Archive for the 'Great Lakes' Category


international women’s day

march 8, 2010. uvira, south kivu, drc

“Huit mars”. International Women’s Day. It’s a festive occasion – huge parade, endless speeches, mid-morning drinking, especially on the Congo side, which is where I am to march with my Congolese colleagues. Everyone wants a good seat.

Uvira, South Kivu Province of eastern DRC, about 15 kilometers over the Burundi/DRC border at Kavimvira. A U.N.-backed holiday celebrating women (in the Congo!) could only mean one thing: giant block party. This day affirms my quaint belief that any backwater hub in the Congo could out-party and no doubt outdrink any Big Ten campus. Don’t believe me? Then you must see what happens when any vehicle, spilling over with too many passengers, rolls by blaring a local tune. From above, I’m sure you could see the ripple of dancing and chaos and screaming children that would follow the music source.

I’m with my new colleagues that we recently hired for a project against human trafficking. We are nine marching behind our Heartland Alliance banner.

That is the why. This is the wow:

After a two-hour delay under a crushing sun, we get moving, just as the sky ahead darkens. I’m suddenly relieved to find us near the head of the procession. When we get near the endpoint, there are crowds lining both sides and somewhere a rabid announcer (in huge plastic sunglasses and purple velvet top hat, no doubt) is screaming out the name of each organization and congratulating them. When we get near the spectator stand with local dignitaries reviewing the march, I hear Heartland Alliance’s name being blared out. “Ouais ouais, felicitations, Heartland Alliance! Ouais ouais!” Then I hear “Ouais, felicitations, Jefferson Mok! OUAAAAAIIIS!!!”

What? Sweet.

“Ha ha ha, tu es connu ici!”

Evidently. It’s a small community and all, and I do stick out quite a bit. But it never ceases to surprise me when I am stopped on the road, in shops, at the borderpost, at one of Uvira’s three nightspots or in the middle of a city-wide parade by hearing my name called out to me from a wall of strange faces. I love it.

Just as soon as we finish our part of the parade, the sky splits open and thick drops come plopping down. We run for it. Actually, everyone else runs for it, and I get distracted by this woman’s elegant headpiece.

Then I run for it, only I have no idea where everyone else has gone (ever travel with me before? Sound familiar?) Luckily, my team sends back one of the guards to find me and we all pile into a little bar tucked behind another little bar, which is most of what Uvira is.

We sit down, order some drinks – I have to restate the no-beer-during-workhours policy but I lose the no-bottle-caps-on-the-floor battle. We order meat on sticks and are treated to some Congolese classic tunes, which apparently everyone knows exactly how to dance to, because that’s what half the bar is doing. There is a guy dancing, Capri-cut Dickies denim, olive t-shirt. Very nice movements, short, round but lanky, too.  All of a sudden, he stops boppin’ and runs over to the grill to berate the hapless worker stationed there. I’m not really following the action. Then the dancer picks up the tongs and starts flipping around hunks of meat. Uh oh. Oh my god, he’s the cook! Except, he’s also the resident dancer! But, of course, he’s not stopping either task for the other.

There are many moments when I can see a disaster gathering with the speed of a drunken pig. This is one of them. Maybe I’ve had practice, but I see these moments very clearly now and yet I know I have no possibility of getting out of the way. As I’m typing this, my stomach is a lead-brick on coke. It’s rumbling and tumbling, with intent. Did I not see this coming when I speared the first of four or five pinkish meats that also managed to be incinerated black on the outside, while happily watching the dancing cook. There was a piece that was so unchewable, I had to pause and prepare myself mentally to not choke. Like a pissed off hippo, It did not go down easy.

It’s been about 15 minutes since I’ve managed to pull myself into a sitting position to type this. This is not the first time that I’ve been struck down by mega-sunstroke and a stomachache in Uvira. Somehow, in the span of 20 km, Uvira manages to be about four times hotter than Bujumbura. It’s really just the other side of the lake, but we’re a world away here.



May 2, 2009

I’m standing at the bottom of a slope in Kahuzi-Biega National Park west of Bukavu in the DRC, dirt splattered all over my pants and for the second time in two months I am  witnessing my car flopping around in the mud. I think back to Nyungwe Forest in April when Martina and I drove to Rwanda to see chimps and just to get away from Burundi. We picked up Sarah from Scotland at the Park Ranger station (some foreshadowing perhaps – I had a ticket to Scotland for the following month). On the downhill drive into the park, we had no problems despite it being rainy season. The park’s tourist numbers confirm that April is the least popular month to visit but I highly recommend it if you want to see new landscapes and gorgeous cloud patterns every five minutes.



Anyway, of course, we didn’t have any issues getting to the park – we just slid downhill on the tire tracks other vehicles had carved into the yellow mud. Coming back uphill was a predictable catastrophe that no one really bothered to think about. The trip had seemed like such a brilliant idea until that point. Then things got cagey. I had run out of candy.


This was how the exit route looked.


We tried putting logs into the tracks, we tried piling leaves under the car. I took out my machete to hack and to dig. We tried a lot of pretty silly things but with only the three of us and the Park Ranger, we didn’t move a yard. Finally, we convinced the Ranger to call his buddies and also to send for help from a nearby village. We waited for about 20 “Rwandan minutes,” which we were shocked to discover was only 15 ‘European minutes’. And then help arrived. Boy, did it arrive. Or I should say: boys. Lots and lots of barefoot giggly boys. We got to see chimps in their natural environement, a rainforest. The boys got to see foreigners in their natural environement, helplessly flailing in the mud. Fair enough. Everyone got to go home happy.

More Rangers arrived. Martina marshalled the whole group by shouting encouragements in a language no one really understood (Italian?) until she was laughing too hard to help push. Half the team pushed the car from behind, the other half pulled it by the grill on the front. The team rocked the car back and forth over each bump until it slowly gained enough momentum and traction to get going. But once it did pick up speed, I didn’t want to stop again so Sarah, Martina and our guide piled into the moving vehicle and I didn’t let up on the gas pedal until we were back on pavement. The car looked like hell. Probably the branches I crashed through did also. And then there was the rescue team:


All this flashes through my mind as I watch my Land Cruiser get a gentle nudge back up the hill so we can leave it on the drier part of the trail and hike toward the gorillas, the eastern lowland silverback gorillas. I love saying that. We’re a total of six hikers, one guide, and at least six Congolese soldier-turned-rangers. I hear some of the soldiers served under the Congolese Tutsi General Laurent Nkunda and had been integrated into the Congolese forces. That’s good, I guess, as all reports suggest they are really effective soldiers. In all, there are actually only three civilians – our guide, Carlos, Martina and me. The other four hikers sheepishly identify themselves as “Information Specialists” for the U.S. further north in Goma. I glance sidways at one in a black cap, impenetrable shades, a black tactical vest and menacing (black) boots. “Information? Oh, are you a writer?” Martina asks.

It’s a really refreshing hike. It’s still early in the morning and the Congolese landscape is awesome. The air’s clean, it’s not too hot – the climate isn’t really the problem for this country. We hike for about an hour when all of a sudden, a guerilla!


Last known photo of the hikers before they see gorillas.


The guerilla helpfully estimates that we are about several more minutes hike from the gorillas. He also tells us that we should always keep seven to ten meters between ourselves and the male or we might offend him. We learn the guerilla’s teammates have been radioing back and forth on the gorillas’ locations so he has seen them. All we have to do is turn right along the trail and hike a bit further. We take literally five steps after the turn when all of a sudden, gorillas!



At first, I don’t understand what is happening. I expected more hiking. I also expected more distance than two meters. When we got our pep talk, we must have already been inside seven meters of the gorillas. What I see is a semicircle trained on a small scene, almost like a stage. I’m confused because on the edges of this scene, just inches from a large female and her kids, are two or three rangers hacking away with sharp machetes, stripping the trees of branches and leaves. Then I realize they are clearing the space for us so we could see the gorillas better. Pretty quickly, we ask about the distance and the disturbance we are causing but Carlos explains that the rangers and gorillas are familiar with each other and if the gorillas were irritated by us, they would let us know. Everyone, gorillas and humans, also know that the law here is Chimanuka, the kingly male off to the left. He is essentially tolerating us because if he really wanted to, he could flatten all of us in a heartbeat. We are the ones that have to be totally respectful. At the moment, I am totally respectful of his eating every leaf around him. That’s about as far as our relationship gets. We don’t share a beer or anything, but he does end up tolerating us for more than an hour as we follow him deeper and deeper into the jungle.




I’ve only uploaded a couple photos of the gorillas because this is ultimately not something I could show you well. Anyone can see images of gorillas anywhere, but there is so much more to it. It’s humbling and majestic and frightening and exciting and even a little sad, all at the same time. I would just muck it up; the experience deserves better than my telling of it. It would be hard to retell the stories we exchange while hiking or describe the flowers we smell. The enormity of Chimanuka’s frame, his fists that are the size of my torso, his commanding grunts. The little ones, interacting with us, dangling from branches, swinging by in the surrounding trees. Putting all of it onto a blog is really not why I went.

What I do support is tourism in the Congo. If you get the chance to visit, I recommend tours led by Carlos from the Co-Co Lodge, located in Bukavu. He has been there for a long time, so he knows the terrain and he knows the people. You can contact him at

You might mention Jeff and Martina from Bujumbura said hello, but I can’t be responsible for what happens next. Carlos was the one who had to get my car out of the mud.


seeing things

Some recent random shots.

I woke up at 5:58 a.m. and took this in the garden at 6:00. By 6:02, it was gone.






The ‘Burundian Gentleman’ is defined by his visionary coupling of polyester leopard-skin hat and French cuffs.


The next three were taken in Ruzizi Park, where there are hippos and crocs and where you can see the mythical police-creature dozing in his natural habitat.




The next one was taken in front of my house. It’s noteworthy because this is the third or fourth time the steamroller has appeared to re-grade the road. Each time, the crews don’t follow up with the other steps to finish paving, so of course, the rain sweeps away previous efforts. Good planning and stuff. Thanks, European Development Fund. (Follow-up: the canals have all been dismantled/smashed because they were too poorly built the first time and need to be reconstructed.)



mount teza

February 15, 2009

Burundi doesn’t have many touristic activities:

“Have you seen the hippos yet?”
“Let’s go eat Indian food.”
“I ate there last night but ok.” 

Sometimes we have to really seek out our own fun. One option is to go for a hike, except all the nearby areas are still in rebel-held territories, even if they’ve promised to put down their guns. We did some intrepid organizing and notified the guerillas that we would be hiking around, so please don’t shoot us.

We decide to climb Mount Teza, which I had thought was the tallest mountain in Burundi. Turns out it’s the second tallest. And we actually don’t end up hiking Teza, we hike the peak next to it. The mountain next to the second highest peak in Burundi.

It’s a truly glorious day, and we haven’t had many recently. But today is perfect – big chunky clouds and glowing tea plantations lining the valleys. I’m not hoping to see many animals – the war was brutal on them, too – but we did sight a few fascinating birds and some giant earthworms, which were described as “muscular” (I later picked one up – ‘muscular’ is the correct word). And while not animals, we also saw a few broken clay pots, probably indicating old rebel campsites. Pretty neat stuff.




Walter helpfully points out the spot where your correspondent will slip and plunge an unhappy foot into that clean clean spring water.


Brandon: “This is where we’re going.”




Amy – wily henchman, photographer (did you or I take those shots up top?), navigator and soon to be taco-conspirator.


Not-Mt. Teza.




My friend Katherine sent me this link for photos of Usumbura (the colonial name for Bujumbura) from the 1950’s:

Some of the scenes in the photos are impressively similar to the city today. Many of the buildings shown still exist.

This post is maybe a stunning glimpse into Burundi’s colonial past, maybe another, less stunning, evasion on my part of considering my current surroundings.


business trip, pt. three: the good bandit

backing up a bit…

November 12-14, 2008 – Bukavu, DRC

I like shaking hands. I like what it can or cannot tell me, the little bit of human contact, the absurd formality of the gesture. Sometimes when I’m leaving the house, I shake hands with the guards. On this particular occasion, it feels different. I have just told the guys I am going to the Congo for a few days. They look at the ground or just around, but not at me when we shake, and the grip lasts a little longer than usual. Not much, but just enough that I can tell they’re thinking something. I ask about it, and Dieudonné tilts his head and shrugs.

“Muri Congo, hari indwano.”

I am about to ask what ‘indwano’ is when I realize it can only be one thing. In the Congo, there is war. That’s what it was – the handshake felt like a farewell.

I say, “Oya, i Goma hari indwano. Ngiye i Bukavu. Hariya, nta indwano iriho.” No, in Goma there is war. I am going to Bukavu. There, there is no war.

I realize the skeptical looks I get have nothing to do with my Kirundi (because it’s perfect?).

“Urugendo rywiza.” Have a beautiful trip.

And I do.

The drive through southwestern Rwanda is one of my favorite so far. But before I get there I have to revisit the scene of an earlier drama. About four months ago, I crossed at this border with my colleague, Sean. We took a bus together but while Sean had no problems getting through immigration into Rwanda, I had to resort to somewhat dubious tactics. I’m wondering if the issue might resurface so I decide I better preempt the issue.

I walk up to a short policeman who has the familiarity of being someone I should avoid.

I ask, “We know each other, no?”

Good, he doesn’t remember me that well. I tell him that yes, we met a few months ago when I passed through here and he helped me a lot. He likes hearing that, and happily stamps my passport. I make a note to shut up before he really does remember. 

There is very little fuss when I pull up to the border barrier. The guard lifts up the gate for me to pass. Where are you going, he asks. To Bukavu, I say.

“Woooh, courage!”

The Rwandan border post only has one officer present. It also only has one visitor present: me. I want to get going so I can arrive in Bukavu before dark, but the Rwandan officer has invoked Obama. However, unlike every other person so far, the officer is not effusive about Obama being elected. Or it seems so at first. We spend a good 20 minutes going over the possible scenarios for disappointment from an Obama presidency. It’s actually kind of refreshing. At the end, however, the officer reveals himself to be an enthusiastic supporter, just more grounded and analytical than others. The border post is a waste of his talents.

After the border, there is an uphill road that bends  and opens upon a glorious panaorama. The road isn’t too good, which gives me reason to slow down to admire the view. In the distance, I can see a shimmering grey veil of rain moving across the bright green tea fields. The sky ahead gets darker. I speed up to beat the rain so I can get to Bukavu before it gets too muddy. As I increase my speed, I glance in the rear view mirror and notice a gray pick-up truck. It recedes as I accelerate.

I’m zipping along, noticing how much quicker Rwandans are than Burundians to react to an oncoming vehicle when I see the gray pick-up behind me again. It is diligently trying to catch up to. It is somewhat effective. Not quite Nabokov’s darting spider in the rearview mirror – maybe more like a manatee. Then I see the truck’s headlights flash, kind of. They are so weak I barely notice them in the daylight. I figure the driver is just trying to pass me. I slow down a bit and the vehicle keeps approaching until we are almost bumper-to-bumper. He makes no attempt to move around me. The lights wink again. I see an arm reach out the driver side and wave at me. It seems to be making the universal gesture for “Pull the hell over, I’ve been chasing you for the last 10km!”

A young man in a hip black t-shirt and a badge hanging around his neck on a chain gets out of the truck. I ask him who he is, and he says he is a police officer. There are a lot of reasons not to believe him but instead I just register curiosity. Huh, I think, in Rwanda, the police have cars.

The officer instructs me to go back to the border post. I offer to follow him but he says no, he will follow me. The drive back is no less scenic and several times, I slow down so the gray truck can catch up.

At the border station, the Immigration Officer that stamped my passport is standing at the top of the steps and smiling as I pull up. I get out of my car, beaming, like we are sharing some private joke. He must have realized what happened once his colleagues took off in tepid pursuit. He reaches out to shake my hand – no problem, no problem, he tells me, excuse me, I didn’t know you had a vehicle. You need an entry card for it.

When the apprehending officer pulls up, he sees me talking to his colleague, who then explains quickly what happened. The young officer is smirking when he gestures me into his office. No problem, no problem.

In the office, there is an Obama photo that someone printed out. I ask who printed it out, and the officer, my new friend, says he did. I smile. Too easy. I should be back on the road in two minutes. I just hope they don’t notice I had to make a “correction” on my insurance documents.

I’m getting near the Congo/Rwanda border now. I see a sign for Ruzizi I, Ruzizi being the river that divides the two countries. I’m not sure where Ruzizi II is, but remembering that I crossed at II last time, I search in vain for the sign to Ruzizi II. Apparently, you can only get to Ruzizi II if you already know where it is. I thought I would give Ruzizi I a try anyway just to compare – boy, was that a mistake.

I get to the border and walk up to the immigration window on the Rwandan side. I answer all the usual questions: Where are you going? For how long? What are you doing there? Do you have a job for me?

I get back in the car and pass the gates. The moment I am through, it’s like I’ve jumped dimensions. The smooth Rwandan road has been transformed into a broken mud-path. Women with giant baskets on their heads line the roadsides. Porters stoop under sacks that say 50kg on them, staggering one by one up the mountainside. Mud mud, everywhere.

At the Congo border station, the chief, Dismas, invites me into his office and chats a while with me. I soothe his incredulity that I am in fact American. He tells me he likes my name, and then asks if I know where his name comes from. I say no and he tells me the Biblical significance of Dismas. Dismas is the thief who is redeemed at the last moment of his life when he repents and reaches out to Jesus. Dismas means the “good bandit.” I say, I’ve met many Dismas’ in the Congo, many ‘good bandits’. This incarnation of Dismas says, yes, it is a good story, and, do not forget, I am Dismas, the good bandit. I’ll bet you are!

Once I escape from Dismas’ office, I realize “escape” is never that easy. I walk back up the muddy road, everyone stopping what they’re doing to stare at me. I climb into my truck and have just enough time to put on my seat belt when suddenly the passenger side door and the back seat doors pop open all at once and three men climb in. They’re laughing and chatting, like they don’t even notice me.

I barely manage, “What are you doing?!?!”
“We need a ride into town.”
“Good, go find a taxi. Who are you???”
“We work for the government. It is very muddy today so we do not want to walk.”
“No, get out of my car!”
“It is not far”/”You can drop us in town”/(laugh laugh laugh) Repeat five times.
I only relent when I look over to the man in the passenger seat and notice he is cupping a new Barbie-pink plastic cell phone in his hands. Is that your new phone, I ask?
Ha ha, no, it is a toy for my daughter. I think, that phone must get to his daughter. Finally, I say, “Ok, if you think this is a taxi, I am charging each of you 300 francs (about 60 cents).”
The guys look at one another, unsure how to react. Ha ha?

I stay at Hotel La Roche, which could be loosely translated as “The Roach Hotel.” The last time I stayed here with Sean and they stuck us up in an attic double. This time I manage even worse: an attic single with exposed panels of insulation (asbestos?) and a ceiling that makes me reconsider verticality as an evolutionary advantage.


Down in the courtyard, I stand around to admire the lake and the bizarre elephant and bald eagle sculptures the hotel just doesn’t seem to want to get rid of. Total class.


I recall the last time I was here, a helicopter landed on the lawn where I’m standing. Lake Kivu is just amazing.


As I’m admiring the lake view, two other guests start talking to me. Inevitably, we talk about the violence raging in Goma, just across the lake. Remembering that Laurent Nkunda’s rebels briefly took Bukavu in 2004, I ask if that will happen this time. The men give a surprising answer. What is happening in Goma, they say, is the Americans’ fault. And the rebels will kill all Americans. Then they will come here and kill everyone. But not you.
Not me? Just me? But I’m American, I say.
Oh, they will kill you then. Ha ha. Obama! 

In the last six months, I’ve been told I will be killed more than in all previous 27 years combined (junior high doesn’t count). I don’t take most of the remarks very seriously, but no matter how many times I hear it, it still gives me pause; I feel my smile freeze up and become awkward. Dying is not really the issue; it is much more likely I will get flattened by a car/truck/Land Cruiser/motorcycle/cow. Rather, it’s knowing that someone would actually *want* to kill me and also knowing that being killed by people with intent here does not simply mean dying, but something much worse. It’s just not a very happy thought. The conversation ends soon after.

So I’m here in Bukavu to wrap up registration for Heartland. I have a handwritten letter from George in Kinshasa and a phone number for his contact. But first, I give George a call to let him know that I did make it to Bukavu, as promised. He recognizes my voice instantly (I’m still always surprised when that happens). I’m equal parts delight at speaking to George and amazement that the call actually made it across the Congo. Don’t worry, George tells me, you will get registered. It will happen because I am working for you.

Two more calls, several quick meetings, and yes, George, Heartland is registered to begin operations in the Congo. Thank you, friend.

I have one other objective in mind. It’s kind of a long shot given how I only have two hours left in Bukavu before I have to leave to get back to Burundi at a reasonable hour. I have a Burundi driver’s license already, but the Congo requires another one and people are starting to catch on that my Illinois card is not the International License, despite my assurances (“See, it’s in English. And that’s me.”). As Bukavu is the provincial capital, I should be able to get a license here. On the way to the Bureau de Roulage (the Office of Rolling?), a policeman stops me and demands to see my license. I tell him I am on my way to get one. He tells me he can help because his dad works in the Bureau de Roulage. Uh huh. I tell him I like his helmet.

At the Bureau de Roulage, I reach the second floor and find a man sitting at a small desk. I ask him about getting a license and how long it would take. He takes my money and tells me he’ll call in an hour when it’s ready. Even I find that too easy, so I ask again.
Can you do it?
Yes, no problem, he replies. The money goes in the front shirt pocket and I’m relieved. It’ll get done because he’s going to do it himself. It’ll get done because he just got paid.
I’m not surprised when about two hours later, he calls me and asks me to meet him on the street corner. 

The document is far better than I had ever hoped. I had seen the licenses in Kinshasa and they were shiny laminated things, but in Bukavu, they do not waste. My license displays its origins proudly: “Republic of Zaire: Unity, Work, Progress.” It could also read – “Republic of Zaire: Best. Souvenir. Ever.”

On my way out of town, I pull up to the policeman that stopped me earlier. I flash my new license and he says, yes, that is good. It is okay now.

The drive back to Bujumbura is a little harrowing and annoying, not least because I can’t find my way out of Bukavu’s muddy back roads. I also  have to contend with a completely inept policeman who sends me the wrong way. There isn’t too much else I really want or need to say about the rest of the drive. I did take a self-portrait along the way though. It was completely dark when I took the photo but the miracle of flash photography comes through once again. (I realize, maybe this might have been the that photo? The one where, as I’m holding the camera up, I wonder if it will find its way to people that need to see it.)



business trip, part one

October 28, 2008 – Nairobi

The logic of the Congo goes something like this: As I live in Bujumbura in Burundi, just 20km from the eastern border with the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), I must fly east all the way to Nairobi, Kenya, before I can catch a flight west across the continent to Kinshasa, the capital of the DRC.

Flights to Nairobi and to Kinshasa are both morning flights so I have to overnight in Kenya on both legs. That gives me a little time to check out Nairobi. The first thing I notice about the Nairobi Kenyatta International Airport is that it has electricity. Not only does the airport have electricity, but it uses an outrageous amount even during the day, mostly on advertising devices. It feels disorienting, a little intrusive – I suddenly miss Burundi.

In the taxi into town, Bernard the driver asks if it’s my first time to Kenya. I say yes. Just a few minutes out of the airport, we pass a wide open field on the left. Bernard turns his head in that direction and says, “Look over there. Giraffes.”

For some reason, I hear “cows” instead so I glance over quickly and mumble my assent.
Bernard is surprised I’m not surprised so he repeats himself.
I look up.“Oh my goodness! Giraffes! What are they doing there? Is that a park? How did they get there??”
“No, they are just there.”
Giraffes. Just there. My. Goodness.
Bernard slows the car slightly, and I stare. They’re beautiful. Their necks, they crane them, smooth and slender and strong. And they are just there, chomping on grass, watching the cars go by. It’s a little overwhelming; I’m not sure what to say. 

“Are there elephants, too?”

I end up spending a good deal of my time in Nairobi in an internet café, repeatedly jamming the printer with all the documents I have to create for the Kinshasa part of my trip. Other highlights include seeing Obama’s mug everywhere and feeling very anxious inside a 24-hour supermarket. The superabundance, the flourescent lights, the squeakiness of tiles, metal racks and too many colors. It makes me think of the Clash song, “Lost in the Supermarket.”

I’m all lost in the supermarket
I can no longer shop happily.
I came in here for the special offer
Guaranteed personality.

What else? There’s also fabulous Indian food and decent coffee in Nairobi. One of the more interesting things for me was walking around the city and noticing parallels with Hong Kong, where I was born and lived for seven years before moving away. Kenya, like Hong Kong, was a British Colony before gaining independence in 1963. For me, they both have the same feel. The ultra-urban landscape and patterns, the similar signage, the suffocating pollution, the streetside newspaper stands – it all added up to a feeling of familiarity, of…Home.

These photos could be of Hong Kong, too (with a little imagination):



But probably not this one:


October 29, 2008 – Kinshasa

I was warned that Kinshasa’s Ndjili Airport is a “nightmare.” My Bradt guidebook (yea, a guidebook on the Congo – good luck!) says it can be “a harrowing experience” and to be prepared for “a shock of the senses the moment you depart from the aircraft.” Such dire warnings – I was totally curious. How bad could it be? What could they possibly do? It doesn’t take long for me to find out.

Congo’s air industry does not have a good safety record at all. I’ve been on planes where people applaud after we have completed a safe landing but Kinshasa is the first airport I’ve landed in where people start clapping before all the wheels have even hit the tarmac. Small victories indeed.

When we disembark, I notice it’s very hot, very humid, and I don’t recognize any of the insignia on the planes. Air Zimbabwe? Really? The airport itself is a Mobutu-era artifact, meaning it’s large, dysfunctional and crumbling. It’s also mustard yellow with sky blue trim – the national colors. As the passengers walk together toward the terminal, everyone is watching. And there are lots of ‘everyone’: policemen, soldiers, baggage handlers, guy with a bicycle – just people everywhere. At the entrance to the terminal, there is a mass of policemen and women blocking the way, checking everyone’s passport and vaccination cards. Other police are nudging the passengers along, yelling out contradictory instructions, messing up lines. Chaos. When I hand over my passport, a hulking policeman with sleek sunglasses and a beret takes it, flips through the pages, then snaps it shut and says, “You wait over there. We have to verify your passport.” There are no computers anywhere. Verify how? Oh oh, “verify” it. I enter the terminal and wait by the side.

I’m not exactly sure what to do next because I’m the first one they’ve held up but within five minutes, an impressive group of obvious foreigners are waiting with me. There’s an Angolan, a Middle Easterner, an Eritrean, a group of Chinese, others. Slowly, each person or group is escorted off after a few questions. And suddenly there I am again, alone, with no passport and a host of soldiers and police circling. All the other passengers have cleared and left. In no time, about eight or nine police and plain clothes security agents have surrounded me. They start interrogating me about my trip, accusing me of this or that. I say I am there to meet with government officials about my organization working in the Congo (true). I say I am the regional head of mission of an American NGO (partially true – I am the only representative in the region at the moment). They respond by asking where my invitation is. It goes on and on. I think I do all right answering them but sometimes the questions are just so ridiculous, I’m not sure how to answer. I make a small mistake by looking at the wrong eye of an officer (it was damaged) and kick myself for it. Things are looking kind of grim and I wonder if I will ever get out of there.

And this is how Barack Obama saved my life.

There are two things I congratulate myself for bringing with me to Africa: my Arsenal soccer jersey and my Obama ‘08 button. I have the button pinned to my shoulder bag so it often hangs behind me. This time at the airport, the bag is hanging to my side. With so many police around, one of them was bound to see the pin. That is what I was hoping for and that is just what happens. It turns out to be the policeman with the damaged eye.

“Eh, Obama! You like Obama?”

I launch into an explanation that I would repeat many times over the next week: I voted for Obama. Barack Obama is a Senator in Illinois and lives in Chicago. I’m from Chicago. Obama supports my organization (true, and so does Senator Durbin, but that’s not relevant right now).

The now very excited policeman is telling his colleagues how much he likes Obama. He is thrilled I support Obama, too. Some of his colleagues are still skeptical; I even have to pull out my license to show them that I lived in Chicago. But soon after, the excited officer vouches for what I say and says, “See, he is from Chicago, he likes Obama. Oh, I like Obama so much! It’s ok, he is an American and he voted for Obama.” My new friend.

He guides me to the passport check point. An officer behind the counter takes my passport. He picks up a pair of glasses and unfolds the one remaining arm to put them on. He uses both hands like the glasses have both arms. They sit on a slant.

The officer tells me it is very difficult in the Congo. I mentally roll my eyes – it’s really awful of me. He is right that it’s miserable there, but I am so innured by the phrase now because I’ve learned that it’s an opening to an overture for money. The officer then asks me what I do and I use the French word for aid worker: “humanitaire.” He leans back and says, “Oh, you work for humanity, but you don’t even help out those are most in need. You only work for Humanity, but you really should help human beings, like me.” I tell him, “I’m so sorry, but unfortunately for you, I’m the kind of humanitarian who only helps women and children, and you’re neither, I believe.” The friendly officer has a good laugh at his colleague and grabs my passport back for me. He doesn’t leave my side again and says he will help me find a taxi because some of the taxi drivers are bad men who cheat. I quietly accept my fate and we move on.

Thirty minutes and several checkpoints later, I have my bag and am looking for a taxi. Turns out the policeman is not much help getting a taxi. How about that, right? The drivers pull out tattered photocopies of a list of prices and destinations. They are asking for $50 to go into town. I tell them the paper looks a bit old, so that must be the old price. What’s the price today?

I finally find a guy who will take me for $20, the right price according to several people in the baggage claim area (people who also couldn’t believe I would take a taxi in the first place). In the front seat is a woman who is also headed into town. I chat a few more moments with the officer, then slip him two one-dollar bills. Is that a bribe? A bribe would have cost much more and would have come earlier. And he would have asked for it. He didn’t, and he really was quite helpful. I would call that a tip (or ‘backpay’). You can decide. Meanwhile, I am getting the hell out of that airport.

As I am about to get in the taxi, a man calls out to me. He points at my Obama button and says, “That, I need that.”
I look at the button, then up at him and smile. “No, friend, you, you want it – I need it.”


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.


housing crisis

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

A little while ago, I got my garden going (pumpkin leaves are really interesting, by the by). A collective decision was made to add a roof for the seedlings, so we built one. Here it is before the roof and after a week with.


Here it is after I came home today:



Now I’ve dug out a third plot for herbs. We built a roof for that one, too, out of bamboo. With the rainy season picking up, the roof probably has a two-week lifespan. That might be considered average here.


no motorcycles

Monday, September 22, 2008

I got my driver’s license! It’s such a beautiful piece of paper.
I don’t know why, but people laugh at my picture a lot.

Unfortunately, I forgot to ask for permission to drive motorcycles. Someday, I will try to expound on the differences between riding a motorcycle in Rwanda, Burundi and the DRC.

Click below to receive an email notification when I post a new entry.

Join 36 other followers

August 2020