We set off early with enough money to cover the US$35 visa and any other expenses that could arise. Leaving
With thin wallets but wide eyes we stepped out into what can only be described as chaos. Cars covered the unpaved streets and pavements. Bizarrely there were crippled men everywhere, either strapped into hand bikes or dragging themselves through the dust.
Throughout the day we made numerous stops at various aid organisations including OCHA (the UN’s humanitarian affairs coordinator) and Christian Aid. As worthy as their individual causes undoubtedly are, you have to wonder what kind of message they send out by covering their walls in barbed wire. I suppose it is just a reminder of the continuing security problems they face. What was incredible was the sheer number of aid organisations. Every 5th car had some group’s emblem, always with a sign that they were unarmed. The UN is the most obvious presence, with over 1000 soldiers around Bukavu alone. The nature of the organisation means that, surreally, they were all Pakistanis and Uruguayans. This heavy, if colourful, contingent pales in comparison with the 15,000 men that the Congolese army has stationed there.
The main message coming from the aid workers was that DRC is stuck in an endless cycle. The war caused destruction of infrastructure, which creates an uneducated and unemployed populace, in turn encouraging ignorance and anger, the main causes of the civil war.
As well as aid groups, the city is fat with government buildings. I saw more ministries than schools, hospitals and banks combined. While this paints an unrealistic picture of the government presence here, it certainly demonstrates the ineffective way they apply themselves. Many seem abandoned, and have fallen into disrepair. The Congolese, unfortunately, seem to have fallen for the old trap of quantity over quality.
Probably the most interesting thing was my visit to the region’s parliament. We met its vice-president, a rather imposing man who didn’t seem as impressed as I am by my cowboy hat. He gave us a long list of problems that, amazingly, my GCSE French managed to understand. It got rather embarrassing when I tried to reply, but never mind. What was interesting was his assertion that, without political change, the massive NGO presence would be futile. This may sound incredibly pessimistic, but it is hard to disagree. Government employees haven’t been paid for years, which leaves soldiers looting and teachers charging parents for schooling. Instability, illiteracy and corruption follow suit, stopping development. I almost began to sympathise with the dishonest border official, maybe with a family to feed.
In organisation, security and wealth
I have been offered the chance to travel with the UN into the lawless interior. Whether I’ll accept is uncertain. It was a fascinating but uncomfortable experience.