Thursday, May 28, 2009


Before I answer today's question, let me just say this:

These are some fascinating questions that you have asked, and I am finding it both challenging and thought-provoking to try to answer them. But I am by no means an expert and my ramblings do not deserve to be the final word on anything. Please continue to leave comments with your own thoughts, opinion, and, yes, even more questions!

Nothing warms a blogger's heart like comments along the way.

Today's question from Sarah...

Hello! My question(s) is about religious life in Goma. What is religious life like? What other religions, other than Christianity, can be found in Congo? With violence and poverty all around, how do people respond to religion in general? What is the status of the Christian Church in Goma and how are church leaders dealing with challenges facing the Church? One last question… What is your favorite thing about Congo?

1. The majority of people here in Goma are Christian. There are also a fair amount of people of the Muslim faith ( I would guess between 10-20 %). I find it interesting that a common question in Goma is not "Do you go to church?" but rather "where do you pray", as though it is assumed that everyone prays somewhere. Perhaps this is true on a deeper level.

I have always been struck by the fact that religious faith often seems stronger in areas of the world that suffer the most. Certainly I think in the midst of violence and poverty, the people of Goma often turn to God for hope.

Churches here are very active in terms of preaching, praying, and singing. All night prayer events seem to be common, preachers seem to be plentiful,and every church seems to have at least 5 or 6 choirs, all of which sing each Sunday. People seem to enjoy going to church and it is certainly a community event.

There are some examples of churches actively responding to the challenges facing the region. Perhaps their greatest strength is the way they create community. Most churches have many active groups that a person can be a member of. If a member of one of those groups becomes ill, or faces a death in the family, the other members of the group are often very quick to visit and pray. In a region such as this it is easy to become overwhelmed by the amount of sickness, death and hardship, and church groups, for those who are active members, often provide a way to ensure that a person does not feel forgotten in their suffering.

In terms of church-wide programs, there are also some examples of efforts to address some of the issues facing Goma. There is a fairly large number of churches that go to the prison once a week to feed the prisoners. The Catholic church also tends to be active in helping those who are suffering. For example the handicapped center that treated and trained the SHONA craftspeople is affiliated with the Catholic Church.

As I mentioned in my last post, I believe in community organized and funded groups. Certainly churches can be a powerful example of this. But I think that churches here sometimes tend to stay out of anything that could be political, and leave development projects for NGOs.

I also have to tell you that I asked the SHONA craftspeople this question, all of whom are very active in churches. They were pretty quick to say that the majority of churches here do not do nearly enough to address the challenges facing Congo, or to remember those who are suffering. They also said that unfortunately some churches seem to be started largely to benefit the pastors and the leadership, and that religion can sometimes become just another form of business.

2. My favorite thing about Goma? The people. On any given day, I walk out the door of my apartment and pass by my neighbors. They are almost invariably sitting outside (peeling potatoes, cooking food, washing clothes). They always greet me enthusiastically and all the small children put out their hands for me to shake. (this happens roughly five times a day) I come out on the street and the old Muslim women who sells sodas waves and greets me. Then I pass by the women selling peanuts who also greet me. Then I pass by the photocopy guys, who line the side of the road. And they all know my name and greet me. ... And after all of this I have walked perhaps a block. All of this happens not because I am a foreigner, but simply because this is life here. Goma is a large city, but still you see everyone in the streets, and you greet them. This is something that we often lose in America with our super-highways and air conditioned cars and high-rise office buildings. I love Congo for the way it puts people in my path, and reminds me to stop and talk to them.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Grassroots organizations

Here is the next question...

My first question is this: when you first arrived, was there any hesitation to receiving a foreigner into the community? Did it take time to gain the people's trust or was it easier than you expected?

I would also would like to piggy-back off of "Mama Rena"'s question: I have many friends who are strong proponents of grassroots organizations in comparison to international orgs. coming into the country and attempting to solve their problems. What is your position on this issue? Should both types exist in order to aid international ties for future development, or is it best to have a solely grassroots initiative?

Ok Jacqueline, you managed to sneak a lot of questions in there! I'll do my best!

1. Congolese are very welcoming people. They like to talk and are quick to joke and laugh. I appreciated this very much when I first came here because I found it easy to engage the culture.

People here are particularly happy to talk to people who have come from Europe or America. I can not count the number of conversations that I have which go like this...

"where are you from?"


"oh that is GREAT...I LOVE Americans...Do you have a husband? oh...that's about a younger sister? about a friend I could write to in America?"

People are anxious to have any connection they can to places they see as offering a better life. Additionally most Europeans and Americans who are here work with aid and development organizations or churches. And who wouldn't want to have a friend in high places, especially one that has come here to "help"?

I also found Congolese very friendly because I was trying to speak Swahili. When I came here I didn't speak French or Swahili. I decided to learn Swahili first (and I am still stuck on French). But the fact that I was trying to learn the street language here really made people happy. Even though I would butcher the language, they loved to see a "white person" trying to learn their own language.

Other than wanting to learn Swahili, I didn't think too much about trying to build people's trust, probably because they are so welcoming.

What I did spend a lot of time thinking about was how to break out of the box that people see me in. People trusted me, but they often trusted me as a white person, a foreigner who might help them out or give them something. The same thing that makes people want to talk to me, sometimes makes them see me in only one light. That said, I have been honored by the many people who have pushed beyond that. Sometimes I feel that the very people who have the right to ask the most from me, are the ones who have never asked me for a thing, and instead have given me the most. The SHONA women are some of my closest friends. They call me "Dada", which means "sister". When we marched in the women's day parade last year, I will never forget their reaction. As we marched together, people on the sidelines would often call out "mzungu" (white person). This is a common event here in Congo, and happens to me many times a day. But they truly seemed surprised by it. It was as though they simply couldn't understand why people kept calling me mzungu. To every single person they would calmly and earnestly answer "she's not a mzunugu; she is our sister".

On to the second part of your question...
2. That is an interesting comparison: between grassroots organizations and international organizations. Of course my natural inclination is to cheer for grassroots organizations. But unfortunately from what I can see here, many grassroots organizations and international organizations tend to have the same problem. They are often looking for funding. The constant search for funding tends to consume vast quantities of money on its own, creating top heavy organizations with people in offices getting much of the money meant for programs. The eternal quest for grants also tends to create organizations that take their shape based on whatever grants are currently available. For example when a lot of publicity is given to raped women in Congo (rightly so), grants for programs working with these women suddenly become available. And the next thing you know, you have a whole lot of organizations whose goal is to work with these women. But what were these organizations doing before? Whatever that program was, it is too often forgotten.

So I guess in both local and international organizations, one thing that I would look for is an organization that is driven by commitment to a specific goal (and by specific I don't mean "saving the world" or "ending poverty") and is committed to that goal long-term.

And perhaps more importantly I would look for organizations that have low operating expenses. This is perhaps my biggest frustration with international organizations. They often seem to consume so much money!

But one word on behalf of international organizations:
There are some roles that I believe the international community needs to play because local people can't. For example, organizations that research and publicize human rights abuses act as a watchdog in many countries where it is simply impossible for local groups to speak out. I wish that we, as an international community, would spend more time asking ourselves what exactly we have to offer. I do believe there are roles for the international community to play, but it often seems that we think we should play all the roles. when we take over responsibilities that can and should be held locally, I am not sure exactly what we are accomplishing.

But on the other hand...

There are MANY local NGOs here. I have been approached by many of them. They thought I might like to donate. Or have friends who would like to donate. For example, one day I was approached by an anti-smoking youth association, who also believe in helping the environment. What do they do? Well, nothing yet. But if they could just find some funding...

There is a strong belief here that no organization exists without outside funding. When I tell people about SHONA they say "oh, and you have found some good funding for this in the US. Perhaps you can help me find money for my organization". When I try to explain that we have no outside grants and operate largely on the money from our sales, they just don't believe me.

What is missing in Goma, are true community-based grassroots organizations that are led and funded by the community. These are the type of organizations that would be best suited to see and respond to the true needs of the population in a long-term, sustainable way. I often ask myself why they don't seem to exist here. Perhaps they once did, but when they saw the lifestyles of international NGOs and the possibilities of international funding, they changed course. Or perhaps the level of corruption in Congo makes it difficult for such organizations to exist without becoming simply one more way for the people on top of the organization to make a buck.

But I do believe this is one thing that Congo truly needs. I see the level of insecurity in Goma and wonder why people don't form community organizations to create security in their own neighborhoods. I see how strong the women of Congo are and wonder why they can't band together and use this strength to create real change in their country.

The women of SHONA attend weekly education classes. The courses cover basic French and Math, skills they need to succeed in this world. But we always have one class that has a wider focus. We just finished a course in "Faith and Action". We studied Harriet Jacobs, Rosa Parks, Mother Teresa and Wangari Maathai. I don't know why more community groups don't exist here right now, but I believe that change is possible.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The solution for peace in Eastern Congo

Today I am answering Question 2. Mama Rena asked...

"Okay, I have a challenging question for you...what is the solution for peace in Eastern Congo?

Most of the current solutions have been proposed by people in Washington, New York, Brussels, Kinshasa, Kigali, etc., and nothing seems to be working well. But the people of Goma are not observing the situation from far away, they are living in the midst of it. What are their solutions? What insight do they have into what the international community should (and should not) do? I am interested to find out their perspective on the situation."

If you ask people in the streets of Goma how to achieve peace in Eastern Congo, by far the most common answer will be "Ni kuomba mungu tu" (It is to pray to God/ask of God. Only."

This answer represents the strong religious faith of many people here, but it equally represents the lack of faith in anything else. When people say "ni kuomba mungu tu", they often seem to be implying that it would in fact take the hand of God, it would take a miracle, to achieve peace in Congo.

I posed the question "what is the solution for peace in Eastern Congo" and here are some answers I received.

This was a secondary school student...

"Oh that is a hard question. I will have to think about that and get back to you later...I won't say that it is to pray to God. God created us, but he created everyone. And there are people all around the world who pray to God. I mean in Israel there are people praying to God and in Palestine there are people praying to God. But God created all of us. He gave us legs and arms and hands and brains. And the answer must come from inside our heads. After all, this problem was created inside our own heads...God didn't create it...

But what should we do? Well, I'll have to get back to you on that."

A young woman...

The solution must come from our government. After all the government has made deals with other rebel groups and welcomed rebels into the army and paid them. Why can't they just do this with all the rebels? I mean if they would just put everyone in the army and pay them, then everyone would be satisfied. Congo is a rich country, how is it that we can't pay our own soldiers?

What is happening in villages is awful. They suffer terribly. The problem is that our government has no connection to the people in the villages. The people in the villages are being attacked on all sides, but the people in Kinshasa don't care.

A man

They must integrate the troops. We can't continue to have all these different armed groups.

And now for the less politically-correct answers...

"Congo needs someone to put their foot down. Congo needs a blood thirsty dictator."...this is a sentiment that often gets voiced in these discussions. Fond memories of Mobutu often follow. People talk about how at least Mobutu paid his soldiers and how he kept control of the country. People talk about The first president Kabila (father of the current president) and how he paid soldiers and shot criminals, especially those who were soldiers, in public gatherings at the stadiums.

Another common answer is to talk about Rwanda's role in the whole conflict. Opinions vary on this subject, but a common solution seems to be to simply to send the problem back to Rwanda. People like to believe that the whole conflict in Eastern Congo is in fact not really a Congolese problem at all.

I have gotten to the end of this blog and I am still searching for that pearl of wisdom, some neat little way I can wrap this up, some perfect solution from the people who deserve to be heard. I desperately want them to have a solution. But they don't really seem to have that much to say on the topic these days. I think the people in the streets of Goma, and even more so in the villages outside Goma, stopped believing that their voice will be heard a long time ago.

One woman said this...
"I remember another mzungu who asked me a question like this before. Why do white people like to ask these questions? All of that is politics and what can I know about it?"

The silence is loud. Powerless people do not generally propose solutions.

But perhaps this is precisely why Mama Rena's question is so important. The war in Eastern Congo is complex, yet the people who are suffering in the midst of it are generally poor villagers. I am not sure how it will end. But I am pretty sure that it will continue as long as those suffering believe that their voice does not matter.

Monday, May 25, 2009

And the winner is...

I did it the old fashioned way. I wrote down all of your names on little pieces of paper, and drew out of a hat (well, a bowl really).

And the winner is...

Melinda. She asked the question "Do you see any signs of positive change in Goma besides SHONA?" Melinda please email me at hurleydawn at gmail dot com so that I can send you your free patchwork bag!

I've had a lot of fun on this give-away reading all your questions, now here comes the challenging part...answering them all. I'll be answering one question each day this week. This may be the only time in the "From Congo" blog that you will see daily entries, so try and keep up! And please feel free to chime in with comments along the way.

And now for the Question first question...

"I have many questions, but my first one is, tell us about the food! When you first got there, did you have trouble getting used to it? Did you get sick? How do you go grocery shopping? I'm sure there isn't a Safeway you shop at an open market? Do you cook Congolese food all the time now or do you cook just as if you were in the States?"

The food of Congo...

Congolese are rumored to eat lots of crazy things. Even the Congolese will say this, but they are usually saying it in reference to people from another tribe and/or another part of the country. For example, I have heard numerous stories about people who eat cats. Of course I have never met anyone who admits to having eaten a cat, none the less the stories abound.

My experience of the food here is quite tame. We eat mostly Congolese food in the form of beans, rice, potatoes, cooking bananas, and greens. I am not much of a meat or fish eater, hence the heavily vegetarian fare. However most of the people here in Goma love meat and fish. Poor Congolese eat much more meat and fish than poor people in nearby countries like Rwanda. Part of this is cultural. There is a strong feeling that you haven't really eaten if there was no meat. Part of this is also probably due to price differences in other countries.

I love Congolese food, at least the vegetarian variety that I eat, and am perfectly happy to eat it most of the time. However at least a couple times a week I have cravings for other types of food, particularly more spicy food (in the scheme of things Congolese food is rather bland). We cook Indian, Thai and Mexican food at home from time to time, and we also have a local Indian restaurant which is a complete dive but the food is good.

But I must admit, even here in Goma there are a few things that I refuse to eat, mostly because I am a wimp. There is a local speciality called Senene. These are grasshopper like insects that suddenly appear during rainy season. Children run about trapping them. They are a local delicacy and are usually fried. I have heard many wazungu, including my husband, insist they are delicious and taste rather like bacon. (click her for more info)

On Sundays we almost invariably wake to the smell of burning hair. This is because our neighbors in the apartment next to us roast a goat head as their special Sunday meal. I am not sure exactly how they go about eating it, but I do find the smell rather disturbing and tend to close my eyes as I walk by their grill. They find this very amusing of course.

Being the soft hearted girl that I am, I also have a lot of trouble on New Years Day. The sounds of goats and cows being slaughtered throughout the town in celebration breaks my heart! The Congolese find my inability to deal with the slaughter of animals wildly amusing and a great way to liven up any conversation has turned out to be the discussion of why I have never killed a chicken.

Most of the food that we eat comes from a local, outdoor market (which really just means a whole lot of tables set up on the side of the road). However there are two "grocery stores" that have recently opened in Goma to our delight. They aren't very big but you would be amazed at the random collection of stuff inside. My husband recently bought hickory smoked barbecue sauce. I bought brownie mix.

So there you have it. I think we probably have all the food we need right here in Goma.

Stay tuned for question 2 tomorrow!

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Last day to send in your question and win a bag!

You guys are definitely going to keep me busy with all your fascinating questions. I can't wait to get started! Monday morning I will announce the winner of our give-away and start tackling these questions. I plan to answer one or two a day and have them all answered within the week. So stay tuned for lots of blogging in the coming week on some truly fascinating topics.

We have a question on traditional medicine. Let me just tell you that within the past couple weeks there have been a rash of violence involving the cutting off of various body parts here in Goma. The violence was commonly attributed to "witch doctors" who needed the body parts for spells. Whether this is true or not, traditional medicine, poisoning and spells are central parts of the belief system here, and there is a ton to say about it.

We also have a question on religion here in Congo, which is interesting particularly in light of the above question.

And we have questions on whether I see positive change here in Goma (I'll be thinking about that one for a while), and what the SHONA ladies hopes for the future are (that will come right from their own mouths).

It is going to be an interesting week, stay tuned!

And if you haven't weighed in yet, you still have time today! Send in your question involving Congo and you will automatically be entered to win a free SHONA bag. See here for details. Your chances are still good. And remember that you can double your chances by linking to us and sending a second comment telling us that you linked to us on facebook, twitter, your blog, or your website. Give it a shot; at the very least we'll all get some great conversations!

Last day to send in your question and win a bag!

Friday, May 22, 2009

THE SHONA Give-away

Great questions so far. I am going to wait until the Give Away is completed to answer the questions.

But you better stay tuned because it is going to be interesting.

One of the questions asks what the people of Eastern Congo think will bring peace to their country. You can read lots of news articles about what the experts think. But so far everything has failed. Why not hear from the people who have to live it? Where else are you going to hear what the people in the streets in Goma have to say about how to achieve peace in their country?

Another question asks about the food here. I gotta be honest. Congolese are often rumored to eat all kinds of crazy things. And here, white people are rumored to eat small children. Want the low-down? Get it here.

And if you have no idea what I am talking about...see my previous entry. On this holiday weekend we are giving a way a FREE SHONA patchwork bag. Just write a comment on the previous entry and we will enter your name in the raffle. The only catch is that your comment has to contain a question about Congo. Check it out. I am sure there are a lot more great questions out there. Keep them coming. Two more days until the winner will be announced! So far your chances of winning are 1 in 2! How do you like those odds?

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Give me a question, I'll give you a bag

Well maybe.

Introducing our first ever SHONA GIVE-AWAY! Here is the deal...

We are giving away one of our very popular patchwork bags! Everytime we get these bags in stock they sell out quickly so here is your chance. These handcrafted, one of a kind bags are a great way to celebrate the vibrant and festive colors of Africa. They are handpieced by each craftswoman with a variety of African fabrics, and feaure an interior cloth lining and interior pocket and shoulder length strap. If you have ever been running out the door with a book, a sweater and your keys in your hand, this bag is perfect for you! Sewn by a handicapped women with love and care, this bag is labeled with the name of the craftswomen who created it for you. You will also receive a color brochure with photos of each craftswoman and information about her life.

This patchwork bag will be shipped to you (anywhere inside the US) for free!

Why? Because we want to know you are out there. Leave us a comment on this blog and your name will automatically be entered into our raffle. We are offering this give-away for THREE DAYS ONLY, on May 25th a random number will be chosen, and the winner will be announced here.

But I like interesting conversations. So here is the criteria, your comment needs to have a question about Congo. It can be a question about my life here, a question for our craftspeople, a question about events in Congo, about life in general in Congo, about Congolese food, music... Whatever you want. But it has to have something to do with Congo. I might be able to answer the question, or I might not. I'll do my best with the questions I get. But first let's get the conversation going.

Want to double your chances? Plug us. Link to my blog or to SHONA's website on your blog, on facebook, on twitter, on your website...and we will enter your name twice. Just write a second comment telling me where you have posted our link and you double your chances.

I hope you guys are out there. To all those faithful SHONA friends and customers, don't be polite and leave this for someone else, this is for you! Start the questions rolling.

And don't forget to check back and see if you have won! The winner will be announced here on May 25th.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

More reading

For detailed reading on the topic I discussed in my previous blog, check this out.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Demanding More

I read a lot of news articles on Eastern Congo that seem to miss the full picture of what is going on here.

But here is an AP article that I feel accurately represents some of the security problems facing Eastern Congo.

Please note that this article discusses the atrocities being committed at the hands of the Congolese army. There are many rebel soldiers, who have not been integrated into the Congolese army. They are also raping, burning villages, and killing civilins in large numbers. I have heard many reports from friends here in Goma who say that their family members who live in rural villages are currently sleeping in the forests because the rebels come to their homes at night, to pillage, burn, rape and kill. So the point is that these atrocities are not by any means limited to the Congolese Army, but nor are they limited to the Rebels. The people of Eastern Congo face threat from both sides, and in the end the motivation is largely the same. On both sides there are too many young men with guns but with no sense of order or consequences. Congo has become a culture where one is expected to "pay oneself" and this is particularly true for soldiers, who use the strength of their weapons to exact payment in the form of money, goods, sex, or terror.

This article asks the question of how the UN can continue to operate in such a culture. The Congolese Army is heavily supported by UN forces, and yet the Congolese soldiers continue to commit attrocities. On one hand the protection provided by the presence of UN soldiers is tangible and necessary. On the other hand, if the UN is unable to change the entire security culture, then why strengthen forces that continue to prey on their own people? (Don't get me wrong, I strongly appreciate the presence of the UN here and I think overall they are doing a good job with what they have. However I must admit that there are some hard questions that must be asked) This is a central question not just for the UN, but for the many bilateral donors to Congo, and even for the many aid and development agencies working in Eastern Congo. It is not just the soldiers who prey on their own people. Congo is a predatory country and the government preys on its people, asking for bribes at every turn, while providing few real services in return. The vast majority of people here live in complete poverty while a select group become rich. The ultimate question is whether such a culture can be changed, and whether this is happening. And if not, by choosing to accept such a culture and work within it, are we ultimately liable for the atrocities it perpetuates, whether in the form of killings or in the form of corruption and the neglect of its citizens.

I am often confronted with evidence here that the people of Congo have lost all sense of what they should expect, in fact demand, of their government. I get so frustrated at their ease in demanding that NGOs and the international community provide security to Congo and solve the woes of the country, while they easily accept that their own government does nothing. Yet I can see how overtime it becomes easy to accept that reality that is in front of you, and lose sense of what should be demanded. If we, in the international community, are finding it impossible to hold the Congolese soldiers and in fact the Congolese government to any kind of respectable standards how can we expect a population which has been trodden upon for generations to stand up for themselves?

The problem is not just with the UN. The problem is with all of the countries, especially my own, that heavily support a government that provides so very little to its people. The problem is with all of the international companies that sign mining contracts with the Congolese government, knowing that the official they are working with is acting in his own best interest, and does not in any way, shape or form actually represent the best interests of the Congolese people. The problem is with all of the ex-pats, including myself that shake their heads and say "Oh Congo", while demanding nothing more. If we don't demand it, who will?

Congo ex-rebels accused of rape and killings

By ANITA POWELL – 5 hours ago

GOMA, Congo (AP) — Congolese rebels who became part of the country's army under a peace deal are looting, raping and killing the civilians they are meant to protect, U.N. military commanders told top U.N. officials on Monday.

The failure of integration efforts threatens attempts to bring peace to eastern Congo. The mineral-rich region has been torn apart by violence since Hutu militias who carried out Rwanda's genocide fled there almost 15 years ago.

Congo's violence has previously sucked in half a dozen of its neighbors, destabilizing central Africa.

Since a peace agreement was signed in 2003, about 16,600 rebel fighters have been integrated into the regular Congolese army — itself a notoriously ill-disciplined force of roughly 125,000.

Brig. Gen. Bipin Rawat, the commander of the U.N.'s forces in the north Kivu region, said that had not stopped the former rebels from murdering, torturing and raping civilians.

"We have been insisting to them that they refrain from carrying out human rights violations," he told visiting members of the U.N. Security Council who are touring the region.

A U.N. human rights official, Marie Plamadiala, warned the Security Council that the U.N. could be held responsible for human rights violations committed by the Congolese army.

The Congolese army, "is indeed supported by MONUC. And they are indeed committing these human rights violations. We should address these violations otherwise we could be considered complicit," she said in Kiwanja, where more than 100 people were killed last year.

Lyn Lusi, the director of HEAL Africa hospital, said she had seen an increase in the number of rapes since the rebels were integrated.

"We have to put much more emphasis on the protection of civilians," she said. Her hospital in the eastern town of Goma sometimes treats over 400 rape victims a month. Sex attacks in Congo are infamous for their brutality and frequency.

"The civilian population is under general suspicion from both sides as collaborators," said Marcel Stoessel, a Congo-based director for Oxfam.

The 16,475-strong U.N. mission, known by its French acronym MONUC, says it does not have enough soldiers to protect all civilians in Congo, a country larger than Western Europe but with only 300 miles (480 kilometers) of paved roads.

That forces them to depend on the Congolese soldiers to help defend the population. But Lt. Gen. Babacar Gaye, military commander of the U.N. mission, said the Congolese soldiers had not been paid for five months. He said the U.N. was feeding 20,000 Congolese soldiers every day because they had no food for themselves.

Congo is notoriously corrupt and army officers frequently steal the paychecks they are supposed to disburse, sending their men to prey on the population instead.

Gaye said the violence against civilians was unlikely to stop soon.

"We are on the way of progress," he said. "Unfortunately this way is paved with atrocities."

Earlier this year there was major fighting in eastern Congo, continuing a cycle of conflict that has engulfed Africa's Great Lakes region for years. There has been a lull in the violence since relations with neighboring Rwanda improved, following Rwanda's arrest of a Congolese rebel.

The Congolese government has frequently accused Rwanda of supporting some of the fighters in an effort to flush out the remains of the genocidal forces hiding in the forests.

Congo is the U.N. envoys' third stop on a four-nation tour focusing on some of Africa's hotspots.

Copyright © 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserve

And now for the Wild Animals

For all of those people whose first question about life in Africa is "What kind of animals do you see?"

Here they are...

Thursday, May 14, 2009

a few explanations

Goma is the type of place where you get used to talking about erupting volcanoes, exploding lakes, and escalating war. You get so used to these topics that your conversations are peppered with references to them, assuming everyone lives in the same reality.

So it occurs to me that perhaps my earlier entry about these topics might have been a bit shocking to some of my readers. WHAT!! Volcano erupting??? Lake exploding????

I had a similar experience before I moved here myself. My husband was offered a job here so I innocently plugged "goma" into the search engines. It returned results entitled "living in the shadow of disaster" and "the doomed city". And yet we moved here anyway. Go figure.

There are a lot of very serious realities in Goma, but there is also a lot of hype out there. Truly when you read about Goma you imagine it being this place that is completely off the scale. It is easy to read about erupting volcanoes, exploding lakes, and escalating war, and to imagine that the place must be very strange indeed. Yet what is striking about Goma, besides the fact that it is a disaster in many ways, is the way that life continues as normal.

A kind reader of my earlier entry on the volcano wrote...
"I discovered this news just by reading your blogpost. How are the people in Goma dealing with it these days?"
The local vulcanologist began predicting the eruption of the smaller volcano and talking about the possibility that Nyiragongo will also erupt a few months ago. His quotes are fairly strong, and likely to evoke concern among whoever hears them. These quotes, began appearing in radio broadcast and local news a while ago, although they have only appeared internationally more recently. So the population has been talking about the possibility of an eruption for some time. There is concern, and as Goma hit a hot stretch of weather a couple weeks ago, many people began saying that this was because the volcano was going to erupt. However, again, this is Goma. People fled Goma when it was covered with lava in 2002 only to return while the lava was still steaming. People woke up and went to the markets while rebel soldiers were standing poised to take over the city. Life goes on. You can read BBC's coverage of this issue here . If you read carefully you will notice that they confirm that it is not Nyiragongo but the other volcano which is likely to erupt at this time. This is not likely to affect Goma directly.

Another reader wrote...

"Do you and the Shona craftspeople have a plan to evacuate? If the volcano does erupt, you have time to flee, right? (I mean, lava moves slowly...)"
First of all, we continue to be assured by the international experts that Nyiragongo is not likely to erupt right now. We don't have a plan to evacuate, but we live close to the border and would probably be able to get there quickly. And we would probably be allowed across. However when Nyiragongo erupted in 2002 and Congolese fled to the Rwandan border, Rwanda closed its border for hours, allowing no refugees to cross. I hope that the international community will put heavy pressure on Rwanda to ensure that they don't close their border again in case of disaster.

But what about the methane gas in the lake? How will you know if you have to flee from it? Does it smell? Is it visible? There was a lake in Cameroon with a similar situation. The lake overturned, released the gas, and the villagers living on the shores died in their sleep. THE LAKE IN CONGO IS MUCH MORE STABLE AND MUCH LESS LIKELY TO RELEASE THE GAS. However, again, it would be nice if the world were thinking and acting in advance. In similar lakes in Cameroon they have installed pipes to take the gas out of the lake. They could do something like that here, although they would need many more pipes. The world could push something like this and work to make the lake safe. This is not happening because the methane gas in Lake Kivu is extremely valuable. Rwanda currently extracts small quantities to power their brewery and is in the midst of developing a much larger extraction project. However the pace is very slow because the Rwandan government and the companies involved will not take out the gas until they are set up to use it for electricity. A fine idea, except that it means millions of people will live in the vicinity of a potentially lethal lake for decades to come, while they figure out how to make money off of it. You can read more abou the degassing of the lakes in Cameroon here.

Again, the point is this: A disaster is not likely to occur tomorrow in Goma. However there is ample evidence of the very serious, long-term dangers in this city. They get no attention until the disaster is imminent. Perhaps this is why the local vulcanologist is making such strong statements. Perhaps it is the only way to get people's attention. To really address these dangers would take a concerted international effort prior to the disaster. As in now. I am sure that after something happens relief money will come flowing in. But is this really the way to run our world? If the world wanted to, it could do something now. If there was money in it, the world would do something now.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

This is no time to panic

I will not panic.

The volcanoes have not erupted. The gas in the lake has not killed us all. The war has not escalated. The bandits have not arrived at our house. In fact we are all perfectly fine.

It is just that I feel a tad bit stressed. Somehow I started this venture called SHONA without having any idea what I was getting myself into. Which is good, since otherwise I would not have done it. And I usually proceed in precisely this same manner, never realizing exactly how far I have to go. I just work on posting the next item, developing the next product, or writing the next blog.

And look how far we've gotten!

Except that today I looked at too many other people's websites. They all looked beautiful, and highly professional. And then I looked at mine...which is...well...mine. Don't get me wrong there is tons of good info on there and lots of great photos and you should definitely check it out . It is just that, in case you can't guess, I made it by hand. I didn't realize there were google websites and the like, which offer nice prefab. templates. No, I typed the html into "HTML pad pro" and then my free subscription ran out and I typed the rest into a text document. Talk about doing things the hard way, especially when you start out knowing zero about HTML.

So today I started looking at some other very professional looking operations. And it made me a bit panicky. HOW are we ever going to get there??? There are only so many balls that I can juggle on any given day.

But today I refuse to panic. I will remember how far we've come.

I will remember that...

I work with an incredible group of craftspeople.

They have mastered all of our current products and are entirely self-motivated and self-directed, something that I was told was impossible for young handicapped women.

They are working hard to learn math and French, and are becoming quite good at managing their income.

We have a ton of cool new products coming out soon.

We have loyal, supportive customers who make everything possible.

We have a video. Check it out here.

We are on twitter. Join us here.

We are on facebook. Join us here.

So what if none of our "faces" on the Internet are quite as good as I want them to be. We're here. That is what matters right?

Monday, May 11, 2009

Goma, the volcano, and impending doom

Goma is at the base of Mt Nyiragongo, an active volcano which erupted in 2002 and covered 1/3 of the town with lava.

When traveling from Rwanda to Goma, you find yourself happily traveling along scenic paved roads, which wind down the mountains and around the lake, until you arrive at the border of Goma. As you leave Rwanda you will wait fill out the border crossing card on the Rwandan side, and wait in an orderly line. Then you will walk about 500 steps to the Congo side of the border, and in an instant everything changes. That form you filled out in Rwanda...there is none on this side. That orderly line...there certainly is none. However if you are a lucky foreigner you will not have to shove your way through the masses of people. You will be escorted inside the office directly. Where you will buy a visa for 35 dollars, or show your 6 month visa, if you have one. And then you will wonder exactly where you have landed. Because those nice roads are lost forever. And especially if you are traveling in a vehicle you may come to believe that that not a single road exists in Goma at all. And perhaps this is true. Because in all reality, a majority of the time that you are in Goma you are driving not on a road but on lava. There are random attempts to fix the roads or recreate them. These seem to involve either spilling rocks or sand over the lava, or in the sections that are paved the approach seems to be to dig up the pavement. Leaving large gaping holes. I assume that the theory is then to refill those sections of pavement, unfortunately the mysterious funding for road repairs which arrived and inspired this effort of road digging up, always seems to dry up directly after the road has been dug up and directly before any single hole has been refilled.

So here we drive on lava, walk on lava, and for a vast majority of the people of Goma, live on lava. We separate our houses with walls built of lava, and I was told that you can even buy a nativity set sculpted out of lava.

And when you look up during the day you can see the volcano smoking away.

And when you look up at night you can see the warm red glow of the volcano.

And sometimes one feels compelled to ask oneself what kind of people live this close to an active volcano. People of immense faith perhaps? Or people who have greater problems to worry about than natural disasters.

Recently I have received a number of emails from SHONA friends asking about our well-being, in the face of reports of an imminent volcanic eruption near Goma. I continue to be amazed by the concern and generosity of spirit of people who live so far away. I am sure this is not exactly making the nightly news in the US, but so many of you have put in the extra effort to follow events in Congo. Thank you all for your concern.

There are two active volcanoes near Goma. One is Mt. Nyiragongo which erupted in 2002 and had a very serious impact on Goma. The other is Mt. Nyamulagira which erupts every few years. This volcano tend to fill up and erupt more regularly in fairly small quantities and over a sparsely populated area. It does not usually directly affect Goma. There are a small number of people who live very close to that volcano and who are directly threatened by any eruption.

There are also two sets of experts in the region. One is the Congolese vulcanologist, Wafula, who correctly predicted the last eruption of Mt. Nyiragongo and the resulting destruction of Goma. There are also international vulcanologist here, to monitor and advise.

Both sets of vulcanologist agree that the smaller Mt. Nyamulagira is due to erupt anytime. Although this is a concern for the people in the direct vicinity of the volcano it is not likely to affect Goma directly. However Wafula is also reporting that raised temperatures and increased volcanic dust around Mt. Nyiragongo could mean that it is going to erupt as well. This would be of serious concern to the people of Goma. Another eruption of Mt. Nyiragongo could put in danger the hundreds of thousands of people living in Goma, many of them refugees. It is also a concern because there is a high quantity of methane gas trapped in the bottom of Lake Kivu. If this gas were released it could kill everyone in the lake basin. While this is not very likely, any significant shaking of the earth or change in temperature of the lake (for example because of lava flowing into it) could cause this disastrous release. However it is important to keep this in perspective remembering that the large eruption in 2002 did not cause any gas release.

While the local vulcanologist is suggesting that Nyiragongo might erupt again soon, the international vulcanolgists have been holding meetings with international NGOs stating that there are no signs of increased activity at Nyiragongo and that while the smaller volcano will erupt, it is unlikely that Nyiragongo will erupt again at this time.

So while the people of Goma would surely appreciate remaining in your prayers, hopefully the eruption of the closer, larger volcano is not imminent.

The reality is that Goma is a chaotic city, overflowing with refugees and other people who have already suffered more than their share of disasters. Goma is also a city at the base of an active volcano which will erupt again, and at the edge of a lake that has disastrous amounts of methane gas in it. Some people have called it a doomed city. It is quite possible that the local vulcanologist is using the imminent eruption of the one volcano, to draw attention to the very real long-term dangers that exist.

This is not a sustainable city. Sooner or later disaster will strike. The population lives from one day to the next. And the government appears to do the same. In 2002 the local vulcanologist predicted the eruption of Nyiragongo well in advance. The town could have been evacuated and security precautions could have been put into place. Nothing was done. Whether or not Nyiragongo erupts this week, something should be done NOW to address the real dangers posed by having a city of 700,000 people at the base of a active volcano and an exploding lake. Unfortunately, if Nyiragongo doesn't erupt this week, the news coverage of impending doom will quickly disappear. The nature of disasters is that they receive attention after the fact. And everyone acts surprised. But we know better here.

Friday, May 8, 2009

SHONA store is stocked!

Come visit our store and check out our new stock! Summer is here and we have summer dresses, as well as 3 piece outfits, shirts, bags and placemats sets!

For those of you waiting for our new products like aprons, satchel bags, and children's clothing, as well as lots more outfits in Medium, they are coming at the beginning of June. So check back soon.

Thank you all for your support. Truly every purchase makes a difference, so buy something meaningful today!

Thursday, May 7, 2009


Sometimes it is the small victories that mean the most.

Yesterday Argentine (one of our craftspeople) got sick. She and Mapendo (another craftsperson) live on their own. Argentine began violently throwing up and was unable to stand or dress herself. Mapendo dressed her, went out in search of a motorcycle taxi, half-carried her to the taxi and brought her to the hospital. Remember these are two significantly handicapped young women, who struggle to walk with crutches on the best of days.

Hopitals here are family endeavor. In the hopstial there are doctors and nurses to conduct examinations, administer shots, and perform surgeries. They are not there to clean up after you, take you to the bathroom or bathe you. You, as a patient, must bring your own person to take care of you. Your person is expected to sleep at the hospital with you, usually sharing a bed or sleeping on the floor. This person is almost always a member of your family. Likewise there is no food at the hospital. Everyone must bring their own. THis means that the portion of the family that did not accompany you to the hospital will remain at home and cook for you. Daily they will send pots of food to your bed at the hospital. And they will be sure to send enough food not just for you, but for the famiy members taking care of you.

Argentine has no family in Goma except a younger brother whose school fees she is paying.

Yesterday I did not go to the hospital to see Argentine. After being assured that she was getting better I decided to wait, partly because I had too many other things to do. But partly because I wanted to see how Argentine and Mapendo would do on their own.

I arrived today to discover Argentine doing better and a large plate of beans and rice on the table nearby. Roy's wife (roy is another craftsperson) had brought them food and was keeping them company. And all was well.

So let me put it this way. A young handicapped woman is expected to be dependent on her family even when she is not sick. Everyone in Congo is expected to be dependent on their family when they are sick. Argentine has no family here in Goma to take care of her. Mapendo is talented at sewing, but she is young and often unsure of herself. Yet on her own Mapendo dressed Argentine, cleaned up after her, decided to take her to the hospital, and admitted her to the hospital. On her own, Roy's wife (who is neither family nor tribe) decided to bring them food. On their own, the craftspeople of SHONA have taken care of eachother beautifully. And I did absolutely nothing.

Not only that, but Argentine and Mapendo have both been saving money for healthcare emergencies. They will be able to pay her hospital bill themselves.

After three years here in Congo, these are the victories I am most proud of. The ones where I did nothing.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009


Finally the shipment has arrived! After a ridiculous month of theatrics, DHL has finally coughed up our package. Apparently intact. THis is an amazing feat since the package spent over two weeks in Kinshasa.

So now I have stacks and stacks of shirts and outfits and bags ready to be sold. If only they were posted in our store. You see I was so busy demanding my package, I seem to have forgotten to prepare for it. Or maybe it was just a bit too hard to prepare for a package which I assumed was lost forever. So I have the list of inventory and I have the raw pictures, but getting everything uploaded is no small task, especially on my internet connection.

Thank you to all our customers for patiently awaiting the phantom package, and to all our friends and supporters who kept our spirits up when it appeared the package had taken up permanent residence in Kinshasa. I will be posting our new stock over the next two days. And will post an announcement here when the stock is officially complete.

Friday, May 1, 2009

SHONA video

One of the things that I enjoy about my work with SHONA and about life here in Congo is that I end up doing things I never expected to do. Like making videos.

I am just learning how to do this, and my connection is not good enough to see how it downloads online, so I'd love to hear from you. (I am assuming that everyone has a better connection than me). Please let me know, does it play???