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Valentine's Day–Of Arms and Men

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I'm sitting in an unfamiliar hotel in Goma, which is very close to the border with Rwanda. Why am I here? I've had a tiff with the guy who is supposed to be my bodyguard and collaborator over the permissive attitude I feel he has towards our "chauffer." For the past few days the Congolese driver has been sullen and too aggressive in his driving-going 'way too fast, running women, children and the elderly off the narrow, rutted roads, and generally being a jerk I've finally had it "up to here" with the excuse that "this is the way things are in Congo," and let everyone know in no uncertain terms. My "punishment" is being left in exile in unfamiliar surroundings with a francophone staff. Never mind. The good news is that I've been able to communicate enough to get my laundry done by morning-or so I've been promised-I think. I've also been able to contact the journalist who is joining me in a few days. His advice? "Hang in there, make sure you take care of yourself. I'm almost there." I feel better. A Mutzig beer helps. So does talking to a sensitive men-my friend and my husband. I've spent two weeks in the company of rough men and soldiers and it is getting to me. I have lost two elderly women friends this year. Each has offered me deep insight into Africa that I could never have gained on my own. One is gone due to attrition, and the other has been claimed by the African soil that she loved. I am missing them and feel very alone here. I have never felt this lonely. Surprisingly, media image of the DRC aside, I have not felt afraid. Well, I take that back. Our driver inspired more fear than militia. Actually, today was the best of the last four. We managed to average 34 km per hour instead of 30 feet per hour. I am not exaggerating. Having been given fraudulent directions (twice) to the "American University"-more about that later-we spent two days literally stuck in the mud until a group of child soldiers happened along and joined local villagers who were valiantly trying to free our dilapidated Land Rover. There are so many armed factions here, not to mention the armed environmentalists, that it is mind-boggling trying to keep all of them straight. The FARDC is the regular Congolese army. When you encounter them along the main north-south route that forms the spine of Virunga Park and follows the escarpment of the Great African Rift, they are in uniforms that are easily recognized. Along the paths that pass for roads that run east-west, soldiers are usually not in uniform, simply because the government cannot afford them. Adding to the confusion, one cannot readily tell if the fourteen and fifteen year old boys running down the road toward you with big rifles are out-of-uniform FARDC, Mai Mai, or just local thugs. We lucked out because the group we ran into was FARDC. At least my guide was sure they were because he was shown what he said was a legitimate ID. I am fairly convinced the youngest of the lot was a former Mai Mai because he was wearing "sumu" in the form of a patch of monkey fur tied around his upper arm. I greeted him with the only Disney Swahili I know: "Hakuna Matada." The boy responded, not with a smile, but with an offer of a drag on the butt of his cigarette. Having nothing to lose, and seeing how swimmingly our conversation was going, I obliged. His gestures indicated that he wanted to bum one from me, and by a deft combination of arm waving and shrugging, I was able to communicate that I did not smoke. Luckily, he did not pass immediate judgment upon me for the liar that I am. Instead he pulled another cigarette from his shirt pocket, lit up, and offered me another drag. I thought things were going quite well under the circumstances. At least we were both out of the muddy roadway. My sneakers were shot. Our "conversation" quickly moved on to sumu, magic and witchcraft. I inquisitively admired the patch and reached to examine it, at which point the boy became alarmed and pulled away, sternly admonishing me, "goosey goosey." Obviously I was NOT to touch the monkey fur. Thank God the gun remained slung over his shoulder and pointed at the ground. I was especially interested because I had seen a similar artifact tucked amongst Dian Fossey's letters that are archived at McMaster University in Ontario. I hope I am being excused for my combination of ranting and humor. This is a blog, not CNN, and I am trying to give you a good example of how emotional it is to be here. I feel as if I have been bouncing in an ever-widening arc between happiness and grief ever since I have been deep into North Kivu. One minute I find myself mesmerized as I stare over the edge of the escarpment into the Great Rift Valley and the next I am plunged into despair because of what is so lacking. There are hardly any animals. The bushmeat trade has left a vast grassland where there should be buffalo, elephant, warthogs, antelope species and more. A United Nations diplomat told me several weeks ago that she thought the Virungas had about two years before the ecosystem collapses. I think it may have happened already. As far as CNN goes, I wish they would take bulletproofed Anderson Cooper out of Goma, away from the gorillas, and send him north where the stuff is that should be reported. I was so angry about apparent skimming by an NGO today, that when the director of an orphanage asked for my help in feeding the children, I wrote Jim Oberstar and Amy Klobuchar's names on the back of my business card and told the guy to call them. Jim, Amy, if you get any calls from DRC you can blame me. You guys should really audit USAID. This "orphanage" looked like the set from Oliver! Pot of porridge and all. I'll send you the photos. Our tax dollars got lost along the way. I won't blog the photos and alert the scum who are taking money from kids whose hair is falling out due to ringworm and malnutrition. Which brings me back to my child soldier. I told him in English that he "should go home to mama." He must have understood, because he started to tremble. He was still shaking when we had our photo taken with the crew that freed the land rover. A Congolese woman who has been around since Mobutu's reign confirmed my suspicions about why he wore the talisman. When children, especially Mai Mai, are recruited, they are told that the fur will give hem supernatural powers and make them invisible to their enemies. It is part of the culture-as is the bushmeat trade that has wiped out the once-great herds, and is about to wipe out the few remaining hippo. The perplexing and maddening part of the equation is why the trade flourishes when this area, especially that to the north around Lubero could probably feed all of Africa–certainly all of DRC. Besides offering the most stunning landscape I have ever seen, the countryside is the most fertile in the world. Looking into the valleys from hills that roll 2500 meters above sea level, you see virgin timber, fields of maize, legumes and many other crops. You feel as if you are literally looking back into time, and in a way you are. Chronological time may have marched forward, but these villagers have been living the same lifestyle for hundreds of years. What is holding the people back is that there is no MARKET for their goods. These villagers could have the best herds of diary cattle in the world, but are forced to buy their milk from Uganda because of constraints put on the development of private enterprise. This control harks back to colonial times and seems to be inbred into the culture, as is a growing dependence upon foreign aid. What is needed here is a middle class. I am also afraid that conservationists are part of the problem. When my colleague arrives we will hit that angle hard. I have been told that the political pressure to stifle the growth of free commerce comes from a history of leadership that was trained in Marxist universities in the former Soviet Union and Zimbabwe. I take this information at face value, since I am not an economist. But, it is easy to see that SOMETHING has held these people back. I do know from previous research on Rwanda, that many ministry officials in the 1970's and 80's were trained at Patrice Lumumba University in the former Soviet Union. Insightful economic digressions aside, the decision was made to return to Goma instead of pressing north. I have gathered too much material that needs organization and cannot afford to lose the sense of cohesion of what I have gathered. This turned out to be the best decision we could have made, since the roads had taken their toll of the transmission of our vehicle and the clutch went out just outside of Goma. Better there than in the far northern reaches of Kivu, where things could be dicier with uncertain intelligence on the disposition of Nkunda's forces. I neglected to mention the dissident Tutsi general in my previous enumeration of the armed and possibly dangerous, because he was not a factor in the Lubero area. The UN has been reporting through their press office, MONUC, that Nkunda has agreed to repatriate his forces within the regular army. The situation is still in flux, however. We stop at a roadside market along the way. I am happy to find an ear of roasted corn and decide to take a pass on the smoked tilapia-likely poached from Lake Edward. When the hippos are gone, the fish will be next to go because the chain of life in the lake depends upon hippo dung. With the bushmeat supply dwindling, the loss of fish will be catastrophic. Since the village which has seen the latest hippo slaughter is only 17 km to the west of our main route, we decide to make a stop there and hopefully document some of what has happened. The FARDC guard at the gate says there are no problems, meaning Mai Mai, between the village and us so we continue on. There is reward in the sight of bushbuck, baboons, warthog, and later on, twelve elephants. We attribute this to the proximity of the guard post. Some of the animals have learned to adapt. Things fall apart about two km from our goal. Our ICCN ranger guard shouts for the driver to stop. He has spotted three figures running toward us, and steps in front of our vehicle, rifle ready. What I see are three terrified guys carrying hoes, not guns. "Guard," as I call him, remains restrained and questions the men.They are shouting. What? There are a few very distant rifle shots. The Mai Mai are in a gun battle in the fishing village, probably with FARDC forces. There is no way to be certain, but I hope that they are shooting at the twenty-five remaining hippos and not villagers. What happened next pretty much sums up my conflicted feelings about DRC. The Congolese driver, and to a certain extent, my bodyguard go into flight and fright mode. Guard remains calm. The driver is in total panic, spinning the vehicle into reverse and almost crushing one of the villagers in the process. Guard jumps in next to me. I am shouting "pole pole"-"slowly slowly"-but the driver does not hear a word I am saying. I do not feel particularly naïve or stupid since I have heard more than my share of gunfire a lot closer to home during Minnesota's hunting season. My mind is running the math that the shots are 2km away, and we can se clearly across the grassy plain in all directions. The Mai Mai are on foot. They cannot possibly outrun the land rover. Let's take a deep breath and think clearly folks. I suggest that we give the terrified villagers a lift until they calm down. I am over-ruled-the rationale being that "we don't know who they are." Well, I am thinking we have a fully automatic weapon and they have hoes, but since I am a dumb Minnesota farm girl I have no say. Not even a vote. My suggestion is carried away on the downdraft of mountain winds that are a precursor to the storm clouds gathering overhead and within our group. The driver floors it and almost tips us in the process. I decide I am more afraid of him that I am of the Mai Mai. My last view of the villagers was terrified eyes in the dust. We have committed our own little atrocity and I was powerless to stop it. I chide the bodyguard: What are the Mai Mai going to do, shoot the Muzunga and eat her?" I don't receive the answer I am expecting. "They are cannibals." Great, the myth of the Mai Mai grows. "Do you have proof of this?" "Oh there is proof all right, up in Ituru. The farmers have proof." I never get a clear answer about this proof, but alleged cannibalism is definitely NOT on my agenda, so I let it drop. Inside, I am seething. We had an opportunity that was squandered. These villagers were probably poachers. To get a lift from the environmental ranger (our guard) would have gone a long way towards building a tiny bridge into the village. These are his people. I sensed Guard was willing, but his Muzungu boss said no to the ride. This encounter was a microcosm of the great societal rift in DRC. Some environmentalists are fighting for wildlife, while ignoring the humanitarian crisis that is the real cannibal–swallowing what is left of human decency. Add to this to a lawless society loosely run by an under trained, underpaid, competing alphabet soup of militia groups and local police. Whoever has the biggest gun wins. Simple. The Mai Mai stay in business because men cover their fear by making the "enemy" larger than life. Cannibalism and child soldiers protected by witchcraft are powerful fears. Meanwhile, the women tend to the fields and the animals, while the men and boys, rape, kill, burn, poach and pillage. I am not ignoring the hard truth that 4 million have died in Africa's World War. The roots go back to colonialism, but it is time for everyone-that means YOU USA– to step out of the past and determine the future. When humanity runs down the road towards us, will we spin our wheels and run the other way-leaving them with eyes wide open and staring as we leave them in the dust? Will we dig ourselves into an even deeper rut with fraudulent foreign aid programs that show our "humanity" while we are responsible for hundreds of thousands dead and dying in the oil fields of the Middle East? The cost of the Iraq war, properly applied, could rebuild this country. This day has toughened me and probably made me more foolish. In some ways my life has become fairly meaningless. I am stretched out on my duffle in the back of the land rover when we pass a particularly difficult checkpoint. The usual procedure is for me to be courteous, engage in a bit of conversation, shake a hand or two, and show my credentials. I don't give the proverbial rat's ass at this one. Patsy Cline is singing through my earbuds about "pyramids across the Nile," and I prefer to stay with her. I wave my pass at the guard in a sullen manner, without the simple courtesy of removing my earpiece and he waves us through. I have become the enemy. Throughout this emotional rant, I have mentioned a Congolese woman who has been kind enough to explain cultural matters to me. I think she will be a new friend-our bond forged through an evening of candlelight with the smell of sweet grasses drifting through the billowing curtains. The heart seeks and finds its own. See you at the next uplink possibility.


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Georgianne Nienaber is an investigative environmental and political writer. She lives in rural northern Minnesota and South Florida. Her articles have appeared in The Society of Professional Journalists' Online Quill Magazine, the Huffington (more...)

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