Sunday, 26 April 2015

Bouncy Lunacy

Got to spend time with my favourite girl on Friday. Jo was in Buj and Daddy in Musanze, so I did the school run. We went to her bestest hangout for trampolining madness and plenty of swinging. I've got arms like Popeye now. I was quite grateful when another family turned up and she went to bounce with their kids. We also discovered a cupboard inside the restaurant which was crammed full of children's books! So, all bounced out, we settled down with Lady and the Tramp (same book I had as a kid!), A Dinosaur Called Tiny, a guessing game on Halloween, and a story about the nativity. Nothing if not diverse reading tastes. 

Then it was off to the airport to pick up Mummy. Sounds like she got out just in time. Eve of the announcement that Pierre Nkurunziza is defying parliament to stand for a third term. Violence expected. Every aid worker with children was apparently piling them into cars and driving for the border, with Rwanda being the obvious, safe, choice for hiding out. 

We headed to Ogopogo for pizza. They do the best pizza in town at the moment, and the whole place is lit up like a fairy castle. So pretty.

Town From Ogopogo

Couldn't finish all of my Africana (pizza with plantain! Nommy), so they made me a stylish accessory to take home. Love pizza for breakfast.

I do enjoy having a daughter for a day, but I suspect Jo's secretly trying to convince me it's time to make babies of my own. If ever there was a convincer, it would be madam, here. But I still don't see it happening. 

Been busy getting the spare room ready as Christiane arrives tonight for a couple of days. In town checking out supplies for her ecolodge. 

I've given the room with the en suite over to guests and camped out in the slightly smaller bedroom by the back garden. A little less street noise, and I've discovered that I prefer smaller bedrooms to larger, and rooms with just the one door. Feng shui or something silly, I'm sure.

Finally got some cow poo pictures up on my walls. Makes the place look homely - and slightly psychedelic.  

I learned in Congo that the fertility statues everyone sells here as 'Rwandan', are actually from a tribe in Bukavu, DRC. It sounded like the Rhaegar ( as in Targaryen) tribe.

Well, dawn is peeping through my curtains. Time to get back to work (on a Sunday, yes). So much to do ahead of the two human rights delegations I'm managing in a couple of months. Busy booking accomodation, figuring out the schedule and delegating tasks to our partner organisation. Looking forward to seeing Blighty again. Seems bad to wish away a year, but I am feeling the burn at the moment. Finally stopped sneezing (almost), but now developed a strange rash beneath my ribcage. What new exotic madness is this!?

I swear, I have been suffering ever since I moved into this house. It's a shame, it's well located and starting to feel homely. Really can't face the thought of another move, but it's like I've had a permanent cold since arriving. Years without asthma and now I can't get through the night without Salbutamol. Cleared up immediately in Congo. Real energy drainer. 

Dawn, Peeping Through the Curtains

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Garden Mark II

It's been a week for giant bugs. After throwing the frog out, I settled down on the sofa the next day to read a book. I heard something scuffling about but didn't pay it much heed. When the noise continued, I looked up to see a funny shadow behind the net curtain. Drawing the netting back, I found this chap wandering about. It's the biggest praying mantis I have ever seen! Easily the length of my hand.

Rehomed in the Garden

The second encounter wasn't so pleasant. After watching The Conjuring, a scary movie about a possessed house, I went to bed to finish reading my book. Tucked up by the light of my phone torch, I suddenly caught something out of the corner of my eye. Looking up, I discovered a huge cockroach just above my head, on the inside of my mosquito net!

I resisted the urge to run screaming through the house wrapped in netting, and instead moved veeeeery sloooowly out from under it. My porch resembles that scene from Fresh Prince of Bel-Air where Jazzy Jeff keeps getting thrown out the door. So far this week I've forcibly ejected a frog, a giant cockroach, two millipedes and a praying mantis. 

Currently contemplating my papaya and wondering when to harvest. It's looked like this since I moved in. Seems to grow very slowly, and never ripens.

Baby Papaya
Also doing very well on the avocado front. Love avocado, so it's nice to have a tree again. Picked some the other day but they need a few days to soften.

And I found a patch of mushrooms! Not the edible kind, but still a treat to look at. Considering how warm it is here, and how much it rains, you don't see so many wild shrooms.

Got my first royalty cheque from my publisher the other week, so decided to treat myself to a proper breakfast the other day. There's a really nice place in Kisimenti, just down the cobbled road from Izola. It's a super-modern looking cafe, which seems a little out of place compared to the restos next door. I ordered a banana and pineapple smoothie and their full fry-up: potato, peas, onions, chorizo, omelet, ham and toast. Was yummy and I couldn't finish it all so brought it home for dinner. That's the nice thing about restaurants in Rwanda, you can order anything to go.

Mega Breakfast
I was out looking for a printing shop. I was getting some photos printed for Damascene, from the visit we made to Muhanga a couple of weeks back.

It was bright sunshine when I left the house, but suddenly the sky turned black and another massive thunderstorm broke. The rainy season is in full swing at the moment and flash floods are a regular occurrence. Usually you get a big gust of wind as a warning 30-60 minutes beforehand and you know to run home, but I was in the printing shop and couldn't leave. I had to purchase an umbrella and take refuge in Izola with a beer. Thankfully my friend Patrizia, who works for an NGO up the road, was passing and rescued me.

Waiting it out with a Mutzig

The rain gets so bad sometimes that it rains the entire day. Last week Damascene put my clothes on the line - they were still there two days later.

I'm really happy, though. I had a meeting yesterday with my new team. This is for the Country Directorship I've just taken over. Our key in-country partner is an NGO providing legal aid services to people who can't afford representation. The majority of their work is civil - land rights. It was only in 1999 that women won the right to succession in inheritance, and it's generated a lot of contest from unhappy male relatives. They also cover some criminal cases. 

They help coordinate the logistics for the program I manage, and look after participants when the human rights delegations arrive. I'd met a couple of them at the Winter Program, before taking on the job, but this was our first formal meeting. They are absolutely fantastic. Feeling much more confident about the program knowing that I have friendly, competent back-up. We had a very interesting discussion about refugee camps, alcoholism and teenage pregnancy rates amongst marginalised minority groups both here and Australia (fascinating similarities in once-nomadic tribes), and issues of sustainable development.

Got a lot of work on my plate at the moment, but feeling happy. Had word from LB who was in Italy presenting his NGO to donors. I'd made a little video of our trip to Mugunga and Nyamitaba. It was only a quick mash-up, but apparently it did 'wonders' in showing donors what their organisation faces in the field. Really glad it was useful to him. 

Got home from my meeting to find Damascene had cleared my garden for planting! I was so happy. Since I moved in the vegetable plot has been overgrowing - it was a mess - and I kept thinking I really should ask Damascene to clear that. I've just been out to plant some seeds that mum sent. Used a broom handle to make furrows and marked them with rocks. It's true what Poisonwood Bible says, they do look like mini graves, but with frequent downpours your veg does need to be elevated, otherwise it would get washed away.

Old Vegetation Feeding New Growth

I've planted tomatoes, onions, radish, courgette, chives, spinach and lettuce. I had some other seeds, but I gave them to Emilina as a housewarming present. I like the idea that the plants will grow as their house does. The plot is nowhere near as big as my last house, but it is shaded better, and the other plot was so big it was hard to maintain. 

We had planted radishes and forgotten where. By the time I moved out of the house, there was this funny plant growing everywhere. I assumed Damascene had planted it - I thought it was manioc or something - but he started asking me what it was! When we dug one up, it was a huge tuba about the length of my forearm, and fat as my thigh. We cut into one and it tasted like radish, but I'd never seen one so big, and they were everywhere. Not the dainty little salad vegetable I was expecting. I'm determined to remember where I planted them this time, and pick them before they grow out of control. 

If anybody fancies sending some more vegetables, that would be great. Tomatoes, peppers and onions are fairly easy to find here, I can just take the seeds from what I eat, but more unusual items would be good. I crave a varied diet and things grow so fast here, especially in the wet seasons. 

Missing the view from my old house.
Kigali, peeping over my wall.

Saturday, 18 April 2015

Back to Reality

How, exactly, can I make this much mess in five days?

Mystery of womanhood.

Extremely sorry to leave the hot shower behind. Back to bucket baths for me. But I must admit, as comforting as hot showers are, I don't think they're so good for my hair. It feels a bit dryer than usual. Though that could be traipsing through the jungle heat. I've got a very impressive suntan.

Final beer of the night and this giant moth landed in my glass. There was another one the size of my hand. I thought it was a bat at first!

I've always thought moths bring good luck, so I'm returning home feeling positive. Been to visit my client's office, which has been given to them by IEDA free of charge. Installed some antivirus protection and Google Drive on their computers. 

Ghassy bought me a lovely selection of leaving gifts.

Map of DRC

Little 'n' Large People
My absolute favourite is that he bought me my very own tshukudu (chukadu). These are quite specific to the region and they're used to transport people and goods. Their handles remind me of cow horns. There's even a golden statue of one in the centre of town.

Tshukudu Statue, Goma

Photo by Abby Ross

At the border we became secret cheese smugglers. Both Rwanda and Congo make cheese but you're not supposed to take it over the border because they want to protect trade interests. B bought me a wheel of Congolese cheese and we wrapped it in paper and hid it in my handbag - I wanted to compare. They're quite similar, but Congolese cheese is slightly smellier.

We leapt into a taxi and sped south, though we were stopped by police part way. There had been an incident on the road and they wanted to check our papers. It was nice to be back in a country where you can stop for police and not get completely harassed, but they did take their time checking us out. When we hit Kigali it seemed the President was on the move, so traffic was really bad. These delays meant that B was half an hour too late for check-in. 

We ended up heading to his cousin's house in a very posh, newly-built area of town. They were really welcoming and provided beer and a full spread of ugali and chicken. It was exactly what was needed. The trip from Gisenyi to Kigali is about three hours, but the road is like a serpent. We were totally knackered and this revived us nicely.

Thoroughly stuffed, I took a moto home and fell into bed.

In my absence, my bananas had become a little over-ripe. Quick tip: mash bananas in a bowl, add a couple of teaspoons of mango juice and a generous helping of honey and cinnamon. Stir in flour until you get a thick dough. Deep-fry and add more honey. Nommy banana fritters.

Also had an unexpected house guest! So cute. Like moths, I consider frogs good luck. This one was beautifully patterned. I managed to capture it and pop it outside. My friend Fred psychedelicised it, which really brought out the spots.

Had a last drink with B before he caught his plane on Wednesday. Kinda miss him already. He said I was courageous for surviving the trip to Nyamitaba. It's not often I get to be courageous. Life seems very mundane after such a mad few days. 

Thanks to Mimy it seems likely I will get to visit my friend in Kindu after all. Apparently there are regular humanitarian flights going, and her husband might be able to get me on one. My CEPGL is only valid for the borders, so I'd have to apply for a full visa, which my friend in Kindu says he can help with. I'm really looking forward to visiting Congo again, but I strongly urge people only to go if they've got local back-up. Though we laughed about the experience in Sake, it brought home the fact that this is a highly volatile area. Even locals tell you 'This is Congo - anything can happen at any time.' It's not somewhere you want to get stuck without protection or friends.

All the same, it's an incredibly beautiful country and the people I met were really kind and welcoming. I just hope things settle down over the coming years.

I've also had a bit of an epiphany. For a while now I've been wanting to return home to the UK. I'm in desperate need of a break. I want at least a couple of months' R&R with hot water and flat beer. I'm contracted here until August 20th, and then have a couple of reports to write. I don't want to take them home with me. After that, I'm planning to head to Kindu en route to Blighty. 

I have no firm plans from there on. If my current job contracts me again, and if that contract includes a flight back to Kigali over Christmas, I'll probably sign up for a second round. But the refugee camps were a smack in the face, and B's enthusiasm is infectious. His organisation is just getting on its feet at the moment, but there was the suggestion he'd like me to work for them in the future. If the offer was ever made, I'd jump at it. 

I very, very much want a job with this organisation. I didn't think I'd ever feel this way about development again. I'm completely rejuvenated. My cynicism has shifted to positivity. I absolutely see the point in what they're doing, I know we can do it better than some INGOs, and I'm buzzing from the enthusiasm and straightforwardness of the people involved. 

However, I may need to learn French...

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

DRC Part III: Mugunga

Completely incredible if overwhelming day yesterday. 

Had a lovely time on Sunday with Mimy and her mum, who was celebrating her 65th birthday. I got invited to the party and had a lovely meal, met the family.

Mimy and Mum

Tilapia, sombe, avocado, rice and sauce.

Thanks to Mimy and her husband, I got a special pass to go and visit the refugee camps just outside Goma. There are technically two: Mugunga 3, the largest of the camps, and Mugunga 1, which has absorbed Mugunga 2.

LB had taken the ferry to Bukavu to catch up with friends, so Ghassy came with me to help interpret. The DRC is francophone, and I speak no French. Though most of the people in the camps speak Kinyawrwanda, so I was able to say a few hellos, which made them smile.

This was my very first time in a refugee camp, and I was very privileged. I was able to meet with the camp coordinator, an incredible lady called Agnes who works for UNHCR, the organisation who control Camp 3. I was able to ask as many questions as I could think of - which was a lot. And then I was taken on a tour of the camps.

We travelled there in style in an IEDA/UNHCR vehicle, which had better suspension than the van we took to Nyamitaba. However, I think I felt safer in the van with LB. The problem with an NGO vehicle is that everybody knows exactly who you are. If trouble broke out, you'd probably be the first to be attacked. Though a vehicle with a logo on does guarantee you passage through any road block unmolested, which is extremely useful. They also have a whacking big antenna on the front, so help is a phone call away no matter where you are.

It was a lovely day for a drive, and Lake Kivu looked blue and beautiful as we left Goma.

Lake Kivu

Hospital, Mugunga 3
Each family share a tent.
There are around 6,000 refugees in camp 3
For more information, see Great Lakes Refugee Crisis


This elderly grandmother was sharing a tent with her grandchildren, whose parents had left. This is a common problem. Often parents abandon their children in the camps, either to go in search of work or because they simply feel unable to cope. If the children have no other family in the camp, they are on their own.

Something that struck me was that everybody in the camp was happy to be photographed. Especially the children. Nobody asked for money. I asked Agnes why this was, and she explained that they had received training not to hassle visitors for money, but that if I came on my own they probably would. I was grateful that nobody asked, but it seemed so strange. Outside the camp, and sometimes in Rwanda, you get asked for money in return for photographs, but here everyone just loved the cameras, and I made sure to show them the pictures I had taken. A record of their existence.

This lovely little girl was busy filling up buckets of water by herself when we found her. There is very little water pressure, so although there are six taps, it takes between 25-30 minutes to fill a single jerrycan. The moment we took out our cameras, she was suddenly surrounded.

All except for this little boy, who didn't look at all sure about us.

Conditions in the camp are beyond description. I had assumed that the international aid organisations had it sewn up, but I was dumbstruck by the level of abandonment. There was an empty Handicap International office. An empty Save the Children office. And the UN were holding back - I'll get to that shortly. It was desperate in there. I had assumed that, being a new, small organisation, my client wouldn't have been particularly welcome there - that the larger NGOs would be dealing with everything already. But they were crying out for help. There is nobody there.

Washing Facilities


When outbreaks of cholera occur, up to four people die per week, compared to the average of one per week. There's a cemetery to the back of the camp.

(panoramics - click to enlarge)

Building a new tent.

Exactly as happened with the toilets World Vision built in Nyamitaba, Handicap International built hand-cycle bikes for disabled members of the camp. Then left. Providing no maintenance, parts or training, it would appear. This young man told me how hard it was to keep the bike in working order, and that it often broke.

L-R: Agnes from UNHCR, myself and Charlie

Before leaving, I met with the president of the camp. Each camp elects representatives to form a committee in charge of camp security and problem-solving. In Mugunga 3 the president is a lady named Charlie, in Mugunga 1&2 it is a gentleman named Claude. I presented both with small donations to distribute to the most urgent causes.

Camp security is a big issue. Each night, before it gets dark, all of the aid agencies, including the UN, leave. The refugees are left alone, completely to their own devices, and Claude was explaining that he had witnessed people being killed by rebels when they pass through the area.

Once again we find ourselves asking: What does the UN actually do?

Time for someone to write Emergency Sex Volume II?

After that, it was on to the smaller camp, Mugunga 1&2. Here there are currently round 2,441 families and 5,397 refugees.

We registered in the office, which is this building above. As you can see, the sheeting is in a terrible state. It's falling off the administrative building and the houses. 

Funny story behind that. Mugunga 3 is in a similar state, run by UNHCR. Mugunga 1&2 is run by IOM, the International Organisation for Migration

The tents in Mugunga 3 don't have any sheeting because the government want to close the camp by December. Apparently, refugee camps aren't good for your international reputation - whoda thunk it? They want people to return to their villages. When they tried to send people home by force, they hid in the bushes. So now the government has started a scheme called Go And See. This is where government officials head out into rebel-ravaged areas, declare them safe, and try to convince people to return home voluntarily. Most of those that have left then return to the camp a few weeks later when they discover their home isn't safe after all. 

Back to the matter of the sheeting. Although no one believes the inhabitants of the camp will leave by December, the fact that the government has declared the camp must close means that UNHCR are not handing out any maintenance supplies (the sheeting) because they don't want to annoy the government.

Meanwhile, in camps 1&2 it's the same problem, for a different reason. Apparently IOM's warehouses are empty and they don't have funding for more sheeting. What they had was diverted to another crisis a few months ago.

So, UNHCR have the sheeting but won't distribute it, and IOM will distribute it but don't have the sheeting.

Welcome to international development at its finest.

It's incredible we've survived this long as a species. 

Mugunga 1&2

Laundry Facilities

In a state of extreme anger and disbelief, we headed for home. Agnes had kindly agree to give a tour of the Tulizeni Orphanage Project on the way. This is a house in Goma where orphans from the refugee camps are brought, as well as a few of the young mothers. Many of the girls turn to prostitution in the camps, and around fifteen have places here to raise thair children.

Agnes and Emmanuel

This little boy was abandoned soon after birth, his mother decided she couldn't cope and has left the camp. He weighed only 1kg (2.2lb) when he arrived, but is now healthy and well. It was feeding time when we arrived and the porch was crammed with kids. There is space for fifty children at the centre and it is running at full capacity. They have apparently made bids to donors, including CAFOD, but have received no support. They rely entirely on community donations of food and supplies.

I'm afraid this is where I completely lost control of myself. Whilst the staff were explaining the situation, I knew that I was going to cry but I was trying so hard to hold it together. The problems are so obviouse, and the need is so great. 

Then they showed me into the dormitories and it overwhelmed me. I was expecting the camps to some extent. I'd grown up with Red Nose Day images of refugee camps on the television each year. I knew they weren't going to be pleasant (though I didn't know they were going to be completely abandoned by the international aid community). 

The children, however, were too much for me.

Firstly, it was the smell. It smelled exactly like a hamster cage. The staff of the facility are absolutely incredible, and they do the very best with what they have, but the kids are sleeping four to a bed and there's very little outside help.

But the part that broke me was the kids themselves. They were so completely beside themselves to see me. Huge smiles, giggles, reaching out to shake my hand. All they wanted to do was cuddle - and all I could do was run from the room. I felt so ashamed. They were the ones in the orphanage, and I was the one blubbing against the wall. In front of the UNHCR officer and the staff who face this every single day. It was just too much in one day. Their happiness was painful. As Agnes explained: "They are so happy because it is good here. It is so much worse in the camps."

By the time Ghassy got me back to the hotel, he'd managed to raise a smile from me. And when LB joined us I found myself laughing and asking him to apologise for the stereotypical muzungu who was supposed to be representing him and making a good impression. He was very forgiving. Yet no matter how many people tell you 'it's normal' to react that way, you still wince a little inside. You want to be stronger than that because they are.

After a little time to think and consider all that I've seen, I really do only have one question: 

Where the fuck is the money?

Roads, a working water pump, sanitation... that's child's play for the UN, surely? If not, they certainly shouldn't be allowed to play with guns. And, yes, I know there are other crises all around the world - but do it once, and do it well. Not these World Vision toilets that collapsed, or these taps that take half an hour to fill a bucket. What the hell were you thinking?

I'm left dumbstruck, I really am. But I'm glad I got to see it. I'm supposed to be touring refugee camps in Rwanda later this year for my job. It will be extremely interesting to compare.

Laundry at the Orphanage