Wednesday, February 21, 2007

L’Abbé Pierre

I am aghast to find that I entirely missed the death of a much cherished compatriot, the Abbé Pierre. This man was probably one of the most famous and well-liked public figures in France; he was voted « personnalité préférée des Français » seventeen times, from 1989 to 2003. He was our Mother Teresa, in a way. At eighteen years old he relinquished all his worldly possessions and joined the Capucins. His real name was Henri Grouès; Abbé Pierre was his code name when he joined the French resistance in 1942, and he kept it ever since. After a short stint in politics, he returned to his first calling as chaplain and founded a secular NGO called Emmaüs to help the most vulnerable. Anyone in France who has ever given away clothes or objects to be sold in a second-hand shop will know the name Emmaüs.

I don’t know why the Abbé Pierre was so famous in France. Some say he captured people’s imaginations because he was the perfect embodiment of the apostolate, this scrawny man with his big beard always wearing the same black cassock, given to him one day by a fireman. Some say it was because of his frequent provocative public statements, against homelessness mostly, but also quite frequently against the French government. My generation liked him because he was so much less turgid than most of the public figures we grew up with (most of whom are still around). They say he twice told Le Pen, “Ta gueule”. « De temps en temps, faire ce qui ne se fait pas, ça fait du bien, » he said. He was once booed on television during a show about HIV/Aids when he said that the best remedy was fidelity in love, but he also made public statements in favour of condom use. All in all, few would deny that he was a good man.

« Il ne faut pas attendre d'être parfait pour commencer quelque chose de bien. »

-- Abbé Pierre

Monday, February 19, 2007

News update

Wow, the last two weeks have been just crazy. It’s always the same when a team of consultants is brought in: they have just a week or two to do everything, they have dozens of people to meet every day, and they are expected to come up with novel ideas that people on the ground doing the job day-in, day-out haven’t thought of. Of course, since the days are filled with meetings, we are expected to work in the evenings, and if by some miracle we have a few workless hours one evening or on the week-end, we feel obliged to entertain, show the visitors around town, take them souvenir shopping, etc. So park your private life for a couple of weeks, there’s a mission in town! I’ve been in their shoes many a time, so I really can’t complain. Still, call me a bureaucrat, but I look forward to the next ten days of quiet, in-my-own time report writing. Insh’allah.

So what’s been going in DRC since I took my eye off the ball?

The new political leadership has been emerging slowly, for starters, with a happy outcome for the President. The new government was finally announced on 5 February: sixty state ministers, ministers and vice-ministers, no less! And the country now boasts eleven new provincial assemblies, seven pro-Kabila and four pro-Bemba; a new senate with a comfortable majority for the presidential coalition and quite a few dinosaurs from the Mobutu era reappearing as senators; and, since Friday, a confirmed list of governors and vice-governors, with only one province going to the opposition. Bemba has accused Kabila's camp of buying votes for governors and senators, elected indirectly by members of the provincial assemblies. But the real losers are the women: only four ministers and four vice-ministers out of sixty, and only five senators are women – not much in a country whose Constitution promotes gender parity!

A funny story from this week: following the announcement of the new Cabinet, three people with the name Kasongo Ilunga showed up at the Prime Minister’s office to claim the post of Minister of Commerce. The newspapers claim that even the Prime Minister’s office wasn’t sure which of the three men Gizenga (the PM) actually meant to make minister, so the mystery continues – only in DRC, vraiment!

The other big story of the past couple of weeks is the shootings in Bas-Congo. During the election of governor and vice-governor of that province, the newly-elected members of the provincial assembly voted for the PPRD candidate (the party close to Kabila), despite an MLC majority (Bemba’s party) in the assembly and amid suspicions of corruption ($10,000 per vote). The spiritual leader of the Bundu Dia Kongo, an anti-government political and religious group which many qualify as a sect, was on the lists as an MLC candidate and was therefore not elected. The violence started when the police in Matadi, Bas-Congo’s capital, searched the Bundu Dia Kongo headquarters and found weapons. The Bundu Dia Kongo organised demonstrations in several cities throughout the province, during which some twenty people were killed. In the town of Muanda, an angry crowd ransacked a number of public buildings and killed four police officers and two soldiers. The police then called in the army, and hundreds of soldiers opened fire on the crowd without summation. They then pursued the Bundu Dia Kongo followers into their church, which was subsequently burnt down. According to the UN mission in Congo (MONUC), 134 people were killed in the clashes, or ‘massacre’ as more and more people are now calling it. The Minister of Interior has since been confirmed as one of six ministers of state – a vote of confidence from the President and Prime Minister at a time when some might have expected his resignation.

I'm cheating. This picture was actually taken in Katanga a few months ago,
but the riot gear was standard issue and would have been the same in Bas Congo.

MONUC will shortly publish a report on what happened. In the meantime, it has been busy discussing its future. Its mandate was supposed to expire last 15 February, but many both within and outside DRC called for an extension: a recent Oxfam report entitled 'A Fragile Future' (which I haven’t yet read) argues strongly that premature withdrawal of the UN from the DRC could see a return to all-out fighting and a humanitarian crisis. For now the Security Council has extended the UN’s mandate in DRC by two months, but most people expect it to be extended by at least two years. Except perhaps President Kabila, who seemingly deliberately chose to underplay the January visit of the new UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon: the poor man, who had specifically chosen the DRC as his first ‘southern’ country visit, arrived in Kinshasa unheralded and was made to travel all the way to Kisangani to meet the President.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Des histoires...

… à dormir debout !

First Mama Cat was eaten by our neighbours the Police. Then, the exact same day (suspiciously) a large sofa was dropped on her orphaned kittens. Three sprang out of the way, but two screeched heartbreakingly and looked like they were maimed for life. Thankfully, just as I tearfully told the guards they would have to put them out of their misery, they hobbled away and have since made a full recovery. Then we went on Christmas holiday leaving piles of cat food and strict instructions to care for the kittens, but when we returned we found them looking mangy and unwell, tufts of fur missing, and one of them in particular had strange black marks all over him. When I asked what had happened, I was told that the kittens had fallen in break fluid. Break fluid?!?

Now what you need to know is that at that point the only vehicle that had been inside the compound for the last four weeks was my own. The day before going on holiday, I received a panicked phone-call from my landlady informing me that some road workers had suddenly and without warning decided to dig a massive hole right in front of our gate. At that point I was sitting in the world’s most tedious meeting, shifting painfully in my seat because of that damned abscess, sweating from the fever caused by the infection, and slowly turning an ugly shade of green. The prospect of rushing home to argue interminably in the hope of rescuing my car was simply too much to bear, so I figured it could just stay there until we returned from leave. You see the workers promised that the hole would be filled within the week, and sheer fatigue made me choose to believe them. Unsurprisingly, on return from Malawi three weeks later, we found the hole exactly where we left it, and to make a long story short, my car remained marooned in there for six weeks.

So back to the kittens, you can see why the notion that they had fallen in break fluid when the only car in the vicinity was my own was rather preposterous. Still, our housekeeper stuck to her guns through threats and cajoling, and at least the kittens were still alive, so I decided not to pursue the issue any further. Since then their health has been steadily improving, and they have become entirely tame and accustomed to humans. So now I am busy scouting for potential adopters before the well-fed kittens become too big and appetising and irresistible for our uncouth neighbours. Not to mention before they reach puberty and start having kittens of their own – this being the fourth litter in less than 12 months!

Saturday, February 03, 2007

One for Aaron: Sum 41 in the DRC

In May 2004 the Canadian punk band Sum 41 travelled to Bukavu to film a documentary about child soldiers and the impact of war on Congolese children. Now I’ve never heard of this band before, but I’m told they’re pretty famous. The lead singer, Deryck Whibley (aka Bizzy D), was dating and is now married to Avril Lavigne (whom I have heard about).

Anyway, so this band of twenty-something year-old celebrities from Ajax, Ontario decides it wants to do some good in the world and starts to research different charities. They select the NGO War Child Canada. They can’t decide whether to donate money or do a concert, but then War Child shows them documentaries of bands actually going to war-torn countries. “We thought that was really cool”, says bassist Jason McCaslin (aka Cone) in an interview recorded in EnoughFanzine. Next thing you know, they’re on a plane to the DRC with the President and the Executive Director of War Child Canada, and a camera crew. “I’m dangerous, so I’m not afraid to go,” boasts the guitarist, Dave Baksh (aka Brownsound), who has recently left the band I understand.

The first thing that happens on arrival is they see lots of drunken soldiers in the airport. “They were drinking beer and one guy was past out on a rocket launcher,” says Cone. Then some more soldiers stop them at a road block, ask for cash and threaten them with a machete when they refuse to give it. Unlucky, but not entirely unexpected. But then the band's journey takes a real turn for the worst when Bukavu erupts into heavy fighting between dissident soldiers and government troops. The violence claims some hundred lives over two weeks, causes tens of thousands to flee the country, and jeopardizes the country's fragile peace process. And Sum 41 find themselves cowering in their hotel to the sound of mortar shells exploding close by. “I’m in some kind of pickle here,” announces the drummer Steve Jocz (aka Stevo) to the camera.

Meanwhile, over in the UN compound, there’s this guy called Chuck. Chuck is a UN volunteer and ex-military sergeant from Canada who is responsible for managing the UN camp in Bukavu. Apparently, Chuck is best known among his colleagues for making the cleaning staff – poor mamas dressed in light blue boiler suits whom I’ve usually seen dolefully moping around the camp with a broom in tow – do fire drills every morning at 6am. When the fighting breaks out Chuck starts to pile sandbags around the camp. At this stage, most of the UN staff is up day and night taking civilians to safety, and when one of them, exhausted, irritably questions the logic of putting sandbags up just outside his office door, Chuck clamours loudly, “While you guys are busy boozing and whoring, some of us are trying to save lives here!” Chuck is not the most popular guy among his colleagues, it seems.

Several hours into the fighting, Sum 41 are still stranded in their hotel. As Bizzy D recounts after the event, “One bomb came too close, hit the hotel and the hotel just started shaking. Everyone dove and was lying on the ground. Things were falling off the walls, mirrors were breaking. That's when we all kind of realized that this was really going bad and we're probably not going to make it out.” At the prospect of losing her beloved, Avril Lavigne pulls every string she can think of: her manager is on the phone with the American Ambassador to the DRC, then with the Special Representative to the Secretary General of the UN. Ok, admittedly this part of the story is pure hearsay, and I should add that the person who told me the story (ex-UN staff) also said that the fighting was at least 2 or 3kms down the road from the hotel, and the band was really in no danger at all – relatively speaking of course.

All be it, the crackling of gunshots and mortar sounds remarkably close, and the band is understandably terrified. Until Chuck, who happens to be staying at the same hotel, enters the scene, sending for armoured personnel carriers to rescue his compatriots and the other 40 or so civilians stranded, shaking, in the hotel. The band’s dramatic evacuation by Chuck and the UN is captured on film, the ensuing documentary ‘Rocked: Sum 41 In Congo’ is aired on MTV, and our friend Chuck becomes a hero. Not only that, but Sum 41 name their next album after the retired sergeant, much to the ill-covered resentment of Chuck’s UN colleagues.

Sum 41 with Chuck and album cover from Wikipedia
Confusingly, however, none of the songs on the album have anything to do with DRC, not even “We’re all to blame”, most of which was written the very day the fighting started: “That song was being written while we were in the Congo, so it doesn’t really have anything to do with the Congo,” explains Brownsound enigmatically in an interview for Gasoline.

Other events documented in ‘Rocked: Sum 41 In Congo’ include Sum 41 visiting Eckabana House, an orphanage for girls banished from their homes, allegedly for witchcraft, and a music therapy camp where the band did an impromptu rendition of “Hey Jude”, supposedly because it would be easier for the kids to dance to than Sum 41’s own music. If you’ve ever heard Congolese music, you’ll understand why the kids weren’t inspired to dance to “Hey Jude” either.