Posts Tagged ‘food’

“Nathalie”

Thursday, October 21st, 2010

21.Oct.2010

When I was last in Congo, in March, I visited the island of Idjwi. I wrote about meeting a little girl on the side of the road who was all by herself, dirty, had obviously been crying and was terribly malnourished. After urging the village chief and elders to find an adult to be with her, a woman came who turned out to be her mother. Turns out that 9 percent of the children on Idjwi, and there are thousands of them, suffer from malnutrition. This little one was not alone.

I followed up with Roger and Bahati and sent money to them so that the mother could bring the child to the hospital. I wasn’t sure if she would survive. I’ve never before seen a child so small and limp from lack of food. But the mother did take her daughter to the hospital where the little girl received care. I subsequently learned through Roger and Bahati that she was getting better.

Today I got to see for myself.

Roger and Bahati and I ventured again to Idjwi and met with the girl’s mother. Turns out, that although I thought her name was Nathalie, and that she was 3, her name is Anuarite and she is just 2.5 years old. Her older sister is Nathalie, and is 4. Her younger sister is Dione, 1.5 years. They all, and their mother, Nankomere, looked much better – cleaner and better fed. Nevertheless, I left the mom with a bit more money for a hospital follow-up because I remain concerned that the girls are not as healthy as they could be.

But it was a huge relief to see them, and especially, Anuarite, doing so well. I completely didn’t recognize her when we arrived at the hut. She had a head full of little curls, round cheeks and some actual muscle – not much – but some on her legs and arms. I couldn’t for all my efforts get her to crack a smile and she seems tired still. It’s probably a legacy of the malnutrition. Nathalie was much more affectionate with me, clinging to my legs and staying quite near me the entire length of my visit.

Roger and I had gone shopping and picked up some dresses and shoes for the three girls, which we gave as well. The stuff is way too big for them now – we had all the ages wrong of the sisters – but they’ll grow into it and have things for the future, which is key.

Their mother told me she had used some of the money left over from the hospital stay to buy items to sell as a petty trade. With that, and the farming she continues to do, she has herself been able to feed her children better – she showed me the dried fish, cassava flour and beans in her tiny mud hut. She has even bought her three girls some new clothes. When I met Anuarite, she was barefoot and wearing only a tattered, oversized, and soiled t-shirt. She didn’t even have on underwear. This time she was in a smart skirt and top set that matched her sister Nathalie’s, her face was clean and and she had on a pair of underwear fashion from some old cloth.

But the main point is that she was much improved physically and I was really thrilled.

I intend to keep up with the family and support them in the little ways that I can. And I will keep working on getting that smile from Anuarite. I know it’s coming.

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…

The more I learn…

Friday, March 12th, 2010

So I had a really lovely evening last night. Roger, my translator, Dobs, our driver, and I went out to dinner in Goma. I’ve blanked on the name of the restaurant, but it was a nice place with outdoor and indoor seating, a thatched-roof bar and pretty good food.

A view of Goma from a rooftop restaurant

A view of Goma from a rooftop restaurant

But the two things that I liked most was the diversity among customers there and the conversation with Roger and Dobs.

Roger mentioned it first, saying that the restaurant looked like “South Africa” because of the co-mingling among foreigners and Congolese. And it’s true that the customers were a more mixed group than I normally see in Bukavu. Roger thought it might be because there are more foreign aid organizations in Goma and thus more of their staff. So the city inevitably sees more mixing. Whatever the reason, it was a welcome change. It is one of the things I don’t like about traveling sometimes, is how conspicuously separated foreigners can be from the local populations.

Also fascinating was the conversation. Nearly every time I ask Roger a question I learn something from him. The same held true last night. But with the addition of Dobs my head was swimming as I try to learn more about the conflict here and why it is so deeply entrenched and complicated. It’s taken mental acrobatics for me to keep straight the different allegiances of all the armed groups. Add to that now my growing understanding of how ethnicities impact those allegiances and how different that can be from North to South Kivu — only separated by a lake, but often the experience of war is so dramatically opposed.

For example, we had an engaging debate about whether the war has affected North or South Kivu more — somewhat macabre, I know, but interesting. Roger says the south because it is such a small province and thus the proportion of victims is far greater. Dobs felt it was the north because of its close ties to Rwanda (geographic and ethnic) and the ongoing instability in so much of its rural areas.

Further, it seems that the victimization of women, in particular, takes on significantly different face depending on where they live and who attacks them. When the attacker shares fewer ethnic ties to the victim, the stigma for the woman, and her child if she becomes pregnant as a result, is that much greater. When the perpetrator is a civilian, the community response is quite different, and it seems the need for secrecy is greater. Sometimes, an aid worker told me, in the case of civilian rape, families will still try for their own mediation — a marriage between the perpetrator and victim or paid reparations to the victim. This is, however, illegal in Congo.

I’m digesting all of this and trying to understand it in context, knowing all the while that there are millions of layers still to unravel…

And, by the way, this is all simplified way way down from the depths of knowledge Roger and Dobs have about all of these issues. So don’t quote me, I’m still learning!

all continues apace

Wednesday, March 3rd, 2010
A view of Bukavu from the shores of Lake Kivu

A view of Bukavu from the shores of Lake Kivu

I am now entrenched in Bukavu having spent two days reporting and this third one writing, editing and soon (hopefully) filing a story. It’s been a good way to get started. The piece is about local women’s activism. Is there such a thing, you might ask? Well, despite the many reports we get about Congolese women existing primarily as examples of the horrors of rape, the woman’s movement here, especially in the Kivu’s, is quite vibrant. It should be out soon, so if you are so inclined you can have a read at www.womensenews.org.

I also just met Lisa Shannon, founder of Run for Congo Women, a project of Women for Women International, which has gained a lot of media attention lately. Nick Kristof wrote about her in a recent column and Oprah has featured her work on her tv show. She’s a super interesting lady and I’m having dinner with her and another journalist writing about her tonight. There will be lots of brainstorming about writing and travel in Congo going on. Should be nice to have some dinner dates too — lately it’s only been my computer and me and looming deadlines!

Internet connection today has been the best yet and the persistent leak in my bathroom at the guesthouse seems to finally be stopped up. Things are looking good.

Is it my Karma?

Tuesday, November 17th, 2009

So the stomach bug is not so unusual. But the series of canceled flights on this journey are starting to stack up in suspect ways…

I was supposed to be in Juphal, the Dolpo region, to watch the three sisters’ mobile tourism training for three days – until Nov. 3. Our plane was scheduled for 8 am but Bina only came to find me to head to the airfield (this was is also just a bare gravel strip in the midst of looming mountains) at about 9:30 am. Once there, we waited for about an hour. Initially the plane was to come in the (increasingly typical) 10-20 minutes. But 20 minutes later, the flight was canceled. We’d have to try tomorrow, Bina told me. We’d be on the first flight, 6 am.

Then my bug attacked. So, we aimed instead for the 8 am flight again. And actually got on, though this time at about 9:45am. But we made it, without incident to Surkhot. There we waited an additional two-and-a-half hours for our flight to Jumla. I didn’t mind much as I slept for a lot of that. The only troublesome bit was the waiting room after we went through security. The entirely too distinct smell of urine seeped from the nearby toilets. Soon enough, the police let most of us in the room sit outside until we boarded …

Once in Jumla my only mode of transport was my feet, until the end of my hike. After five days of walking, Bina, Fhulmaya and I reached Talcha, where another airstrip provided transit from the region. Having left Rara lake early in the morning – 6:45 am among an intense morning frost – we got to Talcha by about 9:15. Our flight was supposed to be at noon to Surkhot from where we would board a local bus to Pokhara. So we found a sunny place to sit, Bina and Fhulmaya tracked down some elusive biscuits and we ate a little snack. Fhulmaya started her walk back to Jumla at about 11:30 am.

The Nepal airways flight scheduled before us came and went at about noon. Ours was next in, yes, 10-20 minutes. Thirty minutes later, yes, it would come, in about 10 minutes. Then the police whistle sounded and a woman in uniform cried, “Strike!”

Within several short minutes of her call, a band or about 30 or so rowdy adolescent boys began marching up the airfield.

The strikers in action on the airfield

The strikers in action on the airfield

Bina translated that they were demanding that rice prices be lowered and that they be better allowed to travel from the area. I never quite understood what this latter complaint involved, whether or not they were legally barred from getting airplane tickets for some reason or the tickets were too expensive or what. The rice price issue, I gleaned, was legitimate, with prices having recently skyrocketed, Bina said. Yet the details remain murky here too because before and after the boys’ protest, I had watched at least three helicopters land and unload dozens of rice bags with big block letters saying “donated by the World Food Program.” These were added to the two-to-three already heaping piles of such bags sitting on the edge of the runway. So, I’m still hazy on the exact circumstances of the rice problem…

Anyway, what it meant for me was, after four-five hours of waiting, there was no flight. We were stuck in Talcha, not an especially appealing place to be. And we didn’t know for how long. Maybe we’d get out the next day? Maybe a flight would still come that day? Maybe we’d be stuck for five days? There was no road for vehicle travel to walk to and Fhulmaya had long ago left us, meaning the option of walking back to Jumla was out, it being doubtful that Bina and I could have easily found our way. Plus, I didn’t really want to do the reverse walk…

And, apparently, the Nepali police – who have a base in town and whose presence was ample enough – could not find a way to simultaneously allow a plane to safely land and let the boys peacefully protest away from the airfield. This confused me greatly.

I also realized that, despite all the international travel I have done, I hate not being in control (for those who know me well, feel free to sigh, smile and shake your head knowingly, laughing at what is soooooo obvious…). I hated not being able to get the police to just sort everything out. I hated that I could not call a customer service representative to get me on another flight. I hated that there was no other airport to try. I hated being stuck, immobile, impotent, having to wait. I can be very impatient.

So I hemmed and hawed and moaned and groaned and Bina let me vent, nodding gently and agreeing that it was all pretty awful. We found a room in the one hotel in town and Bina went to try and find more information. This entailed her listening in alongside several villagers as the police, airline representatives and boys had “discussions” and reporting back to me at various intervals that they were “discussing” and that the boys were making “demands.” Nothing changed. So I read, we ate our dal bhat for dinner, and we slept hoping some resolution would come the next day.

In the morning, Bina and I trotted over to the airport tower – a tiny, two-story wooden thing that looked more like a tree house than a control station. Inside we tried to find out if a plane would come. The man in charge really couldn’t say. Maybe? Then yes, Nepal Airlines would come. Then, no, they wouldn’t. Then maybe Yeti Airlines (our carrier) would come, then, no for sure and for an indefinite period, they would not come. Then maybe a helicopter would come and maybe we could get on it. But he didn’t know and wouldn’t know for several hours. A UN flight would come, but we could definitely not get on that.

UUUUUUUUUUGGGGGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!

I went outside to work on a story.

After about an hour Bina came running over – a helicopter was coming in! We have to go!

So I huffed my way breathlessly up the hill to our hotel, grabbed my pack, hastily paid my bill, and marched as swiftly as possibly across the village to the airfield. There a man was collecting money for the flight, but for some reason there was intense confusion about what I was to pay and whether in US Dollars or Nepali Rupees. Fearing I would miss the flight, I did kind of lose it then. No one could tell me what was going on and the conversations flying around me, at least three at once, all in rapid Nepali, with no one explaining anything to me, just overwhelmed me. And that’s when my hemming and hawing became a little too loud… But as usual, Bina dealt with me and got me onto the helicopter safely and graciously accepted my apologies for losing my cool. Big sigh.

So we made it out. But that’s not the end of the story. The helicopter ride turned into a real treat and a much-needed boon during what would continue to be a long, long, long journey home…

More on that in the next post.