Archive for the ‘Africa’ Category

True Stories From the DRC

February 9, 2009

So here I am sitting on the couch alone on Christmas eve-eve watching some stupid movie with George Clooney or something when the power goes out.  “Oh great,” I think.  The power had been going on and off all night.  Once the drone of the air-conditioning units silence, I can hear pistols and rifles being discharged not far away.  Closer than I’ve ever heard unless I was at a shooting range.  It sounded like maybe 100 meters.  

After several minutes of quiet, a vehicle pulls up in front of our building.  I creep out onto the balcony and stoop behind the concrete wall that surrounds it.  “It should stop bullets,” I think.  The vehicle is a police pickup truck with what would amount to a SWAT team back in the US in the bed.  A dozen police armed with AK-47’s jump out of the back of the truck and gather behind the wall of our compound.  The policeman that stays in the lobby of the building seemed to be directing the rest towards where the problem was.  After that, ammunition was distributed and they lock and load their rifles.  I have gotten used to seeing a lot of different weapons around since being here in Congo.  It’s not something that normally concerns me.  But this evening was the first time that I have ever seen or heard them being chambered.  When I heard the distinctive sounds of the actions opening and closing on the AK’s, I knew this was far beyond ordinary.  

After several minutes of chattering in Lingala, the group splits up on either side of the street moving forward one at a time while being covered by the others.  They slowly and carefully move towards the five-way intersection that is about one hundred meters down the road from my building.  I lost sight of the squad of heavily armed police as they went behind a building and a large tree. When they made it to the intersection, they fanned out around the perimeter of the roundabout, taking up strategic positions around the circle.  It looked like a scene from a movie.  I should have been behind walls, as deep as possible inside my apartment, but I couldn’t draw myself away from what was going on outside.  

Seconds later, they jumped up in unison and charged towards the bank building while firing their weapons.  I dropped down behind my concrete barrier again.  I almost tried to go back inside, but I figured that I was safer next to the concrete.  The frenzied gunfire continued for about a minute and then stopped.  The same voices who were chattering just below my balcony minutes earlier were yelling back and forth.  I can’t speak Lingala, but it seemed to me that they were saying, “we got em,” and  “OK, make sure.”  Several minutes later, the shouting stopped and the police truck that had been in front of our building sped off towards where the shooting was.  

A few minutes after the shooting stopped, the police truck, with its payload returned in front of the building where I live to pick up the reinforcements that had remained behind the wall.  The lot of them were chattering excitedly about what had just happened and seemed to be congratulating each other on what they had accomplished.  

Soon after this, a military jeep rolled in and stopped in front of the building.  The soldiers in the jeep all bore the red berets of the presidential guard.  They all deployed and took up the same formation that the police had earlier.  This is when I started to worry.  Maybe I should have been worried a bit before this, but this did it.  Maybe this was more than a simple case of banditry and the police that had gone down earlier were laying dead in the street killed by some hostile group.  The military didn’t fire a shot when they went down the block.  The truck came back with soldiers onboard and sped off into the night.  

A few straggling policemen that had missed the truck slowly made their way towards the our building.  These seemed to be the police  that I have seen regularly on the street taking care of these buildings.  It had been quiet now for about a half an hour.  I walked down the stairs that run through the heart of my building with several jars that I have been using as glasses and the bottle of whisky that was in the apartment.  Before rounding the corner into the lobby, I make the standard Congolese call, “Tsssstt!  Tsssst!”.  The gateman and one of the police came to the stairwell.  

I put the jars down on the table in the lobby and start pouring shots telling them, “good job” in my worst French.  The bottle was only half full, and there were five of them, so I figured the benefit of having a group of grateful men with guns outweighed the risk of a few tipsy guys with AK’s.  

They were all happy for the present and began retelling to me what had transpired in a mixture of Lingala and French.  I think I might have got about five percent of the conversation, but their miming actually worked wonders for my understanding.  It was like a live silent movie being shown in the lobby of my apartment building.  They held imaginary rifles (even though the real ones were still strapped to their backs) and enacted the assault with two of the police playing the part of the bandits.  Apparently, several bandits had attempted to rob the bank that is about one hundred meters down the street across the five way intersection.  The bank, which is next door to a pub that is run by a Portuguese guy that we all frequent (called the Porta-bar by the South Africans and Apero by everyone else), normally has a small contingent of police fully armed sitting in plastic chairs in front of the building twenty four hours a day.  These were likely the first shots that were heard.  

Before too long they had exhausted the whisky bottle and it was time for me to leave.  I once again thanked them for their service and they thanked me for the whisky and I made my way back up three flights of stairs to my apartment which was gently illuminated by candlelight and the glow of my laptop screen.  The street kids were back to sleep on their sheets of cardboard next to the air conditioner compressors at the building across the street.


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

Jinja Part Three

December 16, 2008

I am still here in Kinshasa and have the chance to make a post or two that didn’t make online yet due to the lack of computer.

After evacuating Goma over a month ago, a few of us were sitting in limbo in Entebbe not knowing what was going to happen next.  There were three of us at the house in Entebbe.  Paddy was on the way back from R&R at Victoria Falls and Josh was on the way back from Nairobi.  Amy and Big Dave had gone across the border into Rwanda instead of coming to Uganda.  That left me with Cos and Little Dave at the house.  I was ready to get out of the house and was glad that Josh and Paddy would be back in a day or so.  

When they got to Entebbe, we went out and ate some great Indian food at 4 points.  Paddy and I could hear the Class 5 rapids calling us so the next day, the three of us boarded a series of busses and made our way out to Jinja.  When we stopped in Kampala, we went to a store to buy a few things.  Paddy had promised to bring a soccer ball to a boy that lived near the rafting campsite so he found one at the store for the equivalent of a few dollars.  I bought some water and snacks to eat on bus ride that could take anywhere from an hour and a half to five hours.  

The bus dropped us off about five miles from the campsite.  It was a nice day so we decided to walk.  The soccer ball made us very popular with every kid that lived anywhere near the road.  The whole way we were entertained by a chorus of kids that all chanted some variation of , “Mzungu, give me the ball,” or  “Mzungu, that is my ball,” or “Mzungu, give me my ball.”  A few of the kids would greet us with the standard, “Hi, how are you,” which is then repeated by every kid in the group.  That greeting was still always followed by the, “give me the ball,” which we had started to loathe.  We were starting to regret that we had decided to walk instead of hiring a few boda-bodas.  

We made it to the campsite long before sunset and ate dinner on the deck  looking down on the Nile.  After sunset it was time to watch the day’s rafting video which they show on a makeshift screen.  They show the video every night to let people know what they are getting themselves into.  Paddy and I were getting excited for the next day but Josh seemed to be getting a bit quiet as rafts were flipping and people were indiscriminately flung into the angry river.  I know I didn’t really know what I was in for the first time I went rafting there until I saw the video.  

The next morning we piled in the back of the truck to go eat breakfast and meet up with the other rafters that would be braving the river that day.  It turned out that there were to be seven rafters which wasn’t a good thing.  It meant that we would all pile in one raft.  It’s too bad there wasn’t one more person, which would have required a second raft.  Oh well, it was still a lot of fun even if a few in the raft seemed to be doing little more than slapping at the water.  

Every afternoon we checked in to see if we were planning to leave any time soon and were told that there was no news.  The last night I get a call (I was the only one of us that had a phone) saying that Josh was to go back to Congo, that I was to take a Caravan to Nairobi when it was ready and to “standby on Paddy”.  Josh left for Entebbe that night and Paddy and I left the next morning.  

In the morning we went into Jinja town on a mission to find a t-shirt that we had seen around.  It had the sentence on it saying “My name is not Mzungu”.  We started walking towards town which we figured would be better than the way in as Paddy had managed to find the boy and give him the soccer ball.  Mzungus that choose to walk always seem to astonish the boda-boda drivers.  A mile or so down the road, we started to get hot.  I flagged down a Matatu (mini-bus taxi) that was heading our direction.  When it stopped, I could see that it was completely full.  We piled in with our packs filling the last two voids (not seats) remaining and headed into town.  We had to visit a dozen or so shops in town before we finally found the shirts.  The shop that we finally found sold almost nothing but those t-shirts.  I guess it was some sort of specialty boutique.

Armed with our new t-shirts, we set out to find the bus to Kampala.  When we made our way to the waiting bus, I saw that it was almost completely empty.  Ordinarily, this might have been seen as a good thing, but when rather than operating on some sort of schedule, the bus instead leaves only when it’s full, it’s not so desirable.  I tried to help convince more people to get on the bus so we could leave, but was only marginally successful.  Maybe I should have offered candy.  After about 45 minutes or so, all 40 seats were full and the bus headed for Kampala.  On the way to the main taxi-bus depot we saw that most of the street vendors were selling pictures of Obama.  

Back in Entebbe we go to eat at 4 Points where we have become regulars.  I would be in Entebbe for another couple of days since Kenya was still celebrating a national holiday commemorating the fact that a half-Kenyan had been elected president back in the States.

How Not to Make a Bed

December 9, 2008

OK, I think I am pretty open to other cultures and customs, but this is NOT the proper way to make a bed:


A New Computer and Visa Hassles

December 7, 2008

So the new computer finally made it to me here in Kinshasa.  It only took about a month to get here.  I suppose that’s not too bad.  It would have been here last week if the people in Entebbe didn’t think that I was still there.  

While here in Kinshasa I’ve been trying to help get things ready for when the “new” planes finally get here.  It sounds like plans have changed dozens of times and I don’t have any idea of what the timeline actually is.  It sounds like there is also the chance that we will bring the King Air in from Entebbe to use in the mean time.  I think that plan has gone back and forth several times as well.

When I got here to Kinshasa, the nice folks at the DGM (immigration department) told me that I needed to get a new visa.  They now say that since people working with NGO’s are “working” in the country, we need to have “resident visas”.  The process has been a major hassle.  Every time we send in some form they have asked for they ask for another one.  I’ve had to go to the US embassy a couple of times to get some of the documents that the Congolese need.  One was a letter from the Consul saying that I was indeed a citizen of the US and the other was a letter telling them that I would be a good boy while staying in the country.  I couldn’t help but chuckle a bit when I saw what the “important documents” that the DGM wanted actually were.  

The embassy is about a half a mile away from the apartment just past some of the restaurants we frequent and the usual supermarket.  As I walked there, I was expecting to see clean cut Marines in crisp uniforms standing guard at the entrance.  When I was in Kinshasa a few months ago, I met a few of the Marines that worked at the embassy.  American soil…  I could see the flag hanging proudly from its pole moving gently in the barely detectable breeze.  I wished there was a stronger wind.  I was sweating a bit in the stagnant air and tropical sun.  

Once rounding the corner towards the consular office, I was disappointed to see no Marines.  At the door instead was a couple Congolese guys working for a private security company; no, not Blackwater or anything, just the same company that guards the supermarket.  The guard told me that it was lunchtime and that there was no one in the office at the moment but that they would be back in ten minutes or so.  He saw the sweat on my brow and commented that it was very hot today.  I agreed.  The air conditioning in the waiting room felt amazing.  I chatted with the guard for a while as I waited.  He was from Kisangani.  I told him that I had been there many times.  I used the few Swahili phrases that I know, which amused him since the language isn‘t spoken much here in Kinshasa.  

About ten or fifteen minutes later, people began to return from lunch.  I heard, “Patrick Lynch, please come to window one.”

I explained my predicament to the lady behind the counter and could tell she had heard this story before.  She seemed as frustrated with what the DGM was starting to do as I was.  She knew exactly the forms that I would need before I even told her what I needed.  She gave me a few forms to fill out listing contact info and such.  I gave her the forms after I filled them out and was told to return later in the day to pick up the things that should satisfy the Congolese.  

“Habari gani,” I asked the same guard I had met earlier in the day.  He told me that he was doing well but that it was very busy now.  The waiting room was full.  It looked like this was going to take hours.  I sat down in one of the free chairs and saw my new friend pick up the phone and say something.  A moment later I hear my name over the speaker and go back to the window.  The same lady hands me a few more things to fill out.  Then she gives me a manila envelope with my name on it as well as the statement “United States of America, Official Business”.  She hands me the two papers that I came for along with several more.  

The first paper she hands me contains “tips for Americans traveling abroad”.  She said that the second paper would be equally useless to me as I have already been here for so many months.  It was the State Department’s travel warning for the DRC which warns US citizens against travel to the country.  I chuckled a bit when I saw that one.  She said that it was a waste of paper but that she had to give those out to all citizens that came in.  Most countries that have aid workers active in them have a travel warning from the US State Department advising against going there.  She also gives me an emergency contact sheet for the embassy.  I already had the emergency number programmed into my phone as “AAA Embassy emerg” so it would come up near the top of the list in the phone book.  I am not sure how useful the contact would be if things actually got bad here in Kinshasa.  

I gather up all of the papers I have been given and put them in my official envelope and head out.  I pass the guard on the way out and say, “Asante sana” (thank you very much).  I was in and out in 30 minutes when it looked like it should have taken hours.  I think my new friend had something to do with that one.  I hoped that I had all I needed to get the visa sorted out.

I get a ride to the Air Serv office to deliver all the required papers to Henri.  Henri is the massive Congolese guy that picked me up from the airport when I first arrived in Kinshasa so many months ago.  He is generally  the one that gets sent to “take care of things”.  He has many connections with people all over the city and I think his stature helps get things done as well.  He took the documents to the DGM office and returned a few hours later.  I was not surprised to find out that the DGM wanted more than only the two forms from the US embassy.

He had three more forms from the DGM office.  It felt like I was applying for citizenship.  For some reason they needed to know where I was born, where my parents were born, what languages I spoke, countries that I have visited and so on.  Each of the three pages also required a photo of myself.  The next day I have to go to a photo shop to get some pictures taken.  I get four pictures.  The fourth picture will be for my Congolese driver’s license which will involve Henri going to the driving office with $35 and my name, address and photo.  I guess there are a few things that are easier here in Congo.  

Hopefully, by this time tomorrow, I will have my passport back with a fresh visa in it and my Congolese driver’s license.


November 16, 2008

A couple of weeks ago when I was in Nairobi waiting for the maintenance to get done on the plane I took there, someone decided that they wanted my laptop more than I did and took it from the hotel room while I was in the dining room eating breakfast. 

The hotel manager searched all around the place, but I am sure that it was long gone by then.  The police offered to arrest the cleaning staff for me, but I figured that wouldn’t do me any good.  Now I just have to wait for my replacement laptop to get here from the States.


October 30, 2008

I had a vision in my head of what an evacuation from Goma would be like.  It would be dramatic.  There would be a mad dash to the airport with a convoy of blue Land Cruisers.  When we got to the airport, bombs would be going off and soldiers would be shooting in all directions.  Mobs of people would be begging to get on the planes.  The planes would all be loaded beyond their normal peacetime limits but we would still takeoff without any problems.  We would heroically make several trips through the maelstrom, each time lifting another plane load of grateful aid workers out of the carnage until the airport was overrun by rebels or lava or whatever the cause for the evacuation was. 

Now I will attempt to describe how the evacuation actually went.  Rebel soldiers had been steadily working their way towards Goma with FARDC (government) and UN soldiers retreating ahead of them.  Neither the 6,000 or so UN soldiers based in the area nor the 20,000 FARDC soldiers have been able to block the advance of 4,000-5,000 strong CNDP army lead by General Nkunda.  Hundreds of thousands of people have fled their homes since this latest advance.  People have blamed the UN for not being able to protect the people in the cities to the north and in the IDP camps and have been holding protests in front of the various UN locations in Goma. 

Throughout the day we had been getting conflicting reports about where the rebels were in relation to Goma.  The one thing that we did know was that they were getting closer and closer.  The main road between our house and the airport was blocked by protesters and roadblocks and we weren’t sure how long the back road would be open.  We got the call at about 2:45pm telling us to pack and be ready to leave for the airport by 3:30.  At that point, the plan was just to get the planes fueled and ready to go in case we actually needed to leave.  The national staff members at our house started to get concerned when we all came out of our rooms in our uniforms so late in the day.  They asked if we were leaving and I had to say that I didn’t know.  I think most of us expected to be back at the house that night for dinner. 

We all piled into one Land Cruiser along with our go-bags and headed out.  There were a lot of concerned faces along the side of the road as we made our way to the airport.  I am sure that most of them knew more about what was happening than we did.  I think a lot of them knew that we were leaving town.  It was a terrible feeling to be abandoning Goma.  Or even just getting ready to abandon Goma.  Cowardice leaves a bitter taste in my mouth. 

When we finally got to the airport, things were quiet.  Very quiet.  I’ve never seen the Goma airport that dead.  Even the planes that fly between Walikale and Goma all day long moving the coltan ore were parked and silent.  There were no explosions to be heard, no gunshots, no panicking mobs of aid workers trying their hardest to get on the planes, just an eerily silent ramp.  We loaded our things along with some boxes of documents into the planes and waited.  Only the occasional UN gunship broke the silence as it headed up to the front lines to bomb the banana plantations that the rebels were marching through. 

When we actually left, it was completely without ceremony.  I could barely take the betrayed looks on the faces of our staff at the airport.  For them, it was nothing new.  I think they have become used to being abandoned.  They have survived several wars and have no doubt seen the expats running away at the first sign of trouble many times before.  I don’t think I’ve ever felt so weak and powerless as I did the day we ran away from Goma. 

Pays des Mille Collines

October 25, 2008

“Land of a thousand hills”.  It’s easy to see where that title comes from without spending too long in Rwanda.  The road between Goma and Kigali was lined with Eucalyptus trees and takes a serpentine route over hills, mountains and between volcanoes, through villages and towns.

Kigali itself is a relatively modern city.  The streets are clean and well maintained.  I guess most cities would seem that way compared to what I’ve become used to in Kinshasa and Goma.  While eating in a café in the mall and enjoying a nice cup of coffee, I almost forgot where I was.  There were more Mzungus in that café than I’ve seen in one place since coming to Africa.  It felt weird. 

The weird feeling didn’t end with the café and shopping mall.  Since there aren’t a lot of opportunities to walk around in Goma, we spent a lot of the time walking around the city.  It wasn’t too hot or cold which made it nice to walk along the streets that were lined with jacaranda trees heavy with their purple-blue flowers just like the ones that would stick to the windshield wipers of my car back home.  While out exploring the city on foot we came across this place:

Hotel Des Mille Collines.  Hotel Rwanda.  The actual hotel that the movie was based on.  I expected there to be a large statue or something to commemorate the site, but that was it.  Just a regular hotel now.  I suppose that it might be only unusual as it served as the focal point of a movie. 

Standing there staring at the sign it was like I was transported into the movie that made me cry sad and angry tears when I first saw it.  I could hear members of the Interahamwe (translated from Kinyarwanda: “Those who stand together”) sharpening their machetes on the ground and yelling as they waved their clubs angrily in the air.  Not far away there stood a beautiful stone church that was in a state of disrepair.  Was that one of the churches where Tutsis tried to find sanctuary only to be barricaded in and killed with hand grenades that were distributed by the militias for the purpose?  A chill ran down my spine as I snapped back to reality looking at the trampled jacaranda flowers on the ground. 

Later in the day we went to the genocide memorial museum.  The museum itself was surrounded by mass graves that held the remains of some 250,000 Tutsis (and moderate Hutus that refused to participate in the killing).  The numbers are staggering.  The museum explained the history of the country and its people.  It also told about Europeans who colonized the land and categorized the people like animals in a game park.  The differences between Hutu and Tutsi were exaggerated if not created by the German and later Belgian colonizers.  The exhibits laid out matter-of-factly the events and circumstances leading up to genocide. 

The thing that angered me the most was how killing was virtually ignored by the outside world until it was over.  The UN commander in Rwanda at the time saw the situation building and requested five thousand peacekeepers with a mandate that would actually let them do their job.  He estimated that such a small number of properly trained and equipped soldiers would be able to stop the militias that were largely armed with machetes and clubs.  This request was denied and ignored.  In one case a group of UN soldiers was protecting Tutsis that had taken refuge in a school.  They were ordered to leave and only evacuate the expatriates (translated: whites).  As soon as the UN convoy left the Interahamwe militants that were standing outside came in and killed everyone.  Someone made a movie about that too. 

In the three months that the genocide lasted, somewhere between 800,000 and 1,000,000 were killed.  Three months was how long it took the RPF (Rwandan Patriotic Front, a Tutsi militia led by the current president) to break out of their camps and take control of Kigali. 

Could the genocide have been stopped if the outside world too action, if the UN wasn’t afraid to act, if the US had given the 50 or so armored personnel carriers rather than squabbling over price for months? 

“The ones that know don’t care, the ones that care don’t know.”  Maybe that was true of the outside world then. 

Signs like this were all over:

I am told it says something like: “Let’s fight together against the genocide ideology of ethnic and regional division and eradicate it.”


The effects of the Rwandan genocide didn’t end when the killing stopped there.  Millions of Hutus fled Rwanda, largely into Congo.  Hutu militias used refugee camps as bases of operation to attack Rwanda.  This and other factors led to the Congo wars the second of which was known as Africa’s World War or the Great War of Africa and was responsible for the deaths of an estimated 5.4 million people.  The current problems in eastern Congo involve a lot of the same groups. 

I think every humanitarian hopes and prays for peace and stability, for the day when we are no longer needed there.  I know I do.

Jinja Part Two

October 21, 2008

Jinja is a lot of fun for more reasons than just the amazing whitewater near there.  The place seems to attract a lot of unusual and interesting people.  I suppose the African continent itself tends to draw the more adventurous, but the people I met in Jinja seem to be a bit more so. 

The Swedes that we shared the raft with had been on quite an adventure.  Before they took off on their adventure, he had been a stockbroker and she a prison guard.  They quit their jobs and have been driving across Africa in their Land Rover.  It was a pretty good setup that they had.  A tent folded out of the roof with a ladder that folded out and doubled as a stilt to hold the half of the tent that cantilevered out beyond the back of the truck. 

The most unusual person I met when I was out there was this German guy who for some reason decided to ride his bike (bicycle, not motorcycle) from Munich to Cape Town all by himself.  He has been on the road for over a year and still has a ways to go.  On his way down, he pedaled through Turkey but got stuck at the border with Syria.  They wouldn’t let him in.  After a few days of trying to convince them, he gave up and detoured back through Turkey and down through Greece where he got on a ship to Egypt.  That’s what I call a detour.  He had a police escort all the way through Egypt to the border with Sudan.  He said that the people in Sudan were very friendly feeding him and letting him stay in their homes.  When he got to Ethiopia, things changed.  People threw rocks at him, “stone-hail” as he called it, and were generally hostile.  The Swedes had a similar experience between the two countries. 

The day after rafting it was time to explore around Jinja a bit.  We walked to a village that was nearby the place we were staying.  Before too long we were surrounded by a dozen or so kids that were tagging along asking for “sweeties”.  Several villagers came out to meet us and offer to be our guides.  By that time it was getting a bit hot and the sun a bit powerful, so we headed back to the campsite and caught a ride towards the source of the Nile. 

Here is the way to The Source of the Nile brought to you by Bell Lager:

Near the source of the Nile there was a bunch of shops and tourist traps along with a statue of Ghandi.  Apparently some of his ashes were scattered in the Nile. 

From near there we got on a boat along with two guys from Nepal.  The one Nepalese guy had lived in Uganda for ten years working for the UN and the other was his nephew that was visiting him.  The first man shocked some of the fishermen when he spoke to them in Luganda.  The boat took us up into Lake Victoria and to a post that was supposed to be “mile marker zero” of the Nile River.

After the boat trip we managed to find a bus back to Kampala where we managed to get pretty lost for a little while.  Eventually we made it to the taxi park where we found the mini-bus back to Entebbe where Chinese food was waiting. 

Jinja Part One

October 8, 2008

It was time for another R&R for me and whitewater rafting at the source of the White Nile seemed like a very good idea.  I got a ride to Kigali with the Air Serv car and then flew from there to Entebbe.  I met up with my friend Julia from Goma the next day in Entebbe.  She just finished a six month contract with another NGO and figured a little rafting detour on the way back to England would be a good idea. 

In order to get to Jinja, we took a mini-bus taxi (public transportation, more or less) from Entebbe to Kampala, a motorcycle-taxi across Kampala a bigger bus from Kampala to Jinja and then the back of a truck that they use to transport the rafts to get to the campsite.  It took about five hours and cost the equivalent of about four dollars to travel the 150km or so from the Air Serv house in Entebbe to the Nile River Explorers Campsite in Jinja. 

The campsite is up on top of a bit of a cliff looking down on the river a couple hundred feet below.  The view was amazing.  We will raft the next day.

In the morning we pile back in the truck along with a bunch of other future rafters and head over to another place where we’ll get breakfast and meet our guides.  After breakfast, we get a bit of a briefing about what we were getting ourselves into and then were fitted with helmets and life jackets.  Once all geared up we all pile back into the truck and head to put in the river just below the dam.  In our boat there are five plus the guide.  Out of the six in the boat we came from five different countries: US, UK, two from Sweden, one from Australia and our guide who I think was actually from Zambia. 

The river was relatively calm for a while after putting the boat in.  That gave our guide a chance to teach us a few things.  He would tell us, “Paddle forward!” and we would.  “Back-paddle left!” and those of us on the left of the boat would paddle backwards causing the boat to spin.  “You will tell from the urgency of my voice how hard you must paddle.”  I suppose that made sense. 

“If… when the boat flips, take a deep breath because you will go under the water.  It will be like being inside a washing machine.  Do not panic as the life jacket will bring you to the surface and then you will see a safety kayaker over you.  He will look like Jesus in a kayak.  Don’t worry if you lose your paddle as they will pick them up.”

A few nervous chuckles ensued.  We practiced flipping the boat, swam through a small rapid and then turned the boat back over and got back in. 

Up ahead the river appeared to disappear and there was an ominous roar coming from where the river dropped away.  The oar boat went down the rapid first, then the safety kayakers, then another raft, and then it was our turn.  “Paddle forward!  Harder!! Back-paddle left!! OK!  GET DOWN!! HOLD ON!!!”

We jump down off of the sides of the boat and crouch facing the tube and hanging on to the rope along the side.  The first wave we hit grabbed the nose of the boat twisting it 90 degrees to the next wave which then seemed to pick up the boat, turn it over, and proceeded to shake it until all of its contents were in the river.  When my head pops back to the surface a few seconds later I look back to see our upside-down boat and my fellow rafters floating nearby.  By the time I was back to the boat, it was right-side-up again and a couple of people were already inside.  I thought to myself that this was going to be a long day and didn’t want to ask the guide what class of rapid that was.  Our boat was the only one of the boats that flipped on that rapid.  I think it was good that we flipped on the first rapid because then we didn’t have to wonder what it would be like to get tossed out and swim through a class 5 rapid anymore. 

This is what it looks like before a raft flips. 

We made it down all of the rest of the rapids unscathed that morning.  After one rapid we had 12 people in our raft from other rafts that had flipped over. 

In the middle of the day the river was relatively calm.  We had lunch on the river that they had packed in sealed boxes on the oar boat.  It was relaxing.  Swimming in the river and applying copious amounts of SPF50 to our Mzungu skin. 

After the break, it was time for more rapids.  As we headed towards one of them, our guide starts telling us that there is a “standing wave” on this rapid that sometimes flips boats.  “If anyone doesn’t want this, we might be able to avoid it.”  We answer almost in unison, “let’s do it!”

“If things don’t… go as planned, swim to the left towards the island.  Helmets, check!  Life-jackets, check!  Just remember, swim to the left.  Paddle forward!  Back-paddle right!  Paddle forward!!  Harder!!! Paddle!!!  OK, GET DOWN!!! HOLD ON!!!”

I didn’t see much of a wave ahead, but before I knew it, the boat was upside down and we were in the water.  I pop to the surface a little bit later and Julia appears not to far away with a kayak behind her.  She grabbed the front of the kayak and I got on the back.  We are deposited on the island while the kayaker went back for some more people.  When we all got back in the boat we discussed how we were all surprised how the rapid wasn’t bad, but somehow we flipped anyway.  Gus the Swede said, “yeah, that’s because that’s where the guides flip the boats for the camera.”  I looked back to see a sly grin on our guide’s face. 

The next rapid is class 6 – too big for a raft to do safely.  We take the raft out and carry it over the hill and put back in after the class 6 section.  The rest is class 5.  One section of that rapid was affectionately known as “the bad place”.  When we hit “the bad place”, George the Australian was vaulted over the boat into the water.  The rest of us managed to stay in the boat, even though we were all scrambled around in different places of the boat. 

After rafting we pile back in the truck with the boats behind and drive back to the campsite while listening to choruses of Ugandan children shouting, “Mzungu, Mzungu!!! Give!! Give!!!”  Back at the campsite there was a big BBQ prepared waiting for us.  We sat around the tables looking down at the river we just braved in a daze eating good food.  It was a good day.