Thursday, December 20, 2007

Merry Christmas


Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Death of a tumbu

My more faithful readers will recall a little incident involving a writhing maggot, my left bum cheek, Vaseline experiments and a badly infected abscess, all ending rather unhappily with a scalpel incision and a Christmas holiday spent changing dressings. Well, almost a year to the day, the Christmas worm came back (or, more likely, a cousin of his).

Here is a picture of the fiend, after F. laboriously (and painfully!) squeezed it out of my right shoulder blade, where it had elected temporary residence. The Q-tip is for scale.

The procedure involved a Congolese product called Ichthammol, a sulfur-based ointment which looks and smells like tar and is meant to help draw out infections. The doctor recommended it after assuring me that I didn’t have a tumbu (also known as putzi) in my shoulder, just an infected boil (different doctor, same erroneous diagnosis as last year).

So F. innocently dabbed my shoulder with the stuff, and next thing you know there’s a little white head bobbing repulsively in and out. Clearly our little squatter did not appreciate his lair being suddenly flooded by a toxic ointment, nor his air hole being blocked. So much for ‘no tumbu’!

I would rather not recall what happened over the next fifteen minutes – a lot of Eeeweughs! from F. and Yeeowwaas! from me – but the outcome was a swift, unsympathetic eviction, followed by a quick photo session and final drowning by Johnny Walker (yes, the thing was still alive and squirming when I took the picture!).

Bon appétit!

Friday, December 14, 2007

Interlude: from Bali to Kakamigahara via Mount Rushmore

According to the radio this morning (RFI), the UN climate change conference in Bali isn’t really going anywhere. The hope was that by now (11.30 GMT), delegates would have mapped out a two-year process to agree a set of emissions cuts to replace the current Kyoto Protocol targets. The Times reports that “the proposal, supported by the EU and Brazil, would have set out in writing an ambition to cut greenhouse gases produced by industrialised countries by up to two fifths in the next 13 years. The emissions cut would have been non-binding and subject to future negotiation, but even this was too much for the US, which opposes any reference to specific numerical goals in advance of more detailed negotiations next year.” So it appears that the best we can currently hope for is a compromise that would keep the US at the negotiating table just long enough for Bush to be replaced in 2009 by a more environmentally-conscious president.

Teaching my Suzuki how to swim
The rains in Kinshasa have caused the roads to deteriorate severely

Meanwhile, the Telegraph used the Carbon Footprint calculator to estimate how many trees would have to be planted to offset conference carbon emissions: 136,987.

According to a report from IBM Global Business Services, picked up by Environmental Leader, sixty-seven percent of consumers polled across six countries (Australia, Germany, Japan, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and the United States) would be willing to pay more for eco-friendly energy. True, most of these would only be willing to pay 5 percent more, and cost and quality were still considered more important than environmental concerns, but the Americans, surprisingly, were the most willing to pay a sizable premium, up to an additional 20 percent or more.

I remember seeing one of the Diesel “Global Warming Ready” ads in the US last year, and, while admitting that it was clever, also thinking that one day our children would be amazed at how oblivious, even insensitive, our generation had been. Imagine if at the beginning of the 20th century, Coco Chanel or the Tirocchi sisters had launched a “World War Ready” advertising campaign showing women carrying bayonet-mounted rifles over costly garments designed to show off their tightly corseted torsos.


(For a full discussion of whether Diesel meant its satire of global warming to be sarcastic or to raise awareness, read this Washington Post article, in which I also discovered that Ben & Jerry's ice cream has been pushing a campaign to "Lick Global Warming".)

Finally, in case you’re feeling guilty about how much energy your Christmas lights are consuming this year, here is one idea: at the Aqua Toto Gifu aquarium in Kakamigahara, Japan, the Christmas tree is powered by…an electric eel! According to the Mainichi Daily News, each time the eel touches a conductive copper wire installed in its tank, a surge of electric power lights up the globes in the tree.

As for me, I was embarrassed to discover that my Carbon Footprint for 2007 is estimated at no less than 17.250 tonnes of CO2! By comparison, the average for the DRC is 0.04 tonnes, for the world is 4 tonnes and for industrialised nations is 11 tonnes. I look forward to the day when planes will be flown on renewable energy. In the meantime, I better get planting…

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Solution, anyone?

The DRC is now firmly in the mainstream international press. This article in NY Times provides a good update of the ever-evolving situation in North Kivu.

Following the early army successes, many people in North Kivu dared to hope that a swift victory was at hand and some were already preparing a victory march. Humanitarian workers feared for Tutsi civilians, in whose name General Nkunda claims to be fighting. But now the tables have turned again, and Nkunda’s men have retaken Mushake (only 40km from Goma) and Karuba, while Sake had to be defended by the UN. If the army fails, it would be a disaster for President Kabila, whose popularity in the east is in freefall.

“Humility is the only certain defence against humiliation,” they say.

It is hard to imagine what a solution might look like: Nkunda wants to retain his little fiefdom in the hills of North Kivu, which understandably Kabila is unwilling to allow, if only because it would anger other ex-militia leaders who agreed to integrate their men into the national army.

Meanwhile, the UN is in (too) deep, with 4,500 blue helmets fighting alongside the national army in North Kivu. Other partners fighting alongside the Congolese army include the FDLR (ex-Rwandan Hutu militia), which some fear will provoke the Rwandan government to invade the DRC. Meanwhile, the army Chief of Staff General Kayembe is on a five-day visit to Angola to discuss “cooperation in the military field,” according to Angola Press.

Painted sign on the wall of the Provincial Inspectorate in Goma,
commissioned in 2006 by the ex-Provincial Inspector for North Kivu,
who has now been moved to some backwater post
(the sign may have been painted over by his replacement)

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

A bad year for gorillas

Unless you have privileged access to UN situation reports, it’s very difficult from Kinshasa to know how the situation is evolving in North Kivu. In my hunger for information, I started to read some of the blogs, such as this one from the rangers at Virunga National Park.

I discovered that this really hasn’t been a good year for gorillas in Virunga:

· In January, two gorillas were killed and eaten.

· In June, alongside guarantees that Brad did not cheat on Jennifer with Angelina, the Daily Mail published a heart-wrenching article about a baby mountain gorilla called Ndakasi who’d been found clinging to her ‘executed’ mother. A nearby trail of blood suggested that a second gorilla had also been shot.

· In July, four members of the Rugendo Family were killed, as reported (and eloquently photographed) by Paulin at Wildlife Direct.

· In August, the BBC reported that the remains of a female gorilla called Macibiri had been found, and that her infant had undoubtedly also been killed or died alone.

According to a journalist reporting in the Daily Telegraph, a total of ten gorillas were killed this year.

North Kivu update

The first day of fighting seemed to go Nkunda’s way, but since yesterday the tables have started to turn back in the government’s favour.

While F. waited patiently in Masisi for a UN helicopter to take him to relative safety, I was privy to an hour-by-hour account of the slow but steady advance of the Congolese Army from Sake (30 km northwest of Goma) to Mushake (40 km from Goma, on the road to Masisi). The heaviest fighting today was in Mushake, and when it was confirmed this afternoon that the town had been taken by the Army, I started to wonder how long it would take them to get to Masisi. Thankfully, F. is now back in Goma.

News from the other main axis to Rutshuru, 150 km north of Goma, is far more opaque. On Monday, Nkunda’s men had taken control of Army positions in Kikuku and Nyanzale, including their vehicles and ammunition. I haven’t heard whether or not those positions have been taken back, which suggests they haven’t, since the government is quick to proclaim its victories.

In Kinshasa, speculation continues about whether or not Nkunda is being protected by influential members of the government, whether or not he is backed by Rwanda, whether the conflict has unofficially escalated to become a regional – some even say global – affair…

International coverage, however, remains patchy. Whilst the Guardian and others picked up an AP report on Condoleeza Rice’s ‘unease’ about the deteriorating security situation in several African hot spots, no mention seems to have been made of the DRC.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Hard and fast

Last week I was temporarily distracted by London, where I went on a whirlwind visit to speak at a conference about the DRC. It’s the second consecutive year that I attend this conference and make a presentation on the DRC, and it’s the second year that I return home to turmoil. For now I will continue to focus my attention on ‘the troubled eastern province of North Kivu’, as it is regularly referred to by reporters.

For the last few days, everyone has been saying that after weeks of preparation, the Congolese army would finally attack on 5 December. Someone jumped the gun. Probably the rebel leader, General Nkunda. This morning there was heavy fighting north of Goma, with tanks shooting at the hills, and the hills shooting back at the tanks.

The numbers:
· 1 rebel leader
· 4,000 insurgents loyal to the rebel leader
· 20,000 government troops
· almost 400,000 displaced civilians since the end of last year
· 800,000 displaced civilians altogether

According to one of my Congolese colleagues, whenever there is conflict in the DRC, the three big players are not far away: USA, Belgium and France. The US is going very public, ahead of Condoleeza Rice’s visit to Ethiopia on Thursday, with calls for Nkunda to surrender and go into exile. Belgium and France are very silent. The UN is even more definitely siding with the government than before.

The recurring refrain amongst the Congolese I speak to is, why on earth wasn’t Nkunda taken out before? I remember when I was in Goma six months ago, driving past a hotel and being told by a fairly senior UN representative that this was where Nkunda regularly came to eat and meet with his collaborators…

Meanwhile, I look back wistfully at my pictures from election-day in Sake, and remember with sadness the tears of joy in an old man’s eyes as he danced down the steps of the voting centre for whence he had just cast the first free vote in his life. I wonder where these kids are today.

P.S: Extra Extra, aka F., travelled to Masisi on Saturday to look into stories like this one. He had some misadventures on route, involving sleeping in a truck, which I’m sure he will blog about in due course. He is now in Masisi, which remains quiet.