Monday, July 20, 2009

A Morning in Goma, DRC (Congo)

This Sunday morning, just two days shy of my three month tourist visa expiration date; I headed across the border into the DRC, Democratic Republic of Congo. Luckily, I was not alone. Goma, DRC is not a place you want stroll down the streets to your local cafe to grab a cappuccino. Goma is a city with the highest concentration of UN Forces in the entire world. Goma, a city partially destroyed in 2002 by the eruption of a nearby volcano, the lava wiping out a section of the city on its advance to Lake Kivu. In October of last year, rebel forces advanced into Goma threatening to overrun the government and UN forces maintaining peace in the city. I do not understand the politics of the DRC, or who is fighting whom for that matter. You do not need to know anything about the fighting, or the various rebels or the government to know that Goma is hanging by the slightest thread of peace. It is a city of little hope. It is a place that makes one fall to their knees to thank God for the opportunities found in growing up in America.

The main reason I went to Goma, other than keeping myself legal in Rwanda, was curiosity. It was that draw of danger and the desire to see what oftentimes ends up on the page 16 of the Sunday edition of the local newspaper. This is a place no one from the outside world really seems to care much about. Congo is rich in natural resources; the ones who "care" are the ones who want what Congo has.

Another reason Jock and I went across the border was to visit Nyandwi's sister's school. Nyandwi is a rider for Team Rwanda and his younger sister attends school in Goma. She walks 10k every day to attend the school Nyandwi pays for with his earnings from Team Rwanda. He is trying to help make a difference for his sister. Jock and I were the only Americans crossing the border that morning. I was thankful to be with Nyandwi and his sister and I was anxious to see the school. I then I saw the school.

After riding four mototaxis, sans helmets and any semblance of adherence to safety and traffic rules, we arrived at the school. It was down a horrible, pumice laden side road. The pumice is a reminder of the volcanic eruption seven years ago that took out a runway at the airport, swept through the town and killed dozens. The school was empty because it was Sunday but even a full attendance roster could not hide the horrendous condition of the building and the classrooms. As a stepped into the unlit concrete hall my eyes filled with tears. I looked at Jock and mouthed the words, "THIS is her SCHOOL?" He just turned away. I am sure he was just as shocked. How could this possibly be a school? There is no electricity, water is in a 55 gallon drum, the ceiling is falling in, there are no books, no labs, and no desks....this is not a school! This is her only option at education. She wants to be a doctor. How do you become a doctor without a textbook, any textbook?

I tried not to show how appalled I was with the situation. I did not want Nyandwi and his sister to feel uncomfortable. This is their only choice. It is the best one they can make at this point. Take every student, every teacher, and every principal in Las Vegas who complains about not having enough money to educate and let them spend a day in class in Goma. The pictures I posted on Facebook do not even come close to the reality of that school. The smell, the dust, the complete sense of hopelessness cannot be captured in a photo.

After leaving the school I wandered behind Jock lost in my own sadness. The night before I had complained of the terrible service and the overpriced food at our hotel in Gisenyi, on the Rwandan side of Lake Kivu. How could I? I have NOTHING in this world to EVER complain about.

We spent a couple of hours walking around Goma. It was quiet; few people were out and about. Just UN truck after UN truck rolling down the road. The waste of manpower, money and lives is the United Nations. As they adhere to their mantra of "Don't fire unless fired upon", they are first hand witnesses to the ongoing war in the DRC. They will watch people die and never step in. The UN had front row seats to the Rwandan genocide. The UN in Goma also has prime real estate on the edge of Lake Kivu. Needless to say, I am not impressed with the work of the United Nations.

I have been told by some to be careful what I write, to not let my personal views or my blog become my soapbox. I have been told to make sure I do not write about my experiences without first setting the stage so my opinions are not taken out of context. So before I launch into my next attack on misspent money and lack of REAL help let me set the context. Every day I witness large NGO's (Non-government Organizations) spend money, lots of money. I see the staff of these NGO's driving around in their expensive SUVs all throughout town. When you ask what them what they do, generally you get something like, "I handle logistics and team coordination in the field to assess situations that may be complex and be a potential for significant need in the area." WHAT?

This is my job at Project Rwanda, "I sell bikes to people who need them to transport their goods and grow their businesses in order to increase their income at least threefold." So this is my "context". I do my job with three people in Rwanda and until two weeks ago, no vehicle. I care for every penny entrusted to me by our donors. I make sure we live frugally and conscientiously to be able to get the most amount of bikes in the hands of the poor of Rwanda. Every dime counts.

Walking down another lumpy pumice road towards the beautiful Lake Kivu, we come upon the strangest, most surreal sight I have yet to see in Africa. Row and row of large homes, really large homes, big by American standards large homes are built and being built all the way to the lake. Ironically these are the same homes that will probably end up in the lava river again once the volcano decides to erupt again. All these homes are surrounded by barb wire, surveillance cameras and a breathtaking view of the homeless in wood shacks settled in among the lava. Sadly, many of these homes are owned by NGO's. It is truly sickening. When I said I was sadly speechless in my Facebook status update, this was why. When so many people have so little, and you are the only here to assist, provide and offer hope, how do you truly engage while you maintain your "cushy" western life amongst the people of this ravaged city?

It has been two days since I visited Goma. Today I wanted to go home.


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. I agree with the author and only comment made to it, equally. I was probably, there in Goma when this blog was being written. Situation is not that complex, not it is totally out of control. Everybody is trying to do something for good of people in DRC. But what is good for them? where is opinion of the people on ground? Everyone trying to impose their version of reforms. Have any body tried to generate a sustainable indigenous economic activity for the masses? Anybody, UN or NGOs, done good to improve human resource? (just teaching them to type on computers and use email is not HRD). What they need is identification of economical potentials of the area, organizing them to develop their economy to sustain themselves

  3. You have a point about the lifestyle of NGO workers in Goma. But I think you'll find that NGOs don't "own" the houses they occupy - they rent them, from Congolese businesspeople who make a lot of money as a result. It is overly simplistic to blame internationals alone - not to mention patronising - as there are some very, very rich Congolese too who take advantage of the situation. It's not just poor Congolese who live in Goma!

  4. They come in under the disguise of the Earthly Gods who promise heavens to many but reality is, they came to live heavenly -like or to claim heavens for themselves. Ask them, of the amount of money entrusted with them for the work they come in for, how much is spent the so called "Experts" and how much goes to the needy? There is your answer. Teach a man to fish and they will eat for ever than to handle them "sardine" cans.

  5. Check out the SEW (sustainable energy for woodlots) project on the IFDC website to see at least one project around Goma that is making a difference. There are others, many others, and a lot of it, you won't see if you don't get outside Goma.

    I agree with "anonymous" above--as an American having lived in Africa for over 20 years, there are times I've been a target and needed that extra security--and I've long ago realized that "suffering with the masses" does not make me any more effective in doing my job.

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  7. I think it is truly disgusting with the NGOs. They patronise the locals, live in these castles and drive SUVs, all in the name of "helping" the people. In fact, the wage for these "humanitarian angels" is very high and all local expenses are paid + extra pocket money. So they can take all of the wage and simply put it into their bank accounts. Furthermore the (not talked about) reason for these NGOs to exist is to keep the africans dependent on aid for all future instead of letting the africans develop their own economy. A perfect example is Sudan which could not export their agricultural products to Europe due to import duties. This made the local produce cheap, the farmers poor, and made Europe overproduce e. g. wheat which then was dumped in Sudan as "aid" which completely crashed the local agriculture. After this cunning "manouvre" Sudan is completely dependent on foreign aid for as basic things as food and the west got what they wanted, a puppet state completely under western control. You do as we say or no aid. I probably should work as a "volonteer" in Africa and get all the chicks for free, in addition to a lot of money in my european bank account.

  8. This is my first ever response on line in any capacity. I don't even have face book or any form of social media and I've never even sent a text.I won't even follow this up to see if or how people will respond but I will ask a few questions of you and state a few facts

    I spent 12 months in Rwanda as a volunteer for an aid organisation in a camp for I.D.P.s 280,000(Internally displaced persons). From your blog which I only half read, and stopped through boredom I got the feel and tone of "bleeding heart" Christian. I also then spent a further 12 months based in Goma ministering to Katale refugee camp. Yes I was involved with "Logistics" which is a cover all job description for looking after everything (except medical practice)and servicing their needs to allow them to function and carry on their desparate work.My work included but was not limited to security (including standing unarmed up to armed military in defence of threatened locals, who would surely have been beaten or worse had I not intervened).These soldiers were often drunk and always stoned and unstable. Food distribution (possibly riotous and tinterbox situation )sanitation, water provision, medical support and as I eluded to a blank page job description that you respond to 24 hrs a day while trying to function, whilst jumping over hurdles of cultural sensitivity placed there by people who would ignore it themselves. Their are a few organisations that are doling out food with one hand and Bibles with the other making 3rd world Christianity endemic and preaching. There are some aspects of U.N. finances which are shocking I agree, however would you have no influence by the U.N.? You'ld be the first to complain if nothing was done and then complain about conspicuous presence. For interests sake when I volunteered with an organisation I arrived in Kenya en-route to Rwanda before I realised that I would be paid and that was $3,000 a month tax free (when the AUSD was 87c US)Hardly a fortune. As for SUVs they may be a sports vehicle to some spoiled brat, but to NGOs in the field they're a vital tooland literall life line (and not literally in you Valley Girl understanding) to help transfer doctors, nurses, drugs and often act as ambulance to ferry sick locals they also move tracing teams arround so families can be united.As for the "castles" these were built long before the arrival or the need for the arrival of NGOs and act as multi staff accommodation and usually the bureau as well. As for that NGOs need to stay in reasonable accommodation, as a sick or dead aid worker is useless. These people see more misery and suffering than they should have to while usually leaving a place or siuation better than they found it. So in summation, sure, some of the people at thetop of the totems travel first class and mingle with elite and corrupt regimess and military this is sometimes required to get permission to service the general populace, but the vast majority of NGOs are hard nosed pragmatists working at the coalface facing risks, mines and other ubiquitous (you can look it up)danger daily.Unlike 1st world, third world tourists like you with your simplistic WASP vision. I ould easily extrapolate but I won't change your privilaged know all view.

  9. One of the worst attributes of the NGOs is their lying. One example. The earthquake in Haiti was claimed by the NGOs to have taken about 230 000 lives. The true number was far less, although high and it was a catastrophy. However that the NGOs lie about the casualties in order to increase the flow of money is truly deplorable. They are in fact almost killing eachother in order to get their banners on TV. As soon as there is a problem, they invite journalists who get the royal treatment, in exchange for as nasty pictures as possible (fake or not is of no relevance) once again in order to increase the revenue stream. The pictures should ideally be of children. Almost never are old people depicted, and that is because they do not bring as much money as the sight of a hungry child. One may wonder why older people do not hunger or get sick.
    So the NGOs are big business, and e. g. MSF have a fantastic building in Paris and their executives live the high life.