Monday, July 31, 2006

The Catastrophist

Hurrah! The elections are over and as far as I know there has been no major security incident.

From where I was, I observed many, many irregularities – if you apply strict, Western criteria. But none of it was deliberate, none of it was devious or calculating. It was just the natural consequence of the reality on the ground – in the mountain villages around Goma, most voters did not know how to read or mark their paper with an X. So in desperation, the electoral officers chose the twin principles of fairness and transparency over that of secrecy, and in front of political party witnesses and observers, asked people who they wanted to vote for and marked the ballot for them. Most voters did not know how to read or write, but they definitely knew who they wanted to vote for: Kabila, Kabila, number 7, Kabila. In fact, the only confusion arose when it came to choosing the candidate for the National Assembly: “But you can’t vote for Kabila, Sir, he’s a presidential candidate.” “Kabila.” “But Sir, you really can’t vote for Kabila for the National Assembly.”

It is quite clear what the result will be in North Kivu where I write from today: a landslide victory for Kabila. As I went from one polling station to another during the counting, the voices resonated in the dark, empty corridors of the schools they were using: “Numéro Sept”, “Numéro Sept.” In the polling station where I was, out of 407 votes only 21 votes were not for Kabila, 18 of which were void. The same is probably true of South Kivu, Province Orientale, Katanga. But in the West, the rumours are that the opposition leader Jean-Pierre Bemba is way ahead of Kabila. Now this is a problem.

Last night, I went to sleep basking in the excitement of a wildly successful, historical election, the start of a new era for DRC. This morning I woke up to more sobering thoughts: Could this mark the start of a new war? If Kabila gets elected after the first round thanks to this landslide victory in the east, will Kinshasa accept the result? Will Bemba lie low and accept defeat? Or is the stark contrast between voting in the east and voting in the west going to divide the country once again?

When I was a child, my mother used to call me Madame Catastrophe because I so enjoyed finding the dramatic side to every event. So I try to brush away any thoughts of impending gloom and go back to enjoying yesterday’s indisputable triumph. Bravo, Congo!

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Spoilt for choice

In Goma, a hand-painted sign sponsored by EISA (Electoral Institute of Southern Africa) reads something like:

“Profil d'un bon candidat: n'a pas commis de crimes de guerre, crimes contre l'humanité ou crimes économiques.”

(Characteristics of a good candidate: has not committed war crimes, crimes against humanity or economic crimes.)

You would not expect this kind of statement to be controversial. And yet… The reaction from my Congolese colleagues on reading it: “Pfff ! C’est personne, ça !”

This election presents no less 32 presidential candidates (1 withdrew already) and thirteen thousand candidates for the National Assembly – surely some of them can meet the profile!

But as the women in a small village near Bukavu pointed out, “the only picture we recognise is Kabila’s.” Other candidates have to hope voters remember their candidate number and page number…

Wednesday, July 26, 2006


Just so there is no misunderstanding...

Back in Kinshasa

Whilst the hordes were knocking on the gates of Rome, Nero chaired a meeting. So maybe it is right that today we spent over 3 hours in a stuffy room taking no decision whatsoever about as many topics as possible.

This is something we do every Wednesday. But somehow I figured that this particular Wednesday, the last before the elections, might be different.

After two weeks in the provinces, I feel like I’m on an entirely different planet as these people. One in which there are only 85 hours left before the DRC – no stranger to war – embarks on the adventure of a lifetime: the first free elections in forty years. One in which the difference between sending stuff today and sending stuff next week is the difference between being ready on Sunday, or not being ready.

But clearly my colleagues have mastered the Art of Zen, and I have not. Faced with a problem, I become like a terrier who’s just caught the whiff of an old bone hidden deep underground. I leap into action and scratch away furiously until a solution is found.

Finally an excuse to put up a picture of lovely, adorable Tegucita!

Then, let’s say the bone is within sight, but I can’t quite get at it. This friendly human who is my master, however, has nice long arms and can definitely help. I jump up and down, barking excitedly, and show them the solution is within reach. They smile back at me indulgently and continue their indolent debate about which butcher should be contracted to bring me (the terrier) a bone.


Confusion, disbelief, frustration, anger, resignation, sadness. I’ve passed the ‘frustration’ stage (which implied hope), and am fluctuating uncontrollably between anger and resignation.

Still, when the elections are over and we can finally say that everything went well (inshallah!), when all of the daily micro-incompetence will have miraculously added up to a successful election and a brighter future, when we have all breathed a collective sigh of relief, I will be the one who needs to spend 6 months in India on an intensive yoga meditation break to fight the ulcer, whilst my nonchalant colleagues exasperatingly tell me, “See, I told you so!”

So to keep myself sane, I take long lunch breaks and think about people like Joey, my buddy from Kisangani with his powerful eyes and magical smile.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Of past glamour and hope for the future

So I’m happily sitting cross-legged on a small patch of lawn near the south side of Lake Kivu, typing up my daily sitrep (situation report, for the uninitiated) and enjoying the peace and the soothing sounds of undisturbed nature, when suddenly, out of nowhere, this multicoloured private helicopter appears and heads straight for my small corner of paradise. No friendly warning, not even a moment to gather up my things, and the rude, heedless pilot lands just a few meters to my left, sending my precious notes airborne. Harrumph.

Still, after the noisy fan-packed hotel in Kisangani and the showy, waterless hotel in Goma with its atrium TV constantly and loudly tuned into Kabila’s tedious campaign propaganda, the hotel here in Bukavu is pure bliss – terrace looking out over luxuriant tropical plants to the misty lake, deep comfy chairs, understated, wooden furniture to replace the favoured Congolese kitsch, dim candle lighting instead of neon, Jacques Brel playing softly on the stereo, and guests conversing discreetly in hushed tones, not wishing to disturb the ambient peace. What more could a girl spending a week in the middle of Africa want?

True, the rooms are old and dusty, and with all the flowers and greenery (the hotel is called ‘Orchide’) my allergies are rampant. But right now nothing can diminish the feeling of euphoria that started with the first gin & tonic on this terrace two nights ago, watching dozens of lanterns appear on the horizon as fishermen headed out on the lake for their night-time shift. And you should have seen me clapping merrily like a five-year-old in front of a well-laden Christmas tree when I tested the shower and unexpectedly found it spouted hot water (admittedly this only lasted 1 night; today prolonged cut-outs and a weak generator mean we are back to cold water).

Like Kisangani, I really like Bukavu. They are probably my two favourite places in the DRC – although how different! Kisangani is hot, dusty and flat, cutting surprisingly deep into the thick, dark forest and across the Congo River. The main produce appears to be maize, pineapple and bananas, carried in large bundles on the back of rusty old bicycles. Bukavu, by contrast, is made up of a tight cluster of hills. It is cool and rainy (it rains 9 months per year!), and the surrounding areas are starkly cultivated with an unusual variety of enticing fruit and vegetable (if you look carefully, you can even find the odd artichoke – produced exclusively for the persistent, homesick expatriate). The only things Bukavu and Kisangani appear to have in common, in fact, are the terrible state of the roads, forsaken since the days of the Belgians, the consequent prevalence of motorcycles, and the unexpected presence of a conspicuously-placed mosque (although the one in Kisangani is far more beautiful and grand than its more recent Bukavu equivalent).

Everyone else I speak to seems to like Lubumbashi the best, perhaps because it is the cleanest and most orderly of DRC’s big cities, the closest to its European equivalents and the least affected by war and dilapidation since Belgian days: the traffic actually follows some semblance of regulation; the mini-van taxis are clearly marked and have designated stops; the houses are a neat stack of earthen-coloured bricks set within relatively trim gardens clearly delimited by straight walls; the shops are lined up under wide archways with pavements in front of them… I don’t want to overplay it, but compared to the arbitrariness of other Congolese towns, Lubumbashi does feel extremely functional.

Everyone else seems to like Lubumbashi the best, and most people I speak to really dislike Kisangani. But there’s something about its decrepit glamour, the lingering sense of past beauty and prestige, the stark evidence of a recent war (many buildings remain riddled with bullet holes) and the friendliness of a bicycle town with only very few cars (mostly UN), which appeal to me tremendously. Kisangani is the prince turned pauper whose royal dignity is still barely detectable behind the rags. And I love it all the more that others don’t; it makes me feel privileged somehow to be privy to its well-kept secret. So part of me wants desperately for someone to invest some money into rebuilding Kisangani to its past magnificence, and another (smaller, more selfish) part of me wants it to be left just the way it is so I can continue to admire it alone. Either way, my worst fear is that the old dilapidated brick houses with their rounded bow windows and shaded verandas (where women gather to braid each other’s hair) are razed to the ground and replaced by the cheaper, more functional, but depressing squares of cement with corrugated iron roofs so prevalent in Kinshasa’s ‘Cité’.

Bukavu, meanwhile, lies somewhere in the middle. Its unequivocally beautiful setting appeals to all, but some find the busy, blustering town hard work. For me, it always feels like a soothing refuge after hectic Kinshasa. And the hard-working people are so optimistic, it’s inspiring! They actually believe these elections can change things, they want to vote, and their contagious enthusiasm is a real breath of fresh air after Kinshasa’s cynicism. I stopped asking people about the elections in Kinshasa when everyone I spoke to said they wouldn’t bother to vote because it was all fixed anyway, every candidate was as bad and corrupt as the other, and none of them would make a difference to the welfare of the Congolese. On the contrary, here people talk animatedly of heroes and liberators – of course, they mainly refer to Kabila, and maybe the source of their joyful hopefulness is quite simply that their candidate is very likely to be elected President. Let’s hope they are right and the Kinois are wrong.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Campaign time

As I travel from province to province, everywhere I go, I seem to arrive at the same time as some big shot presidential candidate. In Kisangani, it was Kabila (the current president). The hotel I stayed at was filled to the brim with his supporters, clad in Kabila t-shirts and yellow caps, barking orders excitedly into their mobile phones right under my ground-floor window.

Breakfast at Riviera Hotel, Kisangani

At one point, we were following a big truck full of PPRD supporters (Kabila’s party) when I noticed another big truck full of MLC supporters (his main rival Jean-Pierre Bemba’s party) heading our way. Uh oh. But no, it was all good-natured jeering, and the ever-Congolese shaking-my-booty-whilst-brushing-my-hair dance on both sides. Quite uplifting really.

In Goma, where I arrived on Monday, it’s a head-to-head confrontation between Ruberwa (day before last), Bemba (yesterday) and Pay Pay (today). Supporters are furious because PPRD followers (Kabila’s party) deviously infiltrated the pro-Bemba crowd and started shouting “Kabila, Kabila!” half way through his address in the stadium. Meanwhile, I couldn’t help but notice how many soldiers Bemba appears to be travelling with – not, I believe, fully in line with electoral legislation. Then again, neither are the television channels, which unashamedly show pro-patron propaganda 24/7 despite clear rules about giving all candidates an equal chance. Here in Goma most public places appear to be tuned into the pro-Kabila channel Digital Congo, and I have now seen his election film run on a loop so many times that I can recite each slogan by heart.

Still, it’s all very exciting and inspiring…and knackering too! I don’t think I’ve every worked such long hours in my life before – 12-15 hour days every day, including week-ends. Ok, so probably my investment banker friends are sniggering that I should whinge at (or is it show off?) a 12-hour day, but I bet they don’t spend their days carrying big boxes and counting shoes and socks and hand-cuffs and distributing equipment to edgy policemen, and I bet they don’t get home all dusty and grotty and disgusting only to find that there is no water! And I definitely, definitely KNOW they don’t have to put up with the constant quarrelling of my darling colleagues Mr Sleepy and Mr Hyper (also known as Mr Know-It-All) who would make great characters in a play, but are just a tad too much to deal with in real life.

But it’s all so much FUN, I promise!

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Circularity of time

"The rocks do date the fossils, but the fossils date the rocks more accurately. Stratigraphy cannot avoid this kind of reasoning if it insists on using only temporal concepts, because circularity is inherent in the derivation of time scales."

-- American Journal of Science, Vol. 276, p.53

I was just reading back to some of my first posts in which I call Kinshasa “friendly and relaxed” – HA! – and describe our “lovely ground-floor maisonette” and its “two sunny bedrooms” – double HA!

As later posts attest, Kinshasa and its daily dose of frustrations and stress – many of which, it must be said, have to do with working on a UN-managed project rather than with Kinshasa itself – came very close to bringing me down. Kinshasa is many things – stimulating, bewildering, hostile, unfortunate, electrifying, mystical, uncompromising, maddening, moving, startling – Kinshasa inspires many adjectives, but neither ‘friendly’ nor ‘relaxed’ feature. And as for our “lovely maisonette”, it may have other redeeming features, but it certainly isn’t sunny.

Still, I am pleased to say that the racket from the police station next door – not just the bugle, but also the accompanying so-called parades, where a senior police chief stridently preaches to a bored contingent standing neatly at attention about the path set for them by the Lord – are reduced to Monday mornings only. Now Monday mornings tend to be grim wherever you are, and as long as my Sunday lie-ins remain unaffected I dare not complain.

I have learned an important lesson this year: the importance of regular breaks and holidays. The double whammy of a two-day work trip to South Africa followed immediately by a three-day long week-end in Ethiopia were enough to chill me out and give me back the perspective I was so sorely missing. So when the first thing I witnessed on return from Jo’burg were three fairly vicious fights in Kinshasa’s N’djili Airport, I was able to remark from a distance that tensions in Kinshasa were rife. When after three very relaxing days in Addis our plane was delayed for a couple of hours in Brazzaville because brash a Belgian businessman thought himself above the law and smoked in the toilets, after which we were made to sit in the airport for an hour by an infuriatingly inefficient and devious driver, I was able to put up a defensive force-field, plunge into my novel and ignore it all.

Speaking of force-fields, I am reminded of a recent, very relevant post by a fellow DRC blogger (Breaking Hearts in the Heart of Darkness) whose entries never fail to amuse me. Here is the passage:

“Coming back from vacation is actually a vulnerable moment for expats living in Congo or any third world country. There is a lot of stress about living in Congo that you do not notice until you leave. Not the obvious things, like working in bush, but just a subtle shift where the world takes more energy to deal with. Yet I always forget this and come back bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, which lasts for exactly three minutes - the time to exit the plane and enter Congolese immigration. As I head to baggage claim, it's like I am the Starship Enterprise and my forcefield is down, just as a big group of Klignons try to board. Only I can by them off for a dollar AND they'll carry my bags, and I think the real Klingons would have probably asked for more money and blwown up the bag. And they don't have wrinkly faces. People, it's a metaphor. By the time I exit the airport two hours later (without baggage, which is somewhere between Nairobi and Zimbabwe), I pray that Congo will stay in Klingon mode and not head to Deathstar phase. I slowly turn the forcefield back on. Congo and I generally have a truce going on, which is that we know enough about each other to not expect any major changes or surprises. For example, if I see a roach so big it looks like it could carry off my couch, I do not have the right to get angry. Congo told me about them roaches a while back. But if this roach manages to get inside my coffee cup and stare at me as I try to add Nescafe, that's stepping over the line. If people try to commit fraud to be included in our distributions, I also do not judge, because they are being resourceful and this is Congo. If its people I know, then I get upset. The irony of the whole thing is that, as much as I know that I cannot keep this up, the thought of leaving freaks me out more than the thought of staying.”

Now I’m not sure how I ended up in complaints mode, because the reason I read back to some of my earlier blogs was because I am finally really enjoying myself again, and I have recovered that feeling of excitement and purpose I felt when I first got here back in December. Maybe it’s the thrill of the impending elections. Or maybe it’s because, unlike Kinshasa, Kisangani, where I have been spending the last few days, is both friendly and relaxed. The same can be said of most places in the interior, which despite having suffered so much more than Kinshasa from conflict and poverty, don’t seem to be plagued by the same bitterness. Whatever the reason, I must say that I really, really like it out here.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Dancing policemen


Kapalata training centre, near Kisangani

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Coup de boule

At university I wrote a dissertation on news bias, comparing coverage of different local and international news items in different UK, French and American media. Today, reading the different theories about what provoked our national hero to head butt his Italian counterpart in the chest, I almost feel like going back to that paper.

The Guardian website mentions two possibilities:

(1) Quoting the BBC, Materazzi would have said, “I wish an ugly death to you and all your family,” and the ever-elegant “go fuck yourself”;

(2) Quoting a Paris-based anti-racism group, SOS-Racism, Zidane would have been called a “dirty terrorist”.

I’m not sure what the paper version of The Guardian said yesterday (since we are sadly deprived out here), but here is what a French website made of it:

Selon le quotidien anglais The Guardian, le litige qui s'est déroulé entre le défenseur italien Marco Materazzi et le capitaine français Zinedine Zidane,qui s'est soldé par un terrible coup de tête asséné par Zinédine Zidane, et qui vaudra au meneur de jeu tricolore un carton rouge,se serait déroulé de la sorte: suite à une action française non fructueuse, et alors que les italiens avaient récupéré le ballon et avaient débuté une contre attaque, seuls quelques joueurs demeuraient dans la surface de réparation italienne, David Trezeguet, Gennaro Gatuso, Zinedine Zidane, Marco Materazzi et le gardien Gianluca Buffon.

Zinedine Zidane était au cours de l'action précédente très strictement surveillé par Marco Materazzi, qui le ceinturait fermement des deux bras, et lui tiraillait le maillot...Le ballon a été pris par Del Piero, et se trouvait déjà à ce moment au delà du milieu de terrain. Les caméras "live" ont alors complètement déserté la scène où le litige a eu lieu. Mais pas les caméra "Off"...

Tout au long de la rencontre, Marco Materazzi, qui était chargé de surveiller Zidane dans la surface de réparation, avait apparemment continuellement matraqué le capitaine français de paroles indélicates, voire même injurieuses, que le milieu de terrain français a longtemps fait de négliger. Toutefois, après cette séquence, Zidane a signalé à Materazzi, en lui montrant la manche de son maillot: "Ordinanza de tirare il costume!!" (arrete de me tirer le maillot!!) Déclaration à laquelle réponds Materazzi:

- "Taciti, enculo, hai solamente cio che merite..." (Tais toi enc*lé, tu ne reçois que ce que tu mérites...)

- "si e cio..." (oui...c'est ça...)

C'est à ce moment que Zidane s'éloigne quelque peu du défenseur italien, qui poursuit, dans son dos:

- "meritate tutti ciò, voi gli enculato di musulmani, sporchi terroristici" (vous méritez tous ça, vous les enc&lés de musulmans, sales terroristes)

C'est alors que Zidane, désabusé, fatigué, mentalement fragilisé, assène un coup de tête terrible au torse du défenseur, qui toutefois en fais des tonnes, action qui demeure toutefois inexcusable....

Le second problème soulevé est la question de la prise de décision des arbitres par visionnage vidéo...soir la FIFA décide d'arbitrer un match avec les données des arbitres, soit elle décide de promulguer l'assistance vidéo, qui demeure à ce jour interdite. Mais elle a toutefois été appliquée lors de la finale de la coupe du monde. Effectivement, cette énorme bavure du capitaine français n'aurait pas pu passer inaperçue, mais aurait donc du être jugée et sanctionnée à postériori...à d'autres.

Bref, se non è vero, è bene trovato ...

Monday, July 10, 2006

Spot the difference

It’s D-day minus 10, and as the campaign rises up a notch, the streets of Kinshasa find themselves more adorned than an American suburb at Christmas. Supporters and opportunists alike will be able to eat, drink, sing, party, clothe themselves and bathe in perfume for the next couple of weeks free of charge.

Meanwhile, 19 presidential candidates (out of a total of 33) have asked for the elections to be postponed, supposedly because the Independent Electoral Commission is not ready, and there are too many irregularities. Some say the truth lies closer to home: the unfortunate candidates just don’t have enough cash to campaign.

Of course, some appear to have rather more funding than others…

On a gloomier note, a Congolese journalist was killed at home on Friday night. This incident is all the more worrying as it follows the recent expulsion from DRC of the French journalist Ghislaine Dupont.

On a lighter note, the DRC now has its own brand new, shiny, glossy, alluring tourist guidebook. The 300 pages, complete with colour photographs of friendly villagers flashing broad, unlikely smiles and mouth-watering descriptions of national parks replete with exceptional vegetation and rare, precious animals, include only two paragraphs on security which glean over the issue with careless understatements such as: « Il n’est pas conseillé de voyager seul en République Démocratique du Congo. »

Too bad Mme Dupont hadn’t read this particular piece of priceless advice.

Of the police and the army, generally acknowledged as trouble by the local population and expatriates alike, and in some regions widely feared for their dire reputation as armed thieves and/or rapists, the guidebook observes : « Mieux vaut s’adresser à un compatriote en cas de réel problème. La police ou l’armée est particulièrement zelée le long des routes. (…) Il est évidemment inutile de s’alarmer. »

Perhaps the authors were wearing rose-tinted glasses throughout their visit. Perhaps they aimed for the guidebook to be accurate a few years from now. But to say of Ituri that it is a beautifully intact forest with unique fauna and flora, and a few pygmies to boot, without once mentioning that it is currently the scene of a rather vicious and ongoing war, is quite negligent methinks. I can’t help but wonder who financed the publication of this particular guide. Unless le Petit Futé was not so “futé” after all and had the wool pulled over its eyes by some clever investors and shady officials.

Still, I wouldn’t want to put anyone off visiting us (well, after the elections please), so if you’re mad enough to even consider it (Paul), here it is (not yet online):

Sunday, July 09, 2006

An inch...

… is as good as a mile.

Well, it just goes to show how much I know about football: poor Trezeguet was anything but the man tonight. And what a flamboyant way for Zizou to say his good-byes! Bring out the lip readers – I’m dying to know what Materazzi said to him to cause such wrath. As I desperately search the net for some early guesses as to what exactly happened, I wistfully chance upon this early report from a fellow blogger:

“It's 17:30 hrs CET and the fans have started to arrive at the stadium. Most of the France fans are wearing shirts with the name Zidane emblazoned across their backs and every Frenchman I spoke to is hoping Zizou will retire in style.”

Still, silly as he was tonight, Zizou will remain a legend, and France played well. But thank goodness it’s all over so we can reengage with the real world and reclaim our evenings! (Not so for my cousin in the US who has been enjoying a rare hiatus in trading madness as the trade floor tv screens were tuned to the Cup rather than Bloomsberg and the likes.)

Silly game.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Thuram Président!

Well, the praying and voodoo worked, it seems. Phew! Welcome to my house:

If nothing else, I’m glad we avenged Ronaldo’s histrionics against England. It was fun watching last night’s game with my English colleagues who booed along with the crowd in Germany every time the drama king appeared on screen.

But what was up with Barthez- Jello -Hands??

It’s time for Domenech to bring out Trezeguet methinks. ‘Til Sunday, then.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Allez les Bleus!

This morning, as I walked out of the house, one of our guards stopped me to tell me in broken but intensely earnest French that I had to meditate today: “Il faut méditer, madame, il faut beaucoup méditer pour la France. Moi je vais méditer aujourd’hui. Vous aussi vous devez méditer. Il faut que la France gagne.” I suspect the word he was looking for was “pray”.

You see, after Brazil beat Ghana, most Congolese rallied behind France – on the basis that France features the African Dream Team anyway.

Meanwhile, in Ethiopia, where F. and I spent 3 days over the week-end for an early birthday treat, people supported France against Brazil because “we’re Ethiopian, you see, we don’t like domination”. On the other hand, many will now switch their allegiance to Portugal, in a show of support for Ana Gomez, the European Union’s Chief Election Monitor for Ethiopia, who publicly criticised Ethiopia’s elections in May. Apparently, when Portugal plays in a game, the Ethiopian onlookers watching the huge screen set up in the main square chant, “Ana Gooomez, Ana Gooomez!”

In the meantime my father, a pioneer of fair play, has asked me to seek out the Congolese sorcerers who helped swing the game in favour of Mbuji Mayi (see this post) and make them a donation of little dolls dressed in red and green and a few sharp needles.

Whichever method you choose, it’s time to cross your fingers for France.

St Tekle Haimanot Church, Ethiopia

Monday, July 03, 2006

No Comment

Something to make you smile

A mouse rides on the back of a frog in floodwaters in the northern Indian city of Lucknow

Something to make you frown

Riot police arrest a supporter of DRC's main opposition party during a demonstration on the streets of Kinshasa on 30 June 2006.

[Both pictures from Reuters AlertNet]