Our latest field trip yesterday was a “JAM” (Joint Assessment Mission with other Sections) to a very remote village in the area of Manono, some 500km south west of here. We were going there to attend a “baraza”, a Swahili word for a public meeting, in this context a gathering of communities in conflict to hold dialogue and search for peaceful solutions. This initiative in our area was developed by Civil Affairs and has been singled out recently in the UN as an example of best practice in the field. This particular baraza is related to the Luba-Pygymy conflict in the area. We were joined on the ground by local authorities and security forces and representatives of civil society in the area, as well as one of our Community Liaison Assistants (CLAs) who facilitated the visit.
We took two helicopter flights this time: Kalemie – Manono (1.5 hours) then Manono-Mbayo (half hour). I wasn’t prepared for the heat and realised again that I can’t count on Maheshe at all to brief me on practical issues of his own volition! Whilst I’d packed my first aid kit and wore my trainers, I should have worn my walking boots, I forgot my hat, had too little water, packed chocolate (which melted inside my rucksack) and no sandwiches for a rather gruelling 10-hour round trip.
I also wasn’t prepared for the starkness of the village, which had been all but destroyed by the conflict and people had only recently been returning. It was abject poverty; literally next to nothing. I felt a squirming discomfort at the absurd contrast with our affluence, and being photographed with the project banner at the end of the Baraza (imposter syndrome creeping in again). As much as I love my Congolese tandem and marvel at his knowledge of the field, I also wanted to throttle him for not thinking to bring stuff with us. The children were asking us for pens, and a football. Can you imagine, they don’t even have ONE football in a village of about 1,000 people! The “school room” made me cry, with its rickety broken benches and dirt floor. A teacher had chalked French straight onto the stone wall; not even a blackboard. Next to it is the unfinished new school, that has no roof. We will coordinate with the humanitarian agencies to see what they are doing there. I just hope it doesn’t get lost in the bureaucracy and take forever. As the UN’s peacekeeping and stabilisation mission, we are tasked with the more political and human rights/protection aspects; how to give communities the support and confidence they need to continue their conflict resolution and organise to get the provincial state authorities to really give a damn about them. The Barazas are part of this.
Members of the village stood up to speak in their own language (Luba – which is a Bantu language and one of the main languages of DRC along with Lingala, Swahili and Kikongo), which was translated into French for us. Jacob, our Head of Office, spoke to them in Swahili (he’s Kenyan), which they partly understood but was also translated into Luba – and then French. Jacob questioned why there were so few women present and why none of them had spoken. So then three different women were encouraged to come to the front and speak. Two of them were timid and folded their arms self-consciously across their (clothed) breasts. It struck me how universal is the struggle for women to make their voices heard and be listened to! The men started talking while they were talking, which they hadn’t done up until then when other men had been talking. Again, Jacob pulled them up on this and insisted they be quiet.
I strained to follow the thread of the dialogue consistently, preferring to try and understand the French translation to having a second translation into English. I was distracted by the surroundings: the chickens and ducks pecking and squawking in the dusty earth, the ragged clothes of the children, and then wondering why anyone would want to wear a woollen hat in that heat!! A boy in his late teens in a bright red Manchester United shirt with Ronaldo on the back also spoke. I could tell he was highly articulate and indeed as we were accompanied on our way back out of the village, mainly by excited but shy children, he was able to communicate in French with me. But not a word of English. The teacher in me wanted to stay behind. One little boy stuck very close to my side and as we were approaching the helicopter, plucked up the courage to ask me if I had a pen he could have. My heart snapped in two, because I only had one pen and I couldn’t give one without the others. Damn. One of the military guys inadvisedly thrust a packet of sweet wafers towards them, which almost caused a riot.
Back in my room, I had a bit of cheese and stuff from my “care package” that arrived from Goma on Monday. My German colleague, Miriam, did me proud, bless her! I never thought I could get so excited about the prospect of cheese and salad! And yoghurt. She packed the cool box full of stuff, including the most enormous avocado I’ve ever seen, perfectly ripe and creamy. And lots of chocolate 😉 It is possible to find more vegetables in Kalemie than those on offer at the cafeteria – but you have to know where to look, and I haven’t explored enough yet. I seem to be always working, and this malaria is hanging around and making me dog tired. Another course of treatment ahead…