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



Ellen Rachel said...

Prayers coming your way Brother! LOVE xo

Tim Parks said...

Hey John, great to read what you guys have been up to. It sounds pretty mad! Definately will be praying for you guys as you try to decide who to do your research with. Keep the updates coming. Tim x

P.s. Don Bosco sound like they are doing a great job out there and are a worthy recipient.

AILÍN said...


My very best wishes as you go on this challenging journey. I catch your blog posts now and again and pray that your plans work out well.


AILÍN said...


My very best wishes, I pray that your plans work out well and that you make the best decisions you can.

Good luck with your challenging adventure.


Nina said...

Thanks for this update John... I appreciate the time it takes to sit down and write something like this in an environment like Goma.
Please do go ahead and give some of the money to Don Bosco.
Will pray for wisdom in your decisions.
As I read this I can't help thinking that you were born for this!!
Love Nina

Jan ;0) said...

...Prayin that God will use u to 'steadily and firmly set things right' and that ya won't be afraid, ... Prayin He' ll make it clear which road it is that ya shud take 'through the desert' and that U'll be reminded that God is 'backin u to the hilt' ( Isaiah 42 FRM message version!!!)...  Prayin on dot com... BE BOLD , BE STRONG... (ya know the rest.)

Carole said...

Wow John what an adventure may God guide and direct your every path along this journey . Dont forget to put on the armour everyday and He will be your rear guard . Lots of love Mum xo

Dave said...

I agree with Nina - made for this.
Keep it lit.