THE HEART OF AFRICA
The Congo: We just returned from a full week in what has to be simultaneously one of the strangest, most tragic and most wonderful places in the world, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). It is a place made infamous by Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" novel in 1899. It is a vast land of jungle and savannah, the size of the western U.S. It is a place where 3.9 million people have died as a result of a civil war and related conflict, since 1998. A place of holocaust and hope.
The DRC is to be distinguished between the "other" Congo, to the northwest, a smaller country known as Congo Brazzaville. The equator runs through the northern portion, along with an immense river (the Congo River), but we were so far south of that steamy and humid jungle that the air still had the cool chill of winter, a brisk breeze blew much of the time, and everyone bundled up in sweaters and jackets.
Our visit started when our plane landed in Ndola, Zambia, and we proceeded overland by Range Rover north to the border (about a two-hour drive), across the border (an amazing and incomprehensible experience in itself, which took about two or three hours), then on up to Lubumbashi (another two hours).
We visited three cities in the southernmost portion only, known as Katanga Province. Our first day or two was divided between Lubumbashi (World Vision's headquarters office for the DRC) and Kipushi (which is nearby, about 30 km). For the third and fourth days we took a small commuter plane up 300 km to Kolwesi (it's at least an 8 hour drive, which in my case and due to the nutzoid roads in the DRC, might have resulted in brain damage), then back to Lubumbashi for our final day. We were accompanied during the entire trip by Vianney Dong, World Vision's communications director for the country, who is based in Kinshasa.
Kolwesi is near the source of the Congo River, a lake visible from our small aircraft as we came in for a landing at the Kolwesi Airport.
The area we were in was formerly controlled by big mining companies. The environmental devastation is obvious (huge mountains of tailings from cobalt/copper mining operations), but the devastation on the people in the area, resulting from when the mining companies collapsed or pulled out about 10 years ago, is even more obvious. Some mining is now occurring once again, but most people now live in desperate poverty, as subsistence farmers and/or street vendors.
There are tens of thousands of street children between Lubumbashi and Kolwesi, and most are out there as a result of abuse and accusations of "sorcery" (basically they are scapegoats for their parents' problems, mostly malaria and AIDS). This is a huge story that needs to be told, and I am working on writing it up. In many cases, I believe even evangelical pastors (hopefully out of ignorance and not simple greed) may be complicit in this travesty. They are charging parents money to "diagnose and treat" situations in which the children end up being accused of sorcery and turned out to the streets. It's heartbreaking.
One small center in Kolwesi which is seeking to help these kids has hundreds show up at their doorstep each day. The center is run by volunteers, completely unpaid for their efforts, including the director, who is herself a subsistence farmer. The funds they need to spend on food and rent for their small office come mostly from World Vision assistance and from the older children knitting and selling sweaters. They have one small room (the size of my bathroom at home) where they sleep nine homeless boys at night. No adult supervision, but it's deemed safer than the streets.
The entire area is plagued by an influx of thousands of truck drivers, mostly from South Africa and Zambia. In addition to various goods, these men import South Africa's HIV problem into the Congo. Street children -- females in particular -- in their desperation to simply survive, are ripe targets for these predators. Getting these kids off the streets would save hundreds and perhaps thousands of children's lives in this area of the world.
The other big plague here is malaria. Probably four out of five people have it, and it takes an enormous human toll. One small clinic we visited had a half dozen children lying miserably in bed. I asked what they were suffering and all but one were there because of malaria.
I was also privileged to interview kids and staff at the province's only school for the deaf and mute, a Christian school called Ephrata, supported by World Vision. Children are commuting in to the school, daily, from up to 30 km away. By commuting, I mean they are walking on Katanga's dangerous roads. Many start at 3 a.m. so they are walking in utter blackness every morning. Can you imagine how dangerous this is? In May alone the school had two children struck by vehicles, in separate incidents. I met and photographed one (in the adjacent photo), who is recovering from injuries very similar to the ones I received in my bike accident. He was struck by a motorbike.
The school wants to build a dorm facility where students who have such a long walk may stay during the week, to minimize the dangers. They are looking for funding.
I am blown away. World Vision is doing so much with so little here, but they are barely scratching the surface. They estimated in Kolwesi that they are reaching only about 10% of the people who desperately need help. The needs are enormous.
We also wanted to visit the Goma area in eastern Congo, but were vetoed due to insecurity. (The city has recently been shelled and raked by machinegun fire from rebel strongholds.) But the tension even this far south in Katanga Province is evident ... there are armed UN patrols and police with automatic weapons everywhere. I read there are more UN troops in the DRC (about 17,000) than any other single country in the world. Even the World Vision office in Kolwesi is guarded by hired police with automatic weapons. It's eerie.
While we were driving in Kolwesi we saw a man severely beating a woman in the street. The driver of our Range Rover skidded to a stop and our staff jumped out. They managed to talk the man down from his rage and partly rescued the woman by inserting their bodies between him and her. I have new levels of respect for what these folks are up against.
The people of Katanga Province impressed me as creatively resourceful and industrious. But in many ways they need a lot of help, in terms of expertise, training and resources.
If you visit the Congo, you will absolutely love the people. They are hungry for contact with the outside world. Everywhere we went, Mandy and I were treated like the King and Queen of England.
At one health center where I was interviewing staff and patients, the whole time we were there we hyeard the sound of loud music and celebration from outside. I asked Vianney about this and she said, "The local churches heard you were coming and organized something." When we went out front there was a "band" of about 50 or 60 native dancers, singers, and instrumentalists (most banging on various types of homemade drums made of hollowed-out tree stumps), and we were also surrounded by hundreds of onlookers who soon joined in the dancing. It was the wildest party I ever saw.
We proceeded from there by foot to our next appointment, a football (soccer) match I think they had organized just for our visit. One team of sponsored children versus another. There were hundreds of onlookers. As we approached the field (we were a little late and the match had already started), people left the sidelines in droves and came streaming toward us. We were pressed by so many excited children, just shaking our hands and touching us, that World Vision staff were forced to intervened and create a corridor so we could join the game without getting trampled!
There is an amazing pre-existing infrastructure in Katanga Province, built by the mining companies. Huge hospitals, schools, roadworks, even tracts of nice homes. But since they left, everything has degraded. Feels like being in some sort of post-holocaust B movie. Nothing seems to work anymore.
I am eager to share the stories that came out of our visit, so be sure and visit the World Vision blog where we will be doing this. I've just posted, first of all, the story of our wonderful visit with Gracia, our sponsored child, and her family. If you are not already a child sponsor, I hope you will become one after reading this!!!
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