John is a freelance journalist and has written for magazines including New Scientist, Science (online), Bicycle Times, and Slate. His work has appeared in daily newspapers and online news sites, and he has also reported on health and the environment for public radio stations. Despite his last name, John's not generally a violent person.
I’m excited to share that I’ve signed on as a correspondent with Mongabay.com through the Global Forest Reporting Network. It’s a great opportunity to tie some of the fantastic data now available at Global Forest Watch to what’s happening on the ground in the world’s tropical forests.
Being stuck in Goma after our evacuation from Lodja, it turned out, afforded us the opportunity to visit Africa’s oldest national park. A short but bone-jarring 40-km ride away lies Virunga National Park, best known for its flagship species, the mountain gorilla. But this massive preserve seems to encapsulate all of Africa in the same area. Check out a stunning, 14-minute video overview of the park to see what I’m talking about.
Home to mountain and lowland rain forests, wet savanna, and a spine of dormant and not-so-dormant volcanoes that straddle the equator, it’s also a haven for people displaced by conflict and various rebel groups who seek it out for the very difficulty of access that makes it so poorly known.
We spent just over 24 hours in the park – enough time to soak up some of the superb accommodations and service at Mikeno Lodge and to hike into the mountains and visit the gorillas.
I’ve included a few pictures below that struggle to capture what a surreal experience it was.
I’m working on four short blog posts that I’ll roll out over the next few weeks to sort of explain what Anne-Claire and I have been up to, and what has happened to us over the past month. Though there have been some potentially scary moments, we’ve managed to see a few new things and we certainly can’t complain about what we’ve been able to see. The raft of changes was ushered in by our evacuation from Lodja to Goma. For anyone who’s at all familiar with African politics, the fact that we were flown to Goma, the veritable seat of instability on DRC’s eastern border, should strike you as ironic, especially given the relative security and sense of safety that we’ve experienced and I’ve written about since arriving in Lodja. In fact, though, it made sense due to its proximity to Lodja by UN flights, and also because with years of instability, NGOs there have a plan when things go awry.
And that’s just what happened in Lodja last month. It’s a bit of a long story, but basically long-festering tensions between loosely affiliated (for the vast majority of the population) groups, one whose members identify themselves as being from the savanna and another whose members identify themselves as forest people. As so often happens in venial societies that engender self interest, the leadership of each group is highly centralized and manipulative of the supposed conflict for their own ends. The morning of March 25, the strongman of the savanna group, a 20-something enforcer, was shot and killed outside of his house, which happened to be right across the street from where Anne-Claire and I live, and not far from the office – where we were at the time. We had little idea that anything was wrong, until later that afternoon, when groups of young men ran past the office yelling and singing and carrying machetes. Groups of savanna affiliates set fire to houses of forest people, and we saw one man staggering down the road who had been struck three times in the head. He was bleeding a lot, but one of our colleagues saw him being stitched up at the health center a few hours later. The machetes, it seemed, were mostly employed to hack apart bamboo fences and pull them apart for those who didn’t have weapons.
It was unsettling to say the least, but at no time did we feel targeted, or for that matter even acknowledged by the two sides. Still, the leaders of Anne-Claire’s organization prudently organized our evacuation. So after two nights spent on the outskirts of town in a guesthouse run by the Passionists, a UN plane came to the airport and took us first to Kindu and then on to Goma the next day. In all, 86 homes were burned and from what I’ve heard, one other person was killed. We heard maybe a dozen shots throughout the day, coming from single-shot, colonial-era guns or homemade contraptions used for hunting. Our colleagues who have spent time in South Sudan assured us that we were lucky there are so few guns in Lodja. Machetes, they said, are much less efficient weapons. Little consolation, perhaps, to those who were in fact injured, but given the overwhelming emphasis on the community and not the individual, it’s not surprising, nor if you consider the West’s preternatural obsession with statistics, and not individual stories, to paint a picture of, and direct policies regarding, the developing world.
I didn’t take any pictures during the one eventful day, and instead just stood in dumbfounded incredulity on the porch of the office, watching with a mix of fear and curiosity. I did make some audio recordings, but I won’t post them here. After the fact the coordinated cheers sound something like I hope to write more when we return to Lodja. Most of the team has since returned, where they’re back at work. Anne-Claire and I are in Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic, helping out with some of the emergency programming going on here. More on that will come soon as well…
Just about every week, we have a spry older guy from the forest who comes and sells us palm wine. Usually, we can’t drink the five liters he sells us – not because of the alcohol content, which I figure sits somewhere between Odoul’s and Michelob Ultra. But we share it with people, and it’s so cheap at 300 francs (0.33 USD) a liter.
So we arranged to visit him and see how it was made. The actual process requires a lot of physical labor, but I spent about two hours watching the exciting part. It’s sort of like harvesting maple syrup, only you have to cut the whole tree down.
I took loads of pictures, which I thought might do a better job (with captions) of explaining the process.
Anne-Claire made this recording Thursday evening on the way home from work. As I’ve said before, I’m constantly amazed at how loud Lodja is, given that there’s no grid electricity and we’re about a thousand miles from a city that anyone in the Western Hemisphere would recognize. Yet, on any given day at any time of the day or night, you’re likely to hear an impromptu parade, a choir practice or an amped-up pastor forcefully unleashing his fervency into a crackly microphone-amp combo. The latter most often happens between the hours of midnight and 4 a.m.
At my most cynical, I blame two things: the lack of employment opportunities here in Lodja, and the preponderance of medications available. First, there’s little formal employment here in Lodja beyond agriculture and fish farming. On days when there’s not much of that sort of work to do, you’ll find a lot of men sitting around throughout the day, drinking, napping and apparently saving up energy for a rollicking night. That’s not to say all men are lazy here. However, you’ll never see a woman doing nothing unless she has just given birth, has been hit in the head with a coconut or is gravely ill.
As for the pan-availability of prescription drugs, anyone with the equivalent of a high school diploma can open up a little shop, from which they sell whatever medications they can get their hands on. They might know a little bit about what the medication is intended for, but they often can’t predict the side effects. Imagine giving someone a handful of Sudafed if they’ve got a cold and turning them loose with little advice on dosage. They’ll be spinning like a top in no time, and that seems to be what we hear at night, aided considerably by a solar panel and a car battery to amplify whatever the hell they feel like shouting about.
On a more pleasant note, impromptu singing and dancing also happens on a regular basis, and that can be quite lovely. These women just told Anne-Claire they were “the Methodists” Thursday. It was late, so the video’s not great, but I think it gives you a good idea of the unpredictability of life here.