Archive for the 'Photography' Category

02
Aug
10

heartland alliance in general and sange in particular

Maybe it was the WBEZ interview and being asked engaging questions about my work that has got me thinking or more likely it was this past week’s events, but I’m going to shift the focus of this blog to some work things. It’s a task I’ve meant to complete for over a year now, but Life has often conspired to prevent me from writing critically about Work. Work does that, too; I do work, I don’t write about it.

So I’m going to load some photos of my World Cup Safari and my two weeks in Chicago on Facebook instead. I figure most of my blog’s readership is probably linked to me on FB already. If not, just search for ‘Jefferson Mok’. Now, you might notice there are two of us – that’s okay; I’m the one in Burundi. (I also want to point out that I have reached out to this other “Jefferson Mok” but he hasn’t reciprocated the kindness. I’m distraught.)

First, Heartland Alliance’s approach to humanitarian assistance. I often find describing Heartland’s approach to programming unwieldy because it’s fairly broad. So while an organization like Doctors Without Borders has a clear mandate based around advanced medical care in emergency contexts, it’s more challenging to pin down Heartland’s philosophy. Part of that has to do with Heartland’s origins. Heartland Alliance grew out of the Hull House in Chicago and Jane Addam’s pioneering work to assist recent immigrants and other populations in need with social services. Since 1888, Heartland has firmly established itself in Chicago and around the Midwest to provide quality human services to populations ranging from housing, medical aid, legal services and mental health counseling. It’s hard to exaggerate that legacy – Addams is to social services in the U.S. what Clara Barton was to the Red Cross. However, Heartland’s versatility also inhibits an easy description of Heartland Alliance’s services.

I used to list off Heartland Alliance’s services and the corresponding list of populations that it reaches, but I’ve maxed out my comma-usage quota through the next century (and it played really poorly as a self-introduction at parties). Now I think I can do a bit better. In very short, we provide human rights-based protection services to highly vulnerable populations. A little longer: we provide critical protection and rehabilitation services principally for victims of human rights abuses or to strengthen the human rights context. In a given country, this package of services can vary by project or by region or by need, but the design process still proceeds from a human rights framework, an agile responsiveness to the context and a focus on high quality care. Very often, the most significant need is mental health care such as trauma counseling for women and children victims of conflict or violence. This happens to be an area in which Heartland Alliance is very strong, based on its extensive work with torture survivors in the Midwest. For me, one of Heartland Alliance’s key attributes is its ability to draw from a vast network of highly trained and experienced professionals from the Chicago-area. Lawyers, doctors, psychologists, researchers – it’s a heady roster that supports a panoply of humanitarian aid activities abroad.

Heartland Alliance’s current portfolio in the African Great Lakes region includes a female former child soldier rehabilitation project, an anti-human trafficking project that covers both Burundi and South Kivu Province in eastern Congo, a transit care shelter for victims of sexual violence in South Kivu and operational support for sexual minority associations. It is not by chance that Human Rights Watch has produced reports about Burundi on child soldiers in 2006 and the LGBTI community in 2009.

This evolution is exciting on a personal level after two years out here. As this blog testifies, I literally just showed up in Burundi one June afternoon in 2008 with a bag and a few well chosen words of encouragement. To see an actual Program(me) take shape over that time is more than satisfying. Heartland has only been involved in international development since 2004 but already, I can tell it is a highly effective operation and its ability to respond quickly to needs and gaps in humanitarian services to the most vulnerable populations is impressive. (I say all this not to just toot my own horn, but to acknowledge the work Heartland is doing in countries like Ethiopia, Iraq, Haiti, Sri Lanka and Nigeria, all of which I am still learning about). The rate of expansion is dizzying; thankfully, the organization’s infrastructure is improving at a similar rate.

July 28, 2010. Sange, South Kivu Province, DRC.

This past Thursday presents a good example of how our model works. On July 2, 2010, there was a devastating explosion in the town of Sange in South Kivu. Sange is an important transit point about 30km north of Uvira, where we have our office. A truck carrying petrol crashed and overturned on the side of the main road, next to a bar filled with people watching the World Cup. A massive commotion followed with many children rushing toward the truck that was now belching out petrol from a broken valve. Even soldiers got in on the act and started filling  tins with the spilled gas and stashing them in their guardhouse a few yards from the truck. What happened next is not entirely clear. I first heard it was a man flicking a cigarette but more reliably, some of the people in the area said it was the fuse of a motorcyclist kick-starting his engine. What is clear is that in the ensuing explosion, a motorcyclist was launched into the air by a mushroom-flame cloud and never came back down. The final death toll is not yet known but it is well over 300 now.

Heartland Alliance’s mental health staff, led by Molly Firkaly, our Mental Health Program Manager, responded three days later, setting up counseling services for burn victims and community members before any other humanitarian aid organizations had arrived. The need was critical; our mandate was vital in meeting that need and recognizing that it was a disaster for the entire community, not just individuals. Heartland Alliance staff were given a list of 285 victims, whose families our counselors visited at their homes. The other organizations that arrived focused on medical and psychological services to direct victims of the fire but for some reason, this coverage did not extend to family members who had suffered loss. At least in this context, they lacked the flexibility to ensure reaching as many people in need as they could have, so I think we filled an important gap there. The politics and motivations behind the situation’s coordination structure could fill a book – not that I’m writing one. And I won’t write one now.

Last Thursday, I visited Sange for the first time since my return from Chicago. We are a team of three: Molly, our Program Manager, Arisitide, our Project Coordinator and me, the Driver. We are there for some meetings with the local hospital’s doctors and administrators. At Sange we encounter disturbing realities about medical care in eastern Congo. If you read the papers, you might think the only thing doctors do in eastern DRC is treat rape victims. That might be partially true, but only because there is no funding for anything else. So the Sange hospital treating the burn victims has to depend on an international organization to provide a vehicle for an ambulance service because the hospital does not have money for fuel for its one vehicle. The ambulance has to first travel to Sange in order to transfer severe burn victims a few hours away to Bukavu or about an hour away to Uvira (during one of our meetings, we learn that of the 33 who had been transferred, 27 had passed away, including two that morning). Doctors have had to be flown in with tons of their own equipment to perform delicate surgeries.

After our meetings, I took some photos of the truck, which is still there, and the surrounding area, which is kind of still there.

I swear, the next post will be more uplifting. It’s really not my fault.

“IN CASE OF EMERGENCY, CALL +254…”

A couple of policemen survey the wreck. All of the rubber has burnt away from the tires, exposing the metal treads.

The ground is scorched far away from the truck. An enormous amount of fuel had spilled out prior to the explosion.

This small guardhouse was gutted because soldiers allegedly stored spilled petrol from the overturned truck in tins here.

Lime traces mark two spots where two soldiers perished (below). At least four were crammed into this space when the explosion occurred. The odors are awful.

Some children tagged the truck with graffiti. Most are directed at the Congolese Armed Forces (FARDC). “Stop.”

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11
Mar
10

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.

07
Aug
09

gorillas

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.

NyungweForest1

NyungweForest2

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.

NyungweStuck

This was how the exit route looked.

NyungweStuck2

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:

NyungweTeam

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!

Gorillas4

Last known photo of the hikers before they see gorillas.

Gorillas5

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!

Gorilla1

Gorillas2

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.

Gorilla_Back

Gorillas6

Gorillas3

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 lodgecoco@kivu-online.com

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.

02
Aug
09

prehistoric time travel

I guess the first thing I should mention is that I am, in fact, not dead. Long periods of silence tend to create some outrageous rumors, like the idea that I would actually let myself die here. Humanitarian crisis created by a boneheaded U.N.-led operation? Rampant Interhamwe rebels, Congolese soldiers and militianmen raping, killing, burning and being generally unruly?
Please.

Instead, travel back in time with me to May 2, 2009, when I traveled back in time to 40 million B.C. Co-conspirator Martina and I are in Bukavu in the DRC. We’re at the Hotel de la Roche (the “Roach Hotel”) having some lunch after seeing eastern lowland silverback gorillas in Kahuzi-Biega National Park (which I’ll write about separately), when we’re joined by the cast of Disney’s new theatrical production, “Congo.” We are swarmed by a flock of mini-turkeys, something resembling a peacock on cocaine and our favorite, a shoebill. The shoebill is unlike any creature I have ever seen. Its slate-blue beak could keep me mesmerized for hours. It also really does look like a shoe, but the kind of shoe you would wear if you wanted to get beaten up in high school. We respond to this fascinating bird the only way humans know how when confronted by an astonishing creature: we try to hunt him. Martina and I take turns creeping as close as we could to the guy. We first track him and stare, hoping to build up some telepathic rapport. Then we move in for the kill. Here’s a visual narrative of our attempts.

BirdWatching1

BirdWatching2

It takes a little while but I have a good trick for getting right up to the shoebill.
(Photos by Martina)

BirdHunt1

BirdHunt2

BirdHunt3

BirdHunt7

BirdHunt4

BirdHunt8

BirdHunt9

BirdHunt10

BirdHunt12

Eventually, I lay down right next to him(?). There aren’t any serious objections, just some curious glances (from the hotel staff, too). I think he was completely fooled by my blue camouflage.

Next: Gorillas! And, guerillas!

Still alive, still alive, thanks…

25
Mar
09

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.

6amgarden

Dancin’.

dance3

dance2

dance1

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

leopardhat

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.

ruzizi_sign

ruzizi_weavers

ruzizi_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.)

roadwork

26
Feb
09

mount teza

February 15, 2009

Burundi doesn’t have many touristic activities:

“Have you seen the hippos yet?”
“Yeah.”
“Oh.”
(silence)
“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.

teza1

teza2

teza_worm

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

teza_lunch

Brandon: “This is where we’re going.”

teza31

(Wyatt!)

teza_mushroom

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

teza4

Not-Mt. Teza.

teza_tea

23
Feb
09

usumbura

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

http://membres.lycos.fr/usumbura/page1.htm

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.




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