Archive for January, 2009

Goodbye Africa, Hello Istanbul

January 31, 2009

Leaving Africa was a lot easier than I thought it was going to be.  I suppose that it was because most of the friends that I had in Goma had already left before I did and that I almost tried to avoid making new friends in Kinshasa during the time that I was there just because I knew that I was only going to be there for a short amount of time.  Maybe that’s a bad attitude to have, but it seemed like it would be the easiest way to go.  I think that if there was one thing that could keep me from living the kind of life I have lived for the last year is just the temporary nature of everything.  It’s life six months at a time.  

It was last week that I knew I was ready for a break from the hassles of Africa.  We were driving back from the office in Kinshasa to the apartment and the policeman directing traffic at the intersection ahead decides to change the direction of traffic just as we were approaching the intersection.  The driver was a bit too slow to stop and rolled into the intersection which made the policeman angry.  He came up to the driver’s side window and started yelling at him.  The cop opened the his door and got in, almost sitting on the driver’s lap.  “Hmm… that’s odd,” I thought to myself.  The driver was instructed to pull the car over to the curb (at this point we were stopped in the middle of the street) where the cop got out of the car and continued to yell and shake his arms for another fifteen minutes or so before letting us go on our way.  Other than looking forward to the upcoming trip and to seeing family and friends back home, that was the first time that I actually wanted to leave Congo.

So now I am in Istanbul.  The trip here was a long one.  I had to go from Kinshasa to Goma, drive to Kigali, fly to Entebbe, then Addis Ababa, Dubai finally arriving here in Turkey last night around 6pm.  The flight from Entebbe left about five hours late which got me into Dubai just before 5am.  My flight from Dubai to Istanbul left at about 3pm, so I just ended up finding a relatively dark corner in the airport where there was a recliner of sorts and slept off and on between the PA announcements of flight such and such arriving or boarding or departing which became more and more annoying as the morning went on.  

Even though the plane left Entebbe five hours late, the service on Emirates was about the best I’ve ever had on any airline and the coach seat that I occupied was even almost comfortable and the voices of the pilots were clearly American.  If I had bothered to look at a map and draw a line between Dubai and Istanbul, I wouldn’t have been quite as surprised when I saw this:


Passport control was hassle free and my bag was circling the baggage claim belt waiting for me after I got the stamp in my passport.  The customs agents waved me right through and saw a line of yellow cabs waiting outside.  I got in the cab at the front of the line and found that the driver even (almost) spoke English.  I showed him the address of the hotel that I had printed out and we were off.  At one point the cab stopped, the driver got out and motioned with his hands for me to stay and went into a building with the paper I had the address of the hotel printed on.  After about 30 seconds he’s back hops in and gives me thumbs up and we’re at the hotel a couple of minutes later.  This was the least amount of hassle that I’ve had to endure getting ANYWHERE in the last year.  

I walked into the hotel and was soon in my room.  A bed was a sight for my sore eyes after not having seen one for about 40 hours.  So was a shower since it was about as long since I had seen one of those and I was smelling… let’s say interesting.  After a shower, it was time to check eyelids for holes. 

In the morning hunger led me to the top floor of the hotel where free breakfast was promised to be.  I think I could smell the food from the floor below.  I must have been hungry.  After I ate my fill, I took a few minutes to appreciate the view.  The sky was grey with a relatively low ceiling of clouds, but the visibility was still almost unrestricted.  In one direction I could see the “Blue Mosque” with it’s immense dome and many minarets piercing the sky.   Out to sea I could see what seemed to be hundreds of ships in the Bosporus waiting their turn to come into the port to drop off or pick up a load of something.  On the other side of this channel of water lies another continent and the other half of Istanbul.  For some reason, it made me think of the view from the porch in Kinshasa where on the opposite bank of the Congo River, which is, I think, at least as wide as the Bosporus, you could see Brazzaville, the capital of a different country.  

I spent the rest of the day wandering and getting lost in the narrow cobble stone streets and fending off people trying to sell me carpets.  At one point when I was near the Blue Mosque I ran into a guy who was on the same flight from Dubai.  I only recognized him because of his unusual clothing, which he was also wearing on the plane.  He wore a black top hat along with a vest and jacket and unusual pants.  I figured that he looked a bit like a chimney sweeper.  I went over and talked to him and he said that I must have recognized him because of his clothing.  I admitted that to be true and he explained that it was some sort of traditional German clothing for workmen who traveled before starting work, or something like that.  He’d been traveling for almost two years.  

After that, I continued wandering, sometimes lost, sometimes not.  At about 3pm I ate at one of the many kebab restaurants I’d seen already.  They brought out a lot of food, which was a good thing because by then I was quite hungry.  When I took a bite of one of the many pieces of meat, I remembered that I don’t really like lamb, but that was not a problem as the plate was full of all sorts of beef and chicken.  

I managed to stay not lost for the rest of the afternoon.  I was quite happy with that accomplishment when it started to rain about 5pm and was able to find the hotel without any trouble.  

I think I might wander to Asia tomorrow.


A New Year in Congo

January 21, 2009

So it’s a new year here in Congo (well relatively speaking).  For me it’s about time to look back on the year that I’ve spent in Africa.  I remember that it was a few months before I came that I talked to someone who had spent a year flying for Air Serv here in Africa and was told that, “It was the hardest, best year of my life.”  I suppose that made sense to me at the time.  I guess it might make at least a little more sense to me now.  

I started looking back on the year a few weeks ago.  When I came to the DRC almost a year ago, I could see a glimmer of hope here.  In the east, rebel forces and the government had signed a peace treaty and the fighting had more or less stopped.  There were still hundreds of thousands of people living in camps, but the hope was that with the newfound peace they would soon be able to start moving home little by little.  In Kinshasa, new apartment buildings were being built.  The streets were still filthy and the traffic lights still didn’t work, but there seemed to be some progress being made.  The best progress seemed to be happening in the south.  Lubumbashi was a boomtown with all the money coming in from the mines.  

Now a year later, war has broken out all over the northeast of the country.  Many of the IDP (internally displaced people) camps have more than doubled in size and thousands of people are dying in them every day from disease and other causes every day.  The people that survive frequently have what little they have taken from them at gunpoint by soldiers.  It takes a special kind of person to point a rifle at someone with next to nothing and demand whatever else they have.  I suppose that sort of person has been at work in this country since the days of King Leopold II of Belgium when families were taken hostage to force men to trek into the jungle and bring back a ransom of rubber.  

Soldiers from Rwanda have crossed the border supposedly working together with Congolese government troops to root out the Hutu rebels that have been in the North Kivu region ever since they fled Rwanda after the genocide.  This particular group is largely made up of the militias that went door to door in 1994 killing Tutsis and even Hutus that didn’t get with the program.  When Tutsis gained control of Rwanda, many of the Hutus fled the country fearing criminal prosecution or death.  Many of the Rwandan Hutus took up residence in various refugee camps in the North Kivu area.  In these camps the FDLR were protected and fed while they continued their insurgency into Rwanda.  (There’s a moral dilemma for you: do you feed the camp knowing that it will support rebel soldiers or let people starve?).   This and other things lead to the Congo wars which killed 5-6 million people.  The genocide that killed nearly one million in Rwanda has, in a way, killed six times that many here in Congo.  So the story goes.  

Lubumbashi and the surrounding areas have recently been hit hard by the falling prices of the metals that are mined there.  Something like 80% of the mines have been shut down because of the falling prices.  The resulting unemployment threatens to destroy all of the progress that has been made in the province.  There have been rumors of soldiers entering homes looking for Tutsis and questioning any that are found.  I suppose the motivation for this might be revenge or just a bit of paranoia as the main rebel group in the north of the country are claiming the protection of Tutsis in Congo as their cause.  

Right now, there are about 17,000 UN “peacekeepers” with talks of a “troop surge” of  3000 more (I guess the UN liked that term too) plus many thousands from other humanitarian and charity groups at work in the country.  What is probably the largest humanitarian force in the world is here in DRC and yet things have spiraled out of control in the last year.  If all that is working here can’t even maintain the situation, it almost forces you to question what the point of trying is.  I know I have allowed that question to float around in my own mind.

Anyone coming to do anything like I have done over this last year has to know that it’s unlikely that many direct results will ever be seen.  We get the occasional “thank you” as people exit the plane, but that’s just the same as thanking someone for a ride rather than having changed their life.  Sure there flights now and then like flying a family that had survived a plane crash with their three year old boy in a body cast and the occasional flying of women that have been brutally raped by soldiers to get life changing surgery, but those, at least for me have been the exception rather than the rule.  

It may seem to some that leaving the comfort and security of home to come live in a war torn country in central Africa is a huge sacrifice.  The reality is that it’s not.  Some have been offended when our local staff or others don’t seem grateful for an American coming to “save their country”.  It’s easy to see why once recognizing the luxury of  how we live relative to most others in the country.  I suppose it would be a bit like if Bill Gates took up residence in a Beverly Hills mansion so he could work at the LA Mission or something.  Maybe it’s a lot like that.  Except for slightly less freedom of movement compared to what most are used to back home, we really do live quite well here as humanitarian pilots.  You just can’t jump in your car at any hour and drive to McDonald’s for “food” (that’s probably a good thing though).  

It has been said that all non-Africans come here either to make a difference or to make a buck.  Even after spending a year here, I often struggle to see how effective either of those two groups are.  There are people who make huge impacts on lives here and those who have made a lot of money here also.  More often than not though, it can see like a futile enterprise.  That can be heartbreaking to someone who is trying to gain praise or fame for their efforts.  If you have the peace of knowing that what you are doing is what you are meant to be doing, the apparent futility, anonymity and all of the frustrations that go along with the task won’t matter.   The fact that it might seem impossible or to be just a drop in the proverbial bucket is no excuse to not at least try to do what you know to be the right thing.  

“If God is satisfied with the work, the work may be satisfied with itself.”

-C.S. Lewis