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Following Miles' trip with Warchild

Welcome to Kinshasa

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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.

This is not easy work.


Written by milesjacobson

June 26, 2011 at 2:00 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response

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  1. Fascinating and though-provoking reading your blog, Miles.
    Its so bizarre sometimes to think that I live in Africa (Cape Town) when I hear or read stories like yours.
    This continent has so much potential but so much to overcome. Though its work like you guys are doing that will change a lot. Such a huge and diverse continent but if you live here, you do feel connected to it all so just wish we could do more.

    Rob Delport

    FM South Africa

    June 26, 2011 at 5:55 pm

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