The roads of hell (and some great projects)
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)