Posts Tagged ‘children’

A radio show!

Monday, April 12th, 2010

So I just got off the phone from a taping for “the Conversation” with Ross Reynolds on KUOW, Seattle’s NPR station. I was on with Lisa Shannon, founder of Run for Congo Women and author of her new book “A Thousand Sisters: My Journey of Hope into the Worst Place on Earth to be a Woman.” Her Web site is: http://athousandsisters.com/. We were there to talk with Mr. Reynolds about the Congo and our experiences there. The show is scheduled to air this Friday, April 16, between 12pm and 1 pm PST. However, depending on the news cycle it could be moved to a different time. If you are interested, I am sure you can listen live online. The Web site is: http://www.kuow.org/conversation/

The show taping today was a chance to reflect on some of what I have seen. I don’t think I nearly conveyed all of that, maybe a small bit if I was successful, and I do hope that I sounded articulate. It’s so funny how such a thing can be so nerve-wracking even when no one can see you and you know they’ll edit it all to make it sound coherent! Or at least I hope! And while talking about some of the reporting I did, I failed to mention that a piece about children born of rape will be published in the Christian Science Monitor. As soon as it’s done I will hopefully be able to send KUOW the link to post on their site, but I am not sure of our pub date yet. I feel terrible for forgetting! Well, hopefully there will be more opportunities.

Lisa was great on the show. It was so fun to reconnect with her this way. We met while at the Hotel Orchid in Bukavu. Our trips overlapped by a few days. Her book has just come out and I highly recommend it. It is full of thoughtful insights and well-wrought observations. Reading it has made me think so much about my own experiences in Congo — a place that is a jumble of complicated feelings, the more so the longer I am home and thinking about it. Sometimes I am inspired there, I am often humbled — especially by the courage and strength of the women I have met — and I am buoyed by the ability of people who have suffered so much to still be so generous to others. Yet I have been maddened, frustrated, angry, and hopeless too. It is a place that gets under your skin. It is a place I will continue to go back to.

I have been stunned, really, by how much it is on my mind now. I think it is because, of course, I am still finishing stories now that I reported there, so I am busy rifling through my notebooks and remembering my interviews. Yet it also because now I have the time and the space to let it in. The result is not always easy. As a journalist I struggle, and I probably always will, with needing to get on the inside to tell a good story but to simultaneously remain on the outside in order to tell a true and fair story. At times it frustrates me, it saddens me, not to be able to do more than just write. I hope that one day this effort will feel like enough.

Anyway, catch the show if you can. And look out for more stories from Congo in the Christian Science Monitor and Women’s eNews!

And so?

Thursday, March 25th, 2010

What now? I leave Congo this time frankly depressed.

In my three weeks there I certainly had some “up” moments — good interviews, jolly gorillas, lovely scenery along Lake Kivu with a temperate breeze going through my hair. It was great to work with Roger again. I enjoyed seeing Goma. And there were moments when I met women who were finding their way again, finding some satisfaction in life and pride in their children. They were becoming healing and that was uplifting for sure.

But there was also what sometimes felt like a barrage of bad. So many stories of rape and murder and loss; inescapable poverty, hopelessness; people barefoot on mud-choked roads, children in tatters playing with objects tossed to the ground, the boy on Idjwi so painfully hungry. It just got to me this time. Perhaps this is getting to know the place better and being able to see more.

It doesn’t stop me from wanting to return for more reporting. There is much to write about here and I intend to be back in a few months. I think the only way for me to resolve my own feelings of despair and fatigue is to go back and put down on paper what I see and how I feel; to use my words as my tool. Nevertheless, as I sit in Kigali having a slow day of reading, a bit of walking and not much else, I’m acutely aware of how tired and drained of reserves I am. My patience is frayed. I need to turn my brain off. I am sad. Congo is sad.

The sun sets magically over Lake Kivu and Goma

The sun sets magically over Lake Kivu and Goma

Idjwi

Thursday, March 25th, 2010

Sunday was an adventure. It started early with a 5 am wake-up so that I could meet Roger, Victoria and Bahati for our 6:30 am boat ride to Idjwi — an island in Lake Kivu. Bahati was out guide for the day. A friend of Roger’s, he grew up on Idwji and knew where to take us to see a village chief, small, private coffee farms, the breathtaking views and the one tourist spot, a local lodge, built seven years prior. Victoria is a woman I met on my last trip and who was again in Congo working with a non-profit women’s center she started to aid rape victims. She and I shared several adventures on my last trip and I knew she’d want to come along on this one.

The boat ride, so early in the morning, was one of the highlights of our day. With the sun coming across the lake in a dazzling blaze, setting alight the many fishing boats in a sparkling silver, the view was truly cinematic. And with all the waving between us and the fishermen, I woke up quickly, snapping away with the camera. Hopefully some of the shots came out…

Our boat was a small speed boat operated by another Idjwi local who know lives in Bukavu. It was a surprisingly smooth ride and the fresh air was lovely. We’d hired the boat for the day, to take us the hour or so to Idjwi and then bring us home in the afternoon. Much better, and easier to organize, than trying to go on the scheduled Bukavu – Goma / Goma-Bukavu boats.

A possible Belgian relic?

A possible Belgian relic?

We arrived on the island at about 8 am and took a short stroll along the water seeing a convent, the hospital and hospital staff’s housing. Though one of the sisters told us there had been a drought, the flowers were gorgeous, including my favorite dahlias. It is one of the things I like best about Congo — the rich flora and fauna. If this was what drought produces, I would love to see it when the rain is abundant.

A view of Lake Kivu from the island of Idjwi

A view of Lake Kivu from the island of Idjwi

We soon then jumped in the hospital jeep and wound our way to the home of one of the village chiefs. There I interviewed him, probing about the island’s history and people’s experiences during the war. There was no real fighting on the island, but it has suffered from the many Rwandan refugees that came there and the resulting environmental problems — many, many trees cut, soil degraded, etc. In conjunction with deep poverty, a growing population and a blight on the banana trees, there is real hunger here.

We saw it very soon after our interview. As we left the chief’s home, we started an ambling walk that wound us along a road bordered by thatched-roof huts, kasava fields and sweeping views of the hilly island and the vast lake. But not long after we started, I noticed a tiny child sitting, by himself, on the side of the road under the shade of a tree. He was totally alone with not an adult in sight. I stopped and asked the chief where his family was. I was told that it’s perfectly normal for him to be sitting there, he does all the time. I didn’t agree. The child was obviously in bad shape — dirty, had wet eyelashes from crying, mucus all over his face, no pants, and as we looked closer, he was severely malnourished. I went over and wiped his face clean with some kleenex and tried to show some affection — gently rubbing his back and head and cheek. I asked the chief (accompanied by several men from the village) to get his parents or someone to come and look after him. It took me nearly 15 minutes or so of urging until he finally called a woman over. The whole episode was deeply upsetting. I nearly started crying because I was so frustrated that no one seemed to care an iota about this child and couldn’t be moved to do anything to help him. Even now, as I write about it, I can feel my blood pressure rising.

The woman who had come over, in no hurry whatsoever by the way, took the child by his hand and pulled him to his feet. Then it was even more clear how sick he was — tiny, shrivled legs, and a rear end of sagging flesh. No muscle, no vitality. I was so upset. I gave her 1500 Congolese francs and asked her to go and buy bananas for him and some for her own children. I urged her to please, please, do this; to understand it was very important to me that she use the money for bananas for the child and not for anything else. With Roger’s help and translation I hope she understood and followed through. What I really wanted to do was to bring the child to the hospital. But with his parents absent I didn’t really think I could just pick him up and take him away.

Only the next day did Roger tell me that it turns out the woman who’d come over was, in fact, the child’s mother. The chief had asked him not to tell me. I am not sure why. But it makes me even more angry. If I’d known we could have taken them together to the hospital. It’s totally heartbreaking. It was among the most painful things I’ve ever seen and experienced. Perhaps it’s good I didn’t know then she was the mother. I may not have been so kind and I know it’s really not my place. My assumption was that she was abusing and neglecting her child. But, when I am rational, I know I can’t understand all of the reasons for his hunger. We were told the father used all the family’s money to buy beer. Thus the layers of reasons for the child’s sickness are likely many and it would be totally presumptuous of me to have lashed out at the mother.

Later in the day we met a nurse from one of the village health centers. We asked him to go find the child and mother and try to bring them to the hospital. I will follow-up with Roger and Bahati that this happens. The nurse seemed to take the news in stride. He was concerned but given the depths of poverty here, it seemed this was certainly not the first case of such extreme malnutrition he’s seen. Turns out, though the island is beautiful and looks extremely fertile, the banana blight is having a serious impact on access to food. Also, much of the land on the island is owned privately, so the population doesn’t have as much land to cultivate as it seems.

The remainder of our walk was nice. We got a real sense of the island’s beauty, saw eucalyptus and cyprus trees, fields of coffee and kasava, beans and potatoes, and had a lovely picnic lunch at the lodge, the Congomani Guest House. But sadly, the day was colored by this encounter.

We also, unfortunately, had another nasty encounter after lunch with an awful man who was bothering Victoria and I about showing him our passports. He claimed to be some intelligence agent, but had no photo ID to show, despite me asking repeatedly. I had been visited by the intelligence service before and they had no problem producing photo ID when I asked. I then had no problem producing my press credentials — all they asked for — and the whole thing ended congenially. This tim, lots of yelling ensued, the man got very aggressive and wouldn’t let us leave the island until Victoria and I showed him our passports, which we ultimately did, though we wouldn’t let him touch them.

Though he wouldn’t give me his name — shouldn’t have been a problem if he was legit, no???? — I found out and told another intelligence agent I saw the next day. Not a nice side of Congo, this…

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.

International Women’s Day

Thursday, March 11th, 2010

So I’ve not been a very good blogger of late… apologies for not recording these events sooner.

Monday, March 8, was International Women’s Day. Though it is celebrated around the world, I’ve never participated in or even been aware of any special events in the U.S. I know they exist, but they’re not well publicized or attended it seems. In Congo, it’s quite a different story.

I was in Bukavu on Monday, out early, to cover the annual parade that marks International Women’s Day here. I knew it was going to be a scene, but this was spectacular. There were thousands of women — I don’t know how many and I couldn’t get an official estimate, but by my own guess I’d have to say around 5,000 women at least. And they were dressed to the nines! Each group that marches — local NGOs and women’s associations, UN divisions, international NGOs, etc — dresses in matching clothes. Thus under a bright, hot sun (my shoulders are only now starting not to ache from my neon sun burn), one of Bukavu’s main avenues transformed from an often muddy, jaggedly pot-holed roller-coaster, into a rainbow of the city’s women.

The colors were outstanding! And the patterns, all together like that, a vibrant swirl. The singing and dancing of the women along the route was uplifting and made one think that if all of these women could come together, in force, they could do anything. They could really change this war-torn place…

Even as dark clouds moved in, pushing the sunshine out, and an absolute downpour drenched us all, the women did not stop. Nor did they step out of beat to the music playing as they walked. Nor did their arm swinging fall out of pattern. And they were smiling — well, a lot of them were. I even saw one lady who seemed to have lost a sandal to the raging river the street had become keeping up with the others, utterly unfazed, and happy.

Women in the rain, with pearls, on International Women's Day, Bukavu, eastern DRC

Women in the rain, with pearls, on International Women's Day, Bukavu, eastern DRC


The rain didn't stop, and neither did the women marching on International Women's Day in Bukavu, eastern DRC

The rain didn't stop, and neither did the women marching on International Women's Day in Bukavu, eastern DRC

They kept this up for several hours more, though I bailed after about one hour or so in the rain. I was soaked and cold. I  had tried to take cover under a tarp hung over  a seating area, but I was on the edge. A fine spot while the rain fell straight. But when it started to come in sideways, it was all over. Roger, my ever-steadfast translator, was soaked too. And then Debi, our driver, found us! God knows how he maneuvered the car so close to where we were, but he save the day, whisking us back to dry clothes and warmer bones.

I did try to return to the parade to catch some speeches and see more action, but by then there was no way to get through the traffic back to where we’d been or anywhere near the route’s finish line. With two more interviews to go that afternoon we had to turn around.

The rain only let up late in the afternoon and most marchers had dispersed around the time we did, give or take an our or so. And yet, the day was certainly not a wash (sorry for the terrible pun…). It was wonderful to see so much spirit and enthusiasm among women here — so many of whom have suffered terribly as a result of the country’s ongoing and brutal conflict. It was inspiring to see little girls get into the mood and tell me that the day was their day to call on the government to support girls’ education, to ”say what we think” and to “be valued.”

Even as violence goes on and as women are so often it’s victims, this day displayed their remarkable resilience and courage. It reminded me, as so many things here do, of what I take for granted, of how lucky I am and how little I’ve really ever “endured.” I am grateful for the perspective.