Monday, June 29, 2009
It is the 30th of June. The celebration of independence of Congo. This is a big holiday throughout the country, and particularly here in Goma. The president of Congo, and even the presidents of a number of other countries will be here in Goma tomorrow. In fact many of them have already arrived in anticipation of the festivities.
In case I have confused you, Goma is not the capital of Congo, far from it. It is not the most logical place to invite hot shots of all sorts to celebrate this grand holiday. It is an unruly city on the very edge the country. But it precisely this reputation as the Wild west (or rather Wild East) of Congo, that has led the President to choose to celebrate here.
So for the past month Goma has been a giant dust bowl. The roads of Goma, which are perpetually in a ridiculous state of disrepair, have been dug up, marked off, and attacked with a variety of roadwork tools. Road workers have appeared out of nowhere and worked day and night over the past month, to turn Goma into a presentable city.
Today is the 29th. Many of the roads remain dug up, full of dust, and half-finished at best. However street lights have been "planted" along some of the main roads and I am told that they will shine for the first time this evening. Walls along the main roads have been repainted and buildings that have remained unfinished for months, have suddenly been finished.
A market on the edge of town has been completely redone and fair grounds have been created. Apparently there are some pretty snazzy looking places around here somewhere.
A while ago, one reader wrote...
" I'd love to read a blog about the fabrics you use for the SHONA clothing...where you buy it, where it comes from, how you choose the fabrics, what the ladies think of these fabrics (for instance, would they wear them, or do they think of them just as "American" style?)....
The cloth that we use is all bought locally. This means that I venture into "Birere", which is the most dirty and chaotic section of Goma in order to buy wholesale. I usually enjoy the venture, because there is no better way to get the flavor of Goma, but it does involve picking my way through the mud and trash-strewn streets, and pushing my way through crowds. I have come to know all of our vendors pretty well by now, so that once I make it into their shops, I find a haven from the chaos outside.
The first thing I am looking for is cloth that was made in Africa. There are many so-called African cloths that are actually made in China or Thailand. They are usually copies of cloths designed in West Africa, so that they look "African" even though they aren't. This is particularly difficult because even when cloths are made in Asia they are often printed to say "Real Nigerian Cloth". I have found a couple vendors who I am pretty confident are selling real African cloth, so I try to stay with them.
The next thing I look at is the color and design. Goma is a great place to buy cloth. They have a wide variety of beautiful, striking cloths here. But I must admit that my first choice of cloth is often not quite the same as that of my Congolese friends. For Congolese taste, it is all about the most bright, bold, and shiny new cloth available. Just like fashion followers in the US, Congolese women are looking for the hot new design that no one else has yet. Some of these cloths have wild assortments of colors, and the concept of colors "matching" seems to have a taken on a whole different meaning here. Some of the designs are also quite wild. There are quite a number of cloths that feature images of household items. There is one that has the design of a large television set. And another that features a fork and spoon. I have yet to figure out how to work these cloths into our products!
Which brings me to an interesting point. Our American customers generally want to buy something that looks "African". It is the Africans themselves who often want American looking cloths. People here like the cloth with the television set because to them it is a sign of westernization, of money and success. People like the cloth with the fork and spoon, even though culturally, they usually eat with their hands. In fact there is a large selection of cloths that I never even look at, because they look too American to me. They are usually large floral patterns, in bright pinks and oranges. They look like they belong in my grandparents house. To me, they look exactly like curtains from the fifties. However no one here has those preconceptions, they just look like pretty flowers to them. And so they are popular for clothing, even among the young and hip. So ironically, my problem is often not that cloths are too "African" but that they aren't "African' enough.
There are also a large number of religious cloths here, which might make nice wall hangings but are often used for clothing. They are printed with images of Jesus, or Mary, or the Pope. Being that these are usually worn as wrap-around skirts, you can imagine the amusing outfits we often see walking around Goma. The Pope's image, in all seriousness, often appears directly on a woman's backside, and seems to move up and down with the movement or her walking. It is a whole new way to bring pictures to life.
The SHONA women have been working with me for a while now, and have gotten pretty good at predicting what types of cloths I will choose. And often we do like the same cloths anyway. But still, if you want to know what kind of cloths the women would choose themselves, you will see soon enough. Starting in September, our craftspeople will be choosing the cloths themselves. So make sure you stay tuned...you might just see some cloth with television sets after all!
Tuesday, June 23, 2009
Do I ever feel scared?
Yes. I will never forget what it feels like to fear nightfall. In October fighting reached the edge of Goma and rebel soldiers stood poised to take the city. Government soldiers panicked and ran through the city pillaging and destroying along the way. This opened the door to a state of insecurity and lawlessness which went on for months, in which the average person had no idea what nightfall would bring. At night, you could hear shooting regularly, but had no idea who was shooting or being shot. I never felt very scared for myself, in the scheme of things we were pretty safe. But I felt scared for others, particularly the SHONA women, who were living on their own and had absolutely no means of protection.
The most frightening thing to me was that once it got dark we could do absolutely nothing. Cell phones made it possible for people to call us if they are being attacked. But technology could only carry us so far. What could we do? There are no police to call. And although we would have liked to rush around in the work vehicle, coming to people's rescue, it was too unsafe to be caught driving around in a vehicle at night, especially to a place where a robbery is taking place.
We, like everyone else, were locked into our house once it grew dark. If someone called to say that thieves were banging on their door, what exactly were we going to do?
So you sit in your house and hope the phone doesn't ring. As the sun goes down and evening comes, I remember that inevitable feeling, that feeling of entering a world in which I had absolutely no control.
And we did receive phone calls, from people who were hearing shooting in their neighborhood and who were scared. And from people who had thieves banging on their doors. And from others who had friends who were being attacked. Many of those incidents turned out fine, but not all of them.
The reality is that many people continue to live in this state. In many villages in Eastern Congo, people often do not sleep in their houses, for fear of being attacked. They sleep hidden in the forest, and return home during the daytime to farm, and to look for food or work.
Even in Goma, security is still hard to come by. Shooting and armed robberies are regular occurrences at night even now. And these attacks are often not focused on the wealthy, who can afford to pay private guards and security forces, but on the poor, who have nothing but a wooden door to protect them.
So yes, I have felt scared. Because I have felt powerless.
In my life, I like to help people when I can. I have often thought of helping someone as a responsibility.
But what I didn't realize is that helping people is a privilege. The ability to help another person comes from a position of power; it is the act of someone has some measure of control, some sense of his own ability to affect change. Sitting in my house at night, knowing that there is absolutely nothing I can do to help my friends if they call me, I have only just begun to understand how it feels to be powerless. Unfortunately for many people here, this is a lesson they learned a long time ago.
Saturday, June 20, 2009
Thank you for asking. You are right to be concerned. Water is one of many things, that I often took for granted before moving to Africa. But for most of the world, water is a very real concern. But Goma has many things going for it in that regard. Goma is located at the edge of a beautiful, relatively clean lake. It rains regularly here. And more to the point, Goma is full of the trappings of the twenty-first century. I would guess that even on a quiet day, twenty or thirty planes fly into Goma. And there are cell phones, and I mean the latest, hottest brands, everywhere. And yet the vast majority of people have to carry water to their houses. The streets of Goma are full of women and children with water containers on their heads. What kind of world is this where the average person is more likely to own a cell phone, then to have running water in their home? It is a world where public services don't exist.
So what does this mean for us? We have all the plumbing, we have sinks and faucets and a bathtub and a shower. It is just that water does not often come out of them. We took the apartment with the understanding that water would in fact never come out of these faucets. It does arrive somewhat regularly (usually for a couple hour a day, most days) at an outside faucet in the yard outside our apartment. It just doesn't have the pressure to make it up to us. So we took the apartment, and did precisely what our neighbors did, which is buy a big water barrel, and pay someone to carry water up to us.
Miraculously, the water pressure has gotten better, and we now have water that actually does come out of our faucets on occasion, although NEVER when you want it, and we still have someone that carries water upstairs for us. When we first moved here, I imagined, in my "do it yourself" American way, that I was going to carry this water myself. I think I did. Once.
So yes, we have been taking bucket baths for the past two years. When I am motivated I heat the water on the stove first. But it is still a long cry from a hot shower. A hot shower is something I swear I will never take for granted again.
For those who have money, there is always a solution. Nice fancy houses usually have large water tanks outside that you truck water into, and and when the public water supply dries up in your faucets, you can just switch the source to the water tank. The first year that we lived here we lived in a house like this. It was very nice.
But most people just have to hope for the best. If they have the plumbing at all, water arrives only sporadically, usually at 2:00 in the morning. I have talked to many people who get up to fill their water buckets at some crazy hour of the night, which is the only time water ever runs in their house.
But even that is a luxury. The reality is that most people don't even have the plumbing. They either go down to the lake and get water from there, if they live close enough, or they go to the many water pumps (Well, really they are just outside water faucets) that exist in the city. These water pumps inevitably have long lines, are not free, and still have the same problem as we do. The water doesn't run all the time.
Electricity is much the same. We have it. It works sometimes. And yes, I have an internet connection. And that works sometimes too. And when I am really lucky the electricity and the internet work at the same time. Of course that is always exactly when the water starts flowing in our faucets and I have to go fill up our water barrel.
Sunday, June 14, 2009
"Where do you live? In an apartment or a house? & are you ever scared?"
We live in an apartment. It is not much to look at, but it fits us perfectly. That is our door on the second floor of the building. We share our balcony with our neighbors, which means that there are always a number of small children running by, pots boiling on a small charcoal grill, and clothes being washed. We can watch the world go by from our balcony. Trucks arrive carrying all manner of goods, from palm oil to toilet seats. The goods are unloaded and crowds gather. Shouting and chaos ensues, but in the end all the goods get carried off and everyone seems more or less happy.
My husband and I are pretty quiet people and highly value having a place to chill where we don't have to worry about being hospitable all the time. This is perhaps a bit much to ask in Africa, where life is expected to be communal and visitors are always welcome. Miraculously, our little apartment, which by every account is in the middle of the hustle and the bustle of Goma, has somehow managed to become a haven for us. I must admit that other foreigners seem to visit our apartment and ask "how do you live like this?" Perhaps they are noting the fact that our neighbors currently have a live rooster tied to the balcony, or perhaps they are noting the fact that there is nothing green in sight, or the water doesn't run. But, for us, it works. Living here has been one of my favorite parts of Goma. We have incredible neighbors who have taken us under their wings and never once asked us for a thing. And we have the incredible good fortune of a bird's eye view on a place that is surely one of the most interesting places in the world.
Do I ever fell scared? I am going to save that for my next entry :)
Tuesday, June 9, 2009
So what are we, average American (or European) citizens to do?
Follow the news
Congo is the victim of both media silence in many cases and media oversimplification and sensationalization. Check here for solid reports on Congo. And then read other news. I have a google news search set to Congo, and I see a lot of different articles. Read them, but read them with a critical eye and don't be afraid to ask questions. The situation is not simple and anyone who pretends it is, is probably trying to sell you an easy solution.
Support better long-term foreign policy and make it an election issue.
We are responsible for the foreign policy of our government. Whether I like it or not, I am an American everywhere I go. People can and do hold me responsible for the foreign policy of my government. It is a frightening reality, especially when I look at American foreign policy over the past decade.
Too often foreign policy only becomes an election issue in the US when we are at war. And then it is narrowly focused on one or two countries. The reality is that our foreign policies have a huge effect on the world, and yet they are often largely unknown and unwatched by the average citizen. (myself including) Bush opposed international justice systems like the ICC and signed non-extradition treaties with many countries, directly erroding the possibility of applying international standards of justice and providing safeguards to human rights in countries that do not protect their own citizens. This has a direct impact on countries like Congo, and many others, who need extrernal safeguards. Obama has yet to weigh in fully on the ICC (see this article). I hope he has plans for a better foreign policy. But ultimately it is our responsibility to put the issue on the table. The American people need to make foreign policy an election issue, and I am not just talking about Iraq or Israel, and I am not only talking about presidential elections. Our congressmen and women vote on many of these issues. We should know them, and care.
Here is one good place to look, scroll to the bottom of this page for foreign policy.
Do your research before giving
Check the finances of any organization that you plan to support. Try to support long term development programs that have a history of success in a given country. Try not to support flashy, single issue, celebrity studded campaigns. They are probably spending a lot of your money looking flashy. Find out how much of your donation will actually be spent on programs. Charity Navigator has an excellent list called top 10 best practices of savvy donors.
Consider supporting smaller local programs and initiatives
They're harder to find, but chances are that you can make a more personal connection and get individualized reports of where your money is going. A little gift goes a long way with these organization!
Buy fair trade.
But check it out first. What does this organization consider fair trade? Ask the same questions you should ask if you are donating.
Which brings me back to SHONA
We are not, by any measure, the solution to all of Eastern Congo's problems. But we are one very real way to touch the lives of some incredible people here in Congo.
Consider buying from us.
Consider having a SHONA party, where you can tell people about the larger foreign policy issues at stake here (we'll hook you up with plenty of info)
and yet also support, real grassroots change in a tangible way.
Consider donating to our education or material fund .
But most of all keep asking the question
Anyone who is earnestly asking "what can I do", and not settling for an easy answer, is already on the right path. I was amazed that when I searched for "ways to help Congo" this morning, I found a couple search results that promised "3 easy things you can do to help Congo". Easy? Whatever it is, don't choose it. Real change takes work.
It takes work to be informed about the real issues,
to advocate for better policy,
and to make good choices about how to use your money and your talents.
As Frederick Douglas said...
"If there is no struggle, there is no progress.
Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightening. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters.
This struggle may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one; or it may be both moral and physical; but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will."
Monday, June 8, 2009
"What type of traditional medicinal practices have you come across? Have you seen any signs that these practices are still alive and functioning in the communities? Are there certain types of illnesses that would be treated with traditional medicines versus western medicines? Is there much interaction between the two health systems?"
Traditional medicine is quite common here. I think everyone that I know here has been to a traditional doctor at least once in their life, and most people have gone many times.
Recently Roy's son was sick. It appeared he was malnourished and losing weight, so Roy took him to a regular doctor. The doctor ran tests, did not find anything wrong, and suggested Roy take him to a traditional doctor.
The traditional doctor concluded that Roy's son, a 4 year old boy, had been poisoned, and gave him medicine to counteract the poisoning. Roy's son took the medicine, which was a pink liquid smelling a bit like thyme, gained strength, is doing well now.
I am sure that there was some helpful herbal medicine in that concoction. And in an age where Western countries are returning to the value of herbal medicines, I am sure there is value in the existence of traditional medicine. And I would truly like to see Congo maintaining its traditional culture.
Unfortunately, traditional medicine in Goma has taken on a particular role. Going to a traditional doctor pretty much guarantees a diagnosis of poisoning. I cannot count the people that I know here in Goma who claim to have been poisoned. It is a common claim in a conversation that usually goes like this.
"How are you?"
"Not so good. I've been sick recently."
"Oh really? What's wrong?
"Someone poisoned me."
"Oh really ??? Who poisoned you?!!!"
"I don't know."
"Why would anybody poison you?!!"
"I don't know. "
"How do you know that you have been poisoned?"
"I went to the doctor and that is what he said."
I participate in this conversation regularly with a wide variety of people. Often the "poison victim" is a guard or street vendor. Sometimes a child. From my American standpoint it is hard to understand. Because poisoning in my head is what might happen if you are a king...or maybe a president...someone very big and important. I have never imagined that my own existence is nearly important enough for anyone to think of poisoning me.
It is infinitely fascinating to me that people here accept on faith that they have been poisoned, and that some nameless person has probably done this to them.
Unfortunately I think it is a testament to the deep level of distrust and fear that exist here.
From the traditional doctor's standpoint it seems an easy out. They don't have diagnostic equipment, and even if they can identify a complicated medical problem, how will they possibly explain it? No it is simpler, and much easier for their customers to accept if they simply explain that it is poisoning. End of discussion.
The fact is that a diagnosis of poisoning here seems to require less of a leap of faith, than a diagnosis of cancer. And offers more hope. Poisoning is controllable in a little bottle of pink liquid. Cancer? In Goma. Your options are not good.
So in the end, I shouldn't be surprised that traditional doctors have taken to offering this diagnosis time and again. I don't think the history of traditional medicine was always like this. At least I hope not. But perhaps it is easier to believe that some other person gave you this terrible illness. If your neighbor didn't do this to you than who did ? God? Yourself?
I get it. But I still cringe every time someone I know goes to the traditional doctor. When a person comes out with a diagnosis of poisoning, what does that do to his own heart? What does that do to the people around him? He must start looking around and wondering who has done this. How could you not? And it is this doubt that is at the fabric of a society desperately broken.
What came first the chicken or the egg?
What kind of society believes that this type of poisoning is possible on such a large scale?
What kind of society does this belief create?
Thursday, June 4, 2009
All around Goma, there are still the thousands of people in refugee camps and hundreds of women and children who have been raped by soldiers, and they need help. Are other African countries helping to become part of the solution? Do you see any signs of positive change in Goma besides SHONA? Is there an internal support system for Goma residents -churches? world health organizations?
Oh Melinda, you're trying to kill me! My husband recently told me that I should try and include more "sweetness and light" in my blog. Now if you know my husband you have probably already fallen down laughing. He is definitely not the type to normally call for "sweetness and light". So when he of all people suggests I should lighten up my blog, I definitely listen. I have been trying to include the aforementioned "sweetness and light" in my answers to the give-away questions, and it is easy when I am talking about SHONA or about the many wonderful people we know here in Congo. But when asked to comment on the current state of the region? Oh-la-la.
Let me start with the first part of the question.
Are other African countries becoming part of the solution?
Unfortunately the history in Congo is that other African countries tend to become a part of the problem rather than the solution. The Congo War which raged until 2004 pulled in almost all of Congo's neighboring countries, such that by the end they all had troops in Congo fighting for one side or the other. The problem is that Congo is wealthy in natural resources, thus giving neighboring countries a strong reason to send troops in the name of "helping" yet in reality they benefit from the conflict and have little reason to work towards ending it. Currently the presence of troops from other African countries seems reduced. There that is a GOOD thing. Sweetness and light here I come.
One exception to this is that the UN troops have a contingent from South Africa. These troops are working within the UN peacekeeping operation and could potentially play a positive role. They are mostly stationed outside Goma, so I don't know how that is playing out.
Do I see signs of positive change (besides SHONA)?
Well, Goma is calmer than it was 6 months ago. There are no longer rebel soldiers standing at the outskirts of the city, facing off with government soldiers. So in that sense the threat of fighting taking over the city has been greatly reduced.
However fighting and pillaging continue in many rural areas in Eastern Congo and villagers are suffering very heavily. And even in Goma the rule of law does not seem to have returned, if it ever existed at all. Armed robberies and killings continue to happen regularly. There was some sense of hope when the military police began policing their own soldiers a couple months ago. People in rough neighborhoods did report military police doing rounds in the neighborhood and noticeable reduction in violence at that time. However as of late, this does not seem to be holding up very well. Soldiers have reportedly not been paid for 6 months, and it is hard to imagine anything but a further spiral downward as long as they remain unpaid.
Is there an internal support system for Goma residents?
What does exist are a lot of NGOs (local and international) offering aid of different sorts, particularly for refugees and raped women. For example HEAL Africa (a local hospital and NGO, but with a large amount of international funding) treats raped women for free, and offers a wide variety of services for sexually abused women. I think the awareness of rape as a problem in Congo is increasing, and has lead to some good programs and an internal support system of sorts for people suffering from such abuse. For refugees in the camps I believe that the camps are better organized and supplied than they used to be.
When you look at these facts in light of the larger question of whether positive change exists, the view isn't so promising. What you realize is that positive change does exist in terms of addressing some of the problems caused by the war and helping the victims. Unfortunately positive change in terms of creating peace and security is much harder to come by.
For me, working and living in Congo often requires the ability to focus on the small victories and not be discouraged by the larger picture. The reality is that I don't see real, positive change on a large scale here. Yet. But I see amazing victories everyday here, and for the people who live them they are not small. My husband works for a microfinance program. The theory of microfinance is to make loans available to poor people, mostly market women, who have no collateral and could never receive a loan from a bank. The idea is that when given the access to credit a woman who sells peanuts in the market will be able to grow her business herself. They form groups of about 50 and provide the collateral for each other. If one group member fails to repay her loan, the group must repay it for her. They guarantee each other. Imagine that. The repayment rate on those loans is over 99%, here in Goma, where surely people face almost every reason to default on a loan. Do I see positive change, yes. Do I believe it is possible? Yes. But I am pretty sure it will come from places we never bothered to look.
Tuesday, June 2, 2009
"I would like to know about your wonderful women. What are each of their hopes for their futures? What will it take for those to be fulfilled, and how can we help (apart from buying and spreading the word)?"
When I first started working with the SHONA ladies I would often ask "what are your dreams for the future". They would often respond by staring at me blankly.
The other day when I asked the same question, I was amazed at the complexity of answers I stumbled upon. I have to say that in the past year they have sure developed a lot of answers to that question!!
Argentine explained it this way...
"Before I couldn't even imagine what a better life
would look like. Other people might dream of buying land or doing
something in the future, but I was crippled and I didn't have that
confidence. I just hoped someday, something would change and life
would somehow be better. But now I dream."
All of the SHONA craftspeople have many goals. Here are the goals that they are currently working towards...
*Mapendo's goal right now is to rebuild her mother's home so that she can leave the refugee camp. Mapendo is the youngest child in her family, and she is rebuilding her mother's house on her own.
*Argentine's primary goal right now is to be able to pay her younger siblings school fees so that they can return to school (they are currently not in school for financial reason)
*Elda's goal is to provide a secure home for herself and her elderly mother. They currently live in a very small shack and have been forced to move multiple times in the past, because of finances.
*Roy's goal is to pay his children's school fees consistently so that they are able to attend school on a consistent basis next year and to continue invest in his wife's small business ( a business they recently through his SHONA income and a generous donation).
*Riziki and Solange are two young handicapped women who are about to begin internships with SHONA. They have just finished treatment at the handicapped center and have learned to sew there. Their current goal is to find work in Goma so that they can remain in the city. They are both from rural areas, where it is currently not safe for them to return.
For longer term goals all of the craftspeople dream of...
Being able to help their families
Being able to provide for themselves and save money
buying their own piece of land on which to build a home
Teaching other handicapped people how to sew
The women all dream of earning high school diplomas. All of them either never went to school, or did so only briefly.
Related to the above goal, all of them dream of learning French, without which they cannot earn a diploma in Congo. They would also like to learn English and computers.
Argentine and Mapendo also dream of traveling. They have traveled a bit regionally with a handicapped sports team and met members of European handicapped sports teams. They were amazed to discover that even in Europe and America handicapped people exist, but even more amazed by the fact that the handicapped people they met from other places had gone to school, had families, had jobs, played sports and were respected as equals in their cultures.
It may take different forms, but in the end they all dream of creating a better world for themselves and for others. They dream of being able to attain independence and security in their own lives, and they dream of being able to help others. I often think of helping others as a responsibility, and I believe it is, but it is also a great privilege. If only you could see the true joy on the SHONA craftspeople's faces as they begin to find themselves in a position where they can help others, you would know what I mean. So in the end those are their goals.
What can you do?
You anticipated my response exactly...
- The best way to help the SHONA craftspeople achieve all of these goals is to BUY SHONA PRODUCTS AND SPREAD THE WORD! These are talented, hard-working people who want to provide for themselves and their families. Every time you buy something from SHONA you make this dream a reality.
- Even better help us reach a whole new market...have a SHONA party! We provide you with SHONA products, brochures and a mix CD of African music. You invite your friends. Just send us a check for the products you sell and send back the ones you don't. You can earn 2 free products of your choice and get a great mix of African music. Check it out here.
- Or just request some free brochures to share with friends, church groups, or anywhere else.
- You you can donate to our education fund or our material fund.
- Or you can contact me directly (hurleydawn at gmail dot com) if you would like to sponsor Riziki or Solange as our new craftswomen and give them the chance to make their dreams a reality.
- Or if you would like to support the handicapped sports team that Mapendo and Argentine are involved with, I will be including them in a blog entry in a couple of weeks. This weekend we attended a championship game and it was truly inspiring to watch.
So jump in, we'd love your help in any way you can think of! Please feel free to email or comment with any ideas!!