Sunday, April 16, 2006

Moving, working and KFC

I wish I had more time to write about the interesting move to Lubumbashi. It's been a whirlind - packet up my bags, had a couple good-bye parties and left Kindu in a four-day period. The Indians, my South African friends, and my best friend Anja saw me off at the airport. After two days in Kinshasa I boarded another plane to Lubumbashi. As usual, the Congo traveling experience involves officials trying to open my bags at the airport, baggage handlers bickering over who carries by bags, chaos as planes board with no announcements to which flight it is, and grouping en masse on the runway (lines are impossible) to board the plane. It's no Delta.

Arriving in Lubumbashi, Katangaq, I feel like I am in a different country but can't put my finger on why I feel this way. The temperature is nice - in the upper 70s and lower 80s. The city has an open feel to it and lacks the grit and dirt that defines Kinshasa.

And in many ways, this is a different country. It's definitely tried to be, with successionist attempts that were actually supported by Belgium troops right after independence (later US and european troops were sent to quell a rebellion attempt). Now there is still the issue that the vast mineral wealth of Katanga province is perceived as being channeled to Kinshasa.

Katanga is known as "the forgotten crisis" in Congo. While Ituri and the Kivu provinces are well known for their problems, Katanga has been slowly going from bad to worse. Local groups that were originally supported by the Kinshasa government to fight Rwandan troops in the late 1990s got out of Kinshasa's control a while back. The "give some guys arms and money" technique of fighting your opponent tends to backfire once they realize that guns = power, so why back down? The government decided to head after the leader by staging a military operation. Congolese military are underpaid and not very disciplined, so populations have been getting the heck out of the way to avoid both the rebel movement and their own soldiers. As military operations have shifted, so has the population movement. Next week we will be going to check out some of the areas where people have gathered to get a good idea of how many are around, principle problems and possible solutions.

Last night colleagues and I spread out maps at a local restaurant and planned a field mission with another organization. We discussed which areas were secure, which roads were passable, where the military was, and what we knew about certain areas. I'd be lying if I said that I was not being drawn in to the sense of urgency that accompanies this's exciting and exhilarating.

There are many steps we take to stay safe. The first is information on the ground. We find organizations that are/have been in these areas and talk with them. Second is communication - we have satellite phones and radio networks. Third is common sense - no need to be cowboys, if people say an area is not secure, we do not go. The security strategy of most humanitarian organizations is based on acceptance, and the one that I work for is no exception.

The best part - Lubumbashi has two KFC restaurants (Katanga Fried Chiken). No lie.

Monday, April 10, 2006

I don't know why, but once you try to take pictures of kids they start going for kung-fu poses. This photo is from a village 20km from Kindu.

Friday, April 07, 2006


Working in Africa has had some unexpected benefits. For starters, I have incredible night vision. If there's a guy on the road wearing all black fifty feet in front of the car in a town with no lights, I can spot him. This skill was quite essential in Niger, where bicycling at night with no reflectors wearing dark clothing was pretty much a national hobby. I can also manouever a vehicle out of mud or sand, while being watched by children, adults and couple goats. And I can spell the names of hard-to-spell places, like Lubumbashi.

I had a talk with a pilot two days ago in Goma, one that echoed a conversation I had had with my friend Emmet a day earlier in Kigali. The theme was basically, "Are we crazy for doing what we do, or are the people who think we're crazy actually the crazy ones?" Every move we make gives us another experience that most people from our home towns would never understand, though I do find people are usually very nice about saying they think I am doing good work. It's quite strange. If people start talking to me about "those poor Africans," I reply about their resourcefulness and strength. If people claim that we should stop wasting our money on lost causes and focus on problems at home, my response emphasizes the huge challenges that come from the horrible colonial history, even though I know that you can't blame the past forever. I play a bit of a devil's advocate because I know most people have a composite image based on photos, news stories, movies and national geographic. And i know that I can never explain Congo, much less "Africa," but I try to add a new dimension to the concept.

I am about to add a new hard-to-spell place to my life: I will be moving to Lubumbashi next week to help start up our emergency operations in Katanga. In Katanga, Congolese military has been heading after some rebels, with civilians losing on all accounts. Tens of thousands are currently displaced with very little assistance.

Like an impressionist painting, the Congo looks so lovely from a distance. These rolling hills are near Bukavu in the East. I took the photo this morning on my flight back to Kindu.