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.