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.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Emily, thanks for sharing. While not easy to read, you write beautifully and it's an amazing thing you're doing. Best of luck with everything!