Thursday, December 17, 2009

Not Everyone Has Decided to Turn Their Back on Good-Willed Outsiders’ Help

My friend Kizito must have read the disappointment on my face. He suggested we visit a medical center that was unknown to most visitors, called GESOM. This Health center focuses its work on three major areas: medical treatment, psychological treatment, and social reinsertion. There, we met with Nurse Director Mwarabu Mungazi, who gave us a quick tour of the section devoted to caring for sexual violence survivors.

GESOM is very small and does not, even to a non-medical eye, meet conditions conducive to quick recovery of the patients. The four of five patients’ rooms were not well lit. Nurse Mwarabu said the center receives funds from PNUD, UNFPA, the Canadian government and Medical Mundi. I wondered if these international organizations and foreign governments are perhaps not giving GESOM enough to allow it to expand, or if the center is just not using the funds accordingly.

In one of the rooms, we saw a female patient called Nyirandikubwimana Niyonsaba, which is not a typical Congolese name. I found out later that she was a Hutu from neighboring Rwanda. Her story was heartbreaking. Six years ago, she was gang raped and her entire family was killed. She suffered severe burns to her harms and legs as she tried to escape her village that was being burnt down by assailant militia men Since then, her wounds have not healed completely. Everytime she was released from the hospital, her wounds became infected.

The look in her eyes also told a lot about her inner wounds. Chances are, the wounds on her arms and legs are curable, but who will ever cure the invisible ones she suffered deep inside herself? Who did this to this young woman? How many Nyirandikubwimana Niyonsabas are there out there, silently suffering in barely accessible places in the Congo? How many Nyirandikubwimana Niyonsabas will there be before the International Community decides to take appropriate measures to stop the madness going on in Eastern Congo, that is a clear result of conflict spilling over from Rwanda and Uganda?

These thoughts followed me to our later meeting with Justine of the Synergie des Femmes pour les Victimes des Violences Sexuelles (SFVS). Justine is in her mid-forties. Along with women leaders from thirty-five other organizations, she decided to create SFVS in 2002 to fight the rampant sexual violence committed against women and girls throughout North Kivu province. Justine said that SFVS was founded once it became clear that rape was being used as a weapon of war, causing not only unwanted pregnancies, STDs, HIV/AIDs, fistulas and other health problems, but the dislocation of communities.

SFVS does not limit its actions to simple denunciation of sexual violence. Sometimes, they have taken to the streets when justice seemed to lag behind, or when justice failed to deliver. United in a group called “Sauti Ya Mama Mkongomani,” (translated as Voice of the Congolese Woman) the women of SFVS have, in the past, sent delegations to Kinshasa, Kigali and Kampala to persuade leaders in these capitals to find peaceful solutions to problems in eastern Congo. As Justine was explaining the work her organization does to assist women in the region, I pictured her playing a leading role, as did Leymah Gbowee when she galvanized and mobilized the Liberian women’s movement.

In spite of the many unfulfilled promises they have heard from several visitors in the past, the people at GESOM, as well as Justine, embraced the idea of partnering with us. It was so encouraging to see their enthusiasm.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Not Everyone is Willing to Meet with Foreigners Offering to “Help”

Before coming to Goma, Catherine and I heard some very good words about the work of Promotion et Appui aux Initiatives Feminines (PAIF), a local NGO doing a tremendous job assisting rape survivors with limited means. For about a month, I exchanged a number of emails with Immaculée, the founder of the organization. From our preliminary email exchanges, Immaculée seemed reluctant to meet with us, but she kept the conversation going by asking more questions regarding the motives of our visit. I put her in touch with my friend Kizito to reassure her that we were genuine people really wanting to meet with her. However, a few days prior to our trip she made it clear she did not want to meet with us.

Since we were in Goma already and had some time to kill before our next meeting, I suggested that we dropped by the PAIF offices to see if Immaculée might talk to us even for ten minutes.

Immaculée was not in her office by the time we got there. Her deputy, Sylvie, was just readying to start her day as we walked in. Sylvie informed us that she needed to check with her boss about our visit. She picked up her phone, walked into another room, and dialed Immaculée’s number. The door was half open, so I could see her. She wasn’t saying much, but her body language spoke louder than her voice needed to. I knew what to expect when she returned to the waiting area: she declined to meet with us, upon Immaculée’s direction.

I tried to reason with her, telling her that we wouldn’t need more than ten minutes of her time. Sylvie called her boss again, this time for a shorter period, and she returned saying, “Neither Immaculée, nor myself--neither of us will be meeting with you today.” I knew right then that it was peine perdue to continue trying to convince her.

On our way out, I wondered to myself: why would anyone refuse to meet with visitors coming from the country of Uncle Sam, knowing that there might be some fundraising potential behind such visits?

Harper, an American friend from Kansas now working in Goma, gave a plausible answer to this question. According to her, many foreigners in the past have come to meet with local NGO leaders, offering to help them. Unfortunately, in many instances, the foreigners had created new NGOs a couple of months later, based on the very ideas they lured the local NGOs into giving them. Hence, the foreigners raised funds for themselves instead of the local NGOs, as originally promised.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Catherine Has a New Cell Phone

The phone Catherine bought in Los Angeles, which she hoped had Global System for Mobile Communication (GSM) capability, turned out not to be able to function in either Rwanda or the Congo. Our many attempts to get it unlocked in Kigali and Goma were unsuccessful. The main reason, we were told, was the unavailability of software designed to unlock that specific cell phone. Needless to say, Catherine and I had to rely on just my cell phone for quite some time. The power outage situation the previous night made me wonder what would happen in case of an emergency, so obtaining another cell phone for Catherine became an urgent priority.

It was not really a headache finding a phone for Catherine, along with a “Zain” SIM card just like the one I was using in my cell phone. There are about four or five major mobile network operators covering the Congo, including Vodacom, Zain, Tigo and Congo Chine Telecom. These networks are so unreliable that most people in the Congo have more than one cell phone, each using a different network. One has to wonder whether this situation has been created purposely to force people to buy more and more cell phones. The power outage situation notwithstanding, cell phone stores are everywhere in Goma. It is important to remember that this is the home of most of the Coltan illegally supplied to the world electronic market. The mines of Bisie in Walikale are just about a hundred kilometers away from Goma.

Power Outage – Water Shortage

The first night in Goma, I did not sleep well. A weird sound woke me up around 1:00 a.m. It sounded as though someone was crying--not the normal kind of crying, but a painful crying. The sound was intermittent. I took a flashlight and walked out of my room. Catherine’s room was about three rooms away from mine. I walked passed her room. All was quiet there. The guards, sitting by the hotel main gate, saw and acknowledged me. I went back to my room and stood by the door for a while. I heard the same sound again. This time I detected it coming from across the street. I realized it must be an owl. There is a common belief across the Congo that hearing an owl hooting at night, or anytime for that matter, is not a very good sign.

When this all took place, it was pitch dark, not because everyone decided to switch off their lights, but because of a power outage, commonly referred to there as delestage. Various neighborhoods of Goma are furnished with electricity intermittently. This situation has been occurring since the time Mobutu was in power. It’s such that electricity is available from six in the morning till noon in one area, and from one in the afternoon till six in the evening in another area. One thing is sure: every night between nine and eleven, there is a general power outage all over the city of Goma that will go on till the next morning. Those who can afford it have learned to rely on electricity powered by generators. For the majority of the population, however, candle lights or lamplights serve as sources of illumination, and cooking is done using charcoals on grills called mbambula.

It’s unthinkable that in Goma and so many other cities in the Congo, electricity is still seen as a luxury. For years, the Congo hasn’t been able to use its vast potential of hydroelectric energy to its fullest extent. Ironically, the Inga Dam, located in the western part of the Congo, has the potential to furnish electric power to the whole continent of Africa. This possibility has remained unexplored to this day, even though it could turn out to be a great source of revenue for the country’s budget.

I could not sleep for the rest of the night. From time to time, I would step outside onto my balcony not only to get some fresh air, but also to hear the flow of the lake on the shore below.

The early morning hours began with the sound of military recruits running down the street for their morning exercise. As the sun was rising, I could see men, women, and children going to or coming back from the Lake Kivu with yellow containers. In addition to the electric power problem, there is also a water shortage problem. Tap water comes and goes without warning. When it’s available, people collect it in as many containers as they can (marmites, gallons, etc), mostly for cooking and drinking. If they need water to wash the body, the ordinary people rely on the salty water from good old Lake Kivu most of the time. A rainfall presents another opportunity to collect water.

I thought about the many useful things these men, women and children could have been doing with the time it took making trips to the lake to fetch water or wait for the return of electricity in their houses. How do hospitals operate under such conditions? With electricity being quasi-existent, how do students study at night? What do those in power think about this situation? Isn’t this a sure way to slow the development of the area, and of the country, when people cannot concentrate on things of importance because they lack basic needs?

No matter the multiple answers or justifications one could give, simple things like electricity and water just need to be accessible to all, especially for a country like the Congo.

Friday, November 27, 2009

First Day In Goma

Crossing the Border Gisenyi / Goma Not Always Easy –

John parked the car while Catherine and I were dealing with the administrative part of the border crossing. The line on the Rwandan side was somehow long. The border is busy. People having business to do here and those not having any business being at the border are all roaming around. Since John’s car could not cross the border (against Company policy), we unloaded our luggage and had it wheeled out/carried out by three young men. While walking in the no man’s land, I saw my friend Kizito waiting on the Congolese side of the border. It was so great seeing my old friend after more than 13 years. He was still the same strong and good humored friend I knew during my College years. The whole scene didn’t feel real until I shook Kizito’s hand. I am back home again, in my native Congo! The Congo “spirit” took over me once I set foot on the land of my ancestors.

While our passports were being processed, I noticed three ladies standing next to the kids carrying our bags. Their demeanor told me something was up. The one in the middle said that they were intelligence officers and, for security purposes, wanted to check our bags. My brandishing of our invitation letter by the British Embassy did not deter them from insisting to check our bags. When we entered the two-room office we found more people than needed for a security office. I told myself it must have been an improvised check-up room. Zawadi, the most persistent of the trio, checked one of my bags first with bared hands (I had three bags: one of them filled with clothes friends in the US were sending their relatives in Eastern Congo). Then, she checked one of Catherine’s two bags, with bared hands still. I asked her, “Aren’t you afraid you might get injured by a hidden razor or any other sharp objects in the bag?” My question seemed to have taken her by surprise. She just looked at me for a few seconds before continuing her job. The other two women couldn’t contain themselves. They laughed.

By that time, the room was getting a little way too packed. After checking of the second bag, I told Zawadi that I was a son of the Congo and would not let her treat me like a foreigner and that I would not let her check one more bag. She thought I was kidding. But, she quickly realized that I was damn serious when I got Catherine out of the room and ordered the three kids waiting outside to carry our bags to the “Padjero” SUV Kizito rented for us. At first I thought the three ladies were meticulously checking our bags just to somehow force us to give them money so they could stop the search. But, this practice of checking bags bared handed was not the practice of the Congolese agents only. We experienced it on the Rwandan side a couple of days later while leaving Goma for Kigali. The only difference was that one male agent was rummaging through our bags while another, his backer, was outside looking through the small window. Just to make sure there was no assaulting of his teammate, I thought.

The reason of the search, I came to understand, is due to the facts that Rwandans and Congolese in this region look daggers at each other. It’s been proven that, for quite sometimes, the Rwandan government of Paul Kagame has made it its objective to destabilize Eastern Congo by any means. The Congolese in Eastern Congo in return have relentlessly and resiliently fought back. This situation has created an atmosphere of tension and mutual suspicion at the border. Hence, the searches. Hopefully, someday, this will be done in a less intrusive manner using scanners or some other modern technology tools.

HEAL Africa

We were running late for our meeting with Virginie Mumbere, PR at HEAL Africa. I didn’t realize how close the hospital was from the border. It only took us about 10 minutes to enter the HEAL Africa main gate. Since Virginie wasn’t in her office, we went to the top of the main building to meet with Lyn Lusi. Lyn and her husband, Dr Jo Kasereka Lusi founded HEAL Africa in the mid 1990s to help alleviate the suffering of Eastern Congolese populations, particularly women and kids. Isn’t it true that there are always great good hearted individuals in places where the government fails to take care of its populations? To the distressed populations in Northern Kivu, Dr Kasereka and his wife Lyn are just that kind of rare species of human beings.

If you’re wondering why HEAL is capitalized it’s because it stands for Health, Education, Action and Leadership. HEAL Africa run many programs in all of these areas to empower women and girls rape survivors. Lyn specifically spoke about the program called in Swahili, “Wamama Simameni,” i.e. “Women Stand Up.” This program is run in safe houses where women gather to learn new skills and comfort each other. HEAL Africa has about eighteen safe houses between Goma and Walikale in North Kivu province to Kaina and Weso in Maniema province.

Lyn introduced us to Modestine, a counselor with the “Wamama Simameni” program, who gave us a brilliant tour of the hospital. The “Healing Arts” building is a sewing shop where women learn some dressmaking skills. The products of their works are sold in the back of the room. Some very beautiful fabrics, dresses, skirts, bracelets, and more, are sold here. The women were pleased that Catherine bought a couple of articles from them. In my mind I was wondering whether the skills in these women could be used for something else than dressmaking. Women have such great potential for future development of the Congo. Once the country comes to this realization, tremendous achievements will be accomplished. Annifa Maliro, “Healing Arts” manager, said that most women in the program are the ones expected to be at the hospital for a longer stay. The only man in the room was suffering from a leg injury.

There were children everywhere we went. Some of them had smiles on their faces. But, most of them seemed sad. Sad for the violence they might have witnessed. Sad for seeing their parents, especially mothers, in pain. Sad for seeing no light, no way out, in their lives of misery. Sad to see there seems to be no reliable government working to brighten up their future. It’s the accumulation of so much rage that makes most kids an easy pray for the rogue armed groups swarming in this area.

We ended our visit of HEAL Africa where we hoped to have started it: in Virginie Mumbere’s office. There is a different kind of energy that emanates from Virginie. Her smile brightens up a whole room. She is not only the PR at HEAL Africa, but also a co-founder of AMAVESA, an organization of widows helping each other. What amazes me is seeing how much the women could accomplish with just a little funding.

Virginie invited us to see AMAVESA women in action Saturday November 7th.