Trip Start Apr 09, 2008
138Trip End Aug 30, 2008
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Where I stayed
Lyn and Jo's home
Goma is a special place, HEAL AFRICA specifically, full of special people doing very special things.
But let me start from the beginning.
Crossing the border this morning was as simple as simple can get. Matt had this whole speech rehearsed in his head, and was geared up to recite it to the customs official, at full volume. No bribe was going to change hands today. Nope, not from us.
But there was absolutely no hassle, no harassment, no effort whatsoever to rip us off
I have to say I do feel a bit guilty for having had these notions now. The fact is, this particular border crossing (Gisenyi in Rwanda and Goma in DRC) is probably the one where the majority of aid workers, UN convoys and foreigners enter and exit from, it being the safest. Therefore, customs officials are used to issuing visas, stamping foreign passports and seeing Mzungu (white) faces.
Once we filled out our immigration form, we were ushered into the office where we paid for our transit visa, which we were told was $35 pp (and not $75 like we had thought, so another bonus!), and because we had left Foxy at Paradis Malahide Hotel, there was no need to stamp our Carnet de Passage - so off we went, into the chaotic streets of Goma, each of us wearing a backpack and carrying a black ammo box full of medical supplies, which, due to some minor miracle, were never ever inspected or even questionned!
HEAL AFRICA is roughly one kilometre away from the border post, so we decided to walk there. We tried to call Lyn on her mobile but there was no answer for some reason. At least a few dozen motor-taxis honked and asked if we wanted a ride, but each time we refused, thinking we were almost there. But gradually, the box i was carrying became heavier and heavier and i thought, "well, I look strange enough walking down the middle of town carrying black boxes sweating like a sick pig, so i might as well do it African-style", so on top of my head the box went
When we finally reached HEAL AFRICA's gates, we were shown to Lyn's office. Completely drenched in sweat and probably not smelling that rosy either, Lyn took one look at us (and our boxes) and asked if we were reporters.
Although she was expecting us that morning, she later confessed she didn't know who we were and upon first glance, thought we were journalists who had come to write about the hospital.
But once we said we were indeed Matt and Bonnie, albeit a bit dirty and travel-weary, she leaped up from behind her desk, ran over and threw her arms the both of us, squeezing and squealing at the same time.
It was nice to see she was so thrilled to have family here; the rest of the day she would proudly introduce us to everyone as "ma famille who came to visit me all the way from Cape Town!!"
We had interrupted a meeting of Lyn's and so while she was finishing up, Albert, one of the clinic's staff members, showed us around the reception office, the paediatrics building, the orthopaedics site, the operating theatre (where Jo, Lyn's husband, was busy operating inside), etc
What I noticed almost straight away was how many children, and young ones at that, there were in the clinic rooms and how many more were roaming the hospital grounds.
We passed by the hospital school, where the teacher was busy instructing about twenty or so kids in a tiny narrow room. He explained to us that most of these kids have suffered traumatic sexual abuse and while their physical wounds were being treated by the doctors, he was trying to provide a sense of stability and normalcy in their lives by giving daily lessons.
Lying in the sun to dry were paintings that the children had just finished creating, many of them self-portraits. There are counsellors working with the kids, many of who encourage art as an effective method used to help them deal with the trauma they experienced. A lot of the time, the children are reluctant to speak about what happened, or perhaps don't even know that what had occurred was "bad" and so wouldn't even know what to say.
But kids are still kids, and when I whipped out my camera, they all screamed to be in the photos, clambering all over each other. What a zoo! When I showed them the shots on the screen, the screaming intensified. I was laughing and smiling along with them but inside I couldn't help but feel so sad for them, to be victims at such a young age, and to have such an uncertain future ahead of them. However, one must look at the good fortune these kids have had so far, being able to be treated and healed by the doctors and to have their well-being looked after by their teacher
We carried on and passed by the room where the American Bar Association have set up an office to help women who want to file a case against their perpetrator. Even for those who want to stand up for their rights, it is not guaranteed justice will prevail. But it is a small step towards a more just world, and for that reason, it is worth pursuing.
More often than not, women are shunned by their village and family if they are raped and are often too ashamed to return. Albert told us that if they return to their village with a new skill (ie. sewing), the integration process will be a bit easier. It also helps if she goes back bearing something of value, like a goat, whereby the villagers will more readily accept her back into the community.
While touring the hospital and hearing all the horribles stories, I couldn't help but feel so angry at the desperate situation. Having been told and taught all my life that, as a female, I am entitled to my own identity and dignity but then witnessing the complete opposite to that here was just depressing and terribly frightening
Having to feel ashamed or embarrassed about an act of violence committed against you is plainly unjust to begin with, no matter what act it is or what gender you are. But it is plainly evident that here, when a woman is sexual assaulted, it renders her a lifetime of suffering and guilt, and in a world where she already bears so much hardship and heartache, it is unimaginable how they carry on.
Once Lyn was finished her meeting, she took us on a tour of Goma town. UN peacekeepers (Indians, South Africans, Uruguayans) were patrolling the streets everywhere. Congolese police officers were at every street corner manning their road block. While entering a traffic circle, a policeman motioned for us to stop. Apparently they stop cars whenever they feel like it, for no particular reason. Lyn crawled to a halt, reluctantly, just inches away from a policewoman. Lyn instructed us to roll up our windows immediately and let her do the talking. I would be lying if i said my heart wasn't pounding in my chest.
Another police officer, a big burly man with a big burly gun to match, swaggered over and greeted Lyn amicably (Lyn is quite well known here, being the wife of Dr
As we continued to drive along Goma's streets, which are really a collection of huge potholes and muddy ditches, we saw the remnants of the Mount Nyiragongo volcano eruption in 2002, one of the most destructive in the world with over 4500 buildings destroyed and 120,000 people left homeless.
Lyn told us of her memories of the day, how the road split up and swallowed everything around it, how her and Jo were separated on either side, how they fled Goma by boat on Lake Kivu to the Rwandan side, and how the house they had just moved out of, was swallowed up by the hot-flowing lava in mere seconds.
We passed dilapidated houses and shacks, bustling markets with booming music, lots of wooden bicycles (think Flinstone-style) carrying bananas to the market, a man hacking away at a cow's skull with a giant axe (didn't dare get a picture for fear of the $300 fine but I've got the image branded forever in my mind), the lowering of the Congolese flag during a ceremony, in which everyone within sight must stop and standstill - or risk a fine, or worse
After quickly dropping off our bags at the Lusi home and changing into something a little more appropriate (ie. not so smelly), we headed to the Hotel Ihusi where Jo was leading a conference. One of their family friends, David Cohen, was to be giving a presentation entitled "Journee de reflection sur la paix et la reconstruction" (Day of refelction on peace and reconstruction).
When we arrived in the parking lot, Jo greeted us outside with a huge bear hug. You could tell he was very happy for Lyn that a relative of hers, distant as it may be, had come to visit. He asked her jokingly, "What shall we feed our guests tonight, Lyn? English custard?"
We all went inside to the conference room. When the Governor of North Kivu province walked in, everyone stood up and stayed standing until he sat down. After a few more minutes, the conference began with the singing of the national anthem. The DRC anthem is a solemn and melodic one, but looking around the room at all these smartly-dressed politicians (all men, might I add) singing in unison, my mind yearned to know if they realized how the words they were regurgitating were ones they should actually address to their people
Lyn, Matt and I stayed only for the opening remarks and then quickly escaped to the hotel's restaurant to have a late lunch. It was the first time either of us had met Lyn and so there was a lot of catching up to do. It felt wonderful to talk about the people we knew in common, to hear stories about other relatives and to just extend our family tree by a few more branches. We made a quick phone call to Sue and Guy as well, who are vacationing in France at the moment.
Before dinner, we met up with the other HEAL AFRICA staff members for drinks at a nearby hotel/restaurant. We couldn't believe it when we found out that two of them, a married couple, where from Nanaimo BC and even attending Malespina College (now the University of Vancouver Island)! How random to meet someone in the Democratic of Congo who also lives in what will soon be your new home village in Canada.
Dinner was at 7pm by the lakeside. The table was beautifully laid out and everyone convened together to share a delicious meal of potatoes, rice, beans, creamy spinach, chicken and peanut sauce.
Which brings me to yet another incredible event today: not knowing (and not asking in the first place, which perhaps I should have done) that the chicken was in a peanut sauce, I helped myself to a healthy portion and ate it all without so much a cough. Normally, once peanuts cross my lips I can tell right away and so stop eating immediately. But tonight I didn't even know it was peanut sauce until someone mentioned it after dinner
Feeling a bit nervous after I found out, I was waiting for some sort of allergic reaction to kick in, epipen ready to be injected. Luckily i was surrounded by doctors! But nothing came. Perhaps what the woman from Kisolanza Farm in Iringa, TAN, said was right: the peanuts that grow in East Africa are different than those that are exported abroad since it is during transportation that a certain type of fungus grows on the nuts which is what triggers the allergic reaction. Hence why there are increasing numbers of people allergic to peanuts in North America.
Still, I felt I had experienced a tiny miracle. But I don't think I'll be rushing to buy groundnuts or any variety of the sort any time soon.
We rounded up our meal with fresh strawberries and then retreated to our bedroom for some much-needed rest. But as tired as I am, I can't seem to fall asleep, my mind still spinning.
In a turbulent country such as the DRC, it is inspiring to know that places like HEAL AFRICA exist. Apparently the government hospitals, though it has more shiny buildings and facilities, are devoid of patients because there are simply no skilled doctors or specialists working there
HEAL AFRICA, on the other hand, have gained a reputation of providing good quality service with skilled doctors, and even treat patients who cannot afford it. However, the struggle for obtaining funding is alive and well, but it is true that good people doing good work attract good attention. Over the years, HEAL AFRICA has received quite a lot of media coverage, both in the DRC and internationally. George Clooney has already been for a visit, and Ben Affleck is coming for a second visit this coming Saturday! And they are branching out all over the world; with an office already in Seattle, there are plans for a Canadian office to open in the near future.
You have to wonder though, if, when and how this resource-rich country will ever be able to become a leading African nation. The potential is there: the DRC has an estimated $24 trillion US in untapped minerals lying underground. This translates to a lot of prospective wealth for the 63 million inhabitants but unfortunately, it also provides an incentive for too many corrupt undertakings.
Perhaps it is for this reason, amongst others, which adds to the unfortunate bad luck that the DRC has been plauged with, from civil war to natural disasters to corrupt political mayhem
In the words of one of HEAL AFRICA's interns, "'Goma ni ajabu', Goma is a miracle. It is really a miracle that daily life functions amidst complete chaos ... the people's work is completely miraculous in spite of everything that is stacked against them."
Distance Traveled: walked across Rwanda/DRC border, toured Goma town
Road Conditions: bad bad bad roads in Goma, requires 4-wheel drive and bums of steel
Temperature: monstrous thunder and lightning storm at night