Saturday morning started with a catch up meeting with the War Child team in Kinshasa.
War Child’s work in Kinshasa is very much geared towards Amaurite and the ambulance which I spoke about in the earlier blog (http://wp.me/p1D4Fh-1g) , using it to try and get particularly the female street kids off prostitution and back with their families. And if that can’t be achieved, as least make them safer.
The security situation here isn’t too bad according to the security expert on the War Child team, apart from the rampant crime. Car doors must be locked at all times, and windows shut, not just because of the worsening gang culture, but also as protection from corrupt police officers and members of the army (not all of them, of course, but you can never be sure who is good, and who is bad). However, there are big concerns with the forthcoming elections that the security situation could get bad again, so everyone is needing to be vigilant.
One huge difference between Kinshasa and Goma is the lack of community feeling here in the city, unlike Goma which is a lot less built up, where people try and look after each other. It makes things harder for War Child as people have a “Not my problem” attitude towards street children, and even though there are a lot of them, with the population being so huge, it’s less noticeable.
Therefore the focus in the region is to look at already existing projects, or ones that other local NGO’s are looking to start up that fit War Child’s remit, and this is why a lot more of War Child’s focus is in the Kivu regions, rather than here.
The work here is still important though, as despite some proper roads, cars, music everywhere (which was noticeably lacking in Goma), there is still rampant poverty and the effects in war.
The situation in Kinshasa, which I’m told was once known as “Black Paris” in the 60’s due to its prosperity and buzzing nightlife, isn’t helped by the lack of trust with the army and police, the people who the population are meant to look up to. This gives the religious organisations a lot more power here, and with the most popular churches blaming witchcraft for most of the cities woes, it makes the education process a lot harder here. It’ll be a very difficult cycle to break.
Tom and Mark aren’t coming on this afternoons visits as Tom (Chair of the War Child trustees) is going back to London tonight, and they want to do a debrief back at the hotel before Tom leaves. So myself, Wendy and MK & Luca from War Child’s office here go off on a trip to the Esengo centre for boys, then back to Amaurite to meet some of the girls there.
The traffic on the journey is even worse than yesterday. Pollution here is so bad that I’m sneezing black snot. Smoking is pretty pointless, and you’re breathing so many chemicals constantly. Occasionally police on the street attempt to control the traffic, sometimes helped by locals, but cars are strewn everywhere, in amongst the rubbish (it’s by far and away the dirtiest place I’ve ever been).
When cars crash, which happens constantly, drivers don’t even get out of the car. They just shout at each other, then carry on. I’m actually looking forward to a life back with traffic lights and lanes.
Eventually, we make it to the Esengo centre, which is OSEPER’s head office over here.
There are 25 boys who live here, aged between 12 & 16. They are accepted off the streets, and train here for 2 years, much like the Don Bosco centres in Goma.
It’s another Catholic charity, with the charity originally set up to continue the work of Don Luigi Guonella. One thing I’ve definitely learnt on this trip is how passionate many Italians are about humanitarian work (they by far outnumber the amount of of field workers from other countries I’ve met) and how, despite the many controversies which are obviously very bad (and that’s a huge debate for another day), there are lots of people involved with the Catholic church who do good.
Oh, and sometime has just tried to tell me the traffic earlier was clear for Kinshasa standards, which made me laugh. I found out later how true that was.
Anyway, back to the centre.
Some of the boys here are orphaned, and some were abandoned due to being rejected from their families, including some handicapped boys. The centre does try and re-integrate the boys with their families, but it’s very difficult and takes a long time, so there is a secondary aim to make the boys independent.
There are various classes they take, reading, writing, numeracy, sewing, carpentry and art. One of the boys from the centre has become a known artist in DRC (we’re shown some of his work, which is very good indeed!), and what is immediately noticeable is how happy the boys are in the centre. It’s the first time outside of the War Child that I’ve seen smiling in Kinshasa.
The sewing quality and clothes are excellent – we’ve actually got a meeting on Tuesday where it’s been requested that I wear a shirt, and I find one here that I like, so buy it (a short sleeved denim number).
We sit down with Priest Justin and Brother Mauro, and congratulate them on their work in the centre. They’ve so far managed to get 7 boys in independent living, and expect more to go that way in the next year. It’s a good place.
Then we go off to Amaurite, and for this leg of the trip, it is pretty clear, traffic wise. Hurrah!
There’s a much better atmosphere here today than there was yesterday. Maybe it’s because it’s earlier in the day, as it was quite dark and menacing by the time we left here then.
First up we see the nurses room. There’s a young girl being treated in there for diarrhoea sickness, who has just started being able to eat again, which is good. We’re shown the medicine cabinet, which is sparse, but stocked.
The typical kind of stuff they treat both here and in the ambulance are fever, infections, injuries, STD’s, malaria and respiratory diseases. I was tempted to get them to look at my dodgy wrist, and my neck is playing up too, but that would have been a bit pathetic compared to the other things they treat, and the neck is my own fault anyway, as I had my insoles the wrong way round in my walking boots. Doh.
We had a bit of a chat with the nurse and doctor first, to try and get an idea of what kind of girl they have in the centre, and they told us the story of a girl they think is 14, but it’s difficult to tell as she has no idea when she was born, who is currently staying there. She thinks she’s been on the streets for 10 years, and is in her second month of staying at the centre having been treated by the ambulance after a fight.
She was regularly taking drugs and 4 months pregnant via her work as a street prostitute. She is now clean of drugs thanks to the work at the centre.
They are currently looking for her family, but she doesn’t remember them. She does remember a women that they called Grandmother, even though she wasn’t part of the family, and via her they are trying to track down the family.
She still has issues with STD’s, but that’s partly down to hygiene issues, and is very aggressive, but starting to calm down a bit. Despite her age, she’s never seen a book before, and is now doing literacy classes.
If they can’t find her family by the time she gives birth, then they’ll look to move her to another centre, or in with a nun. They are doing everything they can to stop her taking her baby onto the streets with her after giving birth.
6 girls then come in to sit with us who are at the centre, aged 7-15 (although the older girls are not really sure how old they are, and look younger than 15 to my untrained eye).
The first question asked is “what do you like about being at the centre”. Please note, due to War Child’s child protection policy, the names below are made up.
Oh, and also please note that there won’t be many photos from Kinshasa. Again, partly due to the child protection policy, but also because you can’t really stop and get out at places to take photos here, as your camera will get stolen. I even saw someone wearing a T-shirt this morning that said “If you take my photo, you will know my fists”. It’s better to be safe than sorry.
So, back to the girls.
Nadia – aged 12 – Likes the life skills classes. There isn’t anything she doesn’t like.
Josephine – claims to be 15 – likes all of the classes. Likes that when the girls fight, they are treated fairly and get equal blame. Doesn’t like that they try and stop her leaving the centre (she is heavily pregnant, but still wants to go out to take drugs and earn money as a prostitute)
Mary – also claims to be 15 – likes the classes and the group discussion, where they can share life experiences and help each other avoid problems.
Evelyn – 14 – Classes are OK, and is proud to be able to read now, as it helps to be able to read signs. Doesn’t like showers when it’s cold (there’s no hot water in the centre), nor the power cuts.
Santina – 8 –Is just grateful to not be on the streets thanks to the centre (she’s a very clever girl who can speak French, not just Lingale, and has schooling for a bit before finding herself on the streets)
Simona – 7 – likes that they have 2 sets of clothes and can wash each day.
How did the girls find out about the centre?
Nadia – from another girl who had visited it.
Josephine – was referred from the ambulance
Mary – went to the ambulance having seen it on the street one night.
Evelyn – had had a fight and went for treatment in the ambulance
Santina – saw the ambulance on the street after being abandoned by her mother
Simona – was living on the streets and ill (aged 7!). Saw the ambulance and asked for help.
Which proves that the ambulance is definitely making a difference in these girls lives.
How do the lessons help?
Nadia – she learnt about HIV which she didn’t realise came from sex, and the importance of condoms when having sex. She learnt how drugs affect the brain, and has learnt forgiveness, and now forgives her mother.
Josephine – How to avoid the HIV infection, and how to avoid it for her baby (she is pregnant).
Mary – didn’t know that HIV infections can be carried on razor blades when slashing someone. (the streets really are survival of the fittest). Also learnt how to calculate her periods to know if she was pregnant or not.
Evelyn – repeated that she’s now able to read signs and know her way around. Says it’s helping her to realise how to be a responsible person.
The 2 younger girls had only been in the centre for a couple of weeks, so didn’t have an answer.
Both me and Wendy felt properly revived and once again inspired by the 2 places we visited this afternoon. Really amazing work from everyone at OSERPER and War Child in the region to make them happen, and they both seem like the happiest places we’ve seen so far in Kinshasa.
Then we set out for the journey home knowing we were going out for dinner tonight, and had our first time off since we got here tomorrow. Wendy and I were both going to go to the Bonobo sanctuary, with Mark staying at the hotel to work, with me getting my work and blogs done in the evening before dinner, as we were due to get back to the hotel at 4.30.
Driving back, however, was quite an experience. And one that I’d gladly never repeat again.
I’d been warned about some of the driving here, but couldn’t believe it til I saw it with my own eyes. Cars and lorries were creating their own lanes using the sand filled central reservation, then getting stuck. They were overheating, tyres blowing up and general break downs, then trying to repair the car in the middle of the road, blocking out other people from being able to move, without caring about anyone around them. And because it’s the place cars go to die, this was happening a lot. Even on the wrong side of the road, as the drivers selfishly tried to push their ways through.
MK, the War Child driver, tries a short cut he knows to get out of the jam. As we start to go down it, a little girl shouts out (in French) “You’re going to sleep here tonight” and laughs. 6 cars ahead on this little side street I find out that sometimes people don’t just drive off when cars crash, as 2 drivers are throwing punches at each other whilst the passengers try and hold them back. One of the cars has a smashed windscreen. Yet when we hit a dead end and go back, he’s driven off again.
We get to another main road, hit another jam, and there’s no other way to try. We move less than 400 yards in 2 hours. Luca manages to get some sleep in. The rest of us just sit there and wait. And wait. And wait. It’s too dangerous to get out an iPod and play music (particularly with the lack of speed the traffic is moving).
The traffic is caused by another road meeting the main one, and no traffic light system, or police to direct the traffic. And once the police do turn up, they are about as much use as a chocolate teapot, letting huge lorries going in the other direction just block everyone. The selfishness of the different drivers really is staggering – not only does no one give way, but they really don’t care if they hit another car just to push them out of the way, even if it means pushing them into another car. A 2 lane road has somehow become 4 lanes. It’s chaos.
And then we get past the junction very hot, a car full of pollution, and very frustrated. Sod the road to hell, this is the road of hell.
Then we get further up the road, and we’re stuck for another half an hour.
Mark calls Luca, a bit worried. We’re 3 hours late already. He’d tried calling me and Wendy but, of course, our phones aren’t working (have I thanked Orange and AirTel for their wonderful service enough, do you think?). In fact I discover that my phone isn’t even going to voicemail, it’s claiming to be disconnected. Even more thanks to Orange and AirTel, as it means that anyone who has tried to phone me since Wednesday afternoon hasn’t even been able to leave me a voicemail. Of course, those comments sound like silly things in the greater scheme of the stuff we’ve seen here, but what would have happened if something had gone wrong today? Anyway…
I think it’s fair to say I’m not Kinshasa’s biggest fan. Not wanting to be stuck in traffic, and with a load of stuff to do, I stayed back with Mark today (Sunday) to get on with some work, rather than seeing the apes. Then found out that DRC were playing Cameroon this afternoon, but after kick off, so ended up watching it in the hotel – gutted.
Over the next few days we’ve got a bunch of meetings, rather than visits. I’m not yet sure exactly what I am, and am not, going to be able to blog about, so bear with me if there aren’t any for a few days, and you’ll be able to find out either via my Facebook or Twitter (@milessi)
My first impression of Kinshasa runs to a different time to the rest of the world. Our flight (a UN one, that other NGO’s are able to use) got in at 3, but the War Child office was told 4. A time difference issue, as there’s a one hour difference between Goma and Kinshasa. No problem there – but the guy standing next to us in the outdoor, secure UN holding area is told that his car will be 5 minutes “which means 10-15 over here”.
It’s hot and very humid, overwhelmingly so. Mosquito’s are everywhere, so I put on my anti-mossy stuff, which we hardly had to use in Goma and the Kivu region.
Even at the UN only exit (the airports here have separate exits for UN and general flights, rather than international and domestic), there are 3 youngsters on the other side of the fence selling everything you can think of out of plastic bags, including a young boy selling individual cigarettes.
The atmosphere is also very different, even noticeable at just the airport. People seem to shout a lot.
They don’t seem to smile. It feels more threatening.
As a bunch of white people, we were a curiosity in Goma. A quick “jambo” or “bonjour” to anyone staring would make them smile and say “jambo sanna” back. Here, eye contact is minimal, with people just ignoring.
Welcome to Kinshasa!
And whilst I’m having a moan, I’ve still got no mobile network. It went down a couple of days ago, and both me and Wendy were hoping it’d kick back in when we got to Kinshasa, so thank you local partner AirTel for being rubbish, and goodbye Orange after being with them for 20 years. I’ll be switching when I get back to the UK.
Driving through town, there’s a huge difference between Goma and Kinshasa. It looks like the deal done by the government here with China for the mining rights to the $4 trillion Coltan mines here in return for road building has kicked in. There are lots of big roads, some even have street lighting, some have road markings and cars everywhere. The cars though, well, let’s just say this is a place where cars go to die. And the traffic issue is huge. No one gives way, people turn wherever they want to and block other people.
They also have buses, although we’d call them mini-vans – most of them are falling apart, with no lights, no windows, open doors, and people just jumping in and out of them and hanging off the roof.
I shouldn’t be that surprised though – it’s a town built for 250,000 people, and currently has an estimated population of 10,000,000!
Straight from the airport, we go to a project that is run in conjunction with OSEPER, who War Child do a lot of work with in Kinshasa, Project Amaurite.
It’s similar to the project I spoke about in Goma - a place for homeless youngsters to go and try and make their lives better. Here they concentrate on young women, most of whom are involved in prostitution – it’s almost automatic here for poor families for girls to go into prostitution aged 12, as the young girls are the last to be fed, and send the girls out onto the streets to fend for themselves, who sell their bodies for the price of a can of Coca-Cola. It’s often violent too.
The stats really are horrific. There was a study done recently into prostitution in one of the sectors of Kinshasa with 345 street girls interviewed. 344 of them were prostitutes. 120 of them were under 12 years old.
There are 15-20 girls who stay at the centre each night, who tend to be the younger girls and 20-30 during the day. The difference is unfortunately caused by some of the girls deciding to go out and work.
The girls get fed with breakfast, lunch and dinner, and like at the Don Bosco centres we visited, there are classes as well, although these classes are slightly different, including “life skills”, which deals with things like how to avoid getting HIV and other STD’s, culture, life values, drug awareness and the like – most of the girls there had never been to school before getting to the centre, and were unaware of any of the risks of street life, particularly with STD’s and drug abuse.
There are big discipline issues at the centre, with the women fighting regularly. They’re used to a situation where it’s survival of the fittest on the streets, so it’s to be expected really.
So far, since November, the people at the centre have managed to re-unified 19 girls with their families from the project, which is pretty amazing work, especially considering how large Kinshasa is (over 25km square) although, unfortunately, 4 of those girls are back on the streets again.
Once it gets dark we go out on the night ambulance, which is War Child’s main project in Kinshasa, also in conjunction with OSEPER.
6 evenings a week, the ambulance goes out onto the streets for a few hours. There is a nurse, doctor, social worker, and a driver, Jeancy, who is actually one of the abandoned children from another OSERPER centre, who taught him to drive. The purpose of the ambulance is one of education and treatment for street children, and women.
It’s been out on the road since November and has regular stop off points in this huge city – the people on the streets to seem to know where it’s going to be and roughly when, and word has certainly spread on the street since it first appeared.
The first stop saw 3 people go in for treatment – a couple of sex workers and a young girl with a chest infection, who was given amoxycilin (the same drug prescribed in the UK for chest & throat infections), as well as the social worker handing out free condoms. It’s actually illegal for anyone to have sex here under the age of 18, and also illegal for them to buy condoms, but no one seems to stop them being handed out, which seeing as most of the sex workers are under 18, makes the project really important.
They don’t just give out normal condoms either, but female ones too. Oddly, when they first decided to do the condom re-distribution, 75% of the social workers in the centre didn’t know how to use one, and none of them knew that female condoms even existed, such is the level of sex education in the country. They’ve now been fully trained.
Then it was off to the main prostitution area of the city.
Now, I like to think that I’m a “real man”. I’m no Ross Kemp, but not a lot scares me (apart from heights and certain vegetables). But going down a very dark alley with no visibility and made of sinking sand, next to a revivalist church, being proposed every few seconds by women and girls shouting at me in the local lingale dialect, surrounded by angry looking men also shouting, and a 5 year old trying to pick pocket me (who then got a huge clout from one of the prostitutes, which even in the circumstance of what he tried to do was not a good thing to happen to him at all) terrified me.
I’ve tried to keep negative emotion out of my blog, but can’t this time. It was a horrible experience and I have a huge amount of respect for the local War Child and Osereper teams who go through this district most nights handing out condoms, promoting sexual health, and telling the underage girls about the centre and how it can help get them out of this cycle. It was by far and away the most threatened I’ve felt, although I’ve been told since that going to Masisi was the most dangerous by a long way, and that the UN will only visit there by helicopter. We drove.
In fact, I felt so bad, that if we didn’t have lots of important meetings in the coming days, and other projects to see, I would have been of the first plane out of there. But the work being done is too important for me considering doing that for more than a minute.
I wasn’t the only one affected, and Mark suggested that we go back to where we’re staying and check in, but we collectively (and unanimously) said no, particularly as the next stop was one that caters more for street children.
I’m very glad we said no, although not as glad as Wendy who actually got to sit in the ambulance for the next stop and see the work first hand! The first child to go in was a 12 year old boy who had a foot injury that hadn’t healed properly and was well known to the ambulance team who have re-dressed the injury and given him antibiotics previously. Although it’s a bit frustrating for the team seeing him again, as last time he didn’t follow the instructions and drank with his pills.
Hopefully this time he’ll do it properly, although this is a regular problem for the ambulance crew.
An 8.30 start yesterday morning, as we’re spent the afternoon doing a debrief at War Child’s Goma office – over the next couple of days we’ll be decamping to another area of DRC, so it’s good for us to go through everything we’ve seen over here so far.
We also had another meeting at the UN this time with UNOCHA which, as with the last couple, had too much sensitive info to blog about, but was again educational, if somewhat frustrating.
The morning started with good news – no dodgy tummies and no mosquito nets. It was also raining, so the dusty roads were a bit easier to travel on. You really have to see it to believe quite how bad the roads are here, but there’s a picture below of a typical java one, which are all across the town, with the dust roads a bit further afield. This particular java road was responsible for a “berocca water on white shirt incident”. Not a good look – thankfully, I had another top with me.
Our first stop of the day was to visit a 17 year old girl who is part of the independent living programme put together by Maison Marguerite to try and get the girls that they can’t re-integrate with their families to become part of the wider society. It’s a new scheme, and there are 3 girls currently set up in this way from Marguerite. The scheme itself has to be taken slowly, as it’s not culturally acceptable in DRC for a woman to live alone.
The girls story is quite hard to listen to, and she’s only able to talk about it now because of the counselling she’s had at the home. She describes still being alive as a miracle and, well, it is. She was 16 when the incident happened.
An orphan, she was living with her grandmother and there were a few family issues which she doesn’t go into. One day, she was kidnapped, blindfolded, driven into a forest and thrown into a ditch where she thinks she was for a couple of weeks with no food, or water, just a couple of people guarding the hole. She awoke one day to hear a group of men discussing how they were going to kill her, but one of the guards was against this and when the men went away, he got her out of the hole, still leaving her blindfolded so she didn’t know who he was, he ran away, but so could she.
She was able to find water to drink and some food in the forest, and walked for days until she found a road, discovering that she was in Rwanda. Determined to get home, she met a smuggler, and he helped her get over the border, where she made her way back to her grandmothers. When she got there, she was obviously traumatised, so was sent to Ngangi to get some psychological help, and started the cookery lessons there, whilst also attending school, before being moved to Marguerite.
Her grandmother wasn’t interested in any kind of re-integration into the family, so the decision was made to put her into the independent living program. Initially, this was with another girl aswell, but the other one couldn’t cope without the safety net of Maison Marguerite, so went back.
The girl is still at school, and about to do her final physics exam. She’s an obviously clever girl from talking to her, and speaks a bit of French as well as her native Swahili. She’s also an incredible cook, giving us some delicious donuts, waffles and chapati’s, which she sells when she isn’t in school, and hopes to turn into a business (possibly with the help of the micro-credit system which I wrote about in the last blog).
Long term, she wants to become a nun to be able to teach others, although there was a slight irony that the 2 of the posters on her wall were one of Jesus, one on of a bunch of US rap stars, none of whom’s lyrics are exactly godly.
She’s an inspiration.
We then got back into the WarChildmobil to go to a child protection network meeting in Mbanga South. The network is something that War Child have set up in a few areas to act as a kind of neighbourhood watch for child protection, and also to educate the kids on their rights.
There are 13 on this particular committee, with 6 of them able to attend that day. It was very interesting hearing the people on the committee talk first hand about some of the problems they face, and how they are dealing with it, trying to stop children being responsible for going to collect water and wood, for example. It’s a country where children are sometimes abandoned just for getting sick, as it costs to get them treatment, but people in this area tend to take the children in so they at least have somewhere to sleep and eat – unofficial adoption and fostering, essentially, and it’s very common place.
There are 82,000 people in the area, but there’s also a military camp close by which has another 11,000 people in it – they are starting to build a relationship with the camp because although they are meant to be kept separate, there have been a few issues with kids from the camp causing problems in the village, and they also want to be able to protect the children there better.
Since War Child put the scheme in place, they’ve started to see kids claiming their own rights, citing the War Child poster campaign as the main reason for this.
Each street now has someone responsible for child protection, and there’s been a definite fall in reported cases – any crimes are referred to the police or NGO’s, and they are looking forward to the putting in place of an emergency number by War Child where they will be able to call freephone to a rapid response team (this is coming in the next few months).
The children are also telling their parents that they have a right to education and food, which is putting a bit of pressure on the adults, but they are accepting it, mainly because they are seeing a difference in people’s behaviour – 60% of the children here are now going to school, with the majority of the rest being children who have been abandoned. Whilst people are happy to feed these kids, and give them somewhere to sleep, in most cases it hasn’t been expanded to paying for them to go to school aswell as they just don’t have the money to do so.
They want War Child to help them put together some day projects to get these kids off the streets and into education, but also want what they call “motivations” like phone credits for the time they spend on the committee as the time they are spending doing this means less time “getting food for the family”. Whilst undoubtedly true, I’m not sure they understand the long term benefit of what they are doing, but in a country where conflict and war have been the order of the day for most of their lives, and where life expectancy is just 48, it’s not that surprising that they don’t take the long term view – hopefully with education, this can change, in the same way as they now understand that child labour is bad, that children should go to school, and that sexual violence is a bad thing.
For me, the work War Child are doing here really should be down to the government, but they don’t seem to do much really, so it’s good that someone is doing it. The committee are well aware of this too, and are very grateful to War Child.
We then went to UNOCHO, then for some lunch (where I had the best chicken I’ve ever tasted – Nando’s ain’t got nothing on Fatimata’s), before going back to War Child’s Goma office for the debrief meeting.
In the evening, I even managed to have pancakes. Result. Bizarrely, despite all the hardship, troubles, conflict and desperate poverty, I’ll miss Goma. I’ll be back.
Interesting random stat – in Massisi center, where we visited the other day, War Child were aware of 5 IDP camps. In the last month, another 6 have sprung up with no sanitation, no power, and no help from NGO’s. This shows that displacement is getting a lot worse, having more than doubled in a month, so random attacks and conflict seem to be getting worse, not better – not a good thing, seeing as most of the organisations we’ve spoken to in the last few days are telling us it’s getting better.
Each morning, Mark & Jas have tried to make us feel guilty by going for a run. This morning, Mark’s hangover go the better of him, so with Jas’ help, we’ll be reminding him of this for most of the day. Although Jas is going home at lunchtime, so we’ll have to keep it going without her. And no, Jas still hasn’t done anything to allow us to take the mickey out of her. Not fair.
There was another massive thunderstorm last night, so the roads are a bit less dusty today. Unfortunately, our plans for the day have had to be significantly cut due to 3 security issues that have cropped up.
The first we knew about yesterday, as there is to be a rally in Goma for one of the opposition candidates in this years elections, Vital Kameri. Last time he held a rally, he didn’t even get to speak, as there was a riot just before he was due to start. (there’s a photo at the bottom taken yesterday of people trying to get people to come along).
The second issuewe heard about first thing this morning, with the Nyameandu region of Goma being attacked last night, with the population there attempting to flee to another region. It’s not been possible yet to find out who was responsible for the attack, or why, or how many people were injured or killed.
The third we heard about just after leaving, and involves one of the projects that we visited on Sunday. A policeman in one of the IDP camps apparently killed a civilian last night, and there is now rioting going on there, with the police station being burnt down. Again, information is difficult to get hold of, but it’s better to be safe than sorry, so we’ll be avoiding those areas today.
Our first stop is Maison Gahinja, another Don Bosco project, this time for street children aged 5-16, originally just for boys, but with War Child’s involvement, there’s now a house there for girls too.
It’s a pretty grim place, to be frank. The living conditions are sparse at best, but there is a large dust field with a couple of goal posts and hand made footballs, and a few classrooms where the children can be taught literacy.
There are 180 people who come to the project, although only 74 of them live there. The others live on the streets, and come there to get away. A lot of the street children are away of the project, and it’s often used by them to get away for the streets for a few days, particularly when they are in trouble.
Despite that, the project does do it’s best, and has a 2 year programme to try and give the kids a helping hand. 1 year is a literacy program, and 1 year in the field, with the first part being a condensed 3 year program. Many of the children here have never been to school, even the 15 year olds, and the atmosphere at the project is not as bouyant as the others we’ve visited.
Saying that though, the kids certainly enjoy dancing (and a couple of them were very good!) and they do want to learn. One of the boys there was constantly coming up to me and Wendy to grab our notebooks and our pens, and would try and write, although it was really just a scribble. At least he was enthusiastic!
They also use the project to train social workers, and there are 4 interns here at the moment.
The unfortunate reality of street life is that many of the children here have drugs and alcohol dependencies, especially glue. This leads to a spiral of them committing crime to get hold of their dependency, and the project does it’s best to get them to kick the habits to increase their chances of stopping the children from committing the crimes.
The house for girls is small, with 3 bedrooms, a kitchen and a bathroom.
Typically the girls end up on the streets having been beaten by family members or not given any food (girls are often the last to be given food in a family), so they run away and if they are lucky, they get to come to Gahinja. Some are also child soldiers who have escaped, and there are a few more cases of girls who were attacked via sexual violence.
The worst case of this is a 17 year old girl who was so badly attacked sexually, that she is currently in a body cast. She’s been a street girl for as long as she can remember, and forced into prostitution at the age of 12. She claims she has a child, but has no idea where the child is. It’s all very depressing – I have no idea how, or why, anyone would allow any of her story to happen.
The project tries to re-unify the children with their families where possible, and re-integrate the children into normal life, especially with the ex-child soldiers. It’s seen more as a way to build up the children’s confidence, so whilst they do try and train in trades, they also have music workshops and encourage the children to play sport, even with very limited equipment.
The positive is that the literacy and training does build up the children’s intellects and maturity, which does help with the re-unification process. The conditions were horrible but, well, it’s better than living on the streets.
We then went to visit Heal Africa, which is the big hospital in Goma, and purely charitable funded. It’s a fantastic place which looks to heal the soul and well as illness, so there are more trades for people to learn, again concentrating on sewing, soap making and basket weaving. There’s an HIV clinic there, where a few hundred children infected with HIV who’ve been abandoned by their families live and a clinic for women who have been cases of sexual violence.
Many doctors from America, Australia and the UK visit the hospital to give training and assistance. Whilst quite basic, the facilities are clean, and it’s by far and away the biggest hospital in the region.
It was just a quick visit there unfortunately, as we had to ensure that Jasmine left to get her flight (she had to go back to Rwanda to do so) and we said our sad goodbyes – she will be missed, and it’s been great to experience everything we have, all the ups and downs, with her.
And then it was off to Flame D’Amour.
Because of the security concerns this involved a very convoluted drive on the bumpiest of bumpy roads.
During this journey, Mark had what he described as a “medical emergency”, meaning he’d eaten something a bit dodgy, and the roads certainly weren’t helping him. Tresor managed to find a hotel which would have clean facilities, and got Mark there just in time, which was good as Wendy had the most solid bag, and she was quite fond of it the way it was!
Flame D’Amour is run in Goma by Sister Alvera, a truly inspirational women who currently has 35 children living there, in a self sustainable project. Sewing was done there, as seems to be the norm, but they also keep chickens, pigs and rabbits to raise funds and provide food. The conditions are pretty poor, with the children living in 4 small rooms, but the project itself is phenomenal.
The children are all orphans or abandoned, many with serious disabilities (physical, rather than learning, including one girl who is unable to walk due to a serious sexual attack), and the youngest being just 7 months who was found abandoned in a bush.
The children performed a concert for us, with traditional African tribal singing and dancing, and even a song in English. They were superb, and, in true entertainment style, managed to get the audience performing too, which I’m sure someone will embarrass us with at some point (I’m secretly hoping no one got any footage of it!).
The difference between here and Gahinja was simple – here the children were all really happy. Sister Alvera makes sure that they all go to school out of the money the project makes. Their huts might not be that nice, but, again, it’s way better than being on the streets, and the children oozed confidence. They also had very good care, with 12 paid staff members, and 9 volunteers working there. A wonderful place to see.
Unfortunately, due to the security situation, and a little bit to do with Mark’s tummy, we had to come back to our base at that point. We’re hoping things calm down a bit tomorrow, as we’ve got a lot to still fit into our remaining time here before moving off elsewhere in the country in the coming days.
Tuesday 8.30 – The first conversation of today was “Mosquito net 2 – electric boogaloo”. Wendy might have laughed at me yesterday for my mosquito net incident, but she wasn’t laughing this morning, as hers fell off the ceiling onto her last night. Although, unlike most sequels, this one packed a punch, as mine fell off again at 6am too…
Today was always going to be jam packed. Either side of visits to Ngangi & Kinogo, we had meetings organised with senior people at MONUSCO and UNHCR (UN organisations), which were very educational, but not to be blogged about as a lot of the information was very sensitive, and could lose to people losing jobs, and others losing lives.
It’s also Jas’ last full day with us, so we’re out for a special dinner tonight. She still hasn’t done anything to take the piss out of though, which is very disappointing and no fun at all, although my supply of Twix’s won’t be going down as regularly now, which my tummy is particularly happy about. She will be missed by all of us.
8.40 – we’ve just driven past the local airstrip in Goma, which was pretty much decimated by the volcano eruption is 2004. I’m sure I just saw the plane from Lost in there – hopefully we’ll bump into Kate at some point – what with me being short and British, I’m sure I’ve got a chance if we do!
9.45 – We arrive at Kinogo, which is the sister project to Maison Margarite which I blogged about yesterday, but on a much grander scale. What was really noticeable as we drove through the district just before was just how lucky the people in this project are – the huts they live in, and the facilities, are fantastic compared to what is usual in daily life in the surrounding areas of Goma.
Whilst there is still an area here for at risk women, it’s also for at risk women with their older children. There are 400 houses, with 800 families on this huge site, and the ability for the families to buy the property at a cheap rate too.
There is a smell of ash still in the air, but unlike the camps we visited at the weekend, the sanitation is pretty good, with the toilets fitted with KVIP’s, which are essentially methane gas pipes that collects the methane, and puts it high up into the sky, rather than it being stuck on the ground.
3 of the houses in the project are run by children, but the rest have adults. Schooling for the children that live here is free, which is very rare for DRC, but more of that later.
We were able to visit the weaving class, where mothers and daughters are able to learn the trade together, and are able to sell their wares (alongside more sewing and embroidery) at the Ngongi boutique (I picked up some very nice placemats).
Unlike Margarite, there is no power or water at this camp, but some entrepreneurs at the camp have built a generator and water container which they can buy at a price, or they can walk 2km to get water, also for a price, but slightly cheaper. Don Bosco, who built all the houses and the rest of the project, don’t want the people there to be dependent, and are trying to encourage them to move forward withtheir lives.
Directly next to Kinogo is the Ngangi project. Essentially, this is a giant school, with 3,300 students who are able to get a primary education, but also learn trades such as furniture making. But it’s also a lot more than that.
Schooling in DRC is meant to be free as part of the constitution, but the reality is that it’s not, and Ngangi is deemed the only free school in the area. The average that primary schools charge in the country is $7 a month, with secondary school $14 a month, with books and uniforms on top of that. Sounds cheap right? But the reality is that the average wage in DRC is $460 a year. And the average amount of children in each family is 8. Which, as you can imagine, has lead to a lot of children not even getting the basic education, hence so many street children in the country, or children working, whether that be to collect firewood for their families (which increases the chance of rape and abduction) or begging.
Ngangi is a lot more than just a school though, with an orphanage built in too, with the youngest child there being just 7 days old. Most of the orphans are there because their mothers have died in childbirth, or from the trauma of seeing their child, particularly amongst those mothers who have become pregnant via rape, although many are just abandoned, and the project also looks for the families to see if it’s possible to re-integrate them with their families.
There are 54 babies in total in the orphanage, and lots of other children who come from all over the Kivu regions. There is one social worker per 40 children, which is ridiculously high, but the funds for the project only go so far, and with 240 members of staff, 3,300 children, all of whom are fed and educated, it’s amazing that they can afford to keep it open at all. It’s estimated that 10,000 children have been referred to the project in the last year, so, as with every project over here, there is a lot of means testing that goes on so that the most deserving and poorest children are able to get the education that they need, and we in the West take for granted.
There are also football pitches at the school – although there isn’t much grass on them. The pitches are a combination of lava, dust and wood shavings which come from the furniture workshop, one of the trades you can learn in the school, the products of which helps keep the school running. It’s fair to say that the machinery in there is very basic, but it does the job. As for the pitches, well, last season us Watford fans were constantly moaning about the state of the pitch – this puts it into a whole new dimension.
One of the amazing things about Ngangi is the medical centre. Hospitals are a rarity in the country, and this is a dedicated centre for the people at the project (and, occasional, those in Kinogo) where they can treat the basic and most common illnesses of malaria and diarrhea sickness. For child birth, major illnesses and most other medical issues, the children are referred to hospital.
On the day of our visit, we met and American women, Dr.Sylvia Gleeson, who comes to the centre each year for 3 weeks, this year bringing a bunch of American student doctors with them. She is one of many volunteers who bring much needed experience to the medical centre and through her project congo NGO, has also managed to bring in much needed equipment – oxygen wasn’t available in the centre until she brought it in a few years ago, and she has also managed to adapt a vetinary portable x-ray to be used there to check for breaks – might sound a bit odd, but the same equipment is used in the field by the US army, except they pay $20k for the equipment. The vet version is $5k, and a stand was built in the centre to give it extra functionality. Very resourceful.
They also have a generator in the project so that when (inevitably) the power goes out, it’s only down for a few minutes before the generator kicks in.
Ngangi is another Don Bosco project, but couldn’t run without the help of lots of other NGO’s. We were lucky enough to meet the person who heads up the whole project, and has done for over 40 years, Father Piero. There are over 240 staff working there, many of whom are provided by partnerships with the other NGO’s, such as VIS in Italy who co-ordinate a lot of the work, particularly on the education and food for the pupils, and we met 3 people from there too – they work with WarChild on quite a few of the Don Bosco projects.
Father Piero’s phone rang in the meeting. His ringtone? We wish you a merry Xmas….
It was then time to go and look at the main project that War Child are working on there, which is one of “micro-credit”.
The point of the micro-credit programme is to help vulnerable women to set up, or expand, business for them and their children. To qualify for this particular programme, the mother must have a child in the centre and, again, everyone is means tested to see if they qualify.
The kinds of businesses that they’ll support are the expansion of roadside shack shops, setting up said shops, or businesses making clothes and the like.
The person applying for the micro-credit is given an amount of money, and has a year to pay it back. If they pay it back in the first year, they can then get a second, larger, payment on the same terms, and a futher payment in the third year.
The amounts of money I’m talking about here are tiny – typically $30-$50 for the first payment. The difference they make though is huge.
We went out to meet 3 of the micro-loan beneficiaries to a strip of shops not that far away, although quite a scary area (we do tend to get surrounded wherever we go, but this was slightly menacing).
The first woman we met sells charcoal. She had the business previously, and would go out and travel 150 km to get a bag of charcoal, which would take 7 days or more, come back, sell it, and go and get another one, only being able to get 1 at a time due to having to walk a lot of the way, and getting lifts where she could.
With her loan of $30, she was able to send someone to get the coal for her, and fill up a van. Her profit margins are up 300% because she’s able to have more stock, and sell it, despite the extra costs – however, she’s worried about her new found “wealth” (she makes around $3 profit per bag she sells) so sleeps in with the charcoal in the little shack.
She has 8 children, and has so far managed to get 2 of them back to proper schooling.
The second we meet sells processed manioc which people grind to turn into flour. She has managed to raise her profit margins to a massive 1,500% in the 2 years she’s been part of the scheme, and as well as being able to afford a padlock for the door on her business, she has now been able to get 8 out of her 9 children back into proper education.
The third we visited was a small pharmacy in a shack, which was set up by a woman who was working in a pharmacy before earning $20 a month. One of her daughters actually had the day off school that day to work in the shop, but of the mothers 6 children, she’s hoping to put them all into proper education soon, and now has her own business having borrowed just $40.
The micro-credit scheme has so far helped over 100 businesses and has a brilliant 95% re-imbursement rate. It’s lead to more kids being schooled, so having a much better chance in life, as well as them having more to eat, and better health. A superb scheme, I’m sure you’ll agree.
Our road trip today was to go and visit Don Bosco’s Maison Marguerite, a project where vulnerable women are taken in, housed and trained to give them the chance of what the girls there describe as “a normal life”.
The girls are put forward by various NGO’s for the possibility of being allowed to become part of the project after a full evaluation of how much danger they are in and their circumstances, concentrating on 4 types of vulnerable girl.
1) Ex child soldier who has had trouble re-integrating
2) Girls with babies or pregnant
3) Girls who have suffered from sexual violence
4) Girls who have been denounced by their families as sorcerers or witches
The girls at the project are aged between 12 & 17, with the youngest mother at the project being 13.
Once they’ve been accepted, not only do they have a place to live, with 4 girls sharing a hut, or 2 mothers with children, but they also get training in one of 3 potential professions (sewing, cooking and hairdressing), as well as being trained in how to run a home of their own, and how to be a mother.
The training lasts from September through June, with 6 months learning the theory, then a 3 month work placement. If they succeed at the end of the work placement, they are then eligible for a starter pack to help them on their way in business, or to give them the tools to get a job at the end of it, with a year of follow ups from the people working at the project.
There are 34 girls currently in the project, with 23 learning to sew, 4 doing hairdressing, and 7 doing cookery. They live on site, alongside their babies (and 2 very friendly dogs), with a nurse, psychologist, and the teachers.
When we got to the project, we were greeted by all of the women performing a couple of songs and dancing for us. They looked genuinely happy to see us, and were all very friendly, especially the children, although we were a bit concerned that one of the kids was going to try and stow away in Jas’ bag. I don’t think Jas would have minded either.
Long term, they’re planning on opening up a shop near the site to sell the goods that the women make and visitors are able to buy things when they are there (I got a very nice bag for my niece).
The selection process for the women is done on a case by case basis, and they are split between this project and another (which we’re visiting tomorrow). Most cases are referred by other NGO’s, such as War Child, and it’s very noticeable that in every classroom we go into, the War Child posters regarding the key messages I wrote about in the previous blog are there. They are trying to empower these young women, whose lives have been devastated by what has happened to them, to really succeed in life, which was great to see. Whereas yesterday was harrowing and heartbreaking, today was enlightening.
Don’t get me wrong – they still really do only have the bare essentials there. The babies have no toys, and the girls have each other, even helping out with breast feeding if the mothers are in a class.
Training wise, they really are starting from nothing too. The girls practise on dolls before they’re allowed onto wigs, and then humans.
The vocational stage is still learning, not just learning the trade, but also learning how to socialise with others, male and female. We were lucky enough to be able to visit 2 people out on vocational training – as with anyone mentioned in the blogs (apart from those of us travelling or working for War Child), the names are made up for protection reasons.
First up we went to see Veronique, a 17 year old with 2 children. She’s been learning sewing, and is working in a small factory (half a dozen machines) embroidering tea towels. Her dream “to have a normal life and maybe one day to have my own attelier to be able to earn an honest wage, to be proud” but for now she is concentrating on learning and practising her new craft.
Then we went to see Asia. She’s 13 and her baby is a few months old. She looks younger. I have no idea how someone of her size was able to give birth, but her baby is strapped to her back. She’s training to be a hairdresser, and has been given a chance there by another young woman.
She also dreams to have a normal life. She was very shy with the big crowd around her, so we left her to let her get on with her work.
Whereas I left yesterday’s camps feeling like there was no hope (although, as my sister reminded me late last night via Twitter, there is some hope, however small, and the work War Child and others do means there’s a greater chance), whereas today’s project has shown me there really is. 34 people doesn’t sound like a lot, but it’s 34 more than nothing, and the same organisation has other similar projects which we’ll hopefully get to visit whilst we’re here.
The project also works towards re-integrating the girls with their families via mediation, and a couple of the girls were off visiting their families today. Sometimes, of course, that’s not possible, and that’s where the starter packs come in.
The smiles on their faces when we gave some packets of sweets to their tutors for the girls was a lovely sight to see.
Right – off to bed. It’s an earlier start tomorrow…
A slightly later start this morning, leaving at 9am. That was good for me as I didn’t have the best nights sleep ever, both after what I’d seen yesterday, and also an incident in the early hours where I awoke from a dream where I’d been suffocating, to find that the mosquito net had fallen from it’s hangings on the ceiling and was smothering me.
First up today was a meeting at the War Child office going through the plans for the week for both those of us who are over here visiting, and also the local team in the Goma office.
2 of the War Child team here work for Comic Relief, but are seconded to War Child working together with CADERSCO on the child soldier project. It’s quite odd, but also very good, that whereby fundraising wise all of the NGO’s are in competition with one another and don’t tend to co-operate too much, in the field itself, everyone has their core competencies and work together as closely as possible, which is why the co-ordination project I wrote about yesterday is so important.
Then we had a proper briefing about the field work from Michele.
One of the big projects War Child are working on in Goma is in education. Not education as is reading and writing, but education of people in basic human rights. With the lack of possibilities for education here, and all the problems that war and conflict bring, what children are brought up to believe culturally is pretty astonishing to the point of being back in the middle ages.
The 3 main points War Child are trying to get across to people in Goma, particularly young girls, alongside their work with re-integrating child soldiers and street children are…
It’s not your fault if you’ve been raped, and rape should be reported.
Forced marriage against your will is not normal, and should be reported.
A teacher expecting sexual favours in return for better grades is not normal, and should be reported.
The last one really shocked me in particular, mainly as I was already well aware of the other 2. The school system in DRC is similar to that of the US, when you have to pass the class to be able to get into the next year and finish school. This leads to a lot of children in DRC still being in primary education into their teenage years, as they don’t exactly have a lot of time to study, what with avoiding the conflict and the work they need to do in the home.
This has lead to male teachers forcing children to have sex in what is known as “sex for points”. Unlike America though, 80% of female children drop out of school before they’ve passed through the primary stages, and a lot of this is put down to refusing to have sex for points.
Oh, and a really obvious one – being told you are a witch doesn’t mean you are one. Often if a family is struggling, they will try and persuade their local pastor that their child is a witch to give them an excuse to throw them out.
In the last 3 months, they have been able to host 5,429 people at these sessions which take place 20 times a month in different locations, with 130 adults and 279 children helping them as volunteers after training.
Out of these, 22 men and 31 women have been referred to projects that can help them, and 1,500 have been directly supported.
Something that War Child are working on now is working out a way to make this project self sustainable, particularly so that the volunteers can get some reward to continue doing what they’re doing and stay motivated.
We were then presented some stats regarding . Seeing as I would expect most people who are reading this blog are fans of FM, and therefore stats fans, I thought I’d share them
In May 2010 there were 1,010 incident reported in the Goma area. 72% of these are human rights violations. Typically only 1 in 500 violations are reported.
37% of these were armed robberies.
8% of these were sexual violence.
22 people were killed by the Congo army, mistaken for rebel army members.
There were 72 rapes, and 8 forced marriages reported in May.
Of those rapes, 20 were committed by civilians. The rest by the army or rebel groups.
Remember that these are only the ones that were reported, and typically only 1 in 500 are reported.
Between May 2010 & May 2011 there were 262 cases referred to WarChild involving war affected girls aged between 12 & 17 in the region.
14 were ex child soldiers
112 were victims of sexual violence
54 were teenage Mum’s with babies
15 were abandoned
110 were exploided
18 were accused of sorcery
61 were street girls
43 were children at risk of being “sold”
Age wise, 44 of them were just 12 years old.
There is abuse of girls younger that that too, but it’s rare that a case like that would be reported.
War Child were able to provide or assist with
178 medical consultations
2 referrals to Heal Africa
260 psychological support sessions
494 family visits (in advance of re-unification)
155 follow up meetings
3 people put into independent living programmes
One of the best projects for these children is run by Don Bosco, where they take in young girls who are in danger, teach them to read and write, and teach them a trade. And this afternoon we went off to see one of these projects, but I’ll blog about that later this evening.
One last thing before I go, although this is a bit flippant, so I apologise. As those of you who follow me on Twitter (@milessi) know, I buggered up my left wrist (I am right handed, before you ask) a few weeks back playing football. Thought it was all cured before I left, but it’s been really hurting, so we went off to look for a tubigrip type thing today which, of course, we couldn’t find.
We did find the next best thing though, which is a mini-splint. And why am I telling you this? Because the name of the product is “cock up”. Which I thought was quite appropriate.