Posts Tagged ‘Bukavu’

Sara and Baraka

Thursday, October 21st, 2010


Nothing has even come close to lifting my spirits as the sight of 15-year-old Sara and her 1-year-old daughter Baraka did today in Bukavu. I wrote about them last March when I did the piece on children born of rape for the Christian Science Monitor. Sara was abducted and raped and had a child when she was 14. She has no family. If I remember correctly, her parents were killed. I am not sure what happened to her one sibling.

She lives now in a group transition home for women who had been patients at Panzi Hospital. She remains there, but is set to move soon, I believe, to another of the hospital’s homes.

My interview with Sara many months ago, really moved me, as most of those I conducted with young rape victims did. But her face and her child stayed with me better than the others. First because of her deep love and affection for her daughter, even after what she had been through, and second because her daughter is such a happy, lively child. None of that has changed. Baraka continues to giggle and gurgle and smile constantly. She was afraid of me, unfortunately, perhaps because I look so odd to her. But she is a gaggle of happy energy for others. And Sara is still a profoundly kind and big-hearted young girl. She laughed at her daughter’s frightened reaction through her own slightly bewildered eyes.

My heart swelled when I saw her. The minute she saw me, and the instant of recognition passed between us, her smile opened and she ran to me, Baraka on her back, and we hugged. She was so excited and surprised to see me. It was instantaneous joy and totally sincere and unscripted and real and again, Sara managed to move me, nearly to tears. I am sure after our interview she never did expect to see me again. And I was so thrilled to see her. I never forgot her and there seemed something very important to both of us in knowing that.

It’s often so difficult as a journalist here for me to hear about such horror and then simply walk away. I know all I can promise is a story and I believe deeply in the power and potential of journalism to change lives; to change the world. But that does not often translate for a girl whose lost her whole family, her childhood and any real semblance of security. So to be able to come back, and to see how much my doing so meant to her, and to realize how much it meant to me as well, was a profoundly important experience. Obviously I wasn’t the only one who felt some tie, some connection. Sara felt it to.

Sara is now in school, fourth form, something she wanted desperately. I’m ecstatic. She is healthy, Baraka is healthy; Sara has friends in school, she is learning French and Swahili, and math and she seems happy. We were able to communicate in French a bit, she knows some basic phrases, and after much prodding, she shared with me her new English too: “Good morning! How are you?” She was so shy and sweet and could barely look at me and keep from giggling as she said it. But I know she was happy to share. She also showed me her school notebooks, paging through slowly, so I could see as her writing in French had improved since September and how she has gone from measurement conversions to simple geometry in math.

Before parting I left her with some money for school uniforms, notebooks and pens, and little extra to get her hair braided. It costs $1 and she likes to do it twice a month. I am more than happy to support such vanity. She’s a beautiful girl, thoroughly, in her core. I can’t wait to see her again. In fact, I’m sad to leave her.

Oh Congo

Friday, March 19th, 2010

So I’ve just settled in for a little break in what was a long, good, but tiring day. Started at 8:30 a.m. with a hotel change — thankfully — from a rather moldy, not super clean, no fruit at breakfast spot, to probably the nicest hotel in town. I’m glad to be here, looking out of my window on to gorgeous, well-manicured gardens with Lake Kivu just beyond. It was raining for a bit and the short but steady downpour, and the cool wind that accompanied it, was a nice backdrop for some relaxation. I’ve still got one interview to go tonight, but I am taking this time to chill out in advance.

The most exciting thing today was a US movie star celeb! I walked out of an interview at Panzi Hospital to find a large group of foreigners standing in front of what is most often used as the hospital’s cafeteria for patients. It was full of women, listening attentively to a handsome gentleman standing up front with Dr. Mukwege. Who, you ask, was this man? Well, none other than Ben Affleck. Yup. His PR lady rather curtly told me that they were doing no press and wouldn’t tell me why they were there. But there was a man filming the whole thing and Mr. Affleck had quite and entourage. All I can gather so far is he was here to see the hospital, find out what they’re doing etc. I think he’s been here before. He looks, by the way, just as he does on screen, only he’s very tall. I had no idea.

It was also lovely to see Dr. Mukwege again. He greeted me very warmly. I learned he has just returned from a trip to the US and in May is off to give a speech to the European Parliament, I think. Busy man. Rolling between movie stars, politicians and some of Congo’s neediest women all without skipping a beat.

Other than that, I’ve been trying to wrap my head a bit around this trip. I leave on Tuesday and, typically, the last few days are a mad dash. However I want to record some of the lighter things that stand out for me here. I’ll start a list:

-Among the most popular songs is surely Celine Dion’s theme song from Titanic. I hear it everywhere.
-The Pakistani MONUC troops love to take pictures of Mizungus (foreigners in Kiswahili, or perhaps less politely, white people).
-Bananas are delicious. Three cost 200 Congolese francs.
-Fabric shopping in Kadutu Market is a dizzying experience with almost too many options from which to choose!
-Best response to a adolescent or young adult male teasingly calling to me, the mizungu, is to shout back muosi! (African / Congolese in Kiswahili). I get a good, surprised laugh in return.
-Wear your seatbelt!
-Goma is HOT!
-Bukavu has a much more manageable temp.
-The gorillas are totally worth it. So is the bushwhacking.
-Remember, most babies here don’t wear diapers…. (important information when holding them)
-But they are ADORable — so beware! Holding them is very hard to resist!
-Hot water is a super luxury
-The slow boat on Lake Kivu is the way to go. Fast boat is small, way cramped and bumpy!
-The police here march in formation. A lot.
-If there is street work that closes the street, no one will tell you and no one will put up a sign. Hope you have a creative driver!
-The greetings I’ve gotten from groups of women here are some of the most welcoming of anywhere I’ve been. Trilling a chorus of high-pitched, tongue behind the front teeth, “la la las” that usually culminate in clapping, singing, dancing and lots of eager hand-shaking. I love it. It has made me blush, but it is so genuine and lovely and welcoming, it really moves me when it happens.

and another Congo piece…

Thursday, January 21st, 2010

The story that inspired my trip is now out in the Jan/Feb issue of the University of Chicago Magazine. Have a look here.

Now on to planning the next visit!

China in the Congo

Sunday, October 25th, 2009

A quick note about China…

Or something like that. One of the funny quirks of being in Bukavu this past week has been the frequency with which the subject of the shoddy nature of Chinese products in the Congo comes up: every day. And I’m not just talking about plastics – but roads, especially, water heaters and just about anything else you can imagine.

So the roads in particular are interesting in Bukavu. Primarily, they are terrible. Apparently, some 50-60 years ago, these Belgian-made roads were in near perfect condition. Smooth, fast, secure. Today it’s hard to imagine that they were ever in such shape. They are easily the bumpiest, most rutted out and ruined roads I’ve been on. The few times I didn’t ride in a jeep were less than comforting.

According to my translator and others, in recent years the Chinese have been coming in and re-building these roads. But the reviews are not generally favorable. Most people seem to think the Chinese roads won’t last two years. And the issue comes up a lot. On Saturday night as I was out reporting, each time a car or truck zoomed past and kicked up dust, my translator muttered, sighed and shook his head, “China!”

The water at my guesthouse was also a continual topic of conversation, mostly because it worked infrequently and was almost never hot. I was one of the lucky ones that did get hot water when it worked. One of the other guests told me that the management had recently bought a water heater from China but it broke after two weeks. None of the Congolese who heard the story were surprised.

As has oft been reported the Chinese are making serious business inroads into Africa. What I’ve not heard as much was how Africans feel about it. At least in Bukavu, the ones I met are not impressed so far. But the whole thing is good for a laugh or two…!

So much more to say about the Congo, so will try to get to all that soon.

This really happened…

Wednesday, October 21st, 2009
Passing the time on the long, long journey to Bukavu...

Passing the time on the long, long journey to Bukavu...

Here’s one good way to get to know someone well: travel internationally together for nearly 62 hours with little sleep, two airplane cancellations, one three-and-a-half hour mad dash across European borders in a rental car and a couple of Belgian beers along the way. So far, it’s working for me.

That’s how Dr. Scott Eggener, Dr. Gregory Bales and I spent the first three days of our journey from Brussels to Frankfurt to Brussels again, then to Bujumbura (Burundi) through Rwanda and onto our final destination, Bukavu in the eastern Congo. And I’m thinking that among the admittedly many silver linings I can find in this tale of travel woe, is that I’ve met two men, about whom I’ll be writing, who are exceedingly easy to get along with in stressful situations and incredibly determined to do some good in the world. And that’s just about as good a set-up for any piece as I could hope.

So it all started easily enough for me at JFK on Thursday, Oct. 15. My plane to Brussels left on time and I got to sit next to an amiable Italian lady, which for anyone who knows me, knows was an extra bonus. I breezed through customs in Brussels and then slowly started making my way to my next gate for the three-hour wait until I would fly to Burundi. On this second leg of my journey I’d be joining Scott and Greg, physicians from the Univ of Chicago whose medical work in Bukavu is the subject of one of my pieces there.

But when I finally found a departure monitor that listed my flight, I saw to my dismay the words “annullé” flash upon the screen. Not wanting to believe what I knew to be true – that annullé means cancelled – I stood staring until my translation was confirmed with the dreaded English version that soon followed the French. So I marched over to the Brussels Airlines information counter and was re-routed, with Scott and Greg, to Addis Ababa (Ethiopia) via Frankfurt. From there, we would catch another plane to Bujumbura and hopefully only be set back by about eight hours.

With the power of the Internet and the Brussels airport wireless, I found the docs in the departure lounge and we proceeded to spend a very tired day in Brussels. We first ambled through the Magritte Museum, which was lovely, if a bit overcrowded. We then ate a fine Belgian lunch and wandered over to an old church that was, as we discovered, built in the 11th century (I won the bet for guessing it’s age most closely, though I was off by about four centuries – so, yes, maybe we’re not history buffs…).

Feeling too exhausted to do much else, we decided to try and see a movie and maybe catch a nap in the process. We chose something called “Hump Day,” mainly because the theater was there (i.e. we walked past it) and the film was in English. It turned out to be quite easily the worst film we had ever seen. Agonizingly boring and slow-moving, the film followed two straight male buddies who wanted to try and make a gay porn film, sort of as a dare, for a radical film festival (please don’t make me try to explain more). I think the only reason we didn’t walk out is that the seats were relatively comfortable, the theater was dark, and we all slept some.

After browsing in a small book shop nearby and picking up a copy of Tin Tin in the Congo, appropriately enough, we found a local pub and shared a couple of beers. Turns out, Greg is a master fly-swatter (faster maybe even than Obama!!) and Scott a wizard at picking out unfortunate baby names (no, not for his own children).

Soon enough we were headed back to the airport where we were those people at the check-in counter who take FOREVER and you simply can’t understand why. Now on Ethiopian Air, they didn’t want to allow Scott’s third checked bag (medical equipment) because he had paid American Airlines for it but not them. After much haggling on the phone, an email confirming that payment would arrive eventually seemed to suffice. Thus, our bags successfully checked, we headed to our next flight with only a few minutes to spare.

The plane was not too crowded and we took off promptly for Frankfurt. When we landed, we sat on the tarmac for an hour. No word about why from the cockpit. Then it was two hours and, only when pressed, did the flight attendants tell us we had a flat tire. “But don’t worry,” they assured me, “you’ll get your next flight.” Then three hours and, “I don’t think we’re leaving Frankfurt tonight.” Then they served us dinner – they insisted. Then by hour four, after much fretting and wondering how we’d ever make it to the Congo, we were finally allowed off the plane.

We departed with a plan: get our bags (hurdle # 1), rent a car at 2:30 in the morning (hurdle #2), drive back to Brussels and don’t get lost (hurdle #3), catch our original cancelled flight to Bujumbura at 10:40 am, which, of course, would have seats for us (hurdle #4) and don’t get charged again for the flight (hurdle #5).

Well kids? Our bags came off at carousel B17 as we were told. The car rental company in terminal A was open. We did find our way out of the garage and on to Brussels in good time and with no major gaffes. Brussels Airlines got us on the 10:40 flight with no extra charge and, the bonus, the flight was practically empty. Thus we spent the next eight hours to Burundi each with our own row of five empty seats – snoring loudly I am sure.

Once in Burundi Alice, my fixer, met us at the airport as planned (despite all the changes in said plans) and though our hotel had no record of our reservation, rooms were available. We slept well and woke to a relatively easy drive across two borders (Rwanda and Congo) and around verdant, rolling hills framed by the misty, imposing mountains beyond.

In Bukavu we settled into our guest house and after some lunch, story planning, phone-calling and interview arranging with my translator extraordinaire, Roger, I went back to sleep. For three hours. I napped like a baby — out cold and in blissful content that we had actually managed to get here. There were several moments when I hadn’t been so sure…