Farewell to the Congo
As the Ethiopian Airlines jet taxied to our gate, I felt a strange relief leaving Goma. Two weeks in the Eastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) was enough. My head cold had not improved—rather on the last evening it developed into full blown sinusitis that left me not only babbling in my sleep but hallucinating that someone had stuck a knife into my head. I made a desperate telephone call to my wife in the United States for support. My health would never improve in this place—with its routinely fickle weather—a downpour or two per day followed by blinding sunshine, wind, an equatorial blanket of heat and the doldrums of Lake Kivu. Drying out in Senegal was what I needed.
The city has experienced more than its fair share of strife, conflict and suffering. In 1986, Lake Kivu released suffocating carbon dioxide gases from the its watery depths killing some two thousand lake dwellers. In 1994, the Rwandan genocide resulted in a humanitarian crisis putting Goma on the map as a major refugee center which would later spawn several deadly militias. There are still hardened blocks of lava strewn about the city–remains of the 2002 eruption of the still active Nyirangongo volcano which destroyed 40% of Goma. Adding insult to injury, In 2010, the city was captured by rebels of the March 23 Movement but later retaken by government forces. Rebels have not only been known to poach the endangered silverback gorillas from nearby Virunga National Park but to kill its park rangers.
Still, it had been fascinating to spend time in the UN military outpost. The bearded Indian Sikh soldiers cut quite a sight–so handsome in their turbans and uniforms. The experience also meant I would be working closely with people from the NGO (non-governmental organization) world. During my short stay in Goma I had come to know a Frenchman named Jacques who was working for a British NGO as project manager. Jacques was given the impossible task of building the road to Masisi in the Virunga Mountains.
“London doesn’t provide an adequate budget—they projected 600 kilometers of road and we ran out of money after 58 kilometers. The local government isn’t funded to maintain the roads. We build the road, the landslides happen, and we begin again.”
Jacques had been in Africa for ten years but his frustration with this Sisyphean task was palpable.
I had gotten into a certain rhythm here—jogging in the mornings past MONUSCO (the French acronym for the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo)–the Fort Apache of UN peacekeepers. That was the fun part saluting the many soldiers and guards as I made my way down the road. Some of the children would jog with me all the while peppering me with questions in French. Occasionally, trucks filled with Indian and Malaysian troops would come charging out of the gates, an armored troop carrier in tow—their mounted twin machine guns certainly had my attention. Undoubtedly, this was a reconnaissance mission to keep ‘eyes on’ some rebel group. I found myself jogging past the sandbagged watch towers where rifle muzzles pointed out toward the street. Does this make me feel safe or threatened?
Then it was time for work, and later lunch over at Au Bon Pain on the Boulevard Kanyamuhanga where many of the UN officers and NGO managers congregated. Featuring the finest boutique bakery in town, the bakery/restaurant drew crowds at all hours. Dinner could be had one floor above. On Friday nights, the place was packed with NGO workers and UN military personnel, as well as Lebanese, Chinese and European businessmen. The food was tres cher expensive but good.
You may recall Florence, the woman without a nose, whom I had previously mentioned in another blog. During my stay, I had come to befriend this sweet panhandler, so I surprised myself by asking about her deformity. She replied it was, in fact, a congenital birth defect. No rabid Hutu or blood crazed Tutsi had defaced her. However, she added the disfigurement resulted in abandonment by her family at an early age. She has lived on the streets of Goma ever since. Every day at lunch I would stop by, say hello to Florence and drop a dollar into her outstretched hand. On my final day in Goma, I informed her about my departure. As her pleasant countenance turned to sadness, I blew her a kiss. Climbing aboard the vehicle I turned back to see her, childlike, waving at me. I’ve never forgotten the sight. In my dreams she is waving good-bye, growing smaller, finally swallowed whole by the streets of Goma as we make our way to the Rwanda roundabout.
Time is slipping away for me here in Africa and so, after work, I jogged over to Dakar’s Ngor Beach to savor my final moments in the capital. There were several soccer games to choose from; soccer matches catering to little kids up to the big boys. I winced to see one French tourist take shrapnel-like sand off a misplaced kick. I would be more careful and wound my way up the beach to the colorful wooden fishing boats, turned around and retraced my steps. Across the aquamarine channel the sun illuminated Ngor Island while the waves of the Atlantic crashed further out beyond the breakwater. No doubt, it would be another beautiful sunset.
It’s been a complete experience. I’ve seen and learned much these three months–mostly humility on a grand scale. Oh yes and when I arrived in Francophone Africa, my French really sucked! Now it sucks just a little less.
And who would have thought that my former FBI supervisor and I would both be working in Africa at the same time (Dan is in Tanzania with the Peace Corps and finishes his two-year stint in the next month or so. Congrats Dan!)
I can’t thank the Lord enough for leading me to places where I could observe animals in the wild such as the last of the West African giraffes in Niger and the endangered species of the owland gorillas of Congo. My thanks go out to the park rangers who protect these animals from armed poachers and get paid a pittance for doing so–they are the true heroes. I’ve met a lot of good people along the way, have a great respect and appreciation for NGOs and the people who choose this difficult but rewarding profession. I also discovered that my employer, Save The Children International, is a competent, caring and effective organization.
Speaking from my heart, there are small scars left from things I cannot unsee–the crushing poverty that men endure–trying to survive and eke out a precarious living. The little girl in the white dress, smiling and sweeping her tiny living space on a street corner in Bamamko is seared into my memory–a beautiful yet heartbreaking sight. As consolation, I take with me all the wide smiles and laughter from the children.
But it’s time to move on. My contract is ending. The Dakar apartment is quiet and only comes to life when I Skype my wife. I have had the chance to hug the people in my neighborhood and say good-bye. I know I will never see them again…c’est la vie. So tomorrow night its wheels up as we head from West Africa to Addis Ababa and then on to London.
The Save the Children stakeholders will be ready for my Compliance summary next week and I will speak frankly to them–pointing out areas where they are proficient and areas where they might improve. It’s all about ensuring donor money gets to the children, right?
LA cannot come soon enough. For several months I’ve pined away for a hot shower, a chocolate shake, even an egg and cheese on a plain bagel (doesn’t have to be in that order)–that’s my life. Good riddance I say to all the dastardly mosquitos and mosquito nets! It will be so nice to see my wife and children again, catch up and share these stories out of Africa.
Talk to you all soon. God bless.