SAT 21st JAN 2012 – 22nd: Overnight London to Nairobi
This trip is without doubt the job that has produced the most polarised views, from “that will be an adventure” to “you realise you are going to the most lawless, corrupt and dangerous country on the planet”
From what I have read before the trip and the reactions, it is quite clear that the general west has decided that the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is not worth the effort. There is an almighty UN presence (as I will find out) and an inordinate number of NGO’s operating here, but the general public? I am writing this sitting in Nairobi airport waiting for our transfer to Kigali (Rwanda). I hate night flights, the only part of me that managed to sleep was my feet. Apart from that all I got was a cricked neck. Passing the time and flicking through the Kenya Airways in-flight magazine I could not help but notice the mention of east and west coast African countries but the only mention of the heart of Africa was the Kenya Airways office locations.
The sunrise as we landed could only signal one location; the red skies, the mists, the banyan trees – Africa. I suddenly felt wide awake! The flight to Kigali were trouble free, as was the border crossing. Well trouble free for us, less so for our cases, which remained in Nairobi. Still, our driver says he can return tomorrow to collect them.
The 3 hour drive through Rwanda is both one of the most fascinating and frustrating things I have done. The sights, the sounds, the colours! Only there was no stopping to photograph as we were already running late due to the cases. I would prefer to take 3 days over this journey, not 3 hours! The DRC border with Rwanda at Goma is straight out of a film; hut on the Rwandan side, paperwork and passport stamped out of the country, walk around a barrier, through no-mans land, another barrier, more stamps and paperwork and we are in…
Our hotel is 3 minutes from the crossing and after a shower and sleep I tuck into skewered captains (fish from the lake Kivu on which the city of Goma is situated).
A great nights sleep, waking before the alarm giving me time to shower and check out the cameras before breakfast.. Cheese, dry bread and a good strong Arabica Coffee.
Sitting in the hotel drive awaiting our lift I could not help but feel this is NGO city; UN, OXFAM, SAVE THE CHILDREN etc, white 4×4 after white 4×4 pass the gate separated only by locals on motorcycles. The CARE compound is everything you expect of an NGO compound in an unstable state; big steel doors, razor wire atop the surrounding walls and security guards in bright, smart outfits. We attended the morning meeting where we were introduced to the team and then Deborah (CARE press officer) gave a presentation about CARE International UK before heading off through the centre of GOMA and out to a health centre.
At first we started along a wide dual carriageway with a grass strip but a couple of roundabouts later, on increasingly narrowing and busy roads, the tarmac was replaced by lava. Goma is situated between 2 mountains and the road we were driving along was the path of the lava flow during last eruption in 2002. The city is like no other on earth; buildings (if they could be called that) are built from lava, wood and corrugated steel and built directly on the lava. Vendors sell from mats, shop fronts, tables, wherever they can. Goods are carried on heads, heavily loaded motorbikes, cycles or the locally made wooden scooters “Tschukudus” which are pushed along by hand. The amount that they manage to load on a bike is staggering, I’m quite sure I could not balance the load, let alone push it along.
With the number of white NGO 4×4′s around I would have expected maybe a little less staring and intimidation than I felt from time to time. Of course, for us, stopping is out of the question so as we drove along I was snatching pictures through the open window of the 4×4.
The lava gave way to dirt track as we headed up the mountain to the health centre “Centre de Sante de Kanyaruchinya”.
The DRC is very hierarchical and our first meeting is with a head nurse. We are here to talk to patients but his story was no less amazing; I guess that in the DRC, everybody has been affected by the fighting and I’m sure every survivor has an amazing story. The nurse gave us some figures. Even though the fighting has mainly ended, in December this centre has had 4 new rape cases and “Heal Africa” another 15; this problem is still endemic. Last year the red cross reported 250 cases.
We interviewed and photographed 3 women, all attacked when working in the fields by combatants, all now having no jobs, all supporting children. I cannot really add any more then this at the moment – I just do not know how they cope or live… but they do.
Back at the compound we saw the materials that CARE are providing to locals to teach about rape and how the survivors should be supported. At the moment this is part of the problem; the survivors are outcast, from their families, villages and friends. The key to CARE’s work is getting the community to help itself. They educate “relays” who go door-to-door in each village, educating and spreading the word and at the centre we witnessed the education of relays about a forthcoming vaccination program.
A quiet knock on the door at 6AM; the bags have arrived – YAY! I was so excited; shampoo, clean clothes etc. I opened the case and a thought dawned on me: apart from the photography kit, I have managed so far, why do I need all this? The creams, the lotions, the stuff we use everyday. That said, I enjoy a shower with my stuff, put on clean clothes and head off to breakfast and then the CARE compound.
After CARE’s daily meeting we sit down with security to discuss tomorrows trip. The atmosphere is a little tense; the road we will be travelling down is insecure, the city we are visiting is ok. NGO workers are not normally targeted in The Congo so it should be ok. I talk it though with Deborah and she runs though car-jacking basics with me. If CARE security says its ok, then its ok, we go.
About 20 minutes later the security guy comes back, his body language is totally different. One of the villages we plan to visit is unstable and It’s now clear we should not be going. Our host Bronwyn heads off to find a new destination for our trip and comes back saying we should visit Masisi. An IDP (Internally displaced persons) camp is seeing new arrivals and another very interesting project. But that is tomorrow.
Today we are off further up the volcano to visit 2 families and ex-combatants. Even traveling as a passenger in the 4×4 for an hour or so is difficult (and a great workout for the abs), consider then how hard the driver is working or even more profound, how hard for the locals pushing their goods along the same “roads” on cycles and scooters.
We meet the first combatant at the village administrators’ and he is obviously wanting to make a good impression; smart tie, shirt, impressive belt. We drive to his home (another hard 30 minutes) past the parcel of land he has purchased with the profit from his new business on which he will build his new home. We gathered in his current home with his wife while the rest of the village and children took an interest from outside. I asked the translator to check it was ok to photograph them as they talked as I had the feeling they would both be quite animated; it was a good move. Although dark, the light coming thought the door was of a great quality and I positioned myself to make the most of it, getting images that I feel really represent the couple. After the interview I took a couple more frames outside with their kiosk and with their goats as the story is how CARE trained and supported the couple to start a business. Completing the visit with a few shots of the locals we bid our farewell.
The relationship between the next couple could not have been more different. Another long term ex-combatant (a commander of over 700 men) helped by CARE to start a business and (as he very proudly stated), able to put his 7 children though school. After the interview at their home (again photographed as they talked) he took us to the location of his business, tyre repair, just off the side of a busy street. The room was very dark and not the easiest to work in. Whilst I was inside Deborah and Bronwyn were attracting a fair amount of attention in the street which only increased as we headed back to the 4×4. I managed to shoot a few street scene images before too many gathered. The camera was being treated with a great deal of suspicion so we moved off before it got too intimidating.
On the way back to the hotel we ate absolutely amazing humous and falafel in a bar that looking at, you would not touch with a barge-pole. Local knowledge is a wonderful thing and Bronwyn ordered us 3 fresh strawberry smoothies that were fantastic. After that it was a quick glass of wine by the lake (Kivu) at a hotel. It was hard to digest the difference that walking 50M through the hotel grounds had made; from the broody dirty streets of Goma I now may as well have been sitting in a bar on the banks of Swiss or Austrian lake. It was not only the view; the luxury, tables and service was all up there. Was I really still in Goma?
We checked out of our Hotel – the grandly named “VIP Palace” to head off on our field trip.
The first port of call however was Florence – the first and only female barber in the DRC. Florence’s Barbers shop is in the heart of Goma, only a few minutes journey from the hotel. What can I say, an absolutely amazing, inspirational woman. I walked away thinking we HAVE to get this story published, it’s astonishing and will provide a lot of hope to women in many walks of life. I will not go into the full story here as I wish to work with Deborah to try and get the full story out. All I will say is Florence was raped by ex-combatant’s (she still walks with a limp) and a CARE project took her from the streets, she chose to train as a barber (the only female, training with ex-combatants), started the shop and is now provides barber services to both men and women. The thing is she is the most joyous woman, smiling, laughing and making us laugh whilst she told her story. Amazing!
As I write this can hear the chatter of children, singing, the chirping of birds. I am sitting outside the CARE guest house in the city of Masisi. Not really the western image of a city; huts and shacks with very few rick buildings built on the side of the hills. With all the 4×4′s back at their base and the motorbike riders back at home, all I can hear are the sounds of “life”.
The journey was about 3 hours over rough tracks, I sat in the front and as ever tried to photograph from the window as we drove. I desperately did not want the typical “staring into the camera” image of poverty that is so typical of the poorer parts of Africa. These are a proud, hardworking people and I wanted to show this. Working from a speeding, bumping 4×4 is not easy; All I could hope for as I worked was that a number of the images would be sharp enough.
We ate food prepared for us by the house keeper; beans, rice, cabbage and beef – it was very, very good and perfect after the journey. The house is quite basic and although we will have power for a few hours each evening (by generator), I am not sure wether it will be long enough to fully charge all the batteries. This is one of the reasons I use the AA battery adaptor for the Nikon, I can always carry a batch of AA batteries (and you can be sure to locate them anywhere). I am offered a bucket of hot water for bathing (no running hot water), its a first for me but not a problem and I and am grateful to wash away the dust that coats me after the journey.
This is one of the most difficult entries to write; today consisted of just too many new sights, sounds, experiences and emotions.
Early to bed meant early to rise: just before 6AM to be precise and I sat alone with a coffee listening to the sounds of “life” awaking and watching the mist clear the valleys, gradually revealing lower and lower hills just like the tide retreating at home.
We set off before 8AM driving down through the city towards the village of Kanii. Down and down to the valley floor on smaller and smaller roads and then back up the other side on tracks that were smaller than footpaths and bridleways in the UK; it gave me a new understanding of what our 4×4 (a Toyota Landcrusier) was capable of and I have to say our driver Senzuki was amazing.
We arrived at the village and were greeted by the Administrator. As Deborah and Bronwyn held their first meeting, I wandered around the village, followed by a trail of children demanding to see the image of the back of the camera after every shot. The response to the camera was interesting; some adults hide faces, some don’t, some look on suspicious. Even the children react in different ways; some try to get in every shot, others running for cover. The only common thread is that almost everyone wants to see the image on the back. I am not really sure if it is shyness or something else.
I seems that in general the light is great and I am really pleased with my portraits of our subjects and the shots of general village life.
Next we were off to an IDP camp. Just over 2km from the camp a bridge was “out”. Jumping up and down on the middle, our driver was sure it was safe to drive across (they do not like defeat) but we felt otherwise and so walked the final 2km up up the hill to the camp in the humid heat. A little light relief presented itself in the form of Deborah thinking a local woman was admiring her bag until she realised she was actually offering to carry it up the hill for her – I think the word was “mortified”.
As we entered the camp we were swamped: it was a bit of an embarrassing “Princess Di moment”, especially as we had nothing with us; we were just here to talk. Getting shots close up to people here was very difficult due to the crowd following me around and after an hour of wandering around “alone” I decided to join the others in the room where they were meeting to cool down and switch lenses. Going “long” had the desired effect and although its not something I like to do, I was now able shoot over and through the surrounding crowd and the shots took on a new dimension.
As we left the village we had a huge escort on foot “as you have made the effort to visit us, we want to make the effort to escort you to your vehicle”. Suffice to say the walk down the hill was far easier than the walk up.
Back at the house it was meat, beans, rice and vegetables before another bucket bath. Later, when the generator was switched on I charged up all the cameras and the laptop with no problem. I noticed some network cables and was unable to resist plugging in. Shock! No only do we have internet, its faster than the connection in the hotel back in Goma! I cannot resist a Facebook status update “Cannot believe I have the internet, I don’t even have hot running water!”. We upload a couple photographs of us in the field and then proceed to amuse ourselves with clips from you-tube. Bedtime we are invaded by very scary hornet type flying bugs 2-3inches in length with red, black and yellow bodies. Eventually we manage to eradicate them and get to bed, tucking the net in tight around the bed. Surprisingly I sleep well.
Setting off at 8am we try to photograph some market activity and see the chief administrator before leaving Masisi. Fail on both counts; the administrator has been called away and the market does not start until 10AM. We get our papers stamped and so all is well for the drive.
We decide to photograph a couple of shops that take the CARE voucher system (the key to CARE’s work is to empower the local people and economy and one method they use is instead of shipping in food, they provide vouchers that may be spent in local markets for the IDP’s to choose for themselves what they need). Walking through the street I am accosted by an elderly woman: she’s hanging on to me singing, dancing and clapping. It creates a bit of a stir and I really wish I could understand what she is saying. It is for some reason the most uneasy I have felt all trip. Shops done and its an uneventful 3 hour trip back to Goma.
After dropping our bags off at the hotel we lunch at the UN compound on the lake – a total contrast to Masisi. Bronwyn invites a friend and whilst I tuck into a Cheeseburger and chips we chat about the UK, trash television and food.
The afternoon was my time to give something back to the CARE workers who have looked after us for the week. I have prepared a short presentation on photography basics for them covering basic storytelling and image composition. They are really attentive, asking great questions. When I introduce the rule of thirds and suggest that most cameras have the option to display a grid when shooting, a number of cameras appear from bags and configured. I was also pleased with the reaction, feedback and discussion prompted by some of the images (all taken during the trip). The images of one couple was fascinating and obviously provoked the feelings I hoped for. A couple of the other images brought equally strong reactions and it was clear that my shots are on the right track.
With this it was time to say goodbye and head back to hotel and pack ready for the driver to collect us the next day for the 3 hour drive across the border and back to Kigali airport. All we could hope for was that our cases made it back to the UK with us.
Throughout the trip I could not help than be struck by not only the commitment of the CARE staff but also the fact that these projects work: they make a real difference to real people every day. In the UK we are definitely suffering with an Aid Fatigue and the image of all aid work being that of emergency work. My aim now is to ensure my work gets in front of as many people as possible to show that it does not take much to make a real difference to these proud people.