Monday, July 04, 2011

Final postcard from the DRC- 5

So after 9 weeks in the DRC the adventure comes to an end this week. It has been some experience. Everyday has been a fight. It feels like we have worked constantly at the extremes of frustration/stress and fulfilment/success…no in between. Life to the full I suppose.

I can’t imagine there are many places in the world at an earlier stage of development and infrastructure. Nothing here is easy. Every morning I pray for grace and patience for the complete incompetency that we will invariably encounter during any given day! Incompetency and corruption is pervasive through the government, international NGOs and local organisations. Almost all are out to make a name for themselves and line their pockets. Every level of society here is corrupted. From the top of the government who pocket billion dollar contracts from India and China for minerals none of which reaches the people; to the army who have endless supplies of guns, rocket launchers and ammunition but are not paid; to schools where to pass exams in university, secondary or primary you have to bribe the teachers or have sex with them; to the churches where the pastors get rich and the sick stay poor; to every person you meet who feels you owe them money. Everyone is out for themselves and their family. There is little community or loyalty to tribe or country.

In the past this country has been brought to its knees by European colonisation and slavery, then raped and pillaged by its African neighbours. Now the government and rebel groups are tearing the place apart from inside. All for the love of money. The source of all Congo’s problems is its mineral resources. Nowhere is it more evident that ‘the love of money is the root of all evil’

Despite all of this I still kinda love the place!!

At times it has felt like being in the Mourne mountains with my brothers. In the darkness trying to get a fire going. Blowing on the few embers that exist, trying to squeeze out some sparks of light. But when the embers spark into flames it makes all the all the effort worthwhile.

The project has been successful beyond what I had hoped, imagined or even asked for in prayer. Even working as a psychologist I had found myself cynical as to how much change CBT could have in such desperate situations. However the psychological, emotional and behavioural change in the children has been incredible. I have never seen lives totally changed like this. Overall our post-testing has shown a significant effect. Every child has had a reduction in symptoms of PTSD, depression and anxiety. More important and moving are their individual testimonies.

On Friday we had a ‘graduation ceremony’ where the kids stood in front of the town, mayor, local dignitaries, UN officials, NGO directors etc and testified to the change in their lives. From being constantly tortured by flashbacks, guilt and shame…to being able to control their thoughts; from never being able to sleep because of nightmares…to a full peaceful nights sleep; from having no hope and a plan to kill themselves…to having hopes and dreams for the future; from constantly fighting and avoiding others…to being able to form friendships again. There were even stories of recovery from physical (psychosomatic) pain! I could write forever about the individual stories. All credit and goes to the young people for trying so hard to recover from their trauma, and to the Almighty for answering the prayers of all those who I know were remembering this work.

It was not just the result of 7 weeks of group therapy. As well as psychological help the young people simply needed people to listen to what they had done without judgement, to hope for them, to affirm that their future can be better than their past, and to believe that God has a plan for their lives.

Working with the parents and caregivers has had a great impact. With the help of World Vision and local organisations we were able to get all of the girls out of the brothels and living with someone in their extended families. We have identified host families for the remaining street boys and the child soldiers who have no family and hope to bring these together this week.

We have employed 10 local people over the course of the intervention and have trained the World Vision staff to continue the psychosocial work. WV are also keen to extend this training to their other projects in the DRC. In Beni, the organisational relationships are now built and contracts signed so any future work with underage girls working in brothels or ‘street boys’ should involve these children being placed with a family before the trauma work ends.

All of this has been dependant on the money that many of you folk donated to the project the night before we left! We have also invested around $3000 in buying equipment to get the vocational training classes up and running. Carpentry and mechanics tools for the boys, sewing machines and material for the girls. The goal, as the old cliché goes, is teaching them how to fish rather than just giving them a fish.

The money you gave has also been used to start microfinance projects (book selling and bead making), and to buy hygiene kits for the girls, mosquito nets, clothes, food etc.

This week will be mad trying to get all finished. After 9 weeks without a full day off I am definitely looking forward to a break! Am hoping to meet up with good friends in Uganda on Thursday for a few days, then homeward bound.

When I sit down again in 5 Lewis Park it’ll probably hit me that this has been both the hardest and the best thing I have done with my life so far.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Postcard from the DRC 4 - Born Survivors

It’s been a pretty intense week in Beni. After eight sessions of teaching the techniques of CBT we’ve begun the trauma narratives. Since most of the young people can’t write they’ve been drawing the traumatic events that they have suffered and talking about these in individual sessions. The goal is basically to bring these into the open, practice controlling their thoughts and hence find healing from nightmares, flashbacks and other symptoms of PTSD.

You could not make up or imagine what many of them have been through. I’ll spare you the grotesque details of the mass killing, rape and mutilation that many of them have witnessed and been ordered to inflict on others. Some of the rebel groups mix violence with spirituality and witchcraft which has left those children especially psychologically damaged. For instance everyone here believes that the ‘Mai Mai’ rebels are invincible and impenetrable to bullets after being covered in sacred water. They believe that they gain extra strength for battle through rape and eating the flesh of their enemies.

These young people are the world’s true survivors. On listening to the stories of some of the lads yesterday it struck me that if any of them were to go to the US or UK and tell their stories they would become celebrities. They’d be speaking at every Christian conference going. There would be a movie made about their lives. The stories are of abduction, battling enemies, finding food, escape, trekking hundreds of miles, hiding in rivers and forests….stories of survival. I’ll find it hard to be impressed by Bear Grylls again after being with these people!

While it tears you apart to listen to their stories we have found great encouragement in hearing almost all state how this intervention is helping them. Two boys said yesterday that they previously had no hope and were daily considering suicide. They said that through the techniques we had taught them and the fact people cared had given them hope and a desire to live and make a better life for themselves.

It is not as easy for all. The current situation our friends is the most moving part. Some of the kids still sleep on the street or in brothels and no one seems to be in a great rush to do anything about it despite our efforts. This results in great frustration with the NGOs and UN who talk a lot about their work with ‘enfants de la rue’, ‘enfant soldieres’ and ‘victimes de violences sexuelles’ but don’t seem to be doing much to help as yet. An example is my wee mate ‘Simon’ (can’t put real names online), a 13-year-old living on the street. He has never known his mum or dad and has never had a family. The process of finding him a host family is infuriatingly slow. Another example of incompetency is a former child soldier who seems to be the natural leader of the boys. ‘Jean’ is an amazingly resilient 17-year-old who just wants to live a normal life. He has been taken 3 times from the CTO back to his family by the Red Cross. Each time he has been reabducted by the rebels, beaten almost to death, escaped and ended up back in the CTO. The powers that be are now in the process of sending him back again and he is terrified that this time he will be killed. He just wants to start anew somewhere else.

There are so many similar stories I could write all day.

Jonas our interpreter and self-appointed project manager keeps us sane with his antics and constant chatter of mostly nonsense. He is an African del boy, who knows everyone in town and could sell you a virus. In NI we’d say he has the gift of the gab and he would be very successful! He knows lots of pieces of information about history, religion, culture, psychology etc. but makes up what he doesn’t know. Hence in his stories, random Africans end up in the bible, people fly on magic carpets, Galileo gets crucified and we are doctors from Iceland. He has also started to imitate my Norn Iron accent when interpreting which cracks me up.

I went to a party at UN HQ the other night with some locals and the Nepalese ‘peacekeepers’. They have a curfew at 10pm so not exactly an Irish party. I did however meet a guy from East Timor whose brother works in Moy Park, Portadown! It feels like we’re in another world here but our world is getting smaller. With the Congolese elections coming up, I hope the world wakes up to the suffering of their brothers and sisters in the DRC sometime soon.

So pleased to have become Uncle John again this week. Am counting down the last 3 weeks until I get to meet wee Hanna Joy McMullen!

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Postcard from the DRC 3

Just a short update so ye all know we haven’t been eaten by rebels.

Actually Beni feels less and less like a war zone and more like a quiet but strange African town. It is completely safe for us to walk around and I haven’t felt in danger here at all. There is a UN curfew at night, so combined with a lack of electricity I’m usually in bed before 11pm. It feels like being a kid again.

I’m just back from a long French/Swahili church service. After 3 hours of not understanding anything and being entirely zoned out I decided to make a subtle exit. The entire congregation of about 400 locals all turned to stare at the churches only white person leaving early!

The work is intense but overall it’s going really well. The actual stuff we came to do is progressing beyond my expectations. I’m really loving working with the group of lads. It feels like teaching again which is class! Already we can see great progress, though so much of their psychological well-being is still affected by their daily circumstances. We have our first session with parents, care-givers, teachers and NGOs tomorrow which we hope will be significant.

The girls project is going great also. Most of the girls are around 15-16 and many have their own kids as a result of their work. African women have no qualms about public breast-feeding. It must be the only group-based intervention in the world where there are boobs hanging out everywhere as you try to talk!

We have also begun the microfinance projects for boys and girls, which we have high hopes for. The rest of our days and evenings are spent training our local staff, in meetings and trying to push forward our partner NGO to get the girls we are working with out of the brothels and the boys off the streets.

Dealing with local people and NGOs is the most frustrating part of the trip. The fact we are trying to do so much in a short space of time, combined with how hard it is to make things happen, is frustrating. Being 2 out of maybe 5 white people in the entire town results in everyone asking for money, from the young child to the educated adult. In saying that we have been totally blessed by those that are working with us. Jonas, our interpreter, is a wee legend. He is a great storyteller, often confusing fact and fiction, and gives me a great laugh. He is basically my sidekick for 8 weeks who I would be totally lost without.

While the details are stressful, when I step back and look at the bigger picture it’s amazing how it has worked out. Divine planning not ours I believe. However, it is easy to develop cabin fever in this small town and we're in need of a day off and an adventure. Trying to plan a trip into the jungle next Sunday to see some gorillas (people say there are gorillas but I think they may just mean monkeys) and maybe meet the rebels.

My main source of entertainment so far has been a couple of evenings having a beer and playing pool with some locals. I’m playing the best pool of my life and am the current champion in 2 different venues! It helps that the locals aren’t very good. Though I think perhaps God has improved my abilities in order for me to gain respect, as I have no other way of communicating with people! Some locals don’t like to lose. One night this guy was punching the table, calling me a witch doctor and continually threatening to cut my throat. His mates were telling him to wind his neck in (or whatever they say in Swahili). I beat him, then made a swift exit home. It felt good!

Thinking a lot about home especially the imminent arrival of my new nephew/niece!

Love and peace,


Sunday, May 29, 2011

Postcard from the DRC 2

So we’ve survived 3 weeks in the DRC and one week here in Beni. The flight from Goma was a brilliant, bumpy journey over jungle and little villages without a road in sight. Goma is a grey town. The roads are rocks and volcanic ash. The UN, NGOs and the profiteers of Congo’s mineral wealth live behind huge walls in big compounds guarded by full security teams. The place is awash with military carrying AK-47s, machine guns, rocket launchers, grenades etc. I asked Barady if I could take a picture of these guys. He said ‘Yes, but they will shoot you’. So sorry for lack of interesting pictures. You’ll have to take my word for it! Overall the scene is of massive contradictions between the haves and have-nots.

From the beginning Beni seemed more like Africa. The surroundings are green, the pot-holed roads are a dusty red colour and the women are colourfully dressed. It could be a small town anywhere in Africa. Reminds me of Jandira! Unfortunately some people have experienced suffering more intense than you could imagine.

Beni is a UN ‘red zone’. Western nationals aren’t supposed to be here.. However, for us it feels completely safe, not like a war zone at all. We walk around feely during the day to the great entertainment of the locals who stare, laugh and shout ‘Mzungu’ often accompanied by ‘give me money’ (the only English they know). I haven’t seen any other white people walking around which is a shame. The people we have got to know are incredibly welcoming, friendly and helpful. The fact that Paul speaks Swahili as well as the locals impresses them greatly and always attracts a crowd. I just stand there like his mute friend.

There are some funny encounters. The other morning a little boy was jabbering away in Swahili about me having a big nose. He was pretty well endowed in that department himself and I was about to ask him if he’d ever looked in a mirror…then realised that he probably hadn’t. When I went for a run the locals were in complete stiches laughing at this white man running. At one point I had 15 kids running after me shouting and laughing.

There is no running water here but I’m becoming an expert at washing from a bucket. Electricity comes on at 6pm and ends at 11pm so no late night partying. Daily schedule is work, dinner, work, beer, bed. Our accommodation is basic but safe and comfortable. This is in stark contrast to the living conditions of the young people we are helping.

We are working with a local organisation called CERAO who are partners of World Vision. We are completing two group interventions, one with around 50 former boy soldiers and the other with around 50 girls who have been working as prostitutes in the ‘Quartier Generales’ (brothels). With each we will complete 15+ sessions of group-based trauma-focused Cognitive Behaviour Therapy. The CBT has been ‘africanised’ and so includes lots of culturally relevant activities.

We have developed this intervention over the past year and will be evaluating it in a Randomised Controlled Trial. This is too boring to explain but basically we measure levels of PTSD, depression, anxiety, conduct etc before and after the intervention, compare with a control group who don’t get intervention, determine if there is a significant change, then give to control group. Most of the time in Goma was spent translating measures into Swahili and French and validating to make them as culturally relevant as possible.

Everything is completed through local people so children will be more open. We employed 5 locals for a week to do post-intervention individual interviews. We then started our groups yesterday with a local counsellor, social worker and interpreter who we hope will continue on the intervention after we leave. They have been amazing and worked so hard. There is no way the project would be happening without them.

We are working with the girls on Mon, Wed and Fri mornings and the boys on Tues, Thurs and Sat mornings. In the afternoons we will work with the local partner to try and encourage them to get the girls out of the brothels and the boys off the street. This may involve providing incentives (mattresses, food, hygiene kits etc) to host families to encourage them to take these children in. We are also hoping to start an income-generating project to encourage girls to leave brothels. Many of the girls have their own babies as a result of their work. They have no-where else to go. If they left the brothels they would be on the street and could not feed their child. Would love it if Joy and Laura could come out and teach bead making!!

The past events and current situations of the young people are more desperate than I had ever imagined. The descriptions below are disturbing but this is the reality and hopefully will help people to pray specifically. I’d love to show you pictures of the young people so you have a face for the stories but obviously I can’t post online for security and confidentiality reasons.


All of the girls have worked in the ‘Quartier Generales’ (brothels), some from the age of 10. Many of them are still working in the brothels. Most of them have lost or been rejected by their parents or caregivers and have no-where else to go. They rely on brothel owners to feed them and their child. The girls may be made to sleep with up to 20 men each night, often with more than one at a time. Sometimes a group of men will just turn up and take turns.

Some of the girls are paid a small amount while others only receive a little food. They are traumatised by their war experiences, parent’s deaths, rape and sexual violence, forced abortions and many other events


The boys are the roughest, toughest bunch of lads you could ever imagine. If the wee lads in East Belfast think they’re hard they should meet this crew! Due to their experiences they’re more men than boys really, mostly aged around 16-17.

The majority are former child soldiers who have only recently been released or escaped from the rebels. Some of them are living in a CTO while the UN tries to locate their parents. The CTO basically consists of 3 dirty mud huts where boys from different armed groups and of different ranks are left. Most of the other boys are living on the street.

They have spent anywhere from 6 months to 7 years with the armed groups. In the rebel armies the rule was kill or be killed. The same boys that I kicked a football around with today have have witnessed and carried out many rapes, murders, beatings and mutilations. Some have been involved in grotesque ceremonies such as cutting up and cooking bodies and drinking the blood of the person they killed. They are tormented by nightmares and haunted by guilt for the innocent lives they have taken.

A significant number of both boys and girls have expressed suicidal intent. Many have lost hope and say it would be better that they were dead. I’m not sure there is anything more sad in life than the loss of hope.

I pray that we can help to provide some hope through the intervention and through bringing a spiritual dimension to the psychology work that is much more accepted in Africa than in the UK. Thankfully this project is bigger than just our psychosocial work. It is a privilege and a pressure to be here at the very start. We also hope to assist in finding host families, setting up vocational training, providing incentives and, as mentioned, starting some kind of micro-finance co-operative.

Some nights I look up at the unreal African stars and wonder how the Creator of the universe could allow the pinnacle of his creation to suffer in the this way. At the same time I cry out to the same Creator to rescue them. If you are the praying kind please pray for the young people that we are working with- that they can find physical, emotional and spiritual freedom. That in the situations that appear so hopeless, they will find hope.


We met the president of CERAO today who is also pastor of the local church. The ‘Big Man’ culture pervades every aspect of society here so this man is revered by folks in the area. He arrived with his following to meet the two Mzungus. The conversation went something like this:

Assistant: John, c’est la president!

Me: Ah..bonjour monsieur, je m’appelle John, comment ca va?

Pastor: Ca va bien, enchante. Mon nom est Pinis

Me and Paul together: PENIS!??

Pastor: Oui, Pastor Pinis

Me: Nice to meet you Pastor Penis….

Then descended into uncontrollable laughter that reminded me of being back in school with Gav and Procs. One of those where you’re crying and can’t string enough words together to make a respectful sentence. Thankfully no-one speaks English but don’t think Pastor Pinis and his entourage were too impressed with their first experience of these white men!

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Postcard from the DRC 1

I don’t really know where to start writing about a week in which I’ve travelled through 3 countries into a place unlike anywhere I’ve been before. Electricity is intermittent here so will be difficult to keep in touch by internet. We’re planning on travelling even more remote so not sure if there will be connection. Will try to write weekly updates though if possible. Sorry for lack of pictures but we've been told it's not a good idea to take photos around town. I'll try and get a few sneaky pics this week.

Thanks again to all who came to the fundraiser last Friday and to all those who made it happen. We were blown away by how much people wanted to get behind this project and promise to be accountable for every penny and to give it where the need is greatest.

So…the day after fundraiser we flew from Dublin to Entebbe, Uganda. Slept the night there then got up early to catch bus to Kigali, Rwanda. We missed the bus so spent a day in Kampala, randomly banging into Joseph, a former teacher at Source of Light and great friend to all Emmanuelites! Was so good to hang out with him.

Apres ça we caught the overnight bus to Kigali. This was a bumpy 11-hour trip with Ugandan dance music blaring through speakers the whole way. The lowlight was reaching the border at 4am. Basically at this lovely place you get turfed off the bus and have to fill in leaving card. In the meantime the bus, with all your bags, money, passport etc, drives off into the darkness. No-one tells you what to do but you begin to walk across ‘no-mans land’ in pitch darkness from Uganda to Rwanda while being set upon by dodgy characters trying to sell dodgy money. Luckily when we emerged from no-mans land our bus was waiting and bags were intact.

We spent 1 night in Kigali as we attempted to get a visa for the DRC from the crooks in the embassy. Anyone who has watched Hotel Rwanda or Shooting Dogs could not fail to see the recovery in Rwanda as truly miraculous. It is known as the ‘country of a thousand hills’ and is truly beautiful. Everything in inner city Kigali is perfectly clean and the roads are more akin to Europe than Africa. The bus journey to the DRC traverses the unreal Rwenzori mountains. Seriously have to go camping here with the lads some day! Development is occurring everywhere here in Africa’s success story. For Rwandans, the price for residing in such relative prosperity is living under a dictatorship that rules with an iron fist. A price worth paying? It’s a big question but there’s no doubt that, while the Rwandans are a quiet people, it is obvious they proud of how their country looks in comparison to their African neighbours.

I could have stayed in Rwanda for 2 months but time is of the essence so the DRC adventure began. I ended up having to pay $275 for the privilege of entering a country that seems entirely decrepit and forsaken at first glance. When we got to the border the smiling emigration folk locked Paul into a room and tried to make him give all his money to them. We were both carrying over $1000 in cash. Thank God they took him and not me as he managed to sweet talk (and lie) in his best Swahili and got us both away without losing a single dollar!

We were met at the border by the only contact we had made in the DRC, Barady Benda. He is a wee legend who we’d be completely lost without. In fact we have employed him as our Project Manager with responsibility for interpretation, being our guide, translating questionnaires, finding NGOs and stopping the locals from taking our money through scam or force!

Almost no-one here speaks English. My French est tres mauvais and my Swahili consists of ‘Jambo’. I’d be completely screwed without Barady and Paul to communicate.

Goma, where we are currently shacked up, is unlike anywhere I have seen before. A Google search should give you more information about the war that has raged around here. In Eastern DRC, 5 million people have died in the past 20 years as a result of the war…almost the entire population of Ireland. It has been much more stable over the past 2 years but is still the centre of the largest UN operation anywhere in the world. Rebel groups and government soldiers are still raping and pillaging rural areas around here. The town itself is safe but evidence of the surrounding conflict is everywhere. Almost every vehicle that is not a ‘boda boda’ is a UN or NGO machine or a military vehicle full of armed soldiers. Every half hour a plane or helicopter flies overhead carrying people, food, aid, weapons or minerals.

As if the people here hadn’t suffered enough from being raped and pillaged, half the town of Goma was destroyed by a volcano ? years ago. The basalt and ashes from the lava are everywhere. The roads (a generous term) consist of large rocks and stones from this eruption. They are difficult to walk over never mind drive on. Boda Boda journeys are great craic!

We stayed for a few days in the middle of the town, in first dodgy hotel we came across. After 3 nights of feeling insecure, no water or electricity and being kept awake until 5.30am by the neighbouring nightclub we have moved a few minutes out of town to a nice wee place on the shores of Lake Kivu. Will be based here for a few days arranging more meetings and finishing the translation of our questionnaires and interviews with Barady and Jacqui (the only English speaking girl we could find in Goma!)

The past few days have been spent meeting with various NGOs and local initiatives who are working with war-affected children. These include UNICEF, Caritas, Don Bosco, World Vision, Human Rights Watch, the Red Cross and others. Don Bosco was incredible. In one compound they run a massive school, feed 3000 local people, have a reception centre for war-affected children, have an orphanage for babies abandoned on the street and much more. It seems really run-down and under-funded which angered me and moved me in equal measure. In one room there were over 30 babies lying side by side on the floor like sardines. Mattresses in the dorms were worn down to the yellow cushion and were torn and soiled. It is a place I would love to donate some of the funds from last Friday if you are all ok with this?

Sorry for long update, so much more I could write. We have to decide in the next few days where, and with who, to carry out our intervention. UNICEF and Don Bosco have expressed a keen interest but the one we are currently considering is a World Vision project that is about to begin for former child soldiers and girls forced into prostitution. This is north of here, in Beni, A flight with the UN or private plane would be required to reach here, as there are practically no roads in the DRC. It would be a trip into the wild, bringing us much closer to rebel territory. It would also bring us much closer to young people who have massive needs but are unreached by the international community. Would appreciate prayers as we make a decision on this one.

Au Revoir pour maintenant