The Odyssey (well not quite…)

Following the six weeks’ arduous preparations for departure: endless form-filling, vaccinations, gathering of supplies and getting my flat ready to rent (not to mention the many reluctant good-byes), I arrived in my hotel in Brindisi weary but relieved at five minutes to midnight on Sun 22nd May. When my alarm went off at 6 next morning, I wondered how on earth I was going to make it through the day, let alone the week. However, being in Italy – one of my “home from home”s – turned out to be a real tonic, even if we were obliged to be at the Italian airforce compound (where UN Department for Peacekeeping Operations has its main training base) from 08:30 to around 17:00 every day. It felt like a kind of mini-vacation, being by the sea and dining out by the port every evening. Brindisi has been transformed since I passed through there as a student 29 years ago on an inter-rail ticket to cross over on the ferry to Corfu (feeling old).
The “Civilian Pre-Deployment Training” (CPT) exceeded my expectations, which admittedly had been low. It was a good bunch of 22 people from all parts of the globe, and I was by no means the oldest! I found it well-organised and extremely informative, despite the odd “death by PowerPoint” session. I enjoyed the sense of camaraderie, and so appreciated the course organisers who went out of their way to assist us with everything possible. Perhaps the high (or low) point was the simulated ambush of our three-vehicle convoy by masked gunmen, firing blank but frighteningly real-sounding bullets. Even though we had a good inkling of what was to come, it was still terrifying, and most of us forgot to do key things, like press the red alarm button on our radios. I’ll spare you the other details. Suffice to say I really hope it never comes to that.

CPT finished Friday afternoon, then a group of us made the short train ride over to the beautiful Baroque city of Lecce, for an all-too-brief but very enjoyable stroll around the cobbled streets, popping into a couple of churches before sitting down to gelati and aperitivi. As I wasn’t leaving Brindisi until Saturday evening, I treated myself to a massage in the hotel (Orientale), which was heaven. The effects seemed to dissipate fairly quickly though with the marathon next leg of Brindisi-Rome-Abu Dhabi-Entebbe overnight, arriving in Entebbe just after mid-day Sunday 29 May. I produced on demand my Yellow Fever vaccination card and duly entered sub-Saharan Africa for the first time. Entebbe was green, pleasant and clement. It was the end of the rainy season. The first thing I noticed was that they drive on the left. Hotel Lake Victoria was a bit of a step down from the hotel in Brindisi (although not in price), mainly due to rather dank rooms with fitted carpets that had seen better days. On the plus side, the breakfast was good and there was a large outdoor swimming pool, of which I availed myself two out of the three early mornings.

The two days’ “check-in” in the Entebbe Regional office was rather painless. It consisted of being guided through another raft of form-filling and sitting around in between. The highlight of Entebbe was enjoying a barbecued fish feast on a tiny beach on the shore of the lake one evening with the lovely Miriam, my German colleague posted to Goma. I tried out my (apparently) state-of-the-art deet-free “TREK” insect repellent, and it seemed to work. I’m a bit worried I might run out though at the rate I’m using it here. I’m rather paranoid but as it’s malarial, I think it’s better to be so.

What wasn’t so relaxing in Entebbe was having to repack my two large suitcases as they informed us we couldn’t take more than one 20kg bag with us on the UN flight to Goma – aargh! I’d taken pains in London to split my supplies evenly between the two cases to not get caught out in the event of loss having all my knickers in one basket, as it were. With a sense of resignation, I handed over 37kg of stuff to the “MOVCON” warehouse in Entebbe to be sent on as cargo to Kalemie, which might take weeks, I was told.

The flight from Entebbe to Goma – squashed in with some less than sweet-smelling military guys – was less than an hour. We touched down in the pouring end-of-wet-season rain (I’d packed my umbrella in the cargo bag) and a cheerful Congolese colleague from Civil Affairs in Goma HQ, was there to meet me. We proceeded along the unpaved road from the airport with its stupendous potholes, being jolted around despite my colleague’s caution. Most of Goma’s roads were destroyed in the lava from the big 2002 eruption of Mount Nyiragongo, menacingly located just 12km from the city. I was transfixed by Goma’s famous wooden bikes known as “Chukudus” (stress on the first syllable), with their massive loads. Huge handlebars, clumpy wooden wheels, no seat, but instead a knee-rest, and ridden with more of a scooter rather than a bicycle motion. The riders were invariably young, sinewy men. There is a golden Chukudu monument in the island of one of the main roundabouts – a great landmark.

Comfort levels took a nosedive when I arrived at the Jerryson Hotel up a bumpy, muddy side-road not far from the offices where I was to have my briefings. Dreary and noisy. The hotel is being extended upwards so it felt like a building site. The bathroom door kept jamming and I didn’t get to sleep until about 2am due to noisy guests and music blaring out from a “nightclub” down the road. My only comfort was being able to make tea in my room using my travel kettle. Sadly, the only coffee available was yukky instant powder, along with powdered milk. Again, I’d packed my filter coffee and cafetiere in the cargo bag. The next morning, between briefings, I checked out and migrated down the road to the much better “Linda Hotel”, literally right on the lake. So much so that I felt we were IN it!

I discovered my briefings in Goma HQ would start Wednesday afternoon at 2.30pm and I was plunged into a video teleconference in French, where my Kalemie colleagues-to-be appeared on the screen. I felt rather clueless with my rusty ‘A’-level French, and had I not been so exhausted, I might have felt embarrassed. Nonetheless, the two days of briefings with the Goma HQ Civil Affairs team were very useful indeed. My tendency not to read the small print has to go down in (my) history this time. I realised I was going to be head of section – or “Officer in Charge” for Civil Affairs in Kalemie, rather than the minion I’d supposed, being my first UN mission. No pressure…

I was supposed to leave Goma on Friday 1st June, but arrived at the airport to find the UN flight to Kalemie had been cancelled. A real blessing as it turned out, as I joyously got to stay the weekend with Solange, a friend of my dear friend Catherine from Palestine and Beirut days. Solange is half Italian, half American, grew up in Italy till age 14 then was educated in the UK. She’s a pretty damn feisty woman (ten years my junior) and has been back and forth to eastern DRC for the past 8 years, now finalising the field research for her phD on armed conflict. She is staying in a lovely apartment in an idyllic setting by the lake. Finally I was able to rest, sleep and eat lots of fresh fruit and vegetables – as well as pick Solange’s ample brain about DRC. I knew I had to make the most of this little reprieve and oasis.

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