April 27, 2006

Back to Kinshasa, my beloved

I come back to utter chaos in the airport; trying to elbow un-chivalrous men out of my way so I can pick up my and my suitcases (including my colleagues' Refugee bags full of dripping goat blood attracting flies); helping a traveling mom whose 2-year old daughter’s idea of fun involves cutting the air flow to my nose; navigating through mad traffic; and finally coming home to no electricity in the apartment (the bill was only one week late you fuckers). My perfect evening finished with scooping up a dead roach with my last empty toilet roll and going promptly to bed.

Weighing "Refugee Bags" before putting them in the plane's cargo

Gacaca (pronounced Gachacha)

We meet a Rwandese man who tells us about Gacaca. Almost verbatim, his testimony is the following:

“My impressions are the following. This period now (mid-April) is one of mourning. Each year, we feel the weight of contention. We are in a period of wake. It is now that you feel that the population’s traumas are coming out in the open. This year is worse than 1994. As time goes on, the trauma is being released. We, the NGOs and the government, do not have adequate tools to deal with this.

For twelve years, we have preached the message, « we can live together ». That was the first step. Now we are in a phase of Reconciliation and Justice. Should we forget the past and build a future or punish the culprits? This is a dilemma. We should combine the two. But this has its set of challenges. Classic justice [as we know it in the West] cannot solve these conflicts. We would like to recognize the blame but also reinstate populations. We use Gacaca Justice. It’s a participatory process allowing us to talk. We are amongst ourselves, in the community. This is how we can deal.

It has been a genocide by proxy—the neighbor, the friend, the family, the spectator denounce the other—so the level of participation [in the genocide] was significant. Gacaca is a compromise between forgetting and justice. We were not accustomed to law terms of the formal system of laws: Gacaca is a traditional method. You sit under the tree and deal with your problems. We had to add laws, teach formal procedures to the judges. This has not been easy. Now, we have train the judges. We have 80,000 prisoners of the Genocide. We may have 800,000 to 15 million prisoners [by the end of this process]. This is a large portion of the population.

We have made progress since 1995, 1996, 1997. Now fear/distrust have decreased, even if it still exists. The social climate is good. But with Gacaca, we are going to talk about the dead. There is a “resistance movement” that would like to prevent the Justice process. Since Gacaca is based on informal chats, there will be no definitives. But it seems to be a good system.

The question of the survivors is very delicate : how do we repair, deal with the trauma ? We do not have enough systems for that.

Good governance is a topic that worries us. There would be no genocide without the state’s influence. What type of power do we want to prevent a similar genocide? Post-genocidal society is very fragile. We have put in place basic institutions but citizen participation is low, governing is not very strong.

Poverty is caused by many factors. But the fact remains that the population is poor—there are social differences. For we who work in reconciliation, poverty has never been a cause of the genocide. It was not the poor that were the people undertaking the genocide. We must be clear: poverty was not the cause of the genocide.

The church is very important in Rwandan society. A difficult past since there have been clashes with the government..The Catholic church lost its moral clout and credibility—it is said that the church did not have a good role to play in the genocide. The church is in a phase of recovery. We can see an effort at self-examination—a “Christian Gacaca”. The church talks, insists on basic ecclesiastical communities as a vehicle of reconciliation and listening. The bishops support the state Gacaca. Justice and Peace commissions are closely involved in the Gacaca process. The Catholic church has chosen a more discreet profile, it does not involve itself as much in the government. Personally, I think this separation is important so that the church can reflect. There aren’t even any religious writings about the genocide. Today, the Catholic church has accepted to become a part of the society—before that, it was superior. This is a success.

It is better to talk than to ignore. It is painful, but we must talk”

The view from a hotel in Goma

I'm not sure what this fruit is but they call in a Mountain Potato

April 26, 2006

Rwanda and Congo are troubled neighbors

I will never fully understand the events that shaped the difficult relationship between Congolese and Rwandese. Some of my Congolese compatriots refuse to go to Rwanda if invited to a conference. Others are really excited to discover this country and are on their best behavior. The relationship between Congo and Rwanda is complicated at best. This stems partly from the mass influx of Rwandese trying to hide from the Genocide, and later, Rwandese getting away from revenge killings and justice proceedings following the genocide.

Another large factor in the mutual mistrust and a certain sense of jealousy. The differences between Rwanda and Congo are striking—Rwanda is easily 50 years ahead of its neighbor in infrastructure, government order, customer services, production etc. But that’s to be expected: Rwanda has been recovering from its war for the last twelve years…in Congo, civil society and inner struggles are still threatening the country today.

Congo is so much bigger than Rwanda that the logistical challenges of development and guarding its borders are enormous. People say that Rwanda steal Congo’s cobalt, Congo’s diamonds. I have even heard people say Rwandans have stolen Congolese Gorillas.

The last issue, not to be overlooked, is the complexity of the many attacks and counter attacks. Did Mobutu have a hand in putting Habyirima in power? Was Kabila the father friendly with the current president Kagame? Who knows rumors are flying and the Congolese are saddened by the 4,000,000 people dead and dying within their borders from the resulting civil wars.

A short history of recent conflicts in Rwanda

(Bear with me, this is a long one...)

We visit the Jenoside Museum (note: this is not a spelling mistake). It is very well designed, though some say that it seems a bit one-sided. I see images and footages of mass graves and gruesome death. I read each and every exhibit and come out confused and perplexed by the complexity of national and foreign involvement.

Later, I put this timeline together (note: this is almost verbatim from Wikipedia and the BBC):

1312—the Kingdom of Rwanda is founded
Hutus are subjugated through an extensive set of patronage relationships with the Tutsis. Over time, being Tutsi begins to equal “power”.

1756-1765—Mwami Rujugira reigns
He sets up Rwanda as a military power. Though there are little class distinctions in the military, Rwandan society is still very divided with the Tutsis in power positions and Hutus in serving positions. At the time, the terms Hutu and Tutsi are not really indicative of ethnic class. Rather, one that does well economically becomes a Tutsi, while one that is subjugated is considered a Hutu.

Germany briefly colonizes Rwanda, reinforcing Tutsi and Hutu class divisions.

1916—Belgian colonists arrive
They favor Tutsis over Hutus. Tutsis consistently get the better jobs and good educations.

European theories of race are propagated in Rwanda.

1959—A series of riots begins
This stems from Hutu resentment of the state of Rwanda’s civil society. Perceptions start the shift and Tutsis are viewed as feudal overlords.

Land is scarce and the country is overpopulated.

A Hutu majority is set up within the government. In the process, 20,000 Tutsis are killed and 200,000 flee to other countries.

1985-Tutsi refugees in Uganda form the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) led by Paul Kagame
Their aims are to overthrow the current president Habyarima (a Hutu) and secure the right to return to their homeland.

January 22nd, 1994-A shipment of arms from France is intercepted in Kigali airport
The French government argues that the shipment is legal.

October 1st, 1990-RPF forces invade Rwanda
Habyarima represses Tutsis and Hutus that support Tutsi-interests. The killing of Tutsis and moderate Hutus begins. Radio stations encourage resentment and participation by diffusing hate messages and propaganda.

Radical groups start to amass weapons. Government leaders meet with secret groups.

June 1993 to mid-July 1994-A UK company supplies arms to the Hutu regime

January 1994-General Dallaire in charge of the UN, aware that something big is going to happen, pleads for more reinforcement
He is denied permission.

April 6th 1994-President Habyarima’s plane is shot down. The president of Burundi also dies in the same plane crash
No one really knows who did it and why (though you can talk to pretty much anyone who knows Rwanda’s history and they each have a different theory)—some blame Kagame (RPF leader), others blame his wife, Prime-Minister Kambanda, family members of Habyarima, and others say the Congolese or other foreign governments were involved etc…

The presidential guards set off a campaign of retribution against Tutsis in the capital, Kigali. Tutsis and moderate Hutu understood at once they would be attacked.

A militia group called Interhamwe (Hutu) is now 30,000 men strong. In their hands, the killing becomes more efficient. Family members, neighbors, children, couples are encouraged to participate in denouncing others, and often forced to undertake killings. The killings quickly spreads to the rest of the country. Close to 1,000,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus are killed.

Mass exodus of Tutsis into Congo and neighboring countries. RPF troops (Tutsi) wage a civil war against the Hutu government.

The US tries to help by dropping large parcels of food, instead causing hungry mobs to fight. The US refuses to be involved in internal conflicts. UN troops evacuate foreigners and withdraw leaving few troops behind. The international community does little to help.

April 29th, 1994- The UN concedes that “act of genocide may have been committed”

Mass grave at the Jenoside Museum

July 1994-RPF captures Kigali
The government collapses, RPF ceases fire and is victorious. 2 million Hutus flee to neighboring countries, but especially into the DRC.

The large number of refugees into the Congo, destabilizes the country and sets off two civil wars there. Battalions of Interhamwe continue to operate in eastern Congo, causing tensions between Rwanda and the DRC (personal note: this is my Aha moment. I have been here for a year but I’m pretty slow to grasp politics).

UN troops and aid workers now arrive to maintain order and restore basic services.

July 19th 1994-A new multiethnic government is formed
Pasteur Bizimungu (Hutu) is made president while his cabinet is formed from RFP members (Tutsis). The president of Rwanda today is Paul Kagame, the one believed by some to have set off the internal war.

1996-1997-The Gacaca process is now started
A large number of ringleaders of the massacre are still at large.

In the evening, we are invited to a reception where Rwandese dancers shake and hop to the beat of their large drums. While the rhythm is intoxicating and subtly form-shifting, I can’t help shuddering when a male dancer, imitating a laborer plowing his field raised and lowers his hoe fiercely. I think of blood and decapitation. I walk amongst the Rwandese with a heavy heart.

April 25, 2006

A drive through Rwanda

We quickly drive to the Rwandese border and walk to the other side, where two cars are waiting for us. We immediately start our three-hour drive from the Rwandese border town of Gisenyi to the capital Kigali. It is an incredibly pleasant drive and I already feel my tense back-muscles relax. Though we only drive for three hours, we cover a distance of 250 km, more than half of the country’s width. I chuckle recalling my trips in the DRC where we cover 250km in 8 hours at best (two days during the rainy season). Rwanda has splendid roads that meander and twist around hills.

The country is essentially made of large hills, one rising up after the other. It is called “Le pays des Mille Collines” (“the land of the thousand hills”). Due to overcrowding, almost every square inch of land is cultivated. It resembles Peru or even Madagascar, with its stratified agricultural beds. The richer soils reside in the valley while the nutrient poor ones are on top of the hills. The water often washes crops away and strips the top soil of nutrients essential for growing crops. The poorer families own the lands on top of the hill. In addition to having to hike up the hills everyday to harvest their land, they also have poorer soil to work with.

I see loads of vibrantly orange carrots, neat cabbage mounds and bean sprouts attached to man-made tripods. There are cows in pastures! I feel like Julie Andrews in the Sound of Music, when she rushes up those green hills, twirling and breathing the fresh mountain air. Except in my fantasy, I sing off-key. I spend the first few days asking the hotel staff if this is really Rwandese-made cheddar, goat cheese, milk, strawberry/passion fruit and mango fruit juices and get strange looks from the vendors (side note: I stay in the famous Hotel des Milles Collines, otherwise known as Hotel Rwanda).

They say the Rwandese are cold, but I find them rather reserved and shy. It's pleasant not to have to make conversation for a change.

Early Beginning

I leave for Rwanda quite early in the morning to catch the 8:30am flight. I have never been up at 5:30am on a Sunday morning and notice masses and masses of Congolese joggers having their morning jog (or “footing” as they call it). Some are sparring and boxing with old rags around their hands, others are running in plastic sandals and torn shirts. I almost feel like I’m in a Rocky movie, without the cheesy music. There is surprisingly little traffic and I don’t recall ever driving on such deserted Kinshasa roads.

The airport is its usual mess, but there has been a remarkable improvement in the past year I’ve been here. There is less chaos, though I’m sure a foreigner would still be shocked his/her first time here.

We fly over Mbuji-Mayi, the diamond town, and my Congolese neighbor keeps on repeating that “people are literally walking on diamonds here, yet the city is still like a village, with families living in beaten mud houses”.

As we make our approach into Goma, there is a noticeable drop in cabin temperature. I grab for one of the three sweaters I brought and quietly enjoy the cool feeling while the other passengers shiver, switch their A/C vents off, or mumble and grumble.

The landing strip in Goma is few kilometers from the huge Kivu Lake. I am told that, if you row to the very middle of it, the fog slowly drops around you and the edges are so far that you feel like you are in the ocean. The city is dominated by a still active volcano which glows faintly at night. In 2001, there was a violent eruption that spread to the airport and informal shanty towns surrounding the volcano. Thankfully, the lava was slow flowing and few lives were lost. But it remains an impressive sight to fly into to the airport just over the river. The plane lands and the brakes are activated forcefully: the strip which was initially 3,000m is now reduced to 1,800m as the north end is completely covered with volcanic rock. Upon leaving the plane, the volcano looms ominously at the end of the strip, spewing gray smoke. To the left of the strip is a newly built shanty town with gleaming new corrugated iron roofs. I'm amazed that families would rebuild their houses right on top of their old house buried in lava.

I think of New Orleans where people insist on rebuilding their house right on the spot where mucky water has destroyed their land again and again. A colleague of mine who happens to be from New Orleans, says “it doesn’t matter where it is, it’s your home and you can’t leave it”.

My first impression of Goma is that all the colors are muted. It’s dusty from volcanic ash. Goma is sometimes referred to the Switzerland of Africa, for its cool and misty weather. Who knew it could be so pleasant in Africa?

Muted colors in Goma. This was a previously paved road. The cars are now driving on the leveled lava

April 24, 2006

Little Ironies

I just got back to the office this morning and found this in my personal inbox:

Upgrade and Win
Join the next generation of Hotmail® and take part in the Windows Live Mail Beta Sweepstakes, and you could be on your way to Africa.

Wow! I could win a trip to Africa.

Is this Cruelty, Mockery or a little of both? It's those little ironies that keep me going.

April 15, 2006

Anatomy of a Street

Examine if you will, exhibit A: a busy city street in Kinshasa.

Distinctive features:
(1) sporadic electricity. Look towards to middle of the picture. You will see three lamp posts. Two are actually lit! They have never been lit in my whole year of being here. The middle post has unfortunately had a little accident and is folded over. Who knows when it will be fixed.
(2) Informal bus stops. On each side of the roads, you will notice a large strip of brown sand. This is where masses and masses of people congregate each evening to wait for the "taxis". As a driver, you have to be VERY careful when you negociate around stopped taxis, stalled cars and ferocious SUVs, and not hit a person.
(3) Green! Despite this being a hot city, the rainy season and intense moisture keeps it green. There are few green spaces in Kinshasa, nevertheless, little patches of grass and tall trees are some much more enjoyable that a sandbank (as Dakar was).
(4) Sewers. At the bottom of the picture, you can spot a little man in a blue shirt walking right over the sewers. These are some of the rare sewers that are covered by concrete slats. Good thing too, or else my wheels would get caught in the pits everytime I tried to leave my building.
(4) Cars going way too fast. Self-explanatory (please note the little man in the middle of the street, running for his life).
(5) Wall with barbed wire. It's sad, but pretty much every building/house has barbed wire around it. I should also add that during work hours, traffic there is bumper to bumper, even on Saturday.
(6) Puddle as seen in the top, right corner of the picture. Despite the massive sewers, water still manages to puddle is inconvenient places, due to sewage gunk.

Voila! All in all, not a bad place at all. There's just way too much traffic.

Blast from the Past

I went shopping with a friend two weeks ago, as he needed soap and I was looking for pretty much anything that could be cooked in under 5 minutes flat.

He bought two of the cheapest soaps available, including this one:

I'm not sure where it was made, but it really made me chuckle. It looks so 1970's! The side cover says: sold in New York, Paris and London. Pretty classy soap.

My friend went to Lebanon

...and I all got was this lousy pack of cigarettes.

Check out her blog in the next coming days for some info on Lebanon.

(Just kidding Mom, relax!)

April 13, 2006


So, next week, I will be going to Rwanda for a Regional Meeting! Prior to starting my work stint in Africa, Rwanda conjured pictures of Mass Genocides and Confusions. But ever since I've been in the DRC, I hear people talk of Rwanda like it's a little haven of peace (how weird right?) with beautiful hills and a more chilled out atmosphere. I hear people are a tad colder (less outwardly enthusiastic) than the Congolese--which frankly is fine with me.

So I look up the country in Wikipedia, and get this description:

Rwanda /ˈru̯ɑndə/ is a small landlocked country in the Great Lakes region of east-central Africa, with a population of 7,954,013. It is bordered by Uganda, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Tanzania. Its fertile and hilly terrain, which gives it the title "Land of a Thousand Hills" (French: Pays des Mille Collines /ˈpe.dəˈmiː.koˈlæn/), supports the densest populations in continental Africa. It is best known to the outside world for the 1994 Rwandan genocide that resulted in the deaths of up to one million people. Before this, it was known mostly as the habitat of mountain gorillas."

Oy! The Land of a Thousand Hills? Sounds more like the Land of a Thousand Descriptions. I can't wait!

April 12, 2006

Back muscles

Remember how stressed you were in high school when you did your geography homework one hour before it was due to a teacher you dreaded, or during your masters when you realized you forgot to study three chapters of Infectious Diseases and had to cram in a lunchroom full of noise?

Well that’s nothing next to REAL WORLD JOB stress:
-trying to pull stuff together for a 100-page plan,
-scanning using a slow-assed machine,
-photocopying pages that have been photocopied three times over,
-sending a fed-ex by 3:00 and your colleague is still stuck in traffic with the crucial document,
-finishing the translation of a 34-page document and following-up with your superiors so they make their final recommendations by EOB,
-all the while your partners from the two projects you’re supposed to be managing call you for extra work.

Yikes! I can feel tension in back muscles I didn’t even know I had.

By the way, thanks so much Sampsa, Qalamana, Beaver, Beautiful Omoeko and Erick (did you live in Japan?) for posting on my GuestMap. It's so exciting! I though Guest Maps were out of fashion because NO one had been pinning for a while...

April 07, 2006

Worm Soufflé

I like to buy local goods. It encourages local production and provides income to the Congo. But mainly, let's be honest, it makes me feel good about myself.

Anyways, so I buy local flour called Midema (for Minoterie de Matadi). It comes in a neat little white cloth bag. If you were to buy a local sand painting, you'd most often see it painted on the back of a Midema flour sac. If you were to buy mangosteen's at the market, you'd shelter from the sun under a umbrella made from Midema flour sacs. Heck, they even sell bathrobes made from the stuff.

Yesterday, I was feeling very ambitious and decided to make cheese soufflé. I started making the roux (a mix of butter and flour, heated over low heat) and poured in the milk little by little to finish making the Béchamel sauce. I suddenly spotted little brown flecks in the mix and, fairly sure I hadn't added to pepper yet, squinted and got closer to the pot. There were little translucent flecks with brown reticulations.

Suspecting the flour, I went to the bag and shook it a little bit. Nothing. The best solution was to start the sauce again, making sure that the flour was well sifted. And sure enough, the specks left in the sieve were little squiggling flour worms. The trouble is that some of them were too small to eliminate. I thought about this over a glass of wine, shrugged, and decided to make the soufflé anyways.

I am proud to say that it was a damn good dish (it puffed up around the edge and all). Worm soufflé anyone?

April 03, 2006

I'm so screwed

Oh my god, I have so much work today and for the next week. There is no way I can meet deadlines.

I am so screwed, it's not even funny.

April 02, 2006

Strange Moods

A lot of the sewers in the large cities here are remnants of the Belgian period. These were all constructed prior to or around the 1960s. As you can imagine, they are not closed, underground sewers; rather they are wide ditches along one side of the road, protected by square stones around the edges. They are rather formidable constructions and a lot of them are still intact. Perhaps Mobutu invested in their rehabilitation along the way too. Now, they are mostly half-filled with detritus that people leave along the way. Once in a while before the rainy season comes, people gather piles of the sewage-gunk and set fire to it. This frees up some space to let the water drain into it. Largely ineffective, the water still overflows and seep onto the paved roads, forming whole swimming pools of stagnant water.

Last week, a colleague of mine was late because a dead body turned up in one of the city sewers, leading the driver to join the crowd of gawkers around the open ditch. I've been thinking about this ever since, with a kind a fascinated horror. With the semi-drunken talks of bombings and wars a few nights ago; I dreamt I lived in a post apocalyptic city last night. It was filled with rumble and dust. A graying body was floating in the city sewer, smelling worst than I've ever experienced before (and this was only in my dream).

A friend says she's been having near constant headaches for a few weeks now, possibly owing to the change of barometric pressure that comes with the start of the rainy season. At times like these, I just want to stay home, curled up in a ball, eating thin soup and watching the Corpse Bride.

For some excellent posts (in french) and great pictures of the city and the rain, I highly recommend Cedric's blog, a Congolese young man living in Kinshasa:
La pluie. un cauchemar pour beaucoup de Kinois
La pluie à Kinshasa bénédiction ou malédiction ?
No comment
Piscines publiques

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