, in plenty of time to check in for 16:40h flight. Take Kenya Airways flight KQ 513 from Dakar to Nairobi, arriving Nairobi at 05:40h on Saturday morning. Leave Nairobi at 08:00h and arrive in Kigali, Rwanda at 08:25h (Rwanda is one hour behind Kenya), in plenty of time to take the 11:30h flight down to Cyangugu, where the office car would pick me up at 12:05h and take me across the border – allowing me a comfortable day and a half to recover from the trip and get my head together in time to arrive at the office refreshed at 08:00h on Monday morning.

No such luck! This is what actually happened:
Arrived at Dakar airport in 45 minutes, at 13:30, because there was less traffic than expected. Hadn’t had time to think about lunch. On checking-in found that flight was delayed until 21:30. Had already given away remaining CFA (west-African currency) so had no cash to buy food or even think about returning to town; Kenya Airways did not provide any refreshments for waiting passengers. Seats in the departure lounge were metal, and very uncomfortable. The flight finally commenced boarding at around 22:30 and we were airborne by 23:30. Seats were unassigned (after all the effort I had made to ensure I got an aisle seat close to the front!). We were served an indifferent meal at midnight. Wanted to sleep, but after 45 minutes the plane landed in Bamako (Mali), where it stayed for another 45 minutes, lights full on, systems revving noisily – impossible to sleep. At 09:00 Senegal time, midday in Kenya, we landed in Nairobi, without the benefit of breakfast, which had been cancelled for some obscure reason related to the previous delays. I had missed my connection to Kigali, and also the further connection to Cyangugu.

At Nairobi airport there’s a woefully under-staffed service desk where people go to check in for their next flight if they’re in transit, or to sort out messes like mine (and almost everyone else on my flight). I spent over three hours at the service desk, waiting for someone to figure out which flight they would put me on to get to Kigali, and what to do about the fact that the Sunday flight to Cyangugu had been cancelled and there wouldn’t be another one until Tuesday. Having enjoyed one small meal in the previous 24 hours, and a mere three or four hours sleep (no Maggie Thatcher, me!), I was expecting to keel over at any minute. Some intelligent person decided they’d best put me up in a hotel overnight and send me on my way to Kigali the following day. Once that was decided, I then had to go through immigration (Kenya Airways paid the $20 transit visa fee and I breezed through), and make my way downstairs to the airline’s hotel accommodation desk and wait in line again. When the young woman asked for my boarding pass for the following day’s flight (required before a hotel room voucher could be issued), which I didn’t have, and then told me I needed to go back upstairs, through immigration to the departure concourse, to the service desk to get one, I knew that I’d reached my limit of physical and mental endurance. “I haven’t eaten anything for over twelve hours, I’ve had only three hours sleep, and I think I’m going to faint” I told the woman in desperation. Fortunately she was sympathetic and there wasn’t a crowd waiting for assistance, so she told me to sit down, conjured up a box of hot, juicy chicken, grabbed my ticket, and went off to do battle at the service desk far more efficiently than I could have done. About half an hour later, boarding pass and hotel voucher in hand, I went out to board the hotel bus. I was more tired than ever, and when I discovered an empty bus that was not going to move until it was full (about two hours away), I burst into tears from sheer exhaustion. Once again I was rescued by a sympathetic person - this time the bus driver, who went off to make whatever arrangements he needed to make, and then returned to drive me, the sole passenger on the bus, to the hotel on the highway halfway between the city and the airport. On the way the driver did his best to cheer me up by pointing out the giraffe family in the park outside the airport, and I cheered up thinking how wonderful it was to see giraffes and to be in Kenya, where everything was looking unusually green after all the rain, and knowing I’d soon be in the luxurious Panari hotel and could order a pot of good Kenyan tea, which I knew would automatically be served with milk, unlike in Senegal where milk is an unusual request.

Soon after 16:00 (four hours after landing!) I was settled into an eighth floor room with extensive views towards Nairobi city center in one direction, and flat parkland in the other, running a hot bath, enjoying the tea, and grateful that I’d put a change of underwear and clean shirt in my carry-on back-pack, as my suitcase was still at the airport. At 07:00 the next morning a mini-bus picked up me, and a small group of other passengers, to take us back to the airport. The place was jam-packed with people of all colors and nationalities waiting in lines all over the place. Fortunately I didn’t need to check in again, so stood in the immigration line, which moved with unexpected efficiency. The same efficiency was not in evidence back at the service desk, where I’d been told to go and collect my $100 compensation from Kenya Airways to help me get from Kigali to Cyangugu (not enough to cover the actual cost, as it turned out), and where the long line promised another three-hour wait and the certainty of another missed flight. So I went right to the front of the line and asked, as loudly as I could, for the duty manager, and asked him for the money I was owed for my delayed and cancelled flights. For anyone who knows me, you’ll know that I never jump queues, but at that point if I’d stood in line again I really would have missed my flight to Kigali, and not having any cash on me I really had no other option. After another half-hour or so of waiting, someone from the finance office finally showed up to give me a crisp $100 bill and a waiver form to sign – no getting any further compensation out of them! After a quick stop at the duty free shop (where they take credit cards) to pick up chocolates, Kenyan macadamia nuts, and the latest Alice Walker and Scot Turow novels, I headed for gate 4 from where the Kigali flight always leaves. Expecting to come across at least one person I knew, I was not disappointed. As I walked slowly through the departure lounge looking around at the mix of faces, someone called out my name – my boss’s partner. And I was lucky, because she knew it would cost me more than $100 to go by taxi down to Cyangugu, and she gave me another crisp $100 bill before we landed in Kigali.

As soon as I was through immigration I switched on my mobile and called Ezra, the most reliable Kigali taxi driver I know. My luck was in, and he was available for the long drive. He was there at the curbside within 10 minutes and we headed into town, first to change those crisp bills into Rwandan francs, and then to fill up on gas. It was close to a year since I’d made that drive from Kigali down to Butare and I enjoyed it as always. Rwanda’s rolling hills were greener than ever after a strong rainy season – unlike the same time last year – and the familiar countryside was restful on the eyes. After a couple of hours we arrived in Butare, my old “ home town”, and stopped at the Ibis Hotel for lunch and to hand over gifts sent from Rwandans in Senegal to a friend in Butare. Christopher, who works with IRC in Bukavu, found me there at the Ibis. He’d also come down from Kigali by taxi, and was waiting for the IRC car to meet him in Butare and then take him the next 3-hour segment of the drive. He invited me to join him, so I told the happy Ezra he could head off back to Kigali. And then Christopher and I waited, and waited. Turned out the IRC car had left Bukavu a couple of hours later than it should have, and also had a flat tire on the way. It finally showed up at 16:00 – by which time we knew there was no way we would reach Cyangugu in time to make it across the border which closes every day at 17:00. That would be my third night on the journey since leaving Dakar. We made a brief stop in Gikongoro to get the tire fixed, enough time for me to call my Dutch friend Doutsen who came to chat for ten minutes before we set off for the drive through Nyungwe forest. Towards the end of the drive the mist moved in, it grew dark, and the way to Cyangugu seemed longer than ever. Eventually we got there, and drove up to the entrance of the Peace Guest House (run by the Anglican church in Rwanda). Dinner, an omelet for me, fish brochette for Christopher, took the usual hour or so to arrive, and I was instantly missing the excellent fast “fast” food available all over Dakar. My bed for the night felt cold and damp compared to the comfortably cool, dry nights in Dakar. We skipped breakfast in the morning, had no trouble crossing the border – no bribes requested, nobody checked our health documents, nobody asked to look through our luggage – and I arrived at my office by 09:20 Monday morning, just about two days later and much more tired than planned!

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Baobab Trees in Senegal

One thing I loved in Senegal are the baobab trees. This one is at the entrance to Bandia National Park, near Dakar.

This baobab is estimated to be around 800 years old, and was used as a cemetary: the bodies of "griots" were "buried" in crevices within the tree.

Here's a young visitor looking at the old bones inside the baobab.

The baobab fruit produce a delicious juice.

Giraffe and a baobab: for some reason I thought that giraffes were only found in eastern and southern Africa. I was wrong! This is in Bandia National Park, near Dakar.