Tag Archives: Goma

Evacuation

Butterfly at office
I took a picture of this beauty just before the first squad of savanna folks passed by the office. Not much to do with this post, but Order Lepidoptera is well represented in central Congo, to my constant joy.

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.

Flying Goma to Kindu
I’m quickly coming to regard the flights between Lodja and Goma as some of the most stunning I’ve ever been on. We often fly low enough that this is the view for much of both flights, until we hit the Albertine Rift and Lake Kivu in the east.

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.

IMG_4145
Another non-sequitor: I found these mandibles while walking around the UN airport in Kindu. I searched and searched, but couldn’t find the corresponding body.

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.

taxi-nyiragongo
Nyiragongo fumes in the background, 40 km from Goma. The helmets worn by the taxi man and his passenger are a new safety initiative in Goma – a promising step in the right direction, I think.

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…

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Reacting to “the Mess” – Part 2

The scenery on the approach to Goma from the air never disappoints.
The scenery on the approach to Goma from the air never disappoints.

I’ve been thinking a lot about what I wanted to say in this second part of my reaction to Paul Theroux’s recent article in Barron’s about aid in Africa, a sort of resolution that ties together my thoughts on development. But the truth is, I wrestle with ambivalence on the subject, and struggling to come up with a firm conclusions (or even multiple conclusions) leads me to the same answer I often give when I’m asked what life is like in Africa: It’s complicated.

Even a hardship post isn't all hardship - thanks to Santa Cruz coffee that made the roundtrip from Rwanda through California back to Central Africa.
Even a hardship post isn’t all hardship – thanks to Santa Cruz coffee that made the round trip from Rwanda through California back to Central Africa.

On the one hand, I’m so thankful for the opportunity I’ve had to see a few African countries from the ground floor, so to speak, living in small towns and villages and seeing beyond what I’d see if I were just visiting for a short time. Short of up and moving to another country with little or no outside support – following in the footsteps of Livingstone and Stanley and Mungo – working for (or having a spouse who works for) an aid organization provides one of the few opportunities to at least catch a glimpse into the daily lives of fellow human beings. And yet, that seems like a selfish reason to be involved in this sort of work, especially if you’re not sure that you’re helping more than you’re hurting.

Goma is still picking (largely by hand) away at the solidified lava flow from Nyiragongo's eruption in 2002.
Goma is still picking (largely by hand) away at the solidified lava flow from Nyiragongo’s eruption in 2002.

I see the value of small aid projects – ones that build the small savings and lending groups, for example, that Anne-Claire and her colleagues are involved in. On the individual level, it’s not hard to find the results, like the man who stood up at a recent meeting and talked about how the group taught him the value of putting money aside for a rainy day – not a trivial realization when floods or droughts or volcanoes or rebel groups or even your own government’s army can take away everything you have in an instant. But these types of projects aren’t likely to change poverty on a broader scale. What’s more, they don’t generate the kinds of numbers necessary to build a data-driven case for investment – not that data-based development is a bad thing, but more on that in a later post.

But the piles of rubble can be put to use...
But the piles of rubble can be put to use…

I guess the only real conclusion I’ve come to is that communication across culture barriers is rarely a bad thing, and the presence of aid/development organizations facilitates that crosstalk in many ways. The challenge now is to leverage what comes out of those conversations to make for better aid projects. It’s only when the people involved – the “beneficiaries” in aid-speak – are intimately involved in coming up with solutions to poverty.

Houses and walls made of hardened lava were reportedly springing up all over town before the eruption even ended.
Houses and walls made of hardened lava were reportedly springing up all over Goma before the eruption had even ended.

Switching gears a little bit but extending that idea, I came across a new book called Aid on the Edge of Chaos. The thesis is that the best answers might come from not spending so much time designing projects for an intended outcome. Instead, the author argues for giving people a tool and standing back while they figure out the best way to use it. One example given (I haven’t read the book yet) is the installation of community computer terminals connected to the Internet in Indian slums. After dropping these hard-to-come-by objects into certain areas, the project designers were surprised to see children using the Web to teach themselves English. I’m anxious to read the book, and I’d love to hear your thoughts on it if you already have.

Lodja's "premier" school - not an easy place to learn.
Lodja’s “premier” school – not an easy place to learn.

A Heartbreaking Place of Staggering Beauty

Sunrise over Giseyni, Rwanda.
Sunrise over Gisenyi, Rwanda.

In a sort of comedy of errors, we’ve been trying to get out to Lodja (our post) for the past three weeks. Basically, we have one to two chances a week to get there on flights run by the European Community or the United Nations. Between a wet and muddy runway in Lodja, the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr and airplane maintenance schedules (which, don’t get me wrong, we’re thankful for), we decided our best bet was to fly to the east of the country, to Goma, where Anne-Claire can learn a bit about the different types of programming out here. There’s also a direct flight to Lodja that seems to make the trip more frequently. Little did we know that the UN plane would be going to Nairobi for maintenance this coming week, stranding us here for another 7 days.

Goma is not ever a place I thought I’d want to see, but now that we’re here, I’m happy we came. We’d heard that Lake Kivu, which stretches south of Goma to Bukavu, was a popular vacation spot before independence, and Peace Corps even used to have a language training center here through the early ’90s. In some ways, Goma and the surrounding area feel so out of place for Africa. As I write this, I’m sitting on the porch of our swank (and secure) hotel watching the sun rise over the hills of Rwanda just on the other side of the Lake. The sun is warm, but the fact that Kivu is also more or less an alpine lake moderates the temperature so it’s cool at night and never seems to rise above the mid 80s, even here in the heart of tropics.

One of the pedal boats at our hotel. That's Rwanda in the background.
One of the pedal boats at our hotel. That’s Rwanda in the background.

And yet the contradictions here couldn’t be more African. Our hotel boasts a small climbing wall, clay tennis courts, a pool and pedal boats, while just outside the walls sits a derelict town and a road to Rwanda – the border is a five-minute walk – that’s been a refugee thoroughfare through countless conflicts. In the stunning hills rising up right from the shore of the lake to more than 9,000 feet, some of the world’s last mountain gorillas share space with the ooze of rebel groups trying to secure their piece of this mineral-rich area. In our corner of the lake, I’ve counted at least a dozen bird species I’ve never heard of before, let alone seen, from sea eagles to kingfishers to loudly plumed cranes.

The hillsides around Bukavu.
The hillsides around Bukavu.

The view into Rwanda across the lake is of green terraced plots, dense vegetation and spines of increasingly higher ridges fading into the distance. As we descended into Bukavu from Kinshasa on Wednesday, the blanket of green sharpened into fields of banana plantations, the namesake trees as thick as grass on a golf course. And yet, this is also one of the country’s, if not the world’s, most food-insecure places, as African big men, world power brokers and Western businesspeople play a constant bloody chess match, willing to wager people’s lives to get their hands on the copper, cobalt, gold, coltan, oil and whatever other valuable rocks just seem to be lying everywhere you look here.

The local populations of course pay the biggest price. In one 20-month period at the end of the 1990s, an estimated 1.7 million people died in eastern Congo as part of conflict. Only 200,000 of those deaths, though, were the result of fighting. It’s here where the DRC, Uganda and Rwanda all meet. Not far off are borders with Burundi, South Sudan and Central African Republic. Throw in the interests of Tanzania, Angola, Zimbabwe, Libya and Namibia – all of which have played puppeteer with military forces in this resource-cursed country at one point or another, and you understand why Gerard Prunier titled his book Africa’s World War. I mentioned this book a couple of weeks ago, and it’s since become an obsession of mine. I thought that by reading his book I’d be able to understand (in a way my American brain always expects to) where the malevolent interests lie and who, for lack of a better way to put it, are the good guys.

A view of the islands of southern Lake Kivu, just after taking off from Bukavu.
A view of the islands of southern Lake Kivu, just after taking off from Bukavu.

The only conclusion I have come to is that the only “good guys” are the non-players, the people who stay out of the fray and try to farm the fertile hillsides here and who risk becoming collateral damage (as were the 1.5 million who died between 1998-2000) simply because of where they were born. The motivations behind the rest of the players seem to be a mix of justifiable anger at the West for centuries of oppression, racism and condescension, combined with unjustifiable Machiavellian greed spurred. The mix of characters and egos and self-interest makes George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones look like a feeble checker game. Like so many things about this continent, it’s nearly impossible to fully grasp. But as the cliche goes, this is an African story.

I’ll leave you with a quote from Prunier’s book. It’s a subtle observation that gets at the deficit in the way we all treat Africa. For a bit of context, he’s calling for the need to get away from the racist (his word) attitude that Africans are too easily manipulated and don’t have the smarts to play an active role in their own destiny. This sort of patronizing, Noble Savage-esque attitude doesn’t hold water, he says, and it crops up even among the best intentioned. I’ve certainly seen it firsthand in NGOs, aid organizations, and, I’m ashamed to say, in my own approach and thoughts about Africans. Here’s the passage:

“In thirty-seven years of studying Africa I have seen more whites manipulated by blacks than the other way around. But lingering postcolonial racism makes it hard for the victims to admit to themselves that they have been taken for a ride; the implicit notion that all things being equal the white fellow is smarter than the black one is still the unspoken assumption of a large number of white diplomats, international civil servants, and businesspeople.”

To turn things around, if Africans are capable of the conniving and manipulation to spin the international community in circles to achieve their own desired ends, then aren’t they also capable of improving their own lot? Thankfully, this is also something I’ve seen firsthand, and therein lies Africa’s great hope.