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?
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
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…