Wednesday, 29 July 2009

A Trip to Congo

(Reposted from an earlier version here)

So while I was in Rwanda last weekend, I was able to follow up my long-held ambition to visit DRC – mainly so that I can say I’ve been (already added it to the facebook ‘where I’ve been’!), but also because I’ve always thought it would be really interesting to go and just have a better image of what it’s like than you get from the news (even if only a little bit better). And I’m really glad I did – I’m still having a little trouble processing, but thought I’d post some of my reflections, and I’d be interested to know what people thought.
The first point is one made well by Richard Dowden in his new book, but which I’ve also picked up from reading fellow Peace Fellow Walter’s blog from Uvira; Congo doesn’t function like a state. You have to pay a lot of bribes (Walter to get his passport back from a random guy, and on our trip Parker paid a $20 bribe to get out after forgetting his yellow fever certificate, and that was only within about 4 hours), and even in the centre of town there are barely the modicum of services; things like piles of trash EVERYWHERE, no need to change money because no-one uses anything but dollars, etc*. Then there’s the usual war-zone stuff – but taken to a whole new level. Normally there are a lot of NGO cars and a lot of UN air-conditioned vehicles. Here there were barely any NGO cars and barely any UN civilian cars – but a host of UN military vehicles, petrol tankers, and the like, and a massively fortified base complete with airstrip. Proof that the development enterprise has yet to hit – just too dangerous to work effectively.
A UN Truck in Town
There's also obviously massive poverty - even in the centre of town, the standard of housing is poor, there are a lot of ragged and malnourished street children (we spotted one chewing an electric wire), and almost no cars except those owned by the UN. Also, as you would expect, there is lava everywhere and are a lot of houses in various states of disrepair. Interestingly many of them had pretty new-looking roofs, which would presumably have been nicked had they been there long; this suggests that they’re being built – but who would build big fancy lakefront houses in Goma?
A street in Central Goma
A kid chewing a bit of electrical wire
That bit was the depressing stuff – but the real reason I’m glad I went was that it made it more three-dimensional than what you see on TV; Congo isn’t just warlords and fighting and women getting raped; it also has towns where, despite everything, people cope. They use matatus and moto-taxis like everywhere else in the region. On Sundays they get out their best outfits – well made out of beautiful pagnes – and go to church – we visited one that had an altar cloth using a cut up ICRC badge for the cross. When they need to transport stuff they build wooden push-bikes that they attach dozens of jerry cans to; the technology is medieval, but it works and they can build and fix it themselves. There were also signs of 21st century Africa, with adverts for mobile phones everywhere - but unlike everywhere else, they take up all the shopfronts, showing how utterly the Congolese economy has collapsed. Visiting Goma is depressing and in the context of Congo's vast mineral wealth it is a monument to war and the resulting poverty. But it is also a testament to human ingenuity; it made me realise how people are adaptable; being born Congolese is a pretty bum deal, but people cope, and do everything they can to help themselves – to put it crudely, they don’t need saving, they need a little help, and if they get it they’ll use it imaginatively to get the most they possibly can out of it.
A Red Cross altar cloth
One of the wooden push-carts
Lastly, there was the element that was simply weird; Bujumbura is, at times, faintly threatening. Congo takes it to a whole new level. The whole time we were there we were followed by a guy with a rock, which slightly scuppered our attempt to walk out of town. He didn’t try anything, he just followed us with a rock; at first we thought he was going to rob us, later we wondered if he was going to claim to have been our protector and ask for money. But he didn’t ask, so we have no idea; he just followed us with his rock for three hours, occasionally throwing the rock at a passing UN vehicle and choosing another, and foiling all our attempts to lose him by going to church.
Our follower. The rock is in the hand away from the camera
I apologise that this post is a little rambling; as I say, haven’t quite managed to put it all together, but I’d be interested to hear any responses!
*As an aside, my father always makes me that $1 bills with me when I travel on the basis that they're useful for paying for stuff. I've never once found this to be true, and am pretty sure that the $1 bills I brought with me this time are the same ones I took when I first went travelling, in 2003. But here there were pretty useful, so I guess I should thank him!
And lastly... the volcano warning board. We were on Yellow
Update: my friend Lisa’s thoughts on our visit to Goma. Reposting them because they're different to mine, which I found interesting.
The DRC’s Goma, and Rwanda’s Gisenyi, situated right next to one another, could not be farther apart. On Sunday morning, we - Bryan, Laura, my housemate Parker, and I - crossed over the border into the Congo.  The city - if you can really call it that - is covered in dried lava, litter, United Nations vehicles, and poverty.  As we walked through the town, we quickly learned that there was not much to see or do other than avoid being attacked by the guy following us carrying a large rock (he threw the rock at passing UN trucks, but each time retrieved it and continued his stalking of the four muzungus).
I have done policy and advocacy work for the DRC, studied its history and current events in grad school, and have always wanted to visit.  But, perhaps I had not given enough thought to the widespread poverty and the deteriorating security situation.  It wasn’t until I returned that I got an email from Walter, the AP fellow living in Uvira, who told me that “visiting Goma would not be a good idea, especially since there are civilian massacres going on up there.”  Our short time in Goma was not only scary, but depressing.  As Goma is only one small town in a massive country experiencing these symptoms throughout, is there any hope for recovery?
There are some organizations doing great work in and on the DRC.  Women for Women, which I visited in Rwanda, is also in Congo (which is where I sponsor a sister).  My old organization, ENOUGH, has a bunch of interesting advocacy campaigns going on (and I have been hanging out with the coordinators of the Congo campaign this weekend, learning more about what they are doing).  I will continue to support these efforts, and I know that they are making a difference, but walking through the wasteland of Goma and seeing its children with the bad fortune of simply being born there, left me feeling quite hopeless.

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