Saturday, April 19, 2014

The Big Bad Congo

Bukavu, Democratic Republic of Congo

Democratic Republic of Congo, formerly Zaire, formerly the Belgian Congo, the heart of darkness itself…but if a rose by any other name smells just as sweet, then Congo by any other name is just as troubled. Historically one of the most conflict ridden nations in Africa, DRC is still plagued with instability, corruption, and numerous armed groups that undermine what little progress has been made since the official end to the Second Congo War in 2003, which killed more than 5.4 million people. 

I don’t want to start this off overly negative. I’ve only been in Congo for a few weeks, and it is a gorgeous country, with some wonderful people, and a lot to offer, but because of the types of programs that Heartland is running here, I’ve really been exposed to some of the atrocities of this country.  Heartland is currently operating 4 different projects: a social justice for exploited mine workers, anti-human trafficking and sexual exploitation, women’s empowerment, and a trauma-informed psychologist training program. Like I said, each of these programs is responding to some pretty heavy problems.

The Eastern region of DRC, which is where Heartland is based in the region, has one of world’s largest and richest natural resource bases, with an estimated $24 trillion in mineral wealth—including diamonds, gold, tungsten, cassiterite, tin, and other minerals. The combination of dangerous mining practices, weak governance, large-scale corruption, and an environment of impunity perpetuates the abuse of workers in the DRC. The status of women is also extremely depressing, and the prevalence of rape and sexual violence in the DRC has been described as the worst in the world. Women and girls are systematically abused, anywhere from exclusion in decision-making to severe as trafficking into mines, prostitution, and domestic servitude. Let’s just say that the psychologists we work with have their hands full of PTSD cases…

But I think I need to lighten the mood. Let’s back up. The journey from Bujumbura to Bukavu was an interesting one, as you have to cross three different borders, Burundi, Rwanda, and Congo, and the entire time you are weaving through gorgeous green mountains. The roads in Rwanda are also surprisingly good, making it an easier trip than many others I have experienced.

Driving from Bujumbura to Bukavu


Cyclists hitching a ride up the steep mountain in Rwanda

Rolling mountains of the Great Lakes region

When I arrived in Bukavu, the first thing I noticed is that it’s friggin’ COLD! No, it was not snowing like is had been back home, but I was really surprised at how chilly it is in general, and especially at night. The city of Bukavu is up in the mountains and built around the winding coast of Lake Kivu. There are five different “peninsulas” that stick out into the lake, which is where the bulk of the city is located. Lake Kivu, however, is not the biodiversity heaven of Lake Tanganyika. Because of volcanic activity in this region, both recently and historically, Lake Kivu has a high concentration of methane and carbon dioxide, an environment that only supports small amounts of life. 

Looking inland from one of the "peninsulas"


Yes, there is a beer called Simba!

Of the roof of a hotel. Bukavu behind me.


Standing on one peninsula looking at another

Lake Kivu


Pretty soon after arriving in Bukavu, I traveled South to Heartland’s other office in Uvira, which is base for the anti-trafficking programs. The US State Department, who has been funding that project, wants to extend for another two years, so I traveled to Uvira to support the proposal development process. At the office, we also operate a small shelter for victims of trafficking and sexual exploitation, that provides physical and mental health support, as well as small enterprise training and start-up funds that help ensure victims are not vulnerable to being re-trafficked after returning to their homes. (Because false offers of employment are one of the biggest ways traffickers lure their victims.)  Uvira itself is also a picturesque city, situated between the mountains on Lake Tanganyika, pretty much on the exact opposite side from Bujumbura. 

Sorry this is blurry, but I made red dots on the 3 cities- Bukavu, Uvira, and Bujumbura

The mountains of Uvira

Because of high staff turnover and other significant challenges, I have been overloaded with work since the second I arrived in DRC. However, I did find time on one weekend to do something fun. Two of my coworkers were kind enough to accompany me to Kahuzi-Biega National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that is home to the endangered Eastern Lowland gorillas, which are only found in this region of the world.

Welcome sign at the national park

Congo is also one of the few countries left that has uncharted territory. Some of the jungles in the center of the country are dense and dangerous, and really have not been thoroughly explored. There are pygmy tribes that live in those forests that have supposedly never even been outside of their village. This also brings to mind a conversation I had a few years ago with a Congolese man I was chatting with in the waiting room of a doctor’s office in Boston. He swore to me that there is a brontosaurus living in the river that runs through his hometown in Congo. Although I laughed at him, really, does anyone know for sure? If there are Bigfoot, Loch Ness, and Yeti believers, why not also brontosaurus?

Just for fun-sies I googled “brontosaurus in congo river” and these interesting articles came up about different expeditions to find the thing:

Anyway, you have to arrive early in the morning to go see the gorillas, so we got to the park around 7:30am. The guides then gave a brief history of the park and instructions on how to behave around the gorillas. There are 11 different families of gorillas that are being monitored by the park, but they typically take visitors to see the family of Chimanuka, the grand-son of one of the first gorillas to be approached in the park. Chimanuka, whose name essentially mean “miracle child” in one of the local languages, is the leader of a family of about 30 gorillas, who have been more or less sensitized to the presence of humans. The reason behind this, is that during the war, because the gorillas were used to humans, they did not run away from the rebels, and many ended up being killed. So as a strategy of protecting this endangered species, they have only "domesticated" a limited number, so that the others hide from humans.


Guides giving the introduction

After the introduction, everyone heads off into the jungle, in search of the wild gorillas. And although this was an immensely cool experience, and completely worth it, this trip is not for the faint-hearted! Let me paint you a word picture. It’s the rainy season in the mountainous rainforests of Eastern DRC, which means it was raining yesterday, it’s raining now, and it’s going to keep raining, maybe forever. You are trudging up and down the slippery-as-hell mountains covered in mud and leaves, and traversing boggy marshes at the bottom of each hill, with quicksand-like mud pits that want to steal your shoes. Your pants are tucked into your socks, in a feeble attempt to ward off the army ants that seem to be everywhere, but they still managed to bite you if you stand still for too long. And here is the kicker—there is no path. There is a guide with a machete that is literally cutting the path as you are walking behind him. Hope it doesn’t sound like I’m complaining…because it was AWESOME. 

Looking into the rainforest

Mr. Machete getting ready to cut our path

Nothing but greenery.

Despite the hazards of the rainforest, we hiked for about two hours, following gorilla nests and the hugest turds I have ever seen, and eventually managed to track down Chimanuka and his family! And you can get surprisingly close to them without causing an issue. However, Chimankuma did roar and bang his chest when we got a little too close, which was thrilling but terrifying at the same time.

Chimanuka himself!

Snack break.

Baby gorilla

Me and Chimanuka.

Still Chimanuka...he was the most visible

Chimanuka staring at me
I have a lot of great videos, but the stupid internet won't upload them. I'll have to do that after I'm home. 

We followed the gorillas around for about an hour and a half, and then trekked the two hours back to the park lodge. It honestly would not have taken that long, however, we had two older Belgian couples with our group, one of who was a rather heavy-set man who fell in the mud more than 15 times, and needed to stop every two minutes on the way back to catch his breath. I actually was afraid that he was going to have a heart-attack or something, which really puts into perspective how vulnerable you are out in the jungle. If there HAD been a medical emergency, things would have been pretty dicey. But fortunately falling down was as bad as it got, and pretty much everyone fell in the mud at least once. I am proud to say I am one of a few who managed to make it through the hike without a muddy butt. I’m just glad I wrapped my bum-ankle before we set off; otherwise I would have been a goner!

This photo does not even do justice as to how muddy I was

My time in Great Lakes is quickly coming to a close, and I’m feeling more sentimental since this will likely be my last Africa trip for a little while, as I am starting school again in the fall. I am traveling back to Bujumbura on Tuesday, to spend another day or two, and then it’s back to America I go! Although it’s really going to be a hectic transition because I am moving to Chicago, literally 5 days after I land in DC. Then it’s on to the next adventure :)