Into the Heart

Into the Heart


This month, I write from our remotest field site, in Pangi, central Congo, final destination in a journey to trace the aid industry from source to sea, from one of Europe’s greatest cities to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.  It has been a slow journey – six months in London working on supply spreadsheets and donning T-shirts to persuade the well-heeled folks away from their hard-earned pennies; to Goma where the boxed medicines transit through vast warehouses; through sleepy Kindu where the convoys return battered and tired from their long adventures to the jungle clinics.   From Kindu, the journey to Pangi is a two-day motorbike ride – across the wide River Congo in a dugout canoe, and over 17 small bridges of rusting metal or rotting tree trunks, often too slippery to ride and barely wide enough to walk.

Our function is to cajole the community into providing some construction materials for their new clinic.  There are a number of reasons for this – first, it would be time-consuming, dangerous and expensive to transport sand and wood from Kindu, when these materials are locally available in abundance.  Secondly, if the community has no involvement in their new health centre, no knowledge of its function or vested interest in its upkeep, then it will become an over-engineered goat shed – ensuring that the construction becomes a collective community project is a useful strategy in ensuring that the health centre takes its place at the heart of a community.  And communities might be forgiven for being inactive and skeptical – the Belgians took, Mobutu neglected, aid agencies will leave when their funding stops, and the UN drives through in heavy convoys and breaks their  bridges – the villages need to fight for their school or health centre themselves if it is to function for them.

Here, the community were responsive – the lack of activity prior to our trip had been a simple lack of communication, where they simply didn’t know what type of sand we wanted or what size of planks would be hewn from the surrounding forest.  Evolving from playful few minutes spent with the chief’s young son, it was the women who proved far more active in organizing activities, who went to find their husbands with saws and spades, and who returned with a delegation of workers to find and transport the materials.

Pangi itself is an odd little town – out base is housed in a dilapidated house on a rolling colonial hillside, an tranquil open space nested in the jungle, with the children climbing the palm trees and playing football. Over the way are the offices of the security services, a two storey house with graffiti and boarded up windows, not dissimilar to the squats I used to see on the way to Cambridge station.   Our team at Pangi is a breath of fresh air – they are relatively young and energetic, and work with initiative and enthusiasm. In Pangi they live a tough life, many of them away from family and friends, and they are concerned for the continuity and capacity of the project, which is constantly limited by inadequate support and communications.

One evening, as usual, we sat on the steps looking at sun setting through the bamboo, when we heard a huge explosion from about a kilometre away. Pangi is relatively peaceful now, too far away from anywhere to be of interest to the warmongers, and after talking with our guards, it transpired that this was the work of the Congolese Bomb Disposal squad. I soon learn that these munitions experts are in fact villagers. They had found an old bomb left over from the 1996 conflict, and had decided to dispose of it: the bomb was placed in the middle of a large clump of green bamboo, doused in petrol, and burned.

On the return journey some weeks later, racing the incoming storm through the jungle, we were hailed down twice: once to be offered roasted corn by the family of one of the motorbike drivers, and once by a villager who had picked up a wallet dropped by our construction manager, and wanted to return it.   Myself, I often started to dream on the motorbike, and wondered if we could pull in the big name cyclists for a Tour de Congo.  As long as they didn’t mind riding 1950s Indian bikes and carrying some palm oil for the market, I reckoned it would work.

River Congo

River Congo


I write this month’s update under a straw shelter in Kindu, the small town on the banks of the Congo river where there are at many different kinds of destructive ant, and where I am relieved that you can still get Primus beer, whose colourful dancing girls adorn the Sunday best suits of the churchgoers.  Here, you can walk the streets at night, and even the soldiers seem to have a smile instead of a scowl.

Kindu is the logistical hub for our 145 health centres in Maniema province, central Congo.    The work is long, and there are simply not enough hours in the day – we are a handful working with a multi-million dollar budget, supporting clinics that are sometimes days away through the jungle. The tired fleet of 20 motorbikes and 7 landcruisers, constantly battered by the daily journeys into the jungle, needs a regular supply of parts and mechanical inventiveness.   In addition, there is a warehouse and monthly distribution schedule of 300 medical line items to be managed, with the procurement for the medicines, vehicle parts, construction supplies down to pencils and toilet paper, and a team of warehouse keepers, guards, nurses, mechanics and drivers to be managed.  I notice a stark reduction, in comparison to Goma, in the experience and ability of these teams.   Systems to make sense out of the chaos, to track materials and supplies and plans, are desperately needed, and the implementation of which is in constant battle against the firefighting tasks of the day.

But I do not work alone – indeed, there are some quick learners here, and I discover that time spent working with and training staff has quick rewards here.  My weekly meetings turn into an entertaining line-up of misfits and eccentrics – so much so that my standards of normality for Congolese worker bees are quickly readdressed.  There is the willowy, drunk fleet manager, swaying in the wind, who has no concept of planning and organization for the management of a large fleet, but who does have an uncanny knack for sucking through blocked fuel hoses.  His partner-in-crime, seeking to usurp him from his lofty throne, tries to steal vehicle parts or fuel to sell, often with the most comically see-through stories.  Standing in his way is the surly warehouse manager who guards his store like the Bastille. The two items  that most often pass through, and are most often stolen, are fuel and cement. Ironically, he is chronically allergic to both of them.  At the head of the team, commanding a simple intellectual respect from his children, is the professorial figure of the head logistician, man of meticulous academic nature, scrupulous honesty, and the longest working day of all.

The only other force with the power to unite the professor’s squabbling children, is the expatriate engineer in charge of construction activities.  Rudolfo is a an die-hard Chilean communist who bears a passing resemblance to Father Christmas, and spent two years in jail under Pinochet.  He shouts, swears, accuses everyone of corruption, and calls all his interns ‘Maria’.  He took in a young Congolese who approached him in the streets of Kinshasa, housed him and funded him through university, and watched him become an advisor to the President.  All of the staff fancied their chances as Rudulfo impressionists, uniting the mechanics’ yard in uncontrollable waves of laughter, and immortalizing his rants in Kindu folklore.

Rudolfo believed strongly in young people – in investing time, money and energy in their training, and expects them to do the same for others.  He spent three days in front of a flip chart teaching me the principles of construction in the bush – but he seemed unable to extend that trust to the national staff.  He remained convinced that foul play abounded at every turn, and would refuse to sign any documents for procurement, for release from the warehouse, or for anything that would see work go ahead on the ground.  I think he was tired of Congo’s way, of the game played by its own rules – I was quickly learning that the game was played by the unofficial acceptance of a five percent rule – that, for the sake of getting a good job done at all, of walking before running, a blind eye is turned to a small loss.

After the trials of the day, I sometimes go down to the airfield.  During the day, it is a lifeline for Maniema, the only access point from any of the other major towns in Congo.  Working under the midday sun to offload supplies from medicines to chickens, the muscled labourers are witty and untroubled – once a shipment is loaded, they sit high on the truck swigging home brew and shouting rude comments at passers-by, unknowing participants in a global habit.

As the activity dies down, and the runway transforms into a place of relaxation – an empty hole in the jungle, where we escape to run and play football undisturbed.   At the far end of the runway, only the sunset is visible over the leafy canopy, usually broken by clouds , which covering the sky in spectrums of different colours, and often explode in powerful lightning storms.

Logistical Rites

Logistical Rites


Like the armies hiding in the hills, the geography here is volatile, and respects no boundaries. Far above the jungle, gazing down upon the small villages poking out from the holes in the jungle, I lost the border as it wove in and out of the hills on its way to the misty Ruwenzori mountains. The smoke rising from the open mountaintop craters and the scars in the jungle left by the wide lava flows served as a reminder that the rock is still young.  Where land turns into lake, the long slopes slide into the water like a giant fist soothing her knuckles after a fight, respite perhaps between the eternal brawls. My avian viewpoint was from one of the many small planes that bypass Congo’s knotted forest tracks, on my way to the eastern border town of Butembo, 1600m up in highlight, where even the mosquitoes leave you alone.  Butembo is a bustling and colourful town, on the main trade route between Uganda and Kisangani in Central Congo, where everyone wears a high-vis jacket. On 60km of winding murram track from the airstrip there were travelers at every turn, bicycles being pushed up hills and freewheeled down loaded with bananas, sugar cane or palm oil.  Butembo seems cleaner and prouder than downtrodden and world-weary Goma, and the lack of military presence was an immediate relief.

The base in Butembo proved to be a hive of activity, with lorries toing and froing for construction in 10 different clinics.  The much-adored office kitten, for reasons written in the folklore of office humour, was called Mobutu – it was a refreshing thought that this was one dictator who was scared of me.

Behind Mobutu’s litter tray in the corner of the base lay a tired relic of past adventures, a battered Landcruiser with grass taking seed on the bonnet.  Pondering on how this camel might have acquired its dents and humps, I received a call from Goma, that other world six hours to the south: ‘You know that broken flowerpot of a car in Butembo – we’ve got a chance to fix it, send it to us today’.   A flat bed truck, barely larger than the landcruiser, materialized, and I threw myself into a frantic chase around town, from agricultural merchants to the barbed wire and blue helmets of the UN forces.  We quickly discovered that Butembo has no winches, no lifting platforms, no cranes, no block and tackle – nothing in fact to aid the transfer of large vehicle onto the truck bed.  Sneaking shame-faced back into the office past the mechanic who had already repaired the punctures, remounted the wheels, and started on the brakes, we sat in consultation with Mobutu.

An hour later, we returned with the glint of a beautiful plan in our eyes, and a pair of thick red hardwood planks upon our shoulders.  We would tow the landcruiser up the hill, and carefully roll it into the bed of the waiting truck. By mid-afternoon and several brake failures later, I was simply thankful only that we had avoided sending several tons of landcruiser through the market.   Back on the main street in front of the office, and a large crowd was gathering, mainly of people with their own foolproof method of getting the car into the truck, but jostling with a generous proportion of local comedians attracted by the rotten smell of imminent collapse.  Half an hour later, the air thick with diesel fumes, planks cracked and logs in disarray, crowds dispersed for fear of crushing, communication and comedians drowned by the revving on an engine on its limit, our car rolled into the bed of the truck with a disconcerting thud.  Also lacking brakes, the truck leapt forward five metres with its new cargo, and a resounding cheer erupted from Butembo’s populace.  A far cry from last year, when I had sat in my university exam halls trying to coax a malfunctioning heap of remembrances on African history onto a very empty sheet of paper.

Back in Goma, and I learned that on the strength of such sound fleet management experience, I would be sent to Maniema, one of the central provinces on the Congo river, to find similar solutions for the ailing motorbikes and failing transport network.  Clearly showing a bit too much enthusiasm about the prospect, one of my kinder colleagues takes me aside to warn me that the base for which I am destined is accessible only after crossing the wide river by dugout canoe and riding two days and 17 collapsed bridges by motorbike.

In the meantime, I take a quiet weekend trip to Rwanda, listening to the waves lap on the shore of Lake Kivu, and the music that alternates between the happy chanting of schoolchildren and the loud rhythms of Congolese hip hop.  There is a blue-headed lizard playing games with its partner on the tree next to me, and a farmer is silhouetted on the hillside as he digs around the water pump.   It is a far cry from Rwanda’s turmoil of fifteen years ago, where I hear from an ex-Canadian Mountie, who spent ten years arresting and interrogating the perpetrators of the genocide, that one man he interviewed rode to work every day on a minibus driven by the man who killed his family.   Although, I hear from Butembo that construction has been put on hold, the health centres rendered inaccessible as the rebels take control of one of the villages en route, torching 200 homes.  It seems so gratuitous, unnecessary – I know that I am a long way from understanding how such flames are lit here.

Gateway to Congo

Gateway to Congo


Goma is an odd place – Congo’s great eastern gateway, a half-town of walled enclosures, sandwiched between the Scylla and Charybdis of the methane gas bubbling away in Lake Kivu’s deep cauldron, and the red fire of the towering Mount Nyiragongo.  Most of their houses are built on the lava flows that marked the last conversation between the two in 2002 – leaving roads so bumpy that cars and motorbikes are reduced to walking pace.   At night, this glowing watchtower burns red above the walled enclosures, and the rumour is about that another eruption is due in the next few months. Closer to this open wound, refugee camps sprawl into the highlands, emanating a mix of horrifying observations and inspiring stories – even the people who have worked here their whole lives still can’t make up their minds.

Inside our own walled enclosure, I write perched comfortably on our set of matching zebra print sofas, underneath a set of faux columns – part of the well-documented and bizarre extravagancies of Mobutu’s upper classes.  Behind the columns, every wall is painted a different bright colour, and I try hard to imagine that we are not in a badly-made set for a low budget erotic film.   Expatriate extravagance extends to drivers, guards, cooks and cleaners, which takes some getting used to – the aid industry certainly brings money and employment to Goma and the surrounding areas.  At work or in the house, everyone calls each other ‘Papa’ or ‘Mama’, bringing a familial intimacy to the whole community.  Outside the gates, and chances are you will see someone riding over the lava on a Chinese motorbike wearing a leopard-print hat. Go a little further, past the boys selling cigarettes, and you will end up on a winding road round the small coves of Lake Kivu, that could be a Mediterranean coastline, were it not for the soldiers and their guns – another of Kivu’s many contradictions of danger and beauty, energy and resignation.

Goma is the head office for all of our operations in country – managing monthly medical supervisions and medical supplies; trainings; and construction projects for some 200 health centres in East and Central Congo.  In Logistics we buy what we can in the field, and ship anything that cannot, from Goma, Kisangani, or even Kenya and Europe – in particular construction materials, vehicles and repairs, it and comms equipment, and a lot of drugs for the clinics.  All arrangements are made in slow, formal French, one of the only ties across the expanse of jungle from to Kinshasa on the Atlantic coast.

Under pressure from all angles, the logistics team were recalled back from their various field bases for a logistics workshop to address how best we could support a short-staffed programmes team.  In doing so, of course, we had left these teams in the field with far less support.  The workshop itself was derailed by a combination of drunk FARDC soldiers, and a shouting match between one ex-military logistician and his ex-jailhouse counterpart.  It seemed to be a good demonstration of Goma’s frustration – built on a lack of permanence, a fluidity, anonymity and hedonism that real life can hide behind, with irony in abundance: soldiers and aid workers indulge together in the brothels in the back rooms of reputable international hotels.

Keen to escape this moral onslaught, I was quick to volunteer for my first field trip –across the old front line a small base at Rutshuru, occupied by two expat managers and a large team of Congolese, in order to investigate the pilfering of medication from the warehouse and clinics.  The drive took us on the high plains above Goma, the lava flows still breaking the path of the old roads, through the refugee camps built on them, and then down into the jungle through the swathes of jostling vegetable sellers.  The road was lined with bored government soldiers, and we were escorted the final few miles by a compulsory UN escort.  As the heavens opened, five large UN soldiers fought to squeeze their armour and weaponry into three very small covered seats.  Inside the Rutshuru base, the evening quiet was punctured by the sound of gunfire in the market a few hundred metres away, as the CNDP rebels tried to move the stalls further down the road for some unknown reason – apparently very normal in Rutshuru.