Archive for April, 2008

Tennis Courts and Refugee Camps

April 28, 2008

Sometimes it seems easy to forget that I am in Africa.  Weekends in Goma are usually full of social events between all of the NGO’s that are based there.  There is almost always a BBQ or a party or something at one of the houses on a Friday or Saturday night.  This past weekend we went over to MSF-Holland’s house.  They are a mile or so down the road from our houses and right on the lake too.  I think there had to be 40 or 50 people there.  On Sunday a group of us went across the border into Rwanda for an amazing breakfast buffet and spent the rest of the day there playing tennis, beach volleyball and working on our sunburns. 

The National Geographic film crew that had been following some of the Air Serv and other pilots were there to say farewell before they were to leave the next day.  They spent about a month in Goma trying to capture what flying in Africa is like.  I am really curious to see what the final product will be.  I wasn’t interviewed by them, but it’s possible that I might make it on screen at some point.  Apparently it’s not a sure thing that it will even make it to TV.  They seemed very hopeful that it would though.  It really seems strange that they would send a whole film crew all of the way to the DRC to only maybe make it out of the editing room, but I guess that’s how those things go. 

I wonder if they were able to capture the seemingly strange contradiction that is an expatriate living in Goma.  Things can seem so familiar one minute and completely foreign the next.  I think it’s that things can be so different here for the expats that there is a strong drive to make things as “normal” as possible while living in a place that is anything but. 

On the weekends there are BBQ’s parties and tennis, while during the week it’s hospitals and refugee camps.  Maybe it’s that we only fly over the camps and hear second hand about what goes on in those places that makes it feel so odd.  The every day living conditions for the pilots are already relatively close to what would be considered normal that makes the drive to recreation seem like overcompensation.  A lot of the people that we fly spend weeks at a time eating rice and beans and sometimes living in tents so I can understand their desire to attempt a return to civilization. 

It is a strange feeling to have the label “humanitarian” and to live almost like you would back home. 



April 19, 2008

Today we had a full plane to Goma.  I think that most of today’s passengers normally would have flown on one of the local airlines, but may have changed their minds.  The fuel truck at N’Dolo has been broken for the last few days so we’ve been scrounging for fuel drums to keep the plane going.  We were only able to get five drums today which meant that we would have to stop on the way to pick up more fuel.  As we had the passengers heading out to the plane, I spotted the previously broken fuel truck cruising around the airport.  I sent Claude (the Air Serv ramp supervisor in Kinshasa) to chase it down with the Land Cruiser.  A half an hour later, we had enough fuel to make it to Goma directly. 

There were especially strong headwinds so it took a little over four hours to get there.  We were dropping the passengers off in Goma and then heading to Entebbe to get the plane a little bit of TLC.   I needed to stop by the house in Goma to get some clothes for the weekend and to get a little bit of food in me.  On the way to the house we drove by the wreckage of the Hewa Bora crash.  We drove right through the police roadblocks right up to the wreckage.  I thought about taking a picture as we got close, but I don’t want to remember what I saw.  All that was left of the plane was about the first 20 feet or so and the tail.  The plane must have stopped almost instantly.  It seemed to have disappeared into the lava rocks.  I think that is an image that I will be trying to erase from my memory for a long time. 

In any other city, that size of plane would have left a massive scar.  In Goma, it would be hard to tell that anything had happened there if it wasn’t for the wreckage because the city (especially that part) is already half destroyed.  Most of the city is built over and built with the lava rocks and it looks like a DC-9 could have crashed a lot of places and the wreckage was turned into a house or something. 

It wasn’t a long flight to Entebbe from Goma.  We flew over Lake Victoria on the way in.  The countryside in Uganda is a lot different than it is in Congo.  It’s weird how you can tell you are in a different country just from the air.  There are farms and roads and terraced hillsides.  There is some of that in the DRC, but it’s not quite the same.  It is strange how much difference a line on the map can make.

The tower controller made us stop at the immigration office, but when we got there, they saw that it was only crew on the plane so they didn’t even want to see our passports.  After that pointless stop we taxied the plane over to the Air Serv hangar.  The hangar is near the old terminal where Israeli commandos came to rescue the hostages years ago.  The old tower is left there as a monument complete with the hundreds of bullet holes from the gunfight.  There was a sign at the base of the tower with a couple of flags (one was Israeli) and something about what happened.  I couldn’t really read it as I taxied by.  I would have expected the building to have been torn down or refurbished, but I guess it was kept that way since it is a bit famous.  Supposedly you are supposed to be able to go see the plane that was hijacked nearby the airport. 

old entebbe tower

The tower has since been repainted and refurbished, but the bullet holes remain.



On Monday I go back to Goma and then take another plane load of people back to Kinshasa with a stop in Kisangani.  I think the cross Congo shuttle will be pretty busy for a while.  The members of the American family that was on the flight that crashed were Seventh Day Adventist missionaries on their way to see their son in Kinsangani and I think will be taken there today by an Air Serv Caravan.  Their survival seems to be nothing short of a miracle.  Click here to read about it.

Tragedy in Goma and a Change of Plans

April 16, 2008

While we were getting ready to go and waiting for the passengers in Goma, a bunch of kids came out to the plane.  I guess they were on a field trip.  I hope they were gone before the crash that happened later.

Kids on a field trip to the Goma airport


Yesterday we flew back to Kinshasa from Goma with a stop in Kisangani on the way.  I have come to dread stopping there because there tends to be a lot of hassles with the local officials there.  Twice I’ve spent two hours on the ground there while they looked through our documents to “make sure they are valid”.  We could have been in and out in fifteen minutes if I had just made a donation to the local “coffee fund”.  This last time, I sent the passengers in to the restaurant to at least get a cold drink while we waited, but we were ready to go within a half an hour, even including getting fuel.  That was a pleasant surprise and perhaps an Air Serv record for Kisangani. 

Some time while we were in the air, either between Goma and Kisangani or on the way to Kinshasa, tragedy struck in Goma.  A Congolese DC-9 (Hewa Bora) crashed while attempting to take off.  The plane went off the runway into the marketplace just south of the airport.  It is normally very crowded with people.  I doubt we will ever know exactly how many were killed there but it could easily be well into the hundreds.  Even the number of people on the plane seems to be a bit of a mystery.  One manifest apparently listed 153 passengers on the plane that was meant to carry far fewer than that.  

It is criminal (or should be) the way many of the air carriers operate around many parts of Africa.  Planes are almost always overloaded and rarely maintained to the minimum standards of most other countries.  Most planes will fly overloaded without much trouble (as the airlines here have proved), but if something goes bad they have little or no margin for safety. 

It’s easier to bribe their way out of a situation than it is to actually do things right.  This had been irritating to me as we seem to get more hassles from the CAA and other government agencies when we are actually doing things the right way.  This gives a real example of the effects of corruption.  Up until now, Hewa Bora was the only Congolese airline with (very limited) rights to fly into Europe.  Now there are none. 

The crash has changed my plans here.  We were meant to leave for South Africa on Friday to return the plane to the owner as the contract was done, but the crash has thoroughly spooked everyone.  The few NGO’s and international agencies that were brave enough to use the local airlines seem to be reconsidering now and there is demand for safe travel options.  So for now, the 1900 will stick around in the DRC for at least another two weeks, but it seems like it might be staying for longer. 

Farewell to Kinshasa

April 14, 2008

It seems that it is about time to bid farewell to Kinshasa, at least for a while.  I really haven’t spent that much time there.  Of the month and a half that I’ve been “based” there, I think I’ve probably spent less than half of that time actually in that city.  There are a couple more flights scheduled for the 1900 before I am to take it back to Johannesburg next Friday.  I am a bit sad to see the Kinshasa contract end, but at the same time, I am excited for what is going to be happening next.  I hope that the local staff in Kinshasa is able to find new opportunities after things shrink a bit there. 

After I leave Kinshasa, I’ll be based in Goma for a while.  I still don’t know how permanent that will be.  I’ve heard rumors of maybe heading to Chad once I am up to speed in the Caravan and/or Twin Otter.  From what I hear, life in Chad is more like what I expected when moving to Africa.  Life here in Goma is relative luxury.  It’s not at all what I expected.  While our freedoms are somewhat restricted due to security and such, in the houses we have about everything we might want.  We have cooks and drivers.  We have electricity, internet and satellite TV most of the time.  It still is a very strange feeling to be so close to such poverty and suffering and to be living so well.  Even when compared to most of the other NGOs we have it good.  A lot of the other NGO workers that I’ve met come to Goma for their taste of civilization.  And it’s easy for us to feel like we are roughing it here. 

I am excited to start doing a bit more of what I thought I came here to do.  While the flying in the 1900 was a lot of fun, it wasn’t exactly what I had envisioned doing when I signed up.  While I did fly a lot of workers from a bunch of different aid organizations, a lot of it was moving around delegations from various UN agencies and some US agencies.  I hope that they have been effective at making improvements in this country.  I always knew that what I would be doing would be a step removed from the actual relief work, but I guess that I didn’t really like being two steps away.  Maybe that’s what appeals to me about potentially working in Chad.  From what I understand, the living there might not be as pleasant as here in Goma.  I don’t think that there will be any tennis games (like there was today in Goma), but it will be much more direct contact with the work going on. 

I’ll be doing some training in Goma and right now it looks like I’ll be based here for the time being, but I suppose that there is plenty of time for that to change.  I would love to be based here, but wouldn’t be unhappy if I ended up somewhere else.  I guess that I’ll just have to wait and see. 

Buy My Car

April 10, 2008

I loved that car, but it’s just not doing any good sitting in California while I am out here.  My brother put the ad up yesterday.  After seeing the roads in Goma, I don’t think the car would do well there (ok the car was never going to come to Africa).  Click here to see the advertisement.

Buy my car

Buy my Car 2

If anyone is interested in buying it, or knows anyone who might be, send either me or my brother an email

Rwanda for Lunch

April 1, 2008

Things seemed to have calmed down a bit after the problems of Friday night in Goma.  On Saturday morning I flew along with one of the other Air Serv pilots in the Caravan.  We flew a plane load of “therapeutic milk” and other food to help malnutrition to Kasongo which has a grass runway.  Except for a narrow strip down the middle, the grass was pretty tall.  Landing on grass was a strange feeling.  It was like the first time I landed on snow.  It just doesn’t feel like what you might expect.  

Kasongo from the air

On the way back to the house after we flew back to Goma, we passed a large funeral procession that was going down the road.  At the front there were about thirty or forty motorcycles that were all tooting their horns at the same time.  I wonder if it had anything to do with the events of the night before.  Nobody seemed to know any details of what happened, but a Finnish NGO worker told me that a military/police unit from Kinshasa was out there raiding houses looking for weapons (and anything else they would want for themselves).  She said that some of the local staff she worked with had the police break into their houses.  I am guessing that a lot of the people weren’t too happy about it.

On Sunday we went across the border into Rwanda to have lunch in Gisenyi.  We got a ride to the border and then walked once on the Rwandan side.  It was a night and day difference once across the border.  There were trees lining the road (which was actually paved), a very nice public park with a beach, and even flowers.  Kids were playing and swimming in the lake.  Most of the people seemed friendly and spoke English. 

Road to Gisenyi

There was a lot of killing in Gisenyi during the Rwandan genocide.  Some say that a lot of the people there either took part in the killing or narrowly escaped and returned later.  I really wish that I hadn’t heard that.  I couldn’t help but wonder if the waiter that was smiling and friendly had swung a machete years ago.  In order to kill nearly a million people in three months, it takes more than just soldiers to do that.  It’s scary to think what average people can do when hate and fear take over.