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.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Before Goma


Background --

Catherine Corpeny and I arrived in Goma on November 5th, 09 around 11 am. For me, this is a trip back to my native Congo to have a sense of how badly the situation is quickly deteriorating on the ground. For Catherine, it’s the first trip to the Congo, the first trip to Africa for that matter. Catherine is an American actress and screenwriter who has worked on behalf of human rights, specifically women’s rights, for the last four years. She recently returned from Washington DC where she lobbied members of Congress to co-sign the LRA Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act.

After watching the documentary “The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo by Lisa F. Jackson, advocating for the protection and empowerment of Congolese girls and women has been at the forefront of Catherine’s advocacy work. We are making this trip with in mind the goal to meet with local NGOs assisting Congolese women/girls rape survivors. We hope to establish relationships with Congolese women leaders, members of grassroots NGOs, human rights advocates and rape survivors in order to evaluate their needs and to seek ways to help facilitate the amazing work already happening on the ground.

It took us about three days to reach Goma, the first leg of our Congo trip. Catherine flew from Los Angeles and I from New York the same November 2nd night. After months of emails exchanges and phone conferences we finally first met at Heathrow, London for our connection to Nairobi, Kenya. Catherine is a very intelligent woman, very much interested in being part of the solution to the plight of her counterparts in the Congo.

We discussed strategy during our flight from London to Nairobi. We had some very interesting conversations about the Congo, the Great Lakes Region, Africa, the United States and the world during that flight. Catherine has a solid grasp of what’s going on in all these areas. The Rwandan genocide of 1994 was one of the topics we discussed at length. Analogies were drawn with what’s currently taking place in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Southern Sudan and, of course, the Holocaust of Jews in Nazi Europe from 1933-1945. “Never again!” it was said back then.

Nairobi, Kenya --

Jomo Kenyata airport in Nairobi, Kenya was the first stop of our African journey. We are in Africa! Catherine was excited. She was trying to connect, to make sense of it all. She looked around trying to process every bit of information coming her way. Sitting in the hallway she said, “This place reminds me of Harlem, the 125th Street subway station.” I wasn’t sure whether she was referring to the station on the blue, the red or the green line. One thing was sure: The Kenyans look very highly at their airport, and they would not be amused at the prospect of anyone comparing it to a subway station. Of course, I was in Heaven, enjoying every single aspect of my continent: The people, the air, the sun, everything’s so great!

Bujumbura, Burundi --

The plane that took us from Nairobi to Kigali made a detour to stop at Bujumbura airport, in Burundi. The plane taxied up to a point where a red carpet, lined up soldiers and some officials were waiting for some important personalities who had traveled with us. All along, we didn’t know that the persons seated on 2B and 2D were some high ranked Kenyan officials. The Kenyan Vice-President, I heard, was the person the red carpet was waiting for. He got out under the lights of TV cameras and the sound so superb of the Burundian Drummers, aka “Tambourinaires Burundais.” Burundi is my wife Christine’s country. Though the stop was unplanned, I was very pleased we made it. I remember how, traveling with Documentary Director Lisa F. Jackson in August of 2008, so many of Christine’s relatives greeted us warmly at this very airport.

Kigali, Rwanda --

As our plane began its descent at Kigali airport, here and there, I could see soldiers and military equipments along the airport. Many thoughts went through my mind. I told myself, “This is how it all began, the Rwandan genocide that is, with the shooting down on April 6th, 1994 of the Falcon 50 carrying Presidents Juvénal Habyarimana of Rwanda and Cyprien Ntaryamira of Burundi.” The two were returning from a peace conference with the RPF of Paul Kagame in Dar Es-Salaam, Tanzania. Kigali airport was under UN troops control when this terrorist attack took place. Who orchestrated this odious act? Did the person or group of persons who masterminded the plane attack measure the consequences such action would unfurl? Was it a calculated action? Who provided the very sophisticated missile that took down the Falcon 50? I came back from my reveries when the plane stopped. I asked Catherine if she was okay. She replied, “Here we are!” It was November 4th, 09.

Nothing gives me more goose bumps than spending a night in Kigali. For the time being, it’s the voie obligée to get to Goma. There are no international airlines serving Goma. And local Congolese airlines have such bad reputations that most travelers try to avoid them as much as they could. After checking in at the Gorillas hotel, Catherine and I hired a cab to drive around Kigali. Although Kigali reflects a sense of safety, its people seem very restive. While talking, walking, or driving people look around them with an air of suspicion that tells the alerted eye something is not right. It’s as though everyone watches everyone and no one trusts anyone. You find the effigy of President Kagame all over the place. It reminded me of the time I was growing up under Mobutu Sese Seko’s dictatorship in the Congo, then known as Zaïre. His image everywhere was a way of deifying him, of him telling us the people, “I see you everywhere you go, everything you do. You better watch out!” On our way to the “Heaven Restaurant,” we drove by Rwanda President’s residence. Of course, the “No Entry” sign and military presence were clearly visible.

On the road to Goma --

The drive from Kigali to Goma the morning of November 5th was interesting. John, driver for the Volcanoes and Safari Company, picked us up from the hotel around 7:15 am. John was a very talkative fellow (I think this is in part due to the nature of his job). But, we tried to keep our conversation light most of the times. John is a Munyankore from Uganda, President Museveni’s tribe. To Catherine’s question whether he believed Presidents Museveni and Kagame were working for democracy and peace in the region, he gave the evasive answer that what mattered for him was driving tourists on safaris. He said that he cared very little about politics. But, he didn’t hesitate to say that the actual make up of MONUC (the UN Peacekeeping force in the Congo) won’t bring peace to the Congo. For him, bringing in the Brits, the Americans, the Germans or the French is what will solve the problem quickly. Along the mountainous road, I was discombobulated by the great number of people walking from one village to another. Apparently, many children were not in school, because there were just too many playing along the “highway.”

As we reached the border Gisenyi – Goma, my old friend Kizito was waiting for us.