Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Just a Dumb Muzungu

A child miner heads to work in the pits.Yesterday, we traveled to see the king, or the paramount chief of the area. During our first visit to the mines, we met with the various sub-chiefs of the mining area, retroactively asking their permission after we had taken photos and talked with people in the mining area.

We didn't follow protocol, so all the sub-chiefs and their relatives were insistent that we visit the king. So, on Sunday we drove along a relatively good (not flooded out, no major holes) dirt road, about 14 miles from the mining area, to visit the paramount chief who, by traditional law, owned most of the land in the area around Likasi town.

The few surrounding houses in the village were made of mud bricks with thatched roofs. But the chief had a tiny brick house, perhaps 15 feet by 7 feet, with a tin roof and two windows facing a dirt driveway that cut through tall grasses adjacent to a patchy front yard.

In the front yard was a shady mango tree and an open square shelter-- a thatched roof held up by four wooden poles, about 10 foot by 10 foot. As we drove up and parked on the lawn, we saw an old man sitting alone under the shelter, waiting, planted like a bush, smoking a cigarette.

The chief was perhaps in his late 60s, dark-skinned, wizened, with a salt-and-pepper afro and mustache. Dressed in western clothing, he wore a pink, green and white diagonally-striped button downed shirt, dark brown dress slacks, and black, shiny leather dress shoes. Underneath his chair was a pad and pen, just in case we said anything worth writing down.

We piled out of the car -- Horeb, Maitre, and Christian (another friend and colleague who does media and communications for World Vision in the eastern DRC). He and Horeb are childhood friends; they are both hilarious. We have lots of good conversations and laughs together.

Along the way we also picked up the chief's daughter, her husband and her child, who came to present us to the chief.

"You must bow before the chief. Keep bowing." Okay. Monkey see, monkey do. Making myself as small as possible, I followed the line and came behind, bowing.

Four of the chief's sons brought out blue plastic chairs, and under the shelter we formed a semi-circle facing the chief. Many adorable toddlers and young children hovered and played nearby, watching with interest this delegation of strangers. I, the "muzungu," drew the most stares. Throughout the visit, I frequently smiled and waved at the children in response.

We sat silent for a bit. Then Horeb asked the chief's daughter to introduce us.

A local variation of Swahili and some French was spoken. The chief nodded to each of us as we were introduced. He welcomed us, and then spent some time scolding us, saying that his small square brick house was the capital of the area and should have been our first stop before going anywhere in his territory. He then entreated us, as representatives from World Vision, to do more in the area to help the people. Silence, and many nodding heads.

Sometimes, protocol can obstruct progress. Shrewdly, at Horeb's direction, we had gone straight to the mines, relying upon Maitre, our local mining contact, to walk us around, rather than going to the paramount chief, knowing that the chief would most likely notify the authorities of our visit, who would have then prevented us from taking pictures and video or talking with people.

In cases like this, it is sometimes best to ask for forgiveness rather than permission. Recognizing this, I decided to apologize, hoping to ameliorate our insolence. "Is it alright for me to speak?" I whispered to Horeb. "Yes," he replied, "go ahead."

I spoke in English. Horeb translated. I earnestly thanked the chief for taking the time to meet with us, and profusely apologized -- "I am a dumb muzungu, and did not know to stop by here, the capital, first. Please forgive me. I am very, very sorry."

I think my apology was accepted, and that seemed to break some of the ice. The chief mildly nodded in acceptance and continued on, pragmatically asking World Vision to build a school and a hospital. He had a gravelly, raspy voice, like Charlie Rangel, and as he spoke, he smoked, poking fun at us ... "Many people like you have come by, seemingly like tall white warriors ready to fight, saying many words, writing things down, but no action."

All of us in the circle laughed. He was absolutely right. Many promises and no action is meaningless. I admired his pragmatism. By now, the chief was on his third or fourth cigarette.

"I will pray, but I won't hope. But I am glad you are here. Perhaps it is a sign from God." Under the shade of the shelter and the tree, the group continued in dialogue for about an hour, and the chief continued to crack sardonic, pragmatic quips at the promises of NGOs and outsiders.

"Are there other needs in the community?" Horeb asked.

"Yes, many," the chief replied, "but I won't ask, for fear that you will do nothing. Let's go slowly -- slowly. The most important thing is to at least build a school for our children, delivering us from this slavery."

Yes, indeed. Though we never raised the issue of children in the mines, the chief was aware of the problem and also grasped the solution.

I liked the chief; I admired his pragmatism and wit.

After our talk, the group briefly walked around the area. We stopped by the village well, a covered cistern with a crude metal ladle attached to the lid. Horeb took pictures. The water inside looked like watery chocolate milk.

"This is what they drink," said Christian.

"God, how awful," I replied. "The children must suffer with diarrhea and sickness."

"Yes, and cholera is a big problem in this area."

Piles of spent ore litter the jungles and grassy savannahs of the Congo.We walked back to the chief's house, through a small field of tall grasses. "Horeb, are there snakes in these grasses?"

"No, Rory, those are only in the jungle, in Ituri, and in North Kivu." Yeah, right.

"Here, only small snakes."

"I'd better not get eaten like that UN guy who got swallowed by a boa in his tent!" I exclaimed. "Can you imagine calling home to my dear sweet mother and telling her that her daughter got swallowed by a snake in the Congo! She would hunt you down and cut you guys!"

My mom is 5'3" and about 110 pounds, but, indeed, I have no doubt she would.

"No, Rory, we are putting you in the middle, so no snake will get you," said Christian, smiling. "And I'm telling you, they are not here."

"Never fear. We have you protected," promised Horeb.

"Just like George Bush," I answered. We all laughed.

"George Bush. I like that man!" Horeb declared, wagging his finger. "Small words, big actions. I like that man!"

As we walked through the grasses, Horeb and Christian continued to laugh and joke about snakes and how different plants can make you strong. We returned and again thanked the chief before piling back into the LandRover. As a group, we left laughing, but with resolve to urge our World Vision colleagues to help this community.

We were glad and relieved at the pleasant, patient exchange with the chain-smoking chief.

Posted by Larry Short on behalf of Rory Anderson in the Congo.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Under the Mango Tree

Rory Anderson with village elders and others in the shade of a mango tree.Still in Likasi. We visited the same copper mine site, this time to shoot video. With hindsight, Thursday was a cakewalk, but, the second visit brought the local authorities and more attention.

Local Congolese authorities were not happy that we were taking video. Not happy at all. Yet everyone seemed so friendly and no one was in uniform, so I wasn't aware of the pickle that we were in until Horeb told me, as we were leaving, "You know they were coming to arrest us, actually."

What?!? Perhaps it is a distinct advantage on my part for having very bad French and not being able to speak Swahili. Everyone seemed so friendly and wanted to talk and chat, so, I went along and chatted with the various and sundry chiefs and authorities. Hours of chatting.

At the time, I did not know that these were delay tactics. Yet the whole time I had no idea of the real problems we were encountering. But Horeb is a real star. He is truly a brilliant gem. He got us out of it, without me even knowing that we were about to step into a potential minefield.

The first round of chatting, we sat for about an hour and a half with the son of the local chief, who was trying to delay us. Horeb was superb -- he chatted them up, made jokes about different local customs, and generally charmed them all. After that, we managed to get down to the river area again, and Horeb was able to film and take some video for internal use.

The sun was strong and I was starting to burn (I forgot to bring sunblock. Stupid! I get arrogant because I'm black, thinking that I won't burn, but I do burn and was starting to get a bad burn on my neck and shoulders.)

So our local contact, Mme. Maitre, and I started walking up the Hill to a more shady area, but we were stopped. One of the local authorities asked in Swahili why we were there. No surprise, I stick out like a sore thumb. (They call me a muzungo, which means "whitey" in Swahili, even though I'm black American. I hate it, but, to them I'm foreign, and I'm lighter than many Congolese. I protest over this ignoble title, but what can I do?)

Mme. Maitre responded with zeal that we were doing a humanitarian assessment, and that World Vision hopes to begin doing humanitarian work in the area. We were asked to have a seat under a mango tree. Others joined. We began a pleasant exchange in French and Swahili, talking about the weather, etc. Horeb turned up and more local authorities joined the circle under the mango tree.

With much verve and charm, Horeb began explaining our goal for learning more about the humanitarian needs. I then asked questions about how the U.S. could help. Many people had many things to say, and we had a good exchange.

Perhaps my being single helped also, as I was made several offers. I was able to get a whole mining plot in exchange for my hand in marriage! That's the best offer I've had yet -- certainly trumps the 10,000 camels I was once offered in Egypt! ;-) Perhaps I ought to quit while I'm ahead ...

The incident ended on a happy note, taking lots of photos -- seemed I turned out to be a star. More like a fallen star: I had to promise both the local chief and the provincial minister of mines that we would not use the photos beyond World Vision's use. Indeed.

Posted by Larry Short on behalf of Rory Anderson in the DRC.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Not Really a Very Good Day

World Vision's Rory AndersonWell, this is my first time blogging! A dinosaur, blogging -- this ought to be in Ripley's Believe It or Not.

To be honest, this whole blog thing is not exactly my speed -- I think it's quite narcissistic, actually. Are my thoughts so important that people should take time out of their lives to read them? Not really -- and, frankly, I'm not that interested in reading the droning and whining of others. But, I do care about the Congo, and I think it is important that people know about what is going on there, and how Congo's suffering is connected to our lives -- whether they really care to or not.

There. That's off my chest ... I think I like this blog thing! ;-) Now let's see if my mini diatribe/blogga-hater speech gets past the Soviet Sensors.

Rory Anderson chatting with locals in the DRC.I'm writing this from our Likasi provincial office, which is about the 120 kilometers (75 miles) north of Lubumbashi, the regional capital of Katanga province, the southernmost province -- and one of the most mineral rich areas -- of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). I'm typing this and the lights just went out. We lost power, and I'm leaning the laptop screen over so that I can see the keys!

It's the rainy season, and the generator probably flooded. C'est la vie dans le RDC. "It's life in the Congo ..." I'll just pretend like nothing happened, as that is what everyone else in the office is doing ... just go with the flow, Rory, roll with it.

Today was our first field visit. I arrived in the DRC two days ago, sans luggage. I've learned the lesson of living simply and traveling light; I've washed my underwear for the past three days and have worn the same outfit since I left the States, four days ago.

I hadn't lost any luggage in my travels to Africa during the past 10 years, so I guess I had it coming. They often say, L'Afrique ne marche pas ("things don't work in Africa"), but things worked fine here in Africa, though not in Europe (to my surprise). My bags got lost in Amsterdam, but had no problem getting through South Africa, then flown into the DRC and driven by our staff from Lubumbashi to meet me here in Likasi. And nothing was missing!

We have awesome field staff; I was very sorry to hassle them about schlepping my bag. But I am also glad to have clean underwear and a change of clothes!

I've droned on about myself, which, it seems, this mode of communication somehow encourages. So, let me tell you a bit about today. Our staff have twice attempted to take pictures of this scandal, but today was a good day -- I think. Good in that Horeb (my friend and guide who is one of World Vision's DRC communications managers) and I were able to actually go to a copper mining site, interview children and adult diggers, and take photos.

Children digging for ore in one of the Congo's mines.But, I hesitate to say this was a good day, because in reality this "good story" is a sad, scandalous story that is their lives. Seeing children -- ages 6, 7, 8, 9, teens, even infants -- in deplorable mining situations, is actually a recipe for a very bad day. Their parents are poor, so they are poor. Their parents are uneducated, so they are uneducated. Their parents dig, and, so do the children.

The nearest schools and hospitals are about a two-hour walk away from the mining settlement where these children are condemned to grueling work and toxic waste poison from handling the copper and the waste from the ore. I picked up some of the blue-green copper ore as a group of adults and children were sorting the ore -- and I could feel a slight burning-tingling in my hands.

These children crawl into dangerous holes to gather the copper ore. They wash it in a murky, stinking river filled with toxic run-off. Then they break and sort the ore, pack it, and many of the children also walk or bike w/these heavy loads or rock to sell the copper to middleman-sellers who work for big international companies in town.

It seemed like there were as many children as there were adults, working in the mines. What kind of a future will Congo have if her children are condemned to mine the copper used for my telephone wires?

No, it was not really a good day.

Posted by Larry Short on behalf of Rory Anderson in the DRC.

Congolese Children: In the Pits

World Vision's Rory AndersonThis week, the government of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) released the devastating and mind-boggling news that more than 5 million people have died, in association with 10 years of regional conflict in the Congo.

This puts some perspective on what many have called "Africa's World War" ... the result of internal conflicts and international intervention in what has become a regional conflict. The good news is that the government has signed a deal with rebels designed to end fighting in the war-torn eastern part of the country.

The remoteness and poverty of this region have certainly contributed to the death toll. So many have died in secret, fleeing into the jungle in an attempt to escape the conflict, only to be confronted by brutality, disease and deprivation there.

World Vision's Rory Anderson to Blog

Over the next two weeks we are privileged to have as a participant in this blog Rory Anderson, from our Washington DC office of Public Policy and Advocacy. As World Vision's deputy director for advocacy & government relations, Rory advocates for increased U.S. attention to human rights, humanitarian and development issues, with a focus on regions affected by conflict or disaster.

Rory is a passionate advocate for children and families who are being devastated by the crisis in the Congo, and she is visiting the war-torn regions over the next three weeks. She will be bringing us daily updates from what she is learning.

Currently dedicated to promoting increased U.S. engagement in the regional conflicts in northern Uganda, Sudan and the DRC, Anderson co-authored “Pawns of Politics: Children, Conflict and Peace in Northern Uganda” [PDF -- 5 pages, 3mb]. This report summarizes the history and devastating impact of Uganda’s 20-year civil war, which includes tens of thousands of children who have been abducted and forcefully conscripted into the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army. More than 1.3 million civilians have been forced from their homes. The report also sets forth recommendations for pursing peace.

Between 2001 and 2002, Anderson helped initiate a multi-agency advocacy campaign to end the trade of “conflict diamonds” that fund wars in several parts of Africa. As part of those efforts, Anderson played a lead advisory role in drafting and enacting the Clean Diamond Trade Act of 2003 and the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme, which regulates the international diamond trade.

Anderson also pressed for 10 percent of global AIDS funding to be dedicated to the care of orphans and children made vulnerable by this disease, as stated in the Global AIDS, TB and Malaria Act. With partner agencies, she also promoted the passage of the Sudan Peace Act.

Anderson holds the Bachelor’s degree in international affairs from George Washington University and the Master of Arts in international development from the University of Leeds in the United Kingdom.

During her last trip to the DRC in January 2007, Rory found that World Vision's local staff spoke repeatedly about children being forced to mine uranium, cobalt, and other toxic substances. "I was both horrified and intrigued," she writes, "as this could be an important issue for World Vision to prioritize into our advocacy and campaigning work, because many of these children are informally mining for U.S. companies.

"The purpose of my current trip, therefore, is to follow up with our staff concerns about child mining, and to begin research for a broader policy and advocacy paper which can be used by our respective offices to begin advocating on behalf of these children both in the DRC and abroad."

Rory is in the DRC for two weeks. The first week she is visiting Katanga province (in the southern DRC), and the second week she is visiting North Kivu to do more research on child soldiers. Her first blog entry will be posted later today, so stay tuned!

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Experience the Experience

The "World Vision Experience: AIDS" is an interactive exhibit which immerses the visitor into the sights, sounds, and even the smells of Africa. As you walk through the exhibit you walk through the story of one of five individuals whose lives have been dramatically impacted by the crisis of HIV and AIDS in Africa.

If you haven't yet had the chance to experience the Experience, you can get a quick foretaste by watching the above video, now on our new YouTube channel at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0ufJo6mOqZM.

If you have already been through the Experience, I'd be very interested in hearing what impact it had on your life. Please click the "comments" link at the bottom of this posting and share your thoughts.

For more information about the World Vision Experience: AIDS, visit our Webby-award winning site at http://www.worldvisionexperience.org/.

Friday, January 11, 2008

30 Hour Famine - 2008 Preview Video

Just released on YouTube -- featuring the music of Third Day:

For more information about the Famine, visit the 30 Hour Famine Web site.

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