Friday, 26 June 2009

Goodbye Congo

Friday, 13 March 2009

The Greatest Silence

Last week, I was invited to speak at the Centre for Development and Emergency Practice’s Human Rights Film Festival, at Oxford Brookes University, following a screening of ‘The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo’. It is a powerful and shocking documentary made two years ago by Lisa F Jackson, who draws on her own experience as a rape victim, and I would highly recommend it although it is far from comfortable viewing. At one point a Congolese doctor describes how he thinks that each patient he sees has the most harrowing story imaginable, until he encounters the next, and the film is similar – each story, told firsthand, brings a fresh horror to what has gone before.

It was difficult to find any glimmers of hope following such a distressing film, but I tried to highlight some of the remarkable work that Christian Aid’s partners are able to do, even in the war-torn East, to rebuild lives torn apart by sexual violence.

I told the story of Afua, who was abducted by Mai Mai militia in 2002 while out farming in the fields and was gang raped while being held at a military camp. She told Christian Aid’s partners that when the soldiers eventually left the area, she immediately sought out medical help. ” I was physically sick with worry that I had caught AIDS. I was in trouble with my husband. He didn’t want me anymore – he wanted me out of the house and away.”

Afua was helped by Madame Albertine, head of Christian Aid partner UMAMA. She arranged medical tests which proved Afua was free from disease and gave counseling, acting as a bridge between Afua and her estranged husband, who had accused Afua of seeking and enjoying sex with her attackers. As ‘The Greatest Silence’ explores, this view of rape victims is common. Afua was eventually reconciled with her husband and children, after Albertine had made it clear to him that his wife had been a victim, targeted because she was vulnerable in the fields where she worked to feed her family.

UMAMA also helped Afua with a loan of $100 for a bread oven, allowing her to earn a living without the obviously traumatic need to go back into the fields where she was attacked. She now earns $20 a week, the same amount her husband, a nurse, earns in a month, and is able to pay back $10 each month to pay off UMAMA’s loan.

Afua says now that “UMAMA is a good organization. It helped our family to survive and stay together.” While the scars of her attack remain, organisations like UMAMA are, in some way, able to rekindle hope. It brings to mind another partner organisation, Fondation Femme Plus, who are made up of women living with HIV-AIDS and its consequences. They specialise in psychological, social and medical support, as well as promoting income-generating activities for women with HIV-AIDS such as a restaurant, a tailor’s workshop and photography training. Their slogan is “Rendre l’espoir est notre vocation” - Returning hope is our job.

Theodore Ngoy

At the following day of the festival, Theodore Ngoy spoke about his belief that Rwanda should be held responsible for backing Laurent Nkunda. He described Nkunda’s recent arrest as a sham, saying that in his Rwandan jail, Nkunda “is not fasting, but feasting!”

Ngoy is a Congolese MP, lawyer and pastor, and was a candidate in the presidential election in 2006. He was arrested on charges of insulting the head of state after he criticised Joseph Kabila in the lead-up to a constitutional referendum, but he later escaped and sought custody in the South African embassy. He was visiting Britain when President Kabila’s guards burnt down his home and Church, forcing him to seek political asylum here.

He spoke passionately about his belief that the old colonial powers still control much of the Congo’s resources, describing recent Congolese presidents as “guard dogs for the Europeans and Americans”. He argued that Nkunda was only arrested because he had begun to “embarrass” Kagame, and called on other nations to follow the lead of the Netherlands and Sweden in ending financial support for Rwanda. Ngoy’s current project is the establishment of a pressure group, ‘Congo for Justice’, which he hopes will raise awareness of the outside forces he sees as tearing his country apart.

Monday, 2 March 2009

One Step At A Time

I am a creature of habit, always have been. Don’t worry, I’m not attempting to stir things up by making large dramatic statements simply for the purpose of being wildly spontaneous, but I have always been someone that harbour's habitual practices. They're small things really, for example I went through a period during university of simply having to have the TV on as I slept. After some time this developed into actually not being able to get to sleep at all without the muffled deep hum of a low volume TV in my ears and the shadows of my socks dancing on the wall to the light of the screen as they dried on the radiator.

These routines are simple, without purpose and slightly silly but they still contribute to a portion of my sanity, a way for my brain to maintain it’s ritualistic, periodical and straightforward operation.

Since returning from the Congo I have started to look at the BBC news website daily. “So?” I hear you say. Well yes alright, reading the news isn’t odd at all but it can be viewed as such when practiced about 20 times a day. I’m not joking, the first thing I do when I turn on my computer is go straight to the BBC news website and race to the Africa section. There is (I have deduced) a twice daily turnover of stories meaning that in any one 24 hour period you would have a maximum of two, maybe three newly posted stories. You begin to understand then that twenty times a day is at least 18 times too many and the fact that I know this and do it anyway is all the more evidence alluding to my aforementioned, almost compulsive tendency.

Anyway, regardless of my mental state this practice has served its purpose. This evening just before going to bed I flicked over to the BBC news African site perfectly prepared to be met by the same headlines I had looked at 30 minutes prior. I was shocked then, to find that the early morning stories had just come online and was even more shocked to find an article of particular striking importance.

The article was all about the discovery of early human footprints that had recently been uncovered in Kenya. Now I love geology as much as the next student worker but was truly taken aback, not by the content but at the fact that it was the lead headline. For the first time that I can remember since beginning my sordid regular affair with the Africa news section here was an article that did not hint at my expected ‘unfavourable’ presentation of the continent with which it was now very easy to have empathy for.

There was no mention of any kind of suffering, embezzlement, poverty, conflict, corruption, disease, greed, kidnapping, pillaging or death.

Having visited the Congo and all the warmth and hope I experienced there I am aware that the news presents a somewhat slanted view of the daily going's on, but without even realising it everyday I have woken up, logged on and tuned in completely expectant of yet another negative report, fully buying into the presented state of affairs that the BBC can decide at any given moment to attribute to the continent on any particular day. And so it was with a very heavy heart that I found myself sat on my bed thousands of miles away from the Congo truly ashamed at my own shock that for just one day there was an article about geology that outweighed all other national activity.

May there be many more.


Friday, 13 February 2009

Stability at what cost?

On Wednesday night, The Royal Commonwealth Society hosted an event entitled “Spotlight on Rwanda”, which brought together panellists including Joel Kibazo, formerly of the Commonwealth Secretariat, and Vincent Gasara, a Rwandan journalist, to debate issues around Rwanda and its central African neighbors, including whether its application to join the Commonwealth should be accepted.

However, the exchange which was most indicative of the split in perspectives on Rwanda took place between Alison des Forges, of Human Rights Watch, and Andrew Mitchell MP, the Conservative spokesman on International Development, after Mitchell had declared his pleasure that Rwandan President Paul Kagame and the DRC’s Joseph Kabila had managed to arrange the capture of Laurent Nkunda:

DES FORGES: This was not an agreement between two governments; it was a deal done between two men, without involving any of the apparatus of state.

MITCHELL: But what’s important is ‘does it work’?

DES FORGES: Is it? That’s an interesting statement. Is that really the standard by which governance is judged?

Patrick Smith, the editor of Africa Confidential, summed up this argument by pointing out that while Kagame has been widely praised for the economic growth Rwanda has displayed, he has also presided over diminishing political space. He described it as the ‘Singapore Model’, where stability and growth is prioritised over openness and civil society. While the short term benefits of this kind of stability are obvious, especially for a country with Rwanda’s history, the question remains as to whether it can ever move towards a truly open society. Des Forges, who is also an expert witness to the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, is still banned from entering the country, and as Smith pointed out, while Rwanda will hold elections soon, no-one is seriously suggesting that anyone other than Kagame can win them.

The panel was united in saying that Kagame has done a remarkable job in building the economy, but the fear is that this sort of focus on short term stability merely pushes political dissidents underground, giving the appearance of a country which is united and growing its economy, while the shrinking political space creates a pressure cooker atmosphere. As governments across the world are currently finding out, whether they are working effectively for their people is ultimately of more concern than whether they are creating structures which allow elites to generate massive wealth.

Sunday, 8 February 2009

Staff Benda Bilili

I recently came across a remarkable Congolese band called Staff Benda Bilili. They are street musicians who live in and around the Zoo in Kinshasa, not far from where Christian Aid’s offices are. Most of the bands are paraplegics due to polio, but they have also taken in street kids like Roger Landu, who plays an electric lute he made himself using a tin can. You can see it in action in this video of their interpretation of James Brown’s ‘Sex Machine’.

Although their first album will not be released until either later this month or March, the band have been together for a number of years and indeed are involved in a dispute with MONUC after their song ‘Let’s Go and Vote’ was used on radio and TV in the run-up to the 2006 elections to encourage voter registration and turnout. Preview tracks from their album are already up on their Myspace.

This song, recorded live in the grounds of the Zoo, encourages mothers to vaccinate their children against polio:

Wednesday, 21 January 2009

HUNO rap