I arrived back from my R&R on the Monday afternoon to find that I had been scheduled for a field trip next day. Despite the 6am start, I was keen to go, firstly as it was to another of the baraza villages in Manono territory, and secondly my stalwart Congolese Civil Affairs colleague Josianne was coming too. Josianne is petite yet voluptuous, and the queen of style. She wows me most mornings with her colourful and chic outfits, tailored by her sister, with matching head-dresses. Even for a field trip she adorned her leggings and t-shirt with a shimmering drape of orange. I had asked our section assistant to go and buy some footballs and pens, after our experience last time in Mbayo when we had nothing to give the children. He duly returned with a sack of rather poor quality plastic footballs for young children and a couple of boxes of biros. It wasn’t quite what I had in mind but we took them along anyway. We had the provincial Minister of Interior with us and the Minister for humanitarian affairs (and everything else it would seem) and we arrived in Manono to military salutes and traditional dancing. That strange juxtaposition of arch solemnity and unbridled human expression that is becoming familiar to me here. The mood was upbeat as we climbed back into the helicopter for the second leg of the journey.
Again, I wasn’t prepared. Kabeke is much bigger than Mbayo, and more isolated. Like the other baraza villages in the north east of the vast Manono territory, it was ravaged by inter-community (Luba-pygmy) conflict in recent years, but somehow the food situation is much worse. The state of the children was shocking: stick thin legs, distended bellies. I tried to smile back at them as we entered the village apace, but I was immediately aghast at what I later learned was ringworm on the top of their heads. I walked clumsily behind them trying to surreptitiously photograph the weeping sores on their scalps as we went. All through the baraza proceedings, I tried to focus to the front, but I couldn’t stop myself turning round in my blue plastic chair to survey the mass of undernourished bodies behind and to the side of me. Thankfully Josianne was making notes. I felt a huge fool with the plastic footballs and biros, and I felt appalled that we were making them listen to speeches about peaceful cohabitation when they were showing signs of starvation. Was I the only one seeing it? It felt surreal. One little boy in a dirty orange short-sleeved shirt with his arms raised coyly above his head caught my attention. I was transfixed by the beautiful expression on his face: curious, dignified and almost flirtatious. I decided to risk the inappropriateness of taking photos. I needed to capture this. Next to him, another little boy stood with his bare swollen stomach pushing out his belly button. The little girl on the other side of him also had a swollen belly under her ragged top. I sat there squirming with my designer sunglasses and expensive water filter bottle.
As we were taken to see what remained of their medical centre, with children pressing in on all sides, I frantically tried to ask as many questions as I could of the “civil society coordinator” for the Manono area, who has been key in setting up these barazas. Abbe M is a priest and intellectual (I’m told) and a tireless advocate for peace and development. I was trying to understand why they were not growing food. As time was short, I gave up and started to ask the women (via Abbe M) what simple things might make an immediate impact (we are not a humanitarian organization). They told me “les moulins”: hand mills for grinding corn. I have this in mind now (along with proper footballs). No doubt there will be a whole series of bureaucratic hurdles to navigate in order to get and deliver them. Sometimes I think I am naïve. Or worse: a self-indulgent bleeding heart. What was discussed in the actual baraza forum is now a blur. All I remember is being irritated again when a woman in a red headscarf started talking passionately to the Ministers and people started talking over her. I was fixated with those children’s scalps and bellies, the hand mills and how to get the humanitarian organisations to come with us next time. It was time to leave and we climbed into the helicopter dusty and parched. The feeling of being a voyeur stuck to me like my sweaty vest, as I looked back at the villagers through the oval aircraft window.