15 August 2014

The winding road to utopia

Beware – rhetorical questions, ahoy!

Let’s talk about violence. A friend was lamenting recently that we seem to live in the worst of times, and one can see where he was coming from: Gaza is a broken record (just to recap, Israel shelled a UN school that was sheltering IDPs, Netanyahu uttered the following regarding Hamas: “they use telegenically dead Palestinians for their cause.” Not that it’s untrue, but damn, is that ever tone deaf. As is the fact that Israelis were watching the bombing of the strip while eating popcorn and cheering. As yet another, though related, aside, while I’m wildly in favour of a Madame President, I’m not so sure I’m sold on the idea of this Madame President), Syria is just getting worse, tragedies are piling up in Nigeria and now Cameroon, ISIS is staging mountaintop genocides, the US has its own horrific war zone curtesy of our latent racism becoming appallingly manifest (Jesus, America), the deteriorating Ukrainian situation in particular freaked him out, and of course we’re living in almost the textbook definition of a perpetual crisis. And that’s just what comes immediately to mind. There is also the Ebola crisis, of course, but as that strikes me more as a structural violence issue than a direct conflict thing, we’ll defer any discussion to a later date. Our modern multipolar system is practically Mearsheimerian in its dysfunction.

Or, rather, so it seems. But I have never really been much for realism, and I see no reason to fall off the wagon now. Thus, I am here and happy to report that it’s possible we aren’t all headed for hell in a hand basket (at least, not as the human race, and not just yet. I can’t speak for you, personally). Statistically, we’re actually living in one of the most peaceful periods of history. This does not, of course, undermine the depths of human suffering that are ongoing. I just sometimes feel that it’s important to dispel this end times perception.

Why am I so confident that humanity is not caught in an entropic skid? As it turns out, this is actually a fairly strong stance to take, with a wealth of histori-stastical support behind it. It even has its own ism – declinism. Fancy, no? One of the most vocal proponents of the declinist theory is the Human Security Report Project, which explored it extensively in their most recent Human Security Report. The report takes as it’s jumping-off point a recap of 2011’s The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker (which I have not read, so know that everything that follows is in essence two degrees removed from the source document). The book contends (“over some 700 densely argued pages of text, supported by 70 pages of footnotes” the report is quick to inform us) that “there has been an extraordinary but little-recognized, long-term worldwide reduction in all forms of violence – one that stretches back to at least 10,000 BCE.”

12K years?! Sweet fancy pants that is some claim. The HSR devotes not inconsiderable print space to unpacking it, especially as: (a) data going back that far is dubious at best; and (b) WWII is, by most every measure, the deadliest war in history. I’m not going to get too much into the ancient history – it’s fascinating, yes, but I’m much more concerned with more recent trends.

Supporting Pinker’s argument, at least as it pertains to WWII, is that, though it accounted for the most absolute deaths of any conflict ever, it was not the most deadly in context of war deaths relative to the size of the population (here I should note that this isn’t the standard metric for measuring conflict intensity - that would be direct war deaths per 100,000 per year, and WWII still wins). But, apparently – like I said, I haven’t read it – in pre-historic societies, war deaths accounted for about 15 per cent of all fatalities. This is BANANAS. In the 20th century – the one with all three world wars (I, II, and the African), remember? – it was still just three per cent. Similarly, “in the 17th century, Europe’s wars of religion had killed some two per cent of the populations of the warring states” while the same statistic for the 1900s was only 0.7 per cent. Beyond any sort of semantic ‘how do we measure how terrible a conflict is debate’ (which is important, don’t get me wrong – these sorts of evaluations have tremendous real-world impacts), Pinker argues that WWII, and the Rwandan genocide, for that matter, for all its misery, was essentially an anomaly on what has been an admittedly rocky path to a more peaceful world.

Even if you have some reservations about the heroic longitudinality of Pinker’s work (and you would not be alone in this), the good people behind the HSR would like to assure you that “the most encouraging data from the modern ear come from the post-World War II years”. This period includes a dramatic decline in the number and deadliness of international wars since the end of WWII (the ‘Long Peace’ for Pinker) and, more recently, the reversal of the decades-long increase in civil conflicts that followed the end of the Cold War (the ‘New Peace’). These rather optimistically-monikered eras likewise seen a decline in violent acts short of war and genocide, including homicide, terrorist attack, lynching, hate crime, rape, and assault.

This Pinker character lays out “five political, social, and cultural changes that he sees as key drivers of the decline in violence: (1) a consolidation of a monopoly of the legitimate use of force controlled by the state and the judiciary; (2) the growing importance of commerce, leading to more interdependence between people and states and hence greater incentives to cooperate rather than use violence (which, until very recently, was somewhat backfiring in Ukraine, but what the hell); (3) feminization, i.e., the process in which societies increasingly respect the interests and values of women; (4) cosmopolitanism, i.e., advances towards universal literacy, mobility, and information sharing that can prompt people to take the perspective of people unlike themselves and expand their circle of sympathy to embrace them; (5) the escalator of reason, by which is meant ‘an intensifying application of knowledge and rationality to human affairs.’ This change was associated, among other things, with a reduction in the superstitions that both drove and legitimized cruel and violent practices common throughout most of human history – from human sacrifice, witch hunts, and slavery, to torturing animals for pleasure.”

Basically, reading this report you get the sense that we’re normatively evolving into a conflict-free world. How lovely and utopian! But, seriously, there are positive trends, including increasing national incomes (the linked article also gets into the depressing subject of increasing global income equality, but does make the point that overall poverty is on the wane), and the system of global security governance.

The former trend is important in that there exists really comprehensive econometric research establishing a casual connection between national incomes and the risk of conflict. I had a professor once who referred to this as the Soros effect: if you throw a sufficient amount of money at a country, they will somewhat manage to govern/find a measure of stability in spite of themselves. The latter trend is, I think, the more likely to encounter resistance, especially within the humanitarian sector. So just what, precisely, is this system of global security governance? It includes the UN, yes, but also other international institutions, “donor and other governments, informal clusters of like-minded states, think-tanks, and large number of national and international NGOs.” The HSR is hilariously backhanded in endorsing it: “this system is inefficient, poorly coordinated, disputatious, underfunded, and prone to tragic error, but it has nevertheless played a critically important role in the reduction of conflicts, particularly civil wars, since the end of the Cold War. There is no indication that the international community’s commitment to peacemaking and peacebuilding is likely to wane. Indeed, it is continuing to increase both in terms of resources committed and new initiatives launched. But much of this increase has passed unnoticed. It is a safe bet, for example, that very few people today realise that more than 50 new peace operations have been launched in Africa since 2000, 10 of them since 2011.” I might well add paternalistic, subject to corruption, bureaucratically hamstrung, and overly risk-adverse to that complementary list of adjectives, as well as acknowledge that the central norm of the system – thou shalt not attack another state except in self-defence – is working SO WELL in Ukraine right now. Moreover, R2P has of late been exposed to be little more than a dark punchline. Even so, I agree with the finding that the system is remarkably effective, notwithstanding its damndest efforts to get in its own way, and that is why I continue to be a closet believer in the UN system, with this blog basically functioning as my Lone Gunman.

I do have still have my doubts about Mr. Pinker, book un-read. But his overall argument is good enough for the fine people of HSRP, and who am I to quibble? Indeed, increasingly, scholars seem to agree that armed violence has been on a dramatic – if wildly uneven – decline since 1946. The ‘declinist’ theory is becoming mainstream. So why does it feel that the world is growing ever darker, if the opposite is true? Is 2014 a blip – one of those tragic anomalies? Or something worse; the beginning of an upswing in violence?

Per our man Pinker, we perceive the present as quite so nasty and brutish because of what he rather charmingly calls ‘historical myopia’ – basically, we more readily recall the horror of recent wars than the much more intense violence of older ones. As with most any kind of pain, the further away we get from an incident, the less the clarity with which we recall it. Meanwhile, we have also managed to instil a greater awareness of or sympathy for human suffering. In effect, having more respect for human rights makes you feel it more acutely when they are violated in much the same way as, after concerned harassment trainings, often there will be an increase in reports of assault and rape. It doesn’t mean (necessarily) that there are more rapes; rather that people (women) feel more empowered to report them. Awareness and sensitivity don’t necessarily mean that things are worse – just that we actually bother to pay attention to bad things when they occur and can demand that action be taken. It’s also worth bringing up (for roughly the 100th time) the CNN effect, which might well be re-named the blogosphere effect. For what it’s worth, Pinker refers to this as ‘availability bias’ – we don’t think historical wars were so bad, simply because we lack information about them.

Researchers at the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO) recently found that, if current conflict drivers remain constant, “the structural determinants of peace are likely to lead to further reductions in armed conflict around the world.” Their model projects that, from 2009 to 2050, we’re likely to witness a 15 per cent decline in violent conflict. Such a finding, of course, begs the question of what happens if conflict drivers do change. Even those staunch declinists at the HSRP are a bit concerned, observing that there exist several potential game-changers on the horizon, including “outbreaks of nuclear terrorism, a huge cross-national upsurge of Islamist violence, or wars triggered by the massive disruptions caused by climate change,” and this was all before one of the major nuclear powers began giving in to their imperialist itch. Essentially, though humanity appears to have been collectively heeding the angel on its shoulder, don’t count the little devil out just yet.

And that was a hugely long introduction to what I actually wanted to talk about, which was trends in violence (remember Alice? The song’s about Alice). So in the next few posts, I’ll be looking, in totally arbitrary fashion, at some potential stumbling blocks on our long walk back to Eden and making generally unfounded prognostications for the future. Join me –good times should be had by all!

24 July 2014

The View from the Cape

There’s quite a bit to report from Bunia (futbol matches with special appearances by goats! Officials requesting bribes! Continuing experiments in cheese making!), but that will all come in due time. For the moment, I would rather wax poetic about my most recent R&R, in which my sister and I met in up Cape Town (my job is so difficult, no? I live in a tropical paradise and then they give me money to run around Uganda and Paris and South Africa. Pity the poor aid worker)

In the true fashion of our family, we went for more active and engaged than restful and relaxing, the Sister’s jetlag be damned. This was especially true during the first stretch that we spent in Cape Town itself (including one memorable day when we got up at 0600 to climb a mountain and didn’t stop moving until we arrived back from after dinner outing after midnight). Rather than languish at the tourist-trap Waterfront (basically a clean, large shopping centre with nicest mall restaurants I have ever seen. It felt nice and safe and sanitised and was probably chalk-a-bloc with pick-pockets.), we wasted little time in throwing ourselves at the city and all it had to offer. It was during this time that we discovered, somewhat to our irritation, that the denizens of Cape Town have a very loose understanding of what incorporates their city. The best example of this occurred when we planned the aforementioned fancy dinner at a lovely restaurant that it turns out was hell and gone from Cartagena. It was rather like how the Inn at Little Washington is considered in DC or The Fort is in Denver (for those of you who don’t get either of those references…I’m sorry. I’ve got nothin’). The cabbie got mad lost on the way and we took a super long, very scenic drive over Chapman’s Peak. Sadly, it was less arresting in the dark.
We spent much of our time running amok along the beach and through the town and climbing nearly every hill we could find, be it Lion’s Head or Cape Point, the very tip of the Cape of Good Hope. Our trek up Lion’s Head began early on that particularly long day I mentioned, and it was as unnerving as you would expect, given that we opted to take challenge ourselves and take the ‘unadvised’ route up (sometimes, I worry that we will push our boundaries right off a cliff). It was prettier, certainly, but also involved nothing short of bouldering, though they thoughtfully provided chains, staples, and ladders slippery with dew. But the view was awfully lovely. We also managed to make our way to the top of Table Mountain, though in that instance we elected innovation over exertion. The Swiss-constructed funicular was possibly the spiffiest gondola in which I have ever ridden – it is water-stabilised for the high winds and boasts a rotating floor so that you might enjoy the full 360 view without ever having to move yourself. From the top of the mountain, you have the most incredible views – Lion’s Head out to Robben Island, the full expanse of the 12 Apostles, the sun-kissed city stretching out from your feet. It was easy to imagine that you were gazing all the way out to Cape Point. The following day, we realised what we had only glimpsed the day before and explored the Cape of Good Hope all the way out to its terminus, the southernmost point in Africa.

During our many sojourns, we saw an impressive array of local wildlife, including ostriches and eland, the world’s largest antelope. We sailed around Seal Island (which apparently populated almost exclusively by young males. So…we visited a seal frat) in Hout Bay. We were also promised pescetarian baboon troops, though they didn’t materialise. The Sister especially enjoyed the colony of endangered African Penguins, where recently hatched ‘baby blues’ (so-called because of their dark as-yet-unwater proof down) were equal parts adorable and awkward. My personal favourite were dassies, which look rather like a marmot but are in fact more closely related to elephants. Perhaps it is the knowledge of this rather lofty kinship that make them so hilariously belligerent. Every dassie (rock hyrax, the Sister would probably and rightly correct me – she’s a biologist) we encountered stared us down as if to ask us to go ahead and make his day.
Per the locals, however, the real treat of the Cape Town outdoors is not fauna but the flora. At nearly every site we visited, we were encouraged – berated, coerced – into admiring the glory of the fynbos, a family of some 7,000 plants that are unique to the Western Cape region. Indeed, the magnificent Kirstenbosch botanical garden was in established in 1913 and is the only such garden in the world devoted to promoting and conserving a country’s indigenous plant life (it even had a very sad grave yard for extinct plants). I am in no way trying to disparage their efforts (the continual emphasis on the plants even led me to declare that the protea subset of fynbos are my new favourite flower group, so well done, pro-protea propaganda machine!), but I think we were both surprised by the zealousness with which SA approaches conservation.

Not all of our adventures were outside, of course. Cape Town is a terrifically cosmopolitan city (I kept claiming we weren’t really in Africa) and we visited museums and stately gardens and storied breweries. I loved the sense of living history there. Take Robben Island, for example. The Island, most recently the off-shore prison where Nelson Mandela was held for 18 years, has played a role in the development of Cape Town from the very beginning, serving variously as a prison, leper colony, whaling camp, etc., and sometimes all of these things at once, but was not closed until 20 years ago. In fact, our tour was given by a former inmate! It was a powerful, deeply moving experience, but also a profoundly odd one, which seemed to sum up our historical experience of Cape Town writ large.
I came away from our numerous museum excursions with the sense that the immediacy of the subject matter impacts how it was presented. I don’t think I appreciated before how much a good museum exhibit depends on reflection and dispassion. By which I don’t mean to suggest that a good curator can’t care about their subject matter. But by and large, even the best museums we visited seemed to devolve at some point into an art installation of long-repressed rage and pain and, in many cases, shame. We did manage to learn a huge amount – like the fact that slaves were actually imported to Cape Town from East Africa and South Asia. But it was not always easy to glean that information. The Slave Lodge – which started out really promisingly, in terms of high quality museums – included a room of (beautiful, fascinating) anatomy-themed origami (it was somewhat topical – the pages were inscribed with the names of slaves who had been imprisoned and/or executed and the often dubious charges against them) and then had us pass through another room in which a undulating rainbow wall of record covers encased a grand piano (no idea whatsoever what this had to do with the slave trade or apartheid). The museum finished with an exhibition of Egyptian art.

Upon further reflection, it might just be that the South Africans are terrible at museums. The one we went to about the French Huguenots – to whom the Dutch offered asylum from religious persecution in France, but only if they would truck down to Cape Town to make wine – should have passed all the benchmarks for time and distance and lack of emotional trauma. After all, happened a few hundred years ago and created an industry in which the country is justifiably proud, but the museum itself was a hodgepodge of old furniture and discursions on religious wars and piracy in a bizarre mix of Afrikaans, English, what looked to be Portuguese, and ‘French’ with a suspicious amount of umlauts. To its credit, the brewery gave a great tour – we learned our preference for ales over lagers likely stems from being cold-weather women. If only their beer had lived up to it…

On the subject of good and bad alcohols, though, our adventure was not confined to Cape Town, and we soon found ourselves in the wine country, which was as lovely as could be expected and filled with some truly delicious wines (as well as some that were less delicious and woefully under-bodied, but I’m choosing to forget those. Tia claimed it was because South African wines don’t really suffer. The soil is too rich, the weather too mild, and the viticulturisits and vintners insufficiently verbally abusive. To be Truly Great, apparently, a grape must have known hardship and pain. It should have character and depth and probably write angsty poetry or smoke like chimneys with pained French ennui. The grapes that make the Truly Great wine must go to their dark, squishy fates with clear eyes and brave hearts, enduring their suffering with noble stoicism. These grapes must have lived. This does not, in any way, describe South African grapes. It might get a nit bippy (Butterfield family-ism for chilly) in the wine country, but on the whole, these grapes are lekker, brü, which makes for a laid-back, totally drinkable wine, but nothing unforgettable. I was fine with that). There was also a ginger husky puppy and some of the best feta cheese I have ever eaten. If ever I have a destination wedding, it will be with the sole purpose of dragging my friends and family to the South African wine country.
The Sister could probably address our wine country experience with a great deal more colour and deftness than I can (I think my reflections during these few days boiled down to Pretty vistas! Good wine! I love cheese!). The woman is wine-wise. In other things, as well, but we’re focusing on this particular skill set. She also probably thinks that I’m insane. All of my tasting notes (I did not bother to take any at all, so I should probably be more gracious that she even condescended to write mine down) were bracketed with increasingly skeptical quotations and other indications of incredulity. If I remember correctly, she at one point even set down her glass emphatically and hit me with a tremendously Spock-ian fascinating. I am now worried that my taste buds are broken. Case in point:

The Sister                                                                            Me

Dark chocolate, red fruit, balance,                              –strawberry picking and watermelon ice cream-
smoke, tongue coating

Currant black cherry dry red plum                              -“meditation in a room w/ green sashes through

good ruby colour, light body not a ton of minerality,           the windows”-
tobacco comes in late

Lemongrass cement crisp apple peaches tangerine        -Swimming in a lake – BUG.
better balance good mouthfeel                                  (As though she wouldn’t know which of us that came                                                                                                 from)
At any rate, the wine tour eventually gave way to the final leg of our trip, which was spent at the eastern coast of False Bay. During the rambling drive down, our terrifically lovely guide gave us lessons in scandalous South African slang (babbelas is a hangover, lekker is cool or good, shame means pretty much whatever they want it to, independent of its actual definition, skelm is doing something on the sly. None of these are pronounced the way you think they should be) as we made many a stop for photos and even stumbled upon a troop of those fishing baboons (at which point we rolled up all the windows and locked the car doors, because they are apparently shameless kleptos). We ended the day with a decedent dinner at a totally empty restaurant with wine that tasted like star-gazing. It was equal parts delicious and eerie, and who doesn’t like their fine dining experiences to veer toward the creepy?

We did a number of things while in Gansbaai – tasted a few more wines, explored coastal cliffs, wandered amok in a lighthouse that was technically closed for repairs after flirting shamelessly with the lighthouse keeper who may or may not have been the long-lost member of ZZ-Top, chased a coy pod of Southern Right Whales (they would have been framed by the sunset and it would have been amazing, but it was not to be. They would pop out of the water and vanish as soon as I pulled my camera. This happened time and time again. Cheeky, cheeky buggers). The undisputed highlight of this last leg of the trip, though, was the sharks. That’s right – Great White Sharks.
There were whales! It would have been glorious
The shack in which we had a pre-dive breakfast (this was not a Congo shack. This was a beach shack. So think Scooby Doo, not National Geographic) had a sign about the ocean being salty because it was filled with the tears of misunderstood sharks. I laughed, until the skipper gave a nearly incomprehensible security briefing, in which the only phrase I understood fully was “it’s very important you follow these instructions, because we’ve had a few close calls with the sharks already”. Fabulous. The crew seemed to get a kick out of pointing out that, statistically, we were apparently more likely to be bitten by Luis Suárez than by a shark.

Our group loaded on to the Apex Predator (ha) and set out over some enormous swells. It was thrilling, in the way a poorly maintained rollercoaster is thrilling, and we definitely got wet (protected from the spray indeed). Tia and I harboured a suspicion that they were a more aggressive in taking on the swells than, say, a whale-watching expedition would be; a side-perk of adventure tourism, perhaps? The crew was also feeding some sort of very large, clearly predatory seabird for our amusement. We eventually pulled up to the infamous Shark Alley (thank you, Discovery Chanel!), centred between Geyser Rocks (another seal frat house) and Dyer Island, a penguin colony. You could easily see why the sharks like it here – it’s a veritable smorgasbord of blubbery delights. It’s actually a bit of a wonder that they condescend to pay attention to the tourist baits at all. At any rate, the skipper maneuvered to the other side of the seal colony, releasing the chum bucket (yummy!), and dropped anchor. There was another boat in the distance, this one without the distinctive diving cage. One of the crew pointed out that there were already fins circling.
The dive master called for the first set of people to prep for the Cage. I was more than happy to let others pave the way (a trepidation that was apparently shared throughout the boat – no one volunteered), but the Sister was not (bless her) and so we began stuffing ourselves into the provided wet suits. We even beat in the gung-ho dude with the spiffy underwater camera. With rough bonhomie, crew members pulled our hoods overhead and secured a weight belt around our hips. We eased ourselves into the water and shuffle right for the next person. There are up to eight in the cage at a time. As the swells move the boat – and the cage – we tried not get swallow a mouthful of chummy water. This turned out to be trickier as the day wore on.

There were definite benefits to going first – first and foremost, the sharks weren’t yet bored (read into that what you will). Almost as soon as we got in the water, we were shouted at to dive and look left, right, down, at the bait, at the bait! There is no snorkelling gear, so you simply take a big, rapid breath and vanish into the quiet stillness, hopefully in time to watch a massive silvery presence glide by, passing through streams of sunlight in the water, like shy performers flirting on the edge of a spotlight – sometimes two or three, teeth casually bared. They only seemed to have the vaguest awareness of those of us in the cage, uninterested in the interlopers so close that we could touch them (which would get you kicked out of the cage – nobody wants blood in the water!). The sharks took no more notice of us than of the school of fish pecking at the bait – less so, actually. We weren’t nibbling on their entrée. In addition to seeing more active sharks than any other group, we first brave few also got to spend quality time with the largest shark of the day – a watery diva some 2.6 meters long. She didn’t too interested in the bait at all; unlike like the younger, smaller, friskier sharks that seemed to try and sneak up on it before furiously pouncing. She made several deliberate passes – silent, huge, awesome in the most biblical sense of the word – until she apparently decided she had had enough of being teased. We lost the bait several times throughout the day, but for me, this was the most impressive for its speed and decisiveness. There was no drama; she never fought with the line, didn’t sink her teeth into the massive hunk of tuna and drag it and the boat or crash into the cage (unlike one of the other sharks in a thrilling episode for those in the cage, which we were not. I was glad for this. The Sister expressed regret. Be careful what you wish for, Dude). She came around from the right, as she had time and time before, but then darted up faster than I think anyone one of us was prepared for and snatched the bait in full. It was clean and utterly without mercy.
When out of the Cage, we were regaled with shark facts by the crew. SA apparently has a few other indigenous species of sharks, but they are found farther out to sea because the water was warmer there. Which seemed…counter-intuitive. The Whites can tolerate the cooler temperatures it because they actually regulate their body temperateure to 14 degrees above ambient sea water temperature. Other fun shark facts for you? GWS can reach speeds of 60km/h and detect the electromagnetic field of other animals in the water column through a tiny gel filled pored located on their snout known as ampullae of lorenzini. They are believed to assist in the sharks’ long distance migrations by detecting the earth’s magnetic field.

After everyone had gotten a chance (at least all those who weren’t too scared or sea sick), they offered those who wanted it seconds. The Sister was all over it, and you know that I couldn’t sit back (despite feeling a little green myself – just sitting in a rocking boat is both soothing and…gastro intestinally fraught). Being back in the water actually helped, though I felt much colder the second time around. There were also fewer sharks, prompting the dive master asked us who scared them all away. One of handful that remained happened to be a particularly food-motivated youngster. It was small and quick. So small and so quick that the shark baiter (clearly, his official title) barely got the tuna out of its way before it crashed into the Cage. Which it did, open-mawed, right into the Sister. The cage did its job and then some, effectively brindling the shark, but it was a kind of awesome moment – wow, look at that – gah! Teeth – holy cats this is amazing – God! The Sister’s hand! And wow…I didn’t know you could plaster yourself that far back in the cage. That’s right – the Sister was snogged by a Great White Shark, right in the ampualle of lorenzini. I was just impressed that she managed not to curse underwater and inadvertently half-drown herself.
We ended the day – our last full one in South Africa – with a traditional braai (barbeque) at our guide’s brother’s. There were toasties and springbok sausage and steaks cooked over a eucalyptus fire, complemented by Namibian beer and finished with melktert (which our guide memorably described as a dessert that tastes like nothing, but in a really good way!). I also enjoyed spending quality time with his precocious daughter, discovering along the way that doing a farm puzzle over and over and over again starts to have a sort of performance art air about it.

Our hosts had also invited another family to join us, the patriarch of which oversaw breeding (growth operations? I can’t recall how we referred to it. I’m thinking of him as a mollusc pimp) at a local abalone farm. He very kindly offered (I’m using the term loosely. Pressured/bribed by Jamie and family would be more accurate) to take us on a clandestine tour at 11p (you couldn’t take tours during normal working hours, because their techniques were subject to corporate espionage. That made the whole experience so much better). Aided in no small part by the late hour and generous consumption of Namibian exports, the abalone farm was like something out of the X-Files. There were long rows of bags growing gelatinous creatures that would skitter away as soon as you shown your flashlight on them, watery crates that stretched out into the night full of precious cargo destined for Japan… Upon our return to the guesthouse, we discovered we were locked out an almost had to break in. It was a weird day. Fabulous – that goes without saying – but odd.

Finally, it was time to go back to the airport and make my tearful farewells. Within a day, I was in Uganda, where there was a terrorist threat against the airport. My hotel would only turn on the wifi when I asked, and then only for an hour. I went to church for the posted 11am English service, only to find out that that the 9am Lauganda service hasn’t even made it out of the sermon. The offering also included a banana bunch it took two men to carry and a live chicken. I lay in my weekend provisions at Edith’s Glossary God be Merciful Store and the teller referred to me as muzungu. Welcome back to Africa!

19 June 2014

Very béni Beni

Back in Beni, I had reason to question Didier’s assertion that his home town is a bureaucratic machine when OCHA projected their PowerPoint onto sheet, just like us on movie night. As I think I’ve mentioned, the humanitarian complex is not nearly as developed here as in Bunia. It’s about the only area where they’re lagging behind us. The cluster meeting room was furnished with couches but no cushions. We started almost a half hour late, and Medair was the only INGO on-time (mostly because we’re new and eager). Even the chair was late. One of the national NGO reps shrugged – the INGOs don’t come because they have actual work to do. Once it did get underway, the meeting was more…Congolese than I’m used to. It was going into the third hour that they doled out a round of Djinos. It lasted long enough for an industrious spider to construct a web between the co-chair’s pant leg and the desk. On the upside, the UNDSS guy related an update on some protests against the péage route (residents claimed that it was an illegal tax, as they were paying but the roads never seemed to get better) with relish, as though it was some great oral tradition epic. He was the only reason to stay awake in hour two.

Like the team, the Beni base is full of items both new and those recycled from previous project. The scanner from the recently closed base in Mambasa puts a rose-tint on everything. The chairs from Dungu are somehow all uneven and upholstered in pink flowers mixed with tiger print. All of the Thurayas are broken. Even these, though, have their place. We cannibalised the base station of one to repair the others and by combining several sets of chairs, managed to come up with a set for the table that was only moderately wobbly (you just can’t really look at it straight on without all of the clashing patterns making you dizzy). We did order a new cover for the hideously ugly couch, and after taking measurements the seamstress set up her portable machine in an empty flower bed in the shade of a tree. We worked to the metronome of her clacking pedals for the better part of an afternoon.

The highlight of house set-up, by far, had to be the positioning of the connex. We had sent a shipping container down from Bunia chalk full of stuff – motos, furniture, records, the works. Trying to move it to an out-of-the-way corner of the compound – where it will act as a depot – was not easy. At first, we solicited the UN for assistance, as they have a decent-sized crane that would have done the job nicely, but they couldn’t be bothered (not surprising, considering that they apparently also huddled behind their camp walls when a village less than five clicks away was being sacked). Instead we hired out a local forklift that promptly got stuck in the soft sand of the compound’s back lot for close to three hours and did little aside from rip up the terrain. Even the land cruiser couldn’t drag it out; the driver had to call for a bigger truck from his company to come and save him. Finally, Didier suggested that we just hire some locals. Judith and I were a bit sceptical, but 20 guys and a couple of long beams later and job was done. Apparently, all they needed was some work songs in Lingala and elbow grease. It took less than a half an hour. One of the watching supervisors turned to me and observed that la force est forte dans ces - the force was strong in these ones. They had just more or less levitated a 2,500lb shipping container. I laughed, and he laughed, though possibly for different reasons.
I had my doubts about this, and suspect that they did, too

But it worked, complete with Jedi-style levitation
 Lest it seem like this trip was all work and no play, I did spent a fair amount of time exploring Beni together with Judith. Despite the affluence of the town (and it is affluent – there are money changers everywhere, their stalls painted with aggrieved-looking Ben Franklins, with inched faces and swollen jowls and bulging eyes), people here are not shy about asking for money, but they do like to be a little sly about it. Instead of just holding out their hand (à la Bukavu), they always seem to ask for café. At the park where we went running, the guards ask for café. On the street, people stop and ask you to buy them some café. It’s the preferred code word. One of our guards popped in one night and also asked for café, but I took him at face value and gave him a cup of Nescafe.

You did read that correctly, by the way – Beni has two, real-live, honest-to-goodness, proper parks (or as close as I have seen to parks anywhere yet in Congo, including Kinshasa). One is an abandoned industrial park where, if you pass the old timber mill, there is a defunct airstrip that makes for a perfect running track. The other is a somewhat more mysterious compound that houses a handful of beautiful, abandoned manors and a covered pool. There is a tennis court and small but serviceable loop for runs. It’s beautiful and peaceful and absolutely teaming with bats. Just as evening falls, it also fills with squads of young men armed with air rifles and sling shots, hunting for supper. Their fist-full of bats don’t look like much meat, dinner-wise, and after the ebola outbreak, it wouldn’t be my first choice, but what do I know?


Somehow, both of the parks still seem to have guards and groundskeepers, though I cannot fathom who might be paying them. There is precedent in Congo that, even after your income has dried up, you still dress in uniform and go to work. It’s the perception of having a job that is important, more so than the job itself. All of the stations along the now defunct railways are, by rumour, almost fully staffed, even some four decades after the trains stopped running. Even today, a significant number of the civil servants don’t received regular pay checks but continue to do their jobs. Of course, that’s also why so very many people here are always thirsty for more café.
So very beautiful

So very creepy

As a part of our social outreach experiment, Judith and I also tried to insinuate herself with the (tiny, as far as we knew) expat community. She had warned me that they were nice enough, but not terribly welcoming, so we pulled out all of the stops. The gas shortage was still on-going at that point, so we had the guard light the charcoal braiser for us. He used a plastic bag (inventive and effective, sure, but it smelled terrible. We tried the same method the next night and failed miserably. We tried again, this time using the heating unit from an old MRE Judith dug out of her stock. God only knows how it got there. While it, too, worked, it smelled even worse and chased us back inside for nearly an hour). We managed to turn out a pretty good spread, if I do say so myself – a kicky salsa, guacamole with notes of tequila, creamy black beans, all topped off some homemade tortillas. In some ways, it’s really easy to cook here – everything is so fresh, the flavours are amazing. We even made some lightly spicy brownies for dessert, though the electric oven is so ancient that all of the markings on each of the seven (!) dials have been rubbed off and we had no idea what the temperature was. I strongly suspect that we were actually roasting the brownies for a while there.
Bat!
The guests started arriving (this is not as grand an affair as it sounds – only about four people showed), and one on one they were really lovely. They readily spoke English or slow French, made gentle fun of the quirky glory house, praised the food, and were altogether charming. Though one did observe that the beans looked rather like those severed at the local prisons (he was working on reforming the corrections system – the corrector of the corrections system!). He followed it up with a sheepish assurance that they were delicious. Food jokes aside, the comment kicked off a really fascinating discussion of prison maintenance, the World Cup, spiders and other venomous things, strangulation and avoidance thereof, and how easy it is to fall asleep to heavy metal music. Rather, our guests discussed it. I understood most of every topic, I thought, but I somehow missed the transitions.

Generally, the default language at parties is that of the hosts, at least in Bunia. This is not so in Beni. As Judith had warned, as a group, much of the individual warmth evaporated and over the course of the evening our guests began to project that hard veneer of in-crowds everywhere, when they’re not quite sure that you have what it takes to be a member of the group. The kind of people who wear cool like a shield. As the night progressed and more wine flowed, they spoke increasingly quickly, leaving my colleague and I struggling to simply follow the plot of the conversation. In such situations, my boss will simply interject in English, but I haven’t quite worked up the guts to do so. They did make a joke about how quiet we’d grown, but didn’t alter the speed of their conversation.

And for this, I missed a toga party in Bunia.
At least I could drown my sorrows with Communal wine
Originally, the plan was for me to fly back, but our carrier abruptly canceled all their flights for the week (the one drawback of flying for free with donor-sponsored airlines is that they don’t really have to worry about keeping the customer happy). Though it nearly doubled the length of my stay, I felt it was worth it. The flight to Bunia is no longer direct, but rather more like getting on an airbus. The route starts in Beni (with an airport showtime of 0600!) and then sets off for Goma, then possibly passing through Bukavu before going back north. It can take upwards of six hours for what should be a 30 minute flight. I would rather take the road any day. It’s actually shorter, construction allowing, and infinitely more visually arresting. I ended up hitching a ride with the medical programme manager, one Dr. Olivier, who arrived a few days prior from Bunia to go over the results of the evaluation (remember the medical evaluation, so very many pages ago?) with the team.

It rained heavily the night before we left. When we again abandoned North Kivu’s pavement for Orientale’s dirt roads, Dr. Olivier noted that we were now leaving Congo. He formally welcomed me back to Zaire. We passed a gut of those massive trucks lumbering under their oversized loads, rending huge gashes in wet ground out of which water bled. I kept waiting for the road to cry out in protest with each new wound, but it never happened – roads are, as a rule, pretty stoic – and the sun gradually hardened them into scars.

By this time, the construction on the bridge had been completed and the site was completely deserted. Whatever my earlier reservations about the caliber of construction, it certainly did make the other bridges we eased our way over look a bit shoddy by comparison. A sign, clearly purloined from Uganda, remained. I hadn’t even noticed it the first time through, what with all of the hullabaloo. It read, in black, hand-painted letters: Caution/Go Slow/Men at Work/Be Aware/Falling Debs. The letters appeared to be fleeing, as though they dried in motion. I knew that it intended to refer to falling debris, and was necessarily cut back (that’s a lot of wording for one sign, after all), but the mental image of 1950s society girls falling lightly, puffy tulle skirts inflating around them and holding them aloft like Mary Poppins’ umbrella has stuck with me.

At one of the clinics we dropped in on, collecting data and more or less shooting the breeze with the staff, the head nurse informed us that, only a few hours before, the village we had just passed through had been under attack from a rebel faction. We hadn’t noticed anything out of place when we has passed through, not thirty minutes before. But, Dr. Olivier sighed, this is Congo, where such things are not out of place. After that, he began pointing out to me how to recognize abandoned homes from empty ones, reading the signs of displacement all along the road. The story of fear it told was rendered more explicit by the numerous military patrols walking along the road, driving along the road in convoys, manning new and existing roadblocks. For the most part, just gave us flat stares as we pass by. Motos got a full shake-down, as they are apparently the preferred means for militias to transport arms and people (and for everyone else to transport everything. The road blocks were slow going).

Happily, we made a few pit stops for road trip food – roasted corn, five cent pineapples, bags and bags of mangoes. The team very kindly offered me some corn – I think as a joke more than anything. Makey ate his corn methodically as he drove, chin thrust out and nose oddly hawkish under surprisingly spiffy aviators. When Jean Mawa, the lead supervisor, and Makey decamped to purchase mangoes, Dr. Olivier and I had an interesting discussion about eating habits in the West versus the developing world. I’m not certain that I bought his argument that genetically modified corn is worse for you that buckets of ‘natural’ palm oil, but he is the doctor.

As he segued into lambasting the mango sellers for their laziness, I watched Jean Mawa haggle. He bought fruit as might a politician on the stump, flirting with the sellers and tickling the palms of their babies. Makey trailed after him, the big man walking with a graceful, almost feminine sway in his ample hips. It’s a jarring contrast from his brusque driving. I wasn’t trying to ignore Dr. Olivier, per se, though his assessments did strike me as unduly harsh. Dr. Olivier is so fantastically motivated and accomplished (the man is a delight, lest it seem that I’m throwing him under the bus), and I suppose that’s a standard inclination of people everywhere – I pulled myself up by my bootstraps through whatever levels of shit, so why can’t you do the same? No one wants to admit that the truth of the American Dream is really self-righteous schadenfreude.

With every new addition of produce, the bouquet in the car developed and evolved in not unpleasant ways. It was even better once a light rain started again. I hope this is how Congo always smells in my memory – like earth and sweet fruit and popcorn and the wind in my hair.

18 June 2014

Béni Beni

We’ve recently expanded our health programme south, stretching our toe across the border into North Kivu. The growth of this particular branch of programming actually began with a trip I took last year, so it was really nice to be able to come back and see how things had progressed to this point. And progressed they have! We opened a new base at the beginning of May, we’re sending teams into the field weekly, and the health cluster has even asked us to pick up the health needs in a growing IDP camp. This all sounds great, and it is, though there are a few problems (it is still Congo, where even the best laid plans usually end up with Scooby-Doo levels of dysfunction). The cluster has no money for the IDP camp, and no one seems interested in picking it up. The teams can’t make it to the project sites without passing through Uganda because of the rebels, which adds time and money for visas and whatnot and an extra 392km to their trips. And there’s only one expat at the base, which is still under construction three months after it was supposed to be finished.

Despite whatever other excuses have been generated to explain the purpose of my trip, I’m really here to keep that expat company. My organisation doesn’t like to leave one person alone for too long, considering it to be both a security and mental health risk. So we at the main base occasionally get trotted out to keep the field staff sane and I was super excited to finally be up in the rotation. I suspect you could tell from my last missive, but I was going a bit stir-crazy in Bunia, and gallivanting down to Beni was great: I got to run amok and explore a new town; interview my Congolese colleagues about their working experiences; asked to make decisions about the house and base for which I am totally unqualified (You know what you need? Furniture for your roof! Also, lots more baking supplies. Let’s go to Butembo and get some! Yes, I do think that water tower should be higher. Why anyone decided that I should have this kind of power, I have no idea). Being under construction, though, the base does have its peccadillos, including limited to no internet, so while it was somewhat difficult to do my actual job, but I managed to make due (my colleague and I were actually forced to abandon our base several nights in a row, wandering from hotel to hotel, on foot, clutching laptops to our hearts. Please, sir, may I have some wifi?).

Before I get ahead of myself, I actually had to make it to Beni. As I have already written about this trip once and don’t want to cover old territory, I’ll try to be brief. Even so, I think it’s worth reiterating that this is a really beautiful country. Congo looks like raw silk feels – unfinished, unrefined, but undeniably lux. Rich. Difficult to stop touching. The further south you go, out of the rolling grasslands of Bunia, the richer it becomes. The forest seems to grow away from you, expanding endlessly in a lush multi-hued maze so that you have only the faintest sense of the life that teems beyond the edge of the rough road. The Congo forest is dense, with secrets to match, and you can almost feel it whisper them at you, if you would just hold still for a moment.

But we didn’t. Patience is not numbered among our driver’s virtues, and we spent the better part of five hours slaloming between motos and potholes and chickens and children. Makey – the driver in question – is actually rather notorious around our office for the…let’s call it intensity…with which he approaches his job. The senior staff never ride with him, if they can avoid it. The rest of us all just make sure to have an empty stomach before we get on board.

But even Makey can’t will away or avoid or simply bull over all of the obstacles we came across. A major bridge along this heavily trafficked route had nearly collapsed a few weeks ago, and they were in the final stages of repairing it. As this is the main route from Bunia to Beni – think as close to an interstate as you’re likely to get her, the collapse created a truly impressive traffic jam. With a few mumbled curses (I assumed that’s what they were – Makey speaks both rapidly and without moving his jaw, making him nigh impossible to understand, but if ever you make the mistake of asking him to repeat himself, he snorts and turns away. It makes for a solitary ride) Makey threaded through the lines of idling trucks that dwarfed our Land Cruiser. No one cried foul on our cutting the line, though I can’t imagine it made us any friends.
The transportation authority – Foner – had set up a detour just to the left of the bridge, ploughing frontage roads down to the river and erecting a temporary bridge. The crossing itself was the only part of the operation that seemed under any sort of control, and we were made to hover on the precipice of the steep descent for several minutes until we were allowed to cross. The suspense of the moment was effectively built, as we had front row seats to watch the failure of several other cars to make it down to the temporary bridge. Lucky for all involved that there were so many trucks lurking about to drag the stranded cars out of the way.

Most of those that were not able to cross were what amounts to public transportation here – ten year old four door sedans packed with as many as a dozen people that makes the entire trip up to four times a day. I cannot begin to fathom how uncomfortable that must be. It costs, I believe, 10 USD. These hard-ridden vehicles were not up to the task Foner had set before them, no matter the misplaced optimism of their drivers. That said, I have come to believe that the Congolese have embraced Tim Gunn as their spirit animal (Faire Marche should be emblazed on their flag) and when it became obvious that the taxis could not make the crossing, they simply switched passengers. People got out, gathered their belongings, forded the stream (Oregon Trail-style!) and got in another car. If there was no taxi handy, they simply took a seat along the side of the road and watched the shenanigans along with the rest of us. Others tried to earn back the cost of the trip by working as porters for some of the larger trucks that were undertaking the same sort of swap, only with material cargo in place of human. Suddenly I understood why things had been so much more expensive in Bunia lately.

The longer we waited, the more time I had to grow sceptical of the reconstruction job on the bridge. The struts and ties looked terribly impressive, but they were building on the old foundation. I can’t imagine it’s going to be as structurally sound as it looks (one thing about working for an organisation that does infrastructure rehab – I’m gaining a tremendous appreciation for the importance of bridge foundations). This approach did mean that they could put the new bridge up much, much faster, which I supposed was as important as anything else.

We were eventually cleared to make the crossing ourselves, which proceeded with very little fanfare all considering. Unfortunately, escaping the jam on the other side took twice as long as it had to work our way up to the bridge in the first place. All along the road, an impromptu market had arisen, probably stocked with goods that ‘fell’ off of the waiting trucks. The vendors sold all manner of supplies and constructed little shanties where drivers and taxi refugees might take shelter for the hours that they wait for their turn. There were generators where people could charge their phones, and shack restaurants like those seen in the little villages with names like Restaurant Misericord de Chez Mama Mtwenga. I enjoy how they follow the name of the restaurant with the name of the proprietress – like a celebrity chef branding his restaurant or a Tyler Perry movie. The air was thick with exhaust fumes spewing from the hundreds of idling cars. My nausea from earlier in the trip gradually abated, only to be replaced with a floating, somewhat insubstantial headache from the exhaust.


Makey took us just up to the border with North Kivu, where there is a significant toll before you enter the Land of Rebels and Paved Roads. We walked across the dividing line and got into another vehicle. Beni base somehow finagled most of the good cars – they’re right-hand drive, not more than four years old, and all of their breaks are as responsive as you could possibly wish. It was like moving from a wooden roller-coaster to a bullet train. That might also have been due to a contrast in drivers, though – Ali never went over 60km/h (Makey was hitting 90). He also never left fourth gear. I spent the remainder of the trip biting my lip so that I didn’t hiss at him to shift.

The route to the new house is a fairly direct one that runs through the centre of town, passing two large roundabouts (where you have to break to allow others to enter. I do not understand Congolese traffic conventions), and turning at the small La roundpoint de la rasta (I do however understand that Bob Marley is universal). The house itself is wedged between the ICRC, a disco, and a chicken farm. This smells exactly as pleasant as you might imagine, but at least they have ready access to really fresh eggs! Apparently, in scouting the location, the team never had any idea it was next to a poultry producer (that is, the IRS were clueless. I’m betting the national staff knew at first glance). It is an utterly unremarkable house. I myself might never have realised it (the occasional clucking and errant feather are decidedly not conclusive evidence here) but for the Chicken Rampant painted on the second floor.

Part of the fun of visiting Beni was watching a new team coalesce. We’ve moved around a few existing staff from other bases, while interviews were on-going for other positions. This is a rather substantive change from Bunia where, for better or worse, our national team is extremely well-established. As you might well imagine, any job posting draws a very diverse crown, especially here in Beni where the population has had, on the whole, much less exposure to humanitarian expats than Bunia and don’t always seem to know quite how to deal with us. Case in point: we were stopped by a failed applicant on the street on a Saturday afternoon on our way back from the market. Judith had to turn woman down for the third time, and explained that if a position came open, it would be posted on our gate (this is how pretty much all the NGOs and UN offices do it, which means you often have about 10-15 strangers milling directly in front of the gates in one of many indications to me that security is not a serious concern here). The woman seemed to take it with grace, and then offered to sell us feminine hygiene products out of her bag. She was certainly full service. In fairness, I’m now thinking about adopting it as my new interviewing technique. It would make me memorable, no?

Of those who made the cut, originally met Didier in Ango. With the opening of the new base, he got a substantial promotion and the ability to move back to his childhood home. Really enjoy his company, though I do sometimes worry that his polish and flash possibly make him seem more productive and knowledgeable than he actually is. Patricia, HR/finance, reminded me of a stork, all long and lovely, but with something ungainly in the way she carries herself. She throws back her head and closes her eyes when she sings during devotions, setting the rhythm with a convoluted three part clap that I can never catch. Assumani, head of the medical team, tends ties a sweater around his shoulders over his Medair Gillette. It’s like he’s a country club humanitarian.

I was also rather interested to observe that the Mama here always changes for work. In itself, this is not that remarkable, as ours do, too. What is interesting about her is that she wears Western clothes to work (one morning, a denim pants suit) and traditional clothes at work. Our Mamans always wear traditional clothes of varying degrees of fanciness. I think it’s probably just to keep clean, but it makes me feel guilty – here is a young woman, progressive in fashion (for the context) that has been hired to do work that is very traditionally reserved for women, and when at work she dresses the part. I’m reading too much into this, I know, but I can’t help feeling that we have a hand in her continued repression. Fly free, my sister! Go to school! Become an accountant or a lawyer or a nurse (all heavily masculine fields here). Basically, find something where you can continue to rock your Canadian tux all the live long day!

The team that is already in place has apparently decided to bond through music. There is constantly music drifting through the two small offices (medical, where I was crashing, and support) and it did not always harmonise (this is not a metaphor for the team, but a statement of fact). As a group, they do love their Celine Dion. However, the super-timely Christmas carols favoured by the clinic supervisors were frequently at war with the logs guys, who seems to favour early 90s boy bands. The only constant is Michael Jackson – everyone turns off their music to let the construction crew outside play MJ (Assumani was mis-singing ‘just beat it’ as ‘just feel it’ in a heavy phonetic accent).

I was initially hoping that I would be able to bop around with the medical team for a bit, taking photos as they evaluated clinics for inclusion in our project. I don’t actually find an excuse to get out to the actual project sites and I really enjoy it. Also, I have found that the majority of photos taken by the supervisors are…somewhat shy of useful. Most of the national staff tends to cut people’s heads off in photos. I’ve chalked it up to a previously unknown national foot fetish (we should get an anthropologist on that, stat). The also have a tendency to record video when they believe that they are taking stills, but I can mostly work with that. Unfortunately, since they were making the trip all the way through Uganda, it was not to be and I instead gave them a quick tutorial in broken French on the aged Medair camera and hoped for the best (they actually did a pretty good job, all considering. The problem this time around was the subject matter. Most of the clinics had been looted by the militias many times over and the staff that remained were treating people in what I found to be abysmal conditions, though the team members themselves were rather blasé about the whole thing. I’ve decided to censor the photos for the time being, until we can present them to the world as a shocking before, countered by a presumably soothing, post-Medair after).

So while the medical team was off arguing with customs officials and being politely horrified by clinics, I turned my attention to helping set up the new base. Even though the house was so new as to still be under construction, it put me in mind of one of those particles that vanish as soon as you look at them – the builders only had to tell us something was done before it began falling apart. The staircase (a rarity here) was enormous and the steps uneven. One step was the size of my calf. No exaggeration – the thing came up to my knee. It was like climbing a pyramid every time I went to the bathroom. There were also not yet mosquito nets in the windows. Had I known this going in, I might have starting taking prophylaxis again (I don’t in Bunia – we don’t have a big problem with malaria there). Though it did give Judith and I the opportunity to wax wishful that our organisation could afford to give us Malarone. Long-term expose to the other meds on offer is either hard on your liver or could drive you slowly insane. Instead, I began wearing mosquito repellent as perfume. It made me sneeze and my keyboard and mouse and sandals sticky, but it was mostly effective, at least until twilight, when the mosquitoes began to swarm. We picked up some electronic zappers that vaguely resemble tennis rackets and would run around the house in the early evening, glass of wine in one hand and zapper in the other, filling the air with sparks and a metallic sharpness and littering the floor with mosquito corpses. It was like we were playing a very esoteric, house-wide game of squash with especially tiny, disease-ridden snitches.

The racket zappers were acquired during a rather epic supply run to Butembo, which sits about 45 minutes south of Beni. This corner of North Kivu is much more heavily forested than Bunia. It is redder, richer, and feels younger somehow. It also has, in very limited quantity, road signs – street names, yield, even pedestrian crossings. To my amusement, the stop signs are in English and almost universally ignored. The buildings, village sizes, cloathes, toys, level of activity, all indicate a higher standard of living than we typically see in Province Orientale. Certainly far beyond that found in Ango (which speaks to why this field can be so frustrating – the needs in Orientale are wildly higher than in North Kivu, but the ‘acute emergency’ is in Beni and so that’s where the money is. Absolute destitution will always take the backseat to punks with guns, so it seems).

All along the route, the main sources of income for the area were obvious – bricks, bananas, and wood. In front of massive, orderly piles of blood-hued bricks, young men toiled on their bikes to transport to market bunches of bananas that were stacked above their heads and slung next to their wheels like saddle bags. Transport of wood, meanwhile (we’re talking logs – these were not bundles of twigs), was largely left to the ladies. Mamans would wrap their burdens in aged pagne and tie them to their foreheads, several securing their knots with machetes. The blades rose in front of them as would a majestic feather gilding the lily of a flapper’s headband. A particularly badass flapper, with a very pointed fashion sense (it’s important that I make myself laugh, if no one else). One woman also carried a girl, maybe just over a year, on top of her logs, the curls of her wig bouncing in time to the woman’s steps. Fiercest maman alive.

Butembo itself is a sprawling city. Where Goma and Bukavu cling to the lake shore, Butembo revels in its size, stretching its limbs and relaxing into the contours of the undulating hills and valleys. I was able to take in its entire scope, as we barely paused enough for the moto mechanic to spring out the back and then blew right through town for a further 45 drive to try and hunt down the rumour of a medical depot from which we could stock our more far-flung clinics. This place was apparently the medical version of the island in Pirates of the Caribbean, in that it could only be found by those who already knew where it was. We stopped and asked the gardener of a local seminary for directions. I have come to understand that, when you ask someone in Congo for directions, they just climb in your car and then melt back into the forest when you get where you’re going. They never seem to take the same road back. The level of inconvenience for them must be enormous, but no one ever complains or asks for money or just offers up the directions.

With the saintly gardener’s assistance, we did manage to find the depot, took a tour, asked our questions, and then, when our business was all but concluded, they brought out a case of Djino, the locally-made soda that I find extremely difficult to drink. It is so carbonated that it effervesces on your tongue, leaving you with the essence, the impression of a taste, rather than the reality. The individual who ran the depot had worked for us some nine years ago, and kept running through the litany of those he had worked with (turns out, once we conveyed his greetings to the staff he knew, that he had been terminated for fraud. Awkward). He finally ran out of small talk and we all sat in silence as we finished our sucres, swallowing as quickly as was polite and the drink allowed.

Back to Butembo, the buildings clearly recall a more prosperous time, with more adventurous architecture and decorative mosaics than you seen in Bunia or even Beni. There was even a post office that apparently functioned in living memory – bananas. The stores had an eclectic range of goods – bottle of toner ink, Nikon D3100s (no word on if they were real, but if they were, damn!). Judith picked up a new cell, and, as in Afghanistan, they sell the phones loose here. You purchase the display model while the proprietor has to rummage through separate boxes, one each bursting with batteries and chargers to mostly fit the minute difference of the myriad phones, testing several along the way for fit and functionality. Another store had everything from an exercise bike to a nut grinder. It was at the store with the neon signs for charge de telephone and velo repair that we finally found a bread knife. There is only the very loosest logic guiding the set-up of these stores, I don’t know if you can tell. It was also easier to buy a machete in Butembo than a baking dish. When we nutty expats tried to describe what we were after, we were variously offered a metallic tv dinner tray, bread pan, and two different spring form pans, one in the shape of a heart.

While waiting for colleagues to haggle for various and sundry goods, I mostly just drank in my surroundings. The low mountains billowed all around us as girls swayed through the pagne gallarie, fruit trays perfectly balanced. A little boy trailed reluctantly in their wake with his own carton of eggs noticeably imperfectly balanced, tilting precariously. The women working the stalls seemed to be appraising the girls as much as the girls were their stock. The porters hauling their loads along the store fronts adorned their chadukas with flags and flowers (even then, some were Brasilian – World Cup fever caught on early here). The Butembo chadukas are longer and lower than those in Goma. There were mini models for kids to play with, carting around battered teddies and younger siblings.


Our team took lunch in an unlit caf/restaurant (that’s not a typo – it’s the name of the establishment). The food was prompt, the sanitation questionable (making me grateful for the lack of light), and the bill took forever to figure out (we were also charged for the ‘cadeau’ of water she had placed – unasked – on the table. That’s one way to make money). Our head logistician, a native son of Beni, claimed that those in Butembo are businessmen, born and bred, which is why they can’t figure out a receipt, which makes…no sense at all. Perhaps because here, business means bargaining and not math skills? According to him, Beni folks overall better educated because it is an administrative city.

During the return trip, Judith and I urged Jean de Dieu, the driver, to stop a few times so that we could take some photos. He seemed tickled to oblige the crazy muzungus. Our actions were so out of the norm, that we even scared some young women into running away from us when we stopped abruptly for a photo. The team made off-colour ADF kidnapping jokes. It reminded me of a rather elaborate running joke my supervisor and I have about getting kidnapped and speculating how our respective government would react. If the Dutch beat the Americans to the rescue, I would be pissed. But I did graciously promised to make the SEALs take us both and not leave her behind. NGO worker humour can be a dark thing.

28 May 2014

The ICC and the Africa problem

Picking up from last week, I am, as in so many things, late to this party.

The ICC is currently looking into allegations of war crimes in eight countries, all in Africa. Four of the investigations are the result of requests by Uganda, the DRC, the Central African Republic and Mali. The UNSC asked for two others, in Libya and Sudan. In a way, this makes sense. After all, Africa accounted for 24% of global direct conflict deaths from 2004-2007 (this is from the Geneva Declaration report on the global burden of armed violence, and it is completely and utterly worth your time to read). The Middle East and Asia, however, accounted for around 60% (given the timeframe, we can fairly safely assume that this was the Iraq war, and by all that’s holy you have to know the ICC wasn’t going to touch that with a ten foot pole). Moreover, from 2004-2009, the countries with the highest rates of violent deaths annually were El Salvador, Iraq, Jamaica, Honduras, and Colombia, and the ICC hasn’t even bothered to begin investigations (I’m not just blowing smoke – there is a correlation between homicide rates and efficacy of a given criminal justice system).

In fact, the ICC has only ever prosecuted Africans, a fact which has resulted in some raised eyebrows. Some might argue (reasonably, I think) that if you only step in where crimes are the worst, and then only when the state either does not have the power to handle it themselves or to tell you to bugger off (which is more or less what Colombia has done), it lends itself to a certain section of the globe. Others might applaud the Court for focusing on the plight of African victims and survivors when so many others prefer to overlook them (insert your own Dark Continent reference here). But others see something more nefarious at work – a kind of neo-colonialism, a standard of global justice that is reserved for Africa alone.

And Africa, which as the continent boasts more signatories of the Rome Statue than any other – 34 – is fighting back. The AU actually went so far as to urge member states not coöoperate with the ICC in detaining Sudan’s Omar al Bashir, a clear violation of Rome Statute. Of course, several African states ignored the call, apparently uninterested in aiding and abetting a pariah of the international community. South African, for example, threatened him with arrest if he attended the inauguration of President Jacob Zuma, while Malawi refused him entrance to an AU summit, and Kenya – clearly, some time ago – blocked him from attending a regional summit. He even cancelled or hastily abandoned trips to Zambia, CAR, and Nigeria for fear of being apprehended. Even so, hackles are raised. Ethiopia’s PM recently accused the court of ‘race hunting’, though I am not totally clear on what that means.

Rwanda has been a particularly outspoken opponent of the Court, which likely stems from the government’s frosty relations with ICTR. This Rwandan antipathy is a bit unwarranted, as they are a non-signatory and the ICC, not being the ICTR, has no jurisdiction over the RPF’s counter-genocide, not that the Tribunal has managed to do much about it in the past 20 years. Where, then, is the beef? A good question; it can be found in the accusations that Rwanda has been backing M23, CNDP, and whatever other Congolese insurgency most fits their whim at the moment. The DRC is quite an active signatory, actually, which does give the Court jurisdiction over any Rwandan official they suspect of meddling with atrocities committed across the border (so, several). There’s even some pretty solid precedent here in the conviction of conviction of Charles Taylor in 2012 for supporting the RUF.

If you happen to be thinking that the accusations of regional/racial bias seem to be tossed around by those most likely to face investigation, you wouldn’t be alone. Which brings me to the latest round of attacks being level at the ICC, this time by a state that was previously among its staunchest defenders. In my last post, I hinted at and talked around this new development, so let’s finally deal with the Kenyatta trial head-on. It’s now been delayed – for the third time – until October, though when/if it finally gets underway, it will mark the first time a sitting head of state has been tried before the court. Draaaaama!

Let me explain – no, there is too much. Let me sum up: President Uhuru Kenyatta is charged with inciting the ethnic violence surrounding the 2007 elections (remember those, when 1,200 people were killed in one of Africa’s most stable states? Fun times were had by all). It’s not just Kenyatta, but also his deputy, William Ruto, and radio journalist Josiah Sang, who have been charged. Last September, the AU asked that the ICC refer the cases to local courts, noting that Kenyan constitutional reforms from 2010 – so, reforms instituted by the government of the accused, after the warrants were issued – were sufficient to allow for a national mechanism to investigate and prosecute the cases. The ICC demurred; Kenya cried violation of sovereignty and lobbied the member-states of the AU to withdraw en masse from the ICC a month later.

Clearly, that did not occur, but the handing of this case has exemplified the stickiness of the Court’s situation, and its outcome likely to do so doubly, mired as it is in all manner of ethnic politics in Kenya. The president and his deputy are from two of the largest tribes, most historically prone to clashing with one another. Right now, in a delicate and frankly unlikely coalition – the Jubilee Alliance. “But the outcome of the ICC cases, especially a mixed verdict in which one of the two leaders is convicted and the other is acquitted…will severely test the durability of their coalition. The breakup of the Jubilee Alliance could have far-reaching consequences for peace and security in the Rift Valley.”

While it is impossible to separate the trial from local politics, let’s try and keep a macro lens on the situation. In that sense, it’s a question of Imperialism versus Impunity. In the Imperialism corner, wearing righteous indignation, is the Kenyan government, which has said that the trial is a “farcical pantomime, a travesty that adds insult to the injury of victims…It stopped being the home of justice the day it became the toy of declining imperial powers.” They have also repeatedly opined that the trail is unfairly distracting Kenyatta from governing the state. In the other corner, wearing high-handedness, is the ICC and it’s supports arguing that only the court has the necessary level of impartiality to “break the deeply entrenched and pervasive culture of impunity”. Unfortunately for the challenger, my money is with the Court in this particular fight (because I’m sure that’s what they were worried about). Kenya’s judiciary is not exactly renown for its independence from the executive branch, which appoints it. Further, Kenyatta and Ruto somewhat undercut their own charge of imperialism by hiring Western lawyers and PR consultants to manage their defence in both the legal and public spheres.

What really sends this fight in the ICC’s favour, though? How the case came before the Court in the first place. For all intents and purposes, the ICC was called in as the result of an AU-created mediation panel led by former UNSG Kofi Annan, and only after the bill to establish a local tribunal, following the recommendations of the panel, was defeated in the Kenyan parliament twice. At the time, Kenyan politicians including Ruto said they preferred going to the Hague, and Kenyatta himself endorsed Annan’s decision to present his evidence to the ICC prosecutor. They took a gamble that the ICC would not the stones to take on sitting heads of government, and they might have lost the farm.

Frankly, this is something of a damned if you do/n’t scenario for the ICC. A conviction will serve as a self-fulfilling prophecy for those who accuse the court of ‘race hunt’ and selective justice targeting Africans. If all parties are acquitted or the case dismissed, possibly due to non-cooperation by the defendants (see getting it postponed three times) or witnesses recanting or vanishing (which challenges the prosecutor is meeting through the creation of a witness protection program and the creation of a new rule that allow sworn testimony to be considered even in the event of a witness’ disappearance or death), it will be proof positive of the Court’s inability to make the hard charges stick or ensure justice for the victims of violence.

Uganda did fairly recently agree to hand some people over to the ICC, so that’s a nice affirmation, I guess. They’re M23 types, which begs the question why didn’t they just head out for Rwanda? Wrong neighbour, fellas.

I’ll wrap up for the moment with a few other, non-African (mostly) side notes:

Palestine, which has lately been enjoying stretching the bounds of its official observer status at the UNGA, has been quite amusing vis-à-vis the Court. In a savvy move, it opted to not sign the Rome Convention, even when signing on to a wealth of other international. Any and all of these actions were, of course, opposed by the US and Israel (because having Palestine affirm the rights of the child or join the international community in standing against torture or war crimes is a terrible thing. Sometimes, I really hate the US), but joining the Court would have opened Israeli soldiers to its oversight, and even Palestine recognised that as a bridge too far.

Meanwhile, the UNHCR (the position, not the UN organ, though I’m not sure you can fully separate the two) has expressed a desire to refer North Korea leadership to the ICC, saying that “security chiefs and possibly even Supreme leader Kim Jong Un himself should face international justice for ordering systematic torture, starvation, and killings comparable to Nazi-era atrocities.” China, as you can imagine, was not amused.

Finally, let’s come back around to international justice and the DRC with this interesting read from the BBC. It’s a bit dated – the anniversary has passed, but, hell, this whole post is pretty dated, and surprisingly genocide-themed. Well, given the subject matter, I suppose it’s not so surprising. But still.

Oh, and since my colleagues made that rather tasteless joke about calling Kony? The LRA has started attacking again. The head nurse at one of our clinics (one I visited, actually – Asa) was kidnapped last month and we haven’t heard from or about him since. Even so, the donors have left Ango, and they’re not coming back. It looks like our base will likely be closed within a year, just as those of all the other NGOs. The last vestiges of international concern for an area so destitute that one can only pay for her C-section with a pineapple are drying up. Maybe it’s not the ICC that has an Africa problem – it’s everybody else.