Archive for November 2004
So waiting for this so-called war to happen has been very relaxing. I spent the weekend sunbathing and canoeing. I didn’t take the canoe out too far because– as Dr. Jo would say, this is a silly story– last week some NGO pleasure boaters went out to explore Minova, the territory on the far shore of the lake to the south, and came under fire from the 10th Congolese battalion. A British girl got shot in the calf and fell out of the boat, swam to shore and was taken into custody. Seems the boys of the 10th imagined that the boat full of mzungus crossing into another military sector could be mercenaries. More likely they were having a little target practice. In any case it was a clusterfuck and the british girl was brought to DOCS with a flesh-wound, for which she was airlifted to South Africa at a cost of $500,000– and that could buy a lot of yellow-fever vaccinations. Silly NGO people. N’empeche que we were on our way to that same place earlier that same day but didn’t have enough gas for the two-stroke. Prudence, prudence serves you well in the Congo my friends!
A word about Mama Jeanne. We have been visiting her orphanage a lot lately and it is the most impressive, filthy, warm, and effective operation, overflowing with children, chickens, goats and rabbits. Nelson was taken with a tiny little girl in a lavender dress who is the most ruthlessly adorable child in history. That is, until the dress flapped up a bit and we found that this was in fact a little boy who only has access to said dress. It was a little jarring for poor Nelson, and all of us in fact. We were treated on Sunday to lunchtime– a boiled egg, beans, bugari (ground manioc) and a piece of goat meat for each kid, a hundred or so packed into a tiny clapboard room. After the plates were cleared it was sing-along time, and hoo boy. That was crazy. I think it can only be conveyed with footage, which hopefully will be in this incredible nobel-prize winning documentary we are making.
Have suffered notable reverses in tennis progress. Will advise.
Well, as I sit here drinking a delicious orange Fanta (glass bottle, mmmm) everyone is talking war. The Rwandan president yesterday threatened to invade eastern Congo and take care of those pesky Hutu genocidaires in the hills once and for all. Here’s an article from the Guardian and here’s one from Reuters. Nothing here is ever as it seems on the surface, of course, and no one I trust is especially concerned (for now)– it’s probably just another bit of posturing and jostling for mining, money, and power. I heard BJ just now promising Freddy (the legless ex-boxer who heads up security at the DOCS compound) that he will defend his country, the Congo, against all foreign agression. Which made Freddy smile through his Ray-Bans.
Please remember that for us mzungus, war is just a hassle that will send us packing to the Kigali airport a little sooner than planned. Nothing life-threatening.
In other news for the past two days it’s been widows, widows, widows! Today we were shown how at one widows’ compound, they take their rabbits into their bedrooms at night to prevent theft. Their request: beds so they don’t have to sleep on the floor with the rabbits.
Tiny baby rabbits eating cut grass next to a woven sleeping mat.
Also spent some time with Basara, an agronomist and a most genial man, at his farm outside of town. He grows seedlings for the needy and also produce. Ate passion fruit off the vine and chewed some medicinal herbs. Beautiful weather.
German journalist arrived for dinner. Grrrrrr.
Goma has advantages: carton of cigarettes (Sportsman brand) for five dollars. Buy some peanut brittle from a widow for a dollar, receive sung praise and ululation. Plus, we had a turkey for thanksgiving (it was running around the yard the day before) and Kitsa was able to mimic perfect stuffing, lord knows how. Also, it’s the one day when the charity-drive cranberry jelly from America which no one ever eats actually gets eaten. Happy holidays.
Latest Human Rights Watch report on the very place I am in right now. Check it out:
According to local sources, local government officials have delivered firearms to civilians in Masisi, North Kivu, long the site of conflict between different political and military groups. Other shipments have been delivered to Ituri, another persistently troubled area in northeastern Congo. U.N. sources reported that some 300 Congolese high school students, refugees in neighboring Rwanda, abruptly left their schools and are said to be undergoing military training.
Good idea. Next year’s elections should be fun here.
Internet access has been difficult for the last week and the power supply episodic. I like reading with candles but I miss nightly action movies with Aimé and Kitsa, who huddle together and whisper intensely as they try to piece together the plot of “Spiderman II” or “Hellboy” without understanding English. They liked Spiderman and described it as “that movie with the red ninja… and the snake-man who walks like a cowboy” (Doc Oc?). Makusu, the 19-year old guard with the baby-face, likes violent movies and makes machine-gun sounds when referring to them, and he’s usually holding a machine gun while he does.
I’m finding it hard to grasp the seriousness of events here as they happen or are recounted to me. The general attitude towards life is slack and shrugging with regard to even the most frightening things– which I guess is normal when you can’t even remember a time of relative stability. Then there is the tendency, among Congolese, to discount unpleasantness, and the tendency among young expats to gleefully exult in the proximity of carnage because it proves how bad-ass you are to be in a warzone and everything (see the posturing in this very blog). But it can get to you sometimes.
There have been run-ins with officialdom and the police state. It is difficult to take pictures in public and illegal unless you have the right papers, which we admittedly should have but have been slow in getting. We were out taking pictures of carbonized cars that are immerged in solid lava and ourselves pretending to drive them when a bunch of plainclothes guys surrounded us and started arresting us for “photographing a military installation.” Jo was in Kigali so he couldn’t rescue us; a young DOCS surgical resident happened by and tried to resolve things, “Congolais à Congolais.” No dice and we were taken to the security station by armed escort. Speaking French I pleaded with Capitaine Christian, the bleary-eyed security officer in charge, for a good twenty minutes and did all the groveling I could, but in the end it was Dr. Justin who got us out of it. “Congolais à Congolais.” I now regret passing up the offer to broker tantalite and diamonds in the U.S. for Desiré, one of the “plainclothes security officers” or maybe just their associate.
White people=money. The children say very gravely the phrase they know in French, “Mr. the white man, give me money.”
What is the difference between extreme poverty and “insecurity”? Is it worse to die by violence or disease? To be a refugee from another country or an Internally Displaced Person in your own? (it makes a difference to UNHCR.) To be raped or widowed, or raped and widowed, or simply to die of complications from childbirth?
We did an expedition to Masisi territory, adjacent to Goma territory in North Kivu but high in the green volcanic mountains on 80 miles of dirt road… It used to be called the Switzerland of Congo for its dairy production and steep cultivated inclines, but it has been desolated by a decade of constant war (indeed, the Congo wars started in the area). No power, no water and villages made up of mud and wattle huts. They are beautiful, those huts, they look timeless, they hang in clumps from impossibly steep slopes of bean and banana fields, but no one would choose to live in them. They are pure products of rural destitution. Say the Mamas we talked to up there, “We are miserable… help us to build houses of tin that keep the water out.” But the mud houses are so lovely! I say to myself. Romance dies hard. I don’t think we were really supposed to go up there but Mama Jeanne, who lives in an orphanage of sixty kids and runs “Gueri Mon Peuple,” the program for fistular women in the territory, guided us, palms greased a little by the donation of 100 pounds of rice and sugar, as well as three cases of Fanta and some sacks of bread. It’s rebel territory (rebel? bandit? It’s a mess up there) so we came home before nightfall. I will remember the women who walked miles over the mountains to see us, the wooden divan for a sick woman carried to the hospital by ten men, piglets, long horn cattle, and the misty landscape like an amazing vertical quilt of fields.
I won my first game of tennis. I even served an ace. I still jump like a girl when I go for the ball though.
Sorry I can’t hyperlink, but please go to
for new pictures.
We’ve finally filmed some interviews of women who are patients of the rape victims’ program “Gueri Mon Peuple” here at DOCS in Goma. Each story is more unbelievably horrible than the last.
Here’s a UN news agency special about gender-based violence, which has a documentary starring Lyn Lusi, the amazing woman whose house we are living in.
Here’s the Amnesty International report on sexual violence in east Congo.
And just for fun, here’s a UN news agency article about the reigning climate of insecurity here in Goma. I wouldn’t worry about us white boys, though, since we have Jo’s guards with us at night. They have been given a special dispensation by the governor to shoot anyone they feel like to protect us. So we’ve been taking them to nightclubs and starting fights…
For the past two days we shot “Prejudice,” a film written and directed by Horeb Bulambo, the communications director for Worldvision in Goma. The shoot… it was something. (“Mistah Kurtz… he dead.”)
If you ever shoot a short film in the eastern Congo, don’t do it like we did. Don’t use a cousin of the general of the province as an actress, because it will mean dodging all AK-47 and grenade-launcher toting soldiers because “Mireille isn’t supposed to be out without her bodyguards.”
Don’t shoot the key prison scene in an Italian Catholic orphanage housing 1600 reformed street kids, because all 1600 will want to participate/ try to make you eat their snot (some of those kids were tough). Don’t shoot a dialogue scene in a moving vehicle on a lava road through a “bad” (bad for Goma!!) part of town and drive slowly enough for every kid in the neighborhood to jump on/in the car.
Try to finish before dark (curfew!) / before the tsunami.
As for the film, BJ and Nelson, who are in film school, just laugh when I ask them about it. A pity: the acting was some of my finest work.
I went to my first NGO party on Saturday night. It was at the Doctors Without Borders compound, and I was surprised to find a bunch of euro-kids, beer, and Snoop MP3s. Sigh. Single man Nelson chatted with a lovely Sweedish midwife and I talked with a fat man who works at AirServ, a transport service. Some French girl, when I told her how cool and weird it was to see all this beer and dancing in the middle of a disaster zone, said “you really should have been in Afghanistan during the war. The parties were amazing.” Doctors Without Borders: heal the children, get crunked up.
On Sunday we went for a drive out in the country and visited those donkeys.
We only have a month left here, and time is starting to seem short for everything we are trying to pull off. I’m to star in a short film by our friend Horeb titled “Prejudice” about a white man who becomes suspicious of his Congolese wife… can’t wait to bring a copy of that one home.
Otherwise the only thing that happened of note was when me and Nelson tried to go to the soccer game, only to be apprehended by some drunken cops. “Chou Chou”, the ranking officer, said our insurance was expired and couldn’t we buy her and her friends some beer? Instead she hopped in the Pajero and we drove to DOCS, where Dr. Jo was able to charm her by pointing out that she was wearing lipstick instead of eyeliner. So we got to keep our ten bucks.
Here are a few pictures of Goma. I’ll put up more sometime (I have a smashing series with a local donkey, and if that sounds dirty, it’s your fault).
Sign in as goma04, password goma if you don’t want to join imagestation (it’s free though).
When I decided to come here, my reasons weren’t all very sound, and some were a little ridiculous. One was that I felt that I was living in an envelope of privilege—a city, a social world, a job—that was somehow hiding the true face of the world from me, a truth that I knew existed through reading. The envelope I was in, I felt, was making me sluggish and would not allow me to become what I was fated to become, whatever it was.
Nothing I have seen or done so far, though wildly outside my personal experience, has sparked the alchemy that I’d hoped for— of course, what I’d hoped for was silly and impossible. There is, finally, no escape from the thingness of things, or the drowsiness that grips me. It’s called the actual real world, and it’s here to stay.
Ahem. I think I’m trying to say something about the weird existential experience of watching the election on a glitchy satellite receiver transmitting CNN in a palette of static and blue, in a community of evangelical Christians (rightly, in truth) impressed by the Bush administration’s diplomatic ejection of foreign armies from their territory. The world is firmly opposed to Bush, but I’ve managed to land in one isolated corner where people support the president re-elect for reasons I can relate to, or at least forgive. I can’t tell if this helps or hurts my feelings of dread after the fall of Ohio.
The world is now in the hands of God-People, as I have started thinking of them. I think of them with weariness, fear, and a little bit of awe. I know that faith is a force that can propel sustained and diligent action. I know it is something I lack, and sometimes feel I need, though don’t regret lacking. There are many reasons to want to reject faith as a basis for decision-making, but there is no reasoning with the faithful that now rule over us, because by definition they believe, and they are many. The obviousness of that came to me in the middle of a church service in Goma, with the preacher howling praise and the congregation echoing him with stuttering phrases, yelps, and moans, the whole thing finally ending in a spontaneous hymn for pie-in-the-sky-by-and-by.
But the hymn was very beautiful…
forgive me this weighty blah blah.