Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Please note that The Mafunzo Project now has a website:


Please check it out and get involved! You can email me if you have any feedback about the website.

Saturday, 20 August 2011


A desire for something good, accompanied with an expectation or belief that it is obtainable.

A term we use, in Australia, to possibly describe a desire for a meeting to go well; or perhaps for our child to take to a new lifestyle change; or even for a relative or friend to get well soon.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, hope is the very dim and distant light to which life clings. There is very little tangible that exists to encourage one's daydreams, or hold one's ambitions. There are no promises of "what tomorrow will bring" from higher authorities. Residents of Congo work hard for their "tomorrows", and they can only hope for their children's children... perhaps for a day when a just government will be elected, a day when that said government will actually stay in power and not sell off the country's resources for the benefit of an affluent few, and a day when Congo's wealth will actually go towards assisting Congolese citizens and building up its economy and infrastructure.

Congo is a country that has been ravaged again and again; labelled as "the worst place on earth to be a woman" and the "rape capital of the world"... a nation wracked by decades of war, acute poverty, civil unrest, political instability, and bloody violence. Lawlessness, sexual atrocities and shooting from both military and rebel forces go often unpunished, and are so common that it is instilled in the world's perception that the heart of Africa, particularly in its east, must remain 'out-of-bounds', and very few outsiders dare enter. Rape and acts of sexual violence are employed as weapons of war; using the demoralisation of women as a handle on manipulation and a stepping stone to power. Since the beginning of this 'African World War' in 1996, an estimated 5.4 million people (about 10% of the population) have been killed, largely ignored by the West, whose response has been incommensurate with the scale of disaster resulting from the war. There have been no effective steps taken to achieve accountability of war crimes or crimes against humanity, as pledged. 

Yes, all this is true. And yet, in the face of this international pessimism and internal brutality, life goes on and hope does indeed exist. The eastern Congolese people stoically go about their normal lives, employment or not, maybe studying, certainly caring for children, preparing food, coping without the basic amenities of water and electricity... this territory is not uninhabitable, as "they" warn, as my initial blog post perhaps implies. 

My recent trip is evidence that, whilst not a honeymoon, this nation certainly does not need to be relegated to the 'hopeless' or 'too-hard' baskets, nor struck off a traveller's adventures or list of must-see destinations.

For a start, the residents themselves are not antagonistic, lazy, obstructive, ignorant or primitive, like some would have you believe. Nor are they naturally hostile, bloodthirsty or savage. Not at all. On the contrary, citizens of Congo have largely been a peaceful people, so rarely committing unprovoked crimes against each other. The decades of conflicts have in fact resulted from political struggles, inferior treatment by colonial powers, mineral-grabbing and exploitation by other countries. 
*I highly recommend the book 'Blood River' by Tim Butcher, for an accurate, more detailed description of Congo's history.

The country is now improving little by little... in ways often not acknowledged by NGOs or other countries. The economy's picking up - while Congo's budget was $2 million in 2006, it now stands at $7 million. Successful microfinance organisations abound. Despite corruption within, there was an election held in 2006, and there is one planned for November of this year. Cities, like Bukavu, have a military presence and are safer and more secure. The capital, Kinshasa, is the third largest city in Africa... and with approximately over 15 million people, even more populous than New York City. 

Some teachers and doctors are now being paid salaries. Roads are being planned and some have been built. Construction is gathering momentum, and hence, employment is increasing, gradually. All this is work that was halted by the previous Mobutu government. Congo is a huge country, and trying to control every corner with an army comprised of ex-rebel fighters, ex-militia, ex-army and ex-refugees, whilst ensuring cooperation amongst themselves, is no mean feat. 

Although cautioned, I (not irrationally) took a trip out with a friend towards Bukavu Airport one evening, about 30 minutes drive out of town... on a newly-paved road. Along the way, I witnessed businesses thriving, restaurants serving crowds, construction employees working, barges conveying machinery and raw materials up and down Lake Kivu. Every one of my days, during sunlit hours, I walked around on my own, feeling no imminent personal danger. I was transported to and from the hospital every day, with only occasional trouble. I negotiated with Immigration officials, never sensing any threat.

Although life's activities certainly seemed more complicated and troublesome, they were merely aggravations. Let me not convey any false impressions: by NO means did I suffer compared with those around me, having a passport and money in my pocket.

When there are no distractions (internet, TV, phones, to-do lists), daily living is simplified. It's tougher and more frustrating to accomplish the smallest jobs, but yet, each minor achievement is precious. The inability to depend on even water and electricity was initially confronting for me, but actually enabled me to build stronger relationships with the people around me, examine my own motives and my Australian lifestyle, and talk to God far more frequently.

I, too, had been naive. I can't even begin to express the nerves I felt in the last year's lead-up to my trip, and it's tough for me to admit to anyone that returning to my "home" filled me with apprehension, anxiety, fear for my safety; each layered over the deep, underlying grief at having to leave my dear daughter and husband for so long.

But I'm back now.

Back to Australia. My "country of origin". Back to my precious family, the English language, drinkable water, flushing toilets, reliable electricity, free healthcare, respected police, reasonable laws, paved roads, ATMs, and rain...

No longer having to contend with headache-inducing car rides, lung-aggravating pollution and dust, passport thefts, lost-in-translation setbacks, negotiations with unreasonable authorities, enraged rioting on the road home from work, desperately-pleading beggars, whining mosquitoes, cold-washer bathing, bed-time reading by candlelight, and stomach upsets... Yes, I'm relieved to be back safely...

But just please don't ask me if I'm happy to be back.

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Panzi Foundation

TRIGGER WARNING This article or section, or pages it links to, contain information about sexual assault and/or violence which may be triggering to survivors.

Panzi Hospital is a secluded haven for its patients... particularly women who have been survivors of sexual violence, the chosen 'weapon of war' in Congo. It is a world away from the dusty, shameful existence for so many traumatised mothers and wives, with its picturesque, well-tended gardens, its non-discriminatory acceptance of any patient, and its humble direction by humanitarian, gynaecologist Dr Denis Mukwege. Through this establishment in Bukavu, eastern Congo, rape victims finally have a glimmer of hope.

Rape is devastating anywhere. And it's not "normal" rape. In Congo, the shame brought upon a victim of these horrific and indescribable acts of sexual violence often excludes her from family, thus undermining whole communities. "Raping women is the cheapest, most effective way to instil fear in and humiliate a community. It doesn't even cost a bullet" (E. Ensler).

These sexual atrocities, needless to say, have horrific sequelae and injuries, such as fistulae and incontinence. Injuries that I witnessed in Ethiopia; but there (at the Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital), they were largely resultant from obstetric complications. This physical trauma and permanent urine leakage brings shame upon the wounded, suffering isolation and desertion by family. Their villages are often looted and burned to the ground in the same brutal attack.

Panzi Foundation DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo) was created in 2000 upon discovering the sheer numbers of victims of sexual violence post-war. It is supported by branches in USA, Belgium, Sweden and Norway, and is the platform to launch several initiatives and projects aimed at supporting these victims, as well as coordinating outreach and public awareness. I had the incredible opportunity to sit down with 2 intelligent, articulate Congolese women, both passionate members of this Committee (a lawyer and a doctor), and learn about these Projects during my time at Panzi.

This Foundation is focused on considering the female patient's (and their family's) broader needs, in the context of their injuries and ongoing health care. The current initiatives run by Panzi Foundation include Dorcas House, City of Joy, a Legal Clinic, and a Research Centre for Education in Human Rights. They also run a Fistula Project and an HIV Program.

This is how it works:

After a woman is violently attacked and humiliated, she is injured and broken; often deserted by her family, friends and husband, and not realising that this is an illegal act, for which she deserves retribution. By some means, if she's heard of the hospital (or if she's discovered by roaming staff members), she makes her way there for treatment. Upon admission to hospital, she will be given new clothes and toiletries, will have a gynaecological exam (for forensic purposes) and assessment of her injuries, from whence a treatment plan (physical and psychological) is formulated.

Initially, while staying on the ward, she is treated surgically, hopefully repaired from incontinence and other horrific injuries. During her recovery time, she will receive counselling, psychological treatment, social work, alternate therapies (including craft, story-telling, song and dance), and occasionally, more intensive psychiatric treatment.

These hundreds of women form bonds through their similar experiences, often becoming lifetime friends, once they've understood that they aren't inferior members of society and are still able to socialise with others. The program runs excursions - to a restaurant in town, to the cement factory, to the airport... not only to give these women something else to occupy their minds, but to expand their horizons and education, to improve friendships, and to re-inforce their self-worth and confidence.

Once a survivor receives the treatment and therapy she needs and feels confident enough to return to her village, if it's still standing, she will go home, with subsequent follow-up visits carried out by Panzi Hospital staff, regardless of distance, terrain or nearby dangers.

When, however, one of these women is unable to move beyond the grief and psychological trauma, often they (understandably) refuse to return home. In those cases, they are accommodated at one of the two Dorcas Houses. As well as food and shelter, these residences provide education and tutoring, craft activities, crop plantations, micro-finance projects, and access to healthcare.

City of Joy is another sanctuary in Bukavu where rape survivors, after they've been treated surgically, can live for 6 months and be educated. This centre is mainly sponsored and run by the American movement, V-DAY (and Eve Ensler), and is largely coordinated on the ground by Congolese human rights activist, Christine Schuler-Deschryver. The inhabitants have regular de-traumatisation sessions and therapy - the "Congolese way".

Panzi Foundation also conducts an education centre for the women themselves, funding for the children to attend local schools, and a free Legal Clinic. The latter is designed to equip these women with legal understanding and education about their Human Rights, previously thinking that being raped was a way of life; their own fault. This facility works in collaboration with local authorities and police, funds any legal costs and assistance needed, organises court appearances and accommodation during trials, and provides focus groups around the region.

Projects are also underway - the Fistula Project and the HIV Project, both of which provide treatment, and similar resources and assistance. There are currently approximately 850 HIV-positive patients enrolled in the latter, including 110 children; 450 of which receive regular anti-retroviral therapy. The patients, 40% of whom are male, are involved in agriculture, crafts, schooling and education about HIV prevention.

Despite all of this seeming somewhat disconnected from my actual project, I wanted to share this with you. The worldwide negativity towards Congo can sometimes be overwhelming. Here, people from all over are diverting their time, effort and passions towards the rebuilding of Congolese survivors, specifically women.

The Mafunzo Project is designed to ultimately expand the number of trained doctors and nurses working in Congo. Thus, there is a very real need for this project to work side by side with Panzi Foundation - our mission being to serve an ignored, violated population, a people previously uncared for.

**I'm sorry for the detail above if it offended you. However, if you are interested, below is a challenging article with further details, and the links to Panzi Foundation USA and V-DAY:




Monday, 8 August 2011

Congo's Students

Apologies again for my infrequent updates... my internet access is very limited and quite slow.
Since I last wrote, I've had a vast array of experiences, both professional and personal, which have left me increasingly admiring of the Congolese people.

As the days go by, I'm feeling more and more at home in this country. The minor irritations of no water and occasionally no power (and not being able to run, because I don't dare run in this dust and heat if I can't be guaranteed a shower at the end!) are outweighed completely by church services like yesterday's, with such meaningful, old hymns being harmoniously belted out with heartfelt fervour; reminding me why I love this country and its people. But the book I'm reading, "Blood River", a journalist's (Tim Butcher) narrative of his travels across Congo, attempting to re-trace explorer Stanley's footsteps, whilst interesting, is profoundly saddening for me, learning about beautiful Congo's bloody history and brutal, unjust exploitation at the hands of colonial powers and corrupt governments. Anger can hardly do my reactions justice.

I've been repeatedly astonished at what is tolerated here, with a smile, when significantly less would draw public outrage or complaints in Australia. Cause for my own introspection: how can I ever complain about the lack of sleep or difficulties with working and raising just one child, when mothers here have on average 6-10 children, and try to study, and try to raise them with no money, and try to work occasionally if it's possible, and in a tiny 2-bedroom house, in an unstable and sometimes violent country with no government financial assistance, with no electricity or water... and no complaints!! I marvel at and envy this perserverence and strength of character.

During the last week, I've tried to do as much fact-finding for this project as possible. One of my days, I visited ITM (rough translation: Technical Medical Institute), the nursing school here, attached to Panzi Hospital, which was built in 2008, after having to alternate between empty wards, containers, etc, for teaching space before its completion. I talked extensively with some teachers, the Director of ITM and the Nursing Director, and I was taken on a detailed tour.

The nursing course at this institute (like most in this country) runs over 4 years, currently has 130 students enrolled, and includes classroom teaching and practical training in hospital wards. Classes run from 7.30am till 3pm every day, and students come from everywhere to attend, including Rwanda and Burundi. Because there are no student living quarters, some students (most of which have more than 5 children at home) have to get up at 3-4am to commence their daily trek into ITM in order to arrive on time, often walking the entire distance. The fees to study nursing are US $200 annually (which includes resources). This, while supporting a family of 10 on $4 a day, is a near impossible feat for some (to give you perspective, one of my friends rents out his house near Panzi for $25/month... and that's considered expensive). Approximately 35% of the nursing students are struggling incredibly to pay these fees. By 'struggling', I don't just mean they're 'finding it tough'... these students can't pay these fees, EVEN when they haven't put any money aside for food or medicine needed for their families, let alone transport, water, etc.

I had the opportunity to interview some of these students about how they manage, and, without them even vocalising it, I could tell by their clothes, the lines on their faces and the weariness in their eyes just how challenging their lives are... I can't even pretend to empathise or fathom. This is a life they have to live permanently.

The Institute itself is struggling because they've gone out of their way to assist some exceptionally poor, but bright students, who would drop out otherwise. As a result (because the Government does not contribute financially to universities or institutes here), the teachers and professors often go without any pay, they haven't been able to purchase any textbooks for their library, they can't pay for any maintenance for the building, and they've had to cut off the internet because of the ongoing cost.

The following day, after having a formal meeting with the Medical Director of Panzi Hospital, Dr Denis Mukwege, I was taken to see the medical campus at the University - UEA (Evangelical University in Africa). They are currently in the final stages of building the new medical faculty, just around the corner from the hospital. It will open in September, ready to start teaching the 1200 medical students in this coming school year. The construction of this building was funded by a German organisation, and encompasses administrative offices, a few medium-sized lecture rooms (with blackboards, crude wooden benches and desks), and one large lecture hall. Although I was visiting during their end-of-year holidays, there were many students present, quietly studying independently during my tour.

I was then chauffered to the main UEA campus, up some dusty roads and around the corner. The UEA buildings are clustered in groups, in tiers up the side of a lusciously green mountain, in vivid contrast with the scorched, dusty haze apparent directly outside the front gate. I so enjoyed our drive, winding up the long dirt driveway, passing villagers and children laden with firewood, food or jerry cans of water, drinking in all the rich colours, as we ascended and the city of Bukavu spread out lazily behind us in the midday heat.

In 1992, with no other universities in the country, the Protestant Church founded UEA to "help build the country's development and give students access to the rest of the world". The initial plan was to build 3 campuses - one here in Bukavu, one in Bujumbura (Burundi) and one in Kigali (Rwanda), but the many years of war have halted those efforts. It comprises four faculties: Medicine and Public Health, Economics, Agriculture, and Theology. It has now been recognised by the DRC Government as an official Congolese University. It is growing annually, and currently has 2850 students enrolled. Like at ITM, the financial difficulties are evident, with few books and ancient, ragged journals stored in the library, no nearby student accommodation, and none of the regular student life 'comforts' and activities I'm so accustomed to in Australia. And again, like ITM, the university is constantly between a rock and a hard place... desperate to not kick out diligent, conscientious students who can't pay the fees, but also keen to actually pay the teachers' and staff salaries, conduct some research, provide internet, and afford occasional building maintenance and repairs.

The medical course here (like in most Congolese universities) runs over 7 years - 6 years based at university and 1 year based in hospital. It costs a student approximately US $500 each year, to which the Government does not contribute or provide assistance. Unlike the nursing students at the Institute, medical students must have completed their high school diploma, with marks above a certain percentage. They are more likely to be unmarried and childless, commencing their studies directly after high school. Out of the 1200 medical students (across all 7 years), 500 are female. I was able to interview some, both men and women. Most of them had dreamed of becoming doctors when, from an early age, they were exposed to suffering and illness within their families. Each response, although familiar-sounding, was utterly raw and genuine... stories of great difficulty affording the fees, hours of travel to and from uni, or having to leave family and living with 5 or 6 friends in nearby 2-bedroom derelict houses, with no income... all true tales, from exhausted but dedicated young students. If, perchance, a student happens to get some financial assistance from their parents, it often comes at the expense of any of their siblings being able to also attend university.

There isn't much to look forward to at the end of their studies in Congo either... other than carrying the title 'Dr'. Doctors are not paid by the Government, on the whole, and can only earn what their patients pay... with no incentives to draw doctors out to rural areas. Doctors, once specialised, often earn as little as $100/month.

Since my tour, interviews and discussions with staff of ITM and UEA, I have felt much more confident about the direction of the Mafunzo Project. Despite my cynicism before the trip, knowing that the world does not need any more new aid organisations, and questioning the viability of financial transactions with Congo, I've been pleasantly surprised to see the support and encouragement from Australians and Congolese. I'm dearly hoping that now you've read this, perhaps, just perhaps, you may consider the small amount of money needed to train a doctor or a nurse here...

- $200 a year for a nurse (over 4 years)
- $500 a year for a doctor (over 7 years)

That's $20 or $50 a year if you're one of a group of 10. Spare change.

Once I'm back, and able to access better internet, I will set up a website whereby people can donate to this Project. And every cent will be sent to Congo. I have no maintenance or administration costs, because it's just me. I'm starting small... possibly with 5 nursing students and 8 medical students come September and the new school year.

Please consider this seriously. Congo, a country ravaged by endless war, needs more trained healthcare professionals, and the Congolese Government is not providing any financial assistance to either universities or students. This, to me, seems a very obvious gap that we can start to fill.

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Panzi Hospital

Despite Congo being Congo, I've actually had quite a productive few days...

On my first full work day, after some ex-hotel biscuits for breakfast and a quick early morning walk, I was picked up by 2 Panzi staff members, to take me on the half hour drive there. One of the men is the Administrator at the University, and the other one, in particular, is Kabuto, the Nursing Director (who I've been in email contact with for the last 8 months). He'd actually shown me the night before (to my surprise) the detailed program he's organised for me during my stay here... which involves presentations at the hospital and university, meeting the directors / administrators / teachers / doctors, meeting with the Panzi Foundation, taking tours of the university and the hospital, etc... lining up quite a busy week and a half... which is exactly what I was hoping for, to make the most of my brief time here.

Despite being a public holiday in Congo ('Parents' Day'!!), he'd organised to take me on a very formal tour around the whole Panzi Hospital that morning.

Now I can't even begin to try and explain what the traffic and roads here are like. Imagine being in a dirty blender, perhaps... jolted around till you feel like you have a milkshake brain... speeding over rocks and potholes to overtake cars or motorbikes, whilst beeping to warn trudging, noisy, colorful crowds of pedestrians leaping out of the way, and narrowly avoiding toppling over the steep cliff-like side of the road itself... it's an adrenaline rush, for which I frequently have to force myself to look out the side window instead of the front. Cars and trucks don't use indicators, they don't wait on the narrow roads for oncoming vehicles to pass first before ramming themselves into the car in front to make them move... causing all sorts blaring horn noise, chaos and congestion. Were it not for being a passenger, I would be highly amused at the impatience (but yet relative lack of road rage, anger and accidents) displayed.

And the dust, the dust... it's swirling in a constant haze everywhere, and settles in a fine sheen on anything temporarily immobile, and layers like thick icing on everything permanent. Every breath you take, the dust catches and chokes... Some buildings were built white, and are now a consistent tan colour. It's ironic, then, that a city covered in dust has absolutely no water to settle it! However whatever the frustrations, it's better than being here during the wet season...

This whole time, I've been treated like a VIP - introduced to everyone (senior doctors, officials), escorted by a group of various senior hospital staff members everywhere, given an office, asked to important meetings and ceremonies, given special meals... much to my surprise! I've never been in Congo in this capacity before... and am constantly comparing my current experience to that of when I was a child here. Even the French needed is different... I never had to learn any medical terminology when I was a child here!
The hospital is far better-equipped than I expected... however it's still nowhere near the standards of Australian hospitals, in terms of resources and capabilities. Unlike (most) Australian hospitals, which are built in several-storey buildings and surrounded by other skyscrapers and roads, Panzi is comprised of many separate buildings (wards, offices, etc), connected by paths, winding through beautiful gardens, and decorated by patients relaxing, dressed in colorful materials.

One of our first stops was the Paediatric Ward. We walked in so they could introduce me, and I casually glanced quickly around the tiny room, taking in the 2 beds, each of which held 3 very ill infants... until my eyes rested on where the doctor was currently working... a baby who was not breathing, and he was trying to resuscitate... while he casually chatted to us. I was in shock... the management was so different to the urgent, stressed reactions to a non-breathing baby that I'm used to in Australia. Immediately my mind jumped to trying to work out what was going on, the story, the symptoms, the treatment... and I got involved... after ascertaining that the doctors there didn't mind me sticking my nose in. Despite trying to resuscitate (manually) for an hour, with our hope waning as the minutes ticked by, the 7-day-old bub's heart came to rest. I still don't think I've processed all of it for myself... I can't quite comprehend the differences - even though the doctors were concerned and worked hard (I can't fault their efforts), there was simply nothing further that could be done, given the equipment and resources they had, and the casual reaction to his death reinforced to me just how common an occurrence this is here. As a mother, the overwhelming powerlessness in trying to revive this dear son of another mother was acute and devastating, because however 'common', it's no less tragic.

The rest of the tour was interesting... particularly because of my experience of hospitals in Australia, and comparing the difference in resources. Here, when a patient presents to the 'Emergency Department', they have to first pay to see a nurse, who triages them. They then have to pay again to see the Generalist Doctor, who then may send them off to a Specialist Doctor or to have further tests - all of which cost the patient. Makes you reconsider the sheer number (and expense) of tests we order in Australia every day on many patients, which are completely unnecessary.

There is comparatively also a lack of privacy for the patients, through no fault of the hospital's... there aren't enough separate rooms for each patient, so they all room together, beds lined up beside each other... catheters inserted or wounds dressed without any curtains... women labouring with the doors wide open...

There's a ward dedicated to malnourished children. Upon entering and learning the treatment and management plan for such patients, I couldn't help being engulfed by the unfairness of the situation... these kids have no choice, they have nothing to eat, and waste away, physically and mentally. No opportunities to "reach their full potential" like I can offer my Lucy in Australia. They didn't ask for that, nor do they deserve it. I compared to my recent months on the paediatric ward in Hobart, where we had similar re-feeding programs for teenagers with eating disorders...

We then visited the wards filled with women who have been victims of sexual violence... women with fistulae and other injuries, inflicted by men who brandish rape as a weapon of war. I spoke to a few of the women, and it is not a mere cliche when I say there was sadness in their eyes.

So much to take in... and, despite my upbringing here, no matter how hard I try to put myself in their shoes, or how much of the languages I know, or even how much I think I'm 'roughing' it, I will NEVER know what it's truly like living here in this poverty, as a citizen of this country.

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

So... this is Africa

I'm finally in Bukavu, Democratic Republic of Congo - the town I grew up in with my parents, my brother, Simon and my sister, Olivia. And despite 10 years since we last visited, everything is essentially the same, albeit smaller (to my older 'adult' self)... other than the occasional 'new' building or fence. The main change for me is seeing it all through 'Australian-ised' eyes... everything seems a lot more run down, destroyed, falling apart and dirty.

Entering this country was a saga unto itself. As you know, I spent 3 days in Nairobi, where I paid for and successfully applied for my DRC visa. I got it in Kenya because there are no DRC embassies in Australia, and, in that case, they advise you to then get the visa in "the country nearest to your country of residence with a DRC embassy"... which is Kenya for an Australian. That Kenyan visa process was tense, but resulted in me finally retrieving my passport WITH visa inside last Friday - the day before I travelled to Congo, via Rwanda.

I slept poorly the night before the flight - filled with anxieties about the flights, but mostly about my upcoming border crossing, which I knew was always an arduous, difficult obstacle... no different to how it had been when we lived here, when Dad had to constantly argue for our entry and exit from the country.

I made the most of a hot shower at the hotel in Nairobi (at 4 in the morning) and stole a roll of toilet paper... just in case... :)

After queueing at Nairobi Aiport for close to 2 hours, I boarded my flight to Kigali, the capital of Rwanda. Once in the aiport (after a nerve-wracking 30 minutes when we thought my luggage had been lost), having bought my Rwandan visa (for less than one day!), I spotted (and took a few moments to recognise and confirm in my mind before I embarassed myself) Malcolm and Elizabeth Richards - old friends of our family, who were missionaries with their 3 kids (similar ages to us) in Congo at the same time as us. They were on their return journey after a 3-week visit to their town... and it was so incredibly wonderful to catch up with friends, talk in English, pick their brains about the current state of DRC, and, in general, have company to break the loneliness of the last few days.

I then flew (in a mini-plane) from Kigali to the border town, Kamembe (a mere 30-minute flight). A flood of emotions washed over me as I looked out the window and saw the familiar patchwork hills, tin rooves, windy, dirt roads... and upon disembarking, the smells too were familiar. I saw my Dad's pastor friend, Jules, at the airport gates, awaiting my arrival to take me to the border. It was one of the most memorable hugs I've had for a long time... we were so overjoyed to see each other again!

We took a taxi to the border... I was nervously praying in the back seat. I queued up at the Rwandan customs (on one side of the river), and was stamped through immediately! I couldn't believe it! I thought that was it - I was into DRC!! Revitalised by my newfound confidence, we hiked across the river and up the hill on the other side, with my pack, and, as soon as I spotted the DRC Customs building, my heart sank, as I remembered that the worst was still to come...

I confidently took my passport into the Customs Official and showed him my Kenya-acquired visa in my passport. It seemed fine... but, as if in slow motion, while I stood and watched (and willed him to not look further), he carefully flipped through the rest of the pages in my passport, looking at all the visas, and discovering that I was an Australian citizen. As soon as I said 'no' to his question of whether I was a Kenyan resident, and he shook his head, I knew my chances of entering were minimal. He said I shouldn't have got my visa in Kenya. I said that was the nearest country to Australia. He said I should've sent another letter requesting permission from the government to obtain a visa at the border since there were no embassies in Australia. I explained that I'd trawled through their website, and nowhere had it mentioned that. And anyway, I HAD actually fulfilled all the other criteria detailed on their website.

3 hours and lots of unsuccessful arguments and discussions later, even with the whole team from Panzi who had come down to greet me, AND the Anglican Bishop, and Pastor Jules, and some others all batting for me, we were turned down and I was sent back to Rwanda, devastated. I'd got my hopes up, and been SO close to being back in my childhood home, and now it may not happen. It was Saturday... usually nothing happened on Sundays, and Monday this week was a public holiday. So I was looking at staying in Rwanda till possibly Tuesday... with nothing to do.

By about 5pm (after being up since 3am and having no lunch), Jules and I arrived at an Anglican Guesthouse in Rwanda (near the border), and I set up in a room there... quite pessimistic and disheartened.

The next day (Sunday), I packed up and headed down to the border again, having been told the Panzi team would bring another 'letter' today. I stamped out of Rwanda, headed up to the DRC Customs again, and was turned down AGAIN. Stayed in Rwanda for another few hours, reading and waiting... till I got a call from a random, saying I could come up because they were going to let me through! I headed up again, not hoping for much, and they said they'd give me a visa. I handed over my passport, the Official stamped it with a visa, and then looked up and asked me for USD $300!! I was shocked... mistakenly, I hadn't allowed for spending $360 (in total) on a DRC visa... and I'd only been able to bring cash because there aren't any ATMs in DRC. I paid (a decision which is still aggravating me), with no choice, and we hopped in the car and drove into Bukavu. As I described earlier, the town is much the same... the Belgian school I (and my siblings) attended was still the same, albeit much smaller to my eyes. It was amazing, once again, to witness the poverty of everyday life for the people here... something I'd been so used to, and now felt so foreign with, after 15 years living in Australia.

I was dropped off at my Guesthouse (the Swedish Mission in town), and, upon seeing 2 buckets of water in the bathroom, discovered the lack of any running water in the whole town for the last 2 weeks. I didn't care... was so nice to be back in Congo again. I went out for an early dinner with a friend, had a washer-and-bucket clean and, before I could contemplate the consequences of no showers for the next week and a half, nor the current lack of any clean, drinking water, I went to bed, exhausted.

Friday, 29 July 2011


So here I am, in Africa... but not quite into any solid work yet... just bumbling about, trying to entertain myself in Nairobi, as I anxiously anticipate a successful DRC visa application - the ONLY reason that I'm actually in Nairobi for 3 days!

After 30 hours travel (Hob-Nairobi), I timed it so I turned up on the doorstep of the Democratic Republic of Congo Embassy in Nairobi on the dot of 8.30 in the morning (straight from the airport, with my pack, unwashed hair, sleepy eyes, and everything)... I waited outside until they opened at about 9.15. I was the first person to see the receptionist, who looked at my passport, and told me flatly that they "couldn't" grant visas to Australians, only to Kenyan residents. I explained very calmly my situation. She said I should've got a visa in Australia. I said there weren't any DRC embassies in Australia. She said I should've got one in the country closest to Australia with a DRC embassy. I told her that here I was, in Kenya - the closest country with a DRC embassy. She paused... left the room to talk to a man with 'higher powers'... and returned, saying they could not grant me a visa, and there was nothing they or I could do.

I asked if I could go across the hallway myself and chat to this Man. She hesitated, and said I could try. I knocked hesitantly on the door, and he looked up with an irritated expression on his face. I attempted to explain my situation. He interrupted loudly, and repeated the same things. I explained again. He interrupted again, even angrier, and started ranting about "all Australians coming here and expecting to get a visa". He said I should've gone via Europe if there was no embassy in Australia. I burst into tears... not deliberately, I just couldn't bear the prospect of hopping on another plane and coming straight back to Australia. He yelled at me and threatened to make me leave the building. I apologised, and he angrily told me to wait in the waiting room till the Ambassador arrived - when, he did not know.

I sat in the waiting room, thoroughly distraught and pessimistic about the whole thing, and tried to concentrate on reading my novel. 45 minutes later, the Man returned and asked me to come in to his office again (no sign of the Ambassador whatsoever), and proceeded to ask for my paperwork, do some stamping and approve my visa application!!! I then just had to do a few errands (to the bank, etc) to pay for it, and then he told me to return at 3.30 (on the dot!) on Friday to pick up my passport and my visa!!!

You can understand how my ability to trust God has considerably strengthened through this last 6 months of saga after saga!

My thoughts went continually back to Lucy and Seth... there is no way she would've tolerated the last 36 hours... thank the good Lord that we decided that Seth and Lucy would stay at home!

Such luxury, then, after traipsing across a hot, dusty Nairobi city centre, with my heavy pack on my back, to arrive at my hotel, with a big, clean bed and air-conditioning.

Since that afternoon, I've been catching up on lost sleep, having some odd meals, trying to find good coffee, exploring Nairobi city by foot (can't be bothered doing touristy things that I've done before, especially now that I'm on my own, with noone to show!), attempting communication with Seth, finding a 2nd-hand bookshop, and trying to rest before the next leg of my journey, starting at 5am tomorrow morning (assuming I do get my visa today - one can never be too sure!).

Tomorrow, I fly to Kigali (Rwandan capital), then from Kigali to Kamembe (Rwandan town on the border with DRC), and then one of Dad's friends will pick me up in a taxi, and we'll attempt the border crossing into Bukavu, DRC - at around 3pm on Saturday, the 30th (Rwanda is 8 hours behind Australia). For this, your prayers will be hugely appreciated!

Thanks again for following. Will continue to do my best to update you frequently.