A Travellerspoint blog

The Coke Test

storm 42 °C

I like the heat of Africa and I am no longer good with the cold, but although DRC dry season has had me breaking out the fleeces and woollen socks it has been good for one thing - road travel. Equateur rainy season brings raging storms that cut out comms for 2 days [and have my other half panicking that the war has started again and I have been its first victim] and makes road travel the worst part of my job. Eleven hours later and my back and neck feel as though they have been in traction for a week, lest we forget I have lost an entire working day to travel 200km at a snail’s pace. The Gemena base station has now become almost entirely isolated, with irregular and unreliable flights to the capital maybe once a week and frequent closing of the three mobile phone networks that serve the province. This has made the aforementioned Gemena – Dongo – Gemena road trip essential for any kind of movement in and out of the province, and carting 3 phones around everywhere and a proliferation of one line emails a necessity for basic communication with the teams. It’s getting old very fast.

Dongo itself is recovering fast. The security situation is stable, the market and churches are full and the local schools are set for their highest intake since the conflict. NGOs are widening their work, moving South on the notorious Enyele axis to work with the returning populations and although the road is pretty awful the villages have grown and agricultural activities have begun in earnest. A young girl along the Enyele route offered to show us an unexploded item 1 km into the forest, little did I know I was on a wild chase with Dora the Explorer and 2 hours later we stumbled across a cacao plantation being farmed by her village and the pods exported to Cameroon via Bangui. Commerce is a good sign. And we found a rocket fuse! It’s a different story further south where the army and police out-number the locals and a very small percentage of the population feels confident enough to return to their homes, but the headway is visible and the situation is definitely stabilising. The elections have not come at a good time.

On the trip back from Dongo we saw lots of large groups of young men dressed in traditional grass skirts and headdresses with traditional weaponry, conducting ceremonies with community leaders. These young warriors were taken into the forest about 7 months ago by ‘trainers’, local community leaders, who have been teaching them how to hunt, fight and live in the forest. During this time they are also all circumcised which is why we also noticed a large number of funerals taking place throughout these villages – the training is violent, the boys can be as young as 10 when they leave, and the circumcision is not sanitary. Many boys each year die from infections, beatings and malnutrition. The surviving boys return as men and are now considered dangerously strong; women from the villages flee for days to avoid being beaten by returning warriors keen to display their new skills.

The Congolese members of our team born in large towns, cities or the capital shook their heads at these stories and muttered about the backward ways of ‘les villageois’ but it is more realistic than traditionalistic. I have lived in this part of the world for more than a year and I have been shocked at how basic my life is here; and it’s even more shocking given that my life is dramatically better than the lives of even the rich Congolese in this Province. More than once I have wondered how the villagers in some of these areas survive; their existence is based around very basic hunter-gatherer principles, relying entirely on the forest for their survival. In dry season when the tributaries disappear their lives must be almost impossible. So, although far from ideal by our standards, these traditional ceremonies do what they must – teach young boys how to survive the life they have been born into.

I was travelling with an American guy, who asked where he could buy a Coca Cola as soon as we arrived in Gemena. Apparently all Americans believe Coke is available everywhere in the world which says a lot about their marketing department but not too much about the US national curriculum. North Equateur definitely fails the ‘Coke Test’. When the river is up you are fairly sure to find a Congolese beer or two but cans are expensive [$2] and thus very rare finds. When the river is low you are lucky to find to find fuel, and bottled water is flown up by commercial flight and therefore only available to the richest of North Equateur’s residents. I think the reality is that the supply follows the demand, and being the only expats in Gemena besides the small MONUSCO contingent – who have their own private supply of everything – I imagine the demand of 4 expats is not high enough to warrant the 300km, 25 day boat delivery of cans of Coke. And the girls only drink Diet.

Posted by hobbit1 03:40 Archived in Democratic Republic of Congo Tagged equateur demining coke Comments (0)

Seven days in Kinshasa

semi-overcast 24 °C

I am back! And Kin is still as crazy as ever. I have slept for perhaps 6 hours since landing at midday on Saturday, fresh from the jungle and ready to fill my boots. And Kinshasa never disappoints.......

The journey home from the airport was essentially a 3 hour traffic jam during which I was called a whore by a Lebanese man after his car drove into ours trying to jump one car ahead in bumper to bumper traffic [he explained he was rich and if he had to physically push us off the road he would just pay the damages but we had to let him pass – get a life bro], was accosted by a group of street kids high on weed, and was greeted at home by no electricity, no water and a melting fridge. Bienvenue.
After managing the many household crises I headed out to sample the best chicken in DRC, at Mama Colonel in Mbandale [ok so Mbandale is in the red zone but it has a second restaurant in Macompagne for all the UN and NGO people who cannot handle the mean streets of Kin]. After that it was off to Black & White for a drink, then to the Annual Jazz Street Festival outside Ibiza Bar on the Rue de Jazz, then on to The Fiesta for the evening, interrupted by a 10 minute firework display in the centre of town. My boots were filling.

A lazy Sunday morning turned into madness beginning with a sugar rush of frozen yoghurt and a caffeine hit at Nicecream, and then off to the Stade des Martyrs for the Confederation Cup game between Congolese and Tanzanian clubs. We sat calmly in the salle d’honneur [VIP] for the first half and at half-time we headed to a small terrace for a drink where scrawled over all the walls is the word ‘furminoir’ [a mutation of fourmi noir – black ant]. The stadium is controlled by street kid gangs, all stands apart from the VIP and team areas, and the furminoir are a notorious gang that support Kinshasa team VitaClub and occupy the stands on the east-side of the stadium. During half-time the gangs test their members, or just show off to their peers, by encroaching into the territory of the other gangs. It’s a dangerous game – if they get caught by an opposing gang too far from the support of their allies the beatings are vicious and have been known to be fatal. My partner decides we will watch the second-half from the east-side stand’s second tier – furminoir hunting ground. It’s easily the best view in the stadium and aside from having to support the other team for 45 minutes nothing is different.......until they start to lose. Then the rocks and stones start landing on the pitch and the Police Militaire deploy to the stands, sending hundreds of kids racing down the terraces and out onto the street. The PM are notoriously ruthless and wander around the stands whipping long white canes at anyone between 5 and 25 years old. Those who fight back are rewarded with a group beating that is stopped only by an outbreak of fighting elsewhere in the stands. Occasionally the PM trap someone too brave or too slow to run, and it’s no joke. We decided to avoid the traffic and leave 5 minutes before the end. A path through the kids and military clears for us and, despite the violence just moments before, everyone moves calmly and smiles politely at me as if pretending the last 30 minutes of beatings never happened, or maybe they were hoping I hadn’t noticed. Following me out of the stands were 2 PM dragging down the concrete stairs a completely naked and heavily drunk and beaten street kid of about 17 who is likely to be having the worst week of his life in a military jail somewhere in Kinshasa. And nobody blinked.

After the afternoon reality check we found light relief at the Centre Culturel in the old Presidential Zoo at Mont-Ngaliema for a concert of African music and some even better fireworks. The line-up included the best known Congolese choral group Les Enchanteurs, Fredy Massamba singing French and Lingala blues, and the old Zaico with a special guest performance from the amusingly-named Bill Clinton. After much Tembo and makayabu fuelled merriment we finally crashed at midnight.

I had a serious case of the Lundiose in the office but it was worth it......

Posted by hobbit1 01:37 Archived in Democratic Republic of Congo Tagged street kids Comments (0)

What is going on under the Equateur?!

sunny 37 °C

I have been in Gemena for 7 months now and I can quite honestly say I have never experienced anywhere like it before in my life......

Equateur Province is almost the same size as France and the River Congo divides the province into roughly half. Gemena is the capital of the Northern half but a small town by African standards and a small village by Western standards. There is nothing to do and nowhere to go. So much so that the Welfare Committee of the MONUSCO Gemena contingent held a BBQ on Friday night to try to stop all their employees from going insane. We felt such a sense of relief that we were not alone that we re-created a second BBQ just 48 hours later just to make sure the ‘club’ was firmly entrenched in the Gemena social calendar. [It was here that I learnt of a plan to start monthly chicken deliveries brought from Kinshasa to Gemena on the MONUSCO flights by a chicken delivery boy using two cool-boxes of frozen chicken thighs as his carry-on hand-luggage.......so that’s where all the UN money goes......]

North Equateur [Gbadolite] was the home of Mobutu and his strong-hold until his very last days in power but his fierce brand of patrimonialism lives on, and Gemena is home to opposition party leader Jean-Pierre Bemba who’s very public political battles with President Kabila have barely diminished since his war crimes trial at the International Criminal Court began last November. Add to the mix 2 small-scale rebellions in Dongo at the end of 2009 and Mbandaka in April 2010 and it’s easy to see how this is the poorest and most under-developed province in DRC – and thus home to some of the poorest people on the planet.

And with elections scheduled for the end of this year Equateur’s fortunes are unlikely to change any time soon. A few token and under-funded road rehabilitation projects have been started and I have spotted the odd pailotte encouraging voters to register for up-coming elections around Gemena town, but the de-prioritisation of the Province extends even to the international community. Once blinded by the enormous numbers of refugees and internally displaced fleeing rebel fighters and the subsequent FARDC response, donors are now under-whelmed by soaring malnutrition and complete lack of even the most basic healthcare or infrastructure.

Where international aid should be flocking the number of agencies and projects is actually diminishing. All but a few have stayed to support the handful of NGOs and UN agencies trying to overcome numerous logistical hurdles and structural malfunction at almost every level to make the population feel a little less ignored – which is crazy because here just a little bit makes such a difference in a country where ‘value for money’ is almost a standing joke.

Posted by hobbit1 06:46 Archived in Democratic Republic of Congo Comments (0)

Toothpaste Flower

overcast 25 °C

I have been brushing my teeth over the same rock since September, carefully chosen to avoid the vegetable patch and grass that our partner organisation is rather optimistically trying to grow, and I have returned from leave to find a giant white toothpaste flower growing next to the rock.....who knew......

I am back in Equateur, and if I was thinking about all my friends and relatives Christmassing in the snow, wrapped up in hats and coats, thinking how much I miss winter, I am certainly not now. Its dry season, and for the first time since I have come to Africa there has been an actual change of season as I would define it.......i.e. its FREEZING. And I don’t just mean there is a chill in the air; during the day it is much like a summer holiday in the Mediterranean, and at night it’s like September in Moscow – ok maybe that’s a bit far but it’s cold enough to sleep in socks and a jumper. I am in Dongo, within an hour’s flight of the Equateur, but I am coughing, sniffling and sneezing like a little girl.

On my way here I stopped in Bobito, a fairly large town by North Equateur standards, where I bought a 50CDF bag of peanuts from a boy of about 12 years old. Being naive and still in holiday mode I asked him if he was in school; he looked at me as if I had just asked him if he had ever flown a plane and his older brother behind him scoffed ‘Ecole? Lui?’, and I walked back to the car while every under 15 in the market laughed at the ‘mundele’ and her hilarious joke about school.......ho hum, I dare to dream.........

I spent Christmas, New Year and, incidentally, my birthday in Kinshasa. On Christmas Day morning [preparation for these kinds of things has never been my strength] I left a supermarket with bags full of exciting things I can only dream of in Equateur [cheese, cake, wine] in preparation for the evening’s festivities. There was an entire family sat on the pavement under a tree by my car, in complete tatters just watching the vast number of people, who were also not prepared in advance, come and go through the big glass entrance. They weren’t begging or selling anything, they were just watching the world go by with vague interest. It was soul-destroying – this is their Christmas Day?! Ok so Christmas here is really just about all the family getting together in the evening to eat and drink together and parents buy presents for the younger children [and it feels a lot more genuine than the absolute circus it has become back home], but sitting out on the street as a family rather than split up all over the city begging? It might be all relative but it was just a little bit more than I could take......best $10 I ever spent........

Posted by hobbit1 03:06 Archived in Democratic Republic of Congo Tagged children christmas homeless equator demining Comments (0)

House on the River Congo

storm 15 °C

In 1883 Stanley arrived in Mbandaka and placed a rock on the South bank where he believed the Equator crossed the river, he was about 6km out. The heat when I arrived here was quite incredible, I could really feel the difference in just 393km between here and Gemena, but what surprised me the most were the beautiful old colonial buildings that remain intact and in use. This country does not have a good track record of preserving buildings, war and neglect can have that effect, but here in Mbandaka you can still see evidence of the Belgians; large square houses surrounded by wide terraces with fenced gardens lining a grid network of paved roads.

I am here for two weeks, staying in an old house on the river and enjoying so far bi-polar weather [two days of broiling in intense 12hr sunshine, and 1 day swimming around town wearing every layer of clothing I brought with me]. I have not been feeling so good in the last 2 weeks, I thought it was just a bug but it has stayed with me so I decided to visit the Centre de Sante yesterday, recommended to me by colleagues as one of the best outside Kinshasa. I walked into an unlit reception room with a nurse in grey-blue scrubs and gave her my basic symptoms in my best French, which she jotted down carefully in a school notebook with a picture of Samuel Eto’o on the front while sticking a dirty, smelly thermometer into my arm-pit [well at least it wasn’t in my mouth]. ‘It’s 6,000CF to see the doctor’, and she held out her hand. Ok, I can live with $7. I jumped the queue [in front of babies and elderly men – so uncomfortable], and went straight through to the doctor’s office which was equally unlit although he was impeccably dressed. He thought I have amoebas in my intestine, same as a colleague of mine and exactly what I was expecting, but would like me to take blood tests anyway [15,000CF]. He gave me pills for my amoebas and I debated just going home and taking a nap, but just to be sure I agreed to the blood tests. I was led into another unlit room, a kitchen, with a broken window and two lab assistants dressed in oversized white coats. There are two chairs, barely any equipment, and when one assistant asks if I want a new needle and syringe [2,000CF] I start to have reservations. After my blood is spilt a sample is added to a chipped piece of glass and left to dry on a filthy window sill under a grey, decaying curtain.

This is the best medical centre in Mbandaka, the provincial capital just a 40 minute flight from the capital, certainly the most expensive, at 23,000CF its out of reach for almost everyone, and I am absolutely terrified. I refuse a drip and am promised test results by the afternoon. When I return the place is deserted aside from a few live-in patients in their rooms; the doctors don’t work afternoons which essentially means nobody does – 20 minutes after he left so did everyone else. I went back this morning feeling better after 24 hours of amoeba pills and expecting nothing exciting………just typhoid fever and malaria to add to the amoebas, merde!

Posted by hobbit1 08:36 Archived in Democratic Republic of Congo Comments (0)

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