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.

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