Kisangani, June 29, 2003


In which I complain about money-hungry-fishermen, the Congolese complain (again) that  the UN is not fixing their country and I get to visit the city’s prison.

Things remain quiet in Kisangani even though there are many more troops to be seen.  The fighting is a few hundred kilometers away.  The RCD-Goma is moving North against Isiro, deep into MLC territory, probably with the intention of then swinging South and taking the RCD-K/ML in a pincer movement.  Meanwhile, Goma has complained that the people they attacked and pushed out of Lubero and Butembo are regrouping and posing a threat to them. 

The UN said : “the presence in Lubero of units of the RCD-Goma is the result of their own military offensive denounced by the international community.”  Basically, the UN told them to pull back and respect the Bujumbura Accords they signed the previous week.

The Mayi Mayi in Beni have threatened to take revenge on UN personnel there, if nothing is done to stop the RCD-Goma and its “Rwandan allies,” while in Bunia the French seem to have things well under control.  The Hema and Lendu have moved out of town to continue slaughtering people and leaving the carcasses for the dogs to devour.  At least the UN personnel are now safe. As you can see, it is peace as usual.

A fish story

The village of Sabatini is a mud hut quarter of Kisangani near Stanley Falls, a thin line of rapids which block navigation on the river Congo South of the city.  Sabatini is the village of  the fishermen.  They supply the city with its daily needs.  There is no running water and few houses have electricity and no sanitation.  Belgian cooperation just built two toilets but have them pad-locked until they can teach the people how to use and maintain them.  The goal is to build thirty in all and get the people to stop relieving themselves in the water they use to drink, wash and cook, i.e. the river.

repairing-net.jpgfishing-baskets.jpgchief-beaka.jpg                   Chief Beaka on the tom-toms

Across a small lagoon, which becomes a raging torrent in the rainy season, is Wagagnia, also know as Hippopotamus Island although the last hippo was eaten more than two decades ago.  In the exposed rock of the dry season, the fishermen hand drill deep holes into which they put high tree trunks to hold the scaffolding they use to hang their funnel shaped baskets from, catching the fish caught in the pull of the rapids.

Like so many fish eating people (the English, the Japanese) this is an aggressive tribe known for its violence.  I first spotted the village chief carrying a meter long Capitain fish to wash.  A young man of about thirty, he was wearing a blue plaid shirt and white boxer shorts with some sort of dirty brown design on it. The chief looked as if he had a mental disability he inherited from birth.  It did not take long for the impression to be reinforced.

A little later the Chief came out in a brown burlap loincloth over his boxer shorts and some sort of feather headdress to beat on the village tom-tom, taking me for a tourist and not a reporter with the Okapi journalist who came to do a story on them.  The tom-tom was a log set on three old tires.  As he beat a silly rhythm he was obviously trying to think up, one of the villagers pretended to translate: “ He says a white man has come to visit us today in our village.  The ‘translator’ also assured me the village across the river would answer at four p.m. sharp.  Now you give the chief five hundred francs.”

chief-beaka-of-benakaekese-village.jpg Chief Beaka as the fisherman

When they asked for twenty dollars for the pirogue back across the lagoon, I lost my temper.  I was so violent with them that Jacques, the Okapi reporter, became very nervous, so I gave the vultures three hundred francs, less than a dollar and told them “I don’t pay to work. If you had told me before hand, you wanted me to pay to allow you to express yourselves, I would have gone back to the office and left you in silence.  Jacques assured me they were unable to comprehend what I was trying to tell them.  When they see a white, they automatically think you have money to give them.  They have no idea how much twenty dollars is.  Jacques was also worried about their reputation for violence.

It was June 24, National Day of the Fishermen, and we had taken advantage of the day to give them a chance to speak of their problems and what they need.  They were more than willing to expose their grievances over the airwaves but like most people in this country, they think you should pay them for breathing.

I left Wagagnia disappointed.  If tourism ever comes back to the Congo, no tourist will put up with that kind of treatment.

On keeping art alive

Tschopo district is up a dusty dirt road called Route Bouta, carved deep by the rains.  Along the road are a series of thatch-grass-roved stalls with ivory and wood handicrafts exposed on shelves and tables or on the ground.  Inside, men use chisels and files to carve the traditional masks and statues.  I could see whole herds of elephants in the exquisite carvings exposed in the stalls.

Before the war there were 300 paillotes here,” said a little man who ran one shop that had about a dozen laborers. “Now, there are only seventeen left.”  This is good news for the remaining elephants. Apparently, these handicraftsmen are so well known that souvenir dealers from around the country will get their produce from them.  But with no tourism, business is very bad and the crafts are sold for nearly nothing.

Not so for one man who runs a shop called Atelier Libération.  He is a tough looking silent man who spends his lunch times outside the Hellenic Center trying to sell produce to UN personnel.   He has an ivory and wood chess set I would like to buy.  His original price was $200.  I offered $50.  He came down to $150 but won’t budge from there.

Across from his paillote is one, which also does paintings.  The artists, a round man and his son, do tremendous work using construction paints, printing inks and petrol to thin them out and brushes so used they defy description.  The themes are always the same: beautiful African women with exposed breasts, villages on the water with a golden sunset and animals in the forest.  The paintings are done on the back of thick wallpaper.  The starting price is $40, which means you can get one for less than ten.

They are all suffering from the war and do not hide their anger.  Why don’t you UN people do something to get the Rwandans out of here?” a man asked me.  You can see them here.  They walk past all the time.”  He added as have said so many others: “without the Rwandans, there would be no war.  The RCD is nothing without Rwanda.”

Why don’t you do something about it?” is my usual answer.  I make it clear to the Congolese that as far as I am concerned, they are going to have to straighten out their mess themselves and that the international community can only assist them, not do it in their place.  It is a message they do not really like and never have an answer to, probably because they had never been told to take care of themselves before.  But it is confirmation once again at how much the RCD-Goma is hated in the zone it occupies and how much their Rwandan masters are despised and held responsible for the war.

With the transition coming (maybe) and the UN drawing up lists of war criminals, the RCD is trying to get a new virginity as the French say.  This was seen in their participation in the International Day Against Torture on June 26.  The ceremony was held in the presence of the UN and local Human Rights groups at the Kisangani prison, a Belgian built fortress-like brick structure dating back to 1925.

Now the RCD-Goma people know all about torture and summery executions so they are well placed to speak about Human Rights violations.  The Vice-Governor’s speech went something like this: “In a state of rule of law you need rule of law because rule of law will not work without rule of law.”  It seemed the fool, Mr. Floribert Asiane, had learned a new word but had no idea what it meant.  It was interesting though that they allowed us to visit the prison in which, they say, they only have a little over a dozen prisoners.

This is the dry season but we had quite a bit of rain this week.  I love the tropical rain from inside the house.  The gray clouds come like a slow moving tidal wave.  It is a darker gray than in Europe, seemingly reflecting the green forest.  The lightning is a high, long and narrow lightshow.  The wind comes suddenly and bends the trees in a circular movement about a minute before the rain starts and it is no slow start either.  The shower is turned on full blast straight away.  The water pours off the corrugated metal roofs forming long thick prison bars in front of your windows. Where the roofs fall together, you literally have a waterfalls.  The rumble of the water hitting the ground is tremendous.  The streets turn to muddy rivers in seconds.  The walls of the buildings are lined with people taking cover until the storm blows over.

After the rain ends, there is a few seconds of intense silence and then the city comes back to life with its hundreds of Toleka taxi-bicycles peddling their clients to their destinations and people walking with determination.

The rains made a mess of the Kisangani fair, which was supposed to open on Friday but only timidly began Sunday afternoon.  I was not so much disappointed by the shin deep mud as I was by the lack of local business booths.  Except for the UN and the Red Cross and maybe a handful of other stalls, the fair, or Karmesse as they call it, is in fact more than two dozen bars, each with there own lousy sound system on full blast, making what could have started out at one time as music, a deafening, brain-destroying, fuzzy noise.  It seems to be an occasion for the Boyamais (as the people of Kisangani are called) to party and get drunk in public on Primus beer.

To end this weeks report I have to tell you about the end of a war within the UN.  I had earlier told you how the Head of the Public Information Service, the chief PIO, was fighting with the Director of Radio Okapi and that both had told the UN it is me or the other.  Well, the UN has decided it is neither and has sacked both of them.  The chief PIO wanted Okapi to be a UN radio, promoting the UN, while the Okapi Director wanted the radio to be a Congolese public service managed and protected by the UN, giving the Congolese uncensored news about what is happening in their country and making the different actors explain themselves to the public.  What started out as a philosophical battle ended up as a personal war between two people who hated each other with a passion.  This made the UN look very bad and deeply divided the people within the UN information service.

We do not know who is taking over and what his philosophy will be as far as the radio is concerned.  Will the new person want to continue the joint venture with the NGO I am working for or will he want it to be fully managed by the UN?  At any rate, he will have to clarify things.  It has never been clear to me who manages what and this has led to clashes between PIOs and station chiefs within the UN, according to whether they lined up behind the chief PIO or the Okapi director, and a very undefined role for people like me who work for the Fondation Hirondelle.

A month after being sacked by the Fondation because they were not happy with my work, but nevertheless continuing to work, I have finally received my new contract (yet to be signed), which is basically the same as the old one, except it is for three months, renewable, and I am no longer a training officer, although it is not clearly defined in the contract what I am to be.  They say I will be station manager, but that needs a detailed job description for the reasons given above. 

Needless-to-say, all of this makes for a murky mess and bad morale.


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