Friday, January 20, 2006

What doing?

(As my nephew would say.)

Today, I witnessed a woman giving birth. I was visiting the infirmary in a semi-abandoned training facility. Compared with other similar places I have visited in the DRC, it was actually quite functional. For starters, there was a doctor and two nurses. And a few beds, if no sheets. No medicine, but some rusty scales to weigh the baby, and, bizarrely, a mad scientist in the corner clad in a long white lab coat, carefully looking through a microscope. I was only meant to be taking notes, maybe a few pictures. Assessing how long it would take to rehabilitate the place, make the training centre functional once more. I didn’t quite realise what was happening when the doctor ushered me into the last room, ordering my male colleagues to stay behind.

There she was, lying despondently on the bare foam mattress, oblivious to the jovial banter of two chirpy nurses who were vigorously massaging her swollen tummy. I had never witnessed a woman giving birth before, but by contrast to the cries and moans of pain depicted in the movies I’ve seen, this woman was eerily silent and impassive. Not a whimper crossed her clenched teeth, and her eyes as they bore directly into mine reflected a disturbing mix of resignation and sadness.

If deaths are louder than back home, births here are apparently quieter.

At some point it was decided that if the woman had a girl she would be named after me. I’m not sure who ventured the suggestion, but I’m willing to bet that it wasn’t the woman herself; more probably it was the doctor, in a desperate and vain attempt to trigger some reaction from the forlorn mother-to-be. In the end, it was a boy.

Later today, I sat in the back of a classroom filled with some fifty or more children as they learnt about the letter ‘b’. A handful of girls huddled together tightly around the three metallic picnic tables that served as desks, while all the other children sat sprawled on the floor. Needless to say, there were no notebooks or pens in sight. At the end of the class, the girls carried out the tables and the teacher his desk, and took them home with them for safekeeping. I peered mournfully into my handbag at the three sets of miniature crayons I’d brought with me to distribute, a left-over from our Christmas crackers.

So wait a minute. This centre we’re rehabilitating is currently being used as a makeshift school for hundreds of children, a community health clinic, and living quarters for several highly destitute families who are willing to throw a decrepit old mattress in a corner of what used to be the shower rooms and call it their home. So tell me, what happens when we turn it back into a training centre?

And our paths are littered with such contradictions…

Thursday, January 19, 2006


A brief stop-over on the way to Lubumbashi, where I spend the next couple of days.

Kalemie from above, Kalemie from the ground

(Kalemie Airport)

(Lake Tanganyika,
the world's longest fresh-water lake)

Sunday, January 15, 2006

On a brighter note

Apologies for the sombre tone of my last post, which actually should have been a happy one since on Friday we made a down-payment on the house we had set our hearts on. If all goes according to plan, at the end of the month we will be moving into a lovely ground-floor maisonette, with two sunny bedrooms, a fully-equipped kitchen and a living room that opens onto an enclosed terrace lush with big green plants. The first item to go up will be our new yellow and red double hammock – an item no couple should be without! The house is in a small compound with another, bigger house and two flats, and we all share a small swimming pool and barbecue area. The whole thing is quite compact and cosy, but it’s exactly what we wanted, with greenery and light, fully furnished and ready to roll, and we can’t wait to make it our own. Visitors prepare!

Friday, January 13, 2006


My car joins the string of mourners who follow the coffin to Kitambo cemetery. Minivans packed to the brim with friends and relatives of the deceased sway on the road ahead, street children hanging from the roof and balancing on the bumpers, singing and waving and generally making a lot of cheerful noise. I had heard that funerals in Africa used rituals of joy to celebrate the life of the deceased, but against the distraught faces of the pained relatives, the street kids’ euphoria seems out of place nonetheless.

The burial ceremony itself lasts only a few minutes, but its brevity is overshadowed by the intensity of the grief expressed so outwardly – women howling, men beating their chests. No rituals of joy here, but some drumming and singing amidst the cries of despair. An elderly woman faints noisily and is dragged away by a wailing teenager. The driver asks me about funerals in Europe and is perplexed when I tell him of the subdued ceremony, the silent tears and muffled sobs, of mourners dressed in black commenting in hushed tones on the life and death of the deceased.

The large procession leaves, trampling carelessly over fresh graves squeezed haphazardly alongside older, fading ones discernible only by the white, dilapidated, wooden cross at their head. There is no room for a path. Officially, the cemetery of Kitambo, one of the largest in Kinshasa, is closed for lack of space. Cemeteries all over the country are full; Parents’ Day here is not about sending greeting cards to your parents, it is the equivalent of All Souls’ Day at home, with people cramming into the cemeteries to visit and tidy the graves of their loved ones.

As we head back towards the road, we stop to let a small, desolate procession pass us. Two pallbearers carry a small, makeshift coffin – a child. According to a recent survey, the mortality rate in DRC is 40 percent higher than that of Sub-Saharan Africa, with more than 1,200 people dying every day. (More on Reuteurs)

Wednesday, January 11, 2006


Gertrude from Goma (below) and I wish you all a wonderful, harmonious, breathtaking, surprising, happy, healthy and musical new year.

After a doubly lovely holiday with two families and many friends, I’m back…and this time I brought back-up. The housing market in Kinshasa can just tremble in its boots! Ten places down, two to go, and today we think we may have finally found our joy – fingers crossed! In the meantime, our functional serviced room/flat looks out onto four clay tennis courts and DRC’s biggest swimming pool – some people wouldn’t be in such a rush to leave, but we’re keen to FINALLY get our own place together!