Archive for October, 2008


mud, sweat and spears: mozart in the congo

october 8-11, 2008 

‘Barack’ is a word in Swahili whose meaning is ‘blessed’. Baraka, on which Barack is based, is a boom town in southern South Kivu Province of the DRC. Hopefully, both will play significant roles in my life soon. (Maybe “boom town” is an unfortunate and unclear term-choice: “boom town” as in a town with a soaring population, not one with explosions everywhere that go “boom.” Not too recently, anyway.)

Backing up a week: I am making a bank withdrawal for more money than I have ever beheld in my life. I am buying a car (another one, a big one). I have about a week before my colleagues Sean and Mary arrive from Chicago and with whom I will take a trip to the Congo to South Kivu Province. Sean – you all know Sean – is boss and friend, and Mary is a psychologist working with a great group called WE-ACTx (Women’s Equity in Access to Care and Treatment) in Kigali to provide counseling to women and children with HIV/AIDS.

I’ve made a few trips across the border on my own and used local transporation each time. It works for one person with a high level of patience but with a trio and serious time constraints, we would need a vehicle that says, “I’ve got lives to save and I’ll run you over to save them.”

So what do I end up getting? After numerous duds, I settle on a 1995 Land Cruiser that proudly displays its ambition on the side: “Active Vacation II.” It is the first, and quite possibly the only vehicle I will have that has curtains on its windows. When some of my security guard-friends point out that the President’s vehicle also has curtains on them, I tell them this was his car back in 1995.

Car acquired, I have a week to learn how a Land Cruiser drives before taking it deep into the Congo. No problem. A quick look at the consoles, however, tells me this is no ordinary vehicle. There are buttons, levers and displays that I have never seen on any car. I decide to leave them all alone and to be satisfied with just the steering wheel. With the traffic conditions around these parts, the steering wheel is more than enough to occupy me. For one thing, it’s on the right side, yet Burundi made the fateful decision to run their roads like the U.S., in contradiction with most of the other countries in the region (Rwanda, too). Burundi, you don’t have to do everything Rwanda does. To be fair, Burundi’s genocidal wave of violence was in 1993, a year before Rwanda’s. Anyway, car is ready to go.

It just occurs to me while writing this post that I had to jump through a ridiculous number of hoops to take a car purchased and registered in Burundi into the Congo. I guess part of this learning process is about understanding the invisible privileges and rights that I had back in the U.S. that I have to pay close to attention to now in Burundi; I certainly never had trouble crossing into Canada with Illinois plates (coming back is another story for another time). The papers I had to get aren’t worth enumerating one by one but on aggregate, they required about a week’s worth of time and effort (but no bribes) to obtain. Small victories.

On the morning of our departure, I still have to get one more document. It’s called a “Technical Control” document and it certifies that the car has been inspected and is in good running order. I pull up into a large complex that I would have never found without clear guidance. At the unmarked entryway, a guard holds the gate shut: a piece of rope that he has looped over a branch. Inside, I wander all over the compound, going to every building and every office, sometimes even back to the same office multiple times, to get five different signatures. Disproportionate to the importance attached to each step, I end up having to pay 1200 Burundian francs for the new document. That’s one U.S. dollar.

Finally, we set off.

Our first stop is Uvira, a town just over the border, about 25 minutes from Bujumbura. At the border crossing, we’re greeted by my friend, Yves. Yves, the head of the border post on the Congo side. Yves never fails to impress me with his fashion sense. Today, it’s a pink Lacoste polo, jeans and Converse low-tops. I chided him once for wearing a scoocer jersey of a team I’m not too fond of. Ah, the good times. At the Congo border.

Yves, beside being the provider of our entry visas, has an uncanny ability that I really appreciate: he appears and disappears at just the right moments. Whenver I cross that border, I just stroll past all the offices and would-be border-crossers into Yves’ office. He’s almost always there. When he isn’t and an officer starts to ask me what I want, Yves shows up. Even better is when he disappears, like this time when he asks us to present our vaccination cards at the health station, a little hut plastered with outdated posters of sickly children and monstrous mosquitos from various NGOs. Sean and I walk off to present our cards, but Mary stays in the car because she left her card in Kigali. In the hut, the health inspector looks over our cards, then asks, where is the card for the other, the woman. Meanwhile, Yves is outside, surveying his domain. I realize we are going to have to pay a small “fine” for Mary’s vaccine card, so I say to the inspector to come with us to the car where the vaccine card is. I glance at Yves as we walk past him, wondering how I’m going to bribe one of his officials right in front of him. When we get to the car and I look back one more time: Yves is no longer there. My good friend, Yves.

Normally, that should be the end of it – a few hundred Congolese francs and off we go. But no. When I get to the car, grab a few bills and hand them to the inspector, he looks at the money with scorn and says, “This is it? This is too little.”

I’m shocked.

But I don’t give in. He mumbles something about a heavy fine for not having a vaccine card. I explain that if we pay the big fine, it goes to the state, not to him. I know, not very convincing but I really wasn’t interested in continuing the conversation, so I grab the bills back and say, “Ok, we’ll come back later.” He seems to believe me that we really are going to come back and give him a bigger bribe (sorry, a “present”). I just can’t believe he turned down a bribe because it wasn’t enough. It wouldn’t be the last time though.

In Uvira, we meet with some local NGOs and buy some fabric – the usual Congo stuff. One of the places we visit is the Centre Hospitalier Kasenga, which is a partner of Panzi Hospital in Bukavu (described in a previous post). This time, I’m more prepared for the sight of rooms full of tired suffering women. However, I’m less prepared for the doctor’s explanation about the ward for foreigners. The rooms there are clean and, well, rooms. With private bathroom and doors that close instead of open wards with no dividers. I ask why these rooms were so different and he replies that they were meant to show respect toward foreigners. I ask if Congolese are shown the same kind of respect. He says that there are different kinds of respect. I leave it at that.

The hospital itself is very well-equipped but too underfunded to realize its potential. Perhaps as a result of its need to charge patients for care, it has earned a reputation for being a hospital for rich people. That’s a slight concern for us, because we’re exploring possibilities of partnering with the hospital in order to address a service gap of mental health services for trauma victims, a lack that many people acknowledge and attribute to a dearth of expertise. Trauma victims usually don’t have the several hundred dollars to pay for the clinical care they need. The hospital still does what it can, but if a patient cannot pay, he or she has about two weeks before the hospital calls a relative to take custody.

Later that evening, we get back to the border just before the 6 p.m. closing time. When passing through the Congo side, I stop to look at the health station. No one comes out of it. We get our stamps and re-enter Burundi to spend the night.

The next morning we get ready to leave. I slide a machete under the driver’s seat. The scenarios where we might need it are endless. After coffee and saying goodbye to Mary, who is going back to Kigali, Sean and I get some air for the tires, some food for the road (six cans of Diet Coke for Sean, Kinder Bueno bar for me) and off we go, destination Baraka.

It’s not really efficient to describe the drive in detail, but interesting points include passing a UN convoy staffed by Chinese soldiers; thinking that the coast on the Congo side is gorgeous; and being impressed by how vivid the colors are, how dense the greens of the trees. Other than that, I spend most of my time navigating the impossibly broken dirt paths and dubious bridges. My arms end up getting quite a workout from the drive, which I really enjoy. Sean loves it because it reminds him of driving in Haiti. We crash around (no better way to describe it) covering about 25 km per hour. We end up making relatively decent time to achieve our crucial goal of arriving before dark, but it was close. Maybe if we didn’t stop so often to gawk at the flags and signs staked along the road. There are flags for various Mai-Mai militias, paramilitary groups that are often cited for creating a sense of impunity for rapes, killings and relentless destruction in the ongoing conflict. There are also signs commemorating various massacres for South Kivu was only a few years ago one of the most dreadful and violent places on earth. The effect of seeing the flags and the signs is eerie, kind of like seeing a a sheet over a body at an accident-site. We take a few photos (quickly). Tourism, Congo-style.

Photo by Sean

Photo by Sean

Photo by Sean

And a crazy tree:

Photo by Sean

Photo by Sean

One other thought from the road: checkpoints are kind of intimidating but after the second one, they’re not so bad. First, I do wonder if the policemen (or their pals – who are those guys?) can decipher the documents they request. Their expressions suggest no. It’s also worth remembering that the people manning them have no radios to call ahead and no vehicles for pursuit. All I really need to do is hit the gas. If we can get away, then we’re safe, at least until the next checkpoint because turning around will be an undesirable option, especially if the police manage to find some materials for a roadblock.

Given the state of the prisons, I’m thinking I’m in good shape. Note the guard-goat on the right.

Photo by Sean

Photo by Sean

Baraka is actually really fun. I might not think that about a little town with “Impassable Roads – Requires Special Equipment” set in the heart of one of the world’s worst humanitarian diasters, but I really enjoy the market (super-excited about the yellow lentils), strolling around by moonlight to the one store that has wine, hanging out with two of the 20 or so expats in the town and best of all, sampling (again and again, to Sean’s chagrin) the tastiest ‘yogourt’ I’ve had, I think, ever. Not what I expect from a warzone.

On sale at the market or ‘our tax money at work’:

‘Kipe Ya Yo’? ‘Kipe Ya YO‘!

Throughout the day, we keep coming across the name of a man we should meet to discuss our project proposal. Dr. Mozart. We get him on the phone and set up a time. Everyone mentions him. When the appointed hour arrives, he is nowhere to be found. He had called earlier saying he was across the lake in Tanzania and would be returning in time for our meeting. With our packed schedule, we leave the doctor’s office without seeing him, only for our next host to suggest a meeting with Dr. Mozart again. Finally, around 6 p.m., we’re back at his office, and there he is. Dr. Mozart. Dr. Wilmus Mozart. He is a beefy Burundian guy in his early thirties in a compact white t-shirt with very shiny accessories. Think a young Mr. T., with a medical background. He also has very useful information to share about clinical practices and services for the mentally infirm and trauma victims in the region. After our initial hesitations, we’re pretty glad we found him.

Candlelight dining:

On the morning of our departure, I make one last stop at the yogourt shop and also an attempt to purchase an enormous poster that is on the wall. It is a simple portrait of Joseph Kabila against a bright blue background. Its words capture so eloquently the spirit and essence of the Congo: “Vote for the Winner.” I promise the shopkeeper to come back to speak to the owner about its price the next time I’m there. I’m hoping five dollars will do it, but it’ll probably be closer to five hundred to start. That’s what foreigners carry in their pockets all the time, didn’t you know?

That morning, it rains furiously. The rains hitting the corrugated metal roofs and UNHCR tarps (every restaurant has one) are so loud, I can barely think. After the yogourt, we climb into the car. Leaving the door open for those few seconds allows enough water to pour in to knock out the door-lock controls. Ours is the only car on the road as people curl up inside their shops and shacks. This is the road we have to take:

Here, we’re sitting at the intersection out of town. We need to turn into the current, but decide to try the next street, hoping for better conditions. As if everything would be dry and sparkling just 20 meters down. It’s the same on every street. I turn the wheel and just go.

On the road, we resolve to try to buy a Mai-Mai flag. We thought it would make our colleagues in Chicago jealous. In retrospect, probably not, except Scott maybe, but he considers Iraq safer than Arkansas. I wonder if a majority of the 800 employees at Heartland even know the program I’m working on (and by extension, me) exists. I certainly can’t name everything such a vast organization does.

Anyway, we’re moving along when we pass a group of boys carrying some sticks. When we pull up, we see they are carrying spears. We stop to greet them. None of them could be older than 16 or so. The one in the middle, a particularly tiny guy, carries a spear with a massive tip. The others have thinner ones, more like harpoons. I wonder what the pratical differences are. We ask them what they hunt. They say anything. We rattle off some animals. Monkeys? Yes. Lions? Yes. Elephants? If we can find one.

After two minutes back on the road, Sean says what we’re both thinking: we should have bought a spear. We’re ruing our missed oppoturnity when not ten minutes later, we pass another group of boy-hunters. I hit the brakes. They run up to us and I ask to see one of the spears. I look at it closely, notice a fleck of something on the spear-point. After a few minutes, I say I want to buy it – how much? Twenty. Twenty? Yes, twenty thousand dollars. Uh, no. Ok, ten thousand. No. Five thousand. No. Ok, twenty dollars. I’ll give you ten. That would have been enough except now a crowd has gathered and one particularly vocal man is advocating for the boys. He won’t accept anything less than 15. I ask him if it’s his spear. I hand over the ten dollars, throw in a couple hundred Congolese francs. Everyone is happy, the crowd dispurses. I now have a spear. Sean is beside himself with jealousy. (Ha ha.)

Photo by Sean

Photo by Sean

We have one other task. We think back to the various Mai-Mai outposts that we saw on the trip down and recall one where a flag stood out proudly on a small hilltop with no one around, seemingly. So we plan our first option; let’s call it: ‘Capture the Flag: Run DRC’. After passing numerous other flags all carefully watched by bystanders, we arrive at our hilltop and stop the car. At first it seems no one is around but within minutes four or five men approach the car. Big grins. Option two. We say we really like the flag – where can we get one like it? They look at each other. Smiles. They make them themselves, they say. We ask if we could buy that one, on the bamboo flagpole. They look at each other again. Some confusion. Swahili, no, Lingala. Langauge of the bandits, we were told. Sheepishly, they tell us they cannot sell it because it comes from the head office and it is special equipment. We try again, but no, they really cannot sell. Now we are the confused ones. Not for sale? Really? We give up, Sean takes a few photos of the guys, which they happily pose for. They tell me they are “ex-combattants” – veterans, I guess. As I stand next to them, one of them puts his arm around my shoulder. I try not to think what that hand has wrought. We drive away mesmerized, thinking we just found the one thing that is not for sale in the Congo.

Photo by Sean (obviously)

Photo by Sean (obviously)

In the back, a particularly big bump, a spear, and now there is a hole in one of the curtains.

Nearing the end of the trip, there are more and more giant puddles. We discover, to Sean’s immense joy, that a Land Cruiser plus water-filled craters equals explosive splashing. One motocycle driver that gets a little too close to Sean’s manuevering cries out, “You’re not normal!”

Lakefront property:

Photo by Sean

Photo by Sean

The shore:

The crossing back to Burundi really merits its own post. Question: how do you get a spear across customs? I’m so swamped with work and an imminent trip to Kinshasa (via Kenya?) that I will have to postpone for a bit. It’s got some great moments, too, and is the perfect contrast to the Congo. Paved roads!

One note about being back: The first meal that I have after the trip is one of the best I have ever had. The food was pretty good; the fish a little salty, but that’s not important. I sit back, look around the manicured courtyard, the white tablecloths and gleaming silverware, listen to Sean talk about the jazz, and wonder about how muddy it was that morning. It is a fantastically surreal moment.

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October 2008